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As we approach the centenary, UK parliamentarians are collecting information about what their relatives did in World War 1. The grandfather of Oliver Colvile MP was at the Battle of Jutland, the decisive 1916 naval battle of the war in Europe which bottled up the threat of the German High Seas Fleet for the rest of the War. The two letters below were his eye witness accounts written shortly afterwards.
Commander Charles Eden Neate sent these eye witness accounts of the Battle of Jutland. He served on HMS Valiant.
HMS VALIANT C/o GPO Tuesday, June 6th, 1916
‘I am now able to give you an account of my impressions of the Naval Action on Wednesday May 31st as seen by me from the Fore Control Top of this ship. I went on watch at 12.30 pm for the afternoon watch over the 6” anti-submarine guns and during the later part of that watch signals began to fly round a good bit, steam for full speed, action stations and so on and then it became known to me that the enemy wireless signals were growing very loud and strong and the Bridge passed down that our Light cruisers had got in touch with two enemy light cruisers and seemed likely to cut them off and destroy them.
Just as I was about to be relieved we closed up and got ready for instant action. The usual preparations such as changing into clean clothes, provision of fresh water and food in turrets and other places had to be left undone and we had bare time to get the ship herself ready. Closing doors and watches (sic hatches?), hoses on deck etc etc all takes time. None of this fell to my lot, however, as my position was in readiness to the instant, not much in this as all we require is my big sterro-glasses, some flags and a lamp. I had time to go to my cabin and get my anti-gas mask and a miniature of you. I forgot my goggles but luckily did not require them at all. I tried to get to the Wardroom and Officers Quarters but all doors were closed down and I had the utmost trouble to get on deck at all. Thus it came about that I had very little to smoke and nothing to eat or drink from 12 noon to about 11 pm that night when I came down and drank a glass of sloe-gin and ate a plate of sandwiches. It is a curious fact, however, that I did not get hungry either then or for about 36 hours afterwards.
On arrival at my lofty station we saw the Battle-Cruisers on our starboard bow and at about 4 - 45 (sic 4.45pm?) the Hun battle-cruisers appeared on the port bow and the two squadrons opened action. We did not open just yet. To realise our difficulties you must try and visualise the light and position. The range was about 10 – 11miles. Behind the enemy were blue-black clouds and a low lying mist and behind us was the sun and a sharp clear horizon with no mist. The actual sun was behind clouds high in the sky so they had no glare in their glasses. Thus you will see that the Germans were almost invisible and we were silhouetted against a bright clear background so they could get good readings from their range finders and also mark their fall of shot. Neither of these things could we do.
The battle cruisers opened about a quarter of an hour before and very soon afterwards I saw a dense black column of smoke and heard a loud explosion. This was the destruction of the ‘Indefatigable’. A few minutes later the ‘Queen Mary’s’ stern was seen high in the air and she disappeared. A 4 –1 PM (sic 4.01pm?) we opened on the last German but one and did good shooting scoring a visible hit which produced an enormous explosion. This I did not see myself but May did and told me. Now we were all in action and we had great trouble to see them at all but they fired at us with great rapidity and wonderful accuracy. Barham led our line. No single shot hit us and that is a miracle, no less, but is in some degree accounted for by the wonderful seamanship of our captain who was quick to see where the enemy concentrated on a turning point and invariably avoided that spot and the enemy’s shell as well. He has been very warmly congratulated by our Admiral on his great feat.
Soon after this the B.C.S. (Battle Cruise Squadron?) turned 180’ and came down past us and caused us to ceasefire for a few minutes. They passed ahead of us but they had had enough for the time and as we, with our great power, were a match for any Hun afloat we took on the action. Here we were all right but for the trouble of seeing but not long after this a new fleet was seen astern of the Hun cruisers and these were reported to me as our Grand Fleet but I had a look at them and saw the Helagoland and knew we were in for it. I thought all our squadron were done for but do not seem to have been at all afraid. I cannot tell you why nor do I wish to be heroic but I just state it as a fact. Anger and excitement are all one’s natures will take at one time and these two were uppermost, leaving no room for fear at all. I remember being at great pains to keep my voice quiet and level so as to be a calming influence and encouragement to the boys with me.
One felt all this time as if one were a boxer against an opponent whom one wishes to hit and knew, given the opportunity, that you could knock out but who managed to cover himself up all the time. In a word we could never really “get on with it”, it was most irritating. Soon we came in range of the leading German battle division and they got our range almost at once but there again the Captain saved us and we were not touched though on-lookers said they thought we had gone as no ship could live in such a fire. This went on for some time but no sign of Sir J.J. (John Jellicoe) and his party.
Late on they did arrive screened by destroyers and Sir Robert Arbuthnot and his cruisers making dense clouds of smoke. For some reason the Huns shifted nearly all their fire to these ships and in a very few minutes the ‘Defence’ about 800 yards from us, blew up with a mighty roar and a column of flame and smoke about 600 feet high. This smoke was our salvation really as it screened us a bit and before it cleared away Sir J.J. was deployed into line of battle and had opened fire, a wonderful manoeuvre and wonderfully quickly done.
Now the Huns battle line was 10’ before our beam and opened on our Grand Fleet. Our ships also opened a tremendous fire, using director and firing 5 guns at once. This is the most satisfactory point for us because a German cruiser appeared with a big red funnel and for the first time that day our target was really good. We let drive as fast as we could on this ship, the Sagdlitz I think, and between us we blew her to blazes. On of our 15’ (sic. 15”) Lyddite hit her forrad and the whole thing went up in a sheet of flames. About now the much vaunted German torpedo flotillas had a dart at us but Mr Dutty (sic. Duthy*?) let drive with his 6” guns and sank two and disabled a third which was afterwards sunk by our own light cruisers and destroyers. That was three, two went home and the remaining three were cut off and, so far as I can make out, destroyed by our own flotillas. So ended the great German torpedo attack.
All this time the Battle Squadron were quite happy and so far as I can make out Sir JJ himself got in two about 4 ½ miles with the light much on the improve. He seems to have got across the head of the enemy’s line and broken up three of his latest battleships. I may mention that to cross the head of the line and bring all your weight to bear on the head is the one great thing we all try to do if we can. Anyway, the Huns had had quite enough and turned away and ran and so we lost them. The flotillas had a go later on though and sank a battleship and a battle cruiser if all reports are true (service reports, not Daily Mail). In so doing we lost the 8 boats mentioned in the papers. One commander took his boat in broad daylight to 1 mile and let drive his torpedoes and came out with one shot in the stern as she turned to run away afterwards.
Of night actions, I saw nothing but the flashes of guns and once a ship on fire. I do not know who this was. We were twice missed by torpedoes, once about 20 yds. ahead and once about 5 yds. astern. My fore top was much peppered with splinters and shrapnel but as my face was below the level of the edge, I came by no damage, nor did anyone else. My glasses are like a periscope, so I need never put my head up much. That night was very anxious for us all but we came through it all right and were glad to see the light. The general idea was that June 1st would see a resumption of the action and a fight to a finish but tho’ we hung round and looked for them the Germans had had enough and had gone back home. In the forenoon we were attacked by a submarine and should have been hit. I do not know why we were not but luck was ours and we turned over it and rammed it, at least I believe we did. Finally we got back to port and got ready for another scrap by that evening.
[*Lieutenant Desmond Duthy at his station on the starboard 6" gun control tower aboard the Valiant could now actually see the Germans – and found it an intimidating sight.
The first thing I saw as we steamed the new course was what I thought were six German battleships. They were blazing away like 'HELL!" and got our range fairly soon. We swung into a course nearly parallel with them and got going with plenty of noise, incidentally banging my face against my spotting glasses and giving me two slight black eyes. Their shot fell all around us and how we were not hit dozens of times is beyond me. We had great difficulty in seeing them, but they could easily see us against the setting sun. It was not unadulterated bliss seeing the flash of their guns and wondering whether the shell would touch you or not, but I can't say I was thinking of much else than what an infernal nuisance it was we could not fire oftener. They were just out of range of my 6" guns. Lieutenant Duthy, HMS Valiant]
HMS VALIANT Thursday June 22nd 1916
Since you asked me for an account of the Action on May 31st, I will try and give you my impressions as gathered from the Fore Top of this great ship, where I am 15” Spotter. Of course we have little experience comparatively speaking, to tell of, because though many Huns did their damndest they did not succeed in hitting us with anything larger than a splinter which bored a hole in our funnel. We can say we have been under fire though and I began to wonder if we ever should at one time.
As I daresay you know we left our base with the crowd under Beatty late on Tuesday evening, I, feeling rather mouldy as I had made an attempt to meet my missis (sic) and she had not turned up. Anyway, four strong we steamed out, for, as we told each other, the usual stunt.
I had the afternoon watch on Wednesday and during that watch signals such as, Instant Action, Full speed and so on, began to fly round and I was informed that we were in touch with two German Light Cruisers which we hoped to cut off and destroy. At about 4pm we sounded ‘Action’ and I went aloft to my station after a vain endeavour to obtain grub or a drink. We had no time to provide rations, water or buckets or even to get into our white things for action, as at 4.40 (pm) 8 Flag went up and then B.S.C. about 3 miles on our starboard bow opened fire. Very soon a hugh [sic.high/huge?] black cloud appeared to be followed by a loud roar. This was the ‘Indefatigable’s’ requiem. About 3 minutes later I saw a long stern cocked up in the air that disappeared shortly, so ended the ‘Queen Mary’ . At 5-1, we opened fire on the enemy B.C.S at a range of 23,000 yds but were over. We went down 2000 but soon got a good range plot in the T.S. and up 1400 gave us a hit which caused a lot of damage. Our firing was good now, but only by the luck of Providence as the light was absolutely hopeless for us and jolly good for them.
We had a hidden sun and a bright yellow sky with a sharp horizon behind us. They did not touch us for some time, but when we began to hit, they opened on us and we were soon straddled and our sisters ahead and astern were hit, but none were badly damaged then. This went on for some time and there was a lot of smoke and stuff over them, making the conditions worse than ever. (N.B. oil fuel has it’s (sic) drawbacks in that connection). A bit later on (I had no watch), Beatty turned 16 points and came down on our engaged side, so we had to wait for him to pass. I should have mentioned that our first fire was delayed by destroyers who got in our way. After this, we also turned 16pts, astern of Beatty, but he quickly got out of range and tried to get across their ‘T’. In the light of latter (sic) information, I gather that he must have known of the near approach of Sir John and tried to give him the advantage of engaging a fleet already having its head battered by the B.C.S.
About the time of the turn, the enemy also turned and then we saw more ships coming astern of them. I was told it was our Grand Fleet, but a hasty look showed me the ‘Helgoland’ (sic), so I was saved a bad disappointment. Headed by the ‘Kaiser’ their party came up on our Stard. quarter and hammered us badly. We called this ‘Windy Corner’ and how we avoided being hit God only knows. ‘Barham’ and ‘Malaya were and ‘Warspite’ fell out of line astern to receive a great deal of attention, and, as we thought, to be destroyed. However it was only a jamb in her steering gear, such as had twice occurred to us on less exciting occasions. She carried on with four-gun director salvoes and was a comfort in that respect. When a long way astern, she seemed to get right gain, to come pelting along astern, but then broke down again and was lost to view having a hell of a time of it. She was hit a good deal but no vital damage was done and she will be alright again quite soon. I’ve been alongside her but not actually on board her, though several of our chaps have been.
About this time their B.C.S. came into view G 80º and we got a real good target, the ‘Seydlitz’. We straddled her and caused a huge fire, flames and all on her fore part. I’ve since heard that she’s been towed in with her fore turret blown overboard and all her fore part wrecked. ‘Some’ shell our 15” A.P. Lyddite. Now Sir John arrived and we found ourselves astern of the line but well out on the engaged side and having all the fun of the fair. Our Grand Fleet turned up and opened fire like clockwork, a marvellous manoeuvre. They did very good work and were lucky in meeting the Huns after they’d had a bit of straffing.
The Hun is marvellously good till you hit him, and then he rapidly becomes rotten. They missed our Grand Fleet by 2000 – 6000 yds.
I saw the ‘Agincourt’ going like a 12” maxim, splendid work and so were they all. The Huns stuck it for about a quarter of an hour and then hooked it with several ships on fire and their line badly hammered.
This will go on tomorrow. –
The speed of the Grand Fleet was about 14 knots, which came as a surprise to me. During this period, I think, we passed the wreck of the ‘Invincible’ with bow and stern up in the air and middle resting on the bottom. Also we passed the ‘Acasta’ badly holed, with the ‘Galatea’ standing by her. On her bridge was Sinclair with a pipe stuck in his face, roaming up and down his bridge as though he was on shore waiting for a tram or something. As the Grand Fleet came up, so Arbuthnot and his crowd came across their line of advance, making a smoke screen. The Huns hated them and concentrated on them to good effect, blowing up the ‘Defence’ about 800 – 1000 yds. from us, sinking the ‘Black Prince’, though I did not see that and hammering the ‘Warrior’ out of all recognition. It was as this ship passed astern of us that the ‘Warspite’ broke down again and circled round her, this giving rise to the story of how the battleship saved the cruiser and so on.
Now the Huns were firing heavy shrapnel and straffing or trying to straff our Destroyers. They nearly bagged me because a bit hit the Fore Top, two bits passed through a little speed flag about four foot from my head and a couple of shell bust over the top of the roof. All this was ‘Windy Corner’. After the Grand Fleet deployed and opened fire, the Huns tried a torpedo attack. They just missed us ahead and astern and did hit the ‘Marlborough’. The Grand Fleet saw 37 torpedoes cross their track but only just that one hit, the remainder being dodged. The Hun destroyers caught it hot from our Destroyer’s 6”. We sank two and disabled a third which was afterwards sunk by our own craft. Three ran back home and three more were cut off and destroyed by our flotillas. This last bit is hearsay and may not be true. After we’d biffed the ‘Seydlitz’ the whole party came to the conclusion that they had had enough and turned away. I believe the B.S.C. had another shot at them and your own party got into action, but of that I know nothing.
After action was broken off, we were attacked by a submarine, but a L.C.S. came along and gave the U.boat a hot time, though I don’t know if they sunk it or not. It was nearly dark now and not much could be seen. Then came a very anxious night and we steamed along thinking we’d be attacked by destroyers but that was reserved for the Huns who must have had lots of fun. ‘Onslow’s’ boat the ‘Onslaught’ got four torpedoes home in a battleship and then turned and ran but was hit by an 11” shrapnel and lost the bridge and all on it, Captain, No.1 and Gunner. The Sub left and came home by steering due west in pursuit of ‘England’ which he found and eventually groped his way to his port He was challenged and made his reply by means of a candle lamp, two books and a pair of parallel rulers. Of night actions, we saw several but know very little, so I’ll not write a lot of Navy yarns. As regard experiences, I find that enemy shell, provided they don’t hit you, do not interfere with your own gunnery or control, one bit and the splashes are extraordinarily small. A near short (sic) shakes the ship quite a lot, but is not alarming. Enemy gun-flashes are the most annoying because that tells you your target is not severaly (sic) damaged if he still fires regularly.
One of our sisters received the base of a shell in the lower conning tower, where it killed a man. Another had her stern riddled and the deck and sides of the Captain’s fore cabin were practically non-existant, the W.R. billiard table in there was quite undamaged but for a small chip out of one leg. Our own table on the aft deck was undamaged, though ‘Y’ turret blew open the screen door , wrecked the chief’s cabin and blew off his scuttle and dead-light, and did the same for the gun-room,. It also smashed up all woodwork and some pipes on the aft deck. Another of our squadron lost a lot of men in the disengaged 6” battery, due to plunging fire. Lots of odd things like that took place, but would take ages to think of, let alone tell, so I hope you’ll excuse me.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire , who is a member of the Government’s Advisory Board for the Commemoration of World War One, is collecting stories, photographs and even sketches of experience. Remarkably, there are Parliamentarians today whose forebears didn’t just fight for Britain and its Empire or serve in non-military roles, but also for Germany, Austria and even Russia. There’s an introductory article by Lord Wallace in the 7th February 2013 edition of The House Magazine (www.politicshome.com).