colliding warships and faulty command
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Matthew Wright

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I'm a New Zealand historian with a life-long interest in matters military, particularly naval engineering. My books have principally been published by Penguin Random House. I'm a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London.
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Recent collisions at sea involving the US Seventh Fleet, tragic loss of life, and a steep repair bill for the US Navy aren’t a new problem for navies. Colliding warships and faulty command has plagued several navies over the years. In mid-1893 the Royal Navy suffered a tragic peace-time loss after two of its battleships collided off Tripoli – the the city in northern Lebanon.

colliding warships and faulty command
HMS Victoria, with raised funnels. Note the low freeboard, the single massive turret forwards, and the six-inch gun battery with ports, down the superstructure. Not visible is a 10-inch gun on the quarterdeck. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

On 22 June the British Mediterranean Fleet – eleven battleships and three cruisers – arrived off Tripoli in two lines, under command of Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon, aboard HMS Victoria. This battleship had been commissioned just three years before and was equipped with two 16.25-inch guns in a single turret. She was dubbed the ‘slipper’ because of her bizarre layout, but had high public repute on the back of her name – bestowed in 1887 during construction in honour of Queen Victoria’s fiftieth jubilee – and her heavy guns. The fact that these weapons drooped – requiring one to be rebuilt after a dozen test shots – did not diminish the public impression of power.

Tryon felt that the existing manoeuvering system – in which commands came from the top and were individually acknowledged – was stifling initiative, and replaced it with his own method, ‘TA’, in which captains followed the next ship and were expected to complete skeletal instructions. On that fateful June day he had already discussed the general anchoring manoeuvre he wanted with his captains. It was ‘make and mend’ afternoon, when the crew attended to duties such as laundry. Every hatch on the ship was open – in part to cool the interior in the Mediterranean sun. Then, as the two columns drew up to the Lebanese coast, at 3.28 pm, Tryon ordered that the two divisions turn sixteen points (180 degrees) inwards, preserving the order of the fleet.

The problem was that they had to be at least 2000 yards apart, but Tryon had ordered them to close up to 1000. That rendered the order nonsensical – all it would do was bring the lead ships into collision. That raised eyebrows on the bridge of the battleship leading the second column, HMS Camperdown, flagship of Rear-Admiral Alfred Markham. Tryon then signalled: ‘what are you waiting for?’ At that rebuke, Markham went ahead.

hms victoria sinking
HMS Victoria sinking. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The columns were moving at a little over 8 knots, and the disaster unfolded slowly; but nobody reacted until the last minute. Little could then be done aboard Camperdown to scrub off momentum, although her engines only went to 3/4 reverse power. There were similar scenes on Victoria to no avail; and Camperdown – moving at around 6 knots – crashed into Victoria some 65 feet from her stem, at an angle of about 80 degrees. Victoria was moving at 5 or 6 knots and the impact rotated her 60 feet sideways. Camperdown‘s ram penetrated 9 feet, ripping a hole below Victoria‘s waterline that was further widened to perhaps 100 square feet as the ships rotated. They remained locked for two minutes; then Camperdown began backing away.

Tryon did not think the battleship would sink and ordered the fleet not to lower boats. Then he instructed his flag captain, Maurice Bourke, to beach her. Meanwhile a damage control party tried to wrestle a collision mat into place – and the crew scrabbled to close the watertight doors, all of which were manually operated. However, many could not be reached. Others were only half-closed before rising water sent the men fleeing.

Later estimates suggested that the ship took on 680 tons of water in just two minutes before Camperdown pulled clear. This was a significant loss of buoyancy for a ship of 10,470 tons, particularly forward. Afterwards, the Director of Naval Construction advised that the inflow was determined not by the size of the hole but by the rate at which the compartments around it could fill – Victoria‘s fore-part was closely subdivided, and even though many watertight doors were open, it took a short while for each compartment to start spilling water into the next. But that was small mercy: the inflow was still tremendous. After four minutes the ship was listing to starboard and the bow had dropped 10 feet, sending water through the hawse-pipes into the upper deck. Within five minutes the water was over the foredeck and had reached the main turret, where it began rushing in through the gun ports. After eight minutes it was clear Victoria was sinking fast.

hms victoria
HMS Camperdown, via Shipbucket, by DarthPanda, CC Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 license. Note Camperdown‘s bow ram.

Ironically, it could have been much worse. The rest of the fleet were playing follow-my-leader under TA – and Victoria and Camperdown suddenly blocked the way. There was a scrabble to avoid a succession of collisions. HMS Nile – next in line – came very close to hitting Victoria.  Ships further back had more time but still had to manoeuvre sharply, slewing to port and starboard with a frenzy of threshing propellors. In just a few minutes the entire Mediterranean Fleet – the symbol of Britain’s naval prestige – was thrown into confusion, with the Victoria sinking in the middle of the chaos.

Victoria‘s commander, John Jellicoe, was sick with a fever of 103 degrees, but went on deck to get the boats hoisted. Bourke ordered abandon ship; but just 13 minutes after impact, equipment began falling to starboard with sounds audible from HMS Nile. By now water was pouring into the starboard 6-inch gun ports. Tryon climbed to the top of the chart-house and was heard to murmur something like: ‘it was all my fault’ – witnesses varied on the wording.

Suddenly the battleship lurched to starboard. Jellicoe remarked:

“I said to Lieutenant Leveson ‘we had better go down the side of the ship as she turns over’, and we started to walk down the port side, which by that time was horizontal. I had just reached the jackstay of the torpedo nets in line with the upper deck when the ship turned bottom up…when I found myself under water [I] let go and started to rise to the surface…I felt the suction of her sinking but was not drawn down.’*

The ship went down bow-first with propellors spinning, leaving survivors dotting the water. Some 358 men died; and of the survivors, 173 were injured. Camperdown, too, took severe damage, and it was only through rapid work by her crew that she did not follow the flagship.

hms victoria sinking
HMS Victoria sinking, HMS Nile standing by. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The enquiry afterwards took the form of a courtmartial, which was standard. Speculation was rife; the turning radius of each ship was well known. Had Tryon supposed the columns were further apart? Or did he envisage them wheeling past each other, on the TA system? All the court could say was that the collision was Tryon’s fault, and he had perhaps mistaken tactical radius (the distance a ship needs to turn 90 degrees) for tactical diameter (the distance to turn 180 degrees).

There were multiple officers who could have refused the order, and on whom blame could also be levelled – but neither the court, nor the Board of Admiralty, were prepared to set a precedent by which an officer was convicted for obeying a senior’s command. Markham was exonerated.  So was Bourke – doubtless to his relief, for as captain he was technically responsible for the loss. He had already been courtmartialled for grounding Victoria in 1892; and although he kept his command, was under a cloud. Legally the loss was his responsibility; and after the sinking, rescuers on HMS Nile found him a broken man: ‘He did not know how to stand nor which way to look and always had his hand over his face on deck. Down below he sat all day long with his face buried in his arms and I don’t believe he ate anything at all.’** But the court recognised his position. Like Markham, he was following a superior’s order.

It is difficult to see the disaster as anything other than systemic. Orders could not be disobeyed; and although Tryon had urged questioning as part of TA, his demand to Markham to get on with it underscored the point. There were no checks and balances. Arguably it flowed from complacency. The Royal Navy had been pre-eminent since Trafalgar – and procedures and traditions were locked in the formula of the Napoleonic period. But technology had moved on. Tryon seems to have realised the point with his TA system, but this rather personalised method never worked properly. It was another ten years – and a new century – before the service underwent some of the reforms that were so desperately needed.

The lesson was clear: just as ships are not just steel, so too are fleets more than the ships that comprise them – a lesson that, today, the US Navy appears to be learning in its 7th Fleet.

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If you want to read more on naval engineering and history, check out Dreadnoughts Unleashed, available on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

*Cited in Reginald Bacon, The Life of John Rushworth, Earl Jellicoe, Cassell & Co, London 1936, p. 65.
** Quoted in http://www.dreadnoughtproject.org/tfs/index.php/Maurice_Archibald_Bourke

 

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