Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Action on the Skagerrak 31 May - 1 June 1916

Late on the 30th May 1916 SMS Seydlitz, Moltke, Lutzow and Derflinger mobilised and at 2:30 a.m. on the 31st they left the Jade estuary and made for the Skagerrak led by Admiral Hipper. They were accompanied by Admiral Bodicker's II Scouting group of 30 torpedo boats, the Wiesbaden, Pillau, Elbing and Frankfurt. Admiral Scheer led the sixteen dreadnoughts of the High Sea's fleet out ninety minutes later escorted by Commodore Reuter's IV scouting group consisting of Stettin, Munchen, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Frauenlob with 31 torpedo boats led by the light cruiser SMS Rostock. At 5:00 a.m. the force was joined by 16 pre-Dreadnoughts.
Claus Bergen's painting of the German fleet passing Helgoland

   The plan was simple, they would lure small sections of the British fleet out and onto the core of German heavy units but the Royal Navy's Room 40 had decrypted the Kaiserliche-Marine's orders and knew a fleet was at sea and where they were heading and Jellicoe and Beatty's forces put to sea but did know their objectives or that Scheer's heavier ships were out in force.

   With the Battle-cruisers leading the force with the scouting forces forming a screen for the larger ships flanks and front the German force almost unwittingly caught Beatty's forces between the two formations but the British admiral's orders were to stop and turn before this could happen. The two fleets converged when British units stopped to check the Danish N J Fjord only to find that German destroyers B-109 and B-110  were already doing it. HMS Galatea and Phaeton opened fire first which the German light cruisers returned at extreme range with Elbing  striking Galatea first.

   At 3:22 p.m. Hipper's forces spotted Beatty and at 3:45 p.m. turned to lead the British Battle-cruisers onto Scheer's bigger guns some forty-six miles to the South east and at 3:48 p.m. the exchange of shells began with the Germans enjoying the benefits of wind (blowing smoke clear of their vision) and poor visibility for the British as the sky was overcast obscuring he German ships. SMS Moltke scoured nine hits on HMS Tiger in twelve minutes and the German squadron striking three of the six British ships before the British could strike one. SMS Lutzow  wrecked Lion's Q turret and had Major Harvey (RMLI) the turret commander ordered the magazine flooded before a fire could spread to the magazine, a fate that befell HMS Indefatigable who suffered three 11" shell strikes from Von der Tann  causing a fire in the x magazine which detonated and a further strike on A turret which caused the forward magazine to explode tearing the ship apart taking 1019 souls to the depths save for two sailors.The 5th Battle Squadron consisting of the Queen Elizabeth class Battleships under Rear Admiral Evan- Thomas got into range and HMS Barham began striking VonDer Tann at 4:08 p.m whilst the other ships of the squadron began firing at 4:15 p.m. Tragedy again struck as HMS Queen Mary, under the combined salvos of Lutzow and Derflinger set fire to one of the forward magazines. A Blackmore on HMS New Zealand said; 
The Fore turret started to dip and the fore parts of the ship... She went up wth a terrific bang with debris flying all over the place.

Nine men of 1275 were saved.At 4:30 p.m Scheer's heavy units began to arrive  whilst the two navy's destroyers swirled in dogfights trying to get torpedo strikes on each other and the larger battle cruisers. Seydlitz was struck at 4:57 p.m. causing her to take on water but maintained course and speed though the destroyers V-29 and V-27 were sunk in exchange for the immobilizing of HMS Nomad and Nestor which Scheer's forces sank in passing. As Scheer approached Beatty turned his force around to lead the German forces on the superior guns of Jellicoe's fleet, though due to a communications error the battleships of the 5th Battle squadron did not turn and came under fire from Scheer at extreme range and Evan-Thomas took the initiative and turned his ships before they converged however the slower battleships did drew fire from the Germans as they sat between Scheer Beatty. With Hipper's Battle cruisers engaging HMS Barham and Valiant as well as the battle ship Malaya receiving seven hits from Scheer's ships causing an ammunition fire and some heavy casaulties. In return Lutzow, Derflinger and Seydlitz were struck as well as some hits on SMS Markgraf which was damaged by a 15" shell.Rear Admiral Hood was sent with his 3rd Battle cruiser squadron to assist Beatty and at 5:38 p.m. his forces were engaging Bodicker's which had been attacking HMS Chester and had caused significant damage. Bert Stevens said:They Smashed us up... They killed all the gunners. Those that wasn't killed were terribly wounded....

The wounded included Jack Cornwall with a horrific thigh injury, a ship's boy who stayed at his post on the guns whilst the rest of the crew lay dead awaiting further orders and was posthumously awarded the VC.Invincible's intervention saw the light cruiser Wiesbaden disabled and Bodicker's remaining vessels fleeing to the safety of Hipper and Scheer leaving Wiesbaden to fire off torpedoes at the British as they passed and absorbing return fire. The same happened to the destroyer HMS Shark which was part of Hood's destroyer screen and she lay disabled firing at the enemy when she could despite her crew being offered salvation on HMS Acasta. Commander Loftus Jones continued to return fire despite a leg injury and mounting damage. The Shark did immobilise the destroy V-48 which was likewise lost to superior fire from HMS Valiant and other ships causing the loss of 90 sailors and only Hans Tietje being picked up in the night after fourteen hours in the water. Shark was lost to increasing German destroyer fire and Loftus, along with the majority of his men was lost although was later granted the Victoria Cross. His Gazette entry read:

On the afternoon of the 31st May, 1916, during the action, Commander Jones in H.M.S. "Shark", Torpedo Boat Destroyer, led a division of Destroyers to attack the enemy Battle Cruiser Squadron. In the course of this attack a shell hit the "Shark's" bridge, putting the steering gear out of order, and very shortly afterwards another shell disabled the main engines, leaving the vessel helpless. The Commanding Officer of another Destroyer, seeing the "Shark's" plight, came between her and the enemy and offered assistance, but was warned by Commander Jones not to run the risk of being almost certainly sunk in trying to help him. Commander Jones, though wounded in the leg, went aft to help connect and man the after wheel. Meanwhile the forecastle gun with its crew had been blown away, and the same fate soon afterwards befell the after gun and crew. Commander Jones then went to the midship and the only remaining gun, and personally assisted in keeping it in action. All this time the "Shark" was subjected to very heavy fire from enemy light cruisers and destroyers at short range. The gun's crew of the midship gun was reduced to three, of whom an Able Seaman was soon badly wounded in the leg. A few minutes later Commander Jones was hit by a shell, which took off his leg above the knee, but he continued to give orders to his gun's crew, while a Chief Stoker improvised a tourniquet round his thigh. Noticing that the Ensign was not properly hoisted, he gave orders for another to be hoisted. Soon afterwards, seeing that the ship could not survive much longer, and as a German Destroyer was closing, he gave orders for the surviving members of the crew to put on lifebelts. Almost immediately after this order had been given, the "Shark" was struck by a torpedo and sank. Commander Jones was unfortunately not amongst the few survivors from the "Shark" who were picked up by a neutral vessel in the night.

Hipper was forced to hold back from Beatty due to mounting damage and turned to join Scheer at 6:00 p.m. as Jellicoe's force arrived and with no communication from Beatty as to where the German fleet was deployed and hoped to be able to cross the German advance bringing all of his guns to action. It was a massive gamble because if Scheer came out further down the line it could easily be severed and then the Germans could broadside as the passed. There was confusion as British ships crossed each other as the fleets converged with Lion narrowly missing Warrior all under fire of some of the German battleships. For Scheer it was just as confusing as he did not know Jellicoe was at sea and was having to contend with Hood attacking from the North east. Suddenly two British warships were sighted heading for Weisbaden - the Defence and Warrior had moved to sink the drifting hulk only to be saturated by enemy fire with Defence exploding with all hands whilst Warrior  was only saved because Warspite had a steering malfunction and sailed between her and the Germans drawing their fire. Whilst Warspite was quickly withdrawn Warrior was scuttled the next day due to her heavy damage.Hipper's flagship was hit repeatedly but Lutzow and Derflinger got a clear shot at Invincible and fired three salvos into her causing her to explode in 90 seconds.

She was just one flaming letter V - A Smith described the sinking - When we steamed through the main patch there was ,em pm rafts. bits of wood, bravely cheering, waving and there was a  smell of cordite... and a smell of burnt bodies.

HMS Invincible exploding (IWM SP 2468)
Lutzow was doomed though and unable to transmit W/T messages and severe flooding  she began to make her withdrawal whilst the Admiral transferred his flag to G-39.At 18:30 a very surprised Scheer burst out of smoke and fog to find twenty four British Dreadnoughts line abreast and very quickly came under fire with SMS Konig bearing the brunt of the fire from ten of the British ships which Scheer later described as:

The eentire arc stretching from north to east was a sea of fire. The flash from the muzzles of the guns was distinctly seen through the mist and smoke on the horizon, though the ships themselves were not distinguishable.

Within three minutes the German line began to turn 180 degrees with much fire coming down towards Friedrich der Grosse without striking her. Jellicoe gave pursuit but not a direct chase in case of torpedo attack from aft launchers whilst Scheer played for time and at 18:55 the German fleet turned east to avoid a stern chase but by 7:15 p.m. the British battle line had again crossed Scheer's fleet and fired their broadsides damaging Konig, Grosser Kurfurst, Markgraf and Kaiser from the 3rd Squadron and Helgoland from the 1st for two hits on HMS Colossus causing negligible damage by the limping Seydlitz. Yet again Scheer ordered the fleet to come about but the intense British fire made it confusing rather than the well practiced manouevre and Scheer had to send in a screen of torpedo boats to buy his big ships time along with Hipper's battlecruisers (although Hipper was still aboard a destroyer.) Kapitan Hartog led from Derflinger in what some have called the "death ride" and saw all but Moltke severely hit as they absorbed shells from eighteen British battleships! Derflinger lost two turrets in what Scheer would describe as:
The behaviour of the battlecruisers is specially deserving of the highest praise; crippled in the use of their guns by their numerous casualties, some of them badly damaged, obeying the given signal, "At the enemy" they dashed recklessly to the attack.

As night descended Jellicoe decided to trail the Germans using a cruiser screen to detect them and then catch the Germans the following morning whilst Scheer tried to cross the British wake and head for Horn's reef and home. The British failed to take the opportunity and when German units were sighted and fired upon the reports were not made to Iron Duke and gun fire seen at night was dismissed as "destroyer actions" rather than investigated and incredibly when the Captain of HMS Malaya sighted German battleships crossing behind them deferred authority to fire to Evan- Thomas who decided that by using the wireless or firing it would give away the British fleet's position. This was further compounded by the Admiralty not passing on several important decrypts indicating Scheer's position and destination.

Through the night the British destroyers did manage to sink SMS Rostock and the pre-dreadnought Pommern which was sunk by HMS Onslaught whose torpedo caught her by the 17 cm ammunition magazine causing the ship to explode killing all aboard and SMS Hannover to hove out of formation to avoid striking the sinking wreck. SMS Nassau rammed and severely damaged HMS Spitfire taking 20 feet off her upper works whilst SMS Posen rammed the light cruiser SMS Elbing which was abandoned by her crew to sink the following day. SMS Thuringen spotted a vessel attaching itself to the line of German warships and quickly realised that it was HMS Black Prince and she was hit at point blank range by Thuringen, Nassau, Ostfriesland and Frederick the Great and sank with all hands. Similarly Moltke and the damaged Seydlitz joined a British line but were able to escape when they realised and allowed to do so by British captains who didn't want to give their positions away.

SMS Frauenlob, the survivor of Helgoland in 1914 was forced to swerve to avoid both Seydlitz and Moltke as they crossed the lines and with the rest of her formation blundered into the path of Goodenough's cruisers. HMS Southampton and Dublin illuminated the IV Scouting group in their spotlights whilst the rest of the British ships stayed in the darkness and fired. Southampton was severely damaged and as she pulled away she put a torpedo into the Frauenlob which one survivor described;

The torpedo smashed through into the engine room and it seemed to lift the ship clear out of the water in less than seven minutes everything had gone to the bottom. Some of us climbed on to three small rafts. We had to sit back with our legs in the water. The sea was very rough and the waves continually washed over us. Of the eight men on our raft six dropped off during the night and disappeared. We drifted for more than ten hours.

Only 9 men survived the sinking.

SMS Lutzow could no longer continue her run having sustained an enormous amount of damage andV-4 whose bow erupted possibly from a mine strike whilst the British also claimed a torpedo strike on a pre-dreadnought by HMS Champion although this was actually a miss on the Von der Tann. 

By 5:20 a.m the German fleet were mostly in the clear and almost to port with only Ostfriesland striking a mine killing one and wounding ten. Seydlitz barely limped home and had to be assisted finally arriving on the 2nd June.

The Germans claimed a massive victory having sunk, by their reckoning a battleship, two battle cruisers, two armoured cruisers and a light cruiser for the loss of Pommern and Wiesbaden (so they reported). The British, though bloodied were defiant and revealed the true extent of German losses and as time went by and the German fleet did not challenge the British in the North Sea again perception began to change to a British strategic victory especially that the German heavy ships took months to repair and the losses to the fleet could not easily be replaced and Seydlitz had took three and a half months to repair!
The Crippled Seydlitz in port on 16 June '16 ( IWM  Q 2065)
close to capsizing her Captain ordered the surviving crew to be picked up by destroyers and scuttle the worn out battle cruiser at 2:45 a.m. The only other loss that night was the destroyer

The final casualty lists was 6094 British killed and 674 wounded compared to 2551 Germans with 507 wounded. Included in the dead was Johann Kinau the German poet whose pen name was Gorch Fock who went down with the rest of the crew of Weisbaden. My Great-great Grandfather Joseph Woodhouse, who had turned 40 on 28 May survived on HMS Indefatigable whilst my great grandfather's brother Henry "unsinkable Sid" Sams had been transferred of Vanguard the day before the battle and was on his way to Chatham. The battle itself was best described by A P Smith as:

It was really a confused battle... I've never seen so many ships it was a hundred thunder storms going off at one.