In 1759, the British began construction of a new flagship, the HMS Victory, a 100-gun, three-decker, ship of the line. In the 18th century, this was the nautical equivalent of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and only the most powerful countries could even contemplate the construction of such a ship.
This ship was the most complicated man-made object in the Eighteenth Century world. Using 6000 trees, 26 miles of rope, and enough sail to cover a football field, she was also the deadliest war machine in the entire world. From within the wooden walls crewed by iron men, her cannons could loft a ton and a half of iron shot several miles.
The ship was 45 years old when Lord Horatio Nelson used her as his flagship to destroy the combined navies of both France and Spain. Such ships and such leaders made England's the largest and most powerful navy in the world.
Not only was that navy large, it was damn good. In several wars and countless battles, the British Navy had humiliated the navies of France, Spain, Denmark, Turkey, Algeria, Russia, and Holland. During the period from 1792-1812, the ships of His Majesty’s navy had fought in over 200 engagements and had won all but five battles. (And all of those losses were in single ship-to-ship battles—none of them more recent than seven years earlier.)
The inevitable consequence of this incredible string of victories was that an English victory was expected by not only the English, but by the captains and crews of the ships the British fought. With this attitude, it will not be a surprise when I tell you that no fewer than 170 of the nearly 900 ships that made up the British Navy in 1812 had been captured from other countries during combat.
But then Napoleon was defeated and peace turned out to be far more difficult for the island maritime power than war. Ships rotted, experienced naval personnel were put ashore on half-pay, and the general overall condition of the navy declined as a sense of complacency settled over its officers. Only occasionally did the Admiralty’s office kick into high gear and actually do something (usually after the London newspapers published an editorial about how recent French naval developments put the Empire at risk). The HMS Victoria is one such example.
In 1859, England launched a new flagship, the HMS Victoria. She was almost immediately a floating example of the British admiralty’s knee-jerk reaction to all things French.
The French had just built a 130-gun three-decker, the Bretagne, that was designed to be the biggest, baddest warship afloat. Halfway through the construction, someone noticed that the age of sail—while not dead—was certainly dying. Even though the hull was already laid down, the builders managed to shoe-horn a steam engine into the frame, making it into an ungainly ship that was so impractical to sail that, within a decade, the French turned it into floating barracks.
The Bretagne was horribly impractical, but it was bigger than any ship the British had, so the Brits immediately began construction of an even bigger version, with even more firepower. And deep within her was the very reason why the ship should not have been built in the first place.
The largest wooden-hulled warship ever built, the HMS Victoria would have twice the tonnage of the Victory, and her massive guns could fire both red-hot shot and explosive shells that could penetrate wood-hulled vessels and then explode. As a result, the days of the giant three-deckers were already over even before this dinosaur was launched.
While the Bretagne saw brief action in the Crimean War, neither ship had a very long or distinguished career, and by the middle of the 1860’s, both ships were decommissioned and never sailed again. By the end of the century, both ships had been scrapped.
A few decades later, the British launched a new HMS Victoria—a new battleship launched in time to celebrate the aging queen’s Golden Jubilee. Once again, the Victoria was the most powerful ironclad afloat, with the largest guns and the thickest armor, and—as the first British ship to use a steam turbine—one of the fastest warships afloat.
Posted to the Mediterranean Fleet, the Victoria—nicknamed The Slipper for the habit of the foredeck to slip under waves due to the weight of the heavy bow guns—was put under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon. Tryon, was a fanatic about Lord Horatio Nelson, both studying the man and personally purchasing the famous Nelson sword (a copy of which can be seen in Trafalgar Square in London).
While Tryon honored Nelson, he was, unfortunately, nothing like the man. Nelson was famous for drilling his subordinate ship captains in using their own initiative. He called these men his ‘Band of Brothers’—a line taken from Shakespeare’s Henry V. Tryon, in contrast, was a dictatorial tyrant who expected instant obedience from his subordinates.
By the late 19th century, fleets maneuvered in two long parallel lines to facilitate faster communication by flags. This gave Admiral Tryon an idea for an efficient (and showy) method of bringing the entire fleet to stop at an anchorage at once. The lead vessels of both lines of ships would begin a simultaneous turn towards the other line. As the following ships reached the same point in the line, they, too, would execute the turn. When the entire fleet had reversed direction, all the ships would simultaneously execute a ninety degree turn away from the opposing line, come to a stop, and lower their anchors. Ten ships dropping anchor at exactly the same time would be an imposing sight.
Tryon issued his orders very carefully. When the Victoria raised her orders by flag, each of the other nine battleships in the fleet was to repeat the orders on its flags, helping to communicate with the rest of the fleet and at the same time, indicating that it was standing by to execute the order.
Leading the other line of ships was the HMS Camperdown, under the command of Vice Admiral Markham, Tryon’s second in command. He had already expressed an opinion that this maneuver should not be attempted unless the two lines of ships were at least 1600 yards apart. On June 22, 1893, off the coast of Libya, Admiral Tryon decided to attempt his showy maneuver—at the time, however, the two lines were only 1200 yards apart.
Believing the maneuver to be dangerous, Markham did not immediately indicate he was ready to comply, and composed a message to be sent to the Victoria indicating that he thought the two lines were too close to each other, but before the message could be sent, Admiral Tryon sent one to Markham: "What are you waiting for?" Markham cancelled his message and complied with Tryon’s order.
The reason for Markham's hesitation was simple: Each lead ship of the column weighed 10,000 tons, was steaming at nine knots, and had a turning radius of 800 yards. Ironically, each ship was equipped with a steel ram on the bow; a device that the Admiralty had recently decided was obsolete and no longer useful.
Halfway through the turn, Admiral Tryon could see the disaster that was, by this point, inevitable. He ordered the engines reversed, but it was too late: The Camperdown tore deep into the starboard side of the Victoria, then as the two ships continued to swing towards each other, the Camperdown’s ram opened up the side of the Victoria like a can opener, making a hole roughly 100 square feet in area. (By comparison, the hole that sank the much larger Titanic was only fourteen square feet.)
Almost immediately, the steel ram and the heavy bow guns pulled the bow of the ship down and the Victoria sank in less than ten minutes, killing 358 men (almost exactly half the ship’s compliment). As the ship sank, Admiral Tryon repeatedly said, “It’s all my fault.” Of course—as was the custom—the admiral went down with the ship.
After this, the British Navy stopped naming battleships after Queen Victoria. The HMS Victory is the oldest warship still on the rolls of any nation's navy, although it hasn’t been in a battle since Lord Nelson died during the Battle of Trafalgar.
Four years ago, the wreck of the Victoria was found off the coast of Libya. After 111 years underwater, she was discovered with her stern some 350 feet underwater. Miraculously, when the ship sank, her 14,000 hp engines continued to turn the screws, driving the bow of the ship deep into the mud, so that the wreck is standing completely upright—appropriately, like a tombstone.
The diver who discovered the wreck managed to reach Admiral Tryon’s cabin and located Admiral Nelson’s sword, but hid the sword deep inside wreck to prevent future divers from finding it, so it will probably stay there forever.