World War 1 had five major naval battles -- Jutland, the Dardanelles, Dogger Bank, Coronel and the Falkland Islands. that changed the path of the Great War and were never forgotten by the sailors on all sides who fought those battles.
"Something Wrong With Our Bloody Ships Today"
Vice Admiral David Beatty
A Technical Viewpoint
by Richard O. Aichele
The horrific explosions that destroyed the British battle cruisers HMS Queen Mary, HMS Indefatigable, and HMS Invincible when shells hit their turret areas and the armoured cruiser HMS Defense when shells hit the gun casement areas killed a total of over 4,200 crewmen during the Battle of Jutland in 1916. The resulting magazine explosions were caused by a combination of ship design failures and in-service procedural failures triggered by battle shell fire. These types of incidents were not limited to the British navy but occurred elsewhere.
During the Dogger Bank battle in 1915, the German battle cruiser SMS Seydlitz was hit by a shell at the "C" and "D" turrets. "The shell had burst outside making only a small hole but a red hot piece of steel entering the turret had ignited a cartridge, the flash setting fire to 13,000 pounds of cordite," explained Kapitšn zur See Moritz von Egidy, the ship's commander. The incident killed 190 men and put both turrets out of action. An investigation found no errors in procedures. That was not acceptable for von Egidy who said,"If we lose 190 men and almost the whole ship in accordance with regulations then they must somehow be wrong." The German Navy then made the technical ship changes and operating procedures changes that prevented any flash at the turrets from reaching the magazines.
Captain Alexander Grant CBE DSC, was a Gunner officer on the HMS Lion, during the Battle of Jutland. His memoirs later published and now at the Imperial War Museum in London include observations about explosions related ship design failures and in-service procedural failures in the Royal Navy during the World War 1 era.
"With the introduction of cordite to replace powder for firing guns, regulations regarding the necessary precautions for handling explosives became unconsciously considerably relaxed, even I regret to say, to a dangerous degree throughout the Service. Yet for entry to any of the magazines on shore where naval explosives were stored you would find the regulations just as strict as they were in the days of powder charges. All pipes, cigarettes, matches, or anything else capable of ignition had to be deposited with the police. Magazine shoes had to be worn.
If these precautions were necessary on shore they were equally on board ship. The gradual lapse in the regulations on board ship seemed to be due to two factors. First, cordite is a much safer explosive to handle than gun-powder. Second, but more important, the altered construction of the magazines on board led to a feeling of false security. When powder was in use all magazines were lined with wood and secured with copper nails or bolts, the deck was of wood tackle offer transport were fitted with metal hooks. Not a scrap of iron or steel which might cause a spark was used. The deck of the passages or handling room adjoining were covered with lead. The manholes or scuttles on the various decks, through which the cartridges had to pass from magazine to gun were all fitted with metal. Every conceivable precaution was taken where powder was in transit, and no one was allowed in a magazine unless he had on the special shoes provided for this purpose. With the introduction or cordite there came in time a considerable alteration in the construction of magazines. The iron or steel deck, the disappearance of the wood lining, the electric lights fitted inside, the steel doors, open because there was now no chute for passing cartridges out; all this gave officers and men a comparative easiness of mind regarding the precautions necessary with explosive material."
HMS Lion's Close Call At Jutland
The incident aboard the HMS Lion during the Battle of Jutland was severe and except for the action of one man it could have resulted in the loss of the entire battle cruiser in the same way as the other three blew up and were lost .
Captain Alexander Grant CBE DSC, a Gunner officer, had been recently assigned to the HMS Lion. At the time of the battle, he explained, "I had no particular special duty in action. To use a naval phrase I had a roving commission." Grant's After Action Jutland Battle Report about the HMS Lion incident describes the details:
"There were four turrets named A, B, Q and X. Each turret had separate magazines. As soon as fire had opened I made for A and B magazines. They were in the fore part of the ship and in close proximity to each other. I found everything quite satisfactory, no delay, only one door opened, and not more than one full charge in the handing room. The supply was meeting the demand. I left orders that if there was a lull in the firing the party must not forget to close the door of the magazine in use.
I then made for Q which was in the centre of the ship... To get to Q one had to descend into a small flat where a first aid and electric light party was stationed, and then down into the handing room. Here everyone was standing about in silence. When I asked what was the matter, the Sergeant in charge said that something had gone wrong in the turret and that the Major in charge of the turret had ordered the magazines to be flooded. I inquired how long the valves for flooding had been opened, and when I learned that they had been opened some time I was convinced that the magazine was now completely flooded. It was also reported that the supply cages were full. It would therefore appear that there was outside the magazine at least two full charges in the supply cages and there may have been two more in the loading cages in the working chamber which was immediately under the guns.
While I was making these inquiries, men from the working chamber were coming down the trunk into the handing room. I asked them what had happened and they informed me that a shell had pierced the turret, exploding inside, killing the gun's crew and that the turret was completely out of action. Q turret was manned by the Royal Marines, with Major Harvey in charge. Major Harvey, although lying mortally wounded, to his everlasting glory thought of the safety of the ship and ordered the magazines to be flooded...
I thought at first of going up the trunk to see at first hand what had happened. The turret was out of action however, and as I had not yet been to X magazine I decided to go there, first ordering the men who came from the working chamber to go up into the flat above as the handing room was overcrowded. [Captain Grant checked the X Magazine and then returned to the Q Magazine area.]
I had reached the hatchway leading to the flat above the Q magazine and by the Providence of God had only one foot on the step of the Jacob?s Ladder, when suddenly there was a terrific roar, followed by flame and dense smoke. Had I been a few seconds earlier and thus farther down the Ladder, I would have met the same fate as all those fine men below who were burned to death... I regained my breath and self-possession and immediately went back to the hatchway and down to the bottom of the ladder. I could not get any further for smoke and fumes of cordite and scorched paint. Numbers of my shipmates were either in their last agonies or already dead. I could see there was no fire and as soon as we got below endeavoured with the help of other men to rescue any who might be alive. We hauled up a few through the small hatchway but by this time all hope of saving life was gone.
I consider that the cause of this tragedy was that early in the action, an enemy shell, by a thousand chances to one, struck the armoured turret where the two guns protrude, exploding and so lifted one of the armoured plates clean off the turret. At the same time the force of explosion apparently killed of mortally wounded all those in the gun position and played havoc with the hydraulic machinery, thus putting the turret out of action. It was when this happened that Major Harvey gave the order to flood magazines...Between the time between the turret was placed out of action and the tremendous explosion that took place was about twenty or thirty minutes later.
There are two theories as to the cause of this explosion.
The first is that a second enemy shell entered and exploded in the turret, thus causing a fire. With part of the roof open, the draught caused by the speed of the ship would be forced down through the turret, resulting in the flame igniting the cordite which would be in the gun-loading cages. This is turn must have ignited the cordite in the supply trunk which contained two full charges, and being in a confined space, the gases concentrated there exploded.
According to the second theory, a fire may have been caused by the first shell that put the turret out of action. If so, than the strong draught of air being forced down ignited the cordite in the gun-loading cages and supply trunk. It is this second theory that has always made me regret not going into the turret to see that no fire was about. It was by the providence of God that the hatchway leading from the flat to the magazine handing room was open. This opening formed a vent though which the gasses set up by the ignition of the cordite could escape. At it was, the bulkheads of the magazines were found to be saucer-shaped on examination from the force of explosion. It is difficult to say what might have happened had the hatchway been closed, or charges of cordite been left in the handing room at the time of flooding. As it was the grim fact remains that over sixty of my shipmates lost their lives in tragic circumstance without an opportunity of escape."
Above article is an addendum to: Jutland - Clash of the Battle Cruisers
Exploring the Battle of Jutland's Sunken Warships
The expedtion in this video had the goal of determining what caused the explosions that sank the four British warships. After the battle, for reasons explained in the video, the explanation, or theories, for the loss of the four ships and over 4,000 sailors in such a catastrophic manner was a "sensitive" subject both at the British Admiralty and the British government for many years.
The expedition's first dive was on the HMS Defense. One conclusion was that a shell had penetrated into ammunition spaces at the aft of the ship causing "a propogation of propellant," also called a flash fire, from aft to forward " down the ammunition passageways finally denotating the forward magazine." It mentions finding that turret roofs appear to have been blown off possibly by the forces passageway explosions below as they vented upward through the vertical turrets' Main Trunks. The second dive on the HMS Invincible found evidence of mishandling of the cordite propellant. Cordite charges appeared to have been left out of their protective canisters to speed their transfer up and into the turret guns to maintain a high rate of fire.
Interestingly, the answers to the questions of "why" are being discovered with greater accuracy than was possible during the last 103 years.
Information Works Inc. Other Great War Histories
Information Works Inc. P.O. Box 4725, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866 USA
Copyright 2019. Website written by Richard O. Aichele
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -