David Porter on military history’s doomed inventions

Sometimes poor quality-control can be as lethal as bad design – this was certainly true in the case of HMS Glatton.

On the outbreak of war in August 1914, the Admiralty began buying warships that British shipyards were building for foreign navies. The purchases included two coast defence battleships under construction for the Norwegian Navy by Armstrong Whitworth at Elswick, which were to be commissioned as the monitors Glatton and Gorgon.

HMS Glatton in 1918. After a fire on board, inspectors made a shocking discovery about her magazine’s insulation.
HMS Glatton in 1918. After a fire on board, inspectors made a shocking discovery about her magazine’s insulation.

Adapting the vessels to meet the Royal Navy’s requirements for shore-bombardment duties proved to be a lengthy business – a host of changes had to be made, including modifying their guns to fire standard British ammunition and fitting huge anti-torpedo bulges. Their completion was further delayed when the Admiralty ordered Armstrong Whitworth to give priority to completing the ‘large light cruisers’ Courageous and Furious.

Gorgon finally became operational with the monitor squadron at Dover in June 1918, joined by Glatton on 11 September. The two vessels were a powerful addition to the squadron, as their 9.2-inch main armament had a maximum range of 39,000 yards, greater than any other British naval gun apart from the 18-inch guns of the monitors General Wolfe and Lord Clive.

However, on the evening of 16 September, while Glatton was berthed at Dover, the cordite in her midships magazine ignited, sending flames through the roof of the starboard 6-inch turret. The fire threatened the ammunition ship Gransha at the dockside only 150 yards away. If her cargo had exploded, it would have devastated the entire harbour and much of the town.

Magazine on fire

Attempts to flood the magazines failed, and the fire was only extinguished when Glatton was torpedoed and sunk by the destroyers Cossack and Myngs. Casualties were heavy: of her 305-man crew, 60 were killed and a further 124 injured (19 fatally).

The disaster raised serious doubts about the safety of Gorgon. She was taken out of service while thorough investigations were carried out. The explosion on Glatton had occurred in the midships 6-inch magazine, situated between the boiler and engine rooms. A Court of Enquiry established that the stokers were in the habit of leaving red-hot clinker and ashes from the boilers against the bulkhead directly adjoining the magazine to cool down before they were sent up the ash ejector. They had thought that there was no risk in this, as they believed that the engine room was on the other side of the bulkhead.

Even this mistake should not have posed a serious danger as, in theory, the magazine was sufficiently well insulated with cork, covered by wood planking. The likely cause was only found when it was decided to improve Gorgon’s magazine insulation by replacing the cork with mineral wool.

Inspectors were shocked to discover that much of the cork was missing, leaving a space filled by folded newspapers, which had been left by dockyard workers during the ship’s construction. The bulkhead plating was also peppered with holes where rivets should have been fitted. In Glatton’s case, the heat from the ashes had probably ignited the newspapers, and the fire, fed with air from the forced draught pressure in the boiler rooms, had been sufficient to cause the explosion.

This is an article from the February/March 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.




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