Sunday, July 14, 2013

24th. December. 1811.

 A model (roughly 1/72 scale) of  HMS St George losing her masts.

On the 23rd of December, 1811, two Royal Navy ships of the line, HMS St George (98 guns) and HMS Defence (74 guns) found themselves in rough seas off the western coast of Jutland. Both were returning from convoy duty in the Baltic, accompanied by a third ship HMS Cressy (74 guns). St George had already suffered in a previous storm on the 15th December and was under a jury rigged mast and with a temporary rudder. When the storm in the North Sea hit her, she was unable to avoid the lee shore and on Christmas Eve both St George and Defence were wrecked in the shoals north of Thorsminde where today the St George Museum commemorates the loss. 1,314 men, women and children drowned and it is said to have been the biggest loss of life to natural cause, in the history of the Royal Navy.

 The route of St George's last voyage. 

Mette and I went to see the museum several years ago, along with her brother and her parents but it was shut. Last week we went again, this time with my brother Peter and his wife Bettina, and so I finally got to see the exhibitions, which were very informative. Having read about Napoleonic warships, first via Patrick O'Brian's novels and then later from various factual books, I had a fairly good idea as to what kind of ships St George and Defence were, but as always there are any number of details which, though books can supply, are best understood from direct observation. An example of this were the 12 pounders which were central to the main display in the first room of the museum. When I turned to look at them, I naturally assumed from their size that they were the ships primary 32 pounder guns. As far as I am aware I have never actually seen a Napoleonic naval gun so I was quite taken aback when I understood they were actually the guns from the ship's upper most gun deck. With hindsight this made sense as the uppermost guns would have fallen from the ship as she turned over where as the 18 and 32 pounders would have been trapped within the hull.

Left. 12 Pounder guns and carriages. 
Right. A carronade. I never understood just how incredibly small carronades could be until I saw this one. It was hardly 80cm long!

HMS St George was a second rate ship of the line. Second rate refers to the number of guns she carried and not her qualites as a sea going vessel. She carried 98 guns on three decks, with twenty eight 32 pounders on her gun deck (that is to say the lowest of the three gun decks), thirty 18 pounders on her middle gun deck and forty 12 ponders on her upper gun deck, forecastle and quarter deck. By the standards of the age (she was built in 1785) she was about as powerful as it was possible for a ship to become (first rates were very rare), and consequently she was the flag ship of Rear Admiral Robert Carthew Reynolds who was at the time, second in command to none other than Admiral James Saumarez.
St George had previously taken part in the Battle of Hyères Islands and the Battle of Copenhagen of 1801.

HMS Defence smaller but as a third rate 74 gun ship of the line, she was a powerful warship none the less. Her armament consisted of twenty eight 32 pounders on the gun deck and forty six 9 pounders on the upper gun deck, forecastle and quarterdeck. Built in 1763, Defence had seen a long and glorious career, participating in the Battle of Cape St Vincent, the Battle of Cuddalore, the Glorious First of June, the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Trafalgar.

Only twenty one sailors survived the wreck of these two mighty ships. One was Joseph Page. In a booklet I bought at the museum he is quoted (I am paraphrasing slightly as I am translating from Danish); The Master gave the order to cut the masts but at that moment they were broken down by the storm. The sea washed over the ship and the people screamed. Cannons were ripped loose and cast about the deck, crushing men to death. It was a terrible sight. I saw the carpenter's wife with a little girl in hand. She tried to reach the quarterdeck but a terrible wave broke across the ship and washed her, and many others down the hatch and into the hold.  
Its not hard to imagine the fear and confusion that must have reigned on the stricken ships when you see the awesome power of the sea off the Jutland coast. The first day we arrived, the wind was up and sea was in a state of turmoil with some waves reaching four meters in height. It looked frightening enough and this was only a regular day. Personally I intensely dislike swimming in cold water, and the few times I have sailed out onto the sea, I have not enjoyed the experience at all. I can imagine how strong the sea must have been on that nght, and it is not a pleasant thought.The western coast of Jutland is a flat harsh place, famous as a dangerous lee shore. The museum also had exhibits devoted to other wrecks, including the infamous U Boat U-20 (I'll write a post about that later)

Left: Some of the many bottles which were salvaged from the St George. Some were still intact and contained various alcoholic beverages which were long past their sell by date!
Right: I'm not sure if this is grape or cannister shot, but I think it is the former. The small wooden container to the lower left is half of a sabot, which was designed to come apart once the gun had been fired. Grape shot was used to clear enemy decks, in much the manner of a huge shot gun.

The first investigation of the wreck of the St George took place six days after she had run aground. A boat was sent out and the crew found the warship already partially submerged into the sea bed (the sands along Jutland are prone to excessive mobility). The quarter deck, along with the Captain's and Admiral's cabins was gone and part of the ship's waist had been destroyed. Very little was visible above the surface and only a few ropes and sails were salvaged.

There have been several dives on the wreck over the years. The first took place in 1876. Several small guns and a pair of bells were recovered. One of the bells was donated to a local church and the other is now at the Museum where it hangs along side one of the ship's anchors. The second dive took place in 1904, and on that occaision 48 guns were brought to the surface. They were found to be in good condition, but soon began to rust once they were in contact with the air. They were all sold to a French company and melted down. When the guns were brought to Thyborøn (a town to the north of the wreck site) one of the guns was found to have its tompion still in place. When this was removed (with a loud pop) some joker decided to examine the interior of the barrel using a match for illumination. Needless to say he lost his eyebrows and scorched his beard for the powder was still dry!

In the summer of 1940 (about the same time as Germany was invading Denmark) some Danes decided to dive on the wreck once again. At this point St George had lain in the turbulent North Sea for 129 years and yet when they dived, the Danes found the ship to be in relatively good condition. The lower eight meters of the ship was still submerged in the sand but the upper decks were clearly visible (though even good visibility in the sea off Jutland is usually under a meter) rising 1½ to 3 meters from the sea bed. The Danes used dynamite to excavate the ship and salvaged all the metal they could. Amongst their finds were several 12 pounders, two deck guns, a wealth of iron fittings and a lump of coins. Some of the ships timbers were also salvaged and these were given to a carpenter in Thyborøn who carved them into tobacco boxes.

The St George was finally visited by archeological minded people in the 1970's when the ship was found to be in a state of rapid deteriation. After some unforgiveable indecision by government beaurocrats, several dives were undertaken, recovering various anchors, guns and numerous other artefacts.

Peter and Freja standing in front of the St George's rudder. The diagram below shows a Spanish 98 gun ship of the line. 
If you consider the size of the rudder you get an impression of just how big  HMS St George was.


Grimsby Mariner said...

And how Freya has grown!

moif said...

She's almost eight now. Vilde has taken over Freja's old rolé as the family terror.

Cyan said...

Jan, your posts are always filled with such wonderful detail.

The first hand account by Joseph page...a snapshot of what a terrible tragedy this was. Thank you for translating it.

The sea truly is a harsh mistress. It's humbling when you read just how large the ship was and how easily it was swallowed by the North Sea.

moif said...

Thank you :)

Sometimes when I look out across a placid sea, I start to wonder at just how much is hidden in the deep