BALLYMENA 1914-1918

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© IWM (Q 39034)

The Sinking of HMS Hawke, October 15th, 1914:

Joyce Power and Alexander Mairs Lost at Sea

At least three Ballymena men died in the sinking of HMS Hawke, an Edgar class  cruiser.  

HMS Hawke was an old ship, launched at Chatham in 1891, but she was nevertheless powerful - she had two 9.2 inch guns and ten 6 inch guns, and she was a 'protected ' cruiser, this meaning her 'protected' armoured deck varied in thickness between 3 and 5 inches. Her top speed was around 20 knots.  She was considered a safe ship, too, one having 192 separate compartments and 98 watertight doors. Notwithstanding she remained one of the oldest ships in the effective list and had for some time been allocated only 'instructional duties'; like the rest of the Edgar class ships she had been stationed at  Queenstown (now designated Cobh) in Ireland and largely for training purposes. That also explains why so many of the crew had connections with Ireland, why 49 of the drowned had connections with what would now be Northern Ireland.

In 1914 HMS Hawke was part of the 10th Cruiser Squadron, a group of vessels deployed to blockade the area between Shetland and Norway.  However, in October 1914, the ships had been ordered further south to protect a troop convoy of 30,000 men and supplies from Canada.  It eventually reached safety.

The Germans, aware of ship activity in the North Sea, had dispatched two U-Boats (Submarines -Unterseeboot) on the 13th October; the U9 was commanded by Weddigan, famous for sinking three British cruisers, Aboukir, Cressy and  Hogue,  in one day, and U18. Technical problems caused the latter to be replaced by U17.

Rear Admiral Dudley de Chair's flagship HMS Crescent put into Cromarty for re-coaling but, acutely aware of the submarine activity, he had given strict orders that ships in his fleet were to be 'kept well apart', to 'continually alter course' (zig-zagging) and to 'vary their speed'. Indeed, on that fateful day the vessels were in a line abreast formation, a ten mile interval between ships, and speed and direction was being varied.

HMS Hawke and her sister ship made a mistake. Hawke broke formation to pick up mail from HMS Endymion.  It was a long process and the Germans, tailing the fleet, witnessed it all.  One of their officers said as follows:

"I gazed at the little picture of the upper ocean. The distant three cruisers (Hawke, Endymion and Theseus) were some wide space apart, but were converging, and were steering for a point, and that point was apparently in the vicinity where we lay. No wonder the Commander thought they must want a torpedo."

He went on.

"We imagined they were bent on joining forces and steaming together, but it presently became apparent that they intended to exchange signals, drop a cutter (small boat) in the water, and deliver mail or orders, and then go their respective ways. We steered at full speed for the point toward which they were heading, our periscope showing only for a few moments at a time."

Hawke and Endymion stopped dead in the water at 9.30 am and exchanged the mail. The other ships moved back on station; Hawke took longer, an additional 15 minutes to recover the cutter.  She was the target selected, and at 10.30 am the U9 

'manoeuvred for a shot. ...  She nearly ran us down. We had to dive deeper and let her pass over us, else we would have been rammed. Now we were in a position for a stern shot at an angle, but she turned. It was a fatal turning, for it gave us an opportunity to swing around for a clear bow shot at 400 metres. ... We dived beyond periscope depth, ran underwater for a short distance, and then came up for a look ... The Hawke had already disappeared. She sank in eight minutes. Only one boat was in the water. It was the mail dory that had been lowered before the torpedo explosion."

Why this ship sank so quickly is a matter of debate, though most writers suggest that the torpedo had struck the magazine. She apparently rolled over so quickly that boats could not be got off the sloping deck, hence many crew went down with her or spilled into the freezing North Sea to die.  A stoker told the tale. 

'The Hawke was holed above the engine room and commenced to cant over to starboard with alarming rapidity. Her plates were twisted and torn and a huge gap was rent in her side. An attempt to man the guns was made but owing to the extra acute list of the vessel it was found impossible to train them on the submerged craft. The horror of the situation was added to when a tank of oil fuel caught fire and the flames advanced with fatal rapidity. Seeing there was not the ghost of a chance of doing any good by remaining in what was obviously a death trap I determined to make a dash for it. I scrambled precipitately up the iron ladder to the main deck. All this had happened in less time than it takes to tell.’

Another newspaper reported how two of the survivors described the Hawke’s destruction. The first said:

'We were struck right amidships between the two funnels quite close to one of the magazines. All hands were on deck, and it was a terrible explosion. The vessel immediately took a heavy list to starboard. I have never been on a ship so well equipped with life saving apparatus, but the way the vessel heeled over made it almost impossible to get the boats out. The boat in which I was saved had a narrow escape from being taken down with the suction.'

The other reported:

Those on deck for an instant, immediately after the explosion, saw the periscope of a submarine, which showed above the water like a broomstick. When the explosion occurred, I, along with the others in the engine-room, was sent flying into space as it were, and must have been stunned for a little. When I came to, I found myself in the midst of an absolute inferno. One of the cylinders of the engine had been completely wrecked, and steam was hissing out in dense, scalding clouds, penetrating to every nook and cranny of the engine-room and stokehold. The horror of the situation was added to when a tank of fuel oil caught fire, and the flames advanced with fatal rapidity. ... Many of the crew had scrambled on to the side of the sinking cruiser as she slowly turned turtle, and from this temporary place of safety were sliding and diving into the sea.

Her demise was also so sudden, and out of sight of the other vessels, that other ships did not realise what had transpired until later.

U17 tried to torpedo HMS Theseus at 1.20 pm and missed. The squadron was then ordered to head north west at full speed; HMS Hawke did not respond.  HMS Swift was despatched to see what had happened, but it was all too late.  She picked up 22 men on a raft and herself was missed by a torpedo as she returned to Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.  The Norwegian ship Modasta (sometimes Modesta) picked up 49 more.  These were transferred to  the steam trawler Ben Rinnes and she brought 58 men in total into Aberdeen. 

524 men had drowned, including the ship's captain, Hugh P E T Williams and only 74 were saved.  Many of the crew were Irishmen, the reason for which one survivor explained: ‘the crew for the most part were Irishmen, the reason being ... the Hawke ...  was stationed at Queenstown … there were only around 24 active servicemen on board, the remainder being fleet reservists’. 

49 of the dead were Ulstermen and Ulstermen numbered a further 6 among the survivors. 

The loss of life was not surprising, as this Leading Seaman's tale makes clear:

"I was on the bridge in the forenoon watch when an Able Seaman said to me 'I don't like the look o' that'. And then we saw the bubbles ... Oh, the bubbles! There wasn't no panic. The Skipper and the Com (Commander) tried to get the boats out, but it wasn't no use. The First Lieutenant was working main derrick, but we couldn't get no steam ... If we only could ha' got steam. Struck in the No.1 boiler room she did – the swine! Then it was all coal-dust and steam for'ard – couldn't see nothing."

A  surviving Hawke gunner commented,

'The ship at once listed to starboard and the hands went to collision stations but it was impossible to get the mats out. All boats were then ordered out it was impossible to do this. Ship listed rapidly to starboard and sunk in about 5 minutes after being struck. [The] only boat got off  [was the] port cutter, and picket boat, which floated clear. A number of men swam to her and she sank. Three or four rafts floated clear and number of men climbed onto them.' 

Some accounts suggest at least on boat was crushed with it occupants when the ship rolled.

The Guardian reported on the 17th October 1914 the brief statement issued by the Secretary of the Admiralty through the Press Bureau. It said only as follows:

H.M.S. Theseus (Captain Hugh Edwards, R.N.) was attacked by submarine in the northern waters of the North Sea yesterday afternoon, but was missed. H.M.S. Hawke (Captain Hugh P. E. Williams, R.N.) was attacked at about the same time, and was sunk.

The following officers, together with 49 men of the crew, have been landed at Aberdeen from a trawler:- (Gives names). The remaining officers and men are missing. Further particulars will be published as soon as they are available.

Leading Stoker Joyce Power perished on HMS Hawke and left young twins and a pregnant wife in Ballymena. His daughter, born after his death, was named Margaret Hawke Power.

Power had written to his wife shortly before his death, saying:

I do not think much of my countrymen in this war for not coming out and showing their loyalty. All the single young men should join now, for this is a just war. Would they like to see their homes ruined and dear ones murdered, while they are content to stop at home? For my part I would not be elsewhere for anything. I cannot tell you anything about what we are doing. Our letters are looked over before they leave and are sent back if we say much.

He was aged 33 and was the son of Mr. and Mrs. William Power, Ahoghill, and he was the husband of Maggie Power, Waring Street, Ballymena. He is commemorated on Chatham Naval Memorial and in 2nd Broughshane Presbyterian Church, probably because he worked in Raceview Woollen Mills, Broughshane.

Two other Ballymena men lost their lives

Stoker (1st class) David Bell, born Ballymena, was the 28 year old son of Edmond and Jane Bell, of Belfast. He was the husband of Annie McCauley. (photograph courtesy of Great War Ulster Newspaper Archive)

Stoker (1st class) Alexander Mairs, born Ballymena. He was aged 29 and was the son of John and Maggie Mairs, Gracehill, Co. Antrim. He is commemorated on Chatham Naval Memorial and in Kells Presbyterian Church.

The loss of HMS Hawke was shocking, no less so for coming so soon after the loss of  1500 men from Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue.  She was quite well known for on the 20 September 1911, HMS Hawke, under command of Commander W.F. Blunt, had collided in the Solent with the Belfast-built White Star ocean liner RMS Olympic, sister ship of the infamous and ill-fated RMS Titanic. In the course of the collision, HMS Hawke and RMS Olympic were quite badly damaged. The subsequent trial pronounced Hawke to be free from any blame, the defence having argued that the large amount of water displaced by Olympic had generated a suction that had drawn Hawke off position. The decision of the first court provoked a series of legal appeals, these still on-going when HMS Hawke sank.

Hawke image - By Symonds & Co.  This is photograph Q 39034 is from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 2107-01), Public Domain
Damage to Hawke/Olympic is by 'Unknown' and from "Popular Mechanics" Magazine December 1911, Public Domain

RMS Olympic as a troopship during the Great War. She and HMS Hawke had collided in 1911. 

Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum - © IWM (Q 68435)