Stupidity reigns and then Admirals collide

A strong naval Commander in Chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet, in whom both his Rear Admiral as second in command, and ten Captains of Battleships had too much faith, or were too frightened to speak out, led two ships of the Fleet to a devastating collision, and a dreadful loss of life, including the C-in C himself.

HMS Victoria after her collision

Drawing from the July issue of The Graphic 1893. HMS Victoria after her collision with HMS Camperdown.

The cast.
The pre dreadnought Battleship HMS Camperdown, was built at Portsmouth Dockyard, and launched on the 24th. of November 1885, but because of delays in the provision of her main armament, she did not commission until July of 1889.

The Battleship HMS Victoria, had been launched in 1887, originally to be named Renown, but because she was ready to launch in Queen Victoria's Jubilee Year, she took the name of her Sovereign. This ship was the flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet, and Camperdown flew the flag of the second in command of that Fleet.

The latter ship carried four by 13.5 inch guns in two turrets, one fitted fore, and the other aft. On the other hand, HMS Victoria was unusual, she had fitted a single turret forward with two huge Armstrong 16.25 inch guns, they weighed in at 110 tons each, and fired an amazing 1,600 pound shell. This ship displaced 10,420 tons, and had a sister ship Sans Pareil.

Mediterranean Fleet.
Added to both Victoria and Camperdown, were another eight battleships to make up the British Fleet in the Mediterranean, they formed two divisions.  HMS Victoria wearing the flag of Vice Admiral Sir George Tryon led one division, and HMS Camperdown with  Rear Admiral Markham, as second in command, led the second division.

Admiral Tryon carried the reputation of being an expert Fleet handler, he certainly believed that to be true, but this story may well refute that belief. He discussed with his Flag Captain, the Staff Commander, and his Flag Lieutenant a complicated plan to bring his Fleet to anchor in splendid fashion.

Vice Admiral Sir George Tyron

Vice Admiral Sir George Tryon, in command of the British Mediterranean Fleet in 1893, flying his Flag in HMS Victoria.
He died as a result of the collision with HMS Camperdown.

The Fleet in two columns ( or Divisions ) 1,200 yards apart, would steam away from the coast off Lebanon, with ships in column stationed 400 yards apart. The Admiral proposed to reverse course, with both columns turning inwards, the two ships leading the columns Victoria, and Camperdown, turning together, the ships following on behind, each pair turning in succession.

After all ships had turned inwards, the columns 1,200 yards apart, would close up to 400 yards apart, then the Fleet would turn together 90 degrees to port, and when ordered, all ships would let go their anchors at the same time. It should be an evolution to watch and admire. Ten mighty ships all dropping anchor simultaneously.

The Plan.
Victoria would hoist two flag signals to denote " Anchor instantly." and Camperdown would also run up this signal hoist. As soon as Victoria's signalman hauled down this signal, it was the executive order for ten blacksmiths, one on the forecastle of each Battleship, ready with their large hammer, to all knock off the slip holding back the anchor cable, and ten anchors would all splash into the water at the same time. Spectacular!!

Some doubts.
Both the Victoria's Staff Commander, and the Flag Captain suggested to their Admiral that 1,200 yards was too close between the two ship columns, for ships to turn towards each other in safety. The Commander thought that 1,600 yards apart would be a safer distance, but even that may still be insufficient.

The Admiral agreed with them verbally ( it seems to close that discussion ) because he still told his Flag Lieutenant to keep the columns at a distance of only 1,200 yards.

On viewing this order, the Commander queried the distance with the Flag Lieutenant, who in turn, was brave enough to question his Admiral " Should the distance between columns be 1,600 yards or 1,200 yards SIR?"

Vice Admiral Sir George Tryon testily told his Flag Lieutenant to "Leave the distance between columns at 1,200 yards."

The seeds for disaster were now firmly sown!

HMS Camperdown

HMS Camperdown

Normal practice for column distances.
It was normal practice that when ships of the Fleet were formed up in columns like this, the distance between columns is worked out thus: The distance apart of ships in each column, namely 400 yards, is multiplied by the number of ships in the longest column, in this example, the number was 6 ships. So our distance is 400 yards x 6 and =2,400 yards. This would give all ships adequate sea room when turning in pairs toward each other.

The Fleet manoeuvre.
The Fleet was ordered to increase speed to 8.8 knots, and at 1500, ( 3 PM ) the Flag Lieutenant was ordered to hoist two signals: One addressed to the First Division ( ie the right hand column ) which ordered it to turn in succession 180 degrees to port. The second signal addressed to the Second Division ( ie the left hand column ) which ordered it to turn in succession 180 degrees to starboard.

Why one signal which simply ordered both columns to turn inwards 180 degrees was not ordered, I have no idea.

Turning diameter of the two Battleships.
The turning diameter of both Victoria and Camperdown under tactical rudder was 800 yards each, if full rudder was used it would reduce this diameter to 600 yards, still barely enough to keep these ships clear of each other. But the current Fleet Standing Instructions stated that tactical rudder was to be used. DISASTER BECKONED!

The ten Captains remain silent.
Although each individual Captain in these ten British Battleships must have thought this manoeuvre was fraught with danger, not one of them was game enough to second guess his Admiral and complain ( the only voice that tried to query the order was Rear Admiral Markham ) All the Captains hoisted their answering pennants close up, thus indicating to the C-in-C they understood the signal he was flying, and they were ready to execute the signal when so ordered.

Rear Admiral Markham tries to query the Admiral's signal.
If you did not understand a signal hoist from the Flagship, your answering pennant is kept at the dip, ie not close up at the yard arm. Camperdown maintained her answering pennant at the dip, and Markham ordered his signalman to semaphore the Admiral to convey to him that he did not understand the Flagship's orders. But this semaphore message was never sent.

Back in the Flagship, Admiral Tryon, impatient as ever, ordered Camperdown to show her pennants, he also belted off the signal: "What are you waiting for?"

Rear Admiral Markham cancelled his proposed semaphore message, and completely wilted, by hoisting his answering pennant close up. THE DIE WAS CAST.

Vice Admiral Tryon orders the manoeuvre.
The Admiral executed the order, and the leading ships of each division, ie Victoria and Camperdown started to turn inwards, the latter ship to starboard, and the Flagship to Port, both vessels using tactical rudder. It was soon very obvious that a collision was about to happen, both Captains failed to quickly go astern on their inner screw. )to assist a shorter turn )

Captain Burke in Victoria has asked three times if he might go astern on his port screw before he gained approval, but too much time had elapsed, the two Battleships met halfway between their respective columns, with Camperdown running in to Victoria's starboard side with a sickening crash, and opening up a very large hole below her waterline.

Camperdown's ram punched a hole 12 feel below the Flagship's waterline and penetrated some 9 feet inwards. The two ships swung together, the ram acting like a tin opener extended this breach to about 100 square feet, Victoria was mortally wounded.

Just prior to the collision, "Close watertight doors, and out collision mat" was ordered in the Flagship, but it all happened so quickly that but a few watertight doors were closed in time. Water flooded in, entering a coal bunker, the ship listed quickly to starboard, which increased, as water streamed in through the gun ports.

The stricken Victoria was down by her bows, and listing alarmingly, the bows went under, the stern rose, and the screws still turning, drove the bows even deeper towards the bottom.

Within thirteen minutes the Flagship foundered, ABANDON SHIP was ordered, but the heavy list prevented many crew leaving the ship before she sank.

358, including Vice Admiral Sir George Tryon perished, 352 Officers and sailors were rescued.

HMS Camperdown after colliding with HMS Victoria

HMS Camperdown after colliding with HMS Victoria
which sank with a great loss of life on the 22nd. of June 1893.
Photograph by Ian Burr

Subsequent Court Martial.
At the inevitable Court Martial proceedings as a result of the collision between Victoria and Camperdown, Rear Admiral Markham was asked "If he knew the proposed manouver was dangerous why did he agree to its execution?"

He responded that he had such faith in his superior officer, he thought that Admiral Tryon must have some trick up his sleeve. He thought that the C-in-C would execute the order for Markham's column to turn first, and when they had safely turned, then the second column would then be ordered to turn. Or, Tryon would use less rudder in turning Victoria and the first Division, thus turning well clear of the second Division.

Of course neither of these suppositions came to pass.

Commander John Jellicoe.
Amongst those rescued was Commanmder John Jellicoe, Victoria's Commander. He went on to become C-in-C of the Grand Fleet during WW1.

Vice Admiral Sir George Tryon's last words.
It is reported that the last words uttered by the stricken Admiral Tryon were: "IT'S ALL MY FAULT."

And the Court Martial Board agreed!

Post Script.
The wreck of HMS Victoria, has only recently been found 111 years after the tragedy of her sinking off the coast of Lenanon. She sits in 140 meters of water, standing bolt upright, about 3/4 of her length buried within the ocean floor. It is thought she is the only ship wreck world wide that lies in a 90 degree position.

Christan Francis, a Lebanese Austrian, who has been searching for Victoria for 10 years, only discovered her in August 2004.

Interestingly the British Commonwealth War Cemetery in Tripoli is named after HMS Victoria, the land donated by the Turkish Ottoman authorities to Britain in 1895.

HMS Victoria found in August of 2004

HMS Victoria found in August of 2004, 111 years after her sinking by HMS Camperdown.
She stands vertically, emulating a tombstone, which indeed she is, taking 358 sailors with her when she sank in 1893.

The Last Word.
Colonel Forrestal, the current British Defence Attache to Lebanon summed up the collision well.

"Blind Military devotion allowed something to happen, that should never have happened in the first place. The Officers knew the plan was crackers, but they went ahead anyway because they had blind faith in their Admiral."

Bringing the Story Up To Date

The wreck of the H.M.S. Victoria was discovered in 2004 and, remarkably, she is plunged vertically into the sea floor - bow first. The Victoria is thought to be the only wreck in the world to be in a 90° position



from: Pre-Dreadnought Preservation - H.M.S. Victoria, Created & maintained by Mark Howel


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