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Scandinavian Convoy Action 17 October 1917

By late 1917 the British had organised merchant ships into convoys as a defence against U-boats [more to follow on this subject]. Convoys to Scandinavia ran additional risks to those encountered by convoys in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. They sailed through waters where they risked attack by enemy surface ships and were in the danger zone for most of their voyage. Secrecy was harder to maintain as they consisted mostly of neutral ships and assembled at a neutral port for their homeward journey.[1]

On 15 October 1917 the destroyers HMS Mary Rose (Lieutenant-Commander Charles Fox) and HMS Strongbow (Lieutenant-Commander Edward Brooke) and the armed trawlers Elise and P. Fannon left Lerwick with an eastbound convoy.[2]

In the late morning of 16 October Mary Rose sailed ahead of the convoy to collect the westbound one. She appears to have got ahead of it during the afternoon and the two destroyers were unable to contact each other when Strongbow joined the convoy after dark. At 6:00 am on 17 October the convoy, escorted by Strongbow was about 70 miles east of Lerwick. Mary Rose was six to eight miles ahead of it.

Neither Fox nor Brooke had been informed that British cruiser forces had spent the last two days searching the North Sea for a German force that was believed to be at sea. A total of three large cruisers, 27 light cruisers and 53 destroyers were hunting for what was thought to be a minelayer and some destroyers.[3]

Two German minelayers, SMS Bremse and Brummer, were at sea, but their mission was to attack the Scandinavian convoy, not to lay mines. They were chosen because of their high speed, good sea keeping qualities, radius of action and similar appearance to British light cruisers: they were rigged to resemble British C class cruisers.[4]

The German ships were both armed with four 5.9 inch guns, two 3.5 AA guns and two 19.7 inch torpedo tubes versus three 4 inch guns, three 2 pounders and four 21 inch torpedo tubes on the British destroyers. The Germans had a maximum speed of 34 knots, the same as Mary Rose and 2 knots less than Strongbow.[5]

Strongbow spotted the Germans just after 6:00 am. She made three challenges, none of which were answered satisfactorily. Brooke then prepared to open fire, but the opening German salvo severed Strongbow’s steam pipe, leaving her unable to manoeuvre. Brooke, who was badly wounded in the leg, refused to allow anybody to abandon ship until all confidential books and papers had been destroyed. He then ordered that Strongbow should be scuttled. She had been abandoned by 7:30 am. Brooke was carried off his ship and put onto a Carley raft.[6]

Mary Rose headed for the sound of the guns, but Fox initially assumed that the convoy was being attacked by a U-boat. His ship was ill prepared to fight against heavy odds. The British Official History says that ‘[u]nder the existing organisation it was almost impossible to fight the guns and the torpedo tubes simultaneously…and…the range and deflection transmitters were not working.’[7]

Mary Rose opened fire from 6-7,000 yards range at about 6:20 pm. For a little while it seemed that she might draw the enemy, whose fire was initially inaccurate, away from the convoy. However, the Germans began to hit her at a range of 2,000 yards. By 7:00 am she had to be abandoned. Fox was last seen swimming and did not survive. Only 3 steamers and the two trawlers managed to escape. Nine merchantmen with a total tonnage of 10,248 tons, all neutral, were sunk. The other three steamers, two British and one Belgian, and the two trawlers survived. Only four officers and 41 men out of  Strongbow’s  crew of 82 and two officers and eight men out of 80 on Mary Rose survived. [8]

The casualties are listed on Naval-History.net. Brooke survived the action but died on 10 February 1919 from pneumonia as a result of the action. Wikipedia says that about 250 Allies and Scandinavians were killed, meaning that about 150 neutral Scandinavians died.

Neither destroyer was able to send any signals about the attack. Strongbow was attacked and hit too quickly to get a message off. Mary Rose tried but her signal was jammed by Brummer. By the time that the Admiralty realised what had happened and ordered cruisers to intercept the Germans on their way home it was too late.[9]

The Courts Martial into the loss of the two ships (the Court of Inquiry into the loss of an RN ship takes the form of a Court Martial of her captain) praised both Brooke and Fox for their courage. However, they argued that Brooke would have been better to have tried to draw the Germans away from the convoy and that Fox should have stayed out of range and called for help. It was not known until the publication of the German Official History after the war that he had tried to do so but that Mary Rose’s signal had been jammed. These criticisms were not considered to be offences under the Naval Discipline Act.[10]

The British Official History claims that the Germans gave the neutral crews no time to abandoned ship and fired on Strongbow’s survivors in the water. The German Official History denies the latter charge, claiming that any hits on them came from shots targeted elsewhere that fell short.[11]

As the British Official History says, despite its ‘brilliantly successful execution, the raid must have been somewhat disappointing to the German Staff…as…it hardly caused a disturbance in the timetable of Scandinavian trade.’[12]

[1] 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. iv, pp. 293-94.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, p. 152

[3] Ibid., pp. 150-53.

[4] Ibid., p. 158; Marder, From, pp. 294-95.

[5] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 76, 79, 81, 162.

[6] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 154.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., pp. 154-55; Marder, From, p. 294.

[9] Marder, From. pp. 296-97 and footnote 6.

[10] Ibid. Footnotes 5-6 on pp. 296-97.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. p. 155 and footnote 1.

[12] Ibid., pp. 157-58.

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The Royal Navy and Passchendaele

The Third Battle of Ypres began on 31 July 1917. The Battle of Passchendaele was strictly speaking its final stage, but is now frequently used to refer to the whole battle. The First Battle of Passchendaele took place on 12 October and the Second officially lasted from 26 October to 10 November, although fighting in the area continued into December.[1]

D. Lloyd George, War Memoirs of David Lloyd George, 2 vols (London: Odhams, 1938). vol. ii, p. 1273.

 

According to Sir Douglas Haig, C.-in-C. of the British Expeditionary Force, the Allied plan was to wear down the enemy by a series of attacks, before the principal blow was struck by the British. The attack at Ypres was intended to capture the Belgian coast as far as the frontier with the Netherlands. It would involve a series of steps: first take the Passchendaele-Staden-Clerken ridge; then advance to a line from Roulers to Thourout in order to take the enemy coastal defences in the rear; and finally land from the sea along with an attack from Nieuport.[2]

The battle with U-boats that had intensified when the Germans began unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February was a factor in the plans. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the First Sea Lord, wrote to Admiral Sir David Beatty, C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet on 10 July about a plan to attack Ostend and Zeebrugge. He noted that David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, was against the military operation because it would lead to heavy casualties and every man was needed for the next year’s campaign. Jellicoe, however, thought that if the Allies waited until 1918, they might ‘never get the chance.. [and that they] must [his emphasis] get the north coast of Belgium before the winter sets in.’ Beatty wrote a question mark against the last comment.[3]

Haig told the War Cabinet that he was confident that the operation would take the Passchendaele Ridge and clear the Belgian coast. Jellicoe said that lack of shipping would mean that the war could not continue in 1918. Lloyd George challenged this claim, which he found ‘startling and reckless’, but Jellicoe stuck to it.[4] Haig wrote in his diary that nobody present agreed with Jellicoe, whose words were: ‘There is no good discussing plans for next spring. We cannot go on.’[5]

Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, commanding the Dover Patrol, was concerned that the Germans could wipe out the British naval forces in the Channel by an attack from destroyers based at Ostend and Bruges. These harbours were too well protected by shore batteries to be attacked by the sea and were supplied by railway rather than sea. As the Germans could choose their time, the British needed to have almost three times as many ships in the area as the enemy in order to be able to always have a force at sea equal to the attacking force. Control of north Belgium allowed the Germans to launch air raids against Britain.

Bacon worried that the Germans would keep the Belgian coast if they held it when the war ended, creating a future threat to Britain. He attributed the Germans failure to attack so far to their lack of ‘any real sea instincts’ but feared an attack soon as ‘they have improved vastly in sea initiative.’[6]

Bacon had suggested an amphibious landing to Haig in December 1915. The next month Haig asked him to produce a detailed plan, which would take place once British troops attacking from Ypres were near Roulers. Haig appointed General Aylmer Hunter-Weston to work with Bacon. Hunter-Weston thought that Bacon’s plan was land at Ostend was too risky, and Bacon changed his plans when the defences there were strengthened.[7]

Tim Travers describes Hunter-Weston’s leadership at Gallipoli as having been ‘poor.’[8] According to Michael LoCicero he was thorough in carrying out inspections, albeit with much attention to minor details, and was willing to lead from the front in mobile operations but tended to emphasise ‘planning and staff work…[in] trench warfare.[9] Although a poorly regarded commander, he may therefore have been better at reviewing plans than implementing them.

The German attack on the French at Verdun then forced the Allies to change their plans. The British became the leading force in the attack on the Somme rather than playing a supporting role to the French, which meant that Haig had to abandon his preferred plan to attack at Ypres.[10]

The amphibious landing on the coast was therefore abandoned until the attack at Ypres was revived in 1917. Bacon’s plan was to land to the west of Ostend. The problem with landing to the east was that sea communications with the invasion force until the shore batteries were taken or the land force advancing from Nieuport arrived. An assault to the west, however, meant scaling a 30 foot scale sea wall that sloped at 30 degrees and had an overhanging buttress three feet high. The solution to this was to have two monitors push 550 foot long landing piers carrying the invasion force to the sea wall.[11]

Monitors were slow, shallow draught ships armed with a single heavy gun turret and intended to be used for shore bombardment. They looked like the USS Monitor of American Civil War fame, hence their name. The ones assigned to the invasion were HMS General Wolfe, General Craufurd, Lord Clive, Sir John Moore, Prince Eugène and Prince Rupert.[12] They each displaced 6,150 tons, had a crew of 194, a maximum speed of 6.5 knots and an armament of a twin 12 inch gun turret and 2 quick firing three pounders.[13]

Exact details tides, water depths and the courses to be steered were required. The necessary information was obtained by submarine and aerial reconnaissance. A method used to ensure by telegraph cable laying ships was to be used to keep the monitors to the exact course needed.[14]

The invasion force was to include tanks. A replica of the sea wall was built in order to test how the tanks could scale it, which they were able to do once a special ramp had been built for them.[15]

The landing force consisted of 13,750 men of the 1st Division of General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s 4th Army. There would be three columns, each consisting of an infantry brigade reinforced with supporting troops including three tanks, four 13 pounder guns and two small howitzers, over 200 bicycles and three motor bikes. The two flanking columns would also include a motor machine gun battery and ammunition transport.[16]

The land attacks moved far more slowly than planned. The amphibious operation was called off on 15 October as, although the land offensive continued, the seas were by then to rough for a seaborne landing.[17]

Jellicoe told Admiral William Sims USN after the war that the planned amphibious assault ‘was a splendidly conceived and organised operation…[that he] firmly believe[d] would have succeeded..[had] the atrocious weather…[not] prevented the Army…getting far enough forward for the landing to take place.’[18]

It is difficult to say what would have happened had the amphibious assault taken place. WWI operations rarely went to plan and the only precedent is at Gallipoli, where the landings went badly. It was, however, carefully planned and, unlike Gallipoli, made use of specialised equipment. The Germans would have had to have been badly beaten elsewhere for it to have taken place. It was certainly imaginative.

British sailors were, however, involved in the Third Battle of Ypres. The Royal Naval Division was formed at the outbreak of war from naval reservists who were not needed at sea and Royal Marines plus some men who volunteered specifically for it. It had the infantry manpower of an army division but lacked supporting units such as artillery and medical services.

It was sent initially to Antwerp. A number of its men were unable to withdraw to Britain when Antwerp fell and were interned in the Netherlands. It was then sent to Egypt and then to Gallipoli. After the Gallipoli campaign it was transferred to the War Office and renamed the 63rd (Royal Naval Division). Thereafter it was fully equipped and operated under army control, serving on the Western Front from May 1916 until the end of the war. It fought in the Second Battle of Passchendaele (26 October to 10 November 1917).

Fighters of No. 4 (Naval) Wing and bombers of No. 5 (Naval) Wing of the Royal Naval Air Service, based at Dunkirk, flew in support of the land offensive.[19]

By the end of the Third Battle of Ypres the British Empire forces had not taken even all of the Passchendaele-Staden-Clerken ridge, never mind advanced to the Roulers to Thourout line.

Casualties are disputed, but were high on both sides. Andrew Wiest gives a ranges of 245,000 to 400,000 British Empire and 260,000 to 300,000 German troops killed, missing, captured or wounded. Gary Sheffield accepts Richard Holmes’s figure of about 260,000.[20]

All that can be said with certainty is that the British failed to take their objectives and that the battle cost both sides heavy casualties. The Germans, fighting both the British and French Empires with United States soldiers soon to arrive, could afford this level of losses even less than the Allies.

[1] M. LoCicero, A Moonlight Massacre: The Night Operation on the Passchendaele Ridge, 2 December 1917 (Solihull: Helion & Company, 2014). vol. ii, p. 1279.

[2] G. Sheffield, J. M. Bourne, eds, Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (London: BCA by arrangement with Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005). Thursday 14 June, pp. 299-300.

[3] A. T. Patterson, ed. The Jellicoe Papers: Selections from the Private and Official Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Jellicoe of Scapa, 2 vols (London: Naval Records Society, 1966-68). Jellicoe to Beatty, 10 July 1917, vol. ii, pp. 202-3.

[4] D. Lloyd George, War Memoirs of David Lloyd George, 2 vols (London: Odhams, 1938). vol. ii, p. 1279.

[5] Sheffield, Bourne, eds, Haig Diaries. Wednesday 20 June, p. 301.

[6] .’R. H. S. Bacon, The Dover Patrol, 1915-1917, 2 vols (London,: 1919). vol. i, p. 266-67.

[7] A. Wiest, ‘Haig’s Abortive Amphibious Assault on Belgium, 1917’, The Historian 54, no. 4 (1992), pp. 671-73.

[8] T. Travers, Gallipoli, 1915 (Stroud: Tempus, 2001), p. 14.

[9] LoCicero, Moonlight, pp. 81-82.

[10] G. Sheffield, Forgotten Victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities (London: Review, 2002), p. 162.

[11] Bacon, Dover. vol. 1, pp. 271-73.

[12] Ibid., p. 286.

[13] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 45.

[14] Bacon, Dover, pp. 275-80. vol. i, pp. 275-80.

[15] Ibid., pp. 282-84.

[16] Wiest, ‘Haig’s’, p. 676.

[17] Ibid., p. 680.

[18] Patterson, ed. Jellicoe. Letters from Jellicoe t0 Sims, 6 October 1919, p. 396

[19] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vo. iv, pp. 92-98.

[20] Sheffield, Forgotten, p. 216; Wiest, ‘Haig’s’, p. 669.

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The Loss of HMS Vanguard 9 July 2017

At about 23:20 on 9 July 1917 the dreadnought battleship HMS Vanguard blew up and sank at Scapa Flow. A flame was observed, followed by an explosion, more flames and smoke and a second explosion. The smoke completely obscured the ship, which had sunk by the time it cleared.

Only three of the 845 men on board were picked up. One of those, Lieutenant Commander Alan Duke, died in hospital two days later. The dead included Commander Ito, a Japanese observer with the Grand Fleet, and two defaulters from HMAS Sydney, who were being held in Vanguard’s cells. Some of Vanguard’s crew survived because they were attending

Previous posts in this series have dealt with the losses by accidental explosions of the old battleship HMS Bulwark on 26 November 1914 and the armoured cruiser HMS Natal on 30 December 1915. HMS Princess Irene, a minelayer converted from a liner, was also lost to an accidental explosion on 27 May 1915.

Several warships of other countries were also lost to internal explosions whilst in harbour during the First World War: the Italian pre-dreadnought battleship Benedetto Brin on 27 September 1915 and dreadnought Leonardo da Vinci on 2 August 1916; the Japanese battle cruiser Tsukuba on 14 January 1917 and dreadnought Kawachi on 12 July 1918; and the Russian dreadnought Imperatritza Maria on 20 October 1916. The two Italian ships were probably sabotaged by the Austrians, the Japanese and Russian ones lost to accidental explosions.[1] The old Chilean battleship Capitan Prat was damaged but not lost by an internal explosion.

A dockyard worker called John Harston had been working on Vanguard shortly before her loss. William Schleihauf says that he had also been on board Natal before she exploded, whilst a thread on the Great War Forum says that he had also worked on Bulwark and Princess Irene. The Court of Inquiry into Vanguard’s loss took evidence from Harston and his assistant Robert Williams, concluding that there was no reason to suspect them. Harston continued to work for the Admiralty, eventually retiring with a full pension.

Schleihauf points out that Vanguard, although less than 10 years old was obsolescent because of the rapid advance in naval technology. She had 12 inch guns, whilst the latest British dreadnoughts had 15 inch guns and were larger and faster. The other British ships lost to explosions in port were obsolete. Saboteurs could have found more valuable targets that were no better guarded.

The Court of Inquiry concluded that Vanguard was lost because of a magazine explosion resulting from the ignition of cordite which could have been caused by a number of reasons: an avoidable cause; abnormal deterioration in a charge because it had been abnormally treated; sabotage by the enemy; or the cordite becoming unstable. It made 13 recommendations for improvements in handling processes and storage.

Admiral Sir David Beatty, C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet, concluded that the loss Vanguard was ‘probably due to defective cordite.’[2] The men killed when she exploded are listed on naval-history.net.

Vanguard is now an official war grave. Her White Ensign is regularly changed by RN divers. Ceremonies were held to mark the 100th anniversary of her sinking at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney, over her wreck in Scapa Flow and at the nearby Lyness Naval Cemetery, where the 41 men whose bodies were recovered are buried.

In addition to the footnoted sources, this post is based on the following websites, all accessed on 11 July 2017:

BBC News, ‘Orkney service marks HMS Vanguard sinking centenary’

 

The World War I Document Archive, ‘Explosions in Warships During the War’

 

The Great War Forum, ‘Sabotage what a coincidence’

 

William Schleihauf, ‘Disaster in Harbour: The Loss of HMS Vanguard’

 

[1] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 229, 233, 256, 259, 303.

[2] Quoted in 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. iv, p. 42.

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U-boats, the Zimmermann Telegram and the US Entry into the War

On 22 December 1916 Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, the Chief of the Admiralty Staff of the Imperial German Navy, sent Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the Chief of the General Staff, the last of a series of memos advocating that Germany adopt unrestricted submarine warfare.[1] Unrestricted submarine warfare meant sinking merchant ships without warning. German U-boats were then surfacing in order to check the nationality of merchant ships before opening fire. This was done largely to avoid the problems that would ensue if US citizens were killed.[2]

Holtzendorff argued that Germany had to win the war by autumn 1917 or else it would finish with the exhaustion of all the belligerents, which would mean disaster for Germany. The Italian and French economies had been so weakened by the war that they were able to continue to fight only with British support. The Germans had to break the British economy in order to win the war, and the way to do this was to attack the British merchant fleet. Extra demands were being placed on it because Britain imported much of its food and the 1916 global grain harvest had been poor. This meant that Britain would have to replace imports from Canada and the USA with grain from Argentina, India and especially Australia.[3]

Holtzendorff thought that a destruction of 600,000 tons of merchant shipping per month would reduce British trade ‘by 39% within five months. This would not be bearable’.[4] He admitted that he could not ‘guarantee that a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare’ would force a British surrender within five months.[5] However, acting in accordance with cruiser rules would mean sinking only 400,000 tons per month, reducing British trade by only 18%, which was not enough. Holtzendorff claimed that this was the actual rate achieved over the two previous weeks.[6] The actual losses, shown in the table below, were a little lower.

The British, however, were concerned even at the level of losses of late 1916. In October, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, who replaced Admiral Sir Henry Jackson as First Sea Lord, the professional head of the Royal Navy, in late November, warned the Admiralty that the losses of British and neutral merchant ships might by the summer of 1917 reduce imports of food and other necessities to a level that would force the Allies to accept worse peace terms than were justified by the European military situation. Admiral Sir David Beatty, who succeeded Jellicoe as C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet, said that the danger was ‘jeopardising the fate of the nation and seriously interfering with the successful prosecution of the war.’[7]

Holtzendorff  wanted to avoid war with the USA if possible but argued that the risk of it happening should not stop Germany ‘from making use at the decisive moment of a weapon that promises victory.’[8] He thought that the USA would not be able to replace the lost merchant shipping and that there would be insufficient transports to take US troops to Europe. He expected that the USA would make peace when Britain as it would not be able to do as much damage to Germany as U-boats did to its commerce and would want an early return to economic prosperity.[9]

The decision to launch unrestricted submarine warfare from 1 February 1917 was made at a meeting held on 9 January. Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg, who had until then opposed unrestricted submarine warfare, finally agreed to it, commenting it that it was ‘the last card.’[10]

On 1 February 1917 the Germans had 105 U-boats available, with new construction taking their strength to 129 by 1 June. They had at least 120 for the remainder of 1917 and 124 at the end of the year. [11]

The U-boat campaign was a military success, as shown by the following table:

British tonnage sunk (excludes fishing vessels) World tonnage sunk (includes British and foreign fishing vessels
October 1916 176,248 353,660
November 1916 168,809 311,508
December 1916 182,292 355,139
January  1917 153,666 368,521
February 1917 313,486 540,006
March 1917 353,478 593,841
April 1917 545,282 881,027

Source: C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1920), vol. iii, p. 465.

However, it resulted in US President Woodrow Wilson breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany on 3 February.[12] He, Congress and the US public were not yet ready to enter the war.

On 16 January Arthur Zimmermann, the German Foreign Minister, sent a telegram to Count Bernstorff, the German ambassador in Washington that he was to forward to Heinrich von Eckhardt, the German minister in Mexico City. Von Eckhardt was to offer the Mexican government an alliance if war broke out between Germany and the USA. The Germans would provide financial aid to Mexico, which would regain the territory that it had lost to the USA in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 after a victorious war. The Mexicans were also to attempt to persuade Japan to change sides.[13]

The British had destroyed the German cable communications with the rest of the world early in the war. The Germans, however, had access to two neutral cables to the USA: a Swedish one that they had been allowed to use since early in the war; and a US one that Wilson had allowed them to use when he was attempting to mediate between them and the Allies. Both passed through Britain, which could therefore intercept them. The simplicity of American codes and cyphers enabled the British code breakers of Room 40 to break them. They also had a copy of the German diplomatic code book that was captured when Wilhelm Wassmuss, a German agent in Persia, was forced to flee without his baggage.[14] The British and Russians had captured German naval code books in 1914.

On the morning of 17 January Captain Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall, the Director of Naval Intelligence, was handed a partial translation of the intercepted cable.[15] The code was in a variant of the one captured from Wassmuss and the parts that could not be decoded included details of the terms offered by Germany to Mexico. Showing it to the Americans risked revealing to them that the British were intercepting neutral diplomatic traffic and to the Germans that their diplomatic codes had been broken. Hall, perhaps hoping that the USA might enter the war anyway, sat on the telegram until 5 February, when he showed it to the Foreign Office.

By 10 February British agents had obtained a copy of it from the Mexico City telegraph office. The German legation there used a simpler code than the one used between Berlin and Washington, and the British were able to fully decode it. It could now be passed to the Americans without them realising that the British were intercepting Swedish and US diplomatic cables. The telegram, available online at the Great War Primary Document Archive, read:

Berlin, January 19, 1917

On the first of February we intend to begin submarine warfare unrestricted. In spite of this, it is our intention to endeavor to keep neutral the United States of America.

If this attempt is not successful, we propose an alliance on the following basis with Mexico: That we shall make war together and together make peace. We shall give general financial support, and it is understood that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. The details are left to you for settlement….

You are instructed to inform the President of Mexico of the above in the greatest confidence as soon as it is certain that there will be an outbreak of war with the United States and suggest that the President of Mexico, on his own initiative, should communicate with Japan suggesting adherence at once to this plan; at the same time, offer to mediate between Germany and Japan.

Please call to the attention of the President of Mexico that the employment of ruthless submarine warfare now promises to compel England to make peace in a few months.

Zimmerman
(Secretary of State)

Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, handed it to Walter Page, the US ambassador to London on 23 February. It was published in the USA on 1 March. A minority of Americans argued that it was a forgery. Hall took steps to prove to that it was genuine, but these proved unnecessary when Zimmermann admitted on 3 March that he had sent it.[16]

Wilson had already decided to ask Congress for permission to arm US merchant ships, which would have almost certainly have resulted in an incident that led to war. The measure was passed overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives but was filibustered out of the Senate. Wilson decided to go ahead anyway. On 20 March, after a number of US merchant ships were sunk by U-boats, he obtained the unanimous consent of his cabinet for a declaration of war. [17] On 2 April the House of Representatives voted 373 to 50 in favour of war, with the formal declaration coming on 6 April.[18]

The Germans thought that they would have starved Britain into surrender before the USA, which in April 1917 had an army of 213,557 men and 55 aircraft, 51 of them obsolete, could make a decisive difference. However, by the end of the war 1.97 million US troops had been sent to the Western Front, with no troopships being sunk on the way from the USA to Europe. By the summer of 1918 the USA was sending 536,000 tons of supplies per month to France, with a troop or cargo ship leaving every five hours. The USN committed 68 destroyers and 121 submarine chasers to the battle against the U-boats.[19]

This link, to a new exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery marking the 100th anniversary of American involvement in World War I, was kindly pointed out to me by G.P. Cox, writer of the excellent Pacific Paratrooper blog.

 

[1] D. Steffen, ‘The Holtzendorff Memorandum of 22 December 1916 and Germany’s Declaration of Unrestricted U-Boat Warfare’, Journal of Military History 68, no. 1 (2004), pp. 215-16.

[2] 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. iv, p. 51.

[3] Steffen, ‘Holtzendorff’, pp. 219-20.

[4] Ibid., p. 221. This and subsequent quotations are from Holtzendorff’s memo, which is reproduced in Steffen’s paper.

[5] Ibid., pp. 220-21.

[6] Ibid., p. 222.

[7] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iv, pp. 324-25.

[8] Steffen, ‘Holtzendorff’, p. 222.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Marder, From. vol. iv, p. 51.

[11] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 338-39.

[12] Ibid., p. 340.

[13] D. Stevenson, 1914-1918: The History of the First World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004), p. 313.

[14] C. M. Andrew, Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (London: Heinemann, 1985), pp. 107-8.

[15] Hall was promoted Rear Admiral on 27 April 1917. His nickname resulted from a chronic facial twitch.

[16] Andrew, Secret, pp. 110-13.

[17] Stevenson, 1914-1918, p. 317.

[18] H. H. Herwig, The First World War : Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918 (London: Arnold, 1997), p. 320.

[19] Ibid.

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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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The Battle of Jutland 31 May – 2 June 1916

Introduction

On 25 April 1916, whilst returning from the Lowestoft Raid, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, Commander-in-Chief of the German High Seas Fleet (HSF), learnt that U-boats were to conduct commerce warfare in line with prize law regulations until further notice. This decision was made after the USA threatened to cut off diplomatic relations with Germany following the sinking of the SS Sussex with the loss of 50 civilian lives, some of them American. This severely reduced the effectiveness  of U-boats against merchant ships, Scheer decided that it would be better to employ his long range U-boats in co-operation with his surface fleet against enemy warships.[1]

A raid by battlecruisers on Sunderland in the north east of England, supported by battleships. was planned for 17 May but had to be postponed for six days because some battleships developed condenser problems. It was expected that Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet (GF) would respond, so U-boats were positioned to ambush them. Ten U-boats were to patrol the North Sea from 17 to 22 May. On 23 May two would position themselves off the Pentland Firth, on the Grand Fleet’s route from its base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands into the North Sea, and eight off the Firth of Forth to intercept Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Fleet (BCF) as it left Rosyth. Another U-boat would force her way into the Firth of Forth, close to Rosyth, one would reconnoitre Sunderland and two would watch the Humber, where a neutral merchantman had told the Germans, wrongly, that a large British force, including battleships, was located. Three more boats would lay mines in the Firth of Forth, the Moray Firth and west of the Orkneys.[2]

The operation had to be postponed because repairs to the battlecruiser SMS Seydlitz, damaged by a mine in the Lowestoft Raid, took longer than expected. Technical problems with two U-boats meant that there were only eight off the Firth of Forth and the plan to send another into the Firth had to be abandoned. A coded message was sent to the U-boats on 30 May, two days before they were due to return home, informing them that the HSF was about to put to sea.[3]

The initial plan to attack Sunderland was abandoned on 30 May because high winds made airship reconnaissance, which Scheer needed to guard his northern flank, impossible. It was replaced by a sweep in the Skagerrak, the water between southern Norway and northern Denmark, apparently aimed at the British cruisers and merchant ships that were frequently seen there. Cruisers and torpedo boats could guard the exposed flank since the HSF would not be going so far from its bases.[4]

The Fleets

The GF was far bigger than the HSF.  The British had 28 dreadnoughts, nine battlecruisers, eight armoured cruisers, 26 light cruisers, 78 destroyers, a minelayer and a seaplane carrier against 16 dreadnoughts, five battlecruisers, six pre-dreadnoughts, 11 light cruisers and 61 torpedo boats (equivalent to British destroyers). The full order of battle is listed in Wikipedia, with links to details of ships and biographies of senior officers.

Jellicoe thought that the odds were not as strongly in his favour as was the case. The British always assumed that the Germans  would come out when at full strength, whilst some British ships would always be under refit or repair. The newly commissioned dreadnought HMS Royal Sovereign was still working up and the dreadnoughts HMS Queen Elizabeth and Emperor of India, the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, two cruisers and 17 destroyers were in the dockyard. However, the dreadnought SMS König was also in the dockyard and the new dreadnought SMS Baden, the first German ship with 15 inch guns, was still working up.[5]

The British thought that these ships and the incomplete battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg were with the HSF, whilst Jellicoe feared, wrongly, that the Germans had completed the Greek battleship Salamis, building in a German yard at the outbreak of war, for themselves.[6]

The six German pre-dreadnoughts were old and poorly armed ships that slowed the HSF to 18 knots, 3 knots slower than the GF.[7] Overall, the British had a big advantage in firepower:

British German
Battleships Battlecruisers Total Battleships Battlecruisers Total
15″ guns 48 48
14″ guns 10 10
13.5″ guns 110 32 142 128 128
12″ guns 104 40 144 72 16 88
11″ guns 28 28
Total heavy guns 272 72 344 200 44 244
Broadside (lbs) 332,360 68,900 401,260 134,216 33,104 167,320
21″ torpedoes 382
19.7″ torpedoes 362
18″ torpedoes 75
17.7″ torpedoes 107
Total torpedoes 457 469

Source: Marder, A. J., From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919. 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70), vol. ii, p. 438.

The number of guns is the total carried, but the broadsides exclude guns that could not bear on both sides: British 12  12 inch and German 16 12 inch and 16 11 inch.[8]

These numbers do not tell the full story. A warship is a trade off between speed, firepower and protection. The British put protection bottom of the list, the Germans top, as the following figures show.

The first number in the second column is the number built and the second the number at Jutland. As well as those listed above as unavailable, SMS Goeben of the Moltke class had been transferred to the Ottoman Navy, HMS Dreadnought was no longer assigned to the GF, HMS Audacious of the King George V class was sunk by a mine in 1914 and a Bayern and two Royal Sovereigns were still building. the last three British battleships listed were vessels under construction for foreign navies in British yards at the start of the war that were requisitioned for the RN.

Battleships

Class Number Displacement Speed (kts) Belt (in) Main armament
British

Dreadnought

1/0 17,900 21 11 10 x 12 inch
Bellorophon 3/3 18,800 21 10 10 x 12 inch
St Vincent 3/3 19,560 21 10 10 x 12 inch
Neptune 1/1 19,680 21 10 10 x 12 inch
Colossus 2/2 20,225 21 11 10 x 12 inch
Orion 4/4 22,200 21 12 10 x 13.5 inch
King George V 4/3 23,200 21 12 10 x 13.5 inch
Iron Duke 4/4 25,820 21 12 10 x 13.5 inch
Queen Elizabeth 5/4 27,500 25 13 8 x 15 inch
Royal Sovereign 5/2 25,750 21 13 8 x 15 inch
Canada 1/1 28,600 23 9 10 x 14 inch
Agincourt 1/1 27,500 22 9 14 x 12 inch
Erin 1/1 22,780 21 12 10 x 13.5 inch
German

Nassau

4/4 18,569 20 11.75 12 x 11 inch
Helgoland 4/4 22,437 21 11.75 12 x 12 inch
Kaiser 5/4 24,333 21 13.75 10 x 12 inch
Konig 4/4 25,391 21 13.75 10 x 12 inch
Bayern 2/0 28,061 22 13.75 8 x 15 inch

Battlecruisers

Class Number Displacement Speed (kts) Belt (in) Main armament
British

Invincible

3/3 17,250 25 6 8 x 12 inch
Indefatigable 3/2 18,500 25 6 8 x 12 inch
Lion 3/3 26270-27,300 27-28 9 8 x 13.5 inch
Tiger 1/1 26,270 28 9 8 x 13.5 inch
German

Von der Tann

1/1 19,064 25 10 8 x 11 inch
Moltke 2/1 22,616 26 10.5 10 x 11 inch
Seydlitz 1/1 23,707 26 11.75 8 x 12 inch
Derfflinger 3/2 26,180-26,513 26 11.75 8 x 12 inch

Source: Tarrant, V. E., Jutland: The German Perspective (London: Arms & Armour Press, 1995), pp. 255-57.

HMS Queen Mary of the Lion class and SMS Lützow and the incomplete SMS Hindenburg of the Derfflinger class were a little bigger and a knot faster than their sisters.

The speed of a fleet is that of the slowest vessel, so the GF was capable of 21 knots versus 18 for the HSF because of its slow pre-dreadnoughts. The British BCF and the battlecruisers of the 1 German Scouting Group (1SG) could both make 25 knots. The British had a gunnery advantage in both cases but the Germans, especially their battlecruisers were better armoured.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The British speed advantage may have been even greater than the official speeds of the ships. Welsh steam coal was superior to German coal as a fuel for ships and poor coal sometimes restricted the speed of German warships.[9]

The German ships advantage in protection was more than the tables above suggest because their ships were divided into a much larger number of water tight compartments with strong bulkheads than British ones, allowing them to take far more punishment before foundering. This meant that German sailors had more cramped living conditions than British ones, which was considered acceptable because their ships were designed for shorter range operations.[10] It is, however, a myth that the sailors lived ashore in barracks when their ships were in port. Some U-boat and destroyer crews based in Flanders did so but not the men of the HSF based in Germany.[11]

The British firepower advantage was negated to a large extent by the inferiority of their armour piercing (AP) shells. The long range at which Jutland was mostly fought meant that shells struck their target’s side armour at an oblique angle. British fuses burst their shells on impact if it was at an oblique angle. Even when British AP shells did not hit at an oblique angle, the over sensitivity of the lyddite with which they were filled caused them to explode on impact instead of penetrating the enemy’s armour. British shell design and production was the responsibility of the Board of Ordnance, which was part of the War Office, not the Admiralty. Jellicoe had requested realistic trials when he was Third Sea Lord, but the issue was allowed to drop when he returned to sea in December 1910. The superior German AP shells were filled with trotyl (TNT).[12]

The German rangefinders were superior to British ones. Their ladder method of finding the range enabled them to score hits more quickly than the British bracket system. The British waited to see if a salvo had hit before correcting the next one. The Germans fired three quick salvos several hundred yards apart in order to find where the enemy was within the ladder. All British gunnery officers at Jutland thought that the German gunnery was better than the British early in the battle but then deteriorated. This may be because the visibility favoured the Germans early on and the British later. The German stereoscopic rangefinders were excellent but hard to use. Their operators had to have eyesight that was not only excellent but identical in both eyes, whereas anybody could be trained to use a British rangefinder. One theory is that the concentration needed to use a German rangefinder might result in the operator’s performance declining under the stress and strain of battle. The Germans had better searchlights and binoculars, which gave them an advantage at night.[13]

The British, particularly the BCF, had poor flash protection and ammunition handing procedures. An emphasis on rate of fire led to magazine doors  being left open and to many charges being removed from their magazine cases. A shell bursting in a turret could then cause a flash that would travel down the hoist to the magazine. This was exacerbated by the violent way in which British charges would catch fire.[14]

SMS Seydlitz was saved from a magazine explosion at the Battle of Dogger Bank when her executive officer ordered two magazines to be flooded. A German seaman captured in 1918, who had been on Seydlitz at Dogger Bank, told his British interrogators that extra doors had been added to her hoists and the number of charges taken out of the magazine reduced after Dogger Bank.[15]

John Campbell argues in his detailed analysis of Jutland that Seydlitz would have blown up at Dogger Bank had she had British charges.[16]

The British had had a warning about their poor anti-flash protection at the Battle of the Falklands in 1914. The armoured cruiser HMS Kent would probably have blown up had Sergeant Charles Mayes RMLI not put out a fire that threatened a magazine. The Admiralty gave him the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal but did not change the RN’s ammunition handing procedures.

Ironically, the one battlecruiser on which ammunition handling procedures were improved was Beatty’s flagship HMS Lion. Alexander Grant, her newly appointed Chief Gunner wrote in his unpublished memoirs, Through the Hawse Pipe, that the Gunnery Officer and Captain accepted his suggestion of:

‘drastic alterations in the supply of cordite. These were (1) One magazine to be in use only during action. (2) Not more than one full charge to be in handling room. (3) during any lull in the demand for charges the magazine door to be closed and watertight clips put on. (4) On no account should the magazines be flooded except on receipt of an order from a responsible officer.’

Click here for the full extract. A Chief Gunner was a warrant officer promoted from the ranks. Through the hawse pipe is an old RN phrase referring to an officer who had started his career in the lower deck.

Another potential British weakness was Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet Battle Tactics. They discouraged the use of initiative by the commanders of battleship divisions: the GF was divided into five battle squadrons, the first four of which each consisted of two divisions of four battleships, with the fifth containing the five fast battleship of the Queen Elizabeth class.

Pre-Battle Manoeuvres

The first German ships left port at 1:00 am on 31 May. The GF had sailed from Scapa Flow at 10:30 pm the night before as the British were aware that the Germans were planning a major operation.[17]

On the morning of 31 May the Admiralty’s Director of the Operations Division, Rear Admiral Thomas Jackson, visited its code-breakers in Room 40. He was told that it was in Wilhelmshaven, where it always was. It was used by Scheer when his flagship was in port, but he used another call sign when at sea, with DK then being transferred to a shore station in Wilhelmshaven. Jackson did not inquire further, but at 12:30 pm sent a signal to Jellicoe informing him that Scheer was at Wilhelmshaven. The GF consequently headed for the rendezvous with the BCF at a slower speed in order to conserve fuel.[18]

The Battlecruiser Action 1: The Run to the South

At 2:20 pm HMS Galatea, one of the BCF’s light cruisers, hoisted the signal ‘Enemy in sight.’ Both the BCF and the SG had sent ships to investigate a Dutch merchant ship.[19]

The BCF normally consisted of three squadrons each of three battlecruisers. However, the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron had been transferred to Rosyth, where there was more room to conduct gunnery practice, and replaced by the Rear Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas’s 5th Battle Squadron. With the battlecruiser HMAS Australia and the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth unavailable, Beatty had five battlecruisers and four battleships against Admiral Franz Hipper’s five battlecruisers. Both also had light cruisers and destroyers with them.

Beatty headed towards the enemy, which he at first thought comprised only light cruisers, but the 5th Battle Squadron did not immediately follow. The problem appears to have been that Beatty led the BCF on a follow me basis, which was more appropriate for his force than for the GF. Evan-Thomas, who had not been given a copy of the orders under which the BCF operated, was used to Jellicoe’s more regimented process and did not initially react to Beatty’s move.[20]

The BCF included a seaplane carrier, HMS Engadine, but she launched only one of her four seaplanes, crewed by pilot Flight Lieutenant F. J. Rutland and observer Paymaster G. S. Trewin. Low clouds restricted their visibility to only one to four miles.[21]

The GF also included a seaplane carrier, HMS Campania, but signalling errors resulted in her being left in harbour. She could have caught up but Jellicoe, who thought that her maximum speed was 19 knots rather than the actual 21.5 knots and was worried that she would be vulnerable to U-boats, ordered her to stay in port.[22]

The SG opened fire at about 15,000 yards range at 3:48 pm, with the BCF replying seconds later. Beatty thought that the range was 18,000 yards, 500 less than the maximum of his two 12 inch armed ships. The 13.5 inch guns on the others had a range of 23-24,000 yards.[23]

The SG now attempted to lead the BCF onto the HSF, with a high speed chase to the south developing. At 4:00 a hit on Lion’s Q turret might have caused her to blow up had it not been for the measures introduced by Chief Gunner Grant and the orders given by mortally wounded Royal Marine Major Francis Harvey to close the magazine doors and flood the magazines. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.[24] A later post in this series will cover the Jutland VCs.

Three minutes later HMS Indefatigable blew up, with the loss of 1,017 men killed. The two survivors were picked up by the Germans. Just after this SMS Moltke launched four torpedoes, which was followed by false sightings of U-boats by the British.[25]

The 5th Battle Squadron, after firing on German light cruisers, spotted the enemy battlecruisers at 4:05. They had just ceased fire because of the range. Evan-Thomas turned south to conform to Beatty’s course before opening fire at 19,000 yards. His squadron’s fire was more accurate than that of the British battlecruisers, but at such a long range the shells were the enemy at an oblique angle, causing the over sensitive lyddite in them to explode on contact rather than to penetrate. The visibility was now obscured by haze and smoke.[26]

At 4:10 both Beatty and Hipper altered course to close the range and the Germans reopened fire at 4:17. HMS Queen Mary came under fire from both Derfflinger and Seydlitz. The Germans praised her shooting, but at 4:26 she blew up. Only 20 of her men were rescued, 18 by the British, one of whom later died, and two by the Germans. The other 1,266 men on board went down with her.[27]

The next stage of the action was a destroyer action that resulted in the sinking of HMS Nestor and Nomad and SMS V27 and V29. One torpedo hit Seydlitz, but did not do much damage.[28] Nestor’s captain, Commander Edward Bingham was awarded the VC. He was rescued by the Germans, the only one of the four Jutland VC winners to survive the battle.

About 4:30 Commodore William Goodenough’s light cruiser HMS Southampton spotted the HSF. He signalled Beatty by searchlight at 4:33 and Jellicoe and Beatty by wireless at 4:38 that enemy battleships were in sight. At 4:40 Beatty ordered his force to rejoin the GF. His mission was now to lead the enemy to Jellicoe.[29]

The Battlecruiser Action 2: The Run to the North

The 5th Battle Squadron suffered heavy damage during the next phase of the battle, but also scored hits on the Germans. The visibility now favoured the British, with the sun appearing through the mist, behind them and low in the sky .[30] The firing died away by 5:30, when Jellicoe and his battleships were 23 miles away, with battlecruiser and cruiser ahead of them.[31]

At 5:35 the light cruiser HMS Chester, attached to Rear Admiral Sir Horace Hood’s 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron, was badly damaged by the light cruisers of the German 2nd Scouting Group. Hood took his three battlecruisers to her aid, leaving the light cruiser Wiesbaden wrecked and two other light cruisers badly damaged. Hood’s four destroyers then attacked the Germans. HMS Shark was sunk in a successful attempt to prevent a German torpedo attack on Hood’s battlecruisers.[32]

Commander Loftus Jones, Shark’s captain, and 16 year old Boy Seaman Jack Cornwall of Chester were both later awarded posthumous VCs. Cornwall, the third youngest ever winner of the VC and the youngest since 1860, stayed at his post despite being severely wounded.

Rear Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot’s 1st Cruiser Squadron of four obsolete armoured cruisers now appeared. Arbuthnot was a fitness fanatic who was once attacked by three of his seamen at night. Two of his assailants ended up in hospital.[33]

Arbuthnot took his ships towards the crippled Wiesbaden, engaging her at close range and forcing Lion to change course. The German battleships and battlecruisers then appeared and opened fire, sinking Arbuthnot’s flagship HMS Defence at 6:20 with the loss of all 903 men on board and damaging her sister HMS Warrior so badly that she later sank. Theories on Arbuthnot’s  motivation include sacrificing his squadron with a torpedo attack to cover the GF’s deployment, supporting Beatty, reconnaissance in poor visibility, an offensive spirit and a berserk rush.[34]

Warrior was saved from immediate destruction by HMS Warspite, which made two complete circles after a shell hit and jammed her helm, drawing enemy fire away from Warrior.[35]

The Battle Fleet Action

At 6:14 Jellicoe was informed Beatty that the HSF was in sight, leaving him with a vital decision to make. On which flank should he deploy as he moved his battleships from their cruising formation into their battle line? The starboard flank was closest to the enemy, but his ships would have to turn under heavy fire and probably attacks by torpedo boats. His problem was that the lack of reports from his scouting forces meant that he had to make the decision when the enemy was closer than he would have liked. He chose to deploy to port.[36]

A few have criticised Jellicoe’s decision, notably the Dewar brothers, two RN officers who wrote a controversial internal Admiralty study of Jutland highly critical of Jellicoe, Winston Churchill, whose account of the battle is largely based on the Dewar’s work and Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee, victor of the Battle of the Falklands and commanding the 4th Battle Squadron at Jutland. Most, however, agree that Jellicoe was correct: they include all the GF admirals except Sturdee; the British and German Official Histories; the historian Arthur Marder; Scheer’s Chief of Staff Vize Admiral Alfred von Trotha; Admiral  John Godfrey, later a Staff college lecturer; Vice Admiral John Harper, author of another Admiralty study of the battle; Admiral Sir Reginald Drax, who was on Lion at Jutland; Sir Bertram Ramsay, who commanded the naval forces at the evacuation of Dunkirk and the invasion of Normandy; and Viscount Cunningham who commanded the Mediterranean Fleet in the first half of WWII, including winning the Battle of Matapan and then became First Sea Lord.[37]

The port deployment meant that the GF crossed the T of the HSF, allowing it to fire full broadsides whilst the Germans could reply with only their forward firing guns. There was a delay, but this benefitted the GF as it gave it longer to stretch its line and complete the crossing of the T. It put the GF on the HSF’s line of retreat and gave the GF the advantage of the light. Deploying to starboard lost all these advantages in return only for getting into action quickly. the Dewars and Churchill suggested instead a deployment on the centre, but this would have been a complex manoeuvre that had never been practiced.[38]

Hood’s three battlecruisers had now joined the BCF. Invincible scored a series of hits on Lützow, but about 6:30 the mist that had been obscuring the British ships cleared. The Germans opened fire and Invincible became the fourth British ship to blow up. There were 1,032 dead and only six survivors.[39]

Some reports claim that more men got into the water from the sunk ships but that they were later run down by the advancing British fleet, which had no time or room to stop or alter course. However, Commander Hubert Dannreuther, Invincible’s gunnery officer and the senior survivor of the four ships that blew up, believed that the many kitbags and hammocks in the water could have been mistaken for men from the height of a battleship.[40]

The appearance of the GF was a massive shock to Scheer. At 6:33 he ordered his battleships to carry out a battle about turn, i.e. to together turn 16 points (180 degrees) so that they were heading in the opposite direction. This was  not difficult in practice and good visibility, but was a big risk of collisions when carrying it out in poor visibility, under fire and with several ships damaged. It was, however, completed successfully.[41]

The HSF was now out of Jellicoe’s sight. At 6:44 he turned south east, altering course to south at 6:55 in order to put the GF on the HSF’s route home. Just before this the battleship HMS Marlborough was hit by a torpedo.[42]

Also at 6:55 Scheer ordered a second battle about turn, this time to the east. His reasoning for this risky manoeuvre was that he had to do something to gain the initiative and prevent the GF blocking the HSF’s route home and attacking it as it retreated. He also sent torpedo boats to help the stricken Wiesbaden, which the British mistook for an attack on the GF.[43]

By 7:12 the HSF was under heavy fire but could see nothing of the enemy except for the flashes of its guns. Scheer therefore issued three orders: at 6:13 he ordered the battlecruisers, less the badly damaged Lützow, which had been detached, to charge the enemy; at 6:15 he ordered his torpedo boats to attack and to lay a smokescreen; and at 6:16 he ordered his battleships to perform another battle about turn in order to escape. This time they were under even heavier fire, but the manoeuvre was again successful.[44]

The German battlecruisers suffered heavy punishment, to which they could offer little response because of the poor visibility, but succeeded in covering the battleship’s withdrawal.[45] The torpedo boat V48 was crippled when retiring after the torpedo attack.[46]

SMS Derfflinger had two of her turrets destroyed by hits from 15 inch shells. According to her gunnery officer, Korvettenkapitän Georg von Hase, her cartridge cases caught fire but ‘only blazed, they did not explode as had been the case in the enemy battlecruisers. This saved the ship, but the result of the fire was catastrophic.’[47]

The German torpedo attack persuaded Jellicoe to turn away from the torpedoes at 7:22, which cost several minutes and put him 3,000 yards further away from the HSF. No British battleships were hit by torpedoes. In the Second World War the preferred tactic was to turn towards the torpedoes and comb them, thus maintaining contact with the enemy, which in this case was beaten and in retreat. Jellicoe missed an opportunity to cause further damage and perhaps turn a retreat into a rout.[48] However, navies then had little experience of massed torpedo attacks and Jellicoe was conscious that heavy losses of British battleships might enable the Germans to lift the Allied blockade and win the war.

The sun set at 8:19 but there would be enough light for the British to continue firing until about 9:00. Jellicoe, having lost touch with the enemy, decided to set a course to intercept Scheer on his route home. He received no information about their location until Beatty reported by searchlight at 7:40 and wireless at 7:48. These signals, however, did not give Jellicoe enough information to set a course to intercept Scheer.[49]

There were a series of actions firstly between light cruisers, then battlecruisers and finally British battlecruisers and German pre-dreadnoughts from 8:18 to 9:40. the British battlecruisers had both a numerical advantage and better gunnery. At 8:45 Vice Admiral Sir Martyn Jerram’s 2nd Battle Squadron sighted three German battleships at 10,000 yards range but Jerram, convinced that they were British battlecruisers, held his fire.[50]

The Night Action

Jellicoe did not want to fight with his battleships because British searchlights were poor and he thought that long range torpedoes made a  night action with big ships too risky. This meant that he had to position the GF so as to intercept the HSF at dawn on 1 June.[51]

The British had laid a minefield off the German coast. The Germans kept three channels through it clear: the first, starting from the Horns Reef, gave Scheer a 105 mile journey home from his 9:00 position; the second, starting 15 miles south west of the Horns Reef, was 110 miles long; and the third, 180 miles long, ran along the coast from the River Jade to the River Ems. The second was not known to the British, who had left a channel through the minefield, which was a 135 mile journey but was unknown to the Germans. Jellicoe thought that the Ems route was the most likely because of the last report that he had received of the HSF’s course and because the British maintained a submarine patrol on the Horns Reef route. Scheer, however, was heading for the Horns Reef.[52]

At one point during the night the two battle fleets were sailing on converging courses, like a V. However, a number of chance factors (the British were making 17 knots, the Germans 16, the HSF were delayed because Sheer sent what had been his leading ships to the rear of his line) meant that they just missed each other.[53]

On more than one occasion British battleships declined chances to fire on enemy ones: HMS Thunderer let SMS Moltke go because her captain did not want to reveal the position of the GF ‘unless obvious attack was intended.’[54] SMS Seydlitz was sighted by HMS Agincourt, whose captain did not want to reveal his division, and by HMS Marlborough, whose captain refused to allow his gunnery officer to fire as he thought that she was British.[55]

HMS Malaya’s gunnery officer was not permitted by his captain to fire on SMS Westfalen on the grounds that Evan-Thomas, two ships ahead, must also have seen the German ship. Evan-Thomas was also informed of a sighting of two German battleships, misidentified as cruisers, by HMS Valiant, but did not pass it on to Jellicoe.[56]

A series of actions took place during the night, mostly involving cruisers and destroyers, but also the battlecruisers. These saw the sinkings of the pre-dreadnought battleship Pommern with all 844 crew, the armoured cruiser HMS Black Prince with all 857 crew, the light cruisers SMS Frauenlob, Elbing and Rostock, the flotilla leader HMS Tipperary, the destroyers HMS Sparrowhawk, Turbulent and Ardent and the torpedo boats SMS S35 and V4. The crippled Wiesbaden and V48 both sank during the night, whilst Lützow was so badly damaged that the Germans scuttled her.[57]

The night actions took place that showed that the German torpedo boats were better trained for night operations than the British destroyers.[58] The Germans had obtained the British two letter challenge signal, probably by observing it, whilst their one was a display of multi-coloured lights that were shown briefly and were impossible to copy.[59]

Sunrise on 1 June was at 3:09 am. Scheer had broken through the British destroyers and light cruisers to reach Horns Reef by 3:00. His fleet was in no fit state to fight but he had evaded Jellicoe.[60]

Jellicoe had got Scheer’s route wrong, but there was time for him to have corrected his mistake and headed for the Horns Reef if he had learnt the truth.

A signal sent by the Admiralty at 9:58 pm on 31 May and handed to Jellicoe at 10:45 gave a position for the HSF that was obviously wrong that. It had been accurately decoded and it was the original German signal that was wrong, but this, coupled with the earlier signal that erroneously said that the HSF was still in port when it was at sea, led Jellicoe to mistrust Admiralty signals. He therefore ignored a message sent at 10:41 and decoded and in his hands between 11:15 and 11:30 that gave accurate information on the HSF’s course.

At 11:30 a searchlight message from the light cruiser HMS Birmingham reported that a number of German battlecruisers were heading on a parallel course to the GF. In fact they were battleships that had temporarily changed course in order to avoid a torpedo attack. This and other reports from his ships convinced him that Scheer was taking the Ems route.

The Admiralty, however, failed to pass on a series of German signals that gave Scheer’s position at 10:43, 11:00, 11:37, 11:43, 00:30 am and 1:00 am that Room 40 decoded between 11:15 pm and 00:25 am.[61]

The worst mistake was not passing on a signal of 9:06 pm from Scheer requesting airship reconnaissance at Horns Reef that was in the hands of the Admiralty by 10:10. Jellicoe later wrote that ‘[t]his was practically a certain indication of his route but was not passed to me.’[62]

The HSF passed over the British submarines at about 4:00 am without being attacked.[63] Its ships reached the Rivers Jade and Elbe between noon and 1:45 pm.[64] The GF was inside Scapa Flow by 11 am on 2 June and ready for sea at four hours’ notice by 9:45 am that day. U-boats attacked HMS Marlborough and Warspite on their way home but neither was hit.[65]

Conclusion

For once in the war at sea, the Germans won the propaganda war, getting their claim of victory out well ahead of any British statement. In terms of losses they were correct. The British lost 14 ships of 115,025 tons with 6,097 men killed, 510 wounded and 177 captured out of 60,000. German losses were 11 ships of 61,180 tons with 2,551 men killed and 507 wounded out of 45,000; no Germans were captured. The ratio is altered a little when badly damaged ships are considered: five German battleships and four battlecruisers required dockyard repair compared with four British battleships and three battlecruisers; the last German ship left dry dock on 15 October, the last British one on 13 September. Seydlitz would probably have sunk had she faced as long a journey home as the British ships and Derfflinger suffered more damage than any British ship.[66]

The Germans sank more ships than they lost, but the margin was not enough to cover Britain’s greater construction rate. Both navies had a battleship working up at the time of Jutland. Britain had completed a battleship and two battlecruisers by the end of 1916 and another battleship in 1917. Germany added a battleship and a battlecruiser in 1917. Neither side completed any capital ships in 1918, though both had some under construction when the war ended.[67]

Scheer sailed into a trap, which he would have avoided had the weather permitted airship reconnaissance. He then extracted his fleet from it skilfully, taking risks that paid off.

Jellicoe had three big decisions to take. He got the first and most important, his initial deployment, correct. With the benefit of the future lessons of the Second World War, he was wrong about the second, when he turned away from rather than headed towards the torpedo attack. However, the detriment to Britain of a heavy defeat that would have enabled the Germans to lift the blockade was far greater than the benefit of a decisive victory that would have allowed it to be enforced more closely. His decision is therefore justifiable on the basis of the information available to him at the time. He was also wrong about the third, when he had to guess Scheer’s route home. He had, however, enough time to correct this mistake if the Admiralty had passed him all the intelligence that it possessed. He should take some of the blame for the lack of initiative displayed by his subordinates because of his highly detailed Grand Fleet Battle Orders.

Winston Churchill wrote that ‘Jellicoe was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.’ Jellicoe took no unnecessary risks and ensured that the RN maintained its control of the seas.[68]

Beatty famously said, just after Queen Mary exploded, that t]here seems to be something wrong with our bloody shops today.’[69] He was wrong: the problems were with safety procedures and shells, not ships. Admiral Sir Frederic Dreyer, a RN gunnery expert, believed that the British would have sunk at least six German capital ships at Jutland had they had the armour piercing shells that they had in 1918.[70]

Hipper, the only senior commander on either side to escape criticism, was awarded The Military Order of Max Josef by the King of Bavaria, which meant that he was henceforth von Hipper. He and Scheer both received Germany’s highest award, the Ordre pour le Merite.[71] Scheer also received the Military Order of Max Josef, but this did not entitle him to call himself von Scheer because he was not a Bavarian.

After Jutland the Allied Blockade continued to prevent Germany getting the supplies of food and other crucial items that it needed to import. The Germans, realising that they could not win a major fleet action, resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare, which brought the USA into the war against them. Jutland was the last clash of dreadnoughts in the war, but it was not the last time that the HSF came out.

The best summing up of Jutland remains that made by a New York newspaper just after the battle:

‘The German Fleet has assaulted its jailor, but it is still in jail.’[72]

 

For more on Jutland and the RN see naval-history.net, which has links to Naval Operations, the British Official History, Jellicoe and Scheer’s memoirs and Jellicoe’s Official Despatch, plus lists of British casualties and medal citations.

[1] V. E. Tarrant, Jutland: The German Perspective: A New View of the Great Battle, 31 May 1916 (London: Arms and Armour, 1995), p. 49.

[2] Ibid., pp. 49-51.

[3] Ibid., pp. 52-53.

[4] Ibid., p. 54.

[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. ii, p. 437.

[6] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 95, footnote 1.

[7] Tarrant, Jutland, p. 55.

[8] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 438, note 1.

[9] N. J. M. Campbell, Jutland: An Analysis of the Fighting (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1986), p. 184.

[10] Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 200-1

[11] Ibid. vol. v, p. 311, note 1.

[12] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 203-6.

[13] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 196-98 and footnotes 1 and 2 on p. 196.

[14] Campbell, Jutland, pp. 173-74.

[15] The National Archives, Kew, CAB 45/283, ‘German Navy and Sources of Material: Dogger Bank Action, 1915: Miscellaneous Reports from German Sources’. BATTLE CRUISER “SEYDLITZ”

[16] Campbell, Jutland, p. 374.

[17] Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 40-41. Timings are in GMT. German time was an hour ahead.

[18] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 45-48

[19] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 59.

[20] See G. A. H. Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996), pp. 81-101. for a lengthy analysis of this issue

[21] Marder, From. vol. iii, p. 63.

[22] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 48-49.

[23] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 64.

[24] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 65-66

[25] Tarrant, Jutland, pp. 84-86. Timings given in this book are mostly to German time and have been adjusted to GMT.

[26] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, pp. 336-37 and note 1 on p. 337.

[27] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 337 and notes 2 and 3.

[28] Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 68-69.

[29] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 69-70.

[30] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 85-87.

[31] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, pp. 345.

[32] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 352-54.

[33] Gordon, Rules, pp. 392-93.

[34] Ibid., pp. 444-45; Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 112-14 and note 24 on p. 114.

[35] Tarrant, Jutland, p. 129.

[36] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, pp. 361-62.

[37] Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 104-5.

[38] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 106.

[39] Gordon, Rules, pp. 450-51.

[40] Marder, From. vol. iii, p. 115 and note 27 on pp. 115-16.

[41] Tarrant, Jutland, pp. 136-41.

[42] Ibid., p. 149.

[43] Ibid., pp. 149-54.

[44] Ibid., pp. 157-61.

[45] Ibid., pp. 161-65.

[46] Ibid., p. 143.

[47] Quoted in Ibid., p. 161. Original source G. von Hase, Kiel and Jutland (London: Skiffington, 1921).

[48] Ibid., pp. 167-68.

[49] Ibid., pp. 169-73.

[50] Ibid., pp. 173-80.

[51] Ibid., p. 182.

[52] Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 155-60

[53] Tarrant, Jutland, p. 195.

[54] Campbell, Jutland, pp. 273-302.

[55] Tarrant, Jutland, pp. 195-96.

[56] Ibid., p. 207.

[57] See Corbett, Newbolt, Naval.vol. iii, 391-409

[58] Tarrant, Jutland, pp. 213-15.

[59] Gordon, Rules, p. 481. and note 22 on p. 680.

[60] Marder, From. vol. iii, p.p. 186-87.

[61] This and the last three paragraphs are based on Tarrant, Jutland, pp. 207-10.

[62] Quoted in Ibid., p. 210.

[63] Ibid., p. 234.

[64] Ibid., p. 237.

[65] Ibid., pp. 242-45.

[66] Ibid., pp. 246-49.

[67] See R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 35-36, 38-39, 149-50, 154-55.

[68] W. S. Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, 5 vols. (London: Odhams Press, 1939). vol. iii, Kindle edition, Chapter V, location 1466 of 8981

[69] Quoted in Marder, From. vol. iii, p. 67.

[70] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 205.

[71] Tarrant, Jutland, p. 247.

[72] Quoted in Ibid., p. 250.

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The Man Who Survived 3 Sinkings in the First World War and the Titanic

John Priest, born in Southampton in 1887, was one of the few firemen (stokers) to survive the sinking of the Titanic on 14 April 1912. The firemen had a long way to go to get from the boiler rooms to the deck.  An article on the BBC website claims that most of the lifeboats had left by the time that Priest made it and he had to swim for his life in very cold water. The Encyclopedia Titanica, however, says that he was in a lifeboat, probably number 15.

He had previously been on board a ship called the Asturias that was, according to the BBC website linked above, involved in a collision on her maiden voyage in 1907. The Asturias was completed in 1907 for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and served as a hospital ship in the First World War. She was beached on the English coast on 20 March 1917 in order to prevent her sinking after she was torpedoed by the U-boat UC66. I have not been able to find any other mention of her being involved in a collision on her maiden voyage, so it may have been a minor accident.

Priest was on board the Titanic’s sister ship Olympic on 20 September 1911 when she collided with the cruiser HMS Hawke. The cruiser, which was sunk by U9 In October 1914, as related here, was the more seriously damaged of the two.

In February 1916 he was a member of the crew of the armed merchant cruiser HMS Alcantara, a sister ship of the Asturias. She was one of a number of merchant liners requisitioned by the Admiralty and armed, in her case with six 6 inch and two 3 pounder guns and depth charges. She was assigned to the 10th Cruiser Squadron, which was helping to enforce the Allied blockade of the Central Powers.

By 28 February the squadron had lost one ship to weather, two to mines and three to U-boats but none to enemy surface ships, although the Grand Fleet boarding ship Ramsay had been sunk on 8 August 1915 by a raider flying Russian colours.[1]

On 28 February the Admiralty warned the Grand Fleet that a German raider was attempting to break out into the Atlantic. Just after 8 am on 29 February Alcantara (Captain T. E. Wardle), which had been about to return to port after transferring secret documents to her newly arrived sister ship HMS Andes (Captain G. B. W. Young), was ordered to remain on her patrol station.[2]

Alcantara spotted smoke at 8:45 am and soon afterwards received a signal from Andes stating ‘Enemy in sight steering N.E. 15 knots.’[3] This was followed by a second signal that Alcantara took to mean that the enemy had two funnels. However, the signal log of Andes did not mention funnels until 9:10, when it stated that the vessel had a ‘black funnel.’[4] Alcantara’s times appear to be 20 minutes earlier than those of Andes.

Alcantara closed on the smoke, which belonged to a one funnelled steamer flying Norwegian colours and bearing the name Rena on her stern. Wardle assumed that she was a different ship from the one in Andes’s 8:45 signal, but at 10:14 am a signal from Andes revealed that they were the same vessel.[5]

The ship was the German raider SMS Greif (Fregattenkapitän Rudolf Tietze), converted from the tramp steamer Guben, which been under construction at the outbreak of war. She had been designed with two funnels, but one was removed when she was requisitioned by the German Admiralty. She had a concealed armament of four 5.9 inch and one 4.1 guns and two 19.7 inch torpedo tubes.[6]

It is impossible to give a detailed account of the subsequent action because the reports of Wardle and Young differ greatly. Greif dropped her Norwegian colours, revealed her guns and opened fire when Alcantara was about 1,000 yards away. A close range battle then took place, with Andes joining in whenever Alcantara was not in the way. Andes had been 7,500 yards away when the action began and stayed at 6,000 yards range in order to stay out of torpedo range.[7]

Grief’s crew began to abandon ship after about 15 minutes but Alcantara, which had been hit by a torpedo, was sinking by 10:45 am. The light cruiser HMS Comus and the destroyer HMS Munster then appeared. Comus and Andes fired on Greif, which was still flying the German ensign, until she sank at 1 pm, whilst Munster picked up survivors. The rescue was briefly suspended after mistaken reports of submarines.[8]

The British picked up 220 out of about 360 men on board Greif, with 69 of Alcantara’s crew being lost.[9] Wardle and Priest were amongst the survivors, but Tietze, the last man to try to leave Greif, was not.[10] Alcantara’s dead are listed towards the bottom of this page on Naval-History.net.

The Admiralty said that Wardle and his crew had ‘fought their ship in a very creditable way.’[11] He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

John Priest then joined the crew of the Britannic, the Olympic and Titanic’s sister ship, which was serving as a hospital ship. On 21 November 1916 she struck a mine and sank near the Greek island of Kea. Thirty died, but the survivors included Priest and two other Titanic survivors: Violet Jessop, a stewardess who had become a nurse, and Archie Jewell, a lookout.

Priest’s fourth sinking occurred on 17 April 1917 when he was a fireman on board the hospital ship Donegal, which was torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel. He received a head injury but survived. Jewell, however, was amongst the 40 dead.

John Priest died on land in 1937 at the age of 50.

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vii, 19: Tenth Cruiser Squadron i. p. 58.

[2] Ibid., p. 60.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. note 3, p. 60.

[5] Ibid., p. 60.

[6] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War, p. 174.

[7] Naval Staff vol. vii. p. 61.

[8] Ibid., pp. 61-62.

[9] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. iii, pp. 271-72.

[10] Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War, p. 177.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 272.

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