A Direct Train of Cordite
Many inaccurate things have been written about the state of ammunition handling in the Grand Fleet after the Battle of Jutland, specifically on the Admiralty's response and the involvement of Admiral Sir John R. Jellicoe. In order to try and rectify this state of affairs, I have transcribed all the relevant notes, minutes, and memoranda on the topic from the files held at The National Archives, Kew, and presented them in a chronological order. At the end is a look at the historiography on the issue, and a brief examination of the fate of the then-Third Sea Lord, Rear-Admiral (later Admiral Sir) Frederick C. T. Tudor. — SIMON HARLEY, Co-editor.
On 14 July, 1916, the Vice-Admiral Commanding the Battle Cruiser Fleet, Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty, sent a letter to the Permanent Secretary to the Board of Admiralty, Sir W. Graham Greene, for the attention of the Board:
Be pleased to lay the following remarks before Their Lordships:-
2. Since the recent Battle of Jutland it has been very strongly brought home to me that I can recall no single instance of a German warship blowing up, as unhappily occurred in the case of "QUEEN MARY", "INVINCIBLE", "INDEFATIGABLE", and "DEFENCE".
3. This fact is the more remarkable since on several occasions German battle-cruisers and light cruisers have been subjected to far heavier punishment by gunfire than was experienced by these three battle-cruisers. As instance, the "BLUCHER", on 24th January, 1915, when lying over practically on her beam ends was repeatedly hit by heavy shell, some of which, entering through the unprotected bottom, must have penetrated to and burst in or near her magazines. Again, a light cruiser on 31st May, 1916, having been reduced to a sinking condition by the fire of the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron and 1st Cruiser Squadron, passed the whole length of the Battle Line under heavy fire, and burning ferociously, but yet did not blow up. On 28th August, 1914, the "KOLN" was under the concentrated fire of five battle-cruisers at about 6000 yards for some minutes. She sank, but there was no trace of an explosion. Other instances could be cited, but these are sufficient for the purpose.
4. I have personally, both on 24th August and on May 31st seen high columns of flame rising from German ships, which could only have been caused by magazine fires, yet in no case did I witness any semblance to an explosion to this cause.
5. The immunity of German cruisers of all types to these disastrous explosions may be attributable to the following differences, which I understand exist between British and German methods:-
(a) For 12" guns and below, the propellant is not exposed and fitted with a highly sensitive igniter, is contained either in a light metallic envelope or a brass cylinder. In either case, in all probability, the charge is impervious to flash.
(b) In heavy ships- Adequate protection which ensures the burst of an A.P. shell before it reaches the immediate vicinity of a magazine. There is also the belief, held by many officers, that the turret magazines are placed under the shell rooms and next to the inner bottom.
6. Should these two reasons be held as sufficient to account for the absence of disruptive explosions when German ships are literally riddled by shell fire at close range, there is still required an explanation of how it is possible in German ships for very large cordite fires to arise, and apparently burn out, without any visible explosion. In this connection, on 24th January a turret in the "SEYDLITZ" was seen to be surrounded by sheets of flame, rising as high as her masthead, and obviously due to fire in the magazine. Had such a situation arisen in a British ship, in the light of recent events it seems certain that she would have been totally destroyed in the space of a few moments.
7. From the various reports of eye-witnesses and survivors, the destruction of the "QUEEN MARY" and "INDEFATIGABLE" appears in each case have instantaneously followed their being struck by an accurate salvo. Both ships up to this moment shewed no signs of distress and had received but slight punishment. The extracts from Despatches, given in the Appendix, are of importance since in the case of "QUEEN MARY" and "INVINCIBLE" a hit on, or abreast, "Q" turret was observed immediately before the explosion. A similar explosion under "Q" turret of "LION" was avoided by the presence of mind of the Officer of the Turret, but in this case an interval of 20 to 30 minutes elapsed between the burst of the shell and the resulting explosion of ammunition below the turret. Perhaps the cause of the final explosion in the "AUDACIOUS" has been explained, and might bear some connection to these cases.
8. Consideration of the points I have mentioned leads to the conclusion that either our methods of ship construction are seriously at fault or that the nature of the ammunition we use is not sufficiently stable to ensure safety. The catastrophes which occurred on May 31st must be due to one or both of these causes. From the behaviour of German ships, these are proved not to be insuperable. It is noted that no case has been reported of a British Destroyer blowing up, although several have now been sunk by gunfire.
9. I therefore most strongly urge that it should be accepted that a radical fault does exist, and that the best brains in the country are necessary to assist in its speedy removal in existing ships and its prevention in new construction. To this end I suggest that Committees of the greatest experts should be formed, and no expense or trouble spared to thoroughly investigate the following amongst other points. I assume that the measures taken by the Admiralty since the action are not in any way final or other than temporary expedients; to my mind the cure is farther to seek.
10. Points particularly recommended for investigation:
(a) The position of magazines — whether they should not all be placed as low as possible in a ship, and on the centre line.
(b) The protection of magazines from shell fire and torpedoes. Observing that the penetration of one hot splinter to a magazine may be sufficient to cause explosion of the contents.
(c) The need of additional protection to roof plates, glacis, trunk of all turrets, and particularly of "Q" turret, since most hits occur on this central part of ships.(d) The British design of turret, with sloping front and roof plates, increases the chance of penetration by shell at long range by providing a surface nearer the normal than if the front plates were vertical and the roof plates horizontal.
(e) The provision of a separate explosion trunk from all handing rooms to the upper deck, to provide some egress for gas pressures other than through the trunk and turret.
(f) The design of flash doors throughout 13.5" and 12" turrets appears to have been based only on the necessity of defeating back flame from the gun, which is small in volume and produces no gas pressure comparable with that of a shell burst or ignition of cordite in the turret. The numerous holes in gunhouse and working chamber floors and sides are a decided source of danger.
(g) The abolition of igniters permanently fitted to charges.
(h) The protection of charges by a light metal envelope capable of volatilisation on firing.
(i)The apparent immunity of German nitro-cellulose propellants from explosion by shell fire, as compared with cordite.
(j) The ready communication of explosion from one magazine to another widely separated.
(k) The safety of nose-fuzes in common H.E. shell.
(l) The stowage of shell in bins in gunhouses and working chambers of turrets.
(m) The introduction of the Q.F. principle of Breech Mechanism for all future guns.
I have the honour to be,
Your obedient servant,
Greene noted on 18 July, "It is presumed that the DNC [Director of Naval Construction] & DNO [Director of Naval Ordnance] will be asked to report on this letter in [the] first place." The letter was next sent to the Third Sea Lord, Rear-Admiral Frederick C. T. Tudor, who forwarded it to the D.N.O. and D.N.C. "For remarks" on 19 July. The D.N.O., Rear-Admiral Morgan Singer, received it on 20 July. On 3 August he wrote:
While not wishing to minimise in any way the seriousness of the events of 31st May, I am convinced that the blowing up of our ships in that action was caused not so much by the greater inflammability of our propellant as by the system of supply which we unfortunately practised i.e. magazine doors open, lids off powder cases, all cages and waiting positions loaded; thus should a shell burst in working chamber or trunk, as I have no doubt occurred at least in on case "Invincible", there was every possibility of the flash being carried direct to the magazine.Taking Vice Admiral[']s suggestions as a whole there appears to be scope for investigation of several important points, though with the exception of the provision of metal envelopes for charges the points to be dealt with are connected with ship and gun mounting designs.
As regards the case of the "Seydlitz", mentioned in paragraph 6 of Vice-Admirals's letter, it was the custom in German turrets (to go by report on "Goeben") to keep charges in ready racks in the turrets, these probably caught fire during the action of 24th January, 1915 and the turret ports &c., forming a good vent the flame would be very visible; the cartridges being protected would not pass the flash to the magazine, I also suggest that the Germans on 24th January, 1915, had good experience of what heavy shell fire meant which we certainly had not, the former have therefore most probably profited by their experience in increasing their deck protection and preventing any accumulation of powder charges.
The Germans use, according to our latest information, a nitro-glycerine powder in their Naval Service somewhat similar to our M.D. powder and we know that in their guns up to 11-inch brass cartridges are used for the rear charge and some sort of metallic envelope which is consumed in the gun and above but I understand that considerable difficulty was experienced with such heavy brass cases in extracting and getting rid of them after firing.
The Vice Admiral appears to think that cordite if ignited in the open or only lightly confined will explode, this is not so, it burns rapidly giving off a large quantity of gas; in the "Lion" the charges did not explode but the evolution of gas was sufficient to carry the flash down the trunk, as the nearest vent, into the shell room igniting some charges in the handing room en route, [underlined in red pencil] had the magazine been open and lids off the powder cases undoubtedly the magazine would have blown up.
Taking the points mentioned in paragraph 3 of Vice-Admiral[']s letter seriatim:
(a) As far as the gun mounting is concerned it would be arranged in new designs for the magazine to be under the shell room.
(b) A constructive question.
(c) The question of roof plates has been dealt with for existing for existing and future turrets.
(d) This is being considered in new designs & in accordance with instructions of 3rd Sea Lord.
(e) The necessity for this is very doubtful but requires consideration.
(f) This no doubt requires consideration[,] it is difficult to arrange a flash door which would always be shut except when the cage is actually passing it; at present flash doors open in one direction and are kept open during the time the G.L. cage is up. In the case of the "Lion" the burst of the shell did not directly ignite the cordite charges, it is impossible to say what did cause them to ignite 20 minutes later, nor is it known why the charges were not sent down as all gear in the working chamber was intact i.e. no vital damage was done in working chamber or to charges by the actual blast of the shell, one flash door was on this occasion open as the cage was up.
(g) Trials have shewn that igniters are very little more inflammable than the cordite itself, and in any case the protecting discs now fitted to igniters afford more protection to the charge en route to the gun than if there were no igniter and no disc.
(h) Requires consideration and research.
(i) As before remarked the apparent immunity mentioned is considered to be due to the protection of charges and care taken to prevent any accumulation, not to the nature of the propellant.
(j) This is not understood
(k) There is a possibility, in shell fuzed with No. 13 fuze, if the fuze were hit fair by a fragment, of the shell detonating; all trotyl shell have No. 45 which has a sealing device, orders have been given to withdraw heavy lyddite common shell as soon as possible.
(l) Orders have been given prohibiting stowage of H.E. Shell in gun houses and working chambers of turrets.
(m) I think that if the point under (h) can be solved it would be the sounder plan than attempting to introduce the Q.F. principle for heavy guns. As regards light guns the objections to the Q.F. Principle are well known and we have experience from 6-inch calibre downwards; I think that adequate protection of the charge from magazine to gun overcomes the danger and risk of bare charges and this can be arranged with some possible loss in rapidity of fire.
-3 Aug. 1916
The D.N.C., Eustace H. W. T. d'Eyncourt, responded with a memorandum on 7 October:
Although no German ship has yet been observed to blow up under gun fire in the manner which caused the loss of the British Battle Cruisers, it would appear in view of the definite statements of the Vice Admiral in para. (1) to (4) below, that this is not because the ship's structure has been as badly damaged, or penetrated to the same extent, as British ships have been
(1) - "Blucher" was repeatedly hit by heavy shell, some of which, entering through the unprotected bottom must have penetrated to, or burst in or near her magazines.
(2) - A turret in "Seydlitz" was seen to be surrounded by sheets of flame rising as high as her masthead and obviously due to fire in the magazine.
(3) - "Koln" was under the concentrated fire of five Battle Cruisers at about 6000 yards for some minutes, but there was no trace of an explosion.
(4) - A light cruiser reduced to sinking condition passed the whole length of the battle line under heavy fire and burning furiously, but yet did not blow up.
These extracts bear out other evidence that the structure of the German ships was at least as severely damaged and penetrated by shell as those of the British Fleet; and it is to be observed that that it was publicly announced very shortly after the battle that the British ships were repaired and in fighting trim, whereas a similar announcement has only been made at the end of September for the German ships.
The Vice Admiral considers (par. 8) that -
(1) - either our methods of ship construction are seriously at fault; or
(2) - the nature of the ammunition we use is not sufficiently stable to ensure safety.
As regards (1) - the methods of ship construction adopted for warships are very little different in any navy, and for a new navy like that of the German it is doubtful if they have done any other than follow our practice as nearly as they can; and this has been practically admitted in debates in the Reichstag. Moreover, the method of constructing warships, although generally more intricate, follows the same lines as those adopted in the highest class of merchant shipping, in which Britain undoubtedly leads the world.
It is considered, that our losses must be put down to the cause stated in par. 1 of D.N.O's remarks. As the outcome of years of battle practice firing, it was the general and accepted opinion that a good supply of ammunition near the guns, also in ammunition passages &c., was most essential, and that the risk of cordite fires must be accepted - (See opinions expressed in G.15134/14) - and although after the engagement on the Coronel Coast and at the Falklands, this opinion was corrected by Gunnery Order G.043-15 dated Feb. 1st.1915 there is little doubt that accumulations did exist in turrets and gun batteries during the battle. That the charges in "Lion's" turret, hoists, and working space were not sent back into the magazine before the doors were closed is an indication of the manner in which loose cordite was regarded on our ships.
The Vice Admiral pointed to the fact that British Destroyers that have been sunk did not blow up, and apparently argues therefrom in favour of ammunition charges being in cases, but it should also be noted that British Light Cruisers ("Southampton" & "Chester" &c.,) have been under heavy fire without blowing up, and that these cruisers have B.L. guns, the difference between them and big ships being the absence of a mounting with a hoist extending down into the magazine.
The drawings of German gun mountings that have been examined show similar arrangements to the British, that is a trunk extending down to the Handing Room and Shell Room, but a sketch has been seen for "Thuringen" showing how the trunk of a broadside turret was not carried through the armoured deck, and it is possible that similar arrangements have been adopted in later ships. An N.I.D. pamphlet has been seen which contains a description of the system of supply to the German 30.5 c.m. guns which indicates that there are several breaks in the course of ammunition and that great care has been exercised to prevent a fire extending to the magazine.
As regards the points raised in par.10:-
(a) and (b) - Sketches are attached showing the positions of all magazines relatively to the L.W.L. and the deep W.L. in the following ships:-
"Indefatigable" "Australia" and "New Zealand"
"Lion" and "Princess Royal".
"Repulse" and "Renown".
"Courageous" and "Glorious".
and also the armour and deck protection provided for them.
As shewn in the drawings, the general endeavour in British practice has been to put the magazines at the centre of the ship. By this means they are protected from under-water and shell attack. Some drawings of German gun mountings have been examined, and these shew the magazines above the shell rooms, but there is a drawing published by the "Engineer" of the "Grosser Kurfurst" shewing the shell room above the magazines, but the latter are about 12-feet above the keel, thus bringing the crown of the shell room to L.W.L. so that the actual position of the magazine in the ship is not very different from that in British ships. A N.I.D. pamphlet giving information concerning the German 30.5 c.m. mounting states that the cartridge and the shell loading room is on the upper platform deck, magazines are on the lower platform deck, but it is not known whether this is based on reliable information.
On our own ships there is only one reported case of splinters of shell penetrating as far as the magazine. This happened in "Barham", where splinters opened the crown of the 6" magazine. In this case the penetration was phenomanal compared with other hits and from the fact that no other surviving ships, so far as is known, reported that splinters of shell penetrated into the magazines or similar parts of the ship, similarly situated, and similarly protected, it would not appear that there is much to be gained by lowering the magazine, having regard to the increased danger from mines, except that recent reductions in draught in new designs somewhat alter the conditions.
It has certainly been the German practice to provide greater deck protection than has been given to British ships, but this has necessarily been done at the expense of other fighting qualities, for example, heavy guns. If, as a result of experience in this war, deck protection is materially increased a considerable increase in size of ships must follow. It is admitted that experience in this war shows that heavy gun positions in Battle Cruisers should be as well protected as positions for similar guns in Battleships.
The matter is also discussed in M05781/16, where sketches are attached to D.N.C's remarks shewing the protection provided and the damage actually sustained by ships of the Fleet.
(c), (d), (e), (f), (l):- Concur with D.N.O.
(j):- presumably refers to the cruiser which had a fore and aft ammunition passage, in which the accumulation of cordite under each casemate or gun hoist would provide the necessary train to pass the explosion from the magazine at either end of the ship to those of the other.
It is considered that the investigation proposed by the Vice Admiral might lead to improvements, and particularly with regard to the arrangement of the central trunk. A statement has been seen that as a result of accidents in the "Missouri" and "Kearsage", an effective system of automatic fire screens has been adopted in the United States Service, which it is claimed will localise ignition of a charge in the turret. With the introduction of director firing, and consequent decrease in the rate of fire, it is for consideration whether the introduction of effective gas checks in the trunk and working chamber is a practicable proposition.
Tudor minuted on 26 October:
This is a somewhat severe criticism of our ship construction, and I do not feel that it is justified – especially after reading DNC's report.
Immediate and far-reaching steps were taken directly after the action of 31st May, which have put the whole of our armoured ships on a much better footing; and practically all of the points mentioned by Admiral Beatty have received attention.
I propose to investigate further para (a), (b), (d), (e), (f), (h), & L of DNC, and steps should be taken forthwith.
There is very little doubt in my mind that in the great anxiety to attain a rapid rate of fire, the ordinary precautions for safety of cordite cartridges have been gradually relaxed, until at last the test of the enemy's shells has proved the danger of what was being done. -Stringent orders and precautionary and protective measures have now been taken to safeguard charges; and I feel confident that they will have the desired effect.
I do not agree that we should gain anything by the proposed committee (para. 9 of Vice-Admiral's letter). I feel greater confidence in the opinions of Naval Officers who know all the interests involved and are not slow to recommend any definite improvement, which it is their continual endeavour to suggest; and that these proposals should receive the careful consideration of the Admiralty, as is now the procedure.
It seems desirable that a reply should be carefully drafted embodying the gist of DNO's and DNC's remarks, and laying great stress on the undoubted improper exposure of cordite during this action.
Concur generally with 3.S.L. A reply should be sent, stating also in what direction investigations will be made.
Experiments with cordite in the magazines of some old ship are most desirable to ascertain the effect of burning charges & a programme should be prepared.
The sections italicised in Tudor's minute were highlighted in red pencil, and the bottom of the minute sheet has been signed in red by the First Lord, Arthur Balfour.
Greene sent the Board's reply to Beatty on 4 November:
I have laid before the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty your letter of the 14th July last No.240/B.C.F.05. in which you offered observations on the causes of explosion in British warships and suggested matter for investigation.
Their Lordships took immediate and far-reaching steps after the action of the 31st May to introduce improvements in the construction of armoured ships with the object of securing a greater measure of immunity from explosion, and They have caused much attention to be devoted to the majority of the points which you have placed before them.
Having given careful considerationto the reports and opinions available to Them, My Lords are forced to the conclusion that in some of the ships engaged in the action of the 31st May the precautions essential to the safety of cordite cartridges were to a certain extent subordinated to the great desire necessarily felt to achieve a rapid rate of fire. My Lords consider that the stringent instructions and measures, precautionary and protective, which have now been instituted will have the effect of safeguarding charges and sensibly diminishing the risk of explosion.
Your proposal for the establishment of a Committee of experts does not commend itself to Their Lordships. They have the utmost confidence in the opinions of the Naval Officers whose experience is able to from time to time to suggest expedients as a result of their practical knowledge of the issues at stake. It is the practice to devote to such suggestions the careful analysis of Their advisers, and they are disinclined to vary that procedure in the present case.
Of the points which in paragraph 10 of your letter under reply you particularly recommend six, viz: (a), (b), (d), (e), (f) and (h) are being subjected to special examination. Attention is also being given to the important question of introducing breaks in the course of ammunition in order to prevent fire from extending to a magazine. As regards item (c), the necessary steps have been taken to provide additional protection to roof plates, glacis, and trunks.
With reference to the proposal (g) that the permanent fixing of igniters to charges should be abolished, I am to state that trials have shown that igniters are very little more inflammable than cordite itself, and it is established that the discs now fitted afford more protection to the charge during its passage to the gun than would be the case if both igniter and disc were dispensed with.
The apparent immunity of German nitro-cellulose propellants as compared with cordite (i) is considered to be due rather to the protection of charges than to the nature of the propellant.
As to point (j) the ready communication of explosion from one magazine to another widely separated from it, My Lords propose to consider whether the introduction of gas checks in the trunk and working chamber is practicable.
The requisite action has been taken to deal with the subjects treated in sub-paragraphs (k) and (l).
The question raised at (m) viz:- the introduction of the Q.F. principle of British mechanism for all future guns depends for its solution partly at least on the conclusions which may be arrived at as a result of the investigation of the protection of charges (h).
A copy of this letter is being forwarded to the Commander-in-Chief.
In the meantime, on 16 November Tudor minuted:
Action on all material points has been taken on other papers.
I am in full agreement with D.N.C. as to the cause of the explosions in our Battle and Armoured Cruisers. There is no evidence to show that any enemy shell penetrated to the magazines of our ships, on the contrary the immunity of engine and boiler rooms generally, points to exactly the opposite conclusion.
On the other hand there can be no doubt that the amount of exposed cordite about the ships was enormous and that as regards turrets, if bare charges were permitted to remain in the handing rooms, as there is every reason to believe was the case, these must have furnished trains of explosives to the magazines.
The very narrow escape of "LION" from blowing up affords an immediate explanation of the disasters which occurred to the other ships.
Even with the precautions which have been taken since the action, I do not feel that we are safe without more efficient control of the ammunition parties, who are, in most ships, I have little doubt, in isolated positions without Officers. This is due not only to the unavoidable stringency in Officers, but also because such an abnormal number are required for control of fire.
The question of Officering the ammunition supply parties is one which has caused me grave concern for over 25 years, but the difficulty seems to be almost insuperable.
One of the most unfortunate results of this Battle has possible [sic] been to give a false idea as to the necessity and value of armour protection; we should all like to have as much armour as possible, but for every ton we add some other feature of the design has to be sacrificed.
The "RENOWN" and "REPULSE" for example, for which such exertions and sacrifices have been made, will now be demobilised for many weeks and then speed and draught will never be what they were designed for.
Jackson replied on 17 November:
The summary of information elicited from the perusal of these papers should be edited to remove any question of personal criticism, & prepared for issue to the Fleet as in the case of the T.B.Ds.
I feel sure the drawing prepared by DNC of the tracks of projectiles & the deductions drawn would be received with great interest.
On the same day, Beatty replied to the Board's letter of 4 November:
With reference to Admiralty Letter S.01146/16, dated 4th November, 1916, I would submit that as regards Their Lordships' conclusion, stated in Paragraph 3, there is no evidence that, in the ships lost, the "precautions essential to the safety of cordite charges" (so far as the Admiralty at that time had defined them) were neglected, neither is there any proof of irregularities in the then prescribed drill for cordite supply.
2. As regards clause (i), Paragraph 10 of my submission No.240/B.C.F.05 of 4th July, 1916, the big fires which actually occurred, without explosions, in "SEYDLITZ" and other ships still require explanation.
3. As to clause (j), Paragraph 10 of my above quoted submission, it does not appear that the introduction of the gaschecks referred to would remedy the possibility of sympathetic explosion in magazines widely separated.
4. Similarly the clauses (k) and (l) were intended to refer to the possibility of the sympathetic detonation of noze-fuzed H.E. shell, and it would appear to be desirable to ascertain by experiment that Lyddite shell will not explode, or detonate, as the effect of internal explosion, or violent lateral movement: i.e., as referred to in Paragraph 8 of my original letter, is our ammunition of a sufficiently stable character to ensure safety?
5. On this point any explanation of the blowing up of "AUDACIOUS", which still remains a mystery, would be of value.
6. It was for the purpose of elucidating these obscure points that I suggested that the greatest experts on high explosives should be consulted; they would, or should, be able to fix the cause of what is apparently a radical fault, and which certainly does not obtain in the ships of the enemy.
7. The opinions of Naval Officers, whose experience suggests expedients, only result in attempting to provide a cure, but leave the cause unknown.
In forwarding Beatty's letter, his superior, Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet, Admiral Sir John R. Jellicoe added his own observations on 24 November:
Forwarded. I entirely concur with the Vice-Admiral Commanding, Battle-Cruiser Fleet, that there is no evidence that, in the ships lost, the precautions essential to the safety of cordite charges, as we knew them, were neglected.
The drill and custom then in force was to keep all cages and waiting positions loaded and the magazine doors open, and all the evidence seems to show that if a turret was pierced by a shell which exploded inside it, the magazine was almost certain to blow up. I therefore ask that their Lordships may reconsider the conclusion stated in paragraph 3 of their letter S.01146/16 of 4 November, 1916.
3. It is quite realised that absolute immunity from explosion cannot perhaps be expected in action in a ship carrying many hundreds of tons of explosives in a confined space, but it is considered that every possible means should be taken to investigate the causes that may lead to these explosions so that they may be overcome, if possible, and the method suggested by the Vice-Admiral Commanding, Battle-Cruiser Fleet, appears to be the one most likely to meet with success.
4. Fourteen German ships - battleships to light-cruisers, have been sunk by gunfire alone and none of them have blown up. Nine British ships - battleships to light-cruisers, have been sunk by gunfire, of which six blew up.
From a study of these figures it is difficult not to conclude that the Germans have the advantage over us in either fuzes, explosives, or ship construction.
On 16 December Tudor addressed a memorandum to Jellicoe, who had succeeded Jackson as First Sea Lord on 4 December:
First Sea Lord.
These papers refer to the explosions of ships' magazines in the Battle of Jutland.
The wording of the Admiralty letter in reply to that of the Vice-Admiral appears to have conveyed the impression that censure was implied.
This of course was never intended: my remarks (pencilled in red) on which the letter was largely based are on the attached paper, S. 01146/16.
They were founded on the conviction that of late years there had been a general tendency towards relaxation of safety precautions with cordite charges in order to get increased rapidity of fire; also on the verbal evidence given in my Room by the Gunnery Commander of "INVINCIBLE" 3 days after the Battle, upon which the first precautionary instructions to the Fleet were issued; and further because it is hardly possible to provide adequate Officer supervision of all sources of cordite and shell supply in view of the large personnel required for control of fire.
The opinion of the Fleet on the lighter ammunition supply was sought and is dealt with in the cartridged pack, but the extracts on the attached sheets shew the trend of Sea and Admiralty opinion at the time.
With regards to the propellants in use by ourselves and Germany, the latter employ a modified cordite, but rather more modified than ours: the last quarter charge is contained in a brass cylinder for obturation and the remaining quarters are 'believed' to be enclosed in light metal cases which are consumed in the gun.
The two points for decision therefore are:-
(1) Is any further Admiralty letter necessary to dispel the impression that any censure was intended.
(2) Is any action necessary on paragraph 9 of V.A., Battle Cruiser Fleet's letter of 14th July.
I have not attempted to deal in detail with any of the questions raised in the V.A.'s letter of 17th, as it has not yet been round the departments. I might, however, draw attention to paragraph 4, sympathetic detonation of shell. This appears to be answered by the B.C.F. Committee Report of 24th June, paragraph 17, which states "No case occurred of our own shell being detonated due to enemy's fire, although in three ships shell burst within a few feet of them, and in some cases projectiles were dented and driving bands cut."
The section in italics was underlined and marked "A". Jellicoe replied the following day:
Re A of your minute. It was certainly considered that censure was implied & that it was assumed at Admiralty that the drill had not been carried out[.]
So far as I know the drill for turrets was carried out correctly & therefore the implication that this was not so should be withdrawn.
As regards the question of exposure of light ammm I personally have realised this all along & have gradually reduced amount kept out of the magazines in all classes of ships during the 2 years of war, including the period prior to the Jutland action.
I do think the question deserves further investigation by experts in view of the different behaviour of our ships & the German. The explanation may lie in the delay action of the German fuzes, but this is not certain.
On 18 December Tudor wrote to Greene:
The first action should be to draft a letter to CinC to remove the impression that any censure on the offrs of the Fleet was implied.
The remaining action is to call for proposals from DNO & DNC for forming a committee to deal with the various points raised.
On 7 October d'Eyncourt had submitted some remarks on battle cruiser based on what had been gleaned from the post-Jutland reports. On 19 December he submitted a slightly altered version as a memorandum, "A":
The point of particular interest noted from a perusal of the reports from the Commanding Officers of the Battle Cruisers, Cruisers, and Light Cruisers, engaged in the action of the 31st May 1916, is that the Battle Cruisers were in action against enemy Battle Cruisers and Battle-ships, and that the three ships, "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 were sunk before they had received heavy punishment and the deduction is that the flame reached the turret magazines, causing them to explode.
It is now the generally accepted opinion that the fault to which these explosions may be attributed lay in the method adopted in the transportation of charges to the guns, whereby these charges which were not in non-inflammable cases had an open course from the magazine to the gun. This, in association with the number of charges that were usually in the Handing-Room, Revolving Trunk, Working Chamber, and Gun House provided a direct train of cordite from the turret to the magazine.
There would seem to be an impression in the Fleet that these three ships were lost because enemy shells penetrated the lower protective deck and exploded either in the magazine or so close to it as to ignite the contents. This is not substantiated by a detailed examination of all the reports that have been received, and in the ships that returned from the engagement there is no known case of an enemy shell travelling so far down before bursting and only one known case (that of "Barham") where a shell, which burst a short distance beyond the point of penetration, sent a fragment so far into the ship. Further, there were very few cases where fragments of projectiles penetrated the protective deck over the machinery spaces, which occupy a much larger portion of the ship than the magazines, are in the midship part of the ship, and are not better protected.
As this matter is of extreme importance the accompanying diagrams have been prepared which show, by means of vertical sections through the path of the shell, all the principal hits and bursts that have been traced in the Battle Cruisers, and Battle-ships engaged. It will be seen that these do not bear out the contention that enemy shells can penetrate the lower protective decks of modern Battle Cruisers, and Battle-ships, before they burst, not that they burst so far beyond the point of entry as to explode in the immediate vicinity of the magazines. If the impression that enemy shells can do this amount of damage be allowed to remain it will lead to demands for a further considerable increase in protection in future warship construction, and the result will be that ships will become very much greater in displacement and cost, without proportionate increase in armament, as a greater proportion of the total weight will be given up to protection than hitherto.
The fundamental maxim of British Warship design has been that the best defence is superior power of offence and it is considered that this action shows this maxim to be essentially sound, as although British Battle Cruisers were in action with enemy Battle-ships they were not then put out of action, whereas the more heavily protected and less heavily armed German ships received very severe punishment.
E. H. T. D'E.
On 22 December Tudor wrote to Jellicoe:
1st Sea Lord
D.N.C. has drawn up the enclosed memorandum marked 'A' on the damage inflicted on our Battle Cruisers & Battle Ships in the Jutland Battle.
The drawings he has had got out should be of great value & interest to the Fleet[.] I do not know if you would wish the memorandum issued.
The same day Jellicoe minuted:
The memorandum should certainly not be issued. It does not at all represent the the views of officers at sea & I do not agree with it. No objection of the drawings.
Tudor initialled his acknowledgement on 23 December.
Also on the 23rd, the letter which Tudor had asked the Secretary to prepare on the 18th, having been approved by both Tudor and Jellicoe on the 21st, was sent to Beatty, now Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet:
With reference to your predecessor's submission of the 24th November, No.2791/H.F./1187, relative to the causes of Explosion in British Warships, I am commanded by My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to acquaint you that They have learned with regret that the wording of Admiralty Letter S.01146/16 of the 4th November, was construed as implying that the precautions essential to the safety of cordite charges as laid down in Admiralty Regulations and the authorised drill had been neglected, and I am to state that this was not the intention of the remarks in paragraph 3 of the letter.
Their Lordships were of opinion that the regulations then in force were insufficient to ensure that a desire to achieve a rapid rate of fire might not, in some cases, tend to reduce the the precautions to ensure the safety of cordite cartridges, which later experience has shewn to be required.
In his 1986 book on British Battleships of the First World War R. A. Burt makes the claim that "A special Board of Inquiry to investigate the loss of the British battlecruisers at Jutland was appointed immediately after the action." The claim is unreferenced, and utterly without foundation. As can be seen from the above correspondence events were set in motion by a letter of Beatty's written to the Admiralty well over a month after Jutland. The "Board of Inquiry" referred to is an invention – such things did not exist in the Royal Navy – and there is no evidence that the Board of Admiralty convened a Court of Inquiry. The above minutes certainly do not constitute the record of one.
In 1998 Dr. Nicholas Lambert's well-researched survey on pre-war and wartime British ammunition storage policy appeared in print. However, as discussed below, one stray, unreferenced sentence has seemingly produced a plethora of conspiracy theories.
Eur Ing D. K. Brown, writing in 1999, observed:
Combining remarks by DNC and DNO, the Controller, Tudor, wrote a number of minutes putting the blame squarely on ships' staff for having too many exposed charges and generally slack procedures, encouraged by senior officers to whom rate of fire was everything. When Jellicoe became First Sea Lord he ordered Tudor to retract these criticisms of senior officers and also suppressed the DNC report.
It is interesting how d'Eyncourt's memorandum of 19 December is elevated to the level of a "report." This is unfortunate, as it implies that d'Eyncourt was commissioned to write one. There is no evidence that this is the case. "Memorandum," as used by Tudor, is a far more neutral word. Jellicoe was asked by Tudor on 22 December whether he thought the memorandum should be issued to the fleet. Jellicoe's reply was no. Any "criticisms" made were issued by the Board (on 4 November) as a whole and not specifically by Tudor (who was Third Sea Lord, not Controller, an office abolished in 1912), and it was these which were later ordered withdrawn, Greene's letter on the matter being sent to Beatty on 23 December.
In 2008 Norman Friedman wrote in passing that d'Eyncourt's "report was suppressed upon the personal orders of Admiral Jellicoe." A memorandum which wasn't explicitly written for publication, and then wasn't published after a suggestion to do so was turned down, can hardly be described as a suppressed report.
Friedman (2014) writes:
Both Jellicoe and Beatty were to have been reprimanded for reversing magazine regulations (several wartime orders repeated that cordite was not to be stowed outside magazines). However, when Jellicoe was promoted to First Sea Lord and Beatty to Grand Fleet commander, the reprimands were cancelled. Third Sea Lord Frederick Tudor, responsible for the investigation, was sent to command the China Station.
As can be seen, Beatty actually was mildly censured, in the Board's letter of 4 November. Friedman's language suggests that any such reprimands were pending, then states that they were "cancelled" as if they had been issued. Greene's letter to Beatty of 23 December formally withdrew any implied criticism. No reprimand of Jellicoe is to be found, and Friedman provides no evidence of one. Nor does he list the "several wartime orders" he mentions as being flouted. The reference to Tudor and the China Station will be examined in the next section.
Friedman continues elsewhere, "As Jellicoe's successor, Beatty was perfectly placed to send a 22 December letter absolving his predecessor." In the absence of reference to any other documents this statement makes no sense whatsoever. It can only be assumed that Friedman is referring to the Greene letter of 23 December.
In his favour, Friedman doesn't repeat his 2008 claim (and Brown's) that d'Eyncourt's memorandum of 19 December was "suppressed," and mentions that most of it was eventually published in 1927.
In commenting on the various controversies arising from Jutland, i.e. fire control, shell, tactics, Friedman observes that, "none rises to the level of scandal." It is to be lamented that he himself has allowed this particular controversy to rumble on and rise to the level of scandal without sufficient recourse to the primary sources. In his most recent work on British battleships Friedman repeats some of his inaccurate claims word for word.
Both Brown and Friedman appear to have confined themselves only to Lambert's article and ADM 1/8463/176 (with Friedman also relying on a National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) file which features copies of elements of ADM 1/8463/176).
The Fate of Rear-Admiral Tudor
There is a myth circulating that the Third Sea Lord, Frederick Tudor, was exiled to the China Station as punishment for his part in this saga. This perhaps stems from an unreferenced passage in Dr. Nicholas Lambert's influential article on these proceedings, which reads:
Shortly thereafter Tudor was appointed out of the Admiralty. But instead of receiving an appointment to the Grand Fleet, as was his due, Tudor was sent to command the handful of dilapidated cruisers guarding British commercial interests in China.
This section of the article will expose the fallacy of that argument.
(a) One has to ask why Tudor alone was singled out from those involved. The D.N.O., Singer (whom Friedman calls "Murray"), did go to the Grand Fleet, as Rear-Admiral in the Tenth Cruiser Squadron in April, 1917. His departure is explained by the shakeup of the Naval Ordnance Department in March, 1917, and its division into two departments. He was still a junior Rear-Admiral, so a junior appointment in the Grand Fleet cannot be seen as either favouritism or as exile.
The D.N.C., d'Eyncourt, who authored the only document which could remotely be described as "suppressed," remained in his position for another seven years.
(b) Dr. Lambert's use of the words "Shortly thereafter" is misleading. Tudor was not relieved as Third Sea Lord until 1 June, 1917—five months thereafter. Quantifying periods of time is naturally subjective, but it's difficult to call nearly half a year "Shortly."
(c) Was it Tudor's "due" to go to the Grand Fleet? Undoubtedly, in the sense that an Officer who had worked hard ashore should be rewarded with a post afloat. Was it practical? No, and Tudor should have been grateful to have been given a seagoing command at all. He had not been to sea in nearly seven years, and had not flown his flag in over four years as a Flag Officer. He was rapidly approaching the top of the Rear-Admirals' list in seniority, and under the provisions of the Order in Council of 9 March, 1914, if he had not hoisted his flag as a Rear-Admiral he would have been automatically placed on the Retired List on promotion to the rank of Vice-Admiral. Tudor was appointed Commander-in-Chief on the China Station on 20 July, 1917, and assumed command on 4 October. He was promoted Vice-Admiral on 23 October. Four and a half years without a seagoing appointment and three months until promotion to Vice-Admiral. Unless Tudor had received assurances about his career (which this writer is still searching for in the various archives) then his future prospects on paper look bleak.
It is perhaps worth having a cursory look at the recent service of the Rear-Admirals who were serving in the Grand Fleet at the time Tudor was relieved as Third Sea Lord, 1 June, 1917:
|Name||Current Appointment||Date||Last Appointment Afloat||Date||Last Appointment Ashore||Date|
|Edwyn S. Alexander-Sinclair||Rear-Admiral Commanding,
First Light Cruiser Squadron
|8/2/1915||Captain of Temeraire||1913-1915||Flag Captain to the
|Hugh Evan-Thomas||Rear-Admiral Commanding,
Fifth Battle Squadron
First Battle Squadron
|1913-1915||Captain of the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth||1910-1912|
|Sydney R. Fremantle||Rear-Admiral Commanding,
Second Cruiser Squadron
Ninth Cruiser Squadron
|1916-1917||Special Service at the Admiralty||1914-1915|
|Ernest F. A. Gaunt||Rear-Admiral,
Fourth Battle Squadron*
|25/8/1915||Captain of Superb||1911-1913||Rear-Admiral, Royal Naval Barracks, Chatham||1913-1915|
|William E. Goodenough||Rear-Admiral,
Second Battle Squadron
Second Light Cruiser Squadron
|1915-1916||Captain of the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth||1905-1907|
|Cecil F. Lambert||Rear-Admiral Commanding,
Second Light Cruiser Squadron
|5/12/1916||Commodore (T), First Fleet||1912-1913||Fourth Sea Lord||1913-1916|
|Arthur C. Leveson||Rear-Admiral Commanding,
Second Battle Cruiser Squadron
|1/12/1916||Captain of Indefatigable||1911-1913||Director of the Operations Division||1914-1915|
|Trevylyan D. W. Napier||Rear-Admiral Commanding,
Third Light Cruiser Squadron
Second Light Cruiser Squadron
|1914-1915||Captain of the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth||1914|
|Douglas R. L. Nicholson||Rear-Admiral,
Third Battle Squadron
|13/3/1917||Captain of Agincourt||1914-1916||Superintendent of Signal Schools||1904-1905|
|William C. M. Nicholson||Rear-Admiral,
First Battle Squadron
|1/12/1916||Captain of Canada||1915-1916||Captain of Vernon||1911-1914|
|Richard F. Phillimore||Rear-Admiral Commanding,
First Battle Cruiser Squadron
|1/12/1916||Captain of Inflexible||1914-1915||Liason in Russia||1915-1916|
Tenth Cruiser Squadron
|2/4/1917||Captain of Dominion||1910-1912||Director of Naval Ordnance and Torpedoes||1914-1917|
* Rear-Admiral Gaunt had been appointed Rear-Admiral in the First Battle Squadron on 25 August, 1915. On 12 June, 1916, he was appointed Rear-Admiral in the Fourth Battle Squadron following an exchange of ships between the two squadrons.
Tudor's last spell of sea service had ended when he handed over command of H.M.S. Superb on 16 August, 1910. The only officer even approaching his six and a half years ashore was Rear-Admiral Morgan Singer, who as already noted was still a junior Rear-Admiral, and whose appointment in the Tenth Cruiser Squadron, whilst in the Grand Fleet, could hardly be considered a position of great importance.
As an example, Jellicoe, discussing the possible appointment of Rear-Admiral John B. Eustace as Second-in-Command of the pre-dreadnought Third Battle Squadron in 1916, had written to Jackson, "His sea experience is small & none since 1911 … I am sorry for Eustace but I really don't think he should come." The notion that Jellicoe would then countenance Tudor, a senior Rear-Admiral with no recent experience of handling a ship, let alone ships, being given a command befitting his rank in the Grand Fleet, can't be taken seriously. Dr. Lambert might pooh-pooh the China Station as a "handful of dilapidated cruisers guarding British commercial interests in China," but it gave Tudor all-important service afloat as a Flag Officer which was necessary if he was to continue on the Active List. This wasn't exile—it was a lifeline.
- See, for example:
Brown. The Grand Fleet. p. 168.
Friedman. Naval Firepower. pp. 99, 297-298.
Friedman. Fighting the Great War at Sea. pp. 164, 378.
- Beatty to the Admiralty. Submission No. 240/B.C.F.05. of 14 July, 1916. "Cause of Explosion in British Warhips, when hit by heavy shell." S.01146/1916. ADM 1/8463/176. Copy in ADM 137/2027. ff. 245-247.
- ADM 1/8463/176. Minute sheets 1-2.
- ADM 1/8463/176. Minute sheets 3-5.
- ADM 1/8463/176. ff. 1-3.
- ADM 1/8463/176. f. 3.
- S.01146/16/5287. Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet's copy in ADM 137/2027. ff. 258-260.
- Register No. M.05781. ADM 116/1484. Note: Not ADM 116/1464 as given in Lambert. p. 50 et seq. My thanks to Dr. Lambert for the correct catalogue record.
- B.C.F.05. of 17 November, 1916. Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet's copy in ADM 137/2027. f. 262.
- No.2791/H.F.1187. of 24 November, 1916. Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet's Office Copy in ADM 137/2027. f. 263.
- ADM 1/8463/176.
- ADM 1/8463/176.
- ADM 1/8463/176.
- Register No. M.05781. ADM 116/1484. Minute sheets 4-8.
- S.02136/16. ADM 1/8477/308.
- ADM 116/1484.
- ADM 116/1484.
- ADM 1/8463/176.
- S.01969/16/6055. of 23 December, 1916. ADM 137/2027. f. 264.
- Burt (1986). p. 95. Repeated in Burt (2012). p. 111.
- Brown. The Grand Fleet. p. 168.
- The Oxford English Dictionary defines "report" as:
"An evaluative account or summary of the results of an investigation, or of any matter on which information is required (typically in the form of an official or formal document), given or prepared by a person or body appointed or required to do so."
Another definition perhaps more closely matches the spirit of the original memorandum:
"An account of a situation, event, etc., brought by one person to another, esp. as the result of an investigation; a piece of information or intelligence provided by an emissary, official investigator, etc.; a notification of something observed."
- Friedman. Naval Firepower. p. 99.
- Friedman. Fighting the Great War at Sea. p. 164.
- Friedman. Fighting the Great War at Sea. p. 378.
- Friedman. Fighting the Great War at Sea. p. 378. The full reference for the extract (as Friedman doesn't provide a page number) is Naval Staff, Training and Staff Duties Division (October, 1927). Naval Staff Monographs (Historical)—Volume XVII. Home Waters—Part VII: From June 1916 to November 1916. C.B. 917(P). p. 245.
- Friedman. Naval Firepower. p. 164.
- Friedman. The British Battleship. p. 391.
- NARA. Record Group 45. Subject file ZOS, Register No. 9231, F-6-F, "Lessons from the Battle of Jutland as affecting the design and construction of naval vessels." My thanks to W. J. Jurens for access to this document.
- For examples of which see:
Burr. p. 40.
Friedman. Naval Firepower. p. 99.
Friedman. Fighting the Great War at Sea. pp. 164, 378.
Multiple posts on the NavWeaps Discussion Boards.
R. A. Burt's reference to a "special Board of Inquiry" (no Court of Inquiry was convened) certainly didn't help matters. Burt (2012). p. 111.
- Lambert. p. 32.
- Friedman. Fighting the Great War at Sea. p. 378.
- Tudor Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/42. f. 90.
- Tudor Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/42. f. 90.
- Tudor Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/42. f. 90.
- Jellicoe to Jackson. Letter of 24 January, 1916. Jackson Papers. National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth. MSS 255/4/43.
- Brown, David K, RCNC (1999). The Grand Fleet: Warship Design and Development 1906 — 1922. London: Chatham Publishing. (on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk).
- Burr, Lawrence (2006). British Battlecruisers 1914-1918. Botley: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781846030086.
- Burt, R. A. (1986). British Battleships of World War One. London: Arms and Armour Press. ISBN 0853687714.
- Burt, R A (2012). British Battleships of World War One. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 9781591140535. (on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk).
- Friedman, Norman (2008). Naval Firepower: Battleship Guns and Gunnery in the Dreadnought Era. Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing. (on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk).
- Friedman, Norman (2014). Fighting the Great War at Sea:Strategy, Tactics and Technology. Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing. ISBN 9781848321892.
- Friedman, Norman (2015). The British Battleship 1906-1946. Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing. ISBN 9781848322257.
- Lambert, Nicholas A. (January 1998). "Our Bloody Ships" or "Our Bloody System"? Jutland and the Loss of the Battle Cruisers, 1916. The Journal of Military History 61 (1): pp. 29–55.
- Jackson Papers. National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth. MSS 255.
- The National Archives. ADM 1/8463/176
- The National Archives. ADM 116/1484
- The National Archives. ADM 137/2027
- The National Archives. ADM 196/42