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Nelson Class Battleship - HMS Nelson

From SN Guides


The name Nelson

The name HMS Nelson first appeared in the Royal Navy in 1814 in honour of that famed son of Norfolk Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson the 1st. Viscount Nelson who was killed during the battle of Trafalgar on the 21st October 1905, arguably Britain’s greatest Admiral. There have been three ships and a shore establishment named in Nelsons honour , the first appearing eight years after his death. This first nelson was a one off ship of the Nelson class ship of the line built at the Woolwich dockyard 1809 to 1815, she was launched in July 1914 to a huge audience of more than 20,000 including the Royal family, a little over 200 feet long and displacing about 2,600 tons she mounted 120 guns ranging from 12 to 32 pounders. She was a full rigged ship, that is a sailing ship of three masts all being square rigged, in 1859 she was refitted as a steam frigate and given to Victoria Australia in 1867. The second ship to bear the name was also the name ship of a class but in this case there were two ships Nelson and Northampton, a two ship class of iron frigate or armoured cruiser, although when first built they were rated as second class battleships. Nelson was built by John Elder and Co of Glasgow being laid down in November 1874 and launched on the o4th November 1876, she commissioned in 1881, her principle dimensions being : L 280’ B 60’ and draft 25’ with a displacement of 7,473 tons. Her machinery was built by the shipyard and comprised twin screws powered by two 2 cylinder compound steam engines developing 6,624 IHP and giving her a speed of 14 knots, steam was provided by ten boilers. Her armament comprised a box shaped battery with four 10” muzzle loaders, one at each corner, and eight 9” muzzle loaders – four to each broadside, light weapons were six 20 and three 9 pounder breech loaders, she was also fitted with two 14” submerged torpedo tubes – one on either beam, her crew totalled 560 men. Initially fitted with a three masted auxiliary sailing rig this was cut down to military masts during her 1889-1891 refit. Following this refit she was posted as Portsmouth guardship following this her usefulness declined and after a spell as a training ship for stokers she was sold for scrap to a Dutch ship-breakers in 1910. The 3rd ship to bear the name Nelson is the subject of this article, following her scrapping in 1949 the name has been used by part of the Portsmouth naval base.

Class information

The two ships of the class, Nelson and Rodney, were both laid down on the same day the 28th December 1922 but their story begins well before that. Immediately following the first world war Britain realising that it had slipped down the world order and that it’s current ships were below the standard of it’s main threat – those of the USA and Japan designed two new class of warship the G3 class of four battle-cruisers of 48,000 tons and some 850 feet long armed with nine 16” guns, the planned 160,000 SHP was to give them a speed of 32 knots, to accompany them were 4 battleships of the N3 class of similar displacement but slightly shorter to allow more armour these were to be armed with nine 18” guns also in three triple turrets, the lower power of 80,000 SHP g]was to give a speed of 23-04 knots and the weight saved allow further armour for protection. Orders had been placed in 1921 with work to start in 1922 when the Washington naval Treaty of November 1921 curtailed all building and escalation of naval power. Britain had to scrap a huge number of ships under this treaty but in realising that both Japan and the USA had ships armed with 16” guns - Japan two ships of the Nagato class ( Nagato and Mutsu) and the USA the four ships of the Colorado class ( Colorado, Maryland, Washington and West Virginia – the Washington BB47 was cancelled under the treaty and used as a target ship) left Britain at a disadvantage so she was allowed to build two new ships with 16” guns, the two ships were designed using the best features of the both the G3 and N3 designs and was certainly the most radical battleship class ever built for the Royal navy if not the world. The class were given many nicknames, most well known was the ‘Cherry Tree class’ because they were cut down by Washington, another nickname they earned due to their unusual design with the all aft structure which left them looking like tankers was the Rodol and Nelsol after a fleet a tanker design that all had names ending in OL., Another nickname applied to the huge tower of her deck house – Queen Anne’s mansions –part of the Admiralty buildings in London, but as the crew of the new battleship became used to her odd design one nickname stuck, Nellie, and that name stayed with her throughout her service life.


This image belonging to my father shows Nelson at the beginning of July 1943 , she is sailing from Gibraltar following the Rodney ( off the port bow) .- note the number of AA guns occupying virtually every spare bit of space on the ship, the starboard twin 6" turrets ( S1,S2 and S3, show up well, particularly evident is M7 octuple 2 pounder pompom right aft on the quarter deck, wih the two 4.7" guns of HA5 and HA6 mounts flanking it, note also the surface search radar in it's lantern at the cross trees on the main mast. Both ships are on their way to take part in Operation Husky - the invasion of Sicily

Building data

Nelson was laid down on the 28th December 1922 by Vickers-Armstrong at the Walkers navy Yard, Newcastle-upon-Tyne she was launched by Dame Marianne Caroline Bridgeman the wife of the First lord of the Admiralty William Clive Bridgeman on the 03rd September 1925- some three and a half months ahead of her sister-ship. May to August 1927 was spent on sea trials and testing during which she achieved 23.55 knots on 46,031 SHP over the measured mile off Polperro, Cornwall. On the 09th August 1927 a navigating party from her home base of Portsmouth took her over from her builders on the Tyne, on the 15th August she was commissioned by her first captain Sidney Julius Meyrick – later Admiral Sir Sidney Julius Meyrick, Nelson was to remain a Portsmouth manned ship throughout her life. Her building costs are given as £7,504,055, she would probably cost a thousand times more to construct in modern times.

Basic Details

L 710’ B 106’ Draft 33’06” Displacement 33,313 tons standard and 41,250 tons full load, by 1945 the full load displacement had risen to 44,054 tons on a draft of 34’06” One of the specifications of the Washington treaty was for a battleship was for a maximum standard displacement of 35,000 tons, standard indicated a ship fully stored and ammuntioned but with just circulating water in her systems, both the sisters were initially well under that figure, that 1,700 tonnes would have allowed a significant improvement of what was already a well armoured ship.


Twin screws driven by Brown-Curtis geared steam turbines supplied with steam by eight Yarrow small tube, 3-drum, oil fired boilers, developed power was 45,000 SHP giving a speed of 23 knots. Bunker capacity was 3,815 tons of fuel oil and 160 tons of diesel oil giving her a range of 5,500 miles at full speed and 7,000 miles at 16 knots. On her trials she attained 46,031 shp which gave her a speed of 23.55 knots. The machinery was contained in two separate engine rooms placed forwards of the two gearing rooms, aft of the gearing rooms were the four boiler rooms, each room containing two boilers.


Main battery

The main battery weapons were already in the design process having been intended for the cancelled G3 class battle-cruisers, work was well in advance when the Nelson class were ordered with around £600,000 having been already spent. The Nelson class mounted Nine 16” C 45 Mk1 guns in Mk1 turrets, these guns were of a new design and fired a high velocity shell weighing 2,048 lbs, they were the last guns to be of wire wound construction – were miles of thin flat wire are would round an inner steel tube and then covered with a shrunk on steel sleeve, they were also the only capital ship weapon in the Royal Navy to be carried in triple turrets. This weapon was at first not a success, wear rates for the gun barrels was disappointingly poor with them lasting just 180 firings this was corrected to a degree by the gun barrel rifling being modified circa 1930 when the barrels were designated the Mk2 , the wear rate was still well below that of the highly successful British C42 15” guns fitted to the reminder of the battle-fleet. The charge firing the guns was contained in six artificial silk bags called shallon, each bag weighed a little over 83 lbs for the total charge weight of 498 lbs of MD45 Cordite. Approximately 100 rounds per gun were carried, 80 being APC and twenty HE with a total of 900 rounds on board. The 2,048lb shell was a lightweight weapon and was fired at the relatively high velocity of 2,700 feet / second. In line with the humour of the Nelsons crew the main guns were named individually after the seven dwarfs with the remaining two being named Mickey and Minnie.

The guns were necessarily complex with many interlocks and precautions to protect he magazines from flash fires this complexity caused much unreliability with the guns and this remained a feature with the class throughout their lives. One factor which may have caused these early reliability problems was that when built the guns were not subjected to a ‘pit trial’. A pit trial is were the entire turret is constructed in a ‘pit’ constructed to resemble the barbette on the ship. Once built turret is run through the loading operation many times to iron out any problems, it can be appreciated this a dry firing exercise only. After the pit trial the turret is stripped back down to it’s component parts for installation, fitting a complete turret would have been far in excess of the capacity of any lifting equipment of the day, the turret itself weighed in at about 1150 tons with the three guns adding another 108 tons each.

Another unanticipated side effect was blast damage to the structure of the ship from the muzzle blast the after most, X, turret being the main offender, whereas A and B guns could fire from right ahead to 150 degrees on either beam, X turret being sited behind B gun was limited to 40 to 150 degrees with any angle aft of 90 degrees ( abeam) certain to cause blast damage to the bridge structure, this was particularly apparent at higher elevations when the bridge would be untenable during the firing of X turret. Maximum range of these guns was about 41,000 yards at their maximum elevation of 40 degrees and the rate of fire was stated as one round every 40 seconds however this was for initial firings, after ready use shells had been used the delays with the hoist mechanisms in reality lowered to this to about one round per minute, disappointingly slow when compared with the earlier 15” guns rate of 2 rounds per minute.

Gun Operation. The loading of the 16” Mk1 was different from other large guns in the RN in that the shells were hoisted to the guns in separate shell and charge hoists. The Cordite charges were stowed in the magazines in flash-proof protective cases, the magazine location was the lowest of the gunnery compartments just above the treble bottom of the ship, the charges were removed from their protective cases and were then at their most vulnerable. Once out of their cases the six piece charge was loaded into a hopper for exiting the safety of the magazine this worked like an airlock so there was no route for the flash of an explosion to reach the magazine from here it was sent up to the gun house (turret) with the charges in the vertical position – note all other Large guns in the RN sent the charge up in the horizontal position. In the gun house it remained in the charge hoist with the flash doors closed until it was ready to placed on the loading tray to be rammed into the gun. As well as the main hoist for each gun there were also three secondary charge hoists in case of failure of the main hoists The shells were stored, as per standard RN procedure, horizontally in the shell room in bins, the shell room was located over the magazine thus giving the magazines the maximum amount of protection from a plunging enemy shell. The shells were lifted from their storage bins by large hydraulic and wire operated grabs and deposited into one of four bogies – the forth bogie being a spare. These bogies were on a shell ring that was free to rotate round the turret trunk at the base of the turret, once loaded with three shells they were rotated to line up with three openings in the trunk, here the shells were rammed through a flash-tight ‘airlock’ and in one movement were pushed into the trunk and rotated into the upright position and then rammed into each of the three main shell hoists, these were of the pusher type. In othger RN heavy guns the shells were then hoisted straight up to the gun loading cages here the hoist moved up a layer and another shell could be loaded into the next cage until eventually a maximum of four shells for each gun were in the vertical hoist up to the gun house. In the gun house (turret) the shell appeared through the floor to one side of the gun were it was then tipped over into the horizontal and then rammed sideways into the gun loading tray were the gun was waiting with its controls hydraulically locked at a elevation of about 3 degrees and with it’s breech open and the shell loading tray swung into the breech, the shell once on the loading tray was then rammed into the gun using a seven section chain driven telescopic ram, once the shell was in the gun the rammer withdrew and three bags of cordite – half the charge, were rammed onto the loading tray and then rammed into the gun but at a slower speed that the shell to prevent accidental ignition of the cordite, this operation was then repeated for the latter three parts of the charge when the loading tray would retract and the massive breech with it’s interrupted screw threads would swing across, slam shut and then rotate through 90 degrees locking it shut, at this moment the firing charge rather like a small shell casing would be inserted and locked into the breech. The gun was now ready to fire, it would be released from the locked position and free to elevate to follow the gun director, it would already be trained to the correct bearing all the time through the loading interval. Once on elevation the gun ready lights would come on and the gun could them be fired either by the director control tower (DCT) located on top of the huge deck house or if this was out of action the secondary battery control located aft or by local control from within the turret using the turrets own fire control set up located in the ‘silent cabinet’. The silent cabinet being a small room located at the right rear side of the gun house, each turret was equipped with a forty-foot rangefinder for this purpose. On firing the recoil of these huge weapons was about forty inches with the recoil being arrested by two large buffer cylinders, the recoil pressurised these air cylinders with this pressure being used to run the gun back out after firing. Elevation of the guns was independent for each gun and achieved by a hydraulic ram located below the gun breech. Rotation of the turret was by one of two 400 HP hydraulic motors located below the gun house floor and driving via a rack and pinion into a huge circular rack on the inside of the barbette, only one motor was used the other being a back-up spare.

Turret Crew

Gun-house and silent room

1 captain of the turret – normally a quarters rating 1st class, 3 Guns crew of three men each, 1 Range taker, 1 Rangefinder, 1 LDS trainer, 1 LDS Layer, 1 Sight setter, 1 Telephone operator, 1 Range Officer, 1 rate officer, 1 Dumaresq operator, 3 Gunlayers, 1 turret trainer . Total 23 men in the gunhouse.

Shell / magazine room crews

1 Second captain of the turret, 4 Shell bogie operators, 4 pivot tray operators, 3 Shell scuttle operators, 1 PO in charge of shell room, 24 men in shell room to handle the shells, 1 PO in charge of the magazine, 24 men to handle charges. Total 62 men Total for entire turret operation 85 men

The above description of loading the gun is my shortening of a vastly more complex operation, I could add exactly how it was done but this would be a book not an article and it does give an insight into the hugely complex operation of the RN’s second biggest weapon. Steve


This is a scan of a popular newspaper image of Nelson and shows the barrels of X turret at full elevation in particular it shows their proximity to the bridge structure, the crew are rolling three 16" shells along the deck in shell bogeys and to their right stand the cannisters which each hold two of the six cordite charges which make up the full charge for firing the gun. The smaller gun barrel above those of X turret is that of HA1, a 4.7" HAAA gun whilst HA2 and HA4, also 4.7's are shown trained out to port further aft

Secondary battery

The guns for the secondary battery were also well advanced in the design stage when plans for the Nelson class were made, they had been intended as the secondary battery on both the N3 battleships and G3 battle-cruisers. Just ten years or so earlier the Queen Elizabeth and Revenge classes had been fitted with hand oprated and loaded six inch guns, the 100lb shell was judged to be the heaviest a gun crew could load and fire efficiently by hand, however fatigue would rapidly set in and the rate of fire would drop, also the weapons on these two classes were mounted below the upper-deck in single case mate mounts which resulted in a very wet exposed gun, unusable in only moderate weather, at last this practice was ended. The Nelson class carried their secondary weapons on the upperdeck in weather-tight gun houses, usuable in all but the very worst of weather. Twelve 6” C50 Mk22 guns in six twin turrets, three either side were place aft of the funnel , these were essentially a quick-firing gun using charges contained in a brass cartridge – the first 6” gun to do so for decades, with an elevation of 60 degrees and a rapid rate of fire of up to 7 or 8 rounds per minute these weapons were intended for a dual role of surface and heavy AA gun, however they were rather to slow in train and elevation to be successful AA weapons although they did contribute to the ships AA defence. Maximum range as a surface gun was about 25,000 yards at 45 degrees, 150 rounds of shell weighing 112 lbs were carried, the firing charge being a little over 30 lbs of Cordite.

Heavy AA battery

Six single 4.7” C40 Mk8 QF HA AA power operated guns in six single mounts, these were place two right aft and side by side on the quarter deck, one either side of the funnel and one each side of the deck house a deck above the 6” guns. These fired a one piece fixed round weighing just over 75 lbs of which 50 lbs comprised the projectile, rate of fire was supposedly 12 rounds per minute but 10 or just under would be more realistic, approximately 200 rounds per gun were carried. Surface range was about 16,000 yards and the AA ceiling was just over 30,000 feet. On completion these weapons wer completely open but at the start of WW2 shields were added to the guns and a splinter shield type bulwark added in front of the guns.

Light AA battery

Initially this started out as eight single 2 pounder pompoms and four three pounder signalling guns, it had been intended to install four octuple pompoms but these were not yet available and the single guns were fitted as a stop-gap measure. Reality soon set in that six 4.7” and eight small pompoms were not going to be enough. By the end of the war Nellie mounted no less than 156 guns namely : seven octuple 2 pounder pompoms , one on B gun, one either side of the funnel, one either side about the No3 6” gun, and one right aft on the quarter deck. Four quadruple 40mm Bofors guns located at each corner of the deck house and sixty five single 20mm Oerlikons in seven groups.


This image courtesy of SN member Stein is undated but once again the lack of light AA weapons indicate this is pre 1932 as the first two octuple pompoms were fitted during the 1932-3 refit

Torpedo armament

Unusually for a modern battleship Nelson and Rodney were armed with two torpedo tubes, one each side, right forwards firing at a slight outward angle to the fore and aft line, these were no normal torpedoes however, they were 24.5” monsters weighing no less than 5,628 lbs with a warhead of almost 750 lbs of TNT , they had a range of 30,000 yards at 30 knots or 15,000 yards at 35 knots, ten torpedoes were carried – Nelsons sister ship Rodney used them against the Bismarck and is the only known case of one battleship torpedoing another. In 1941 the torpedo armament was removed from Nelson following it’s flooding when she was hit by an Italian air launched 18” torpedo.

Armour Protection

The Nelson class were the first British battleships to feature the all or nothing principle of armour in which a compartment was either fully armoured, or not at all. The protection comprised a main belt 14” thick over the main armament and 13”over the machinery spaces and the six inch guns, it was located internally some 12 feet inboard and sloped inwards at it’s base by 15 degrees, it covered from just over six feet above to six feet below the load water line, below this was the 1.5” anti torpedo bulkhead, out board of this protection scheme were void spaces which could be liquid filled to further absorb damage Inboard were compartments designed to limit flooding should the anti torpedo or armoured belt leak, the torpedo defence scheme was designed for defence against a 750 lb TNT charge. The main armoured citadel was closed off with 12” armoured upper bulkhead forwards with a 7” one below it, aft the bulkhead was of 10” armour plate. |Deck armour consisted of 6.25” over the magazines at the level of the upper-edge of the main belt reducing to 3.75” over the machinery, below this was a lower deck of 4.5” forwards and 4” aft, additional to the armour on each deck was an additional 0.5” of normal plating.

The barbettes protecting the turret operating machinery and shell hoists were 15” thick at the outboard and unprotected areas and 12” elsewhere, the main turrets had 16” thick face plates with 11” sides, 9” rear plates and 7.25” roofs, the six inch turrets were just 1.5” thick. The control tower and main director were protected with plating ranging from 16” to 4.5”.


The above image shows the armour distrubution on the Nelson, the black area is the main armoured belt covering the machinery and main magazines this was 14" over the magazines and 13" aft over the machinery and 6" magazines. The armoured control tower is shown below the bridge and abaft X turret, this armour was up to 16" thick.

Service History

Nelson completed her trials on the 09th August 1927 when she was taken over by a navigating party from her builders at the Walker yard on the Tyne, on the 15th August 1927 with captain S.J. Meyrick in command she was fully manned and commissioned into the Royal navy at Portsmouth. After working up she assumed the role of flagship Home Fleet hoisting the flag of Admiral Sir Hubert George Brand rather fittingly on Trafalgar day - the 21st October 1927, Nelson was to carry the honour of being the fleet flagship for the next fourteen years. Her life in peacetime was that of any battleship in the RN, although she spent most of her time in UK waters she made the spring cruise to Gibraltar each year exercising in the Mediterranean sea visiting Malta in the process, she made two cruises to the Caribbean and passed through the Panama canal on one,. Other cruises were to Scandinavia visiting Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo. In 1930 a she played a pivotal role in rescuing 23 men from a small Greek freighter, she had had a fire and explosion in her cargo of coal, her sickbay treated a badly burned Greek seaman. In 1934 she was the subject of great ribaldry, when sailing from Portsmouth her known wayward handling at low speeds made an appearance, she drifted to starboard out of the channel and ran aground on the Hamilton bank, the rather coarser elements of the press made much of history repeating itself with a Nelson mounting a Hamilton .

In 1935 she became the trials ship for a new type of aircraft, the Supermarine Walrus amphibious biplane reconnaissance aircraft, early trials went well except for a visit to the ship by the CinC Sir Roger Backhouse, the landing on the water went well – except for the pilot leaving the wheels down, this ripped holes in the planes hull which then sank, thankfully all on board escaped but I would rather imagine the pilot was none to popular afterwards.

On the 03rd September 1939 Britain declared war on Germany, Nelson was in Scapa flow on this day along with her sister-ship Rodney and three of the Royal Sovereign class battleships Royal Sovereign, Ramillies and Royal Oak. The first action of the flagship was to land the glass case containing the uniform Nelson had worn at Trafalgar – this is now in the Greenwich National Maritime Museum , the small lock of his hair remained on board – this was in a frame on the keyboard flat. Now under the command of the CinC Admiral Sir Charles Forbes the fleet along with the aircraft carrier , Ark Royal , put to sea on the 26th September to escort a damaged submarine, HMS Spearfish, back home, on the return journey the fleet was attacked by German aircraft and the nelson fired her first shots in anger when her heavy AA battery of 4.7” guns opened fire, no damage was done to the fleet but the Germans claimed the first ‘sinking’ of the Ark Royal , they also claimed to have sunk HMS Kestrel which was an amazing feat as this was a Naval base at Worthy Down near Winchester. In early October Nelson and Rodney were back at sea again this time looking for the German light battleship Scharnhorst and her cruiser escort Koln to the NE of the Shetlands but this proved a fruitless exercise. Whilst the ships were at Sea the battleship Royal Oak was sunk at anchor in Scapa Flow by Gunther Prien in U47, the loss of this ship and 833 of her men closed the anchorage to ships and Nelson instead returned to Loch Ewe.

On the 30th October 1939 another German U boat, this time U56, under the command of Lt Wilhelm Zahn sighted Nelson, Rodney and Hood with a fleet of ten destroyers, Zahn successfully hit Nelson with three torpedoes which thankfully for the flagship all failed to explode. On the 4th December 1939 whilst entering Loch Ewe Nelson passed over and detonated a new type of weapon, the magnetic mine, although the massive explosion did not kill anyone a large number of her crew suffered lacerating injuries to delicate parts of their anatomies when ceramic toilet pans shattered in the blast. Although in no danger of sinking damage to the ship was quite severe, her outer bottom over a length of some seventy feet was forced upwards by some four feet and flooding extended some twice this area. Admiral Forbes transferred his flag to Rodney and Nelson sailed to Portsmouth for repairs, arriving on the 08th January 1940, repairs were to take almost nine months during which time she was fitted with her first radar sets the type 279 an early centi-metric air warning radar with separate TX and RX antennae. In June she sailed from Portsmouth to complete the refit on the Clyde here she was fitted with a second radar set, the type 284, this was for range setting on the main armament.

She sailed from the Clyde on the 06th September 1940 for Scapa Flow and was almost immediately involved in an operation to search for enemy shipping off the Norwegian coast, the fleet now under the command of CinC Admiral Sir John Tovey had limited success with aircraft from Furious sinking just one ship of 2,000 tons and forcing the abandonment of another., the winter of 1940/1 was spent on long fruitless and rough patrols searching for German heavy units. On the 2nd March 1941 the first amphibious operation ( Claymore) against enemy territory was staged using the big units of the Home Fleet, including Nelson, as a covering force in which the Lofoten Islands were raided and the fish oil factories destroyed. In late March 1941 Nelson was part of the escort for convoy WS7, this convoy warranted special attention for it contained no less than twenty- three troop carrying converted liners, the close escort was led by the large light cruiser Edinburgh, twelve destroyers and the old battleship Revenge. The convoy called at Freetown West Africa before arriving at Cape Town were the convoy spilt with Nelson and half the liners carrying on to Durban. On the return journey in company with the carrier Eagle the ships were put on the alert for a possible German surface unit in the area but this proved to be a false alarm , during this voyage the tragic news of the loss of the Hood was received, after having arrived at Freetown to refuel and take stores and mail the news of the sinking of the Bismarck came through.

On the 04th June After escorting a convoy part way to Sierra Leone Nelson, with the cruiser Neptune received a report of a suspicious merchant ship, increasing speed they caught up with the reported merchantmen and although the merchant ship tried to outrun the two warships during the night she was followed until daylight, the ship signalled she was the Swedish Kescholm of just under 4,000 tons and 13 knots but she appeared larger and at 18 knots certainly faster, a single 6” round from nelson fired across her bows elicited her lowering her boats, two further warning shots were fired to stop the abandonment, Neptune was ordered to investigate but a scuttling charge was fired and the German supply ship Gonzenheim , intended as a supply ship for the Bismarck, started for the bottom, all her crew were picked up by the Neptune. On the 14th June 1941 command of the Nelson passed to Captain Tom Troutbridge whilst the ship was in Scapa Flow, the Chaplain Harold Beardmore temporarily left to visit the Hoods widows, this was a particularly difficult task as he had been Hoods chaplain and had only missed sailing with her as he was doing welfare work with the wives of the Hoods crew. Following this Nelson sailed for the med to provide a heavy escort convoys through to Malta, this was to prevent possible interference by heavy units of the Italian fleet with Admiral Sir James Somerville flying his flag in Renown, although he transferred to Nelson at Gibraltar on the 27th July 1941.

On the 25th September Nelson was part of the distant heavy escort for convoy WS11X to Malta with her was Ark Royal, the cruiser Hermione and six destroyers. All went well until the morning of the 27th when she came under air attack by three engine Savoia79/2 torpedo bombers although no hits were made, at 1300 that afternoon The Gunner (T) Mr Harrison suggested that as the ship was under heavy air attack and there was no prospect of surface action the crews from the torpedo room, right forwards, should be removed to back up the damage control parties, this action saved many lives, at 1330 the ship was attacked by Fiat BR20 aircraft with torpedoes, all missed but one, the plane was even photographed dropping it’s torpedo close off the starboard bow, the ship swung to avoid the torpedo which disappeared under the bow, all on board thought it had missed until the ship shook very heavily, there were little outward signs of the explosion, another plane had a go with it’s torpedo and the ship managed to avoid this one and the gunners did their work shooting the plane down, all guns were involved – 6”, 4.7” and close range weapons . The 1st Lt , Commander Blundell went to investigate the damage and found all lighting out below decks forward, the damage was assessed as forwards and below the middle deck, emergency lighting was quickly rigged, the trunk to the torpedo room was found to be flooded thus removing the men had saved their lives. Nelsons speed had now fallen to 14 knots due to the weight of water in her and the increased draft so she reversed course when she was no longer needed and returned to Gibraltar arriving back on the morning of the 30th her draft forwards being nearly 40 feet despite dragging all the chain cable aft to reduce the trim, The next day de-ammunitioning started with all hands turning to assist, this was completed early on the 02nd October and she dry-docked to carry out temporary repairs to enable her to return to the UK for full repairs. One the dock was empty the damage was worse than first thought, the hit had been on the torpedo body room and smashed torpedoes and their explosives were scattered about the space. On the 05th November the temporary repairs had been completed and she was floated out of the dry-dock, On the 13th Nelson was requested to take as many survivors off the Ark Royal by a U-boat torpedo close to Gibraltar, in all 970 of her crew were billeted on board and the nelson sailed for Scapa Flow on the evening of the 16th November., from Scapa Flow she went to Rosyth for full repairs arriving on the 27th November 1941. Nelson sailed from Rosyth on the 21st April 1942 fully repaired and with a stronger light AA battery, and new radar sets including the type 273 surface search radar fitted in a large glass lantern on the main mast, her destination was Scapa Flow for working up exercises, on completion of these her first duty was as heavy escort on a Freetown convoy, during this voyage the ship had a personal tragedy, in warm weather it was customary for some of the crew to sleep above decks, one of the cosy spots was between the long wooden booms stowed adjacent to A turret, Stoker Blades was doing just this on the night of June 13th when A turret trained almost silently round crushing him to death as it swung just inches over the booms, Blades was given a full military funeral when he was buried at sea at 0900 that morning.

On the 27th July Nelson was in Scapa Flow when Vice Admiral Edward Neville hoisted his flag, his appointment was the start of the run up to Operation Pedestal, the supply of Malta convoy which would feature that well known tanker Ohio and make her a national heroine, over the next week there was a lot of activity with the ship storing up and loading her maximum capacity of ammunition, in particular her AA outfit. Nelson and Rodney with five destroyers sailed from Scapa Flow on the 02nd August 1942 and the next day formed up with the merchant ships of the convoy : Port Chalmers ( Commodore) Almeria Lykes, Brisbane Star, Melbourne Star, Deucalion, Dorset, Empire Hope, Clan Ferguson, Glenorchy, Rochester Castle, Santa Elisa, Wairangi, Waimarama and of course the Ohio. This was a massive effort to supply Malta with a huge naval escort, losses were many and just four of the merchant ships plus the Ohio reached Malta but this was judged a success because without these vital supplies Malta may have fallen to the axis command. Following this convoy Nelson returned to Gibraltar and then Greenock were she arrived on the 25th August, she then shifted round to Rosyth for a dry-docking , returning to service at Scapa Flow on the 16th October here she did AA, anti e-boat drills and night bombardment practice firings at Stack Skerry.

On the 30th October 1942 Nelson , the Duke of York, and Renown along with the carriers Illustrious and Formidable sailed to take part in Operation Torch – the allied landings in North Africa, the ships refuelled in Gibraltar on the o5th November with Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham hoisting his flag in Nelson., the landings at Algiers, Casablanca and Oran, involved 350 warships and 500 merchantmen all told and there were very few casualties amongst the ships, on the 15th November the French under Admiral Darlan surrendered and Nelson returned to her role as flagship of force H under Vice Admiral Syfret once more. On the 22nd November she was a heavy covering ship for a force of British cruisers hoping to attack Italian convoys but no contact was made on the 23rd a Junkers JU88 bomber was seen above the fleet seemingly unaware of what was below, Nelson’ pompoms shot it down. Christmas 1942 saw Nelson on her way back to Gibraltar where she arrived on the Morning of the 26th, the ‘Med’ was now a far quieter place and the flagship stayed in Gibraltar over the holiday period finally sailing on the Morning of the 02nd January, the peaceful trip to Algiers was only disturbed when Nelsons AA guns opened fire on a Junkers JU88, thankfully they had not shot it down when a hasty signal from Formidable advised that the offending plane was a Mosquito of the RAF. On the 23rd January Admiral Syfret was operated on in the ships operating room for appendicitis by the ships surgeon Lt Paul Houghton, the story goes that whilst recovering in his cabin Lt Houghton picked up Syfret's telescope and on looking through the wrong exclaimed that it looked like Nelsons funeral, from beneath the blankets a voice exclaimed “not yet my lad”. A short while afterwards Syfret was landed to the Hospital ship Oxfordshire, Rear Admiral Burroughs temporarily replaced Syfret and on the 26th January the ship went to immediate readiness to sail as the allies had lost track of the Italian battleship Littorio, however this turned out to be a false alarm and the flagship continued to languish in Mers-el-Kebir. Nelson arrived back at Gibraltar on the 02nd march 1943 and Admiral Sir Algernon Willis hoisted his flag in her, the flagships duties were patrols along the African coast in case the Italian fleet attempted to interfere with allied shipping but these patrols were fruitless and the Italian fleet never appeared. On the 04th may Nelson was inspected by General Eisenhower and Admiral Cunningham whilst at anchor off Algiers, following this she returned to Gibraltar where on the 24th a group of performers including Vivien Leigh entertained the ship’s crew with a concert held on board. On the 25th Howe replaced Nelson as the flagship and she sailed for Plymouth arriving on the 30th May for a dry-docking. On the 07th June an immense amount of work had been done and the ship was ready for sea again, she now sported a completely new radar outfit, the latest type 273, a 284 main gunnery range set, a type 285 set for AA direction on the HIACS (high angle control stations) and type 286 on the mast tops. Three additional octuple 2 pounder pompoms were added, one on B gun and one either side of the mainmast, an additional 40 plus 20mm Oerlikons were also added. She also received the two US pattern quadruple 40mm Bofors guns at this time. On the 09th June 1943 she was back at Scapa Flow with Admiral Willis again hoisting his flag in Nelson she commenced a series of gunnery training exercises with the battleships Valiant, Warspite and sister-ship Rodney, radar had improved accuracy of the guns so much that in just a quarter of an hour the 4 battleships had completely destroyed all the targets and firing had to cease. On the 17th June the four ships plus the carrier Indomitable and fifteen destroyers sailed for Gibraltar arriving on the 23rd after a very rough passage, they were destined to take part in Operation Husky – the invasion of Sicily, On the 10th July the invasion began and force H comprising Nelson, Rodney Indomitable and destroyers patrolled the Ionian Sea hoping for the Italian fleet to appear but the patrol went peacefully and even though their territory was being invaded the Italian fleet did not attack. On the 15th nelson returned to Malta to refuel leaving Rodney to continue the patrol, on the 16th she returned to the Ionian sea to continue the patrol, that evening the Indomitable was torpedoed and the Nelson escorted her back to Malta, she then returned to the patrol line and bombarded Catania, during the night air activity was at a high and the AA batteries were in radar controlled action throughout., following this she returned to Malta on the 17th were on the 20th with the awnings up the port was attacked by 30 bombers, the awnings were rapidly removed and all AA guns engaged the enemy planes, No3 4.7” HA AA gun alone fired over 80 rounds, much damage was caused in the port and many people were killed, Nelson sent landing parties to help with the clear up. One major problem now reared its head; one of Nelsons evaporators failed and with her crew now numbering 1,756 men there was a severe fresh water shortage. The next major event in Nelsons calendar was on the 27/8th August, Operation Hammer, a heavy bombardment in the Straits of Messina, Nelson and Rodney bombarded shore batteries north of Reggio Calabria from 30,000 yards, this silenced the batteries for good and they took no further part in the invasion of Italy. Conferences were now held on Nelson for operation Avalanche , the landings at Salerno, during the landings there was an air attack on the evening of the 09th September, Nelson using Radar control opened fire with every gun she had – including the 16” guns firing fused HE shells, Illustrious anchored nearby was shocked by the sheer noise and ferocity of the barrage, that night up to 300 rounds each were fired by Nelsons 4.7” heavy AA guns, one of the crew passing cordite charges to the 6” batteries fainted from the exertion when the cease fire was called – earning him the nickname of ‘cordite’ from his less than sympathetic shipmates.


This scan of a magizine clipping of my fathers shows the ferocity of Nelsons barrage firing that night off Salerno.

On Wednesday the 29th September 1943 with Nelson at her moorings in Malta, Admiral Cunningham, Vice Admiral Willis, Generals Eisenhower and Alexander and the Governor of Malta, Lord Gort, received Marshal Badoglio and his senior officers on board along with his British adviser General Mason, here Marshal Badoglio signed the instrument of Italy’s surrender in Nelson’s Admiral’s cabin. With the Italy now out of the war and the Mediterranean now under allied control there was no need to maintain a heavy Royal Navy force at Gibraltar so Force H was disbanded and Nelson set sail for Rosyth for a short refit, she arrived on the 06th November and her C/O captain Russell left to take over the Duke of York with Captain Maxwell-Hyslop taking command of the Nelson, on the 03rd December with repairs completed nelson sailed for Scapa Flow with the destroyers Meteor and Opportune as escorts , although newly out of dry-dock only absolutely essential work had been done as there was still a considerable threat from the German heavy ships Scharnhorst and Tirpitz and a valuable ship such as nelson could just not be spared for a proper docking. Nelson’s next posting was the Clyde, based in the Gareloch she commenced three months of intensive training and exercises , she was now in rather poor condition and had to be docked again beginning on the 01st April 1944 she did not leave the Rosyth yard until early May , she was now ready for her next major role that of bombardment vessel during the allied landings in Normandy, Nelsons crew listened with great humour to a description on the radio of how her great guns were pounding the beach-head, in fact it was her sister-ship Rodney for Nelson was in reserve in Milford haven. Nelsons turn came later, she sailed for Plymouth first arriving on the 09th June and then the beach-heads on the 11th, she remained for seven days during which she fired nearly 1,000 rounds of 16” shell, it was reported by the German army that a heavy naval shell landing near a 45 ton tank had simply flipped the tank upside down as if it were a toy. Nelson received particular praise for her silencing of the batteries at Houlgate and North of Le Havre, the accuracy was helped by the spotting aircraft which reported both targets and fall of shot. On the 18th June whilst underway she detonated two acoustic ground mines, these two 1,500 lb charges detonated together one 50 yards to starboard of the hull and the other under the forward hull, this caused serious damage to the triple bottom structure but caused no casualties, a testament to the strength of these ships, she anchor in stokes bay were ships staff repaired her operationally , but permanent repairs were again needed to the hull so she sailed for the Clyde arriving on the 25th June and joined convoy UC27 , during this convoy she suffered a collision with an American merchant ship the Fort Fetterman which hit Nelsons port side amidships with her bow . Nelson arrived off the American coast on the 04th July 1944 and anchored in the Delaware River that evening, the following morning she docked at the league island navy yard, Philadelphia, in company with her were the new builds Wisconsin, Alaska. Antietam and Wilkes Barre, also in the port was the British cruiser Cleopatra. Captain Maxwell was succeeded by Captain Clifford Caslon; major work was underway which made it evident that hot weather was going to be involved in the future, the ventilation system, never a strong point on British warships, was improved, cold drinking fountains installed. To improve the AA efficiency of the ship the armoured conning tower top was removed and a platform installed to hold two quadruple 40mm Bofors guns and their Mk51 gun directors, an additional two quad Bofors were fitted either side of the funnel. So jam packed were the guns on Nelson that on certain angles of train HA4 - 4.7” gun muzzle was just five feet from the head of the trainer on the No44 Bofors gun. A gallery deck was added to the boat deck to take additional 20mm Oerlikons guns, in total 24 of these single weapons were added. In addition to increasing her AA outfit the US yard also gave her engines a major overhaul, the Nelson crew enjoyed Christmas with their hospitable hosts and sailed with their ship on completion of the repairs on the 14th January 194, the first port of call was New York using a Cunard berth on pier 50, she sailed on the 18th accompanying convoy CU55 arriving back in Portsmouth on the 28th to complete further repairs and maintenance, she re-commissioned on the 14th April 1945 she now began working up in the channel before sailing Malta arriving on the 05th May were she continued working up with the battleship Howe, each would use the other for throw off shoots, in a throw off shoot the exact range was used but hopefully a corrected bearing allowing the shells to fall either ahead or astern thus allowing a judgement made on the accuracy, another method was to adjust the range with either an under or over range shoot but on the correct bearing. The AA gunners were trained ashore in the recognition of Japanese planes, although the Japanese title were the Mitsubishi G4M and such, the allies gave it the name ‘Betty’ to speed up the ID process – as they did with all Japanese planes.

A simple Method of training gunners was used, a film was shown of attacking planes was shown and all the gunners in the audience had a stick with a ring gun site on the end, everyone had to track the plane with aim-off for the motion of the plane, at intervals a ring sight would appear on the screen allowing all to see where they should be aiming. On the 14th June 1945 Nelson sailed from Malta along with the battleship Howe and the cruiser Sussex, passing through the canal after further exercises on the firing range at Mersa Matruh Nelson departed Suez in company with the cruisers Sussex and Cleopatra on the 27th June arriving at Colombo on the 7th July and Trincomalee on the 10th relieving the Queen Elizabeth as fleet flagship with Vice admiral Harold Thomas Coulthard Walker a former captain of HMS hood, nicknamed “Hooky” due to the fact that his right arm had been blown off on board HMS Vindictive at the Zeebrugge raid in 1918. Nelson and the Pacific fleet section she led as task force 63 sailed on 15th July 1945 to carry out operation Livery, Nelson was along as heavy escort whilst the sweepers cleared a path into the North Malacca channel during an air raid some three days later an Oerlikon gunner , one of the ships barbers – Sweeney, was racing to his post which was between HA2 and HA4 4,.7” , in his haste he had not completed putting on his flash gear when as he passed closed to HA4 it opened fire, the gun firing a 50lb shell was rather close to his head and removed most of his hair and his eyebrows with the muzzle flash, his mates showed sympathy later in the mess by rolling around on the deck laughing.

Late in the month TF63 and Nelson arrived back at Trincomalee and were still there preparing for further duty when on August 15 1945 news of the Atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and later Nagasaki came through effectively the war with Japan was now over. On the 17th August Nelson with four small carriers – Hunter, Stalker, Shah and Attacker, the cruisers – London, Ceylon and Nigeria two Infantry landing ships – Princess Beatrix and Queen Emma, and a fleet of destroyers sailed to accept the surrender of the Japanese forces in Penang anchoring off the Nicobar Islands , there had to be a delay until ceremonies in Tokyo had taken place , the delay was frustrating and time was spent on concert parties to pass the time but finally the ships moved to Penang on the 28th August. The first emissaries from the Japanese forces were made to board the flagship by rope ladder such was the ill feeling towards their former enemies, however on the day of the official surrender, the 02nd September 1945, Nelsons immaculately scrubbed gangway was rigged ,sun shone off gleaming brass, reporters and camera men seemed to be everywhere but some of the guns were still manned in-case of some trickery. The Japanese commander rear admiral Uozomi was met by Captain Caslon and the Chief of staff, captain Abbott, and lead below to the Admiral’s cabin were the articles of surrender where signed. On the 08th September Nelson set sail, stopping first at Port Swettenham on the 09th and arriving in Singapore in the morning of the 10th, the first British battleship to dock there since the departure of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, Admiral Lord Mountbatten accepted the surrender of the Japanese forces in Singapore from General Itaki ashore with members from the crews of all the ships in port attending. Whilst in Singapore members of Nelsons Royal Marine Band put on a concert on Singapore radio. Although these were now happier times there were poignant moments, nelson had hosted a party on board for POW inmates of the notorious Changi jail, as they left the ship late at night someone started singing “There’ll always be an England” and as the former prisoners made their way back ashore voices could be heard over the water singing as they went.

Nelson had steamed 135,000 miles, not a bad record seeing as the big ships were always supposed to be swinging round an anchor in a sheltered port somewhere, on the 23rd September, still in Singapore her crew attended a thanks-giving service for the end of the war held at St Andrews Cathedral. On the 30th September Nelson weighed anchor and set sail for home stopping first at Trincomalee, on the 11th October she left Trinco for Kilindini to meet with Anson her those crew due to be demobbed first would be transferred to the Nelson whilst those on the Nelson due for demobbing later transferred to the Anson. On the crossing they held a peacetime ceremony of the crossing of the line on the 17th with a great time being had by all on board. Nelson arrived on the 19th October and sailed after the changeover of crews and a little socialising on the 22nd October, she passed through the Suez canal for the last time on the 30th and 31st, leaving Port said on the 01st November she arrived at Malta for stores and water on the 05th and Gibraltar on the 13th for a brief store stop and arrived back Portsmouth on the 16th November to a large cheering crowd welcoming her home, large numbers of her crew were drafted ashore immediately with others going on leave. After Christmas she sailed for Portland on the 29th December 1945 and for the New Year Nelson was once again Flagship of the Home fleet flying the flag of Admiral Sir Neville Syfret. Nelson put to sea again on the 07th march 1946 for the traditional spring cruise, with her were the cruisers Birmingham, Bellona, and Diadem and the destroyers Mings, Zest, Zambezi, Zephyr and Zenith. The little fleet visited Gibraltar and Lisbon, after this cruise the Admiral shifted his flag to the King George V and Nelson was relegated to the role of a training ship, rarely to proceed to sea, sadly she even had her own entry in the Portland Phone book – wardroom HMS Nelson. On the 01st February 1947 the old battleship went to sea with the flagship once more, this time it was to meet the Vanguard as she came up-channel with the Royal family on board following their tour of South Africa, this was the nelsons last operational trip to sea and the very last time five British battleships would be at sea in manoeuvres together.


This image courtesy of the MaritimeQuest website shows Nelson leaving port in 1947, the port is Portland Harbour and I am convinced this is Nelson going out to meet the Royal family on board the Vanguard, the date is the 01st february 1947 and the last time the old lady went to sea as an operational battleship

In April the Submarine Sceptre rammed the nelson in dense fog, little damage was done to the old battleship but the subs bow was written off. At the end of September 1947 flying her paying off pennant she left Portland to pay off at Portsmouth, along with the Rodney she was sold in 1948 to Thomas wards of Inverkeithing for scrapping, however she had to endure one final indignity, she was used as an aerial bombing target in the Firth of Forth by the Fleet Air Arm, markers for the bulkheads were painted on her hull to indicate the bulkheads. After several months of this rather a waste of energy, surely a deserted ship could not represent the real thing; she finally arrived at Inverkeithing in mid March having had her guns cut off and much other equipment removed to lighten her draft sufficiently to get her into the breaking berths. By 1950 she was gone.


Nelson arriving at Inverkeithing in March 1948 -note that her gun barrels have been roughly cut off to lighten her

In the church at Burnham Thorpe, the village of the Boy nelson, there hangs a white ensign – Nelsons, here crest is also in the church, her bell was initially in Newcastle Town hall, but now it is the gate house bell at HMS Nelson a naval shore base.



  1. IWM,
  2. Kew records office
  3. Battleship Nelson – Ronald Careless
  4. Conway’s 1922-46

This article was completed by Steve woodward on the 16th April 2008

Nelson class Battleships
Nelson Class Battleship - HMS Nelson Nelson Class Battleship - HMS Rodney Nelson Class Battleship - HMS Rodney (Part 2)

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