Gladiator was moving at 9 knots, St Paul at 13. Although standard convention decrees that if two ships are on a collision course both ships should swing their helms hard to port, meaning that their bows swing to starboard so that they pass on the port side, on this occasion things went wrong. Captain Passow on St Paul ordered the helm hard to port, to swing the bow to starboard, yet St Paul signalled ‘Going to port’. HMS Gladiator wrongly assumed that St Paul was swerving the wrong way, and went hard to starboard. The bow of St Paul headed straight for the cruiser, and at 2:30pm crashed straight into the cruiser’s starboard side, killing many men.
The sea then rushed into Gladiator through the hole created by St Paul and, despite the sealing of watertight doors, water still poured into the ship at an alarming rate. The ship slowly turned over and capsized onto her starboard side, throwing many men into the water.
Gladiator grounded on Sconce Point, near Yarmouth, only 250 yards from the shore. Many men jumped into the sea in an attempt to swim to the Island, not knowing that the tidal current off Sconce Point is one of the most dangerous on Britain’s coastline. Only four boats from Gladiator were launched, since many had been smashed by St Paul, and as Gladiator rested on her side, those on her port side could not be launched. Of the four boats, one sank immediately and another made just one journey ashore before sinking, leaving only two remaining.
St Paul was also helpless to assist, since her lifeboats could not be launched due to the blizzard. The ropes and pulleys that launched the lifeboats were frozen and blocked with ice. It took almost half an hour before the first lifeboat could be launched, only for it to be driven away from the men in the water by the wind.
Luckily Sconce Point was the site of Fort Victoria, a Victorian fort that was now a Royal Engineers garrison. The fort’s gig and three dinghies were launched to rescue the sailors, with many men wading and swimming in the ice-cold water to rescue them. Corporal Stenning is reported to have saved seven men, before he himself was rescued from the sea suffering from exposure. Gladiator was fully evacuated, with many of her sailors recovering in nearby Golden Hill Fort’s military hospital.
One officer and 28 men had died, most of them drowned. Due to the swift current, however, only three of the bodies were found.
After five months’ work, during which time she became something of a macabre tourist attraction for sightseers in hired boats, HMS Gladiator was stripped of her armament and righted. She was finally sold for scrap for less than the attempted salvage work had cost.
St Paul returned to Southampton for repairs, and was soon shipshape again. But strangely enough, St Paul unaccountably capsized and sank in New York Harbour on 25 April, 1918, exactly 10 years after HMS Gladiator sank.
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