Enter the Chronicle > The Chronicle Vol 10 isse 4 Winter 2009
A STITCH IN TIME
The Life & Death of HMS Implacable
Nelson's Victory is a world-famous tourist attraction, now the sole survivor of that momentous naval battle of 21st October 1805. Yet just 60 years ago another Trafalgar veteran, also long cared for lovingly, was towed out of Portsmouth and methodically blown up. This is her cautionary tale.
On 15th November 1794, work began at Rochefort on a new Téméraire class ship for the navy of republican France, to carry 86 guns and 670 men. Launched, after a long interruption to the work, on 24th March 1800, she was given the name Duguay-Trouin, after René Trouin, Sieur du Gué (1673-1736). This Breton corsair, whose daring career included escape from imprisonment in Plymouth, became a key figure in Louis XIV's fleet and eventually chief admiral. The French navy have kept on naming ships after this man: no fewer than ten so far.
After an eventful five years in service, Duguay-Trouin was one of four French ships that evaded capture at Trafalgar. Under Captain Claude Touffet, she formed part of Rear-Admiral Dumanoir le Pelley's division in the van, which entered the fighting at a late stage. Duguay-Trouin was able to blast the heavily damaged Victory with a few broadsides, but Dumanoir soon saw that the battle was already lost. He recalled his squadron and headed for France.
However, on 2nd November, a British force under Commodore Strachan intercepted the fleeing ships. Driven to battle off Cape Ortegal, the captain of Duguay-Trouin was killed, her masts were shot away, and she was eventually captured after a gallant defence. She was brought into Plymouth and adopted into the Royal Navy as a Third Rate, re-equipped with 74 guns and given the name HMS Implacable. (Dumanoir became a prisoner-of-war at Tiverton, from where he wrote to the Times objecting to unflattering remarks about his conduct at Trafalgar.)
Implacable served with the Royal Navy for the rest of the Napoleonic Wars. In the 1808-09 campaign in the Baltic, in support of the Swedes, she fought off Danish gunboats and captured the Russian ship Vsevolod. Implacable fought once more in 1839-40 as the Royal Navy attacked and defeated an Egyptian (but French-trained) fleet off the Syrian coast. She took part in both the bombardment of Acre and the blockade of Alexandria.
Sufficient money - £25,000 - was eventually raised for repairs to be carried out at Devonport in the 1920's but never enough for a secure endowment. After Cobb's death, although restoration efforts continued, the structure slowly decayed.
In 1932 Implacable was towed to Portsmouth and moored near the entrance to Fareham Creek. Her new role was to be "a holiday home to the sea-conscious youth of the nation who are not well-off". Some 10,000 boys and girls - up to 300 at a time - came aboard what was by then the oldest wooden warship afloat. Many are still alive today and vividly remember the experience, sleeping in hammocks and living in messes as in a man-of-war.
Unlike the unfortunate HMS Wellesley (1815), the last British ship of the line sunk by enemy action and the only one destroyed by ærial attack, Implacable survived the Second World War intact, recommissioned as a training vessel and coal store. She lay at Portsmouth, near Victory, and together they somehow avoided the bombs that devastated the city.
However, Implacable's maintenance was neglected. The Admiralty now began to claim that her condition had passed the point of no return, and again announced that they intended to dispose of her.
Once more, there were letters to the Times, and desperate appeals - supported as before by members of the royal family - for funds to save the old ship. But in post-1945 Britain private wealth was scarce, and public money's priority was reconstruction and debt repayment. The Admiralty declined to be moved by patriotic reproaches, while concerned bodies Museum in Greenwich. The ship's mighty capstan is on display at the maritime museum at Rochefort.
Finally, on Friday, 2nd December 1949, Implacable was primed with explosive charges and ballasted with 450 tons of pig-iron. Flying the white ensign and the French tricolour side by side, she was towed out to sea, escorted by modern warships carrying a party of senior naval staff. A French man-of-war was in attendance to render honours. "Never again", wrote one witness, "would human eyes see a line-of-battle ship under way."
Somewhere out in the English Channel, nine miles south of the Owers lightship off the Sussex coast, five miles from Ventnor, the moment came. The escorting warships stopped their engines, flags were lowered to half-mast, a Royal Marine bugler in white gloves sounded the Last Post, the admirals snapped to attention and came to the salute, and at 1:45 pm the scuttling charges were detonated.
That should have been the end of the Implacable. But after 155 years she was not going to go gracefully. The engineers had made the mistake of doubling the size of the explosive charges just to "make sure". As a result, the explosion blew the bottom out of the ship, sending the ballast 36 fathoms into St. Catherine's Deep. When the cloud of smoke and debris cleared, the wreck was found to be still floating on the surface, the two flags fluttering in the breeze. Deeply embarrassed, the escort hung around for hours, hoping vainly that the danger to shipping they had created would break up, until fading light obliged them to return to Portsmouth. It was late in the evening before it was reported that the last of the wreck had disintegrated.
Nothing more was heard of Implacable for some days, until the planking of the upper deck washed up on those shores of France which the Duguay-Trouin had left a century and a half before.
There were long-term consequences. Those who wanted to save historic ships saw that they must organise themselves more effectively. In 1979 the World Ship Trust was founded. Its register of historic ships now lists over 1,300 vessels, over a third of which are undergoing active restoration. "Implacable - Never Again" has become the Trust's motto, a recognition not only of anger at what vigilance and action could have prevented but of sadness that no foot would ever again tread those historic decks.
The sentiment is by no means universally shared. For every criticism that too little is saved there will be others ready to claim the opposite: that having a good clear-out is better than 'conservation gone mad'. Heritage that cannot pay its way will struggle to survive even in the best of times. Government funding is patchy and grudging, the lottery fund has been raided to pay for the London Olympics and even the National Trust now thinks it more important to commission works of modern art than to spend money on preserving the past. Ships are costly to maintain, still more so to keep seaworthy. The sad prognosis - with no national change of heart - is that Implacable will indeed happen again, and again, and again.©
Above: The Sinking of HMS Implacable Friday, 2nd December 1949 English Channel Off Ventnor