The Incredible Story Of How Two Men Survived The Sinking Of HMS Vanguard

100 years on, we look at the only two men who survived the Royal Navy’s worst wartime accident.

The Royal Navy has been marking 100 years since the sinking of HMS Vanguard which killed 843 people.

The St. Vincent class ship, built in 1909, was the eighth Vanguard and was part of a new generation of Dreadnought battleships.  

On 9 July 1917, after conducting exercises in Scapa Flow she proceeded to anchor for the evening.  

At 11.20pm a series of internal explosions sank the ship almost immediately.

Some 843 men died. Only two men survived.

It was initially feared that a German U-boat had caused the disaster but an investigation determined that an accidental explosion probably caused by cordite inside the battleship’s magazines sank the ship.

100 years on it is still the worst accident in the Royal Navy’s wartime history.


On the night of the explosion, 16 of the ship’s officers were on another vessel watching a concert.

Another eight ratings tasked with collecting the officers had just left the Vanguard in a picket boat.

Only three men who were on-board HMS Vanguard (out of 845) survived the initial explosion, however, Lieutenant Commander ACH Duke, later died of his injuries.

The other two men, Marine J Williams and Stoker 1st Class FW Cox, miraculously survived the explosion (pictured in the cover image). The men are said to have been unable to recall the disaster and described being asleep in their bunks before waking up swimming away from the battleship.

The official Court of Inquiry report mentions the two men only once:

“The only survivors who were on board "VANGUARD" when the ship blew up being two men, whose evidence was of no value.”

Very little is known about the lives of Marine J Williams and Stoker 1st Class FW Cox following the disaster.

A Royal Navy diver carrying out the poignant duty of changing the White Ensign on the wreck of HMS Vanguard this week.