Helen Smitton

The backbone of the Navy
Helen Smitton

The sinking of HMS Pathfinder


HMS PATHFINDER was the lead ship of the Pathfinder class scout cruisers. She was the first vessel ever to be sunk by a locomotive torpedo fired by a submarine. At first the Admiralty were convinced that the sinking was the result of the ship striking a mine.  They indicated that HMS PATHFINDER was the third vessel to be sunk in this way.

At the start of the First World War HMS PATHFINDER was part of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla based at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth.  German U-boat patrols in the North Sea began immediately after the declaration of war on 4 August 1914. The Pathfinder class of scout cruisers had limited coal storage capacity and poor endurance. On Saturday 5 September 1914 HMS PATHFINDER was patrolling off St. Abbs Head in Berwickshire, Scotland.  

The North Sea coastline heads generally northwards from The Wash. St Abbs Head is the point at which it turns to head west into the Firth of Forth. Vessels sailing between Scotland and England needed to round St Abbs Head. In 1862 a lighthouse was built on the Head, but unusually this was built below the highest part of the headland.

On the day in question HMS PATHFINDER was so short of coal whilst on patrol that she could only manage a speed of 5 knots, making her an easy target. She was struck by a torpedo fired from the German submarine U-21, commanded by Kapitän-leutenant Otto Hersing.  The ship was hit in a magazine, which exploded causing her to sink within minutes.  

The incident occurred off St. Abbs Head in daylight within sight of land and in front of many witnesses. The local lifeboat, HELEN SMITTON, was launched immediately. HELEN SMITTON was an oar and sail lifeboat which had been built in 1910. She served as the St. Abbs lifeboat between 1911 and 1936.

Despite the best efforts of the crew of HELEN SMITTON only eighteen survivors were rescued out of a total crew of 268 on HMS PATHFINDER, a loss of 250 men.  News of the scale of the disaster and that it was the result of U-boat action was censored at the time.   Newspaper headlines were still dominated by the heavy losses suffered at the Battle of Mon in late August 1914. The following day the Admiralty issued a Press Release:

‘The Secretary of the Admiralty regrets to announce that the following casualties among officers have been reported as a result of the loss of HHS PATHFINDER on the 5th instant.  Dead; Paymaster Sydney W. Finch: Missing; eight [named] officers: Seriously wounded; Staff Surgeon Thomas A. Smyth: Wounded; Captain Francis M. Leake.’      

News of the tragedy was first reported in The Times on Sunday 6th September 1914, under the headline ‘British Cruiser sunk by a mine.’  It reported that HMS PATHFINDER ‘struck a mine about twenty miles from the east coast and foundered very rapidly. The loss of life it is feared was heavy. We learn this morning that it is believed that of a complement of 268, the captain and 50 or 60 of the crew have been saved’.   

The incident was reported later that week in The Illustrated War News. This reported that PATHFINDER was the third British naval victim of the new German system of laying mines outside territorial waters.  It added that ‘only some 90 of the crew of 268 could be rescued by a number of small vessels which hastened to the scene on hearing and seeing the explosion.’

One of the witnesses to the disaster was the English writer Aldous Huxley, then aged 20. At the outbreak of the First World War he volunteered to join the army, but was rejected on health grounds, as he was half-blind in one eye. He wrote a letter dated 14 September 1914 to his father in which he described the incident:

‘I dare say Julian [his brother] told you that we actually saw the PATHFINDERexplosion— a great white cloud with its foot in the sea. The St. Abbs' lifeboat came in with the most appalling accounts of the scene. There was not a piece of wood, they said, big enough to float a man—and over acres the sea was covered with fragments—human and otherwise. They brought back a sailor's cap with half a man's head inside it. The explosion must have been frightful. It is thought to be a German submarine that did it, or, possibly, a torpedo fired from one of the refitted German trawlers, which cruise all round, painted with the British port letters and flying the British flag’.

Following the HMS PATHFINDER incident HELEN SMITTON was involved in a number of further rescues during the First World War. On 15 November 1915 two local fishing boats were rescued. On 20 April 1917 the RINGHOLM of Bergen, a Norwegian steamer, was torpedoed and sunk 5 miles off St. Abbs Head.  A special letter of thanks was sent to the crew of HELEN SMITTON from the RNLI for their prompt response. On 5 May 1917 HELEN SMITTON went to assist the SS ODENSE, a Danish steam cargo ship which had been torpedoed off St. Abbs Head. Four days later, on 9 May 1917, she went to assist the SS KITTY of Grimsby which had also been torpedoed and sunk; ten lives were saved.


 Where is she now?

HELEN SMITTON is located at Dale in Pembrokeshire and is currently undergoing restoration.


Admiralty Press Release 6th September 1914, The National Archives, CO/323/643/40. 

British Cruiser Sunk by a Mine, The Times, Sunday 6 September 1914, page 1.



The Illustrated War News 9 September 1914.


National Register of Historic Vessels entry  http://www.nationalhistoricships.org.uk/register/2220/helen-smitton

Shipshape Network entry http://www.shipshapenetwork.org.uk/regions.php/4/bristol-channel/vesel/2220/helen-smitton