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

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HMS Britannia

9th November 1918 HMS Britannia  

HMS Britannia

HMS Britannia was built at Portsmouth Dockyard. She was laid down on 4 February 1902, launched on 10 December 1904, and completed in September 1906. she was sunk when torpedoed by U- on the 9th November 1918 - two days before the Armistice was signed.

The sixth HMS Britannia of the British Royal Navy was a pre-dreadnought battleship of the King Edward VII class. She was named after Britannia, the Latin name of Great Britain under Roman rule. After commissioning in September 1906, she served briefly with the Atlantic and Channel Fleets before joining the Home Fleet. In 1912, she, along with her sister ships of the King Edward VII class, was assigned to the 3rd Battle Squadron but in June 1913, she returned to duties with the Home Fleet.

When World War I broke out, Britannia was transferred back to the 3rd Battle Squadron, which was part of the Grand Fleet. In 1916, she was attached to the 2nd Detached Squadron, then serving in the Adriatic Sea. After a refit in 1917, she conducted patrol and convoy escort duties in the Atlantic. On 9 November 1918, just two days before the end of the war, she was torpedoed by a German submarine off Cape Trafalgar and sank with the loss of 50 men. She was the last Royal Navy ship to be sunk in the war.

Displacement was 16,350 tons (standard), 17,500 tons (full load)
Length: 453 ft 6 in (138.23 m), Beam: 78 ft (24 m), Draught: 26 ft 9 in (8.15 m)
Installed power: 18,000 ihp (13 MW), Propulsion: 15 coal-fired boilers (with oil sprayers), 12 Babcock and Wilcox[2] water-tube and 3 cylindrical, two 4-cylinder vertical compound expansion steam engines, two screws
Speed: 18.5 knots (34.3 km/h)
Range: 2,000 nautical miles (3,704 km) at 18.5 knots (34 km/h); 5,270 nautical miles (9,760 km) at 10 knots (18.5 km/h)
Crew Complement: 770 officers and ratings.

  • Armament:
  • 4 x BL 12-inch (304.8 mm) Mk X guns (2 x 2)
  • 4 x BL 9.2-inch (233.7 mm) Mark X guns (4 x 1)
  • 10 x BL 6-inch (152.4 mm) Mk XI guns 14 x QF 12 pounder 18 cwt guns (replaced by four 6 inch guns installed on the shelter deck in 1917)
  • 14 x 3 pounder quick-firing guns
  • 5 x 18 inch (450 mm) torpedo tubes (submerged), four on the beam and one in the stern

Pre-World War I

HMS Britannia was commissioned into the reserve at Portsmouth Dockyard on 6 September 1906. She went into full commission on 2 October 1906 for service in the Atlantic Fleet. She transferred to the Channel Fleet on 4 March 1907. Under a fleet reorganisation on 24 March 1909, the Channel Fleet became the Second Division, Home Fleet, and Britannia became a Home Fleet unit in that division, becoming Flagship, Vice Admiral, Second Division, in April 1909. She underwent a refit at Portsmouth from 1909 to 1910. On 14 July 1910, she collided with the barque Loch Trool, suffering slight damage.

Under a fleet reorganisation in May 1912, Britannia and all seven of her sisters of the King Edward VII class (Africa, Commonwealth, Dominion, Hibernia, Hindustan, King Edward VII, and Zealandia) were assigned to form the 3rd Battle Squadron, assigned to the First Fleet, Home Fleet. The squadron was detached to the Mediterranean in November 1912 because of the First Balkan War (October 1912 – May 1913); it arrived at Malta on 27 November 1912 and subsequently participated in a blockade by an international force of Montenegro and in an occupation of Scutari. The squadron returned to the United Kingdom in 1913 and rejoined the Home Fleet on 27 June 1913, after which Britannia left the squadron to return to the Second Division, Home Fleet.

World War I

Upon the outbreak of World War I, Britannia transferred back to the 3rd Battle Squadron, which was assigned to the Grand Fleet and based at Rosyth

The squadron 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 rebased at Portland. It returned to the Grand Fleet on 13 November 1914. She ran aground in the Firth of Forth at Inchkeith on 26 January 1915, suffering considerable bottom damage, but was refloated after 36 hours and was repaired and refitted at Devonport Dockyard.

Britannia served in the Grand Fleet until April 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, and on 3 May 1916 it was separated from the Grand Fleet, being transferred to the Nore Command. Britannia remained there with the squadron until August 1916, when she began a refit at Portsmouth Dockyard.

On completion of her refit in September 1916, Britannia transferred out of the 3rd Battle Squadron for service in the 2nd Detached Squadron, which had been organised in 1915 to reinforce the Italian Navy against the Austro-Hungarian Navy in the Adriatic Sea. She underwent a refit at Gibraltar in February–March 1917, and on its completion was attached to the 9th Cruiser Squadron to serve on the Atlantic Patrol and on convoy escort duty, based mainly at Sierra Leone. She relieved armoured cruiser HMS King Alfred as flagship of the 9th Cruiser Squadron in March 1917 and underwent a refit at Bermuda in May 1917, during which her 6-inch (152-mm) guns were removed and replaced by four 6-inch (152-mm) guns mounted on her shelter deck.


On the morning of 9 November 1918, captained by Francis F. Caulfield RN, Britannia was on a voyage in the western entrance to Strait of Gibraltar when she was torpedoed off Cape Trafalgar by the German submarine UB-50 (Oblt. Heinrich Kukat). After the first explosion, the ship listed ten degrees to port. A few minutes later, a second explosion started a fire in a 9.2-inch (234-mm) magazine, which in turn caused a cordite explosion in the magazine. Darkness below decks made it virtually impossible to find the flooding valves for the magazines, and those the crew did find were poorly located and therefore hard to turn, and the resulting failure to properly flood the burning magazine probably doomed the ship. Britannia held her 10-degree list for 2˝ hours before sinking, allowing most of the crew to be taken off. Most of the men who were lost were killed by toxic smoke from burning cordite; 50 men died and 80 were injured. In total, 39 officers and 673 men were saved.

Sunk only two days before the Armistice ending World War I was signed on 11 November 1918, Britannia was the last Royal Navy vessel to be lost during World War I.

John Doran

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