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Sinking of HMS Britannia

Sinking of HMS Britannia

Battleships / World War 1

HMS Britannia was built at the Portsmouth Dockyard and named after the Latin name for Great Britain when ruled by Ancient Rome. She was laid down on the 4th of February 1904 and then launched on the 10th of December the same year, she was eventually completed in September 1906 one of the last pre dreadnoughts built by the Royal Navy but sadly made obsolete due to the launch of HMS Dreadnought. Britannia was commissioned into the reserve at Portsmouth Dockyard on the 6th of September 1906. 

She went into full commission on the 2nd of October 1906 to be put in active service in the Atlantic Fleet. She then transferred to the Channel Fleet on the 4th of March 1907. As part of a fleet reorganization by the Royal Navy on the 24th of March 1909, the Channel Fleet became the Second Division, Home Fleet, and Britannia became a unit of the Home Fleet division, she became Flagship, Vice Admiral, Second Division in April 1909. She was then sent for a refit at Portsmouth that lasted from 1909 to 1910. On the 14th of July 1910, she collided with the ship the “barque Loch Trool” which caused her slight damage.

A general view of Line B with the battleships at anchor during the Naval Review or King’s Review of the Fleet at Spithead. A general view looking down Line B during the Naval Review or the King’s Review of the Fleet at Spithead.

Under another fleet reorganization in May 1912 due to war threat the Britannia and all seven of her sisters named HMS Africa, Commonwealth, Dominion, Hibernia, Hindustan, King Edward VII, and Zealandia were then assigned to form the 3rd Battle Squadron, assigned to the First Fleet, Home Fleet. The squadron was then sent to the Mediterranean in November because the First Balkan War broke out in October 1912 lasting until May 1913. It arrived at Malta on the 27th of November and was kept active, participating in a blockade by an international force of Montenegro and then in an occupation of Scutari. The squadron then returned to the United Kingdom in 1913 and rejoined the Home Fleet on the 27th of June where the Britannia left the squadron to return to the Second Division of the Home Fleet.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the 3rd Battle Squadron, at the time under the command of Vice-Admiral Edward Bradford, was assigned to the Grand Fleet and based at the naval base of Rosyth, where it was reinforced with the five Duncan-class battleships. It was used to supplement the Grand Fleet’s cruisers on the Northern Patrol. On the 6th of August, the day after Britain declared war on Germany, elements of the Grand Fleet sought to inspect the coast of Norway in search of a German naval base that was violating Norwegian neutrality. Britannia and the rest of the 3rd Battle Squadron provided distant support to the operation. No base was found, and the ships returned to port the next day. 

On the 14th of August, the ships of the Grand Fleet went to sea for battle practice before conducting a sweep into the North Sea later that day. During sweeps by the fleet, she and her pre dreadnought sisters often steamed at the heads of the divisions of the far more valuable and powerful dreadnoughts where they could protect the dreadnoughts by watching for mines or by being literally the first to strike them. On the 2nd of November 1914, the squadron was detached to reinforce the Channel Fleet and was rebased at Portland. It then returned to the Grand Fleet on the 13th of November 1914.

The forecastle of Britannia at sea in October 1914.

Then on the 14th of December, the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron, 2nd Battle Squadron, and accompanying cruisers and destroyers left port to intercept the German forces that were preparing to raid Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby. On the first reports of contact with German units on the morning of the 16th of December, the Grand Fleet commander, Admiral John Jellicoe, ordered Bradford to take the 3rd Battle Squadron to support the ships in contact at 10:00. Four hours later, they met the 1st and 4th Battle Squadrons on the way from Scapa Flow; they failed to reach the German High Seas Fleet before the High Seas fleet withdrew. The Grand Fleet remained at sea until late on the 17th of December, at which point the 3rd Battle Squadron was ordered back to Rosyth.

 Britannia and the rest of the squadron joined the Grand Fleet for another sweep into the North Sea on the 25th of December. The fleet returned to its ports two days later, having failed to locate any enemy German vessels.

HMS Britannia

The 3rd Battle Squadron went to sea on the 12th of January 1915 for gunnery training, steaming north and passing to the west of Orkney on the night of the 13th/14th of January. After completing training on the 14th, they returned to Rosyth arriving on the 15th of January. On the 23rd of January, the 1st and 2nd Battlecruiser Squadrons sortied to ambush the German I Scouting Group in what resulted in the famous Battle of Dogger Bank the following day. Later on the 23rd, the rest of the Grand Fleet, including Britannia, sortied to support the battlecruisers. 

The 3rd Squadron ships left first and steamed at full speed to reach ships of the Harwich Force, which had reported contact with German vessels. The battlecruisers attacked first, and Britannia and her sisters arrived around 14:00, due to a pre-dreadnoughts speed the battlecruisers had already sunk the armored cruiser Blücher and the surviving German ships had then fled. The 3rd Battle Squadron patrolled the area with the rest of the Grand Fleet over the night before being detached at 08:00 on the 25th of January to steam to Rosyth. While steaming in the Firth of Forth the next day Britannia managed to run herself aground. She was stranded for 36 hours but was eventually refloated, this incident caused the Brittania to suffer extensive damage and would require the ship to receive lengthy repairs at the Devonport Dockyard.

On 29 April 1916, the 3rd Battle Squadron was rebased at Sheerness, and on the 3rd of May it was separated from the Grand Fleet and transferred to the Nore Command. Britannia remained there with the squadron until August where she had another refit at Portsmouth Dockyard.

On completion of her refit in September, Britannia transferred out of the 3rd Battle Squadron for service in the 2nd Detached Squadron, which had been organized in 1915 to reinforce the allied Italian Navy against the Austro-Hungarian Navy in the Adriatic Sea. Admiral Paolo Thaon di Revel, the Italian naval chief of staff, believed that the threat from Austro-Hungarian submarines and naval mines in the narrow waters of the Adriatic was too serious for him to use the fleet for active operations. Instead, Revel decided to implement a blockade at the relatively safer southern end of the Adriatic with the main fleet, allowing smaller vessels, such as the famous MAS boats to conduct raids on Austro-Hungarian ships and installations.

From February to March 1917 she was sent to Gibraltar for a refit.

On its completion was attached to the 9th Cruiser Squadron to serve on the Atlantic Patrol on the new needed convoy escort duties, based mainly at Sierra Leone. She relieved the armored cruiser HMS King Alfred as flagship of the 9th Cruiser Squadron in March and underwent another refit at Bermuda in May where her 6-inch guns were removed and replaced by four more modern 6-inch guns in shielded pivot mounts on her shelter deck placed where the 12-pounder guns had been.

On the morning of the 9th of November 1918 under the command of Captain Francis Wade Caulfeild, HMS Britannia was on a voyage in the western entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar when she was seen and was torpedoed off Cape Trafalgar by the German submarine UB-50. After the first explosion due to a hit the ship listed ten degrees to port. A few minutes later, a second hit caused an explosion that started a fire in a 9.2-inch magazine, which in turn caused a cordite explosion in the magazine.

Darkness below decks made it virtually impossible to find the flooding valves to flood the magazines, and those the crew were able to find were poorly located and really hard to turn, the resulting failure to properly flood the burning magazine was what was most likely what doomed the ship. Britannia held her 10-degree list for 2 and a half hours before eventually sinking, fortunately this allowed most of the crew to be taken off and rescued. 

Britannia lists before sinking on 9 November 1918.

Most of the men who were sadly lost in the sinking were killed by poisonous toxic smoke that was caused by the burning cordite, 50 men died and 80 were injured. Although 39 officers and 673 men were fortunately able to be saved and rescued before she sank.

The Britannia was sunk and the men killed sadly only two days before the Armistice was signed that ended the First World War on the 11th of November 1918 and she became the last warship that was lost in the first world war.

Battleships / World War 1

Historian Harry Gillespie : Collected Works

Sinking of HMS Britannia

Harry Gillespie is a writer who resides in the UK with his family. His work focuses on Naval & British history with a specific look at 20th century warfare and ships. From World War 1 to The Falkland Islands Campaign.

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Sinking of HMS Britannia