HMS Echo captures 3D images of naval battle wrecks

Scans of ships destroyed in the Battle of Jutland 99 years ago have been made for the first time using 21st Century technology.

The colourful three-dimensional images made by Royal Navy survey ship HMS Echo belie the horrors played out off the coast of Denmark one Wednesday afternoon during the First World War.

They show the twisted and battered wreck of HMS Invincible, one of 25 warships – 14 of them British – that were blown up on May 31, 1916.

Ahead of the battle’s centenary next spring – which will form the focal point of the Royal Navy’s Great War commemorations – survey ship HMS Echo spent a week scouring the floor of the North Sea with her state-of-the-art sonar suite. 

HMS Defence in particular was ‘reduced to atoms’ according to one contemporary account, but the wreck was complete, upright and immediately recognisable by the distinctive profile of her secondary armament, still trained outboard towards her foes a century after the battle.

Nick Hewitt

Nick Hewitt, a historian with the National Museum of the Royal Navy who was on board HMS Echo for the work at Jutland, said the week surveying the battlefield of 1916 had helped to “build a picture of one of the greatest naval battles in history”.

“The condition of the wrecks varies enormously. Some have suffered badly from post-war attempts to salvage them, but others are astonishingly intact. 

"HMS Defence in particular was ‘reduced to atoms’ according to one contemporary account, but the wreck was complete, upright and immediately recognisable by the distinctive profile of her secondary armament, still trained outboard towards her foes a century after the battle.”

During the Battle of Jutland 250 warships from the two navies clashed from the afternoon of May 31 1916 until the small hours of the following morning. When it was over, 25 ships were at the bottom of the North Sea and more than 8,500 men were dead, three quarters of them Britons.

More than 1,000 of those Royal Navy dead were killed when battle-cruiser Invincible was torn apart when a German shell plunged through the roof of Q turret. The resulting fire detonated her magazines.

A dozen miles from the wreck of the Invincible HMS Echo also surveyed the remains of cruiser HMS Defence – her bow separate from her hull, and the wreck of HMS Queen Mary which suffered the same fate as Invincible.

Echo visited the 21 of the 25 sites where Jutland wrecks are believed to be - based on previous expeditions, eyewitness accounts and contemporary charts – and found nine hulls positively identified as vessels lost in the battle. They also located the wreck of an oil rig support boat which sank following a fire in the 1980s.

At the end of the wreck surveying, the 40-strong ship’s company held a service of remembrance before casting a wreath into the North Sea in memory of the British and German dead.

“The week has been a poignant reminder of the sacrifices the Royal Navy made in protecting our nation during World War 1,” said Echo’s Commanding Officer Cdr Phillip Newell. 

“The loss of nearly 10,000 sailors over two days seems unbelievable today, and I’m very humbled to have surveyed the wrecks of both British and German warships where so many men lost their lives.”

All the data will be provided to the UK Hydrographic Office in Taunton to allow them to update maritime charts used by most of the world’s seafarers, while the week of surveying was also recorded by a film crew from True North Productions for a documentary to coincide with next year’s centenary.