Splash - Wessex Archaeology's Coastal and Marine Archaeology blog

HMS Campania, Firth of Forth

Few ships can lay claim to a career as eventful as that of HMS Campania. The ship began life as one of Cunard's first great liners. Constructed by Fairfields at Govan, and launched in September 1892, at nearly 200m long and displacing 18,000 tons the Campania was an enormous ship by the standards of the time. Campania was the first Cunard ship to completely dispense with sail and have twin propeller shafts.
 
In 1893, after an impressive maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York, the Campania broke the record for the passage from New York to Queenstown (now Cobh in the Republic of Ireland), making the journey in 5 days 17 hours and 27 minutes. Later that year it took the Liverpool to New York record. Intense rivalry meant these records did not stand for long and the Campania's sister ship Lucania took the record for itself not long after.
 
After little more than a decade of Atlantic crossings the Campania was due to be scrapped, but the First World War (1914-1918) saw the ship brought back into service to replace the more modern Aquitania, which had been requisitioned by the Admiralty. After three more return crossings, the Campania was sold to a breaker's yard in 1914, its working life seemingly at an end.
 
However, the pressures of the war led the Admiralty to buy the ship, and they converted the liner into a seaplane carrier and armed merchant cruiser. After a conversion at Cammell Laird's in Birkenhead, HMS Campania was commissioned in February 1915.
 
The first of the Royal Navy's large carriers, the original passenger accommodation was converted into a huge hold to carry 14 folded-wing seaplanes. The planes were hoisted out of the hold using cranes, their wings unfolded and they were then placed in the sea.
 
Shortcomings were noted with the ship after manouevres in Scapa Flow, and it was returned to Cammell Lairds where it had a forward flightdeck fitted. The flightdeck allowed the Campania to launch an aircraft directly from the ship into a headwind. In May 1915, back in Scapa Flow, the Campania successfully launched a Sopwith Schneider seaplane from its deck into a force 4 wind. This was the first time this had been done, and the event heralded the advent of the modern aircraft carrier.
 
After further trials the ship underwent a third refit to lengthen the flight deck. The forward funnel was replaced with two smaller funnels and its after-deck was was cleared to carry an observation balloon. The ship was now ready to join the war.
 
The Campania sailed with the Grand fleet for Jutland, where it was intended to provide spotting aircraft for the Fleet. However, the ships age now began to tell and it was unable to keep up with the 27 knot speed of the Fleet, HMS Campania was ordered to turn about, and so missed possible destruction at the Battle of Jutland.
 
The Campania was mostly stationed in Scapa Flow for the remainder of the war, but only six days before the armistice it was anchored off Burntisland with several other warships in the Firth of Forth. A gale struck the anchored ships early on the 5th November, and one of Campania's anchor chains broke. The ship began to drag along the Firth out of control and it struck some of the other vessels anchored nearby. The bow of HMS Revenge pierced the port side of the Campania and slowly it began to settle by the stern.
 
All of the crew were able to abandon ship, but at 08:35 am one of the ship's boilers exploded and Campania sank. The ship's masts were visible for the next five years, until the Admiralty decided the ship presented too great a navigational hazard. A salvage company placed charges on the wreck of the ship and it was blasted to a safe clearance depth.
 
For a long time after the wreck was cleared, it was thought the Campania lay broken in two on the seabed, but a survey of the wreck in 1999 showed the wreck has remained in one piece and survives as a large upstanding structure.
 
HMS Campania was designated as a protected wreck under the Protection of Wrecks Act (1973) in 2000.

Wessex Archaeology Investigations

In 2004 Historic Scotland asked Wessex Archaeology to undertake a new geophysical survey of the Campania. Wessex Archaeology geophysicist Paul Baggaley, working with a team from St Andrew's University, surveyed the wreck with sidescan sonar equipment to produce a single properly positioned image of the wreck and any material from it that lay on the seabed around it.
 
The team also used sub-bottom profiling survey equipment on the wreck site to see what the seabed around the wreck was like.

Sidescan image of HMS Campania

The sidescan survey showed that despite the clearance of the wreck to make it safe for navigation, the wreck has survived in a good condition. The images obtained from the survey showed that some of the upstanding features removed from the wreck during clearance like the main mast now lie at an angle from the deck to the seabed. The experimental and distinctive lobe shaped forward flight deck still survives on the vessel and parts of the ships cranes are still in place.
 
You can download the full report of Wessex Archaeology’s investigations as a PDF: HMS Campania, Designated Site Assessment, Full Report.

Map showing the location of the protected wreck HMS Campania

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