Commemorating the Battle of Jutland

Today there are commemorations of the battle of Jutland at sea off Jutland, in the Orkneys where the Grand Fleet was based, and of source in Portsmouth where we will be paying our respects at the naval war memorial on Southsea Common.

Last Wednesday in the House of Commons, I had the honour to lead a tribute to those who fought and died at the Battle of Jutland on May 31st and June 1st 1916. This is the text of my speech.

"I am grateful for the opportunity to invite the House to pay its respects to those who fought at the battle of Jutland on 31 May and 1 June 100 years ago. At 10.30 pm on 30 May 1916, Admiral Jellicoe led 16 Dreadnought battle ships out of Scapa Flow after the Admiralty had intercepted a message suggesting that the German fleet was mobilising. He was to meet a squadron of eight Dreadnoughts coming from Cromarty to form the grand fleet. Admiral Beatty’s battle cruiser fleet comprising 52 ships left Rosyth a little later. In total, 151 ships of the Royal Navy were to rendezvous 90 miles west of Jutland.

At 1 am on 31 May, Admiral Hipper’s battle cruisers left Wilhelmshaven. The German main battle fleet of 16 ships led by Admiral Scheer left Jade at 2.30 am and were joined by six pre-Dreadnought ships from the Elbe river at 4 am, giving a total of 99 ships in the German high seas fleet. Neither side knew that the other’s entire force was at sea. On 31 May at 3.48 pm, five of Admiral Hipper’s ships opened fire on the battlecruisers of Admiral Beatty. Within 36 minutes, the British fleet had lost two battlecruisers, HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary, with the loss of 2,264 men and boys, and just 21 survivors.

Within 12 hours, the Royal Navy had lost 14 ships and more than 6,000 men while the German navy lost 11 ships and 2,500 men. The total was 10% of the number of ships at battle. The conditions in which the battle was fought were foggy and damp with a freezing North sea that claimed the lives of many of those who managed to abandon their shattered ships. Those lives are remembered at the manning ports of Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham, where the memorials designed by Sir Robert Lorimer bear plaques carrying all their names.

The biggest ships fired shells weighing nearly a tonne over a distance of 12 miles. Conditions aboard ships on both sides would have been uncomfortable and cramped at the best of times.

In battle, the confusion and strain must have been immense as ships manoeuvred at high speed as they shot shattering broadsides and received hammering hits from enemy guns. Below deck, the men would have been working in extreme heat in the boiler rooms or in the gun turrets with a sense of helplessness at influencing all that was going on around them. A single hit to a ship’s magazine could blow both ship and crew to pieces. One such tragedy sunk HMS Invincible in 90 seconds with the loss of more than 1,000 lives.

The loss of life on the ships was largely due to keeping cordite close to the turrets so that it could be brought up quickly to enable faster firing. There was also confusion among the highest ranking officers of both the German and Royal Navy fleets. Admiral Scheer, in command of the German fleet, did not know that Jellicoe was at sea until his ships appeared on the horizon. Although wireless technology was widely available, it was used sparingly as it gave the transmitter’s position away to the enemy, so flags and search lights were the main means by which ship-to-ship communications were conducted. In the smoke, the spray and poor visibility, signals were not received, so small cruisers were placed between the larger battleships to pass on the messages.

It is testament to the trying circumstances that four Victoria Crosses were given to sailors and Royal Marines for the action, and perhaps more should have been awarded. The first was given to Jack Cornwell, or Boy Cornwell as he was known, who stuck to his task as a sight-setter of a 5.5-inch gun on HMS Chester. All his colleagues had been killed or mortally wounded. He was just 16 and a child like many others in the grand fleet. Boy Cornwell’s example was reproduced on posters hung in classroomsas an example to others, although his devotion and bravery was far from unique in the fleet at Jutland. Sir Edward Carson, First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote:

“I feel that Jack Cornwell, the boy who met his death at the post of duty, sends this message through me…to the Empire: ‘Obey your orders. Cling to your post. Don’t grumble. Stick it out.’”

The second VC was awarded to Major Francis Harvey, a former pupil of Portsmouth Grammar School and a Royal Marine serving on HMS Lion. He ordered the flooding of the magazine of Q turret to prevent an explosion, thereby saving the ship.

Rear Admiral Barry Bingham was awarded the third VC as captain of HMS Nestor. The destroyer had to close right up to enemy battleships to fire its torpedoes, a task which it completed despite being hit numerous times and eventually sinking.

The fourth VC was awarded to Commander Loftus Jones, from Petersfield near Portsmouth. He was captain of HMS Shark and literally fought to the end, manning the last gun on his ship capable of firing. The lifejacket that he wore in the freezing North sea is now on display in the superb exhibition about the battle of Jutland at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth. His body was washed up on the shores of Sweden, where he received a Viking burial.

Jutland has always been a difficult battle for lay people to understand, because of the chaos of a naval action in poor visibility and darkness. Despite a massive toll of injury and death, the true impact of the battle was not understood at home, even immediately afterwards. There were some early interpretations of the outcome as a German victory, followed by an understanding that it was in fact a strategic defeat of Germany. Exactly a month later, the horrors of the Somme brought a fresh wave of shock to the population. Although we are here now to commemorate the centenary of the battle, it has spent most of the past 100 years lurking in the shadows of our national consciousness, yet the impact on my city of Portsmouth was profound. Portsmouth provided a major part of the crews of the biggest ships in the fleet. In Portsmouth’s manned ships we lost 3,000 lives in the battle of Jutland, more than we lost at the Somme. The impact of Jutland on families and communities in the city was huge.

The battle of Jutland jerked the Royal Navy out of Victorian complacency about its leadership. It had led the way with the building of Dreadnought and its successors at the insistence of Admiral Jacky Fisher, but over that period, and for long before it, the leadership of the Navy had fossilised ideas and played down the importance of initiative; it was constricted by the Victorian class structure.

At Jutland, there were various examples of squadron commanders failing to act on their own initiative and a conservatism in the standing orders of the fleet, which were based on the outmoded premises of the Victorian era. There was an automatic assumption by almost everyone that the commander on the flagship must already be aware of what they saw. There was a reluctance to break wireless silence at night when important developments occurred. Generally, there was a disinclination to act and an eagerness to defer to authority—all those things are seen as the inevitable outcome of the structured rationalist certainties of the late Victorian fleet. By the prescriptive, centralising premises on which his elaborate battle orders were based, Jellicoe had acted correctly—but they were the premises of the Victorian era. Arthur Marder, writing in 1966, described the Royal Navy of the turn of the 20th century as follows:

“though numerically a very imposing force, it was in certain respects a drowsy, inefficient, moth-eaten organism”.

On the other side, the Germans had a technical and tactical understanding among their commanding officers that surpassed ours. The German navy arguably came into being as a distinct separate organisation only in 1888—indeed, most of its ships were named after Prussian soldiers. Alfred von Tirpitz became chief of staff to the German navy’s high command at the age of 48, after being a specialist in torpedoes and mines. He recognised that the torpedo could be as vital as the gun, and ensured that tactical exercises replaced formal manoeuvres. The Germans practised a manoeuvre called “battle turnaround”, which was a simultaneous turnaround for all ships in the convoy, rather than the turn in succession. It made it easier to escape bombardment, and this was so successful at Jutland. Every encouragement was given to German subordinate officers to act on their own initiative whenever they could better further their commanding officer’s intentions, rather than have rigid compliance with orders. Admiral von Tirpitz was instrumental in the appointment of Admiral Scheer as head of the German high seas fleet who, likewise, was a torpedo specialist. Although it is not quite as true of the Royal Navy as it was of the Army in world war one that they were “lions led by donkeys”, there were clear deficiencies, and it is to the credit of the Royal Navy that they rapidly learned the lessons.

If we are to be critical of naval leadership, we should, at the same time, remember the burdens that fell on Admiral Jellicoe. He had, at all costs, to avoid a major defeat. In fact, he showed the Germans that the Royal Navy, even at the huge cost of life at Jutland, had the strength to fight battles on that scale repeatedly while they did not.

The lead that we built up in the Dreadnought race before the war was simply too great. The consequences of Jutland were that our naval supremacy on the surface remained unchallengeable. Germany largely kept its surface fleet in port and resorted to the unrestricted submarine warfare that eventually brought the United States into the war and doomed Germany. Jellicoe and Beatty led a Navy that stuck to its tasks and bravely undertook its duties despite horrendous hardships.

We find ourselves now in a new era of development, with two new aircraft carriers shortly to enter service; the introduction of the excellent Astute-class submarines, and a clear plan for renewing the nuclear deterrent. There is no doubt that, technically, our Navy is at the forefront of technology and doctrine. However, it is not enough for us in this House to allow the Royal Navy to acquire the most up-to-date equipment if it is to rest idle in the docks in Portsmouth, Plymouth or Faslane. We must provide the resources to enable the Navy to recruit and retain a highly motivated team. We must provide them with the resources to work out the best way to utilise the equipment to enable them to develop tactics.

Today it is tempting to believe that, with the internet, satellite communications, and video-stream links, we can have centralised systems and that, just like Jellicoe, we can control those people in the field. However, just like at Jutland, there could be a misplaced assumption by those in the field that those in the centre already know what is going on.

In the battle of Jutland, there was one flag signal every 67 seconds.  In the Falklands, HMS Hermes handled 170,000 signals in 10 weeks, or one every 39 seconds. Too much signalling can lead to information overload. It can also centralise decision making and stultify initiative.
In times of peace, the value of experience fades and is replaced by rational theory as a result of new technology discrediting previous experience. We might do well to remind ourselves of the quote from Sun Tzu, the Chinese general who wrote some 2,500 years ago:

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”.

That encapsulates the object of our strategy of deterrence, and so we must demonstrate to all our potential enemies that not only do we have the most up-to-date equipment, but we also know how to use it.

The people who have served in our forces in the past, now, and who will serve in the future must always be at the centre of our thoughts. At this time of year, our forces have fought crucial battles in other wars besides world war one. On this day in May 1941, the fleet led by Admiral Cunningham, supported by my father-in-law, on HMS Hereward, began the evacuation of Crete, one of the Navy’s grimmest tasks but one it carried out with devotion and sacrifice.

Thirty four years ago, all three services were fighting 8,000 miles away to liberate the Falklands. Today, 25 May, is the anniversary of the sinking of HMS Coventry. A total of 19 of her crew were lost and a further 39 were injured. Our hearts go out to the friends and relations of those who were killed in that battle.

Most of us in this House were alive during the Falklands war, and it is through our memory of that conflict, including that of the fate of HMS Coventry, that we have a greater understanding of the shock suffered by the nation after the battle of Jutland. Likewise, it is through the people we know who fought in that battle that we have some understanding of what it must have been like at Jutland as bombs and missiles hit magazines in those ships too.

While we have enjoyed decades of peace in Europe, around the world our service personnel have been in action in difficult circumstances, and suffered injury and death. We must listen to their experiences and keep on learning the lessons that they can teach us. I am proud of the thinking behind the armed forces covenant, but there is still more that we can do to ingrain it in how public services support veterans and those still serving.

There are always lessons to learn in victory or defeat, or in between. Jutland was a victory, although it did not resemble the second Trafalgar that public opinion had become conditioned to look for. Beatty said during the battle:

“There is something wrong with our bloody ships and something wrong with the system”.

Within a year, the standing orders of the fleet were updated to encourage initiative and the taking of responsibility by junior commanders.
Among the crews at Jutland in junior positions there were no fewer than eight future First Sea Lords, and there is no question that the Navy went into the second world war better led as a result of the lessons learned in 1916. Admiral Sandy Woodward wrote in 1996:

“The Navy had to rediscover from bitter experience of 1914-16 much about warfare which it should never have forgotten”.

The differences of opinion about Jellicoe and Beatty were settled before they both died. The country honoured both men with burials in St Paul’s cathedral and busts in Trafalgar Square near Lord Nelson, thus recognising their huge contribution to the security of this country.

It has always been the nature of the Royal Navy that it recruits from all over the country, inland as well as from the historic ports, and every village and town will have made its contribution to the work of the Navy at some time. But it is an honour as the Member of Parliament for Portsmouth South to commemorate the lives of all those who fought at Jutland, and let us be thankful that a repeat of such conflict between the nations of Europe today seems so unthinkable.