Last Lines

The following article is courtesy of The News, Portsmouth. It was published on the 1st December 2000, and they have my thanks for allowing me to reproduce it.

Last lines of Frank, the unknown sailor

It mirrors the hopes and dreams of men marching off to war in France – hopes and dreams which were shattered in equally brutal fashion.

For naval buffs have unearthed the touching final letter of a Portsmouth sailor lost in one of the Royal Navy’s darkest hours.

HMS Good Hope was sunk with all 900 hands in the Battle of Coronel, off Chile, in late 1914, in a clash which invoked the wrath of the British public.

But just two months before, the crew of the aging armoured cruiser were filled with a mixture of enthusiasm and fear as the writings of one the company, known only as Frank, reveal.

Frank – probably a senior rating – managed to dash off a letter to a family friend while his ship steam off the Brazilian coast in September 1914, one month after the first world war exploded.

His four page letter was found by former chief radio supervisor Joe Lamb from Lancashire during a clear out of mail and passed on to the fleet’s newspaper Navy News, which has transcribed Frank’s scrawl.

The Good Hope crewman’s words provide a fine snapshot on the navy at the onset of the Great War, naval life in Portsmouth, and belief in British victory.

‘My only consoling thought (is) that I am doing my packet in crushing the Hohenzollern menace and so paving the way for the hundred years’ peace,’ he says in his letter.

But he adds: ‘ We are all of us fearful. Sooner or later we must have a fleet action out here – we thought it would simply ship duels, but all the German cruisers appear to have fled south.’

The fleet action Frank feared flared up on November 1 1914, and the sailor obviously had prepared for his death, with bill to be settled and a pension due to his wife Eve taken care of.

‘I’ve no bills worth worrying about,’ he writes. ‘A small mess bill in Vernon and £3 to £5 for my boat owing to Clemens in Broad Street and a dentist’s bill for one small filling in event of ship going down.’

Mr Lamb has no idea how Fran’s letter ended up at a paper mill near Bury, but felt the sailor’s moving story deserved a wilder audience.

Rear admiral was facing poor odds
At the outbreak of the first world war the German East Asia Squadron – a reasonably powerful roaming forces led by Admiral Graf von Spee – was at large on the high seas.

The Royal Navy force under Christopher Cradock however was weak – two armoured cruisers, a light cruiser and an armed merchantman.

Late in the afternoon of November 1 1914, HMS Good Hope, Glasgow, Monmouth and Otranto ran into Spee’s superior task force in fading light off the coast of Chile.

Good Hope suffered successive hits before her magazine blew up, killing all on board including Cradock, and Monmouth soon followed her to the bottom of the Pacific. The duel lasted less than two hours.

The two remaining Royal Navy ships made a break for it in the dark and escaped.

The senior service exacted retribution a month later after a powerful Royal Navy battle-cruiser force was sent south to rout von Spee. Spee died in the first Battle of the Falklands and all but one of his ships was sunk.


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