BEIRUT: The wreck of HMS Victoria, once the flagship of the British Mediterranean Fleet, has been discovered off the coast of Lebanon, 111 years after she sank with the loss of 358 officers and men when she was rammed by another British battleship during maneuvers.
The disaster was the largest peacetime loss of life in the history of the Royal Navy.
And in an extraordinary fluke, the wreck, lying in 140 meters of water off the coast of Tripoli, is standing vertical, like a tombstone, with about three quarters of her length buried in the sea floor. The Victoria is thought to be the only ship wreck in the world that lies in a 90-degree position.
HMS Victoria was discovered last week by Christian Francis, a Lebanese-Austrian who has been searching for the wreck since 1994.
Research at the National Maritime Museum in London allowed Francis to narrow his hunt to an area of three to four square kilometers off the Tripoli coastline. He used a sonar device to record soundings of the seabed in the hope of finding the wreck.
Francis said he was expecting to find a horizontal shape on the sea floor which would correspond to a shipwreck.
"But I kept getting a weird echo of something sticking up," he told a news conference Friday to formally announce the discovery.
In March, Francis teamed up with Mark Ellyatt, a British scuba instructor who holds the world record for deepest ever dive at 313 meters. Ellyat's experience was vital in the hunt for HMS Victoria due to the depth of the sea bed. On Aug. 22, the two divers planned a "fly-over" of the mysterious upright object found by the sonar. They followed a guide rope down to about 70 meters below the surface. Then something caught their eye.
"I saw a huge shadow off to the left between us and the setting sun," Francis told The Daily Star. "We couldn't imagine what it was and swam over to see."
Ellyat said he thought initially the massive object was an abandoned fishing net. But to their astonishment, the two divers realized they had discovered HMS Victoria lying in a vertical position.
"We were completely and totally speechless and amazed at what we saw," Francis said.
Mona Mounayer, co-owner of Firehorse Films which is filming a documentary about the discovery, said "it's a wreck that surpasses any other along the Lebanese coastline and in the world. It's uniqueness is not so much that it is the HMS Victoria, but its vertical position. It looks like a skyscraper."
About one-third of the ship's length of 103 meters sticks up above the sea bed. There is no sign of a break in the structure, and Francis believes that about half of the ship is buried in the soft mud of the sea floor.
"There's about 40 or 50 meters of very fine soft mud before hitting the bedrock," he said. "The first 20 or 30 meters of the ship's bow was probably crushed when it struck the bedrock, and the rest is in the mud."
The Victoria's upright position is probably due to the weight of the massive twin guns on the foredeck and the half-meter armor plating as well as the still spinning propellers which drove the ship straight down after it sank.
It is unknown how long the wreck will remain upright. The only other known example of an upright wreck was in the Philippines, until it collapsed.
Chris Poole, deputy head of mission at the British Embassy, said that the "great tragedy" of HMS Victoria's sinking was an "important part of British maritime history."
"This is a military grave and the divers and organizers want to ensure that everyone respects the lives that were lost," he said.
President Emile Lahoud has declared the site an exclusion zone while the legal status of the wreck is decided.
The British Defense Ministry believes the wreck is British property, but has acknowledged Lebanon's interest in the site. HMS Victoria has been classified as a National Maritime Grave, which means that limited diving activity is permitted but no film nor pictures of human remains are allowed to be published. An official War Grave designation would prohibit any further diving at the site.
Ellyat, who has dived on hundreds of wrecks around the world, said that HMS Victoria would become famous because of its unusual position.
"I have dived on bigger wrecks, more famous wrecks and deeper wrecks," he said. "But its position and history makes it very significant."
The metal structure appears to be in good shape, although much of the wooden planking has rotted away. A 10-minute film aired at the news conference showed the ship's stern and propellers smothered in multi-colored algae and appearing ghostly through the gloom. A flashlight played over the embossed name "Victoria" on the stern.
"It was an incredible sight," Ellyat said. "What we saw has been well-preserved, the railing, back cannon, the winch, side cannon, machine guns, silver salvers and piles of ordnance."
The exact location of the wreck is being kept secret for the time being to prevent looting.
"It is always very satisfying to know where loved ones end up," said Colonel Nigel Forrestal, the British defense attache. "Doubtless, there will be tremendous interest from relatives and naval historians."
The British and Commonwealth war cemetery in Tripoli is named after HMS Victoria. The plot of land was donated to Britain by the Turkish Ottoman authorities in 1895.
Victoria, Camperdown ships collided in 1893, taking 358 lives
HMS Victoria, a 10,000-ton, iron-plated leviathan boasting massive 16.25-inch guns the largest in the world at the time, was launched in 1887. She became the flagship in the Mediterranean of Vice Admiral Sir George Tryon, regarded as a brilliant yet fearsome naval officer who deliberately cultivated a brusque and intimidating manner. It was his dominating character that ultimately caused the tragedy that cost him his life and those of 357 others.
The tragic collision occurred on June 23, 1893 when the fleet, consisting of 10 battleships, prepared a complicated maneuver before dropping anchor off Tripoli. The fleet was drawn up in two columns of five ships each steaming parallel to each other some 1,200 yards apart. The plan was for both columns to turn in toward each other in single file so that when completed they would be sailing 400 yards apart in the opposite direction to the previous course. The final move was to turn the entire fleet 90 degrees to port then drop anchor. If successful, it would make for an impressive display to the thousands of spectators watching from the Tripoli quayside.
Yet, two of Tryon's senior officers reminded him that 1,200 yards was an insufficient distance for the two lead ships, HMS Victoria and HMS Camperdown, to turn toward each other without colliding. They recommended the columns be at least 1,600 yards apart before beginning the exercise. The admiral agreed, but inexplicably later gave instructions to close the columns to the original 1,200 yards. Although the commanders of the other battleships knew the maneuver was extremely dangerous, they signaled that they understood the order and were ready to comply.
As the Victoria and Camperdown turned toward each other, it became clear to all those on board that the two ships would collide. Yet Tryon had to be asked three times for permission to put the propellers into reverse before the order was given.
The Camperdown struck the Victoria on the starboard side below the waterline, and 13 minutes later the flagship sank below the surface, bows first with the propellers still spinning. The survivors numbered 357. As the Victoria slipped under the waves, Tryon, who stayed on the bridge, is reputed to have said "It's all my fault."
Colonel Nigel Forrestal, the British defense attache, said: "Blind military devotion allowed something to happen that shouldn't have happened in the first place. The officers knew the plan was crackers but they went ahead anyway because they had blind faith in their admiral."