Daysh did his training years (1950-53) at
HMS Condor on the outskirts of Arbroath, and returned there
in 1969 as Manpower Control Officer, POAF's Divisional Officer
and Ship's Diving Officer. In the latter capacity, he was
responsible for setting up the Sub Aqua Club at HMS Condor.
In the summer of 1970, the team (which included local
divers from Arbroath) found the massive propellors of the
HMS Argyll, the only ship to fall foul of the Bell Rock
since the Lighthouse was built in 1811 . . .
Further information on the diving activities at the wreck
and the subsequent finding of the propellers can be found
battle cruiser - HMS ARGYLL
The Bell Rock, that 2,000 foot sunken ledge of sandstone
lying off the Firth of Forth, was the source of many legends
throughout history. Also known as the Inchcape Rock, it
was a veritable graveyard for ships and a place of terror
for seamen. An appalling number of ships were wrecked there
until the Bell Rock lighthouse was built in 1811 by Robert
Stevenson, grandfather of 'RLS'.
But in spite of the lighthouse being manned during the
First World War, one of the Royal Navy's largest battle
cruisers at that time, HMS ARGYLL, succeeded in wrecking
herself on the Inchcape Rock in 1915.
Such was the need for secrecy about naval losses during
the war that the demise of ARGYLL was barely made public
at the time, and the drama that engulfed her crew and the
lighthouse keepers that night was never brought to light.
Apart from a small mention in one newspaper, little information
was released about the incident and in the euphoria that
surrounded the ending of the war in 1918 there was no call
for retrospective inquiries. The records of the event became
"lost" and had it not been for the subsequent
investigative efforts of the Scottish journalist James Murray,
no further details would have emerged at all.
The Bell Rock is, and always has been, treacherous. It
sits in unexpected isolation some twelve miles from the
nearest coastline, where at high tide the sea covers its
jagged peak. During the First World War the lighthouse was
manned but not lit, except for short bursts at routine times
and by special request - even though the 3rd Cruiser Squadron
of the British Grand Fleet, which was based at Rosyth, operated
in the area. It was thought that the lighthouse, if lit
up, could assist German submarines in navigating the coastal
waters of eastern Scotland, and several British lighthouses
had already been shelled by German ships.
In October 1915, ARGYLL was nearing the end of a refit
at Plymouth dockyard and was urgently needed at sea. On
completion, she was expected to rejoin her squadron at Rosyth
without delay. But as the North Sea was infested with enemy
submarines at the time, she was ordered to take the longer,
clockwise route around the British Isles - as was the practice
of the time. She left Plymouth in foul weather on October
25 with a full complement of 655 officers and ratings under
the command of Captain James Tancred.
In spite of the conditions, in order to make May Island
before dawn - the time when German submarines were most
active in the Forth estuary - the big ship was obliged to
maintain 16 knots as she ploughed through the Irish Sea.
She reached the east coast of Scotland on October 27 in
worsening weather. H E Evans - a young Midshipman in ARGYLL
at the time - said later: "That night was one of the
worst I can remember in long years at sea - storm-force
winds, mountainous seas, thick fog and heavy rain; as unpleasant
a combination as any seaman could face."
HMS Argyll stranded
on the reef
As the Bell Rock was the last natural hazard Captain Tancred
had to contend with before reaching the safety of his base,
he sent a signal to Rosyth requesting the lighthouse to
be lit. His navigating officer plotted a course to pass
the Bell Rock by eight miles, a margin considered to be
Satisfied that he had taken adequate precautions, and nearing
the end of a stressful journey, Captain Tancred handed the
ship over to the Officer of the Watch in the early hours
of October 28 and retired to his cabin to rest.
During the war, the Bell Rock keepers could only be contacted
by boat or by visual signals, and on receipt of ARGYLL's
at Rosyth, a motor torpedo boat was despatched with all
haste to the lighthouse. However, on reaching the mouth
of the Forth, the small vessel was confronted by a wall
of seething white water and was forced to turn back.
On its return to Rosyth, the offices of the C-in-C Rosyth
sent a further signal to the battleship QUEEN MARY, which
was patrolling the North Sea nearby. QUEEN MARY responded
at 02.17 with: "Regret that owing to heavy seas I am
unable to contact the Bell Rock light."
With that, nothing more was done to contact the Bell Rock
lighthouse or, more crucially, ARGYLL herself. She continued
on, pounding through huge waves in pitch blackness, with
visibility reduced to nothing by torrential rain and the
foaming spray that was lashed by a howling gale. Meanwhile,
every eye on the bridge and in look-out positions strained
for the expected shaft of bright light that would guide
them past the hazardous reef. But they saw nothing.
Then, in the early hours, as a particularly heavy squall
suddenly lifted like a curtain, a look-out called: "Sailing
ship ahead" - mistaking the huge granite pillar of
the Bell Rock lighthouse for a large spread of sail.
The Captain, having heard the call and assuming that a
collision was imminent asked a bridge officer, "What
is she doing?"
"It isn't a sailing ship, sir," was the reply,
"it's the Bell Rock lighthouse!"
The Captain rushed onto the bridge and took command. The
helm was immediately put hard over and the engines put "Full
Astern", but nothing could stop the oncoming tragedy.
With waves crashing over her, ARGYLL gave two great lurches
and wedged her 450 foot keel firmly among the rocks, just
two lengths short of the lighthouse.
It was just after 04.30.
Departmental assessments revealed extensive damage. Her
bottom was pierced in No. 2 stokehold and oil fuel leaking
from her damaged tanks had started a serious fire. Having
grounded at the very top of high water, it seemed unlikely
that ARGYLL would ever be re-floated. However, there was
also a great fear that if she did shake herself loose, she
could drift into deep water and sink.
Captain Tancred realised at once that the situation was
hopeless. His ship could either sink in deep water or would
stay where she was and be a prime target for German submarines,
once dawn broke. The crew was brought up on deck to prepare
to abandon ship.
Approximately twenty minutes after the sickening crunch
of metal on rock, ARGYLL was sending frantic signals:
Urgent. ARGYLL ashore on Bell Rock. Ship badly damaged.
Afraid will rip her bottom as the tide falls. Appears there
is no chance of saving ship.
The fire was put out and the lifeboats were swung out in
Aerial view of
In the lighthouse, Principal Keeper John Henderson and
his two assistants Colin McCormack and Donald MacDonald
were not in evidence, and were totally oblivious to the
British warship stranded on their doorstep with heavy seas
pouring over her and into her.
In ARGYLL, frantic attempts to contact the keepers by loud-hailer
were swept away on the wind. The crew clung to the deck
with their hands freezing and the howling gale beating them
into exhaustion as the keepers slept on. When dawn finally
broke, the crew of ARGYLL faced an awesome sight. The Bell
Rock lighthouse stood tall among the foaming waves, less
than a hundred yards ahead of their ship.
Using lifebuoys, the crew made several attempts to float
a grass line to the lighthouse, in an effort to make contact
with the keepers, but all ended in failure due to the heavy
When the keepers finally made a move to show their light
at a routine time, they were staggered by the sight 30 feet
below them. At first, they hid away, mistaking ARGYLL for
a German battleship that was preparing to shell their lighthouse.
But when they read the frantic signals she was flashing
and realised she was British, they suddenly found themselves
drawn into the drama. The keepers made Herculean efforts
to float a line to the ship, using an empty barrel. They
finally succeeded and the crew of ARGYLL hauled it in and
secured a heavy hawser to it.
Just then, the ship received a signal informing her that
the Arbroath, Broughty Ferry and St Andrews lifeboats had
been launched and forced back, but two destroyers of the
dark night patrol were on their way.
With the hawser only half-way between the ship and the
lighthouse, ARGYLL used a loud-hailer to tell the keepers
that help was on the way - and her crew promptly hauled
back on the line. In the lighthouse, the line snaked across
the floor of the entrance and tripped Colin McCormack. As
he fell, the line wrapped itself around his leg and hauled
him rapidly towards the entrance, 30 feet above the jagged
rocks and foaming sea. Henderson fell on McCormack and grabbed
him under the arms and held on. In ARGYLL, the crew unwittingly
carried on winching in the line and a bizarre tug of war
ensued. Henderson wedged himself into the lintel of the
doorway and clung to McCormack for dear life, while MacDonald
hacked away at the line with a knife that he had managed
to snatch. On the edge of a disaster for McCormack, MacDonald
succeeded in cutting the rope at the last possible moment.
The line went slack and Henderson and McCormack fell back
into the safety of the lighthouse, exhausted.
McCormack was put to bed with a bad rope burn on his leg,
to settle his nerves and recover from his ordeal.
Meanwhile, the two destroyers HMS HORNET and JACKALL appeared
out of the gloom and made every effort to get close to the
stricken ARGYLL. After several attempts, HORNET managed
to get her stern close to ARGYLL's, where 500 of her crew
had been assembled for abandoning ship. The rest of the
crew took to the lifeboats and rowed clear of their ship.
On mountainous waves, the stern of HORNET rose and fell
like an express lift against ARGYLL's. At times the two
ships clashed violently, buckling HORNET's stern plates.
There was a real danger of men being crushed between them,
but each time the sterns passed, men made the jump to HORNET's
deck until there were none left aboard ARGYLL.
HMS JACKALL succeeded in getting the lifeboats in her lee
and picked up the remaining survivors. By 12.30, the entire
crew of ARGYLL was safely at Rosyth, each man recounting
his story as he changed into dry clothes. By somewhat of
a miracle, every crewman was saved without injury, apart
from one sprained ankle.
Bill Daysh inspecting the newly salvaged propeller
ARGYLL was never re-floated. To prevent her wreck becoming
a navigational aid for enemy ships, the Navy's salvage team
explosively reduced her to a pile of steel plates, after
recovering everything of value. After the Great War ended,
she attracted little attention until the sub aqua era began
in earnest. Then she was dived on many times over the years.
However, her two massive, manganese-bronze propellers eluded
divers for fifty years until, in the summer of 1970, naval
and *local* civilian members of the Sub Aqua Club of HMS
Condor found them. Weighing 14½ tons each, the propellers
were then worth around £9,000 in scrap value and they
were subsequently recovered for that purpose by a civilian
It was a sad ending for a gracious ship. Built in 1904
at Greenock, Scotland, ARGYLL belonged to what was know
as the "Improved County" class of battle cruiser
and escorted the King and Queen to India when they went
East for the Durbar at the end of 1911. In 1909, she held
the Navy's Gunnery award cup.
Bill Daysh - May 2003
* The vessel used to successfully find the propellors
was the AH94 skippered by Brian Bruce and crewed by Sam
Russell. The other two members on the trip were Clark Ross
and Bob Spink, (R. R. Spink Jnr.). Acting on information
provided by Peter Swankie Bruce, (who was a young lad at
the time of the stranding), the boat was anchored on a bearing
from the forrard gun-turret. This turret was always clearly
visible for some time either side of low water.
Brian Bruce acted as stand-by diver in the inflatable while
Bob Spink and Clark Ross made the first dive, Bob taking
a line with a small seine-net float attached. He rather
speedily surfaced again as seals were zooming in on him
- attracted by the float bobbing about behind him! Discarding
the float, Bob dived again and, after some time, re-surfaced
waving wildly to attract my attention. He had found the
I am grateful to Brian Bruce for this additional information.