HMS Pathfinder


HMS Pathfinder sunk off the Isle of May in September 1914

Tuesday 5th September comments: The Isle of May NNR has a wealth of history but today marks the 103rd anniversary of the tragedy of the sinking of HMS Pathfinder. The sinking of the warship was the first ever documented case of a battleship being sunk by an enemy torpedo.

At the beginning of September 1914, German U-boat U-21 ventured into the Firth of Forth home of the major British naval base at Rosyth and penetrated as far west as the Carlingnose Battery beneath the Forth Railway Bridge. At one point the periscope was spotted and the battery opened fire but without success.

Overnight U-21 withdrew from the Forth before starting her patrol along the coast from the Isle of May southwards. On the morning of 5 September U-21 observed HMS Pathfinder on a SSE course, followed by elements of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla. Soon after the majority of the destroyers altered course back towards the Isle of May while Pathfinder continued her patrol.

Shortly after this, U-21 attacked firing a single torpedo at a range of 2,000 yards. At 15:45 lookouts on HMS Pathfinder spotted a torpedo wake heading towards the starboard bow and attempts were made to evade but the manoeuvre was not in time and the torpedo struck the ship beneath the bridge. The ship quickly broke in two and instantly began sinking, dragging most of her crew down with her and leaving a massive pall of smoke to mark her grave. The vessel sank so quickly that there was insufficient time to launch lifeboats.

A total of 268 personnel were on board the ship with just eighteen known survivors. This tragic event marked the first sinking of a battleship by torpedo and changed the course of naval warfare.

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