Warship Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017: The Phrygian of the Great North
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 their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017: The Phrygian of the Great North
Here we see the Diadem-class 1st rank protected cruiser HMS Niobe of the Royal Navy in 1899 just after her commissioning with her gleaming black hull. She was used to both help expand the British Empire and found the Canadian Navy.
In the 1890s, obsessed with the threat of commerce raiders such as the Russian and French armored and auxiliary cruisers of the era, the Royal Navy built an excellent duo of protected cruisers in the Powerful-class (14,000-tons, 2×9.2-inch, 12×6-inch guns, 22 knots), but the bottom line was they needed a larger series of cheaper vessels to help do the same on a budget. This led to the Diadem-class which were still big (11,000-tons), had as much as four-inches of armor in sensitive areas, could still break 20 knots (on 30! boilers) and packed a nice battery of 16 QF 6-inchers spread out among casemates and shielded deck guns.
Best of all, the Diadems, the last protected cruisers built for the RN, cost as little as £541,927 while the Powerful ran £708,619– a bargain that allowed eight of these more affordable cruisers to be ordered.
The subject of our tale, Niobe, carried the name of the Greek woman of Phrygian who, according to legend, attempted to shield her children from Artemis and Apollo. Her crime of hubris was to brag about her 14 children which in turn led to the lot being slain by the gods and Niobe herself turned into stone. Yikes. Sounds like the gods couldn’t take a joke.
The moniker had been carried by at least three RN warships before our Niobe, making it a traditional name, though it has not been used since.
Laid down at Vickers, Barrow, in 1895, she commissioned 6 December 1898 and was made part of the Channel Squadron.
When the Boer War broke out in 1899, she spent two years on regular runs from the Home Islands to Cape Town escorting troop and supply ships, and during this same period ranged as far as India to do likewise. During this period, a significant number of her crew were composed of Australians.
Following the conflict, she escorted the twin-screw ocean liner RMS Ophir, then on Royal Yacht duty, carrying the future King George V and Queen Mary, on a world tour.
Further service with the Home Fleet saw the increasingly obsolete Niobe (protected and armored cruisers had started to fall out of favor after a poor showing of the type during the Russo-Japanese War in 1905) paid off in 1910.
However, she was still useful for training and as such was sold to the Canadians who were in the process of building a blue-water navy of their own as something of a prestige ship that September for £215,000 (about half price).
Upon transfer to the Naval Service of Canada, the reclassified HMCS Niobe– along with much smaller 3,600-ton Apollo-class protected cruiser HMCS Rainbow– became the first two in a long and illustrious line of HMC ships and submarines.
The warship entered Halifax Harbor on 21 October 1910, having steamed across the Atlantic from Portsmouth, England. As noted by the Canadian Forces, HMCS Niobe was the first Canadian combat ship to enter Canada’s territorial waters, a landmark event in the beginnings of the nascent Naval Service of Canada.
With that being said, her service in Canada was not particularly covered in glory.
After running aground off Nova Scotia in 1911, she spent six months in dry dock and emerged with her speed and capabilities limited, then, in turn, was largely left at pierside for the next several years undermanned and under loved. All those boilers and guns took a lot of Tars– which the young country just didn’t have. In fact, some returns from the time show the vessel with fewer than 300 men assigned– less than half her planned crew.
Still, she was a floating classroom and incubator for Canada’s fleet. It could be argued that if it weren’t for Niobe in 1910-14, there would not have been a foundation for the force numbering 9,000 officers and men by 1918 and is still in existence today as one of the most professional (if underfunded) sea services in the world.
When the Great War broke out, some 106 Newfoundland naval reservists were quickly assigned to Niobe, which was soon patched up enough to get back underway.
They searched the Strait of Belle Isle for German cruisers and spent 10 months patrolling the waters around New York and Boston as part of the Royal Navy’s 4th Cruiser Squadron.
Notably, during this time she ran to ground the German auxiliary cruiser SMS Prinz Eitel Friedrich who had claimed 11 Allied ships over the winter of 1914-15. The low-speed stalk was remarkable for the fact that both Niobe and her nemesis were had engines and boilers that were worn out, but Friedrich narrowly made it to Newport News to be interned by the Americans.
After the Niobe‘s boilers gave out in July 1915, the vessel was decommissioned that September and the Newfoundlanders were sent to Britain for reassignment while the abused cruiser was left at Halifax to serve as a station ship.
There, at 8:45 a.m. on 6 December 1917 the 3,000-ton French freighter SS Mont-Blanc suffered a collision with the Norwegian ship, SS Imo. A fire aboard the French ship ignited her cargo of picric acid, TNT, and guncotton– all wonderful things to ship together.
At 9:04, the out-of-control fire aboard Mont-Blanc vaporized the ship, releasing the equivalent energy of roughly 2.9 kilotons of TNT and causing what is known today as the Halifax Explosion, one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in recorded history. In all, some 2,000 were killed or missing and another 9,000 injured.
And Niobe was in the middle of it– a crew from the cruiser working to move the French ship before it went sky-high. In the blast, the 11,000-ton cruiser, moored with three good Admiralty Pattern bow anchors as well as a concrete embedded anchor holding her in place were all dragged, and some lost outright.
Niobe herself was seriously damaged topside though she was shored up, repaired, and kept in nominal service as a hulk until 1920.
She was sold for scrap in 1922.
As such, she outlived many of her seven sisters.
Ariadne, converted to a minelayer, was torpedoed and sunk off Beachy Head by the German submarine UC-65 on 26 July 1917 while on the Dover Patrol. Diadem, Spartiate, and Andromeda all spent the Great War as harbor ships– with the latter existing in such a role into the 1950s. Amphitrite, Argonaut, and Europa all served with the 9th Cruiser Squadron during the war in the Mediterranean and Atlantic but were quickly disposed of after the Armistice.
Niobe is extensively remembered, with her name gracing the RCN’s training establishments in various forms.
Her bell is at the Naval Museum of Halifax and numerous small items are in maritime collections in the UK and Canada.
Two of her 6-inch QF guns are on shore at Saint John, New Brunswick with one at HMCS Brunswicker, and another at 3 Field Regiment.
Other parts keep popping up as well.
In 2014, a one-ton anchor from Niobe damaged in the Halifax Explosion was found during the demolition of building D19, Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Halifax buried beneath the parking lot of all places. The city now celebrates “Niobe Day” on October 21, the anniversary of her arrival in 1910.
“The discovery of one of HMCS Niobe’s anchors in Halifax Harbor just a week before proclaiming October 21st to be known and celebrated in the Royal Canadian Navy as Niobe Day is astonishing,” said Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy. “This fantastic finding gives us a chance to reflect on our collective accomplishments since 1910, on the values in which we anchor our service as members of the profession of arms, and on what is required of us to ensure we continue to deliver excellence, both at sea and ashore, in the years to come. This is a true blessing and a rare opportunity to connect the dots between our forefathers and the next generations of sailors of the Royal Canadian Navy.”
She is also remembered in maritime art.
Displacement: 11,000 tons
435 ft. (132.6 m)
(462 ft. 6 in (140.97 m) o/a)
Beam: 69 ft.
25 ft. 6 in
27 ft. 6 in
2 shaft triple expansion engines:
30 Belleville boilers
2,000 nmi at 19 knots, 10000 (10)
(bunker capacity 1900 tons coal)
16 × single QF 152/40 QF Mk I/II 6-inch guns
14 × single 76/40 12pdr 12cwt QF Mk I guns
3 × single QF 3-pounder Hotchkiss Mk I (47 mm) guns
2 × 18-inch (450 mm) torpedo tubes (1 above water stern, 2 submerged on beam)
8 Maxim machine guns
Casemates and gun shields 4.5 in (110 mm)
Hoists 2 in (51 mm)
Deck 4–2.5 in (102–64 mm)
Conning tower 12 in (300 mm) fore
6 in (150 mm) tube to the fore conning tower
2 in (51 mm) aft conning tower
Armor was Harvey Nickel steel, except for armored deck
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