On the seventeenth of December, 1941, a naval patrol vessel took the S.S. Corregidor through the minefield closing the entrance to Manila Bay. The channel through the field was a simple dogleg affair; it was regularly swept and at that time still frequently used. The patrol boat captain took the outbound skipper to the turn in the channel, gave the skipper the new course and distance for clearing the minefield, and prepared to return to his own station. Eye-witness accounts all agree that everything appeared normal up to this point. The Corregidor made her turn and began picking up speed. Then, for some reason which shall never be known, she veered strongly off-course and headed into the field. A few moments later she struck a mine. Within a few minutes only debris floating on the swift and deep-running currents of the channel remained as indication of the shortlived tragedy. The small boats that ventured into the area managed to pick up some survivors, who scarcely knew what had happened before they found themselves in the water and who could give no further explanation of events.
The Corregidor had loaded at the Manila waterfront during the previous days. In her limited hold space was crammed most of the artillery and ammunition destined for the American and Filipino forces preparing the defense of Mindanao. Several batteries of 75 mm. field pieces were to be the artillery backbone of General Sharp’s forces. In addition, mortars, which were proving themselves invaluable in the mobile jungle war, were aboard. The passenger list of the ship was already complete when, at the last moment, panicky citizens trying to keep one jump ahead of the Japanese stormed the gangway. No one knows how many managed to get and stay aboard; the total load of the Corregidor as she departed was estimated at six to seven hundred persons.
The old vessel had for many years held a firm seat as queen of the inter-island fleet. Under the flag of the Compania Maritima she sailed out of Manila to the Visayas and Mindanao carrying passengers, tourists, and cargo. Occasionally she cruised to the China coast. Although some newer, foreign-built ships were challenging her crown, she still retained the affection of the Islands and at worst was on her way to becoming a dowager queen with no intention of retiring. She used to come into Cavite Navy Yard for engine overhaul, inasmuch as her direct-connected Parsons turbines were of such size that no other facility in the area could handle them effectively. She still could turn up 22 knots after these overhauls, and the trial trips usually developed into a gala excursion down the Bay which taxed the capacity of the trial party as much as the capability of the vessel.
Famous vessels, other than those that go down in a blaze of glory, have disconcerting habits of changing names and trades during the process of sliding into obscurity. Ask anyone but those concerned about what has happened to a ship that made the headlines a few years ago, and you will receive a very blank stare. There is many a coal barge being towed around in relative ignominy that once was an independent personality. There are many unrecognizable hulks in the backwaters where the ship-breakers operate which bore well-known names. And there are many plodding ships which years ago stood at the head of the list of speed and luxury. The old Corregidor was different; she neither plodded nor intended to give up. In defiance she had, instead, a bright brass plaque forward under her bridge which proclaimed that she had been H.M.S. Engadine, the first British seaplane carrier, and that she had seen the doings at Jutland.
A little checking developed her history. She was built in 1911 by Denny and Brothers at Dumbarton for the cross-channel service of the Southern Railway at a designed speed of 23 knots. Three steam turbines with coal fired boilers drove her three screws. She was 316 feet overall with a 41 foot beam and a 16 foot draft, and she displaced 1881 gross tons.
From available records it is not quite clear at what point she entered the service of the Royal Navy and was converted to a seaplane carrier. It is noted that in 1915 her name appears in connection with the conduct of some tests of seaborne observation balloons. She was present at Heligoland Bight and at the Battle of Jutland. In Jane’s Fighting Ships she is listed as “Seaplane Carrier” under the heading “Aero Depot Ship” for the years 1916 and 1917. At that time the first true aircraft carriers appeared, and the Engadine disappears from the rolls of the Royal Navy, presumably to be refitted as a passenger vessel and eventually to turn up in the Philippines. At some point she was converted to oil fuel.
An available sketch indicates that her after deck had been cleared and a hangar constructed about her superstructure. A crane was fitted at both corners of the hangar, which was provided with steel doors. The appearance of the after half of the ship resembled, on a small scale, our own Currituck Class AV, less the stern crane. She carried four aircraft, two Shorts and two “Baby” Sopwiths, which were equipped with folding wings for stowage. The Engadine could get her planes rigged and in the water in a minimum of twenty minutes.
The unreliability of air operations of that day is illustrated by an abortive bombing strike which was carried out on German Zeppelin installations. The Engadine, together with the other seaplane carrier Vindex, carried a total of 11 planes. All were put in the water, in fairly rough weather. Eight planes did not get off due to various damage incurred while attempting to get into the air. Smashing of propellers seems to have been the main trouble. One plane got off but flew into the wireless aerial of an accompanying destroyer and disappeared together with pilot. Another plane developed engine trouble shortly after take-off and was forced to return. The sole plane that continued on its mission found the target through the bad weather and proceeded to drop its two 65 pound bombs. At a later date it was discovered that the damage was negligible, but apparently the appearance from seaward of this single craft led the Germans to consider the possibility of larger raids and had some salutary effect.
On the second of May, 1916, Engadine operated with the First Light Cruiser Squadron and sixteen destroyers off Horn Reef in attempting to draw out the German Fleet. On the thirty-first she was stationed between the light cruisers Gloucester and Cordelia and appears to have acted as a linking ship. Admiral Beatty ordered her planes up to scout to the north-northeast and they were successful in spotting four German light cruisers on a southerly course. This seems to have been one of the few times during the battle that adequate advance intelligence of enemy units was received prior to their appearance at gun ranges. Admiral Jellicoe in The Grand Fleet, 1914-1918 specifically mentions that this was the first time seaplanes were used for reconnaissance work with the Fleet. At the same time, this was the only time in the engagement that the Engadine's planes were sent aloft and the only attempt at air cooperation with the naval forces. While the general tenor of comments in writings on these events is that it was a fine thing, a sin of omission is most evident—no one develops or recommends the possibilities of this surface-air cooperation until later. In justice, it must be reiterated that the first aircraft carriers did appear in the years immediately following.
The Engadine performed one more notable feat during the battle. The cruiser Warrior had been disabled and the Engadine took her in tow despite poor conditions on the morning of the first of June. The Warrior finally reached sinking conditions and the captain of the Engadine skilfully brought his ship alongside and rescued all 705 officers and men of the cruiser before the latter went down. From there on the history again becomes dim and the little ship rates no further mention.
At any rate, she did quite well by herself for another twenty-three years and ended her career with colors flying. She now lies somewhere off the island of Corregidor, whose name she bore at the end, in the deep waters of the channel, with the brass plaque undoubtedly still fastened under her bridge, to attest to her gallant past.