Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, May 19, 2021: One Tired Fox
Naval History and Heritage Command Photo NH 61060
Here we see just a great wheelhouse shot of the Astraea-class 2nd class protected cruiser, HMS Fox, likely around the early 1900s, with her wheels covered in battle honor from the 14 previous Royal Navy vessels that carried the name. A slight ship, she had stamina and would range the globe, pushing up rivers in Africa, fighting pirates, surviving ice floes, storming Dervish forts, duking it out with Germans, sparking Arab revolts, and mixing it up with Bolsheviks across her career.
The eight ships of the Astraea class were slow for what you typically think of for cruisers, capable of making just over 19 knots in peak condition under a forced draft, but they were economical, able to steam for 7,000 nm at 10 knots to overseas deployments across the Empire’s vast colonial assets– which of course was their intended purpose. Just 4,300-tons and 339-feet long, they carried a mixed battery of two 6″/40 (15.2 cm) QF Mark Is arranged fore and aft, eight 4.7-inch (12 cm) QF Mark Is arranged port and starboard, eight Ordnance QF Hotchkiss 6 pounders for torpedo boat defense, and a few smaller 3 pounders and early Maxim machine guns. For offensive use, they had three 18-inch torpedo tubes.
HMS FOX British Cruiser, 1893 Caption: Deck scene, looking forward from the stern. Gun is one of her two 6″/40s. NH 61059
The arrangement of this myriad of weapons gave the Astraeas a very bristly appearance, seen here is the 1897 Brassey’s. Note her three torpedo tubes superimposed along the waterline port, starboard, and a stern stinger
The eight cruisers of the class were built almost concurrently, sliding down the ways at five different yards within 18 months of each other across mid-1894 to early 1896. Our subject was at least the 15th HMS Fox to serve in the Royal Navy since 1656 and was launched 15 June 1893, commissioning three years later at a cost of £256,042.
HMS Fox being launched in 1893. IWM Q38906
Serving on the Cape and West African stations, she was tapped for the “expedition against the Sierra Leone Insurgents” in 1898-9, best known today as the Hut Tax War, where the British were running the same old game since 1775. During the colonial dust up there, Fox, along with the paddlewheel gunboat HMS Alecto and scout cruiser HMS Blonde, would land a 280-strong “naval brigade” to fight Bai Bureh’s rebels. She would also be engaged in some NGFS against targets on the Mano River.
For the action, men aboard her were entitled to wear the Ashantee Medal with the “Sierra Leone” clasp.
Fitted with a Marconi wireless device in October 1901, Fox left Portsmouth, off for the East Indies Station for the next three years in a trip that is very well documented in a 271-page journal of Yeoman F.E. Nobbs and Stoker W.T. Berger, with outbound stops in Malta, Port Said (“Sand is not preferable to green slopes and the foliage is very scarce”), Seychelles, in Aden and Muscat (where a detail applied her name to the famous rock there), India (“During our first week’s stay in Bombay, 850 deaths were reported, not a very cheering record for a health resort”), and Colombo on the way.
Just after New Year’s day 1902, Fox took aboard nine field guns and ammunition for shore service to answer a call to help put down disorder in the Persian Gulf at Koweit (Kuwait), where 120 bluejackets helped support the regime of Sheikh Jabar.
Fox was called to patrol the Somaliland coast, and send her tars and field guns ashore once again in the campaign against the Mad Mullah (Mohammed Abdullah Hassan), joining troops of the East African Rifles, Bombay Sappers & Miners, the Uganda Rifles, and a unit of Boers, setting off on a flying column from Obbia (Hobyo) consisting of “1,000 men and 500 camels” to fight the Dervish rebellion.
Then came cruises and visits in the Pacific, including stops in Singapore, only for Fox to be recalled to Somaliland.
Fox in her pre-WWI scheme. NH 61058
On 21 April 1904, working in conjunction with the torpedo cruiser HMS Mohawk and her sistership HMS Hyacinth as well as the Italian gunboat Volturno, they took 125 Tommys of the 1st Battalion, Royal Hampshire Regiment (under Maj. S.F. Jackson, DSO) aboard, tasked with reducing and capturing the Mahdi’s stronghold at Illing under the orders of Maj. Gen Sir Charles Egerton.
The Hampshires had already been some 10 months campaigning on the Horn of Africa as camel-mounted infantry and had been delayed from an England-bound transport for the operation. “It was a sight to see them, sunburnt and weather-beaten, in the very much worn khaki trousers and old grey backs, standing on the deck of our vessel,” notes the journal.
With each bluejacket sent ashore issued a rifle and 120 rounds of ammunition, they were assembled and sent with the ship’s field guns and Maxims along with stretchers, water cans, rations, and anything else that could be needed.
Between the landing parties of sailors and Royal Marines from the four warships and the Hampshires, 540 men were mustered for the task, equipped with five Maxims in the vanguard. With whaleboats beginning to embark at 0400, the battalion was ashore on a deserted wadi three miles south from Illing by 0730. The expedition then crept towards the port along the beach. By 0830, combat kicked off at a range of 600 yards against fortified blockhouses where the locals were firing through loopholes and supported by a trio of “ancient” 3-pounder muzzleloading carronades firing “bits of old iron” commenced.
Fox answered by shelling the old forts and caves there from a range of 6,300 yards with her 4.7-inch guns, firing 20 rounds of lyddite, shrapnel, and field-pointed common shells to cover the landings. It was all over half an hour of heavy skirmishing with mop-up work commencing the rest of the morning.
The fighting, done at bayonet point, was sharp, with one of Fox’s stokers killed, shot through the lungs, and two more of her crew seriously wounded. In all, the British suffered three killed and 11 wounded, almost all seamen. They captured “sixty corpses and a few prisoners.”
After spending five days ashore razing the works and sorting out souvenirs, the force left by the morning of 26 April. “Illiing had ceased to exist. The walls were flat as those of Jericho, the village had been destroyed, and the fourteen surf boats had been burnt.”
Fox arrived back at Portsmouth in October 1904, flying a 450-foot paying-off pennant, and having steamed more than 60,000 miles in 36 months, putting landing forces ashore on at least three different occasions.
After a period in ordinary, she was dispatched again to the East Indies in June 1908, where she would remain for the better part of 10 years.
On this extended deployment, she would capture slave traders and pirates from stateless dhows off the Arabian Peninsula and be involved in the so-called Dubai Incident or Hyacinth Incident in 1910 that would start with a Christmas Eve party and end up in a “running gun battle, a naval bombardment and numerous deaths” after the RN moved to confiscate a stockpile of “illegal” guns. When the smoke cleared, the Sheikh of Dubai ended up having to hand over to the British some 400 serviceable rifles and pay a fine of 50,000 rupees.
Fox was photographed with some of the Martinis and other breechloaders that were handed in.
Official caption: Arms traffic. The disaster at Dibai. The surrendered rifles on the quarter deck of the HMS Fox, via the Bain News Service collection at the LOC LC-USZ62-104788
While Fox was overseas in the East, her sisterships were trimmed. Forte had been sold for scrap, Cambrian and Flora were stricken and in line to be disposed of, and Bonaventure was disarmed and converted to a submarine depot. Even with the halving of the Astraea class, the Admiralty was far from hurting for cruisers, with the 1914/15 Jane’s/Brassey’s cataloging no less than 60 light cruisers still active in the Royal Navy heading into the Guns of August.
The active Astraea-class cruisers, Brassey’s 1915, at which point they were old and obsolete, especially for fleet actions.
HMS Fox, Great War era
When the shooting started, Fox put to sea in search of Germans to fight. This soon led to her hailing and impounding the German merchantmen Australia of the Dutch Australian Lloyd Line (on 10 August 1914), and Hansa Line steamer Holtenfels the next day, both off Colombo.
Then came the search for the missing German light cruiser SMS Königsberg.
Had the two vessels met at sea, it would have been a hard contest with the newer German ship being faster and more maneuverable in addition to being equipped with faster guns, but Fox having an arguably better armor scheme and a heavier battery. Further, Königsberg’s crew were bloodied, having already fought the old Pelorus-class cruiser HMS Pegasus, sinking the 2,700-ton vessel in a surprise attack in Zanzibar harbor, 20 September 1914.
Sailing for Zanzibar and Mombasa the same month, Fox was soon engaged against the Kaiser’s possessions in Africa.
After securing German POWs from the tug Adjutant in October, she joined an expedition to the German colony of Tanzania the next month, filled with troops of 13th Rajputs, 61st Pioneers, 2nd Kashmir Rifles, and 2nd Loyal North Lancashires. Supporting the landings at the key Tanzanian port of Tanga in the first week of November, Fox would fire 10 6-inch and 120 4.7-inch shells during the failed operation known to history as the Battle of the Bees where 1,000 mixed Schutztruppe under then-unknown Lt. Col. Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck bested the British force, capturing much of their equipment.
Fox then raided Dar Es Salaam in German East Africa on 28 November, during which one of her steam launches came close enough to shore to be taken under rifle fire, suffering one killed, three wounded and five counted among the missing (including one who was captured),
Once Königsberg had holed up in the Rufiji River, Fox spent some time there in December on the blockade should the German sortie out then escorted a force to occupy Mafia Island off Tanzania in January 1915. Bombarding the German positions there on 10 January, the cruiser’s skipper impounded a local dhow and, arming it with two Maxim guns and manning it with a junior officer and six ratings, pressed it into active service during the operation.
After Königsberg was neutralized, Fox was released to patrol the Red Sea, where the Ottomans held nominal control of Arabia and threatened the Suez. With that, she spent most of the next three years either sitting in Port Sudan or running her searchlights and cutters across the Great Bitter Lake, with breaks to run to Aden and Bombay as needed and to conduct drills and target practice.
Oh yeah, and help with the Arab Revolt.
With Lawrence & Co.
On 21 March 1916, Fox and the cruiser HMS Suva destroyed the Turkish forts at Umlejh and Wejh in the Hejaz district, which was key in influencing the wavering Arabs to come out against the Ottomans. On 15 June, along with the auxiliary cruiser HMS Perth, Fox steamed into the inner harbor at Jeddah, the port for Mecca, and bombarded the Turkish troops manning the city walls in conjunction with the local insurgents who captured the city the next day.
The Red Sea Patrol, with Fox in the forefront, seized Qunfundah in July on behalf of the Arab cause and a small force from our cruiser garrisoned the town. In that action, Fox fired the warning shot on the town, an event that ended up with some 200 Turkish prisoners who were eager to stop fighting. In January 1917, Fox would move in and garrison Wejh just after the Ottomans quit the town.
Against the Reds
The Armistice cut Fox free of her extended 10-year mission in Asia and Africa and she returned to England. However, her post-war drawdown was cut short, as she was dispatched to join the British Intervention forces in Northern Russia, sent there originally in late 1918 to protect the stockpiles of war stores there from German capture.
Literally cooling her heels in Archangel and Murmansk, her crew was dispatched to put down mutinous Russians on former Tsarist vessels in those harbors.
British Astraea-class cruiser HMS Fox and the old Russian battleship *Chesma at Archangel, 1919. IWM Q 16952
[*Built originally as the Petropavlovsk-class Poltava, the Tsarist battlewagon was lost during the siege of Port Arthur in December 1904, then raised by the Japanese and put into service as the guardship Tango, complete with Miyabara boilers and British-pattern guns from the Kure Arsenal. After participating in the capture of the German treaty port of Tsingtao in 1914, she was later graciously repatriated with the best wishes of the Emperor to the Russian Navy in 1916, serving alongside the British and French in the Med before sailing to Archangel just before the Russian Revolution. With her mutinous crew relieved of their home by the British in 1918, the Interventionists and local Whites used the derelict vessel as a prison hulk until they withdrew in March 1920. The Reds never put her back to use and she was scrapped in 1924.]
It was while in Archangel that Fox found herself bound in an ice floe for six days. Ironically, at the time, her crew included Ireland’s greatest Antarctic explorer, Tom Crean, who earned three Polar Medals while a member of the expeditions of Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton.
A portrait of Tom Crean, February 1915 smoking a pipe. By 1919, he was freezing on Fox while in Russia. A familiar feeling, for sure
Sadly, it was on Fox that Crean suffered a serious fall, causing a head injury that led to the end of his 27-year naval career.
Other than that, Fox’s primary task in Northern Russia was to act as a tender for monitors and gunboats, with her bakers providing bread and her engineers and stokers supplying water and coal. A hub of activity, she was apparently the clearinghouse for small arms such as Lewis guns, as well as mail for the British forces pushing down the Northern Dvina in the summer of 1919, and securing Russian prisoners brought back.
Fox with French troops aboard, 1919
Finally, with the Western Allies growing tired of their involvement in the Russian Civil War, Fox sailed for home in late September.
Paid off, she was sold 14 June 1920 to Cardiff Marine Stores for scrapping.
Fox’s remaining sisters, while seeing wartime service, were far from being as active in the conflict. By 1923, all were sold for scrap except for HMS Hermione which lingered on into 1940 as a training hulk for the Marine Society charity.
Most of Fox’s logbooks from 1913 through 1919 have been digitized and along with assorted letters and make good reading.
Fox is also remembered in maritime art and period postcards.
HMS Fox by Henry J. Morgan, Portsmouth Museums and Records Service collection/ Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Meanwhile the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich offers several prints of her.
There has only been one further HMS Fox in the Royal Navy since 1920, a Bulldog-class survey ship (A320) that was active in the Cold War.
As for our cruiser, her name, left behind by her crew, is still visible on the rock at Muscat in Oman and outside of Diyatalawa in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) above the old port at Trincomalee, which is known today as Fox Hill, for a reason.
1914 Jane’s listing for the class
Displacement: 4,360 tons
Length: 320 feet
Beam: 49.5 feet
Draft: 19 feet (21 full load)
Machinery: 2 shaft, 3 cycle TE, 8-cylinder boilers; 7,500 shp (9,500 shp forced)
Speed: 19.5 knots trials on forced draft, 18 max while operational
Range: 7,000 nm @10kts on 1,000 tons of coal (typical coal load: 400 tons)
Complement: 312 officers and men
Decks- 2 inches
Engine hatches- 5 inches
Conning tower- 3 inches
Splinter shields on main guns
2 x QF 6″/40
8 x QG 4.7″
8 x 6-pounder (57mm) Hotchkiss guns
1 x 3-pounder (47mm) Hotchkiss
4 x Maxim water-cooled machine guns
3 x Above-water 18-inch torpedo tubes.
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