Major Francis Harvey was in command of 'Q' turret on board Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty's flagship, HMS Lion, during the Battle of Jutland. He acted quickly and selflessly when a shell destroyed the turret and severely wounded him.
Born in 1873 into a family with a strong military background, Francis Harvey excelled at school and went on to attend the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He then chose the Royal Marines and graduated from the Royal Naval College, Greenwich in 1892. The following year he was made lieutenant and then joined HMS Wildfire, his first commission at sea. Harvey became an expert in gunnery, attending various courses in this field and subsequently qualifying as a naval gunnery instructor.
He served in HMS Phaeton on the Pacific Station, then HMS Edgar and HMS Diadem in the Channel Fleet. He joined a number of larger ships, including HMS Inflexible, and thereafter was made the Instructor of Gunnery at Chatham Dockyard in 1910. Now a major, Harvey's proficiency during his tenure at Chatham earned him high praise in an official report on the gunnery school. It was largely due to this glowing assessment that he became the senior marine officer of Beatty's new flagship, HMS Lion in 1913. He took up his post in command of 'Q' gun turret, responsible for its operations. Harvey had been in the navy for 20 years but had yet to see active service. The outbreak of war in 1914 would change that, and he was soon in the thick of battle.
On 28 August 1914, the first major naval action of the war took place, in the Heligoland Bight off the north German coast. During the battle, a British victory, Lion's guns accounted for several hits on the German battle cruisers Köln and Ariadne, both of which were lost.
In January 1915, Admiral Beatty's force intercepted a German squadron at the Dogger Bank in the North Sea. In the fierce, confused encounter which followed, the Lionsustained damage from accurate German fire but managed to get a number of well-placed hits on both SMS Blücher and SMS Seydlitz. The Seydlitz received a hit to one of its turrets (from Lion) and only narrowly avoided destruction thanks to its crew flooding the magazines. Writing to a friend after the action at the Dogger Bank, Harvey said: "I am under no delusion… that if a proj [projectile] does hit one's turret it will in all probability come right in and send one to glory."
Harvey was still serving in HMS Lion during the Battle of Jutland. Vice Admiral Beatty, eager for a fight, determinedly led his battlecruisers to meet those of Vice Admiral Franz Hipper's on the afternoon of 31 May 1916. As the two sides drew nearer to each other in the North Sea, the Germans realised they had better visibility. Beatty's ships were clearly silhouetted on the horizon, while the British were hampered by poor light which delayed their sighting of the enemy. Despite this, Beatty ordered his ships into battle line and closed in for the attack.
The opening shots fired by both sides went long, but the Germans soon got the range of the British battlecruisers. HMS Lion sustained a number of hits early on in the battle. At around 4pm, SMS Lützow fired a shell which smashed into 'Q' turret. Housed in the turret was a 13.5 inch gun, its crew and ammunition. The shell exploded inside the enclosed space and caused devastation. Everyone was either killed or wounded and Harvey and his sergeant were badly injured. The detonation also started a fire, which posed a threat to the significant amount of explosive material stored within the turret.
Despite his severe wounds and burns, Harvey acted instinctively and swiftly. He crawled over to the voice pipe and spoke to the magazine below. He ordered that the doors of the room were to be closed, which they duly were, and that the cordite store be flooded with seawater so it couldn't be ignited. These timely actions ensured that no further damage than had already been inflicted would be sustained. If the mass of explosives had detonated, the results would have been catastrophic.
The Lion had around 1,000 men aboard and it is highly likely that all lives, and the ship, would have been lost in such an explosion. As it was, all but two of 'Q' turret's crew members were killed. Harvey also had the presence of mind to order his badly injured sergeant to report to the bridge. This the man did, delivering a message to Lieutenant W Chalmers that the turret was lost, saying "'Q' turret has gone, sir. All the crew are killed, and we have flooded the magazines." Harvey's wounds were too extensive and he died soon after these selfless acts of bravery.
The danger that Harvey so quickly appreciated was averted thanks to his last brave actions. But several other British ships at Jutland did not escape the threat of magazine explosions. HMS Queen Mary, HMS Indefatigable and HMS Invincible were all lost in this way during the battle.
Harvey was buried at sea, along with others lost at Jutland, in a ceremony on 1 June. As well as being posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, his bravery was noted by Admiral Jellicoe in his post-battle despatch and Winston Churchill said of him: "In the long, rough, glorious history of the Royal Marines there is no name and no deed which in its character and consequences ranks above this."
Harvey's widow, Ethel, received his VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace on 15 September 1916. He was survived by a son, John, who followed his father into the military and became a lieutenant colonel in the King's Regiment. He inherited his father's medal group and presented them to the Royal Marines Museum in 1973.