Sunday, February 17, 2008

When Battleships Collide

What follows was originally going to be part of the preceding post, but because it turned out so long, I decided to spin it off into one of its own. I think it illustrates most of the points made in the 'when worlds and brains collide' post, however.

During the late 1800s, the Victorian era, the height of the British Empire, the Gilded Age, or whatever you wanted to call it, the most powerful, prestigious, and strategically important element of the Royal Navy was the Mediterranean Fleet, based in Malta and generally about twice as powerful as the fleet defending the English Channel. This arrangement lasted until the outbreak of the First World War, when agreements between the UK and France divided responsibilities, so that France supervised the Mediterranean, and the Royal Navy operated in the Atlantic and North Sea. The reasons for this concentration of strength in the Mediterranean are twofold: to keep an eye on France, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia, and to defend the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869 and provided a strategic link between Great Britain and her richest colonies in India and the Far East.

In the year 1893, the fleet's commander was the extremely competent Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon, one of the golden boys of the Royal Navy—from a good family, he was at school (Eton, of course) with the best of the young scions of the British establishment, and spent most of his naval career in prestigious positions, including an officer on Queen Victoria's royal yacht, commendable combat duty in the Crimean War, and command of a number of major warships. By 1893 he was sixty-one years old, had spent forty-five years in the navy and two years as commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, and was at the pinnacle of his career. Unfortunately for his subordinates, although he was personable and genteel when off-duty, when he was on-duty he was a dictatorial perfectionist, even by the standards of a navy that expected admirals at sea to be autocrats who 'kept counsel only with God.' Tryon was certainly an autocrat—many of his peers and subordinates confessed that they saw no point in arguing with the man, since he always appeared convinced that he knew better than they, and in point of fact he often did.

Admiral Sir George Tryon

Tryon was also an innovator, who used his fleet as a laboratory for trying out his theories and methods for naval warfare in the age of steam. The admiral was accustomed to putting his fleet through surprise tactical exercises in order to keep them in practice, ordering impromptu changes in formation or course, and indulging in unplanned gunnery practice. Many of Tryon's subordinates resented this because it required them to use their initiative, interrupted dinner, broke the crockery, and required lots of touching-up of the ships' paint to remove the soot and scorch marks. Like all warships of that era, Royal Navy vessels sported lots of decorative brass and woodwork, as well as elaborate paintjobs, the upkeep of which occupied most of the ratings' time, to the extent that the ship's appearance became a tail that wagged the dog.

HMS Victoria

Innovators were never popular men in the Victorian-era Royal Navy; most of the fleet's thousands of officers and men were more than content to rest on their laurels, safe in the cozy assumption that since they had beaten everyone they had fought during and since the Napoleonic Wars, they were still the best in the world fifty or sixty years later. Officers didn't compete over gunnery prizes, but for spiffy paintwork and serving delightful food in the mess. Ever since 1805 the Royal Navy had been mesmerized by the tactics of Admiral Nelson, hero of Trafalgar, to the extent that battle tactics had ossified—it is probably just as well that the Royal Navy never had to fight a major fleet action with steam-powered ironclads when their battle tactics were essentially the same ones they had used a century earlier for sailing ships. It was in this fashion that most of the Royal Navy sailed on through its salad days, happily believing that since they'd beaten the French the last time around, they'd beat the French the next time around too, despite all the technological innovations since Trafalgar. Until 1904, the United Kingdom continued to consider France the most likely opponent in any future major war, an assumption not without reason, but one which tended to blind them to other possibilities.

More to the point, the Royal Navy was overwhelmingly a heavily-politicized old-boy environment. There were virtually no officers who rose from the ranks --'mustangs' in American parlance, and virtually all of the admirals, commodores, and even captains were selected from the 'line' officers, as opposed to the dirty mechanics who called themselves engineering officers. Although line officers were well-trained in command matters, tactics, and ship-handling, they generally considered technical matters to be beneath them. Most line officers came from families who had sent their sons into the Navy for decades, even centuries, and most of whom were deeply vested into the establishment—that uniquely British network of old families that produced men who went to respected public schools and then meandered contentedly back and forth between private life and various government jobs for which they may or may not have been suited. There was no prohibition at the time on military officers holding other capacities, and many army and naval officers, such as Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, sat in Parliament.

For all that most of the Royal Navy was growing moss even while it spent millions of pounds on new battleships, a small minority of officers kept abreast of overseas developments, such as the innovation-obsessed French school of thought known as the Jeune Ecole or 'new school,' with its ambitions of asymmetrical warfare on the high seas, and looked at the increasingly hidebound Royal Navy and its worldwide commitments with increasing trepidation. Their chief concern was that a Continental enemy might be able to use new methods and technologies to overthrow the Royal Navy's dominance of the world's oceans. New technologies like the steam engine, rifled breech-loading guns, mines, and torpedo boats didn't come with instruction manuals, and naval officers had to figure out on their own how to use what the industrial boffins were giving them. What's worse, technology progressed so rapidly that a ship like HMS Inflexible, a world-beater when she entered service in 1876, was hopelessly obsolete fifteen years later. Granted, that doesn't sound like much of a shock to us, but consider that Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar, HMS Victory, had entered service in 1765 and was only taken out of active service in 1812, by which time she was considered worn-out but by no means obsolete, since sailing ships and muzzle-loading cannon had changed very little in the preceding century. The dominant contemporary frame of reference assumed that things would change more slowly than they did.

Innovators were resented because they didn't conform to the natural order of things—they criticized hallowed tradition, made waves rather than just sailing on them, took the threat of the torpedo and the mine seriously rather than writing them off as children's toys, and they sullied the paint with gunnery practice. Innovators didn't get anywhere unless they had a lot of pull at the Admiralty or in Parliament, both of which were basically external manifestations of the British establishment, and fortunately for Tryon, he had both. Tryon was unusual because he came from precisely that sort of conservative school-tie background, and yet he was an innovator who was deeply interested in technical matters and the nuts and bolts of the Navy—literally as well as figuratively-- as well as in developing modern theories of naval warfare. A later British commander, General Bernard Montgomery, was fond of saying that "One has to be a bit of a cad to succeed in the Army. I am a bit of a cad." Rear Admiral Tryon was, indeed, a bit of a cad, but by all accounts he had to be in order to overcome the inertia of the Navy's status quo.

One of Tryon's major innovations was a new system for using signaling flags, one less rigorous and detailed than the standard system, which time-consumingly spelled out everything the fleet was supposed to do. Tryon's system essentially put the flagship first in line and ordered all following ships to emulate its movements as best each captain could. This was a bit of a shock to his subordinates, who were used to very specific instructions and rigid, almost ritualized battle plans and tactics, but Tryon and many of the more forward-thinking officers in the fleet understood full well that such rigidity would be disastrous in the event of an actual battle, when the huge clouds of coal smoke and gun-smoke that ships belched out would blanket everything like thick fog, and when events would change very rapidly.

In June of 1893, Admiral Tryon and the eleven warships (eight battleships and three large cruisers) that formed the main strength of the Mediterranean Fleet were on their annual summer exercises, cruising five miles off the coast of what is now Lebanon, then a province of the moldering Ottoman Empire. On the night of June 21, the admiral discussed with his officers a complicated exercise that he planned to conduct the following day—to make things easier on them, the fleet would use the old, standard signaling system, rather than Tryon's new one.

The overall plan was that the fleet would divide into two columns that would sail parallel for a certain distance while 1,200 yards apart, and then when the admiral signaled, each line would turn towards the others, so that the two columns were now 400 yards apart together and headed in the exact opposite direction. It was a fairly complex evolution; yes, it would be useful in battle, for example if the enemy fleet was first spotted behind the fleet rather than in front of it, but it would also have the propaganda value of impressing the spectators watching from the nearby port of Tripoli with the Royal Navy's power and professionalism.

Some of the officers objected, pointing out that the battleships each had a turning radius of 800 feet, and that a distance of 1,200 yards between columns would not allow the ships enough room to maneuver. Several officers, including Tryon's second in command and the captain of his flagship, suggested that the columns should start out 1,600 or 2,000 yards apart in order to avoid a collision, which Tryon initially agreed to. Anyone who can do basic math, Victorian naval officer or not, can understand that two 800-yard distances are going to add up to more than 1,200 yards, and therefore that the ships would cross paths.

Admiral Tryon would lead one column in his flagship, HMS Victoria, named after the queen (the ship was, in fact, launched during the 50th anniversary of the queen taking the throne). His second in command, Rear Admiral Sir Albert Markham, would lead the second column in HMS Camperdown.

Markham was a competent commander, albeit rigid and old-fashioned, and although he was well-liked by his subordinates, he did not get along well with Tryon. Moreover, Markham was both a bit of a recluse who rarely left his quarters and something of a time-server; he was waiting for retirement, and arguably more interested in his hobbies of archaeology and natural history than he was in naval matters—he had some fame for explorations he had done in the Arctic.

HMS Victoria

Admiral Tryon's flagship, HMS Victoria, was theoretically one of the most powerful ships afloat at the time; completed in 1890 (over five years after she was begun, incidentally), she displaced almost 12,000 tons, carried a crew of 630 men (hammocks for the ratings and luxurious quarters for an admiral), was heavily armored, and had the latest triple-expansion steam engines for a notional maximum speed of about 17 knots, or just under 20 miles per hour. Her most conspicuous feature was her armament: two enormous 16.25" guns in a forward turret, the largest guns in the Royal Navy, in addition to a 10-inch gun aft and batteries of smaller weapons. The ship's design had originally called for the standard 13.5" main guns rather than this pair of cumbersome titans—each gun weighed 110 tons, almost 40 tons more than the weapons originally called for-- but the Royal Navy had shoehorned them in with an eye towards countering a series of new French and Italian battleships. In doing so, however, they didn't compensate for the increased weight of the guns and the changes to the ship's center of gravity; when combined with the ship's low freeboard—her main deck was only ten feet above the waterline, in order to minimize the potential target area—she had serious stability and handling problems. Even by the standards of the day Victoria's main guns were very slow to fire (five minutes to reload, even with a trained crew), woefully inaccurate, and short-ranged. They also wore out after firing 75 rounds, and were so poorly-balanced that they made the ship list when trained out to fire a broadside, but at point-blank range they could blast holes in anything afloat. Besides—size matters.

Granted, point-blank was the only range at which they stood an even chance of hitting the target. Royal Navy gunners usually had an allowance of only six live practice rounds per gun per year—the rest of the time the crew went through the motions and yelled "BANG." Admiral Percy Scott, the Royal Navy's chief advocate of scientific gunnery, was actually shunted into a desk job after a notorious 1907 quarrel with his subordinates and superiors (including Admiral Lord Beresford) over whether gunnery practice was more important than keeping a ship's paint clean and showy—the dispute went all the way up the chain of command to Parliament. At the battle of Santiago de Cuba in 1898, the United States Navy, which used weapons and gunnery methods generally comparable to those of the Royal Navy, fired off some 6,000 rounds in less than two hours, but scored only 130 hits, for a hit rate of a pathetic 2.16%.

HMS Camperdown

HMS Camperdown was a year older and a thousand tons smaller than Victoria, displacing 10,600 tons, crewed by 530 men, and with a notional maximum speed of about 17 knots. While not quite as impressive on paper as Victoria she was, on balance, a better design in practical terms. Rather than two enormous guns in a single turret, she had four 13.5" guns in twin mounts fore and aft, as well as much better handling and sea-keeping qualities, all without sacrificing protection—her armor was up to a foot and a half thick.

For all that they were modern ships at the time, both of these ships could fairly be described as underpowered and decidedly clumsy—armor and firepower took precedence over speed, and most of the hydrodynamic principles (such as drag) that governed the speed of ships were still being worked out in laboratories. Each ship had a normal turning radius of 800 yards, and required several minutes to make changes in direction and speed.

Each battleship was also fitted with a ram, a reinforced underwater knuckle extending from the bow and intended to be used for ramming enemy ships in close combat. Ironically, one of the lessons drawn from the American Civil War (along with railroad logistics, armored warships, telegraph communications, hot-air balloons for artillery spotting, and so on) was that the steam engine had restored to the warship the ability to ram an enemy in a useful and destructive fashion, something that had been given up when sailing ships had eclipsed oared galleys as the primary warship three or four hundred years earlier. This lesson had been somewhat confirmed by the Battle of Lissa in 1866, when the outgunned Habsburg fleet managed to sink two major Italian warships through ramming. The result was that for the next fifty years most battleships continued to have rams built into their bows, even though guns soon became so powerful that even armored warships would have been shot to bits before managing to ram an enemy; even Camperdown's 13.5" guns fired 1,250 pound shells that could punch through two feet of steel armor at a range of half a mile.

On June 22, the eleven ships of the Tryon's squadron were chugging along at eight knots, and at Tryon's signal they started the exercise around 3 PM. Despite the discussion the previous night, for reasons unknown Tryon ordered the columns to close to a distance of 1,200 yards before commencing the turn, and when questioned as to whether this order was correct, he snapped that it was. Rear-Admiral Markham hesitated before passing Tryon's order on to his own column, but a second signal from Victoria read "well, what are you waiting for?" and so Markham repeated an order he knew to be dangerous, sending back a signal to Victoria reading "because I did not quite understand your signal."

Victoria and Camperdown accordingly turned towards each other at a speed of about eight knots, and it soon became painfully obvious that the ships would pass close to each other, if not actually collide. Victoria's commander, Captain Bourke, repeatedly asked Admiral Tryon if he might not reverse engines and abort the maneuver, but only after three requests did Tryon grant it, and by then it was much too late—the ships were within mere yards of each other and a collision was unavoidable.

Camperdown's ram punched nine feet deep into Victoria's hull and tore a 100-square foot gash in the flagship's side, all of it below the waterline. Camperdown lurched backwards as her engines reversed, pulling her clear of Victoria with a mighty wrench, as the rest of the fleet frantically sought to avoid colliding with the two damaged ships or each other. Water poured into the stricken Victoria like a tidal wave, so rapidly that there was no time to close the watertight doors. Within five minutes her entire bow was underwater and water was pouring through the gunports of her turret.

Victoria went to the bottom within fifteen minutes of the collision, so rapidly that there was no time for many of her crew to abandon ship. Of the 715 men aboard at the time, 357 were rescued and 358 died. Admiral Tryon refused to leave the bridge and went down with his flagship; accounts presented during the ensuing investigation and court-martial described Tryon as standing on the bridge as if in shock, unresponsive and repeatedly muttering "it's all my fault."

Victoria sank in about eighty fathoms (almost 500 feet) of water. She hit the bottom bow-first and oddly enough she stuck there like that, with two-thirds of her length buried in the mud of the seabed and her stern pointing vertically skywards. The wreck was discovered by divers in September 2004.

HMS Nile (left) picking up survivors of the sinking Victoria (right)

Camperdown almost went down too. She was nearly as badly maimed as Victoria; most of her forward sections were flooded with hundreds of tons of seawater, and her ram was nearly wrenched off. Her crew managed to construct a cofferdam and seal off the damaged section of the hull, but it was a terrifyingly near-run thing for all aboard.

The officers on each ship were trained and experienced professionals, and whether or not they were old-fashioned or innovators, they knew the turning radii and distances involved, and knew full well that such a maneuver at these distances meant that a collision was all to likely. The inexcusable thing, however, is that all of them, even the ones who had pointed out the flaws in Tryon's plan the night before, obeyed the order even though the danger was perfectly apparent. The very same rigid obedience that Tryon was attempting to train his fleet out of contributed to this disaster, because the officers followed orders they knew to be flawed.

This collision and the loss of HMS Victoria wasn't a unique event—in fact, a very similar event had occurred in September 1875, when one battleship, HMS Iron Duke, accidentally rammed and sank another, HMS Vanguard, outside Dublin Bay on the Irish coast. The difference here was that the Victoria/Camperdown collision had happened in broad daylight, five miles off the coast of a major port, and essentially on the world stage. The loss of a prestigious battleship costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, resulting in the deaths of half of her crew and the fleet's admiral, were a serious embarrassment for the Royal Navy, one that was ultimately due mostly to human error on the part of Tryon, and the blind obedience of his subordinates who essentially followed him off a cliff. The late Tryon was blamed for the disaster during the ensuing court-martial; Bourke and Markham were let off with gentle reprimands, with the court noting that it would be dangerous to blame officers for following the orders of their superiors.

Between 1865 and 1904, the world's major navies lost more warships to human error than to enemy action. Possibly the most notorious of these incidents was the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in February, 1898. Government and media alike howled that it was the result of Spanish action, sparking a war between the United States and Spain. Although there is no complete consensus on what exactly blew the ship apart, a 1976 investigation conducted under the auspices of Admiral Hyman Rickover concluded that an accident could have detonated the ammunition stored in the ship's forward magazine. Whether it was enemy action or an accident, it gave the jingoistic factions in the United States—including many in what would later be identified as the military-industrial complex—an excuse to launch the county on an ill-planned, hastily-organized venture into imperialism.

As Mark Twain noted, 'history does not repeat, but it does rhyme."

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