Roll of Honour cards, held in the Flintshire Record Office, record that he was ‘lost at sea in wreck of HMS Viknor’. Naval logs held at the National Archives state “Not in Action”. The tragic fate of the vessel in which he sailed involves a remarkable story involving the Head of the German Secret Service disguised as a Mexican, questions being asked of Winston Churchill in Parliament and the courage of 295 allied troops and a number of captured Germans who lost their lives.
The vessel in which he was sailing was originally built in 1888 as a passenger steamship for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and was first known as RMS Atrato. In 1912 she was sold to the Viking Cruising Company and renamed SS Viking.
RMS Atrato built by Robert Napier Govan in 1888.
When the First World War broke out she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy, outfitted to be used as an Armed Merchant Cruiser and renamed HMS Viknor. She was part of the 10th. Cruiser Squadron blockading the seas between the North of Scotland and Iceland and was placed under Commander Ernest Ballantyne. Their role was to prevent contraband supplies and sympathetic German reservists reaching Europe to support the German war effort.
In the course of 1914 British Intelligence received reports that a company, financed by the German Government, had been established in the U.S.A. to break the blockade by shipping supplies and German reservists to Europe. In particular reports suggested that Germans, with fake passports, had boarded the Norwegian ocean liner SS Bergensfjiord. Midshipman Hamilton will have been on board HMSViknor when, in December 1914, the fleet received messages that the Bergensfjiord should be intercepted as a matter of urgency.
As part of his training Midshipman Hamilton was required to keep a detailed journal of his daily observations in order to improve his knowledge of nautical matters. His journal will have disappeared with HMS Viknor itself. However, we do have the diary left by Alexander Scrimgeour who was later killed at the Battle of Jutland at the age of 19. Scrimgeour was Midshipman onboard HMS Alsatian which was part of the 10th Cruiser Squadron.
Scrimgeours scribbling diary
On Wednesday 6th December Scrimgeour noted:
It is reported that an attempt will be made to smuggle a lot of German reservists over in the Bergensfjiord, next trip from New York to Norway, and thence Germany. So she is to be intercepted and searched.
On the morning of 11th January those on board HMS Viknor sighted a mystery liner in the mist to the north east of the Faroe Islands. The Viknor altered course to intercept and raised a red flag to urge the vessel to stop. As there was no response the Viknor fired a rocket across the bows, gave chase and lowered a boat with a boarding party.
The vessel was found to be the sought-after Bergensfjiord. The Viknor’s armed boarding party carried out a thorough search of the vessel, finding six German stowaways and two suspect passengers. One, of the passengers claimed to be a Norwegian by the name of Dr. Rasmus Bjornstad. However, the other was to prove to be a particularly valuable catch. Disguised as a Mexican, with the name of Rosato Spero, he was revealed to be Baron H. A. Wedel, the notorious Head of the German Secret Service.
Scrimgeour’s diary records:
Immediately on being boarded by the Viknor, Spero, alias Von Wedel, was arrested. He was found burning incriminating papers. He was taken unawares, as he did not expect us to know his disguise. The Bergenfjiord’s wireless was taken over and a prize crew put on board to await the arrival of the Rear-Admiral in the Alsatian. When we got there at 1pm the Viknor was ordered to take Spero and the German stowaways on board and to escort the prize to Kirkwall for examination.
Count Botho von Wedel was Privy Councillor to the Kaiser and Chief of the German Spy Bureau before and during the War. His activities feature in the account left by Dr Armgaard Karl Graves, a German spy turned traitor, who described Wedel as a “tall, thin, iron-grey gentleman” in The Secrets of the German War Office. Midshipman John Allan Hamilton will have shared in the celebrations, of those on board HMS Viknor, that their mission had been accomplished with such a valuable prize at the end of it. It must have made him feel that the long cold days and freezing nights at sea had been worthwhile.
At 4pm on 13th January HMS Viknor reported her position to be off Tory Island off north western Ireland. She was short of coal after the chase and may have been in need of repair. She was heading towards Liverpool. Midshipman Allan Hamilton may have been looking forward to the chance of some well-earned leave at home. However, that was the last that anyone heard of HMS Viknor. Scrigmour’s Diary expressed the growing concerns on 16th January:
The Viknor and the German passengers on board is now three days overdue at Liverpool. Grave fears are expressed as to whether she has been blown up by a mine. It is inconceivable that Wedel has managed, with the other prisoners, to overpower his guard
By 19th he was writing:
The C-in-C reported that bodies and wreckage, presumably of the Viknor, has been washed ashore at Portrush, so all hope has been given up. She had Von Wedel on board and all the prisoners. I hope Von Wedel did not escape. The disaster is an irony of fate, after their success, and the Commander was practically sure of promotion. By the funny coincidence we were the last ship to sight the Viknor, as was the Crescent and the Hawke. Whether Viknor was mined, or foundered in a gale, is a matter of conjecture…
The fact that HMS Viknor sank without giving out a distress signal undoubtedly fuelled the belief that Von Wedel had overpowered his guards and engineered the disaster. Although there were rumours that Wedel had escaped and made it back to Europe it is more likely that all those on board, including Midshipman Hamilton and Von Wedel himself, were drowned. Apparently some members of the crew had time to put on lifebelts, suggesting that the ship took some time to go down. The body of Commander Ballantyne was washed ashore in February he was taken home and buried in Dalkeith Cemetery with full military honours. A war grave of one of the crew of the Viknor can be seen on Rathlin Island while at Bonamargy Friary near Ballycastle has six graves of other unidentified members of the crew. There is no record of an identification having been made of Midshipman Hamilton’s body.
During February and March of 1915 Lord Beresford asked a number of probing questions in parliament about the fate of HMS Viknor. He asked whether she was surveyed after she was armed; whether the Government were quite satisfied that she was absolutely seaworthy; and whether there would be any inquiry with regard to her loss. However, Winston Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty, insisted that HMSViknor was seaworthy and that there would be no inquiry. Over the weeks that followed Beresford persisted in his questioning, arguing that several seamen who had left the ship shortly before she sank were available to give evidence. On another occasion he expressed concerns that the conversion of this class of vessel left them with insufficient ballast and the mounting of guns on the upper deck meant that they were top-heavy. There were, it seems, some feelings at the time that those on board HMS Viknor suffered a fate which might have been avoided. However, the Government refused to pursue the matter. An inquiry which questioned the seaworthiness of British vessels would have been a blow to domestic morale and provided ammunition for enemy propagandists.
Some early conclusions were that she has been sunk by a German U-boat although we now know that there was no U-boat activity in that particular area at the time. Viknor’s wreckage was later found, by divers, to be on the edge of a German mine field and it is now generally assumed that she went down in the dark after being struck by a mine in rough weather. Scrimgeour’s expression ‘irony of fate’ seems to be a fitting one for those who, along with Caergwrle’s Midshipman Hamilton, experienced delight at the capture of a German master spy only to lose their lives shortly afterwards in the icy sea of January 1915.
There is a video clip of the undersea wreckage at http://vimeo.com/71327768.
The grave of an unknown sailor who died when HMS Viknor sank. (Rathlin Island)