H.M.S. Alcantara and a German Cruiser – Summer 1916

AN EYE-WITNESS’ ACCOUNT OF THE ACTION FOUGHT OF THE NORTH SEA ON TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 29TH,
1916.

The following article, by on Old Boy of the Malvern Link School is reprinted from their magazine by permission of Mr. Douglas:

The first warning we had that there was possibility of coming across the Germans was given to us at Divisions, on Sunday, February 27th. Our Captain, Captain Wardle, R.N., told us that he had received information from his superiors that the Germans had decided to “strafe” the 10th C.S. by a submarine attack, and urged us to keep an extra sharp look out. He also mentioned that it was reported that a German cruiser was out, and was going to attempt to break through the patrol. On Monday afternoon we had news that we were to return to Liverpool on the following day, and great was the rejoicing. Little did we think of the way we were going to return. At 7.am, on Tuesday, the above order was countermanded, and we were ordered to remain on patrol, as it was expected that a German cruiser was to attempt to break through our patrol.
At 9.am, we received a signal from H.M.S Andes, telling us that she had sighted a suspicious ship, and would we, as a senior ship of patrol, come and investigate. Battle stations was “piped”, and we increased to full speed, and steamed to the position given by the Andes. To our great disappointment there was only a large Norwegian ship in sight when we arrived at the position. She was about 8000 tons, and appeared to be heavily laden with cargo, as she was deep in the water aft. She was flying the Norwegian flag, and had that country’s flag painted on her sides. She appeared to have a high foc’sle, and was fitted wireless.
The captain immediately made the sign M.N., “Stop instantly”, to which she replied, “I am stopping.” We then asked her port of departure, and where she was bound. As her answers were quite satisfactory, the Captain asked the Andes, which was about three miles away, whether the enemy was still in sight, and upon receiving the answer that the cargo boat was the suspicious ship, he decided that it was a false alarm, and ordered the Andes to proceed, and investigate smoke on our starboard quarter.
Captain Wardle ordered “the secure” to be sounded, and proceeded to man the boarding boat in the usual manner.
Everyone had left their stations, except the guns’ crews, the boarding boat was just being swung clear of the ship, when suddenly, without any warning whatever, the Norwegian ship’s ensign falls into the sea and the sides of her foc’sle break away, and there in the place of a harmless cargo boat was a German cruiser ready for battle.
Simultaneously with the dipping of the Norwegian flag, the German ensign ran up to her mainmast head, and she gave us her broadside.
For a moment, but only for a moment, everyone was utterly surprised, but very soon our gunners and our guns gave good account of themselves.
It is difficult to imagine anything more like hell than that torrential fire. The action was fought at about 700 yards with guns whose range was about ten miles. There was no cover whatever on the Alcantara, and it was amazing that anyone lived at all.
The first shot was fired about 10.20. At 10.30 the German ship was belching, forth smoke, and was well ablaze fore and aft, but alas, the poor old Alcantara was in her death throes. She is, or rather was, a big R.M.S.P. liner of 16,000 tons, very high out of the water, and a perfect target, built to carry passengers in luxury to South America, not to face the sting of German guns. At 10.25 the Alcantara received a torpedo for’ard, but at the time it was hardly noticed. At 10.35 she received her death blow. She was struck by another torpedo right amidships and quivered like a dying thing. It was impossible to avoid the torpedoes, as within one minute of the action our steering gear and all telephone communication with the engine room was put out of order. It was now quite evident that, she was going to sink, and to sink fast, so we were ordered to the boats.
The German ship was now in a terrible condition, flames bursting out from all sides, and we saw her crew take to the boats at about 10.40. This was due to the fact that our second shell entirely demolished the German’s bridge, presumably destroying their Captain.
At 10.45 we were ordered to abandon ship, and about 10.55 the poor old girl turned over, and with the same grace as she used to plough through heavy seas, slowly disappeared beneath the water. Such was the end of a fine ship, a ship which had done her duty right nobly, and which met with an end as great and glorious as that of any in the annals of the British Navy.
May I now be allowed to continue this narrative from a personal point of view.
At 9.15 on the eventful morning the Chief Wireless Operator came to my cabin and told me that we were remaining on patrol, and would probably strike an enemy ship. I would not believe him at first, but at 9.30 went on deck to see if it was true that we were not to return to Liverpool that afternoon. When I arrived on the bridge, however, the Yeoman told me that “General Quarters” was just about to be sounded, and that I had better go down and get my life-belt and a Duffield coat. Just as I got to my cabin door, the alarm bell sounded, and I returned at once to the bridge with the life-belt and coat. I went to my station, which was by the port searchlight, and had orders from the Captain to keep a special look out for submarines.

We soon came in sight of the Andes, and also of the enemy. At the time we could not imagine what all the fuss was about, as there appeared to be only a large Norwegian cargo vessel, but we were soon to be disillusioned.
When the Captain was satisfied that ever thing was O.K., and “the secure” had been sounded, I remained on the bridge to watch the boarding operations. Immediately the enemy saw that we intended to board them, she opened fire, and then commenced the most appalling 20 minutes I have ever spent. At first I stood and calmly regarded the enemy pumping shrapnel, &c., into us with all her might, and I fear I cursed them with the deepest curse I could lay my tongue to. I cannot imagine how I failed to be hit, for I was in a most exposed position. The first shell cleared all the flags and halyards above my head; the bridge being the most important part of the ship to destroy. I suddenly realised that I was quite alone, as the remaining hands on the bridge were seeking shelter under the lee of the chart house, and you may be sure it was not very long before I joined them.

It is impossible to speak too highly of the Yeoman, who was as calm as ever, and with his cheerful countenance and cheering voice bucked everyone up, although each knew that he might he the next to be literally smashed into eternity.
Personally, and I speak with absolute truth, I do not remember feeling the least frightened. I was busy trying to reassure the messengers, boys of 14 to 18, who at first were very frightened; but who, when they were given messages to take from the Captain to the after part of the ship, carried out their duties in an amazing manner. It is impossible in this account to go into individual cases of bravery, which are too numerous to recount, but I think if anyone deserved praise it was the boys for the bravery shown in their very dangerous errands.
It was not long before I realised that we were in a pretty bad plight, as the ship was listing in an alarming manner to port, and I was not in the least surprised when we were ordered to abandon ship. I went at once to in boat station, which was amidships on the port side, the side which was exposed to the enemy, and to which the ship was listing. When I arrived there, I found that my boat, with others, was splintered to matchwood, and so at once repaired to the corresponding boat on the starboard side. On the way to my new boat I passed one of the quartermasters, who was vainly trying to get over the side, but who was unable to do so owing to his extreme “tubbiness.” I gave him a hand, and literally rolled him over the side; whether he rolled into the water or into a boat I know not, but he was rescued. I then made tracks aft to try and get into No. 3 starboard, which was right amid ships; I was just going to get over the side when I suppose some water-tight doors must have given way below the water line, for the ship gave a sudden lurch to port, and threw me on the deck. I was now in a pretty precarious position, for the ship was rapidly turning over, and I was lying on a slippery deck, which was at an angle of 75 degrees, some 10 or 12 feet from the side of the ship, and resting against the wall of the Social Hall. I had somehow or other to get to the side of the ship, and I had to do it pretty quickly. It seemed an absolute impossibility; it was like trying to walk up the side of a house. In vain I tried to clamber upon my hands and knees, till in sheer desperation I tried to dig me fingers into the deck. It was all of no avail, and I knew that humanly speaking it was quite in vain for me to try and get off the ship. I gave up all hope, for I had time after time, with all the effort I could muster, madly fought to get to the side, but it was hopeless, and in my despair I uttered a cry from the depth of my heart, “O my God, save me!” Immediately a rope which was made fast to a stanchion, which was coiled up on deck, uncoiled itself and ran straight into my hands. Some people may say it was luck, some may say it was only natural that the ship being at such an angle should dislodge the rope: but to me it was a direct answer to my prayer. With the aid of the rope I was able to gain the side: having done this, I grasped a man rope and quickly let myself hand over hand down the ship’s side, not knowing whether there was a boat or not beneath. After what seemed an age I found myself in one of the steel cutters, which was just about to shove off. All around was chaos – boats turned upside down, men struggling in the water to try to gain a few boats which were afloat; others swimming to get clear of the ship, and alas! others being drawn in by the propellers and cut to pieces. It was a terrible sight; the ship almost upside down, the mass of wreckage and humanity, and the cries of despair from the drowning, all mingled in what seemed a terrible nightmare.

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