HMS Bulwark (1899)

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HMS Bulwark (1899).jpg
HMS Bulwark
United Kingdom
Class and type: London-class pre-dreadnought battleship
Name: HMS Bulwark
Ordered: 27 June 1898
Builder: Devonport Dockyard
Laid down: 20 March 1899
Launched: 18 October 1899
Completed: March 1902
Commissioned: 11 March 1902
Fate: Destroyed by internal explosion, 26 November 1914
General characteristics
Displacement: 15,366 long tons (15,613 t) (load); 15,995 long tons (16,252 t) (deep)
Length: 431 ft 9 in (131.60 m)
Beam: 75 ft (22.9 m)
Draught: 27 ft 3 in (8.31 m) (load); 28 ft 2 in (8.59 m) (deep)
  • 2 × 3-cylinder vertical triple expansion steam engines
  • 2 × screws
Speed: 18 kn (20.7 mph; 33.3 km/h)
Range: 5,550 nmi (6,390 mi; 10,280 km) at 10 kn (11.5 mph; 18.5 km/h)
Complement: 750; 766 as flagship in 1904
Notes: Cost £1,065,816

HMS Bulwark belonged to a sub-class of the Formidable-class of pre-dreadnought battleships of the Royal Navy known as the London class. Entering service with the Royal Navy in 1902, she sailed with the Mediterranean Fleet until 1907. She then served with the Home Fleet, for a time under Captain Robert Falcon Scott. After a refit in 1912, she was assigned to the 5th Battle Squadron.

Following the outbreak of the First World War, Bulwark, along with the rest of the squadron, was attached to the Channel Fleet, conducting patrols in the English Channel. On 26 November 1914, while anchored near Sheerness, she was destroyed by a large internal explosion with the loss of 736 men. There were only 14 survivors of the explosion and of these 2 died later in hospital. The explosion was likely to have been caused by the overheating of cordite charges that had been placed adjacent to a boiler room bulkhead.


Line-drawing of the Formidable class; the Londons were identical in appearance

The five ships of the London class were ordered in 1898 in response to increased naval construction for the Russian Navy. The design for the London class was prepared in 1898; it was a virtual repeat of the preceding Formidable class, though with significant revision to the forward armour protection scheme. Rather than a traditional transverse bulkhead for the forward end of the main belt armour, the belt was carried further forward and gradually tapered in thickness. Deck armour was also strengthened.[1]

A change in design from that of the first three Formidables occurred in Bulwark and the other four Londons, which is why the Londons often are considered a separate class.[2] The main difference in the Bulwarks and the other four Londons from the first three ships was thinner deck armour and some other detail changes to the armour scheme.[3]

Bulwark was 431 feet 9 inches (131.60 m) long overall, with a beam of 75 ft (23 m) and a draft of 26 ft (7.9 m). She displaced 14,500 tonnes (14,300 long tons) normally and up to 15,700 tonnes (15,500 long tons) fully loaded. Her crew numbered 714 officers and enlisted men. The Formidable-class ships were powered by a pair of 3-cylinder triple-expansion engines that drove two screws, with steam provided by twenty Belleville boilers. The boilers were trunked into two funnels located amidships. The Formidable-class ships had a top speed of 18 knots (33 km/h; 21 mph) from 15,000 indicated horsepower (11,000 kW).[4]

Bulwark had four 12-inch (305 mm) 40-calibre guns mounted in twin gun turrets fore and aft; these guns were mounted in circular barbettes that allowed all-around loading or elevation. The ships also mounted twelve 6-inch (152 mm) 45-calibre guns mounted in casemates, in addition to ten 12-pounder guns and six 3-pounder guns. As was customary for battleships of the period, she was also equipped with four 18-inch (460 mm) torpedo tubes submerged in the hull.[4]

Bulwark had an armoured belt that was 9 inches (229 mm) thick; the transverse bulkheads on the aft end of the belt was 9 to 12 in (229 to 305 mm) thick. Her main battery turrets sides were 8 to 10 in (203 to 254 mm) thick, atop 12 in (305 mm) barbettes, and the casemate battery was protected with 6 in of Krupp steel. Her conning tower had 14 in (356 mm) thick sides as well. She was fitted with two armoured decks, 1 and 2.5 in (25 and 64 mm) thick, respectively.[4]

Operational history[edit]

Pre-First World War[edit]

Bulwark had a long refit immediately after completion for the installation of fire control,[5] but finally commissioned at Devonport Dockyard by Captain Frederick Hamilton[6] on 18 March 1902 for Mediterranean Fleet service.[7] She left Plymouth on 6 May,[8] and four days later arrived at Gibraltar, then proceeded to Malta.[9] Admiral Sir Compton Domvile had hoisted his flag on board on 1 May 1902 (while at Plymouth),[10] and succeeded as Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet when Bulwark relieved battleship Renown as fleet flagship on 20 May 1902. In August 1902 she was lead ship of a squadron visiting the Agean sea for combined manoeuvres, landing at Lemnos and Nauplia,[11] and in October that year she visited Cagliari.[12] She underwent a refit at Malta in 1905–1906. Her Mediterranean Fleet service ended when she paid off at Devonport on 11 February 1907.[13]

On 12 February 1907, Bulwark recommissioned to serve as Flagship, Rear-Admiral, Nore Division, Home Fleet, at the Nore. She grounded near Lemon Light in the North Sea on 26 October, and underwent a refit at Chatham Dockyard in 1907–1908.[13]

In 1908, Captain Robert Falcon Scott of Antarctic fame became Bulwark's commander, becoming the youngest battleship commander at that time. Bulwark joined the Channel Fleet on 3 October 1908. Under the fleet reorganisation of 24 March 1909, the Channel Fleet became the 2nd Division of the Home Fleet, and Bulwark thus became a Home Fleet unit. She underwent a refit later in 1909.[13]

On 1 March 1910, Bulwark commissioned into the reserve at Devonport with a nucleus crew as Flagship, Vice-Admiral, 3rd and 4th Divisions, Home Fleet, at the Nore. She began a refit at Chatham in September 1911, and grounded twice on Barrow Deep off the Nore during refit trials in May 1912, suffering bottom damage.[13]

Her refit complete in June 1912, she recommissioned and joined the 5th Battle Squadron.

First World War[edit]

From the beginning of the First World War in August 1914, Bulwark and the 5th Battle Squadron, assigned to the Channel Fleet and based at Portland upon the outbreak of war, carried out numerous patrols in the English Channel under the command of Captain Guy Sclater.

From 5 to 9 November 1914, while anchored at Portland, Bulwark hosted the court martial of Rear-Admiral Sir Ernest Charles Thomas Troubridge for his actions during the pursuit of the German battlecruiser SMS Goeben and light cruiser SMS Breslau in the Mediterranean Sea in August 1914.[14]

On 14 November 1914, the 5th Battle Squadron transferred to Sheerness to guard against a possible German invasion of England.[15]


A powerful internal explosion ripped Bulwark apart at 07:50 on 26 November 1914 while she was moored at Number 17 buoy in Kethole Reach, 4 nmi (4.6 mi; 7.4 km) west of Sheerness in the estuary of the River Medway. Out of her complement of 750, no officers and only 14 sailors survived, two of whom subsequently died of their injuries in hospital. Most of the survivors were seriously injured.

HMS Bulwark explodes at Sheerness, 26 November 1914.

The only men to survive the explosion comparatively unscathed were those who had been in Number 1 mess-deck amidships, who were blown out of an open hatch. One of these men, Able Seaman Stephen Marshall, described feeling the sensation of "a colossal draught", being drawn "irresistibly upwards", and, as he rose in the air, clearly seeing the ship's masts shaking violently.

Witnesses on the battleship Implacable, the next ship in line at the mooring, reported that "a huge pillar of black cloud belched upwards... From the depths of this writhing column flames appeared running down to sea level. The appearance of this dreadful phenomenon 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."

The destruction of Bulwark was also witnessed on board battleship Formidable, where "when the dust and wreckage had finally settled a limp object was seen hanging from the wireless aerials upon which it had fallen. With difficulty the object was retrieved and found to be an officer's uniform jacket with three gold bands on the sleeves and between them the purple cloth of an engineer officer. The garment's former owner had been blasted into fragments."

Perhaps the most detailed descriptions of the disaster came from witnesses on board battleships Prince of Wales and Agamemnon, both of whom stated that smoke issued from the stern of the ship prior to the explosion and that the first explosion appeared to take place in an after magazine.

On 29 November 1914 divers sent to find the wreck reported that the ship's port bow as far aft as the sick bay had been blown off by the explosion and lay 50 ft (15 m) east of the mooring. The starboard bow lay 30 ft (9.1 m) further away. The remainder of the ship had been torn apart so violently that no other large portions of the wreck could be found.

In terms of loss of life, the incident remains the second most catastrophic accidental explosion in the history of the United Kingdom, exceeded only by the explosion of the dreadnought battleship Vanguard, caused by a stokehold fire detonating a magazine, at Scapa Flow in 1917.

Inquiry into loss[edit]

A naval court of enquiry into the causes of the explosion held on 28 November 1914 established that it had been the practice to store ammunition for Bulwark's 6 in (150 mm) guns in cross-passageways connecting her total of 11 magazines. It suggested that, contrary to regulations, 275 six-inch shells had been placed close together, most touching each other, and some touching the walls of the magazine, on the morning of the explosion.

The most likely cause of the disaster appears to have been overheating of cordite charges stored alongside a boiler room bulkhead, and this was the explanation accepted by the court of enquiry. It has also been suggested that damage caused to one of the shells stored in the battleship's cross-passageways may have weakened the fusing mechanism and caused the shell to become 'live'. A blow to the shell, caused by it being dropped point down, could then have set off a chain reaction of explosions among the shells stored in Bulwark's cross-passageways sufficient to detonate the ship's magazines.


The Naval War Memorial, Southsea, on which victims from Bulwark are commemorated.

A memorial to those lost on Bulwark and Princess Irene was erected at the Dockyard Church, Sheerness in 1921. It was dedicated by Archdeacon Ingles, the Chaplain of the Fleet.[16] It was unveiled by Hugh Evan-Thomas, Commander-in-Chief, The Nore.[17] Victims of both ships are also commemorated on the Naval War Memorial at Southsea.[18]

Another memorial was placed in Woodlands Road Cemetery, Gillingham, as part of the Naval Burial Ground.[19]

Wreck site[edit]

Bulwark's wreck site is designated as a controlled site under the Protection of Military Remains Act.


  1. ^ Burt, pp. 206–209.
  2. ^ For example, Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1860–1905, p. 37, and Burt, pp. 175–194, refer to the Londons as a separate class while Gibbons, p. 151, lists them all as part of the Formidable class. Burt refers to the Londons as the Bulwark class.
  3. ^ Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1860–1905, p. 37
  4. ^ a b c Gardiner, p. 37.
  5. ^ Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1906–1921, p. 8
  6. ^ "Naval & Military intelligence". The Times (36707). London. 5 March 1902. p. 5.
  7. ^ "Naval & Military intelligence". The Times (36719). London. 19 March 1902. p. 8.
  8. ^ "Naval & Military intelligence". The Times (36761). London. 7 May 1902. p. 10.
  9. ^ "Naval & Military intelligence". The Times (36765). London. 12 May 1902. p. 9.
  10. ^ "Naval & Military intelligence". The Times (36757). London. 2 May 1902. p. 8.
  11. ^ "Naval & Military intelligence". The Times (36853). London. 22 August 1902. p. 4.
  12. ^ "Naval & Military intelligence". The Times (36896). London. 11 October 1902. p. 12.
  13. ^ a b c d Burt, p. 191
  14. ^ van der Vat, pp. 150–166
  15. ^ Burt, p. 170
  16. ^ "Memorials at Sheerness". The Times (42731). London. 27 May 1921. col C, p. 18.
  17. ^ "Bulwark and Princess Irene". The Times (42732). London. 28 May 1921. col B, p. 7.
  18. ^ "Portsmouth Naval War Memorial". The Times (43782). London. 14 October 1924. col C, p. 19.
  19. ^ "HMS Bulwark and HMS Irene War Memorial, Woodlands Road Cemetery". Retrieved 13 February 2013.


  • Burt, R. A. British Battleships 1889–1904. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1988. ISBN 0-87021-061-0.
  • Chesneau, Roger, and Eugene M. Kolesnik, eds. Conway's All The World's Fighting Ships, 1860–1905. New York: Mayflower Books, Inc., 1979. ISBN 0-8317-0302-4.
  • Gibbons, Tony. The Complete Encyclopedia of Battleships and Battlecruisers: A Technical Directory of All the World's Capital Ships From 1860 to the Present Day. London: Salamander Books Ltd., 1983.
  • Gray, Randal, Ed. Conway's All The World's Fighting Ships 1906–1921. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1985. ISBN 0-87021-907-3.
  • Hampshire, A. Cecil. They Called It Accident. London: William Kimber, 1961.
  • van der Vat, Dan. The Ship That Changed the World: The Escape of the Goeben to the Dardanelles in 1914. Bethesda, Maryland; Adler & Adler, Publishers, Inc., 1985. ISBN 0-917561-13-9.

Coordinates: 51°25′N 0°39′E / 51.417°N 0.650°E / 51.417; 0.650