Saving Our Own: A Paralysis of Initiative

The flag captain, finally acting on his own initiative in his bid to save the ship Victoria, ordered full astern on both propellers but it was already too late.June 23, 1893, was another clear and dazzling day in the Mediterranean. The British naval...

Six Cables
As they approached the port of Tripoli, Admiral Tryon, on board the Victoria, his flagship, called his staff commander, flag captain and flag lieutenant to his cabin. Consistent with his practice of issuing orders for complicated maneuvers, he told them to "form the fleet into columns of divisions, six cables apart, and reverse the course by turning inwards." This would place the fleet in two columns, abreast of one another, sailing in a straight line and twelve hundred yards apart since each cable was equal to 200 yards. On his signal, the columns would turn inward toward each other and reverse their course by 180 degrees so that they would then be traveling in the opposite direction, still in two columns.

All three highly experienced officers had the same immediate reaction: twelve hundred yards was not enough room to turn these massive ships towards one another in a 180 degree turn. The staff commander suggested eight cables to the admiral who appeared to agree. But a short while later when he was asked to confirm that eight cables was correct, he firmly stated that he said six cables and it would stay at six. He even wrote the number "6" on a piece of paper and passed it to one of the officers. "Tryon was not a person who was agreeable on being asked questions or cross examined."

In the following minutes the initial flags were raised and the fleet divided into the two lines abreast with the Victoria in the lead in one column and the Camperdown in the lead in the column to port, a little over a half-mile away. Following the Victoria at a speed of eight knots and separated by four hundred yards were the Nile, Dreadnought, Inflexible, Collingwood, and Phaeton. The minimum combined turning circles of the lead ships, the Victoria and the Camperdown was eight cables or sixteen hundred yards.

The Admiral gave the order to begin the turn as the coastline approached and the lead ships in both columns commenced a hard turn, the Victoria to port and the Camperdown to starboard. The flag captain of the Victoria, convinced of the impending disaster and faced with at least two options, questioning Tryon or ordering immediate evasive action, chose the former, once again warning the Admiral of the need to act. He was ignored. The two ships were closing at almost 18 knots.

The ships had been in their turns for two minutes. Over the next 30 seconds, rather than take action on his own, the flag captain asked the Admiral three more times for permission to either reverse his helm or to go astern with the port screw to counteract the turn. The Admiral eventually said, "Yes, go astern." The flag captain, finally acting on his own initiative in his bid to save the ship, ordered full astern on both propellers but it was already too late.

The Camperdown was turning on a wider arc than the Victoria and as a result struck her near the bow at almost a right angle with a hardened steel ram designed to sink ships. The combined impact speed was about 11 knots. The Camperdown tore nine feet into the bow of the Victoria with the impact force of a blank 13.5-inch shell fired at close range. The results were devastating. Almost immediately, and too late to make any difference, the Camperdown went full astern on both props and slowly pulled away from the Victoria, allowing tons of water to pour into the stricken ship through the gaping hole.

Now in the rough equivalent of a "Mayday" situation, other ships in the fleet began to lower lifeboats to aid the stricken Victoria. Inexplicably, Admiral Tryon, always averse to having his orders questioned, much less countermanded, cancelled the order and attempted to steer the ship towards the coast, some four miles away.

A little more than nine minutes after the collision on a cloudless afternoon in perfectly calm seas, the Victoria, pride of the Mediterranean fleet, heeled over to starboard and sank explosively, taking 358 crew members with her.

Nearly Blind Obedience
A few weeks later a court martial was convened on the Island of Malta to try the captain of the Victoria and her men to determine their culpability in the accident. It quickly became clear that Admiral Tryon had admitted it was "all his fault" in the minutes after the collision occurred. The good admiral (admirably) went down with his ship but the court was not fully satisfied. They also singled out the captain of the Camperdown and Vice Admiral Markham, second in command of the Mediterranean fleet, and also aboard the Camperdown, for their willingness to obey and execute an order they almost certainly knew was likely to cause a catastrophe, as indeed it did.