Memoirs & Diaries - The Battle of Jutland
Letter regarding the Battle of Jutland by a British sub-Lieutenant, aged 19 to another aged 17
I have been intending to write and tell you all about the 31st, but couldn't find your address and could only remember the number.
I'm so awfully sorry you weren't in it. It was rather terrible but a wonderful experience, and I wouldn't have missed it for anything, but, by Jove! it is not a thing one wants to make a habit of.
I must say it's very different from what I expected. I expected to be excited but was not a bit; it's hard to express what we did feel like, but you know the sort of feeling one has when one goes in to bat at cricket and rather a lot depends upon you doing well and you're waiting for the first ball; well, it's very much the same as that-do you know what I mean? A sort of tense feeling waiting for the unknown to happen, and not quite knowing what to expect; one does not feel the slightest bit frightened, and the idea that there's a chance of you and your ship being scuppered does not really enter one's head-there are too many other things to think about.
This ship is just about the latest thing in destroyers and we all transferred, officers and ship's company, from the Bearer here.
We were attached to the battle-cruisers and were with them throughout the action, so we were probably in the thick of it, as no doubt you saw in the papers that the battle-cruisers stood the brunt of the action, and we were in action for about three hours before the battleships arrived upon the scene.
To start with, it was all at such long range that the destroyers were rather out of it, except there were plenty of 15-inch falling round us, and we just watched. It really seemed rather like a battle practice on a large scale, and we could see the flashes of the German guns on the horizon.
Then they ordered us to attack, so we bustled off at full bore. Being navigator, also having control of all the guns, I was on the bridge all the time and remained there for twelve hours without leaving it at all.
When we got fairly close I sighted a good-looking Hun destroyer which I thought I'd like to strafe. You know, it's awful fun to know that you can blaze off at a real ship and do as much damage as you like.
Well, I'd just got their range on the guns and we'd just fired one round when some more of our destroyers coming from the opposite direction got between us and the enemy and completely blanketed us, so we had to stop firing as the risk of hitting one of our own ships was too great - which was rather rot.
Shortly afterwards they recalled us, so we bustled back again. How any destroyers got out of it is perfectly wonderful.
Literally, there were hundreds of "progs" all round us from a 15-inch to a 4-inch, and you know what a big splash a 15-inch bursting in the water does make; we got soaked through by the spray.
Just as we were getting back a whole salvo of big shells fell just in front of us and short of our big ships. The skipper and I did rapid calculations as to how long it would take them to reload, fire again, time of flight, etc., as we had to go right through the spot.
We came to the conclusion that as they were short a bit they would probably go up a bit and didn't, but luckily they altered deflection and the next lot fell just astern of us. Anyhow, we managed to come out of that lot, without the ship or a soul on board being touched.
It's extraordinary the amount of knocking about the big ships can stand. One saw them hit, and they seemed to be one mass of flames and smoke and you think they're gone, but when the smoke clears away they are apparently none the worse and still firing away.
But to see a ship blow up is a terrible but wonderful sight; an enormous volume of flame and smoke about 200 feet high and great heaps of metal, etc., blown sky-high and then, when the smoke clears away, not a sign of the ship.
We saw one rather extraordinary sight. Of course, you know the N.S. is very shallow. We came across a Hun cruiser absolutely on end. His stern on the bottom and his bow sticking up about 30 feet above the water, and a little further on a destroyer in precisely the same position.
I wouldn't be certain, but I rather think I saw your old ship crashing along and blazing away, but I expect you have heard from some of your pals.
But the night was far and away the worst time of all, and an awful strain. It was pitch dark and, of course, absolutely no lights; and the firing seems so much worse at night as you could see the flashes absolutely lighting up the sky, and it seemed to make much more noise, and you would see ships on fire and blowing up. Of course, we showed absolutely no lights.
One expected to be surprised any minute - and eventually we were. We suddenly found ourselves within 1,000 yards of two or three big Hun cruisers. They switched on their searchlights and started firing like nothing on earth.
Then they put their searchlights on us, but for some extraordinary reason did not fire on us. As, of course, we were going full speed, we'd lost them in a moment, but I must say that I, and I think everybody else, thought that was the end; but one does not feel afraid or panicky. I think I felt rather cooler then than at any other time.
I asked lots of people afterwards what they felt like and they all said the same thing. It all happens in a few seconds, one hasn't got time to think, but never in all my life have I been so thankful to see daylight again - and I don't think I ever want to see another night like that - it's such an awful strain; one does not notice it at the time, but it's the reaction afterwards.
I never noticed I was tired till I got back to harbour, and then we all turned in and absolutely slept like dogs. We were 72 hours with little or no sleep.
The Skipper was perfectly wonderful - he never left the bridge for a minute for 24 hours and was either on the bridge or in the chart house the whole time we were out, and I've never seen anybody so cool and unruffled. He stood there sucking his pipe as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening.
One quite forgot all about time. I was relieved at 4 a.m., and on looking at my watch found I had been up there nearly 12 hours, and then discovered I was rather hungry.
I had my camera on the bridge the whole time and took several photographs when there was a chance, but all at rather long range and the light was not good, so I doubt if they will be good - especially as the Skipper tried to take one when I wasn't there, and not knowing anything about it took the front off instead of opening the hack. Luckily it was at the last film so I hope it hasn't spoilt the lot. If they do come out they should be rather interesting and I'll send you prints.
Photograph courtesy of Photos of the Great War website
A 'Tour' was a period of front-line service.
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