The Royal Navy Gears Up for War
Built as the Audacious-class steamer HMS Invincible on the Clyde in 1870, she started out as an ironclad with a central battery of armament, rather than the broadside arrangement of guns, which had been so typical of the sailing fighting ship, and thus marks a point in the evolution of the 19th century Royal Navy.
As with other superseded warships before and since, when no longer suitable for frontline warfare she continued in service in less active roles. By 1906 she had joined her sister ship HMS Audacious, renamed Fisgard I, at HMS Fisgard, a navy training establishment for engineers at Portsmouth, becoming Fisgard II: four Fisgard hulks, all former warships, made up the establishment.
In 1914 a pressing need to train men up for wartime naval duty became apparent, and to that end, although Fisgard II was on the disposal list, she was instead retained and despatched for Scapa Flow in September.
While under tow in the Channel it was seen that water was coming in through her hawse-pipes, so that Fisgard II and her tugs all turned about for Portland. Before they could make it, she foundered relatively close to safety within 3 miles SSW of the Bill of Portland, with the loss of 14 hands from the 64-strong crew.
Contemporary newspapers noted approvingly that: ‘Discipline was maintained throughout. Every man was cool and good order was kept to the last.’ The Coroner, however, did not mince his words: ‘ . . . the ship was entirely unfitted for the sea. The Admiralty might just as well have put the men into a tub and towed them into the Channel and then wonder why they lost their lives. It did not seem right to send out a ship in such a condition.’ (1)
Fisgard II was therefore lost not to war causes nor in action, but to the exigencies of a war to which she was by now ill-suited.
She would not be the first, nor the last, hulked naval vessel to be lost while under tow: they were vulnerable because they lacked the necessary propulsion to manoeuvre out of trouble. This point was picked up by a survivor at the inquest, who drew attention to her lack of steering gear. Nor was she the only training ship that got into trouble at sea, but the tale of training ships is an interesting one in its own right, which will be told in another post.
(1) The Times, 19 September 1914, No.40,640, p3