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HMS Lowestoft - HMS Lion Forth Road Bridge Incident

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HMS Lowestoft - HMS Lion Forth Road Bridge Incident

HMS Lowestoft

Twenty-five Royal Navy ships fired a salute of guns and after a brief opening speech from the Queen there was also a fly-past.

The new bridge sits beside the old cantilever rail bridge, opened in 1890 by the then Prince of Wales. Afterwards the Queen returned across the Forth by ferry, marking the final trip in the 800-year-old service. At its peak, the service was running 40,000 trips a year, carrying 1.5m people. The four ferryboats have been run by 70 men only 30 of whom will be re-employed on the new bridge collecting tolls. For some it will mean a salary cut from £18 to £12 a week.

The opening ceremony is estimated to have cost £25,000 - only a fraction of the cost of building the bridge. When the idea was first mooted in 1946, the estimated cost was put at £6m. The Government contributed £4,650,000 and has never increased its grant. The remainder of the money has come from an Exchequer loan, which now looks like it will never be paid off. Assuming five million cars cross the bridge annually, the toll charge of 2s 6d will bring in an annual income of £600,000, but this will not even pay off the interest on the loan. The cost of the crossing would have to be raised to 13s to repay the loan but that is considered far too expensive.

Up to 400 men have worked on the bridge sometimes in very dangerous conditions with winds up to 100mph. Three men lost their lives - others were saved by the terylene safety nets suspended beneath them. It took 39,000 tons of steel, 30,800 miles of wire in the suspension cables, and is 163ft above the river at its highest point. The bridge will eventually be silver-grey in colour, but work on its final coat was suspended for the opening ceremony.

Forth Road Bridge : A personal view of Lowie's collision by Sub Lt John Barrington-Carver. HMS Lowestoft

The Forth road bridge was opened on 4th September 1964 by Her Majesty the Queen. It took 39,000 tons of steel plus 30,800 miles of wire in the suspension cables to build, as well as several lives, and it's a day I have cause to remember for two reasons! Firstly having been the general "dogsbody subby" (Correspondence Officer; asst G.O. and Focsl Divisional .officer) aboard the Lowie, I was about to leave her to go to the Inshore Fishery Protection Squadron as the NO of Wasperton, at the shore base HMS Lochinvar at South Queensferry opposite Rosyth and right under the new bridge.

HMS Lowestoft collision with HMS Lion

Therefore I had no Special Sea Dutyman post on Lowie and as we left harbour after the opening, I was on the starboard wing of the bridge when Lion loomed up through the fog, seemingly only a hands breadth away. The second reason was that my term-mate that I was relieving in Wasperton took me round the FP Squadron the evening before the bridge opening. I think there were six ton class sweepers, all of which were alongside at S. Queensferry, as was the Lowie.

This was very convenient for introductions to be made to my new squadron. I was taken around the wardrooms of the inshore squadron which generously hosted and toasted me in each tiny wardroom one by one for the whole evening. The favoured drink in those days was "Horses Neck" (Brandy and Ginger Ale) which that night were eventually being served in half-pint tumblers! By the end of the evening I suspect there was more brandy being dispensed than the "expensive mixer". It is fortunate that I don't pass out following such lavish hospitality, so was I able to make it up the Lowie's brow slowly but remarkably steadily (so I thought anyway).

The QM was kind enough to look steadily ahead with only the faintest of a smirk as we exchanged salutes and as I then proceeded to ricochet down the Burma Road to my cabin. There the deck head's constant circular motion demanded that I return down the brow in my shirtsleeves shortly afterwards to walk up and down in the very cold night air for two hours until the deck head reluctantly agreed to stabilise. I might have walked all night had I known that my subsequent morning hang-over would taunt me as I stood to attention for two or more hours whilst the Queen reviewed the 25 assembled RN ships lying above and below the new bridge. I still recall that on top of a throbbing head-ache my cap-band seemed to be contracting minute by minute! The relief when we stood down after the review was immense.

HMS Lowestoft after collision with HMS Lion

The Squadron was due to sail direct to Stockholm after the bridge opening under a new Captain D. This senior officer had not endeared himself to Captain Power whom he was relieving because the first question he wrote to Captain Power before arriving was - "What is the temperature of your wine cellar?" Well it will therefore not surprise readers here that his first order to the Squadron resulted directly in Lowie's unfortunate embrace with Lion late that afternoon.

The new Capt D had signalled that the 23rd Escort Squadron should proceed to sea in company. This meant waiting to late afternoon until the last ship had taken on water or fuel from lighters. This also meant as anyone knew and commented on at the time that fog would descend at around 1600. The sensible thing therefore would have been for the squadron to have proceeded independently to sea, and RV'd clear of the coastal fog and the traffic-congested Forth. However, it seems that the new Capt D intended to proudly lead his squadron out of the harbour in line ahead under the admiring eyes of FOF (Home Fleet) and FO (Scotland). This was certainly a "folie de grandeur" as they call it in French or B. stupid in naval parlance - A fact which was not unnoticed in the subsequent court of inquiry.

When the order to weigh and proceed eventually came, the fog was so thick that visibility was down to about 30 yards or so. The last ship (Agincourt?) refused to weigh anchor and sensibly stayed put or she may have joined the Lowie embedded in Lion, or worse still Lowie. The confusion after we had weighed, was added to by constant radio traffic on the tactical net (more than 60 in one minute!) due to all the other movements apart from the squadron's. What level of confusion may be imagined by the fact that, being the same class as the senior ship Rhyl, we were piped in error by another Squadron ship (name not remembered). Obviously not wanting to offend the new Capt D, when in horrendous visibility she saw a Rothesay Class portside, she mistakenly took us to be Rhyl. Adding to the difficulties was the fact that there was some 40,000 tons of new steel above us interfering with the ship's radars. Hence the radar screen clutter was horrendous. Our bridge radar screen was being manned by an ex-merchant officer, Stuart Robertson, who had transferred to the RN as a subby. He had probably had more sea going time than any of Lowie's wardroom.

I remember that he called to the NO saying there was a close contact on a steady bearing right ahead. Unfortunately Lowie's NO instead of taking that information as a fact from such an experienced sea-going officer, thrust him aside and put his head into the radar screen's shroud. Of course his eyes were fog blinded in the sudden dark of the screen and therefore unable to immediately decipher what he saw in all the clutter until it was too late to warn the Captain.

HMS Lowestoft after collision with HMS Lion

Meantime on the wing of the bridge I was straining to see ahead when I was the first to spot Lion's forward 6 inch turret on the starboard bow. I turned and shouted up to the Captain above me on the open flying bridge "6 inch turret fine on the starboard bow Sir!!". I then shouted down to my ex focs'l lads to "Clear the focs'l and standby for a collision" which they did somewhat smartly as the Lion loomed closer and closer. However the skipper unfortunately did not immediately react and put his binoculars up to check ahead. By the time he eventually saw the Lion after he lowered them, even though he rang down full astern it was too late.

With a 2 knot ebb tide carrying us relentlessly towards Lion, it was inevitable that we should be carried onto her. It was lucky we hit her where we did though. Had we just avoided hitting her prow as we did (and thereby cutting off her stowed port anchor with our bull-ring), we would have just passed ahead of her and cut across her single anchor cable which was at fairly short stays. It's possible had that happened that we may have then crossed over the cable, cut Lion adrift and totally B' up our prop shafts as we were going full astern when we hit. As it was we got away with a bent bow as photos testify.

After the huge noise of the crash there was a stunned silence and I have an abiding visual memory of the focs'l PO, a rotund and ruddy complexioned guy, grabbing the maul and rushing alone up to the impact point and energetically attacking every bit of twisted steel he could bring the maul to bear on - to no apparent effect or advantage of course, but nevertheless ten out of ten for activity! My next memory was when secured alongside Lion.

Looking over Lion's port bridge wing there were three "noses" under three "scrambled egg" caps. Older Lowies might remember an old cartoon with a long nosed caricature face peering over the top of a wall saying "Wot! No bananas!" It certainly struck me as similar at the time. However I learnt later that the comment actually made from above was "Of all the ships the last one I expected to see was Lowestoft"! Very kind in the circumstances!

Two things apart from the Official Inquiry resulted from the collision. A junior seaman in the cable locker at his SSD station had exited the locker pretty smartly after the crash and closed the watertight door and correctly reported so to damage control. As a consequence the Skipper rated him Able, so someone did alright out of the situation. For myself I was denied a "last fling" in Sweden before getting married. My fiancee was watching on TV and as the fog cleared for a moment after the collision she saw Lowie alongside Lion. She later told me she was very relieved that Lowie's people and I were not going to be put in temptation's way by gorgeous Swedish girls and a reportedly free love society. Instead the Lowies were obliged to "enjoy" the hospitality of Rosyth Dockyard. 'Nuf said!!

PS: After penning this I remembered that Lowie and Lion's 6 inch turret had already had a previous close encounter during a practice throw-off shoot when the Lowie was straddled by the fall of two of Lion's 6 inch shells. You see illustration of large calibre shells landing in water but it is very sobering when you actually witness it so close by - I am glad they were marker shells and not HE as the water columns still rose a good 20 to 30 ft!

A witness account of the collision with Lion by Leading Patrolman David Addis. HMS Lion

HMS Lion after collision with HMS Lowestoft

Memories of Leading Patrolman David Addis, HMS Lion, of the weekend that the Queen opened the new Forth Road Bridge. Well not all of it just the morning that we were due to sail in company with the ships that attended the ceremony.

The Admiral flying his flag in Lion was Frankie Twiss who planned a sail pass of his flag ship by the ships in company, he order all the ships to slip and proceed up the Forth towards Leith and then form up in line ahead, they were then to sail down the Forth and salute his flag as they passed by.

Well all seemed to go OK at first then a fog bank descended over Queensferry and both the bridges. And guess what, it was just as the Lowestoft was approaching Lion, I believe that there was a reduction in the radar returns, we heard a crunch and the ship healed over, at the time we had a young AB (Nobby Clarke) serving six days cells, and guess where the cells were? Just aft of the bows, in the photo of Lion alongside at Rosyth the second port hole from the bow is the cell his was in, we managed to get up to the cells and let the poor chap out, the Captain decided that it would be unfair to put him back in so he commuted the remaining days of his punishment.

It was rumoured that Captain Hamilton-Miekle was standing on his bridge wing and was said to have said to your Captain, "Look what you have done to my ship". He never made Flag Rank.

Not to sure what happened to Lowestoft but we were put into Rosyth and had a temporary plate put over the hole, sailed to Spit Head and picked up an anchor and sent to Malta and dry docked for repairs.

A Personal View of Lowie's Collision by Mike "Dizzi" Diskett. HMS Lowestoft

HMS Lowestoft with tug after collision with HMS Lion

I remember the crash with the Lion quite well. At that time I was the spud tanky. I was working in the galley with the Maltese cooks on the day we were leaving harbour supposed to have been line astern, but it was so foggy you could see very little, by all accounts the Skipper asked the Navvy if it were clear to come 5 degrees to port or starboard 2 times the answer was yes and that was when all hell broke lose.

I was drinking tea in the galley and ended up on one of the hot water boilers and broke my best cup. We were called to emergency stations, we had hit Lions anchor and pushed it right into her bow going through the forward cell of the Lion. There was talk that there was a lad in the after cell and he went round the twist but that was just hear say. The forward part of the ship had to be flooded to release us from the Lion. We had to go into Rosyth dockyard to have a temporary bow fitted then we steamed very slowly to Chatham for a refit and a complete new bow.

How the Navy can say there was no investigation, must be crap, I am sure we were told that the Navvy was given a Severe Reprimand, that usually meant he would go no further in rank and the Skipper got a 2 year loss of seniority.

Eye-witness account of Lowie's collision by Tony Smith. HMS Lowestoft

I was a very buff stoker on the Lowie at that time and remember the incident very well. The opening of the bridge, the review of the fleet by the Queen and of course the coming together under the bridge in dense fog.

I was on watch in the boiler room at the time and can recall the panic(ish) when the "Full Astern Ship dead ahead" order was given, then the actual impact and lurching around afterwards.

We dipped out on a run ashore in Stockholm and missed a major NATO exercise as a result, no-one was too bothered about the exercise though. The R/As were over the moon about the unexpected trip back to Chatham/Pompey, can't remember which, probably Chatham.

Can't think what the skipper Commander MWG Fawcett or the Navvy Lt. Schlater went through as a result of the resulting court of enquiry, not to mention all the p**s taking about the new style of bow for a Rothesay class Frigate.

Another eye-witness account of Lowie's collision by Peter Ferris. HMS Lowestoft

Newspaper reportof collision

I joined Lowestoft for the first time in 1964 for her second commission. I joined at Chatham straight from HMS Collingwood as a new shiny baby REM. I thoroughly enjoyed my first ship, in fact as well as being my first it was my last also as I returned to her in 1970 until my discharge in 1971.

The highlight (or should it be lowlight) of the commission was undoubtedly the collision with the Lion under the Forth Bridge. I was at my SSD in one of the radio rooms for departure when I heard the unforgettable words "Lion dead ahead, Lion dead ahead" being piped, probably by one of the fo'csle crew whilst shitting himself! After the crash I was out of the radio room down to my mess to get my lifejacket mucho pronto! As far as I recall the main causes for the mishap were 1 Lion was lying broadside under the bridge and 2 it was an Officery thing to be first out. I seem to recall the Navigating Officer crying afterwards.

Shame really as we missed out on trips to Gothenburg and Hamburg if I remember correctly. By the way it definitely was Lion as one of the tabloids of the time had a poem above the collision picture which started "The Lion and the Lowestoft collided in the fog" etc.