When the people of Edinburgh, the Lothians and Fife awoke on the morning of Saturday 6th November 1918 they found word in their tight-packed, crowded columns of their newspapers that victory in the four year long First World War was at last only days away. There was, however, not one single word about the news story on their own shores â€“ the sinking of the Royal Navy’s first aircraft carrier, H.M.S. Campania within sight of the Forth Bridge.
The 12,950 ton Campania was built on the Clyde by the Fairfield Engineering Company, Govan, not as an aircraft carrier, but as the latest luxury liner to join the Cunard fleet. Like all Cunard liners of the period, her name ended in the letters ‘ia’ and, together with her sister ship Luciana, she was to revolutionise Transatlantic travel.
After Campania’s launch at Govan on 8th September 1892, speed trials off the Isle of Arran revealed excessive vibration. Campania was Cunard’s first twin screw vessel and the two huge propellers were deemed the source of the problem.
By the time she sailed on her maiden voyage on 22nd April 1893, the shaking was much reduced and really only felt by the 1000 emigrates huddled in steerage. Meanwhile, her 600 pampered guests in first class and 400 in second class never noticed the problem. As they disembarked in the United States, they were so full of praise for the delightfully comfortable crossing that, on the return trip, the master was encouraged to urge an extra knot from the 2 15,000 horse power, steam, triple expansion engines, recording 23 knots and the new transatlantic record of 5 days, 17 hours and 27 minutes, arriving home the proud holder of the fabled Blue Riband.
Campania was the pride of the Cunard fleet and, throughout the first decade of the new century, she continued as the racehorse of the Atlantic fleet but, by 1910, Cunard were becoming concerned about the growing expense of operating her. Campania’s 100 furnaces, required to heat her 13 boilers, ate up over 20 tons of coal every hour.
Saved by the War
In 1914, Cunard decided to sell Campania to the breakers, but the outbreak of war rescued her when the Admiralty, desperately seeking a ship to convert into a new fangled aircraft carrier, decided that she would make the ideal vessel. Now that Great Britain was at war, the cost of the coal and and the wages of the 150 firemen and stokers required to achieve her great speed no longer mattered!
Until then, pioneering efforts to utilise the newly available air power in naval warfare had depended on seaplanes, which both took off and landed on water, but now the Lords of the Admiralty were determined to gain the advantage of launching planes from ships. For this to succeed, the speed of the vessel was all important. It took almost 8 months to refit her with a 168 feet long wooden flight deck.
At last, on 8th August 1915, all was ready for the first trial of a shipborne take off. Campania’s captain ordered her to sail straight into the wind and rang down to the engine room for her to increase speed to her maximum 23 knots. As she surged forward, the pilot of the Sopworth Baby seaplane on her flight deck throttled back and thundered along her runway to make a first successful take-off. Triumphantly, he circled Campania and dipped his wings in salute to the bridge before touching down in the water and being hoisted back on board.
Despite this success, it was decided that Campania’s flight deck was too short for operational use, so she was ordered back to the port for further modifications. This involved removing her forward funnel and replacing it with 2 narrow smoke pipes on either side of the extended 200 feet long runway. Work was completed by the end of April 1916 and Campania was ordered to sail with all speed to the Orkneys to join the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow.
It was then that Campania’s luck began to run out.
Despite the long, Orcadian twilight, her captain missed the final signal to set sail to challenge the German navy at the Battle of Jutland and, in the brief darkness of the northern night, further failed to see that the rest of the fleet had left their anchorage. By the time dawn broke and the mistake became painfully obvious, the other ships were over 40 miles out into the North Sea.
With her superior speed, Campania would have caught the rest of the Fleet in time to play her part in the decisive battle but Admiral Jellicoe, doubting that she could arrive in time, ordered her back to Scapa Flow, the robbing the Royal Navy of air reconnaisance in the ensuing fray.
Her ill luck continued when, 2 months later, essential repairs prevented her from taking part in the next abortive attack on the German fleet. Despite these setbacks, Campania was equipped with specially built two seater Fairey F16s. They proved very successful as spotter planes and were named Campanias after their mother ship.
For the final two years of the war, Campania was only kept at sea with great difficulty because of the problems with her engines. When, in October 1918, she anchored on Burntisland with the rest of the Grand Fleet, it was decided she would have little part to play in further action and to reduce her ship’s company of 374 to a skeleton maintenance crew.
Guy Fawkes Day
They were alone on board when, on 5th November, the weather suddenly began to change. With only one of her 13 boilers operational, they could do little as the wind from the south west steadily increased to gale force. As the full force of the gale caught Campania’s long hull, she dragged her anchor and was swept astern, colliding amidships with the battleship H.M.S. Royal Oak. The impact caused the Campania’s one boiler which had steam up to explode. The noise was well fitted to Guy Fawkes Day and shook the whole of Burntisland.
As local people rushed to see what was happening, they saw that the Campania was sinking; but, before she went down, the gale force winds whipped her into another collision, this time with the battlecruiser H.M.S. Glorious. The latter survived, ironically, to be converted into an aircraft carrier to replace the Campania.
After ramming Glorious, some reports say that Campania continued out of control to collide with another battleship, H.M.S. Revenge, but this is not confirmed. As she sank, stern first, into the Forth, all her crew were rescued. Soon, only her grey painted funnel, which had once towered so proudly in its livery of Cunard red and the two grey smoke stacks, which had replaced her other forward funnel, remained sticking up out of the sea off Burntisland.
The loss of the Campania through such carelessness was a great embarrassment to the Royal Navy and it soon used the fact that her funnel and her smoke stacks were a hazard to shipping to blow them up as part of an exercise.
According to Admiralty charts, Campania’s hull lies broken in two on the bed of the Forth but, according to Colin Aston, the master of the Forth passenger cruise vessel Maid of the Forth, who is a keen diver, although her decks have collapsed, the once proud Blue Riband holder is still intact.