Other Ships that suffered internal explosions
Between November 1914 and September 1918, five Royal Naval ships suffered from major internal explosions that led to catastrophic losses.
These ships were:
- HMS Bulwark that blew up on 26th November 1914 whilst moored in the River Medway.
- HM Auxiliary Ship Princess Irene that blew up on 27th May 1915 in Sheerness Harbour.
- HMS Natal that blew up on 30th December 1915 whilst at anchor in the Cromarty Firth.
- HMS Vanguard that blew up on 9th July 1917 whilst at anchor in Scapa Flow.
- HMS Glatton that blew up on 16th September 1918 whilst at anchor in Dover Harbour.
Towards the end of 1919 a series of technical histories of the Naval war was published by the Technical History section of the Admiralty. This account of four of the disasters ( HMS Bulwark, HMS Natal, HMS Vanguard and HMS Glatton) have been summarised from this document called “The Technical History and Index , Volume2, Part 24: The Storage and Handling of Explosives in Warships (October 1919)”. The account of HM Auxiliary Ship Princess Irene has been summarised from other sources.
HMS Bulwark was a London Class Battleship laid down in Devonport in 1899 and completed in 1902. On 26th November 1914 she was lying at her mooring in Kethole Reach on the River Medway just a few miles to the west of Sheerness Dockyard. The Technical History (1919) reports that:
“At 7.53 a.m. on26th November 1914, HMS Bulwark suddenly blew up and when the smoke resulting from the explosion cleared, no trace of the ship could be seen beyond a mass of wreckage floating around the buoy to which she had been moored. Of the ship’s company of over 750 officers and men, no officers and very few men were picked up alive and of these only nine were in a fit state to give a coherent account of the accident. At the time of the explosion most of these men were in the forepart of the ship. The survivors all stated that they heard a rumbling noise and saw a flash or flame and they knew nothing more until they found themselves in the water. The accounts of a large number of eyewitnesses all agree that the first thing seen was a bright yellow flame in the vicinity of the main mast accompanied by a rumbling explosion not unlike a distant thunderclap. The stern of the ship was certainly seen to come out of the water and the whole ship was immediately enveloped in an enormous cloud of smoke. When this cloud had cleared, the ship had disappeared.”
Early suspicions that the ship was sunk by a torpedo from a submarine or from sabotage were quickly dismissed and the cordite in the magazines was investigated. A careful scrutiny of the Dockyard copy of the cordite dates of manufacture, flame tests and usage showed that the state of the Cordite was in “good condition”. This meant that the suspicion fell on the magazine handling procedures. To quote from the Technical History (1919):
“It appeared that it had been the practice to exercise the ammunition supply parties for the 6-inch guns using live cartridges. In doing this the various lots of cordite had become mixed and on the day before the accident, a large gunner’s party was employed sorting out the cartridges in both the forward and after 6-inch magazines. This operation was carried out in the two cross passages and was not completed during the day. Men were employed at the same work in the early morning of the 26th, and from the evidence of two of the survivors who happened to visit the ammunition passages about a quarter of an hour before the explosion, it was ascertained that a pile of about 30 bare 6-inch charges remained in both the forward and after cross passages. When at a few minutes before 8 o’clock the ships company were sent to breakfast, these charges were left in the cross passage with a sentry on them.”
The conclusions of the Court of Enquiry were that:
“At about 7.45 a.m. the ships company were sent to breakfast and a few minutes later the explosion occurred. There is little doubt that the initial explosion was a cordite one and that it started in the after part of the ammunition passages. As described a train of exposed cordite was laid round the ship and by some means one of these cartridges became ignited and so caused the disaster. What the actual cause of the ignition of the cordite it is impossible to say definitely, but the fact that the ships company had just been sent to breakfast and were therefore allowed to smoke cannot be entirely ignored.”
The Court of Enquiry stated that:
“ ....they, regretfully had to express the opinion that the loss of the ship was due to the carelessness of the dead officers who had been in charge of the Gunnery Department of the ship, and that it is feared that to this and no other cause can the disaster be attributed.”
HM Auxiliary Ship Princess Irene
Along with her sister ship Princess Margaret, HM Auxiliary Ship Princess Irene was leased by the Admiralty on 20th January 1915 from the Canadian Pacific Railway Company for fitting out as a mine layer.
On 27th May 1915 Princess Irene was being loaded with mines at Sheerness Dockyard when, at about 11.15 a.m., she blew up. She was essentially a new vessel having been launched on 20th October on the Clyde and had a crew of 225. She was modified to carry 400 sea mines to be laid in the North Sea mine fields.
On the morning of 27th May she was moored in Salt Pan Reach at buoy 28 on the River Medway. Her crew and other naval personnel drafted in from Chatham were loading mines, whilst there were civilian dockyard workers on board finishing off the repairs and modifications.
The mines were being transferred from the mine depot on shore to the Princess Irene by barge and were then stowed on one of two mine decks. At 11.15a.m. there was an explosion that disintegrated the ship and destroyed a small steam ship and the two barges lying alongside. 273 officers and men, along with 76 civilian workers were killed and there were only four survivors. Three of the crew members survived because they were not on the ship at the time and were on shore in the Dockyard and a severely injured stoker was found floating amongst the wreckage. An unfortunate and unexpected casualty was a 9 year old girl, Ida Barden, who was struck by a piece of metal a mile and a half away on the Isle of Grain.
The Admiralty issued two statements very quickly:
“Thursday night: HM Auxiliary Ship Princess Irene was accidently blown up in Sheerness Harbour this morning. So far as is yet known, only one survivor, Stoker David Wills was picked up. Wills has sustained burns from the explosion. Three men, A.B.W Paice, Signalman J T Sutton and Chief Steward J Thompson were not on board at the time. 76 Dockyard workers were reported as having been on board and must have perished. Several men belonging to vessels lying close the Princess Irene were wounded by falling splinters.”
Later, when more information was available a new statement was issued:
273 persons on board HM Auxiliary Ship Princess Irene who in the absence of evidence to the contrary must be regarded as having lost their lives. Of this number 30 were officers, 243 were petty officers, non-commissioned officers and men including mercantile crew ratings, chiefly firemen and five ratings serving in the Steam Launch 263 which was alongside at the moment of explosion.”
As there were so many civilian casualties the local Coroner opened an inquest on the following Monday on two of the recovered bodies. After he had gathered evidence of identification he adjourned the hearing until the Admiralty had completed their investigations.
At a later inquest, Lieutenant James Manners R.N., who was a witness gave the following statement:
“I was attached to HMS Actaeon for mine sweeping duties. The ship was moored at number 2 buoy and on the morning of the explosion at eight minutes past eleven, I was on the stern of the ship checking the mooring cable. I heard a sharp loud noise followed by a terrific explosion. Those on deck were for a few moments dazed and turning towards Princess Irene saw a huge cloud of flame. The area surrounding Actaeon appeared to be full of it as it surged skywards with fragments flying out from it. At the same time vast quantities of black smoke rose over the wreck. When it had cleared, The Princess Irene had completely disappeared, together with two or three smaller vessels moored alongside her.”
By the 14th June the findings of the Naval Court of inquiry were made public. Although a thorough investigation had been carried out, a conclusive answer as to why the ship blew up could not be given. External causes such as submarine attack and sabotage were ruled out and the civilian workers on board at the time had nothing to do with the accident. The most likely cause of the explosion was the possibility that it was triggered by a faulty mine primer. The priming of these mines may have been done hurriedly by personnel who had had insufficient training.
At about 11.20 p.m., on 9th July 1917, HMS Vanguard, a St. Vincent Class Dreadnought, blew up at anchor in the Fleet Anchorage of Scapa Flow. There was no warning and it is estimated that 804 officers and men were killed.
The Technical History (1919) describes the explosion:
A flame was observed just abaft the foremast, followed after a very short interval by a heavy explosion, accompanied by a great increase of flame. A large quantity of fragments was blown abaft the foremast. A second explosion followed immediately, which considerably increased the volume of flame and smoke. An enormous amount of smoke followed the explosions and entirely obscured the ship. By the time this smoke had cleared away the ship had sunk. No one actually saw the ship sink but there is evidence that she went down by the head. Of those who were on board at the time, only one officer and two men were picked up but the officer died very shortly afterwards.
The reasons for the explosion was unclear though there were several theories examined by the Court of Inquiry. These were:
• The ignition of the cordite due to an unavoidable cause.
• An abnormal deterioration due to a charge having, undetected been subject to abnormal treatment during its lifetime.
• The ignition of some of the cordite due to its becoming unstable.
• The act of an enemy agent, probably outside the ship.
The Court of Inquiry did note that the records showed that some of the cordite had been temporarily offloaded in December 1916 (7 months before the explosion) and that it was then recorded as being beyond its use by date. It was also noted that a number of the ships boilers were still fired up and some of the watertight doors were open as the ship was in port. This may have raised the temperature that possibly caused the explosion in the cordite. The final conclusion was that a fire probably started in a 4 inch magazine, spreading to one or other of the main magazines that then exploded.
Following the Battle of Jutland in 1916 there had been a tightening of the regulations pertaining to the handling of cordite. The steps to be taken were classified under three headings:
• Improvements in the stability of the explosives issued to ships. Arrangements were made to remove 6000 tons of old cordite from the naval arsenal and replace this with cordite manufactured by improved methods. This was urgently expedited after the Vanguard but was not completed as a task until September 1918.
• Improvements in storage conditions on board, including a revision of the regulations governing the care and stowage of explosives, the routine of inspection, the taking of temperatures and the magazine log.
• Provision for the adequate safeguarding of all explosives on board, including improvements to the locking arrangements of magazines and their means of access, and stringent regulations relating to the supervision of access to and searching of compartments.
The Technical History (1919) concludes its analysis of the HMS Vanguard disaster by saying:
Although no facts have been brought to light to indicate that the cause is to be attributed to either malice of an enemy agent, the act of a lunatic, or to carelessness in handling explosives on shore, or after they were supplied to the ship, the lesson of the disaster to HMS Vanguard is that, both in peace and war, so long as a ship has explosives on board, the possibility of the existence of such causes always remains. Therefore, every precaution which can be taken must be taken. As far as can be foreseen, all such precautions are now in place.