The loss of the HMS Glatton, an "interesting little ship".


The sister ships HMS Glatton and HMS Gordon are included in Anthony Preston's "Battleships of World War I", apparently because they were, as he describes them, "interesting little ships". I too found them to be interesting, and was intrigued by the loss of the Glatton due to accidental explosion in 1918.

Though hardly capital ships, they were well-armed vessels that served as coastal bombardment ships. Originally ordered by Norway from Armstrong's Elswick yard, the pair was intended as coast defense ships, mounting 2*9.45, 4*5.9, and 6*3.9-inch guns along with 2 torpedo tubes. With a decent strake of 7-inch armor on the sides, 2 inches of armor on their decks, and 8 inches of armor on the main turrets and conning tower, they were designed for 15 knots.

When the war started, the yard first slowed and then suspended work on the ships, so that they could concentrate on British warships. Norway was none too pleased, having already paid 246,000 pounds of the 375,000-pounds each purchase price. Churchill and Fisher arranged to have the money refunded to Norway, and paid the yard to complete the ships to a modified design for use as coast bombardment monitors.

Huge bulges were added to the hulls as protection against torpedoes and mines, additional armor was added to the decks as protection against shore batteries, and the armament was set as 2*9.2, 6*6, and 3*3-inch guns, along with 3 and 2 pound AA guns. The 9.2 and 6-inch guns were in fact the original Norwegian guns, with new liners to allow them to take British standard size shells. Overall speed was reduced to 13 knots by the modifications. Thanks to modified high-elevation mounts and specially designed shells, the main guns could reach an astounding 39,000 yards and fire 2 shells a minute.

Gordon served off the Belgian coast until the German's withdrew out of range of her guns, and then was used for testing to determine the cause of her sister's accident. Offered back to Norway cheep, her original owners passed, because though her guns could be easily relined back to the original specifications, the large bulges on the hull made the ship too wide for any dock in Norway. She was used to test underwater explosions, and then scrapped in 1928.

Glatton served with the Royal Navy for only five days. She joined the Dover patrol on September 11, 1918, and lay in harbor ready to depart for the Belgian coast. Admiral Keyes and the ship's commanding officer, Commander Diggle, were walking on the cliffs above the harbor when Glatton suddenly, and without warning, blew up and began burning furiously. The forward magazines were flooded, but due to the flames her aft magazines could not be, and thus the risk of further explosion was imminent. More importantly, the ship in the next berth was a fully loaded ammunition ship: if Glatton blew up, the ammo ship would explode also, destroying the city of Dover and causing thousands of civilian casualties.

Admiral Keyes ordered that the crew should be taken off, and Glatton torpedoed and sunk. He boarded the destroyer Myngs to see to it personally, but the first torpedo was fired from to close a range and failed to explode, its safety fan not having been wound off. A second torpedo was readied by manually spinning off the safety fan, but when it was fired the Glatton's huge bulge absorbed the impact. A third torpedo was readied and fired into the hole made by the second, and this one managed to breach the hull of the ship. Glatton rolled over and sank, 60 of her crew of 305 officers and men missing, and 124 injured, 19 of which later died of burns.

An inquiry was immediately started, as the British were alarmed by her loss: several ships had exploded due to poor cordite during the war, but the Royal Navy was certain they had corrected the problem.

It was established that the original explosion came from the midships 6-inch magazines, and not from the main gun cordite. The 6-inch magazines were separated from the boiler spaces just forward of them by a bulkhead, and it was thought that the ship's stokers had piled red-hot cinders from the fireboxes against this bulkhead. However, investigation showed that the stoker actually piles their cinders against the outer bulkhead separating the boiler room from the bulge, letting them cool before sending them up the ejector, and not against the magazine bulkhead.

Investigation into the construction showed that the outer bulkhead was lined with cork to help retard flooding from the splinters created by a torpedo explosion against the bulge. The cork was thought to have slowly overheated and caught on fire, and the fire traveled down the cork until it overheated the outer bulkhead of the magazine, causing the explosion. This seemed a bit far-fetched, as the smoldering cork would have needed a lot of time to overheat the magazine enough to cause an explosion, and there was no evidence of a smoldering fire before the explosion.

Careful examination of the Gordon revealed the problem: in places the cork was missing, leaving air spaces that were sometimes plugged by shipyard workers with rolled up newspaper. In addition, rivets along the bulkheads were missing, leaving holes. Hot cinders had evidently caught the paper on fire, and air drawn through the rivet holes had fanned the flames. The flames found an opening into the 6-inch magazine, and an explosion resulted. There was no faulty cordite, and the poor boiler room procedures would not have caused the loss of the ship had they not been combined with poor quality control at the shipyard. As construction was rushed due to the war, the greatly expanded work force at the yard contained may inexperienced workers, the ship had been inspected and accepted for service, and the stokers should not have piled the ashes against even the outer bulkhead, no litigation was brought against the shipyard.

The wreck would remain on the floor of Dover harbor until 1926, when it was raised and scrapped.