Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Execution of Captain Fryatt 27 July 1916

In July 1916 Charles Fryatt, a 43 year old father of six girls and a boy, was employed by the Great Eastern Railway Company as a captain of steamers on the Harwich to Rotterdam route. When the Germans began unrestricted submarine warfare on 18 February 1915 this route became very dangerous because it passed within 35 miles of the German U-boat base at Zeebrugge. War on commerce can be almost as successful by delaying or discouraging merchant ships from sailing as by sinking them. Many neutral vessels were reluctant to sail on this route, putting communications between the United Kingdom and the Netherlands at risk, but the GER steamers kept it open.[1]

On 3 March 1915 Fryatt was captaining the SS Wrexham when she encountered a U-boat. By using deck hands as stokers the Wrexham managed to make 16 knots, 2 knots higher than her official top speed, during a 40 mile chase and evaded the submarine. Fryatt was presented with a watch by the GER as recognition of his efforts.

The British Admiralty issued orders to the masters of merchant ships that they should head straight towards surfaced U-boats. This would force the U-boat to dive, which would enable the merchantman to escape because of the slow speed of submerged submarines.[2]

Fryatt was in command of the SS Brussels on 28 March when she encountered SM U33, captained by Kapitänleutnant Konrad Gansser. He went on to be a successful U-boat captain, sinking over 140,000 tons of shipping, but was yet to score his first kill.

U33 signalled the Brussels to stop. Fryatt, realising that he could not turn and escape, changed course in order to pass U33’s stern. U33 then manoeuvred so as to put herself in a position to torpedo the Brussels. As U33 crossed the Brussels‘ bow, Fryatt made a sharp turn and headed for the U-boat, which dived. Brussels passed 50 yards from U33’s stern with the U-boat 25 feet underwater.[3]

Gansser’s version of events was that ‘the steamer put her helm over, and came at U33 with the manifest intention of ramming us…it was not possible for me  to make sure of striking her with a torpedo…the steamer passed us at a distance of from twenty to thirty metres.’[4] There can be little difference between trying to force a submarine to dive and trying to ram her from the point of view of the submariners.

The Brussels escaped and Fryatt was presented with another commemorative watch, this time by the Admiralty. He continued to command her, escaping several other attacks.

On 22 June 1916 the Brussels left Rotterdam, with orders to collect mail, some of it diplomatic, at the Hook of Holland, before heading for Tilbury. It became obvious that her departure was watched and that she was followed by a steamer without lights. She was then surrounded by German destroyers, boarded and taken into Zeebrugge. Fryatt, who had had the diplomatic mail destroyed, and his first officer Mr Hartnell were held briefly in an internment camp for Allied civilians at Ruhleben in Germany before being sent to Bruges, where Fryatt was interrogated for three weeks. He was allowed occasionally to speak to Hartnell but was not allowed any legal advice.[5]

On 24 July Fryatt was told that he would be tried by court martial. The US Ambassador at Berlin had on 20 July, at the request of the British Foreign Office, approached the German Foreign Office regarding the appointment of a defence counsel for Fryatt. No reply was received until 26 July, when the Ambassador was told that Fryatt would be tried the next day.[6]

The trial consisted of a lawyer, Dr Zäpfel, as President, five officers and a secretary. Its sentence could be appealed against. Fryatt was defended Archibald Hurd’s official history of The Merchant Navy, otherwise very critical of the Germans in this case, says ‘that he strove conscientiously to do his duty.’[7]

The German military strongly objected to resistance from irregular forces, which it termed franc-tireurs (the French for free shooters). These had fought the German in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and the Germans were keen to prevent a repetition. They therefore shot several thousand Belgian and French civilians during the period of mobile warfare. Very few of them had resisted the invader: incidents of friendly fire and resistance from isolated Allied soldiers caused panic amongst soldiers who expected to encounter franc-tireurs.[8]

Fryatt declined to state in his defence that he was acting under Admiralty instructions. He probably would have been acquitted had he done so, since the German objection was to resistance by civilians not operating under military orders. He would not do so because the orders  were given to him confidentially.[9]

After a trial lasting an afternoon Fryatt was found guilty despite Naumann’s protests that the evidence of the two eye witnesses from U33 was contradictory. Gansser submitted a written statement but could not be cross examined because he was serving in the Mediterranean.[10]

Fryatt was told that he would be shot the next day, but the execution was then brought forward to that evening. Hurd suggests that Admiral Ludwig von Schröder, who had ordered the trial, wanted Fryatt dead as quickly as possible in case the German Foreign Office succumbed to US pressure for ‘a fair trial.’[11]

The execution of Fryatt was a propaganda disaster for the Germans: The New York Times called it ‘a deliberate murder’; the Dutch Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant said it would ‘disgust neutrals and arouse fresh hatred and bitterness in Britain’; and Danish and Norwegian reaction was similar.[12]

In April 1919 a German Committee of Inquiry re-examined the case, concluding that only the speed with which Fryatt was executed could be criticised.[13]

The German contention appears to be that they were entitled to sink merchant ships but that merchant ships were not entitled to defend themselves against attack. Even from their own point of view, it is difficult to understand the logic of launching a military operation to capture a man who had caused them some inconvenience over a year before so that they could arraign him before a show trial and execute him.

Fryatt’s family were well treated. His widow’s £250 p.a. pension from the GER was augmented by £100 by the government and a £300 insurance payment was made immediately, without the usual formalities. The Royal Merchant Seaman’s Orphanage offered to educate two of his children. Fryatt’s body was brought home after the war and reburied in All Saint’s Chuch, Upper Dovercourt near Harwich after a ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral. His body was transported in the same railway wagon that brought home the bodies of Edith Cavell, the British nurse executed by the Germans in Belgium, and the British Unknown Warrior. It has recently been restored.

The Germans went to some trouble to kill a brave man with little cause for no result other than a propaganda disaster.

 

 

[1] A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, pp. 307-8.

[2] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 36.

[3] Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, pp. 308-9,

[4] Ibid. footnote 1, pp. 310-11.

[5] Ibid., pp. 310-14.

[6] Ibid., p. 314.

[7] Ibid., p. 315.

[8] See J. N. Horne, A. Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 2001). for the full story.

[9] Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, p. 317.

[10] Ibid., pp. 316-19.

[11] Ibid., p. 319.

[12] Ibid., p. 322.

[13] Ibid., pp. 322-23.

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Jutland VCs: Harvey, Bingham, Cornwall and Jones

A previous post dealt with the Battle of Jutland. Four men were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest British gallantry award, for their courage during it, three of them posthumously. Unless otherwise noted, the information below is taken from the biographies on them on the Imperial War Museum’s website, which are linked to the first mention of each man.

The first of these acts of gallantry took place during the early action between the two battlecruiser forces. It was carried out by Major Francis Harvey, who was serving in HMS Lion, flagship of Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Fleet. Marines normally manned one of the gun turrets on British battleships. Harvey was 43 years old and married with one son. Several of his ancestors, including his father, were army or navy officers.

At around 4 pm on 31 May 1916 Lion’s Q turret was struck by an 11 inch shell fired by the German battlecruiser SMS Derfflinger at a range of about 16,500 yards. It caused heavy casualties, tore off most of the turret’s roof and started a fire that spread to the cordite store.[1]

Harvey, badly wounded, ordered that the magazine doors be closed and the magazine flooded. He then sent a marine sergeant, who was wounded but the only man in the turret still able to walk, to the bridge to report on the situation.[2]

On the bridge the ‘bloodstained…hatless…and somewhat dazed’ sergeant first encountered Lieutenant W. S. Chalmers, later the author of an authorised biography of Beatty. He told Chalmers that ‘Q turret has gone sir. All the crew are killed, and we have flooded the magazines.’ Chalmers then looked to see that the turret was wrecked, with ‘thick yellow smoke’ coming from it. Nobody on the bridge had heard the explosion.[3]

The citation for Harvey’s VC was announced in Jellicoe’s despatch dated 23 August 1916 and published in the London Gazette on 15 September 1916: see Naval-History.net. The citation, published in the London Gazette on 15 September 1916, stated that:

Major Francis John William Harvey, R.M.L.I. Recommended for posthumous Victoria Cross. Whilst mortally wounded and almost the only survivor after the explosion of an enemy shell in “Q” gunhouse, with great presence of mind and devotion to duty ordered the magazine to be flooded, thereby saving the ship. He died shortly afterwards.

There is some doubt about who gave the order to flood the magazine, with John Campbell’s detailed analysis of the battle stating that Captain Ernle Chatfield, Lion’s captain, gave the order.[4] Arthur Marder argues that Harvey gave the order first.[5]

It was necessary both to close the magazine door and to flood the magazine to save the ship and her crew from the catastrophic explosions that destroyed three other British battlecruisers at Jutland with few survivors. By Chalmers’s account, those on the bridge did not know what had happened until the marine sergeant, whose name is not recorded in any account consulted for this post, reported to them. Harvey’s courage and presence of mind when mortally wounded saved his ship.

It is a myth that Harvey had both legs blown off . This seems to have started with Sir Julian Corbett’s account in Naval Operations, the British Official History.[6] Marder, however, quotes Lieutenant Colonel F. R. Jones, a marine officer who helped to carried Harvey’s body out of the turret as writing that he ‘was very badly burnt…[but] not dismembered in any way.’[7]

The next VC was awarded to Commander Barry Bingham, the 34 year old son of Lord Clanmorris. He had taken command of the new destroyer HMS Nestor on 30 April, bringing most of the crew of his previous command HMS Hornet with him. Whilst commanding Hornet he was praised for the skilful way in which he helped rescue the crew of the armoured cruiser HMS Argyll, which ran aground on the Bell Rock off Forfarshire in October 1915. Prior to commanding her he had served on the battlecruiser HMS Invincible at the Battles of Helgoland Bight and the Falkland Islands.

At Jutland Bingham commanded the 2nd Division of the 13th Destroyer Flotilla, consisting of his own ship and her sisters HMS Nicator and Nomad.  He was ordered to lead an attack by 12 British destroyers on the German battlecruisers. The five leading ships had moved ahead of the battlecruisers by 4:20. Soon afterwards German torpedo boats appeared, heading towards the British battlecruisers. Their gun armaments were weaker than those of the British destroyers (11 with three 3.45 inch and 4 with four 4.1 inch guns versus 12 with three 4 inch), but there were more of them and they were led by the light cruiser SMS Regensburg (twelve 4.1 inch guns).[8]

Two of the British destroyers did not fire their guns and the supporting British light cruisers played little part in the action. SMS V27 was immobilised by British gunfire and SMS V29 was torpedoed and sunk by HMS Petard. SMS V26 picked up the survivors and sank V27 by gunfire after first firing a torpedo that ran in circles.[9]

The Germans fired 10 torpedoes at the British battlecruisers. They scored no hits but the German Official History says that ‘the enemy’s fire against the German battlecruisers became irregular and at time ceased altogether.’[10]

Bingham’s Nestor and Nicator both fired two torpedoes at the German battlecruisers at a range of 5-6,000 yards: 7,000 yards according to SMS Lützow. The Germans turned and avoided the torpedoes.[11]

Bingham’s two remaining destroyers (Nomad had been immobilised by a boiler hit)  continued to advance, under fire from the battlecruisers’ secondary guns, Regensburg and four destroyers. They launched more torpedoes from a range of 3,500 yards, which missed and Bingham withdrew. Petard offered to tow Nestor, which was hardly able to move, but Bingham refused on the grounds that this would just mean the loss of Petard as well.[12]

Nestor and Nomad both sank with casualties of 6 dead and 80 captured and 8 dead and 72 captured respectively.[13] Bingham was amongst those captured and remained a prisoner of war for the rest of the war. He retired from the RN in 1932 with the rank of Rear Admiral and died in 1939.

Bingham’s  recommendation for the VC was announced in the same Despatch  as Harvey’s.

Commander the Hon. Edward Barry Stewart Bingham, R.N. (prisoner of war). Recommended for Victoria Cross. For the extremely gallant way in which he led his division in their attack, first on enemy destroyers and then on their battlecruisers. He finally sighted the enemy battle-fleet, and, followed by the one remaining destroyer of his division (“Nicator”), with dauntless courage he closed to within 3,000 yards of the enemy in order to attain a favourable position for firing the torpedoes. While making this attack, “Nestor” and “Nicator” were under concentrated fire of the secondary batteries of the High Sea Fleet. “Nestor” was subsequently sunk.

The other two VCs were both earned when Rear Admiral Sir Horace Hood’s 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron came to the aid of Beatty, who was then leading the entire German High Seas Fleet towards the British Grand Fleet 25 miles away. Hood had his two light cruisers five miles ahead of his three battlecruisers and his four destroyers deployed as an anti-submarine screen.[14]

The closest ship to the enemy was the light cruiser HMS Chester. Around 5:30 pm she was investigating gun flashes that could be seen through the mist when four German light cruisers appeared. She was hit 17 times in 20 minutes, with three of her 10 5.5 inch guns being put out of action. She escaped thanks to the skilful manoeuvres of her captain, Captain Robert Lawson, and the appearance of the battlecruisers, which wrecked SMS Wiesbaden and damaged SMS Pillau and Frankfurt.

Chester’s casualties were 35 killed and 42 wounded. One of the dead was 16 year old Boy (1st Class) Jack Cornwall. Many teenagers lied about their ages in order to join the British Army in 1914 and 1915, but the RN allowed 16 year olds to serve at sea. Cornwall had tried to enlist before the war but was then too young. He joined the RN in July 1915 and was posted to the newly commissioned Chester on 1 May 1916 after completing his training.

Cornwall was assigned to Chester’s forward 5.5 inch gun as its sight setter, a role that needed intense concentration and meant that he stood outside the protection offered by the gun’s shield. Chester’s main armament was not housed in enclosed gun turrets but had shields like those on land based artillery.

All the other members of Cornwall’s gun crew were killed early in the action. He was badly injured in the stomach and legs by flying metal shards but stayed at his post. He was still alive when the ship reached the Humber but died in Grimsby Hospital on 2 June 1916.

The citation for Cornwall’s VC, from Naval-History.net, stated that: 

29752 – 15 SEPTEMBER 1916

BATTLE OF JUTLAND – AWARDS TO PETTY OFFICERS and MEN

NAVAL DESPATCH dated 15 September 1916

Admiralty, 15th September, 1916.

The KING (is) pleased to approve the grant of the Victoria Cross to Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell, O.N. J.42563 (died 2nd June, 1916), for the conspicuous act of bravery specified below. Mortally wounded early in the action, Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders, until the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all round him. His age was under sixteen and a half years.

Only two men younger than Cornwall have been awarded the VC:  Drummer Thomas Flinn at Cawnpore in 1857 and Hospital Apprentice Andrew Fitzgibbon at the Taku Forts in 1860. Both were 15 years and 3 months old but Flinn’s exact date of birth is unknown. As both were Irish soldiers, Cornwall is the youngest sailor, the youngest Englishman and the youngest in the twentieth century to receive the VC.

The final Jutland VC was awarded to Commander Loftus Jones, captain of the destroyer HMS Shark. Jones, married with a daughter, was another from a family of naval officers. He had previously commanded the destroyer HMS Linnet, which participated in the sinking of the German minelayer Konign Luise, the first British action of the war, and the Battle of Helgoland Bight. He then took over Shark and was commended for his performance during the German raid on Scarborough.

Jones led the four destroyers in pursuit of the German light cruisers, which were fleeing from Hood’s battlecruisers. They encountered German destroyers that were heading towards the battlecruisers but instead attacked the British destroyers. Shark fired a torpedo at the German cruisers, which missed. She was then badly damaged and left dead in the water. HMS Acasta offered to tow her but, like Bingham, declined as this would have risked the loss of a second destroyer. Shark was left alone for a while after HMS Canterbury appeared and chased away the Germans.[15]

A further attack by German destroyers overwhelmed Shark. Her white ensign was shot away, but Jones ordered it to be raised again. He encouraged his men to keep firing their last gun even after his right leg had been blown off above the knee. When Shark finally sank he was helped onto a life raft, but was too badly wounded to survive. A Danish steamer bound for Hull picked up seven of Shark’s crew, but one died before she reached Hull. The other six were the only survivors. Jones’s body was washed up on the Swedish coast, and he was buried in the churchyard of the village of Fiskebäckskil on 24 June.

Initially Jones was Mentioned in Despatches, but this was upgraded to a Victoria Cross after his widow Margaret sent the Admiralty a report on Shark’s last action that she had compiled after interviewing the six survivors, who were all awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

The citation, from Naval-History.net, stated that:

29972 – 6 MARCH 1917

Battle of Jutland

…… Commander Loftus William Jones, R.N. (killed in action in the course of the Battle of Jutland and posthumously awarded Victoria Cross). On the afternoon of the 31st May, 1916, during the action, Commander Jones in H.M.S. “Shark,” Torpedo Boat Destroyer, led a division of Destroyers to attack the enemy Battle Cruiser Squadron. In the course of this attack a shell hit the “Shark’s” bridge, putting the steering gear out of order, and very shortly afterwards another shell disabled the main engines, leaving the vessel helpless. The Commanding Officer of another Destroyer, seeing the “Shark’s” plight, came between her and the enemy and offered assistance, but was warned by Commander Jones not to run the risk of being almost certainly sunk in trying to help him. Commander Jones, though wounded in the leg, went aft to help connect and man the after wheel. Meanwhile the forecastle gun with its crew had been blown away, and the same fate soon afterwards befell the after gun and crew. Commander Jones then went to the midship and only remaining gun, and personally assisted in keeping it in action. All this, time the “Shark” was subjected to very heavy fire from enemy light cruisers and destroyers at short range. The gun’s crew of the midship gun was reduced to three, of whom an Able Seaman was soon badly wounded in the leg. A few minutes later Commander Jones was hit by a shell, which took off his leg above the knee, but he continued to give orders to his gun’s crew, while a Chief Stoker improvised a tourniquet round his thigh. Noticing that the Ensign was not properly hoisted, he gave orders for another to be hoisted. Soon afterwards, seeing that the ship could not survive much longer, and as a German Destroyer was closing, he gave orders for the surviving members of the crew to put on lifebelts. Almost immediately after this order had been given, the “Shark” was struck by a torpedo and sank. Commander Jones was unfortunately not amongst the few survivors from the “Shark,” who were picked up by a neutral vessel in the night.

The following awards have also been made to the survivors of H.M.S. “Shark” for their services during the action:

To receive the Distinguished Service Medal:

Sto. P.O. Charles Filleul, O.N.292779 (Po.).

A.B. Charles Cleeberg Hope, O.N.238376 (Po.).

A.B. Charles Herbert Smith, O.N.J.13416 (Po.).

A.B. Joseph Owen Glendower Howell, O.N.230192 (Po.).

Sto., 1st Cl., Thomas Wilton Swan, O.N.K.26567 (Po.).

P.O. William Charles Richard Griffin, O.N. 201404 (Po.).

(The award to Petty Officer Griffin has already been gazetted.)

All four Jutland VCs are currently on public display: Bingham’s is in the North Down Museum in his hometown of Bangor; Northern Island; Harvey’s in the Royal Marines Museum in Portsmouth; and Cornwall’s and Jones’s in the Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum; the former is owned by the IWM and the latter by Lord Ashcroft, who possesses world’s largest collection of VCs.

 

[1] N. J. M. Campbell, Jutland: An Analysis of the Fighting (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1986), pp. 64-65.

[2] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), pp. 592-93.

[3] W. S. Chalmers, ed. The Life and Letters of David, Earl Beatty (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1951), pp. 231-32.

[4] Campbell, Jutland, p. 66.

[5] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. iii, p. 66.

[6] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 336, note 1.

[7] Marder, From. vol. iii, p. 66, note 41.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 338; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 76-79, 161, 168-70.

[9] Campbell, Jutland, p. 50.

[10] Quoted in V. E. Tarrant, Jutland: The German Perspective: A New View of the Great Battle, 31 May 1916 (London: Arms and Armour, 1995), p. 93.

[11] Campbell, Jutland, p. 51.

[12] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, pp. 339-40.

[13] Ibid. Appendix F, p. 438,

[14] Ibid., p. 352.

[15] Ibid., pp. 354-55.

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