Mysterious Collisions at Jutland

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One of the unusual aspects of the Jutland record is a considerable number of reports from Royal Navy ships of colliding heavily with unidentified underwater obstructions. While it seems unlikely that all are due to the same cause, it seems certain that the reports describe only a handful of explosions or objects which ships steaming in line ahead struck in succession.

Summary of Events

Times are as reported in the Jutland Despatches (G.M.T.) except where otherwise noted.

time event
6.50p Revenge struck
7.47p Benbow felt a shock
8.00p Inconstant struck
8.00p Cordelia struck
8.37p Cordelia struck[1]
8.37p Tiger struck (more likely, 8.45p from another source)
8.40p Lion struck
8.40p Princess Royal struck
8.40p Inflexible struck
8.40p Shannon struck
8.41p New Zealand struck
8.44p Indomitable struck
10.30p Broke struck
11.15p Active struck
11.30p Colossus struck
4.00a Malaya struck

Detailed Accounts

At least some of the ships did strike underwater debris (or debris that was awash), as judged by nicks and small damage to propellors and skegs. Other ships just report sounds of scraping along the hull -- a description that makes a concussion from a remote explosion as the actual cause seem implausible. Here are all such reports I've noticed... some clearly different in time, but to give the sense of it. Times are as reported.

6.50p Officers and men in 4 separate locations aboard Revenge feel a shock as if the ship had struck something. Curiously, this was "a few minutes after" Marlborough being torpedoed (right ahead). A "large patch of oil, with an upheaval in the middle, with portions of wreckage coming to the surface" was spotted. The officer seeing this presumed that the Revenge had rammed a submarine that had torpedoed Marlborough.[2] (I suppose it possible this was Revenge seeing oil and wreckage expelled from Marlborough)

7.47p Benbow reports "A trembling shock felt in TS"[3]

8.0p Inconstant reports that they struck or were struck by something.[4]

8.0p Cordelia reports same. Submerged wreckage presumed.[5]

8.37p Cordelia reports "Felt heavy jar throughout ship. It seemed as though we had struck something." [1]

8.37p Tiger jots "Felt a very heavy shock and had no doubt that the ship had been torpedoed. Enquiries gave no result, so I concluded that the ship must have struck something under water." [6]

8.40p Lion reports "a heavy bump was felt on the starboard side. This appeared to me like a heavy hit on the waterline but this was not the cause. It is possible Lion may have run over a sunken ship, and divers are examining her bottom. Shortly afterwards, Indomitable hauled out of line and reported that she had been torpedoed, which she subsequently negatived, which seems to imply that she had the same experience as Lion."[7] I am not sure whether Indomitable was right astern Lion. I'll opine that the timing here is at odds with the fact that I presume Lion was ahead of Tiger and Tiger's reported time of destruction of Queen Mary is 3 minutes AFTER that recorded by Lion. But then again, this brings the alternate time stamp (8.45p) for Tiger's event closer. It is anyone's guess as to whether the 8.45p report also carried a three minute difference, or whether there was a consistent 3 minute discrepancy in any report stream from the ship.

8.40p Princess Royal reported "Ship gave two very distinct shudders, which were at first thought to be a torpedo. This was afterwards ascertained to be incorrect." Her captain's report calls this "a very heavy shock" and guesses at running over a submarine or a sunken ship. Divers find minor damage to propellor blades.[8]

8.40p Inflexible's captain reports "a violent shock was felt underneath the ship and a large swirl of oil was observed about 100 yards on the starboard beam: this violent shock was presumably caused by the ship coming into collision with some wreckage." Later, he surmises that this "must have caused an indentation in the outer skin" but does not indicate whether any diving had yet occurred.[9]

8.40p Shannon struck some object which bumped along under the bottom. This was reported in foretop, TS and main top, as well as in many other areas of the ship. Suggestions of a submarine having been rammed and distinct reports of a grating sound against hull.[10]

8.41p New Zealand "appeared to strike something under water, but no damage. Observed what appeared to be a burst of air under water about 50 yards on starboard beam."[11]

8.44p Capt Kennedy of Indomitable writes "At 8.44 pm, Indomitable received so severe a shock that I was knocked off the compass platform. I thought that the ship had been mined or hit by a torpedo, but no damage has so far been discovered. I assume that we either hit some wreckage or a submarine."[12]

8.45p Tiger's gunnery officer's account of the battle reports, "I felt a heavy shock, and thought we had been torpedoed, but nothing happened." It seems almost certain that this was the same event as that from the Despatches which is time stamped as 8.37p, given the severity of the effect described.

10.30p (approx) Broke "the Ship appeared to pass over some submerged object, a considerable shock being distinctly felt both on the Bridge and in the Engine Room."[13]

11.15p Active reports that she struck something, no leaking. Divers later discover 15 feet of bilge keel has been peeled back and is dangling. She was astern of the Second Battle Squadron at the time, including, oddly, none of the other ships who experienced such a collision.[14]

11.30p Colossus passed over something. Officers in three locations described it, as something scraped by. Divers found no damage to hull, but significant nicking of the propellors.[15]

4.0 AM Malaya officers in two places reported striking something on starboard side, followed by scraping along bottom. Inspection after the fact suggested a submarine owing to the depth of the scarring.[16]

Correlating the Reports

The 8.0p event with two light cruisers in joint company seems clearly to suggest they struck the same object. They do not use the words "shock" or relate of a false sense of having been torpedoed.

I am inclined to believe these 8:40 accounts indicate a succession of collisions with a sunken ship, but which this could be (Queen Mary? Indefatigable?) is not clear. The presence of the oil and air to starboard observed from Inflexible and New Zealand seems to rule against this being a distant explosion or a torpedo, but suggest a collision with a semi-sunk ship or an explosion aboard such a vessel.

It is difficult to draw conclusions about the later events, except possible that Active and Colossus share a fair proximity in time and similar resultant damage.

Interesting Conjecture

Imagine how different this battle would be if, rather than merely rattling these hulls the unknown object had seen fit to tear at their lengths like a can opener. What would history have said had Lion, Princess Royal, Tiger, New Zealand, Inflexible and Indomitable wound up sinking slowly -- the total loss of the entire Royal Navy battlecruiser force! It's quite a what-if, of course, but the fact that they steamed right over the same considerable peril and hit it has placed it within comparatively easy imagining.

A quick peek at Princess Royal's track chart (sources known to be approximations of such matter) shows her position at 8.40p fairly proximate to the point at which she ended her Run to the South (she is shown as somewhat south of it).

Beatty's track chart shows the late evening double-back being more northerly, and carrying the BCF back over the path traversed in the Run to the South shortly before 8.40p.

Footnotes

  1. 1.0 1.1 Captain Beamish's message to Beatty dated 9 June, found within the Beatty Papers at National Maritime Museum's Caird Library (BTY 6/6), item 5. The two events could likely the same, as neither source mentions the other time, but the times are so disparate that I include both here. The source mentioning the 8.37 time specifically mentions that Shannon (8.40) appears to be astern of Cordelia.
  2. Battle of Jutland Official Despatches. p. 84.
  3. Battle of Jutland Official Despatches. p. 128.
  4. Battle of Jutland Official Despatches. p. 174.
  5. Battle of Jutland Official Despatches. p. 174.
  6. Battle of Jutland Official Despatches. p. 157.
  7. Battle of Jutland Official Despatches. p. 145.
  8. Battle of Jutland Official Despatches. pp. 149,152-3.
  9. Battle of Jutland Official Despatches. pp. 170-1.
  10. Battle of Jutland Official Despatches. pp. 281,284.
  11. Battle of Jutland Official Despatches. p. 161.
  12. Battle of Jutland Official Despatches. p. 166.
  13. Battle of Jutland Official Despatches. p. 324.
  14. Battle of Jutland Official Despatches. p. 301.
  15. Battle of Jutland Official Despatches. pp. 81, 83.
  16. Battle of Jutland Official Despatches. p. 223.

Bibliography

  • Admiralty (1920). Battle of Jutland 30th May to 1st June 1916: Official Despatches with Appendices. Cmd. 1068. London: His Majesty's Stationary Office.