Something Was Wrong With Beatty’s Thinking.
This is war. It is the 31st of May 1916 and the Royal Navy is showing that it can match the work done by the Army in their terrible struggle against mud at Verdun. No doubt it is nagging Admiral Beatty that it is nearly four and tea hasn’t been served. Were the German ships running an hour ahead in those days too? Was it that they didn’t stop for tea at all? This was war after all. Oh, you cry! A warship stopping for tea, that is ridiculous. Well listen up! A German submarine was required under international law to stop a ship and enquire of its nationality before attempting to sink it – yet at the same time British and German land forces were bombarding each other without the slightest whisper. Let alone a letter by way of a runner.
No: this page is dedicated to thinking. It is dedicated to finding the holes in what modern Europeans assume are the facts, and putting them to rights. In war, it is either total or it isn’t war – and anything to do with civilization goes out the window before you have even smelled the enemy let alone seen them. The dead and the wounded, like the Red Cross, are an afterthought.
This is modern warfare in the early part of the last century. There is crude radio, flag signalling, flashing lights and balloons. Oh, and lookouts on the top of the masts with binoculars who contact the bridge by shouting down a copper pipe. The thinking behind these vessels was perhaps a little less modern. As we shall see, for technology had already outpaced the naval officer’s ability to deal with it.
Battlecruisers were swifter than the battleships only lightly armoured. Their role was hit and run: bullying anything smaller than them and scarpering from anything bigger. Ten years ago they were a dream. Now they are everywhere and both navies are sporting a squadron. The British and Germans are twenty kilometers – fifteen miles – distant. Even on a good day, at that distance you would be hard pressed to see land leave alone a small grey ship. Usually it was a matter of seeing their smoke. Then you questioned what was making it.
The British got lucky when they got the German codebooks from the Russians after the sinking of the SMS Magdeburg. They knew the Germans were on the prowl. Admiral Beatty had had reports of what was going on and was ready. He was confident: he outnumbered the Germans nine ships to five! That confidence was to be ruffled by some deftly mis-timed demonstration of how not to form line of battle. For Admrial Arbuthnot’s flagship has just clipped the bows of Beatty’s flagship, HMS Lion.
It is four in the afternoon. Beatty is tetchy. HMS Lion engages the German flagship, SMS Lützow. The first salvoes are way off the mark. Shells scream in from the Lützow, plunging into the sea close by. The water columns tower like skyscrapers.
The German cruisers are firing slowly, they are taking their time to get things right. That is the German way, after all. The Royal Navy is famous for its speed of loading and firing. The British and Germans are opposite in so many ways! It was the flintlock on the British cannons in 1805 that won them Trafalgar. Swift loading allowed the gunners to time their shots to the vessel’s upswing from the swell. The effect was devastating and the French were simply no match. It was a tradition hard won, and hard won traditions die hard.
The guns of HMS Lion are blazing fast and furious. They can unleash ten shells in almost as many minutes. At a range of twenty kilometers, hitting is a guessing game not a science. The more you loose off the more chances you have of hitting. Or so the theory went. Because if Beatty was drinking tea at four, his cup is blown over by the blast. Lion’s middle turret’s roof is missing, for SMS Lützow has scored a direct hit. This one went straight in. One brave man saved the day by flooding the magazine. The rest is smoking. It was only smoke. Behind them three shells smash Indefatigable. Her aft is ablaze. Moments later another salvo plunges into her foredeck. This time, smoke is all that is left.
It is three minutes past four.
Admiral Beatty’s Thinking That Pleased His Enemy.
In the British ships, cordite propellant is lined up in the passageways near the turrets. If the Admiralty’s safety regulations for dangerously inflamable substances like cordite were followed, the Royal Navy couldn’t fire quickly enough. So the propellants were stacked willy nilly. Which isn’t a problem if you are out on a mid afternoon cruise. The problem with warfare is that people aren’t going to wave to you and tell you to watch out. They just get on and lob ten tons of explosive at you. It is something worth taking note of when practicing. I suppose it depends on what they were practicing for.
It is 4:26pm. SMS Derfflinger and SMS Seydlitz score a series of devastating hits on HMS Queen Mary. A red flame shoots up from the cratered foredeck. These flames lick some of that carelessly strewn cordite. It is the start of a fiery trail that leads back to a distant magazine.
Queen Mary‘s bottom evaporates and she slowly capsizes. Two up to the Germans.
“Something’s wrong with our bloody ships today” says Beatty, sniffing the rank smell of cordite and singed flagship. There is a deafening crash. Looking around, Beatty sees spray and smoke obliterate the place where HMS Princess Royal should have been. As the smoke clears, the vessel is still there.
The German firing is markedly slower than the British. It is, however, far deadlier. Forty hits against eleven and the Germans haven’t finished yet.
The battle is rejoined two hours later at twenty past six. Lützow is hit several times, and is very badly damaged. Not damaged enough to stop the intrepid Germans from getting their own back. Lützow hits Invincible on one of her middle turrets and the flash from cordite heads directly to the magazine. The resulting explosion tears her hull in two. Only six men survived out of more than a thousand crew.
It was a day that brought the Royal Navy to question how it prepared for war with an enemy, rather than preparing for war without one. So when you practice for anything, make sure your assumptions are well founded. Pleasing an Edwardian school of gunnery is one thing. Pleasing your enemy is another. Because that is what the British did that day.
And it was all their fault.
This is in memory to the 3,309 sailors who lost their lives in those three ships. All because somebody thought more of tradition than of their safety. Only twenty eight survived the sinking of those three vessels, which are now official war graves.