Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Man Who Survived 3 Sinkings in the First World War and the Titanic

John Priest, born in Southampton in 1887, was one of the few firemen (stokers) to survive the sinking of the Titanic on 14 April 1912. The firemen had a long way to go to get from the boiler rooms to the deck.  An article on the BBC website claims that most of the lifeboats had left by the time that Priest made it and he had to swim for his life in very cold water. The Encyclopedia Titanica, however, says that he was in a lifeboat, probably number 15.

He had previously been on board a ship called the Asturias that was, according to the BBC website linked above, involved in a collision on her maiden voyage in 1907. The Asturias was completed in 1907 for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and served as a hospital ship in the First World War. She was beached on the English coast on 20 March 1917 in order to prevent her sinking after she was torpedoed by the U-boat UC66. I have not been able to find any other mention of her being involved in a collision on her maiden voyage, so it may have been a minor accident.

Priest was on board the Titanic’s sister ship Olympic on 20 September 1911 when she collided with the cruiser HMS Hawke. The cruiser, which was sunk by U9 In October 1914, as related here, was the more seriously damaged of the two.

In February 1916 he was a member of the crew of the armed merchant cruiser HMS Alcantara, a sister ship of the Asturias. She was one of a number of merchant liners requisitioned by the Admiralty and armed, in her case with six 6 inch and two 3 pounder guns and depth charges. She was assigned to the 10th Cruiser Squadron, which was helping to enforce the Allied blockade of the Central Powers.

By 28 February the squadron had lost one ship to weather, two to mines and three to U-boats but none to enemy surface ships, although the Grand Fleet boarding ship Ramsay had been sunk on 8 August 1915 by a raider flying Russian colours.[1]

On 28 February the Admiralty warned the Grand Fleet that a German raider was attempting to break out into the Atlantic. Just after 8 am on 29 February Alcantara (Captain T. E. Wardle), which had been about to return to port after transferring secret documents to her newly arrived sister ship HMS Andes (Captain G. B. W. Young), was ordered to remain on her patrol station.[2]

Alcantara spotted smoke at 8:45 am and soon afterwards received a signal from Andes stating ‘Enemy in sight steering N.E. 15 knots.’[3] This was followed by a second signal that Alcantara took to mean that the enemy had two funnels. However, the signal log of Andes did not mention funnels until 9:10, when it stated that the vessel had a ‘black funnel.’[4] Alcantara’s times appear to be 20 minutes earlier than those of Andes.

Alcantara closed on the smoke, which belonged to a one funnelled steamer flying Norwegian colours and bearing the name Rena on her stern. Wardle assumed that she was a different ship from the one in Andes’s 8:45 signal, but at 10:14 am a signal from Andes revealed that they were the same vessel.[5]

The ship was the German raider SMS Greif (Fregattenkapitän Rudolf Tietze), converted from the tramp steamer Guben, which been under construction at the outbreak of war. She had been designed with two funnels, but one was removed when she was requisitioned by the German Admiralty. She had a concealed armament of four 5.9 inch and one 4.1 guns and two 19.7 inch torpedo tubes.[6]

It is impossible to give a detailed account of the subsequent action because the reports of Wardle and Young differ greatly. Greif dropped her Norwegian colours, revealed her guns and opened fire when Alcantara was about 1,000 yards away. A close range battle then took place, with Andes joining in whenever Alcantara was not in the way. Andes had been 7,500 yards away when the action began and stayed at 6,000 yards range in order to stay out of torpedo range.[7]

Grief’s crew began to abandon ship after about 15 minutes but Alcantara, which had been hit by a torpedo, was sinking by 10:45 am. The light cruiser HMS Comus and the destroyer HMS Munster then appeared. Comus and Andes fired on Greif, which was still flying the German ensign, until she sank at 1 pm, whilst Munster picked up survivors. The rescue was briefly suspended after mistaken reports of submarines.[8]

The British picked up 220 out of about 360 men on board Greif, with 69 of Alcantara’s crew being lost.[9] Wardle and Priest were amongst the survivors, but Tietze, the last man to try to leave Greif, was not.[10] Alcantara’s dead are listed towards the bottom of this page on

The Admiralty said that Wardle and his crew had ‘fought their ship in a very creditable way.’[11] He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

John Priest then joined the crew of the Britannic, the Olympic and Titanic’s sister ship, which was serving as a hospital ship. On 21 November 1916 she struck a mine and sank near the Greek island of Kea. Thirty died, but the survivors included Priest and two other Titanic survivors: Violet Jessop, a stewardess who had become a nurse, and Archie Jewell, a lookout.

Priest’s fourth sinking occurred on 17 April 1917 when he was a fireman on board the hospital ship Donegal, which was torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel. He received a head injury but survived. Jewell, however, was amongst the 40 dead.

John Priest died on land in 1937 at the age of 50.

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vii, 19: Tenth Cruiser Squadron i. p. 58.

[2] Ibid., p. 60.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. note 3, p. 60.

[5] Ibid., p. 60.

[6] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War, p. 174.

[7] Naval Staff vol. vii. p. 61.

[8] Ibid., pp. 61-62.

[9] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. iii, pp. 271-72.

[10] Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War, p. 177.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 272.



Filed under War History

World War Three Inside the War Room

The BBC recently broadcast a documentary in its This World series titled World War Three: Inside the War Room. For UK viewers, it is available on the I-Player until 5 March 2016 from the BBC website, which says that:

Following the crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s involvement in Syria, the world is closer to superpower confrontation than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Now, a war room of senior former British military and diplomatic figures comes together to war-game a hypothetical ‘hot war’ in eastern Europe, including the unthinkable – nuclear confrontation.

Ten former diplomats, civil servants, generals, admirals and politicians formed a committee that had to discuss the British response to a crisis in the Baltic. They were making recommendations to the government, which would need the support of Parliament to deploy troops. They were not decision makers.

Actors played the parts of locals and Russian and NATO troops in news reports and also the British Representative to NATO and the National Security Advisors of Germany, Russia and the USA. The only politicians named were German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The unnamed US President was in favour of firm action. Use of the phrase ‘Coalition of the Willing’ suggests that it was probably a Republican Administration.

The members of the committee were:

Sir Christopher Meyer, British Ambassador to the United States, 1997-2003.

General Richard Shirreff, Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, 2011-2014.

Baroness Falkner, Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs Spokesman.

Baroness Neville-Jone, Minister of State for Security and Counter-Terrorism, 2010-11.

Admiral Lord West, First Sea Lord, Chief of Naval Staff, 2002-2006.

Sir Tony Brenton, British Ambassador to Russia, 2004-2008.

Lord Artbuhnot, Chair of Defence Select Committee, 2005-2014.

Dr Ian Kearns, Specialist Advisor, National Security Strategy, 2010.

Dona Muirhead, Director of Communication, Ministry of Defence, 1997-2000.

Ian Bond, Ambassador to Latvia, 2005-2007.

One weakness was that the politicians were rather junior for a committee of this importance. Presumably none of the several former Defence and Foreign Secretaries no longer active in party politics were willing to appear.

The exercise was a wargame of the type carried out by governments across the world to look at their responses to potential crises and to identify common themes.

The crisis began with scuffles at the site of former Soviet War Memorial in Tallinn, which led to rioting. Nearly 25% of the population of Estonia are Russians, many of whom claimed that the Estonian police discriminated against them and brutally. The Estonian government accused the Kremlin of orchestrating the violence. Putin condemned Estonia’s treatment of Russians as disgraceful. This made NATO fear that he might exploit the situation to stir up more violence.

In the Latvia the Latgalian-Russian Union took control of the city of Daugavpils in Latgale province near the Russian border and the Mayor announced a referendum on greater autonomy from Riga. The Latvian government said that the referendum was illegal and accused those behind it of being in the pay of the Kremlin.

Riot police and then the Latvian Army were sent in to restore order. The separatists were in control of a 20km of the border with Russia. The Latvian government claimed that large numbers of armed Russians had crossed the border illegally.

The British Representative to NATO in Brussels said that the USA would support action, he was unsure about Germany, Spain and Italy would fall in behind it and he could not read French intentions. The basis of NATO is that an attack on one member is an attack on all. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that an attack on one Ally shall be considered an attack on all Allies.

The US NSA stated that the President was pushing to deploy NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which was needed in order to dissuade the Russians from going further. The Latvians needed weapons, with other NATO troops there in supporting role only. The committee had to decided the answer to this and other questions as the crisis developed.

A major issue was balancing the risk that firm action would escalate the crisis into a nuclear war and the risk that making concessions would lead to further Russian demands.

One interesting point was that the dovish members of the committee referred to the lessons of the First World War, where many follow Prof. Christopher Clark’s view that Europe ‘sleepwalked’ into war in 1914. The hawkish ones pointed to the lessons of the 1930s, where a failure to stand up to dictators early on led to the Second World War.

Another was that the nuclear ballistic missile carried by British submarines (SSBN) are not targeted at anybody, but the SSBNs’ high state of readiness means that they can be targeted quickly. Once targeted, they are aimed at military installations rather than population centres, meaning that, as one of the committee said, British nuclear missiles will kill tens of thousands rather than millions.








The committee voted 5-4 to agree to the commitment of the NATO VJTF, which includes about 1,000 British troops. A suggestion of resorting to cyber warfare instead was rejected. The NATO Council agreed to the deployment. The committee chairman, Sir Christopher Mayer, did not vote throughout. Presumably he would have had a casting vote.

Four British soldiers were captured by the separatists. The generals believed that a rescue mission had a high chance of success, since intelligence was good and the Russians might be reluctant to show their hand. It was approved and succeeded.

A Russian jet then crashed, just on the Russian side of the border. Putin claimed it was a provocation, NATO said it was an accident.

Fifteen Latvian soldiers were then killed in a helicopter crash. NATO claimed that it was hit by a surface to air missile (SAM) fired from inside Russia. The US, Poland, Baltic states were keen on a NATO counter strike on the SAM battery but Germany was getting ‘wobblier.’

Doing so risked a hot war, but a failure to respond could lead to Russia pushing forward. There was a preference to attack a target in Latvia and no consensus for an attack on Russian soil. It would be necessary to take out full air defence system, an act of war that might cause a nuclear response. It was decided to make it clear we know they did it and that the next attack will be responded to.

Next, a column of 300 Russian trucks entered Latvia. Russians said it carried humanitarian aid, the Latvians arms and ammunition. It was escorted by elite Russian Guards Air Assault troops. It was pointed out that the first Russian convoy into Ukraine did carry humanitarian aid.

Putin proposed that all foreign countries should withdraw, the UN take over the humanitarian role, the referendum take place and NATO re-commit to not stationing permanent troops in Baltic states. Was this a basis for discussion with the referendum the sticking point or exactly what Putin wanted?

The US thought that there were too many troops on the ground and wanted Russian troops out of Latvia in 72 hours and restoration of full Latvian territorial integrity. It was prepared to use force if the Russians did not leave. It was noted that the use of tactical nuclear weapons is part of Russian doctrine. The US proposal was supported 5-4 and then backed by Parliament.

The NATO naval Task Force in the Baltic was close to the Russian Baltic Fleet. Putin announced that tactical nuclear weapons had been deployed to Kaliningrad and that Russia was ready to repel any aggression against Russian people or territory.

The response to this was to make intensive diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions whilst targeting British nuclear missiles against Russia and to let the Russians know that this had been done. Admiral West did not attend future meetings as he was dealing with this.

The German priority was to seek a ceasefire. Many Europeans wanted the deadline extended. The US thought that if Putin wanted fragmentation of NATO he was succeeding and talked of a Coalition of the Willing, comprising US, France, Baltic states, Poland. Workable. It was argued that joining gave the UK the right of consultation. The proposal to join Coalition of the Willing after first trying diplomacy was passed 7-1. Baroness Falkner was the only committee member to always oppose taking action.

Overnight the US launched an offensive to re-take Daugavpils. The pro-Russian separatists suffered heavy casualties and four British soldiers were killed.

A nuclear missile then exploded over the Baltic, sinking the amphibious assault ships HMS Ocean and USS America. Over 1,200 British sailors and marines were killed. US casualties were not given, but the America carries up to 3,000 sailors and marines. The Russians claimed that the local commander exceeded his authority and would be ‘dealt with.’ All their tactical and strategic nuclear weapons had been taken off the highest state of readiness.

Proof of what Russians say is whether they now withdraw from Latvia. The US President, however, decided on a limited like for like nuclear strike on military target. The British opposed this and wanted the ground campaign to continue.

The US destroyed a target in Russia with a tactical nuclear weapon. Russian ICBMs were then readied for launch. If any were fired at the UK, the British would have only a few minutes to decided what instructions to give their SSBN captains. The vote was 5-3 against firing since deterrence had failed and there was no point in killing Russians to avenge dead Britons.

I was a little puzzled by the final vote since it is well known that there is a letter of last resort, written by the Prime Minister, in the safe of every British SSBN, telling the captain what to do if he is certain that the UK has been destroyed by a nuclear attack.


Filed under Current affairs, Reviews