Part 5 – Captains
Chapter 6 – The Day
It was the presence of submarines that alerted the Grand Fleet on the evening of 30th May, 1916. Admiralty intercepted a signal from the German Admiral Scheer in the North Sea. It indicated the Germans had something afoot. Patrols were being placed where the British fleet might be expected to pass. By the morning of the 31st May, 1916, Admiral Bellicoe had been given the latest job of commanding the Grand Fleet, and had cancelled his own private operation into the Skagerrak, and ordered all units of the Grand Fleet to have steam ready for short notice.
Messages were going back and forth the across the seas. Those with duties clearly assigned, did them; those at ease for the moment sat and worried about doing them. What were they likely to be involved in by the end of the day? It was a grey, foggy, misty day and it was obvious, thought Captain Browne, that this was not going to be a good day for Breatty’s squadron. It was not a good day for showing it at its best. The men were getting jaded with the uncertainty of knowing what was happening. So much easier to fight a good broadside when you knew what others were doing and what the outcome was likely to be. Nelson’s men always had reason to trust his strategy and his operation. Ephraim did not trust Bellicoe’s operation and feared Breatty’s impetuous strategy.
By mid morning, something was afoot. The fleet could feel it in the air. Senior naval staff were moving about purposefully and the antennae of the gunners had pricked up. There had been fleet communications. Something to do with submarines in the Skaggerak. The High Seas fleet had always been threatening to use the sub screen. Bellicoe was readying for action.
Gideon saw it was obvious that the whole Grand Fleet was getting steam up for some movement. At last! Was this going to be the great day when they would see off Hipper’s fast battle cruisers and Scheer’s big battleships, and demonstrate the superiority of their own invincible dreadnoughts and battle cruisers? He abandoned his idea of golf and went up to the turret to see if there was anything he could do. The Captain was obviously too busy with his own communications. He wondered what his father was doing.
Ephraim had no time for thought. He had done all his thinking last night. Now he was ready to approach his maker. He was not sure that today was the day but he hoped it was not. Gunnery was excellent now on Vogue and he had every confidence in Mackie and Grieve, Brennan had matured and the bluejackets were not only competent, they were enthusiastic. That young Vernon was showing remarkable leadership qualities with his cohort, they were all above average and showing it. The only problem as he viewed the potential day was the weather. It did not look good, he would go up to the bridge and get the latest forecasts. When he got up there, there was more than he had foreseen. Bellicoe had ordered full steam readiness. Was he on his way? If so, when would they get the communication. When would they sight him? In this weather perhaps sound before sight? He wondered how Gideon was faring. Where were Breatty’s other battle cruisers. Wherever they were, he knew Gideon would be relieved that at last the great battle was in sight.
‘Just picked up a signal Mackie! A rumour that Bellicoe is on his way.’
‘Everything is ready, sir. Would you care for some coffee to be sent up?’
‘Thank you.’ He told Mackie he would be taking a moment’s reflection in his cabin while all was quiet. A moment for that prayer which would leave him ‘in the everlasting arms’ whatever took place. How strange that he should think of Polwhele at this moment. Was he now in that place? He hoped so.
Polwhele was on the quarter deck of the battle ship Relyon, standing with the Captain and all the others who could be spared from duty as they watched, shocked, a small RFC plane spin down into the water.
He prayed that the pilot would be saved whoever he was. His brother Alfred, had joined the Royal Flying Core. These chaps were so brave. He never expected to see his brother in this situation. They were a careless, care free lot, these pilots, the new men of the service. They had to be, to withstand the implications of what they were doing. He felt like the Victorians that had worried about trains. Should Alfred even be in the sky at all? The tension around him subsided. It was obvious the pilot was being picked up and would be taken aboard Haven with its better medical facilities. He turned his attention to the present care of the crew. That young Midshipman on torpedoes was in trouble. He had confided to the Rev. that he was sick with fear. He was a young fellow from the evangelical wing and said that when he came on board he prayed that he might not swear in the battle, now he prayed that he might not kill someone but have the courage to do so, if necessary. Polwhele told him to just concentrate on staying alive and the Lord would do the rest.
Polwhele was surprised how well things had worked out. He sat about most of the time now and he did not know how long he would be able to do that but he enjoyed talking to the men and he knew they enjoyed talking to him. The war situation gave rise to an ease in serious, meaningful conversation.
By noon the two hostile fleets were converging on one another and Breatty had orders to work to visual sightings if no further commands came through. Weather and communications were bad. The quiet hours aboard ship continued. By 2.30 in the afternoon it was evident that the battle cruisers were out and soon the 5th fleet, the special unit of fast Queen Elizabeth-class battleships, intended to act as the vanguard of the main battle line with the Battlecruiser Fleet, would be arriving, escorted by the 1st Destroyer Flotilla.
Communications were beginning to filter through the Grand Fleet. Breatty knew that Bellicoe was on his way as the afternoon advanced. He must prevent High Seas Fleet seeing him before it was too soon. He must do all he could to keep the screen of the battle cruisers between the Grand Fleet and the High Seas fleet. The German Admiral Scheer would do all he could to cause havoc with his submarines.
And then came the first sightings. Scheer saw the battle cruisers and they saw him. Ephraim saw the first great plume of smoke as it went up 30 feet into the air. Queen Charlotte had been hit. The men in the turret had no escape. It was a place of heroism and tragedy. Gideon pushed the unexploded bomb out manually but it was too late, the cordite ignited, the turret exploded, and the Queen Charlotte went down.
It seemed that ship after ship of the Grand Fleet was exploding and sinking. Communications were difficult. Captain Mason was picking up strange bits of communication over the wireless. He fretted as the weather silted up and communications from Admiralty to Bellicoe, and Bellicoe to his Captains, became more uncertain and lacking in accuracy. Was it North East or North West? All Captain Mason could do was instruct his crew to keep formation and hold the line. For an unmeasured time they went forward in the increasingly bad weather until they gradually realised that ships in the Grand Fleet were being ripped apart by Scheer and his High Seas sailors. The German gunnery was taking out the British ships of the line. The noise was increasing and the seas were churning. The guns were booming and the towering splashes were frightening. What did they mean? Was there something wrong with the ships or was it just a manageable failure in some elements of gunnery causing this unwelcome disaster.
HMS Vogue was doing good work against the High Seas Fleet with its torpedoes and guns. They had holed the Fraulein and the Gustave but a sudden unexpected broadside from the Baden brought them down. Mackie was admirable in organising a rescue boat from Vogue into the sea before the cruiser gave its final explosion which scattered its Captain and crew into the sea. Ephraim saw Vernon lying on the water. He was unconscious. Ephraim managed to get to him and an arm round him before the boy’s body got heavy enough to take him under. He could and would hold him up until they got to the rescue boat. But the sea, although not heavy, was floating them away from the boat and all that Ephraim could think of was that the boy looked like Gideon. He could have been Gideon. Oh God, I wish he was Gideon! The boy was opening his eyes, murmuring. If only! But they were not the blue eyes of his son they were the closed eyes of Midshipman Vernon, and he must be rescued. They needed to get to the boat. Ephraim always carried a loud whistle in a waterproof case. You never knew when it might be wanted. Away from the Vogue the noise was less. The sound caught Mackie’s attention. The Commander had found a couple of Blue jackets able to row. The boat was approaching but Ephraim had sustained an injury, his back and arm could not hold Vernon up any longer. With one hand he pushed up Vernon’s head as the boat came towards them and his own body slid into the water. Mackie’s strong arms reached out.
The new Captain Wren was trying to control events from the bridge when a sudden broadside from Baden hit the Relyon and all the cordite waiting outside the ammunition hold exploded at once. It took Wren and Polwhele to a mutual ocean grave.
Mason knew he had reached his limits when his cruiser gave way to an attacking barrage of torpedoes and he lost too many men. It would take all his ingenuity to stem the leaks. He would have to take the ship limping, back into the Skagerrak. It was not heroic but it would take some doing and there was nothing else left to do.
Then the news came through. The High Seas fleet were returning to harbour and Breatty was going to chase them. Hipper’s squadron of fast battle cruisers had come in the North West and met little opposition as it closed with the main fleet, but Breatty’s opposition gave him a fright and since in the end Breatty failed to close with Scheer, the German fleet withdrew itself from the battle and ran for home. The message went round that the coward had thrown in the towel. The battered Grand Fleet acknowledged its wounds but it had defeated the enemy.
Later in his hospital bed in the medical ship, Ephraim weighed up the day’s events. Gideon had been in the Turret – there was no gainsaying the fact. God had removed Emily from his life and now Gideon. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Like someone who had got over the winning line, bruised and battered and held the banner of Conquest undefeated, the Royal Navy acknowledged its honorable wounds and declared victory. Ephraim agreed the British Navy had won, but he had paid too high a price for it, and so had the Empire.
As he lay barely conscious in the hospital ship, that night, a lieutenant came in,
‘Late post sir, a letter for you. Can I help?’
Ephraim managed to pull out the thin blue paper. Written in painfully wobbly lines were the words:
The days of yore
Have gone before
And very splendid were they.
But days to come are second to none
When Conquest yields to story.
Your friend and Notable,
Ephraim clasped the letter. Tomorrow he would resign – and then, perhaps he would write the story, and let the world know before it was too late that it was not worth sacrificing the brightest and the best, for Conquest.
6000 British Men were killed at the Battle of Jutland.
So were they all. All Notable.