The British Mediterranean Fleet was one of the most powerful
in the world at the time. The Royal Navy saw the Mediterranean
as a vital sea route between the United Kingdom and India, under
constant threat from the navies of France and Italy, and concentrated
an impressive force in it. The bulk of the fleet, eleven ironclads
(eight battleships and three large cruisers), were on their
annual summer exercises off Tripoli in Syria (now part of Lebanon)
on 22 June 1893.
Tryon was a strict disciplinarian who believed that the best
way of keeping his crews taut and efficient was by continuous
fleet evolutions, which before the invention of wireless were
signalled by flags, and he had gained a reputation as a daring
and highly proficient handler of his ships. His speciality
was a new system (the "TA" system) by which complex
manoeuvres could be handled by only a few simple signals,
but which required his ships' captains to use their initiative;
a quality which had become blunted by decades of naval peace
since Trafalgar, and which was unwelcome in a hierarchical
Navy which deified Admiral Horatio Nelson while misunderstanding
what he had stood for. A taciturn and difficult man for his
subordinate officers to deal with, Tryon deliberately avoided
making his intentions known to them in advance, so as to train
them to be adept in handling unpredictable situations.
Tryon led one column of six ships, which formed the first
division of his fleet, in his flagship Victoria travelling
at 8 knots (15 km/h). His deputy, Rear-Admiral Hastings Markham,
was in the lead ship of the second division of five ships,
the 10,600 ton Camperdown. Markham's normal divisional flagship,
Trafalgar, was being refitted. Unusually for Tryon, he had
discussed his plans for anchoring the fleet with some of his
officers. The fleet were to turn inwards in succession by
180 degrees, thus closing to 400 yards (370 m) and reversing
their direction of travel. After travelling a few miles in
this formation the whole fleet would slow and simultaneously
turn 90 degrees to port and drop their anchors for the night.
The officers had observed that 1,200 yards (1100 m) was much
too close and suggested that the columns should start at least
1,600 yards (1500 m) apart; even this would leave insufficient
margin for safety. The normal turning circles of the ships
involved would have meant that a gap between the two columns
of 2,000 yards (2,000 m) would be needed to leave a space
between the columns of 400 yards (400 m) on completion of
the manoeuvre. Tryon had confirmed that 8 cables (1300 m)
should be needed for the manoeuvre the officers expected,
but had later signalled for the columns to close to 6 cables
(1000 m). Two of his officers gingerly queried whether the
order was correct, and he brusquely confirmed that it was.
He ordered speed to be increased to 8.8 knots (16 km/h) and
at about 15:00 ordered a signal to be flown from Victoria
to have the ships in each column turn in succession by 180
degrees inwards towards the other column so that the fleet
would reverse its course. However, the normal "tactical"
turning circle of the ships had a radius of around 800 yards
(730 m) each (and a minimum of 600 yards (550 m), although
standing orders required "tactical rudder" to be
used in fleet manoeuvres), so if they were less than 1,600
yards (1500 m) apart then a collision was likely.
As there was no pre-determined code in the signal book for
the manoeuvre he wished to order, Tryon sent separate orders
to the two divisions. They were:
"Second division alter course in succession 16 points
to starboard preserving the order of the fleet." "First
division alter course in succession 16 points to port preserving
the order of the fleet."
The phrase "preserving the order of the fleet"
would imply that on conclusion of the manoeuvre the starboard
column at the start would still be the starboard at the finish.
This theory was propounded in 'The Royal Navy' Vol VII pages
415-426. It is suggested here that Tryon intended that one
division should turn outside the other.
Although some of his officers knew what Tryon was planning
they did not raise an objection. Markham, at the head of the
other column, was confused by the dangerous order and delayed
raising the flag signal indicating that he had understood
it. This precipitated another flag signal from Tryon which
translated as "What are you waiting for?" Stung
by this public rebuke from his commander, Markham immediately
ordered his column to start turning. Various officers on the
two flagships confirmed later that they had either assumed
or hoped that Tryon would order some new manoeuvre at the
However, the columns continued to turn towards each other
and only moments before the collision did the captains of
the two ships appreciate that this was not going to happen.
Even then, they still waited for permission to take the action
which might have prevented the collision. Captain Maurice
Bourke of the Victoria asked Tryon three times for permission
to order the engines astern; he acted only after he had received
that permission. At the last moment Tryon shouted across to
Markham "Go astern, go astern".
By the time that both captains had ordered the engines on
their respective ships reversed, it was too late, and Camperdown's
ram struck the starboard side of Victoria about 12 feet (4
m) below the waterline and penetrated nine feet (3 m) into
it. Reversing the engines only had the effect of causing the
ram to be withdrawn to let in more seawater before all of
the watertight doors on Victoria had been closed.
With 100 square feet (9 m²) open to the sea, the forecastle
deck was underwater in four minutes, and five minutes later
the gun ports in the large forward turret reached sea level
and water started to pour through them. Victoria capsized
just thirteen minutes after the collision, and sank a few
Camperdown herself was in serious condition with her ram
nearly wrenched off. Hundreds of tons of water flooded into
her bows, but she survived. Her crew had to construct a cofferdam
across the main deck to stop the flooding. The following ships
had more time to take evasive action, and avoided colliding
with each other in turn.
357 crew were rescued and 358 died. Tryon himself stayed
on the bridge as the ship sank, and was heard to murmur, "It's
all my fault". It has been hypothesised that he had confused
turning his ships through 90 degrees with turning them through
180 degrees when he considered how much sea room was needed.
The former manoeuvre was much more common and required considerably
HMS Victoria c.1888The news of the accident caused a sensation
and appalled the British public at a time when the Royal Navy
occupied a prime position in the national consciousness.
A court-martial of the captain of Victoria, Maurice Bourke,
was held on HMS Hibernia at Malta. It was established that
the ship would have been in no danger had her watertight doors
been closed in time. Bourke was found blameless, since the
collision was due to Admiral Tryon's explicit order but carried
an implied criticism of Rear-Admiral Markham by saying that
"it would be fatal to the best interests of the Service
to say that he was to blame for carrying out the directions
of the Commander-in-Chief present in person".
Tryon's TA system, and with it his attempt to restore Nelsonian
initiative into the Victorian-era Royal Navy, died with him.
Despite the fact that it had not actually been in use at the
time of the accident, traditionalist enemies of the new system
used the accident as an excuse to discredit and to bury it.
There is a legend in which Tryon's wife had given a large
social party in their London home, and Admiral Tryon was seen
descending the staircase by a number of people the moment
his ship collided with the Camperdown.
The Victoria Park memorial to the crew killed in the accidentThere
is a memorial to the crew killed in the disaster in Victoria
Park, Portsmouth. It was originally erected in the town's
main square, but at the request of survivors was moved to
the park in 1903 where it would be better protected.
An actual photograph of the moment "Victoria" took
her death plunge exists, and has been frequently reproduced.
A scale section of the Victoria, a popular exhibit on display
at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago at the time
of the accident, was subsequently draped in black cloth as
a tribute to the loss.
After a search that lasted 8 years, the wreck was discovered
on 22nd of August 2004 in 150 metres of water by Christian
Francis of Lebanon Divers. She stands vertically with her
bow and some 30 metres of her length buried in the mud and
her stern pointing directly upwards towards the surface. This
position is not unique among shipwrecks as first thought,
as the Russian monitor Rusalka also rests like this. The unusual
attitude of this wreck is thought to have been due to the
heavy single turret forward containing the main armament coupled
with the still-turning propellers driving the wreck downwards.
The 1949 comedy movie Kind Hearts and Coronets features a
satire of the accident, in which Alec Guinness plays a pompous
and stupid Admiral D'Ascoyne who stands saluting on the bridge
whilst his ship sinks beneath his feet. This was not the first
time a reference to the disaster came up in a satiric piece.
In 1893, in the Savoy Operetta "Utopia, Limited",
William Gilbert brought back his character "Captain Corcoran"
(here called "Captain, Sir Edward Corcoran, K.C.B.")
from "H.M.S. Pinafore" as one of the "Flowers
of Progress" sent to the Pacific Island Kingdom of Utopia
to bring it into the modern world. In a song in the first
act, Corcoran boasts of British sea power, and how the men
"never run a ship ashore". Then follows a chorus
(as in "H.M.S. Pinafore") of "What never?",
"No never", ending with a shamefaced Corcoran admitting
details from Wikipidia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Victoria_(1887)