BY ANDREA FORDE
It was 4am on 13th December 1911 when Messrs Bland salvage firm in Gibraltar put out the message “Delhi ashore two miles south of Cape Spartel.” Stuck broadside on to heavy swell, P&O steamliner Delhi had a cargo some estimated at a million pounds, but she also carried 85 first class passengers including three British Princesses and a Duke.
Five das earlier, Princess Royal, Louise — eldest daughter of King Edward VII — had boarded Delhi with her husband the Duke of Fife and their daughters Princesses Alexandra, 20, and Maud, 18, at Tilbury Docks, London, to travel to Egypt for the winter. It was a journey dogged by bad luck from the outset. Storms lashed the ship all the way from London to Cape Spartel and, it was reported, the Bay of Biscay was so rough the Princess Royal ordered the captain to slow down.
As Delhi entered the Strait of Gibraltar the storms continued, and the thick fog made Cape Spartel lighthouse invisible. The captain slowed and took soundings while enormous waves broke over the vessel and water entered the cabins, spray engulfing the masts. The depth recorded 80 fathoms, then suddenly 15. He went dead slow, but the steamer touched three times, then stopped dead. The Delhi — a 470ft steamliner with a crew of 231 — was stranded with sleet making visibility so poor they had no idea of where they had struck until 2am. At 2am C.S. Gordon, Marconi operator, sent out calls for assistance and fired rockets. The distress message was intercepted by French cruiser Friant, which changed course and steamed full-speed to assist. British cruisers set out from Gibraltar.
It was a journey dogged by bad luck from the outset.
Delhi had grounded on sand, so passengers felt no collision. Later a passenger described being asked to dress and come on deck at 12:45. “It was not till we emerged from below that we realised that something was wrong,” she said. The passengers made their way to the first-class saloon where they were served hot breakfast, until 10am when the Friant’s steam launch managed to approach the steamliner.
In treacherous conditions eight ladies and six children were lowered aboard, and the rest of the women except for the Princesses were packed into a lifeboat to be towed by the Friant’s launch. Despite the raging storm, and the tow rope breaking once, the crew of the steam launch succeeded in transferring all the women and children safely to the HMS Duke of Edinburgh, which had just arrived from Gibraltar.
Drenched by waves, the passengers were given blankets and hot Bovril by the Edinburgh’s crew. The gale raged violently, waves breaking over the Delhi throwing spray over 70 feet, hiding the steamliner’s masts in a veil of water. The captain of the Friant hesitated to send the launch a second time, but the nine-man crew insisted, pushing off to cross the water separating the two vessels. Suddenly, an enormous wave extinguished her fire and swept the petty officer at the helm overboard, washing the boat helplessly ashore. Undefeated, the courageous crew relit the fire and launched their craft again. This time breakers caught her like a cork and capsized her. Only six men made shore. The other three, two petty officers and a sailor, drowned in the surf.
Safely landed at Gibraltar, 39 women and children were accommodated by P&O at Hotel Cecil. “The Methodists here have been kindness itself, in fact, we have been almost killed with it,” wrote one passenger, Miss Coope, adding that the Royal party had a much worse time of it, which was true. While the other women and children were sipping Bovril aboard Duke of Edinburgh, it was decided the Royal party would be safer landing to shore and shortly before 11am the three Princesses were dropped from the side of Delhi and caught onboard a 10-oar cutter from HMS London, with Admiral Cradock directing from aboard. The princesses were followed by the Duke and passengers Gilbert McCaul Bell, Royal doctor Dr. Essery, and G R Halkett, cartoonist and art critic of Pall Mall Gazette. Only two items of baggage were loaded — the Princess Royal’s jewel case (containing jewellery and a diamond tiara she planned to wear at the opening of Khartoum Cathedral) and the doctor’s violin case.
The princesses were barefoot so progress was arduous.
The boat was to tow a rope to link the ship to shore, but its increasing weight pulled the boat broadside to the surf and the cutter was swamped despite furious efforts to bail. All aboard wore lifebelts except Bell — Princess Alexandra fixed one on him, just as a wave washed her, Bell, Halkett and Dr Essery, clutching his violin case, from the boat. In the confusion Princess Alexandra was struck on the head by an oar, but Bell held the dazed princess above water while he swam to shore. The Princess Royal grasped her jewel case but its weight forced her to relinquish it to the shifting sands. She seized Princess Maud’s hand and, with the Duke and the Admiral, was washed towards land as the boat sank. The bluejackets ashore rushed into the shallow water to help them to safety.
Accompanied by four bluejackets the Royal party set out from the beach in torrential rain and fierce gales — drenched, cold, and clothed in nightdresses and coats — along the three-mile rocky path to Cape Spartel Lighthouse. The water weighed down the ladies’ cloaks and the princesses were barefoot so progress was arduous until they encountered two men from Tangier on horses, one of whom — August Harnung, editor of Deutsche Marokko-Zeitung — lent his horse to the young princesses. The Princess Royal chose to walk assisted by the gentleman’s friend, Mr Rahlke. The Duke chatted lightly to Harnung who commented, “One might have thought we were enjoying a quiet country walk and not the conversation of persons who had just escaped a watery grave.” They reached the lighthouse in driving rain at 2.30pm where they were given dry clothing and hot tea.
When Sir Reginald Lister, British Minister in Tangier, arrived at the lighthouse with mules, wraps and the Times correspondent in tow, the princesses and the Duke, dressed in his nightshirt and the lighthouse keeper’s trousers, were warming beside a wood fire. The party mounted the mules and, with the rain unrelenting, began the three-hour ride to Tangier, ten miles away. The correspondent later reported, “Even during the last half hour of their long wet ride over the rough stony track, the whole party conversed with extraordinary vivacity, and related little incidents in their adventures which had struck them at the time as amusing.” They arrived at the British Legation in Tangier at 7pm, where they received a message from Gibraltar’s Governor, General Hunter, extending the hospitality of Government House should they come to Gibraltar.
At 8pm survivors from the Friant’s launch arrived, exhausted, at Tangier’s French Ligation having made the journey barefoot in soaked and frozen clothing. Their only thought was for their drowned comrades. By 9.35pm salvage operations were suspended for the night, three of the men-o-war’s boats having been smashed, as well the Gibraltar lifeboat, Royal Ark. The Royal Ark had been towed from Gibraltar by the Crocodile, arriving at midday on 13th. Manned by crew from HMS Prince of Wales with Port Department officers William Undery and James Noble, and Captain of Port, Commander Niles in charge, the lifeboat made four trips saving 49 passengers. During the rescues the lifeboat capsized twice, on the fourth trip it was finally smashed on Cape Spartel beach, however, each time all aboard made shore.
In the following days at Cape Spartel, Admiral Cradock continued to supervise the rescue and salvage, standing waist deep in surf. The remainder of the passengers were landed by line rockets, being briefly dragged by their weight under the frothing surf, until they were hauled in by sailors who carried them to blazing fires kept alight by the local police. Transport animals were sent from Tangier to bring them in and, as the Delhi’s position worsened, the crew also abandoned ship.
By 18th December all passengers from the wrecked liner were in Gibraltar with the exception of the Royal party who remained at Tangier until 19th December when they arrived on the Rock at 10am aboard HMS Hampshire. The Royal party visited the Little Sisters of the Poor the next day, before boarding P&O liner Macedonia for the final leg of their journey to Egypt.
Many heroes received Gallantry medals for their part in the rescue, including gold medals for the crew of the Friant’s launch, silver medals for Rear-Admiral Cradock and Captain of the Port of Gibraltar, William Henry Niles, and bronze medals for Gibraltar Port Department’s William Charles Undery and James Scott Noble.
The Duke of Fife, died in Egypt, from pleurisy and congestion of the lung, a few weeks later.