THE  DOVER WAR MEMORIAL  PROJECT

 

war memorial at dusk, photographed by Michelle Cooper
 

 

Articles

The "Glatton"

"WE FOUGHT DISASTER ON THE GLATTON" by Captain William J Pearce

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 operations.

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 Norwegian government.

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 military honours.      

This article is a précis of an article in the WWI ephemera at Dover Museum. The date of original publication and the source is unknown.

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 here

illustrations:
William Pearce, courtesy Bernard Chappell
the Glatton Memorial (foreground) in the Naval section at Gillingham (Woodlands) cemetery




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