Konstam Jutland book cover

Jutland 1916:

Twelve Hours To Win The War

by Angus Konstam

available from 19 May 2016

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It was now just after 4pm on the afternoon of 31 May 1916, and British and German battlecruisers were locked in battle. This was not their baptism of fire – they had met before – but this clash was different. The fight was on a larger scale, it was more frenetic, and it was certainly more deadly. Nobody is alive today who was there that afternoon, but the drama, the excitement and the fear of the moment is palpable - captured in the writing of those who were present. Many felt a surge of pride watching these great warships steam into action. Others were too busy doing their job;  loading the guns, calculating trajectories and checking the ever-shortening ranges. Others were gripped by the very rational fear that the next enemy shell was heading directly towards them. All though, would have understood that they were experiencing the most important few moments of their lives. For some - all  too many - those moments would also be their last.

A battlecruiser was a new kind of warship - one that combined the deadly firepower of a battleship with the speed and elegance of a cruiser. For naval architects, the balance between the "holy trinity" of firepower, speed and protection was all important. In battlecruisers though, especially British ones, armour had been sacrificed make the ships as fast and deadly as possible. Jutland would be the ultimate test of this radical and lop-sided design. Eleven of these great, powerful but vulnerable warships were now ranged against each other, spitting great bursts of flame as their guns hurled huge shells at the enemy. Six British battlecruisers were pitted against five German ones in a deadly duel. A single hit by a shell from any one of these could spell disaster for a ship and her crew. In a few moments a shell would do exactly that.

On their respective flagships Lion and Lützow Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty and Vice-Admiral Franz Hipper watched the battle with a studied air of detachment. They'd fought this duel before, and this time both men felt they had the measure of their opponent. They also felt that they had a secret advantage. They each knew that somewhere behind them a fleet of dreadnoughts was racing up to support them. Neither though, knew that the enemy dreadnoughts were at sea.  This would be no mere skirmish. It was merely the start of the long awaited day of reckoning, the one the Germans simply called Der Tag ("The Day"). The war at sea could be won - or lost - that very afternoon. For nearly two years the two great fleets had either stayed in port, or tried in vain to lure their foes into battle. Now though, all this waiting was over. First the rival battlecruisers would fight their duel to the death. Then, the battle fleet would arrive and overwhelm what remained of the enemy.

The battle had been raging for twelve minutes by now, and both sides had found the range, and were starting to pound the enemy. Firing big 12-inch guns at battlecruisers has been likened to hitting walnuts with hammers. In the case of the British, the walnuts had particularly thin shells. Already hits had been scored, but none of them had proved a telling blow. Five minutes before, at 3.55pm, on the  British battlecruiser Tiger a main gun turret had been knocked out, but casualties were light, and in a few minutes the guns would be back in action. Far more serious was the hit  to the German battlecruiser Seydlitz. Her "C" turret was destroyed, and most of its crew were killed - incinerated in the explosion. At 4pm, a German shell had done she same to "Q" turret on Beatty's flagship Lion. The turret was ripped open, its crew were killed or wounded, and only luck had stopped the flash fire from the explosion reaching the magazines. That would have been the end for the Lion, and for Beatty.

The British and German battlecruisers were on parallel courses, about seven miles apart. While the ships ahead of them were exchanging salvos the two ships at the end of each line, the British Indefatigable and the German Von der Tann, had been fighting their own private duel, trading salvos with each other. Neither had scored a hit - until now. A little after 4pm Indefatigable was straddled by a salvo of 11-inch shells, the shell splashes falling all around her. On the Von der Tann, the Gunnery Officer Commander Marholz peered through his binocular, and saw that he'd scored a hit on the British ship's stern. High up on the Indefatigable's foremast, Leading Signalman Charlie Falmer was busy untangling some signal flags, and so he had a grandstand view of the battle, and of the enemy's first hit. He was still there two minutes later when the Von der Tann's shells struck again.

This fresh salvo from the Von der Tann fell around the Indefatigable, and two shells struck the ship. They fell behind Falmer's perch on the foremast, landing between the mainmast and "X" turret. Just ahead of the Indefatigable was the battlecruiser New Zealand, and on her conning tower Lieutenant-Commander Lovett-Cameron, looked astern in time to see the explosion. Then he noticed the ship was veering off to port; "We were altering course at the time, and it seemed as if her steering was damaged, as she didn't follow round in our wake".  It was clear that something was wrong. Standing next to Lovett-Cameron, Rear-Admiral William Pakenham also saw the hit; "Two or three shells falling together hit the Indefatigable about the outer edge of the upper deck, in line with 'X' turret. A small explosion followed and she swung out of the line, sinking by the stern." To him, it looked like a mortal wound. As he watched, the Indefatigable was struck again.

This time the German salvo landed around the bows of the battlecruiser, and two shells struck "A" turret. A mile away on the German destroyer B-98, observers remember an explosion,  and the a huge column of flame shot skyward. On the Von der Tann, Marholz also saw smoke and flame rise up as high as the Indefatigable's foremast. On the mast itself, Falmer watched as his own ship being torn apart beneath him. "There was a terrific explosion aboard the ship - the magazines went. I saw the guns go up in the air just like matchsticks - 12-inch guns they were - bodies and everything." The ship then began rolling over. On the New Zealand. a horrified Lovett-Campbell watched the ship blow up; "The main explosion started with sheets of flame, followed immediately by a dense, dark cloud of smoke which obscured the ship from view. All sorts of stuff was blown into the air - a 50 foot picket boat being blown up about 200 feet, apparently intact although upside down."

Indefatigable's crew never stood a chance. That morning 1,019 men and boys had sailed into action on board the ship. There were only two survivors. One of them was Charles Falmer.  He was thrown clear of the ship, and so avoided being sucked under as she sank. He was badly dazed though, but somehow he survived, floating in the freezing oil-covered water for almost five hours before he was rescued by a German destroyer.  The only other survivor, an Able Seaman, had also been in the foremast when the ship sank. Everyone else perished.

An entire ship's company had been wiped out in an instant - blown apart if they were lucky, or else trapped deep in the sinking wreckage as the cold sea flooded in. The duel between the battlecruisers had been raging for just fifteen minutes, and already more than a thousand men were dead. The great sea battle though, would rage on intermittently for another twelve hours. The ripping apart of the Indefatigable merely heralded the start of the great clash of steel-clad leviathans that we now call the Battle of Jutland.