IN JUNE 1916, Field Marshall Earl Kitchener, the Minister of War, was scheduled to visit Russia for a series of negotiations aimed at ensuring that the Tsar's forces would stay in the war.
Kitchener landed in Orkney were he briefly met Admiral Jellicoe before he joined the cruiser HMS Hampshire and prepared to set sail through Scapa Flow.
HMS Hampshire, with her crew of 643 men as well as Kitchener and his staff, pulled up anchors at 4:40pm on Monday 5 June, 1916. With her were the destroyers HMS Unity and Victor. As they left Scapa Flow they sailed into stormy weather. The two destroyers struggled with the force nine gale and by 6:30pm they had both been signalled to return to base. The Hampshire fought on alone.
Unbeknown to the master and her crew, Scapa Flow had been visited by a German U-boat at the end of May. Undetected, U-75 laid 22 mines off the coast of Orkney. Bad weather at the beginning of June prevented the routine sweep of the area, so all the mines were out there as the Hampshire sailed on.
Struggling against the wind HMS Hampshire could only maintain 13.5 knots and was roughly one and a half miles from shore. At 7:45pm an urgent telegraph message was sent from nearby Birsay Post Office to Kirkwall and Stromness. It read: "Battle cruiser seems in distress between Marwick Head and the brough of Birsay."
A mile and a half out at sea the Hampshire was indeed in difficulties. An explosion had shaken the whole ship, the power had failed and she was unable to radio for assistant. She began to sink.
Birsay Post Office transmitted a second message signalling that there was a "vessel down".
The RNLI rushed to Stromness Naval HQ with the offer to launch a lifeboat. To their surprise their help was strenuously rejected. Further up the coast armed soldiers stood guard over the coast preventing locals from reaching the stricken ship.
The Hampshire had been down for four hours by the time her lifeboats started to reach the shore. The first raft, which had 40 men in it when it left the sinking ship, picked up a further 30 from the water. By the time it reached land only six were left alive. A second craft made it to the shore. Of the 40 or 50 men on board only four had survived the journey. Those who made it were unable to haul themselves up the rocks, and most died on the shoreline. Of the 667 people who had left Orkney only 12 survived the sinking. Kitchener was not among them. He died along with his staff.
The action of the authorities on the night inevitably led to intense speculation about the sinking. Questions were asked about why the Hampshire left Orkney in such a hurry, with such bad weather conditions forecast. What of the armed men stationed round the cliffs to ward off curious locals? If people were actively discouraged from helping rescue the stricken craft, there must have been a reason. Theories circulated that Kitchener had been deliberately killed or that he had not even been on the boat and that a body-double was lying dead in the sea in his place.
To this day, nobody is sure sure what happened on the night the Hampshire sank. What is likely is that in the confusion of the Battle of Jutland, naval staff had failed to note that U-75 had penetrated the Orkneys. On the night itself general confusion meant officials were unsure what boat had sank, initially unsure if the boat was German or a British warship.
For people living at the time the death of Kitchener was akin to the death of JF Kennedy or Princess Diane. Soldiers would later recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Kitchener was killed. With him dead there was a genuine fear that the war would be lost.
After the war a large monument was raised in Kitchener’s memory on Marwick Head, overlooking the massive cliffs where so many lives were lost. His body was never recovered and must still lie at the bottom of the sea at Scapa Flow.