Lion was the lead ship of a class of heavy battlecruisers built by the Navy in response to the German Moltke Class battlecruisers which completely outclassed the earlier British Invincible Class. Lion served throughout the First War and was scrapped in 1924 as part of Britain’s compliance with the Washington Treaty which sought to limit the size and number of warships in future fleets.
British battlecruisers, intended to police our world trade routes, were strong enough to engage any enemy cruiser but fast enough to run from heavier battleships that they might encounter. Their performance at the Battle of Jutland has been the subject of many books and studies, with some observing that they were never intended to be involved in exchanges of fire with large German fleets. Admiral Beatty famously commented: “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today,” after two battlecruisers had exploded within half an hour during the battle as a result of plunging shells detonating charges in the magazines deep in the hulls.
Lion itself was almost destroyed in this way. A shell from the German ship Lutzow penetrated the joint between the nine-inch turret face plate and the 3.5-inch roof armour of Q-turret and detonated over the left gun. It blew the front-roof and centre- face plates off, killing or wounding everyone in the turret. A fire that the crew thought had been extinguished then ignited the eight propellant charges in the turret working room. Propellant does not “explode”, but deflagrates – ie. burns with great energy. The flames reached as high as the masthead, and killed most of the magazine and shell room crews still in the lower part of the mounting. The gas pressure severely buckled the magazine doors, and it is probable that the magazine itself would have exploded if it had not been for Royal Marine Major Francis Harvey, the mortally wounded turret commander, who ordered it to be flooded. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions.
The Lion Class were reckoned by many to be the most beautiful warships ever built. But looks alone do not make good ships. An “improved” battlecruiser class, the “Admirals” was ordered near the end of the Great War, with better-protected magazines. Only one was completed, called the Hood. She sank as a result of another magazine fire and explosion during an engagement with Bismarck.
We freely acknowledge that this post was inspired by the @OnthisdayRN twitter-site – which is well worth a visit.