The Battle of Jutland was the the world’s greatest old-fashioned slugging match between two imperial navies desperately struggling for supremacy. Both realised it would bring ultimate victory in the First World War and for 16 furious hours the British and German fleets threw everything they had at each other.
At the time, neither side felt it had won. We lost 14 ships and 6,000 men, the Germans 11 ships and 2,500 men. The horrific toll left both sides to lick their wounds and ever since, the battle has had a strange place in our collective consciousness.
What, in fact, was a crucial strategic victory for the British, has been nearly forgotten and rarely celebrated. To illustrate the point the locations of the battle’s wrecks are not even clearly established nor marked on Admiralty charts. Of course, over the years, fishermen and salvagers have picked and poked over the wrecks. The North Sea is one of the most trawled, surveyed, drilled, dived, trenched and pipelined stretches of water in the world. But no one has pulled all the facts together to produce a coherent picture of the whereabouts of the sunken warships.
My mission was to unravel exactly were the wrecks lay. Local fishermen from the Danish ports of Esbjerg and Thyboron no doubt know the location of every piece of wreckage in their waters – but the puzzle was to put the pieces together and find the identity of the individual wrecks. After extensive research using every source of information from contemporary records, ships’ logs, diving expeditions, fishermen’s tales and studies by German and British historians, I had compiled an extensive database. And, following a series of diving expeditions last year and the year before, I believe the jigsaw is complete.
Today we can fairly confidently say where all of the 25 wrecks lie spread over an area of some 6,000 sq miles and at depths of between 45m and 65m. Some have been blown apart and scattered across the sea bed by commercial salvagers, others lie upright and nearly intact. They provide fascinating and challenging diving.
This 18,750-tonne battle cruiser was the first ship to sink during the battle. She was part of Admiral David Beatty’s battle cruiser squadron – the advance force for the main Grand Fleet, and although there were many witnesses to her last few seconds, it was always far from certain how, and exactly when she had sunk, and even where. Many argue that Beatty impetuously engaged the German High Seas Fleet well before the main British force could come to his support. The HMS Indefatigable was his first loss when, minutes into the battle, she heeled out of line and blew up. When the smoke cleared there was no sign of the ship – or of any of her 1,019 crew. The Germans later fished two survivors from the sea. The wreck of HMS Indefatigable was the largest of the wrecks sunk at Jutland which remained unknown to both me and the Hydrographic Office in 2000. The other battle cruiser wrecks, HMS Queen Mary, HMS Invincible, and SMS Lutzow, had previously been located by other Jutland expeditions. In the case of HMS Invincible, the Royal Navy located the wreck in 1919, in order to help facilitate a post-war investigation into the Battle of Jutland. It seemed strange that such a large wreck could remain unknown. In fact, the ship’s remains are not even charted as a fisherman’s fastener or an unknown sea bed anomaly. However, several local sources in Denmark suggested a possible position. When we dived the wreck, the reason why its position was not so well known quickly became apparent – it has been heavily commercially salvaged. In fact, there is little of this wreck that is instantly recognisable and hardly any of the wreckage stood higher that 6–7m off the sea bed. Sadly, this means we will never be able to assess how HMS Indefatigable came to her end. It was difficult to identitify the wreck and it was only after studying our video footage that we could confirm that we had found the final resting place of HMS Indefatigable. The video showed the presence of both 12in and 4in guns, placing the identity beyond doubt. This wreck, which is scattered over a massive area, has been systematically blown to pieces to extract non-ferrous metal. A very thorough job has been carried out. In fact, so successful was the demolition that we had quite a difficult time being able to navigate around the wreck from dive to dive. While it was great to be able to say with certainty where this battle cruiser lies, because of the demolition it was a disappointing dive and there were others to find, so after two days, we moved on. As we prepared to leave the Danish port of Esbjerg at the end of the 2001 trip, an old man cycled down the quay and asked me what we had been diving on. When I told him, he said that he remembered bronze being sold on the same quay in 1958, which had come from the Jutland wrecks. He said that the HMS Indefatigable was a name he remembered from the sale.
All of the light cruisers sunk at Jutland were German. One of them was the 2,656-tonne SMS Frauenlob, completed in 1903. She was sunk in the confused series of night actions during the closing stages of the battle. She was, in fact, sunk by one of her opposite numbers, the British light cruiser HMS Southampton, which herself was ablaze from stem to stern and attempting to escape from certain annihilation. HMS Southampton torpedoed the Frauenlob and sent her to the ocean’s bottom with all but five crew from a complement of around 281. Anecdotal evidence suggested (as was later confirmed) that Danish divers had already visited the wreck of SMS Frauenlob – it can be a risky business claiming you are the first to dive any wreck. The wreck of SMS Frauenlob was one of our most rewarding dives at Jutland. The remains are mostly upright and, apart from the decay of the upper works, the wreck is mostly intact… hauntingly so. Several interesting features relating to the ship’s construction were found. This included the presence of a double-skinned hull, which appears to have been packed with a cork-like substance, presumably to give her additional buoyancy. This is a rare find on a warship wreck of this era. Importantly, the propellers were present, suggesting that either this wreck was too small to be of interest to commercial salvage companies, or simply was never found by them. This wreck contains visible human remains, only the second time in my 15-year diving career that I’ve seen human bones. Tragically, on SMS Frauenlob they are plentiful. One diver reported seeing a ‘sea of skulls’ in one area of the wreck. The ship’s bell was located on one dive. When it was raised we could read the inscription ‘Frauenlob 1902’, thereby positively identifying this wreck. It now resides in the Kiel Navy Museum in Germany, where its curator was deeply moved by its donation. After conservation, it will be displayed for the public to see. This piece of ‘rescue archaeology’ was carried out after consultation with the UK Receiver of Wreck. At the request of the British Ministry of Defence, nothing was salvaged from any of the British wrecks from the Battle of Jutland.
The obsolete pre-Dreadnought battleship SMS Pommern erupted in a fireball and disappeared with all 840 hands at around 2am and became the last ship sunk during the battle. She had been destroyed by at least one torpedo from British destroyers (probably HMS Faulknor). Divers from the BSAC Hoddesdon and Clidive branches made a dive at the position where Pommern was thought to lie, and reported finding much large wreckage. However, the visibility was too poor to confirm the site was SMS Pommern. It is known that the wreck of the Pommern was heavily salvaged. Moreover, the position we dived is relatively close (in Jutland terms) to the historical sinking position. This one needs further examination, but I am confident that the position dived was SMS Pommern.
This is the most scenic of all the wrecks located last year. The overall condition of the wreck of HMS Defence was astounding, considering the reports of her destruction. Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot’s flagship, HMS Defence blew up and disintegrated in only a few seconds. She was sunk after becoming rashly entangled with the vanguard of Admiral Hipper’s battle cruisers, just as the battle reached its climax. None of the 903 on board survived. Of the four ships that made up the 2nd Scouting Group, three were sunk at Jutland. One of the others, HMS Black Prince was also lost with all hands. It was located and dived the year before last. HMS Warrior, having sunk while returning to Scapa, lies outside the battle site. An older armoured cruiser, the 14,600-tonne HMS Defence, was essentially obsolete by the time of the battle and was not built to withstand the shellfire she endured. The description of her sinking is dramatic and suggests that the wreck should only be scattered plating. On the contrary, what the divers from Clidive and Hoddesdon branches, and myself, were treated to was the awesome sight of a row of four gun turrets still facing to starboard. From analysis of the photographs of HMS Defence, it seems that her bow and stern were blown off and that the intact midships section is what the divers found, with its 7.5in gun turrets draped in fishing net. It lies upright on the sea bed and rivals HMS Invincible (dived in 2000) as one of the most spectacular of the Jutland dives. The wreck also benefits from lying in an area with the best visibility we found in Jutland. It seemed from the two exploratory dives we made here, that this wreck had not seen much in the way of disturbance.
HMS Nomad or Nestor
Close to where HMS Queen Mary sank, two small British destroyers also went down. We dived on one of them, when we found the site of the Queen Mary had been heavily netted. We were treated to a dive on a small British warship. It is impossible to say with any certainty which destroyer this wreck is, until the other one is found. They were essentially identical.