The HMT Birkenhead set sail from Simons Town on 25 February 1852 bound for the Eastern Cape. On board were a number British and Irish regiments sent to relieve those already doing battle; along with wives and children and …. horses!
Just off the Danger Point coast at 02h00 the Birkenhead struck an unchartered rock. The captain detrimentally ordered that the ship to turn astern and that action ripped open the bulkheads.
On board chaos reigned and sleepy people milled around the deck. To make matters worse the life-boats were bolted down and only a few could be lowered into the icy dark waters below.
What now – 643 on board and only minimal life boats. Col Seaton reacted immediately and uttered the now well-known cry – Women and Children First! Wives and children were safely lowered into the boats and the boats came ashore at various points along the Gansbaai coast. All women and children survived as well as …..5 horses
What a sombre sight it must have been as – the regiments stood to attention in complete silence as the boat sank into the icy shark infested waters.
The schooner, Lioness, arrived hours later to save a few still clinging to the rigging.
In total only 193 of those on board survived.
What happened to Ensign Russell and Ensign Lucas? Watch this space!
This tragic event is commemorated in Gansbaai annually on the 26th of February with a memorial service at the Danger Point lighthouse at 11h00. All welcome to attend.