South Africa West Coast

The Wreck of the HMS Sybille
A Royal Navy loss during the South African War

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From Crayfish to Iron
by John Gribble
Maritime Archaeologist
South African Heritage Resources Agency

Article received from: "The Cape Odyssey"

At 10 oíclock on the evening of 17 January 1901, the sound of the recall signal being fired from the HMS Doris, flagship of the Naval Commander-in-Chief at Simonís Town, Rear-Admiral Sir R.H. Harris, brought her crew hurrying back on board as she proceeded to put to sea. The hurried activity was in response to a report that the cruiser, HMS Sybille was aground on the rocks south of Lamberts Bay on the Cape west coast, and the Doris was rushing to her assistance.

HMS SybilleThe HMS Sybille was a twin screw, second-class cruiser of 3400 tons, built in 1890 by R. Stephenson of Newcastle-on-Tyne. Her 9496 horsepower triple expansion engines could produce a top speed of 20 knots. One of twenty-one Apollo class cruisers built, she was first commissioned at Devonport on 8 January 1895 for the Mediterranean Station under Captain Gerald W. Russell. There she served until returning to Devonport in 1898, where she was paid off on 18 March of that year. She remained out of commission until 3 October 1900 when she was commissioned at Portsmouth to relieve the HMS Barossa at the Cape of Good Hope Station, under the command Captain Hugh P. Williams.

After an uneventful voyage, the Sybille arrived in Simonís Town from England on Saturday 12 January 1901, where she was coaled immediately and put to sea again on Monday 14 January, bound for Lamberts Bay. Upon arrival the captain, junior lieutenants and the naval brigade - about 50 men in all - went ashore. This was because Lamberts Bay was used as a military base, which necessitated the deployment of a detachment ashore. The Sybille was left under the command of the first lieutenant, Mr H.H. Holland, and navigating lieutenant, Mr H. Cayley.

Almost immediately, the weather, which was most unusual for January, showed signs of deteriorating. The north-wester which had prevailed on the voyage up the coast, freshened to a gale, and faced with the fact that the anchorage at Lamberts Bay offered very little protection to a vessel of the size of the Sybille, Lt. Holland as the officer in command of the vessel decided it would be prudent to put to sea. The anchor was accordingly raised and, at 10pm on the night of 15 January, the Sybille steamed out of the bay into increasingly rough seas, and heavy squalls. Sharing the anchorage that night were two other vessels, the Royal Navy Torpedo Boat No. 60 and the transport City of Cambridge (Transport No. 15), both of which opted to ride out the weather.

SybilleAt about 2am the following morning, the weather having moderated somewhat, the Sybille put about and proceeded to steam back to Lamberts Bay. It was later found that unbeknownst to crew and the officer of the watch, Sub-Lieutenant A.G.A Street, the rough weather and the southerly set of the current had pushed the vessel some six miles south of what they believed their position to be. At 4.30 on the morning of 16 January the Sybille struck a reef near the farm at Steenboksfontein, about three miles, or five kilometres south of Lamberts Bay. The order was immediately given the reverse the engines in an attempt to get her off, but to no avail, and when it became clear that the vessel was stuck fast and filling rapidly, the watertight doors were shut, and preparations made to abandon ship.

Amid the heavy seas pounding the vessel, some of which were breaking above her funnels, her company made a number of attempts to get a line ashore, but without success. The outlook may have been grim indeed for the crew, who had taken refuge in the rigging and on the forebridge, had the wreck not been spotted by the HMS Tartar and the City of Cambridge, the latter having left Lamberts Bay en route to Cape Town at 4am after an uncomfortable night.

In the meantime, Captain Williams had learned of the loss of his ship, and within two and a half hours of the wreck had come out from Lamberts Bay in a tug. With the greatest difficulty a line was attached to the Sybille, and the two hundred and fifty odd members of the crew aboard were rescued without mishap, although the sea conditions meant that the operation took until 2pm that afternoon. The last man to leave the ship was Lt. Holland. The only casualty was a nineteen-year-old ordinary seaman, W.H. Jones, who sustained fatal internal injuries when he was swept across the deck by the heavy seas and crushed against one of the vesselís 4.7-inch guns. He was later buried ashore, and his grave can be seen in a small cemetery in Lamberts Bay.

The rescued crew, most of whom had escaped with nothing more than the clothes they wore, were taken aboard the City of Cambridge, which had remained near the wreck to render assistance while the Tartar had gone on to Saldanha Bay to raise the alarm. From there the crew were taken to Lamberts Bay.

The Doris arrived at the site of the wreck late on the afternoon of 17 January, after leaving Simon's Town at 4.30am that morning. The seas were found to be too rough for her to get close to the Sybille, so she proceeded to Lamberts Bay from where the following day Rear-Admiral Harris disembarked and rode to the wreck on horseback. It was soon abundantly clear to Harris that the Sybille was beyond hope of salvage, and that she would be come a total wreck. He found her lying on an even keel, but broadside on to the seas and completely awash, the water in her hull rising and falling with the tides. In the two days since running aground she had been pushed two to three hundred metres closer to the shore by the force of the sea, and her bottom had been torn to pieces on the reef.

However, it looked likely that her two 6-inch and six 4.7-inch guns could be salvaged; along with the torpedoes she was carrying. Her Maxim guns, rifles, and pistols, and the money, which was on board, were salvaged the day she ran aground and taken back to Lamberts Bay. In the days following Admiral Harrisí visit, many of her fittings, including her anchors and cables, her torpedoes and stores, and all but one of her heavy guns were salvaged. Under the leadership of Lt. Holland a working party undertook the mammoth task of transferring the guns, some of which weighed more than seven tons, from the wreck into lighters, after which they were towed to Lamberts Bay. All of this material was placed aboard the City of Cambridge and later dispatched to Cape Town.

As one would expect, the loss of one of itís vessels was viewed as a very serious matter indeed by the Royal Navy, and was the subject of a Court Martial held aboard the HMS Monarch, the port guard ship, in Simonís Town on 26 February 1901. Facing the court, which included Captain Williams as prosecutor, were Lt. Holland, Lt. Cayley, Sub-Lt. Street, and Chief Gunner Tapper. Although the evidence led clearly showed the exemplary fashion in which the disaster was managed after the fact, the crew rescued and the vessel salvaged, the court found evidence that there had been serious lapses in navigation and the handling of the vessel after she left Lamberts Bay on the night of 15 January. There was evidence that despite the rough seas and prevailing gale, no attempt had been made to calculate the vesselís position, and no thought given to the likelihood that a current may have been running. As it turned out, the captain of the City of Cambridge, in evidence to the court, reported that he had noted a strong southerly current of 3-4 knots running at the time of the wrecking.

The sentences handed down to the four men were remarkably light, and although they were all dismissed from the Sybille, and three of them forfeited some seniority, they all escaped with severe reprimands but no worse. Of the four, only Lt. Cayley resigned his commission as a result of the Court Martial, the remaining three continuing in the service of the Royal Navy.

The Sybille Today

At 11am on the morning of 16 January 2001, a small group of people made up of Lamberts Bay residents and South African Navy personnel assembled on the beach near the site of the wreck. They were there to witness a wreath-laying ceremony by Admiral of the South African Navy, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the loss of the Sybille.

Since the fateful day she ran aground one hundred years ago, the wreck of the Sybille has not fared well. The very exposed nature of the reef she came to rest on ensured that she broke up rapidly in the heavy surf. More recently, the human element intervened when despite the fact that at the time of her loss all money aboard was recovered, stories circulated that she was carrying a fortune in sovereigns. Numerous divers have also since salvaged large quantities of non-ferrous metal from the wreck, including one of her propellers, some of this work involving the use of explosives, which further destroyed the site. Most recently, divers also recovered the second and only remaining propeller of the Sybille, but it has since been donated to SAHRA who wish to see it conserved, and permanently displayed Lamberts Bay.

Finally, the story of the Sybille would not be complete without making reference to an incident widely touted as the only naval engagement of the South African War. According to reports, a Royal Navy vessel was involved in an exchange of shots with a Boer commando while patrolling the west coast. Both the Sybille and the HMS Partridge have been linked to this incident, but it now seems to be generally accepted that the vessel involved was in fact the Partridge rather than the Sybille.

Webmaster's Note: My appreciation to Mr Gabriel Athiros, editor of "The Cape Odyssey", for permission to publish this article on "The Cape Odyssey" is a must for everyone who enjoys reading and learning about the colourful and fascinating history of the Cape.

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