100th Anniversary of Jutland – The Australians who served

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

The British Grand Fleet sails. The Battle of Jutland, May 31st 1916

The British Grand Fleet sails. The Battle of Jutland, May 31st 1916

May 31st, 2016 marks 100 years since the Battle of Jutland, a naval battle fought between Britain and Germany during the First World War. It was the largest naval battle and the only full-scale clash of battleships in the war.

Over 200 ships, ranging from destroyers to battleships, and 60,000 men took part in the battle in the North Sea just off the Danish coast at the Jutland Peninsula. By the end of the day over 9,500 British and German sailors were dead and 25 ships (14 British, 11 German) were sunk with many others badly damaged.

Whilst this was the largest engagement at sea during the war it has been considered by many historians and naval officers to have been strategically inconclusive. Germany claimed a tactical victory due to the simple arithmetic of ships sunk and lives lost while Britain claimed a strategic victory, as the German High Seas Fleet never sought to challenge them again and stayed in port for the remainder of the war.

For the British, the day was marked in particular by the losses of the battlecruisers Indefatigable, Queen Mary, and Invincible, all of which were destroyed in spectacular style after German shells caused catastrophic damage to the vessels’ magazines, which subsequently exploded and sank the ships.

A little-known fact is the stories of a handful of Australian naval men who were involved that day – many of whom became casualties of the battle.

Australians at Jutland – The Sinking of the HMS Defence

HMS Defence, sunk on 31 May 1916 during the Battle of Jutland. There were no survivors.

HMS Defence, sunk on 31 May 1916 during the Battle of Jutland. There were no survivors.

While no RAN ship took part in the action this does not mean that the RAN, and Australia, was not represented at the battle. At least four members of the RAN were at the battle and another Australian serving in the Royal Navy was also present (and there may have been more). In the grim irony of war, of the five Australian’s known to have served at the Battle of Jutland; three were to lose their lives and all from the same ship.

Chaplain Patrick Gibbons was a Roman Catholic Chaplain serving in HMAS Australia and following the collision he was loaned to the old battle cruiser HMS Indomitable which was part of the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron attached to the main Battleship Squadrons. Indomitable survived the battle with no damage or casualties but Gibbons later ministered to the dying and wounded Catholic sailors from the fleet.  Gibbons had joined Australia in 1913 and, apart from his brief sojourn in Indomitable, served in the Australian battle cruiser until 1920 when he resigned from the RAN.

Another Australian officer on loan to the Royal Navy was Gunner (Warrant Officer) John Henry Gill who served in the Battleship HMS Benbow which was the flagship of the 4th Battleship Squadron under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee (who had destroyed the German East Asia Squadron at the Battle of the Falklands in 1914).  Benbow fired about 100 rounds during the battle with little or no effect and escaped without damage or casualties.

HMS Warrior. She was heavily damaged during the Battle of Jutland in 1916, after which she withdrew and was later abandoned and sank in a rising sea.

HMS Warrior. She was heavily damaged during the Battle of Jutland in 1916, after which she withdrew and was later abandoned and sank in a rising sea.

The three Australians who lost their lives at the Battle of Jutland were all serving in the armoured cruiser HMS Defence which was part of the 1st Cruiser Squadron. At 1800 the Squadron, under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot, spotted a group of German cruisers and turned to engage them, but a few minutes later German battle cruisers appeared through the haze and opened fire on the leading British ships (Defence and Warrior). Warrior was badly damaged, set on fire and had over 100 men killed or wounded but managed to limp away.

Defence was less fortunate. One eyewitness later wrote:

The Defence was heavily engaged, salvos dropping all around her. At 1815 a salvo hit her abaft the after turret and a big red flame flashed up. The ship heeled, then quickly righted herself and steamed on. But almost immediately another salvo struck between the forecastle turret and the foremost funnel, and she was lost to sight in an enormous black cloud which, when it cleared, showed no signs of a ship at all.  Defence was sunk with the loss of her entire crew of 903 men. Among those killed were Sub Lieutenant George Paterson, RAN (a 20 year old who had been born in England but had joined the RAN in March 1914) and 19 year old Midshipman Joseph Mack, RAN who hailed from Berry Bank, (near Lismore), Victoria. Both men had joined the RAN but were loaned to the RN for further training. Also killed in the sinking of HMS Defence was Stoker 2nd Class Mortimer Hugh Froude.

Froude, from Balmain, had joined the RAN on 1 June 1912 as a 14 year old Boy 2nd Class and received his initial training in HMAS Tingira before being posted to HMAS Australia. He was an Ordinary Seaman when he deserted from the RAN in June 1915, when Australia was in British waters. He tried to join the British Army but was rejected due to his height. Froude then joined the Royal Navy as a Stoker and was posted to the cruiser Defence. On 31 May 1916, when the smoke cleared Paterson, Mack and Froude had simply ceased to exist.

The Australian Admiral at Jutland: Sir Ernest F. A. Gaunt (1865-1940)

Rear Admiral Sir Ernest Frederick Augustus Gaunt

Rear Admiral Sir Ernest Frederick Augustus Gaunt

Ernest Gaunt was born on 25 March 1865 at Beechworth. In 1877 he went to England to join HMS Britannia as a naval cadet, serving on the Australia Station from 1880 to 1884; as sub-lieutenant on HMS Nelson, he hoisted the British flag when the British Protectorate over New Guinea was proclaimed. In 1896 he was promoted first lieutenant of the armoured cruiser HMS Narcissus, and in China in 1898-99 served in administrative posts; he was thanked by the Austrian and German Commanders-in-Chief for his services during the Boxer Rebellion. In early December 1903 he was severely wounded when he commanded a landing party to avenge the death of an Italian naval officer in Somaliland; in December that year he was promoted captain and subsequently commanded the battleships HMS Majestic, HMS Queen and HMS Superb.

In 1913, he became Commodore of the Royal Naval Barracks in Chatham, England, and in 1913 and 1914, he was aide-de-camp to King George V. Then, in 1916 during World War I, he served as second-in-command of the 1st Battle Squadron at the Battle of Jutland as Rear Admiral – his ship was the HMS Colossus. When the war began in August 1914, Colossus became the flagship of the 1st Battle Squadron. While commanded by Captain Dudley Pound she fought with distinction at Jutland, taking a number of German shell hits which caused minor damage and six casualties.

He was promoted vice admiral in February 1919 and admiral in June 1924 before retiring in March the next year. He was appointed KCB in 1919 and KBE in 1922. He retired to London, where he died on 20 April 1940 at Westminster Hospital, survived by a son and two daughters.

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10 comments

    1. Thanks, GP. As I’m sure you’ll agree, there’s an amazing amount of these stories to be told. I truly feel that in the telling, we not only honour the people but we also begin to add their contributions to our history.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It’s remarkable just how many Australians and New Zealanders were serving aboard the ships at Jutland – and great to see some of their stories. I’ve always thought that the naval side of the war has been seen as the ‘poor cousin’ of the Western Front when it came down to casualties – but the reality, hammered home at Jutland, was that naval warfare could be as lethal. And tragic. The wreck of HMS Defence has since been found and it looks as if she was literally ripped apart as one magazine after another detonated, down the length of the ship. An awful, awful tragedy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many tales from the Great War still seem to be overshadowed by the horror of the Western Front. Yet Jutland was a hell of a battle. Some of the ships – such as the Queen Mary – literally blew apart when their turrets full of ready ammunition were hit. The loss of life was sudden as well as numerous.

      Liked by 1 person

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