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HMS Africa in the Great War - The Wartime Memories Project -

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HMS Africa



1st July 1914 HMS Africa  

HMS Africa

HMS Africa was a pre-dreadnought battleship of the Royal Navy. She was the penultimate ship of the King Edward VII class. Like all ships of the class (apart from HMS King Edward VII), she was named after an important part of the British Empire, namely Africa.

HMS Africa was laid down at Chatham Dockyard on 27 January 1904, launched on 20 May 1905, and completed in November 1906. She was the last battleship constructed at Chatham, later classes of battleships being too large for the yard.

Although Africa and her seven sister ships of the King Edward VII class were a direct descendant of the Majestic class, they were also the first class to make a significant departure from the Majestic design, displacing about 1,000 tons more and mounting for the first time an intermediate battery of four 9.2-inch (234 mm) guns in addition to the standard outfit of 6-inch (152 mm) guns. The 9.2-inch was a quick-firing gun like the 6-inch, and its heavier shell made it a formidable weapon by the standards of the day when Africa and her sisters were designed.

In January 1912, Africa took part in aircraft experiments at Sheerness. She was fitted for flying off aircraft with a 100-foot (30-metre) downward-sloping runway which was installed on her foredeck, running over her forward 12-inch (305-mm) turret from her forebridge to her bows and equipped with rails to guide the aircraft. Africa's crew tested the strength and stability of the rails by jumping up and down on them, then held the Gnome-engined Short Improved S.27 pusher seaplane in place as Lieutenant Charles Samson entered its cockpit to attempt the first British shipboard aircraft take-off on 10 January 1912 while the ship was at anchor in the River Medway. The aircraft moved quickly down the runway, dipped slightly after leaving it, but then pulled up and climbed easily. Samson circled Africa several times to the cheers of the crew, although on one pass he came uncomfortably close to the ship. After a few minutes, Samson climbed to 800 feet (240 metres) and concluded his historic flight by landing safely at an airfield ashore. Africa transferred her flight equipment to her sister ship Hibernia in May 1912. Based on the 1912 flight experiments on Africa, Hibernia, and battleship London, the Royal Navy concluded that shipboard aircraft were desirable for spotting and other fleet duties, but also that a fixed runway on a battleship interfered too much with the firing of the guns and that recovering seaplanes that had landed in a seaway was too difficult to be practical as a routine operation. But shipborne aviation had begun in the Royal Navy aboard Africa, and by 1917 would become an important part of British fleet operations.

World War I

Upon the outbreak of World War I, the 3rd Battle Squadron was assigned to the Grand Fleet and based at Rosyth. It was used to supplement the Grand Fleet's cruisers on the Northern Patrol. On 2 November 1914, the squadron was detached to reinforce the Channel Fleet and was re-based at Portland. It returned to the Grand Fleet on 13 November 1914.

Africa served in the Grand Fleet until April 1916, undergoing a refit at Belfast from December 1915 to January 1916. During sweeps by the fleet, she and her sister ships often steamed at the heads of divisions of the far more valuable dreadnoughts, where they could protect the dreadnoughts by watching for mines or by being the first to strike them.

On 29 April 1916, the 3rd Battle Squadron was rebased at Sheerness (where Africa arrived on 2 May 1916), and on 3 May 1916 the squadron was separated from the Grand Fleet, being transferred to the Nore Command. Africa remained there with the squadron until August 1916.

Africa began a refit at Portsmouth Dockyard in August 1916. Upon its completion in September 1916, she left the 3rd Battle Squadron and transferred to the Adriatic Sea, where a British squadron had reinforced the Italian Navy against the Austro-Hungarian Navy since Italy's entry into the war in 1915. She left the Adriatic in January 1917 for a refit at Gibraltar, during which the 6-inch (152-mm) guns on her main deck were replaced with four 6-inch (152-mm) guns a deck higher because the original guns were awash in even slightly rough weather.

When her refit was completed in March 1917, Africa was attached to the 9th Cruiser Squadron for service in the Atlantic Patrol and for convoy escort duties. She was based mainly at Sierra Leone and escorted convoys between Sierra Leone and Cape Town, South Africa. She underwent a refit at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from December 1917 to January 1918.

In October 1918, Africa returned to the United Kingdom; she went into reserve at Portsmouth in November 1918.

Influenza Outbreak, 1918

In September 1918, while based at Sierra Leone, some of the crew became ill. Their numbers virtually doubled each day from less than a handful at the start of the month, until September 9, when 476 crew were reported ill. On September 9, 1918 a crewman was reported dead of pneumonia, following having influenza. Five more crew died September 12. The next day, another eight perished. On September 14, 10 more ship's crew died. Burial parties were sent ashore daily, and the ship was put into quarantine. By the time the quarantine flag was hauled down on September 30, 52 crew had died of illness, out of a total compliment of less than 800. Source: HMS Africa, ship's log.

Post-World War I

Following World War I, Africa was briefly the depot ship of the 9th Cruiser Squadron and was employed as an accommodation ship. In December 1919 she was selected to replace protected cruiser Diadem as stokers' training ship at Portsmouth, but this was cancelled.

Disposal

Africa was placed on the sale list in March 1920, and was sold for scrapping to Ellis & Company of Newcastle upon Tyne, England on 30 June 1920. She was scrapped at Newcastle.

John Doran


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