A Brief History
On September 25, 1911, the French battleship, Liberté, joined the long, sad list of ships that managed to sink themselves without the benefit of an enemy to blame when she blew up while moored at Toulon harbor in the South of France.
Liberté was a pre-Dreadnaught type battleship, built in 1902 to 1908, already obsolete at her 1908 commissioning because of the revolutionary appearance of the British battleship HMS Dreadnaught in 1906. Still, the Liberté was an impressive ship with a displacement of nearly 15,000 tons and a length of 439 feet. Capable of 19 knots top speed, she was armed with a main battery of 4 X 12 inch (305 mm) guns and a secondary armament of 10 X 7.6 inch (194 mm) guns, as well as various other smaller weapons. Liberté boasted a pair of torpedo tubes, and armor as thick as 13 inches. With a crew of 769 men, Liberté could take on all but the latest Dreadnaught type battleships.
The fatal accident occurred while in port at Toulon, the main French naval base on the Mediterranean Sea. Old and degraded propellant for the secondary battery stored in the forward ammunition hold had become unstable and blew up, destroying the ship and taking the lives of 250 of the crew, although not all at once. After the initial explosion, the Captain ordered the forward magazines to be flooded and sent damage control personnel to try to save the ship, but this party was killed when the main magazine then exploded, dooming the ship. When the main magazine blew up, a large chunk (41 tons!) of armor from the Liberté was launched into the air and came down on the nearby battleship, Republique, heavily damaging that battleship as well. The wreck of the Liberté remained in Toulon harbor until raised and scrapped in 1925.
Far from an isolated incident, the French Navy had several other incidents of propellant powder, Poudre B (the earliest practical nitro-cellulose gun powder), blowing up in the magazines of their ships, including the battleship Ilena in 1907 and the cruiser Gloire two weeks before the Liberté incident. Captain Jaurès of the Liberté was exonerated of any fault for the accident, though he would not again command a ship. As they say, ship happens…
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The featured image in this article, a photograph of the wreck of Liberté after the explosion from The University of Washington Libraries, is in the public domain, because Materials in the Freshwater and Marine Image Bank are in the public domain. No copyright permissions are needed. Acknowledgement of the Freshwater and Marine Image Bank as a source for borrowed images is requested.