HMS Bittern (1897)

HMS Bittern (1897) was a C class destroyer that served in home waters for her entire career. She was part of the Devonport Local Defence Flotilla in 1914-1918, and was lost with her entire crew after she collided with SS Kenilworth in thick fog on 4 April 1918.

The Vickers 30-knotters had four Thornycroft boilers in two stokeholds, with the second and third boilers sharing a single funnel. They followed the standard general layout, with a turtleback foredeck, with a conning tower with gun platform and bridge above just behind the turtledeck. Two 6-pounder guns were on either side of the conning tower, two on the sides of the ship and one on the stern. On the three ships of the 1985-6 programme one torpedo tube was between the first and second funnel and the second behind the rear funnel. They were built with the chart table on the front of the bridge/ gun platform.

Pre-war Career

The Bittern was laid down on 18 February 1896 and launched on 1 February 1987.

On 21 October 1898 a navigating party was sent from Chatham to bring the Bittern from Vickers at Barrow.

Her official trials were ordered to begin off Sheerness on 16 November 1898. Trials in the North Sea were ordered to begin on 24 November, and her engines were expected to indicate 6,000hp.

Close-up view of HMS Bittern
Close-up view of
HMS Bittern
The Bittern reached Sheerness to begin her trials on Thursday 5 January, but they had to be postponed for a day due to fog.

On 6 January 1899 her steering gear began erratic while she was in the middle of a measured mile trial, and she narrowly avoiding running onto the Maplin Sands after her engines were thrown into reverse. She briefly hit the sands, sprang a leak and had to return to Chatham.  

She carried out the same trial two weeks later, reaching just over 30 knots at 6,659hp.

In 1899 the Bittern took part in speed and fuel efficiency trials. She reached 30.354 knots at 6,366ihp, consuming 2.40 pounds of coal per iHP per hour and 30.403 knots at 6,627ihp

Brassey’s Naval Annual of 1900 listed those results, and a faster speed of 30.408 knots at 6,627ihp.

On Wednesday 13 December 1899 she completed her steam trials, and was placed on the effective list as ready for commission.

In 1900-1904 the Bittern was part of the Nore Flotilla, one of the three that contained all of the home based destroyers.

The Bittern took part in the 1900 naval manoeuvres, when she formed part of the Chatham division of Fleet B, the defensive fleet. Fleet A was smaller, but was expecting reinforcements from the Mediterranean, suggesting that the potential enemy at this stage was France.

The Bittern took part in the 1901 naval manoeuvres, which began in late July. These involved two fleets – Fleet B began in the North Sea, and had the task of keeping the English Channel open to trade. Fleet X began off the north coast of Ireland, and had the task of stopping trade in the Channel. The Bittern was part of a force of destroyers from Chatham that joined Fleet X. This was the first time both sides in the annual exercises had been given an equal force of destroyers. The exercises ended with a victory for Fleet X. The destroyer forces didn’t live up to expectations, either in torpedo attack or as scouts.

In November 1901 it was announced that her boilers were to be re-tubed, after some time operating with the Medway Destroyer Instructional Flotilla.

In 1904 the Bittern moved to the Devonport Flotilla.

In February 1904 her commanding officer, Lt Harrold, was sued by Mr James Piper, owner of the barge Rosebank. He claimed that Harrold had travelled up the Medway at excessive speed, causing his barge to hit the barge Eastern. However the Navy claimed that the Bittern had only being going at 8 knots, and Harrold was acquitted.

In mid-April 1904 she was released from the Sheerneess Dockyards, and judged to be fit to escort the King and Queen during their return voyage across the Irish Sea. This was a short duty, and on 2 May 1904 she was paid off at Chatham, she entered the Medway Reserve and her crew moved to the new destroyer Usk.

In the summer of 1904 she took part in the annual naval manoeuvres. On the morning of Monday 25 July she left Kingstown to join the destroyer flotilla, but instead had to come to the aid of the Codling Lightship, which had developed a problem with its engines.

On 3 January 1905 her crew was to be brought up to its full complement, so she could replace the Leven in the Devonport Instructional Flotilla.

In late March 1905 she was commissioned under the command of Lt. J. Kiddle, with the crew from the Sunfish, and replaced her in the Medway Flotilla.

In 1905 she was part of the 3rd Division, one of three destroyer divisions attached to the Channel Fleet

In 1909-1913 she was part of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla, part of the 3rd Division of the Home Fleet, which contained the older battleships.

In July 1914 she was in active commission at Devonport, with the 7th Destroyer Flotilla, one of the patrol flotillas.

First World War

Her commander at the outbreak of the First World War was Gordon Campbell. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross for sinking the German submarine U-83 on 17 February 1917, while in command of the Q Ship HMS Farnborough. At the time the reason for the award was kept secret, causing some interest in the press!

In August 1914 she wasn’t listed in the Pink List, the Admiralty list of warship location. At that point no destroyers were listed as part of the Devonport Local Defence Flotilla, so this may just reflect a gap in the lists.

In November 1914 she was one of four destroyers in the Devonport Local Defence Flotilla.

In June 1915 she was one of six destroyers in the Devonport Local Defence Flotilla.

In January 1916 she was one of four destroyers in the Devonport Local Defence Flotilla, but she was undergoing repairs that were expected to end on 15 January and was in the hands of a care and maintenance party.

In October 1916 she was one of six destroyers in the Devonport Local Defence Flotilla

In January 1917 she was one of six destroyers in the Devonport Local Defence Flotilla

On 11 February 1917 she was patrolling close to Plymouth when she sighted a mine, which she sank with rifle fire. This meant that the port was closed from 3.30pm while the approaches were checked, The Bittern and Sunfish were ordered to patrol off the Eddystone and divert any approaching shipping. However the message didn’t reach the troop ship SS Afric, which was sunk by a German submarine early on 12 February.

On 25 April 1917 UB-32 torpedoed the troop ship SS Ballarat, carrying 1,760 troops from Melbourne to Plymouth. All of the troops onboard were rescued, and the Bittern was ordered to escort two tugs to her position to try and save the ship. In the dark they went past her, and didn’t find her until 1.25am. They were then ordered to wait until dawn before attempting to take her in tow, but she sank at 4.30am on 26 April.

In June 1917 she was one of four active destroyers in the Devonport Local Defence Flotilla

In January 1918 she was one of four destroyers in the Devonport Local Defence Flotilla, but she was undergoing repairs.

The Bittern sank after she collided with SS Kenilworth in thick fog off Portland Bill on 4 April 1918. Seventy five men were lost and there were no survivors.

Commanding Officer
-January 1899-: Lt Blunt
-February 1904-: Lt Harrold
-July 1904-: Lt Hammond
March 1905-: Lt J. Kiddle
-August 1914-: Gordon Campbell

Displacement (standard)


Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed

30 knots




80 tons of coal (Brassy 1900, 1901, 1902)


214.25ft oa
210ft pp


20 ft


One 12-pounder gun
Five 6-pounder guns
Two 18in torpedo tubes

Crew complement

60 (Brassey, 1900, 1901, 1902)
75 when lost

Laid down

18 February 1896


1 February 1897


April 1897

Lost in collision

4 April 1918

Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (8 March 2019), HMS Bittern (1897) ,

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