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June 22, 1893, in the Eastern Mediterranean; Vice Admiral George Tryon, Commander-in-Chief of Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet, was at sea with his 8 pre-Dreadnought battleships and 5 cruisers, conducting maneuvers. Tryon was a believer in drills and maneuvers, ever more complicated maneuvers; 22rd of June was no exception.
And so, on that calm, sunny Thursday afternoon, Tryon, aboard HMS Victoria, had his fleet steaming at 9 knots, in parallel columns off Beirut, the columns just 1,200 yards apart. At 2:20 he hoisted a flag signal for the next maneuver, giving every ship a chance to see the signal and understand the maneuver. At 3:37 he hoisted the “execute” signal.
With that, Column 1, on the right, was to turn hard left, and Column 2, on the left, to turn hard right, the two columns of ships to pass through each other’s column on opposite headings.
There was a problem: the turning radius of these ships was on the order of 1600 yards. And so, HMS Camperdown, at 330 feet, weighing 10,800 tons, nearly sliced Victoria in half. Victoria rolled over 12 minutes later and sank, bow first. 358 men died, to include VADM Tryon.
In the investigation that followed, 29 officers were court-martialed. All were acquitted, despite numerous comments having been made in the hour preceding the collision questioning the maneuver. Rear Admiral Markham, deputy commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, and commander of the 2nd battleship Squadron, aboard Camperdown, had remarked when he first saw the signal: “It’s an impossible maneuver.”
He was right.
But all were acquitted; as Robert Massie reports in his magnificent book “Dreadnought,” the Court Martial stated: It would be fatal to the best interests of the service to say that he [Markham] was to blame for carrying out the orders of the Commander-in-Chief in person.
Victoria was lost - due to poor leadership and an adherence to tactics long overcome by new technology.
That poor leadership, an unwillingness to challenge authority and thus an adherence to obsolete tactics and command and control, nearly proved disastrous to the Royal Navy at the battle of Jutland, 23 years later.
…on the morning of the fire, 87% of the ship’s fire stations remained in inactive equipment maintenance status.
…the crew had failed to meet the time standard for applying firefighting agent on the seat of the fire on 14 consecutive occasions leading up to 12 July 2020.
But there’s more. Fires happen at sea - regularly. It’s why the Navy spends a great deal of time training to fight fires. And while there have been many fires on ships, the Navy has become adept not only at fighting those fires, but in keeping ships afloat and operational despite quite severe fires. This is important in peace time, but in war time, the ability to control damage and continue to conduct combat operations despite that damage is a critical element of combat effectiveness.
The Navy has collected tens of thousands of pages of “Lessons Learned” from fires on ships and these have been condensed in various training manuals and training programs. The investigation above references these manuals and training programs.
But they are of no value if they aren’t followed.
Inside this investigation there is an interesting comment; one sailor, not further identified in the released version of the report, was specifically commended for his actions which, they note, were undertaken without direction from any superiors…
Without direction from superiors.
There-in lies the real problem: this was not a failure of ship design, or the basic equipment, nor was it a failure of the training programs, etc. If the equipment had been properly maintained, if personnel had been properly trained, if the ship’s spaces had been properly inspected, the duty section had acted as training would demand, if, in short, the ship’s leadership had been doing their duty as prescribed, then even though a fire had started - whether deliberately set or just some accident - the fire would have been properly addressed and the ship could have been saved.
In the end, poor leadership is to blame for the loss of Bonhomme Richard.
And so, the Navy, the Nation, lost its first capital ship since October 1942. In fact, this was the first loss of a capital ship in peacetime since USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor in February, 1898.
The people mentioned in the report should be addressed within the legal processes of the Navy. But the Secretary of the Navy needs to send a signal to the entire Navy. He needs to send the signal that things need to be tightened up, that training needs to be crisp, that maintenance needs to be carried out by the book, and that officers and chiefs are expected to lead. Even when that means pushing back against the chain of command, even when that means saying that basics of seamanship and combat capabilities need to take precedence over all else.
Fire the CNO, fire a few more 4 stars. Make sure everyone gets the message. And don’t worry that: “the Navy needs these men.” Nonsense. None of these officers is a Nimitz, a Spruance, or a Nelson. Their early departure from the service won’t hurt the Navy in the least. Rather, their precipitous departure would help, it would send a signal that the naval service will now expect its leaders, at every level, to actually take charge.
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...