Monday, 23 September 2013

The Victoria Cross: The Battle of Jutland

So finally I have the chance to sit down and write this!

The idea came to me a while back while brushing up on the Battle of Jutland, so that's where we're going to start today. Basically I just want to do some occasional posts looking back at some of the Victoria Cross winners. It occurred to me that in this age of TV fame and celebrity, it seems odd that the memory of some of these great men has fallen by the wayside. 

Of course there are still many who remember them, but it does seem odd and even a little embarrassing that off the top of my head I can't name many winners of this most prestigious of medals, awarded only for the most gallant acts in the face of the enemy. So this series is my modest attempt to put some of that right - if only in a small way - by highlighting some of these immense acts of bravery and self sacrifice.
Major Francis John William Harvey, Royal Marines,
At the time of Jutland, Major Harvey was serving aboard the battlecruiser HMS Lion, the flagship for Vice Admiral David Beatty. He had already seen action throughout the early naval skirmishes of the war and during this battle was stationed in "Q Turret". 

On the 31st May the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet were closing in on one another, for what would be the sole large scale naval battle of the war. At around a quarter to four in the afternoon, the leading battlecruisers of the two fleets came into range and a vicious firefight broke out.

Over the course of the next 45 minutes two of the British battlecruisers would be sunk after major magazine explosions (HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary). A similar fate would have befallen HMS Lion had it not been for the actions of Major Harvey.

The turret where he was stationed was hit by a 12-inch shell (believed to be from SMS Lutzow). The shell wiped out all of the gun crew with the exception of Harvey and an unnamed Sergeant, though Harvey himself had been mortally wounded. Noticing that the hoist used to bring shells up from the magazine below was damaged, and realising that any further explosions or flash fire in the turret would carry down below, he crawled across to the voice pipe and ordered that the magazine should be sealed off and flooded.

Harvey then turned to the sole surviving Sergeant and ordered him to go to the bridge with a damage report. It's believed that Harvey died from his wounds just  seconds later. Minutes later a fire would ignite some remaining cordite charges in the shell room below, causing a large explosion. The doors to the magazine were later found to be badly buckled, but the flooding of the magazine had prevented the sort of explosion that would sink Indefatigable and Queen Mary. Harvey's actions had saved the lives of the almost one thousand crew members who would go on to survive the battle.

Rear Admiral Edward Bingham, Royal Navy,
At the time of Jutland Bingham was a Commander, leading a destroyer division from onboard HMS Nestor. 

During the action mentioned above involving HMS Lion, Binghams destroyers were sent forward to attack with torpedoes. Bingham positioned Nestor in the lead and pressed home against the German Battlecruisers. On the way he was intercepted by German destroyers, with whom his division exchanged fire. This allowed the German battlecruisers to retire back towards their main fleet, which also prompted Bingham to return to the protection of his own battlecruisers.

It wasn't long before the main body of the German High Seas fleet came into view, at which point Bingham spotted an opportunity and turned around for another attack, taking the destroyers HMS Nicator and HMS Nomad with him. Closing to a range of less than 3,000 yards before firing their first torpedoes, the three ships came under heavy fire such that Nicator was forced to turn back, while Nomad and Nestor were left disabled and at the mercy of the approaching German ships.

Bingham ordered the ships boats to be provisioned and readied for launch, understanding all too well what was coming. Both Nomad and Nestor were able to fire off their remaining torpedoes, but with little luck. One after the other the two destroyers were hammered by the passing Germans, forcing both ships to be abandoned. The survivors - including Bingham - were picked up the next day by the Germans and remained as prisoners of war until the Armistice was signed in 1918. 

Bingham was the only recipient of the Victoria Cross at Jutland who would live long enough to receive his award in person.

Commander Loftus William Jones, Royal Navy,
Jones was the commanding officer of HMS Shark, a destroyer in the 4th Destroyer Flotilla. 

At around 6 in the afternoon he lead an attack along with three other destroyers against a German scouting group. As the division received heavy incoming fire Shark was severely damaged, losing its forward turret, steering and main engines in quick succession.

HMS Acasta moved into position between Shark and the Germans (cruisers and destroyers) to offer protection and assistance, but Commander Jones refused on the principle that Acasta was likely to be lost in the process of helping. Wounded in the leg, Jones went with several men to try and connect the aft wheel to restore some control over the ship. 

At this point the aft 4 inch gun was lost and the 4 inch gun amidships had been reduced to a crew of three. Jones joined them and together they managed to hit the German torpedo boat V48 twice, which was later sunk. But German vessels were closing in, and now Jones had a leg taken clean off by a shell. As 7 o'clock approached, Jones ordered Shark to be abandoned. 30 men made it into the rafts shortly before Shark was struck by a German torpedo. Jones was lost with the ship.

Boy Seaman (1st Class) John "Jack" Travers Cornwell, Royal Navy,
"Jack" Cornwell was the youngest of the four Victoria Cross winners at Jutland, being just 16. He had been posted to the Grand Fleet just a few months before the battle, joining the crew of the light cruiser HMS Chester. 

Chester had originally been built for the Greek Navy, but was purchased for the Royal Navy in 1915. Chesters main guns were 5.5 inch calibre weapons, firing a lighter shell than the 6 inch gun that was more common on Royal Navy cruisers of the time, but with a typically higher rate of fire. The guns had a significant weakness however, which was their protection. The turrets were open backed and did not reach all the way down to the deck, leaving gaps through which shrapnel could pass and sever lower limbs.

Jack Cornwell was stationed on one of these guns as a sight setter and during the battle his entire gun crew was killed around him as Chester was hit by around 17 150mm shells. Mortally wounded - with splinters of metal protruding from his chest and doubtless in shock - Cornwell got to his feet and remained at his station, awaiting further orders. There he remained for around another quarter of an hour until Chester was withdrawn from action and medical orderlies were finally able to reach the gun.

The ship was sent to port immediately, being of no further use to the fleet, and Cornwell was transferred to a hospital where he died two days later on June 2nd. His mother was unable to reach his bedside in time.

Cornwell's recommendation for the Victoria Cross, written by Beatty himself, noted the high example set by Cornwell's action.


  1. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.