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The Loss of HMS Vanguard 9 July 2017

At about 23:20 on 9 July 1917 the dreadnought battleship HMS Vanguard blew up and sank at Scapa Flow. A flame was observed, followed by an explosion, more flames and smoke and a second explosion. The smoke completely obscured the ship, which had sunk by the time it cleared.

Only three of the 845 men on board were picked up. One of those, Lieutenant Commander Alan Duke, died in hospital two days later. The dead included Commander Ito, a Japanese observer with the Grand Fleet, and two defaulters from HMAS Sydney, who were being held in Vanguard’s cells. Some of Vanguard’s crew survived because they were attending

Previous posts in this series have dealt with the losses by accidental explosions of the old battleship HMS Bulwark on 26 November 1914 and the armoured cruiser HMS Natal on 30 December 1915. HMS Princess Irene, a minelayer converted from a liner, was also lost to an accidental explosion on 27 May 1915.

Several warships of other countries were also lost to internal explosions whilst in harbour during the First World War: the Italian pre-dreadnought battleship Benedetto Brin on 27 September 1915 and dreadnought Leonardo da Vinci on 2 August 1916; the Japanese battle cruiser Tsukuba on 14 January 1917 and dreadnought Kawachi on 12 July 1918; and the Russian dreadnought Imperatritza Maria on 20 October 1916. The two Italian ships were probably sabotaged by the Austrians, the Japanese and Russian ones lost to accidental explosions.[1] The old Chilean battleship Capitan Prat was damaged but not lost by an internal explosion.

A dockyard worker called John Harston had been working on Vanguard shortly before her loss. William Schleihauf says that he had also been on board Natal before she exploded, whilst a thread on the Great War Forum says that he had also worked on Bulwark and Princess Irene. The Court of Inquiry into Vanguard’s loss took evidence from Harston and his assistant Robert Williams, concluding that there was no reason to suspect them. Harston continued to work for the Admiralty, eventually retiring with a full pension.

Schleihauf points out that Vanguard, although less than 10 years old was obsolescent because of the rapid advance in naval technology. She had 12 inch guns, whilst the latest British dreadnoughts had 15 inch guns and were larger and faster. The other British ships lost to explosions in port were obsolete. Saboteurs could have found more valuable targets that were no better guarded.

The Court of Inquiry concluded that Vanguard was lost because of a magazine explosion resulting from the ignition of cordite which could have been caused by a number of reasons: an avoidable cause; abnormal deterioration in a charge because it had been abnormally treated; sabotage by the enemy; or the cordite becoming unstable. It made 13 recommendations for improvements in handling processes and storage.

Admiral Sir David Beatty, C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet, concluded that the loss Vanguard was ‘probably due to defective cordite.’[2] The men killed when she exploded are listed on naval-history.net.

Vanguard is now an official war grave. Her White Ensign is regularly changed by RN divers. Ceremonies were held to mark the 100th anniversary of her sinking at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney, over her wreck in Scapa Flow and at the nearby Lyness Naval Cemetery, where the 41 men whose bodies were recovered are buried.

In addition to the footnoted sources, this post is based on the following websites, all accessed on 11 July 2017:

BBC News, ‘Orkney service marks HMS Vanguard sinking centenary’

 

The World War I Document Archive, ‘Explosions in Warships During the War’

 

The Great War Forum, ‘Sabotage what a coincidence’

 

William Schleihauf, ‘Disaster in Harbour: The Loss of HMS Vanguard’

 

[1] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 229, 233, 256, 259, 303.

[2] Quoted in A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. iv, p. 42.

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The First VC Awarded to a Submariner

The first submariner to be awarded the Victoria Cross was Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, captain of HMS B11. He received Britain’s highest award for gallantry after his boat sank the elderly Ottoman pre-dreadnought battleship Messudieh (alternatively Mesudiye) on 13 December 1914.

The British Admiralty, keen to move as many ships as possible to the Grand Fleet, had proposed that the blockade of the Dardanelles be left to the French. However, the threat from the German battlecruiser Goeben, now flying the Ottoman flag, meant that the French insisted that the British battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable should remain.

Consequently, the blockading force consisted of Indefatigable, the light cruiser HMS Dublin and the French pre-dreadnought battleships Gaulois, Vérité, St Louis and Charlemagne, the armoured cruiser Amiral Charner and seaplane carrier Foudre. Each navy also contributed six destroyers and three submarines.[1]

The British submarines were B9, B10 and B11 of the B class. Although only eight years old, the rapid pace of development of submarines meant that they were obsolescent by 1914. They were designed for coastal patrol work with a range of 1000 nautical miles at 8.75 knots surfaced, a maximum speed of 12 knots surfaced and 6 knots submerged, an armament of two 18 inch torpedo tubes and a crew of 15. The petrol engine used on the surface made conditions for the crew even worse than in later diesel powered boats.

They had hydroplanes on each side of their conning towers to improve underwater handling, an innovation that was not repeated until US nuclear submarines were similarly fitted for the same reason 50 years later.[2]

The Ottoman navy was active against the Russian one in the Black Sea, but sat on the defensive at the Dardanelles. The Messudieh was positioned as a stationary guard ship.

The Allies conducted an active submarine campaign in the Dardanelles from December 1914, two months before the Gallipoli campaign began with a naval attack and four months before the first troops were landed. There was, however, a bombardment of the forts at the mouth of the Dardanelles by British and French warships on 3 November 1914, five days after the Ottoman fleet attacked Russian bases in the Black Sea, but two days before Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire.

Entering the Dardanelles was difficult for submarines even without the Ottoman minefields because of the current and differences in the layers of the water that made it hard to manoeuvre underwater. The British submarines were more manoeuvrable, and thus more successful, than the French ones.[3]

On 13 December 1914 B11 was chosen to be first Allied submarine to enter the Straits. They were protected by five lines of mines, but her diving planes were fitted with special guards to prevent her becoming tangled up in the mines’ wires.

Holbrook dived his boat underneath the mines, succeeding in passing them despite the strong current. He then came up to periscope depth, spotted a large enemy warship, closed to 800 yards range, fired a torpedo and dived. After hearing an explosion, he brought his boat back to periscope depth and saw that the enemy ship was settling by the stern.

The return journey was made more difficult by the fact that the lenses of B11’s compass had steamed up, making it unusable. Holbrook was not even certain where he was and had to estimate the time that it would take to clear the minefields on the way home. B11 bumped along the bottom several times. Eventually, he felt it safe to return to periscope depth. He could then see the horizon and steer for it. However, the compass was still unusable. B11 returned to base after being submerged for 9 hours to learn that she had sunk the Messudieh.

Holbrook’s VC was gazetted on 22 December, making it the first ever awarded to a submariner and the first of the war to a sailor to be announced. Commander Henry Ritchie’s VC was given for an act of gallantry on 28 November, but gazetted later than Holbrook’s. Every member of B11’s crew was decorated: Lieutenant Sydney Winn, the second on command, received the Distinguished Service Order and the other members of the crew either the Distinguished Service Cross or the Distinguished Service Medal. The DSC was awarded to officers and warrant officers, the DSM to petty officers and ratings.[4]

The citation for Holbrook’s VC, taken from this website, stated that:

For most conspicuous bravery on the 13th December 1914, when in command of the Submarine B-11, he entered the Dardanelles, and, notwithstanding the very difficult current, dived his vessel under five rows of mines and torpedoed the Turkish battleship “Messudiyeh” which was guarding the minefield.

Lieutenant Holbrook succeeded in bringing the B-11 safely back, although assailed by gun-fire and torpedo boats, having been submerged on one occasion for nine hours.

Note that English spelling of Turkish names differ.

The Ottomans blamed the loss of the Mesudiye on the Germans, who they said had insisted on putting her in an exposed position despite their opinions. She sank in shallow waters, making it possible to cut holes in her in order to extract trapped men. 37 men were killed out of a crew of 673. Many of her guns were salvaged and used in shore defences of the Dardanelles.[5]

In August 1915 the town of Germanton changed its name to Holbrook. Norman Holbrook visited Holbrook several times and his widow donated his medals to it a few years after his death. His VC is now on display at the Australian War Memorial, with a replica on show in Holbrook near a model of B11.

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 70-72.

[2] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 87. This source has been favoured where its information differs from the Wikipedia entry linked in the text.

[3] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 119.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 72-73.

[5] Ibid. vol. ii, p. 73, note 1.

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