The steel Devonshire class armouned cruiser HMS Argyll was launched from the Scotts Shipbuilding and Engineering Co Ltd, Greenock on the 3rd March 1904. She measured 450.0′ x 68.5′ x 25.5′ and weighed 10850 tons. Her twin steam engines built by the Greenock Foundry delivered 21000 ihp. Her formaidable armament consisted of 4 @ breach loading 7.5 inch Mrk I guns, 6 @ breach loading 6 inch guns, 2 @ quick firing Mrk VII guns, 2 @ 12 pounder guns, 18 @ 3 pounder guns , 2 @ 18 inch torpedo tubes.
After commissioning in 1905, HMS Argyll joined the 1st Cruiser Squadron of the Channel Fleet in 1906 and in 1907 became the only non-American winner of the Battenburg Cup (an award given annually as a symbol of operational excellence to the best ship or submarine in the US Navy Atlantic Fleet). She was transferred to the Atlantic Fleet as part of the 5th Cruiser Squadron in 1909 but remained in this assignment until 1912 when she joined the 3rd Cruiser Squadron. She was damaged when she ran aground in Plymouth Sound in December 1910. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, as part of the Grand Fleet, she captured a German merchant ship on 6th August. For the next fifteen months she was employed in many patrols in the east Atlantic and North Sea but saw no further action.
The reason for the navigation error that resulted in the loss of HMS Argyll in October 1915 still remains somewhat of a mystery. It’s true that the light on Bell Rock was not illuminated due to wartime restrictions but her captain, Lieutenant Commander J C Tancred, was an experienced seaman and the course south along the east of Scotland was well travelled by Royal Navy ships on their way back and forth to Scapa Flow. However, in the early hours of the morning of Thursday 28th October, 1915 she ran aground on the treacherous Bell Rock which lies 11 miles north east of Fifeness. Bell Rock is a remote place and has claimed many ships over the years despite the presence of Robert Stevenson’s dramatic lighthouse first illuminated on 1st February, 1811.
On the afternoon of 27th October HMS Argyll was steaming on a course of south sixty three degrees east off the Moray Firth. She steamed in a zig zag pattern two points on either side of her mean course and was making a good 17 knots. At 7:00pm Commander Tancred ordered her final course change to south forty seven degrees east and slowed slightly to 16 knots. This course was calculated to take her seven miles east of Bell Rock. At first the night was clear and moonlit but after midnight the sky blackened and a few rain squalls swept across the ship. At around 3:40am Lieutenant Commander Glen, officer of the watch, ordered a sounding party as visibility continued to reduce and by the time Tancred returned to the bridge it was less than a mile.
Suddenly, at 4:25am, Tancred heard a shout “Sailing ship dead ahead” and Lieutenant Commander Page, now on watch, ordered the helm port twenty degrees, port engine full speed and starboard engine stop. Page and Tancred ran from their position on the lower bridge to the upper bridge for a better viewpoint. As they reached the bridge the spotted rocks ahead and ordered engines full astern but it was too late. The Argyll crashed onto the submerged rocks and shuddered to a halt. Immediately an emergency radio signal was sent “Argyll to all ships – ashore on Bell Rock”. The huge ship swung slowly round to the west before finally bringing up against the reef and settling down with her bow pointing approximately north.
It was clear that they were in no immediate danger so a full inspection of the ship was carried out before help arrived next morning. The inspection revealed her hull was pierced in No 2 stokehold and oil leaking from her fuel tanks had started a fire. However there was a fear that the ship might break her back in the receding tide so Tancred ordered the boats launched as a precaution and all crewmen were brought on deck. A huge hawser was also rowed across to the lighthouse and secured for further safety. At around 6:25am HMS Hornet and HMS Jackal arrived on the scene. Hornet came along Argyll’s port side and succeeded in taking off most of the crew. The remainder abandoned ship in her own boats and were picked up by Jackal and a trawler which had also arrived to give assistance.
Over the next few weeks a number of salvage teams visited the site but it finally became clear that the ship would not be saved. Much of her armament and valuable fittings were removed by various salvage teams before she was finally blown up by a naval salvage team in the years after the war. In the 1970’s a diving team from HMS Condor found the two massive manganese-bronze propellers which were later recovered by a commercial salvage team. Some wreckage still remains scattered in shallow water about 130 metres west of the lighthouse in position 56° 25.933’N, 02° 23.593’W (WGS84).