The Legend of the HMS Birkenhead

On the morning of February 25th 1852 the HMS Birkenhead left the Simon’s Town harbour stocked with provisions and military men of various rankings, bound for Algoa Bay. The troopship was supposedly transporting soldiers and a new design for weaponry to help in the on-going Xhosa wars. 

Military personnel of various ranking of the British Army, including members of the 74th Regiment of Foot, Queen’s Royal Regiment, 43rd Regiment of Foot and a large amount of soldiers, were on board the vessel. Also on board were 20 women and children and 9 horses.

Deciding to follow the coast to try and ensure good weather, Captain Richard Salmond set a course that kept close to the shore. Unfortunately, at approximately 2:00am on the 26th, the Captain’s plan failed him and the ship hit a rock that lay close to Danger Point. (Danger Point forms part of the coast of Gansbaai in the Western Cape of South Africa). The darkness of night and calm seas had hidden the sparsely submerged rock from view and had now torn a gaping hole into the ship.

Another critical mistake was made when it was ordered that the anchor be dropped and for the ship to be turned astern (back). This resulted in more tearing of the already damaged bilge of the vessel and water to flood the lower decks killing scores of men in their berths. Following this, all remaining soldiers and officers assembled on the upper deck to await further instructions. The Captain ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Seton to take charge of the men and 60 were directed to the chain pumps while another sixty were ordered to lower the lifeboats. 

The women and children were ordered into the ship’s cutter first, now standard protocol known as “the Birkenhead Drill”. Only two lifeboats remained now for the rest of the crew, due to lack of maintenance and panic-driven swamping. Lieutenant-Colonel Seton realised the chaos it would create and so ordered the men to stay put. The horses were cut loose and chased into the water in hopes they would swim to shore; 8 horses survived.

Within half an hour of the hit, the ship had broken apart and was mast-high in the waters that would house it till history ends. The survivors would only include the women and children and those who ventured to swim ashore.

The tragic sinking of the Birkenhead claimed the lives of 445 men that fateful morning. The other 193 survived due to the unbelievable bravery and self-sacrifice of those who remained on board. 

The events of that night are summarized in Rudyard Kipling’s tribute:

To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,

Is nothing so bad when you've cover to 'and, an' leave an' likin' to shout;

But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,

An' they done it, the Jollies -- 'Er Majesty's Jollies -- soldier an' sailor too!

Their work was done when it 'adn't begun; they was younger nor me an' you;

Their choice it was plain between drownin' in 'eaps an' bein' mopped by the screw,

So they stood an' was still to the Birken'ead drill, soldier an' sailor too

Captain Edward WC Wright of the 91st Argyllshire Regiment and the highest ranking surviving officer also said the following:

The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the moment the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that I had thought could be affected by the best discipline; and it is the more to be wondered at seeing that most of the soldiers were but a short time in the service. Everyone did as he was directed and there was not a murmur or cry amongst them until the ship made her final plunge – all received their orders and carried them out as if they were embarking instead of going to the bottom – I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion.

There were various accusations about who was to blame for the incident, but in the end no one was to be held accountable and the survivors were thanked and awarded for their courage.

Today we commemorate 162 years of the ordeal that was the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead. We continue to stand in awe of the bravery of these fine soldiers and continue to mark the 26th of February in our diaries as a day of remembrance and commemoration. The Gansbaai Tourism Bureau hosts the annual Birkenhead Memorial which includes a morning boat ride to the site where the Birkenhead lies, followed by a talk at the Great White House by a guest speaker. Last year we were fortunate enough to have Charles Shapiro as our guest speaker.  Mr Shapiro is a marine archaeologist and is almost exclusively known for his work and findings on the Birkenhead. His discoveries and extensive research has led to information about how the ship sank and also what was on board. Among other things though, there is said to be £250 000 of gold and silver that the vessel was carrying, still down there.  

For more information please contact our friendly Gansbaai Tourism Bureau at 028 384 1439.