How to look for records of... Royal Navy ships wrecked or sunk
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide for advice on how to find records at The National Archives, and to a lesser extent in other archives, of Royal Navy shipwrecks. The records covered include those that document the complete loss of ships through sinking as well as those lost to damage, whether as part of a military conflict, a result of natural disaster or any other accident. Some of the records will allow you simply to establish that a ship sunk or was wrecked, others can provide more detail, such as the circumstances of the disaster or incident and the number on board who died, if any.
You can also consult our guide to births, marriages and deaths at sea.
2. How to conduct a search at The National Archives
A search in The National Archives’ records will almost certainly require a visit to our reading rooms in Kew where you can consult library books and original documents. Most of the records we hold for lost ships are not available to download or view online but you can, however, make a start online by searching our catalogue (see Step 2, below).
We recommend you follow these steps, in the order shown, when searching for records of the loss or damage to a specific ship:
Step 1: Consult the Royal Navy Lost List and/or lists in published books
The Royal Navy Loss List is a searchable database on the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust website. It covers all vessels recorded as sunk or destroyed in service from 1512-2004 but does not include vessels captured by the enemy or that suffered loss of life but which did not sink. The purpose of the list was to record losses which are likely to have resulted in material remains on the sea floor.
There are a number of alternative lists in printed publications, many available at The National Archives library, and they are likely to be the easiest way of establishing the date and circumstances of the loss, if they are known, and will equip you with vital facts in your search for primary sources – or may remove the need to consult original documents altogether.
The following books are available at our library in Kew, as are those listed for the First and Second World Wars in the subsequent sections of this guide. They are the best place to start on a visit to our reading rooms.
- Larn, R and Larn, B, Shipwreck Index of the British Isles (Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, 1995-2002). These six volumes are the most comprehensive listing of wrecks in UK coastal areas up to the end of the 20th century. Organised by county and date, with a ship name index, among the details provided with each listing are the name of the captain, the number of crew on board and lost, if any, and the origin and intended destination of the voyage.
- Gosset, W P, The Lost Ships of the Royal Navy, 1793-1900 (Mansell Publishing, 1986). Contains a ship name index and a geographical index listing ships lost by region.
- Hepper, D J, British Warship Losses in the Age of Sail, 1650-1859 (Jean Boudriot Publications, 1994). Chronological list with details of the circumstances of the loss.
- Hocking, C, Dictionary of Disasters at Sea during the Age of Steam, 1824-1962 (Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, 1969). Two volumes listing ships in alphabetical order with a short description of the disaster and the date, among other details. Includes Royal Navy and merchant ships.
- Hooke, N, Modern Shipping Disasters, 1963-1987 (Lloyds of London Press, 1989). A sequel to Hocking’s Dictionary of Disasters at Sea, presented in the same format.
- Marx, R, Shipwrecks of the Western Hemisphere, 1492-1825, (David Mckay Co, 1975). Covering shipwrecks in the Caribbean and all over the Americas, several thousand losses are listed in date order and briefly described. The book covers ships of all types and includes a ship name index.
- Grocott, T, Shipwrecks of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras (Caxton, 2002). Contemporary newspaper accounts of both merchant and military ships wrecked. Organised by date but with a ship name index.
Step 2: Search the catalogue with ship’s name and one other search term
Though the records of ships losses are not always identified by the ships’ names in our online catalogue, it is worth trying to locate those that are at an early stage of your search.
Search our catalogue using the name of the ship (omitting HMS as it is not always used in catalogue descriptions) plus one of the following words:
To target the records of the Admiralty, the body that administered the Royal Navy, use the advanced search of our catalogue and use the references fields to restrict your search to reference ADM.
Step 3: Consult the ship’s log, if it survives
We hold large numbers of Royal Navy ships’ logs from the 1660s onwards, though not all survive. The log book may give the position of the sinking, though the ship may have been wrecked because its officers did not know where they were. However, logbooks were often lost with the ship and in these instances you should turn to the logs of any other ships which sailed in company with the lost ship.
To search for logs, which are arranged alphabetically by ships’ names, click on the following series links and search by ship’s name or, for Masters’ logs, by the name of the officer who wrote the log:
- Captains’ logs, 1669-1853, in ADM 51
- Masters’ logs, 1672-1840, in ADM 52
- Log books maintained by the Officer of the Watch, 1799-2007, in ADM 53
- Supplementary ships’ logs, 1808-1871, in ADM 54
Step 4: Search for a courts martial record, if there was an inquiry
The loss of Royal Navy ships usually resulted in an inquiry, with the captain or surviving officers sometimes court martialled, though this was far less likely if the ship was lost to enemy action or if none of the officers survived.
These records can be the most detailed narratives of a loss available, although, as the court’s purpose was to establish the circumstances of the loss and to apportion any blame, it did not necessarily take an interest in the exact position of the wreck.
Click on the following series links to search each series by year and by words such as ‘loss’, ‘sinking’ or ‘grounding’ plus the name of a ship for:
- 1892-1951 in ADM 178
- 1890-1965 in ADM 156
- 1660-1976 in ADM 1 (most are indexed in The Lost Ships of the Royal Navy, 1793-1900) – to search in this series you will need to include ‘courts martial’ as one of your search terms
Step 5: Search through Admiralty and Navy Board correspondence and case files
There are many records which were not created specifically to record losses but which do, nonetheless, either formally record losses or contain incidental references to them. Using these records for details of a wreck is bound to be quite time consuming and should be considered a last resort if you have followed the steps above and still need information. The principal records to search through are:
- Reports from flag officers and captains on the loss of ships under their command from about 1698 onward in ADM 1. See our guidance on How to use ADM 12 to locate items in ADM 1.
- Case files created by the Admiralty Record Office, 1852-1965, in ADM 116.
- Letters sent to the Navy Board, or by that board to the Admiralty in ADM 106, which occasionally deal with wrecks, particularly those which occurred in the vicinity of dockyard ports or where salvage was attempted. We also hold digests, summarising contents of each letter or paper, for 1822 to 1832 in ADM 106/2153 to 2177.
- The Admiralty Digest in ADM 12, which provides a name and subject index from 1793 onward. See our guidance on How to use ADM 12 to get the most from this series and the various series that it indexes.
3. Additional records and publications of First World War losses
You can find records of First World War losses by following the steps in section 2 but in this section we present publications and records focussed specifically on the war.
The following publication is available at our library in Kew and is the best place to start when conducting a search at The National Archives:
- HMSO, British Vessels Lost at Sea 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 (Patrick Stephens, 1988)
A card index of ships lost between 1914 and 1919 in ADM 242/6.
Search with a ship’s name and the word ‘loss’, ‘torpedoing’ ‘sinking’ (or any of the other keywords suggested at Step 2 in section 2 of this guide) to search the records used to compile the Official History of the First World War held in ADM 137. The series includes hundreds of reports on the losses of individual ships, found between ADM 137/3089 and ADM 137/3832.
4. Additional records and publications of Second World War losses
You can find records of Second World War losses by following the steps in section 2 but in this section we present publications and records focussed specifically on the war.
The following books are available at our library in Kew and are the best place to start when conducting a search at The National Archives:
- HMSO, British Vessels Lost at Sea 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 (Patrick Stephens, 1988)
- Brown, D, Warship Losses of World War Two (Arms & Armour Press, 1990)
- Lenton, H T & Colledge, J J, Warships of World War Two (Ian Allan Publishing, 1973)
- Morgan, D & Taylor, B, U-Boat Attack Logs: A Complete Record of the Warship Sinkings From Original Sources 1939-1945 (Seaforth Publishing, 2012)
- Rohwer, J, Axis Submarine Successes 1939-1945 (Patrick Stephens Ltd, 1993)
Search the lists of Royal Navy ships lost in the war held in ADM 213/578.
The records used to compile the Official History of the Second World War are held in ADM 199 and include reports of ships lost during the war. Search the series with a ship’s name and the terms ‘loss’, ‘ships lost’, ‘torpedoing’ ‘sinking’ or any of the other keywords suggested at Step 2 in section 2 of this guide.
5. Beyond The National Archives: where else to look for information and records
The most comprehensive source for archived newspapers is the British Newspaper Archive. Local libraries may provide access to online versions of national newspapers, including The Times Archive, also available online in our reading rooms.
As well as the British Newspaper Archive, the British Library holds the largest readily accessible collection of printed Admiralty charts in its Map Library. Sea charts may be useful in establishing the location of a wreck, but usually not in identifying it. See our guide to sea charts for more information.
UK Parliamentary Archives
The Admiralty Register of Wrecks is found among the Parliamentary Papers held at The Parliamentary Archives.
UK Hydrographic Office
A comprehensive database of wrecks containing over 60,000 records, of which approximately 20,000 are for named vessels, is maintained by the UK Hydrographic Office. Though focussed mainly on UK territorial waters the database includes information on a small number of wrecks in other areas. The same office holds an extensive collection of British Admiralty Charts and other hydrographic charts.
6. Further reading
Huntress, K, Checklist of Narratives of Shipwrecks & Disasters at Sea to 1860 (Iowa State University Press, 1979) – a guide to contemporary accounts of losses
Pickford, N, The Atlas of Shipwreck & Treasure (London, Dorling Kindersley, 1994)
Rohwer, J, Allied Submarine Attacks of World War Two: European Theatre of Operations 1939-45 (Greenhill, 1997)