It is 98 years, this weekend, since the Battle of Jutland – the only fleet action of the First World War. My great uncle – H. C. Wright – was in the thick of it, on board the super-dreadnought HMS Orion.
The battle was fought over a hectic afternoon and night on 31 May – 1 June 1916; the last shots came as the sky turned grey with the loom of dawn, and a British destroyer torpedoed and sank a German battleship.
Uncle Bert was 19 years of age, serving with the Royal Marines. Like most Marines he was assigned a place in fire-control, one of thirty-odd people in the forward transmitting station, the link between the fire control director in the foretop and the Dumaresq plotter and Dreyer Fire Control Table. Between them, these mechanical computers produced a firing solution – all with 1900-era clockwork tech. The Dreyer FCT didn’t quite work in real time, but it was an astonishing machine.
Uncle Bert couldn’t see anything down in the depths of the ship behind 12 inches of armour. For him the battle was lit by the yellow-white glow of electric lamps and consisted of enemy bearings shouted from above via his Graham Pattern 2463 Navyphone, duly passed on to the half-dozen Dreyer operators – all punctuated by the thud and rumble of the ship’s ten 13.5-inch guns, which discharged 51 rounds during the battle.
The fleets only came to blows briefly, but it was a hands-down British victory. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commanding the British Grand Fleet, out-manoeuvered the Germans twice and was only prevented from re-engaging next morning because of disastrous reporting failures by his scouting cruisers. But it didn’t matter in the longer run because the Germans ran for home – and on the grey morning of 1 June, the British had total possession of the North Sea.
That was what counted. Jellicoe’s priority wasn’t sinking enemy ships, it was keeping control of those waters – which he did, and without major damage to his fleet. It was a masterful effort.
Unfortunately the general public had been conditioned to expect a second Trafalgar – to them, only the annihilation of the German High Seas Fleet counted as victory. Incredibly, despite having won the battle in every practical sense, Jellicoe found himself under a cloud and was soon ‘booted upwards’ to become First Sea Lord, while the dashing and popular Admiral Sir David Beatty took over command at sea.
The other family connection to the battle? My wife’s grandmother worked for Jellicoe when he came to New Zealand as Governor General after the war. He was, by the family account, a very kind man – modest, quiet, caring. In some ways it was curious that someone of his stature should come half way around the world to a government position. But from the British viewpoint it got him out of the way – this man who was still being blamed, even in the glow of Allied victory, for not giving Britain its second Trafalgar.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014