Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The fate of HMS Bulwark

On the 26th November 1914 at 7.45 in the morning and the pre-Dreadnought battleship HMS Bulwark was laying off number 17 buoy at Kethole reach coaling from the Kingsnorth Naval base. The water was calm, no tide and not a single disturbance on the water.

The crew of the aging warship had been on shore leave in Sheerness and had reported for duty at 7.00 am that morning. Now the majority were having breakfast in the mess rooms around the ship, others were on duty carrying out necessary shipboard tasks whilst others were conducting drill as the ship's band began to rehearse.

For next five minutes all continued as it should.

What happened next was heard as far away as Whitstable and Southend where the pier vibrated and shook and German civilians interned on vessels gathered in fear as the noise and vibration reverberated across the estuary.

Lieutenant Benjamin Carroll who was serving as the assistant coaling officer in Sheerness was checking Bulwark's coaling level signal flag from a boat on the river when something caught his eye. He noticed a flame spurt from the abaft of the after barbette turret, then the flame passed along the vessel towards the after funnel in what he would later testify as an internal explosion. 

Another witness reported to a local newspaper that;
I was at breakfast when I head an explosion, and I went on deck. My first impression was that the report was produced by the firing of a salute by one of the ships, but the noise was quite exceptional. When I got on deck I soon saw that something awful had happened. The water and sky were obscured by dense volumes of smoke. We were at once ordered to the scene of the disaster to render what assistance we could. At first we could see nothing, but when the smoke cleared a bit we were horrified to find the battleship Bulwark had gone. She seemed to have entirely vanished from sight, but a little later we detected a portion of the huge vessel showing about 4ft above water. We kept a vigilant look out for the unfortunate crew, but only saw two men.

Aboard Prince of Wales men on deck reported seeing smoke coming from the stern of the ship before an explosion in an after magazine. Elsewhere witnesses reported hearing a low rumbling and roaring followed by a great sheet of flame shooting upwards with debris with a force so strong that it lifted the 15,000 ton warship out of the water before sending her crashing down and sinking into the murky estuary waters, the only thing marking her spot was a grey-green cloud of smoke that billowed from the waters surface.

With in moments, as the shock passed rescue boats rushed to the scene to see who could be saved from the water as debris rained down upon the town and river covering an area of four miles. An engineering officers jacket was found hanging in the Formidable's radio aerials, the former owner must have been blasted to smithereens.  Flotsam like hammocks, furniture, pieces of superstructure and bodies... and uncountable amount of bodies and pieces of bodies bobbed about in  water. There were few survivors.
Chief Gunner Breakspere's grave at Woodlands cemetery

In all 745 men and 51 officers were killed outright. Some blown to pieces others completely disintergrated. Only 14 men were pulled from the water and five of them died from their wounds, including Able Seaman Crow and Private Gilbert Guy RMLI.  The coroner's hearing at Medway Naval hospital ruled that the cause of death for the majority of bodies recovered and those of the men who died subsequently was extreme burns. Of the 51 officers, 11 bodies were recovered and a further 30 bodies (14 were identifiable by Cooks mate William Cooper who had been onshore on sick leave.) after the disaster although bodies were washing up on the beaches of Sheppey up to January the following year.

During the days that followed the Navy sent divers to investigate the wreck and found that the port bow from the aft sick bay lay 50 foot away from the mooring and the Starboard bow was a further 30 foot away but the blast had been so terrific that nothing else remained.

The big question was; what caused one of His Majesty's warships to explode at mooring. Fanciful stories of a rogue U-boat, spies or even Zeppelin attack quickly gripped the people of Sheppey and Medway but after a few days reason set in and with Lt Carroll's statement a U-boat was quickly discarded as was the notion of a German Airship. The Coroner was not satisfied with the findings of the court. Admiralty divers were certain that they had found all of the loose shells from the Magazine cross corridors (where they were being stored as the magazines were full) and that there was no evidence of treachery or loose cordite. The conclusion was reached that no one really knew what caused the explosion and could not provide an adequate answer. The enquiry returned a verdict of accidental death and the book was closed. It has been since argued that the cordite in the shells in the cross corridors must have overheated and exploded causing a chain reaction through the magazines that tore the vessel apart.

Woodlands road cemetery in Gillingham is the final resting place for many of the crew, be it in the communal mass grave of the unidentified (containing 70 with a further 12 individual graves) as well as 67 named graves.

The full casualty list for Bulwark can be read here

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