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The Ramming of the Victoria


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To our eyes, accustomed to the ponderous grace, if I may coin the paradox, of twentieth-century capital ships, the "ironclads" of the 'nineties cannot but seem somewhat ugly, formless creations, with their square, boxed-in appearance and their twin funnels set side by side instead of one behind the other. Yet to the thinking of their designers, I suppose - like the feminine apparel of those days - they represented ultimate perfection, and it must be admitted that H.M.S. Victoria was at least an impressive monster. The fourth ship of her name in the history of the Royal Navy, she had been launched originally in 1887 with the intention of calling her the Renown, but had subsequently been rechristened in honour of the Queen's jubilee. Three hundred and forty feet in length and 70 feet in the beam, she drew 26 feet 7 inches of water, and carried two m-ton guns in one turret, discharging 1,800 lb. projectiles, and each capable of firing ahead and also on the side in any direction within an arc of 150 degrees. In addition to these giants there were one 30-ton gun, twelve 6-inch guns, twelve 6-pounders, nine 3-pounders, several machine guns, and eight torpedo tubes, the entire armament being able to deliver a broadside of 4,750 lbs. of metal simultaneously.

She had twin-screw triple-expansion engines of 12,000 horse-power, with forced draught and enclosed stokeholds, her bulkheads running longitudinally fore and aft, with engines on each side. The cost of the ship had been 817,841 - an immense sum in those days - and it was with great pride that Sir William Armstrong spoke of her at the launching. "To-day's ceremony," he said, "will be a memorable event in the history of Elswick, not only because the Victoria is the first armourclad that the company has built, but because she is the heaviest ship ever successfully launched in this country." His pride was shared by most people, and a silver model of the vessel was presented to Her Majesty as a jubilee gift by the officers of the Navy and Marines.

Still, there were critics who did not join in the general eulogies on the Victoria. Sir Edmund J. Reed, K.C.B., M.P., for example, drew attention to the "gross disproportion" of the unarmoured to the armoured portion of the ship, which, he stated, had been maintained by successive Boards of the Admiralty against all remonstrances, and there were other competent authorities, too, who took exception to the curtailment of the vessel's armour-belt, which extended for only 162 feet over her total length, and to the alleged dangerous concentration, besides, of her heaviest guns in a single turret.

On the afternoon of June 22, 1893, the Mediterranean Squadron, under command of Rear-Admiral Sir George Tryon, K.C.B., was cruising northward at 8.8 knots up the Syrian coast from Beyrout to Tripoli, the intention being, on arrival off that port, to turn about and enter the anchorage. The squadron was moving in the formation known as "columns of divisions, line ahead," which meant that it was divided into two columns steering a parallel course. At the head of the first column, that farthest from the land, was the Victoria, which was Admiral Tryon's flagship, followed by the Nile, Inflexible, Phaeton, Sans Pareil, Amphion and Barham. The second column was led by the Camperdown, on board which was Rear-Admiral Markham, and consisted, in addition to this ship, of the Dreadnought, Collingwood, Edinburgh, Edgar and Fearless.

In the Victoria commanded by Captain the Hon. Maurice Bourke, were 718 men, including 611 officers, seamen and boys and 107 marines, the seamen being mainly recruited from Chatham and Sheerness, while the engine-room complement, for the most part, belonged to Portsmouth. The crew were outstandingly remarkable for their general good qualities, and especially for their esprit de corps. In the previous year, when the ship went aground off the coast of Greece, they were reported to have removed a heavier weight of material from on board to the lighters than an equal number of men had ever been known to shift before in the same time, even men on the sick list having insisted on lending a hand.

Admiral Tryon, who had been indisposed for some time and had only returned to duty on the very morning of the day in question, was renowned for his exceptional talents as seaman and tactician. Entering the Navy in 1848, he had originally been private secretary to Mr. Goschen, later becoming Naval Secretary to the Admiralty, and had served with the Naval Brigade before Sebastopol. In 1885 he was the head of a committee of preparation appointed in view of a possible war with Russia. Then he was sent to Australia, where he figured as principal negotiator of the Colonial Defence Act, and on his return home was made Admiral-Superintendent of Naval Reserves, a post in which he exhibited a special genius for what one of his brother admirals called "knee-hole table work," and became a well-known writer on naval subjects. Now, in 1893, he had been appointed Commander-in-Chief in succession to Admiral Hoskins, and it was considered tolerably certain in the Service that he would shift his flag to the Battleship Hood when that vessel joined the Mediterranean Fleet. Tryon was a genuine sailor of the old school - one of those men of whom it could be said without any exaggeration at all that his ship was dearer to him than his life.

H.M.S. Camperdown, leading the second column as the squadron steamed majestically along that day off the Syrian coast, was a worthy complement to the flagship. Commanded by Captain Charles Johnstone, an officer of considerable distinction, she was one of the Admiral class of battleship, and had been built at Portsmouth Dockyard in 1885. Ten feet less in length than the Victoria, a foot and a half less in the beam, and with engines nearly, but not quite, so powerful, she yet drew rather over a foot more water than the other ship, and, with 10,600 tons, slightly exceeded her in displacement.

A little after half-past three in the afternoon the squadron had reached a point five miles N.E.¾E. from Tripoli, and it was time to change course into the anchorage. This Admiral Tryon decided to effect by an evolution known as "changing line," or the "gridiron manoeuvre," which, though tricky, had hitherto been successfully and even brilliantly performed by the squadron in the course of its recent exercise in steam tactics. Expressed in as simple terms as possible, this movement consisted, in the first place, of the two lines of ships turning inward on themselves and steaming back parallel with each other, but naturally with only half the previous distances between them; then, when the columns had completely inverted themselves thus, each pair of ships would simultaneously alter course 8 points to port, so that the entire fleet would be brought up facing Tripoli, still in "columns of divisions," but line abreast now in place of line ahead, and, of course, with the Victoria and the Camperdown at opposite ends of their respective columns to those they had previously occupied.

It was decided afterwards by the court-martial that Admiral Tryon ought never to have attempted this manoeuvre with his columns so close together as he placed them - 6 cables (1,200 yards). The error was thus explained by Sir Edmund Reed: "Even now, with steam steering-gear, a certain time elapses between the first movement of the rudder and its arrival at the 'hard over' position, and this time differs somewhat in various ships... so obviously it is essential to safety that the ship which requires the most room while turning round should be the ship to determine the least possible half-distance between two lines of ships which are to turn inwards towards each other. From what I know of the turning power of some of the ships in Sir George Tryon's squardon, I believe that even 8 cables would have been a scarcely sufficient distance apart for safety, and 6 cables wholly insufficient."

It was also suggested by Sir Edmund that possibly some modified movement was really intended, and that a misunderstanding had taken place between the Commander-in-Ghief and his officers. With regard to the Admiral's intentions, however, he was proved wrong by the evidence, and what actually happened was as follows. Just after lunch Sir George Tryon explained the proposed evolution to Captain Bourke and to his Staff-Commander, T. Hawkes-Smith. The latter officer then suggested 8 cables as a better distance to form up in two divisions than 6 cables, to which the Admiral agreed. At 2.15, however, immediately after this conversation, he ordered Flag-Lieutenant Lord Gillford to make the signal "Columns to be 6 cables apart," and this was done. Then Staff-Commander Hawkes-Smith came aft to Lord Gillford and said: "The Admiral intended the columns to be 8 cables apart," whereupon the Flag-Lieutenant immediately went below to the Admiral's cabin to report this, and to get the matter cleared up, but Sir George merely answered that he wished the distance to be left as signalled.

At 3.15 the Admiral came on deck and went up on top of the fore chart-house, and ten minutes later, by his order, the signal was hoisted for the movement of inverting the lines. Rear-Admiral Markham, on observing this signal, took it upon himself to question its correctness, as it seemed clear to him that the columns were too close to each other to leave room for such an evolution. He therefore gave orders to semaphore to the Commander-in-Chief asking if the signal was right. But before this order could be carried out the flagship herself was semaphoring to ask what the Camperdown was waiting for, and it then occurred to Mark-ham that probably the Commander-in-Chief's intention was not to invert the columns by turning them both inwards, as hitherto supposed, but by circling with his division right round the other, leaving it on his port side.

Acting on this assumption, Markham obeyed the signal without more ado. As his ship made the inward turn, however, he saw with dismay that the Victoria's helm was still being kept hard-a-starboard, whereupon he directed Captain Johnstone to go full speed astern with his starboard propeller in order to decrease the Camperdown's circle of turning. Too late, though: in the same instant his trained eye told him a collision was already inevitable, so he then gave orders for full speed astern with both engines. But before this measure had time to check the ship's speed to any appreciable extent, her ram struck the Victoria a terrible blow on her starboard bow, about 20 feet before the turret, and crushed into her almost as far as her centre-line. Had the Admiral's signal been fully carried out, there would have been similar collisions between every pair of ships from end to end of the columns.

There was much discussion afterwards as to whether Markham should have obeyed that fatal order or not. "Most people," a midshipman in one of the other ships wrote to his mother, "say that Admiral Markham should have refused to obey the signal, but I think that Admiral Tryon infused so much awe into most of the captains of the Fleet that few would have disobeyed him." The court-martial, after finding that no blame attached to Captain Bourke or any others of the surviving officers and ship's company of the Victoria, added that "although it was much to be regretted that Admiral Markham did not carry out his first intention to semaphore his doubt as to the signal, yet it would be fatal to the best interests of the Service to say he was to blame for carrying out the directions of his Commander-in-Chief, present in person."

An officer who witnessed the collision from H.M.S. Barham wrote the following account: "I had just put the glass to my eye, being desirous of witnessing again the graceful movement of the Fleet in its transposition, when the two vessels upon which my attention was naturally concentrated... came together with a tremendous crash that for a second caused each to remain motionless on the water, and then a shiver passed through both of the enormous ships, and they slowly backed away from each other through the force of the impact.... Before the Victoria had fully exposed her side to the point where I was standing, her men had commenced to spread the collision-mat over the gaping hole in her side, and I could clearly distinguish Admiral Tryon giving orders apparently as calmly as he had done a quarter of an hour before, and the crew working with the same discipline that would have prevailed in the quietest weather and under the safest conditions."

A diving-suit was brought on deck which a diver hastily put on and attempted to go over the side to ascertain the extent of the injury, and simultaneously the head of the ship was turned towards land and she endeavoured to steam for the shore, only succeeding, however, in travelling in an aimless circle. All this time, too, the sea was pouring in immense volume into the Victoria's riven hull, and now she began to settle rapidly by the head. The Admiral, realising the futility of any effort to keep the water out, gave orders for the crew to save themselves in any way they could. Men could be seen leaping from the side of the ship into the sea and swimming away for dear life. But "the magnificent discipline and the loyalty of the crew prompted many, for the first time in their naval lives, to disobey the order of the Admiral and remain with their brave commander on the deck." Out of the 107 marines 99 lost their lives, because, when the vessel was struck, they went below to close the compartments. The coxswain offered a lifebouy to the Admiral, but he refused it, saying "Save yourself." There was a midshipman named Herbert Lanyon who had been sent by the captain to aid Tryon in observing the movements of the Camperdown. Noticing this boy on the fore and aft bridge near the standard compass abaft the funnels, the Admiral said to him, "Don't stand there, youngster; go to a boat," but the midshipman refused to leave, and so did the Staff-Commander and another brave midshipman named Scarlett.

Signals had been run up on the stricken flagship calling for aid from the rest of the Fleet, and with all possible speed boats were lowered, but before these had a chance to get near the Victoria she signalled again to stop them from approaching, the Admiral having evidently realised that his ship was on the point of sinking. "About seven bells," wrote a midshipman in a letter home, "I was having a 'caulk' in the gun-room when I was woken up by the pipe 'Away all boats,' and somebody yelled down that the Victoria had been rammed by the Camperdown while at steam tactics. I am midshipman of the port lifeboat, so I nipped into her as quick as I could, and was pulling for the flagship when the Admiral made 'Negative send boats to the rescue.'... The reason he made this signal was (so some of the survivors say) because they would have been sucked down by the ship."

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