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Sunday, 17 April 2011

HMS Thunderer - The Victorian Battleship's accidents


HMS Thunderer's starboard boiler
exploded in September 1876

H.M.S. Thunderer was the sister ship of H.M.S. Devastation. She  was an early British Victorian battleship  that suffered two major accidents in her early years. The first being an explosion on the 2nd September 1876.

One of her two boilers was over heating due to pressure valves corroding in the upper section. This was on her starboard boiler. Also this boiler's pressure gauge was out of order so it was simply shut off. Such a thing is inconceivable today and its hard to think it was then, but as the starboard boiler began to over heat, the men in the engine room were unaware of the serious and deadly conditions they were working in. The commanding officer was down in the engine room at the time. (Perhaps he was there because of the fault.)

While the commanding officer was in the vicinity, the top half of the boiler exploded killing 15 men instantly, including the commanding officer. A further 70 men were seriously injured, of which another 30 of these would die later from the wounds they suffered. 

As a result of this accident, new protocols were introduced concerning engine checks and stability - careful monitoring that had to be maintained and procedures concerning engine shutdown.

Then on 2nd of January 1879 a second accident aboard H.M.S. Thunderer, brought about further changes within the Royal Navy. This time with the phasing out of muzzle loading turret guns to breech loaders with longer barrels. On this particular day after the New Year's Day, H.M.S. Thunderer was in the Sea of Mamora on a gunnery exercise.

H.M.S. Thunderer was testing her guns when the left hand cannon of the fore turret had misfired. The right hand gun had gone off but the left had not. The gunners inside the turret may have held their ears as the two guns were fired and so be unaware that only one gun had fired. When the muzzle loaders were wheeled back inside the turret, each gun barrel was lowered to hatches in the floor where ducting led down to the armourers below. They would slide a charge up the ducting into the waiting muzzle followed by a shell.
Fore turret destruction by left hand guns double loading.
The gun crew and the armourers below deck would have been unaware that as the guns were rolled forward out of the turret's gun ports, the left hand cannon had an explosive and shell sitting upon another explosive and shell. It was double loaded.

The order to fire was given and as the guns ignited the left hand one exploded in the turret. The 12" gun of 38 tons of steel in the confines of metal walls was horrendous. The luckless gun crew inside the revolving turret did not stand much chance. As a result 11 men were killed and 34 wounded. At first the crew were not sure what happened and the ship returned to Britain. The remaining right hand gun of the fore turret was dismantled and taken to Woolwich Arsenal in London. The cannon wheeled inside a tunnel of a mounded hill composed of dirt and sand bags - an armoured cell of containment. It was double loaded to create the same condition. When the gun was fired it exploded in the same way and upon checking damage they were able to prove that this was the cause of the accident - double loading the barrel.

As a result the admiralty brought in a directive for all ships to have muzzle loaders withdrawn and replaced with breech loaders. This would prevent an accident of such nature occurring in future.


Testing right hand gun at Woolwich Arsenal




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