Warship Wednesday (on a Thursday!): The dazzling President of the Royal Navy
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday (on a Thursday!): The dazzling President of the Royal Navy
Here we see a “warship-Q” of the World War I Royal Navy, the Flower/Anchusa-class sloop HMS Saxifrage masquerading as a seemingly innocent British merchantman in dazzle camouflage, circa 1918. Should one of the Kaiser’s U-boats come close enough to get a good look, two matching sets of QF 4.7 inch and 12-pounder guns would plaster the poor bugger, sucker punch style.
With Kaiser Willy’s unterseeboot armada strangling the British Isles in the Great War, the RN needed a set of convoy escorts that were cheap to make and could relieve regular warships for duty with the fleet.
This led to a class of some 120 supped-up freighters which, when given a triple hull to allow them to soak up mines and torpedoes and equipped with a battery of 4 or 4.7-inch main guns and 3 or 12 pounder secondaries augmented with depth charges, could bust a submarine when needed. Just 1,200-tons and 267-feet overall, they could blend in with the rest of the “merchies” in which they were charged with protecting. Classified as sloops of war, they could make 17 knots with both boilers glowing, making them fast enough to keep up.
Built to merchant specs, they could be made in a variety of commercial yards very quickly, and were all named after various flowers, which brought them the class nickname of “cabbage boats.” Ordered under the Emergency War Programme for the Royal Navy, class leader HMS Acacia ordered in January 1915 and delivered just five months later.
The hero of our story, HMS Saxifrage, was named after a pretty little perennial plant also known as a rockfoil or London Pride.
Laid down by Lobnitz & Co Limited, Renfrew, Scotland, who specialized in dredges, trawlers and tugs and endures as a marine engineering company, she was completed 29 January 1918 as a Q-ship– a job that the last 40 of her class were designed to perform.
The concept, the Q-ship (their codename referred to the vessels’ homeport, Queenstown, in Ireland) was to have a lone merchantman plod along until a German U-boat approached, and, due to the small size of the prize, sent over a demo team to blow her bottom out or assembled her deck gun crew to poke holes in her waterline. At that point, the “merchantman” which was actually a warship equipped with a few deck guns hidden behind fake bulkheads and filled with “unsinkable” cargo such as pine boards to help keep her afloat if holed, would smoke said U-boat.
In all the Brits used 366 Q-ships, of which 61 were lost in action while they only took down 14 U-boats, a rather unsuccessful showing. One storied slayer, Mary B Mitchell, claimed 2-3 U-boats sunk and her crew was even granted the DSO, but post-war analysis quashed her record back down to zero.
As for Saxifrage, commissioned with just nine months and change left in the war, did not see a lot of hot action, escorting convoys around British waters. While she reported nine U-boat contacts, she was never able to bag one.
Soon after the Great War ended, the Flower-class vessels were liquidated, with 18 being lost during the conflict (as well as Gentian and Myrtle lost in the Baltic to mines in 1919). The Royal Navy underwent a great constriction inside of a year. At the date of the Armistice, the fleet enumerated 415,162 officers and men. By the following November, 162,000, a figure less than when the war began in 1914, though the Empire had grown significantly after picking up a number of German and Ottoman colonies.
Saxifrage was one of the few ships of her class retained.
Her engines removed, she was tapped to become the training establishment HMS President (replacing the former HMS Buzzard, a Nymphe-class composite screw sloop, shown above) when her sistership Marjoram, originally intended for that task, was wrecked in January 1921 off Flintstone Head while en route to fit out at Hawlbowline.
Moored on the River Thames, Saxifrage by 1922 became used as a drill ship by Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.
Alterations to her physical fabric included fitting square windows on the lower decks and adding a top deck for parade, drilling, and small arms gunnery practice. After her change of use to a training vessel, she boasted four decks, with internal spaces including the Captain’s Quarters, Drill Hall and adjacent Gunroom, Quarter Deck and Ward Room.
By the time WWII came, just a handful of Flower-class sloops remained afloat.
HMS Laburnum, like her a RNVR drill ship, was lost to the Japanese at Singapore then later raised and scrapped.
HMS Cornflower, a drill ship at Hong Kong, suffered a similar fate.
HMS Chrysanthemum, used as a target-towing vessel in Home Waters, was transferred to the RNVR 1938 and stationed on the Embankment in London next to President where she would remain until scrapped in 1995.
HMS Foxglove served on China station and returned to Britain, later becoming a guard ship at Londonderry in Northern Ireland before being scrapped in 1946.
Ex-HMS Buttercup, ironically serving in the Italian Navy as Teseo, was sunk at Trapani 11 April 1943.
Two of the class, ex- HMS Jonquil and ex- HMS Gladiolus, remained in service in the Portuguese Navy classified as the cruisers (!) Carvalho Araújo and Republic, respectively, until as late as 1961.
Saxifrage/President continued her role as a stationary training ship. One of President‘s main roles during the war was to train men of the Maritime Royal Artillery, soldiers sent to sea and serve with naval ratings as gunners on board defensively equipped merchant ships (DEMS).
Moored in the Thames, President was also popular in hosting events and visitors.
After the war, President was the last of her class in British service and reverted to her role as HQ of the RNVR London Division, which she held until 1987, remaining the whole time at her traditional mooring next to Blackfriars Bridge.
The name HMS President is retained as a “stone frigate” or shore establishment of the Royal Naval Reserve, based on the northern bank of the River Thames near Tower Bridge in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
In 1987, the old girl was donated to the HMS President (London) Limited non-profit who has extensively refitted her for use in hosting private parties, weddings, receptions, etc. while somewhat restoring her appearance.
In 2014, as part of the First World War commemorations, her hull was covered once more in a distinctive ‘dazzle’ design, courtesy of artist Tobias Rehberger.
Today President is on the National Register of Historic Vessels, is the last Q-ship, last of her class and last RN ship to have fought as an anti-submarine vessel in the Great War.
She is nothing if not historic.
However, due to the upcoming construction of the Thames Tideway Tunnel to tackle sewage discharges into the River Thames, President had to leave Blackfriars Bridge this February.
The HMS President, one of the UK’s last remaining WWI ships, has been unsuccessful in its bid to secure Libor funding in today’s Autumn Statement from the Chancellor.
The funding bid that had seen support in national newspapers and a parliamentary motion, with more than 20 signatories, has failed to secure vital restoration funding – this could now see the country’s last remaining submarine hunter of the Atlantic campaign scrapped.
Paul Williams, Director of the HMS President Preservation Trust, said; “The lack of recognition for this worthy cause if hugely disappointing. The HMS President Preservation Trust, and our friends in Parliament and elsewhere, has been working extremely hard to secure the future of this wonderful war heritage site.
“Her hull is only a few millimetres thick now in some places. Therefore, if restoration funding is not found soon she will be consigned to the scrap heap – as her sister ship the HMS Chrysanthemum was in 1995. As we mark the centenary commemorations of WWI it seems an absolute travesty that we will potentially be saying goodbye to one of only three remaining warships from that era. What a loss to our heritage that will be.”
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph MPs and Peers, including the Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Boyce, and Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, Dr Julian Lewis MP, had called for the ship to be rescued. The parliamentarians had urged the Chancellor to look favourably on the bid, or risk losing her forever, stating “This would be an irreplaceable loss to our war heritage, and a sorry way to mark the country’s First World War centenary commemorations.”
Hopefully she will be saved, as she is literally one of a kind.
Other that, she is preserved in maritime art.
1,290 long tons (1,311 t)
250 ft. (76.2 m) p/p
262 ft. 3 in (79.93 m) o/a
Beam: 35 ft. (10.7 m)
11 ft. 6 in (3.51 m) mean
12 ft. 6 in (3.81 m) – 13 ft. 8 in (4.17 m) deep
Propulsion: 4-cylinder triple expansion engine, 2 boilers, 2,500 hp (1,864 kW), 1 screw
Speed: 16 knots (29.6 km/h; 18.4 mph)
Range: Coal: 260 tons
Designed to mount :
2 × 12-pounder gun
1 × 7.5 inch howitzer or 1 × 200 lb. stick-bomb howitzer
4 × Depth charge throwers
2 × 4 in (102 mm) guns
1 or 2 × 12-pounder guns
Depth charge throwers
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