Battleship Iéna Explosion

Iéna was a pre-dreadnought battleship of the French Navy.

Her design was derived from the preceding Charlemagne class battleships with a heavier secondary battery and thicker armour. She retained the tumblehome characteristic of all large French warships of this period that caused stability issues. She was destroyed in drydock on 12 March 1907 by a magazine explosion caused by the decomposition of well-aged "Powder B" propellant. Her hulk was used as a gunnery target before it was sold for scrap in 1912.

The efforts to recover the bodies of those killed by the explosion on board the French battleship Iena, here yesterday, which have been conducted with energy for twenty-four hours, have not yet resulted in definitely fixing the number of casualties. But after the last rollcall to-night there were still unaccounted for eight officers and 110 men. There is little doubt that all these missing men perished.

A disaster so terrible-for at that date the Iena was one of the newest French battleships in service-demanded vigilant investigation. By some the catastrophe was attributed to an Anarchist plot or to sedition among the crew. There was no evidence of either. To remove the profound disquietude in France and in the French Navy a long series of inquiries was held. There were three theories as to the cause of the explosions: wireless waves upsetting the unstable chemical or electrical equilibrium which exists in the components of modern powders: an accident, due to carelessness in the handling of powder or projectiles; and absolutely spontaneous detonation.

On 10th September 1905 the Japanese battleship Mikasa, flagship of Admiral Togo and the battle of Tsushima, was rent by a series of explosions while at anchor. Six months later the Brazilian battleship Aquidaban was also torn asunder by an internal explosion. Both of these disasters were apparently due to the unsound storage practices for explosive powder employed in both navies. Yet it was not until 1907, when the French battleship Iena suffered a similar fate, that governments began to investigate the growing problem of unstable powder - in the case of the French the notorious 'B Powder,' a smokeless nitro-cellulose mixture which was extremely volatile. Unless the temperature of the powder was rigidly controlled, a difficult task for ships on Mediterranean and Carribean duty, it was liable to explode without warning.