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Friday, 1 June 2012

A date to Remember?

Yesterday we left the coast of Jutland for the drive back to Germany. The previous evening we'd taken a walk along the dunes just north of where we'd rented a holiday cottage and, near Norre Lyndvig, came across a memorial to two wrecks that occurred in 1811, the 64 gun Fourth Rate "St George" and a second ship, a frigate of 36 guns. 1400 men died in these wrecks and the bodies washed ashore all along the Ringkobing Fjord coast. Over 500 were buried beneath the dunes where the memorial now stands, but, as I stood and looked out to the site of the wreck of the "St George" the place and the date took another focus.

From this spot, in 1916, I would have heard the gunfire from the battle between the two greatest Battle Fleets ever to meet and engage in a ship-to-ship duel of gunnery. This took place in the late afternoon of the 31st May. The British Grand Fleet met the slightly smaller German High Seas Fleet in a long awaited battle. British losses were horrific - three of Admiral Beattie's Battle Cruiser Force blew up with the loss of almost all hands. His own flagship, HMS Lion, almost shared their fate, but was saved only by the dying action of the Royal Marine Major commanding 'Q' Turret. As the cordite around him ignited, he ordered the flooding of the magazine, drowning everyone in it, but saving the ship.

From where we stood we might have been able to see at least some of this, and certainly the muzzle flash and smoke. With over 500 ships charging about and the major units firing their 11, 13.5, 14 and 15 inch guns it must have been an awe inspiring and possibly frightening sight and sound for the inhabitants of this area.

The German Fleet did not escape unscathed, though, through disasterously poor communications, it escaped Jellicoe's hoped for "Glorious First of June" he spent the night preparing his ships for. Through bold handling and leadership, the High Seas Fleet managed to pass through the tail of the British Fleet during the night and return to its base. Though they were sighted and engaged by several ships, no one thought to send Jellicoe a signal about it ...

May 31st, 1916 stands in history as the date of the last engagement between two massive battle fleets and, unlike Trafalgar, Copenhagen, the Nile, or Admiral Howe's "Glorious First of June" it is best described as inconclusive. It is true the High Seas Fleet never again challenged the Grand Fleet, but it is a mistake to think it did nothing else. It found plenty of action in the Baltic and all but destroyed Russian Naval forces in a number of engagements and performed admirably in support of the Army against the Russian land forces and later the Bolsheviks.

Standing on the windswept dunes I could only wonder what the men engaged in that clash of the giants would think of the world we have created from the peace they won with their lives.

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