The sinking of HMS Audacious

These are the final moments of the battleship HMS Audacious, lost exactly 100 years ago today off the coast of Northern Ireland after she struck a mine.

Just 14 months as a commissioned warship, Audacious departed Lough Swilly, serving as a wartime anchorage, for gunnery practice on the range in company with six other ‘castles of steel’ in the mighty 2nd Battle Squadron.

By 8.45am on October 27 1914 the dreadnoughts were almost ready to clear their throats and began to turn in choppy seas when Audacious was rocked by an explosion on her port side.

Convinced the battleship had been torpedoed, the rest of the squadron departed – it had no intention of repeating the Hogue, Aboukir and Cressy tragedy of a month earlier.

In fact, Audacious fell victim to a German mine laid not a week earlier by a hurriedly-converted former liner. The Berlin had slipped through the British blockade and broken out into the Atlantic, charged with sowing her deadly seeds in the Firth of Clyde.

Entering the Irish Sea seemed to be a suicide run; the waters off Tory Island off the north coast of Ireland – on the Atlantic ‘highway’ from Liverpool to the New World – looked more inviting.

Berlin laid some 200 ‘eggs’, which claimed their first victim, the merchantman Manchester Commerce, the day before the battle squadron sailed. News of the loss had yet to reach the Admiralty, which never suspected a minefield so far west.

None of which helped Audacious, now listing ten degrees to port with the water spreading through the warship’s engine compartments. Some two hours after the mine explosion, as the ship sluggishly made for land in the hope of beaching her, the engines failed.

The last hope was towing. And here help was offered by RMS Olympic – sister of the ill-starred Titanic – bound for Liverpool. While the liner’s crew sought to save the leviathan, her passengers took photographs of the drama – even film footage.

The efforts of the crew were in vain. In rough seas, the tow line parted. Salvage attempts by other vessels, including cruiser HMS Liverpool, proved no more successful.

By nightfall, the water was over the forecastle and quarterdeck, causing Audacious to capsize.

She remained afloat for another 45 minutes until she was rocked by a series of explosions, sending shards of metal spiralling through the night, killing a senior rate on the Liverpool watching proceedings – the only man killed in the sinking.

With that, Audacious was gone – she lies 200ft down a dozen miles off the coast of Eire, upturned, her hull ripped apart.

The Olympic was held in Lough Swilly for several days – all aboard were banned from communicating with the shore. There was little the British authorities could do when the liner made the return journey, however – and images of the struggle to save the stricken battleship were widely published beyond the Empire such that Berlin knew the ship was lost by mid-November 1914.

For four years the British media kept schtum, however, about the only British dreadnought lost to enemy action in WW1 (HMS Vanguard blew up at Scapa Flow; the RN’s other capital ship losses were either battle-cruisers or pre-dreadnoughts).

Indeed they went so far as to publicise Audacious’ ‘movements’ and kept her on the Grand Fleet’s order of battle – deception which earned praise from their Lordships who were delighted that “the Press loyally refrained” from aiding the enemy.

Three days after the guns fell silent on the Western Front, the Admiralty admitted Audacious’ loss in what it called “a delayed announcement”.

The Audacious name reappeared in naval lists in 1942 as the eponymous aircraft carrier – only to be renamed HMS Eagle before her launch in 1946.

The title was only resurrected six decades later with the fourth of the Astute-class submarines which is now three and a half years into construction at Barrow.

One of Audacious' junior officers, Sub Lt H E Spragge, described the day's events in his diary:

8.40am. A heavy concussion was felt. Thinking it was the first salvo, I went leisurely on deck [to my?] torpedo control instruments about five minutes later. The port side of the waist was then heavily awash and Rhodes told me we had struck a mine. We were third ship in the line and turning to starboard to open fire at target. We had turned inside the wake of the next ahead and the mine had struck us port side.

All hands not employed below were ordered on deck and all boat and derricks were immediately cleared away. The King George V, Ajax and Centurion immediately left us in case of submarines.

We were still able to steam about 10kts with the centre shafts so we steamed towards Lough Scully. after we had cleared away derricks and boats, rafts were made of all available wood.

About 10am the centre engine room was flooded to such an extent that the circulating and air pumps would not work and we had to stop. By this time HMS Liverpool with the 2nd Flotilla destroyers Fury, Ruby, Larne [?] and Neieide and SS Olympic had closed us in response to an SOS and other distress signals. We hoisted out all our boats except the steam boats - in the sea that was running that was no easy matter - and sent away all stokers. We also prepared to be taken in tow. As fires were out in all boilers everything had to be manhandled.

About this time Vice Admiral Louis Bayly came aboard.

Olympic was just to take us in tow but we were unable to steer and could not get any communication to the [...] owing to flooded compartments aft, so our bow swung about all over the place...

Prepared with our 5 1/3in line to get in tow of Liverpool but she got our hemp around her screw. SS Thornhill, a collier, next tried to tow us and she shackled her 5 1/2in line on to us but this parted before any strain had come on. During these operations HMS Fury had repeatedly come up stern first under our bow port side to take on lines to the tow ship. The captain got great kudos for the way he handled his vessel.

There was no light left to get in tow again and they called for 50 volunteers to remain in the ship and sent all officers below. Went to HMS Larne [?] at 5.45pm.

About 6.30pm they decided to abandon ship as she was steadily becoming worse and nothing more could be done that night. The quarterdeck was awash and she was rolling heavily.

HMS Liverpool stood by for the night, the remainder of the ships went to Lough Swilly.

9pm Audacious capsized and blew up. One man was killed in Liverpool by a splinter. This was the only casualty.