- Haigh, Gideon
- Battles and operations, Ship design and development, Ship histories and stories, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Great War’s early lessons were sobering. At the Battle of Heligoland Bight, three weeks after the outbreak of hostilities, a British squadron needed more than 200 tons of high explosive to sink three German light cruisers at point-blank range; at the Battle of Coronel in November 1914, two old British armoured cruisers, caught at ranges at which they were helpless, were blown to atoms by two new German ones. The first mission on which Invincible, Inflexible and Indomitable were sent was to revenge the latter indignity; at the Battle of the Falkland Islands, commanded by Admiral Doveton Sturdee, they enjoyed the advantage of range and power, and obliterated their opponents. Ship design had moved so far so fast that apparently small advantages in age, armaments and armour were disproportionately magnified.
Fisher had by this time returned to the job of First Sea Lord at Churchill’s instigation. ‘Fell desperately in love with Winston Churchill,’ Fisher diarised, but the infatuation was short-lived, foundering over a campaign on which Fisher made perhaps his most enduring utterance: ‘Damn the Dardanelles! They will be our grave!’ It was another far-sighted forecast, Churchill being sacked after Fisher resigned. But perhaps it was as well, for the naval war had met the expectations of neither, being grimly defensive and inconclusive; Britain’s Grand Fleet and Germany’s High Seas Fleet patrolled the North Sea by turns in search of the other without ever quite meeting – until May 31 1916.
The Battle of Jutland was the last large-scale clash of surface warships, involving 250 vessels and almost 100,000 men: a day and night of thunderous chaos in capricious weather through which captains peered anxiously to decrypt often ambiguous signals, amid a pall of smoke and towering plumes of water from the thousands of tonnes of munitions missing everything: British battle cruisers in the engagement fired 64 shells for every hit.
Invincible, now nine years old and no longer at the cutting edge of design, led the Third Battle Cruiser Squadron; its teak quarterdeck was paced by Admiral Horace Hood, great-great-grandson of Samuel, whom Nelson had called ‘the greatest sea officer I ever knew’. As the Grand Fleet deployed at 6.21 pm, Hood threaded his way into a firefight with two newer German battle cruisers, Lutzow and Derfflinger, sequels to Von der Tann: a manoeuvre fearless and foolhardy. Nobody has expressed it better than naval scholar Oscar Parkes 50 years ago: ‘When occasion arose for gallant leadership in the face of the enemy, dictates of design were brushed aside and Invincible steamed at full speed into annihilation.’
At first, conditions were ideal, mist enabling Invincible to steal into close range and maximise its accuracy; Lutzow was hit eight times in eight minutes without being able to return fire effectively. On the voice tube, Hood urged on his gunnery officer Hubert Dannreuther: ‘Your fire is very good. Keep at it as quickly as you can. Every shot is telling!’ But within seconds, recalled an eyewitness, the mist split ‘like the curtain at a theatre’, silhouetting Invincible against the sky. At 6.29 pm, a salvo crashed into her midships Q turret, exploding over a transverse magazine containing 400 shells and 50 tons of cordite. The ensuing eruption snapped the ship in two, the sea swallowing the halves in seconds, leaving six survivors from a crew of 1038.
Such was the disorientation that sailors aboard the next British ship on the scene, Benbow, broke into cheers at the sight of the disappearing bow and stern. ‘The idea that it could be any other than a German ship had never entered their heads,’ explained an officer. Then the ship’s name was discerned, and silence fell: ‘Our admiral [Sturdee] was very upset about it – she was his flagship in his last great fight off the Falklands.’ Expecting to pick up German prisoners, marines on the destroyer Badger were stunned to find a fluent English speaker, gunnery officer Dannreuther, who as his foretop compartment hit the sea had stepped nervelessly onto a piece of debris – a suitably operatic escape for a grandson of Wagner, for he ‘had not a scratch on his entire body’, and was ‘as self-possessed as if he was joining a new ship in the ordinary course of events’.