A Brief History
On June 22, 1893, the British battleship HMS Camperdown accidentally collided with the British battleship HMS Victoria off the coast of Lebanon.
Victoria was the flagship of the British Mediterranean fleet, the most powerful fleet in that sea and as such carried Vice Admiral Sir George Tryon.
These 2 ships were 2 of the most powerful ships in the world, launched in 1885 and 1887 respectively. They were engaged in maneuvers and using the tactics of using an absolute minimum amount of signaling between ships. Remember, back then there was no radio, so ships used signal flags, semaphore or blinking lights.
Admiral Tryon deliberately waited until the last moment to make his signals to test the reactions of his fleet’s skippers and to keep them alert. When Tryon gave an order that seemed questionable, a couple of his officers asked if that was really what he meant and he imperiously said yes.
Tryon had ordered a difficult turning maneuver in close quarters to his ships, a move that did not have a prearranged signal making the abrupt move so close to other ships obviously dangerous. The captain of the Victoria asked the Admiral permission to reverse his engines and was denied until the last second when permission was given. The captain of the Camperdown also put his engines astern, but by then it was too late and the Camperdown hit the Victoria with her ram (bow mounted) against Victoria’s side.
As the Camperdown backed up, her ram was withdrawn from Victoria leaving a gaping hole in the flagship. Seawater rushed in too quickly for watertight doors and hatches to be closed and in only 13 minutes Victoria capsized and then sank. Of the Victoria’s crew, 358 died and 357 survived. One of those killed was Admiral Tryon. Of the survivors, at least 173 were injured.
Meanwhile, Camperdown’s ram was almost pulled off, leaving a large hole in her bow that also began flooding rapidly. Like Victoria, Camperdown’s watertight doors and hatches were not secured and flooding became an urgent problem. Luckily, the crew worked fast enough to save Camperdown, which limped into port. The other ships partaking in the maneuvers narrowly avoided becoming involved in collisions themselves.
In the ensuing court martial of Victoria’s captain, 4 of the officers on the panel were captains of ships involved in the maneuvers including the captain of the Camperdown, a ridiculous conflict of interest. On the objection of Victoria’s captain the panel was changed. The court martial concluded that the fault for the accident lay with Admiral Tryon alone. The investigation of the incident refuted any problem with the design of the ships and procedures, yet the designs were changed as were procedures (typical government cover up!). Camperdown’s captain received a minor rebuke in the court’s findings for obeying orders that were somewhat clearly incorrect.
The Royal Navy has a long and glorious history, but as they say, nobody is perfect. The sinking of the Victoria and the massive loss of life has to rank among the worst blunders in their history. Question for students (and subscribers): Have there been any worse blunders? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Konstam, Dr. Angus. Ghost Ships: Tales of Abandoned, Doomed, and Haunted Vessels. Lyons Press, 2005.
You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube.