1916 sees the centenary of the controversial Battle of Jutland. This fight between the British Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet and the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet for dominance of the vital North Sea routes occurred just off the coast of Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula on 31 May and 1 June 1916. The British fleet was commanded by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe and the German by Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer. Outnumbered, the German plan was to divide and thereby conquer the British fleet. After an initial early scare and early British losses, following a day’s battle the German High Seas Fleet made its escape under cover of darkness. Both sides claimed victory, but the German High Seas Fleet was incapacitated and never again challenged British naval dominance.
Surrey, as a landlocked county, did not supply many men to the Royal Navy, but a number of Surrey men are known to have been involved in and killed during the Battle of Jutland. This piece explores and remembers their contribution.
William Edward Clayton was born to William and Hettie on 16 October 1898 in Havant, Hampshire. He was the eldest of five children. By 1911, the Clayton family had moved to Ottershaw and to the Horsell area of Woking by 1916. Clayton joined the Royal Navy on 14 January 1915 with the service number J/33617, initially serving on HMS Impregnable. He was serving on HMS Indefatigable as a Boy (First Class) at Jutland when it was sunk by a German battlecruiser only ten minutes after the commencement of hostilities. A Boy (First Class) denoted ‘a boy [seaman] aged 16 to 18 under training, who had previously served for between 9 months and 18 months, and had shown sufficient proficiency in seamanship and accumulated at least one good conduct badge’. Telegram Number 995 from the Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet (on 2 June 1916) to the Admiralty stated:
At 3.50 p.m. on 31st May V.A.C. Battle Cruiser Fleet reported himself engaged with enemy Battle Cruisers steering about E.S.E. enemy to the Northward. INDEFATIGABLE was sunk 10 minutes after commencement of action by shell exploding in Magazine.
William Clayton was killed on 31 May 1916 at the tender age of 18; his body could not be recovered for burial. His father was listed as his next of kin and so was notified of his eldest son’s death.
Douglas Durrant, James Fagence, Albert George Gale, John Alfred Knight and Arthur Edward Provins all served aboard the ill-fated HMS Queen Mary. Douglas Durrant had been born in Watford, Hertfordshire, and was an Able Seaman when, at the age of 21, he was killed when the Queen Mary sank. His mother had, by that time, settled in Dorking and so Durrant’s name is inscribed on both the memorial in South Street and that in St Paul’s Church there. James Fagence was born on 4 September 1865 in West Horsley. He had worked as an Engine Driver in Barrow in Furness, Lancashire, experience that must have helped him to rise to the rank of Chief Stoker, as which he was in charge of the ship’s engines, on board the Queen Mary. Albert George Gale was born on 22 August 1894 to George and Annie, of Dorking. Before the war, Albert worked as a cleaner at West Croydon railway station, for the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway Company. He joined the Royal Navy on 10 December 1912. When Albert was killed, he had reached the rank of Stoker (First Class). His next of kin was his mother, who was living at 5 Junction Road, Dorking. John Alfred Knight was born to John and Emma in Kingston on 10 February 1882, but by 1916 the family had moved to 3 Dormer Villa, St John’s, Woking. Knight first joined the Royal Navy on 22 September 1904, aged 22, serving on HMS Nelson; at Jutland, he was serving as Stoker Petty Officer, service number 307399, aboard the Queen Mary. He was accompanied by fellow Woking man Able Seaman Arthur Edward Provins, who had been born in 1897 in Buckinghamshire, but who had moved to 3 Walton Road, Woking, some time before 1916. Provins’ rank meant that he was a seaman with more than two years’ experience at sea and considered ‘well acquainted with his duty’.
On 31 May, HMS Queen Mary was struck by a shell from the German ship Derfflinger, detonating one or both of its forward magazines. The resulting explosion broke the battlecruiser in half near its foremast. A second shell from Derfflinger may have hit further aft. As the after part of the ship began to roll, it was rocked by a large explosion before sinking. Of Queen Mary‘s crew, 1,266 were lost while only twenty were rescued.
Three Surrey men, Thomas Henry Carpenter, Henry Alexander Potter and Edward Alfred Whapshott served on HMS Invincible, which was also sunk in the opening phase of the battle. Carpenter was born on 13 July 1886 to Charles and Jane of Knaphill. He served on HMS Invincible as a Leading Stoker, under the service number K/12394. Henry Alexander Potter had been born in Sutton in 1887. He entered Royal Navy service on 30 May 1904 aboard HMS Impregnable and was listed on the 1911 census as a Leading Telegraphist with the Navy in the Far East (service for which he earned the Naval General Service Medal [Persian Gulf], an award which marked participation in operations against pirates, gun-runners and slavers). Edward Whapshott was born on 16 December 1898, to Theresa and William of Prews Cottages, Send. Whapshott first joined the Royal Navy on 4 July 1914, on board HMS Impregnable, and by Jutland he was serving as a Boy Telegraphist aboard the Invincible, where he would have aided in ship communications, aged only 17.
This Private Navy Report on the loss of the Indefatigable also discusses the sinking of the battlecruisers Queen Mary and Invincible:
‘“Indefatigable”, “Queen Mary” and “Invincible” that were lost, were blown up during the early part of the action when engaged with enemy Battle Cruisers. These three ships sunk before they had received heavy punishment and the deduction is that flame reached the turret magazines causing them to explode’.
HMS Black Prince was an armoured cruiser which formed part of Rear-Admiral Robert Arbuthnot’s ill-fated 1st Cruiser Squadron. During the early engagement, the Black Prince became separated from the rest of the force and later during the night came into contact with the German High Seas Fleet after mistaking it for the British fleet. Powerful searchlights were turned on her and she was engaged by up to five battleships at point blank range; she was sunk without returning fire. All 858 crew members perished instantly.
A number of Surrey men are known to have been on board the Black Prince. John James Dermedy, born in Kilburn in 1895, was working as a blind-maker at the time of the 1911 census. He is remembered on the West London District Schools memorial in Ashford (which is part of the Surrey borough of Spelthorne). John Russell Townsend was born on 9 April 1896, to William and Jane, in Chelmsford, Essex. His parents were publicans and moved the family from Essex to Sussex (where they ran The Cricketers Inn, Rudgwick, in 1911) and then to Woking, to run the Anchor Hotel in Knaphill. Townsend was serving as a Signalman, with the service number J/1900, on board the Black Prince when it sank on 31 May. Sydney Walter Maidment was another of those 858 crew members, serving as an Able Seaman (service number J/2578). He was born on 16th July 1892 in Devizes, Wiltshire, but the family had moved to West Byfleet by the time of the Great War. Maidment joined the Royal Navy on 15 September 1908, on board HMS Impregnable. He died aged 27 and his next-of-kin was listed as his mother Blanche, who lived at 22 Ecton Road, Addlestone. Edwin Tanner (alias Turner) of Dorking was a Petty Officer aboard the Black Prince when it sank; he is remembered in his home town on the memorial in South Street.
Three men from the Surrey/Hampshire border towns were also killed aboard HMS Black Prince. William Hunt, whose parents lived at 2 Faversham Villa, Oxenden Road, Tongham, joined the Navy in 1905 when he was 16. Hunt had brown hair and eyes and at 18 years old was 5 feet 8½ inches tall. Hunt served as a Leading Seaman; he died aged 26. From the nearby town of Ash, Fred Taylor (born 29 March 1878) served on the Black Prince as a Petty Officer Stoker. Before joining the Navy in January 1898, he had worked as a labourer. The youngest of this Surrey/Hampshire border trio was Albert George Williams, who was only 17 when he was killed on 31 May 1916. Williams was born in Frimley on 22 September 1899. He enlisted with the Royal Navy on 6 March 1915, first serving on HMS Impregnable. By the time of Jutland, he had risen to the rank of Boy (First Class). His mother Eliza was notified of her son’s premature death; she lived at Hope Cottage, Wood Street, Ash Vale.
William Howard, of Woking, served as a Signalman on HMS Ardent at the time of its sinking on 1 June 1916. As a Signalman, he would have been a specialist in visual signals, semaphore, signal flags & signal lamps, to communicate with the rest of the fleet. Howard was born on 20 January 1887 to William (Snr) and Emma, and was one of six children. The family later moved to 121 Russell Cottage, Shackleford. Howard worked as a warehouse boy prior to enlisting in the Royal Navy on 2 April 1902, when he joined the crew of HMS Impregnable (service number 220176). He left a widow, Florence, who lived at the couple’s house at 23 Hipley Street, Old Woking. HMS Ardent was sunk by secondary fire from the German dreadnought SMS Westfalen.
HMS Tipperary, launched in 1915, was a member of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, which was in support of the Grand Fleet at Jutland. The Flotilla was involved in torpedo attacks on the German fleet as it retreated during the night of 31 May-1 June. Many members of the Flotilla were sunk or badly-damaged during the engagement. Tipperary was herself sunk on 1 June 1916 by a shot from the German battleship SMS Westfalen, with the loss of all but twelve of her 197-strong crew.
At least two Surrey men were victims of the sinking of HMS Tipperary. When he was killed, Ernest Alfred Colwell was 17 and serving as a Signal Boy. As such, he would have played a role in sending visual signals between ships using flags. Although Colwell was born in Shere, the 1911 census shows that his family by was by then resident in Longcross, near Chertsey and it is on that village’s war memorial that he is commemorated. Richard Randolph Stevens was one of a large family from Dorking. Born in 1894, his occupation is recorded by the 1911 census as ‘chemist porter’. By the time of the Battle of Jutland, he had reached the rank of Stoker (1st Class). Stevens’ parents still lived on Dorking at the time of his death; he is commemorated on the South Street memorial there.
These particular men are only a handful of those who fought and died at the Battle of Jutland. The battle itself was considered at the time to be a disaster, particularly given the huge losses sustained by the British fleet, which were considerably larger than those of Germany. However, Britain succeeded in its aim of preserving its naval dominance over the North Sea and English Channel and blockading Germany’s ports. On 9th January 1917, Germany began a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare in order to destroy supply ships crossing the Channel and the Atlantic. This was to prove a costly mistake. By March 1917, seven American merchant vessels had been sunk. This, in conjunction with diplomatic issues, provoked America to enter the war, throwing its military might behind Britain and her allies.
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