Implacable to The End

The HMS Victory, preserved in dry dock at Portsmouth, is famous as the sole surviving warship of the Battle of Trafalgar, a critical British success during the Napoleonic Wars and probably the most storied naval engagement of all time. Yet few people remember the battle’s penultimate survivor, HMS Implacable, which remained afloat until the mid-twentieth century.

The Pathé newsreel “Implacable to The End” (featured above) documents the scuttling of Implacable on 2 December 1949 in the English Channel. The then-150-year-old warship had started life in the French Navy in 1797 as the 74-gun Duguay-Trouin and fought at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. Two weeks later, she was captured by the British and renamed Implacable, serving in the Royal Navy for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars. Withdrawn from active service in 1842, Implacable was retained as a training vessel. By the early twentieth century, the decaying third-rate ship of the line was recognized as an important relic of Britain’s maritime heritage. She benefited from several campaigns, backed by philanthropists and royalty, to fund essential maintenance and save her from being broken up. However, in the context of government austerity following the Second World War, the Admiralty balked at paying for a full-scale restoration, and, despite widespread public outcry, chose to dispose of the wooden warship through a ceremonial burial at sea.

Rigged with explosive charges and weighed down with pig-iron as ballast, Implacable was towed out into the Channel and dispatched with full military honours. As the newsreel’s narrator notes, the ship was scuttled while flying the British White Ensign and the French tricolour – a nod not only to her past service under both flags but also to the twentieth-century reconciliation and friendship of former enemies.

A model of a Napoleonic-era man-of-war appears on screen as the narrator provides a brief synopsis of the HMS Implacable’s storied naval service. This shot allows audiences to imagine the ship in its original splendour – a far cry from the dismasted hulk visible in the newsreel.

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The voiceover also makes copious use of naval terminology and metaphor to remind audiences of the ship’s history and Britain’s vaunted seafaring tradition more generally. For instance, the wooden man-of-war, filmed before being towed out to her doom, is noted as being within ‘striking distance’ of the fleet at anchor at Spithead, and ‘within range’ of her successor, the new HMS Implacable (1944). Such language, accompanied by shots of modern battleships, reflects a conscious effort to link the Royal Navy’s past and present.

As the narrator acknowledges, ‘no ceremonial exists’ for such a rare event as ‘the honourable scuttling of a ship’, so the Royal Navy had to improvise, according the vessel ‘honours in keeping with her tradition.’ Thus, before the charges were detonated, the escorting warships cut their engines, honour guards saluted and a bugler played the Last Post. As journalist Neal Ascherson reflected in 2005, the affair was an ‘exquisite episode in Britain’s long practice of inventing tradition and turning truly squalid occasions into pageantry.’[1] HMS Implacable’s solemn state funeral, and the resulting newsreel, celebrated Britain’s naval heritage while destroying one of its most significant artefacts.

According to the narrator, however, Implacable lived up to her name even after her hull had been breached. She sank very slowly, remaining ‘defiant in death’ and ‘refus[ing] to be beaten’, ‘fight[ing] to the last’.[2] This language evokes the stricken vessel’s reputation as a fighting ship. Her demise, audiences are told, constitutes one final battle honour to cap off a storied career. Amidst all the pomp and circumstance depicted in the newsreel, it is easy to forget that Implacable was sunk not by enemy action but by her own navy, a victim of something as prosaic as fiscal austerity.

Written by Eamonn O’Keeffe, Trafalgar Day 2019

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Stern of HMS Implacable, now on display at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

[1] N. Ascherson, Victory’s lost sister – the wreck of the Implacable, OpenDemocracy (21 October 2005). https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/implacable_2950jsp/

[2] In fact, the warship’s deck was detached by the explosion and embarrassingly failed to sink, washing up on the French coast several days later.

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