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Solving a mystery of military blunder

The Bermuda Triangle has spawned many mysteries -- but few as haunting as the loss of HMS Atalanta , lost with all hands nearly 120 years ago.

And in David F. Raine's comprehensive study of the frigate's fate, he comes up with an even more sinister explanation than the standard little green men from Mars or the the magnetic effects of the lost continent of Atlantis.

For Raine -- whose research spanned nearly a decade and involved burrowing into the musty archives of the Admirality -- points the finger firmly at a deathtrap design and a combination of Sea Lords and marine architects too hidebound to admit the ship was a mistake.

All that is known for sure is that the former HMS Juno , renamed and refitted as a Royal Navy sail training ship, left Bermuda on January 31, 1880 -- and vanished.

But, from the logs of other ships, Raine speculates the ship sank like a stone in the teeth of a hurricane on the early hours of February 13 -- a truly black Friday for the 275 souls aboard.

Raine painstakingly -- perhaps a little too painstakingly -- reconstructs the career of the ship designed by Surveyor of the Navy Sir William Symonds.

And he notes -- of the 180 ships built on his watch from 1832 to 1847 -- a third were lost at sea, the worst peacetime loss of vessels the Navy had ever experienced.

But the then-HMS Juno was launched in 1844 on a tide of optimism as a new design falling midway between the traditional, broad, warship and the steamships, set to take over the Navy.

Wholly a sailing ship, Juno's sleek, narrow, sharp-keeled design was built for speed -- hardly surprising from a man whose sole qualifications for the job, apart from patronage, was the design of a racing yacht.

She apparently completed her maiden voyage to the South Pacific -- but was mysteriously withdrawn from service on her return in 1848 and mothballed.

In 1853, she was recommissioned, but once again pulled from service on her return from a cruise to Australia in 1857.

And it took catastrophic fires aboard two other sail training ships in 1875 and 1876 before the frigate was called to the colours once more in 1878 as a once-again altered replacement.

Her trip to the West Indies was marked by a storm, which had her eventually limping into Bermuda with hull damage, fractured pipes and pump damage, although she eventually made landfall in Portsmouth.

And despite a damning report from Captain Francis Stirling, the Sea Lords judged her fit to sail again.

Raine contends that the straw which broke the camel's back -- almost literally -- was the loading of an experimental Nordenfeldt gun in Bermuda for transport to England on what proved to be Atalanta's last voyage.

The tons of extra deadweight, Raine argues, pushed the fundamentally unstable ship over the edge of seaworthiness.

A selective inquiry into the loss failed to call key witnesses and was severely restricted in its terms of reference.

The inquiry, a classic case of the Naval establishment protecting its own, found there had indeed been a disaster. End of story.

Raine's book is marred by printing errors and could have done with closer attention to proof-reading.

And he admits himself his search for the truth may have become "obssessive'' -- leading to a touch of the trainspotter's enthusiasm, not, perhaps, necessarily shared by the ordinary reader.

But he makes up for the defects with a picture of a Royal Navy which still managed to rule the seas -- despite incompetence at the highest levels and a Nelson-like blind eye to glaringly obvious defects in many of its ships.

In the end, there was no real mystery. It was a case of "lions led by donkeys'' -- a state of affairs which would reach its tragic conclusion less than 40 years later in the green fields of France.

-- Raymond Hainey BOOK REVIEW REV BKS