Compass Platform, H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth, 2:30 p.m., 31 May, 1915-- Part I
"Do you think that the Hun is out, sir?" asked Ross, the young Midshipman observing signals. "We've gone on many a sweep, only to come up with nothing for the effort."
The CO turned to his young charge, and tried to muster all the dignity that a Captain, R.N. in command of His Majesty's newest and most powerful battleship should possess. "I am sure that their Lordships are well aware of the enemy's plans. Your job, Ross, is to speculate less and observe more. Kindly focus your attention on Marlborough's hoists." "Aye, aye, sir" came the abashed reply.
"Damn, the tension must be showing," thought the CO. While never prepared to admit it to a snotty, the CO shared the younger man's frustration. The Grand Fleet had, after the disaster at Dogger Bank, no opportunity to seek its revenge on the upstart Germans. After a disaster not experienced by a British fleet since Charles II, there was not an officer or rating in the fleet, from the CinC to the most junior Boy, who did not pine for an opportunity to revenge Dogger Bank.
At least Queen Elizabeth had spent her first months in commission fighting the Turk instead of Scapa weather. But after Dogger Bank, the Admiralty quickly recalled the most powerful dreadnought in the world to the Grand Fleet, placing her in the Sixth Battle Squadron along with Agincourt. "It seems we cannot escape the Turk" commented the Commander upon anchoring near the 7-turreted Agincourt.
Queen Elizabeth's sister ships still were building, except for Warspite, which was undergoing a shakedown. The CO knew that once all five ships were commissioned, they would form a fast battleship squadron that could operate with the battlecruisers and, perhaps, put an end to the bombardment of East Coast towns by the German battlecruisers.
The CO's ruminations were interrupted by the Scots burr of his brilliant Gunnery Officer, Command William Boy. "And a good afternoon to you, Captain. A fine day for gunnery, and ever so good for spotting the fall of shot. It's good to be with the fleet." Mr. Boy's entire professional life was devoted to the perfection of long-range gunnery. A devoted disciple of Sir Percy Scott, Boy worked the gun crews relentlessly on the voyage to the Dardanelles. It was due to Boy's efforts that the new ship gave as good an account as she did against the infernal forts and mobile artillery of the Turk. "You couldna' spot a damn thing in that dirt," remarked Boy. "With fine visibility and our bloody great guns, today should be a memorable one for Queen Elizabeth -- and the Hun."
The good visibility of the early afternoon was starting to decline, however. As the Grand Fleet zigzagged its way across the North Sea, it was often difficult for the CO to make out the cruiser screen from the compass platform. Boy was confident, though. Not only were his guns the largest in the world, Queen Elizabeth had been equipped with a 15-foot Barr & Stroud rangefinder, much better for finding longer ranges than the standard 9-foot rangefinder used by the rest of the fleet. While Queen Elizabeth had only four turrets instead of the five in the preceeding Iron Duke class, each of those four weighed nearly as much as the 13.5 inch turrets in the Iron Dukes.
But the real wonder of Queen Elizabeth was her speed. Where Iron Duke could not even make her design speed of 21 knots, in Queen Elizabeth, buried well below armor, lay turbines capable of 75,000 horsepower, more than twice any other Grand Fleet dreadnought, and capable of driving the ship at nearly 25 knots. And, she burned oil -- no more gangs of stokers, throwing away their youth in the hot hell of the stokehold, no more coaling days, when every corner in the ship was coated in a fine, black powder.
Boy turned to the CO and said, "You asked me to the bridge, Captain." "Yes, Boy, I wanted to make sure that you have taken all precautions against flash." The examples of the battle cruisers at Dogger Bank were fresh in the Captain's mind. "Aye, sir, I've ordered no ready charges to be strewn (the word came out "strooon") about the working chambers and the men are to maintain the flash-tight hatches." "Do you have reliable men at the flooding cabinets?" asked the Captain. "Aye, sir. But don't have a fear. Old Lizzie won't be in need of magazine flooding this day."
"Thank you, Commander, for your confidence," the CO replied. He was about to question Boy about the faint tinge of what appeared to be blue paint on the Gunnery Officer's face when Ross interrupted, holding a flimsy from the wireless shack.
"Sir, we've intercepted a wireless message from Galatea -- they have the enemy in sight." Boy looked at the Captain. "Perhaps ah'd a better climb the foretop." "Yes, thank you Guns." The Captain turned to Ross. "Pay close attention to Marlborough now, Ross. I suspect we may see some bunting shortly."
Compass Platform, H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth, late afternoon, 31 May 1915 --
The bugle had sounded "Action Stations" some time ago, sending the crew to their stations and placing Queen Elizabeth in nearly final readiness for battle. On the narrow compass platform, a blustery place now that fleet speed was set at 20 knots, stood the Captain, the Commander, the Officer of the Watch, the Navigator and various signals ratings and midshipmen. Most would climb down several decks to the even more cramped conning tower, but at least they would be protected by more than a foot of fine armor; the Captain would stay on the forebridge.
"Sir, do you think it wise to expose yourself?" asked the Commander.
"Well, Number One, I know that right now both the CinC and Admiral Sturdee are standing on their compass platforms, because they can bloodly well see what is going on. I cannot command this ship peering out through a slit in armor plate. When it is time, I only want a leading signalman, two ratings to take navigational bearings, two messengers and the bugler to stay on the forebridge. Is that clear?"
"Aye, sir," replied the Commander.
The tension had been rising all afternoon, and it showed in the Captain's voice. The once fine visibility was starting to fade with mist and the lengthening afternoon sun. The columns of dreadnoughts to port were beginning to fade into dark grey shapes on a gray field. But it stilk was a magnificent site -- 24 ships at full battle line speed, white froth surging from the bows, signal flags streaming from yardarms, black smoke curling from the stacks. Of course, the smoke was part of the problem -- it only further obscured visibility across the battle fleet.
Some decks below and well to the aft of the compass platform, in the wardroom, Surgeon Isaacs was setting a different table than was typical in that normally cheery place. The cutlery arrayed on the draped wardroom table was not the officer's silver service, but rather the doleful instruments of surgery. Isaacs whistled tunelessly as he set out a bone saw. The main action surgery and dressing area would be established here -- a similar, but slightly smaller surgery was being set up in one of the mess decks forward, along with subsidiary aid stations placed strategically in the ship.
The ship's Padre, Rev. Albert Hutchins, shuddered as he saw the bone saw and other instruments. He action station was here, to give whatever aid and comfort might be afforded the wounded and dying. It was a long way from the West London parish where the priest has served as a young curate; no stained glass magnificence here, just white metal walls ("bulkheads" he told himself, "bulkheads") and reddish brown lino. He liked the ship and he liked the Captain, who was himself the son of a clergyman. The Captain had even allowed the Padre to set up a chapel in an unused flat. But the priest felt distinctly unmilitary in this most military of parishes. "How will I be in battle?" he wondered to himself. "Will I stand or run?"
Hutchins caught himself and realized that he had not yet offered a prayer for the ship. Finding a quiet corner of the wardroom, he knelt in prayer, finding finally the peace that he had sought.
Some further decks down Commander (E) Alistair Gates ("Gator" to his friends) stood watching intently the needles of the instruments on the starting platform in the engine room. A Scot like the Gunnery officer, though in a more accustomed location for Scots officers, Gates was as much a tyrant as Boy when it came to his engines. Over the last two hours, the signals had come from the bridge -- increase speed to 18 knots, 19 knots and then 20 knots -- faster than the battle fleet had ever moved in formation. Gates had ensured the only the best engine room artificers were at the throttles this day. Nothing would be left to chance in the engineering spaces.
On the compass platform, the Captain peered through the bearings of the compass. Visibility was plainly lowering; at best it was no more than about 12,000 yards. The sky was darkening as well, as day began to lengthen into night. "Well, Number One, I hope that Sturdee hasn't chased the Hun back to Germany," said the Captain.
"Well, sir, if the entire High Seas Fleet is out, I suspect that Admiral Sturdee will have plenty to do."
Neither man mentioned the truth that they knew -- the thin-skinned battle cruisers in Sturdee's fleet were no match for their German counterparts. The Captain was more aware of this fact than most; he had served as Commander on Invincible when she commissioned. While proud of the ship and her then-incredible speed, the Captain always wondered whether how she would stand in line of battle. "'Speed is armor' -- rubbish!" muttered the Captain to no one in particular.
"Did you say something, sir?" asked the officer of the watch.
"No, carry on."
"Sir." The Yeoman of the watch was at the Captain's side. "Signal from flagship -- enemy's battlefleet is making to the north." Now was the time when Jellicoe would have to make his dispositions. An error in those dispositions could either leave the battle fleet vulnerable to having its "T" crossed or possibly missing the Germans altogether.
The Captain knew and admired -- no, worshipped -- the CinC. Jellicoe
may not have been an electric personality, but his intellect and knowledge
of gunnery and of his fleet were unsurpassed. The Captain never failed
to be amazed by the Admiral's ability to recall the names of ratings who
had served with him decades before. Jellicoe truly had Britain's fate
in his hands that greying afternoon. The Captain knew there were no better
hands in the Empire.
"Yeoman, I want your best leading signalman watching for signals from the flagship," the Captain ordered. "I suspect that action may be imminent."
As he was giving that order, off to starboard, in the mists, observers in the foretop saw vague glows on the horizon. "Gunfire, and big guns at that," remarked Commander Boy. The flashes reminded him of heat lightning such as he had seen while a young officer in the West Indies Squadron. "Bridge, gunfire flashes bearing three points on starboard bow."
The warrant gunner and five gunnery ratings in the foretop then watched in amazement as Commander Boy dropped his trousers -- only to reveal a kilt. "Watcha starin at, ye Sassenach heathens?" snapped the Celtic gunnery expert. "I'm a goin to battle dressed for battle." Next, from behind the Director Sight, Boy pulled a large edged weapon. "And it would na be right not to have me claymore handy, lads."
"Oh, Lord," thought the warrant gunner. "What's next, a bagpipe?"
The men were starting to hear gunfire on the southern horizon as well, as distant thundering that was becoming louder and more continuous as it they continued to the southeast. The Captain looked at the binnacle, noting the course, checked the station of Marlborough ahead and Hercules abaft, and waited for Jellicoe to make his move.
"Captain, signal from Marlborough! Equal Speed Charlie London!" The Captain peered through his binoculars at the squadron flagship and the three brightly colored flags flying from the yardarm. "Acknowledge. Mr. Smith, inform the quartermaster that he is to conform to the movements of Marlborough."
At that moment, two sharp blasts from Iron Duke's siren, some four miles distant could be heard. That was the signal for the deployment to port ordered by the flag signal. Shortly, Marlborough also gave two blasts on her siren and the great battle line began to form.
The Captain turned to his executive officer: "Number One, it is time for you and the rest to go to your action station."
"Yes, sir, may I suggest we hoist our battle ensign?" The Captain realized that the other ships in the line were flying one, two and even four great white ensigns from their mastheads and yards.
"Yes, Number One, make it so." From behind the compass platform, the Captain could hear the halliards sqeak as the great white and red ensigns flew into the sky. From the masthead flew the Union Jack. "So this is what it felt at Trafalgar, at St. Vincent," thought the Captain. "Did Nelson's captains feel the great trepidation that I feel? They ruled the seas in those days. May God help us if we do not this day."
The four great bronze screws of H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth turned the grey North Sea into white froth as she bit into the turn. The four great turrets began to roam to starboard, hunting for an enemy which could be heard, but not seen. The great ship was quiet, except for the hum of the turbines far below and the snapping of the battle ensigns high in the yards above and -- except for the wails of a bagpipe somewhere below.
To the strains of "The Black Bear," H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth prepared to go to battle.
Compass Platform, H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth, 7:02 p.m., 31 May 1915 -- The CO drummed his fingers on the rail of the compass platform. Bending down, he shouted into the voice pipe leading to the foretop.
"Guns, do you see anything to shoot at?" "No, Captain, just too damn misty, and with all the funnel smoke from Marlborough -- I canna make out any targets."
The Captain could hear the main batteries of ships ahead of Queen Elizabeth firing salvoes into the mist. A few minute before, he barely he made out an orange glow somewhere to the east "Maybe one of ours; probably one of ours," he thought grimly.
Several decks below, slightly inboard of the 6-inch starboard battery, Ordinary Seaman Patrick Kelly stood waiting with his fire brigade. It was Kelly's job, along with the other members of the brigade, to try to stem any damage or extinguish fires caused by enemy shellfire or torpedo hits. The fire brigade's weapons were not the 15-inch rifles wielded by the gunnery department, but fire hoses, axes and wood planking. "So, Paddy, going to be warm work soon," remarked Kelly's friend, AB Thomas Smith. A West Countryman, Smith had taken up with the tall Irishman since he joined Queen Elizabeth as a replacement following her deployment to the Dardanelles.
"Aye, Thomas, but at least we are having it out with the Hun. I couldna stand to be in Scapa one more day."
Smith knew now why Kelly had a particular hatred of the Germans. He had learned it at dinner the evening before:
"My family was poor, nine of us, and Dad had died of the cough when I was 14. My brother Francis, Frank, he was the oldest boy, when he had a chance, he left Dublin to make his way in the world. Frank went to Liverpool and looked for work, looked for months. Finally, in the summer of '14, he found a place stoking one of the Atlantic liners. It was hard work, but Frank was a tall strong lad and he could handle a bit of coal."
"Frank wrote me that fall, saying how lucky he was that his ship hadn't been turned over to the Admiralty to sit in harbor waiting to be turned into a hospital ship. His ship had continued on the Atlantic run, the biggest liner still runnin."
Smith waited while Kelly took a breath. "Well, she was running three weeks ago when those Hun bastards put two torpedoes into her. Frank never had a chance. There was no body, but at least he died in sight a'home."
Staring at Kelly in the bright electric light of the passageway, Smith knew he was looking at a man intent on some bloody revenge.
In the foretop, Commander Boy peered through his glasses. There was something on the dim southern horizon. He moved quickly to the spotting scope. "Rangefinder, do ye have anything to report," he yelled into the voicetube.
"Nothing yet, sir -- wait, something out there ... now ..."
Boy nearly screamed into the voicetube. "What is it?"
"Must be a German sir, from her position."
"Compass Platform, Foretop."
"Yes, Mr. Boy, what do you have for me?"
"A target perhaps, Captain."
"Let me know as soon as you have a target confirmed."
The AB on the Barr & Stroud rangefinder peered through his glass. Two pictures of the yards of some ship appeared in the field of view, one above the other. Now he had to match the two images; another rating would read off the range and send that to the transmitting station.
Boy was on the phone to the TS. "Do you have a plot yet?"
"Range about 11,000, we're trying to get a rate."
"Hell, make it 250 and let me try to get a spot. If we wait any longer, I'll be shootin into the fog."
The transmitting station sent the range and deflection to the four massive turrets of Queen Elizabeth. Commander Boy looked at the gunnery director sight -- four lights flashed red, signifying all guns loaded and ready. Turning to the talker, he said,"tell all turrets to prepare for starboard gun half salvos." Boy peered again into the spotting scope. Whatever was out there was not anything that had seen the inside of Scapa Flow.
"Compass Platform, Foretop."
"Captain, request permission to commence firing. Whatever is out
there is no British ship."
"Very well, Guns."
The Captain reached the Commander in the Conning Tower:
In the foretop, Boy gave a quiet order. The warrant gunner pulled the trigger on the director sight.
From the starboard guns of A, B, X and Y turrets came an incandescent flare, followed a millisecond later by a thundering cracking, roar that would have half-deafened the CO had he not worn ear protection. The physical sensation of the firing nearly knocked him over and one of the messengers, a reedy boy of 17, was pushed into a voice pipe housing, with a painful gash to show for it.
In the aft sick bay, the Rev. Hutchinson felt the ship shake violently. "Have we been hit?" he anxiously asked a marine bandsman serving as a stretcher bearer.
"No, Padre, that was just our guns going off." So it has started, Hutchinson thought.
On the starting platform, the shake was less violent but Commander (E) Gates knew what it was. "On your toes, boys, the games afoot," he yelled over the roar of machinery and steam. Gates had an inordinate fondness for Sherlock Holmes stories.
In the passageway inboard of the starboard 6-inch battery, Patrick Kelly heard and felt the main battery firing. But his thoughts were elsewhere -- of a brother who had found the perfect job, on the finest liner still in Atlantic service as the Cunard ads proclaimed -- R.M.S. Lusitania.
By LA Dave