Taken from BBC archives
HMS Bulwark and HMS Princess Irene
Two mighty explosions in which more than a thousand people died shook Sheerness in Kent in the early months of the First World War. Sheerness, at the mouth of the river Medway, was an important and busy naval dockyard.
The first explosion occurred on 26 November 1914. HMS Bulwark, a 15,000-ton battleship, was moored at Kethole Reach on the Medway. It was while the men on board were having breakfast that the ship suddenly exploded into smithereens. When the smoke cleared the ship had gone. The explosion was heard as far away as Whitstable to the south and Southend in Essex, where it shook the pier. There was considerable damage in Sheerness. More than 700 men on the ship were killed. Winston Churchill reported the disaster to the House of Commons later that day, reporting that only 12 had survived. There were rumours of sabotage, but Bulwark was almost certainly destroyed while ammunition was being loaded: there may have been some mishandling of the powder charges.
Less than six months later there was a second explosion. This time it was the Princess Irene. She was a 1,500-passenger liner built at Dumbarton in 1914 for Canadian Pacific. Before she could leave Britain she was commandeered for war service and became HMS Princess Irene, used for laying mines. After several trips she was back in the Medway for a refit. On the morning of 27 May 1915 a huge explosion tore through the vessel, shaking the ground for miles around and showering the surrounding villages with remains of bodies and debris. There was a great mushroom cloud and the ship was gone. This time 278 died, including 78 workers from nearby towns and villages. In one Sheerness street there were ten who died. Once again sabotage was suspected, but it would seem that the mine charges were unstable and they were awaiting replacement. It was another internal explosion.