[From How the Manx Fleet helped in the Great War, 1923]
THE BEN-MY-CHREE was chartered by the Government on January 1st, 1915, and was fitted out as a Seaplane-carrier by Cammell, Laird and Co., at Birkenhead. Very considerable structural alterations had to be made ; the large hangar for housing the seaplanes occupied a considerable portion of the after deck along with the cranes for lifting these overboard. She was able to accommodate six seaplanes, two of them being of large size, fitted with wireless and carrying two men, and four of smaller size carrying one man only.
A well-equipped workshop, containing three lathes, two drilling machines, one shaping machine, and a circular saw, was fitted up on the deck below. The ships armament consisted of four twelve-pounder guns and four anti-aircraft guns.
When first commissioned, her base was Harwich, part of her time there being spent in accustoming the crew to working the seaplanes and to practising flying. Whilst thus engaged, a very unfortunate accident happened, one of the machines being lost with its two men.
The first active service was on the Belgian coast, scouting for submarines. Nothing special happened, but there was the continual excitement caused by being chased by German destroyers.
In May, 1915, the "Ben" was despatched to the Dardanelles, leaving Plymouth, and calling on the way at Gibraltar and Malta.
She assisted at the bombardment of the Turkish positions by spotting" for the gunners of our fleet, remaining in this locality until the evacuation of Gallipoli, and being the last ship to leave this place after the British stores had been burned.
The "Ben" was next employed cruising off the Egyptian coast, bombarding railway stations, bridges, rolling-stock, and generally interfering with the Turks. During this time she was successful in sinking two Turkish sailing ships loaded with ammunition, and in capturing another.
About the latter end of 1916 orders were given for the "Ben" to proceed to Aden, via the Suez Canal and Red Sea. At the time she passed through the Canal, its banks were being guarded by some of the "Tommies" from Lancashire. They did not fail to recognise the well-known I.O.M. steamer Running along the banks of the Canal they called out "I say, thats not the way to Douglas," etc., etc.
While in the Red Sea she bombarded Arab camps, and was present at the destruction of the fortifications of Jeddah.
During all this time seaplanes were being sent up for observation purposes and for dropping bombs on railway stations, etc.
The "Ben" returned from Aden, again passing up through the Suez Canal, and resumed her old job on the Egyptian coast.
It was while engaged here that the great catastrophe happened. Acting on the instructions of the French admiral, under whose flag she was sailing at the time, she was trying by means of her seaplanes to locate a Turkish battery, the presence of which was suspected to be somewhere about that part of the coast of Asia Minor.
She had visited this particular spot a fortnight before, but had found nothing.
On this occasion, in February 1917, however, it was intended to send up a seaplane to make another observation, as the Turks were known to be moving their guns The wind on this morning being too strong for putting out the machine, the "Ben" was ordered to anchor in the bay of a small island that was in the possession of the French, about two to three miles from the mainland. The island was named Castellorizo.
Owing to the presence of submarines, the entrance to the bay was netted, and two French destroyers were in attendance. Anchor was cast at 9 a.m. about four hundred yards from the beach of what appeared to be a health resort, for, right on the sea-front, was a row of very pleasant-looking villas.
About 1 p.m. a single shot was fired from the mainland, high up on the hillside, about two miles away. The shot was fired, as it turned out, from a battery of four 4-inch guns, and the object of the shot was to ascertain the range. A salvo from the four guns was then fired with terrible accuracy, the result being that the "Bens" after steering-gear was completely disabled, and the hangar containing the seaplanes, and petrol for their use, was set on fire. The burning petrol ran along the decks, thus spreading the fire. Efforts to deal with the trouble by water from the ships fire hose were of no avail, and as the steering-gear had been crippled, it was useless to slip the cable and get once more under way.
The "Ben" was now completely at the mercy of the Turks, and no mercy was shown. The ships guns, and those of the destroyers, were useless, the battery being so high up on the mountain side that their guns could not be elevated sufficiently for successful firing.
At the end of half-an-hour, orders were given to "abandon ship." The fire was then in possession of the after end, the engine-room skylight had been shot away, and the burning petrol was quickly finding its way down into the engine-room. Nearly all the ships boats were destroyed, but one of the three motorboats that she carried was, fortunately, safely alongside, sheltered by the "Ben" herself, from the gun fire. By means of this motorboat, and in many cases by swimming, the whole of the crew, numbering about 250, was saved.
One of the wise regulations observed on this ship was that all non-swimmers amongst the crew should learn to swim. This rule accounts for the fact that no life was lost. Only four of the crew were wounded, the worst casualty being the loss of a hand.
Commander Sampson, and Mr. Robinson, the Chief Engineer, were the two last to leave the ship, and they swam to the motorboat, and were landed thence on the beach.
By 2 p.m. the crew were all ashore, but the shelling of the ship went on until 5 p.m., when she sank to the bottom of the harbour, leaving the promenade deck just awash.
Commander Sampson and Mr. Robinson, with three of the crew, then returned to the ship, hauled down the flag, removed the breech-blocks from each of the guns, and saved the ships cat and two dogs that had been left aboard.
During the bombardment the villas on shore, referred to before, had been destroyed, and the inhabitants had had to flee for shelter inland, carrying their goods with them.
The crew of the "Ben" slept on the mountain that night, and by day-break next day had marched the two-and-a-half miles across to the other side of the island, where the two French destroyers were waiting to take them aboard. They were landed at Port Said, and, after waiting there about three weeks were sent home on a transport.
It is satisfactory to know that a few days after the sinking of the "Ben," a French battleship came along and destroyed the Turkish battery that had done so much mischief.
The career of the Ben-my-Chree while on Government service was an exceedingly interesting one, her time was pretty fully occupied in useful work, and she suffered very little damage until the final disaster. Several seaplanes were lost, but their crews were fortunately saved.
The "Bens" work was mostly done at night. She would steam to the desired spot and, at day-break, put the seaplanes into the water by means of the cranes provided for that purpose : then she would steam back to port, stopping to pick up the returning seaplanes on her way. She seems to have been quite a favourite with the Naval authorities, was ever ready for her work, and never had to stop on account of engine trouble, although the main engines (steam turbines) were never opened during all the two years that she was away. With the exception of a short delay, owing to propeller damage she never had to be off duty excepting for cleaning the boilers.
Amongst the useful work done may be mentioned the sinking of a Turkish transport in the Sea of Marmora by means of an aerial torpedo dropped from one of the seaplanes, the machine having flown across the peninsula to make the attack. Also, one of the British monitors, built by Vickers, having broken down, and being in a helpless condition, the "Ben" took her in tow in the Gulf of Zeros, at such a rate that the monitor was burying herself in the sea !
When the transport Southland was torpedoed in the same Gulf, the "Ben" picked up 670 of the survivors.
At one period, when refugees were fleeing from the Turks, the ship, while sailing along past some small islands near Smyrna, observed men, women and children signalling for help. These refugees were taken on board, cared for, and conveyed to a place of safety.
The "Ben" was, on several occasions, subjected to submarine attack, but, being of shallow draft, the torpedoes passed underneath her, thus doing no damage.
On board the ship the need for amusements and recreation was not forgotten by those in command. They had a piano, and also an orchestra that discoursed sweet music each day whenever possible, and they gave some good concerts while in port, to which visitors were invited, The Hangar, having had the seaplanes removed, made a fine concert hail, capable of accommodating about four hundred people. I remember, when this hangar was being constructed, thinking what a fine hall it would make and little dreaming that it would be used for that purpose so soon.
As a further means of recreation the crew had their own cricket, football and hockey teams, and matches were arranged whenever possible in such ports as Port Said and Suez.
When at Aden, they took for extra assistance, during the very hot period, twenty-three native black "boys. These found accommodation on top of the hangar and they were allowed to live there, as if at home in their native village. Of course the roof soon became a veritable "farmyard.
The "Bens" engine-room must have been about as hot a place as could he found on earth, during part of the time she was in the tropics. Originally when arranging the ventilators, we bad in mind the conditions prevailing in the summer of our own climate, and the engine-room was accordingly provided with four large ventilators. When, however, the alterations were made to adapt the ship for a seaplane-carrier, two of the ventilators had to be discarded in order to accommodate the huge "hangar" at the after-end, the result being that, in parts of the engine-room, the temperature, during the hottest weather, rose to about 140 Fahr.
It is not easy for the ordinary person to realise the discomfort of having to put in four hours of work under these conditions.
On two occasions the "Ben was in the company of some ofher old associates. When working on the Bulgarian coast, putting her seaplanes overboard, the Snaefell cruised about protecting her from attacks by submarines. While lying in a Greek harbour, she was in the immediate vicinity of the Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales (the latter named Prince Edward).
During the fighting at Jerusalem, the "Bens" base was at the island of Cyprus, and she had to cruise down the coast of Palestine to the port of Jaffa, the ancient Joppa. Her sea-planes thence flew over Jerusalem in order to make necessary observations. Doubtless the crew of the "Ben, themselves, would have appreciated a similar opportunity of thus viewing the Holy City from so high an elevation.