William Isaac Thorndale


A long leave starting in November 1880 ended in January 1881 when WIT joined the Naval Barracks at Sheerness, refitting various ships including HMS Champion and the first ever British naval torpedo boat, TB1 [HMS Lightning]. In March, he was drafted to HMS Duncan for sailing trials, then in early 1882 HMS Duke of Wellington for gunnery trials, but with the onset of the Egyptian crisis, was told off for HMS Sultan. [Another central-battery-ironclad of some 9,300 tons, completed at Chatham Dockyard 1871, she was sunk after grounding on an unknown rock in the Mediterranean in 1889, but was raised, re-fitted and extensively modernised. Renamed HMS Fisgard in 1906 for Harbour service, she reverted to Sultan in 1932 and became a training ship, eventually broken up in 1946.]

HMS Duke Of Wellington HMS Sultan

A response to the murder of Europeans in the city, the bombardment of Alexandria (see map) was WIT's first naval action of his career. He spent his time at his 18 ton gun in the main battery firing 410 pound shells in its assault against the Egyptian Lighthouse Fort, fortunately being uninjured by a shell from the fort on shore which entered the fore-castle and exploded killing two of his shipmates. After the day's action, early next morning, the fleet buried its dead at sea, and prepared for more action, but a huge explosion in Fort Pharos caused by a shell from one of HMS Inflexible's 100 ton guns seemed to quell all resistance to the large ships, though the smaller gun-boats still saw plenty of heroic action.

For WIT, the worst was still to come, as he was part of the Naval Brigade which was landed in the town with orders to drive out the enemy from the streets and back-alleys and dwellings where they hid; an unenviable and dangerous task the memories of which would remain with him the rest of his life. Eventually the Marines arrived to take over the work, and the sailors could return to their ships.

HMS Hotspur

The respite was only temporary, as the Naval Brigade took its part in the skirmishes which led up to the battle at Tel-El-Kebir and the eventual defeat of Arabi Pasha's army. For WIT and the men with him, this was a special time, the iron ships being tested for the first time under battle conditions, and later, during the return trip, under sail. At Gibraltar, WIT received his Egyptian Medal and Khedive's Star. See the Epilogue page for some more details of WIT's medals.

Life became less dangerous then, though every bit as busy for a sailor, as Sultan made a number of short sailings around the coasts of Britain and Ireland. In 1884, WIT joined the training ships HMS Excellent (Captain Dunville) and Vernon (Captain Markham). But more action threatened with the onset of the Russian crisis, and WIT joined HMS Hotspur, described by him as a torpedo ram ship. [An iron-clad turret ram ship, completed in 1871 by Robert Napier and Sons on the Govan. 4,000 tons displacement. She had a single gun which revolved inside a fixed turret, so was only able to discharge her weapon through the most convenient of a series of apertures in the wall. Broken up 1904.]

With the scare settled without recourse to military action, the fleet dissembled and WIT returned to Excellent, then HMS Minotaur for more training, before being told off for the new screw corvette, HMS Calliope.