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Battle of Jutland Centenary

Volume 611: debated on Wednesday 25 May 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Barclay.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to invite the House to pay its respects to those who fought at the battle of Jutland on 31 May and 1 June 100 years ago. At 10.30 pm on 30 May 1916, Admiral Jellicoe led 16 Dreadnought battle ships out of Scapa Flow after the Admiralty had intercepted a message suggesting that the German fleet was mobilising. He was to meet a squadron of eight Dreadnoughts coming from Cromarty to form the grand fleet. Admiral Beatty’s battle cruiser fleet comprising 52 ships left Rosyth a little later. In total, 151 ships of the Royal Navy were to rendezvous 90 miles west of Jutland.

At 1 am on 31 May, Admiral Hipper’s battle cruisers left Wilhelmshaven. The German main battle fleet of 16 Dreadnought class ships led by Admiral Scheer left Jade at 2.30 am and were joined by six pre-Dreadnought ships from the Elbe river at 4 am, giving a total of 99 ships in the German high seas fleet. Neither side knew that the other’s entire force was at sea. On 31 May at 3.48 pm, five of Admiral Hipper’s ships opened fire on the battlecruisers of Admiral Beatty. Within 36 minutes, the British fleet had lost two battlecruisers, HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary, with the loss of 2,264 men and boys, and just 21 survivors.

Is my hon. Friend aware that my grandfather served on HMS Valiant as a gunnery officer during the battle of Jutland? I shall be reading out his letters during a presentation in Devonport in Plymouth on Monday. The adrenalin that went through his body at the time meant that he did not need to eat anything for 36 hours after playing his part in the battle. He enjoyed only a glass of sloe gin and a ham sandwich during the course of it.

The normal ration is rum, of course. I ask my hon. Friend to send those letters to the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth; I am sure that it would be very grateful to him. HMS Valiant, on which his grandfather served, also had a distinguished career in world war two, when it served in the Mediterranean and the far east.

Within 12 hours, the Royal Navy had lost 14 ships and more than 6,000 men while the German navy lost 11 ships and 2,500 men. The total was 10% of the number of ships at battle. The conditions in which the battle was fought were foggy and damp with a freezing North sea that claimed the lives of many of those who managed to abandon their shattered ships. Those lives are remembered at the manning ports of Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham, where the memorials designed by Sir Robert Lorimer bear plaques carrying all their names.

The biggest ships fired shells weighing nearly a tonne over a distance of 12 miles. Conditions aboard ships on both sides would have been uncomfortable and cramped at the best of times.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing the matter to the House for consideration. HMS Caroline, which has been undergoing restoration while docked in Belfast harbour, saw action at the battle of Jutland. The strong links and bonds between our great nations are exemplified by our shared history and experiences. Given the number of approaching centenaries, does she agree that now is an opportune moment to ensure that we link all our common experiences and see Britishness come roaring back?

Absolutely. HMS Caroline has just received a large sum of Heritage Lottery Fund money for its restoration and the site is opening next week.

In battle, the confusion and strain must have been immense as ships manoeuvred at high speed as they shot shattering broadsides and received hammering hits from enemy guns. Below deck, the men would have been working in extreme heat in the boiler rooms or in the gun turrets with a sense of helplessness at influencing all that was going on around them. A single hit to a ship’s magazine could blow both ship and crew to pieces. One such tragedy sunk HMS Invincible in 90 seconds with the loss of more than 1,000 lives.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this debate to the House. Given the significance of the battle of the Somme in 1916, I often think that Jutland’s strategic significance gets overlooked.

When going through my late grandfather’s records, I realised that he was in the Royal Navy from 1908 to 1922 and served on HMS Orion, the first of the super-Dreadnoughts. I was going to say that he played a minor role, but it was actually quite significant. HMS Orion managed four hits on the German battlecruiser Lützow, which had earlier nearly sunk Admiral Beatty’s flagship.

The hon. Gentleman may like to know that HMS Orion was made in Portsmouth, so that is another link.

The loss of life on the ships was largely due to keeping cordite close to the turrets so that it could be brought up quickly to enable faster firing. There was also confusion among the highest ranking officers of both the German and Royal Navy fleets. Admiral Scheer, in command of the German fleet, did not know that Jellicoe was at sea until his ships appeared on the horizon. Although wireless technology was widely available, it was used sparingly as it gave the transmitter’s position away to the enemy, so flags and search lights were the main means by which ship-to-ship communications were conducted. In the smoke, the spray and poor visibility, signals were not received, so small cruisers were placed between the larger battleships to pass on the messages.

It is testament to the trying circumstances that four Victoria Crosses were given to sailors and Royal Marines for the action, and perhaps more should have been awarded. The first was given to Jack Cornwell, or Boy Cornwell as he was known, who stuck to his task as a sight-setter of a 5.5-inch gun on HMS Chester. All his colleagues had been killed or mortally wounded. He was just 16 and a child like many others in the grand fleet. Boy Cornwell’s example was reproduced on posters hung in classrooms as an example to others, although his devotion and bravery was far from unique in the fleet at Jutland. Sir Edward Carson, First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote:

“I feel that Jack Cornwell, the boy who met his death at the post of duty, sends this message through me…to the Empire: ‘Obey your orders. Cling to your post. Don’t grumble. Stick it out.’”

The second VC was awarded to Major Francis Harvey, a former pupil of Portsmouth Grammar School and a Royal Marine serving on HMS Lion. He ordered the flooding of the magazine of Q turret to prevent an explosion, thereby saving the ship.

Rear Admiral Barry Bingham was awarded the third VC as captain of HMS Nestor. The destroyer had to close right up to enemy battleships to fire its torpedoes, a task which it completed despite being hit numerous times and eventually sinking.

The fourth VC was awarded to Commander Loftus Jones, from Petersfield near Portsmouth. He was captain of HMS Shark and literally fought to the end, manning the last gun on his ship capable of firing. The lifejacket that he wore in the freezing North sea is now on display in the superb exhibition about the battle of Jutland at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth. His body was washed up on the shores of Sweden, where he received a Viking burial.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the support that I know she gives to the naval historic dockyard in Portsmouth. I know she has seen this already, but I commend her on the wonderful exhibition “36 Hours: Jutland 1916, The Battle That Won The War”, which all right hon. and hon. Members should see. It is open for three years.

The hon. Lady is being remarkably generous in giving way, in a remarkably well attended Adjournment debate. She will know that next week Orkney will be at the heart of the events to commemorate this remarkable episode in our nation’s history, just as we were at the heart of events 100 years ago, when Jellicoe led the fleet from Scapa Flow. I am struck by the range of interventions we have had from Members from right across the country, and it strikes me that what we will be commemorating is not just a memorable naval battle, but an enterprise involving communities right across the length and breadth of this country. That is the spirit in which it should be remembered.

Absolutely. I do not think there is a single place that has not contributed to the Royal Navy at some time.

Jutland has always been a difficult battle for lay people to understand, because of the chaos of a naval action in poor visibility and darkness. Despite a massive toll of injury and death, the true impact of the battle was not understood at home, even immediately afterwards. There were some early interpretations of the outcome as a German victory, followed by an understanding that it was in fact a strategic defeat of Germany. Exactly a month later, the horrors of the Somme brought a fresh wave of shock to the population. Although we are here now to commemorate the centenary of the battle, it has spent most of the past 100 years lurking in the shadows of our national consciousness, yet the impact on my city of Portsmouth was profound. Portsmouth provided a major part of the crews of the biggest ships in the fleet. In Portsmouth’s manned ships we lost 3,000 lives in the battle of Jutland, more than we lost at the Somme. The impact of Jutland on families and communities in the city was huge.

The battle of Jutland jerked the Royal Navy out of Victorian complacency about its leadership. It had led the way with the building of Dreadnought and its successors at the insistence of Admiral Jacky Fisher, but over that period, and for long before it, the leadership of the Navy had fossilised ideas and played down the importance of initiative; it was constricted by the Victorian class structure.

I am unable to, as I do not have much time. At Jutland, there were various examples of squadron commanders failing to act on their own initiative and a conservatism in the standing orders of the fleet, which were based on the outmoded premises of the Victorian era. There was an automatic assumption by almost everyone that the commander on the flagship must already be aware of what they saw. There was a reluctance to break wireless silence at night when important developments occurred. Generally, there was a disinclination to act and an eagerness to defer to authority—all those things are seen as the inevitable outcome of the structured rationalist certainties of the late Victorian fleet. By the prescriptive, centralising premises on which his elaborate battle orders were based, Jellicoe had acted correctly—but they were the premises of the Victorian era. Arthur Marder, writing in 1966, described the Royal Navy of the turn of the 20th century as follows:

“though numerically a very imposing force, it was in certain respects a drowsy, inefficient, moth-eaten organism”.

On the other side, the Germans had a technical and tactical understanding among their commanding officers that surpassed ours. The German navy arguably came into being as a distinct separate organisation only in 1888—indeed, most of its ships were named after Prussian soldiers. Alfred von Tirpitz became chief of staff to the German navy’s high command at the age of 48, after being a specialist in torpedoes and mines. He recognised that the torpedo could be as vital as the gun, and ensured that tactical exercises replaced formal manoeuvres. The Germans practised a manoeuvre called “battle turnaround”, which was a simultaneous turnaround for all ships in the convoy, rather than the turn in succession. It made it easier to escape bombardment, and this was so successful at Jutland. Every encouragement was given to German subordinate officers to act on their own initiative whenever they could better further their commanding officer’s intentions, rather than have rigid compliance with orders. Admiral von Tirpitz was instrumental in the appointment of Admiral Scheer as head of the German high seas fleet who, likewise, was a torpedo specialist. Although it is not quite as true of the Royal Navy as it was of the Army in world war one that they were “lions led by donkeys”, there were clear deficiencies, and it is to the credit of the Royal Navy that they rapidly learned the lessons.

If we are to be critical of naval leadership, we should, at the same time, remember the burdens that fell on Admiral Jellicoe. He had, at all costs, to avoid a major defeat. In fact, he showed the Germans that the Royal Navy, even at the huge cost of life at Jutland, had the strength to fight battles on that scale repeatedly while they did not.

The lead that we built up in the Dreadnought race before the war was simply too great. The consequences of Jutland were that our naval supremacy on the surface remained unchallengeable. Germany largely kept its surface fleet in port and resorted to the unrestricted submarine warfare that eventually brought the United States into the war and doomed Germany. Jellicoe and Beatty led a Navy that stuck to its tasks and bravely undertook its duties despite horrendous hardships.

We find ourselves now in a new era of development, with two new aircraft carriers shortly to enter service; the introduction of the excellent Astute-class submarines, and a clear plan for renewing the nuclear deterrent. There is no doubt that, technically, our Navy is at the forefront of technology and doctrine.

However, it is not enough for us in this House to allow the Royal Navy to acquire the most up-to-date equipment if it is to rest idle in the docks in Portsmouth, Plymouth or Faslane. We must provide the resources to enable the Navy to recruit and retain a highly motivated team. We must provide them with the resources to work out the best way to utilise the equipment to enable them to develop tactics.

Today it is tempting to believe that, with the internet, satellite communications, and video-stream links, we can have centralised systems and that, just like Jellicoe, we can control those people in the field. However, just like at Jutland, there could be a misplaced assumption by those in the field that those in the centre already know what is going on.

In the battle of Jutland, there was one flag signal every 67 seconds.  In the Falklands, HMS Hermes handled 170,000 signals in 10 weeks, or one every 39 seconds. Too much signalling can lead to information overload. It can also centralise decision making and stultify initiative.

In times of peace, the value of experience fades and is replaced by rational theory as a result of new technology discrediting previous experience. We might do well to remind ourselves of the quote from Sun Tzu, the Chinese general who wrote some 2,500 years ago:

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”.

That encapsulates the object of our strategy of deterrence, and so we must demonstrate to all our potential enemies that not only do we have the most up-to-date equipment, but we also know how to use it.

The people who have served in our forces in the past, now, and who will serve in the future must always be at the centre of our thoughts. At this time of year, our forces have fought crucial battles in other wars besides world war one. On this day in May 1941, the fleet led by Admiral Cunningham, supported by my father-in-law, on HMS Hereward, began the evacuation of Crete, one of the Navy’s grimmest tasks but one it carried out with devotion and sacrifice.

Thirty four years ago, all three services were fighting 8,000 miles away to liberate the Falklands. Today, 25 May, is the anniversary of the sinking of HMS Coventry. A total of 19 of her crew were lost and a further 39 were injured. Our hearts go out to the friends and relations of those who were killed in that battle.

Most of us in this House were alive during the Falklands war, and it is through our memory of that conflict, including that of the fate of HMS Coventry, that we have a greater understanding of the shock suffered by the nation after the battle of Jutland. Likewise, it is through the people we know who fought in that battle that we have some understanding of what it must have been like at Jutland as bombs and missiles hit magazines in those ships too.

While we have enjoyed decades of peace in Europe, around the world our service personnel have been in action in difficult circumstances, and suffered injury and death. We must listen to their experiences and keep on learning the lessons that they can teach us. I am proud of the thinking behind the armed forces covenant, but there is still more that we can do to ingrain it in how public services support veterans and those still serving.

There are always lessons to learn in victory or defeat, or in between. Jutland was a victory, although it did not resemble the second Trafalgar that public opinion had become conditioned to look for. Beatty said during the battle:

“There is something wrong with our bloody ships and something wrong with the system”.

Within a year, the standing orders of the fleet were updated to encourage initiative and the taking of responsibility by junior commanders.

Among the crews at Jutland in junior positions there were no fewer than eight future First Sea Lords, and there is no question that the Navy went into the second world war better led as a result of the lessons learned in 1916. Admiral Sandy Woodward wrote in 1996:

“The Navy had to rediscover from bitter experience of 1914-16 much about warfare which it should never have forgotten”.

The differences of opinion about Jellicoe and Beatty were settled before they both died. The country honoured both men with burials in St Paul’s cathedral and busts in Trafalgar Square near Lord Nelson, thus recognising their huge contribution to the security of this country.

It has always been the nature of the Royal Navy that it recruits from all over the country, inland as well as from the historic ports, and every village and town will have made its contribution to the work of the Navy at some time. But it is an honour as the Member of Parliament for Portsmouth South to commemorate the lives of all those who fought at Jutland, and let us be thankful that a repeat of such conflict between the nations of Europe today seems so unthinkable.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) on securing this important debate about the centenary of the battle of Jutland, which we commemorate next week. I commend her for her interesting and informative speech about the battle, the people and the lessons and consequences for the Royal Navy.

I am grateful for the interventions that we have had, and to the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) for being on the Bench to support this important debate.

The commemoration of the battle of Jutland is just one of the national events in the four-year first world war centenary programme announced by the Prime Minister in 2012. We have already held national events to mark the centenary of Britain’s entry into the war in August 2014, the Gallipoli campaign in April 2015, and later this year in July, we will mark the start of the battle of the Somme.

In a moment. I shall make a little progress first.

Tonight and next week our focus moves from the battlefields to the sea. Jutland was one of the largest naval actions in history and the most decisive sea battle of the first world war. It was fought by the British Royal Navy’s grand fleet under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe and the imperial German navy’s high seas fleet under Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer. It took place from 31 May to 1 June 1916 in the North sea. More than 8,500 lives were lost, with many bodies never being recovered in what was the only major naval confrontation of the first world war.

The commemorations of this naval clash, which brought together 250 warships and over 100,000 men, provides an opportunity to remember the contributions of all those involved in the conflict and the battle’s important role in the allied victory in the first world war. We will also reflect on the reconciliation with Germany and the peaceful relationship we have today.

I will give way in a moment, but time is very short.

As well as Jutland itself, we will be commemorating the wider war at sea and the huge role of the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy, the fishing fleets, the shipbuilders and the contribution of all those who served or contributed. Their work and service we remember with pride and gratitude.

Next week on 31 May, my Department, together with partners including the Royal Navy, the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, will deliver national commemorative events in Orkney. The British grand fleet was based in the sheltered anchorage of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands during the first world war and the local community played an important role in supporting the war efforts. It is only right, therefore, that 100 years later, we hold commemorations in a place that has profound resonance with the Navy and other maritime organisations. I would like to acknowledge the help and support that the Orkney Islands Council, local organisations and the community have given over the past year during the planning of these events. Their work has been much appreciated and we thank them.

I thank the Minister for giving way and I congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), my colleague on the women and work all-party parliamentary group, on bringing this important debate to the House, and I thank the Minister and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for acknowledging the central role that my native Orkney had in the battle of Jutland. Is the Minister aware of the fantastic display of poppies formerly at the Tower of London, now at the iconic St Magnus cathedral in Kirkwall—the weeping window—and what a fitting tribute that is to the battle of Jutland 100 years ago?

I certainly endorse that point, and I was coming to it in a moment, but the hon. Gentleman has beaten me to it.

The national events will take place at St Magnus cathedral in Kirkwall—the UK’s most northerly cathedral, which was founded in the 12th century—and at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s royal naval cemetery at Lyness, on the isle of Hoy, which was founded in 1915, when Scapa Flow was the base of the grand fleet. The cemetery contains 445 Commonwealth burials of the first world war, 109 of which are unidentified. In the spirit of reconciliation, there will also be a wreath-laying event at sea at Jutland Bank, with the Royal Navy and the federal German navy taking part.

For those in Kirkwall not attending the cathedral service, there will be an opportunity for the general public to gather on the streets to watch the events live on a big screen. The event will be broadcast live on the BBC.

Unfortunately, I really do not have much time.

I am really pleased that around 800 guests will attend the events in Orkney. I look forward to being present myself next Tuesday, as one of the 300 descendants attending. My grandfather, Clyde Turner, served on HMS Malaya during the battle, and I have a strong personal association with the commemoration. He often spoke about his experiences as a stoker and subsequently as a chief petty officer. He was a career naval man and a real influence on me in my early years. I shall, of course, be thinking of him and remembering the time spent with him. In his memory, my son Tom and my grandson George were given the name Clyde as one of their Christian names. I am pleased, therefore, to be the Minister responsible for the first world war centenary at this time, and I look forward to meeting other descendants at the commemoration next week.

As the granddaughter of a chief petty officer who served at the same time, I commend the Minister’s words. Will he join me in commending Glasgow University professor of naval architecture, Sir John Harvard Biles, on his contribution to the design of the Dreadnought class of warship, which was so vital in the battle of Jutland?

I would be delighted to endorse that comment, which is so important.

Memories are important, and it is also important that schoolchildren and students learn about the battle of Jutland and about those who served their country. Commemorative events will take place across the UK, including on 28 May at Queensferry cemetery in West Lothian. There will also be events led by the Royal Navy on 31 May at Chatham, Plymouth and the Portsmouth naval memorial, which I understand my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South will attend. Events will also be held at Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites at Esbjerg new cemetery in Denmark, Fredrikstad military cemetery in Norway and Kviberg cemetery in Sweden.

Our key themes across the first world war centenary programme are remembrance, youth and education, and I am delighted that there are a number of resources for children, young people and adults alike so that they can learn about the battle on websites such as those of the Imperial War Museum and the BBC.

A number of key Jutland exhibitions are also taking place. Last week, the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth opened the exhibition my hon. Friend told us about—“36 Hours: Jutland 1916, The Battle That Won The War”. In London, the National Maritime Museum opened its new gallery, “Jutland 1916: WWI’s Greatest Sea Battle”. I would encourage as many people as possible and particularly families—perhaps during half-term next week—to visit those exhibitions to learn more about the battle.

I thank the Minister for giving way—he has been very generous. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) on her marvellous contribution. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the people of my constituency, and particularly of the town of Helensburgh, near Faslane, who turned out in such fantastic numbers just last week, along with members of our armed forces, our cadets and our veterans associations, to remember the battle of Jutland in such a fitting manner?

I would certainly be delighted to endorse that comment, and I congratulate those involved.

Communities across the UK that also wish to mark the battle should be aware that the Royal British Legion has made available resources to help communities run local events, including factsheets and other useful information.

In Belfast, the last floating ship that survived the battle of Jutland—HMS Caroline—will be open to the public for the first time. It is managed by the National Museum of the Royal Navy. Thanks to £12.2 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, HMS Caroline will become a significant visitor attraction, where people will discover the role she played in the war and the role of the Irish sailor.

On my hon. Friend’s point about the Royal British Legion, will he join me in congratulating one of my constituents, 70-year-old veteran John Hardman, who is running his third triathlon and swimming 1,916 km at Fareham leisure centre to commemorate the battle of Jutland?

We wish him good luck and congratulate him on taking on that test.

I would like to conclude by paying tribute to the 6,094 British and 2,551 German sailors who lost their lives at the battle of Jutland. The battle and the first world war provided key learning that influences the Royal Navy and the armed forces of today. On 31 May, we remember as one nation the battle of Jutland and honour those on all sides who lost their lives during the battle or were affected by the war at sea. We must ensure that they will never be forgotten. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South for helping to raise awareness about the impact that the battle of Jutland had and to recognise, most definitely, the important role of the Royal Navy in the first world war.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.