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Terror on the Ice

In 1813 the British Royal Navy built a specialised warship, HMS Terror. She was a newly developed bomb vessel and took part in several battles during the war of 1812 with the United States, these including the Battle of Baltimore and the bombardment of Fort McHenry.

Later in her life she was converted for polar exploration. The ship participated in George Back’s Arctic expedition of 1836–1837 and the Ross expedition to the Antarctic of 1839-1843.

It was during the Franklin expedition to find a Northwest Passage in 1845, alongside HMS Erebus, that disaster struck.

Terror on the Ice: Franklin’s expedition

Franklin’s expedition was an Arctic exploration led by Captain Sir John Franklin that departed from England in 1845 aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. They were assigned to traverse the last unnavigated sections of the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. Franklin, a British Royal Navy career officer and Arctic explorer, served in the Napoleonic wars and against the United States. During the following period of peace, he led two expeditions into the Canadian Arctic, in 1819 and 1825 as well as serving as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land from 1839 to 1843.

Before the Franklin expedition, both HMS Erebus and HMS Terror underwent extensive modifications. Both ships were outfitted with steam engines, these being ex-railway engines taken from former Railway steam locomotives. Each could propel the ship at 4 knots. Erebus and Terror became the first Royal Navy ships to have steam-powered engines and screw propellers. Captain James Fitzjames was in command of HMS Erebus. Captain Francis Crozier, who commanded Terror during the Ross expedition to the Antarctic, was appointed executive officer and commander of Terror. Franklin was named the expedition commander and was given command on 7 February 1845.

Terror on the Ice: Voyage to Hell

The Expedition set sail from Greenhithe on the River Thames in England, on 19 May 1845. The crew, mainly men from the north of England, consisted of 110 men and 24 officers.

The expedition met with disaster after both ships became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island, in what is today the Canadian territory of Nunavut.

It’s thought the expedition wintered on Beechey Island in 1845–46, but in September 1846 the two ships were locked in ice off King William Island. Franklin died there on 11 June 1847 and the two ships never sailed again.

Terror on the Ice: Lost

Lady Franklin, when no word came back from the expedition in two years, urged the Admiralty to send out a search party. However, the expedition carried supplies for three years so the Admiralty decided to wait another year before starting a search. £20,000 reward was offered for finding the expedition.

Ten British and two American ships, USS Advance and USS Rescue, headed for the Arctic. Such was the inhospitable area and weather that more people and ships were lost looking for the Franklin expedition than in the expedition itself.

More ships set sail in 1850 and converged off the east coast of Beechey Island, where the first relics of the Franklin expedition were found. Even though the evidence pointed to the expedition being a disaster and all hands lost, some presumed Franklin was still alive, and he was promoted to Rear-Admiral of the Blue in October 1852.

In 1854 a Scottish explorer John Rae, was engaged to survey the Boothia Peninsula for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He managed to speak to Inuit hunters and discovered the true fate of the Franklin party. Rae was told both ships had become icebound and the men had abandoned the ships in order to walk to safety. Eventually all had succumbed to cold and some resorted to cannibalism.

Terror on the Ice: The Wreck

On 12 September 2016, the Arctic Research Foundation announced that the wreck of Terror had been found in Nunavut’s Terror Bay, off the southwest coast of King William Island. The wreck was discovered 57 miles south of the location where the ship was reported abandoned, and some 31 miles from the wreck of HMS Erebus, discovered in 2014.

Copyright © Tom Kane 2020

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