26 November 1914 – Bulwark

At 7:50 AM today, the estuary at Sheerness is rocked by the largest accidental explosion in the history of the British Isles. When the smoke clears, the old pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Bulwark (see above) has been blasted into three parts, sinking in less than three minutes.

Most of the ship’s crew had just sat down to breakfast. Of the 810 sailors on board, only fourteen survivors are plucked from the water, and five of them will die of their injuries in the coming hours and days. Bits of the ship and its hapless complement rain down on the water and the other boats parked nearby, reaching as far as six miles away; most of an officer’s jacket is recovered from the wireless antenna of the Bulwark‘s sister ship Formidable, blown clear of the wreck by the explosion that atomized its wearer.

Witnesses report seeing the rear and then the full length of the ship aflame in the moment before the blast. Despite the Bulwark‘s mast being mistaken for a submarine periscope, it is immediately apparent that an accident, and not enemy action, has caused this disaster.

A photograph of the smoke column rising from the destruction of the Bulwark

A photograph of the smoke column rising from the destruction of the Bulwark in the River Medway

Bulwark is no stranger to controversy. Starting on the 5th of November, the ship hosted a five-day court martial for Rear Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge. During the first week of the war, Troubridge commanded a British squadron in the eastern Mediterranean that was tasked with stopping the SMS Goeben and Breslau from reaching Turkey, where they helped bring the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers. Unable to bring the enemy’s longer-ranged guns to battle on his terms, Troubridge gave up the chase and allowed the Kaiser’s ships to get away rather than risk combat. Later confrontations between German and British cruisers have proven the wisdom of his choice, and the court martial acquitted Troubridge after it determined that the admiralty’s orders were unclear.

Two days after Bulwark explodes, a court of inquiry opens to determine the cause of the disaster. Attention quickly focuses on the vast difference between fleet safety regulations and actual fleet practice: leather-wrapped cordite charges were stacked along a boiler room bulkhead, while some 275 six-inch shells were arranged in the passageways linking the ship’s eleven magazines. These unsafe arrangements allowed a single propellant bundle — overheated by the boilers, or lit by a careless cigarette smoker — to ignite the ammunition in a daisy-chain of destruction that tore the armored ship apart.

Map of the Medway River estuary at the mouth of the Thames

Map of the Medway River estuary at the mouth of the Thames

On May 27, 1915, the Princess Irene also explodes in Sheerness while laden with mines for a mission in the North Sea barrages. This blast is even bigger than the Bulwark, and parts of the boat rain down as far as ten miles away. Another court of inquiry finds that untrained personnel had been priming the mines in a rush to get to sea, inviting the chain reaction that destroyed the ship.

Despite the court’s findings, nothing changes in the British Navy. Admirals are too enamored of rapid-fire gunnery practice, even at the cost of accuracy, to force necessary changes on ship captains, who are more worried about the high test performance of their crews than the possibility of an on-board explosion. Two more warships will be lost to accident before the war is done, with both explosions traced to cordite that has either deteriorated or been mishandled and set off a chain reaction in improperly-stored ammunition.

An example of a cordite propellant charge bound in leather

Diagram of a cordite propellant charge bound in leather. Note the bound, spaghetti noodle-like strands; one theory is that they ‘cooked’ from long-term exposure to bulkheads with boilers on the other side

Due to poor leadership, the problems that destroyed the Bulwark are not resolved before the Battle of Jutland in 1916, during which British ships are blown apart by German shells that set off propellant stacked in hallways instead of being safely stowed in flash-proof magazines. Divers who have examined the wrecks of those battlecruisers in the last 98 years report burn marks in the passages, indicating they met the exact same fate as the Bulwark.

Obviously, modern, large-scale weapon systems are complicated mechanisms. It is somewhat less obvious that human beings form process cogs within these highly-advanced, precision-engineered machines, and whereas the machines are designed to operate safely, human systems are too often gauged to serve human ends. The perceived superiority of rapid-fire was reckoned more important than accuracy or safety. The result was that the humans aboard British warships circumvented the design of their complicated machines to meet command expectations that were more appropriate to Admiral Nelson’s navy than one with twelve inch guns.

But we cannot say that no one is ever held accountable, for there is one more deadly issue beyond command denial at work in these disasters. Britain is suffering a severe shortage of cordite, with the result that it is not being replaced as fast as it deteriorates. That shortage is already affecting operations on land, exacting a toll in lives, so the British Navy simply cannot afford to throw away any cordite. Failure to resolve this crisis will bring down the Asquith government.

A diagram of the standard 12-inch gun turrets on the Bulwark shows the integrated safety features that were undermined by human operators

A diagram of the standard 12-inch gun turrets on the Bulwark. The integrated safety features were undermined by human operators