Two Hun­dred and Fifty Years of HMS Vic­tory

This England - - Contents - Mica Bale

The cheers rang out as she took to the wa­ter and 250 years later the ju­bi­la­tion con­tin­ues in 2015 as she cel­e­brates her an­niver­sary. She is the world’s old­est ship still in com­mis­sion. She served faith­fully as Nel­son’s naval com­pan­ion and fel­low vic­tor. She is HMS Vic­tory — prob­a­bly the most fa­mous ship in the world.

Or­dered to be built in 1758 and launched in 1765 af­ter an es­pe­cially lengthy sea­son­ing of nearly three years as op­posed to the usual three months, HMS Vic­tory was com­mis­sioned in March 1778, some 13 years af­ter she was launched.

Her de­signer was Sir Thomas Slade who was at that time Surveyor of the Navy and she was com­mis­sioned by Bri­tain’s Prime Min­is­ter Wil­liam Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, bet­ter known as Pitt the El­der, along with 10 other ships.

HMS Vic­tory was a first-rate ship mean­ing that she was not only of good qual­ity but the big­gest ship the naval ser­vices had to of­fer. This was un­usual in it­self as most ships built around that time for navy use were of­ten small and ag­ile, easy for quick ma­noeu­vres and changes of di­rec­tion.

Her gen­eral frame and de­sign was based on HMS Royal Ge­orge which was pre­vi­ously the largest war­ship in the world when it was launched in 1756. It was com­pul­sory that HMS Vic­tory, like all first-rate ships, be able to carry at least 100 guns.

An in­cred­i­ble 6,000 trees were used for her con­struc­tion, 90 per cent of which were oaks and the re­main­ing 10 per cent be­ing a mix of elm, pine and fir. She cost £63,175, ap­prox­i­mately £50 mil­lion in to­day’s money.

HMS Vic­tory saw ac­tion later that year in July 1778 at the First Bat­tle of Ushant when she was com­manded by Ad­mi­ral Au­gus­tus Kep­pel. Her first bat­tle left her with lit­tle dam­age, though two years later mod­i­fi­ca­tions were

added. These im­prove­ments were not in an ef­fort to fight the French but rather to com­pete against the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects of ship­worm, a species of salt­wa­ter clam which brought so many great ships to ruin. To bet­ter equip Vic­tory against this par­a­site, 3,923 sheets of cop­per were fit­ted to her un­der­side. She next saw ac­tion at the Sec­ond Bat­tle of Ushant (1781, com­manded by Cap­tain Henry Cromwell bear­ing the flag of Rear Ad­mi­ral Richard Kem­pen­felt), the Siege of Gi­bral­tar (1782, Ad­mi­ral Richard Howe) and the Bat­tle of Cape St. Vin­cent (1797, com­manded by Cap­tain Robert Calder and Cap­tain Ge­orge Grey as the flag­ship of Sir John Jervis).

In 1797 HMS Vic­tory was dis­missed as a war­ship; she was sta­tioned at Chatham un­der the com­mand of Lieu­tenant J. Rick­man. In De­cem­ber of that same year, she was con­verted to a hos­pi­tal ship for wounded French and Span­ish pris­on­ers-of-war. How­ever, this was not to be the end of Vic­tory’s long-serv­ing ca­reer as two years later, in 1799, HMS Im­preg­nable was lost off Chich­ester hav­ing run aground on her re­turn jour­ney to Portsmouth.

Now that the navy was short of a first-rate ship, HMS Vic­tory was brought back into ac­tive ser­vice. How­ever, her lack of use dur­ing the pre­vi­ous few years meant se­ri­ous changes would have to be made, cost­ing an as­tro­nom­i­cal £70,933. Ad­di­tional gun ports were added to make her a 104gun war­ship. It was dur­ing these ad­just­ments that she was re­painted to bear what be­came those fa­mous colours of black and yel­low which the navy would later adopt for all their ships. Af­ter three years of this well-earned pam­per­ing, in 1803 HMS Vic­tory was ready to go and do bat­tle with the French.

On 18th May of that same year, Nel­son flew his flag from HMS Vic­tory’s proud mast. His place on the bridge was short-lived, how­ever, as the ship was not quite fin­ished and still needed the fin­ish­ing touches. Nel­son was thus trans­ferred to a frigate to as­sume com­mand in the Mediter­ranean.

When the newly com­pleted ad­just­ments were of­fi­cially fi­nalised, HMS Vic­tory sailed as a flag­ship but her pres­ence was not yet re­quired so off she went to search for her cap­tain-to-be in the Mediter­ranean. Even­tu­ally, sev­eral months later, Nel­son did at last take full con­trol of his ship.

Vic­tory’s next bat­tle was to be both the navy’s and her own most fa­mous and proud tri­umph. Lord Nel­son had only 27 ships un­der his com­mand to con­tend with 33 French and Span­ish wellsea­soned ships, un­der the com­mand of Pierre-charles Vil­leneuve. The bat­tle took place on 21st Oc­to­ber 1805 just a lit­tle west of Cape Trafal­gar. Nel­son bravely went against the usual Bri­tish naval tac­tics and in­stead di­vided his forces into two sep­a­rate groups to make a larger im­pact.

Such a nail-bit­ing risk bril­liantly paid off and the Bat­tle of Trafal­gar be­came the most decisive Bri­tish vic­tory that the en­tire war had seen, mak­ing Lord Nel­son a na­tional hero. Sadly the cel­e­bra­tions were short-lived. Nel­son was hit by a bullet from a marks­man on the en­emy ship Redoutable about

‘The Bat­tle of Trafal­gar be­came the most decisive Bri­tish vic­tory that the en­tire war had seen’

15 yards away. The bullet en­tered his left shoul­der, pass­ing through his spine be­fore fi­nally nestling be­low his right shoul­der blade. He died upon his faith­ful ship three hours later.

HMS Vic­tory sus­tained se­ri­ous dam­age to the point that she could not sail back home un­aided to re­ceive the cheers of the wait­ing crowds. The crew also suf­fered loss: 57 died along with their ad­mi­ral and a fur­ther 102 were in­jured. In or­der to be speed­ily re­paired, HMS Vic­tory was towed to Gi­bral­tar be­hind HMS Nep­tune. Lord Nel­son was car­ried back to Eng­land and given a hero’s fu­neral be­fore be­ing fi­nally buried in Jan­uary 1806 in St. Paul’s Cathe­dral.

Vic­tory’s fame swiftly faded and soon, like so many war­ships and their he­roes, she was for­got­ten. That was un­til 1833 when Princess Vic­to­ria and her mother, the Duchess of Kent, de­cided to visit the bat­tle-weary ship and thus brought it back into the public’s for­get­ful eye.

In 1889 Vic­tory be­came a naval school. This ar­range­ment lasted un­til 1904 when the school was moved tem­po­rar­ily and then per­ma­nently to another ship, so once more she be­came pushed to the back of peo­ple’s minds. Dis­as­ter struck in 1903 when HMS Nep­tune, the very ship that had brought her back from the Bat­tle of Trafal­gar, crashed into HMS Vic­tory. As a re­sult she very nearly sank and, but for the in­ter­ven­tion of Ed­ward VII, would have been fi­nally scrapped.

By 1921, HMS Vic­tory’s frail state was quickly be­com­ing ev­i­dent and a “Save the Vic­tory” cam­paign was launched. The fol­low­ing year the ship was moved to a dry dock in Portsmouth and dur­ing the next few years un­der­went ma­jor re­pair and restora­tion work. She was saved for the na­tion.

Now, af­ter all these years, nearly a cen­tury since she be­came a mu­seum, vis­ited by 400,000 peo­ple each year, HMS Vic­tory has been given a new lease of life and is cur­rently part of a £55 mil­lion restora­tion pro­ject that is ex­pected to con­tinue fur­ther into the com­ing years. What­ever the fu­ture may hold, HMS Vic­tory, to­day the Flag­ship of the First Sea Lord and the old­est com­mis­sioned war­ship in the world, will al­ways re­main at the very heart of the Royal Navy…and a source of pride for ev­ery English man, woman and child.

The Lower Gun Deck, with tim­bers over 200 years old, and (above) the ad­mi­ral’s Great Cabin.

A paint­ing of the Bat­tle of Trafal­gar, the Quar­ter Deck and the plaque mark­ing the spot where Nel­son fell, and a de­pic­tion of the scene at the height of the bat­tle.

Vice Ad­mi­ral Ho­ra­tio Nel­son by Le­muel Fran­cis Ab­bott (1760-1802).

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