In the late 19th century Britannia did indeed rule the waves, having enjoyed supremacy since the Battle of Trafalgar. The British navy was well equipped with new ironclads, including HMS Camperdown, a battleship commissioned in 1889 and posted to warmer climes as the flagship of Britain’s powerful Mediterranean Fleet.
Once there, she swapped crews with HMS Victoria, which became the flagship of fleet commander Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon. He was a martinet who believed constant exercises were the key to efficiency, priding himself on an ability to direct complex ship movements. In June 1893 he decided to try a new manoeuvre. Two parallel columns of ships would perform inward U-tums that reversed the direction of travel before anchoring. Tryon miscalculated the distance between columns required to execute his plan but brusquely rebuffed queries.
Tryon’s deputy – Rear-Admiral Markham, aboard Camperdown – commanded the second column and appreciated that the manoeuvre was dangerous. He failed to acknowledge Tryon’s ‘turn’ signal but when his superior publicly humiliated him by sending a follow-up ‘what are you waiting for?’ gave the order anyway. As Victoria and Camperdown inexorably converged, both ships’ captains expected Tryon to give one of his last-minute-change-of-plan orders designed to keep everyone on their toes. He didn’t.
Moments before impact Tryon shouted across to Markham on Camperdoum’s bridge ‘go astern, go astern’. It was too late. Camperdoum’s ram smashed through Victoria’s starboard side.
Even then, the accident could have been prevented from turning into disaster had it not been for Tryon’s last order to Markham. With screws reversed Camperdown backed off, allowing water to flood through Victoria’s gaping wound before watertight doors could be closed. Just 13 minutes later Victoria capsized, precipitating her crew into a vicious whirlpool of deadly debris where half would die. Perhaps wisely, Tryon elected to go down with his ship.
When: June 22 1893
Where: Mediterranean Sea off Tripoli (then Syria, now Lebanon)
Death toll: 358 of Victoria’s crew died, 357 survived. There were no casualties aboard Camperdown though she, too, nearly sank.
You should know: Second in command of Victoria was Commander John Jellicoe, who survived the disaster and went on to command the British Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, the largest naval battle of World war l and the only one to feature a major clash of battleships.