Historic Blunders

17th March 2006 at 00:00
First impressions count. Especially if it is your job to parade the strength of the Royal Navy and to ensure that Britannia continues to rule the waves. Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon knew this better than most, and was happy to try to show off a little as he prepared to anchor his fleet for the night on June 22, 1893.

Tryon, a secretive and strict boss, was in charge of the 11 warships of the British Mediterranean fleet on their summer exercises off Tripoli.

Unusually, he discussed his plans with his captains. The ships were steaming along in two parallel columns: one led by Tryon's flagship HMS Victoria, the other by HMS Camperdown under the command of Rear- Admiral Albert Markham.

Tryon announced that, like soldiers on parade, the columns were to turn towards each other and keep turning until they formed two new lines travelling in the opposite direction. But the warships had turning circles of 730m and the two columns were only 1,100m apart when they prepared to make their U-turn. It's not a difficult sum, and Tryon's officers worked it out. They queried his decision, and he overruled them. When he ordered the warships to begin the manoeuvre, his confused deputy, Markham, hesitated.

Tryon grew impatient, hoisting a flag that basically said "What are you waiting for?"

So the Victoria and the Camperdown turned towards each other, their crews hoping that the unpredictable but often brilliant vice-admiral had a trick up his sleeve. Alas he hadn't. The ships got closer and closer to each other. When it was almost too late, the captain of the Victoria asked Tryon three times for permission to put the engines into reverse. Permission was granted - when collision was inevitable.

The Victoria sank in 13 minutes. The Camperdown survived, but only just. Of the unfortunate crews, 358 died and 357 were rescued. There has been speculation that the admiral intended the ships only to turn through 90 degrees, not 180. But the cause of the blunder will never be known. Tryon stayed on the bridge and went down with his ship. He was allegedly heard to murmur as the waters closed in: "It's all my fault."

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