Today marks 100 years since the Battle of Jutland, the biggest naval battle in history.
Here, Royal Navy Lieutenant Rob Garner, from Greenfield, looks back at the event and its links to Saddleworth.
One hundred years ago today on 31 May 1916, the Battle of Jutland took place in the North Sea between the Royal Navy and the German High Seas Fleet. It was the biggest naval battle in history.
Stoker W J White, a 20-year-old sailor from Dobcross, was serving on HMS Queen Mary. The huge ship – 700ft long and armed with 13.5 inch guns – was part of the Royal Navy’s famed Battlecruiser Fleet of fast, powerful ships under the command of Admiral David Beatty.
Stoker White would have been at his action station deep in the bowels of the ship as Queen Mary steamed into battle. Maybe he was shovelling coal into a boiler furnace, or watching a dial on a steam pipe, or even manning a damage control station.
Many watertight doors, locked-shut, would have stood between him and the upper deck – he would have known that if Queen Mary was hit, his chances of survival were slim.
Outside the scene would have been a magnificent, menacing sight. Queen Mary, with her sister battlecruisers, were steaming at full speed towards the German ships.
These ‘gigantic castles of steel’, to quote Winston Churchill, their guns pointing towards the enemy and thick black smoke belching from their funnels, were hurtling along at 25 knots, almost 30 miles per hour.
Even down in the engine room Stoker White would have heard the thunderous rumble of Queen Mary’s guns opening fire. He would have felt the ominous shock-wave of German shells landing in the water close to the ship.
The Battle of Jutland, as anyone who has studied the First World War will know, was not the great British victory the Royal Navy and the British public expected. Very soon into the battle, things started to go wrong. HMS Indefatigable was hit and blown up. Next, HMS Queen Mary was hit.
Shells from the German battlecruiser ‘Derfflinger’ hit Queen Mary and penetrated her forward magazine, causing an enormous explosion.
It is difficult to imagine the awful conditions that Stoker White faced in the ship’s final moments. Trapped far below decks in darkness, he would have faced the shock of the explosion, scalding-hot steam from ruptured pipes, and the in-rush of cold seawater. It must have been a terrifying, yet mercifully short death. In all, 1,226 sailors were lost on Queen Mary; there were only 20 survivors.
Admiral Beatty, watching Queen Mary blow up, was heard to say: “There is something wrong with our ships today”.
The battle continued into the night and early morning of 1 June. The Germans, thinking they were only dealing with a small section of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet, were dismayed when they saw all of Admiral Jellicoe’s battleships steam over the horizon, following Beatty’s battlecruisers.
So, after their initial successes, the German fleet turned and ran for home, escaping its Armageddon. The Royal Navy sank 11 German ships, for the loss of 14 of its own. Over 6,000 British sailors were lost, to the German’s 2,000.
The Royal Navy had failed to achieve an outright, annihilating victory over the German fleet. Despite its better intelligence and overwhelming firepower, the Royal Navy’s archaic command and control methods meant these advantages were squandered. Abysmal safety practices in the handling of explosives meant ships like HMS Queen Mary were unnecessarily vulnerable.
The Germans had got away with it.
However, when looked at in a broader sense, the Battle of Jutland is more of a German defeat. After the battle, the German fleet retired to its base in Wilhemshaven and never again sortied into the North Sea in full strength. More German ships suffered severe damage which took months to fix.
The Royal Navy’s mastery of the North Sea, though challenged, was not broken. The Royal Navy’s blockade of German ports continued; the slow stranglehold of supplies of food and raw materials that contributed so significantly to Germany’s inability to fight by November 1918.
Perhaps the outcome of the Battle of Jutland was best described in the phrase “the prisoner had assaulted his jailor but remained in jail”.
For now, we remember Stoker W J White from Dobcross, and all those other sailors who lost their lives in the North Sea, 100 years ago today.