Remembering Jutland – and a double family connection

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.

HMS Orion during the First World War. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.
HMS Orion during the First World War. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

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.

Sir John Jellicoe, as Governor-General of New Zealand, picnicking on Ninety Mile Beach in January 1924. Northwood, Arthur James, 1880-1949. Lord Jellicoe picnicking at 90 Mile Beach. Northwood brothers :Photographs of Northland. Ref: 1/1-006355-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Sir John Jellicoe, victor of Jutland, picnicking on New Zealand’s Ninety Mile Beach in January 1924. Photo: Northwood, Arthur James, 1880-1949. Lord Jellicoe picnicking at 90 Mile Beach. Northwood brothers :Photographs of Northland. Ref: 1/1-006355-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

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

14 thoughts on “Remembering Jutland – and a double family connection

  1. Fascinating double family connection, Matthew! It is always interesting that not every victory is a win and not every defeat is a loss. However, perhaps New Zealand benefited from Jellicoe’s governorship. He seemed a thoughtful individual. Enjoyed the post.


    1. Jellicoe was a very kind and thoughtful man, by all accounts. Yes, in a philosophical sense there is a tremendous lesson to draw from Jutland about the definition of winning, in an everyday sense – I think in that context, a good deal of our perception of ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ things is, I think, defined by the way we define that victory.


  2. How exciting! My grandfather fought in ww1, but he was in the trenches. There weren’t too many naval battles of note. The RN kept the German navy bottled up in harbor, afraid to come out. It’s a shame the general public doesn’t understand naval strategy any better than they did. Navies of the time were supposed to maintain SLOCs, as defined by Mahan, and to this day they still are. England was having enough trouble with Germany’s subs, they didn’t need more of it with German vessels available to interdict supplies to the island nation. I think it’s interesting that the Dreadnoughts of the time would become the common battleships of ww2.

    Anymore, battleships are simply impractical, but with the advent of the railgun (BAE Systems) I wonder if that will change. Hmmm.


    1. Yes, the railgun is interesting – I haven’t looked into it in much detail (yet!) but figure the big problem will be stopping the slug welding itself to the rail.

      The way battleships developed on the back of the WWI experience is intriguing – the Brits were the only nation to have actual data on battleship performance, but they were basically broke after 1918 and that killed their ‘G3’ designs – ships with the same fire-power, size and speed as the ‘Missouri’ class of 25 years later, but far better armoured. Still, everyone’s WWII battleships were a quantum leap ahead of the WWI designs, except perhaps Bismarck.

      Mahan absolutely defined the problems of sea force and sea power. New Zealand faces it too – the issue we have isn’t somebody invading us, but somebody interdicting our trade close to its world-wide destinations


        1. Wow – that railgun is seriously impressive! The Bismarck was very much a retro-battleship – defined by the low armoured deck and split HA/surface secondary armament, both of which smacked of WWI practise. This was largely because the design expertise that had built the High Seas Fleet were dispersed by Versailles.In the 1930s, the Germans were well behind and returned to the last 15-inch gun battleship design of 1913, the Baden, for a model. Bismarck was a simple update and lacked the DP armament and high armoured deck arrangement of contemporary British and American battleships. German metallurgy had also fallen behind with the result that Bismarck’s armour failed in battle even against 8-inch shells from the Dorsetshire. Her main advantage was scale – the Germans avoided Treaty limitations by the simple expedient of ignoring them and then lying about it – coupled with intense subdivision and attention to constructional details. But that didn’t prevent the Home Fleet pulverising her.

          The key hits during the final battle, as I understand it, were three early 16-inch hits from HMS Rodney and five from HMS King George V, which destroyed Bismarck’s fighting power early on. We forget that Rodney was the most powerful battleship in the world at the time – she was a G3 without the speed, totally outgunned Bismarck and was fully armoured against Bismarck’s shells. So was King George V (14-inch guns, but the Admiralty specification required her to be immune to 16-inch shells). The outcome was a foregone conclusion. US analysis by Garzke and Dulin concluded that the reason they couldn’t sink Bismarck with gunfire was because the very short ranges at which they finally engaged were the specific ranges for which Bismarck’s design was optimised – a WWI style North Sea battle.


          1. Most interesting! When discussing the Bismark, and otherwise the German navy, I hear nothing but praise for the “wondership.” When reading about it, it seems as though the Bismark were a technological wonder unparalleled by an other navy.

            I’ve never shared this opinion and I’ve gotten more than a few angry looks over it. 8x15in guns vs 9x16in guns in the allied vessels seems to me like the Bismark is outmatched. And what did Bismark and Tirpitz ever accomplish? Running for their lives from the RN all the time. Working as a shipping raider and then running from military vessels isn’t what a proud battleship is for. For me, I’ve just never been impressed. That’s why what you’re saying is so interesting. It runs counter from what I hear most of the time. It’s quite refreshing.


  3. I believe a US newspaper writer, reporting on the battle, understood the outcome of the stoush: “”The prisoner has assaulted his jailer but is now back in custody.” (The quote is easy to find, a reliable attribution less so.)


    1. And on that note, there’s the reliability of Beatty’s quote ‘There’s something wrong with our bloody ships today’, after he lost his second battlecruiser in quick succession. He did say it, but in the same breath added ‘and something wrong with our system’. There was – which was fixed afterwards, but if they’d had the shells and flash-proofing of 1918, at Jutland, they’d have possibly not lost Queen Mary and almost certainly sunk at least two German dreadnoughts as well as all their battlecruisers. And that’s without the fixes they made to their signalling and night-fighting methods, which would almost certainly have meant a renewed battle on 1 June, for which there could have been but one outcome.

      Of course none of these systemic improvements came to pass for months. My great uncle served on HMS Repulse after the battle and told me how they’d have to get up at stupid hours of the night for secret gunnery practise – this to avoid tipping off any German spies that they were up to anything.


  4. Matt, That is so cool to have a personal connection to such a historical event. It is a shame when great heroes are ridiculed due to ignorance on the part of the public.


    1. It is. Jellicoe wasn’t the only one either – NZ’s field commander in WW2 copped flak too. In his case for no better reason than profile and the fact that the great New Zealand tall poppy knocking machine was in good order.


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