HMS Vanguard (1909)

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For other ships with the same name, see HMS Vanguard.
HMS Vanguard (1909).png
United Kingdom
Name: Vanguard
Ordered: 6 February 1908
Builder: Vickers Armstrong, Barrow-in-Furness
Laid down: 2 April 1908
Launched: 22 February 1909
Commissioned: 1 March 1910
Fate: Sunk by internal explosion, 9 July 1917
General characteristics (as built)
Class and type: St. Vincent-class dreadnought battleship
Displacement: 19,700 long tons (20,000 t) (normal)
Length: 536 ft (163.4 m) (o/a)
Beam: 84 ft (25.6 m)
Draught: 28 ft (8.5 m)
Installed power:
Propulsion: 4 × shafts; 2 × steam turbine sets
Speed: 21 knots (39 km/h; 24 mph)
Range: 6,900 nmi (12,800 km; 7,900 mi) at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)
Complement: 753

HMS Vanguard was a St Vincent-class dreadnought battleship built for the Royal Navy in the first decade of the 20th century. She spent her whole career assigned to the Home and Grand Fleets. Aside from participating in the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, her service during World War I generally consisted of routine patrols and training in the North Sea.

Just before midnight on 9 July 1917 at Scapa Flow, Vanguard suffered an explosion, probably caused by an unnoticed stokehold fire heating cordite stored against an adjacent bulkhead in one of the two magazines which served the amidships gun turrets 'P' and 'Q'.[1] She sank almost instantly, killing an estimated 804 men; there were only two survivors. The site is now designated as a controlled site under the Protection of Military Remains Act. One of the casualties of the disaster was Captain Kyōsuke Eto, a military observer from the Imperial Japanese Navy, which was allied with the Royal Navy at the time through the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.

In terms of loss of life, the destruction of the Vanguard remains the most catastrophic accidental explosion in the history of the UK, and one of the worst accidental losses of the Royal Navy.

Design and description[edit]

Right elevation and plan of the first generation of British dreadnoughts from the 1912 edition of Jane's Fighting Ships

The Naval Estimates for 1907–08 presented to the House of Commons by the First Lord of the Admiralty included funding for the construction of two dreadnought battleships, or for three if no acceptable understanding could be reached with the other major naval powers at the Hague Conference. As no such understanding could be arrived at, the St Vincent class, originally planned to contain only two ships, was expanded to include Vanguard.[2] The design of the ships was derived from that of the previous Bellerophon class.[3]

Vanguard had an overall length of 536 feet (163.4 m), a beam of 84 feet (25.6 m),[4] and a normal draught of 28 feet (8.5 m).[5] She displaced 19,700 long tons (20,000 t) at normal load and 22,800 long tons (23,200 t) at deep load. In 1910 her crew numbered 753 officers and enlisted men.[6]


Vanguard was powered by two sets of Parsons direct-drive steam turbines, each driving two shafts, using steam from eighteen Babcock & Wilcox boilers. The turbines were rated at 24,500 shp (18,300 kW) and intended to reach a maximum speed of 21 knots (39 km/h; 24 mph). During her sea trials on 17 December 1909, the ship unofficially reached a top speed of 22.3 knots (41.3 km/h; 25.7 mph) from 25,780 shp (19,220 kW), although she must have been lightly loaded to reach this speed. She had a range of 6,900 nautical miles (12,800 km; 7,900 mi) at a cruising speed of 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph).[7]


The St Vincent class was equipped with ten breech-loading (BL) 12-inch (305 mm) Mk XI guns in five twin gun turrets, three along the centreline and the remaining two as wing turrets. The secondary, or anti-torpedo boat armament, comprised twenty BL 4-inch (102 mm) Mk VII guns. Two of these guns were each installed on the roofs of the fore and aft centreline turrets and the wing turrets in unshielded mounts, and the other ten were positioned in the superstructure. All guns were in single mounts.[6] The ships were also fitted with three 18-inch torpedo tubes, one on each broadside and the third in the stern.[5]


The St Vincent-class ships had a waterline belt of Krupp cemented armour (KC) that was 10 inches (254 mm) thick between the fore and aftmost barbettes that reduced to a thickness of 2 inches (51 mm) before it reached the ships' ends. Above this was a strake of armour 8 inches (203 mm) thick. Transverse bulkheads 5 to 8 inches (127 to 203 mm) inches thick terminated the thickest parts of the waterline and upper armour belts once they reached the outer portions of the endmost barbettes.[8]

The three centreline barbettes were protected by armour 9 inches (229 mm) thick above the main deck that thinned to 5 inches (127 mm) below it. The wing barbettes were similar except that they had 10 inches of armour on their outer faces. The gun turrets had 11-inch (279 mm) faces and sides with 3 inches (76 mm) roofs. The three armoured decks ranged in thicknesses from .75 to 3 inches (19 to 76 mm). The front and sides of the forward conning tower were protected by 11-inch plates, although the rear and roof were 8 inches and 3 inches thick respectively.[9]


The guns on the forward turret roof were removed in 1910–11 and the upper forward pair of guns in the superstructure were removed in 1913–14. In addition, gun shields were fitted to all guns in the superstructure and the bridge structure was enlarged around the base of the forward tripod mast. During the first year of the war, a fire-control director was installed high on the forward tripod mast. Around the same time, the base of the forward superstructure was rebuilt to house four 4-inch guns and the turret-top guns were removed, which reduced her secondary armament to a total of fourteen guns. In addition a pair of 3-inch anti-aircraft (AA) guns were added. Approximately 50 long tons (51 t) of additional deck armour were added after the Battle of Jutland in May 1916. By April 1917, Vanguard mounted thirteen 4-inch anti-torpedo boat guns as well as single 4-inch and 3-inch AA guns.[10]

Construction and career[edit]

HMS Vanguard (1909).jpg

Vanguard, eighth ship of that name,[11] was ordered on 6 February 1908. She was laid down by Vickers Armstrong at their Barrow-in-Furness shipyard on 2 April 1908, launched on 22 April 1909 and completed on 1 March 1910. Including her armament, her cost is variously quoted at £1,464,030[6] or £1,607,780.[2] She was commissioned on 1 March 1910, under the command of Captain John Eustace,[12] and assigned to the 1st Division of the Home Fleet. She was present in Torbay when King George V visited the fleet in late July. Vanguard also participated in the Coronation Fleet Review at Spithead on 24 June 1911 and she participated in exercises with the Atlantic Fleet the following month before beginning a refit.[13] Captain Arthur Ricardo relieved Eustace on 23 September.[14]

The ship was recommissioned on 28 March 1912 and rejoined the 1st Division before it was renamed the 1st Battle Squadron on 1 May. She participated in exercises with the 1st Fleet in October.[13] Vanguard was refitted in December at which time new bilge keels were installed.[15] On 5 June 1913, Captain Cecil Hickley replaced Ricardo upon the latter's promotion to commodore, second class.[16]

Between 17 and 20 July 1914, Vanguard took part in a test mobilisation and fleet review. On 29 July she sailed to the fleet's war station at Scapa Flow and began the patrols and training exercises that constituted the greater part of her service after the declaration of war on 4 August. In April 1916 the ship was transferred to the 4th Battle Squadron.[13]

Battle of Jutland[edit]

Main article: Battle of Jutland

On the 31 May 1916, Vanguard, now under the command of Captain James Dick, was assigned to the 4th Division of the 4th Battle Squadron at the Battle of Jutland, being the eighteenth ship from the head of the battle line after deployment.[13] Shortly after deploying from column into line ahead, her crew logged shells from the High Seas Fleet were falling nearby. During the first stage of the general engagement, the ship fired 42 rounds from her main guns at the crippled light cruiser SMS Wiesbaden from 18:32,[Note 1] claiming several hits. Between 19:20 and 19:30, Vanguard engaged several German destroyer flotillas with her main armament without result. This was the last time that the ship fired her guns during the battle. She fired a total of 65 high explosive and 15 Common Pointed, Capped twelve-inch shells and 10 four-inch shells during the battle.[17]

Action of 19 August 1916[edit]

On the evening of 18 August 1916, the Grand Fleet put to sea in response to a message deciphered by Room 40 indicating that the High Seas Fleet, minus II Squadron, would be leaving harbour that night. The German objective was to bombard Sunderland on 19 August, based on extensive reconnaissance conducted by Zeppelins and submarines. The Grand Fleet sailed with 29 dreadnought battleships and 6 battlecruisers while the Germans mustered 18 battleships and 2 battlecruisers. Throughout the next day, Admiral John Jellicoe and Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer, commanders of the Grand and High Seas Fleets respectively, received conflicting intelligence; after reaching the location in the North Sea where the British expected to encounter the High Seas Fleet, they turned north in the erroneous belief that they had entered a minefield. Scheer turned south again, then steered south-eastward to pursue a lone British battle squadron sighted by an airship, which was in fact the Harwich Force of cruisers and destroyers under Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt. Realising their mistake, the Germans changed course for home. The only contact came in the evening when Tyrwhitt sighted the High Seas Fleet but was unable to achieve an advantageous attack position before dark, and broke off contact. The British and the German fleets returned home; the British lost two cruisers to submarine attacks, and one German dreadnought had been torpedoed.[18]


On the afternoon of 9 July 1917, the ship's crew had been exercising, practising the routine for abandoning ship. She anchored in the northern part of Scapa Flow at about 18.30. There is no record of anyone detecting anything amiss until the moment of the explosion at 23:20.

A court of inquiry heard accounts from many witnesses on nearby ships. They accepted the consensus that there had been a small explosion with a white glare between the foremast and "A" turret, followed after a brief interval by two much larger explosions.[19] The Court decided, on the balance of the available evidence, that the main detonations were in either "P" magazine, "Q" magazine, or both. A great deal of debris thrown out by the explosion landed on nearby ships; a section of plating measuring five feet by six feet landed on board Bellerophon. It was matched with a sister ship, and was found to be from the central dynamo room, which reinforced the evidence suggesting that the explosion took place in the central part of the ship.

Although the explosion was obviously an explosion of the cordite charges in a main magazine, the reason for it was much less obvious. There were several theories. The inquiry found that some of the cordite on board, which had been temporarily offloaded in December 1916 and catalogued at that time, was past its stated safe life. The possibility of spontaneous detonation was raised, but could not be proved.[20] It was also noted that a number of ship's boilers were still in use, and some watertight doors which should have been closed in war-time, were open as the ship was in port. It was suggested that this might have contributed to a dangerously high temperature in the magazines. The final conclusion of the board was that a fire started in a 4-inch magazine, perhaps when a raised temperature caused spontaneous ignition of cordite, spreading to one or the other main magazines, which then exploded.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The times used in this section are in UT, which is one hour behind CET, which is often used in German works.


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b Parkes, p. 503
  3. ^ Burt, p. 75
  4. ^ Burt, pp. 75–76
  5. ^ a b Preston, p. 125
  6. ^ a b c Burt, p. 76
  7. ^ Burt, pp. 76, 80
  8. ^ Burt, pp. 76, 78; Parkes, p. 503
  9. ^ Burt, pp. 76, 78; Parkes, p. 504
  10. ^ Burt, p. 81
  11. ^ Colledge, p. 369
  12. ^ "HMS Vanguard to be commissioned to-morrow". Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser. 28 February 1910. Retrieved 13 January 2015 – via British Newspaper Archive. (subscription required (help)). 
  13. ^ a b c d Burt, p. 86
  14. ^ ""Naval and Military Intelligence" (Official Appointments and Notices)". The Times. 6 September 1911. p. Issue 39683, col E, p. 4. Retrieved 13 January 2015. 
  15. ^ "Medway floating dock". Portsmouth Evening News. 24 December 1912. Retrieved 13 January 2015 – via British Newspaper Archive. (subscription required (help)). 
  16. ^ "Items of service news". Portsmouth Evening News. 5 June 1913. Retrieved 13 January 2015 – via British Newspaper Archive. (subscription required (help)). 
  17. ^ Campbell, pp. 152, 157, 212, 349, 358
  18. ^ Massie, pp. 682–84
  19. ^ ADM 116/1615A
  20. ^ Brown p. 169
  21. ^ Burt


External links[edit]

Coordinates: 58°51′24″N 3°06′22″W / 58.8566°N 3.1062°W / 58.8566; -3.1062