The First World War was about sea battles too – especially Jutland

It’s 99 years today since the great First World War clash of dreadnoughts off the coast of Jutland, the one and only time when the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet came to blows. My great uncle was there, on board HMS Orion.

So too were a number of New Zealanders, many serving aboard the battlecruiser HMS New Zealand, paid for by the Dominion as a grand – and expensive – way of subverting British and Australian thinking about military defence and the structure of Empire.

HMS New Zealand, Indefatigable class battlecruiser given by New Zealand to the Royal Navy in 1909. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
HMS New Zealand, Indefatigable class battlecruiser given by New Zealand to the Royal Navy in 1909. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

For these young men it was a dramatic day. The battle began mid-afternoon with a collision of light forces, into which the opposing battlecruisers were then drawn. HMS New Zealand was fourth in the British line, between the modern Queen Mary and the older Indefatigable. And that gave them grandstand seats for two of the biggest disasters the British suffered in the battle.

We envisage the First World War, more often than not, by its ground warfare – symbolised by the imagery of the Western Front. In truth, naval combat could deliver death to similar scale. And that was what happened at Jutland. Around 4.05 p.m. the German battlecruiser Von der Tann landed a salvo on the Indefatigable’s quarterdeck, just as the British force commander, Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty, ordered a turn towards the Germans. The Indefatigable battlecruiser failed to make the turn, trailing smoke and apparently sinking by the stern. Another salvo slammed into her fore turret. Observers on New Zealand watched in horror as their sister ship disappeared in a gush of flame and a monstrous cloud of brown smoke, topped with a 50-foot picket boat — apparently intact but upside down. When the smoke cleared only the broken forepart remained visible, canted over and sinking fast. Over a thousand men died in the cataclysm.

HMS Indefatigable sinking, seen from HMS New Zealand. LT CMDR H T DAY - Q 64302, Imperial War Museums (collection no. 3904-01). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HMS_Indefatigable_sinking.jpg#/media/File:HMS_Indefatigable_sinking.jpg
HMS Indefatigable sinking, seen from HMS New Zealand. LT CMDR H T DAY – Q 64302, Imperial War Museums (collection no. 3904-01). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HMS_Indefatigable_sinking.jpg#/media/File:HMS_Indefatigable_sinking.jpg

New Zealand almost suffered the same fate when an 11-inch shell slammed into X-turret, ‘filling the turret with thick yellow fumes’ and knocking a piece of 9-inch armour into the ‘danger space’ on the rollers. The blast was ‘felt in the centre sighting position and working chamber, but luckily no one was hurt’. Although this did not impede the turret, splinters on the roller caused problems, and the guns only fired two rounds before the crew had to clear the debris. Fortunately there was no fire – British munitions handling procedures were sloppy and there was every risk of the magazine detonating if fire took hold above.

A few minutes later, at 4.26 p.m., five shells from SMS Derfflinger and SMS Seydlitz slammed into Queen Mary, and a massive explosion tore the ship apart. Kapitan von Egidy of the Seydlitz watched aghast:

. . . When I glanced over at the enemy through the torpedo telescope, my heart jumped to my throat. There, at a distance of ten miles, a huge immovable grey column stood up against the dull blue sky. It must have been two thousand feet across and ten thousand feet high. In its lower part black masses were whirling around. At the top, like an aureole, were glowing, darting spurts of flame. Beside its base something like a torpedo boat was sliding along. A torpedo boat? No, it was number four of the enemy’s line, the Tiger, but it seemed like a tiny boat beside that immense column . . .

HMS Queen Mary blows up at Jutland, as seen from the German lines. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.
HMS Queen Mary blows up at Jutland, as seen from the German lines. HMS Tiger is visible to the left, with her huge trail of funnel smoke, partly obscured by two ‘near miss’ shell splashes. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

New Zealand, next ship astern, had to swerve to avoid the wreck. As they swept past, observers saw Queen Mary’s stern rising high out of the water. Her propellers were still turning, but ‘when abreast of us, there was another explosion, after which there was nothing left of her’. Debris showered down, spattering sea and ships. A ring-bolt from the doomed battlecruiser was subsequently found on New Zealand’s deck.

A few minutes later Princess Royal was briefly shrouded in spray and smoke, and observers on the flagship Lion thought she too had been sunk. ‘Chatfield,’ Beatty said to his flag captain, ‘there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.’ Princess Royal survived; but the lesson was clear. Ships could blow up, all too easily, in battle – something the British made a determined effort to deal with after the battle. That, of course, did not save the men who had died, all in a few minutes, in the cataclysms. Their names are published online, here.

Blue Water Kiwis cover - 450 pxI’ve covered the story of Jutland – and more – in my book Blue Water Kiwis, re-released by Intruder Books. It’s the third in a series of seven military titles of mine being reissued by Intruder, and the only one in the re-release programme on matters maritime. Although not strictly a history of the Royal New Zealand Navy, it was taken up by the service as the book marking their sixtieth anniversary that year. Blue Water Kiwis. Check it out. Now. On Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015