Just off the coast of Lebanon lies the wreck of the HMS Victoria, once the flagship of the Royal Navy Mediterranean Squadron. The Victoria is one of the only wrecks in the world resting straight up-and-down, bow buried in the mud bottom, twin screws pointing toward the surface 100 meters above, mute testimony to the speed and violence with which she died.
The Victoria was lost during a formation anchoring maneuver in calm seas and perfect weather. Obeying an ambiguous and poorly understood signal, the HMS Camperdown—fitted with a ram designed to inflict crippling damage below the waterline—struck the Victoria in the starboard bow. Despite the Victoria’s setting what should have been effective flooding boundaries, the ship capsized and plunged in less than ten minutes. Three hundred and fifty eight sailors, including the Fleet Commander, Admiral Sir George Tryon, perished. The Victoria’s loss—and its impact on the Royal Navy—hold lessons for the U.S. Navy today as it deals with the accidents on board USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56).
When the Victoria tragedy struck in 1893, the Royal Navy was the envy of the world—a force that for decades had ensured freedom of navigation and the safety of British citizens in every time zone. Within its wardrooms, the Royal Navy was experiencing the natural tension found in a peacetime navy: finding the balance between the Nelsonian tradition of operational independence and the modern mechanisms of managing risk in peacetime. This debate expressed itself most dramatically in competing styles of command and control (C2). In an era when C2 at sea meant flag hoists, the Royal Navy had developed a signal book of monumental complexity. Mastering that signal book consumed much of the time available for fleet maneuvers. It also created a standard—excellence in the execution of maneuvers—that required exacting obedience to central control. Reformers believed the signal book was too complex to be executed with speed, especially during major fleet engagements. These reformers tried to push the Royal Navy to a looser, more adaptable style of maneuver that would allow commanders maximum flexibility with minimal signals.
Admiral Tryon was the most notorious champion of the reformers. A gruff and impatient man, he had instituted his own set of codes for the Mediterranean Squadron designed to allow greater independence and agility in maneuver. In the aftermath of the collision, it was natural that the court-martial considering the accident became a referendum on the wisdom of this approach. In the process of finding for the acquittal of the commanding officer of the Victoria, the court placed the burden of the collision on Admiral Tryon as the flag officer in command. The admiral had made the signal that confused his commanders, and the collision between the ships was, to the court, the unfortunate but logical outcome.
This verdict was convenient for the Royal Navy at that moment. The unwritten outcome, however, was to mark any deviation from the standard signal book as imprudent and potentially dangerous. The reformers retreated from the field, causing the Royal Navy to maintain its centralized and inflexible command style. Ironically, the Victoria was arguably a victim of the traditional school. Tryon’s signal was unclear, yet the Camperdown executed and maintained course, steadfastly holding to the signal to the point of collision.
Today, the U.S. Navy faces a similar challenge. Immediate accountability for its losses and addressing the root causes of training, maintenance, and readiness deficiencies demand a rigorous and penetrating look at both individual incidents and the Navy’s overall processes. Such accountability is not only part of our service’s heritage; it is a key element of mission command-style C2. As authority moves down the chain of command, so too does the need for accountability.
The incredibly difficult task for the U.S. Navy at the moment is to address failures in the fundamentals—the safe navigation of its ships—without reinforcing a deeply entrenched risk-adverse culture. The last 25 years of naval power projection from unchallenged sea bases against adversaries incapable of denying the Navy’s robust communication and surveillance architecture have left the fleet unfamiliar with the level of uncertainty it must accept to win conflict at sea. The culture changes essential to high-end combat against a peer navy just now are taking root in the fleet.
Proper acceptance of risk is deliberate and, as Admiral Chester Nimitz would say, “calculated.” It must be based in an accurate understanding of one’s own force—strength, condition, capabilities—and thoughtful acceptance of the risk that a thinking adversary and the fog of war invariably create. The natural instinct of any institution in this environment is to attempt to eliminate risk of all kinds. Navy leaders face the challenge of communicating acceptable and unacceptable risk, encouraging the former and driving out the latter. It is a nuanced dialogue that largely will be lost to those outside the lifelines, but is critical to those inside the lifelines.
Almost 125 years ago, the Royal Navy faced tragedy during routine operations. What it took from that loss was the need for control and obedience that would be woven into its operational culture. A quarter century later, at the battle of Jutland, its commanders would display that obedience in combat, waiting to be guided rather than taking initiative and continuing to execute signals that the speed of battle had clearly made irrelevant. The result was brutal losses among the ships engaged and the survival of the German fleet as a strategic menace to Britain for three more years of war.
The U.S. Navy has an opportunity to reset its fundamentals and emerge either more capable than before or ensure that its zero-defect instincts become the baseline for its operations. Learning the right lessons from our Navy’s Victoria moment will take a nuanced engagement across all levels of command. The alternative will leave us weaker than before.
Captain Rielage serves as Director for Intelligence and Information Operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. He has served as 3rd Fleet N2, 7th Fleet Deputy N2, Senior Intelligence Officer for China at the Office of Naval Intelligence, and Director of the Navy Asia Pacific Advisory Group.
For more great Proceedings Today content, click here.
(Picture: Wreckage of the HMS Victoria. Credit: Nurkowanie.)