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Maritime Risk and Safety: Battle of Jutland Exposed Flaws in British Naval Procedures

Maritime Risk and Safety: Battle of Jutland Exposed Flaws in British Naval Procedures

By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

This is the second of two articles on maritime risk and safety.

“There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”

(British Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty, Commander, Battlecruiser Fleet, May 31, 1916)

The Battle of Jutland was fought from May 31 to June 1, 1916, in the North Sea off the coast of Denmark. It was the largest clash of modern battleships and battlecruisers in military history.

Unlike today when aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines are the epitome of sea power, the principal weapon of naval power in the early years of the 20th century was the battleship. This type of naval vessel had very heavy armament and a great deal of armor to protect it from its foes.

Second only to the battleships in terms of lethality were the battlecruisers, which were used as advance elements by the British and German navies. They were as heavily armed as battleships and quite fast for their day, but they had less armor protection. That made the battlecruisers more vulnerable to fire from heavy guns.

At Jutland, the British lost three battlecruisers in rapid succession. They were the Invincible, the Indefatigable and the Queen Mary. Each of these three fine ships exploded with a great loss of life.

The Significance of Jutland Ship Explosions to Modern Risk Analysis

To understand what went wrong on May 31, 1916, we must first understand Royal Navy gunnery policies, practices and procedures. For instance, large naval cannon of the era did not utilize single pieces of ammunition in the fashion of some modern artillery pieces. Instead, ammunition consisted of the actual projectile and separate charges of a highly explosive powder called cordite.

Projectiles and cordite charges, housed in bag-like containers, were stored in magazines deep within the protected bowels of the ship. They were raised by elevators and hoists to turret guns and then placed into position by young British sailors known as “powder monkeys.”

Gun operations were complex and  carried out in cramped quarters. Once in the turret (also known as the “gun room”), the shell and the bag charges were placed on a hydraulic lift and shoved into the gun.

The gun was then closed and fired. This procedure was repeated for each firing.

Enemy Shells Were Main Threat to Ships, But Safety Measures Were in Place

The main threat to a ship was an enemy shell penetrating a turret. The shell would explode and ignite the nearby powder charges.

The explosion would travel down the shaft and detonate in the main ammunition magazine. The catastrophic explosion caused the loss of the crew and the ship.

Both German and British ships of the era had blastproof doors and closed shutters on ammunition hoists to minimize the risk of a flash explosion. These doors and shutters were ordered closed between shell and cordite replenishment to the turrets. In essence, there were both mechanical safety devices and established procedures in place to protect the battlecruisers.

Recipe for Disaster: Jutland Battlecruisers Overloaded with Ammunition

World War I  began in August 1914. Prior to that date, senior commanders in both the German and British navies were considering the distinct possibility of a major naval clash.

The Germans concentrated on armor protection and accurate naval gunnery. The British became obsessed with rapid firing as a technique for keeping enemy ships off balance.

While the Royal Navy had strict procedures in place regarding the number of bags of cordite and shells that could be removed from magazines and made ready for firing, ships’ crews routinely ignored these safety precautions.

In 1913, British Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleets, Admiral Sir George Callaghan requested that the basic ammunition load on British battlecruisers be increased from 80 to 120 rounds per gun. This request was subsequently approved, creating a dangerous safety situation.

When the guns were combat ready and had available rounds in all spaces in the turret and ready room, each gun carried about 46 additional rounds and cordite charges in the critical spaces between the magazines and the gun turrets. In practice, this meant that each eight-gun battlecruiser at Jutland carried a total of 960 shells and 290,000 pounds of cordite propellant. This was approximately 50% more ammunition than the original specifications of the battlecruisers required.

Enemy Shells Penetrated Vulnerable Gun Turrets and Caused Flash Fires

Once an enemy shell pierced the poorly armored turret of the ammunition-filled British battlecruisers during the Battle of Jutland, the immense stacks of cordite propellant initiated a flash fire. The fire then traveled down the open elevators and blast-shutter curtains, igniting the main power and projectile magazines.

The ensuing conflagration sealed the fate of the three battlecruisers and their crews with the loss of approximately 3,000 men. A fourth British battlecruiser, HMS Lion, was saved from this fate when a severely wounded Royal Marine officer ordered the magazines flooded and blast doors closed just in time.

Mechanical and Procedural Safeguards to Protect Ships and Crews Were Ignored

Prior to the destruction of the three British battlecruisers at Jutland, many well-meaning officials were involved in the decision-making chain. British naval planners and commanders had put in place both mechanical design features and procedural safeguards to protect their ships and crews from catastrophic ammunition-related explosions.

Unfortunately, naval leaders and the commanders of individual vessels allowed their fear of not having enough ammunition during battle to override these mechanical and procedural safeguards, with tragic results.

A formal investigation of what caused the destruction of the three British battlecruisers at Jutland was later conducted, but it was officially disregarded for political reasons. Sadly, the WWII-era British battlecruiser HMS Hood shared a similar fate on May 24, 1941, while it was locked in combat with the German battleship Bismarck. After- action reviews should be candid, honest appraisals and senior leaders should act upon these findings in the spirit of mitigating or eliminating risk in the future.

Additional Resources

Jutland: Clash of the Dreadnoughts, Part 1 (YouTube video)

Jutland: Clash of the Dreadnoughts, Part 2 (YouTube video)

About the Author

Dr. Jeffrey T. Fowler is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army Captain, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army.