On 26 February 1852, while transporting troops primarily of the 73rd Regiment of Foot to Algoa Bay, she was wrecked at Gansbaai near Cape Town, South Africa. There were not enough serviceable lifeboats on board for all the passengers - however the soldiers famously stood firm, thereby allowing the women and children to board the boats safely. Only 193 of the 643 people onboard survived, however the soldiers' chivalry gave rise to the "women and children first" protocol during the procedure of abandoning ship, while the "Birkenhead Drill" of Rudyard Kipling's poem came to describe courage in face of hopeless circumstances.
According to her designer, John Laird:
The designs I submitted, and which were finally approved, were of a vessel long (being about longer than any vessel of her class had been built), and 37·6 beam with a displacement of 1918 tons on the load water-line of 15·9. The only change made by authorities at the Admiralty in these designs was the position of the paddle shaft, which they ordered to be moved several feet more forward; the change was unfortunate as it makes the vessel, unless due care is taken in stowing the hold, trim by the head. With this exception, I am answerable for the model, specification, displacement and general arrangement of the hull of the vessel.
The ship was divided into eight watertight compartments, while the engine room was divided by two longitudinal bulkheads into four compartments, making twelve watertight compartments in total.
While the frigate was still under construction, two factors came into play that would result in her being converted into a troopship and renamed Birkenhead after the town where she was built. Firstly, the Royal Navy's warships were switched from paddle wheels to more efficient propeller propulsion, following an experiment organised by the Admiralty in 1845 in which the benefits of the propeller over the paddle wheel were dramatically demonstrated. Secondly, doubts existed at the time about the effects of cannon shot against iron hulls - in a number of trials carried out at Royal Arsenal in 1845, it was discovered that at lower velocities, shot made a jagged hole that was hard to plug. The Birkenhead therefore never served as a frigate, as she was reclassified before she was commissioned.
In November 1846, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's iron ship the SS Great Britain ran aground on the sands of Dundrum Bay, Ireland. There was doubt as to whether she could be re-floated. Brunel himself advised that if anyone could rescue the ship then the man to do it was the naval engineer James Bremner. He was engaged and the Great Britain was re-floated on 27 August 1847 with the assistance of HMS Birkenhead. Unfortunately, the cost of the salvage bankrupted its owner, the Great Western Steamship Company, causing the Great Britain to be sold and turned into an emigration ship.
In 1851, a forecastle and poop deck were added to the Birkenhead to increase her accommodation, and a third mast added, to change her sail plan to a barquentine. Though no longer destined to be a warship, she was nevertheless faster and more comfortable than any of the wooden sail-driven troopships of the time, making the trip from the Cape in 37 days in October 1850.
On 23 February 1852, Birkenhead docked at Simonstown, near Cape Town. Most of the women and children disembarked along with a number of sick soldiers. Nine cavalry horses and several bales of hay were loaded for the last leg of the voyage to Algoa Bay.
The Birkenhead sailed from Simon's Bay at 06:00 on 25 February 1852 for Algoa Bay with between 630 and 643 men, women, and children aboard,the actual number of personnel aboard is in some doubt. In order to make the best possible speed, Captain Salmond decided to hug the South African coast, setting a course which was generally within of the shore. Using her paddle wheels she maintained a steady speed of . The sea was calm and the night was clear as she left False Bay and headed east.
Shortly before 02:00 on 26 February, when the ship was travelling at , the leadsman made soundings, of . Before he could take another sounding, the Birkenhead struck an uncharted rock at with of water beneath her bows and at her stern. The rock lies near Danger Point (today near Gansbaai, Western Cape). Barely submerged, it is clearly visible in rough seas, however it is not immediately apparent in calmer conditions.
Captain Salmond rushed on deck and ordered the anchor to be dropped, the quarter-boats to be lowered, and a turn astern to be given by the engines. However, as the ship backed off the rock, the sea rushed into the large hole made by the collision, and the ship struck again, buckling up the plates of the forward bilge and ripping open the bulkheads. Within a short time the forward compartments and the engine rooms were flooded, and over 100 soldiers were drowned in their berths.
The surviving soldiers mustered and awaited their officers' orders. Salmond ordered Colonel Seton to send men to the chain pumps, and 60 were directed to this task, and 60 more were assigned to the tackles of the lifeboats, while the rest were assembled on the poop deck, in order to raise the forward part of the ship. The women and children were placed in the ship's cutter which lay alongside. Two other boats were manned, but one was immediately swamped and the other could not be launched at all due to poor maintenance and paint on the winches, leaving only three boats available. The two large boats, with capacities of 150 men each, were not among them.
The surviving officers and men assembled on deck, where Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 74th Regiment of Foot took charge of all military personnel and stressed the necessity of maintaining order and discipline to his officers.
Almost everybody kept silent, indeed nothing was heard, but the kicking of the horses and the orders of Salmond, all given in a clear firm voice.
Ten minutes after the first impact, the engines still turning astern, the ship struck again beneath the engine room, tearing open her bottom. She instantly broke in two just aft of the mainmast. The funnel went over the side and the forepart of the ship sank at once. The stern section, now crowded with men, floated for a few minutes before sinking.
Just before she sank, Salmond called out that "all those who can swimp jump overboard, and make for the boats". Colonel Seton, however, recognising that rushing the lifeboats would risk swamping them and endangering the women and children, ordered the men to stand fast, and only three men made the attempt. The cavalry horses were freed and driven into the sea in the hope that they might be able to swim ashore.
The soldiers did not move, even as the ship broke up barely twenty minutes after striking the rock. Some of the soldiers managed to swim the to shore over the next twelve hours, often hanging on to pieces of the wreck to stay afloat; however, most either drowned or were taken by sharks.
"I remained on the wreck until she went down; the suction took me down some way, and a man got hold of my leg, but I managed to kick him off and came up and struck out for some pieces of wood that were on the water and started for land, about two miles (3 km) off. I was in the water about five hours, as the shore was so rocky and the surf ran so high that a great many were lost trying to land. Nearly all those that took to the water without their clothes on were taken by sharks; hundreds of them were all round us, and I saw men taken by them close to me, but as I was dressed (having on a flannel shirt and trousers) they preferred the others. I was not in the least hurt, and am happy to say, kept my head clear; most of the officers lost their lives from losing their presence of mind and trying to take money with them, and from not throwing off their coats." - Letter from Lieutenant J.F. Girardot, 43rd Light Infantry, to his father, 1 March 1852.
The next morning the schooner Lioness discovered one of the cutters, and after saving the occupants of the second boat made her way to the scene of the disaster. Arriving in the afternoon, she found 40 people still clinging to the rigging. It was reported that of the 643 people aboard the Birkenhead, only 193 were saved. The actual number of personnel aboard is in some doubt, but an estimate of 638 was published in the The Times newspaper. It is generally thought that the survivors comprised 113 Army personnel (all ranks), 6 Royal Marines, 54 seamen (all ranks), 7 women 13 children and at least 1 male civilian, but these numbers cannot be substantiated as muster rolls and books were lost with the ship.
Of the horses onboard, eight made it safely to land, while the ninth had its leg broken while being pushed into the sea.
This disaster started the protocol of "women and children first!", which became a standard evacuation procedure in maritime disasters, although the phrase itself was not coined until 1860. Similarly, "Birkenhead Drill" carried out by the soldiers became the epitome of courageous behaviour in hopeless circumstances. In fact, that phrase appears in Rudyard Kipling's tribute to the Royal Marines, "Soldier an' Sailor Too":
To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you've cover to 'and, an' leave an' likin' to shout;
But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An' they done it, the Jollies -- 'Er Majesty's Jollies -- soldier an' sailor too!
Their work was done when it 'adn't begun; they was younger nor me an' you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin' in 'eaps an' bein' mopped by the screw,
So they stood an' was still to the Birken'ead drill, soldier an' sailor too
The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the moment the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that I had thought could be affected by the best discipline; and it is the more to be wondered at seeing that most of the soldiers were but a short time in the service. Everyone did as he was directed and there was not a murmur or cry amongst them until the ship made her final plunge – all received their orders and carried them out as if they were embarking instead of going to the bottom – I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion.
In 1895, a lighthouse was erected at Danger Point to warn shipping of the dangerous reef. The lighthouse is about tall and is visible for approximately . A remembrance plate for the Birkenhead is affixed to its base, and points to the rock where the ship was wrecked.
Frederick William IV of Prussia recognised the bravery of the soldiers for what it was and he ordered an account of the incident to be read at the head of every regiment in his army, while Queen Victoria ordered the erection of an official Birkenhead monument at the Chelsea Royal Hospital.
Painter Thomas M. M. Hemy painted a famous picture of the sinking in approximately 1892, titled "The wreck of the Birkenhead". Prints of this painting were widely distributed to the public.
If the fabled hoard had existed, it would have been contained compactly in a few chests or boxes, all in the same place, rather than scattered throughout the ship in individual pockets and purses. Numerous attempts have been made to salvage the gold, from as early as 1854, to the most recent combined archaeological and salvage excavation carried out by Aqua Exploration, Depth Recovery Unit and Pentow Marine Salvage Company from 1986-1988. Only a few gold coins were recovered, which appear to have been the personal possessions of the passengers and crew.
In 1989, the British and South African governments entered into an agreement over the salvage of the wreck, agreeing to share any gold recovered.
The rumour of treasure, together with the shallow depth of the wreck at , have resulted in the wreck being considerably disturbed over the years, despite it being a war grave.