Fairport and the Battle of the Falklands: 1914. Further details from the Archives
[Two recent contributions , by John Allan and John Pollock in South West Soundings 63 and 64 , have discussed the extraordinary story of the Fairport sailing through the battle of the Falklands. Tony Pawlyn has scoured the archives and wrote in with this further detailed information, which is an article in itself . A very recent post
on the website also mentions that the wheel, a mast and tackle of Fairport survive in St. Helena.
Reading through these accounts prompted me to ponder how naval battles, unlike those on land and in the air, have almost always been seen exclusively by participants. This was a truly spectacular exception. Ed]
Details of the story
Picking up some of John Allans comments, and previously reported elements of the story.
Page 37, para 2. -
from Tocopilla, having left that port on October 3, 1914 and reaching Falmouth on March 5, 1915.
Although it may be of no great moment, her much quoted arrival date of March 5th is in error. From Foxs Falmouth Arrivals it is clear that the Norwegian ship Fairport, under the command of Captain Wang, arrived at Falmouth from Tocopilla with nitrates on February 27th 1915. The ship was owned by R. Salvensen & Co., of Tuedestrand, her nitrate cargo was consigned to G. C. Dobell & Co. Ltd., of Liverpool. Putting into Falmouth for orders she was recorded as bound for Rotterdam. Of 1,857 tons net register, the entry is endorsed Victor towed indicating that she was towed in (probably from off the Lizard) by the tug Victor.
The much quoted March 5th date was in fact the publication date of the Falmouth Packet, the local newspaper in which reports of the incident were first made public. At the time Captain Wang [or Wange, sources differ] was quite happy to be the centre of attention for a few days - it made a welcome change from the anxious isolation of a captain on a long ocean voyage in wartime.
The Naval Fight off the Falkland Islands. Witnessed by a Ship that Has Arrived at Falmouth. English and German Sailors Interested Spectators.
On the arrival of the Norwegian ship Fairport at Falmouth this week from Tocopilla for orders it transpired that the crew witnessed the naval action between the British and German squadrons off the Falkland Islands. In an interview with a Falmouth Packet representative, Captain Wange stated that when off the Falkland Islands he noticed several men owar steaming at full speed. The weather was very fine, and there was a moderate sea. His first impressions of the scene was that the warships were manoeuvring in the ordinary course of training, and were indulging in big gun practice. He could not believe they were fighting, but at they came towards him in line, he realised it was a battle, for he was able to see the British and German flags flying from the respective ships.
Shot after shot appeared to fall into the sea, and huge volumes of water would rise into the air at a height of a thousand feet. The skipper and his crew began to feel rather uncomfortable, for the Fairport was only sailing at the rate of about five knots an hour, and the warships were coming towards the Norwegian at a terrific speed. There were two English and two German sailors on board the Fairport and, naturally, they were greatly excited over the fight. Three miles was the distance that separated the Fairport from the battleships, and by means of his marine glasses Captain Wange could clearly see the men working the guns on the several vessels. To the ordinary observer it seemed that the shooting on both sides was very erratic, for the shells nearly always appeared to fall into the sea, followed by the big waterspouts. The Norwegian captain, however, admits that his crew and himself were probably mistaken and that the shells from the British must have wrought terrible havoc amongst the German craft. Gradually the warships got out of sight, but before they were lost to view a German cruiser (probably the Dresden) was observed to break away from her companions and was followed by a British cruiser.
Captain Wange described the sight as a magnificent one. Although he did not actually see any of the German warships sink, yet the experience of witnessing them fighting was one which would never be forgotten. On one occasion it seemed as if the whole of the British squadron poured their broadside into their opponents. Continuing, Captain Wange said: - I would not have missed the sight for anything. At first the vessels were heading towards us in two lines, but they turned right around and got into classes, one firing against the other. I was glad to get out of the way as fast as I could, for there was no knowing what a stray shell might have done to my ship. Naturally, the English and German sailors were very excited, in fact we all were. We did not hear of the result of the battle until we arrived at Falmouth.
The two Germans on the Fairport were arrested by the authorities and were brought ashore and taken to Pendennis Castle to await removal to a concentration camp. The hapless German seamen were no doubt interned for the duration, along with many other unfortunates who found themselves in a similar position.
The Fairport remained at Falmouth just long enough for Captain Wange to receive a copy of the Falmouth Packet, and see his account of events in print wartime conditions occasioning a slightly longer wait at Falmouth than usual. Under orders for Rotterdam, the Smit tug Ocean was sent down from London to tow her up. The tug arrived on March 5th, took on some bunker coal, and left again for Rotterdam with the Fairport in tow on March 6th. For her ten day sojourn at Falmouth the Fairport paid £3 17s. 5d. in harbour dues.
Although John Allan gives no direct reference for the opening comment above, nor yet several subsequent quotations these came from Woollards later article of Nov. and Dec. 1964 Fifty Years Ago.
On the point about the other Sea Breezes references quoted - page 38, para 3. The references to the issues of Sea Breezes of Sept. 1962; and Jan. 1963. are not particularly relevant to this story. Appearing under the headline Mid the Strife - the first item was from one B.W. Squance of Canada, asking for any information about an incident (during the Dogger Bank action, or at the Battle of Jutland) of a sailing vessel passing through the area of the action. The second, under the same heading, was a reply from Capt. F.V.S. Fjeldstad, Royal Norwegian Navy (Retd.), saying that he had never heard of any reports of such an incident relative to the Dogger Bank action, but he knew for sure that a Norwegian sailing ship found herself between the fighting battle-cruisers lines in the opening phase of the Battle of Jutland. But he had no details as to the ships name. Following the above exchange, Comdr. Woollard [Woolland] added his piece about the Battle of the Falkland Islands, in April 1963.
The degrees of artistic licence in the several paintings of the scene are understandable, but it is apparent from Captain Wanges account that his ship and the naval forces never came closer together than three miles. Two paintings of the incident by Henry Scott or the same painting twice (with modifications) are reproduced in Sea Breezes. The first on page 318 of April 1963 depicts the Fairport and HMS Invincible passing, port to port on opposing courses, about half a mile apart, with plumes of spray from shells falling astern of Invincible. The second, appearing on page 463, of December 1964. From the brush work of the sea and general composition, it is a worked up version of the former. In this version a little more rust appears to have been added to the hull of the Fairport, and more shading to her sails. In addition, for added drama, a plume of spray from a falling shell has been added, almost in the path of the Fairport. A third in South West Soundings No.64 , of October 2005, is by Arthur Briscoe in 1937. This too appears to depict the Fairport and HMS Invincible, passing, but this time on the same general course. They appear about the same distance apart with the warship rapidly overhauling the sailing ship, and another vessel of the British squadron steaming up from astern.
John Allans comment about setting down a cross reference tying the Fairport to the map of the Falkland Island action, has been acted upon though it proved difficult to initially locate the map/chart mentioned! Our finding aids at the Bartlett library are still in the early stages of compilation; and I didnt want to admit defeat by having to ask Roger Bunbury where it lay! However, after some time looking for a flat chart in our archives, the item eventually turned out to be a fold-out book-plate in John Irvings Coronel and the Falklands, London, c.1930.
With the Battle of Trafalgar so much on our minds last year, together with vivid accounts of H.M. Schooner Pickles  impromptu race with the Nautilus to carry home the news to the Admiralty, it is perhaps an appropriate moment to reflect on the advances in communications of a century later. Ignoring the technicalities of how it was achieved, from the day of the battle it took over a fortnight for Collingwoods official Trafalgar dispatches to reach the Admiralty but news of the battle off the Falkland Islands was received at the Admiralty that very same day. The following Admiralty announcement of Wednesday December 9th 1914 the day after the battle - was published two days later in the Falmouth weekly newspaper The Cornish Echo of Friday December 11th. -
At 7.30 a.m. on December 8th the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Nurenberg, Leipzig, and Dresden, were sighted near the Falkland Islands
However, Admiral Sir F. C. Doveton Sturdees official dispatch reporting the engagement was not transmitted until the Invincible arrived at Montevideo on December 20th. Personal accounts of the battle were received in England during January 1915 presumably in the open mail from Montevideo. These were published in local newspapers all round the country, wherever crew members of the British squadron originated. Typically The Cornish Echo, of Friday January 29th, published quite a long letter home from Mark Collins one of the ammunition supply team on board H.M.S. Cornwall.
His letter adds little to our knowledge of the engagement, but does reflect the up and at em gung-ho attitude prevalent during the early period of the war.
Published under the headlines -
LOCAL WAR NEWS Sight of a Lifetime.
The Falkland Islands Battle.
LETTER FROM PORSCATHO MAN ON H.M.S. CORNWALL
By the papers you certainly must have heard of our action with the German squadron, five ships in number. They came rather unexpectedly. We thought we should have a job to chase them out but instead they came to us, and in less than two hours from the time they were sighted we were out of harbour and after them. What sport! We soon caught them up. We were six ships, but the Carnarvon, being slower, was left behind, so we were even numbers. But one of theirs, the Dresden, was very fast, so she escaped. Our two big ships, the Invincible and the Inflexible fought their biggest the Gneisenau, and the Scharnhorst; H.M.S. Kent fought the Nurenburg, and the Glasgow assisted us a little with the Leipzig.
The big ships started first, we were all on deck watching them firing at each other. It was a sight of a life-time, but at the time we couldnt realize what it meant either life or death to them. When the bugle was sounded for us to start, we gave a cheer and dashed to action stations. No one seemed to think there was any danger. After blazing away for three and a half hours our enemy caught on fire. It was just like a blazing furnace. After some time she rolled over and sank. Out of 297 only 18 were saved. They said it was simply awful on board her. Some of the rescued men could speak English. During the action I was down below supplying ammunition to the guns, and could hear the enemys shells banging against the ships side. We had several holes in our ship but luckily no one was killed or injured.
Altogether from the other ships there were seven killed and about nine wounded, so barring the damage done to our ships we came off best, for which we have our captain to thank. He manoeuvred our ship fine. So that is four more ships less on the German side. Now we have to find the Dresden and dispose of her.
It is not surprising that Mark Collins makes no reference to the Fairport incident, as the Cornwall (engaged in her battle with the Leipzig) was about twenty miles away from the Fairport, when she crossed the battle lines. John Irving does however mention it in Coronel and the Falklands.
A little after two oclock in the afternoon, there was an intermission in the engagement between Sturdees battle-cruisers and the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Possibly to avoid the sailing ship which appeared between them, or [as Irving explains it] because the range had increased beyond the maximum of the British 12 guns the opposing ships then running on slightly diverging courses. Whereupon Spee turned his two ships sharply away to the southward, to further increase the range which was then about nine or ten miles. At which point Irving writes
Now, as though to bring a breath of peace and tranquillity to the scene of blood, a full-rigged ship was observed to pass down the lines with her sails full and bellying to the slight breeze. What she was doing there no man knew, but more than one old seaman with memories of Drakes Drum vowed that she could be no real ship but a phantom. She might well have been a visitor from the realms of the Navys glorious past, laden with a precious cargo of traditionNelson, Hood, Howe, Drake, Grenville and a score more-all come to look on while fresh laurels were added to their Navys honour and their comrade Cradock amply avenged. In three-quarters of an hour the battle-cruisers, steaming faster that they ever had done before, had reduced the range to 15,000 yards, and swinging out to bring her whole broadside to bear, Sturdees flagship opened fire once more
The interlude was over. She was not identified by Irving, but in his reverie he presupposed that the apparition was in fact a British sailing ship!
By Tony Pawlyn, Bartlett Librarian
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