HMS Bulwark (1899)

HMS Bulwark (1899)

HMS "Bulwark" belonged to a sub-class of the "Formidable"-class of predreadnought battleships of the British Royal Navy known as the "London" class.

Technical Description

HMS "Bulwark" was laid down at Devonport Dockyard on 20 March 1899 and launched on 18 October 1899. She began trials in May 1901 and was completed in March 1902. [Burt, p. 178]

Like the first three "Formidable"-class ships, "Bulwark" and her four "London"-class sisters were similar in appearance to and had the same armament as the "Majestic" and "Canopus" classes that preceded them. The "Formidable"s and "London"s are often described as improved "Majestic"s, but in design they really were enlarged "Canopus"es; while the "Canopus" class took advantage of the greater strength of the Krupp armor employed in their construction to allow the ships to remain the same size as the "Majestic"s with increased tonnage devoted higher speed and less to armor without sacrificing protection, in the "Formidable"s' and "London"s' Krupp armor was used to improve protection without reducing the size of the ships. ["Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1860-1905", p. 36] The "Formidable"s and "London"s thus were larger than the two preceding classes, and enjoyed both greater protection than the "Majestic"s and the higher speed of the "Canopus" class. The "Formidable"s' and "London"s' armor scheme was similar to that of the "Canopus"es, although, unlike in the "Canopus"es, the armor belt ran all the way to the stern; it was 215 feet (65.5 meters) long and 15 feet (4.8 meters) deep and 9 inches (229 mm) thick, tapering at the stem to 3 inches (76.2 mm) thick and 12 feet (3.7 meters) deep and at the stern to 1.5 inches (38.1 mm) thick and 8 feet (2.4 meters) deep. The main battery turrets had Krupp armor, 10 inches (254 mm) on their sides and 8 inches (203 mm) on their backs. ["Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1860-1905", p. 36]

The "Formidable"s and "London"s improved on the main and secondary armament of previous classes, being upgunned from 35-caliber to 40-caliber 12-inch (305-mm) guns and from 40-caliber to 45-caliber 6-inch (152-mm) guns. The 12-inch guns could be loaded at any bearing and elevation, and beneath the turrets the ships had a split hoist with a working chamber beneath the guns that reduced the chance of a cordite fire spreading from the turret to the shell and powder handling rooms and to the magazines. ["Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1860-1905", p. 36]

The "Formidable"s and "London"s had an improved hull form that made them handier at high speeds than the "Majestic"s. They also had inward-turning screws, which allowed reduced fuel consumption and slightly higher speeds than in preious classes but at the expense of less maneuverability at low speeds. ["Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1860-1905", p. 36]

A change in design from that of the first three "Formidable"s occurred in "Bulwark" and the other four "London"s, which is why the "London"s often are considered a separate class. [For example, "Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1860-1905", p. 37, and Burt, pp. 175-194, refer to the "London"s as a separate class while Gibbons, p. 151, lists them all as part of the "Formidable" class. Burt refers to the "London"s as the "Bulwark" class.] The main difference in the "Bulwarks" and the other four "London"s from the first three ships was thinner deck armor and some other detail changes to the armor scheme. ["Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1860-1905", p. 37]

Like all predreadnoughts, "Bulwark" was outclassed by the dreadnought battleships that began to appear in 1906. Like other predreadoughts, however, "Bulwark" took on some first-line duties during the early part of World War I.

Operational History

HMS "Bulwark" had a long refit immediately after completion for the installation of fire control, ["Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1906-1921", p. 8] but finally commissioned at Devonport Dockyard on 11 March 1902 for Mediterranean Fleet service, relieving battleship HMS "Renown" as fleet flagship on 1 May 1902. She underwent a refit at Malta in 1905-1906. Her Mediterranean Fleet service ended when she paid off at Devonport on 11 February 1907. [Burt, p. 191]

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 1907, and underwent a refit at Chatham Dockyard in 1907-1908. [Burt, p. 191]

In 1908, Captain Robert Falcon Scott of Antarctic fame became "Bulwark's" commander, becoming the youngest junior battleship commander at that time. "Bulwark" joined the Channel Fleet on 3 October 1908. Under the fleet reorganization 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. [Burt, p. 191]

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. [Burt, p. 191]

Her refit complete in June 1912, she recommissioned and joined the 5th Battle Squadron. From the beginning of World War I 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 November 1914 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 "Goeben" and light cruiser "Breslau in the Mediterranean Sea in August 1914. [van der Vat, pp. 150-166]

On 14 November 1914, the 5th Battle Squadron transferred to Sheerness to guard against a possible German invasion. [Burt, p. 170]

The destruction of "Bulwark"

A powerful internal explosion ripped the "Bulwark" apart at 7.50am on 26 November 1914 while she was moored at Number 17 buoy in Kethole Reach, four miles (6 km) west of Sheerness in the estuary of the River Medway. All of her officers were lost, and out of her complement of 750, only 14 sailors survived; two of these men subsequently died of their injuries in hospital, and almost all of the remaining survivors were seriously injured.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 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 the "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.

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 the "Bulwark"'s six-inch (152 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 a single one of the shells stored in 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 the "Bulwark"'s cross-passageways sufficient to detonate the ship's magazines.

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 convert|50|ft|m|0 east of the mooring. The starboard bow lay convert|30|ft|m|0 further away. The remainder of the ship had been torn apart so violently that no other large portions of the wreck could be found.

The wreck site is designated as a controlled site under the Protection of Military Remains Act

In terms of loss of life, the explosion on HMS "Bulwark" remains the second most catastrophic in the history of the UK. (The most deadly explosion in British history was that of battleship HMS "Vanguard", caused by a stokehold fire detonating a magazine, at Scapa Flow in 1917.)



*Burt, R. A. "British Battleships 1889-1904". Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1988. ISBN 0870210610.
*Chesneau, Roger, and Eugene M. Kolesnik, eds. "Conway's All The World's Fighting Ships, 1860-1905". New York: Mayflower Books, Inc., 1979. ISBN 0831703024.
*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 0870219073.
*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.

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