Thursday 11 July 2013

HISTORY OF HMS TERROR (Part 2: 1839-1848)

Learning critical lessons from the Terror’s first voyage north, the admiralty extensively refitted both her and HMS Erebus for an ambitious four-year expedition to explore the Antarctic. Under the leadership of James Clark Ross, the Erebus was assigned as the command vessel, likely due to her slightly larger size. The well-experienced Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, who had served under William Parry in three arctic expeditions, was assigned as captain of the Terror.

The expedition was one of the last great voyages of exploration to be undertaken by sail, and was one of the Royal Navy’s greatest achievements in scientific and geographical discovery. The party collected vast data on biology, magnetism, and geology and discovered the Ross Sea, the Victoria Barrier (later renamed the Ross Ice Shelf), and Victoria Land. An active shield volcano on Ross Island was named after HMS Terror, along with a cove on Lord Auckland’s Island and a reef (on which she grounded) near the Kerguelen Islands.

Like her mission to the Arctic, the Terror sustained extensive damage during the voyage.  She twice rammed an ice floe in heavy weather and had the shackle of her bobstay sheared off, requiring dangerous repairs. In January 1842, the Erebus and Terror were unexpectedly trapped in ice and the Terror’s rudder was destroyed; Crozier was forced to utilize a spare rudder which was stored amidships. On March 13th the two ships collided in a severe gale; the Terror knocked off the Erebus’s bowsprit and became entangled in her masts and rigging (Ross 1847b:218). The ships repeatedly smashed against each and threatened to capsize until they were finally disentangled, but by this time both ships had lost many spars and the Erebus’ foretop mast had been carried away.

Compared to the Erebus, the Terror appears to have been a rather slow sailor, and Ross (1847a; 1847b) consistently described the need to reduce sail and wait for the Terror to catch up. Like the merchant ships they emulated, the Vesuvius class bomb vessels had difficulty carrying sail, probably due to an inability to stow adequate ballast (Ware 1994:67). In contrast, Hecla class bomb ships, like HMS Erebus, were based on a slightly improved design which appears to have (at least marginally) alleviated this problem (Ware 1994:67). Furthermore, the Terror was smaller than the Erebus by almost 50 tons (325 tons for Terror versus 372 for Erebus) but carried the same crew compliment (64) and provisions/stores (Ross 1847a:xix), and therefore may have been comparatively encumbered.

Eager to duplicate the success of the Antarctic voyage, the Terror and Erebus were assigned to Sir John Franklin on an expedition to navigate the Northwest Passage. The Erebus was again selected as the flag ship, with James Fitzjames as her captain, while Crozier was second in command of the expedition and captain of the Terror. Outfitting of the vessels began on February 8th, 1845 in Woolwich and after extensive modification and provisioning, the expedition left Greenhithe on May 19th of the same year.

The expedition required such a massive quantity of provisions (meant to last three years) that it was unsafe for the vessels to cross the Atlantic fully loaded. Instead, each carried two years provisions while a navy transport, the Barretto Junior, was used to ferry the remaining equipment across the ocean. The steam tugs HMS Rattler and HMS Blazer also accompanied the ships to Greenland, alternately towing the Barretto Junior, the Erebus, and the Terror (Cyriax 1997: 57).

Owen Stanley, 1845, "Parting Company with the North Pole Squadron", courtesy National Library of Australia.

Owen Stanley, 1845, "Signal to Terror, opportunity for sending letters to England, 4 June 1845", courtesy National Library of Australia.

The “North Pole Squadron” encountered violent weather on the crossing, though the Terror and Erebus reportedly handled well and sustained no damage. The squadron arrived at a staging harbour at Whalefish Islands in Disco Bay, Greenland, on July 4th. Over the next week, stores and equipment were carefully transferred from the Barretto Junior to each vessel. In a melancholy letter to his best friend, James Clark Ross, Crozier described how overburdened the Terror was and his steps to lessen the load (Ross 1994:284):

“We got here on the morning of the fourth and have been busily employed ever since clearing and stowing away from transport. ‘Tis very tedious work from the small space we have to stow things. We have now a mean draft of 16 feet and all our provisions not yet on board. I sent home our largest cutter (and fill launch with patent fuel), 2 anchors and cables, iron waist davits and various things of weight as I think it better to have the provisions, come what may afterwards. “

Holds and decks crammed with stores, the Erebus and Terror set out from Greenland on July 12. The ships were last spotted moored to an iceberg at the edge of an ice barrier near Lancaster Sound by the British whaler Enterprise.  By the time they were abandoned on April 22nd, 1848, the Erebus and Terror had spent three years in the arctic, 588 days (19 months) of which of which saw the ships entirely beset in multiyear pack ice off the northern coast of King William Island.

The "Victory Point Record" tells of the abandonment of the ships (Wikimedia Commons).
The story of their abandonment, and the terrible tragedy which followed, remains one of the most compelling, but often inscrutable, historical mysteries of human exploration. I will not recount the final years of the vessels and the fate of their crews - it has been the subject of so much printed literature and digital speculation that my own account would be both insufficient and redundant. My interest with this blog is rather with HMS Terror itself, which was the most advanced exploration vessel of her time.

Many have suggested the ships were the 19th Century equivalent of space shuttles; however, if one seeks to draw parallels, it is probably more useful to consider instead the entirety of the Royal Navy’s polar exploration program, whose technological advances, scientific achievements, and nationalist underpinnings were analogous to the NASA program of 1960’s and 1970's.

Cyriax, Richard, J.
1997      Sir John Franklin's Last Arctic Expeidtion: The Franklin Expedition, A Chapter in the History of the Royal Navy. The Arctic Press, West Sussex. 

Ross, Sir James Clark
1847a    A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions, During the Years 1839-1843: Volume I. John Murray, London.

1847b    A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions, During the Years 1839-1843: Volume II. John Murray, London.
Ross,  Maurice James
1994       Polar Pioneers: A Biography of John and James Clark Ross. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal.

Ware, Chris.
1991       The Bomb Vessel: Shore Bombardment Ships of the Age of Sail. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis.



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