I intend to publish a full account of the Hythe on a forthcoming Southborough memorial website. Research is about 85 percent complete at this point and I know where to find the outstanding matter. You will forgive me if I don’t feel like throwing all the raw material open just now.
These are the basics.
The Hythe was a cross-channel paddle-driven ferry, with a displacement of 509 tons. She was built in 1905 for the South Eastern and Chatham Railway, and worked the Dover-Calais route. The vessel was requisitioned at the outbreak of war and became a minesweeper, based at Scapa Flow. In 1915, the Hythe was sent to work on troop movements in the Dardanelles.
The Sarnia also began life as a ferry, in 1910 for the London and South Western Railway. In war service she became an armed boarding steamer. With a displacement of 1498 tons and a top speed of 20.5 knots, Sarnia was a much larger and more powerful vessel than the Hythe, whose limit was only 12 knots. Sarnia survived the collision with the Hythe, only to be sunk by torpedo in the Mediterranean on 12 September 1918.
The men of the 1/3 Kent Field Company Royal Engineers boarded the Hythe at Mudros Bay, en route for Cape Helles. With them was 1/2 Kent Field Company Royal Engineers, bound for the same destination. Two transports were available – the Hythe and the Redbreast. The story goes that the company commanders tossed a coin to decide which vessel each company would take. Captain Reggie Salomons and 3 Company took the Hythe.
The Hythe left Mudros Bay at about 16:00 on 28 October 1915. She was severely overloaded. Men were packed on the decks, many huddling under an awning that had been rigged to give a little relief from rain and spray. At about 20:00, as they neared their destination, men donned their kit, drivers went to their vehicles, and the Hythe doused all lights. Within minutes the lightless Sarnia was spotted, steaming back empty to Mudros Bay from Cape Helles, and on a collision course. Some accounts suggest that Sarnia mistook the Hythe for a submarine and rammed her deliberately. I doubt it. We know that both vessels made at least one change of course but it seems that neither slowed down. The Sarnia struck the port side of the Hythe with such force that its bows cut halfway through the ship. That brought the Hythe to a dead stop and caused its mast to collapse on the awning. Many were killed instantly by the bows and the mast but the others fared little better because the immense damage caused the Hythe to sink rapidly. It was all over in a little as ten minutes. Many drowned trapped under the awning or in the cabs of their vehicles. The others had little or no time to gain the railings and throw off their kit before they were in the sea. As always, fortunes varied. A lucky few scrambled from one vessel to the other without getting their feet wet. The Parrott twins were parted: Wilfred died, Charles survived both the Hythe disaster and the war.
Clive. Thanks for this account. I too have an account, taken from eye witness Frederick Sanders. My great uncles, Ernest Vaughan died on the Hythe so I took down this research: The Sinking of the HMS Hythe
Eye witness: Frederick Arthur Sanders, a British Sapper who served with 1st and 3rd West Kent Field Co. Royal Engineers. Recordings of his recollections are held at the Imperial War Museum, London.
Commanding officers: Major Rushton and Captain David Salomon.
Why was the company sent?
They were sent to improve trench maintenance and design. News was coming back from the front about shocking conditions in the trenches. Mats had been put on the floor of the trenches but mud had risen up through the mats regardless and the soldiers had been forced to raise the parapets.
1st and 3rd West Kent Field Co. Royal Engineers.
The company was from Southborough, Kent, near Tunbridge Wells. There were good relations between the officers and men because no-one was a professional soldier. There was a certain clique-ness, that drew the locals in the company together. According to Sanders, no-one was promoted in the company unless they were from the local area.
According to Sanders, they didn’t have the opportunity to practise making pontoon bridges. Also, when they were sent abroad, their equipment was left behind in England.
They were granted three to four days embarkation leave. Then at 8pm one evening, they were suddenly mobilised and were marched to Chatham Station. From there they were put on a train that headed west. There was no civilian send off and they were not told where they were going but the train ended up in Devonport. From there, they were put on a ship called the HMS Scotian which set off with a destroyer on either side due to fear of submarines and other German service craft. After two hours, the crews of the destroyers were mustered and appeared on deck to cheer the Scotia and its men. Following that, the destroyers turned and headed for home. All soldiers on the Scotia had life belts and were in compartments of forty men. The food was adequate.
After a while the men realised that they were not going to France and were pleased, having heard of life in the trenches there. Someone recognised Gibraltar but the Scotian sailed on, eventually stopping to refuel at Malta where all they saw was the harbour. The Scotian then headed to the Greek port of Mudros which was ‘very picturesque.’ The soldiers had all now guessed that their ultimate destination was Gallipoli. They had heard about the disastrous landings but believed that the British had now become established there.
At 6pm on 28th October, they were mustered and transferred to the HMS Hythe, a minesweeper ‘not much bigger than a Thames pleasure boat.’ There were no life boats or belts and there was just enough room for a soldier to stand with his kit as they were packed together like sardines. Individuals from other units were also on board although at that stage there was no feeling that the 1st and 3rd were part of a larger group or regiment. That would happen later on. The sea outside the harbour was extremely treacherous so a tarpaulin was fixed to cover the men. At about 8:20 pm, while they were approaching Gallipoli in the dark, the HMS Sarnia, which was about three times the size of the Hythe and showing no lights, left Gallipoli.
The Sarnia hit the Hythe and cut through to its main mast which crashed down on top of the soldiers below. The bridge of the Hythe was at the same level as the deck of the Sarnia so when the collision occurred, the officers simply walked across from one ship to the other. The men were not so lucky. They were crammed together on deck, weighed down by heavy kit and were trapped by the tarpaulin. Incredibly Frederick Sanders remembers very little panicking. He counted himself fortunate to be positioned near the handrail and thought that the boilers were about to burst so he dropped his kit, ducked under the tarpaulin and leapt over the side of the boat. He was also a good swimmer in such treacherous conditions. When he turned around in the water, he saw the Hythe turn up on its end and nose dive into the depths.
The only lifeboat from the Sarnia was lowered. It contained a midshipman and a cook. Sanders got inside then joined the efforts to find survivors. Eventually all eighty two survivors were crammed into the single lifeboat. It is felt that if more lifeboats had been available then more people would have been saved.
After roll call it was established that eighty two out of three hundred and twenty men had survived.