July 9 – HMS Vanguard sunk by accidental explosions

Pasted Graphic 1

The Vanguard Memorial in Lyness cemetery is dedicated to all those who died in HMS Vanguard on July 9, 1917. The battleship was destroyed while at Scapa Flow by an internal explosion. Of 845 men in Vanguard, only 2 survived. 16 from Northern Ireland died.

Vanguard was a St Vincent class battleship, an enhancement of the “Dreadnought” design built by Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness, and she spent her life in the British Home Fleet.

At the outbreak of World War I, Vanguard joined the First Battle Squadron at Scapa Flow, and fought in the Battle of Jutland as part of the Fourth Battle Squadron. She was a part of the action from beginning to end, but did not suffer any damage or casualties.

However, just before midnight on Monday, 09/07/1917, Vanguard suffered an explosion, probably caused by an unnoticed stokehold fire heating cordite stored against an adjacent bulkhead in one of the two magazines which served the amidships turrets P and Q. She sank almost instantly, killing an estimated 843 men; there were only two survivors. In terms of loss of life, the destruction of the Vanguard remains the most catastrophic accidental explosion in the history of the UK, and one of the worst accidental losses of the Royal Navy.

16 men from Northern Ireland lost their lives. Two Australian Navy men from HMAS Sydney lost their lives. One of them came from Strabane. Stoker Robert Thomas Houston had transferred from the RN to the RAN.


Only two men survived

HMAS Sydney was the nearest ship, anchored about half a mile away; her boats were the first on the scene and rescued the only two men to survive the disaster. Unfortunately two of her own sailors were on board the battleship and were lost.

Both men, Stoker Robert Thomas Houston and Stoker Leslie William Roberts, were unlucky enough to have been sentenced to seven days cells on 3 July, and appear to have been serving their sentence in Vanguard as no other cells were available. They would have spent their last week with little or no bedding and daily picking two pounds of oakum, which was weighed when given to them and then again when received back. Like most of the 804 men who were lost in Vanguard, they have ‘no known grave but the sea’.

Aged 36, Houston was a veteran of the SMS Emden action in November 1914. He was the son of William and Annie Houston of Strabane, County Tyrone in Ireland but his mother had later re-married becoming Annie Peebles of Paisley in Scotland. His service certificate survives in the National Archives of Australia showing that, like many others, he transferred to the RAN from the RN in 1914.


+ADAMS, John Wilson
RN. Carpenter’s Crew. M16438. HMS Vanguard. Died 09/07/1917. Aged 33. Enlisted 12/11/1915. Born Coleraine 10/04/1917. Son of Alexander & Margaret Ann Adams, Spittal Hill, Coleraine. Irish Society School, Coleraine. Chatham Naval Memorial. Panel 24. New Row – PCI RH. ADM 188/1050/16438

+AGNEW, Thomas Rainey
RN. Stoker 1st Class. SS113435 (Ch). HMS Vanguard. Jutland. Died 09/07/1917. Age 25. Killed by internal explosion of vessel at Scapa Flow. Born Belfast 16/04/1894. Son of Samuel and Dorothy Agnew, Spamount St., Belfast. Chatham Naval Memorial. Panel 23. St. Enoch’s – PCI RH. IMR. ADM 188/1119/113435

+BAIRD, Alexander
RN. Seaman. J34064. HMS Vanguard. Died 09/07/1917. Age 19. Killed by internal explosion of vessel at Scapa Flow. Served at Jutland. Enrolled 12/04/1916 for 12 years after Boy service in Impregnable from 27/01/1915. In Vanguard as Seaman from 01/05/1915. Born Belfast 12/04/1898. Son of William and Ellen Baird, Upper Meadow St., Belfast. Plymouth Naval Memorial. IMR. ADM 188/715/34064

RNR. Stoker. 14275.. HMS Vanguard. Died 09/07/1917. Age 30. Son of Hugh and Ellen Devine, Townhead Street, Ballymoney; husband of Nellie Devine, Artillery St., Belfast. Portsmouth Naval Memorial, Panel 28. Ballymoney WM. IMR

RNR. Stoker. 1427S. HMS Vanguard. Died 09/07/1917. Aged 30. Londonderry. Portsmouth Royal Naval Memorial, Panel 20

+FERRIS, Bernard
RN. Carpenter’s Crew. M17078. HMS Vanguard. Jutland. Died 09/07/1917. Age 22. Enrolled 24/11/1915 for hostilities. In Vanguard 30/05/1916 – 09/07/1917. Born Londonderry 12/03/1895. Son of Ellen Ferris, Cambridge Avenue, Pigeon House Road, Dublin, and the late William Ferris. Plymouth Naval Memorial. Panel 24. ADM 188/1052/17078

RN. Stoker I. K33119. HMS Vanguard. Died 09/07/1917. Age 26. Enrolled 16/05/1916 for hostilities. Pembroke I and II, Gibraltar and Vanguard (30/01/1917 – 09/07/1917). Local press – “Mrs. J. Berry, has been notified that her son, Stoker Hugh Fisher, was lost in HMS Vanguard. His eldest brother, Private George Fisher, Canadians, died of wounds received in action about six months ago.” Vanguard exploded at Scapa Floe. Born Belfast 29/01/1890. Son of Jane Berry (formerly Fisher), and the late George Fisher, Ballyfounder, Portaferry. Chatham Naval Memorial, Panel 23. ADM 188/933/33119

+HOUSTON, Robert Thomas
RAN. Stoker. 4388. Died 09/07/1917. Aged 36. HMAS Sydney. Son of William and Annie Houston, of Strabane. Plymouth Naval Memorial, Panel 23. Australian National RH

+JOHNSTON, Randal William McDonnell
RN. Midshipman. HMS Vanguard. Died 09/07/1917. Age 17. HMS Albion, August – September 1914. Bombardment of the entrance to Gallipoli, May 1915. Rough log books of above and obituaries from newspapers are in the Public Record Office NI. Born Ballintoy. Son of Brig. Gen. T. K. E. Johnston, CB, of Glynn, and Margaret his wife. Chatham Naval Memorial. Glynn WM. Ballycastle WM. IMR

+McCARGO, Samuel Montgomery
RNVR. AB. Clyde/Z/5606. HMS Vanguard. Died 09/07/1917.  Native of Co. Antrim. Son of Alex and Margaret McCargo, Hayburn St., Patrick, Glasgow.

+McCRACKEN, Joseph
RN. AB. 239868. HMS Vanguard. Jutland. Died 09/07/1917. Internal explosion of vessel at Scapa Flow. Boy service from 11/09/1908. Enrolled 13/09/1909 for 12 years. In Vanguard from 31/03/1914 – 09/07/1917. Born Belfast 13/09/1891. Son of Joseph and Mary McCracken, Crimea St., Belfast. His brother Frederick, 7243 Royal Irish Rifles was killed in action. Chatham Naval Memorial. IMR. ADM 188/426/239868

+McILVENNY, Samuel
RN. Stoker 1st Class. SS/113434. HMS Vanguard. Died 09/07/1917. Age 22. Internal explosion of vessel at Scapa Flow. Son of WH and Elizabeth McIlvenny, Stratheden St., Belfast. Chatham Naval Memorial, Panel 24

+MURRAY, Hugh Robert
RN. Chief Petty Officer. Naval schoolmaster. M14912. HMS Vanguard. Died 09/07/1917. Aged 22. Internal explosion of vessel at Scapa Floe. Born Belfast. Son of Samuel and Mary Murray, Halliday’s Rd., Belfast. Plymouth Naval Memorial

+REID, William George
RN. Stoker 1st Class. SS113428. HMS Vanguard. Died 09/07/1917. Age 22. Killed by accidental explosion. Born Belfast. Husband of Susan McIlvenny (formerly Reid), Upper Mervue St., Belfast. Chatham Naval Memorial, Panel 24. Newington – PCI RH. IMR

HMS. Vanguard. Died 09/07/1917. Coleraine. Chatham Naval Memorial

+THOMPSON, Charles Magee
RN. Carpenter’s Crew. M/16998. HMS Vanguard. Died 09/07/1917. Age 23. Enrolled 12/11/1915 for hostilities. Pembroke II and Vanguard (02/03/1916 – 09/07/1917). “He belonged to Gracehill and prior to joining the service was a breadserver at Messrs. McClelland’s, Church Street, Ballymena” – Ballymena Observer 20/07/1917. Born Ballymena 18/02/1894. Son of James and Mary Jane Thompson. Husband to Annie Thompson, Gracehill.  Chatham Naval Memorial, Panel 24. Headstone Gracehill Moravian Churchyard. A brother, Rifleman Scott Thompson, 12th RI Rifles, was killed in action 16/08/1917 in the third Ypres offensive. “Rifleman Thompson was formerly employed in the Lisnafillan Bleaching Works. He was previously wounded and after recovering, returned to the front.” – Ballymena Observer 31/08/1917. ADM 188/1051/16998



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: