- Swinden, Greg
- Biographies and personal histories, History - WW1, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Australia I
- September 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916 was the major naval battle of World War I. For a few short hours on that day the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet came into contact with each other for the only time during the war.
Over 200 ships, ranging from destroyers to battleships, and 60,000 men took part in the battle off the Danish coast. By the end of the day over 9,500 British and German sailors were dead and 25 ships (14 British and 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 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.
Due to a twist of fate some five weeks before no Australian ships were present at this great sea battle. The only RAN ship operating in the North Sea in early 1916 was the battle cruiser HMAS Australia which was part of the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron, comprising Australia and HM Ships New Zealand and Indefatigable, under the overall command of Rear Admiral William Pakenham, RN. On 22 April the Squadron was on patrol off the Danish coast when they encountered a thick fog bank. The ships had been zigzagging regularly due to the perceived submarine threat and at the required time Australia altered course to conform with previous orders. New Zealand maintained her course due to the poor weather conditions and as a result both ships collided.
Australia was badly damaged above the waterline as a result and was sent to the Naval Dockyard at Devonport for repairs, which were not completed until early June; and thus she missed the Battle of Jutland. New Zealand received less damage and so took part in the battle along with Indefatigable some five weeks later.
The Battle of Jutland
This article is not intended to explain the full history of the Battle of Jutland and its aftermath and those interested are encouraged to read one of the numerous books on the subject. Noting the heavy British losses during the battle (14 ships and over 6,000 men killed) it is perhaps a good thing that Australia was not involved. While HMS New Zealand emerged from the battle unscathed, Indefatigable was hit by several German shells. One shell penetrated the forward turret and the flash ignited cordite in the magazine which caused a massive explosion, blowing up the ship with the loss of over 1000 lives (only two survivors were recovered from the water).
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.