In her day, HMS Victoria was considered one of the most successful designs of Nathaniel Barnaby's tenure as Britain's Director of Naval Construction (DNC). The derivation of her design is from Hero, Conqueror and other British harbor-defense ironclads of the 1870s and 80s: the theory was that the ship would only be attacking as a ram, using her guns for forward fire as she swooped in on her prey, so no guns were provided facing astern. This design had three drawbacks. One, that the vessel was not a full fighting ship without guns all round; two, that the concentrated armament could all be knocked out by a single hit; and three, that no major fighting ship won a battle by ramming after 1879: big guns, not collision tactics, were the deadliest weapons (though torpedoes and mines, already well along in their development, came close behind -- indeed, would soon surpass the naval gun).
Destined to be the flagship of the British Mediterranean Fleet, Victoria was a very low-freeboard vessel with her single turret of 110-ton 16.25" guns -- the largest in the British fleet at the time -- sited forward, almost amidships as measured fore and aft, and 5 feet lower to the sea's surface than in the already low-floating Collingwood. A sole 10" gun was added almost as an afterthought to cover the ship's rear. The barrel is visible in the illustration at top, pointing aft above the aftermost (swung out) small boat. The main guns were in a robustly armored turret, but the 10-incher had only a thin splinter shield to protect the crew: protection of very dubious value in combat. The conflict in mission between ram-like design and the over-large, long-range guns seems to have escaped Barnaby and his superiors at the AdmiraltyVictoria and her sister ship, Sans Pareil (shown at left ready for launch), carried a 16-18" Harvey armor belt, with 17" armor plate on the turret. They were the first British battleships to rely on triple expansion engines, first trialed in the Mersey class cruisers with impressive results for power, efficiency, and fuel economy. Side-by-side inverted vertical 3-cylinder engines shafted to twin four-bladed Griffiths propellers gave the Victoria class ships a speed of 16 knots, with ~17 knots attained on trials under forced draft. As was common at the time, the blades were separately cast pieces bolted onto the central boss at the shipyard. In our picture of Sans Pareil at left, the lateral blades have been left off to prevent any mishap at launch. They were added subsequently in drydock.
Squat and stubby as her namesake, the 10,400-ton Victoria was among the many ugly designs produced in the period, but one of the few "dogs" in the Royal Navy's book. The enormous size and weight of the main armament meant that only two guns could be carried on her modest displacement, dictating an unbalanced distribution of facilities. A boxy superstructure spreading aft from an obliquely angled fore bulkhead and short, side-by-side chimneys gave an unsymmetric and factory-like appearance to the ship, minimized in the very flattering depiction by artist W. Fred Mitchell at top. As in British battleships since HMS Devastation of 1871, a stumpy foremast (used only for signaling), contrasting with the single military mast located well aft, only emphasized the ship's out-of-balance proportions.
Specifications for the Victoria class:
Dimensions: 340' x 70' x 26'9" Displacement: 11,020 tons. Armament: (2) 110-ton 16¼"/30 (1x2), (1) 10", (12) 6"/40 QF, and (12) 6-pdr guns; (6) 14" torpedo tubes. Armor: Compound type. 18"/16" belt, 18" redoubt, 17" turret, 16" bulkheads, 6"/3" battery screens, 3" deck. Propulsion: Coal-fired cylindrical boilers; (2) Humphreys & Tennant vertical inverted triple expansion engines developing 15,000 ihp f.d., 8,000 ihp normal, shafted to twin Griffith screws. Maximum speed: 16 kts, 17 f.d. Crew: 430; 583 as flagship.
Ships in Class: Victoria · Sans Pareil
Dimensions: 100m x 21m x 8.15m Displacement: 11,200 tons. Armament: (2) 413 mm/30 (1x2), (1) 254 mm, (12) 152 mm/40 QF, and (12) 6-pdr guns; (6) 36 cm torpedo tubes. Armor: Compound type. 46/42 cm belt, 43 cm turret, 36/5 cm conning tower, 46 cm bulkheads, 46 cm redoubt, battery screens 152/76 mm, deck 76 mm. Propulsion: Coal-fired cylindrical boilers; (2) Humphreys & Tennant vertical inverted triple expansion engines developing 11,186 kW f.d., 5,966 kW normal, shafted to twin Griffith screws. Maximum speed: Maximum speed: 29.6 km/hr, 31.5 f.d. Crew: 430; 583 as flagship.
Section of Victoria's single turret reveals state-of-the-art protection for 1890: compound armor plating up to 17" thick on the turret faces, with lesser thicknesses on roof and rear. Enlarge
Victoria wrote a page in naval infamy when she was accidentally rammed by the Admiral-class battleship HMS Camperdown (right) and sunk in full view of crowds on the Tripoli waterfront, including a glittering array of military brass. The disaster occurred in clear sunny weather on June 22, 1893, during fleet maneuvers off the coast of Syria. The officer in command, Vice Admiral Sir George Tryon, was a fearsome martinet with a reputation as a master of complicated ship handling. He had an elaborate plan for bringing his fleet to anchor, providing onlookers a spectacle of precision maneuvering. On a gorgeous, crystal-clear afternoon, the 10 battleships of the Mediterranean fleet were drawn up in two parallel columns, 1200 yards apart, heading directly away from port out to sea. Tryon then ordered a crash 180-degree turn in succession. The intention apparently was for each pair of ships in order to turn inwards and create a breathtaking view of the ships' wakes fanning out while the ships came about only 400 yards from each other and proceeded in the opposite direction from their original course, heading towards the land. Then the ships were to turn 90 degrees to form one column, and anchor in unison. The 90-degree turn was very similar to the key maneuver of the Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland in 1916; back in 1893, Cmdr. John Jellicoe, who was to command at Jutland and order that masterful deployment, was serving as the exec of the Victoria. Recovering in his bunk from a bout of typhus, he was awakened by the crash and reached deck just in time to step into the water. He was plucked from the brine, one of the 357 fortunate survivors of the disaster.
The 1200-yard gap between the columns was 400 yards less than double the ships' minimum turning radius. Unfortunately the Admiral failed to widen the space between columns (as subordinates timidly suggested several times) to build in a margin of safety before ordering the crash turn. Some sort of mental block seems to have blinded him to the peril, and his officers were wary of arousing his famous temper. The two leading ships, Victoria and Camperdown, drew closer and closer until the Camperdown's ram sliced through the Victoria's bow. Mercifully Camperdown's captain had reversed engines at the last minute, as the collision course became obvious to him.
Victoria had not been completely "closed up" before the crash, but permanent watertight bulkheads ran longitudinally down the ship's axis. The ships remained locked for some minutes, until Camperdown pulled out backwards. The subsequent inrush of water was trapped on Victoria's starboard side by the longitudinal bulkheads, leading her to list heavily, capsize and sink within 13 minutes. No order to "abandon ship" was given until the last moments; files of sailors remained rigidly at attention on the tilting decks as their ship lay over. The sight of British tars being hacked to death by the still-revolving propeller blades cannot have been what Adm. Tryon intended spectators to marvel at that fine afternoon; but at least he had the good grace to go down with his ship, apparently stunned at the mishap and muttering, "It's entirely my fault." In a dramatic photo of the ship's last moments, sailors can be seen clinging to the ship's bottom as Victoria upends and plunges into the glittering sea, her twin screws spinning madly in midair. HMS Nile stood by very near to rescue survivors.
The incident caused quite a stink in the British press, coming just as spending on the battleship fleet was beginning to balloon: in the 1890s, Britain was to build 34 battleships, at an average cost of £1.35 million each. Although the loss of 358 servicemen's lives in the sinking of Victoria was scandalous, it was at least the only loss of life on this scale in the Royal Navy during the prewar decades.
Courts martial found Tryon's subordinates innocent and fixed the entire responsibility on Tryon himself (right). A memorial to the victims of the tragedy was erected at Victoria Park in Portsmouth. Much later, Alec Guinness did a memorable spoof of Admiral Tryon going down with the ship in the 1949 Ealing Studios farce "Kind Hearts and Coronets" -- an all-time British comedy classic.
Amazingly, the wreck of the Victoria was discovered in 2004 in the waters off Tripoli. 111 years after the sinking, the aftermost third of the hull projects vertically over the sea bed, with the intact propellers and 10" gun still pointing skywards. Apparently the great weight of the 16" turret pulled her down like a stone, and her ram bow buried itself in the muddy bottom. This lethal leviathan and its dead thus were fused inseparably with the watery portion of the earth: full fathom five. The wreck has been declared a military grave.
Victoria in drydock as she nears completion, 1888. The arrangement of twin funnels, dual signaling staffs (vital for Adm. Tryon's precision maneuvering), and single military mast is evident from this head-on view. It also emphasizes the ship's tubby lines and low freeboard. By far the greater part of the hull lies below the waterline. The bow torpedo tubes are visible in mid-stem; the point of the ram is cut off by the camera angle here.
In a prophetic photo, Camperdown gunners brace themselves during collision drill. As the imminence of the collision became obvious to them on June 22, British officers hung out collision mats and took appropriate precautions to minimize injury. But it was a tardy, and hasty response. Mats were out but not all the Victoria's WTDs were buttoned up. And nothing could arrest the ships' forward momentum either. It was unthinkable that Adm. Tryon, the master ship handler, should orchestrate such an appalling cock-up as seemed to be developing. From ships and shore thousands watched, disbelieving, as the terrible spectacle unfolded.
A naïve rendering of the Victoria disaster. Multiple melodramatic effects nearly make up for the artist's butchered perspective.
Collision damage to Camperdown required many a moon to repair. Camperdown herself nearly sank after the collision. Despite the problems with extreme listing caused by the permanent longitudinal watertight bulkhead, British battleships continued to be built this way during the tenure of Sir William White, ending in 1903. Many older British warships consequently proved especially vulnerable to capsize when damaged by torpedoes or mines in WWI, as did the longitudinally-divided Lusitania.
Victoria's stern before launch, showing the 4-bladed screws with 2 blades removed for launching.
Victoria's ruined stern now points like an accusing finger towards the surface where her glittering career was so rudely truncated.
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