|SOMETIMES THE FAME COMES AS A RESULT of some particular achievement or speed record, such as with a Blue Riband liner. Sometimes the ship was a unique or notable type, like the aircraft-carrying submarine M2. Sometimes it is the story of its demise that makes a ship famous.|
Until the afternoon of 5 September 1914, there was nothing special about the light cruiser HMS Pathfinder.
She was one of four similar pairs of scout cruisers built to a general specification, with the details left to the individual shipyard.
Cammell Laird of Birkenhead built HMS Pathfinder and HMS Patrol to 2940 tons. Each was powered by two shafts of triple-expansion engines and had a main armament of ten 12-pounder guns. Pathfinder was commissioned into the Royal Navy in July 1905 and, like other scout cruisers, was rearmed with nine 4in guns in 1912.
Then, in the afternoon of 5 September, Pathfinder achieved fame as the first ship ever to be attacked and sunk by a submarine-launched torpedo. It was U21 under Lt-Commander Otto Hersing that became the first submarine to sink a ship using a powered torpedo.
The Confederate submarine Hunley had used a spar torpedo to sink the Union ship USS Housatonic in 1864 during the American Civil War, but this weapon was simply an explosive charge strapped to the end of a long wooden spar, rammed into USS Housatonic and released.
The torpedo that sunk Pathfinder was fired from a distance and travelled under its own power. This is the classic torpedo we recognise from the movies, a weapon first demonstrated by the British engineer Robert Whitehead nearly half a century earlier, in 1866.
Before WW1, Whitehead torpedoes had been used in action by surface ships, initially Russian torpedo boats attacking the Turkish ship Intibah in 1877. The threat presented by small motor boats equipped with torpedoes led to the development of a class of warship designed specifically to counter the threat. The term torpedo boat destroyer was soon abbreviated to destroyer, and the vessel evolved into a small general-purpose warship.
Hersing and U21 went on to sink the battleships HMS Triumph and HMS Majestic in the Dardenelles at the end of May 1915. These and other British and French capital ship casualties resulted in vulnerable big ships being moved safely out to sea, depriving the forces ashore at Gallipolli of support from their large guns.
U21 survived the war, but sank under tow in the middle of the North Sea, on her way to be interred in 1919.
The single torpedo from UC21 hit HMS Pathfinder on the port side, level with the forward magazine.
A huge secondary explosion ensued and it took fewer than four minutes for the cruiser to sink, taking 259 of the 268 crew with her.
The combined threat of U-boats armed with torpedoes was an unknown quantity for the Royal Navy. With no enemy in sight, HMS Pathfinder had been steaming at only 5 knots in daylight, to conserve the limited supply of coal her bunkers could carry.
Seventeen days later, the sinking by U9 of the cruisers Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy in the southern North Sea off Holland drove home the dangers.
THE WRITER ALDOUS HUXLEY was staying in St Abbs and wrote to his father on 14 October: We actually saw the Pathfinder explosion, a great white cloud with its foot in sea. The St Abbs lifeboat came in with the most appalling accounts of the scene. There was not a piece of wood, they said, big enough to float a man, and over acres the sea was covered with fragments.
Far out to sea in the Firth of Forth, skipper Iain Easingwood crosses the echo of HMS Pathfinder several times before throwing the shot.
The sea is so flat that we have arrived from Eyemouth almost two hours before slack. With a good neap tide, the boat hardly drifts from the buoy.
After sitting about and enjoying the sunshine, we decide to dive early. Kitting-up is a leisurely affair.
The shot has landed on the main deck, 8m above the 64m seabed. Visibility is good, as is the level of ambient light.
Moving in a little from the port side, I can just about see across the wreck. Nevertheless, I still need a dive light, because the ambient light is a flat green-black monochrome and lacks enough contrast for my camera to focus.
The hull shape of HMS Pathfinder featured an extended forecastle from the bow all the way back to the bridge, then a flat main deck past three funnels all the way to the stern.
Working forwards, I soon find the break where the magazine explosion ripped the ship apart, just forward of where the first funnel would have been, or (if it was still there) just behind the bridge. It looks like a clean cut down to the seabed, though I dont drop deeper to check. With the complexity of a warship at this depth, I am not even attempting to see everything, or make a sketch.
I move aft. The rest of the ship has lasted pretty well. I find one of the 6-pounder secondary guns lying on the deck, then, a little further on, a 4in gun, still mounted on its pedestal.
Shells from the ready ammunition are scattered about.
Along the centre-line, partly filled holes lead down where the funnels would have been. A second look reveals that an ovoid block of steel, standing upright in a missing wall, is the hatchway to a now-open cabin. I draw a mental line not to cross the outline of the wall. HMS Pathfinder is a war grave.
Its a pity no one told the trawlers Snagged nets have pulled the starboard torpedo tube and several of the guns off their mounts. I suspect that snagged trawls have also caused some of the damage to the upper parts of the ship.
The evidence is tangled scraps of heavy nylon netting wrapped round fallen parts of wreckage.
A typical example is at the stern, where the rotating mounting for one of the 4in guns still stands, though the gun itself has twisted and fallen to the deck with a scrap of netting wrapped over it.
This gun would originally have faced aft, the end of the barrel projecting over a neat little skylight with small portholes. Perhaps an officers cabin is below, though nothing can be seen through the glass.
AS WITH MOST WARSHIPS, there is a capstan in the stern deck and a small kedge anchor tucked into the stern.
I cant resist venturing over the edge and deeper, to the two propellers. In a slight scour at 66m, the high-speed bronze props typical of a warship are so much more impressive than the single squat four-bladed iron or steel propeller that is usually the best we see on merchant ships. Its like comparing a pair of thoroughbred racehorses to an old mule.
Back on deck at the port quarter, I pause to photograph the traditional joy of divers, a toilet. Then I look closer. Its actually three toilets, all lined up simply to flush over the side.
Up to now, the unusual toilet seat has not caught my eye. There are many patches of teak decking still intact, so why shouldnt the toilet seats be intact
Then it clicks - I am looking not at a toilet seat, but at a big porthole that has fallen across the bowl in the position of a slightly skewed seat.
I swim round the other side, and each toilet in the row has one or two similar portholes resting against it. It is one of the privileges of exploring a wreck that is protected from salvage.
The starboard torpedo tube has been dismounted, but the port tube is perfectly positioned on its mounting.
A raised ring on the deck marks the arc through which the tube swung to fire over the side.
So far I have seen scattered examples of ammunition on the deck. Now I find piles of shells, where wooden crates are starting to fall apart.
Using a rebreather, there is no longer any obligation of diminishing cylinder pressure to end a dive. It is so tempting to stay on the wreck for hours.
During my ascent and deco stops, I fantasise about having a bell and chamber on the boat, so that I could do just that.
|Bollards on the Pathfinder wreck. |
|Barrel of a gun fallen to the deck on the port side. |
|Six-pounder secondary gun lying on the deck. |
|Grilled decking above the engine- room. |
|Hatch with locking wheel. |
|The aft gun has been pulled from its mounting by a trawl net. This is the |
|GETTING THERE: Eyemouth is on the A1107, just off the A1. Once there, follow the signs for the harbour. The Harbourside, where Marine Quest is based, is on the north side of the harbour.|
DIVING & AIR: Marine Quest Boat Charter operates the Offshore 105 North Star from Eyemouth, 01890 752444, www.marine-quest.co.uk. It has an air compressor at the Harbourside. The closest source of helium is in North Berwick.
ACCOMMODATION: Marine Quest has bunk-room accommodation for up to 15 divers, with lounge, TV, free Internet access and a very efficient kit-drying room.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1407, Montrose to Berwick. Ordnance Survey map 67, Duns, Dunbar & Eyemouth. Shipwrecks of the Forth, Bob Baird.