Is There No End to Naval “Oops” Moments?

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A Brief History

On March 17, 1891, a civilian ocean liner, the steamship SS Utopia of the Anchor Line ran into the moored battleship, HMS Anson in Gibraltar Bay, causing the ill-fated steamer to sink taking 562 of the 880 passengers to Davy Jones Locker!  We have frequently written about naval and maritime disasters, and today we include another one of those times a ship’s captain would love to have a “do over.”

Digging Deeper

As stated above, the British battleship HMS Anson (the 6th Royal Navy ship to bear the name, but not the last!) was anchored in Gibraltar Bay, seemingly easy enough to avoid, especially by a ship such as the SS Utopia that was steam powered and not at the mercy of the winds.  On February 25, 1891, the steamer left Trieste bound for New York with stops at Naples, Genoa and Gibraltar.  Among the 880 people aboard, 59 were crewmen.  By today’s standards, the ocean liner was not large, only 350 feet long with a 35 foot beam.  She displaced 2371 gross tons and could make a decent 13 knots top speed, reasonable for her day.  Built in 1874, she had sister ships in the SS Elysia and the SS Alsatia.  Her designed load was 60 second class passengers, 120 first class passengers, and 600 third class passengers.  Utopia made many cross-Atlantic voyages from London to New York and back before being switched to Mediterranean duty in 1882, mostly hauling immigrants from Italy to the United States.  Her engines were overhauled in 1890-1891 and replaced with more modern steam engines.  Her passenger arrangements were also altered, with complete removal of the second class section and reduction of first class from 60 to only 45 passengers, although the third class accommodations were increased to 900 (probably not a good deal for those steerage passengers!).  The Anson was a pre-Dreadnaught type battleship of 10,600 tons displacement.

HMS Anson (1897).  Scanned by Stephen Johnson.

When Captain John McKeague brought his liner into Gibraltar Bay and headed for his accustomed anchorage, he found Royal Navy battleships occupying his usual berth.  He later said his vision was “dazzled” by searchlights from the battleships, leaving him with a sudden realization he was in among many moored ships.  Emergency steering to avoid the Anson was foiled by the currents and a “sudden gust of wind” that drove the beam of the liner onto the armored prow of the Anson, reinforced to act as a ram in combat.  The ram did its designed job and pierced the Utopia’s side, leaving a gaping 5 meter hole under the waterline and allowing the sea to rush in and flood the holds.  Rams on warships, including the Anson, were normally below the waterline and were not visible from the surface.  (Those rams were rarely used in naval combat but did play a part in many non-combat accidents!)  The idea of quickly beaching the Utopia was foiled by engine failure of at least one engine and the firemen turning off the other boilers to avoid explosion.  The order to abandon ship came quickly, but almost as soon as boats were put in the water the ship heeled over and swamped the lifeboats.  The Utopia quickly sank in only 56 feet of water, leaving her masts jutting out above the waves marking her grave and providing something to hand onto for survivors, although many passengers had been trapped inside the ship.

Other ships came quickly to assist with rescues, including the destroyer HMS Immortalité, and 2 sailors from that destroyer gave their own lives in attempts to rescue people from Utopia.  Bad weather greatly hampered rescue attempts, though the rescue operation continued until at least 11 pm.  A total of 564 people died that day due to a tragic blunder by the Captain of the Utopia, 562 from the liner and the 2 from the Immortalité.  Among the 318 survivors of the Utopia were 2 first class passengers, 3 Italian interpreters, and 23 crewmen.  The remaining 290 survivors were third class (steerage) passengers.  Captain John McKeague also survived, buy may have wished he did not!

HMS Immortalité

Salvage divers found victims deep within the Utopia clinging tightly together, so tightly that separating them was problematic.  The Anchor Line was ordered to keep the wreck illuminated for safety purposes, but another ship, the SS Primula, managed to blunder into the wreck of the Utopia anyway (another maritime “Oops!” moment).  The investigative board into that accident found the owners of Utopia to not be liable since the port authority had taken control of the wreck.  

Meanwhile, Captain McKeague was found guilty of “grave errors in judgement.”  Though this author was unable to find out what punishment to Captain McKeague was meted out, the man died in Scotland in 1917, at the age of 67 (or 65, the obituary lists both ages).  His obituary referred to him as a “naval surveyor” and mentioned service to the Anchor Line, but not the Utopia incident.  While the inquiry had noted the inadequate amount of lifeboat space for the amount of passengers and crew, no laws were changed to rectify that condition on other ships, and later the 1912 RMS Titanic sinking highlighted the problem.

“Untergang der Titanic“, as conceived by Willy Stöwer, 1912

The wreck of the Utopia was eventually raised and towed to Scotland where she was scrapped in 1900.  As always, we wish our seagoing brothers and sisters fair winds and following seas!

Questions for Students (and others):  When did naval engineers stop putting rams on warships?  What other civilian ship versus military ship collisions can you think of?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

Wreck of Utopia in Gibraltar Harbour

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Blackmore, David. Blunders & Disasters at Sea. Pen and Sword Maritime, 2004.

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Gahlen, Sarah. Civil Liability for Accidents at Sea.  Springer, 2015.

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Messer-Bookman, Tuuli. Maritime Casualties: Causes and Consequences. Cornell Maritime Press, 2015.

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The featured image in this article, the sinking of SS Utopia (March 17, 1891, the Bay of Gibraltar) by Ms. Georgina Smith, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.