Enemy Fleet Sighted

At 2.35pm on Wednesday May 31 1916 the cruiser HMS Galatea flashed a signal which electrified the Grand Fleet:

URGENT. HAVE SIGHTED LARGE AMOUNT OF SMOKE AS THOUGH FROM A FLEET, BEARING EAST-NORTH-EAST.

Over the next 80 minutes, the vanguards of the two opposing fleets – the battle-cruisers of Admirals Beatty and Hipper – converged, each determined to lure the other into a trap: the might of the respective battle fleets with their overwhelming number of dreadnoughts.

At this stage of the action – soon to be named Jutland by the British, Skagerrak by the Germans – the Royal Navy enjoyed a superiority over its foe of six ships to five.

At 3.48pm, Beatty’s flagship HMS Lion opened fire on Hipper’s flagship SMS Lützow at a range of more than nine miles.

The Germans soon had the British ships in their sights. After just ten minutes of trading shells, the Lützow hit Lion’s Q Turret – around 100ft astern of the bridge – with a 305mm shell.

Not only did it knock out the turret, manned by Royal Marines, but the resulting fire threatened to detonate Lion’s magazine – tearing the ship apart. With his dying breath, Major Francis Harvey ordered the ammunition store flooded. He saved the ship and earned for himself immortality as a winner of the Victoria Cross.

Jutland 100
Major Francis Harvey VC

HMS Indefatigable possessed no Francis Harvey. At 4.02pm a shell from the Von der Tann plunged through the roof of X Turret and the 22,000-tonne leviathan was torn apart as her magazine detonated. George Kinsford was standing in the waist on cruiser HMS Southampton when a shipmate nudged him: “My God, look…”

“I looked and I shall never forget the sight – A great cloud of white smoke and steam was rising from a great fire of light red flame, till it attained a height of between seven and eight hundred feet and then it seemed to remain fixed, two dark shapes could be seen and these we took to be the bow and stern of the Indefatigable, the last ship of the line.”

Worse was to come. Twenty minutes later, HMS Queen Mary, suffered the same terrible end – witnessed by the rest of the battle-cruiser force. Cdr Kenelm Creighton, navigator of HMS New Zealand, remembered:

“A terrific yellow flame with a heavy and very dense mass of black smoke showed ahead, and the Queen Mary herself was no longer visible. The Tiger was steaming at 24 knots only 500 yards astern of Queen Mary, and hauled sharply out of the line to port and disappeared in this dense mass of smoke. We hauled out to starboard, and Tiger and ourselves passed one on each side of the Queen Mary. We passed her about 50 yards on our port beam, by which time the smoke had blown fairly clear, revealing the stern from the after funnel aft afloat, and the propellers still revolving, but the for’ard part had already gone under.

Jutland 100
HMS Queen Mary blows up

“The most noticeable thing was the masses and masses of paper which were blown into the air as this after portion exploded. Great masses of iron were thrown into the air, and things were falling into the sea round us. There was still up in the air, I suppose at least 100 or 200 feet high, a boat which may have been a dinghy or a pinnace, still intact but upside down as I could see the thwarts. Before we had quite passed, Queen Mary completely disappeared.”

On HMS Lion’s open bridge Admiral Beatty turned to the flagship’s captain, future First Sea Lord Ernle Chatfield. “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today,” he observed.

Now outnumbered, the admiral continued the fight for another 15 minutes until smoke from the German main battle fleet was sighted. Beatty turned around and headed north. The Germans would follow – right into the guns of Jellicoe’s battleships.

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Battle of Jutland Centenary

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The Run to the North

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