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Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War

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HMS Glatton

The remains of H.M.S. Glatton lie salvaged, beneath a car ferry terminal in Dover Harbour. Once a heavily-armed military vessel; the Glatton fell victim to an ammunition failure in September 1918, resulting in the deaths of 60 crewmen. But it was not this internal explosion and subsequent fire that sank the Glatton. Nor was it a surprise German U-Boat attack interrupting its voyage to Dover in preparation for a strategic offensive. It was the command of a Royal Navy Vice-Admiral, fearful that the damage would ignite a neighbouring munition ship, (and, crudely, obliterate half of Dover), that condemned a fellow British vessel to the ocean floor.

Indeed, H.M.S. Glatton follows a complex and compelling narrative. Torpedoed by its own Navy, it demonstrates both the chaos and pragmatism of the War at Sea. It not only experienced a variety of modifications since its inception in 1913, but its fate serves to remind us of the terrible decisions that warfare entails. It is, to all intents and purposes, a ‘forgotten’ wreck that remains underneath a commercial ferry port. But looking beyond that, the forgotten people and actions that accompanied the vessel's loss must also be remembered. Such actions and people were tested by the most devastating of circumstances.

H.M.S. Glatton
The origins of H.M.S. Glatton can be traced back to 1913. Built by Armstrong Whitworth in Elswick, Newcastle, the H.M.S Glatton started life as a Norwegian vessel: the HNoMS Bjørgvin. Intended for costal defence on behalf of the Royal Norwegian Navy, construction was abruptly halted by the onset of the Great War. This change of climate spurred the British Navy to requisition UK-built warships and reimburse the Norwegian Navy for roughly £245,000 — 66% of the Bjørgvin’s list price.1

As a result, the now christened H.M.S. Glatton was subject to significant modifications. But transforming a foreign defence vessel to a vessel fit for war service is no mean feat. So much so, that its development was delayed for a number of years. Although officially launched on 8th August 1914; the Glatton was taken in for ‘boiler modification’ on 9th January 1915 and was relatively neglected until September 1917. Arguably, this was to prioritise the construction of lighter vessels — namely H.M.S Furious and Courageous — resulting in a resumed renovation nigh-on two years later. 2

Henceforth, H.M.S Glatton saw a drastic overhaul of its on-board armaments. These included:
2 x 9.2in (234 mm) Mk. X11 gun turrets (one at either side of its superstructure)
4 x 6in Mk.XVIII guns
2 x 3in anti-aircraft guns
4 x 3-pounder anti-aircraft guns
2 x 2-pounder anti-aircraft guns (on high-angle mounts)
This overhaul also entailed replacing the original Norwegian turrets to accommodate British ammunition and an ‘anti-torpedo’ reinforced hull. The latter amendment would, ironically,later be tested by the very Navy that commissioned it.3

Sinking the Glatton:
By the 11th September 1918, H.M.S. Glatton was en route to Dover in advance of a military offensive. Five days into this journey, a malfunction within the ammunition stores saw a low order explosion — igniting the highly-flammable sibling of gunpowder: cordite. Flames engulfed the Glatton and, despite Commander N. W. Diggle’s attempts to flood the compartment, the fire obstructed access to emergency counter measures. But it was Vice-Admiral Roger Keyes who would prove most divisive in this situation. Escaping almost immediately to the near-by H.M.S Cossack, his attention shifted away from the Glatton and to the surrounding area. Specifically, Keyes was alarmed by the munitions ship, the Gransha , tailing a mere 150 yards away. Should the Glatton explode: it would trigger a chain reaction. The combined payload of the two ships, which were flirting on the outskirts of Dover, posed a serious threat to the mainland. H.M.S Glatton became a proverbial time bomb, which compelled Vice-Admiral Keyes to blow it from the water. Curiously, H.M.S Cossack launched two torpedoes, neither of which were successful in sinking the Glatton. No doubt its reinforced hull and the proximity of the ships were pivotal to this. Keyes subsequently ordered the H.M.S Myngs to fire its turrets at the ruptured hull and quell any concerns of triggering the Gransha . Sixty crew men were killed by this manoeuvre, with a further nineteen dying of burns.4

The ‘Forgotten’ Wreck
The wreck itself remained in Dover Harbour for a number of years. At 310 feet in length and 5746 tonnes, salvaging the Glatton was repeatedly delayed by expense. On 16 March 1926, it was moved to its current position, away from the congestion of sea traffic. It now remains buried under a car ferry terminal, an apt resting place for a ship that was sacrificed to protect that very mainland.

Special thanks to Peter Horton for his research on the HMS Glatton.
Written and researched by Ollie Ship

 

1 Ian Buxton, Big Gun Monitors: Design, Construction and Operations 1914–1945, (Naval Institute Press: Maryland, USA, 2008), p.107

2 Ibid, p. 107

3 Ibid, p. 113.

4 Paul Kemp, The Admiralty Regrets British Warship Losses of the 20th Century, (Sutton Publishing Ltd., UK, 1999), p. 79.

5 Ian Buxton, Big Gun Monitors: Design, Construction and Operations 1914–1945, (Naval Institute Press: Maryland, USA, 2008), pp. 112-113.