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Jellicoe: The Grand Fleet
Chapter 12c - The Battle of Jutland

In accordance with the general directions given by Sir David Beatty to the destroyers to attack when a favourable opportunity occurred, the Nestor, Nomad, Nicator, Narborough, Pelican, Petard, Obdurate, Nerissa, Moorsom, Morris, Turbulent and Termagent moved out at 4.15 P.M.; at the same time a similar movement took place on the part of an enemy force of one light cruiser and 15 destroyers. Both sides first steered to reach an advantageous position at the van of the opposing battle cruiser lines from which to deliver their attack, and then turned to the northward to attack. A fierce engagement at close quarters between the light forces resulted, and the enemy lost two destroyers, sunk by our vessels, and, in addition, his torpedo attack was partially frustrated; some torpedoes were fired by the enemy, two of which crossed the track of the 5th Battle Squadron, which had been turned away to avoid the attack.

During this action, .which reflected the greatest credit on our destroyers, several of our attacking vessels, owing to their having dropped back towards the rear of our line, .were not in a good position to attack the enemy's battle cruisers with torpedoes. The Nestor, Nomad, and Nicator, most gallantly led by Commander the Hon. E. B. S. Bingham in the Nestor, were able to press home their attack, causing the' 'enemy's battle cruisers to turn away to avoid their torpedoes. The Nomad was damaged and forced to haul out of line before getting within torpedo range of the battle cruisers, but the Nestor and Nicator succeeded in firing torpedoes at the battle cruisers under a heavy fire from the German secondary armaments. The Nestor was then hit, badly damaged by the fire of a light cruiser, and remained stopped between the lines. She was sunk later by the German Battle Fleet when that force appeared 'on the scene, but not before she had fired her last torpedo at the approaching ships. The Nomad was also sunk by the German Battle Fleet as it came up, but this vessel also fired her torpedoes at the fleet as it approached. In both these destroyers the utmost gallantry in most trying circumstances was shown by the officers and men. It is gratifying to record that a considerable proportion of the ships' companies of these destroyers was picked up by German destroyers as the German Battle Fleet passed the scene. After completing her attack upon the battle cruisers, the Nicator was able to rejoin her flotilla. The Moorsom also attacked the enemy's Battle Fleet and returned. In the meantime, the Petard, Nerissa, Turbulent and Termagent succeeded in firing torpedoes at long range (7,000 yards) at the enemy's battle cruisers. For his gallantry on the occasion of this destroyer attack Commander the Hon. E. B. S. Bingham, who was rescued from the Nestor and taken prisoner by the Germans, received the Victoria Cross.

Meanwhile the engagement between the heavy ships had become very fierce, and the effect on the enemy battle cruisers began to be noticeable, the third ship in the line being observed to be on fire at 4.18 P.M., .whilst our ships of the 5th Battle Squadron were also inflicting and receiving some punishment. The accuracy and rapidity of the fire from the enemy's vessels was deteriorating at this period; our own ships were much handicapped by the decreasing visibility, due partly to the use by the enemy of smoke screens, under cover of .which he altered course to throw out our fire.

The flagship Barham, of the 5th Battle Squadron, received her first hit at 4.23 P.M.

At about 4.26 P.M. a second disaster befell the British battle cruisers. A salvo fired from one of the enemy's battle cruisers hit the Queen Mary abreast of " Q " turret and a terrific explosion resulted, evidently caused by a magazine blowing up. The Tiger, which .was following close astern of the Queen Mary, passed through the dense cloud of smoke caused by the explosion, and a great deal of material fell on her decks, but otherwise the Queen Mary had completely vanished. A few survivors from this ship and from the Indefatigable were afterwards rescued by our destroyers. The loss of these two fine ships with their splendid ships' companies was a heavy blow to the Battle Cruiser Fleet, the instantaneous nature of the disaster adding to its magnitude.

At 4.38 P.M. Commodore Goodenough, in the Southampton, Flagship of the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron, .which had been scouting ahead of the battle cruisers, reported that the enemy's Battle Fleet was in sight bearing S.E., and steering to the northward, and gave its position. Sir David Beatty recalled his destroyers, and on sighting the Battle Fleet at 4.42 P.M. turned the battle cruisers 16 points in succession to .starboard. This movement was followed by the enemy's battle cruisers, and Sir David Beatty directed Rear-Admiral Evan-Thomas to turn his ships in succession 16 points to starboard. Commodore Goodenough led the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron to a favourable position from which to observe the movements of the enemy's Battle Fleet, .within 13,000 yards range of the heavy ships, and, in spite of a very heavy fire, clung tenaciously to these ships and forwarded several reports of their position and movements; the skilful manner in which the Commodore, aided by his captains, handled the squadron under this fire undoubtedly saved the ships from heavy loss. Owing to the constant manoeuvring of the ships of the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron during the engagement, the position of the Southampton, as obtained by reckoning, was somewhat inaccurate, as was to be expected. This fact detracted from the value of the reports to me, the position of the enemy by latitude and longitude, as reported from time to time to the Iron Duke, being consequently incorrect. The discrepancy added greatly to the difficulty experienced in ascertaining the correct moment at which to deploy the Battle Fleet, the flank on which to deploy, and the direction of deployment. Such discrepancies are, however, inevitable under the conditions.

The necessary move of the battle cruisers to the southward in their pursuit of the enemy, at a speed considerably in excess of that which the Battle Fleet could attain, resulted in opening the distance between the two forces, so that at the time of the turn of Sir David Beatty's force to the northward, the Iron Duke and the Lion were over 50 miles apart, and closing at a rate of about 45 miles per hour.

As soon as the position of the Lion was known after the receipt of the report of enemy battle cruisers being in sight, Rear-Admiral the Hon. H. S. Hood was directed to proceed immediately to reinforce Sir David Beatty's force, whose position, course and speed was signalled to the Rear-Admiral. The latter officer reported his own position and gave his course and speed as S. S.E., 25 knots. At the same time the Battle Fleet was informed that our battle cruisers were in action .with the enemy's battle cruisers, and an inquiry was addressed to Rear-Admiral Evan-Thomas to ascertain whether be was in company with Sir David Beatty, a reply in the affirmative being received, with a report that his squadron was in action.

At this time I was confident that, under the determined leadership of Sir David Beatty, with a force of four of our best and fastest battleships and six battle cruisers, very serious injury would be inflicted on the five battle cruisers of the enemy if they could be kept within range.

The report of the presence of the German Battle Fleet, which was communicated to our Battle Fleet, did not cause me any uneasiness in respect of the safety of our own vessels, since our ships of the 5th Battle Squadron were credited with a speed of 25 knots. I did not, however, expect that they would be able to exceed a speed of 24 knots; the information furnished to me at this time gave the designed speed of the fastest German battleships as 20.5 knots only. Even after making full allowance for the fact that our ships were probably carrying more fuel and stores proportionately than the Germans, and giving the Germans credit for some excess over the designed speed, no doubt existed in my mind that both our battleships and our battle cruisers with Sir David Beatty could keep well out of range of the enemy's Battle Fleet, if necessary, until I was able to reinforce them. I learned later, as an unpleasant surprise, that the 5th Battle Squadron, when going at its utmost speed, found considerable difficulty in increasing its distance from the enemy's 3rd Battle Squadron, consisting of ships of the "König" class, and on return to Scapa I received a report from the Admiralty which credited this enemy squadron with a speed of 23 knots for a short period, this being the first intimation I had received of such a speed being attainable by them.

To return to Sir David Beatty. The action between the battle cruisers was renewed during the retirement of our ships to the northward, and the two leading ships of the 5th Battle Squadron, the Barham and Valiant, supported our battle cruisers by their fire, whilst the two rear ships of that force, the Warspite and Malaya, engaged the leading ships of the enemy's Battle Fleet as long as their guns would bear, at a range of about 19,000 yards.

The light cruiser Fearless, with destroyers of the 1st Flotilla, was now stationed ahead of the battle cruisers, and the light cruiser Champion, with destroyers of the 13th Flotilla, joined the 5th Battle Squadron. The 1st and 3rd Light Cruiser Squadrons, which had been in the rear during the southerly course, now took up a position on the starboard, or advanced, bow of the battle cruisers, the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron being on the port quarter. During this northerly run the fire from our ships was very intermittent, owing to the weather thickening to the eastward, although the enemy was able at times to fire with some accuracy.

From 5 P.M. until after 6 P.M. the light was very much in favour of the enemy, being far clearer to the westward than to the eastward. A photograph taken on board the Malaya at 5.15 P.M. towards the western horizon established this clearly. Our destroyers, shown silhouetted against the bright horizon, were at this time at least 16,000 yards distant.

Our battle cruisers ceased fire altogether for about 30 minutes after 5.12 P.M. owing to the enemy's ships being invisible, fire being reopened at about 5.40 P.M. on the enemy's battle cruisers, three or four of which could be seen, although indistinctly, at a distance of some 14,000 yards. Between 5.42 and 5.52, however, our fire seemed to be effective, the Lion alone firing some 15 salvoes during this period.

At 5.10 P.M. the destroyer Moresby, .which had rejoined the Battle Cruiser Fleet after assisting the Engadine with her sea-plane, fired a torpedo at the enemy's line at a range of between 6,000 and 8,000 yards, from a favourable position—two points before the beam of the enemy's leading battle cruiser.

At 5.35 P.M. the Lion's course was gradually altered from N.N.E. to N.E. in order to conform to the signalled movements and resulting position of the British Battle Fleet. The enemy's battle cruisers also gradually hauled to the eastward, being probably influenced in this movement by reports received from their light cruisers, which were by this time in contact with the light cruiser Chester and in sight of our 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron led by Read-Admiral Hood.

The proceedings of these vessels will now be described.

At 4 P.M., in accordance with my directions, the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron, under Rear-Admiral Hood, proceeded at full speed to reinforce Sir David Beatty. At 5 P.M. the squadron, comprising the Invincible (Flag), Inflexible, and Indomitable, in single line ahead in that order, with the destroyers Shark, Christopher, Ophelia, and Acasta) disposed ahead as a submarine screen, had the light cruiser Canterbury five miles ahead and the light cruiser Chester bearing N. 70° W., and was steering S. by E. at 25 knots. The visibility was rapidly decreasing. According to the Indomitable's report, objects could be distinguished at a distance of 16,000 yards on some bearings, and on others at only 2,000 yards, and from then onwards, according to the same report, the visibility varied between 14,000 and 5,000 yards, although other reports place it higher at times.

At 5.30 P.M. the sound of gunfire was plainly heard to the south-westward, and the Chester turned in that direction to investigate and, at 5.36 P.M., sighted a three- funnelled light cruiser on the starboard bow, with one or two destroyers in company. The Chester challenged and, receiving no reply, altered course to west to close, judging from the appearance of the destroyer that the vessel was hostile.

As the Chester closed, course was altered to about north, in order to avoid being open to torpedo attack by the destroyer on a bearing favourable to the latter. This turn brought the enemy well abaft the port beam of the Chester and on an approximately parallel course. During the turn the Chester sighted two or more light cruisers astern of the first ship, and the leading enemy light cruiser opened fire on the Chester, the latter replying immediately afterwards, at a range of about 6,000 yards. The visibility at this time, judging by the distance at which the enemy's light cruisers were sighted from the Chester, could not have exceeded 8,000 yards. The enemy's fourth salvo hit the Chester, put No. 1 gun port out of action, and killed and wounded a large proportion of the gun crews of Nos. 1, 2, and 3 port guns. The light cruisers sighted by the Chester undoubtedly belonged to one of the enemy's scouting groups stationed on the starboard bow of their battle cruisers.

Captain Lawson of the Chester, in view of the superior force to which he was opposed, altered course to the N.E. and towards the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron, bringing the enemy's light cruisers, all of which had opened a rapid and accurate fire, astern of him. The enemy vessels turned after the Chester, and during the unequal engagement, which lasted for 19 minutes, Captain Lawson successfully manoeuvred his ship with a view to impeding the accuracy of the hostile fire, realising that she was in no condition to engage such superior forces successfully in her damaged state.

The Chester closed the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron and took station N.E. of this squadron, joining the 2nd Cruiser Squadron at a later phase of the action. The ship suffered considerable casualties, having 31 killed and 50 wounded; three guns and her fire control circuits were disabled; she had four shell holes a little distance above the .water line. It .was on board the Chester that the second Victoria Cross of the action was earned, posthumously, by Jack Cornwell, Boy 1st Class, who ,was mortally wounded early in the action. This gallant lad, whose age was less than 16½ years, nevertheless remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders till the end of the action, with the guns' crew, dead and wounded, all round him. Meanwhile flashes of gunfire were seen from the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron at 5.40 P.M., and Rear-Admiral Hood turned his ships to starboard and brought the enemy light cruisers, which were engaging the Chester, and from which vessels the flashes came, on to his port bow. During this turn the destroyers attached to the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron were brought on to the port quarter of the squadron. As soon as Rear- Admiral Hood made out his position he led his squadron with the Canterbury between the enemy and the Chester, on a course about W.N.W., and at 5.55 P.M. opened an effective fire on the German light cruisers with his port guns, at a range of about 10,000 to 12,000 yards. The enemy vessels turned away from this attack and fired torpedoes at the battle cruisers; the tracks of five torpedoes were seen later from the Indomitable. At about 6.10 P.M. the Invincible and Indomitable turned to starboard to avoid these torpedoes, three of which passed very close to the latter ship, and ran alongside within 20 yards of the vessel. The Inflexible turned to port.

Meanwhile more enemy light cruisers were sighted astern of the first group, and the four British destroyers, Shark, Acasta, Ophelia and Christopher, attacked them and the large destroyer force in company with them, and were received by a heavy fire which disabled the Shark and damaged the Acasta. On board the Shark the third V. C. of the action was earned by her gallant captain, Commander Loftus Jones, this award also being, I regret to say, posthumous.

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