‘It was found’

S.M.S. Baden. Photograph: Deutsches Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R17062.

Once more unto the Wikipedia breach, dear friends. Looking at my watchlist the other day, an edit to SMS Baden caught my eye so I had a little browse (I must have edited it long ago). This paragraph intrigued me:

The gunnery school HMS Excellent ran loading trials on the main battery guns. It was found that the guns could be prepared to fire in 23 seconds, 13 seconds faster than in the Queen Elizabeth-class battleships.[28] The ship’s watertight bulkhead and underwater protection systems also particularly interested the inspection team; they paid close attention to the ship’s pumping and counter-flooding equipment.[34] Commander W M Phipps Hornby, who lived on board Baden for weeks during the examination, wrote to the naval historian Arthur Marder in 1969 that it was his “considered opinion—which I know coincided with that of others engaged on the same job—that, considered as a fighting machine, anyhow on balance the Baden was markedly in advance of any comparable ship of the Royal Navy”.[35]

I have been looking a lot at gun-loading times recently for my book, so the claim that the Baden class had a swifter loading cycle intrigued me. Naturally, however, I never trust a source implicitly. So, I followed footnote 28 to the late Bill Schleihauf’s article on ‘The Baden Trials’ in Warship 2007. He wrote:

Subsequently, the gunnery school HMS Excellent ran trials of the loading arrangements in Baden‘s15in turrets (23 seconds from firing to ready-to-fire vs 36 seconds in Queen Elizabeth) and ignited full 15in propellant charges in the gunhouses of ‘B’ and ‘X’ turrets to test the anti-flash arrangements.6

Note 6 reads, ‘CB1594 Progress in Gunnery Material 1921, (TNA, ADM 186/251), pp. 42-45.’ Let’s see what this actually says:

37. Loading Trials in ‘Baden’s’ 38 cm. Turret.–Loading trials have been carried out by H.M.S. ‘Excellent.’ These trials confirmed the loading times obtained from Germany.
The following table shows the comparative loading times for ‘Baden’ and ‘Queen Elizabeth.’
Times in gun-house only are shown.

The underlined text was surprisingly omitted by Schleihauf, and is a rather important qualifier. The times in the table add up to the same 23 and 36 second times give by him, and is immediately followed by the statement:

It should be noted that gun-house times do not necessarily govern the rate of continuous fire.
While generally, the cycle in magazines and shell rooms of ‘Baden’ and ‘Queen Elizabeth’ corresponds with that of gun-house, the rate of continuous fire would probably depend upon shell-room supply in the latter and an additional 3 seconds would be required in superimposed turrets of ‘Baden’ for main cage cycle.

This comparison is therefore based on only one part of the turret and loading cycle. Wikipedia’s claim that ‘that the guns could be prepared to fire in 23 seconds’ is therefore clearly not the whole story.

The sentence on ‘ship’s watertight bulkhead and underwater protection systems’ demands no comment, apart from the fact that technically the section of the source, a 16 March 1921 paper given by Goodall to the Institution of Naval Architects printed as ‘The Ex-German Battleship Baden‘, dealing with this can be said to begin on page 22 and not page 23.

Now we turn to the Hornby quote, taken from Arthur Marder’s From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, volume V, p. 311. The passage in question is a footnote:

The D.N.C. and other Admiralty experts, having made a careful examination of the raised Baden, concluded (1921) that in the principal features of design they had little to learn from their late enemy. This was going a mite too far. Commander W. M. Phipps Hornby, who lived on board the Baden for weeks, employed on salving her, got to know her internal arrangements as well as those of his own ship, the Ramillies. It is his ‘considered opinion-which I know coincided with that of others engaged on the same job-that, considered as a fighting machine, anyhow on balance the Baden was markedly in advance of any comparable ship of the Royal Navy.’ Perhaps, as he suggests, the D.N.C. and others unconsciously were loath to concede that the young German Navy had much to teach them. Commander Phipps Hornby’s memorandum for the author, June 1969.

Using final ranks without qualification is always an invidious practice, as the reader may infer that with higher rank comes greater experience. When examining the Baden in 1919, Phipps Hornby had been a Lieutenant for roughly a year. Specialising in torpedo duties, he was automatically promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander in 1925 after eight years. After nearly seven years as a Lieutenant-Commander, almost out of the promotion zone (he had repeatedly not been recommended, and was considered to lack leadership qualities), he retired in 1932 at his own request. His promotion to Commander on the Retired List came automatically upon reaching the age of 40. It’s also worth noting that he was directly involved in the mutiny of a Royal Fleet Reserve battalion employed during a strike at Newport in 1921 which ended the career of Captain Edward C. Kennedy (funnily enough not mentioned in his Wikipedia article), father of the late Sir Ludovic Kennedy. As to the veracity of Hornby’s claims, I’ve looked through the relevant part of Marder’s personal papers at the University of California, Irvine (specifically Box 3, folders for May and June 1969) and found no trace of this memorandum, despite there being a number of letters from Hornby to Marder, who was very fond of relying on decades-old recollections for his writing, regardless of their accuracy. As shown in that single footnote quoted, it takes a courageous (Yes, Minister fans take note) historian to take the word of a septuagenarian junior officer over the considered opinions of contemporary qualified naval architects.

And so, courtesy of flawed secondary sources, a single Wikipedia paragraph is equally flawed and misleading.