FOUGHT DISASTER ON THE GLATTON" by Captain
On September 16,
1918, a calamity occurred in Dover Harbour, which might have
resulted in immense losses amongst naval ships, to the harbour
works, and to the town. An explosion took place on the monitor,
HMS Glatton. To save further disaster, Sir R. Keyes ordered the
ship to be torpedoed. Captain Pearce, who writes the following
heart-rending account of the tragedy, commanded the Admiralty
tug Lady Brassey, from which Sir Roger Keyes directed
Ever since the first day
of the war, Dover had been a naval base of great importance.
But on this early autumn evening of 16 September 1918 there was
even greater stir than usual. Next day a bombardment of the
enemy-occupied Belgian coast was to be attempted. An electric
tension hung in the air.
I stood on the deck of
the Lady Brassey, a tug which was to support the raiding vessels
in the morrow’s offensive, and looked northeastwards across the
harbour. Every conceivable craft was moored there, from armed
trawlers to hospital ships. Side by side stood four
newly-commissioned monitors – Marshall Soult, General Wolrfe,
Gorgon, and Glatton – the two latter recently acquired from the
I saw the collier ship
steam away from the Glatton, when suddenly the September night
was torn by the roar of an explosion that reverberated against
the towering cliffs and shook the town to its foundations,
sending my tug, berthed against the Prince of Wales pier,
rocking crazily. Dense white smoke rose from the Glatton, great
flames leaped heavenwards in a pillar of yellow light.
In less than five
minutes we were alongside the blazing ship. On the Glatton’s
deck were dozens of officers and men, terribly wounded. Some
were lying prostrate, others writhing in agony from burns. The
ship was burning fiercely, for her oil fuel had caught alight.
Then someone shouted, “For God’s sake flood the magazines!”
With a thrill of horror
I realised the awful peril. Fore and aft were two magazines of
live ammunition, and if the fire reached them the very town of
Dover would be blown to smithereens. There was scarcely a ship
in the harbour that wasn’t carrying a deadly load – ammunition,
depth charges, and mines. Another explosion aboard the Glatton
might easily detonate the whole lot.
Running out a length of
fire hose we scrambled aboard the Glatton, but instantly fell
back. It was almost as though the heat had hit us a blow. How we
ever found our way through the scorching suffocating barrage of
smoke to the fore end of the ship, where many ratings were
trapped, I shall never know.
Vague figures kept
looming up – wounded men struggling to escape, officers and
ratings who had come aboard to join in the work of rescue. For
by now many small craft from the other ships were swarming round
the Glatton. There were many grim scenes as such wounded as
could be reached were borne away.
A band of ratings had
volunteered to flood the fore magazine, or to open the stopcocks
and sink the ship. This end of the ship was full of gas; it
drove the men back choking and spluttering.
I returned to the Lady
Brassey to fetch more fire-fighting appliances. At that moment,
a small pinnacle came alongside with Admiral Sir Roger Keyes,
the Port Commodore, and several other officers. The Admiral came
aboard to gain the Glatton, and shouted for our boat to clear
the danger area.
I withdrew, but ten
minutes later received a message to go alongside again, as
Admiral Keyes wished to go ashore. As I reached the Glatton for
the second time, there was a terrific explosion; a piece of
burning debris had fallen on an anti-aircraft ammunition dump.
The fore magazine had
been successfully flooded, but the flames were spreading, and
there was still the after magazine. The fire was burning too
fiercely for us to reach the aft.
Admiral Keyes ordered
all ships in the vicinity of the Glatton to move out of the
harbour. It was only a matter of how long before she blew up. We
had to leave behind many poor men trapped in the forepart of the
ship. I could hear groans of anguish as we left. I saw a petty
officer staggering about the deck, shrieking incoherently.
Admiral Keyes made the
painful decision to sink the Glatton by torpedoing her. The vast
surging crowd that was ranged from end to end of the esplanade
to watch the grim drama was herded by the soldiers to the back
of the town and comparative safety.
The Admiral hurried
aboard our boat again and indicated the station he wanted us to
take up. The destroyer, Myngs, moved slowly into position. As I
saw the chain of bubbles that marked the track of the torpedo
unfolding in the direction of the still blazing vessel, I
instinctively covered my eyes.
There was the dull
shatter of crumpling steel, the swirl of rushing water, and I
saw the flames of the Glatton leap higher. The wounded ship
heeled over to port. Masses of glowing smoke rose high into the
air, casting an eerie light on the water.
Suddenly she gave a
tremendous lurch. In another moment the waters had closed over
her. Blackness was all around, and nothing to mark the spot on which this brave ship had been sacrificed, and with her ninety
tortured souls, to avert greater disaster.
Next morning, when the
tide ebbed, the Glatton was just visible above the water. And
there she remained for eight years until efforts were made to
raise her. The remains of 57 bodies were recovered during
salvage operations, and these were conveyed to Gillingham in
Kent, near the naval base of Chatham, and buried in one large
grave, following an impressive funeral service with full
This article is a précis of an article in the WWI ephemera at
Dover Museum. The date of original publication and the source is
Captain, later Lieutenant William Pearce became a casualty
during World War II. He is commemorated in the Book of
Remembrance, and more about him is
William Pearce, courtesy
the Glatton Memorial (foreground) in the Naval section at
Gillingham (Woodlands) cemetery