Hazardous Histories: Twelve Battleships That Blew Up From The Inside Out And Sank
On ammunition safety and Murphy's Law
A battleship is a great, big bomb waiting to explode. The naval architect must perform a balancing act between armor, machinery, and those huge, heavy guns. No perfect protection scheme was ever devised for the magazines of battleships. Famous examples of battleships exploding and sinking (or exploding while sinking) in combat abound: the IJN Yamato, the HMS Hood, and the HIRMS Borodino all experienced catastrophic magazine fires. But it is also striking how many times these ships exploded as a result of accidental or incidental ammunition fires, also usually with catastrophic loss of life. One day I intend to publish a video on this topic, which has a morbid fascination for me. We are compelled by the sight of big things failing. Battleships were the most complex technological constructs ever devised. As we have recently witnessed with the Israeli defenses around Gaza, catastrophic cascades of technological failure can happen to military schemes which lack redundancy. Even the best technology can fail, including the most highly-developed safety systems, which in turn usually exist to prevent past catastrophic failures from recurring.
Safety engineering did end the era of self-destructing battleships. These accidents all occurred in ships that were constructed during a distinct period of battleship development that ended after the First World War. New ammunition loading systems, safety mechanisms to prevent flashover between compartments, and fire suppression equipment were coming into use. As we shall see, temperature regulation and ventilation were also key concerns. However, the biggest safety risks lay in old, corroded, or badly-stored ammunition. The deadly turret explosion on board the USS Iowa in 1989 was a result of a safety system failing — the center gun was overcharged with bags of old, unamended gunpowder, one of them being turned sideways — and also an example of redundant safety systems preventing a more complete, far deadlier disaster, as some sailors in the turret actually survived. More than 2,000 sailors were on board at the time, so the fact that only 47 of them were killed is a credit to the engineers who built the Iowa, even if the resulting fiasco of an investigation was a discredit to the US Navy itself.
Indeed, one of the commonalities of these incidents is how often navies ignore obvious, if inconvenient, explanations for these accidents, projecting malign intentions onto enemies, real or imagined, imposing conspiratorial causes onto what are most likely accidents. Battleships were inherently political technologies. More than merely showing the flag, they were national endeavors. It was the most expensive arms race the world had ever seen. Politicians balked at the price per ton and limited displacements, forcing the designers to be creative, sometimes with disastrous results. Nevertheless, these vessels carried the pride and prestige of the peoples who paid for them, so we should not be surprised that various publics and politicians have instinctively preferred to blame enemy action for these disasters rather than accept their sudden loss has been an embarrassing mistake. Individual people do not even need yellow journalists to help them rationalize away the unthinkable reality. We do it quite naturally.
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