Divers shed light on wreck of Royal Navy’s worst wartime accident

A diver’s torch casts light on empty cordite cases at the bottom of Scapa Flow and the wreck of the greatest disaster in Royal Navy history.

These are the remains of battleship HMS Vanguard, torn apart by a cataclysmic explosion one summer’s night in Orkney a century ago.

One hundred years on from the tragedy which killed all but two of the 845 crew aboard the dreadnought, civilian divers have been given special permission to survey the site.

As a war grave, the Vanguard’s remains are normally off limits to all except Royal Navy divers.

But the team from the Orkney-based dive boat MV Huskyan are spending the winter scanning every inch of wreck as part of WW1 centenary commemorations.

Having surveyed what is left of cruiser HMS Hampshire, lost off Orkney with wartime leader Lord Kitchener in June 1916, last year, the divers focused their attention on the Vanguard for the Scapa 100 project.

We hope that this survey will add to our historic knowledge of this era of warship construction – and help maintain the memory of Vanguard and the sacrifice made by her crew

Emily Turton, Diver

Since October they have been diving on the wreck, which lies 34 metres (111ft) down off the north shore of the Isle of Flotta, and will compile a detailed report of their findings in due course.

RN divers last visited the wreck back in 2009 when HMS Bangor’s crew placed a weighted wreath and White Ensign on Vanguard’s shattered hull.

The Huskyan team found the flag, now covered in marine growth and popular with starfish, and the rest of the ship scattered over a wide area.

The wreck was extensively salvaged – legally – in the years following the tragedy to recover metal which might be recycled.

Diver Emily Turton said that so far the inspection, which will continue until the spring, had revealed a strange mix of utter devastation and serenity.

“The bow and stern are intact, despite large pieces of wreckage thrown hundreds of metres away – there’s an extensive debris field,” she explained.

Investigations so far have confirmed contemporary testimony – that the main explosion which destroyed HMS Vanguard occurred around P and Q turrets, aft of her bridge.

The divers found little of the midships section of the dreadnought, where the magazines once were, just the 12in gun turrets themselves, thrown a good 40 metres (130ft) from the wreck.

It’s thought a long-smoldering fire in a coal bunker caused cordite charges in an adjacent compartment to ignite.

A series of explosions shook the ship before a final blast tore the battleship to pieces and showered Scapa Flow – the wartime anchorage of the Royal Navy – with metal and burning debris which set the Orkney heather alight.

622 of the fallen are listed on Chatham’s naval memorial, 126 on Portsmouth’s and 74 on the monument on Plymouth Hoe, with around a dozen and a half victims buried near the wreck site.

“We’re very sensitive to the historical importance of Vanguard’s wreck,” Emily said. “We hope that this survey will add to our historic knowledge of this era of warship construction – and help maintain the memory of Vanguard and the sacrifice made by her crew.”