Of all the human stories that link the north east to the battle of Jutland, there is also the story of a ship. Well, of ships, and of an engine. And, there is even a link with the RGS.In 1912, HMS Queen Mary was launched in Jarrow, having been built by Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company. It was constructed as part of the naval race between Germany and Britain that had begun with the German naval expansion at the turn of the century. In that, Tyneside played a central role. No small part of the Royal Navy of the Great War had been built on the Tyne.
As everyone knows, or at least should know, the flagship of that naval race was a new class of battleship, the dreadnought. Developed in great secrecy, the launching of HMS Dreadnought, in 1906, was seen as heralding a new age in naval warfare. What was new? In part, it was the weight and nature of her big guns that gave her a hitherto implausible firepower. However, what made that possible was a new engine, the Parsons turbine.
A trip to Newcastle’s Discovery Museum brings one face to face with the Turbinia, the yacht Charles Parsons built to show off his new technology. In essence, by using steam power to generate electricity with a hitherto impossible efficiency, and low cost, Parsons had built the fastest ship in the world.
Parsons, like many the son of an Irish nobleman with a bit of brains went to Trinity College, Dublin; unlike almost any other, he read Mathematics and became an engineer, starting in Newcastle by working for Armstrong. He went on to work on the first turbine generators in power stations, including (ironically) in Germany.
Being based on the Tyne it was perhaps inevitable that he might look to adopt the new technology in maritime engineering. Arguably, Parsons’ turbine was not first maritime turbine engine; it was, however, the first that really worked. He also had a gift for publicity. The vessel‘s trials from Tynemouth to Hartley were one thing, but in 1897 the Turbinia was exhibited in Portsmouth for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, with Parsons himself aboard (below). Then, as now, a bit of speed and new kit wowed the top brass, and naval orders followed.
So did commercial orders. The fastest ship in the world in its time, the Mauretania (shown with the Turbine, below), was built by Swan Hunter in Wallsend: that and its tragically famous sister ship, the Lusitania, were both powered by Parson’s turbines.
Thus it was that the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company powered the British Navy, and with it the naval race. Parsons’ turbines also powered the other great white hope of the naval race: the battlecruiser. Like the Dreadnought, the new battlecruisers would be heavily gunned. Instead of heavy armour, they were to rely on speed for their protection. That speed would come from its turbines: just like HMS Dreadnought, the first battlecruiser, HMS Invincible, got its power from four Parsons Turbines.
As we shall see, the battlecruisers were, arguably, a flawed idea from the off. However, in 1910 they were seen as an essential adjunct of the dreadnoughts. Thus it was that when, in 1910-11, four state of the art King George V class super-dreadnoughts were commissioned, the HMS Queen Mary was too.
Dreadnoughts were built in shipyards all over Britain, though it must be said Portsmouth won the lion’s share of the contracts. In all, if we count their successor classes, Armstrong Whitworth in Elswick built six (though three of them were originally intended for export) and two were built by Palmers. In all, one in three dreadnoughts in service in the war were built on the Tyne: six (Monarch, Superb, Canada, Agincourt, Hercules and Malaya) were at Jutland. HMS Malaya was a Palmer’s ship.
As well as dreadnoughts, one in five cruisers in service had been built on the Tyne. That included two battlecruisers at Jutland. In 1908, Armstrong-Whitworth had launched HMS Invincible (below), one of the earlier battlecruisers.
By 1913, with Invincible showing her age perhaps, the Queen Mary was the state of the art.
One by-product of the great naval race was the widespread public belief, in both Britain and Germany, that if they did go to war there would be a grand clash between the two fleets within a very short space of time. That belief was mistaken. Why? On the part of Germany it reflected an underlying strategic fact. The British had won the naval race. The German fleet would, most likely, suffer a catastrophic defeat in an all-out naval war and, in any case, the land war was Germany’s overwhelming strategic priority.
Instead, the Germans looked to be more subtle. They would chip away at the Grand Fleet itself, using mines and submarines, while limited sorties into enemy waters would, it was hoped, draw parts of the Grand Fleet out. None of this was stupid. The only dreadnought sunk by enemy action, HMS Audacious, succumbed to a German mine of the coasts of Northern Ireland and Scotland; early in the war, so afraid was the Grand Fleet’s commander, Jellicoe, of the havoc submarines could wreak in the main British base of Scapa Flow, that he withdrew his Dreadnoughts to the safer waters around, ironically, Northern Ireland. When the German navy shelled east coast towns in England, there was immense pressure from the press to do something. Had less wise counsel prevailed, Jellicoe may well have been compelled to do something courageous, and foolish.
That brings us to the second explanation for the caution: the commanders of the two fleets. If the German high command were well aware of the perils of adrenalin (to steal Andrew Roberts’ phrase), Sir John Jellicoe was particularly so. In part, this reflected his personality, and the fact that he had been given his command by Churchill ahead of his superior, Sir George Callaghan. He felt a need to secure both his own position, and to get a complete grasp of his fleet and his commanders.
In truth, the real explanation for Jellicoe’s caution was strategic. As commander of the Home Fleet he was, in Churchill’s famous words, the only man that could lose the war in an afternoon. If Britain were to suffer a catastrophic naval reverse in the North Sea, it would likely as not be forced out of the war. Not only that, but the more cautious policy was, in fact, a war winning one.
One alternative was a close blockade of German waters. This, however, exposed Britain to German mines and submarines. Better was the policy adopted, a loose blockade that would keep the German fleet in port and deny German merchant shipping access to open waters. Such a blockade was hardly unbreakable, as the German raids on the east coast and, indeed, Jutland, show. But, in the age of the submarine, provided Germany could not make the channel impassable, it made sense. The main part of the Grand Fleet was soon safe in Scapa Flow, off the Orkney Islands. Any German surface incursion could be dealt with.
In truth, by 1916, the British had obtained at least two of their objectives. The channel crossing was secure, and the wider ocean was under British control. Submarines menaced (in large part thanks to the Navy’s pig-headed refusal to adopt the convoy system). The main threat was still there, though: the German fleet.
Just as Jellicoe began to see a confrontation as desirable, the German commander, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, gave it to him on plate in any case. The British Blockade denied the Atlantic to the German surface fleet. So-called unlimited U-boat warfare enabled German submarines to fight back by sinking merchant shipping destined for allied ports. However, when the Lusitania was sunk (with its Parsons turbines, incidentally) the Germans had put that on hold. It was, similarly, on hold in the spring on 1916. That gave Scheer, he hoped, an opportunity. A sortie by German battlecruisers would draw out the Grand Fleet, which would then be attacked by both the battlecruisers and the U-boats, followed by the main German fleet itself. He had a chance to inflict some serious damage upon the British.
The plan had several flaws, but the British also had a secret weapon. In 1914, the German light cruiser Magdeburg ran aground off Estonia. Russia swiftly sent the codebooks and charts they found to London. Though the Germans switched the codes, a mix of predictable everyday signalling practices and a tendency for some communications to be given on more than one version of previous codes (to make sure they got through) enabled the British to break the German signals traffic. If Britain had Bletchley Park in the Second World War, in the first the quality of the intelligence coming from Room 40 could be almost as valuable.
It was from Room 40 that Jellicoe leaned that German U-boats had left port and that the battlecruiser fleet itself was setting sail on May 31st. In the event, the British fleet had left Scapa Flow some three-and-a-half hours earlier: the main fleet from Scapa Flow, the battlecruisers from the Firth of Forth.
Scheer had hoped that a U-boat ambush would inflict damage on both. In this context, the limitations of submarine warfare became evident. Faced with a fleet at full steam, and one backed by destroyers, only one torpedo attack came, and it missed. Both fleets were on the high seas; the game was on.
Predictably, it was the faster battlecruisers that made first contact. There is a long running controversy about the relative virtues of Jellicoe and Beatty. Jellicoe was methodical and cautious, and a man given to thorough preparation; Beatty relied more upon inspiration. In part because they had been based at Rosyth, Beatty’s men had not really practised their gunnery. Worse than that, the German battlecruisers were superior in range and accuracy. In part to counter that, and in part a consequence of the navy’s practice of rewards commanders for dash and speed in gunnery, corners were cut. Most of all, to speed up the rate of fire flash proof doors designed to keep the critically unstable cordite from being ignited accidentally or by enemy fire were being left open. Furthermore, the men were in the habit if piling cordite up in the gun turrets (Y turret is shown below) in any case, and that was only stored in silk pouches. Lastly, British cordite was inherently unstable (it tended to explode, German cordite tended just to burn). All this was taking place on cruisers which were lightly armoured (and much more lightly armoured than their German counterparts), in the belief that speed would keep them safe.
Thus it was that for the battlecruisers Jutland was a perfect storm. In the first place, their inferior range brought them too close to their German counterparts. Then, the fact that they made contact with the enemy meant their speed mattered less than their lack of armour. In short, they were vulnerable. Perhaps if Beatty had been more cautious they would not have sustained such losses. But the fatal flaws were quickly evident when Beatty himself almost lost his flagship. HMS Lion was hit and its light armour pierced by a shell, starting a fire in a gun turret. The commander of Q turret, Major Francis Harvey, was fatally wounded, having lost both his legs and being terribly burned; he still had the presence of mind to give the order close off the magazine and to flood it. Had the fire spread to the magazine the Lion would have been lost: Major Harvey was awarded a posthumous VC. HMS Indefatigable was hit in the same way, but the fire did get into its magazine and it went down; all but two hands were lost.
In that murky late afternoon, the Queen Mary had come under fire along with the other battlecruisers at 15.48, returning fire immediately. Many of the weaknesses in the British gunnery were soon evident, as was the failure of orders to get through. The Queen Mary, however, landed two blows on her enemy, the Seydlitz, confirming her reputation as the crack gunnery outfit of the battlecruisers. Then, at 16.17, fate conspired against it when the badly damaged Lion dropped out of the line. In the confusion, the Derfflinger turned its fire on the Queen Mary too: a barrage of accurate shells began to land.
What is striking is the speed at which events now moved to their terrible conclusion. At 16.21, Q turret was hit and some cordite began to burn. Then, another shell hit the magazine of one of the forward turrets. In the words of a survivor, Petty Officer Ernest Francis, then came the ‘big explosion’ and the ‘big smash’. The ship was, we now know, doomed to sink in a few minutes.
That was not necessarily evident to the men. Francis recalled everything suddenly being ‘as quiet as a church’. This is, in fact, a commonly reported experience in the aftermath of explosions of this scale on board ship, in part caused by the sudden lack of fire and in part due to the effects on the explosions on men’s hearing. Francis asked his commander, Lt Ewart, was happening; his reply was ‘God only knows’. As soon as Francis put his head out of a hole in the roof he could see the ship was listing badly. The men got out. Lt Ewart did not: as he emerged, he seemed to think more of his men were in the turret, and returned to look.
He was not the only hero that grim afternoon. By the time Francis had got out the ship was about to go down to port side. He was about to go down with it, and had he remained there he would have been killed by the force of the capsizing and sinking ship. He was saved by two of his shipmates. One, AB Lane held another, AB Long at full stretch from the starboard bow. Francis jumped, grabbed Long’s legs and was hauled to safety.
A second great explosion came. A series followed, as the Queen Mary went through its final moments. Those men that had made it into the sea now saw the exploding ship go down. Many were killed in its aftermath. Midshipman Peregrine Dearden had swum some 30 yards when he saw her ‘blow up completely’.
He had taken off his heavy uniform before jumping in and that helped saved him, along with the fact that the suction effect of the sinking ship dragged him under just as the debris began to fall from the breaking vessel. He held his breath as long as he could, came up, and clung to the debris for dear life.
Meanwhile, Petty Officer Francis had got some 50 yards away, when he heard the ‘big smash’. Turning, and seeing the hail of debris, he ‘ducked under’. Midshipman Jocelyn Storey was sucked under, held his breath and was saved.
It may have been the end of May, but the North Sea was bitterly cold. Francis lost consciousness and was lucky to be firmly attached to some debris, and then to come to and be found out alive. Many drowned before they could be rescued; others, in the heat of battle, had to be left to their fate to succumb to exposure and the deep. Of the 1286 men on board the Queen Mary, only 20 survived.
The situation was serious. When the Queen Mary blew up, Beatty famously asked, ‘What’s the matter with our bloody ships today?’ Then, on the Lion, Q turret blazed anew. The magazine doors buckled in the heat, but held. Had they gone, another battlecruiser would have been lost. The first phase of the battle, the so-called Run to the South, was looking like an unmitigated disaster. There seems little doubt that Beatty shoulders some of the blame for that.
By the time the Queen Mary went down, Beatty’s four super-Dreadnoughts were engaged. He had been sailing south, but knew that the main fleet, under Jellicoe, was heading south too. He then made the decision to turn north. It made every sense. The German dreadnoughts were coming within range of his battlecruisers and his four dreadnoughts. If he now turned north, he would avoid them and might well lure the German fleet into the arms of Jellicoe’s superior force. The decision might have been sound, but its implementation was a mess. Once more his cruisers were vulnerable; worse, so were his super-dreadnoughts. If the Germans could knock them out, the game was really on.
The second phase of the battle was something of a score draw. The super-dreadnoughts were hit by German cruisers, but their heavy armour saw them survive (even if HMS Malaya, below, had a narrow escape).
They, in turn, inflicted sufficient fire upon the German fleet to retard both its progress and the effectiveness of its fire. Most of all, as the Grand fleet approached, the German hope of entrapping and destroying a strategically significant portion of the German fleet faded. The tables were about to be turned.
For Jellicoe, it was a journey in something rather like the dark. He knew Beatty was engaged, and he knew that the German cruisers were in pursuit. He was not expecting the main German fleet. Thanks to an intelligence cock-up, he believed it to still be back in base.
When he had a confirmed sighting of the main German fleet at 16.38, Jellicoe knew the day had come. The problem was that he had no accurate positions for either Beatty, the German cruisers or, worst of all, the main German fleet. In places, visibility was down to a mere 2,000 yards. It wasn’t until 18.14 that Jellicoe got an exact location for the main German fleet. The response was characteristically cautious, and cool headed, and right. Instead of engaging immediately, he deployed to gain the maximum advantage for his superior force.
The main battle was now on. It was one Jellicoe should win, but could have lost. Jellicoe could have lost the war in an evening, let alone an afternoon. The dreadnoughts turned to engage.
Just as the Grand fleet manoeuvred, the thick mists began to lift. As it did, Beatty’s 3rd Battlecruiser squadron found themselves right in front their German enemy. As the Germans opened fire, the other Tyneside built battlecruiser, HMS Invincible, now faced the brunt of German shelling.
It had not been built for this. Once again, the thin armour was pierced and the flash ran down form the turret to the magazine. The explosion tore the ship in half. Of the 1,032 men, only six survived. One of the survivors, her commander, Hubert Danrreuther, though it had taken only 15 seconds from the hit of the shell to her sinking. Both Tyneside’s battlecruisers were no more.
Her sinking was a tragedy, but the battle was running Britain’s way. The German success against the battlecruisers had lured them into Jellicoe’s grasp. When Scheer gave the order to flee under cover of night he was acknowledging a reality. The British dreadnoughts had inflicted such serious damage of his cruisers that they were rendered wholly ineffective. A number of his ships were badly damaged, some in danger of sinking. His main fleet was critically vulnerable. The British had won.
Jellicoe was criticised for not pursuing, but his decision was right. The dangers of both U-boats and mines increased as they got closer to the coast. More importantly, he had controlled the battle and won. His fleet was intact, as was the British blockade. He had not lost the war.
That should not take anything from the true horrors of what was one of the great naval battles. Taken in the context of the war, the 6,945 British casualties sustained might almost be dismissed as slight. They were not. Of those, 6,094 were killed. The true horrors of this battle were the stories of the likes of the Invincible and the Queen Mary. Not only were almost all their men killed, but many did not die the sudden deaths we might imagine. Some were terribly burned, others trapped in airtight compartments, and others were left to die in the bitter cold of the North Sea.
And of the great naval race itself, not much survived. Famously, the main German fleet hardly ventured out to sea again; then, when held in Scapa Flow after the war, it was scuppered rather than be surrendered. Most of the great British dreadnoughts, now becoming obsolete, were mostly sold for scrap in 1921/22 in the aftermath of the Washington Naval Treaty.
The same fate befell some of their builders. After the recession of 1920, Palmer’s finances were shaky in extreme. When two naval contracts were completed in 1933, the firm went bust. It was taken over, but by 1935 the shipyard was closed and Jarrow became a byword for mass unemployment, made famous by the Jarrow march of 1936. The yard was broken up.
A similar fate befell those who had commissioned them. Charles Palmer, having created his industrial giant, went to become the Liberal MP for North Durham in 1874, and then Jarrow until his death in 1907. The Liberal party hardly survived the war either.
His younger son, Sir Alfred Palmer, inherited the baronetcy his father had won from his older brother. He played a significant role in the north east as a businessman and as High Sheriff of Durham. The family interest in the business had long been sold, and Sir Alfred died in 1931, and was thus spared seeing the old firm go under.
The connection with the RGS? Sir Alfred Palmer became a governor of the school in 1905 and chairman of the governors in 1915. The following year, the ships of the Tyne powered by Parsons turbinesfought their great battle. It was Sir Alfred who presided at the inauguration of the school’s war memorial.
On that day, the man gave the school its memorial organ quoted the words of Lincoln:
I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the Altar of Freedom.
Those words seem apt now as we look back at the battle of Jutland, a hundred years on.
The story of the Queen Mary and the Invincible told here is in large part drawn from Jutland 1916, by Nigel Steel and Peter Hart.