1st Cruiser squadron at Jutland

Battleship Thüringen fixes Black Prince in her searchlights in Willy Stower’s painting.

Claus Bergen’s take on the end of Black Prince.

The 1st Cruiser squadron on the eve of the battle of Jutland had remained unaltered since November 1915 when it had comprised the four armoured cruisers, Warrior, Black Prince, Duke of Edinburgh and the Defence. Three of the squadrons names would become synonymous with the date, 31st May 1916 and the battle they fought on that day. When the guns fell silent and the ships started to returned home on the 1st June, the 1st CS would all but cease to have existed. The carnage heaped upon that squadron would see it disbanded until July 1917 and the arrival of ‘Fishers Follies’ the Courageous, Glorious and Furious. But thats a chapter outside our tale.

At the Battle of Jutland the obsolete ships of the 1st CS were deployed to form a screen to the front right beam of the Grand Fleet Battle Squadrons. As the two dreadnought fleets first came into contact on that Wednesday afternoon, the ships of the 1st CS lay in the waters directly between them. Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot ordered that his ships close up, with the Defence and Warrior moving closer to each other, while the Duke of Edinburgh was beginning to lag a short distance behind them. The Black Prince, for reasons unknown, slips here from the battles accounts, and we are only permitted an occassional fleeting glimps of her in the days recollections by others. With her loss we are deprived of both the ships log books and more tragically, her crews recollections.

Arbuthnot pointed his command towards the sound of the guns and on a direct course for the German light Cruiser Wiesbaden. The manoeuvre was also to place the four ships on a collision course with the oncoming Beatty and his the Battlecruiser Force. At around this time, 17:42, the Black Prince lost contact with the rest of her Squadron as it came into contact with the German forces. At 17:47 the two leading ships of the squadron, the flagship, Defence, and Warrior, having sighted the German II Scouting Group exchanged fire with them. With their 9.2″ shells falling short, the two cruiser’s turned to port in pursuit of their targets, cutting across the front of the battlecruiser HMS Lion, just as the fleet was deploying into line, ready for facing Scheer’s battle squadrons. To avoid a collision Beatty’s ships swung sharply away to avoid the armoured cruisers. Beatty’s Flag Captain Alfred Chatfield from on board Lion recalled “As a result of Arbuthnot’s orders, the armoured cruisers cut right across the battlecruisers just as the Grand Fleet began to deploy into its battle line. This manoeuvre could have caused an absolutely disastrous collision. At that exciting moment I saw the 1st CS leading from port to starboard across my bows. It was clear that unless I altered course drastically I should collide with one of his ships, so I jammed the Lion’s helm over and swung her under the stern of their second cruiser, which only cleared us by a cable’s length. By forcing the Battlecruiser Squadron off its course in the low visibility, which was then only five miles, Arbuthnot caused us to lose sight of the enemy fleet and he himself took the place of the battlecruisers as their targets.”

Boy 1st Class John Davies from on board the Duke of Edinburgh recorded “To tell the truth I had been brought up to believe that the British Navy was untouchable in warfare, I was expecting the German ships to go down one after another. So that when our Squadron, with the Grand Fleet, arrived at the scene of action, I was surprised to see some of our ships (Beatty’s battlecruisers) burning and out of control, sinking and helpless I was not frightened, but surprised to discover that the Germans had men and ships that were as good, maybe better, than ours. Our Squadron steamed on. Three heavy cruisers, the Black Prince had fallen out, we were firing our 9.2″s to starboard where the enemy were. Then our Admiral, Robert Arbuthnot, made the signal for the Squadron to turn into the enemy”.

Arbuthnot’s manoeuvre drew the German battlecruiser fire down onto his ships. Lieutenant Leslie Hollis, one of the Duke’s Royal Marines wasn’t surprise at his admiral orders, “Admiral Arbuthnot had made it abundantly clear in a series of addresses to the ships’ companies of the vessels under his command, that when he encountered the enemy he would close to the rather meagre range of our guns and engage remorselessly. In the action he put his precepts into practice, but the old ships of the 1st CS were no match for the German battlecruisers” The Defence and Warrior while cutting across the battlecruisers bows had begun to pour their 9.2-inch shells into the stationary Wiesbaden, which had only just survived an assault by the British destroyers. As the two armoured cruisers remorselessly pounder their German victim, the smoke of their 9.2″s drifted across the battlefield obscuring the German fleet from the Grand Fleet. We don’t know if Arbuthnot was aware of the consequences of his action. One modern historian describes him as “in a colloquial if not a clinical sense, insane”. Maybe he was trying to regain his rightful position within the fleets deployment, or maybe having the battered cruiser within his sights, he as as a dog with a bone. We don’t know and we can never know now. As the Admiral manoeuvred his ships, the Duke of Edinburgh was unable to follow the first two ships of the squadron and she turned to port (northeast). Duke of Edinburgh then to spotted the disabled Wiesbaden at 18:08 and the Duke’s Gunnery Officer on the day Lieutenant-Commander (G) J. K. B. Birch directed his guns on the German cruiser, firing twenty rounds at her. At around 18:30 the Duke had steamed to a position off the starboard bow of King George V, the leading ship of the 2nd Battle Squadron, where her funnel smoke was to obscured the German ships from the leading dreadnoughts of the 2nd Battle Squadron.

If the Grand Fleet’s view of their German opponents was limited by the Warrior and Defence’s smoke, the German gunnery officers had a fine view of Arbuthnot’s two ships. Commander Günther Paschen on board the Lützow, noted how ” From left to right there appears in the field of the periscope, a ship, improbably large and close. At the first glance I recognise an old English armoured cruiser and give the necessary orders. My arm is clutched, “Don’t fire, that is the Rostock!” But I can see the turrets fore and aft. “Action! Armoured Cruiser. Four funnels. Bow left. Left 30. Range 76hm. Salvo!” Five salvoes rapidly follow, of which three straddled; then there was repeated the now familiar sight of a ship blowing up”. Derfflinger following in the Lutzow’s wake didn’t even have time to train her guns and fire on the Defence before she exploded. In an instant, at 18:20, Arbuthnot and his men were gone.

Now the Warrior was alone and the Germans switched their attention as she followed in the wake of her lost flag ship. Lieutenant Patrick Lawder, from on board the 4th BS Benbow wrote “I stopped to have another look and saw one of our four funnelled cruisers being heavily shelled. Splashes were all round her and one salvo straddled her quarterdeck, with one or two shots this side. At the same time, as the splashes rose a tall column of smoke, 200 to 300 feet high, rose from her quarterdeck, the smoke being lit up by the flame inside it in a very pretty way. She went on, however, and immediately afterwards was again straddled, but I didn’t notice any hits. There was a good deal of smoke about and I didn’t see what damage had been done by the explosion”

As the two ships from her squadron suffered, the Duke of Edinburgh was now a considerable distance behind the Defence and Warrior. Able Seaman Ewart Eades, a spare sight setter on ‘Y’ Turret noted how, “Our Gunlayer, Petty Officer Gunners Mate Rawles, said that the lens of the gunlayer telescope was getting fogged up with the spray and cordite smoke. I was sent out with some cloth to see if I could wipe the telescope lens from the top of the turret. Now I had a desire to see what was happening being young and without nerves or fear. However I looked and found that it seemed to me that we were between the Grand Fleet and German Fleet. Shells were going over us both ways. I saw that the Defence went up in flames and then the Warrior took a broadside and dropped out of line. I never did make the top of the turret for it seemed that the helm was put hard over. I was nearly decanted into the sea”. As the Duke swung away to extract herself from the fate of the Defence, her smoke added to the already reduced visibility through which the Grand Fleet was trying to peer.

The Duke manoeuvred to survive, having like her sisters blundered into the German fleet’s big guns, she watched as a torpedo attack undertaken by the German destroyers on Admiral Beatty’s battlecruisers failed. But it did force the Duke of Edinburgh to evade one torpedo at 18:47. The Duke reported a submarine sighting at 19:01, although no German submarines were operating in the area. She was to make a second erroneous submarine contact between 19:45 and 20:15.

But what of the fourth cruiser of the squadron, the Black Prince? There were to be no positive sightings of her after 17:42 and the 1st CS initial contact with the enemy. But a wireless signal from her was received at 20:45, reporting a submarine sighting. During the night of 31st May–1st June, the British destroyer Spitfire, having been badly damaged in a collision with the German dreadnought Nassau, sighted what seemed to be a German battlecruiser, with the two widely spaced funnels typical of the German designs. The sighted “battlecruiser” was described as being “…a mass of fire from foremast to mainmast, on deck and between decks. Flames were issuing out of her from every corner.” The “battlecruiser” exploded at around midnight and it was later believed that the burning ship may have been Black Prince, with her two midships funnels having collapsed or been shot away.

The German account of the ship’s sinking describes how the Black Prince briefly engaged the German dreadnought Rheinland at about 23:35 GMT, scoring two hits with her 6-inch guns. She was by now separated from the British fleet, and Black Prince approached the German lines at around midnight. On sighting the German capital ships, she made to turn away, but it was already to late. The German dreadnought Thüringen illuminated Black Prince with her searchlights and then opened fire. Up to at least five other German ships, including the Nassau, Ostfriesland, and the fleet flagship, Friedrich der Grosse, joined in the slaughter. Black Prince replied to the German main calibre shells with her 9.2″ but her efforts were ineffective. Most of the attacking German dreadnoughts were within between 750 and 1,500 yards (690 and 1,370 m) of the lone cruiser, all but point-blank range for naval gunnery. The Black Prince was struck by at least twelve heavy shells and several smaller calibre, sending her to the sea bed within 15 minutes of the first German salvo. The German Official Naval History’s describes her end, “She presented a terrible and awe-inspiring spectacle as she drifted down the line blazing furiously until, after several minor detonations, she disappeared below the surface with whole of her crew in one tremendous explosion”. Of the 857 men on board that day, none were to survive and all were to find a grave in the cold north seas depths.

Having learnt of the loss of the Black Prince and the Warrior it was assumed by many that the Duke of Edinburgh, the only surviving ship of the 1st Cruiser Squadron would have been heavily mauled by the German fleet. Lieutenant Leslie Hollis serving on board the Duke of Edinburgh recalled afterwards how “by the time we arrived in the Flow it was common knowledge that three out of the four ships of our Squadron had gone down. It was to be expected, therefore, that the Duke of Edinburgh had certainly shared in the casualties, details of which we were asked to report by signal. The reply was, “One case of Rubella.” This was a mild form of fever contracted by a musician in the transmitting station. Compared with our consorts we certainly got off very lightly. Those that had survived felt guilt. Able Seaman Arthur Ford had missed the battle, as he had been sent on a gunnery course five days before it. When he learnt that his ship, the Black Prince, had been sunk with all “hands” he felt guilty. “My first thoughts were that I’d dodged the column and I ought to have gone with them. I did. I don’t know why but I did. I thought, “Why should I escape when all the others went west?” That’s the feeling I had for some time. “What a horrible end I’ve missed…” Imagine the different crews at their gun stations, I would know a lot of the men and what guns they were on. They were so exposed, the six inch guns were on deck with no shelter of any description, totally in the open. The guns had been brought up from the lower deck to the upper deck because they couldn’t fire them in rough weather in that type of ship. Can you imagine being half a mile away from the German High Seas Fleet with their 12″ guns. It would just blow them clean out of the water a broadside. Oh, it must have been a shocking, nobody able to do a thing, I doubt if they fired a shot hardly. But of course these things when you’re young these thoughts don’t last to long”.

The Duke of Edinburgh was to be the lone ship of the 1st CS to survive the battle, and was detached on the 1st to search for crippled ship’s or survivors. None of which she was to find. She returned to Cromarty in the afternoon of the 3rd June, where on the 5th of June, in Jellicoe’s post battle reorganization of his fleet, she was attached to the 2nd CS which comprised of the Minotaur (Flag), Cochrane, Shannon, Achilles, Donegal.


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