HMS Niobe was a ship of the Diadem-class of protected cruiser in the Royal Navy. She served in the Boer War and was then given to Canada as the first ship of the then newly created Royal Canadian Navy as HMCS Niobe. After patrol duties at the beginning of the First World War, she became a depot ship in Halifax. Damaged in the 1917 Halifax Explosion, she was scrapped in the 1920s.
Niobe was built by Vickers Limited, Barrow-in-Furness and launched on 20 February 1897, entering service in 1898.
She was part of the Channel Squadron at the outbreak of the Boer War (1899–1900), and was sent to Gibraltar to escort troop transports ferrying reinforcements to the Cape. On 4 December 1899, Niobe and HMS Doris rescued troops from the SS Ismore, which had run aground. She saw further action in the Boer War, escorting troops to Cape Town, and the Queen’s South Africa Medal was subsequently awarded to the crew. She returned to the English Channel, but later escorted vessels as far as Colombo in Ceylon.
In March 1901 Niobe was one of two cruisers to escort HMS Ophir, commissioned as royal yacht for the world tour of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (later King George and Queen Mary), from Spithead to Gibraltar, and in September the same year she again escorted the royal yacht from St. Vincent to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Royal Canadian Navy
She and HMS Rainbow were given to the Dominion of Canada to seed the new Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). Payment for Niobe was deferred until after the vote on the naval service in the Canadian House of Commons. She was transferred to the RCN on 6 September 1910, commissioning at Devonport Dockyard. Before departing Great Britain, Niobe and Rainbow were altered in order to meet the requirement as training vessels for the nascent Canadian navy. This required the installation of new heating systems, an up-to-date galley and the latest in Marconi wireless.
Niobe reached Halifax on 21 October that year, her entry into the harbour timed to coincide with Trafalgar Day. Formal transfer of the ship only took place on 12 November 1910, once she had been paid for. After commissioning, the status of the new Canadian vessels and their ability to operate independently of the Royal Navy arose and prevented the ships from leaving coastal waters until the matter was settled. This initially limited Niobe to training duties in Halifax and prevented her from making a tour of the Caribbean Sea.
After departing on a training cruise, Niobe ran aground in fog off Cape Sable, Nova Scotia, on the night of 30–31 July 1911. Damage control saved the ship. The repairs took six months, completing in January 1912 and she had a permanently reduced maximum speed as a result. Upon leaving dry dock, she was laid up, pending the new government’s naval policy. The resulting court martial found that the navigating officer, Charles White, who had not been on the bridge, should have been present during the navigation of the area due to its difficulty. However it was the captain, W.B. MacDonald, who was found negligent for not ensuring his officers were performing their duties properly.
Having been laid up with the arrival of the new government, Niobe‘s condition gradually deteriorated. She was effectively rotting at her berth in 1913. However with the outbreak of the First World War, she was ordered to be brought up to an acceptable state of readiness for combat purposes. This was difficult as her crew had been sent west when she was laid up.
After returning to operational status, Niobe was sent with HMS Lancaster to patrol the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Following that from the 11-13 September 1914, she escorted The Royal Canadian Regiment, aboard the transport Canada, to Bermuda, where they took up garrison duties. On her return journey she developed defects and required a week to repair.
On 6 October 1914, Niobe joined the Royal Navy’s 4th Cruiser Squadron on the North America and West Indies Station. She was engaged in intercepting German ships along the American coast until July 1915. During this period she chased the German raider, SS Prinz Eitel Friedrich into Newport News, Virginia, which opted to interned by the Americans instead of coming out to face the cruiser once it had refueled. As the patrol work continued Niobe began to wear out. Her final patrol was 4-17 July 1915, after which she returned to Halifax. Her funnels were found to be rapidly deteriorating, her boilers were worn and her bulkheads were in poor shape. As a result of being worn out, she was paid off on 6 September 1915 to become a depot ship in Halifax.
While Niobe‘s operational life was coming to an end, Vice-Admiral Kingsmill attempted to swap her back to the Royal Navy for a newer cruiser. However the British only offered HMS Sutlej, a cruiser in a similar state of repair, and therefore nothing came of the exchange.
The Halifax Explosion of 1917 caused serious damage to upper works, and the deaths of several of her crew. However she remained in use as a depot ship until disposed of in 1920, decommissioned and sold for scrap. She was broken up in 1922 in Philadelphia.
As the first large ship in the Royal Canadian Navy, Niobe‘s name has considerable symbolic importance in the Canadian navy, being used among other things as the title of a series of scholarly papers. Models and collections of artefacts of Niobe can be found at several Canadian museums including the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and the Maritime Command Museum in Halifax. The latter devotes a room to Niobe which includes her original ship’s bell. There is also a Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corp located in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia that carries her name. The Sea Cadet Corp is known as 62 NIOBE.