Oldham Historical Research Group

'What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
- Only the monstrous anger of the guns.'
from 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' by Wilfred Owen

31st MAY - 1st JUNE 1916

Transcript from: 'More Sea Fights of the Great War'
by W.L. Wyllie, C. Owen & W.D. Kirkpatrick
pub. 1919


In the last week of May, 1916, the Grand Fleet was in an unusual state of excitement. The finals of the Grand Boxing Competition were to be decided on board the sports-ship Borodino. Tuesday, the 30th, had been fixed for the great event, and a general order of "Make and mend clothes" (Saturday routine) was issued to enable as many men as possible to attend.

A further holiday was in prospect, for June 1 was Ascension Day, and Admiral Jellicoe made a flag general, that the day would be observed as Sunday throughout the fleet.

Towards the close of the boxing competition there seemed to be a marked tendency to hasten the events, and before the actual finish it was apparent that something unusual was in progress. The men had been brought to the Borodino by the attached drifters, but the urgent necessity to get them back to their ships was so great that the sports ship herself got under way, going alongside the super-Dread-noughts, whilst drifters and picket-boats were busy transferring spectators and competitors alike to their floating homes. The greatest activity occurred in the flag-ships, and steam was raised in record time, for the rumour went round, "The German Fleet is out at last."

When Drake was told that the Armada was sighted he finished his game of bowls before going out to battle. There was no hurry in those good old days. He knew that the "invincible" fleets of Philip, running before the wind in a great half moon, would take many days to reach the Straits of Dover and might be harassed all the way.
p. 112

Our modern sailors, on the contrary, were certain that the only way to crush the High Sea Fleet was to rush at highest possible speed to deliver an overwhelming blow. Accordingly, every available ship put to sea at once.

It is hard to say how much the Commander-in-Chief knew of the movements of the enemy, but it is a remarkable fact that in the great Battle of Jutland a German sortie in force exactly coincided with one of our periodical sweeps. We do not know why the German High Sea Fleet put to sea. There may have been political pressure or a feeling in high places that the time had come for the Imperial Navy to show its power. Perhaps the High Sea Fleet went out only to exercise the men. Under the German system the crew did not live on board the battleship, but in barracks ashore. The vessels, all subdivided as they were into small compartments, would not make very comfortable lodgings, but to prevent demoralisation the men had to be kept trained.

At this moment the Crown Prince's Army was making the tremendous attack on Verdun, Fort Douaumont, the Fille Morte and other bloodstained fields. Perhaps the German Fleet was ordered out simply to make a diversion, and thus help the army in Cham- pagne. Whatever tlie cause, the High Sea Fleet was on the afternoon of May 31 to the westward of Horn Reef. The movement of the British Fleet had been carefully arranged by Sir John Jellicoe and his Staff. Sir Thomas Jerram, in King George V., with the Second Battle Squadron, was ordered to leave his base at Cromarty, and, after carrying out a sweep, was to meet the rest of the Battle Fleet in a position about half-way between Newcastle and the Naze of Norway.

Battle of Jutland - 'Queen Mary', 'Princess Royal' and Lion'

Sir David Beatty, in his flagship Lion, with the battle-cruisers Princess Royal, Queen Mary, Tiger, New Zealand and Indefatigable, was ordered to make his sweep a little farther to the south-eastward of the rendezvous. He had as a support the four splendid battleships of the "Queen Elizabeth" class, under Rear-Admiral Evan Thomas,

in Barham, with Warspite, Valiant and Malaya. Sir David was expected to be in position by two in the afternoon of the 31st; his orders were then to steam north until the main Battle Fleet came into sight. He had been told that it would steer towards the Horn Reef, the most westerly point of Jutland.

The four battle-cruisers were at two in the afternoon in Lat. 56.46 N., Long. 4.40 E. They were steering north by east in line ahead at a speed of 191⁄2 knots. The light cruiser Champion was screening the big ships with the ten destroyers of the Thirteenth Flotilla. Three miles away to the east were New Zealand and Indefatigable, screened by six destroyers from the Harwich force, and five miles away on Lion's port beam were Admiral Evan Thomas's four great battleships in line ahead, protected by a light cruiser, Fearless, and nine destroyers.

Another screen, eight miles astern, was composed of light cruisers spread five miles apart, Southampton being farthest to the west, flying the broad pennant of Commander Goodenough, and followed in order by Nottingham, Birmingham and Dublin. Then came Falmouth, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral T. D. W. Napier, with Birkenhead and Gloucester. The most easterly of the light cruiser squadrons was that commanded by Commodore E. S. Alexander Sinclair, in Galatea, with Inconstant, Cordelia and Phaeton; At 2.20 the Commodore sighted in the far distance two ships; they had a German appearance and seemed to be stationary, as though boarding a neutral. He signalled the news to Sir David, who at once turned his battle-cruisers to the S.S.E., the course for Horn Reef. He meant to place himself between the enemy and their base.

A quarter of an hour after the first message the Commodore sent another. He had sighted a great cloud of smoke. Later he sent yet another report. Strange vessels were steering north. Admiral Beatty altered course to port, and soon after sighted the smoke. He made out five enemy battle-cruisers, screened by destroyers and light craft.
p. 114

In the meantime Rear-Admiral Napier and Commodore Alexander Sinclair, without waiting for orders, turned to the east and formed a screen between the battle-cruisers and the enemy. There were some German light cruisers in the mist, and these were immediately engaged at long range.

Battle of Jutland - 'Champion'

Not wishing to be out of the coming fight, Commodore Goodenough drove his vessels at their utmost speed, and soon took station with his squadron ahead of Lion, which had by her change of course dropped Champion and her Thirteenth Flotilla. Engadine had been a fast excursion steamer running with " trippers " to the Continent in the days before the war. She was now boxed up with a great deckhouse aft which sheltered seaplanes. One of these at once went up, piloted by Flight-Lieut. F. S. Rutland, with Assistant-Paymaster G. S. Trewin as observer. The day was most unsuitable for flying, as the clouds hung low (900 feet), and the seaplane was under a heavy fire all the time from light cruisers. Four of the enemy battle- cruisers 3,000 yards away were, however, identified, and Sir David received the message by half past three, giving evidence of great smartness and efficiency.

By the Admiral's orders his battle-cruisers were formed on a line of bearing. Speed had been increased to 25 knots, and the course, E.S.E., slightly converged on that of the enemy. By this time, Admiral Evan Thomas's Fifth Battle Squadron was on Lion's port quarter, 10,000 yards away. Champion, with the Thirteenth Flotilla, by steaming fast had once more succeeded in taking her old station ahead. By 3.48 the battle-cruisers had shortened the range to 18,500 yards, and a most murderous action began, both sides starting simultaneously. The Germans, as usual, at once picked up the range. Lion received two hits only three minutes after the action started. Tiger and Princess Royal were also hit several times. The enemy bore well abaft Lion's beam, and as his shots continued to fall on board our ships' courses were altered to starboard to lengthen the range and confuse the German gunners.
p. 115

The enemy, however, still kept up a rapid and accurate fire, and in spite of zigzagging his shells rained upon the British battle-cruisers. Amongst several hits Lion had the roof of one of her turrets blown right off, with terrible loss of life.

Major Harvey, of the Royal Marines, who was mortally wounded, sent a messenger out of the turret to inform the captain of what had happened, for all communications had broken down. As the man left the turret he heard the major asking if anyone was alive below, at the same time giving orders to flood the magazine. Almost immediately afterwards a second shell landed, killing everyone and causing a fire which burnt out the turret. Without the prompt action of the dying major, to whom a posthumous V.C. was awarded, Lion would have shared the fate of Queen Mary and Indefatigable. The men down in the magazine were drowned when it was flooded - sacrificed to save their messmates and the ship.

It was noticeable that the German salvos generally fell in a cluster, quite close together; they were not strung out as ours were, the result being that the German cluster often fell quite close but harmlessly. Columns of water towered high above the British mastheads, drenching with spray even those in the fire controls. There was another side to the matter when by evil chance a German salvo happened to make a direct hit; In that case a rain of shells, falling with a steep angle of descent, practically wiped out whatever was in its course. Indefatigable was the first to be struck by such an overwhelming and irresistible mass of destructive fire. At six minutes past four a cluster of German shells fell upon the port side of the upper deck abreast of the after turret. There was a terrible explosion in the magazine, and the stricken ship passed out of the line well down by the stern. Almost directly afterwards a second salvo fell upon the fore part of the vessel. She turned on her side and sank, leaving only a great towering cloud of brown-grey smoke and steam. The suddenness of the catastrophe made it awe-inspiring.
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'More Sea Fights of the Great War' by W.L. Wyllie, C. Owen & W.D. Kirkpatrick pub. 1919
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