The Tragic Account of the Royal Navy’s Fourth HMS Glatton


This story first appeared in the magazine “A History of Conflict – Britain at War” Issue 62 in June 2012 and is reproduced with the kind permission of the Editor and Key Publishing

The First World War was reaching its climax and the Royal Navy planned to add to the pressure being brought upon the Germans by bombarding their positions on the Belgian coast. In Dover harbour a powerful force was being prepared for the operation when disaster struck. When an explosion ripped apart the newly-commissioned monitor HMS Glatton every ship in the packed harbour was at risk. To save further loss Admiral Keyes had to make a fateful decision.

Naval officers moved to and fro on their decks, issuing last-minute orders. Picket boats shuttled between ships of all descriptions lying at anchor in Dover harbour in the fading light of early evening. An electrical tension hung in the air. The next day, 17th September 1918, was the date set for the bombardment of the German-occupied Belgian coast by the Royal Navy’s new monitors HMS Glatton and HMS Gorgon, with their 9.2-inch and 6-inch guns, and HMS Marshal Soult and HMS General Wolfe armed with huge 15-inch guns.

HMS Glatton, and her sister ship, Gorgon, were originally built by Armstrong Whitworth as coastal defence ships for the Royal Norwegian Navy and were named Bjorgvin and Nidaros respectively. Indeed, the future HMS Glatton was launched only days after the start of the war. Both warships, however, were soon requisitioned by the Royal Navy and subsequently modified by the British as coastal defence monitors.

These modifications included the addition of huge bulges to the hulls as protection againsttorpedoes and mines with additional armour being added to the decks as protection against shore batteries. Thanks to modified high-elevation mounts and specially designed shells, the main guns could reach an astounding 39,000 yards (twenty-two miles) and fire two shells a minute.

HMS Glatton had only been commissioned into the Royal Navy, at Newcastle, days before she was to participate in the attack on the Belgian coast on 31st August 1918. Between the 6th and 8th of September, she had completed loading with stores and ammunition, and, after experiencing bad weather, was on her way south, arriving at Dover on 11th September. She would never proceed to sea again.

Captain William John Pearce commanded the Admiralty tug Lady Brassey which was busily engaged in the harbour that fateful afternoon of 16th September 1918. He watched as Glatton, which had finished taking on coal, belched black smoke from her funnel. The time was 18:15 hours. “I saw the collier steam away in the direction of the Gorgon, and I was about to turn away, when suddenly the calm of that September night was torn by the roar of an explosion that reverberated against towering cliffs in the background, and shook the town to its foundations, sending my tug, which was berthed against the Prince of Wales Pier, rocking crazily on the waves. Immediately a great blanket of dense, white smoke rose from the Glatton amidships. In a flash I knew that some awful calamity had befallen her, which was confirmed the next moment by the great flames that leaped heavenwards in a pyramid of yellow light.”1

An explosion had occurred in the ship’s 6-inch magazine situated deep within her hull between the boiler room and the engine room. Flames shot through the roof of “Q” Turret and began to creep aft. Immediately Pearce took Lady Brassey alongside Glatton to see what help he could offer. “The sight that met our eyes was appalling” he recalled.“On Glatton’s deck were dozens of officers and men, terribly wounded. Some lying prostrate, others writhing in agony from burns. Many of the men were naked. I learned afterwards that they had been bathing when the explosion occurred. Chaos, bewilderment and suffering everywhere. By then the ship was burning fiercely, for her oil fuel had caught alight. The flames rose high with a terrible roar. The heat was intense, and for a moment we stood still, feeling utterly helpless against such a holocaust. Even as we hesitated, some burnt-out super-structure fell from aloft and crashed to the deck in a shower of sparks”

One of the officers on HMS Glatton ordered the forward magazines to be flooded, but the crew was unable to flood the rear magazines as the flames blocked access to the magazine flood controls. If the fire could not be controlled, the entire ship would soon be engulfed with flames. With what Pearce described as a £thrill of horror”, he realized that there were magazines fore and aft packed with live ammunition. If the flames reached these vulnerable positions not only would the rescue parties moving up to Glatton be in danger, the very town of Dover itself might be blown to “smithereens”.

There was scarcely a ship in Dover that wasn’t carrying a deadly load – ammunition, depth-charges, and mines. Another explosion aboard HMS Glatton could easily detonate the entire packed harbour. One ship in particular, the munitions ship Gransha, was only 150 yards away and other monitors were anchored side-by-side close by. Just such a disaster had occurred only nine months earlier at Halifax, Nova Scotia. A French munitions ship, Mont Blanc, carrying 3,00 tons of T.N.T had collided with the Norwegian ship Imo in Halifax harbour. The resulting explosion caused damage to the harbour and the town, and some 1,500 people were killed and 4,000 injured.

Captain Pearce knew he only had minutes to try and prevent a disaster on a monumental scale. “There was not a moment to lose. I ordered my men to get out the fire-fighting apparatus of the Lady Brassey, and, running out a length of hose, we scrambled aboard the Glatton; but we instantly fell back again. It was almost as though the heat had hit us a blow. How we ever forced our way through the scorching, suffocating barrage of smoke to the fore end of the ship, where many injured ratings were trapped, I shall never know. It was like an evil nightmare. As we battled forward, vague figures kept looming up – wounded men struggling to escape, officers and ratings who had come aboard to join in the work of rescue. For by now many small craft from the other ships in the harbour had arrived, and were swarming round Glatton”

Pearce was not alone in appreciating the danger that the rescuers faced, yet they were intent only on trying to save their comrades. The men that they could reach were borne away and transferred to boats drawn up on the port side of the monitor. Then began the desperate efforts of the band of ratings that had volunteered to flood the forward magazine, or, alternatively to open the seacocks below and sink the ship. To add to the difficulties these men faced, that end of the ship was full of gas, presumably from the fuel oil, and no gas masks were available. The gas drove the men back choking and spluttering.

Pearce prepared to return to Lady Brassey to collect more fire-fighting appliances but at that moment a small pinnace arrived alongside. In it were Rear-Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, the Port Commodore, and several others including Glatton’s captain, Commander Neston Diggle. Admiral Keyes and Commander Diggle had been walking on the cliffs above the port when the explosion occurred. Keyes and Diggle climbed onboard Lady Brassey to enable them to reach the stricken Glatton. As he passed across the tug, Keyes shouted to Pearce to move his boat out of the danger area. Pearce then recalled his men and when they were back on Lady Brassey, he pulled away. Still the fire raged on Glatton and ten minutes later Pearce received a message to go back to the monitor to pick up Admiral Keyes who wanted to return to the shore.

“Even as I reached the Glatton for a second time there was a terrific explosion, and we were sent reeling against our ships rails. The explosion was on the port side of the bridge, due, I subsequently heard, to a piece of burning debris falling on an anti-aircraft ammunition dump. I noticed that the Glatton was well down by the head. I knew then that her fore magazine had been successfully flooded. From a calamity, that end of the ship, at any rate, was safe.But the flames were spreading, and there was still the after magazine. It was now apparent that any attempt to reach the aft was out of the question. The fire was burning too fiercely. Slowly it was creeping towards the chamber of death”

Whilst others at Dover were trying to help, there had also been many instances of bravery on board HMS Glatton. One such example is that of the actions of Surgeon Captain Edward Leicester Atkinson, DSO, RN who had been on the doomed monitor at the time of the explosion.“At the time Atkinson was rendered unconscious, but on recovery he made his way through dense smoke to the quarter deck and brought two unconscious men up un to the upper deck, and when attempting to bring up a third man a secondary explosion occurred which blinded him, and a piece of metal was driven into his leg in such a manner that he was unable to move until he himself had extracted it. After bringing up two more men Atkinson was found on the upper deck unconscious, wounded, badly burnt and his life was despaired of for some time”2.

In fact, Atkinson, who hadbeen one of the two Royal Navy surgeons to travel to the Antarctic with Captain Scott prior to the war, survived his horrific injuries. For his actions that day, Atkinson was subsequently awarded the Albert Medal for gallantry in saving life at sea.

A minute after Lady Brassey arrived back alongside HMS Glatton, Admiral Keyes appeared. He took a long, anxious look at the burning ship upon which he stood. He seemed to ponder and then suddenly swung round. He had evidently made a decision. HMS Glatton was clearly doomed. It was not a matter of if the ship blew up, simply when. So Admiral Keyes ordered all ships in the vicinity of the monitor to move out of the harbour. He then asked Pearce to take him to the Camber, a small dock near the eastern end of the harbour.

“It was a heartrendering departure for the Camber”, continued Pearce. “We had to leave behind many poor men trapped in the fore part of the ship, who had been wounded by the first explosion. It had been impossible for the rescue parties to reach them all. I could hear groans of anguish as we left. I saw one man, a petty officer, staggering about the deck shrieking incoherently. Obviously, he had lost his reason”.

Back on shore, Admiral Keyes was faced with a momentous decision. Every effort to sink Glatton by opening the seacocks had failed. At any moment the aft magazine might explode with unimaginable consequences. An officer from Keyes’ party then approached one of Pearce’s men, Engineer Lambert. He asked the engineer if he had an oxy-acetylene torch on board Lady Brassey which could burn a hole in the side of Glatton and sink her that way. Unfortunately, there was no such equipment on the tug. It was then that Keyes decided on a desperate course of action – he was going to torpedo the warship, even though there were still men trapped on board. He also called for the help of the military forces stationed at Dover to clear the seafront of spectators who were unknowingly exposing themselves to a terrible risk.

“The vast, surging crowd that was ranged from end-to-end on the esplanade to watch the grim drama that had been taking place was herded by the soldiers to the back of the town and comparative safety” recalled Pearce, watching from the Camber. The air raid siren was also sounded and this had the desired effect, encouraging those who were still unaware of the danger to run for shelter. “And so the minutes ticked by. As we waited for the Admiral’s return the tension increased. A south-westerly wind, springing up, fanned the flames nearer the aft magazine. It was a time of awful suspense. At any moment the Glatton might blow up before the torpedo could do its work. There was a stir on the quayside, and the admiral hurried aboard our boat again. He indicated the station he wanted me to take up, and… we made for it at full speed”.

Keyes boarded HMS Cossack and instructed the destroyer’s captain to sink the stricken monitor. Cossack’s first 18-inch torpedo Glatton but it failed to detonate as it had been fired at too close a range. A second torpedo hit Glatton on its anti-torpedo bulge. It exploded but its warhead failed to penetrate the protective bulge.

Keyes then transferred to HMS Myngs which, equipped with larger 21-inch torpedoes, was stationed nearby. “I saw the destroyer, Myngs, which was to fire the torpedo, move slowly into position”, Pearce later wrote “and I knew that the dreaded moment had arrived. I also knew that trapped aboard the Glatton was one poor injured blue-jacket whose great friend was the torpedo-man who was to send the deadly missile speeding on its journey of destruction and death to the maimed. It was a terrible moment; and, as a second later I saw the chain of bubbles that marked the track of the torpedo unfolding in the direction of the still blazing vessel, I instinctively closed my eyes. There was a dull shatter of crumpling steel, the swirl of rushing water, and, as I opened my eyes again, I saw the flames of the Glatton leap higher, so that one could plainly make out the details of the coast, the tall houses on the seafront, the black shapes of the vessels that continued to pour out of the harbour. The wounded ship heeled over to port. The flames still flickered. Masses of glowing smoke rose high into the air, casting an eerie light on the water. Suddenly she gave a great lurch and trembled like some sick animal. In another moment the waters had closed over her, and she had gone. Blackness was all around, and nothing to mark the spot on which this brave ship had been sacrificed, and with her ninety tortured soles, to avert greater disaster. We all felt choked. With bowed heads we turned away”.

A Court of Enquiry was convened to look into the causes of the disaster that befell HMS Glatton. The explosion had occurred in the 6-inch magazine which was separated from the boiler spaces just forward of them by a bulkhead. It was thought possible that the ship’s stokers had piled red-hot cinders from the fireboxes against this bulkhead, causing it to transfer heat to the ammunition3. This, though, should not have been a problem as the magazine was lined with cork, five-inches thick and was covered by wood planking three-quarters-of-an-inch thick. The magazine was also provided with special cooling equipment. Nevertheless, the findings of the court were that,“The slow combustion of the cork lagging of the 6-inch midship magazine of the Glatton led to the ignition of the cordite in it and so caused the explosion”4.A multitude of possible explanations circulated at the time of the incident, some of which persisted in the years after the Armistice. Even as late as the 1930’s, Captain Pearce wrote of the possible involvement of an enemy agent: “Enemy agents were busy in our midst, and it was known to the Admiralty that in Germany was one factory that specialised in the manufacture of internal machines disguised as lumps of coal, coils of rope and ships’ parts…It is possible that one of these was planted on board the Glatton”5.

As a precaution the magazine on Glatton sister ship was stripped and it was found that there were spaces in the cork cladding which had been filled with folded newspapers by the construction workers when she was built. Some of the rivets were also missing which meant that hot coals could easily have ignited the paper.

The disaster resulted in the outright death of sixty men with a further 124 being injured, of whom nineteen later died of their injuries. Next morning when the tide ebbed, the wreck of HMS Glatton was only just visible above the water. There she remained for eight years until efforts were made to raise her at the insistence of the Dover Harbour Board.

On 16th March 1926, the hulk of HMS Glatton was moved to a deep gully next to what was then the Western Pier of the submarine harbour, also known as the Camber, close to the shore. There, part of her wreck, eventually abandoned by the scrap men and covered with landfill, lies underneath what became the present-day car ferry terminal.

 

Notes:

  1. Captain Pearce’s account is taken from “We Fought Disaster on the Glatton”, in The Great War, Undying Memories of 1914-1918, Part 45, pp 1809-1812.
  2. Atkinson died suddenly whilst at sea in 1929. This quote is taken from his obituary in the Journal of the RN Medical Service, vol 14 (1929), p157. It is stated that Atkinson was awarded the DSO for his actions whilst serving on the Somme in 1916.
  3. This is contradicted by another source which states that the investigation showed that the stokers actually piled their cinders against the outer bulkhead separating the boiler room from the anti-torpedo bulge, letting them cool before sending them up the ejector, and not against the magazine bulkhead. See bobhenneman.info/glatton.htm
  4. Ian Buxton, Big Gun Monitors: Design Construction and Operations 1914-1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008) pp 111-112.
  5. Aged 59, Lieutenant William Pearce RNRdied on 7 February 1941, at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Dover, two days “aftera severe accident whilst on operations”. He had been struck and thrown into the harbour by a snapped mooring rope.
    The ships bell recovered from HMS Glatton

 THE  DOVER WAR MEMORIAL  PROJECT
The Glatton Memorial, Gillingham

The Glatton was sunk in Dover Harbour on 16 September 1918. The memorial, where many of the men who lost their lives are buried, is in the Naval section at Gillingham (Woodlands) cemetery, Kent.

TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND THE HONOURED MEMORY OF FOUR OFFICERS AND NINETY-FOUR MEN WHO LOST THEIR LIVES THROUGH THE DISASTER TO HMS GLATTON ON THE 16TH SEPTEMBER 1918 ONE OFFICER AND FIFTY-SIX MEN ARE BURIED IN THIS GRAVE

A Alford, age 34
30873 Stoker Petty Officer RN
G Allanton, age 19
J/83211 Ord. Seaman RN
W Ames
K/25984 Stoker 1st Class RN
A Baker
288508 Stoker 1st Class RN
B Barlow, age 22
J/15962 Able Seaman RN
A Beatty, age 22
M/28409 A/Eng. Room Artfcr. 4th Class RN
W S Bennett age 26
K/19414 Stoker 1st class RN
J W Benson age 30
M/15317 Eng. Room Artfcr. 2nd Class RN
T Bridge age 23
SS/116362 Stoker 1st Class RN
W A Card age 25
K/7261 Stoker 1st Class RN
H Cave age 29
K/7773 Stoker Petty Officer RN
R Clifton age18
J/83010 Ord. Seaman RN
W J Copp age 25
J/10584 Petty Officer RN
C Cowdrey
271332 A/CH.Eng. R. Artfcr. 2nd RN
A Curt Age 18
J/86100 Ord. Seaman RN
T Dickson
K/33972 Stoker 1st Class RN
R J B Drew RN age 30
Lieutenant Commander
R A Genee age 29
312415 Stoker Petty Officer RN
R D Greenwood age 21
M/25854 Eng. Room Artfcr. 4th RN
W G Grove age 30
K/39457 Stoker 1st Class RN
P J R Harden age 18
J/85740 Ord. Seaman RN
W F Harden age 32
LZ/5095 Able Seaman RNVR
C B Heath age 29
K/41973 Stoker 1st Class RN
A H Hill age 41
354708 Officers Cook 1st Cl. RN
G Howard
K/13989 Stoker 1st Class RN
A J Johnson
K/19408 Stoker 1st Class RN
W T Jones age 20
K/35845 Stoker 1st Class RN
E Knapp
K/7749 Stoker 1st Class RN
R Knight
K/26183 Stoker 1st Class RN
W Lake age 33
222452 Petty Office RN
T B Mackie age 22
M/32031 A/Eng. Room Artfcr. 4th RN
C T Makin age 22
M/3787 Eng. Room Artfcr. 4th RN
P Martin
238767 Petty Officer RN
F J Miller
K/29131 Stoker 1st Class RN
T R Mills age 27
SS/111470 Stoker 1st Class RN
C W Moger
PO/15920 Private RMLI
A H Mottram age 20
SS/115438 Leading Stoker RN
W Nettleship age 20
K/51279 Stoker 2nd Class RN
G A Owen age 36
201273 Act. Chief Petty Officer RN
F Rhodes age 25
M/2451 Shipwright 2nd Cl. RN
G C Robson age 19
ss/117718 Stoker 1st Class RN
T Scorer age 24
K/51313 Stoker 2nd Class RN
F W Shadwell age 26
M/10909 Eng. Room Artfcr. 3rd RN
A B Shaw age 28
M/22794 3rd Writer RN
F W Simpson age 30
M/32151 A/Eng.Room Artfcr.4th RN
M Small age 19
K/51318 Stoker 2nd Class RN
T Smith
K51330 Stoker 2nd Class RN
T Stamp
191430 Stoker Petty Officer RN
C A Starkey age 29
K3796 Stoker Petty Officer RN
W Stenson age 39
K/44005 Stoker 1st Class RN
G Stubbs age 19
K/51329 Stoker 2nd Class RN
M Sullivan age 28
M/2503 Shipwright 2nd Cl RN
G H Taylor age 35
298837 Stoker 1st Class RN
M Waugh age 19
K/51444 Stoker 2nd Class RN
J J Whitington age 17
L/10879 Boy Servant RN
J Wills age 21
K51320 Stoker 2nd Class RN
R MCG Wray age 27
K/14212 Act Leading Stoker RN

 

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