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Loss of HMS Pathfinder 1914 - First Torpedo Fired in Wartime from a Submarine

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

5th September 1914

1914 HMS Pathfinder, light cruiser, torpedoed and sunk by U.21 in North Sea a month after the declaration of war with Germany.

1914 HMS Pathfinder, light cruiser, torpedoed and sunk by U.21

HMS Pathfinder which has been launched in 1904 and commissioned the following year, had the dubious distinction of being the first warship to be sunk by a submarine launched self-propelled torpedo.

Report from the Evening Star, Washington, 8 September 1914, page 9

Other ships had been sunk by torpedoes, and submarines had also been responsible for the sinking of enemy warships, but this was the first successful submarine launched torpedo attack.

Original press report believed she had hit a mine near her magazine. Out of the crew of 264, 58 were saved, 4 were listed as killed, 13 wounded and 242 missing, 13 Royal Marines were lost.

The shock of the explosion was felt by a trawler 10 miles distant, and her crew saw HMS Pathfinder upright in the water for a moment before she disappeared.

In practice it was subsequently learned she had been torpedoed by U.21 off the east coast of Scotland on 5th September 1914. She was so short of coal whilst on patrol that she could only manage a speed of 5 knots making her an easy target.

A painting depicting HMS Pathfinder exploding Art.IWM 5721 (IWM)

She was the first British warship to be sunk by a torpedo. With the first live torpedo fired by a submarine in wartime, Kpt lt. Otto Hersing from SM U 21 hit the British light cruiser HMS Pathfinder (3,000 tons) off the Firth of Forth on a calm, sunlit day. The cruiser sank within minutes with heavy loss of life.

Hersing, who was to become one of Germany's leading U-boat aces, remained in command of SM U 21 for 3 years and conducted 21 war patrols, during which he sank 36 ships, including two battleships and two cruisers.

The Royal Marines lost were: -

AVIS, William, Sergeant, RMLI, 10913 (Ch):

CHAMBERS, William, Private, RMLI, 17362 (Ch):

CHAPPLE, John H, Corporal, RMLI, 14863 (Ch):

CLARK, Albert, Private, RMLI, 14643 (Ch):

FRENCH, Harry, Private, RMLI, 15653 (Ch):

GREENAWAY, Sidney, Private, RMLI, 13484 (Ch):

LAW, James T, Private, RMLI, 15121 (Ch):

MESSAM, John W, Private, RMLI, 16830 (Ch):

PLUMB, William, Private, RMLI, 12774 (Ch):

PONTEFRACT, Robert, Private, RMLI, 17262 (Ch):

RICHARDSON, Henry C, Private, RMLI, 13853 (Ch):

ROBSON, Thomas W, Private, RMLI, 17824 (Ch):

SMITH, Alfred E, Private, RMLI, 17617 (Ch).


The Western Front Association - The Loss of HMS Pathfinder

Soldier and Sailor Too- Royal Marines History (References)

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