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HMS THUNDERER: Ships, Badges and Battle Honours

by Lt Cdr Rupert Nichol RNR

It should be easy to list the ships that have carried the name HMS THUNDERER during the two centuries that the name has been used by the Royal Navy, to detail their battle honours, and to describe the several crests or badges which they have borne. But, although the name has been carried by one of the most significant vessels in Naval history, and the battle honours include both Trafalgar and Jutland, there is no agreement on the finer details of the THUNDERER story.

This is mainly because generations of Manadon students have been brought up on lists of ships and battle honours which are not the official versions, but are nonetheless perfectly valid, having been researched in some cases before the standard lists were produced.

It has long been stated that there have been six THUNDERERs: three wooden Battle Liners, one great iron turret ship, a WW1 super-dreadnought, and the Royal Naval Engineering College in Plymouth. In essence, this is true, but official naval records list no fewer than nine uses of the name Thunderer. The others are part of the story, and they go some way to explaining another, greater anomaly, which is the apparent inconsistencies in the THUNDERER battle honours.


The official Battle Honours, recorded at the Admiralty, are as follows:

"Achille" 1761
Lake Champlain 1776
First of June 1794
St Lucia 1796
Trafalgar 1805
Syria 1840
Jutland 1916

However, this list is almost completely different from the battle honours that was recorded most prominently on the sounding-board above the musician's gallery in the Wardroom at Manadon:

BREST 1778
1st JUNE 1794
SIDON 1916

This list was magnificently displayed, painted on silver ovals with wreaths around them, in a very 1950's style wholly appropriate to the design of the hall. It appears to have been researched by someone with a keen interest in the Napoleonic and French Revolutionary Wars, but little knowledge of the "official" actions, which are based on the campaign bars attached to the Naval General Service medal 1794-1840, which was awarded retrospectively by Queen Victoria in 1848 to the elderly survivors of the French Wars, and various later actions, including Syria 1840. The actions off Brest and Finisterre were deemed unimportant at that time, though HMS THUNDERER was certainly present, as she was at the failed attempt to force the passage of the Dardanelles in 1806, which disaster was similarly not commemorated officially. The other differences are more interesting, and bring us on to the story of the earliest of the Thunderers.


The first to carry the name was a 74-gun "3rd Rate" battleship of 1,600 tons, launched at Woolwich in 1760. She was involved in a single-ship action with the French Achille in the following year, but foundered in the great hurricane in the West Indies in 1780.

However, it was not this vessel that earned the Battle honour Lake Champlain, 1776, but a small 14-gun ketch carrying the same name, which operated on the Canadian Lakes during the American War of Independence.  Little is known of this minor war-vessel, but it is a pity that the recognised battle-honour she earned fighting the Americans has never been displayed in Manadon or Keyham, or even acknowledged there. Perhaps if there is to be a new THUNDERER, this omission can be rectified one day.

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The first HMS THUNDERER Launched on March 13, 1760.   From a painting by David Roberts

The ship, which is usually described as Thunderer 2, was launched at Rotherhithe in 1783. She was a classic Nelsonian 74-gun two-decker Line-of-Battle ship, and she fought right through the French wars, from the Glorious First of June and St Lucia, to Trafalgar and beyond, including all the actions of that period listed in both versions of the battle honours above. She participated in the incredible twenty-year close blockade of Europe from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, which is one of the Royal Navy's greatest achievements. In her construction, her rig and her guns, she represented the highest technology of her era, and she served right through until 1814, when she was finally broken up.

The second HMS THUNDERER - 1794

The fourth THUNDERER was laid down at Woolwich in 1817, but renamed TALAVERA to commemorate the Duke of Wellington's Peninsular War action before she was launched in 1818.

The fifth HMS THUNDERER (centre) in action off Sidon 1840. From a painting by Lt J F Warre RN

It was not until 1831 that a fifth ship of the name was started. This vessel was an 84-gun "2nd Rate" Battle-Liner; at first glance she looks very like her predecessors, but behind the square sails, the wooden hull and the triple tiers of broadside guns lay the beginnings of a design revolution. This THUNDERER was designed by Sir William Symonds, and she was a fine example of his high-sided Symonite battleships, whose chief design feature was that their wooden ribs were interlaced diagonally, and their hull and deck planking was also built up of alternating diagonal layers, and bound with iron knee-brackets. This gave them a hull of much greater length and strength with an improved underwater form, less like a bathtub and more like a clipper ship. These changes, coupled with improvements in the layout of the masts and rigging, enabled them to sail closer to the wind than before.

Old sailors thought the Symonite ships were rough-riding, but this was only because they had never known the pleasures of beating to windward in a battleship before. Another revolution taking place at this time was the introduction of steam power to the fleet, and this new form of hull construction provided the strength to install steam machinery as this was introduced in the wooden fleet during the 1840's.

Although the decades after Trafalgar and Waterloo were known as the Long Peace, in reality the Royal Navy was involved in "wars and rumours of wars, " mostly in the eastern Mediterranean as the Ottoman Empire continued its long decline. In 1840, HMS THUNDERER took part in the battle of Sidon, which was the last fleet action conducted purely by wooden battle-liners under sail. In the same year she acted as flagship at the bombardment and capture of the fortress at St. Jean d'Acre, which was the first action at which steam vessels were present, albeit as support vessels rather than fighting ships. Though these two actions were distinct, they are officially commemorated by the single campaign honour Syria 1840, as described above.

This fine ship continued in service for another thirty years until 1870, and was fitted with iron-clad plate in 1863 for trials of new armour-piercing guns. She was not pensioned off until 1901; by then, she had been renamed NETTLE, because a new and magnificent THUNDERER was launched in 1872.


In only ten years from the introduction of HMS WARRIOR, the first iron battleship in the fleet, the Royal Navy introduced, with the DEVASTATION and her sister THUNDERER, the world's first mastless battleships, with the modern central superstructure layout. Armed with four 12 inch guns in rotating turrets, these ships represent the greatest single step forward ever taken in Naval design; they are really the prototypes of all subsequent warships, and are of far greater significance than the much-vaunted DREADNOUGHT of thirty years later. With 12 inches of ironclad armour from end to end, they weighed in at over 6,000 tons despite a length of only 285 feet. Their hydraulic turret machinery and twin screw propulsion put them in the forefront of mechanical design, and with sufficient coal to provide a range of 4,700 miles, they were veritable fighting coal-mines.

HMS THUNDERER 1872-1909 (Photo 1897)

At a time when the bulk of the fleet consisted of wooden square-riggers, they were regarded with some suspicion, and this was partly justified when two unfortunate incidents clouded the success of THUNDERER's design: in 1876 she suffered a boiler explosion which killed 36 crew members, and in 1879 one of her 50-ton muzzle-loading turret guns was double-charged, and burst killing 11 gun crew. Both disasters had important repercussions: the boiler explosion signalled the end of box-boilers in favour of the modern cylindrical type, and it led directly to the writing of the first official Steam Manual in 1879, as it was poor operating procedures which had caused the problem; the safety valves had been screwed down for a pressure test, and then left in this condition!

One of the victims of the explosion was Mr Edward Newman, the Chief Inspector of Machinery of Portsmouth Dockyard. The Newman Memorial prize, which was still awarded at Manadon until its closure in 1995, was instituted at Keyham in his memory: it is unlikely that this gruesome coincidence was borne in mind when the name of HMS THUNDERER was revived to be carried by the establishment which awards the prize commemorating his death.

The gun explosion was equally significant, as it led to improved loading and handling procedures, and ultimately to the demise of the muzzle-loading gun. THUNDERER herself was re-equipped with long-calibre 10" breech-loaders, and settled down in her old age to become a favourite of the Fleet: King George V served in her for a while as Lieutenant Prince George of Wales. With her broad beam she was a fine gun-platform, and the phrase "As steady as the old Thunderer" was high praise for any newcomer to the Navy.


In 1911, a new HMS THUNDERER was launched at Blackwall, the last warship to be built on the Thames. In 1909, the Admiralty had called for six new 'super-Dreadnoughts ' to counter the German naval expansion; the Treasury economists would offer only four, but politics intervened in a year of two general elections, and when the cry went up: "We want eight, and we won't wait!" the ORIONS were built as part of an unusual compromise of four ships in 1910, and four more in 1911. THUNDERER and her sisters were huge ships of 22,000 tons, with ten 13 inch guns in super-firing turrets, all mounted on the centreline. Her machinery consisted of new steam turbines, and her electrics were provided by four 200 KW generators, installed in separate compartments, and capable of isolation if damaged, an important innovation in this design.

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Her design was dominated by wireless equipment: the Royal Navy led the world in the adoption of the Marconi system, and Admiral Fisher was adamant that the new ships should have "No masts or fighting tops: only a pole for wireless. The necessity for masts and yards for signalling does not exist." So only a single tripod was fitted to carry a tall WT pole, and eliminating the after mast, and slinging the aerials down to a short stump aft saved 50 tons of top-weight.

THUNDERER was fitted with the Dreyer fire-control table, which was effectively the world's first automatic computer, and ten years ahead of any other Navies' developments. She was also the first of her class to carry Captain Percy Scott's new director firing system, which made her top-shooting ship in the 1912 trials, when she delivered over six times the hits of ORION into her sister's target in just 3 minutes and 30 seconds. The following year, she was the flagship of Vice-Admiral Jellicoe, and in 1916 she fought with the Second Battle Squadron, under the command of Captain Sir James Ferguson, whose wife was coincidentally staying at Manadon House during May, the month of the battle, when it was still a private residence.

After the First War, many ships were discarded under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty, but THUNDERER was retained as the cadet's sea-going training ship, and a whole generation of engineer officers gained their first sea-going experience on board. One of these can recall a CPO thrusting his jack-knife up to the hilt into the side of one of the turrets: the layers of paint were over five inches thick!

In 1926 she was paid off, though she ran ashore off Blythe on her way to be broken up.

The next THUNDERER is very interesting, but does not really count: she was laid down by Fairfields in Govan in 1939 as a "third-generation" battleship, with nine sixteen-inch guns in triple turrets. She was cancelled before launching when it was realised that she and her sisters would not be completed before the end of the Second War, but had they been built, they would have been the British equivalents of the long-lasting Iowa class, including New Jersey, Wisconsin and "Mighty Mo", which have survived for fifty years to represent the ultimate in traditional seapower.


Instead of this, the THUNDERER name was awarded to the Royal Naval Engineering College in 1947. The college had been founded at Keyham in 1880, but during the second war the move to Manadon had begun, with the building of the hangars and instructional block, and the use of Manadon House as the Officer's Mess with accommodation in Nissen huts stretching down to the tennis courts.


When Keyham had been founded in 1880, a badge was adopted showing the naval crown and foul anchor, surrounded by a garter carrying the original title "Training School for Engineer Students Devonport". This badge was superseded around 1900 by the interlaced RNEC monogram in a ropework border, which remained in use for many years.

With the award of the name HMS THUNDERER to the combined colleges of Keyham and Manadon, the 1919 battleship badge was re-adopted, showing a hand grasping a thunderbolt and six lightning flashes, with the motto "Eripimus Jovi Fulmen" meaning "We snatch the thunder from Jove", a classical reference to the growth of reason replacing superstition, as men began to understand the science that lay behind natural phenomena.

This new badge lasted only until 1953, when an old design based on the original battleship's gun tompions was re-adopted. This showed a wild figure, more like Thor than Jove, swinging a great hammer, and surrounded by lightning flashes. An English motto, "Strike the iron while 'tis hot" was adopted; this seems to have some reference to the process of engineering education.

This new badge was shown in a circular ropework border, because during the 1950's, the pre-war conventions had all broken down, as new ships maintained their predecessor's badges rather than casting new ones. Thus destroyers were using the cruisers' shield-shaped badges, and frigates were adopting the destroyers' pentagons. The 1947 badge was properly placed in the "lozenge" or diamond-shaped frame reserved for auxiliaries, (including aircraft-carriers and submarines, which seemed of small importance when the system was established in 1919). By 1953, however, the prevailing anarchy meant that ships could adopt any shape of badge they had inherited, or use a circular frame, (formerly reserved for battleships) for any new designs that arose. At least THUNDERER had the justification that the establishment's predecessor had been a battleship, though the version used in the Manadon wardroom was totally unofficial in design, even though it was very appropriate in style.

In 1976, a DCI was published requiring all ships and establishments to conform to a new code, as follows:

Crests.jpg (46757 bytes)

In most cases the changes were made by placing the old designs into new frames, and re-casting the badges. However, the large figure of Jove and his thunderbolts had to be re-carved to fit into a diamond frame, so this work was not undertaken until 1983, when the Queen was due to make a Royal Visit to award degrees. At the same time, it was agreed that we should revert to the original, 1911 orientation of the figure, which had been unaccountably reversed to show his back in the 1953 version. This latest version was approved by Sir Waiter Verco, of the Royal College of Arms, in time to be carved in Manadon's workshops by Mr Hollett, and cast for display on the Main Gates and over the IB when the Queen visited. A pair of the new-style badges was also presented to British Rail at Laira for display on the Class 50 locomotive named THUNDERER. She was always known as the best timekeeper on the Plymouth expresses before the High Speed Trains took over, and now that she has been preserved, she will remain the last site to carry the official THUNDERER badges, unless a new ship is given the name.


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