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The Birkenhead Drill

The Wreck of the Birkenhead by Charles Dixon (1834 - 1934)

The Wreck of the Birkenhead by Charles Dixon (1834 – 1934)

[by Earl Blacklock] There have been many great shipwrecks in history, the Titanic being only the most memorable. There is another – that of the troopship Birkenhead in 1852 – which deserves remembrance.

The Birkenhead was carrying British soldiers and their families to South Africa when it struck an uncharted rock 40 miles from Capetown. The initial collision had caused devastating damage, and the disaster became complete when the ship struck again, splitting in two, the bow quickly sinking. The 630 people on board, including 170 women and children, were in mortal peril. Only three 60-person lifeboats were left and it was clear that, in the shark-infested waters, only those with a seat on a lifeboat would survive.

The troop commander, Col. Sidney Seton, assessed the situation and realized panic had to be avoided if any lives were to be saved. He mustered his men on deck where they stood while their wives and children were placed in the lifeboats. As they stood at attention, the waters closed over their heads. Only a few survived the sinking.

Since then, the “women and children first” tradition has brought calm and order to numerous sinkings. In 1909, the British liner RMS Republic, carrying 460 passengers, sank after being rammed by the ocean liner S.S. Florida. (This sinking is remembered as the first use of the distress signal CQD by wireless.)

The Birkenhead drill was implemented – women and children were loaded first into the lifeboats, then the wounded and sick. There was still enough room for the male passengers so they were loaded. Finally, each crew member was put into the lifeboats, which were then launched. Not one person on board was lost other than the three killed in the initial collision.

In 1953 the British troopship Empire Windrush, carrying 1,515 people through the Atlantic near Algeria, experienced a catastrophic explosion in its boiler room. The midsection of the ship was quickly engulfed in fire. Smoke and fire was visible from the deck when Capt. William Wilson gave orders to abandon ship. The commander of the troops on board, Col. Robert Scott, told his men “This is the Birkenhead drill. Stand fast on deck.”

And, to a man, the troops stood where they were while the women, children, and invalids were placed in the lifeboats. Then, the remaining seats on the lifeboats were filled in “funeral order” (youngest first). There was no room for 300 troops and crew who watched the lifeboats launch as they began to toss overboard whatever would float. The order came to abandon ship and each man clung to debris as the ship sank. Remarkably, other than the four killed in the initial explosion, not one life was lost.

Jesus said the willingness to lay down one’s life for another was the greatest love one could show (John 15:13). He demonstrated what He meant when He lay down His own life on the cross. He died, then rose again, to give us hope and life in the midst of the worst we might face.

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