‘Where is the fleet? Where are you? What direction are you?’ We were sending out urgent signals – coding them – sending them out to the battle fleet, and he never answered …

Listen to the voices of those who were there or read the podcast transcript below.

The Battle of Jutland, on 31 May 1916, was the only major confrontation between British and German naval forces during the First World War. Up until then, there had been smaller clashes, German U-boat attacks and raids on the British coast. But no full-scale battle. The moment the British and German navies were waiting for had arrived. Frederick Morris, who served in HMS Marlborough, described the atmosphere on the day of the battle.

Well the day it happened, in the morning, there was a feeling somehow that things were happening. Because in those days we had no wireless or telephone or anything like that, the only thing was wireless, really, which was ship to ship. But there was a feeling in the air, somehow, that there was something happening. Then in the afternoon we found out that it was actually happening. We started to prepare for going into battle then, getting everything ready, getting prepared. So we knew then that later in the afternoon we were firing. Then of course we went to action stations.

The commander of the German High Seas Fleet, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, planned to lure the British Battlecruiser Fleet, led by Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, into a major fight in the North Sea. He aimed to destroy part of it before the main British Grand Fleet, under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, could arrive to help. However, as British officer Grahame Donald explained, Britain’s naval intelligence forewarned the Royal Navy.

A half-length portrait of Admiral Sir David Beatty in full uniform seated at a desk reading a paper he holds in his hands.
A half-length portrait of Admiral Sir David Beatty in full uniform seated at a desk reading a paper he holds in his hands. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2617)

We knew there was something rather big on hand. We did discover later that the Admiralty itself – who were a pretty wide awake crowd of people, you know – they had actually been detecting a good deal of wireless activity over in the Kiel direction. They were able to spot the movement of the ships and realise that there was quite a large number of German ships moving in Kiel and evidently making for sea.

The British needed to know the size of the German force they would be facing. Gerald Livock served with the Royal Naval Air Service aboard the seaplane carrier HMS Engadine.

We were stationed in the Firth of Forth in the seaplane carrier Engadine. We used to go out with the fleet whenever they went out and on the afternoon of Jutland, when some smoke was sighted on the horizon, we were told to send out a seaplane on reconnaissance. By some good fortune it was calm enough for it to take off and it did actually take off and spotted some cruisers, some German cruisers, and reported them. And the Battle of Jutland then started.

Both Beatty’s and Jellicoe’s forces put to sea from their bases in Scotland. Despite the build-up of activity, the bugle call to action stations came as a surprise to some, such as Arthur Gaskin in HMS Malaya.

A three quarter-length portrait of Jellicoe in uniform. He stands with the sea, horizon and a golden sky behind resting one hand on a post.
A three quarter-length portrait of Jellicoe in uniform. He stands with the sea, horizon and a golden sky behind resting one hand on a post. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1322)

We was steaming along there and on Wednesday is what they call a make and mend day. Me and my mate, Smithy, we was lying on top of one of the turrets on the fo’castle there, you know, in the sun and that. And all of a sudden it was half past three, seven bells. The bugler sounded off cooks to the galley; that means one man had to go and prepare the meals. And at the same time, the bugler sounded off action stations at the double! I sat up quick – I could see the Lion and Tiger and them in the distance. I saw a big, huge smoke come from the Lion and I said to Robbo, ‘Look, it looks like the Lion’s opened fire on something.’ And that was the start of the Battle of Jutland!

The Germans were unaware that the full British fleet was heading towards them. As Beatty’s battlecruisers scouted ahead, they found the advancing Germans. HMS Galatea fired the battle’s opening shot. Torpedo artificer Alfred Leggatt was a member of her crew.

We were the starboard van for Beatty; we went within visual signal distance of him on his starboard bow. And then we saw this merchantman hove to with a German destroyer boarding her – or attempting to board her. And we went up to see and when we got nearer this German destroyer: it was part of a flotilla, and that was part of a squadron, and that was part of the German High Seas Fleet.

Contact came in the North Sea, off Jutland on the coast of Denmark. Beatty’s battlecruisers opened fire – but the shots went long. C Farmer was a signaller on board HMS Indefatigable, part of the 2nd Battlecruiser Squadron.

It was about half-past three in the afternoon when we steamed towards the German fleet, six battlecruisers, Admiral Beatty leading. We opened fire at 14,000 yards, which was too far. Beatty made a signal, ‘Close nearer the enemy,’ which we did. We closed near the enemy and a message came through that the flags was entangled round the mast, somebody must go up. So I took me sea boots off, climbed out the foretop, went up the Jacob’s ladder right to the very top. I unfurled the flag, and I sat on the wireless yard looking around. I could see all the German fleet; I made out roughly 40 ships. There was six of us.

The 5th Battle Squadron entered the battle at around 4 pm. Soon, both the British and German warships were scoring hits on each other. Gunnery officer J Hazelwood served in HMS Warspite.

My station was in ‘B’ turret and with the other members of the guns’ crews we were ready and we were looking forward to a chance to have a crack at the enemy. We were keen: this was the day we were waiting for! And the officer in charge of the turret was also excited at the chance that we’d got. Presently, the order was given ‘Bring the guns to the ready.’ The guns were brought to the ready and we waited for the first bang. Bang! went the first salvo, away to enemy and off we started. Working in rhythm, the shells and the cordite coming up from below, being put into the guns and they were kept firing as quick as possible. It was just a normal routine to the men in these turrets, they’d done it so often in practice that things just worked.

Seriously outnumbered, Beatty turned north, towards the main British fleet. Unaware that Jellicoe was heading in their direction, the Germans gave chase and met the Grand Fleet. It was now Admiral Scheer who was outnumbered. As the battle raged, Harold Wright had a chance to survey the action from his ship, HMS King George V.

Then eventually I had another message to say that seeing that we weren’t going to be actively engaged for a little time, that a limited number of hands from each department could go up on deck to watch the action. So I made my way up on to the boat deck and took up station there and we could see the German fleet silhouetted against the setting sun. You could watch our shells hitting and you could also see the blast of their guns firing.

Despite the intensity of the shellfire and the threat of battle all around them, the members of both navies recalled their lack of fear during the action. German officer Edgar Luchting served with the 14th Destroyer Flotilla.

It may perhaps surprise people that, although it was the first event of this kind for my boat, and probably for at least 90 per cent of all people involved in this action, there was no excitement at all. The behaviour of the crew was excellent: the boat went smoothly as always and we more or less enjoyed the whole thing as a big theatre event – although certainly it was not without some danger…

Henry Fancourt was a teenage midshipman aboard HMS Princess Royal.

We weren’t frightened, we were excited and the gun’s crew was shouting: bang, bang, bang! Oh no it’s great; it was like being at a football match, you know, you want your side to win. You don’t think about casualties and disasters until later.

Over the course of the battle, the German gunners scored more direct hits than the British. Frederick Morris described his ship – HMS Marlborough – coming under fire.

Then we realised that we are really into it then. And of course when you get a big salvo of the turrets firing, the ship shudders like anything, you see. I don’t think they fired a salvo each time but a turret at a time, I suppose, they were firing – it’s difficult to tell really. If they do fire a salvo, the ship absolutely shudders – no question about that.

The effect of other huge warships being hit nearby was clearly recalled by George Simmonds of HMS St Vincent.

Well you couldn’t actually hear… The only thing you could hear was, if a ship was sunk, your ship went up and down like a jelly on the sea, open sea. ’Course there were several ships of ours were sunk during the time and we was at more or less close quarters, to my estimation of it. But it didn’t matter if it was a German boat that went up, it still vibrated in the sea. Of course then you’ve got – like the St Vincent – you’ve got a 13,000 tonne ship, all steel, going down in one bulk under the sea. So I mean to say it’s got to – in your close quarters in a circle, you see, you’re bound to get a vibration from that ship.

The British lost several warships fairly early on, suffering from accurate German range-finding. The battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary was sunk at around 4 pm, witnessed by Arthur Crown from HMS Shannon.

I remember we could hear the firing and firing. But it was so misty we didn’t see the actual ships. But I was on deck on one occasion and I saw a terrific amount of smoke and fire that went up in the air. When it died down, there was nothing left to be seen. And I found out – and it was announced that it was the Queen Mary. It was a most vivid impression because, when I came to think of it after that hit, there was over 1,000 men had gone down with her. Now she was obviously hit very, very badly. Subsequently, we were talking amongst ourselves: we reckoned that the Germans specialized in using armour piercing shells more than we did.

Exposed on the edge of the battle, HMS Chester came under withering fire. Leading stoker Bert Stevens was a member of her crew.

During that period of action there was some gunfire on the port beam and Admiral Hood on the Invincible told our skipper – who was in charge of Chester – to go and investigate. We goes over, investigates, we went through a mist. When we gets over there, there are five Germans. Of course there’s only one thing for it. We fought four, we managed to get a torpedo into one of them. They smashed us up terrible. All the guns’ crews that wasn’t killed, some were seriously wounded. Jacky Cornwell, VC boy, was on the for’ard gun and he stood at his post. The bridge was down; the foremost funnel was nearly down; she was holed all in the side…

Another loss was HMS Invincible, the flagship of the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron. Reginald Ashley of HMS Iron Duke saw her sink.

My battle station was in the foretop. And then we were seeing these shells coming over, we couldn’t see the German fleet – this range-finding business we knew nothing about then. These shells were hitting the Invincible and the Indomitable and I saw theInvincible go down. Oh terrible, I didn’t want to see anymore. She turned over with all these blokes hanging onto her. Then you could see the wakes of the torpedoes from the submarines coming towards each ship.

Over 1,000 men were drowned when the Invincible sank. Gunnery officer Hubert Dannreuther was one of only a handful of survivors.

Well she went down with a crash and I pushed out of her, came up to the surface again – I was a bit out of breath – and I saw a target floating by so I went and got under it and found two other fellows there. And then shortly afterwards, the Badger came alongside and picked us up.

The British were hampered during the action by poor visibility, as midshipman Bonham Faunce of HMS Hercules remembered.

I remember the captain, a message from the captain, to tell the gunnery officer which direction to point the 12 inch gun and he ought to be able to see some German ships soon. But the visibility was very bad by that time, it was hazy, there was a lot of haze and there was a lot of smoke hanging around, too. But eventually the gunnery officer and his assistant spotting officer, I heard them say, ‘There they are,’ or words to that effect and I popped my head up and vaguely saw in the mists some obviously very big ships – I couldn’t tell what they were.

The mist-filled skies were also a problem for the German fleet, including Edgar Luchting.

The sea was calm it was fine weather especially in the first one or two hours. Later on it became more cloudy and moreover the smoke of the burning ships and of the gunfire more or less obscured the view sometimes up to 100%. That meant that if we were only 1,000 or 2,000 metres away from our ships, we couldn’t see them anymore. And in one case that led to a rather awkward accident which might have meant disaster for us. We had made a torpedo attack on the British ships; we had broken through our ships and tried to come so near to the British line that we could fire our torpedoes. But the British line turned away and so it was simply hopeless to try and reach a position from which we could shoot our torpedoes and so we turned back and looked for our own ships. But there were none. There was smoke; clouds. But no German ships.

The poor visibility only exacerbated what was already a confused encounter between the fleets. William Parsons, a petty officer on board HMS Munster, described the chaotic nature of the battle.

Well do you know in a way it almost became, um, watching a film. If you understand what I mean! So much was going on that you didn’t get time to think of yourself or anything. You’d probably see a ship being shelled over there, you’d say, ‘Poor devils, poor devils.’ At the same moment you’d get a couple of bricks alongside you, you see. But before you could think about those, something else was happening over there: there was so much going on. And you not knowing the general strategy, you felt how small you were! You took it quite easily; there was no fear or anything like that, you know. A moment of sympathy, perhaps, but then there was so much going on that you hadn’t time to sympathise, even.

Poor communication between their two main leaders, Beatty and Jellicoe, severely impaired the effectiveness of the British during the battle. William Piggott was a wireless signaller in Jellicoe’s flagship, HMS Iron Duke.

In the meantime, Beatty’s about 30 miles ahead and not telling us where he is and what they’re doing – that was absolute neglect. Which has been in all the books, and its common knowledge, that he never told us what he should have done. And us on our side began to ask, ‘Where is the fleet? Where are you? What direction are you?’ We were sending out urgent signals – coding them – sending them out to the battle fleet, and he never answered …

Realising he was outnumbered, Admiral Scheer ordered his fleet to turn away. Although losing its intensity, the battle continued as night started to fall. George Wainford assessed the situation from HMS Onslaught.

After about six o’clock or seven o’clock, the thing had eased up. Lots and lots of wreckage. We passed one naval raft thing full of our chaps cheering us. Well, we daren’t stop and pick ’em up cos we were doing something else and we knew there was lots of German submarines about. And I always remember the amount of dead fish there were floating about – I think they’d been killed by concussion, when ships blew up they were concussed – and there were loads of fish everywhere, floating about on the surface.

Considerable damage had been inflicted on the British fleet. J Hazelwood couldn’t believe the state of his ship, HMS Warspite, which had come under heavy fire during the action when her steering had jammed.

I come out from the top of the manhole onto the top of the gun turret and I was amazed at what I saw. Part of the bridge was alight which consisted of a storage of lifebelts, they were all in flames. I could see that the 6 inch battery, there was a fire raging there from the cordite. The upper deck was riddled with shell, and not a boat was fit to be put in the water. From there I went down to the captain’s cabin and I was amazed at the shambles. I picked up at the door my captain’s military medals, as an example, which had come from a cupboard on the side. And there was also, in parts of the stern, two and three foot of water in compartments.

Unsurprisingly, there were high casualties on the British side. The loss to the crew of HMS Malaya was felt by Arthur Gaskin.

Then I realised then that death was in the air, sort of thing. We lost 75 men on our ship and we buried some of them at sea on the way back to Invergordan. And my chum went. It brought home to me more when I saw them all laid out on the deck. I thought, ‘Oh dear, oh dear, that was an experience I never want to have again,’ sort of thing.

As night fell, the battle disintegrated into a series of small but fierce engagements that lasted through the early hours of 1 June. But the British were reluctant to engage in serious night fighting, as officer John Ouvry explained, and in the darkness the German fleet managed to escape.

Ever so often in the dusk a ship came into view and twice we opened fire and whomever it was fired back at us – I think it was German battlecruisers – but with no result. But it was very unpleasant because, in half-light, you see the flashes at point-blank range almost, then wait for something to happen. And then of course both sides turned away, because in darkness it’s too much of a gamble to go into action at night, you never know quite what’s going to happen. So it’s best to avoid action at night at any time. And that was the policy of the British ships, never go into action at night. Because you might sight a ship at point-blank range and if they get their lights on first and get their broadside in first, you’d probably go. So night action was never advocated by the British, that I did know.

The Battle of Jutland ended in no apparent victory for either side. Both fleets had suffered losses – but neither had been completely destroyed. Alfred Leggatt summed up the disappointment felt by the British after this much-anticipated naval encounter.

But it was a lamentable business because it wasn’t a victory. We lost as many ships and more men than the Germans did. It’s true that the German High Seas Fleet never came out again, as such. But it wasn’t a victory in the sense that Trafalgar was a victory, or Matapan was a victory, in latter days. I don’t think.

However, Arthur Crown was more philosophical about the result. He rightly pointed out that the Germans never again seriously challenged the Grand Fleet’s control of the North Sea.

And I realised, as an old regular serving navy man, the fact people used to talk about, ‘We didn’t do well.’ The proof is they never came out again. They never came to risk us getting them again. Although we were used many times to go up not far off that coastline hoping to draw them out – and the Grand Fleet would never be far away, they perhaps wouldn’t be close enough to save us – but the mice didn’t come after the bit of cheese. So that’s how we survived the Battle of Jutland.

Jutland was a strategic victory for Britain and the Royal Navy. But for Reginald Ashley, the key aspect of the battle was not who had won – but who had been lost.

What impressed me was, going back to Scapa Flow, when we got to the scene where the battle started, the fleet either slowed down or stopped and we had a memorial service for every man that was lost in that battle. That was a most impressive scene that’s fixed in my mind. Always will. Never want to go through that again.

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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