Researching this blog has once again proved that history can be very much like a good detective story. There are a number of accounts, a number of perspectives, a number of views. And today, on the Centenary of the Battle we are still debating and talking.
We have taken an eyewitness account reported in one of our local newspapers of the time – ‘The Naval Battle’ Eltham & District Times, 16th June 1916, p.3. Our eyewitness gives his account from a narrow perspective aboard one of the 151 ships forming the Royal Navy’s order of battle.
The Battle of Jutland, 31 May – 1 June 1916, was the largest naval engagement of World War One and the only time the British and German Dreadnought battle fleets engaged one another. This account suggests very strongly that our man was part of Beatty’s Battlecruiser Fleet because it was they – rather than Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet – who first sighted the enemy. Visual contact was actually made at 14:10 GMT, with hostilities breaking out eighteen minutes later – but only on the eastern flank; the rest of the fleet was initially too far west and the battlecruisers themselves did not engage until 15:48.
That he was not aboard a battlecruiser – or one of Evan-Thomas’ supporting battleships – is clear from his stressing the mismatch between the 11” guns of the engaged enemy battlecruiser and his own squadron’s “very small guns”; destroyers, smallest of all surface fleet warships, carried guns no bigger than 4”, yet his description of his grouping as a squadron would apparently rule out destroyers since they were ordered into divisions within flotillas.
Nor does it seem likely he was on board the sea-plane carrier, HMS Engadine, which, as a novel naval weapon, would surely have merited some comment. He might perhaps have related how the launch of a sea-plane at 1445, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Frederick Rutland (‘of Jutland’) RNAS, was the first ever air reconnaissance mission undertaken during a naval battle.
So we are left with the light cruisers, ordered into three squadrons of four and armed typically with 6” guns. Does evidence relating to their battle movements, losses and material damage in any way fit the description of action in our correspondent’s letter?
Firstly, we may reasonably discount the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron. In a battle marked by poor visibility and its effect on ships’ ability to identify long-range targets, it seems unlikely that they would have had a good view of the sinking of HMS Invincible in particular, being, as they were, eleven miles away and screened by the ships and smoke of the busily engaged Grand Fleet. Their position in relation to enemy vessels is also unconvincing.
Secondly, we may reasonably discount the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron. HMS Southampton did sink SMS Frauenlob but the enemy was a light cruiser and the action brief, as Scheer’s High Seas Fleet slipped away under cover of darkness through the Grand Fleet’s rear-guard. Additionally, HMS Southampton and HMS Dublin sustained heavy damage and losses in this engagement.
The 3rd Light Cruiser Squadron, however, offers more hope. True, it was a long way from HMS Indefatigable when she exploded at around 1600, but did have a clear sight line at least to the plume of smoke, if not the ship itself; and two vessels – HMS Yarmouth and squadron leader, HMS Falmouth – were within two miles of HMS Invinclble when she sank at 1833. At the time the two were contributing to a heavy bombardment of the advancing enemy, firing torpedoes and seeing, no more than four miles away, the immobilised light cruiser SMS Wiesbaden; two disabled battlecruisers (SMS Derfflinger and SMS Luetzow); and, according to some reports, a burning Koenig-class battleship. Between 2010 and 2032, all four ships of the squadron engaged the five light cruisers of the 4th Scouting Group at a distance of four to five miles. Study of the loss assessment, moreover, shows the 3rd Light Cruiser Squadron to have suffered no losses and received no significant damage.
So my tentative conclusion, from the evidence considered, is that our eyewitness was part of the 3rd Light Cruiser Squadron, aboard either HMS Yarmouth or HMS Falmouth.
Blog written by James Squires