9th July 1917

Hundreds killed as battleship sinks in Scapa Flow

All but two of the 845 men onboard HMS Vanguard were killed when she exploded in Scapa Flow on 9 July 1917.

The coal-fired Vanguard was one of the largest and most powerful vessels in the British Navy, with a crew of more than 750 and a range of close to 8000 miles. She was equipped with 30 guns in total, which gave her all-round coverage, and these were supplemented by three torpedo tubes. Naturally, such an impressive armoury required a considerable amount of ammunition, and it was this that would quickly bring her down.

Onboard explosion

Somehow, although it’s never been definitively explained, one or more of the cordite charges stored below her deck detonated unintentionally. These were kept at the centre of the ship and a few seconds later, they set off subsequent detonations in neighbouring magazines that blew the vessel to pieces.

There was no time for anyone to escape, so the three that did survive the initial blasts were fortunate, although one of these would subsequently die, leaving only two survivors.

Inconclusive inquiry

What caused the initial explosion has never been proven, although suggestions include that the cordite had been past its expiry date, or that the temperature below deck had become elevated to a dangerous level by the coal-fired boilers used in its propulsion. This may have caused the cordite to spontaneously ignite.

As a result, parts of the ship were blown dozens of metres from their initial position, and these could be used in the analysis of the accident. The rest of the wreck sank within a matter of seconds. The site and the remains were later declared a war grave. Diving to the wreck without permission from the Ministry of Defence is prohibited.



Other events that occured in July

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