Book: ‘HMS Hampshire: A Century of Myths and Mysteries Unravelled’

NEWS: HMS Hampshire book nominated by Maritime Foundation for The Mountbatten Award for Best Literary Contribution 2017.

The Award honours work which deepens understanding of maritime issues and particularly Britain’s dependence on the sea.

The winners will be announced at the Maritime Media Awards in London on 8th November.

Click here to order a copy of HMS Hampshire: A Century of Myths and Mysteries Unravelled’
All proceeds go to The Orkney Heritage Society for the Kitchener Memorial Refurbishment Project.

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“This is a terrific piece of deeply felt work. Buy it, borrow it, steal it if you must, – but read it! The people of the HAMPSHIRE and of Birsay deserve no less.”
Rear Admiral John Burgess, RN, in ‘The Naval Review’.   See below for full review.

“A magnificent historiography, bridging the gulf between local and national history.”
Dr Ray Fereday

“Succeeds in its goal admirably, deserves a place on any bookshelf.”
Sigurd Towrie

“An in-depth study, highly recommended.”
Cdr. John Bingeman

“A darned good read.”
Professor Tom Stevenson

Review by Rear Admiral John Burgess, RN, in ‘The Naval Review’, February 2017:

HMS HAMPSHIRE: A CENTURY OF MYTHS AND MYSTERIES UNRAVELLED
by James Irvine et al
(Orkney Heritage Society – £25)
ISBN 978 0953 594 573

In reviewing a book we are usually facing the challenge of one author, acknowledging his or efforts whilst offering an opinion on the book’s merit or value.  Here I’m faced with 12 remarkable writers, each of them deeply aware of the frustration, the anguish and the outrage felt by the people of Orkney.  This over the handling of the loss of the HAMPSHIRE, on June 5th 1916.  She hit a mine a little over a mile off Marwick Head in Birsay and quickly sank with the loss of 737 men, including of course the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener.  Until this day Orcadians have agonised over whether they could or should have saved more people.  The splendid writers, all of them locally connected have reviewed every aspect of his agonising tale, and agree that little or nothing more could have been done on the day.  The pain came later.

The sinking occurred just 5 days after Jutland and the return of the Fleet to Scapa Flow, which the public at that time saw as a failure, and only 4 weeks before the slaughter on the Somme.  So not surprisingly a sinking and heavy loss of life in full public view was traumatic.  The added loss of such a controversial figure as Lord Kitchener made this more than just one more sinking. With the Admiralty putting its reports under the 50 year rule, the media and a few scurrilous journalists made hay, leaving the Orcadians hurt and confused.  So this is not so much about the sinking of the HAMPSHIRE but a long overdue and honest statement of what really happened and when.  It is a joy to read.

Each contributor deals with a distinctive aspect of the story, deeply researched and remarkably well written.  They react to each other so well that as a book it is astonishingly coherent.  They clearly all agree the conclusions that this was widely, and understandably perhaps, poorly handled.  They are rightly less generous to the sensationalist journalists who simply lied.

Few if any could have written a more perceptive and heartfelt Foreword to the book than Admiral Jock Slater, as he not only touches on the past but reminds us of the truly uplifting approach of the people of Birsay and the wider Orkneys in honouring all who died, as well as the very few – just one per author – who survived.

The authors seek not to establish blame, and they admit that there may be more of this tale still to be told.  The questions will always remain.  Was Jellicoe right to send the ship West-about?  Should we have known more widely that U75 had strewn mines close to the Birsay coast?  Should the authorities, Army, Navy, Police and Lifeboats have responded more quickly and positively, and how did they really treat civilians seeking to help?  How much did local gossip distort or exaggerate the truth?  Why did the Admiralty act so secretively and why on earth did so many seek to sensationalise so appallingly, what was after all the wartime loss of a cruiser and most men on board?  Thank goodness these Orcadian authors have so thoroughly addressed these issues and more.

I have only one small and personal criticism.  The book is of high quality, printed under hard cover in A4 size.  My bookshelves would have preferred it half-size and of course twice as thick; but really this is a terrific piece of deeply felt work.  Buy it, borrow it, steal it if you must, – but read it!  The people of the HAMPSHIRE and of Birsay deserve no less.

John Burgess
Rear Admiral, RN

The above appeared in “The Naval Review”, February 2017.

Click here to order a copy of HMS Hampshire: A Century of Myths and Mysteries Unravelled’
All proceeds go to The Orkney Heritage Society for the Kitchener Memorial Refurbishment Project.