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The ‘big naval show’ of the Great War


On 31 May 2016 commemorations in Orkney mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, in which over 8,000 men died; the installation of Poppies: Weeping Window (part of the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation at the Tower of London in 2014) has already taken place at St Magnus Cathedral, where it will remain until 12 June.

Orkney’s natural harbour, Scapa Flow, was home to the British Grand Fleet for much of the war. From there, in December 1915, Commander Harry Pennell, a navigator on the battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary, wrote pre-Christmas letters to fellow explorers from Captain Robert Scott’s second Antarctic expedition. Between June 1910 and June 1913 Pennell had navigated the Terra Nova, an ageing ex-whaler, from Britain to New Zealand and on three stormy, ice-hampered return voyages between New Zealand and Antarctica. In early 1913 Pennell, after telegraphing the news from New Zealand that Scott and his companions (who included Pennell’s friend ‘Birdie’ Bowers) had died on the return journey from the South Pole, captained the ship back to Britain.

Pennell admitted in his Christmas letters that he was impatient for the ‘big naval show’, in which the battlecruiser fleet would play a leading role. A British victory would mean that Pennell might at last be reunited with his wife Katie, whom he had married during brief shore leave in April 1915. Katie, sister of Pennell’s best friend from naval college, had since learned one brother had died at Ypres and another been injured at Gallipoli. Pennell’s expedition friend Henry Rennick had also died early in the war, when HMS Hogue had been torpedoed and sunk in the North Sea. Since then, however, other no other expedition members had died, although some had suffered near misses or been evacuated from Antwerp, Ypres or Gallipoli. It was worrying, however, that there was no news of expedition members Tom Crean and Alfred Cheetham, who had returned to Antarctica in 1914 on the Endurance with Ernest Shackleton.

Soon after Pennell dispatched his letters, the Queen Mary and the other five battlecruisers re-located to Rosyth, outside Edinburgh, across the North Sea from the main German High Fleet base at Jade Bay. On 31 May, following another period of waiting and ‘cat and mouse’ engagements, the Queen Mary and other battlecruisers put out from Rosyth. As they approached firing range the Queen Mary’s decks were cleared of everything bar ammunition and other necessities, gunners stood ready to fire and medical staff manned sickbays in case of casualties.

By 3.50 p.m., British and German gunners were trading shells across some 10 miles of North Sea waters. After some over-and under-shooting, gunners from both sides found their range and soon the Queen Mary and four other British battlecruisers had suffered hits. Around 4:00 p.m. a German shell hit the magazines of HMS Indefatigable, causing a massive explosion which propelled her turrets, funnels and debris 200ft into the air. The flaming, smoking remnants of the huge battlecruiser were soon slipping beneath the waves, leaving few survivors in the chilly waters.

Shortly after 4.10 p.m., a German shell hit one of the Queen Mary’s gun turrets, killing most of the gunners. The sound of unloaded shells detonating soon gave way to the roar of a mighty explosion which lifted the ship’s bow and bridge skywards before plunging it back into the water; the now-detached stern section was left tipping into the water at an angle which prevented life-boats from being launched or ladders lowered. As smoke gradually dispersed, those on other battlecruisers could see the remains of the Queen Mary – a partial skeleton, some floating debris, a few oil slicks and a skywards-drifting tower of black smoke. Less than twenty men were alive in the water to be rescued.

The four, now-outnumbered, British battlecruisers joined the main body of the Grand Fleet in a sea-battle which lasted until darkness enveloped the North Sea. By 3:00 a.m. on 1 June, as dawn light suffused the sky, British ships assembled in battle formation, ready for another offensive. But as the German fleet headed back to Jade Bay, it was clear that the long-awaited ‘big show’ was over.

On 3 June the Times carried a brief Admiralty report on the battle. Two days later Harry Pennell’s name appeared on a long list of those lost on the Queen Mary. Pennell’s many Terra Nova friends, hardened by years of Antarctic exploration and war, lamented his loss, but rejoiced (as Pennell would have done), in a report of 2 June which confirmed that Shackleton, Crean, Cheetham and their Endurance companions had reached the Falkland Islands safely after hard times on ice and at sea.

Harry Pennell’s name appears, amongst thousands who died at Jutland, on the Royal Navy memorial, Portsmouth, and on village memorials in the Cotswolds and Devon. The name of his ever-cheerful Terra Nova boatswain, Alf Cheetham, is on the Merchant Navy memorial, opposite the Tower of London, where Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red marked 2014’s First World War commemorations. Cheetham, who had survived four sometimes perilous Antarctic expeditions, died when SS Prunelle was torpedoed on 22 August 1918.

As in war-time, as in Antarctica, life is dangerous and death often a matter of chance.

By Anne Strathie

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