The ‘Birkenhead’. A painting by Thomas M Hemy of the deck of the troopship ‘Birkenhead’ which sank off the South African coast in February 1852. 55 Suffolk Regiment soldiers were among the many troops drowned.
HMS Birkenhead was a Royal Navy troopship.
In January 1852, under the command of Captain Robert Salmond RN, she left Portsmouth, conveying troops from ten different regiments, to the 8th Border War (then called the “the Kaffir War”) against the Xhosa in South Africa. The troops included a draft of an Officer and 71 men from the Suffolk Regiment, going to supplement the Reserve Battalion who had been out in South Africa since July 1851. On 5 January, she picked up more soldiers at Queenstown, Ireland, and conveyed some officers’ wives and families.
On 23 February 1852, Birkenhead docked briefly at Simonstown, near Capetown Most of the women and children disembarked along with a number of sick soldiers including Lt Fairclough of the Suffolks.
Shortly before 02:00 on 26 February en route to Algoa Bay she struck an uncharted rock near Danger Point (today near Gansbai, Western Cape).
Captain Salmond ordered the anchor to be dropped, the quarter-boats to be lowered, and a turn astern to be given by the engines. However, as the ship backed off the rock, the sea rushed into the large hole made by the collision and the ship struck again, buckling the front bulkhead. Shortly, the forward compartments and the engine rooms were flooded; 100 soldiers were drowned in their berths.
The surviving soldiers mustered and awaited their officers’ orders. The women and children were placed in the ship’s cutter, which lay alongside. Two other boats were manned, but one was immediately swamped and the other could not be launched due to poor maintenance, leaving only three boats available. Two large boats, with capacities of 150 men each, were not among them.
The surviving officers and men assembled on deck, where Lt Col Seton of the 74th Foot, the Senior Officer present, took charge of all military personnel and stressed the necessity of maintaining order and discipline to his officers.
Ten minutes after the first impact the ship struck again beneath the engine room, tearing open her bottom. She instantly broke in two just aft of the mainmast. The funnel went over the side and the forepart of the ship sank at once. The stern section, now crowded with men, floated for a few minutes before sinking.
Just before she sank, Salmond called out that “all those who can swim jump overboard, and make for the boats”. Colonel Seton, however, recognising that rushing the lifeboats would risk swamping them and endangering the women and children, ordered the men to stand fast, and only three men made the attempt. The soldiers did not move, even as the ship broke up barely 20 minutes after striking the rock. Some of the soldiers managed to swim the 2 miles to shore over the next 12 hours, often hanging on to pieces of the wreck to stay afloat, but most drowned, died of exposure, or were killed by sharks.
It was reported that of the approximately 643 people aboard, only 193 were saved; 55 of the 71 Suffolk Regiment soldiers lost their lives; they are commemorated on a plaque in St Mary’s Church in Bury St Edmunds, erected in 1907 by public subscriptions.
Frederick William of Prussia was so impressed by the bravery and discipline of the soldiers that he ordered an account of the incident to be read at the head of every regiment in his army.
“Women and children first” subsequently became standard procedure in the evacuation of sinking ships.