HMS Bittern (1897)

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A close-up of HMS Bittern alongside a pier.
Career (United Kingdom) RN Ensign
Class and type: Avon-class destroyer
Name: HMS Bittern
Namesake: Bittern
Builder: Vickers
Laid down: 18 February 1896
Launched: 1 February 1897
Completed: 1 April 1897
Commissioned: 1 April 1897
Out of service: 4 April 1918
Fate: Sunk following collision with SS Kenilworth
General characteristics
Displacement: 355 tons light, 405 tons full load
Length: 210 ft (64 m) between perpendiculars
214 ft 3 in (65.30 m) length overall
Beam: 20 ft (6.1 m)
Draught: 8 ft 3 in (2.51 m)
Installed power: 6,300 indicated horsepower (4,700 kW)
Propulsion: Triple expansion steam engine
Speed: 25 knots (46 km/h) in service
Complement: 63
Armour: none

HMS Bittern was one of three Avon-class destroyers to serve with the Royal Navy. She was built by Vickers in 1897 and was sunk in a collision in 1918. Bittern was also involved in the salvage of SS Clan Sutherland and the controversy over the looting of Clan Sutherland by Bittern's crew.


Bittern was 214 feet 3 inches (65.30 m) long overall (210 feet 0 inches (64.01 m) between perpendiculars), with a beam of 20 feet 0 inches (6.10 m) and a draught of 8 feet 3 inches (2.51 m). She displaced 355 tons light, 405 tons at full load. Bittern was powered by a triple expansion steam engine of 6,300 indicated horsepower (4,700 kW) which could propel her at approximately 25 knots (46 km/h).[1]

Her armament consisted one 12-pounder gun, five 6-pounder guns and 2 18-inch torpedo tubes.[1]


Bittern was built by Vickers, Barrow in Furness. She was laid down on 18 February 1896 and launched on 1 February 1897. She was commissioned on 1 April 1897.[2] She had a complement of 63 officers and men.[1]

SS Clan Sutherland

On 17 April 1917, the Clan Line's steamship Clan Sutherland was on a voyage from Bombay, India to Glasgow carrying 1,000 tons of manganese ore and 3,000 tons of general cargo. She was 12 nautical miles (22 km) east south east of Start Point, Devon when a torpedo struck her starboard side.[3] The torpedo had been fired by UC-66.[4] The 62 crew abandoned ship as Clan Sutherland was badly damaged, without power and with her rudder jammed at 15° to port. She was also in danger of breaking in two. Bittern was close by and rendered assistance with Admiralty tugs Fortitude, Flintshire and Woonda, and HM Armed Trawler Lois. The three tugs began to tow Clan Sutherland to Devonport at a speed of 4 knots (7.4 km/h). When the formation was 9 nautical miles (17 km) from Start Point, Clan Sutherland began to break up. It was decided to beach Clan Sutherland at Dartmouth. The tug Boarhound was also amongst the nine vessels that assisted in the rescue.[3]

It was two days before Captain Calderwood of Clan Sutherland was granted permission from the Admiralty to board his ship. On doing so, he found that the ship had been ransacked and looted.[3] Clan Sutherland was later repaired and returned to service. She was sold to Japan in 1921 and renamed Shinshu Maru.[5]


On 4 April 1918, Bittern was involved in a collision with SS Kenilworth off the Isle of Portland in thick fog. The destroyer was overwhelmed and sank quickly with the loss of all hands. A Court of Inquiry found negligence on the part of the master of SS Kenilworth. His instructions had been to hug the coast as closely as possible from Portland Bill to Start Point. Instead he headed straight across, showing no lights nor sounding for fog. At 0315 the Kenilworth saw a red light and a ship ‘small and low down’ at the moment of impact.[6]

Salvage award

The various parties involved in the saving of Clan Sutherland put in their claims for rewards under salvage rules. Following a Court of Admiralty case concluded on 31 July 1918, Mr Justice Hill awarded £6,000 to the Admiralty, which had coordinated the operation. The crew of Boarhound were awarded £500 to be divided between them. The crews of Lois and Woonda were awarded £360. The crew of Fortitude were awarded £300. Lieutenant Irving of Bittern was awarded £300. Captain Edwards of Lois was awarded £200. The crew of Bittern were awarded £900 to be divided between her then 72-man complement (£12 10s each).[3]

Mr Justice Hill criticised the Admiralty for not allowing Captain Calderwood to return to his ship at the earliest opportunity. Addressing the question of the ship being looted, he laid the blame squarely on the crew of Bittern as only men from that ship had been aboard Clan Sutherland the whole time she was under salvage. Irving was criticised for not exercising proper control over his crew or exercising due diligence in preventing or detecting the thefts. As punishment, he ordered that the crew of Bittern forfeit their salvage reward, regardless of whether or not they had been involved in the looting. Although Lieutenant Irving was cleared of any involvement in the looting, his reward was cut to £100.[3]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Gardiner, Robert, ed (1979). Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1860-1905. New York: Mayflower Books Inc. pp. 93-94. ISBN 0-8317-0302-4. 
  2. "HMS Bittern". Naval History. Retrieved 4 June 2010. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Booth, Tony (2006). Admiralty Salvage in Peace & War 1906 - 2006 'Grope, Grub & Tremble'. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books Ltd. pp. p45-49. ISBN 978-1-84415-565-1. 
  4. "Clan Sutherland". Uboat. Retrieved 4 June 2010. 
  5. "C.W. Cayzer & Company / Cayzer, Irvine & Company / Clan Line of Steamers Limited / Clan Line". The Ships List. Retrieved 4 June 2010. 
  6. Carter, Geoffrey (1987). The Royal Navy at Portland Since 1845. Liskeard: Maritime Books. pp. p45-49. ISBN 0 907771297.