HMS VICTORIA'S SECRET
On 22 June 1893, the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet was about to anchor of Tripoli, Lebanon, When Admiral Tryon ordered two lines of battleships to turn toward each other. The lines were too close and Admiral Markham's HMS Camperdown sliced into to the bows of Tryon's HMS Victoria. Within ten minutes the Victoria had sunk taking Tryon and 358 or her crew to their deaths. In an instant the Mediterranean fleet had lost its admiral and its flagship, named after the reigning monarch. A stunned Britain and admiralty wanted answers. How could such a catastrophe have occurred? Why did no one prevent the collision? Why did the Victoria sink so fast, when the damage she sustained was limited to her bows only?
The above text has had scores of Historians and Divers alike trying to answer
the above questions for nearly a century. The sinking of HMS Victoria was more
than a loss of a flagship with her admiral, it was closing of a chapter of
changing maritime doctrine that would likely have shaped the future of battle
afloat everywhere. Since the birth of the aqualung, divers have wondered where
the Victoria lay and if she could be visited by underwater explorers in the hope
of solving HMS Victoria's secrets.
The above text has had scores of Historians and Divers alike trying to answer the above questions for nearly a century. The sinking of HMS Victoria was more than a loss of a flagship with her admiral, it was closing of a chapter of changing maritime doctrine that would likely have shaped the future of battle afloat everywhere. Since the birth of the aqualung, divers have wondered where the Victoria lay and if she could be visited by underwater explorers in the hope of solving HMS Victoria's secrets.
The initial plan was to make a series of exploration dives to 120m and drop magnesium flares to illuminate the sea bed below. The electronics on board the dive boat did reveal a small possible debris field but the height above the sea bed was so low that it suggested the 10,000 ton vessel had submerged into a soft mud or sediment. The depth sounder revealed a highly unusual image that showed a large object seemingly floating in mid water, the fisherman on board suggested this was a large trawl net that was tangled around wreckage at 500 feet depth. Hours were spent searching for the highest point of the debris field in an attempt to bear fruit during the projects exploratory dives.
The trip was joined by Major Paul Pitchfork who flew over to assist the team at Mark's promise of some deep wreck finding and a project that was steeped in intrigue as Mark and Christian were not forthcoming with the wreck's possible identity. The first dive of the series saw the three divers drop down a line to 120m in very pleasant Mediterranean conditions. Visibility was easily 30-40m and the water temperature a positively balmy 28'c. Reaching four hundred feet down the ambient light was starting to turn into a deep blue twilight. We dropped down the descent line and looked into the darkness scanning the limits of the visibility, straining to see anything that looked to contrast with the void below. Stopping to turn on the dive lights, we noticed in the twilight a huge shadow looming in the distance to our left. It looked like a stain in the water but extended above us and beyond the length of the visibility. I had a double check of my breathing regulator I recall, to double check I was breathing from the correct tank! I checked the hose all the way from from the tank to the second stage and noted the contents marked on my second stage tag, It confirmed I wasn't madly intoxicated. In the Mediterranean there is seldom much tidal movement and at this depth the sea was still like a swimming pool. We let go of the down line and went for a careful swim both upwards and towards this strange sight. I was mindful that it could be a large fishing trawl net and did not relish the idea of cutting myself or anybody free while wearing four tanks in deep water. As we got nearer we realised what the shadow really was standing in front of us.
It was the most unbelievable sight!
We had found a very large steel hulled ship that could not have really been anything other than HMS Victoria and it was standing completely vertical, its bows surely buried into the sea bed below. The original photographs we obtained, showed the Victoria as it slipped below the waves 111 years before, just after the collision and it was indeed sinking bows first with the propellers still turning at near maximum revolutions. The bow of the Victoria was fitted with an enormous metal ram that would have pushed deep into the soft clay of the sea bed and combined with the sheer weight of the vessel and continued downward thrust of the propellers ensured the Victoria took a good purchase of the seabed and stood like a tombstone all this time waiting for discovery.
The Scene above shows HMS Nile standing off from HMS Victoria seconds before the end. As Victoria started to list, the order for water tight doors to be shut was given, it is unlikely that the order was fulfilled fast enough as within a few minutes the list increased so dramatically that the flagship capsized. The speed of the Victoria's demise was likely attributed to the enormous fore deck gun with its 111 ton deadweight and 16.25" barrels. The enlarged view depicts a few of Victoria's still turning propellers as non swimming crew members clamber along the upturned hull.
We all smiled realising that we had discovered the greatest wreck find imaginable, the 10,000 ton HMS Victoria was standing in front of us oriented completely vertically and looked in excellent condition. As we neared the wreck we ascended towards the enormous bronze propellers and rudder. Parts of the hull were still showing the original red paint as was the rudder, the twin screws, each some 5 metres across completely clean of marine life.
The sight of the enormous rear facing gun confirmed that this was the right vessel, but not as convincingly as reading the ships name VICTORIA as it clearly stood out in 12inch raised letters. The name was emblazoned across the hull just under Admiral Tryon's private balcony atop the rear facing torpedo tube opening. Ornate decoration and floral metalwork stood out around the name, the whole scene was electrifying. It was important not let the scene impact the dive plan, I was mindful of the time we had spent at depth already approaching 15 minutes between 120m and 90m. We could spend just 5 more minutes at 77m before the original decompression plan was compromised. Now that the descent line was out of reach, I used my primary reel (Kent) with its 120m of yellow line to tie a temporary up line to ease the ascent and mark HMS Victoria's exact location.
I would describe being involved in the finding of HMS Victoria as one of the most rewarding projects I have been part of. To see the majestic flagship at all, was an amazing achievement. Christian had hoped to find the Victoria sitting on the seabed perhaps partially submerged in soft clay in depths approaching 500 feet. I had agreed to dive it with Christian to this depth a maximum of 3 times to obtain enough video footage to enable a video documentary. The feeling during the decompression stops and upon surfacing was of total elation, we could not have been more fortunate, and this was celebrated the same evening with champagne for all the team. Finding HMS Victoria standing vertically and with the shallowest parts in "only" 77m was utterly fantastic and allowed 17 more dives in the following two weeks. Over three hours of video was recorded for use in a documentary to be produced early 2005.
Because of the
protected status of HMS Victoria, limited guided excursions by technical divers
from around the world are available. Contact Christian or Mark at Inspired-Training.com for details.
For in depth accounts of the sinking of HMS Victoria, please obtain a copies of the following excellent publications:
THE RULES OF THE GAME by Andrew Gordon
ADMIRALS IN COLLISION by Richard Hough
Including pre dive training and dives to HMS Victoria, the dive team conducted 47 dives between 70m and 150m, all without mishap. Decompression plans were generated using the DECOCHEK software program
Dive Safe, Dive Educated
copyright Mark Ellyatt 1999-2015