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  • Claire Jordan

Disaster in Dover Harbour

104 years ago, almost to the day, things went terribly wrong in Dover Harbour.


HMS Glatton had just been loaded with ammunition and supplies ready for carrying fresh troops across the Channel when, on the evening of 16th September 1918, an explosion ripped through the ship, igniting ammunition and oil as it went.


The scene was apocalyptic enough but, as shocked survivors and vessels nearby rushed to help those trapped by the inferno or already aflame, a fresh horror was revealed.


Very close to Glatton at anchor in the harbour was a fully loaded ammunition ship, HMS Gransha.

The fires had to be stopped aboard the stricken Glatton, or they would ignite the nearby vessel and the entire town of Dover would be obliterated.


Brave injured men fought to flood as much of Glatton as could be reached, but the critical part of the ship, closest to Gransha, was beyond them.


The terrible decision was swiftly taken to torpedo Glatton, sealing the fate of anyone still alive in the inferno, in order to sink her and so extinguish the fires, rather than let the flames spread to Gransha.


Several torpedoes failed to pierce Glatton’s reinforced hull, fired as they were at too close a range, but finally it worked: Glatton keeled over and the fires were largely doused by the churning seawater.


In the midst of this horror, five men did extraordinary things and would later be awarded the Albert Medal for Life-Saving.


They were Lt George Belben, Sub-Lt David Evans, Petty Officer Albert Stoker, Able Seaman Edward Nunn and Surgeon Lt-Commander Edward Atkinson.


Atkinson was the ship’s doctor and in his cabin aboard Glatton when the first explosion knocked him briefly unconscious.


When he came to, he immediately set about dragging unconscious men up ladders towards rescue. The ship was burning around him, and he was concussed and already bleeding.

He’d gone back down for a third unconscious man and was hauling him up too when another smaller explosion shook the ship.


Atkinson was hit in the head by flying metal, blinding him, and also in the leg, but still he continued, slick with his own blood, feeling his way now among the flames, determined not to let the unconscious man be lost.


When he was found on deck by rescuers, he was more dead than alive, and no one thought he’d make it.


But Edward Atkinson was no stranger to long odds.


He had been with Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition in 1912 and was left behind in charge of Discovery when Scott and his small party set out on foot to finally find the Pole. Edward was also the man who led the rescue party which eventually found the bodies of Scott and his friends in their tent.


Edward Atkinson lost an eye during his heroics on Glatton, but was patched up, and survived the War.


As for the other men awarded the Albert Medal for their courage in Dover Harbour that day, their citation explains:


“The ship might have blown up at any moment.


Lieutenant Belben, Sub-Lieutenant Evans, Petty Officer Stoker, and Able Seaman Nunn were in boats that were rescuing men who had been blown, or who had jumped, overboard.


They proceeded on board H.M.S. Glatton on their own initiative, and entered the super-structure, which was full of dense smoke, and proceeded down to the deck below.


Behaving with the greatest gallantry and contempt of danger, they succeeded in rescuing seven or eight badly injured men from the mess deck, in addition to fifteen whom they found and brought out from inside the superstructure.


This work was carried out before the arrival of any gas masks, and, though at one time they were driven out by the fire, they proceeded down again after the hoses had been played on the flames.


They continued until all chance of rescuing others had passed, and the ship was ordered to be abandoned, when she was sunk by torpedo, as the fire was spreading, and it was impossible to flood the aft magazines.”


Even this is not the end of the story.



The above picture is of George Belben.


He was only in his early 20s at the time of the Glatton disaster, and had already earned a DSC for his part in the Zeebrugge raid earlier in 1918, an operation from which it was so unlikely to return that only unmarried volunteers were sought for it.


Following Zeebrugge and Glatton, George remained with the Navy after the Armistice, continuing on into the Second World War, during which he commanded HMS Penelope, earning a DSO dauntlessly facing down the enemy in the Aegean in 1943.


But in February 1944, having taken part in the Anzio landings, he had just left Naples in command still of Penelope when she was struck by two torpedoes fired by U-410 off the Pontine Islands.


Lt Commander R.L. Matheson later wrote of George’s actions that day.


“Captain Belben stepped into the water from the bridge along with the remainder of the bridge personnel. The first report I have is of Captain Belben swimming by himself.


Later he was seen with a piece of wood about five feet long, collecting any poor swimmers he could find and encouraging them to carry on.


Subsequently, he was heard directing them towards the nearer LST [a sort of landing craft] when it came close.


He brought five ratings to the ship’s side and refused to leave them and accept rescue himself, until all the others had been brought on board…


When I came down, Captain Belben had been brought on board.


There were two Army doctors on board and I persuaded one of them to direct his attention for some time to Captain Belben.


We had no success. He had obviously swallowed a quantity of oil fuel and his clothes were so soaked in oil fuel that it was with difficulty one could see the stripes on his sleeve.


Had Captain Belben exerted himself less in his efforts to save others on arrival at LST 430, I am sure he would have retained enough strength to keep his head above water and oil.


I used occasionally to go swimming with Captain Belben. He was a strong swimmer.”


Lest We Forget

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