Sea Warfare

Destroyers at Jutland

Notes on the text

(by Alastair Wilson)

The final part of Sea Warfare consists of some accounts of destroyer actions on the 31st May/1st June: mostly, but not entirely, of the confused night-fighting after the engagements between the two main battle-fleets. Based on what he had heard from Lieutenant Commander H.I.N. Lyon of the destroyer Nonsuch Kipling wrote to the distinguished French man of letters, André Chevrillon on 22 June 1916 [Thomas Pinney (Ed.) Letters lV]:

I had a boy down to lunch with me the other day, about four days after the little affair at Horn Reef [the name by which the battle was first known]. He was a captain of a destroyer and, not until we had half finished our meal, did he tell us incidentally, that he had been through the business and had towed a disabled destroyer home. The destroyer is a class apart. After the fight they talked to each other exactly like men after a battue [a drive in game-shooting]. “How many shots did you fire?” How many birds did you get?” They got a good many. In one case, one boy had to let a flying cruiser go. (The light cruisers were bolting all across one flotilla like flushed partridges). He daren’t fire for fear his own torpedo would explode in its tube”.

[Kipling misunderstood what he had been told – a torpedo is not armed (capable of detonating) until it has travelled 200 yards from the point of discharge: in this case, the range was so close that the torpedo would not have been armed by the time it reached its target, and so would not have exploded – waste of one torpedo: Ed.]
Judge how close the two ships were. And they missed – the Huns missed – at two hundred yards with salvoes of 4 and 6 inch stuff! It was a holy mess. What annoyed my friend when he came back to port, thinking, as he said: “We’d rather done our little bit” was to be received in dead silence by the natives of a “beaten fleet”. It was that immortal First Despatch. Some day I shall tell you about it and you shall decide whether National Temperament isn’t tenfold more bewildering to the enemy than acquired machiavellianism. I haven’t met any of the big ship men but I am told they didn’t do so badly. Wilhelmshaven is full of unusable machinery and there is stuff at the bottom of the North Sea which will have to be fished up one of these days.

I have a theory – I haven’t developed it to anyone but you – that knowing the Hun would make a tremendous victory of it whatever happened; knowing also that he was fighting off his own shore where he could cover up his losses and get way with his lame ducks – our authorities decided to let him have all the victory he wanted to advertise, and to take the chances (which of course were a certainty) of his people being more knocked out by the gradual leakage of facts than our people would be by the “inspissated gloom” of Despatch No. 1. As I have frequently remarked – we are a brutal people where our own feelings are concerned.

Our charming child, demonstrating on the table cloth with knives and bits of bread, a position of variegated peril through which he had lately passed, wound up his tale with: “Of course if I’d got her (‘she’ was a Hun ship) it would have meant promotion for me and I rather wanted to get her because I want a bigger destroyer to command. My present one is too wet for my taste.” As it was someone else “got her” and the consequent promotion. My friend merely drove her towards his friend. He says it was like chasing a hare.

This quote has been given at length because it shows Kipling’s attitude towards the battle, and it may be suggested that the idea of writing up the destroyer actions came from Kipling, as much as from the Admiralty. Kipling’s assessment of Wilhelmshaven being ‘full of unusable machinery’ was not an unreasonable remark – although the British suffered greater losses of ships, the damage inflicted on the Germans was more widespread. Excerpts from other letters show that Kipling received two other visits from naval officers at this time and before the Jutland articles were completed. The Batemans Visitors Book, quoted in Pinney, shows that they were all destroyer men; amongst them was Lieutenant ‘Joe’ Beckett (later Captain W.N.T. Beckett, and a personal friend of King George V – see Fabulous Admirals, Geoffrey Lowis, Putnam, London, 1957, p 259 et seq.), whom Kipling undoubtedly found congenial and a mine of information and naval language.

As a compensation, there blew in, in the afternoon on a motor byke (sic), an enormously fat Navy Lieutenant – a complete stranger so far as any man is a stranger these days – full of immortal tales all told in the Naval Tongue. Had been blown up in the Amphion: and had been in four or five naval actions as well as having had to take a German trawler home with a mutinous Hun crew. He was all Marryatt translated into steam and petrol. He held us breathless or weak with laughter and then, after supper, disappeared on his roaring 7 h.p. Indian [a make of motor-cycle] into the warm descending rain. I thought I knew most navy types but this was strange in my experience. He was a destroyer boy by profession [at this time, he was the First Lieutenant of the destroyer Legion] – what he called ‘The Black Navy’ which is a brand apart. They do not like submarines and will not be cruisers or battleships. They are just “The Black Navy”.

This part opens with an untitled poem, later entitled “My Boy Jack”, and subtitled ‘1914-18’. It has often been suggested that the poem is a reference to his son John, of whose fate he was at this time unsure, although he accepted that he was dead. And, of course, in writing such a poem, at such a time, he must have had John and the circumstances of John’s death in his mind. But, since the poem was written to introduce a work about a sea-battle in which the British lost nearly 7,000 men, it may be suggested that it was more a memorial for those whose bodies lay entombed on the bed of the North Sea in the wrecks of the Invincible, Queen Mary, Indefatigable, Warrior, Black Prince, Tipperary, Ardent, Fortune, Sparrowhawk, Shark, Turbulent, Nestor and Nomad.


[Page 150, lines 2-5] our children stepping backward through the years may get the true perspective and proportions The battle of Jutland has been written over more than any other sea-fight since Trafalgar. In the 1920s there was dissension over the official account which, it was alleged, was ‘doctored’ at Admiral Beatty’s behest (he being then First Sea Lord, and in a position to get such things done), to make the actions of his Battle Cruiser Force appear in a better light. Over the next thirty years a number of other books about the battle were published, but the best comprehensive account, complete with track charts, is that given in Volume 3 of Arthur Marder’s From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow (Oxford University Press 1966, revised 1978). A more modern description, which examines the roots of the Royal Navy’s ethos, and describes the social relationships between the commanders, as well as giving a description of the battle and the aftermath, is Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game, (John Murray, London, 1996).


[Pages 154, 155 & 156] These pages describe events in the afternoon of the 31st May, during the initial engagement between the two battle cruiser forces: the German Scouting Group under Konteradmiral Franz von Hipper, and the British under Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty The former had five battle cruisers, four light cruisers and destroyers; the latter six battle cruisers, plus four fast battleships, twelve light cruisers and twenty-nine destroyers in three flotillas. The action described here took place in half an hour between 4.15p.m and 4.45. Kipling refers to three British destroyers; the two which did not return were the Nomad and the Nestor (named after one of the Argonauts in Greek mythology); the third was the Nicator (named after one of Alexander the Great’s generals). Nestor’s captain, Commander the Hon. Barry Bingham, the last man to leave his ship, became a prisoner of war and was awarded the Victoria Cross “for the extremely gallant way in which he led his division in their attack”. Two German destroyers were sunk in this encounter, and a single torpedo hit obtained on one of the German battle cruisers.

If any of our readers of the NRG should find their interest provoked by this account, they may like to read an accounts of these actions written by the men who actually took part in them.


[Pages 156 to 160] These four pages describe the actions of HMS Onslow. Her captain was Lieutenant Commander Jack Tovey (later Admiral of the Fleet Lord Tovey of Langton Matravers, and the man who “sank the Bismarck” as Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet, 1940-42). The Acting Sub Lieutenant whose activities feature prominently was Sub Lieutenant R.L. Moore who retired as a Captain after World War II with a CBE for his services during that war.

The account to be found of HMS Onslow‘s actions in the accompanying article on “The Fighting at Jutland” was written by her First Lieutenant, Lieutenant J.N. Knox.


[Pages 160 to 162] This section describes the actions of HMS Defender in recovering from her own action damage, and in towing the “paralytic” Onslow back to Aberdeen.

[Page 162, line 4] She herself speaks well of her Lieutenant. When Kipling says “she” here, he means the captain of the ship. The ship is her captain, and vice-versa: Frequently he will be known by his ship’s name, in much the same way that a Scottish Laird is known by the name of his estate. So, if the captain of HMS Defender is ‘Defender’, when using the personal pronoun, since a ship is a ‘she’, the captain becomes ‘she’. Somewhat convoluted, and this compiler has never noticed any other author using it, but the suggestion is offered as some explanation of what might otherwise not be fully understood. The Lieutenant was Lieutenant Ralph A. Broughton, then aged 21. ‘Defender’ him/herself was Lieutenant Commander L.R. Palmer, who received the D.S.O. for the day’s work.


[Page 163, lines 10-12] with orders to help the enemy home this is disingenuous of Kipling. Had the C-in-C known where the enemy fleet was, to be “helped home” (as it were, by a pack of “terriers” yapping at his heels), then the outcome of the battle might have been different. But the fact was that the “fog of war”, both literal and metaphorical, descended on the North Sea. Jellicoe was poorly served by his subordinates who at various stages of the battle neglected to keep him informed of the enemy’s whereabouts, each assuming that another had done so, or because it was assumed that the C-in-C could see what they could see.



[Page 165, line 5] When the German fleet ran for home In essence this is true, though the language used is emotive. Von Scheer, the German C-in-C, was not prepared to risk his fleet against the whole of the Grand Fleet: that was not in his strategy. His fleet had acquitted itself well, and his ships and their men had shown that they could absorb punishment, but he had no intention of seeking to resume the action, as Jellicoe intended.

[Page 165, lines 8/9] In a general sauve qui peut again, Kipling is being unfair and inaccurate. The main German battle-fleet returned to its base in good order, but a number of more heavily-damaged battle cruisers of Hipper’s Scouting Force had to make their own way back, at their own pace, and some were lucky that they did so.

[Page 166, line 6.] The Leader of one line was Gehenna. Kipling uses these devilish names to disguise the identity of the British forces involved. But at this distance of time they can be identified as ships of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, who met and engaged (but failed to report to Jellicoe) the German 1st Battle Squadron. The encounter lasted nearly 50 minutes, and the Germans lost one destroyer and two light cruisers, as well as damage to their battleships. The British lost three destroyers and a fourth had to be sunk after being rammed by another British destroyer in the melée. ‘Gehenna’ was HMS Tipperary; ‘Eblis’ was HMS Spitfire; and ‘Shaitan’ was HMS Sparrowhawk. The enemy were identified as cruisers, but as stated above, were the German 1st Battle Squadron and three light cruisers.

[Page 166, lines 20/21] Her acting sub lieutenant this was Acting Sub Lieutenant Newton William-Powlett (he received the D.S.C. for his part in the night’s work).

[Page 167, lines 1 to 3] Eblis, Gehenna’s next astern, at once fired a torpedo at the second ship in the German line, a four-funnelled cruiser this was the light cruiser Elbing – but she only had three funnels. (More detailed examinations of logs, narratives and track charts after the war have suggested that it may not have been Elbing, but possibly Rostock. At this distance of time, it is impossible to say.)

[Page 168, line 3/4] under the noses of a couple of German cruisers the ship rammed by Eblis (alias Spitfire) was in fact the German dreadnought Nassau. Eblis came out of the meeting much better than one might have expected, observing that she displaced merely 935 tons and the Nassau 18,900 tons.

[Page 168, line 12] Eblis’s commander was Lieutenant Commander Clarence Trelawney who was promoted to Commander four weeks later.

[Page 169, lines 9 & 10] she would not appear to have been a very new ship Correct: Nassau was one of the first class of German dreadnoughts, and had been completed in October 1909.

[Page 172, line 13] The First Lieutenant – of HMS Tipperary was Lieutenant John Kemp. He did not survive.

[Page 173, line 9] the wind shifted eight points that is, by 90°.

[Page 173, line 14] to make port she returned to the Tyne

[Page 174. line 1] a first lieutenant Lieutenant Athelstan Bush.
[Page 175, line 3] The surgeon – a probationer was Probationary Surgeon Douglas Bell.

[Page 177, lines 4/5] had hauled off to reload So small a destroyer as Eblis/Spitfire had only two single 21″ torpedo tubes, and, evidently carried reload torpedoes – necessarily somewhere on deck. And trying to insert a ton or thereabouts of inert and unhelpful metal into a small tube was difficult enough on a steady platform: it is emphatically not a task to be undertaken by night, without lights, on a platform which is anything but steady.

[Page 177, lines 10/11] Shaitan Sparrowhawk

[Page 177, lines 10/11] picked up a destroyer of another division, Goblin … this was HMS Broke, the flotilla “half-leader”. The Fourth Destroyer Flotilla, which was one for the three Grand Fleet flotillas – 4th, 11th and 12th (as opposed to .the Battle Cruiser Fleet flotillas, 1st, 9th & 10th combined, and 13th) – was a large flotilla, consisting of 19 destroyers. Gehenna (Tipperary) was the flotilla leader (Captain C.H. Wintour) and Goblin (Broke) was his deputy, leading the second division of the flotilla.

[Page 177, line 22 fell aboard one another collided.

[Page 177, lines 24/5] an unknown destroyer rammed Shaitan aft it will be seen from “The Fighting at Jutland” that this was HMS Contest.


This section describes the remainder of the night action by the destroyers of the 4th destroyer Flotilla, though it has to be said that it gives a more positive picture of the results than was actually achieved. Kipling says they got in return at least one big ship: an exaggeration, one German light cruiser was sunk in this action – the three satisfactory explosions were probably the sinking of the German Pommern by another flotilla. The British destroyer, whose sinking is described at the head of page 181 was probably the Fortune

[Page 180, line 13] which they set about torpedoing but, it has to be said, with no success.

[Page 181, lines 11/12] had her try at the four battleships and got in a torpedo at 800 yards. She saw it explode and the ship take a heavy list It was not one of the four battleships, but a light cruiser. However, in the dark, positive identification was extremely difficult.

Section III of this part is prefaced by an untitled poem, later given the title “Zion”, with the sub-title ‘1914-18’. It is suggested that the meaning which Kipling intended for the word ‘Zion’ here is “The Promised Land”. The accepted meaning is that it is that land where God lives with His chosen people. However, this compiler would suggest that Kipling is referring to England – Great Britain – not the Heavenly Zion. It may be an idealised England, the one which isn’t “putty, brass an’ paint”, but the doorkeepers are Britain’s armed forces, here specifically the Royal Navy.

The second verse refers to Baal, clearly as the opposite of Zion, though that is not the literal meaning of the word. Baal is a Hebrew word, and can refer to a god, but specifically here Baal is a Christian demon, possibly Ba’al Zebub, the Devil. The use is clearly for Germany (not personalised as the Kaiser) and the gatekeepers are the German armed forces (and the whole German war-machine) who “mouth and rant for Baal” – it is suggested that this is a reference to the ‘Hymn of Hate’ (by Ernst Lissauer), the final lines of which are “We love as one; we hate as one; / we have one foe, and one alone – England.”. This included the line “Gott strafe England” – “God punish England”.

The third verse once again refers to the English and England: a free England where there are no secret police: and there we will take what England offers for the honour of our comrades and in memory of our dead.




[Page 185, line 2] An explanation of ‘Joss’ has been given above – page 48, line 12. It was a word much used at that time, particularly among servicemen.

[Page 185, line 11] Destroyers do not carry unlimited stocks of torpedoes The compiler of these notes has found Kipling’s remarks (and those of the officers whose letters are quoted in the complementary accounts in ‘Fighting at Jutland’, which are offered in parallel with these notes) of great interest, since it is apparent that the actions of Jutland resulted in a change in equipment and tactics in regard to torpedoes. [He offers his apologies to those who may not find the following comments of interest, but he is a professional naval officer, and a torpedo specialist.] The destroyers of World War I rarely carried more than four torpedo tubes: and many, among them Gehenna, Eblis and Shaitan, whom we have already met, only carried two. Kipling observed (page 162, lines 13/14) that ‘It rests with commanders whether they shall spend with a free hand at first or save for night-work ahead’. Thus we find that in many instances, torpedoes were fired singly, and at relatively long range.

The number of hits obtained was very small for the number of torpedoes fired: and a single hit was rarely sufficient to sink a battleship. As a consequence, the destroyers built from 1917 onwards carried a minimum of six torpedoes, in two triple mountings, and between the wars, the standard destroyer armament was eight tubes, in two quadruple mounts, while from the middle of World War II the standard was two pentad (5) mountings.

Furthermore, rather than firing torpedoes singly, you fired a full salvo, spread across the target’s line of advance, which greatly improved your chances of hitting because it made allowance for any errors in your estimation of the enemy’s course and speed, or for any alterations in the enemy’s course and speed during the running time of the torpedo. Nor did you keep a few back, in case something better came along later: if there was a half-way decent target, you gave it all you had got. Such death-dealing considerations may make some readers uncomfortable, but they are among the unpleasant facts of life – or death – in war.

[Page 186, line 9] A flotilla of our destroyers sighted six (there had been eight the previous afternoon) German battleships of the Kingly and Imperial caste very early in the morning of the 1st June, and duly attacked. this relates to the final action of the night, in which the 12th Destroyer Flotilla attacked the rear of the German battle squadrons – “Kingly and Imperial caste” refers to two classes of German dreadnoughts – the König (King) and Kaiser (Emperor) classes – of which there were indeed eight, and all eight returned to base. What they attacked was in fact the six ships (there never had been eight) of the older battleships of the German 2nd division, and one battleship, Pommern was, indeed sunk. However, Kipling’s account here is an accurate rendition in journalese of Jellicoe’s own report – which itself was incorrect.

The purpose of all this detail is to point out that “Destroyers at Jutland” was written relatively soon after the battle, and before full details were known of the German losses, and before any kind of detailed analysis of the fighting had been possible. As a result, it was inaccurate – but it was good propaganda, and when Kipling says (page 187, lines 11/12) “Do I make clear the maze of blind hazard” he portraying accurately, if perhaps unintentionally, the confusion which prevailed in that short summer night.


[Page 187-189] These pages describe what happened to HMS Onslaught. The Sub Lieutenant who brought her home was Sub Lieutenant H.W.A.Kemmis, Royal Navy, and the Midshipman was Midshipman R.G. Arnot, Royal Naval Reserve.

[Page 189-191] These pages describe what happened to HMS Acasta.

[Page 190, lines 13 et seq] This exchange of badinage between the captains probably came direct from Kipling’s visitor, Lieutenant Commander H.I.N. Lyon (see above)
[Page 193-194] It is suggested that this account probably relates to an operation involving the destroyers and light forces of Commodore Tyrwhitt’s Harwich flotillas, and that the source was Lieutenant Beckett (see above).


[Page 196, lines 14-16] In years to come naval experts will collate all these diagrams and furiously argue over them. They did, indeed. In the 1920s the arguments became extremely acrimonious.

The final part of ‘Destroyers at Jutland’ is prefaced by another untitled set of verses, later given the title ‘The Verdicts’, with the sub-title ‘(Jutland)’ and the date 1916.

These verses, it is suggested, celebrate the lives of those who came through the fight at Jutland: “My Boy Jack” was, and is, a memorial for the dead. These lines hymn the ‘heroes and demi-gods’ who are, in reality:

Not the great nor well-bespoke,
But the mere uncounted folk
Of whose life and death is none
Report or lamentation.”

The last two verses resonate strangely today. It may be suggested that there are few of ‘our children’ (or great-, or great-great-grandchildren) who today understand:

When and how our fate
Was changed, and by whose hand.

Nor, when the “Great War” was over was the earth ‘new-born’, nor did the men involved think of themselves as ‘heroes and demi-gods’, nor ‘the saviours of mankind’. But they did ‘rather think that they had done their bit, too’ (Kipling, quoting Lieutenant Commander Lyon, in his letter to Andrew McPhail (Pinney (Ed.) Letters lV June 15 1916).




[Page 206, lines 9-11] Chance sent me almost immediately after the Jutland fight a Lieutenant of one of the destroyers engaged. this must be Lieutenant Commander Lyon. Although Kipling gives his rank incorrectly, this is not particularly surprising, since the rank had only been introduced in April 1914. Prior to that date, as Kipling would have known well, one was a Lieutenant (wearing two gold stripes on one’s sleeve, until one had eight years’ seniority, when one added a thin ‘half-stripe’ between the two) until one had the ‘joss’ to be promoted to the rank of Commander (with three stripes, and gold oak-leaves (‘scrambled-egg’) on the peak of your cap). In April 1914, at Winston Churchill’s instigation (he being then First Lord of the Admiralty) the rank of Lieutenant Commander was introduced as an automatic promotion at the eight years’ seniority point for Lieutenants, with the same two-and-a-half stripes that the Lieutenant with eight years’ seniority had previously worn. Had there been any other visiting officer from a destroyer at Jutland “almost immediately after the fight” it must be certain that he would have been mentioned in a letter: particularly since he seems to have spoken eloquently on the subject. (Lieutenant Beckett, who had appeared on his “motor-byke” on 16 July had not been at Jutland.)

[Page 214, line 6 et seq] A soldier-man … it has not been possible to identify the soldier, nor the source of the story.


[Page 217, lines 17/18] Meanwhile, the enemy triumphs, wirelessly, far and wide the Germans broadcast by radio their version of events early on, but later had to revise their account of their own losses upwards. The Royal Navy, not for the last time, showed that media relations (to use a 21st century phrase) was not their strong suit.

[Page 218, last line] ”anyhow those East Coast devils” this is a reference to the Harwich flotillas, which were not ordered to sea to assist in harrying the German fleet on its return to harbour on 01 June.

[Page 219, line 9] ”A little British destroyer”

The book closes with another set of verses, entitled ‘The Neutral’. Until the entry of America into the war in April 1917, Kipling was scathing about the activities of neutral countries, and in particular of the U.S.A., his view being that Germany was a ‘rogue state’ and that it behoved all civilised nations to assist in putting down this ‘mad dog’.

These verses are to be read as spoken by an American, and their meaning is simply – How can I live with myself if it should prove that a whole world has died so that I can live and prosper?


©Alastair Wilson 2007 All rights reserved