ON THE afternoon of Saturday, April 25, 1908, a blinding, freak snowstorm was in progress on the Isle of Wight.

As it raged, two ships were making their way through The Solent. The first, HMS Gladiator, was transporting 250 soldiers to Portsmouth dockyard, and had just entered The Solent at Yarmouth.

Scroll through the gallery of pictures above to see more...

The second, an American passenger liner, the St Paul, had just left Southampton for Cherbourg and was approaching Yarmouth from the opposite direction.

Isle of Wight County Press:

The area where the collision took place today. Note the concrete platform and the bases for the bollards used to help salvage the Gladiator are still there. © Alan Stroud/ County Press.

In poor visibility due to driving snow, the two ships collided, the St. Paul smashing amidships into the Gladiator, ripping a large hole in her side.

She drifted, taking in water, and eventually capsized just to the east of Fort Victoria, which was then a fully manned army base.

Soldiers were soon on hand but despite their efforts nearly 30 men were drowned in the freezing waters that afternoon.

Bob Crisp of Freshwater, who was stationed at Fort Victoria, gave a first-hand account of the accident to the County Press in 1958, then aged 81.

He said: “It was a terrible day that Saturday — not fit for a dog to be out. There was a strong wind and it was snowing like billy-oh.

“We were all sitting round the fires in the barracks when we heard a loud bang. We rushed down to the beach and saw the outline of a warship loom out of the snow and come slowly towards the fort pier.

“It came within 15 yards and we could see the sailors standing to attention in the howling wind. It made me proud of the Navy to see how those sailors stood steadfast and made no effort to save themselves.

“Some of them could have got to the pier as she passed but not a man moved. They were marvellous.

“After a while, it was clear that the ship was going to turn over and we heard the order to abandon ship. As it finally toppled over, men scrambled up her side on to the hull but about 50 dived into the freezing water and made for the shore, not one of them wearing a lifebelt.

“One boat from the ship landed safely and the soldiers tried to re-launch her but each time they did, she swung round and was carried back onto the beach. If we could have re-launched it we could have saved all the men in the water but it was impossible; we were continually being knocked over by the huge waves.

“The soldiers got out one of their boats but the sailors struggling in the waves grabbed the sides of the boat and it sank, and was washed up on the beach with its crew and some 15 of the sailors.

“It was launched again and the same thing happened but it turned out to be an effective rescue method. The boat made eight trips and all the men between the warship and the fort were picked up — but nothing could be done to help the others who were further out and were being swept away. We were up to our waists in water most of the time. I have never been so cold in my life.”

The rescued sailors, lying in the snow, were given blankets and mugs of tea and then taken to the hospital at Golden Hill Fort. Many crew members were still in the sea, clinging to the Gladiator’s hull in driving wind and snow.

They had to stay there in the freezing cold until destroyers came from Portsmouth to pick them up. In all, 29 men died in the accident; only three bodies were ever recovered.

The cause of the accident was simple. When the two ships met, the St Paul first tried to pass on the port side, the correct rule of the sea, but the captain decided there wasn’t enough room and changed course to pass on the starboard side.

The inevitable collision followed, tearing a hole 40ft by 20ft in the Gladiator’s side.

A naval court of inquiry found the St Paul responsible for the collision but when the Admiralty sued the owners of the liner, a high court held Gladiator responsible.

Isle of Wight County Press:

A postcard of the Gladiator in dock at Portsmouth dockyard clearly showing the buoyancy tanks strapped to the Gladiator. Picture courtesy of Alan Stroud.

At only eight years old the Gladiator was a young ship so it was decided to try and salvage her.

Concrete bases were built on the shore near Fort Victoria to take huge wooden bollards, and enormous buoyancy tanks were strapped to the Gladiator’s hull.

Steam winches were anchored on shore to pull on two-inch thick steel cables run from the bollards to the wreck and the salvage operation began.

After an hour, the ship’s masts slowly began to rise from the sea and by 8pm that night the Gladiator was almost upright and it was eventually towed back to Portsmouth after a salvage operation which had cost more than £60,000.

Back in the dockyard the ship was declared beyond economic repair and was sold as scrap for £15,000.

After more than 100 years, the evidence of events that afternoon can still be seen at Fort Victoria.

As the recent colour photo shows, the concrete bases and bollards are still standing today.

A case for a memorial plaque perhaps?

Do you like Alan Stroud's articles? Have you seen this one?

Like reading stories about life on the Isle of Wight in bygone days? Click here to visit our Looking Back section.