A [Ship’s] door to Gloucester’s past and the start of a world war…

At Gloucestershire Archives we have millions of documents Image of door from HMS Gloucester, Gloucestershire Archives. Image courtesy of Gloucestershire Archivesconcerning our county’s heritage but one of our most curious possessions is not a document but a wooden door hung on a wall!

We inherited this when we moved into our present building, the old Kingsholm Council School and what makes it special is that it comes from HMS Gloucester – a Town class light cruiser built in 1909 and the eighth warship to bear the name of our city.

As we reach the 100th anniversary of Britain’s involvement in WW1, it is interesting to reflect that this door was involved in one of the first naval actions of that war, the chase of the German cruisers SMS¹ Goeben and SMS Breslau, which were then at large in the Mediterranean.

The Royal Navy had been searching for these German ships for some time in the days before war broke out and it so happened that – only 11½ hours before war was declared – two British battlecruisers, HMS Indomitable and HMS Indefatigable, unexpectedly encountered the German ships coming straight toward them in the opposite direction! Mutually surprised, the two sets of warships passed one another at high speed (over 40mph) and in such a state of tension that no-one fired the customary salutes, lest it be mistaken for an attack! Although the British ships turned around and tried to follow the Germans, the Goeben and Breslau were too fast and eventually they vanished from sight over the horizon.

However the next encounter – which took place on the 6th August, 48 hours after war had been declared – was different. On this occasion, it was HMS Gloucester that sighted the German ships, as they emerged from the Straits of Messina between Italy and Sicily. Gloucester’s commanding officer, Captain Howard Kelly, immediately radioed a sighting report to the main British force under the command of Admiral Archibald Milne and then began following the Germans as they headed along the south Italian coast. The Germans repeatedly tried to shake off their pursuer and jam its radio transmissions, but Gloucester clung on doggedly.

Image of HMS Gloucester, in Italy, in 1917, courtesy of Imperial War MuseumHMS Gloucester, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The appearance of the German ships caught Milne off guard for he had expected the Germans to head west to the Atlantic or possibly north to the Adriatic. In expectation of the former, he was waiting west of Sicily with the British battlecruisers and was too far away to do anything. The only hope of intercepting the Germans lay with Milne’s deputy, Rear-Admiral Earnest Troubridge, who was patrolling the entrance to the Adriatic with four armoured cruisers and eight destroyers. However Troubridge, knowing that his ships were outgunned and slower than the Goeben, decided not to risk an attack – an act which later saw him court-martialled and accused of cowardice.

With the Germans escaping eastwards, Milne ordered Gloucester to drop back, but – in true Nelson spirit – Kelly ignored the order and, opened fire on the Breslau in an attempt to slow the Germans down. The German ship returned fire and a short exchange took place during which Gloucester scored a hit. However at this point, the Goeben turned to support the Breslau and as the German battlecruiser’s 11-inch guns could have blown Gloucester out of the water, Kelly had to break off the action, but he continued to shadow the Germans who resumed their easterly course. Shortly afterwards Kelly received more signals ordering him to cease the pursuit and so Gloucester turned away to the north-east, having trailed the Germans for over 24 hours.

The escape of the German ships had enormous political and military ramifications. In the short term, it ended the careers of Milne and Troubridge and in the long term it brought Turkey into the war on the side of the Central Powers – ultimately resulting in the deaths of thousands of Allied soldiers in the Gallipoli campaign. As for HMS Gloucester, she went on to take part in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and served well in other theatres. She survived the war and was sold for scrapping on 9 May 1921 – a typically sad end for a fine ship.


John Putley

Gloucestershire Archives’ Learning and Outreach Officer, on behalf of ‘Gloucestershire Remembers WW1’.

To find out more about the Project, and access resources and guidance to help your school, community or group commemorate WW1 in your area, please visit http://www.gloucestershire.gov.uk/archives/WW1.



¹ “SMS” stands for “Seiner Majestät Schiff ” or “His Majesty’s Ship” in German.

3 thoughts on “A [Ship’s] door to Gloucester’s past and the start of a world war…

  1. Hi Jill, and thank you for your question. HMS Gloucester’s door hangs ‘behind the scenes’ at Gloucestershire Archives – in the corridor near what used to be the Headmaster’s office. It can be easy to miss, if you don’t know it’s there, as the view is often obscured by a fire door.


  2. Pingback: “Constitutionally incapable of refusing action” | Gloucestershire Archives

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