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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)