The Sinking of Royal Navy Warship, Britannia, the Last Ship Sunk in the First World War

Updated on March 19, 2019
John Bolt profile image

John is a historian and researcher interested in the relation between war and society.

The War at Sea

Compared to the ferocious battles on land during the First World War in places like the Western Front, naval combat does not feature readily in the minds of many. Following the battle of Jutland in May 1916, the largest naval battle of its kind since the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, key set battles did not occur on the same scale at sea. It was in fact, the use of a new terrifying weapon, the torpedo, which was changing war at sea.


German Imperial Navy Ships - 1917
German Imperial Navy Ships - 1917 | Source

HMS Britannia

HMS Britannia was a Royal Navy battleship based at Portsmouth. Launched in 1904, Britannia was part of the Royal Navy’s Third Battle Squadron and patrolled with the British Grand Fleet until becoming part of the Second Detached Squadron in the Adriatic Sea in 1916. After a refit at Gibraltar in February of 1917, she later conducted patrol and convoy escort duties in the Atlantic Ocean safeguarding supply convoys.

As the war was drawing to a close in 1918, Britannia was supporting convoys bound for South Africa. On one occasion, Britannia was sent help to the troopship SS Mantua, which was stricken with flu, and also supported the coaling of ships in port where staff were also ill. As a result of these duties, Britannia herself was in quarantine in September 1918 in Sierra Leone, with 43% of her crew themselves with the flu; sadly some of these sailors succumbed and died.

By October and November 1918, Britannia was once again escorting convoys to and from Dakar in the Sudan, which saw her cross the Suez Canal and which brought her into the area of the Straits of Gibraltar. After a quick stop in Gibraltar, Britannia ventured forth from port for what would be the last time.

HMS Britannia (1904)
HMS Britannia (1904) | Source

The End Approaches

For Germany, conditions had become increasingly. The German admiralty ordered its fleet of submarines, known as U­ boats, operating in the Adriatic to cease sinking Allied merchantmen and return home. The British naval intelligence services, known as ‘Room 40’, based in London cracked the codes and learned of the U-boats intended escape. To get home, the U-boat fleet would also need to transit the perilous waters of the Mediterranean where U.S. Navy and Royal Navy submarine chasers focused their attention on the narrow passage point of the Straits of Gibraltar.

On the 8th of November 1918, two ships detailed to hunt down enemy submarines, U.S.S. Druid and HMS Privet, were trading shots in rough seas off Gibraltar with the German submarine UB-50 who was sitting on the surface. UB-50 eventually got away, but on the following day the tables were turned, and the hunted was now the hunter; UB-50 had HMS Britannia in its periscope.

German submarine UB-148 at sea
German submarine UB-148 at sea | Source

The sinking of HMS Britannia

At 08.08 hours on the morning of the 9th of November, UB-50 commanded by Captain Heinrich Kukat, fired three torpedoes. One torpedo hit the Britannia aft on the port side. Following this there was a large explosion as a cordite fire started in the ship’s magazine. Flooding with water, Britannia began to list to port. A distress call went out, but in the chaos that ensued, it became too difficult to launch the ship's life boats. Fortunately for some of the crew, they managed to transfer directly to one of the escorting vessels which came alongside. Following the call for help, two other ships were scrambled from Gibraltar to assist Britannia's two escorts.

At about 09.30, a periscope was spotted near Britannia. Britannia opened fire with her guns and the enemy submarine again disappeared from view. By this time, USS Druid and another ship, now on the scene, attempted to locate the enemy submarine and attacked with depth charges. Ultimately, UB-50 managed to escape.

HMS Britannia listing to port after having been struck by UB-50's torpedo
HMS Britannia listing to port after having been struck by UB-50's torpedo

Britannia Sinks

Britannia was in a bad state. Attempts to stem and control the flood of water were not successful. The ship was full of cordite fumes which suffocated crew members unable to escape; nearly fifty men would die horribly in this way that day. Others lucky enough to escape would later die from their wounds ashore.

To salvage the ship, towing was attempted. Surviving crew members were rescued and transferred to HMS Rocksands and HMS Corepsis from the sinking ship. A total of eighty wounded were saved.

At 11.31 hours, HMS Britannia turned upside down and slipped beneath the waves. The rescued crew were taken to Gibraltar. Britannia's crew returned to Britain on 21st November. For UB-50, Britannia was the only ship she would sink on this her last patrol, but also the heaviest in tonnage. Britannia’s remains today off the coast of Spain remain a war grave.

German ships enter Scapa Flow at the surrender of the Imperial German Navy
German ships enter Scapa Flow at the surrender of the Imperial German Navy | Source

The Legacy

Two days after the sinking of HMS Britannia, on the 11th of November 1918, the armistice came into effect which ceased hostilities which had raged since August 1914. UB-50 would return to Germany and surrender with much of the Imperial German Navy to the British at Scapa Flow. Today, Britannia is remembered as the last British warship to have been sunk in the First World War by weapons which were changing the nature of naval warfare.

Notes on Sources

Farquarson-Roberts, Mike, A History of the Royal Navy: World War I (London: I.B. Tauris, Inc., 2014)

Gordon, Andrew, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command, (London:L John Murray, 1996)

Termote, Tomas, War Beneath the Waves: U-Boat Flotilla in Flanders 1915-1918, (London: Uniform Books, 2017)

Questions & Answers

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
      ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)