When people refer to the Birkenhead Drill, they are talking about the legendary order given to the troops standing firm on the deck of the fast-sinking troopship, HMS Birkenhead, a tragic shipwreck that took place off Danger Point on the southern Cape coast in the early 1850s.

Did you know?

The town of Stanford in the Overberg near Gansbaai has a brewery named after the HMS Birkenhead.

There is a line from a famous Rudyard Kipling poem (Soldier an’ Sailor too) that goes: 'To stand and be still to the Birken’ead Drill is a damn tough bullet to chew.'

For more than 150 years, the Birkenhead Drill has been a military reference to calmness and bravery in the face of death. And it all began with the wreck of the HMS Birkenhead off the rocky shores of Danger Point on the southern Cape coastline of South Africa.

The HMS Birkenhead was an iron-hulled troopship that had once borne the name of Vulcan in its 1st guise as a British warship. In fact, she sported a massive figurehead of the Roman god of fire, hammer in one hand and thunderbolts in the other.

On 25 February 1852 the Birkenhead, under Captain Robert Salmond, was carrying troops from a number of British units to the Eastern Cape, where the 8th Frontier War against the Xhosa was in full flow.

The vessel was less than 5km from the shores of Danger Point, near Gansbaai, at about 2am when it struck a rocky outcrop barely jutting out of the sea.

As the ship disengaged from the rock with a gaping hole in its side, water filled the forward section and more than 100 troops drowned where they slept. About 10 minutes later, the Birkenhead smashed against the rock once more, and her bottom section was torn open.

The 20-odd women and children had been rushed to the ship’s cutter (a smaller vessel) and put out on the waters. There were only three other serviceable lifeboats left for some of the men. The soldiers' horses were set free and urged overboard into the sea.

While squads were sent to man pumps and try to free the lifeboats, most of the troopers and officers on the Birkenhead were told to stand fast on deck. It was 'women and children first' – and thus was born the Birkenhead Drill.

The mental image that resounded around a profoundly shocked Britain after this disaster was of young soldiers, barely dressed, standing silent to attention on the deck as their ship disintegrated around them.

Reality was probably even more heart-rending, however, as the great white sharks that patrol the nearby seal colony of Dyer Island sensed blood in the water and created havoc with the troops trying to make their way to the shore.

A figure of 445 of the 638 souls on board the Birkenhead that night perished. Although the wreck of the HMS Birkenhead was a great tragedy, it is proudly remembered for the fortitude of British seamen in that country’s naval annals.

And although this treacherous stretch of the southern Cape coastline continued to claim victims, it took 43 years after that before a lighthouse was built at Danger Point.

Travel tips & Planning info

Related articles