For our company the year of 2014 has been marked by many remarkable immersions. Among the wrecks we had a chance to dive there was HMS Russell – a Duncan-class predreadnought battleship sunken in 1916, during the World War I.
Thursday, 27 April 1916 was a dark page in Malta’s First World War history. A tragedy occurred. Not one, nor two, but three ships were lost and sunk a few miles off the Grand Harbour after hitting mines – all on the same day. Those mines were placed there by the same culprit. What was intended to be a fortnight rest in Malta for the crew of one of those ships, ended up being an eternal grave for 124 for them… This is the story of HMS Russell and its men.
This vessel, a one hundred and forty meters long pre-Dreadnought ship, was laid down in 1899. She was commissioned for the Royal Navy four years later. At that time, she ranked among the fastest battleships that sailed the sea of her days and served in various fleets. Alas, as in everything, the race of armaments and progress in technology very soon caught up with the Russell and surpassed her. With the launching of the Dreadnought, the Russell became part of another era. Nonetheless, she continued to perform front-line duties up through the early part of World War One, carrying her duty with dignity.
After the contribution which the Russell gave in the Dardanelles, the Admiralty felt that like other ships, she and her crew merited a short break in Malta. One can imagine with what a bated breath sailors awaited their chance for a rest. However, it was not meant to happen. Nobody knew that German mine-layer U-73 had laid a minefield made of 22 mines just hours before… As she approached the Grand Harbour, Russell hit two of those mines. Then a third explosion occurred. The ship remained afloat for about twenty minutes before capsizing. Of the 720 crew, unfortunately 124 lost their lives.
By time HMS Russell quietly slipped into the forgotten pages of history only to be disturbed by little more than the occasional fishing net – until 2003, when a group of technical divers dived on it. The time has come to restore the historical memory about those dramatic events, paying respect to HMS Russell and her brave crew.
HMS Russell’s story is full of astonishing facts, including famous Nelson’s “spy-glass” (telescope). Sir Sydney Robert, an officer on Russell, took spy-glass to sea, being afraid to leave such a valuable belonging somewhere else during the war. Telescope happened to be a special gift from Admiral Nelson himself, as he was a good friend with Sir Robert’s great-grandfather… As it is known, spy-glass was kept in the dining cabin, in a cork-lined case. Now it is somewhere there, almost 120 metres down below, in the Mediterranean, – one of the secrets HMS Russell will forever keep.