In 1866, at the naval battle of Lissa, in the Adriatic, victory was secured by the Austro-Hungarian fleet over its Italian enemy by means of ramming. Though this was a unique event in a fleet-action, and made possible only by factors – such as short effective gun ranges – which were soon obviated by technical progress, naval architects where to be fixated in the decades at followed on designing ram bows into warships of all sizes.
In practice the ram was to prove more dangerous to friends than to enemies and caused
four major disasters. Two of these catastrophes, the accidental sinkings of HMS
Vanguard in 1875 (click here fordetails) and SMS Grosser Kurfürst in 1878
(click here for details) have been the subjects of blogs on this site. The loss
of the battleship HMS Victoria through
ramming by HMS Camperdown in 1893 was
to be one of the Royal Navy’s greatest peacetime calamities. The fourth major
incident of this type was in many ways the most horrific and tragic of all, yet
the vessel which struck the mortal blow was at anchor at the time.
|Battle of Lissa; Italian Re d'Italia sinking after ramming by Austro-Hungarian Ferdinand-Max|
|Ram of HMS Polyphemus|
SS Utopia was a transatlantic passenger steamer, built in 1874, which saw service for the Anchor Line on Britain to United States and Britain to India routes until 1882. Thereafter she was dedicated to carrying immigrants from Italy to the United States. Of 2,371 tons and 350 ft length she was capably of a maximum speed of 13 knots. Once in immigrant service her accommodation was converted almost entirely to steerage standard – 900 bunks, as compared with 45 places in first-class and none in second-class. Conditions must have been cramped in the extreme – as was to be seen in dreadful detail in the aftermath of the tragedy which would unfold.
Utopia sailed from Trieste, on what would be her last voyage in February 1891. She took on further passengers at Naples and Genoa and was due to put in Gibraltar prior to her Atlantic crossing. By this stage she had 880 people on board, of which 59 were crew and the remainder passengers, of whom only three were in First Class. Of the 815 steerage passengers there were 85 women and 67 children and there appears to have been three stowaways. As was to be found in the case of the Titanic 21 years later, and as had been the case with numerous previous maritime disasters, the provision of life-saving equipment was criminally inadequate. It was later revealed by Utopia’s captain himself that his ship normally carried seven lifeboats. Together they could accommodate “up to 460 people in moderate weather" but on the night of the catastrophe to come one of these boats was missing.
One wonders at the mood on board this overcrowded ship. Many, if not most, of the passengers had probably never been more than a few miles from their home villages previously. Poverty would have been a major driver. Their decision to seek a new life in a country they knew little of was little short of heroic and many would have been bewildered by the experience of travel by sea and might also have been worried by fears about an uncertain future.
On the afternoon of March 17th 1891 the Utopia reached Gibraltar. Captain John
McKeague was familiar with this anchorage and he headed his ship towards her usual
mooring in the inner harbour. Light was failing and only too late did McKeague
realise that two Royal Navy Battleships, HMS Anson and HMS Rodney were
already there. At this time these two ships of the “Admiral Class” were among the
most modern in the Royal Navy, each of 10,600 tons on a 330 ft. length and with
four 13.5 inch guns as their main armament. More significant on the present
occasion was that both had viciously-pointed rams extending below water level
from their bows. A large armoured cruiser present, HMS Immortalité, was similarly equipped. The Swedish corvette Freja was also at anchor.
|HMS Anson - her pointed ram is invisible below the watrerline|
At this remove in time it is hard to understand how the Utopia could enter a confined anchorage in darkness without a pilot, and how the presence of three very large ships there, and a smaller corvette, had not been noted previously. In a later deposition Captain McKeague stated that he was briefly dazzled by the Anson 's searchlight. Only when he was became accustomed to the glare did he "suddenly discover that the inside anchorage was full of ships". He claimed that he thought that Anson was "further off than she really was" and he tried to steer in ahead of her bow. The manoeuvre was an unwise one and wind and currently swept the Utopia along the Anson’s bow. Acting like a giant can-opener the ram tore a 16 foot gash below the Utopia’s waterline. Flooding began and engine power was lost immediately.
McKeague now ordered lifeboats to be launched but, as they
were, the Utopia suddenly listed 70
degrees to port, sinking the boats, inadequate as they were. Many were now
clinging to the ship’s starboard side but hundreds more were trapped below. The
ship sank 20 minutes after the collision, leaving her masts protruding as a
pathetic last refuge.
|The sinking of the SS Utopia - sketch by eyewitness Miss Georgina Smith|
|Contemporary illustration - HMS Anson's rescue efforts|
|Contemporary artist's impression - guesses hazarded at ships other than Utopia|
|Even after 12 decades these images move ; and on the right: "Asleep?","No, Sir - Dead"|