HMS Vanguard, a steel St Vincent class battleship was launched from Vickers yard in Barrow-in-Furness on 6th February 1909. She measured 480.0′ x 84.0′ x 28.5′ displaced 19.250 tons. Her twin Parsons direct drive steam turbine engines delivered 24.500 shaft horse power giving her a top speed of 21 knots. Her armament consisted of 5 x 12 inch Mark IX twin guns, 20 x 4 inch guns and 3 x 18 inch torpedo tubes. This arrangement was modified between 1910 and 1914 reducing her 4 inch guns by six and adding 2 x 3 inch anti aircraft guns. Further modifications later added 13 x 4inch anti-torpedo guns and a 3inch anti-aircraft gun.
Following her commissioning at Devonport in 1st March 1910 and a period of service as part of the Home Fleet based at Chatham Vanguard joined the 1st Battle Squadron in July 1912 based at Scapa Flow and took part in numerous and increasingly urgent exercises as tensions mounted in the years before the outbreak of World War 1. With the outbreak of war her crew then found themselves involved in even more exercises but increasingly frustrated at the deadlock of inactivity as the German fleet apparently avoided a full on contact that could have decided the outcome of the war. In April 1916 she was transferred to the 4th Battle Squadron also based at Scapa Flow and was to participate in the inconclusive action of the Battle of Jutland under the command of Captain James D. Dick. She steamed in sixteenth place in the line of twenty four battleships and took part in the action against the head of the German High Seas Fleet and its massive battle cruisers. She fired eighty 12 inch rounds during the engagement but is not known if she scored any hits. She returned unscathed to her berth in Scapa Flow – it was to be her last major sortie.
The panorama across Scapa Flow in July 1917 was incredible. The British Grand Fleet was in residence at its major wartime base. From the hills above the anchorage a vast array of fighting ships could be seen. In all, 199 Royal Navy vessels lay at anchor attended by a fleet of auxiliary vessels. The fleet consisted of 28 capital ships of 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th squadrons, 9 vessels of 4th and 6th light cruiser squadrons, 57 destroyers of 11th, 12th, 14th and 15th destroyer flotillas and 25 submarines of 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th submarine flotillas. This huge assembly of seapower lay in frustrating wait for their enemy to venture out again after the inconclusive clash at Jutland in May 1916.
After a day of exercises on 9th July 1917 HMS Vanguard returned to her mooring at 6:30pm and took up her position at berth B.5 which was situated amid the lines of battleships moored off the north shore of Flotta. During that day two workmen from Chatham dockyard had been on board carrying out alterations to the breech mechanism of the Vanguard’s 12″ guns. Later investigations would reveal that one of these men had also been aboard HMS Natal shortly before she sank in unexplained circumstances in December 1915. On completion of their duties both men went ashore.
The Vanguard was an impressive sight as she lay in the still calm evening. As the evening lengthened, the strange half light that descends on the Orkneys at this time of year fell over the anchored fleet. On board HMS Royal Oak a concert was in progress and the music could he heard drifting across the calm, still water. Some of the officers from the Vanguard had shipped over to the Royal Oak to attend the concert. Gradually the lights round the anchorage flickered out as many of the sailors settled down for the night ready for their early watch the next day. At around 11:20pm the half dark evening was illuminated by a huge flame that shot up from the Vanguard aft of her foremast. Almost immediately the stillness was shattered by a massive explosion and the hillsides round Scapa were lit up by a gigantic fireball from the ship. A second even larger explosion followed which extinguished the flames and, as the smoke cleared, the Vanguard had disappeared. Around the anchorage burning wreckage rained down on the fleet – a large piece landed on the deck of HMS Belleraphon anchored next in line to the Vanguard – another, a complete 12″ gun turret weighing over 400 tons, landed on Flotta nearly a mile away.
Aboard the other ships the crews rushed to action stations as it was initially feared that the explosion had been the result of enemy action. However, as no further attacks took place, attentions turned to the rescue of survivors. A fleet of small boats headed for the area where the Vanguard had been anchored. The scene that they encountered was one of utter devastation. Broken and burned bodies littered the surface among the debris of the sunken ship. Among this debris searchers later found a letter in German, a German bible and a small photograph with German writing on it which were to add fuel to the theory that the disaster had been the result of sabotage. Only three survivors were found – one died later from his injuries – 804 British servicemen had been lost in those few tumultuous seconds. The bodies recovered were taken ashore and buried in Lyness cemetery.
Almost immediately rumours of spies and sabotage began to circulate. The news of the finding of the German letter and bible reinforced these stories. Five days after the tragedy a terse official statement was made: “HMS Vanguard blew up while at anchor as the result of an internal explosion. The ship sank immediately and there were only three survivors.”
The Court of Enquiry was held on 30th July with Rear Admiral William Nicholson in the chair. The two survivors were interviewed but could remember little. Other witnesses from ashore and the other ships were also questioned but could describe only the flame spout and the double explosion but nothing for certain relating to the cause of the disaster. A number of expert witnesses were also interviewed with enquiries focusing on the stability of the cordite stored in the magazines and in particular the temperature of the ammunition storage spaces. During the enquiry it was revealed that three years earlier fire had broken out on the Vanguard due to coal sacks overheating and spontaneously igniting.
The court did briefly examine the possibility of sabotage. It was swell known that German spies were operating in many ports in this country and abroad and a number of ingenious devices had been uncovered which had been used to set fire to or sink a few British merchant ships. Firstly, they investigated the seemingly bizarre possibility that high frequency radio waves had been used to ignite some kind if incendiary device on board the ship – a suggestion which modern experience supports all to well – but this was dismissed after expert witnesses stated that it was not possible. The court also spent many hours interrogating the two workmen and, in particular, the individual who had been aboard the Natal shortly before she was lost in remarkably similar circumstances. The court could not reach an opinion on the testimony of the two men and they were referred to a higher authority. Inexplicably it would appear that they were not questioned further and returned to their normal duties. In the end, the findings of the inquiry were inconclusive. The report stated that the explosion could have been caused by the ignition of unstable cordite but that they could not rule out the possibility of sabotage.
The wreck lay undisturbed in position 58°51.425’N, 03°06.445’W (WGS84) in a depth of 33 metres for nearly fifty years before a salvage licence was granted to Nundy Marine Metals in the 1960’s. Some salvage work was carried out during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s but, after this licence expired in 1982, the site was designated a war grave in 1983 and since then diving on the wreck has been forbidden.
Divers who have visited the wreck have reported that all that remains of the huge ship is a 20 metre section of the stern and a 25 metre section of the bow which rises dramatically from the seabed standing 15 metres high. Between the two major sections the seabed is a tangle of twisted metal and debris, no doubt the result of the combined effects on the fatal explosion and the activities of the salvage teams. The Vanguard is designated as a Protected Military Wreck with a restricted area radius of 200 metres.