HMS Bulwark (1899)

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HMS Bulwark
Career (United Kingdom) Royal Navy Ensign
Class and type: Formidable- or London-class pre-dreadnought battleship
Name: HMS Bulwark
Ordered: 27 June 1898
Builder: Devonport Dockyard
Laid down: 20 March 1899
Launched: 18 October 1899
Completed: March 1902
Commissioned: 11 March 1902
Fate: Destroyed by internal explosion, 26 November 1914
General characteristics
Displacement: 15,366 long tons (15,613 t) (load); 15,995 long tons (16,252 t) (deep)
Length: 431 ft 9 in (131.60 m)
Beam: 75 ft (23 m)
Draught: 27 ft 3 in (8.31 m) (load); 28 ft 2 in (8.59 m) (deep)
Propulsion: 2 × 3-cylinder vertical triple expansion steam engines
2 × screws
Speed: 18 kn (21 mph; 33 km/h)
Range: 5,550 nmi (6,390 mi; 10,280 km) at 10 kn (12 mph; 19 km/h)
Complement: 750; 766 as flagship in 1904
Armament: 4 × BL 12 in (300 mm)/40 cal Mk IX guns
12 × BL 6 in (150 mm)/45 cal Mk VII guns
16 × QF 12-pounder guns
6 × QF 3-pounder guns
2 × machine guns
4 × 18-inch (450 mm) torpedo tubes (submerged)
Notes: Cost £1,065,816

HMS Bulwark belonged to a sub-class of the Formidable-class of pre-dreadnought battleships of the Royal Navy known as the London-class.

Technical description

HMS Bulwark was laid down at Devonport Dockyard on 20 March 1899 and launched on 18 October 1899. She began trials in May 1901 and was completed in March 1902[1].

Like the first three Formidable-class ships, Bulwark and her four London-class sisters were similar in appearance to and had the same armament as the Majestic and Canopus classes that preceded them. The Formidables and Londons are often described as improved Majestics, but in design were essentially enlarged Canopuses; while the Canopuses took advantage of the greater strength of the Krupp armour so they could remain the same size as the Majestics, with increased tonnage devoted to speed and less to armour without sacrificing protection, the Formidables and Londons used Krupp armour to improve protection without reducing their size[2]. The Formidables and Londons thus were larger than the two preceding classes, and enjoyed both greater protection than the Majestics and the higher speed of the Canopuses. The armour scheme of the Formidables and Londons was similar to that of the Canopuses, although — unlike in the Canopuses — the armour belt ran all the way to the stern; it was 215 ft (66 m) long and 15 ft (4.6 m) deep and 9 in (23 cm) thick, tapering at the stem to 3 in (7.6 cm) thick and 12 ft (3.7 m) deep and at the stern to 1.5 in (3.8 cm) thick and 8 ft (2.4 m) deep. The main battery turrets had Krupp armour, 10 in (25 cm) on their sides and 8 in (20 cm) on their backs[2].

The Formidables and Londons improved on the main and secondary armament of previous classes, being upgunned from 35-caliber to 40-caliber 12 in (300 mm) guns and from 40-caliber to 45-caliber 6 in (150 mm) guns. The 12 in (300 mm) guns could be loaded at any bearing and elevation, and beneath the turrets the ships had a split hoist with a working chamber beneath the guns that reduced the chance of a cordite fire spreading from the turret to the shell and powder handling rooms and to the magazines[2].

The Formidables and Londons had an improved hull form that made them handier at high speeds than the Majestics. They also had inward-turning screws, which allowed reduced fuel consumption and slightly higher speeds than in previous classes but at the expense of less maneuverability at low speeds[2].

A change in design from that of the first three Formidables occurred in Bulwark and the other four Londons, which is why the Londons often are considered a separate class[3]. The main difference in the Bulwarks and the other four Londons from the first three ships was thinner deck armour and some other detail changes to the armour scheme[4].

Like all pre-dreadnoughts, Bulwark was outclassed by the dreadnought battleships that began to appear in 1906. Like other pre-dreadoughts, however, Bulwark took on some first-line duties during the early part of the First World War.

Operational history

Bulwark had a long refit immediately after completion for the installation of fire control[5], but finally commissioned at Devonport Dockyard on 11 March 1902 for Mediterranean Fleet service, relieving battleship Renown as fleet flagship on 1 May 1902. She underwent a refit at Malta in 1905-1906. Her Mediterranean Fleet service ended when she paid off at Devonport on 11 February 1907.[6]

On 12 February 1907, Bulwark recommissioned to serve as Flagship, Rear-Admiral, Nore Division, Home Fleet, at the Nore. She grounded near Lemon Light in the North Sea on 26 October, and underwent a refit at Chatham Dockyard in 1907-1908.[6]

In 1908, Captain Robert Falcon Scott of Antarctic fame became Bulwark's commander, becoming the youngest junior battleship commander at that time. Bulwark joined the Channel Fleet on 3 October 1908. Under the fleet reorganization of 24 March 1909, the Channel Fleet became the 2nd Division of the Home Fleet, and Bulwark thus became a Home Fleet unit. She underwent a refit later in 1909.[6]

On 1 March 1910, Bulwark commissioned into the reserve at Devonport with a nucleus crew as Flagship, Vice-Admiral, 3rd and 4th Divisions, Home Fleet, at the Nore. She began a refit at Chatham in September 1911, and grounded twice on Barrow Deep off the Nore during refit trials in May 1912, suffering bottom damage.[6]

Her refit complete in June 1912, she recommissioned and joined the 5th Battle Squadron. From the beginning of the First World War in August 1914, Bulwark and the 5th Battle Squadron, assigned to the Channel Fleet and based at Portland upon the outbreak of war, carried out numerous patrols in the English Channel under the command of Captain Guy Sclater.

From 5 to 9 November 1914, while anchored at Portland, Bulwark hosted the court martial of Rear-Admiral Sir Ernest Charles Thomas Troubridge for his actions during the pursuit of the German battlecruiser SMS Goeben and light cruiser SMS Breslau in the Mediterranean Sea in August 1914.[7]

On 14 November 1914, the 5th Battle Squadron transferred to Sheerness to guard against a possible German invasion of England.[8]

The destruction of Bulwark

A powerful internal explosion ripped Bulwark apart at 07:50 on 26 November 1914 while she was moored at Number 17 buoy in Kethole Reach, 4 nmi (4.6 mi; 7.4 km) west of Sheerness in the estuary of the River Medway. All of her officers were lost, and out of her complement of 750, only 14 sailors survived; two of these men subsequently died of their injuries in hospital, and almost all of the remaining survivors were seriously injured.

File:HMS Bulwark explodes.jpg
HMS Bulwark blows up at Sheerness, 26 November 1914.

The only men to survive the explosion comparatively unscathed were those who had been in Number 1 mess deck amidships, who were blown out of an open hatch. One of these men, Able Seaman Stephen Marshall, described feeling the sensation of "a colossal draught", being drawn "irresistibly upwards", and, as he rose in the air, clearly seeing the ship's masts shaking violently.

Witnesses on battleship Implacable, the next ship in line at the mooring, reported that "a huge pillar of black cloud belched upwards... From the depths of this writhing column flames appeared running down to sea level. The appearance of this dreadful phenomenon was followed by a thunderous roar. Then came a series of lesser detonations, and finally one vast explosion that shook the Implacable from mastheads to keel."

The destruction of Bulwark was also witnessed on board battleship Formidable, where "when the dust and wreckage had finally settled a limp object was seen hanging from the wireless aerials upon which it had fallen. With difficulty the object was retrieved and found to be an officer's uniform jacket with three gold bands on the sleeves and between them the purple cloth of an engineer officer. The garment's former owner had been blasted into fragments."

Perhaps the most detailed descriptions of the disaster came from witnesses on board battleships Prince of Wales and Agamemnon, both of whom stated that smoke issued from the stern of the ship prior to the explosion and that the first explosion appeared to take place in an after magazine.

A naval court of enquiry into the causes of the explosion — held on 28 November— established that it had been the practice to store ammunition for Bulwark's 6 in (150 mm) guns in cross-passageways connecting her total of 11 magazines. It suggested that, contrary to regulations, 275 6 in (150 mm) shells had been placed close together, most touching each other, and some touching the walls of the magazine, on the morning of the explosion.

The most likely cause of the disaster appears to have been overheating of cordite charges stored alongside a boiler room bulkhead, and this was the explanation accepted by the court of enquiry. It has also been suggested that damage caused to a single one of the shells stored in battleship's cross-passageways may have weakened the fusing mechanism and caused the shell to become 'live'. A blow to the shell, caused by it being dropped point down, could then have set off a chain reaction of explosions among the shells stored in Bulwark's cross-passageways sufficient to detonate the ship's magazines.

On 29 November, divers sent to find the wreck reported that the ship's port bow as far aft as the sick bay had been blown off by the explosion and lay 50 ft (15 m) east of the mooring. The starboard bow lay 30 ft (9.1 m) further away. The remainder of the ship had been torn apart so violently that no other large portions of the wreck could be found.

The wreck site is designated as a controlled site under the Protection of Military Remains Act

In terms of loss of life, the explosion on Bulwark remains the second most catastrophic in the history of the United Kingdom, exceeded only by the explosion of the dreadnought battleship Vanguard, caused by a stokehold fire detonating a magazine, at Scapa Flow in 1917.


  1. Burt, p. 178
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1860-1905, p. 36
  3. For example, Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1860-1905, p. 37, and Burt, pp. 175-194, refer to the Londons as a separate class while Gibbons, p. 151, lists them all as part of the Formidable class. Burt refers to the Londons as the Bulwark class.
  4. Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1860-1905, p. 37
  5. Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1906-1921, p. 8
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Burt, p. 191
  7. van der Vat, pp. 150-166
  8. Burt, p. 170


  • Burt, R. A. British Battleships 1889-1904. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1988. ISBN 0870210610.
  • Chesneau, Roger, and Eugene M. Kolesnik, eds. Conway's All The World's Fighting Ships, 1860-1905. New York: Mayflower Books, Inc., 1979. ISBN 0831703024.
  • Gibbons, Tony. The Complete Encyclopedia of Battleships and Battlecruisers: A Technical Directory of All the World's Capital Ships From 1860 to the Present Day. London: Salamander Books Ltd., 1983.
  • Gray, Randal, Ed. Conway's All The World's Fighting Ships 1906-1921. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1985. ISBN 0870219073.
  • Hampshire, A. Cecil. They Called It Accident. London: William Kimber, 1961.
  • van der Vat, Dan. The Ship That Changed the World: The Escape of the Goeben to the Dardanelles in 1914. Bethesda, Maryland; Adler & Adler, Publishers, Inc., 1985. ISBN 0-917561-13-9.

Coordinates: 50°25′N 0°39′E / 50.417°N 0.65°E / 50.417; 0.65

de:HMS Bulwark (1899) ja:ブルワーク (戦艦)