Monday, 30 May 2016

The Battle of Jutland

To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Battle of Jutland, we tell the story of Arthur Townsend Johnstone, a naval officer who was killed that day on HMS Defence. He is remembered on a family memorial in Hampstead Cemetery, Fortune Green Road.

The Battle of Jutland took place on 31 May 1916, off the west coast of Denmark. It was the only major fleet action of World War I and was the largest naval battle of all time. It only lasted 12 hours, but more than 6,000 British sailors were killed and 14 ships were sunk. The German loses were 11 ships and over 2,500 men.

HMS Defence

The battle cruiser Invincible had disabled two German light cruisers and Defence and Warrior from the First Cruiser Squadron were attempting to sink them when they were hammered by fire from the German battleships. The Defence was hit by two salvos and the rear magazine exploded, sinking the ship killing 900 men. The Warrior was set on fire, but managed to escape. Recent studies show that most of the Royal Navy ships which were lost had left the safety doors open, to speed up the rate of fire which the Admirals demanded. Fires in the gun turrets had spread down to the cordite magazines below, causing the catastrophic explosions.

HMS Defence under fire at Jutland

Arthur Townsend Johnstone was the son of David Yuile Johnstone, a stock broker, and his wife Margaret. He was born in 1882 when the family were living at 63 Alexandra Road, Swiss Cottage (the house is now demolished). Arthur entered the navy as a cadet in 1896 and joined the fleet as a midshipman in 1898. He specialised in gunnery and had served on HMS Defence as its gunnery officer since April 1915. That December he was promoted Commander. At the time of his death Arthur was unmarried and his address was given as 14 Prince Edward Mansions, Bayswater, where his parents were living. A memorial service was held for Arthur at St Stephen’s Church in Gloucester Road. The hymns sung included ‘Abide with me.’

The Johnstone family grave at Hampstead Cemetery

The grave in Hampstead Cemetery also reveals that Arthur’s older brother, Second Lieutenant David Harry Johnstone, died in 1915. He was an accomplished musician, composing and playing the violin and piano. He worked in partnership with his father at the Stock Exchange. David enlisted in the Anti-Aircraft Corps at the outbreak of war and was later given a commission to the Hertfordshire Regiment, but died suddenly on 2 August, having contracted influenza.

At first newspapers reported that there were no survivors from HMS Defence. Then in December 1916 several papers carried the story of stoker George Winterbourne, who was charged with being absent without leave. He claimed he was onboard when the Defence was hit, then he drifted in the water for hours until picked up by a collier. After being landed near Newcastle, he had wandered round the country, living off £20 he found in his belt. George seemed dazed and was certified as suffering from shock. When his story was investigated, some of the information he gave was accurate enough for him to be sent under detention to the naval authorities at Portsmouth.

Recent scans of the sea bed have produced three-dimensional images of some of the wrecks of the 25 Royal Navy and German ships that were sunk. Nick Hewitt, a historian with the National Museum of the Royal Navy, says;

HMS Defence in particular was ‘reduced to atoms’ according to one contemporary account, but the wreck was complete, upright and immediately recognisable by the distinctive profile of her secondary armament, still trained outboard towards her foes a century after the battle.

At the time, the battle was seen as a humiliating defeat for Britain which had held sea supremacy since Nelson’s time. More recent evaluations indicate the Royal Navy blockade of the North Sea was sustained and the German High Fleet never came out again to engage the British Fleet. The blockade had an effect on civilians and the German troops and so helped win the War.

For more information on the battle see:

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