The 31 May/1 June marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. It was the only major First World War fleet action fought between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet, and the largest sea battle in history.
Our Archives and Records Manager, Philip Abbot, uncovers some of the details of this important battle through the journals of Gerald Slade, midshipman on HMS Inflexible.
Gerald Slade was born in Hong Kong in 1899, and entered the Royal Naval College, Osborne, Isle of Wight, as a cadet shortly before his thirteenth birthday. After completing his education and training he joined the battlecruiser, HMS Inflexible, as a midshipman on 8 September 1915.
HMS Inflexible. Source: US Library of Congress. Public Domain.
During the Battle of Jutland he was stationed on the ship’s fighting top high up on the main mast, where he had an excellent view of the action. He left a personal account of his experiences in the form of a journal:
May 30th 1916
Proceeded from Scapa Flow ahead of Battle Fleet at 8.15.
May 31st 1916
3.0 PM closed up at action stations.
4.0 PM were given half an hour for tea. Heard that the “Lion” was engaging the enemy. The 5th B.S. Sqn Queen Elizabeth was with them. We were now proceeding at full speed (about 27 kts). It was 3.50 when the “Lion” reported that she was engaging the enemy.
5.29 heard the sound of firing right ahead + a short time later saw numerous gun flashes.
5.40 sighted enemy light cruisers and destroyers. These were all concentrating on the “Chester” + she was having a very hot time of it.
5.55 opened fire on enemy light cruisers + succeeded in sinking at least one. She blew up in a dense cloud of steam.
On the evening of 30 May 1916, the Third Battle Cruiser Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Hood (flagship HMS Invincible) sailed from Scapa Flow, and steamed south westwards at high speed, followed at intervals by the rest of the British Grand Fleet.
The opening phase of the action was fought between the German battlecruisers under the command of Admiral Hipper (flagship SMS Lutzow) and their British counterparts under Admiral Beatty (flagship HMS Lion), supported by the 5th Battle Ship Squadron, consisting of the Queen Elizabeth class battleships (the most modern and powerful ships in either fleet). Two of the British battlecruisers, HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary, blew up with heavy loss of life, and a number of the German ships were badly damaged.
Shortly after 4.00 PM, Admiral Jellicoe (flagship HMS Iron Duke), in command of the Grand Fleet, ordered the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron to increase speed and join Beatty’s hard-pressed forces. HMS Chester, scouting ahead of the squadron, was engaged by four German light cruisers, and badly damaged. When the battlecruisers opened fire, the German light cruiser, SMS Wiesbaden, was quickly disabled, but despite Slade’s claim she remained afloat.
Additional entries in Slade’s journal describe the battle:
6.0 check fire. A Torpedo passed under our stern.
6.15 we are to starboard in order to avoid a Torpedo which passed about 10 yds away along out port side. We watched it from the Fore Top + could even see the propellers moving. The Torpedo Lieut was afraid that the Gyro would fail + she might turn + bump us.
6.20 openned fire on a Battleship of the “Kaiser” class. We landed one salvo on her fore turret + appeared to have flatenned it out.
6.35 the Grand Fleet openned fire on the enemy. It was a fine sight to see them. They were so formed as to be able to bring every gun to bear. Indom. [HMS Indomitable] and Inflex. [HMS Inflexible] formed astern of the B.C.s.
6.30 the “Invincible” was blown up. She went up in a tremendous cloud of yellow cordite smoke. She broke in half + bows and stern were left floating but I saw no survivors. Apparently a salvo pitched amidships + blew up her P + Q magazine. Huge pieces of steel + iron were falling everywhere but none touched us. We have heard that six were picked up after + I think were all part …
Several torpedos were fired at the British battlecruisers, but they managed to dodge them all. As the main body of the High Seas Fleet under the command of Admiral Scheer (flagship SMS Fredrich der Grosse) were enemy’s observed ahead, Hood ordered his ships to alter course to port, and opened fire at a range of about 8,000 to 9,000 yards. Inflexible’s Gunnery Officer later reported that the first salvo hit the target. The battlecruisers themselves came under heavy fire, and although Inflexible was not hit, Slade later admitted in a letter to his mother that “we had a good many shells bursting pretty close to us & we got a few splinters from one. Invincible was sunk with the loss of all but six of her crew of 1,032 officers and men. The Inflexible had to alter course to avoid the wreckage.
HMS Invincible exploding at the Battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916. Source: Fighting at Jutland: The personal experiences of forty five officers and men of the British Fleet, (London: Hutchinson and Co, Ltd, 1921). Image is available online at Internet Archive.
Battlecruisers were large ships designed to scout ahead of the main battle fleet and find the enemy, to protect the battleships from torpedo armed cruisers and destroyers, and to pursue the enemy fleet and use their guns to damage or slow opposing ships. They were armed with heavy guns (similar to those of the battleships) but were forced to compromise protection in favour of speed. The vulnerability of the battlecruisers combined with the practice of storing shells in gun turrets, ammunition hoists and other working areas to increase the rate of fire poor shell resulted in the loss of three battlecruisers at Jutland.
The Inflexible and Indomitable formed astern of the Beatty’s ships as the main body of the Grand Fleet finally appeared and engaged the enemy. Jellicoe ordered his squadrons to alter course in an attempt to bring all guns to bear (in a manoeuvre known as Crossing the ‘T’), and the High Seas Fleet was forced to turn away. Outnumbered and outgunned Scheer decided to break off the action.
… of their Fore Top’s crew (52 4 N, 6 6 E).
7.25 opened fire on a flotilla of German destroyers which were probably going to attack with Torpedoes. They were successfully driven off. Light cruisers + destroyers were now ordered to proceed at full speed + attack with Torpedoes.
7.45 a Torpedo passed 150 yds astern.
8.20 opened fire on Enemy Battle Cruisers + a Battleship of the “Kaiser” class. I think we made a few hits but the light was so bad + the mist so thick that it was extremely hard to see any fall of shot. As it was we were only firing at the flashes. We were not firing for very long. But the Indomitable carried on firing at something for about another 10 salvoes.
8.30 check fire. 3 ships appeared to be firing at “Inflexible”.
8.35 a Torpedo missed out bow by about 50 yds.
8.40 there was a violent shock felt under the ship.
8.45 a submarine broke surface? about 100 yds on the starboard beam. She may have been struck by the ship or the ship may have run on some submerged wreckage.
9.30 A/C south.
Was in the Fore Top until 10.15 then on the Bridge…
As the High Seas Fleet headed south at high speed under cover of a smoke screen the German light forces mounted a torpedo attack. The Inflexible had to alter course sharply to avoid being hit, and Slade admitted to his mother that they were “pretty lucky”. The British battlecruisers caught up with their German counterparts at dusk, and opened fire at 6,000 yards.
HMS Inflexible carried eight 12-inch guns mounted in four twin turrets, one forward (A), one aft (X), and two amidships on either side of the ship (P and Q). The guns fired shells weighing 850 pounds at a maximum muzzle velocity of 2,725 feet per second. They could be elevated to an angle of 13.5 degrees, which enabled a maximum range of 18,850 yards. The control of the guns was centralised under the ship’s Gunnery Officer in the Director Tower.
The 12-inch guns on HMS Indomitable. Source: US Library of Congress Bain Collection. Public Domain.
Powerful optical systems (9-foot coincidence range-finding equipment supplied by Barr and Stroud) were used to establish the range and bearing to the target. The results were then fed into a fire-control table (Dreyer table Mark I), a form of mechanical computer, which combined the Inflexible’s and the target’s courses, bearing and speeds, and presented a firing solution. The guns were then trained and elevated on the target, and fired together in a salvo.
9-foot Barr and Stroud Range Finder.
The fall of shot was observed (the shells caused huge splashes) and corrections made in the firing solution until the target was straddled. It was a complicated process, and made more difficult in action by poor visibility, rough seas, the ship’s own violent manouveres, and by the enemy’s fire. The Grand Fleet’s gunnery was much criticised after the battle.
… until 12.0. Managed to get 1/12 hours sleep + then closed up at action stations at 2.15 AM.
3.15 AM Sighted a Zeppelin on the starboard quarter about 17-18000 yds away. The “Indomitable” fired two rounds of shrapnel at her but they did not burst anywhere near her. She then turned away + very nearly went out of sight but again turned + came towards us. A light cruiser squadron opened fire on her. Most of the shells were short except about two which burst just ahead of her. By the she was going full speed away.
11.45 passed the wreck of a big shop on the starboard side, Name unknown.
2.24 PM Passed a boat of German design marked “V29” (she is on of their latest destroyers).
2-30 – 2.50 passed through a large area of dead bodies (all German I think). Some of them had their part of the watch bade on their shoulders. All had cork life belts on. One lief buoy we passed had the letters S.M.S ____ pn it but a body was lying acorss the name of the ship.
2.45 passed the wreck of the Invincible again + a destroyer was sent to sink it.
3.15 we passed through a large track of oil which was probably from the Invincible + a large amount of wreckage probably from a destroyer.
Jellicoe was unwilling to risk a night action, and ordered his fleet to steer a course that would intercept the High Seas Fleet at dawn. However Scheer altered course during the night to cross the wake of the Grand Fleet, and although the British light forces made a series of torpedo attacks throughout the night, they failed to receive support from the main body. By daylight the High Seas Fleet had escaped.
Both sides claimed victory after the battle, but the result was inconclusive. The Imperial German Navy had hoped to surprise and destroy a portion of the British fleet, but although it inflicted heavier losses in both men and ships, Scheer was forced to withdraw. The Royal Navy had hoped for a decisive battle, but Jellicoe was unable to prevent the enemy from breaking off the engagement, and lost contact with the enemy during the night.
The Inflexible sustained no damage or casualties during the battle, other than a small indentation in the ship’s out skin cause by the collision with the underwater wreckage (Slade’s report of a submarine is not confirmed), and a crack in the right gun of “Q” turret, which had been caused during the gun’s calibration and was enlarged.
Gerald Slade continued to serve aboard the Inflexible until March 1918 when he volunteered for the submarine service. He served in submarines until 1935, when he became the Fleet Photographic Officer in the first the Mediterranean and then with the Home Fleet. He retired in 1944 with the rank of Commander.