When the fleets of the British Navy fought at the Battle of Jutland, the greatest naval battle of the First World War, they were supported by an intricate infrastructure on land. Hear the stories of the men and women who were on hand to provide much needed aid to the ships, and their recollections of the men after their return from the battle.
The Battle of Jutland, often labelled the greatest naval battle of the First World War, was the last great naval conflict fought solely between surface ships.
The battle took place between 31 May and the 1 June 1916. The German High Seas fleet, under the new leadership of Admiral Reinhard Scheer, wanted to weaken the Royal Navy by launching an ambush in the North Sea. At this time the Navy’s fleet was based at three different locations in Scotland. The Grand Fleet under Commander-in-Chief Admiral Sir John Jellicoe was berthed at Scapa Flow in Orkney; Admiral Sir David Beatty and his Battlecruiser Squadron was moored in the Firth of Forth, whilst the 2nd Battle Squadron commanded by Vice-Admiral Martyn Jerram was based in Cromarty. Scheer planned to lure the ships out and destroy Beatty’s force before Jellicoe could arrive.
However, British code breakers managed to warn the fleets in advance, and all were put to sea. The battle which ensued continues to be a matter of great debate: particularly which of the fleets was the winner. Although the British suffered greater losses, the German fleet did not engage with the British navy again, and rarely left port for the rest of the war, reverting instead to the tactics of submarine warfare.
A huge workforce was on hand at both Scapa Flow and in Rosyth to provide support to the fleets. Those who stayed in port, awaiting the ships return, played a critical role in restoring the ships and supporting their crew. C H Petty, a member of the dockyard staff in Orkney, recalled his earliest memories from Scapa Flow:
“My… most poignant recollection of Scapa is the departure from the Flow of the entire Fleet of warships, destroyers etc. towards the end of May 1916; of rumours of a big battle; and of working all through the night making coffins. The entire dockyard staff, of all trades, was engaged upon this gruesome task.”
In the Firth of Forth a complex infrastructure was needed to house the fleet and its supporting workforce. Prior to the construction of the dockyard Rosyth consisted of only a handful of homesteads, but the influx of more than a thousand men and their families meant that accommodation was in short supply. Easton Gibb & Son, who constructed the dockyard (see Canmore record ID 79567), erected hundreds of second hand corrugated iron huts to house 905 men, 82 women and 138 children. This community soon earned itself a variety of names including tin town, bungalow city and the hut village. Everyone played their part and contributed to the workload. Here are some of their stories.
After returning from Jutland Alfred Leggatt, an engineer aboard HMS Galatea, visited the blacksmith in Rosyth to repair a piece of the damaged boiler. During an interview with the Imperial War museum in 1990 he said:
“I went to the smithy as the shaft was bent and the blacksmith said to take it up to number five. There were two women running the forge. They had joined the dock force – mother and daughter. They whipped the shaft into the fire and had it straightened in no time, no problem.”
Cyril Charles Bevis, a boy shipwright, was sent to Rosyth the day after the battle to work night shifts repairing the ships. He stayed in Tin Town when he first arrived. During an interview with the Imperial War Museum in 1976, he recalled:
“On night shift we were patching up boats making them sea worthy as best we could, so they could go to other ports because Rosyth only had one dock and couldn’t cope, didn’t have the numbers, with all of the boats needing repaired. I met some frightening things, super structures were twisted, masts were smashed…”
On return to port the crew aboard the HMS Malaya held a burial for the dead. Surgeon Lieutenant Duncan Lorimer, who had worked tireless for over 24 hours tending to the wounded, recalled the scene:
“The ship had slowed down and there was a burial going on of the poor unrecognisable scraps of humanity from the explosion. I had been asked previously to try and identify Young and Cotton, but it was impossible. It was a gloomy scene, the grey sky, the grey sea, the stitched up hammocks, the padre with his gown blowing in the breeze. The 'Last Post' was sounded by the Marine buglers and our shipmates plunged into the sullen waters.”
Private John Harris was one of those badly burnt whilst serving on HMS Malaya. On arriving back to port in Rosyth, he was in a state of delirium. He couldn’t have foreseen who would be on hand to help him. He recalled:
“After landing at base we were taken by hospital train to Queensferry. Ladies on the train handed out cigarettes. I kept shouting, "Pass up Lyddite, pass up shrapnel!" A lady put a spoonful of jelly in my mouth to shut it. One chap said, "Do you know who that lady was?" I said, "Haven't the slightest!" He said, "That was Lady Jellicoe!””
Lady Gwendoline Jellicoe (nee Cayzer), the wife of the Commander-in-Chief Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, was described as pretty, wealthy and intelligent - with a mind of her own which she was not afraid to use.
Aerial view of the Grand Fleet at the Firth of Forth
© IWM (Q 20633)
British Warship in dock for repairs after the Jutland Action
© IWM (Q 23212)
Painting depicting wounded sailors
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2781)