HMS Velox was originally named HMS Python and was one of the earliest Royal Navy vessels to be powered by steam turbine propulsion.
Prior to the introduction of steam turbines, Royal Navy vessels used reciprocating piston steam engines. This changed with the launch of the experimental craft Turbinia in 1894, the engine of which was invented by Charles A. Parsons of Tyneside. The Turbinia used a compound steam turbine and impressed the Admiralty to the extent that, in 1898, they commissioned Parsons to build a Torpedo Boat Destroyer (TBD) using turbine machinery. Parsons sub-contracted the construction of the hull and provision of the boilers to Hawthorn Leslie and Company at Hebburn on the River Tyne, but his firm took full responsibility for the design, construction and speed.
Meanwhile, Armstrong-Whitworh had begun a private venture to launch a steam turbine powered vessel. Their ship was launched in June 1899 and offered for sale to the Royal Navy. In September 1899, Parsons' ship was launched, and was commissioned into into the Royal Navy as their first steam turbine powered warship, named HMS Viper in June 1900. It had a short career. On 3rd August 1901, whilst taking part in manoeuvres in the Channel Islands, Viper ran over the Renonquet reef whilst travelling at speed in fog. The vessel floundered and broke up within days.
In September 1901 the Navy bought the Armstrong-Whitworth vessel and commisisoned it as HMS Cobra. On 17th September 1901, Cobra sailed from the Tyne bound for Portsmouth, where the armament was to be fitted. Soon after passing Flamborough Head the vessel met bad weather and on 18th September the Cobra broke into two, sinking stern first with about 30 feet of the vessel remaining above the water for a short time.
The loss of the Viper and the Cobra meant the loss of both prototype turbine Torpedo Boat Destroyers. HMS Velox filled this gap. Built by Hawthorn Leslie and Company like the Viper, the new Torpedo Boat Destroyer was launched as HMS Python on 11th February 1902, but discussions over the price and terms continued. The vessel was finally purchased by the Admiralty in June 1902 and renamed HMS Velox. Following the loss of the other two vessels the previous year, the Royal Navy did not use snake names for warships again.
HMS Velox had very similar dimensions to Viper but there were some changes to the machinery layout. The low pressure and astern turbines were combined and the space saved was used to provide two high pressure reciprocating engines for use at lower speeds. But HMS Velox had operational problems, with consumption of coal increasing as speed dropped. This had been an issue with the two previous vessels and efforts had been made to correct it in the Velox. Parsons expected the vessel to match the high speed of the Viper with the same coal consumption rates and to use around half as much coal as the Viper at cruising speeds.
Despite Parsons' expectations, Velox had a similar high operational rate to the Viper and Cobra. This resulted in a ship with an uneconomical engine and a performance reliant on the stamina of the stokers onboard. There was no gain from the additional reciprocating engines and the slow speed engines produced a cruising speed of only 10.35 knots. With plans to increase the fleet cruising speed to 15 knots, this was too slow. In 1907 the reciprocating engines were replaced with cruising turbines but this did not produce much improvement in efficiency. Other problems reported with the vessel included a limited speed astern of 5 knots, a need to warn the engine room in advance of going astern, generally awkward handling, and a lack of seaworthiness due to the condensers being fitted above the water line. In 1909, following an engine breakdown off Land's End, Velox was removed from its division and assigned as an instructional vessel attached to HMS Vernon.
It was lost in the eastern Solent after hitting a German contact mine off the Nab Tower on 25th October 1915. It had been out on patrol with HMS Conflict in the Channel, but owing to problems with the condensers had returned to calmer waters nearer the Isle of Wight.
At the Court of Enquiry held in Portsmouth 3 days later, the captain, Lieutenant F. Pattinson, recalled that he was on the bridge at about 3:45 pm when there were two explosions about 10 seconds apart. He stated that “boards and various parts of the ship went up to a height of at least 150ft.”. On investigation, he found that a large part of the stern had been blown away. The First Lieutenant had crawled up onto the deck with both legs broken, and another crewman was found half-buried in the wreckage. By 4:15 pm the forward engine room bulkhead was still holding, but the engine room and Petty Officer messes were half full of water, which was still rising.
HMS Conflict arrived, a line attached, and a slow tow was begun at about 4:45 pm. Lieutenant Pattinson soon realised that they would not survive a tow to a safe destination; the ship was evacuated and sank stern first soon after.
At the enquiry, several of the crew below decks recalled hearing the mine bumping down the length of the hull before detonating in contact with the stern gear. It was believed that the second explosion was a depth charge which had fallen from the deck of the Velox. The mine was one believed to have been laid by the German U-Boat UC5.
The site of HMS Velox lies approximately 1.5 miles east of Bembridge on the southern margin of the east Solent. Having been sold and resold, it was reported in 1970 that nothing remained but lifting cables and it was presumed that the majority of the wreckage had been recovered. However, remaining wreckage was re-located in a survey in 1976 when it was said to lie in two parts. A survey in 1978 recorded the wreck as lying north to south with the bows missing and the boilers the highest part.
Reports from 1985 describe the site as a spread of broken wreckage 100m by 25m and hardly proud of the bottom, except for a section of pipe that has been snagged and hauled off the seabed to stand clear to approximately 5m.
The wreck is a popular dive site and has been frequently visited by sports divers over a number of years. The site has recently been adopted under the NAS Adopt a Wreck Scheme. A series of artefacts have been retrieved and reported to the Receiver of wreck. Amongst others, these include a thermometer, a lamp, a porthole and dining plates. Artefacts recovered from the site are currently on display at the Isle of Wight Shipwreck Centre, the Maritime Museum in Arreton, and at the Warship Hazardous display at Earnley Gardens near Chichester. There are likely to be others in private ownership.
HMS Velox was further investigated in July 2010 with the aim of assessing and recording this important site in connection with the English Heritage funded Solent Marine Heritage Assets project. The diving activities on the site were undertaken by Maritime Archaeology Trust staff, French and Belgian colleagues and volunteers. The use of side scan sonar as well as diver surveys allowed the extent of the wreckage to be confirmed. The site covers an area approximately 30m by 20m. The diving fieldwork included a photographic and video record of the site, and taped measurements of the archaeological features enabled the production of a site plan.
The site consisted of a number of individual features separated by areas of seabed. In the central area of the site the diver survey recorded the remains of part of the engine and a funnel. Also in evidence on the seabed were the remains of what was presumed to be a portion of propeller shaft. To the far east of the site were some upstanding elements, reaching a height of approximately three metres. These appeared to be more sections of shaft, presumed part of the propeller array. The site also showed evidence of previous salvage / diver activity, with a series of concrete mooring blocks scattered across the area. The full report can be downloaded here.
Despite their issues with operational speeds and efficiency the early Torpedo Boat Destroyers did demonstrate that turbines could be used as a propulsion system in ships. These vessels served an important purpose as prototypes, and their construction set an example that led to the installation of turbines in all subsequent British destroyers after the River or E class of 1903. In 1905 the Royal Navy announced that all subsequent ships would use steam turbine propulsion; the battleship HMS Dreadnought was the most significant example of the next stage of their use. Dreadnought, launched and commissioned in 1906, was so significant in terms of the development of naval technology that the name Dreadnought came to be associated with an entire generation of battleships, while the generation of ships it made obsolete became known as pre-Dreadnoughts. The Dreadnought was important in terms of the development of armament, but was also key as an example of a successful vessel powered by steam turbines, making it the fastest battleship in the world at the time of completion. The use of steam-powered turbines in the Dreadnought signified a key advancement that would not have been possible without the earlier development of the Viper, the Cobra and the Velox. HMS Velox is the only pre-Dreadnought turbine equipped Royal Naval vessel found within the coastal limits of England.
Images courtesy of the Solent Marine Heritage Assets project