Recent Discovery of Wrecked HMS Terror, a Bombing Vessel From a Failed Arctic Expedition

The HMS Terror in the Arctic.
The HMS Terror in the Arctic.

A sunken vessel was recently found off the coast of King William Island, matching the description of a bombing vessel from the 1800s. The Arctic Research Foundation discovered the site on September 12, and it has been named a National Historic Site of Canada.

To protect the wreck site from looting, the exact location of the wreck has not been revealed to the public. But what is the history of this discovery?

Satellite image of the coast of King William Island.
Satellite image of the coast of King William Island.

A Successful Career

HMS Terror was built in 1813 for the British Royal Navy. She saw action in the War of 1812 and participated in the attack on Fort McHenry. There the Americans won a decisive victory, forcing the British to withdraw. This battle, sometimes referred to as the Battle of Baltimore, has gone down in history due to its important connection to the U.S. National Anthem which was written by Francis Scott Key during the action.

After her military work, the ship was used for arctic exploration. She traveled on two successful expeditions, one in 1836 and another in 1839. It was her last voyage in 1845, that sent her and the entire crew, plus the crew of her fellow ship, the HMS Erebus, to the bottom of the ocean.

Military Career

Depiction of Fort Henry and the Battle of Baltimore.
Depiction of Fort McHenry and the Battle of Baltimore.

Built in Devon, the HMS Terror was launched in 1813 and was 102 feet long, with 2 mortars and 10 cannons. In addition to the action seen at the Battle of Baltimore, she also participated in the Battle of Fort Peter and the attack at St. Marys.

She experienced a brief rest from the end of the war until March 1828. She was then recommissioned to patrol the Mediterranean but suffered damage in Lisbon, Portugal. After that, she was removed from active duty.

Polar Duties

The ship was later refitted and refurbished appropriately for polar exploration. Due to her prior work as a bomb ship, she already boasted a sturdy frame which was needed to go up against sea ice, an important factor.

Her first expedition in 1836 was led by Captain George Back. It was intended to explore Hudson Bay and the Boothia Peninsula, to determine whether or not it was a peninsula or an island.

At one point during the expedition, the ship was forced nearly 40 feet up the side of a cliff, due to the ice. She was trapped for ten months and then later struck an iceberg. On the return trip home, she almost sank in the Atlantic but was able to make it to Ireland, where she was beached.

However, this was hardly the end for HMS Terror. The ship underwent the necessary repairs and headed to Antarctica in 1839. James Clark Ross was in command of this expedition, which lasted three years. The ship crossed the Ross Sea twice, went in and out of Antarctic waters three times and also visited the Weddell Sea. The ship even gave its name to a volcano on Ross Island, which is now called Mount Terror.


The Lost Expedition

A 19th-century painting depicts the frustration the British experienced at being unable to conquer the Northwest Passage completely.
A 19th-century painting depicts the frustration the British experienced at being unable to conquer the Northwest Passage completely.

This last expedition is often referred to as Franklin’s Lost Expedition. It was intended to explore the final portion of the Northwest Passage that had yet to be navigated. The crew was also expected to collect magnetic data.

Before leaving on the arduous journey, HMS Terror again underwent extensive refurbishments. Steam engines, previously used on locomotives, were installed, as well as screw propellers.

She and HMS Erebus were the first ships of the Royal Navy to use steam-powered engines and these screw propellers. Iron was added to the hulls, and the decks were refitted to face impacts better.

For power, she carried a 12-day supply of coal. Other supplies included two tons of tobacco, more than 2,000 gallons of liquor and 8,000 tins of preserved foods. Also, the ship now came outfitted with duct heating and a library with more than one thousand books.

Sir John Franklin, leader of the fated expedition.
Sir John Franklin, leader of the doomed expedition.

The entire journey was planned to last three years. The last time the ships were seen, they were entering Baffin Bay just three months after they left England in 1845. The Admiralty sent out a search for them in 1848, and other search parties followed until there was a total of 13 ships involved.

Together, they were able to piece together what happened. It is believed both ships became completely icebound and their crews abandoned them. They attempted to walk across the ice and deserted land to reach Fort Resolution. During the trek, many died, either starving or freezing to death.

Search expeditions continued up until 30 years ago when it was discovered (through crew autopsies) that perhaps the vast preserved food supply was tainted. Other later reports claim the men resorted to cannibalism.

A painting, entitled Man Proposes, God Disposes, inspired by the Lost Expedition.
This painting, by 19th-century artist Edwin Henry Landseer, entitled Man Proposes, God Disposes, was inspired by the Lost Expedition.

The expedition is considered the worst polar expedition disaster in the history of the British Royal Navy.

Modern Discoveries

In 2008, the Canadian Government announced a new search for HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. The ships were not found during this time. In 2014 an underwater vehicle finally discovered the remains of the other ship, before finding HMS Terror this year.

The recently discovered wreckage is said to be in excellent condition. Underwater vessels are being used to explore the wreck and take photographs. Much of the interior is very well preserved, including the remains of wine bottles and food to dishware and furnishings.

Holly Godbey

Holly Godbey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE