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Royal Navy The First World War: join the Western Front Association, the premier organisation for study, learning and research into all aspects of The Great War 1914-18, and to understanding more about the phenomenon which shaped the 20th century http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy.html Mon, 22 Dec 2014 16:14:46 +0000 Joomla! 1.5 - Open Source Content Management en-gb The Halifax Explosion - December 1917 http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/3489-the-halifax-explosion-december-1917.html http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/3489-the-halifax-explosion-december-1917.html ss imoNot all fatalities that occurred in the First World War were as a direct result of enemy action. There are many examples of incidents and accidents throughout the Great War that resulted in injury, loss of life or damage to property. Perhaps the most significant of these accidents is, surprisingly, also one of the least well known, even to this day.

As part of the effort to provide relief to Belgium, the Norwegian transport ship the SS Imo (built in 1889) had been chartered by the international (but American based) organisation, the "Committee for Relief in Belgium", with the intention of taking supplies from the USA to Belgium. Sailing empty from Holland to New York, she arrived for inspection in Halifax, Nova Scotia on 3 December 1917 where she was detained for a few days.

The SS Imo is pictured, above and right, after the explosion.

On Thursday, 6 December 1917, the French tramp steamer the SS Mont-Blanc was heading towards Halifax. Launched in 1899, so not a particularly old vessel, she had been bought by the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, a French state-owned corporation responsible for a large proportion of France's war-time shipping requirements. The Mont-Blanc was packed full of military explosives including TNT, picric acid, benzol and guncotton; this lethal cargo was outward bound from New York, destined for France.

Leaving the Bedford Basin in Halifax Harbour, the Imo sailed towards the open sea via the narrows but, due to other traffic and contrary to regulations, she sailed on the port (left hand) side of the narrows rather than the starboard (right hand) side. Travelling at 7 knots (which, although slow, was above the speed limit of 5 knots), the Imo caused a tug, the Stella Maris to steer closer to the shore to avoid collision.

The Mont-Blanc, meanwhile, had been examined, and had taken on board a pilot. At 7am, the vessel was authorised to make its way through the narrows towards the Bedford Basin. Travelling at 4 knots, and in the correct lane, she spotted the Imo approaching in her lane.

The pilot of the Mont-Blanc gave a single blast on the ship's whistle to indicate (correctly) that the Mont-Blanc had right of way, which was answered by two from the Imo indicating she was not willing or not able to yield position. Angling towards the right (the near shore) Mont-Blanc again whistled, hoping that the Imo would do likewise and also steer to its right. The Imo again whistled twice. Hearing the series of blasts on the whistles and realising a collision was about to take place, many sailors gathered on nearby ships to watch. Both ships had cut their engines but the forward momentum of each ship could not be overcome. A last minute manoeuvre by the Mont-Blanc when she steered to port (left, away from the shore) seemed to have worked (the pilot was desperate to avoid grounding the ship as this was likely to detonate the explosives) and the ships started to pass each other. At this point, the Imo made a fatal mistake and reversed her engines. This caused the Imo's bows to swing round and she carved into the side of the Mont-Blanc by about nine feet. The impact took place at 8.45 am.

Compounding the mistakes already made, the Imo reversed, causing sparks to be created. This ignited vapours released from the damaged cargo and a fire broke out within the Mont-Blanc. Not surprisingly, the crew of the Mont-Blanc rapidly headed for the lifeboats in order to escape from the ship which was likely to explode at any moment.

The tug Stella Maris, under Captain Horatio Brannan, was towing a string of barges at the time of the collision; she responded immediately to the fire, and began dousing down the Mont-Blanc with her hoses.

stella maris

The Stella Maris. Image courtesy of The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

One of the ships in the harbour was an obsolete cruiser, HMCS Niobe, which was no longer seaworthy and was permanently moored in the dockyard for use as a depot and training ship. After the collision, Niobe's captain sent his steam pinnace with 6 volunteers - Petty Officer/Stoker Edward Beard and 5 seamen, under Acting Bosun Albert Mattison -  to help the stricken vessel.

 HMCS Niobe

HMCS Niobe

At the same time Niobe's steam pinnace headed for Mont-Blanc, the captain of the HMS Highflyer sent his whaler under Commander Tom Triggs along with 6 sailors to see if anything could be done.

Approaching the Mont-Blanc, which was now engulfed in flames, Triggs decided to board the tug Stella Maris in order to confer with her captain. After a brief discussion, and leaving the crews of the tug and Niobe's pinnace to deal with the Mont-Blanc, Triggs, in the whaler, was pulling toward the Imo, when the inevitable happened: the Mont-Blanc exploded.

The time was about 9.05 am, just 20 minutes after the collision.

 HMS Highflyer

HMS Highflyer

The force of the explosion destroyed Niobe's steam pinnace and killed its crew, while the only person to survive on the Highflyer's whaler was Able Seaman William Becker.

Mattison, Beard, Triggs and Becker received the Albert Medal. Total fatalities from the crew of HMCS Niobe amounted to 15, including Lt-Commander James Murray.

The blast was the world's largest pre-atomic explosion. Parts of the Mont-Blanc were blown 1,000 feet into the air, some coming down over 3 miles away. The water in the harbour evaporated, and the inrushing sea caused a tsunami 60 feet high which swept into the town of Halifax.

The cloud from the explosion rose over 20,000 feet, and the blast destroyed or damaged every home and factory within a 16 mile radius – a total of 12,000 buildings. The explosion was felt in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, about 130 miles to the north and even as far away as Cape Breton Island, over 200 miles to the east.

 The Halifax explosion

The only photograph of the blast, reportedly taken 15-20 seconds after the explosion.

In Halifax, over 1,500 people were killed instantly and probably over 9,000 injured. Amongst those killed were Captain Horatio Brannen and 18 members of the crew aboard Stella Maris (just 5 survived); the vessel was washed up on the shore. The crew who were on the deck of the Imo were also killed as were many other sailors who had been watching the unfolding drama on board ships in the harbour.

Back on land, the devastation was immense. An eye-witness report is available from the one survivor of the "Patricia", Canada's first motorised fire engine. Driver Billy Wells was opening a fire hydrant at the time of the blast. He recounted the day's events for the Mail Star, in its edition of 6 October 1967:

...That's when it happened ... The first thing I remember after the explosion was standing quite a distance from the fire engine ... The force of the explosion had blown off all my clothes as well as the muscles from my right arm...

Badly injured, Billy was then nearly drowned as the tsunami came over him. He explained:

...After the wave had receded I didn't see anything of the other firemen so made my way to the old magazine on Campbell Road ... The sight was awful ... with people hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads off, and some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires ... I was taken to Camp Hill Hospital and lay on the floor for two days waiting for a bed. The doctors and nurses certainly gave me great service.

 Destruction of Halifax

A view of the remains of Halifax after the explosion looking toward the Dartmouth side of the harbour. The Imo can be seen aground on the far side of the harbour.

One of the heroes of the day was Vincent Coleman who was a railway dispatcher. When warned of the imminent explosion by sailors who had been sent ashore by a naval officer, Coleman initially left his office to escape but returned to his station when he realised that two trains carrying passengers were on their way to the Richmond station. Going back to his desk at the station's telegraph office, he managed to send a brief warning message along the rail line. Coleman's Morse code message was, "Hold up the train. Munitions ship on fire and making for Pier 6... Goodbye boys."

His warning was heeded and trains stopped all along the line. Coleman is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery where a total of 8 military personnel who were killed on this day are commemorated.

 Halifax building, after the explosion

A building destroyed by the Halifax Explosion


For some time there was a belief that the explosion was the work of German agents, and a Norwegian sailor on the Imo was arrested as he was thought to be German. The Captain of the Mont-Blanc was charged with manslaughter, but was acquitted at his trial. In 1919 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the Imo and Mont-Blanc were equally to blame for the tragedy.

There are a number of sites commemorating the explosion, the largest of which is the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower. This is the location of an annual civic ceremony every year on the anniversary of the explosion. There are other memorials in the area, and simple monuments mark the mass graves of explosion victims at the Fairview Lawn Cemetery and the Bayers Road Cemetery.

The Imo was repaired and, renamed Guvernøren ("The Governor") in 1918, returned to sea. She served as a whale oil tanker until November 1921, when she ran onto rocks at Cow Bay off the Falkland Islands.

Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries and Memorials which commemorate casualties from this astonishing explosion include Halifax (Fort Massey) Cemetery, Halifax (Mount Olivet) Cemetery, Halifax (St John's) Cemetery and the Halifax Memorial

Article contributed by David Tattersfield
Development Trustee, The Western Front Association


webmanager@westernfrontassociation.com (Web Editor) Royal Navy Sun, 22 Dec 2013 20:14:48 +0000
HMS Vanguard and other accidental losses in British home waters http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/3142-hms-vanguard-and-other-accidental-losses-in-british-home-waters.html http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/3142-hms-vanguard-and-other-accidental-losses-in-british-home-waters.html The large scale loss of life in the First World War is more often than not attributed to engagements in battle or, at least, as a result of enemy action of some sort. However, this is not always the case. The event that caused the greatest number of deaths in a single incident to those serving in the armed forces during the Great War was not caused by enemy action. It occurred in July 1917 when HMS Vanguard exploded at Scapa Flow (the Royal Navy's base for the Grand Fleet).

HMS Vanguard in 1909On the morning of 9 July 1917, HMS Vanguard undertook routine exercises around Scapa Flow. The ship returned to its anchorage with the rest of the fleet at about 6.30pm. At about 11.20pm witnesses reported:

... visible flame coming up from below just abaft the foremast, this being followed, after a short interval, by a heavy explosion accompanied by a very great increase of flame together with a very large quantity of wreckage fragments thrown up abaft the foremast in the vicinity of "P" and "Q" turrets. This explosion was followed after a short interval by a second explosion which considerably increased the volume of flame and smoke (and no doubt debris), but smoke had previously obscured the ship so that the vicinity of this explosion could not be exactly located. The evidence, however, points to it being just abaft the first one.

(Report of the Court of Enquiry into the Circumstances Attending the Loss of H. M. S. Vanguard on the 9th July, 1917. From The National Archives, Reference ADM 137/3681)

The cause of the explosion that ripped through the Vanguard was never determined. One suggestion is that unstable cordite detonated in one of her magazines, another is that a fire may have heated a bulkhead – and that the heat was transferred through the bulkhead into the magazine, thus igniting the cordite.

Whatever the cause, the explosion was spectacular, with one of her 12 inch turrets being blown off and landing a mile away.

Vanguard was launched in 1909, and commissioned the following year. She was part of a class of battleship that had evolved out of the design of the revolutionary HMS Dreadnaught, a vessel which redefined how such vessels were constructed. First Sea Lord Admiral 'Jacky' Fisher was determined that Britain would not be out-gunned at sea by the rapidly expanding Imperial German Navy, so he commissioned a number of classes of battleships as part of the pre-war arms race with Germany.

adm fisher

Image: Admiral Fisher (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Vanguard was present at the Battle of Jutland (which took place on 31 May 1916), and she returned to Scapa Flow with the rest of the Grand Fleet in readiness for any future naval action. No action came, and a series of exercises and drills became the usual routine. With a complement of about 758, it seems from surviving lists that about 95 officers and crew were fortunate enough not to be on board at the time of the explosion. However the CWGC database lists a total of 835 who were killed on 9 July 1917 who were part of the ship's crew. Of these, 621 are commemorated on the Chatham Naval Memorial, and most of the rest on the Portsmouth and Plymouth Naval Memorials. Only 17 bodies were recovered. Just three men survived the explosion and one of them, Lt-Commander Duke, died of his injuries a few days later.

Not included amongst those commemorated by the CWGC (as he was not a member of Britain's armed forces) is Commander Kyosuke Eto. Eto was a military attaché of the Imperial Japanese Navy and, in 1916, he was assigned as a military observer on board Vanguard.


Image: Kyosuke Eto (image courtesy of Wikipedia)


Image: Kyosuke Eto being introduced to HM King George V (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The loss of the Vanguard was not the first catastrophic, accidental loss of a battleship. The war was only three months old when HMS Bulwark, a much older vessel, exploded.


Image: HMS Bulwark (image courtesy of www.maritimequest.com)

Bulwark was part of the 5th Battle Squadron and based at Sheerness. The role of the squadron was to protect the South East of England from the threat of a German invasion. On Thursday, 26 November 1914 she was moored in the Medway Estuary approximately between East Hoo Creek and Stoke Creek when, at 7.50am, a massive explosion ripped through the ship.

Of the 14 men to survive, most were seriously injured. Miraculously a small number survived without even being injured, having been blown out of an open hatch. One of these survivors, Able Seaman Marshall, described feeling a "colossal draught" and, as he flew through the air, seeing the Bulwark's masts shaking.


Image: The aftermath of the explosion of HMS Bulwark (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Other witnesses were on the battleship HMS Implacable, which was moored next to Bulwark, and they described;

"...a huge pillar of black cloud belched upwards ... [which] was followed by a thunderous roar. Then came a series of lesser detonations, and finally one vast explosion that shook the Implacable from mastheads to keel."

Among those killed were six 15-year-old sailors: Midshipman William Ellice (who had earned 'blues' at Osborne in Rugby, Cricket and Hockey); Signal Boy Benjamin Spencer; Midshipman Evelyn Williamson, Bugler Philip Bullen, Royal Marines; Boy 1st Class William Kellow; and Midshipman Charles Wilson.

On that afternoon, Winston Churchill (The First Lord of the Admiralty) made the following statement to the House of Commons:

I regret to say I have some bad news for the house. The Bulwark battleship, which was lying in Sheerness this morning, blew up at 7.35 o'clock. The Vice and Rear Admiral, who were present, have reported their conviction that it was an internal magazine explosion which rent the ship asunder. There was apparently no upheaval in the water, and the ship had entirely disappeared when the smoke had cleared away. An inquiry will be held tomorrow which may possibly throw more light on the occurrence. The loss of the ship does not sensibly affect the military position, but I regret to say the loss of life is very severe.

The subsequent naval court of enquiry found that shells and other ammunition had been stored in the corridors between the magazines, and that a fault with one of the shells or overheating cordite near a boiler room bulkhead could have started a chain reaction which destroyed the ship.

The CWGC Debt of Honour database names 788 men from HMS Bulwark as having lost their lives in this explosion. Most of the fatalities are named on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, but 61, whose bodies were located, and could be identified, are buried in Gillingham (Woodlands) Cemetery (photograph below).

Gillingham (Woodlands) Cemetery

The inscription on the memorial reads:


HMS Princess Irene, which is mentioned on the memorial in Gillingham Cemetery, exploded just five months after the Bulwark disaster.

Built in Scotland in 1914, Princess Irene, and her sister ship Princess Margaret, were ocean-going liners designed to serve the West Coast of Canada. Both were requisitioned by the Admiralty before they could sail to Canada and converted into mine-layers.


At about 11.15 on the morning of 27 May 1915, HMS Princess Irene was moored at Number 28 buoy about three miles west of Sheerness. Of the Princess Irene's complement of 225 officers and men, three were ashore that morning. Also on board was a party of 80 Petty Officers from Chatham plus 76 Sheerness Dockyard workers.

As the mines were being primed on the ship's decks, there was a massive explosion. Two columns of flames shot to a height of about 300 feet followed by a pall of smoke which hung over the spot where Princess Irene had been. The smoke reached up to 1,200 feet. The explosion also destroyed two barges that were lying alongside Irene. Although the explosion was much larger than that which had destroyed HMS Bulwark, the loss of life was somewhat smaller.

Some 350 fatalities were incurred in this explosion, including a nine-year old girl who was hit by flying debris. A farmhand and another man working on a collier moored half a mile away also died of their injuries (the latter being killed by flying metal weighing 70 lbs). Body parts and sections of the ship were blown over a wide area, with some wreckage being located 20 miles away. There was just one survivor from the Princess Irene.

Evidence at the official enquiry showed that the work of priming the mines was being carried out in a hurry and by untrained personnel, although it was believed that there may have been a fault in the primer of one of the mines.

Most of the dead are commemorated on Naval Memorials at Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham, but seventeen are – as with the casualties from HMS Bulwark – buried at Gillingham (Woodlands) Cemetery, including the civilian Bertie Clary.

Yet another internal explosion caused the loss of a Royal Naval vessel within a further few months. On 30 December 1915, HMS Natal was lying at Cromarty Firth with the rest of her squadron. Whilst a number of the Natal's 700 strong crew were on shore watching a football match, most of her officers and men were on board. They had been joined by a small part of civilians, who, at the invitation of the captain, had come on board to watch a film. At 3.25pm a number of explosions racked the stern of the ship.


On this occasion there was a much larger number of survivors, perhaps as many as 300. The five minutes it took for her to capsize was probably crucial in allowing this many to escape. However, losses were still heavy, with up to 420 being killed.

Of the 407 officers and men from HMS Natal commemorated by the CWGC, nine named casualties (plus one unidentified fatality) are buried at Rosskeen Parish Churchyard Extensions, with a further eight buried at Cromarty Cemetery. (Images courtesy of the CWGC).

Rosskeen Parish Churchyard Extensions

Image: Rosskeen Parish Churchyard Extension

Cromarty Cemetery

Image: Cromarty Cemetery

The official enquiry into the loss of HMS Natal concluded that it was caused by an internal ammunition explosion, possibly due to faulty cordite.

Major losses of life in 'home waters' were not confined to large battleships and cruisers of the Royal Navy. Troops were coming to the UK from abroad, often from far-flung parts of the British Empire.


Image: SS Mendi

The SS Mendi was a steamship chartered by the Government and, on 21 February 1917, was passing the southern tip of the Isle of Wight on the last leg of her journey from South Africa to France. On board were 823 members of the 5th Battalion, South African Native Labour Corps. Most of the men had never been to sea before and could not swim. In thick fog, the Mendi was inching her way forward, when out of the mist came the SS Darro, travelling at full speed. The Darro was twice the size of the Mendi, and hit the Mendi in the bow, virtually cutting her in two. Because of the list which the Mendi immediately assumed, half of the lifeboats were unable to be deployed.

In the following 25 minutes, the troops gathered on deck, and what followed has become famous in South Africa. The battalion's chaplain, the Reverend Isaac Wauchope addressed the men:

Be quite and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies.


Image: Rev Isaac Wauchope Sometimes referred to as Rev Isaac Wauchope, and sometimes as Rev Isaac Dyobha, legend has it that he addressed the men on the sinking ship (image courtesy of Wessex Archaeology)

Of the 611 South Africans who lost their lives, only 14 have known graves (of these, most are buried in Portsmouth (Milton) Cemetery); the 597 with no known graves are commemorated on the Hollybrook Memorial, in Southampton.

Only weeks before the end of the war, there was a further collision which led to a dramatic - and now sadly forgotten - loss of life.

On 6 October 1918 the HMS Otranto (an armed transport) was approaching the UK when she collided with HMS Kashmir (another troop transporter) in poor visibility and rough seas in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Scotland.


Image: HMS Otranto

The Otranto was transporting US troops as part of the build up of the American Expeditionary Force. The sinking caused the deaths of 351 US 'Doughboys' and eighty British sailors. The destroyer HMS Mounsey managed to take off many troops, thus preventing a much greater loss of life.

The British dead are buried at Kilchoman Military Cemetery on the Isle of Islay. The remains of the American troops were also once buried there too but, in 1920, the US Government exhumed the bodies and these were either repatriated to the USA or reburied in the American Cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey. This cemetery adjoins the CWGC Military Cemetery and Memorial (also on this site is the relatively new Brookwood (United Kingdom 1914-1918) Memorial).


Article contributed by David Tattersfield

Acknowledgements: other than those mentioned in the text, also grateful thanks to Wessex Archaeology for use of the passage about the sinking of the SS Mendi.


3135lish@gmail.com (Editor) Royal Navy Sun, 23 Jun 2013 13:01:49 +0000
The Curious Case of Cornelius Costello http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/3141-the-curious-case-of-cornelius-costello.html http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/3141-the-curious-case-of-cornelius-costello.html Towards the end of the war, an explosion occurred on a Royal Navy monitor in Dover Harbour which, had quick action not been taken, could have led to the devastation of the town on a very large scale

P/S Bjørgvin was the name given to a large monitor that had been ordered by the Norwegian Navy before the beginning of the Great War. In 1914 the ship, which was under construction, was requisitioned by the Royal Navy (with full compensation paid to the Norwegians) and renamed HMS Glatton. After undergoing modifications she was finally commissioned on 31 August 1918 and sailed for Dover.

HMS Glatton

Image: HMS Glatton (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

At 6.15pm on 16 September, whilst in Dover Harbour, a small explosion ignited cordite stored in one of the Glatton's magazines. Flames shot upwards and outwards and started to spread aft. The ship's captain ordered the magazines to be flooded but the crew were unable to do this to all the magazines because of the spread of the fire.


Image: The ammunition carrier, the Gransha (image courtesy of Historical RFA)

Lt William Pearce described the event:

I saw the collier ship steam away from the Glatton, when suddenly the September night was torn by the roar of an explosion that reverberated against the towering cliffs and shook the town to its foundations, sending my tug, berthed against the Prince of Wales pier, rocking crazily. Dense white smoke rose from the Glatton, great flames leaped heavenwards in a pillar of yellow light.

In less than five minutes we were alongside the blazing ship. On the Glatton's deck were dozens of officers and men, terribly wounded. Some were lying prostrate, others writhing in agony from burns. The ship was burning fiercely, for her oil fuel had caught alight. Then someone shouted, "For God's sake flood the magazines!"

With a thrill of horror I realised the awful peril. Fore and aft were two magazines of live ammunition, and if the fire reached them the very town of Dover would be blown to smithereens. There was scarcely a ship in the harbour that wasn't carrying a deadly load – ammunition, depth charges, and mines. Another explosion aboard the Glatton might easily detonate the whole lot.

Running out a length of fire hose we scrambled aboard the Glatton, but instantly fell back. It was almost as though the heat had hit us a blow. How we ever found our way through the scorching suffocating barrage of smoke to the fore end of the ship, where many ratings were trapped, I shall never know.

Vague figures kept looming up – wounded men struggling to escape, officers and ratings who had come aboard to join in the work of rescue. For by now many small craft from the other ships were swarming round the Glatton. There were many grim scenes as such wounded as could be reached were borne away.

A band of ratings had volunteered to flood the fore magazine, or to open the stopcocks and sink the ship. This end of the ship was full of gas; it drove the men back choking and spluttering.

Moored 150 yards away was an ammunition ship called the Gransha. Fearing the flames would cause an explosion which could trigger a secondary explosion on the Gransha (this could have caused devastation on the scale of what happened to the Canadian port of Halifax earlier in the war), Vice Admiral Roger Keyes ordered Glatton to be torpedoed in an attempt to flood the magazines. The first torpedo failed to explode because it had been fired too close to Glatton. The second torpedo detonated but was insufficiently powerful to penetrate through her defensive anti-torpedo bulge and Glatton remained afloat, still burning. Larger torpedoes were fired at 8.15pm which succeeded in causing Glatton to capsize - dousing the fire.

Fatalities commemorated by the CWGC total 95, with many others being seriously injured. Most of the dead from this incident are buried in Gillingham (Woodlands) Cemetery.

One of the dead was believed to be a Stoker by the name of "Robert Snowball". However, behind this simple name lies a complex story. Among the men enlisting in the Middlesex Regiment in 1915 was someone who called himself Patrick Rafferty. Rafferty transferred to the Machine Gun Corps in February 1916 whilst, at the same time, reverting to his real name of Cornelius Costello. Costello later transferred back to the Middlesex Regiment before deserting in October 1917.

Later, when in the London Bridge area in November 1917, Costello met with Robert Snowball (whose real name was Ralph Bonner) who was a stoker in the Royal Navy. Having had more than a few drinks, the men swapped uniforms. It was whilst in the Royal Navy uniform of "Snowball" (aka Bonner) that Cornelius Costello was arrested for being drunk. The real Snowball (Bonner) avoided arrest and fled to Ireland, in the process assuming the name of Robert Flanagan.

In the meantime, Costello (now going by the name of Robert Snowball) received 42 days detention by the Royal Navy and, after serving on HMS Redoubtable, he was eventually posted to the brand-new HMS Glatton. He was to die from the injuries sustained in the blast. Cornelius Costello is buried at Dover (St James's) Cemetery.


Image: The gravestone of Cornelius Costello

On this occasion the loss of the Glatton was not attributed to faulty ammunition but seems to have been put down to poor quality workmanship. Investigations revealed that in Glatton's sister ship, HMS Gorgon, folded newspapers had been inserted into empty spaces in the hull where cork lagging should have been used. In addition a number of rivets were missing, which meant that holes were present which could have allowed hot ashes to cause the newspapers to ignite. This, in turn, would have resulted in the paper and corking to catch fire, thus emitting flammable gases and therefore igniting the explosive cordite.


Article contributed by David Tattersfield.


My thanks to John Vaughan of the Kent and Sussex History Forum for his contribution of the story of Cornelius Costello and to the Dover War Memorial Project for the passage written by Lt Pearce.

3135lish@gmail.com (Editor) Royal Navy Sun, 23 Jun 2013 12:11:22 +0000
A policeman on board http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/3041-a-policeman-on-board.html http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/3041-a-policeman-on-board.html HMS Hampshire 1903Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, was drowned in HMS Hampshire on 5 June 1916, when it sank just west of the Orkney Islands in Scotland. Kitchener was on his way to a secret meeting with the Russians at Petrograd. This loss was seen as a serious setback to the British war effort. Most people, therefore, failed to notice that amongst the thirteen members of Kitchener's staff who died with him that day was a Detective Sergeant of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, named Matthew McLoughlin.

McLoughlin was born on 6 February 1879 in the parish of Kilcommon near Tipperary. He arrived in London in the early part of 1900 and obtained work as a labourer with H P Lee, a building contractor in Fulham; he lived for a short time at 48 Rectory Road, Fulham. He was a single man. He applied for, and was accepted into, the Metropolitan Police on 17 September 1900, as PC 161D Marylebone Police Station. He appears to have served there until 1909, when as a Detective Sergeant, he transferred to the Special Branch, progressing through the ranks to become a First Class Sergeant on 6 March 1915. During his service with the Special Branch he gained a reputation for being a discreet and extremely capable officer, with a fluent knowledge of the French language and, in the years leading to the Great War, he was involved in many important and sensitive enquiries. One of these cases involved the investigation of a dangerous Indian seditious group which was active in London at that time. The Secretary of State for India was Sir Curzon Wylie and there was great concern for his safety. Sgt McLoughlin in particular had warned the authorities of the threat but was ignored. Soon afterwards an Indian extremist walked up to the Secretary in the Imperial Institute and shot him dead.

Sgt McLoughlin also served as a protection officer to Edward VII and to George V. Prior to his last assignment, he was serving with Lord Kitchener at General Headquarters, St Omer in France. When he boarded HMS Hampshire with Lord Kitchener on that fateful day in early June 1916, it is not known whether or not he was in uniform. Some of Kitchener's staff were senior officers and were in uniform, as was Kitchener himself. Other members of staff were senior civil servants and were wearing civilian clothes.

The Hampshire set sail from the Orkney Islands at about 4.45 pm in the afternoon of 5 June with 655 on board. It originally had an escort of two destroyers but soon lost them due to very poor weather conditions and high seas, which developed into a gale measuring storm force nine. At about 7.45 pm in the evening a loud explosion was heard and a large hole was reported in the bottom of the ship. Kitchener who had been resting and reading in his cabin, was immediately escorted to the bridge by a naval officer, whose instruction 'Make way for Lord Kitchener' entered the folklore of the war. On the bridge Kitchener was joined by some uniformed members of his staff and was urged to take to the lifeboats by the Commander of the ship, Captain Herbert Savill. It appears he refused.

THE FIRST WORLD WAR 1914-1918: PERSONALITIES Eye-witness accounts indicate that there were four uniformed Army officers near Lord Kitchener and he was last seen talking to two of them as the ship was sinking. None of the witnesses saw any of his civilian members of staff, therefore without knowing if Sergeant McLoughlin was in uniform or not, it is impossible at this late stage to ascertain if he was with Kitchener when he died. One suspects that given his reputation as a loyal and devoted protection officer, he would either have been close to him, or at least on his way to him when the ship sank.

There were only twelve survivors. Although many bodies were recovered, including a senior member of the staff, the bodies of Lord Kitchener and Sgt McLoughlin were never seen again. The ship sank in only forty feet of water and remains in its final resting place to this day.

There were several theories at the time as to how she was sunk, ranging from IRA terrorists planting a bomb inside the hull, to torpedoing by submarine. It was eventually established that she was in fact sunk by a mine.

Although the trip to Russia was conducted under the greatest secrecy in Britain, it has been suggested that security may have been breached in Petrograd by German agents there. It is possible that they were aware of the date and route of this small convoy, and that they had time to lay mines in the general location of the ship's most likely route.

Police orders for 7 June 1916 record the death of this brave officer with the usual cold, bureaucratic phraseology: 'Pay to 5th instant.' Sgt McLoughlin left a wife and child who received a lump sum of £53 and 1shilling, plus £10 and 12 shillings per year as a pension.

A memorial to the victims of this tragedy was erected at Marwick Head off Orkney by the local community, with no assistance from the Government. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, whilst having records of all servicemen aboard this ship, do not have one of Sgt McLoughlin, as he was not a member of the armed forces on active service.

He remains an unsung hero of the Police Service.

Article extracted from the WFA's Journal "Stand To!" No 50 (September 1997), page 16 by R McAdam.


Image of HMS Hampshire courtesy Wikipedia.

Image of Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, leaving the War Office in London (2 June 1916 – three days before his death) courtesy The First World War 1914-1918: Personalities © IWM (Q 56658)

 Image of the Kitchener Memorial below courtesy Orkney Image Library


Kitchener Memorial Birsay




3135lish@gmail.com (Editor) Royal Navy Wed, 08 May 2013 19:04:51 +0000
Jellicoe of Scapa http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/946-jellico-scapa.html http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/946-jellico-scapa.html jellicoeJohn Jellicoe (1859-1935) was famously described as ‘The only man who could have lost the war in an afternoon’ by Winston Churchill in his book ‘The World Crisis.’

Jellicoe, born in Hampshire to a family with naval traditions, joined the Navy at the age of 12. He passed out second out of 39 cadets and was posted in 1874 to HMS Newcastle as a midshipman. HMS Newcastle was a sailing frigate, its steam engines were only an auxiliary to the sails which were her main source of propulsion. Over the next forty years the Royal Navy underwent a complete revolution in naval warfare and Jellicoe was involved in most of it as he had been hand-picked by Fisher as a future leader.

He served in the Russian-Turkish war, the Egyptian campaign and the Boxer Rebellion in China. In each he showed remarkable courage under fire.

He survived the collision between HMS Victoria (the flag ship where he was executive officer) and HMS Camperdown during a botched fleet manoeuvre off the coast of Tripoli. He had been below decks sick with ‘Malta fever’ at the time.

By 1880, Jellicoe had decided to train to become a gunnery specialist; his appointment to the staff of the gunnery school brought him to the attention of Captain John Fisher. As Fisher progressed up the ranks, so did Jellicoe. He became involved in the testing of all new guns, especially the introduction of the new quick firing gun which became the armaments on most of the light cruisers and the anti-torpedo boat guns on battleships. When he was promoted to captain in 1897, he served as the naval assistant to the Controller at the Admiralty. In between active service at sea, Jellicoe served as naval assistant to the third sea lord and Controller of the navy, and as director of naval ordinance (once Fisher was first sea lord). This involved him in the design of the new battleship, Dreadnought, the first in its class of all big-gun warships. When he returned to the Admiralty as third sea lord, he oversaw the building of twelve battleships (not all Dreadnoughts). Unfortunately, one of Jellicoe’s requests was forgotten – the improvement in armour plating to match the ships in the German navy. The German navy had sacrificed speed and distance for heavier armourment. This, combined with better shells, mines and torpedoes, would give the German navy an advantage which became more apparent during the Battle of Jutland.

When war was declared in August 1914, Jellicoe was appointed commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet. His aim was to bring the German High Seas Fleet to battle and defeat them in a second Trafalgar. This was not to be. There were several minor skirmishes early in the war – Heligioland Bight (August 1914 when Commander Tyrwhitt and Vice-admiral Beatty encountered German cruisers, Tyrwhitt sank two German torpedo boats and Beatty sank two German cruisers) and Dogger Bank (January 1915, when Beatty intercepted a German battlecruiser squadron half way across the North Sea and sank the Blucher and damaged the flagship Seydlitz) but these showed up the inadequacies of British ships – poor gunnery and faulty signalling. These problems have been laid at Admiral Beatty’s door. The gunnery of his battle cruisers (based at Rosyth) was never as good as that of the Grand Fleet, based at Scapa Flow. As wireless was in its infancy, signalling involved flags and lights which demanded good visibility to avoid misunderstandings. In 1916, command of the High Seas Fleet fell to Admiral Scheer, an aggressive seaman. His plan was to use the German battle cruiser fleet under Admiral Hipper to draw Beatty’s battle cruisers away from the Grand Fleet and to destroy them.

On 30 May 1916, British intelligence learned that the German High Seas Fleet was out of harbour and that Beatty would have a chance to draw Hipper’s battle cruisers and maybe the High Seas Fleet onto the guns of the Grand Fleet which had set sail from Scapa Flow. Beatty immediately left Rosyth with his squadrons. As half of his battlecruisers were away at Scapa Flow improving their gunnery, he set off with one squadron of battlecruisers and a super-battleship squadron under Rear-Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas. Once Beatty encountered Hipper’s squadron at 1430 on 31 May, he signalled to Evan-Thomas to change direction. Unfortunately Evan-Thomas’ ships were slower than Beatty’s and did not see the signalling flags (and no back-up signal via searchlight was given) and were not in position to support Beatty’s attack. Once Hipper sighted Beatty’s squadron the German ships opened fire (1548), Hipper’s intention after turning was to draw Beatty’s squadrons onto the big guns of Scheer’s battleships. Beatty’s ‘Lion’ was hit at 1600 but quick work flooding the magazine prevented an explosion. Other ships were not so lucky: a direct hit on ‘Indefatigable’ caused it to blow up (1602), followed by the ‘Queen Mary’ (1625). At this stage Beatty made his infamous statement ‘There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.’ During all of this, Evan-Thomas’ battleships – the fastest and most heavily armed in the world – were unable to join in the firing for the first half-hour. At 1615 Evan-Thomas’ battleships opened fire and immediately hit the German ships. Unfortunately the direct hits merely caused damage and did not sink any of them. At 1640, once Beatty realised the situation, he turned his squadron around heading north in order to draw the German ships onto the guns of Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet. Once again Beatty failed to signal his withdrawal to Evan-Thomas who found his squadron passing Beatty’s as the battlecruisers headed north. Beatty signalled Jellicoe about the action and for an hour drew the German ships north, Evan-Thomas maintained a rear guard action. Scheer was totally unaware that Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet was waiting for him. Jellicoe was also waiting for Beatty to tell him where the German fleet was so as to deploy in a correct fashion and ‘cross Sheer’s T’. By 1814 Jellicoe had this information, deployed to port and the Grand Fleet opened fire on Scheer’s High Seas Fleet. Scheer immediately ordered his fleet to turn and flee at 1833. Under a pall of smoke and mist, Scheer’s forces succeeded in disengaging by executing a 180 degree turn in unison. Jellicoe did not order a chase as he was worried about a torpedo attack. Scheer deployed again at 1900 and brought his ships onto Jellicoe’s. Once again the Grand Fleet opened fire and caused considerable damage to the German ships before they moved once again out of range. In this second intense engagement, the German ships sustained 37 hits, while inflicting only two of the Grand Fleet. As twilight faded into night, the action stopped as Jellicoe had never believed in night-fighting. The German withdrawal resulted in most of the High Seas Fleet returning to base.

The action had involved 16 German Dreadnoughts against 28 English, 5 German battlecruisers against 9 English, 11 German light cruisers against 26 English, 61 German destroyers against 78 English. The Grand Fleet also contained 8 armoured cruisers which the High Seas Fleet did not have, and the High Seas Fleet contained 6 pre-Dreadnought battleships which the Grand Fleet did not have.

The English losses were 3 battlecruisers, 3 armoured cruisers and 7 smaller ships. The German losses were 1 battlecruiser, 1pre-Dreadnought battleship, 4 light cruisers and 5 smaller ships. These losses could be put down to the usual causes: poor gunnery, poor signalling, the German armour being tougher than the English and an unfortunate habit of storing munitions out of the magazine ready for transport to the guns. Needless to say the Germans claimed a victory but never emerged from harbour in any number again. As one journalist recorded the battle ‘The High Seas Fleet has assaulted its jailor but was still in jail.’ The High Seas Fleet remained in harbour until the end of the war, when Hipper decided to take the Fleet out for one last action, he was prevented by a mutiny.

Unrestricted U-boat warfare was introduced by the Germans in 1917. Initially, this took a formidable toll on shipping but it was a political nightmare – it brought the USA into the war.

sir john jellicoeJellicoe left the Grand Fleet in November 1916 (being replaced by Beatty) when he made First Sea Lord. Here he was in a position to improve the shell design, the training and the communications which let the fleet down at Jutland. The submarine warfare led to convoys, something Jellicoe had opposed. This did tip the balance as the improvements in the depth charges and the hydrophones carried by the destroyers led eventually to the end of the U-boat menace.

Jellicoe had always been a poor administrator, he found it difficult to delegate. When Lloyd-George brought in Geddes to improve the Royal Navy, Jellicoe was dismissed (December 1917).

After the war Jellicoe toured the dominions (Australia, Canada & New Zealand) to advise on their new independent navies. From 1920 -24, Jellicoe was Governor-general of New Zealand. In retirement he held a variety of voluntary posts including being president of the British Legion after the death of Field-Marshall Haig. He died after contracting a chill in 1935.

webmanager@westernfrontassociation.com (Peter J Palmer) Royal Navy Tue, 19 May 2009 19:49:48 +0000
The Dreadnoughts and the Western Front (Revised Edition 3) http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/384-dreadnoughts-western-front.html http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/384-dreadnoughts-western-front.html HMS DreadnoghtIntroduction

The Royal Navy did not protect the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) by sailing up and down the canals of Belgium and France - even if it could have. It did so by maintaining control over the seas of the World, and the North Sea in particular, and providing an umbrella of protection. This protection ensured that the men and materials needed to fight the Central Powers on the Western Front, and elsewhere, were safely conveyed to the war zone, be it across the English Channel from the Homeland, or across the sea-lanes of the World that connected the Empire, its Allies and friends.

Key to maintaining this control of the seas in favour of the Allies was a fleet of top-rate warships that could more than match those of Germany and its fellow belligerents. Foremost in this fleet were the battleships; the largest and most powerful of the ships-of-war of the era. This is an account of the largest of the British battleships - the dreadnoughts.


Influenced by French and Russian plans for commerce warfare and by likely demands for restraint by the Treasury, Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher, on becoming First Sea Lord in 1904, sought to create a new class of warship quite different from current armoured cruisers and battleships. In the end he was forced to compromise and the ship which emerged was HMS Dreadnought.  This new super-battleship outclassed any other warship then afloat.  Only the American South Carolina class, in the design stage before Dreadnought was started, came close to her power.

Dreadnought's principal design features were:

  • Driven by steam turbines that were more economical, powerful and reliable, with a much lower between-decks profile, and occupying less space than triple expansion engines.
  • Faster than any other battleship.
  • Bigger in size and longer overall.
  • Armed with a large, uniform calibre main armament (as were the South Carolinas)

Using all the power that his prestigious post as First Sea Lord conferred, Fisher prioritised naval construction resources for the building of the new HMS Dreadnought. Finished in a record time of fourteen months, she was completed at Portsmouth Dockyard on 6 December 1906.

HMS Dreadnought 1906

Once HMS Dreadnought was commissioned, and put to sea, all other warships, world-wide, were technically obsolete - there was no competition at this level. Immediately, other navies, friendly and hostile, also planned their own production of this design.  But Britain had a vital lead that would prove invaluable as the war clouds formed and August 1914 approached. Moreover, British shipyard capacity was greater than that of any other nation.

The special features of HMS Dreadnought may be summarised as follows:

  • Size/Displacement: 527 feet long and 82 feet beam. 18,100 tons load; 21,845 tons deep load.
  • Engines/Power/Speed: Four sets of Parsons steam turbines delivering 23,000shp. and 21 knots.
  • Armament: Ten 12-inch guns (eight in broadside), plus twenty-four 12-pounder guns and five 18-inch underwater torpedo tubes.
  • Armour:  The maximum thickness of HMS Dreadnought's armour belt was 11" (28cm).
  • Crew: 695 - 773.

Such was the impact of HMS Dreadnought that its name came to define the type. Britain's introduction of HMS Dreadnought produced an arms race between it and Germany. From 1906 to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, the Royal Navy acquired nineteen more dreadnoughts and had twelve more under construction. Germany had thirteen with another seven under construction. The other major naval powers also strove to keep up.  The United States had eight and France four. Japan had two and Austria-Hungary three. Italy had one.

On the outbreak of war, on 4 August 1914, HMS Dreadnought was the flagship of the Fourth Battle Squadron of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet.

Deployment of the dreadnoughts, 1914 - 1918

The war plans saw the primary role of the Navy as that of providing a naval blockade, escorting the BEF to France, and maintaining the maritime links with the Empire, Allies and friends. Due to the threat of sea mines, the naval blockade was seen more as ‘observational' and it became even more long-reaching as the war went on, concentrating on the ‘entrances' and ‘exits' of the North Sea.

Two dreadnoughts completed for Turkey in August 1914 were taken over by the Royal Navy in that month and joined the Grand Fleet in September: HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin.

In August 1914, all the twenty available British dreadnoughts were incorporated into the Grand Fleet based at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands, under the command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe.

The question arises, therefore, was the British deterrent really as strong as paper calculations would indicate? Certainly, numerically the British should have been able to hold their own. The British biggest guns were certainly bigger and fired heavier shells over a longer distance which was claimed to be synonymous with greater accuracy. But the degree of fire prediction and the accuracy of the gunnery had not kept up with the munitions.  Because of the optical sighting and ranging problems due to smoke, sea-spray, shell splashes and poor visibility associated with darkness and the weather in the event only a few of the British dreadnoughts' broadsides ever reached their intended target.

Also, in the heat of action inter-vessel wireless communication, using Morse code, was often slow. In practice signalling flags were still often preferred for speed at sea when the available light, cordite smoke and water splashes permitted. On these poor communications the outcome of vital sea-battles depended.

The North Sea Battles

1) The Battle of Heligoland Bight, 28 August 1914

The first real test for both sides came at the Battle of the Heligoland Bight on 28 August 1914; but it did not include any of the British dreadnoughts. It was a minor British victory and emboldened the British command somewhat. But it was also rather chastening for them as it demonstrated some only too apparent British technical and organisational deficiencies.

On the part of the Germans, the set back at Heligoland enhanced their reticence to engage with the British unless conditions were particularly propitious and, even then, only if the Kaiser personally gave his approval to proceed.

2) The Battle of Dogger Bank, 24 January 1915

British wireless intercepts enabled the setting up of a trap which developed into the next major sea battle - Dogger Bank - which took place on 24 January 1915. Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty deployed five battle-cruisers and four light cruisers.  Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt was to rendezvous with Beatty on the Dogger Bank with three light cruisers and thirty-five destroyers. Beatty's opponent was Admiral Franz von Hipper with his 1st Scouting Group of three battle-cruisers, one large armoured cruiser, four light cruisers and nineteen torpedo-boats.  A short battle ensued. HMS Lion was disabled and the German battle-cruiser SMS Seydlitz, and the unique armoured cruiser SMS Blücher, were respectively damaged and sunk.

Jellicoe had taken the Grand Fleet, with its dreadnoughts, to sea from Scapa Flow ready to intervene should the High Seas Fleet seek to support Hipper. Also Vice-Admiral Bradford's 3rd Battle Squadron, comprising seven pre-dreadnoughts, had also left Rosyth. None of these forces took part in the battle. Post-mortem evaluations by both sides claimed a success.

The Battle of Jutland, 31 May - 1 June 1916

From February 1916 onwards, both the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet put elements of their naval forces out into the North Sea at least once a month for raiding and reconnaissance purposes.

Since the breaking of the German Naval Code (by Room 40 staff at the Admiralty), the British were usually broadly forewarned of German intentions, if not in all specifics. This, and a huge credit balance in dreadnoughts (twenty-eight British against sixteen German) and battlecruisers (nine British against five German), made the British Navy increasingly confident as 1916 progressed.

It was in this frame of mind that a forewarned Grand Fleet led by Jellicoe left port on 29 May 1916 in search of the German High Seas Fleet commanded by Admiral Reinhard Scheer. What followed came to be known as the Battle of Jutland, and it took place on 31 May and 1 June 1916.

Hipper began the action by opening fire on Beatty at 1545.  Beatty's battlecruisers were soon in action themselves and were soon supported, from 1605, by the Fifth Battle Squadron, comprising four of the new Queen Elizabeth Class super-dreadnoughts, (HMS Barham, Malaya, Valiant, and Warspite).  As the Fifth Battle Squadron, following Beatty towards the dreadnoughts of The Grand Fleet, turned north in succession, instead of together, it came within range of the guns of the High Seas Fleet.  Both HMS Barham and HMS Malaya were hit, but not seriously. They were able to inflict damage on the High Seas Fleet's leading dreadnoughts and battlecruisers - particularly the battle-cruiser SMS Seydlitz.

Later in the day, the Grand Fleet became engaged with the High Seas Fleet by crossing its T (cutting across the head of the German line of ships at a right angle). At 1836, the German High Seas Fleet very skilfully executed its Gefechtskehrtwendung (battle turn-away) and retreated behind black smoke laid by its torpedo boats.

The Grand Fleet regained contact a few minutes after 1900, and skirmishing continued until the High Seas Fleet again broke off the action at 1915.  Intermittent action continued into the night with losses on both sides.

Both sides claimed victory. The Germans had the higher score of ships. On the other hand they never challenged the Grand Fleet again. On their side, the British had to acknowledge they had missed opportunities and had encountered serious technical problems. These included the deadly cordite flash-back phenomenon that had reared its head earlier in the war and was still to be fully resolved.

The tally of the respective sides indicates to some extent the balance of the battle. The Germans lost eleven ships (61,180 tons) out of ninety-nine, whilst the British lost fourteen ships (115,025 tons) out of 151. The German dead totalled 2,551 whilst the British were much more at 6,097.

There were two other notable highlights in the active service of the dreadnoughts from 1914 - 1918.

HMS Queen Elizabeth was deployed in the Dardanelles Operation. On 25 February 1915, she participated, with her eight 15-inch guns, in Vice-Admiral Sackville Hamilton Carden's bombardment of the Turkish defences at the entrance to the Dardanelles Straits. She participated again on 5 March 1915.

The second incident was on 18 March 1915, when HMS Dreadnought rammed the German submarine U29 at full speed in the North Sea and sank it with all hands.

Mediterranean Fleet, 1918

Two British dreadnoughts - HMS Temeraire and HMS Superb - served with the Mediterranean Fleet.

Kiel Mutiny

What might have been a final clash of the dreadnoughts in October 1918 came to nought. Admiral Hipper's plan, as the new Commander of the German Navy Supreme Command, wanted the entire German High Seas Fleet to sail out of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven naval bases on a non-authorised suicidal mission to destroy the British Grand Fleet.  His sailors sabotaged the mission by extinguishing the boiler fires of his ships and the whole dispute erupted into the Kiel Mutiny.

Losses of British dreadnoughts 1914 - 1918

Only one of the thirty-five British dreadnoughts in commission during the Great War was lost at sea. HMS Audacious, a King George V Class super-dreadnought commissioned in 1913, struck German mines laid off the coast of Northern Ireland, near Lough Swilly, on 27 October 1914. Most members of the crew were taken off Audacious, and she was taken in tow by the White Star liner RMS Olympic and the cruiser HMS Liverpool. But, in heavy seas, the tow broke several times. The remainder of the crew was taken off, and two hours later the ship capsized, exploded and sank.

A second dreadnought, HMS Vanguard, exploded, probably due to faulty ammunition, on 9 July 1917 whilst moored at Scapa Flow. She sank at anchor with 804 men lost. There were only two survivors, although fifteen officers were away on a visit to another ship and others of the crew were absent on leave and other duties.


List of British dreadnoughts (Dreadnought to Hercules) and super-dreadnoughts (Orion to Ramillies) in service in the Great War; grouped by Class.

* = Name ship of Class.

Year Commissioned


Main Armament

1906 Dreadnought*

18,100 tons

10 x 12-inch

1909 Bellerophon*

18,800 tons

10 x 12-inch

1909 Superb

18,800 tons

10 x 12-inch

1909 Temeraire

18,800 tons

10 x 12-inch

1910 St. Vincent*

19,560 tons

10 x 12-inch

1910 Vanguard

19,560 tons

10 x 12-inch

1910 Collingwood

19,560 tons

10 x 12-inch

1911 Neptune*

19,680 tons

10 x 12-inch

1911 Colossus*

20,225 tons

10 x 12-inch

1911 Hercules

20,225 tons

10 x 12-inch

1912 Orion*

22,200 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1912 Conqueror

22,200 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1912 Monarch

22,200 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1912 Thunderer

22,200 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1912 King George V*

23,000 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1913 Ajax

23,000 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1913 Centurion

23,000 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1913 Audacious

23,000 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1914 Iron Duke*

25,000 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1914 Marlborough

25,000 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1914 Benbow

25,000 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1914 Emperor of India

25,000 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1914 Queen Elizabeth*

27,500 tons

8 x 15-inch

1915 Warspite

27,500 tons

8 x 15-inch

1915 Barham

27,500 tons

8 x 15-inch

1916 Valiant

27,500 tons

8 x 15-inch

1916 Malaya

27,500 tons

8 x 15-inch

1916 Revenge*

28,000 tons

8 x 15-inch

1916 Royal Oak

28,000 tons

8 x 15-inch

1916 Royal Sovereign

28,000 tons

8 x 15-inch

1916 Resolution

28,000 tons

8 x 15-inch

1917 Ramillies

28,000 tons

8 x 15-inch


The following three ships were built in British yards for foreign buyers and taken over by the Royal Navy on the outbreak of war.

1914 Erin

22,780 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1914 Agincourt

27,500 tons

14 x 12-inch

1915 Canada

28,600 tons

10 x 14-inch



The author and the WFA website are indebted to Mr Simon Harley who kindly took the trouble to point out some errors of omission and commission which occurred in the original article dated 2005. These points were corrected in the second 2009 revision.

This, third, edition of David Payne's article incorporates November 2009 corrections made by WFA Education.

The WFA Web Editor is always pleased to receive comments on the content of articles and suggestions for revision.

martinphornby@aol.com (Dr David Payne) Royal Navy Wed, 08 Apr 2009 00:00:00 +0000
The Effect Of The British Naval And Economic Blockade On The Western Front In The Great War http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/654-blockade-naval.html http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/654-blockade-naval.html Introduction

blockadeFor the three centuries before the outbreak of the Great War, the British relied on a strong navy, allied with a relatively weak army, to keep its continental enemies at bay. Indeed, Admiral Nelson is said to have spent almost two years (1803-1805), without setting a foot ashore, aboard HMS. Victory, whilst on 'open naval blockade' duty against the French fleet off Toulon. So, when 1 broke out in August 1914, almost the first action taken by the British Government was to order a blockade of Germany by the Royal Navy. However, in 1908 the British had initiated the Declaration of London to establish the rules of what interventions in international trade would be allowed in time of war. Signed by all the major maritime nations - but never ratified by Britain - the Declaration permitted the free export of goods, subject only to mild restrictions, and the freedom of neutral waters. None-the-less, aware that Germany's coastlines could only be accessed through the North Sea, the British mounted its long-range blockade - 'economic warfare' - with the aim of sealing off the whole North Sea, and thus closing all the German ports to international trade.

Germany, on the other hand, had invested heavily during the pre-war years in a vast expansion of its Navy to counteract any action of this kind. Accordingly, the scene was set for a serious confrontation at sea, sooner or later. In the event, this turned out to be the strategically indecisive Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916.

Yet another element in the equation was the neutral countries, some of which were determined to preserve their right to freely trade with all the combattant nations. Particularly active was the United States. It delivered to the British government a whole series of protests about the potential effects this blockade would have on international trade with the Central Powers, i.e. Germany and Austro-Hungary. The inevitable protests of the Central powers, soon turned to reciprocity, with the introduction of the campaign of 'unrestricted submarine warfare'. This immediately took much of the immediate international pressure off the British, as the neutral nations saw their ships and crews lost by the action of the U-boats. Also, at least initially, the anticipated approbation of the neutral countries - particularly, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden - was largely deferred by two measures. Firstly, the British policy of largely sticking to the conditions of the Declaration where it most concerned the neutrals. And, secondly, the negotiating a convention of preferential guarantees to the affected neutrals to cover their loss of exports to the Central Powers.

Imposing the blockade on Germany
By the end of 1914, the British had succeeded in their overall aim of sealing off the German North Sea ports. But, this had very little apparent effect on the economies of the Central Powers and the execution of the war on the Western Front, or elsewhere. The British were compelled to consider what further measures they could put into effect. In March 1915 the Allies (Britain, France and Russia - the United States became an 'Associated Power' in April 1917) 'crossed the Rubicon' and formally decided to prohibit all international import and export trade with the Central Powers, including that of the neutrals. To ensure the efficacy of this measure, the Allies also imposed on the northern European neutrals a virtual monopoly on trade in the prohibited items.

As 1915 went on, the expected catastrophic effect of economic warfare on the Central Powers did not materialise. Germany increasingly used its powerful industrial base, and expertise, to produce synthetic products (e.g. high explosives, fertilisers and even coffee). Also, there was a steady flow of agricultural products across the borders of the Central Powers and their neighbours, including, latterly, Romania. But, virtually all re-exports by Germany did stop by the end of 1916.

The earliest indications of the effect of the blockade on the battlefields of the Western Front, were to be seen in early 1917. These deficiencies accelerated appreciably when the United States Navy joined the blockade in April of that year. Indeed, the United States now became the prime instigator of an even more stringent blockade and the control of imports to the neutrals. Also, Switzerland was brought more closely into the Allies' net, and a state of virtual trade embargo was activated across Europe. However, some neutrals, notably the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, refused to co-operate, and their adjacent borders made the achievement of compliance difficult.

The Allied Blockade Committee
These set backs resulted in the formation of the Allied Blockade Committee in April 1918 and, eventually, all the neutrals, except the Netherlands, agreed to a compromise settlement, which lasted until the end of the War.

By the end of the War, the North Sea Blockade was only one component, if the most important, of a worldwide campaign of economic warfare on the Central Powers. Ships of the German Merchant Marine had been seized or interned all over the Seven Seas, and a naval blockade was also firmly established throughout the Mediterranean.

After the War, claims were made that economic warfare, led by the North Sea naval blockade, was a primary factor in the collapse of the Central Powers, and the military victory of the Allies over the Axis forces. This was probably an exaggeration. Although the blockade indubitably played a leading part, the flow of imports and exports did not fall by much more than half of the 1913 levels of about 20% of the Gross National Product. Also, the ability of German industry to synthesize many important products, certainly ameliorated some of the effects that this reduction in imports and exports caused. To what extent the Allied Blockade weakened the resistance of both the military and civilian populations of the Central Powers to the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, remains a moot point.

The general consensus is that, in the end, it was the hard won war skills of the Allied armies, navies and air-forces, backed by their superior industrial productivity, that fought their Central Powers counterparts to a standstill, and led to their eventual collapse on the Western Front and elsewhere.

martinphornby@aol.com (Dr David Payne) Royal Navy Sun, 03 Aug 2008 15:59:39 +0000
Naval Semaphore Signalling http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/303-sema-signals.html http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/303-sema-signals.html Naval Semaphore Signalling

The Semaphore flag signaling system is an alphabet signalling system based on the waving of a pair of hand-held flags in a particular pattern.

The flags are usually square, red and yellow, divided diagonally with the red portion in the upper hoist.

The flags are held, arms extended, in various positions representing each of the letters of the alphabet. The pattern resembles a clock face divided into eight positions: up, down, out, high, low, for each of the left and right hands (LH and RH) six letters require the hand to be brought across the body so that both flags are on the same side.

Flag positions in Semaphore

One way to visualize the semaphore alphabet is in terms of circles:



first circle, A, B, C, D, E and F 


second circle H, I, K, L, M, N, omitting J


third circle O. P, Q, R, S; 


fourth circle: T, U, Y and 'annul';


fifth circle: 'numeric', J (or 'alphabetic'), V;


sixth circle: W, X;


seventh circle: Z

In the first circle, the letters A to C are made with the right arm, and E to G with the left, and D with either as convenient. In the second circle, the right arm is kept still at the letter A position and the left arm makes the movements; similarly in the remaining circles, the right arm remains fixed while the left arm moves. The arms are kept straight when changing from one position to another.

The Semaphore Alphabet (click letters for image)

  • A and 1 (LH down RH low)
  • B and 2 (LH down; RH out)
  • C and 3 (LH down; RH high)
  • D and 4 (LH down; RH up - or LH up; RH down)
  • E and 5 (LH high; RH down)
  • F and 6 (LH out; RH down)
  • G and 7 (LH low; RH down)
  • H and 8 (LH across low; RH out)
  • I and 9 (LH across low; RH up)
  • J and 'alphabetic' (LH out ; RH up)
  • K and 0 zero (LH up; RH low)
  • L (LH high; RH low)
  • M (LH out; RH low)
  • N (LH low; RH low)
  • O (LH across high; RH out)
  • P (LH up; RH out)
  • Q (LH high; RH out)
  • R (LH out; RH out)
  • S (LH low; RH out)
  • T (LH up; RH high)
  • U (LH high; RH high)
  • V (LH low; RH up)
  • W (LH out; RH across high)
  • X (LH low; RH across high)
  • Y (LH out; RH high)
  • Z (LH out; RH across low)
  • Ready (LH out; RH out)
  • Numerical sign (LH high; RH up)
  • Annul sign (LH low; RH high)
  • Error (LH and RH raised and lowered together)
martinphornby@aol.com (Martin Hornby) Royal Navy Thu, 22 May 2008 08:09:45 +0000
British Stealth Ships http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/136-brit-stealth-ships.html http://westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-at-sea-in-air/royal-navy/136-brit-stealth-ships.html The British Stealth Ships Of The Great War.

The main focus of the British military effort in the Great War was on the Western Front. The other theatres of war were what amounted to costly sideshows - some major - in Africa (East, West and Southwest) the Dardanelles, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Salonika.

The British could only prosecute the war in all these theatres of war if a guaranteed uninterrupted supply of material and manpower could be ensured to and from the homeland - Great Britain. And provided that an equally vital unimpeded contact was maintained with Britain's allies, neutral suppliers and the battlefields of the British overseas armies.

Therefore, from the outset of the Great War, it was Britain's and its Allies principal aim to ensure an uninterrupted flow of this material and manpower. And it was the Axis Powers' equally firm intention to interrupt this flow to the maximum extent possible.

A separate consideration for the British was the interdiction of the German maritime supply routes by a naval blockade of the German ports. This aspiration for an efficacious Naval Blockade in time of war is almost as old as the Royal Navy itself. The principal role of the Royal Navy has always been to impose a military and economic blockade on its enemies whilst protecting the Britain's own Merchant Marine trade routes from interruption.

Naval establishments
In 1914, the Royal Navy had a battle fleet of 24 modern dreadnought battleships, nine pre-dreadnoughts,10 battlecruisers, around 200 cruisers, a similar number of destroyers and numerous torpedo boats. This fleet continued to grow as the war progressed. There were also 57 submarines - 17 ocean-going and 40 coastal - rising to a total of 137 in service by 1918. Additionally there were the semi-autonomous naval fleets of the Dominions - Canada, Australia and New Zealand. At the outbreak of the Great War these ships were immediately put at the disposal of the Mother country. All in all, numerically, the British Navy was by far the most potent naval force in the world, and would remain so for the duration of the Great War. Technologically, the Germans would maintain their pre-eminence.

Initially, the German Navy's response was to concentrate on attacks on the Royal Navy warships by its warships, 10 operational submarines, numerous torpedo boats, and with the lying of mines. It met with some success. A single submarine, U-9, torpedoed HMS Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue, all armoured cruisers, on the 22nd September 1914 and a German mine off the Irish coast sank HMS Audacious on the 27th October 1914; 1,500 sailors were killed.

The British initial response at the outbreak of war was to withdraw most of the Grand Fleet to the Irish Sea, until the naval bases at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, and Rosythe in Northern Scotland, were considered sufficiently well protected against German warships, submarines and mines. Smaller concentrations of the British Battle Fleet were located around Dover and Harwich in Southeast England and in the Mediterranean.

The submarine factor
As the Rules of Submarine Warfare stood at the outbreak of war, submarines could be used against enemy warships with no restriction - although some commanders on both sides considered their use to be unethical. As for merchant ships, the rules required that the target ship should be stopped, boarded and its status as a belligerent, or a non-belligerent nation established. If the vessel belonged to the enemy, or was transporting material on its behalf, the attackers would allow the ship's crew to take to the ship's lifeboats before using scuttling, torpedoes, gunfire or explosives to sink it. Some ships of the more valuable enemy ships and cargoes would be taken as prizes.

However, these same rules allowed merchant ships to arm themselves against such attacks by submarines, or other craft. During the war, particularly in the latter part, increasing numbers of merchant ships of the belligerent nations were appropriately armed.

Realising the dangers of attacking British warships when compared with the relatively risk-free and highly productive sinking of merchant ships, the Germans quickly targeted some of their available lighter warships and submarines on the British merchantmen. In early 1915, they began a co-ordinated campaign by both warships and submarines against the Allied merchant shipping world wide. The Germans called this campaign the Handelskrieg - Trade Warfare.

At the beginning of the war, submarines of all the belligerents lacked deck guns. So to sink ships they were restricted to using the limited numbers of torpedoes that they could carry aboard, making the mining and/or scuttling of the captured merchant ships by far the preferred option. As the German submarines became progressively armed with deck guns, gunnery became the favoured method of sinking the Allied commercial ships, especially those with smaller tonnage. The small numbers of torpedoes that could be carried on board could then be reserved for the sinking of the larger commercial vessels and warships.

Towards the end of 1914, even before the British Grand Fleet was sequestered in safe harbours, the thoughts of the British naval commanders turned to how the attacks by the German submarines on the British merchant marine could be countered on a global scale. Since the arming of all merchant ships was an impossible immediate proposition, due to the shortage of suitable naval and artillery pieces in the early days of the war, the British decided that stealth might succeed where brute force was not available.

The decoy ships
In November 1914, whilst progressively directing as many destroyers and other smaller craft as could be spared into anti-submarine duty, the British (and French) created the first of a small flotilla of decoy ships to expressly deal with the German U-boats. These ships came to be known as Q-ships. But they were also known as Mystery Ships, Decoy Ships or Special Service Ships. The class designation 'Q' is said to have been derived from the British naval base at Queenstown, in Ireland, where many of these ships were based. The majority of the Royal Navy's Q-ships was quite small in size - less than 4,000 tons - and included sailing ships, tramp steamers, coasters, colliers, fishing boats and marine tugs. They were deliberately kept or made to look old and run down, and usually bore a false name. Often, various false names were used at different times. The ship would often be painted in the colours of neutral nations and the silhouette of the ship changed by additions to the superstructure and by the erection of dummy funnels and masts.

The first Royal Navy Q-ships were armed with three main guns; one 4-inch (102mm) naval gun and two 12-pounder artillery guns and - from 1915 - depth charges. Later in the war the number and calibre of the guns aboard was increased. Additional armaments that were carried on the ships included machine guns, depth charges and, on the later Q-ships, torpedoes.

The guns and other armaments were hidden behind false, hinged, bulwarks, dummy super-structure, deck cargo, and inside deck boats. When the Q-ships became increasingly subject to torpedoing themselves, efforts were made to counteract flooding by installing buoyancy material below decks.

The modus operandi of the Q-ship was simple. It would fly the flag of a non-belligerent (neutral) nation. When approached by a German U-boat, it would play the role of an innocent seafarer: even to the point of lowering in simulated panic a life-boat containing some of the crew in civilian dress, including 'females'. Once the Germans had seized the bait, and had drawn close enough to be able to hail the vessel and board it, or open fire, the crew would raise the White Ensign, proclaiming its nationality, reveal its guns and open fire first. Providing the White Ensign was raised before firing began, the ruse was permissible within the Rules of Submarine Warfare. One must suppose that at some point both sides would begin to feel they were taking part in a dark, dangerous, game of charades with very high stakes indeed.

In November 1914, the first British Q-ship, the British Victoria, went into service, as did the French decoy ship, Marguerite. The Russians and the Italians also employed a small number of decoy ships.

The first successful action of a Q-ship against a U-boat took place in July 1915 when the Prince Charles, a former coaster of 373 tons, sank U-36.

Various sources give the total number of Royal Navy Q-ships in service as between 220 and 400 (probably it was close to 366) and the French 15. The consensus on the number of Royal Navy Q-ships lost in action is 61 - the French losses were two. During the war the British Q-ships and the French decoy ships collectively claimed responsibility for the sinking of 11 U-boats; 30% of all the German submarines that were sank on the surface during the war.

Another British ruse was for a fishing trawler to tow a submerged submarine connected to the trawler by telephone. When the German U-boat approached the decoy, the British submarine would surface and attack the U-boat by gunfire. At least one U-boat fell to this ruse; U-40 in June 1915. The British submarine was C24, which was towed by the Taranaki.

As time passed, and the numbers of Q-ships on the High-Seas increased, the Germans became increasingly wary and frequently avoided approaching close enough to the Q-ship to carry out a surface attack, settling the matter with a long range torpedo shot. Accordingly, the pickings for the Q-ships became slimmer and, despite all the ruses they employed, costly in ships and men. By 1917, the results had declined markedly; although the numbers of Q-ships had increased considerably and included one built specifically for the purpose, i.e. Hyderabad. Even so, U-34 was sunk by Q-19 in 1918.

The toll of the decoy ships
On the face of it, the sinking of only 11 U-boats for a loss of 76 British Q-ships and French decoy ships, and the enormous cost in men and material utilised in mounting the Q-ship campaign, does not seem to give a very worthwhile return. But into the balance of account must be put the psychological and deterrent effect that the campaign had on the German U-boat crews, and thus the inevitable decrease in the amount of despoliation they were able to inflict on Allied and Neutral commercial shipping across the Globe.

The Germans also employed a version of the British Q-ship - the Auxiliary Commerce Raider (ACR). But these ACR's flew the flags of neutral nations at all times and were aimed specifically at surface vessels - predominantly merchant ships. Most were former auxiliary minelayers - so looked like warships, unless disguised - but did include a large sailing ship, the Staedler. This wooden decoy ship was eminently successful in alone claiming 10 ships in the Southern Ocean before it was itself destroyed. Other decoy ships that became famous in the German press were the Mowe and the Wolf.

In addition to the Q-ships, the Royal Navy also mounted rather less stealthy measures by placing heavy cruiser-grade guns on large, fast, former passenger liners. One formation of such ships - The 10th Cruiser Squadron, with 20-Armed Merchant Cruisers (AMC's) - was deployed for much of the war in the shipping lanes between Britain and Iceland.

All the major combatant navies used AMC's in the Great War, but Britain's force was considerably the largest. Germany primarily employed its AMC's in an offensive role as Sea and Ocean Commerce Raiders. But by 1915 the Allies had quickly eliminated them. These German AMC's had wrought considerable angst across the Seven Seas whilst they lasted.

Allied losses of AMC's to torpedoes and mines were high, with the French Navy's losses proportionally heavy at 17, whilst the British were 12. Later in the war the Allies used their AMC's widely for troop transportation and as hospital ships.

Smaller British liners were armed and put into service in a whole range of wartime duties as Commissioned Escort Ships (CES's) and Armed Boarding Vessels (ABV's). British merchant ships that were provided with anti-submarine devices were given the general nomenclature of Armed Merchant Ships (AMS's).

The outcome of all this deception, allied with the arming of the merchant and commercial shipping of the belligerent nations, was a ruthless level of warfare that was at least as relentless and destructive as that which was waged on land. The bottoms of the seas and the oceans of the world are still carpeted with the detritus of men, cargo and ships that this merciless war afloat wrought. The tragedy was, 21 years later, when not even a generation had passed, the entire scenario was destined to run again for another five years.

Dr David Payne

martinphornby@aol.com (Dr David Payne) Royal Navy Sun, 18 May 2008 20:29:38 +0000