Death of a Battleship

Symbolizing all the might once vested in the battleship of old, HMS Vanguard departed Portsmouth on her last voyage in the tow of five tugs on 4th August 1960. under the command of Lieutenant Commander W.C Frampton RN. She was on her way to the breakersyard at Faslane, Gare Loch. Vanguard would have celebrated her fourteenth birthday on 9th August, the anniversary of her acceptance into Admiralty service which happened at Spithead on 9th August 1946. Since then she had been as much of the Portsmouth maritime scene as any ship to wear the White Ensign. This time there was no admiral's flag flying from the mainmast; no Union flag or White Ensign to recognize her as a ship of Her Majesty's Navy. Vanguard was just a hulk, a hollow mass
of iron and steel with most of her fineries' removed. Her silver and trophies had been put in store to await the next Vanguard to take its place, in the Fleet.

The tow started at 10.00 am. and Vanguard was expertly manoeuvred from 'Z' moorings and turned at No. 4 Buoy. Dockyard tugs, which were to tow Vanguard out of harbour were - Antic and Capable on the bows, Grinder on
the port side, Forceful to starboard, and Samson astern. Cheers echoed across the harbour as all ships' companies turned out to wave a sad farewell. Although no Ensign flew, they saluted a proud ship.

As the bows passed between the Isle of Wight boat jetty and the Gosport Ferry Pontoon it was obvious that something was wrong. The ship suddenly veered towards HMS Dolphin on the Gosport side of the harbour. There was
frantic whistling and hailing on board and the tugs managed to correct the swing but moments later it appeared that they had over-corrected and the ship moved to the other side of the harbour and headed towards Point. At one time, Vanguard's bows were directed at the Still and West, a public house at Point and a long time favourite vantage point for ships leaving the harbour. As the giant bows of the battleship loomed near to the windows of the 'pub', the sightseers, including Custom officials standing on the Custom House jetty yelled a warning. Hundreds of people laughed good humouredly when they heard the shouts warning that the ship was about to go aground. The leading tug, Capable, used a loud hailer to warn people to stand clear of the jetty where a number of senior naval officers had also gathered to take their last photographs of Vanguard and it must have seemed to them that they were being hunted down by the mighty ship for ordering its early demise.

The huge ship slewed at an angle of 45 degrees and came to rest within yards of the Custom House jetty. The skeleton crew of the ship, together with the captain, gathered in the bow ,anxiously peered down at the officers on the jetty and exchanged a rueful greeting. It was, however, by a miracle and the quick thinking of the tow master Mr. Roy Harry Otley, that the battleship's bows were stopped yards from the Customs Pier. It looked as though the whole pier would be sliced in two as tbe ship bore down. Spectators, who had been there to wave farewell, ran from their vantage points outside the Still and West, as disaster seemed certain. As soon as the danger had been realized the towing crew on board Vanguard had let go the starboard anchor so as to hold her in mid-channel. There was a danger at this point that the chains of the old floating bridge would be broken but the ferry, which was no longer in use, was jerked about a little but the chains did not break The other tugs were ordered 'full astern'; but the bows continued to swing and the outcome soon became apparent. The result of Mr Otley ordering the starboard anchor to be dropped had slowed down the 44,000 tons of steel, and, without a trace of a shudder, Vanguard had grounded in 24 feet of water on an ebb tide.  The time was 10.35am.-35minutes after the tow had originally got under way.

HMS Vanguard aground at Point, Old Portsmouth
The situation was now desperate as the tide was ebbing fast. The anchor, which had fouled the Gosport floating bridge chains, was cut loose and the ocean tugs, Samsonia and Bustler, which were to take over the tow to
Gareloch at the Nab Tower, were ordered to reinforce the dockyard tugs. Other dockyard tugs were also ordered to the scene. There was a danger that with the ebbing tide the battleship's stern would slew across the harbour and block the entrance. As it was, the harbour was temporarily closed to all shipping and hundreds of passengers on the suspended Isle of Wight ferry service already on board a ferry watched with awe as the drama progressed.

Aground outside the 'Still and West'
Ten thousand horsepower from the dockyard tugs Antic, Capable, Imminent and Forceful on the starboard side, and Grinder and Samson astern were unable to free the grounded ship. The tugs strained with all their power to prevent the battleship remaining in her 'prison' until the next high tide at 9.30 p.m. that evening. The ocean going tugs sped into Portsmouth Harbour just in time and their extra power saved the day. Because of the additional towing effort afforded by the sea going tugs Vanguard was pulled off at 11.15am. As she broke free, she slipped her cable and starboard anchor and was towed astern into the harbour.

Captain B Pengelly,R.N. (Captain of the Dockyard and Queen's Harbourmaster) made the following statement:

'Vanguard was coming down harbour very nicely. Suddenly, she sheered to starboard towards No.1 Mooring Buoy. The pilot corrected this by bringing his tugs to port. Then the ship took a sheer to port and she carried on swinging.  He was going hard astern. The tugs were pulling her but she went on turning. The ship was lightly bedded in about 12 inches of mud. As soon as the big tugs from Spithead applied their pull to the stern she came easily away'

Her clearance saved what would have been near chaos, for had she remained fast until the evening tide the harbour entrance would have been closed to shipping throughout the day. A few minutes later the tow was resumed and the battleship passed successfully through the harbour narrows en-route for Spithead, where the tow was transferred to the ocean going tugs. Later the tow passed over the Southsea Castle bar - an underwater bank which was the last danger before the open sea. Mr. Otley, the towmaster, commented at the time that there was about five feet clearance which was just enough for Vanguard to clear. It was said that Mr. Otley had behaved most calmly at a corner of the Solent that every sea captain dreads.

On tow through the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour
In command of Vanguard on her last voyage was Lieutenant Commander William Frampton RN., an expert in towing. The 600 mile tow to Faslane, Gare Loch took five-and-a-half days at a speed of five knots and was successfully completed without further incident.

Before the drama of Vanguard going aground, thousands had crowded Point, Old Portsmouth and hundreds more waited at Sally Port for a last look at the great warship. Extra police had been drafted in to deal with the crowds, whose cars had taken every parking place in the narrow streets of Old Portsmouth. Many people took up vantage points in window seats at public houses overlooking the harbour and small boys risked a soaking from the wash by balancing on the derelict piles just off the shore. Local boatmen did a brisk business hiring out launches and fishing boats to 'last look' trippers.

Crowds at Sally Port - outside Portsmouth Harbour
The thousands of sightseers who watched the drama on both sides of the harbour included people from many parts of the country, holidaymakers, workmen taking time off, children and foreign students, many armed with telescopes,binoculars, cameras and cine cameras. The atmosphere was one of nostalgia. Some of the watchers had been in the Royal Navy; others, whose sons had served in her, watched the majestic departure. As an unusual tribute to the warship, a dozen coloured balloons were cast on the harbour waters to meet the ship as she was towed by. Also scattered throughout the crowds were many ex-crewmembers of this fine ship who had travelled this day, especially to pay their last respects to the sole survivor of the battleship era of the Royal Navy.

During her service Vanguard frequently wore the flag of the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, her longest spell as flagship being from 1952 to 1954. The battleship was placed in reserve in March 1956, towed to Portsmouth in October of that year, and until a few weeks prior to this incident, was employed as headquarters ship for the Flag Officer Commanding Reserve Fleet

The last big warship to go aground in Portsmouth Harbour was the battleship HMS Nelson on 12th January, 1934. Nelson was then flagship of Admiral Sir William Boyle, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet and went aground at the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour just before 9.0 am. She was leaving harbour with the remainder of the Portsmouth manned ships of the Home Fleet for the start of the spring cruise, and was bound for the West Indies. She was aground for most of the day. The majority of her ammunition was unloaded, and five destroyers sped around her to create a wash which eventually cleared her. The ship's company were assembled astern and ordered to jump up and down to the strains of music in an effort to ease her from her locked position. The success of this procedure was not confirmed.

The other major grounding was the 30,000 ton battleship Warspite which was wrecked off Prussia Cove, Cornwall in 1947 when she was being towed from Portsmouth to the Clyde to be broken up. She was refloated in 1950 and eventually beached off Saint Michael's Mount,Cornwall where she was finally broken up in 1956.

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Homepage  / Content  / My Service History  /  Birth of a Battleship  /  Diary of Events for 1952  /  Diary of Events for 1953 

A Day on HMS Vanguard  /  Sectional Drawing  /  Photographs of HMS Dryad  /  Photographs of Oslo 1952  /  Bluenose Certificate

The Flagdeck My Vanguard - Poem  /  A Sailor's Prayer  /  HMS Vanguard Veterans' Association
This photograph was taken during the last cocktail party to be held on board HMS Vanguard and was submitted by ex.C/B/Sgt. Stan Thomas (he said he is the good looking one behind the vase of flowers on the right of the photograph)
As an interesting footnote to this saga I have received the following email which indicates that the Vanguard did not die in vain but is still helping sick people throughout the world.

Lars Larsson Sunday, 9/16/07, 11:04 PM
"I do not know if this can interest anyone but I came upon this very interesting home page when I was looking for some facts about "HMS Vanguard". Some years ago I used to work with the "whole body counter" at Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg Sweden. The whole body counter is used to measure very low amounts of radioactivity in patients. In order to shield out the background radiation, the patients are measured inside an "iron room" with very thick walls made of old iron. The iron has to be old since modern iron or steel usually contain small amounts of radioactive cobalt. Well, it was said to me that the iron room in Gothenburg is made of reused steel from the "cruiser Sheffield" and the "battleship Vanguard". It is certain that it is not made from ordinary steel. Everyone who has tried to drill a hole in the walls has expired that. It is certainly armour class steel. The system was delivered by Nuclear Enterprize Inc. in Edinburgh around 1972. So I believe the story. Maybe it can be of interest to you that pieces of your old ship still serve the humanity. Now in a more peaceful way. Sincerely: Lars Larsson Medical Physicist "
From: Skövde, Sweden
Mr Lars Larsson has now supplied me with a photograph of the "Iron Room" as above. He informs me that the righthand door weighs 3 Metric tons (3000kg) and can easily be manoeuvred by hand
CarysTuesday, 12/14/10, 8:04 PM

Dear Sir, I am at the moment working on a project in medical physics at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff and, as part of my report, was trying to write up about the steel which has been used in the construction of our Whole Body Counter. As you may know the steel came from HMS Vanguard as it is important to use steel which is not impregnated with any radioactive chemicals (ie. older steel/iron). Whilst I was researching this I came across your website and I thought I would let you know that in the treatment room there is a plaque from HMS Vanguard and also a couple of photos of it, which are shown to all patients who come in for treatment. As the daughter of a retired naval officer I am particularly proud to say that the HMS Vanguard is doing a fantastic job in the advancement of medical physics research at our university and lives on, if only in spirit, in medicine here! Thank you for your website which provided me with a half hour respite from some very tedious research, I very much enjoyed reading about a bit of history with which I work every day!


(I suggest you wait until the playing of The Last Post has finished before viewing the video)