Lord Kitchener transferring to Jellicoe's flagship HMS Iron Duke before attic sail on the Hampshire on 5 June 1916.At around 7.45pm on 5 June 2016, Field Marshal The Earl Kitchener was drowned just off the west coast of Orkney in Scotland. His death shocked ordinary men and women across the British Empire who could not fathom why he was at sea. Disbelief was followed by a short period of criticism and enquiry. Numerous theories of spurious conspiracy were spread by the press which muddied the waters successfully in the weeks immediately afterwards, but a greater horror soon followed at the Somme and Kitchener’s demise became but one calamity in a summer of tragedies.

We know that key members of the Secret Elite wanted rid of him. His views on a fair peace and his self-ordained aims for the end of the war were unacceptable. [1] But how to get rid of him? Having demonstrated in previous blogs that his mission to Russia was not particularly important, that he was not invited by the Czar as several historians have claimed [2] and that he had considered postponing the visit, we have to critically re-examine Kitchener’s death. Was it simply an act of good fortune for those who wanted him gone or were there more disturbing undercurrents? Consider the sequence of events.

Herbert Kitchener left for his visit to Russian in good spirits. Critics of his performance as Secretary of State for War had been quashed in a failed censure motion in parliament on 31 May [3] and on 1 June he met with over 200 MPs to give them the opportunity to hear his views on the war to date. He answered their questions openly and the parliamentarians responded with warm and prolonged applause. [4] That evening he had a farewell audience with King George V and went from Buckingham Palace to Downing Street for a lengthy one-to-one meeting with Prime Minister Asquith. With hindsight it had the feel of a farewell tour.

Pictorial representation of the Battle of Jutland

At that very moment, out in the North Sea, near Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula, the only full-scale clash between the British Grand Fleet and the German Imperial Fleet was erupting. Both sides claimed victory, though the British suffered heavy losses including six cruisers and eight destroyers. [5] Almost immediately afterwards Admiral Sir John Jellicoe ordered an enquiry into the loss of so many cruisers [6] and as the fleet returned to Scapa Flow, bruised and damaged, the blame game began. While the loss of 6,097 men was a serious blow to Admiralty prestige, the German Fleet, which suffered 2,557 losses, [7]was afterwards more or less confined to port for the duration of the war. Both sides claimed victory, but Jellicoe’s reputation never recovered. He was already under great strain, both physically and mentally. [8]

And in the midst off this naval trauma, the most iconic soldier in the Empire arrived at Scapa Flow. Kitchener and his staff had travelled the 700 mile journey north to Scotland overnight by train on a special coach from King’s Cross station. Next day, Monday 5 June 1916, he arrived at the port of Scrabster near Thurso and made the rough two hour crossing to Orkney on the destroyer, HMS Oak. What is pertinent to all that transpired thereafter was that the Secretary of State for War was entirely in the hands of the Admiralty, and the Admiralty was in the hands of the Secret Elite’s Arthur Balfour. [9] It was Admiral Jellicoe who allocated the old coal-fired armoured cruiser HMS Hampshire to carry their precious passenger to Archangel in Russia even although she was reported to have sustained light damage in the Jutland battle. It was Jellicoe who issued the initial orders on 4 June to the Hampshire’s Captain, Herbert Savill, who had sailed the Orkney passages for over a year. Crucially, it was Jellicoe who changed these instructions at the last moment directing the cruiser up the western coasts of the Orkney islands, allegedly a safer more protected route. There was no protection from a cyclonic storm around Orkney save the stout safety of Scapa Flow harbour.

HMS Hampshire in force 9 Gale

The weather was foul. In fact it was about as bad as it could be in June. According to the local newspaper, the Orcadian, a force 9 gale, the wildest summer storm Orkney had experienced for years, raged over the island. Alexander McAdie, Professor of Meteorology at Harvard University later destroyed the claim that Jellicoe and his staff could not have anticipated the raging gale which circulated around Orkney that day. A clearly identified cyclone was passing from the Atlantic to the North Sea and was on the point of recurve before heading into the Artic regions. He stated that ‘the forecaster in London would have warned against starting under such conditions…the counsel of the weatherise would have been to wait and follow the depression rather than try to precede it.’ [10] Apologists for the Admiralty and Jellicoe blamed ‘bad judgement and complacency’. [11] In 1923, McAdie destroyed such a notion by claiming that ‘the lack of definite knowledge of the storm’s position seems inexcusable.’ [12]

We are talking here about the British Admiralty, with its centuries of experience in weather and seamanship. The Admiralty knew about the organisation of Kitchener’s visit because they were responsible for its detailed planning. Jellicoe was the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet. He knew Scapa Flow and its cyclonic storms and gales. He was in regular contact with London. Indeed Jellicoe telegraphed the Admiralty to seek permission to permit HMS Hampshire to remain at Archangel for the duration of Kitchener’s visit and received approval at 6.08 pm on 5 June, once the Hampshire was underway. [13] Surely, as Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet, Jellicoe could have made such a decision on his own. Why did London have to approve it? Undeniably communications were exchanged between the Orkneys and London that concerned the Hampshire before it was blown apart. It is therefore impossible to sustain an argument based on ‘confusion and poor communications’ between the Admiralty in London and Jellicoe in Scapa Flow. They knew and approved the detail of Kitchener’s last journey. There was no confusion.

Questions were soon raised about the choice of HMS Hampshire to carry Kitchener on the Artic route to Archangel. An angry Portsmouth vicar wrote to The Times on 9 June: ‘Is no explanation to be given to us why the most valuable life the nation possessed was risked in an old ship like HMS Hampshire, unattended by any escort?’ [14] This is a valid question. The Hampshire was a thirteen year old Devonshire armoured cruiser which might well have been scrapped had war not found use and purpose for virtually every ship on the high seas. Unlike her sister ship, the Carnarvon, which had been partially fitted to burn oil and coal, the Hampshire was solely coal-fired and consequently, with a bunkering capacity of 1,600 tons, sat low in the water. In February 1914, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty supplied a written Commons answer to a parliamentary enquiry which listed two hundred and fifty two vessels, ranging from Battleships to Torpedo Boat Destroyers which were oil fired, soon to be oil-fired or partially fitted for both power sources. HMS Hampshire was not included. [15] Yet the old coal-fired, four-funnelled cruiser was Jellicoe’s choice. She would hardly be inconspicuous when steaming at full speed.

The route of HMS Hampshire as specified by Admiral Jellicoe which directed the warship into the minefield.

Thus, HMS Hampshire slipped her moorings in the relative safety of Scapa Flow at 4.45pm on 5 June 1916 and headed west then north into the teeth of a storm. She was to be escorted by two destroyers, Unity and Victor, [16] neither of which had the capacity to cope in the vicious head-on gale. They joined the Hampshire at 5.45 pm and went through the motions of providing initial support for the cruiser. For thirty-five minutes Unity struggled against the odds to stay close, but even with Captain Savill’s speed reduced twice, it was a forlorn hope in the mountainous swell. She was ordered to return to Scapa at 6.20. Victor lasted a further ten minutes in the severe gale, then turned back. By 6.30 pm, the Hampshire was plunging a lonely slow furrow, her decks battened down save for the hatch to 14 mess, like a floating coffin with a single air-vent. Channelled down Jellicoe’s chosen route, past Hoy Sound, tossed and battered by the merciless storm, the given official account would have us accept that ‘unconnected co-incidences’ [17] drew the ill-fated ship into an unknown German mine-field, laid by U-75 just off Marwick Head. Only twelve men survived. Kitchener was not one of them.

That an ‘unknown’ German mine-field lay to the west coast of the Orkney Islands demands examination. Evidence now available demonstrates that vital messages about submarine activity on the precise route that Jellicoe had ordained the Hampshire must take, had arrived at the Naval Headquarters at Longhope on the Orkney island of South Wallis on the afternoon of 5 June. Apparently no-one paid attention. [18] The most prestigious passenger ever landed on Scapa Flow was already at the base and no-one had given instructions to update the commander-in-chief, Admiral Jellicoe, or his senior staff about submarine activity that day on the chosen route? This is unbelievable. Submarine activity in the proximity of Scapa Flow was always given high priority. Few places in the world were more conscious of the danger posed by a submarine. Given the vulnerability of the Grand Fleet after the Battle of Jutland, the disposition of U-Boats was of absolute importance. Failure to immediately alert the senior officers of the fleet to U-Boat dangers was a dereliction of duty which would have merited court martial. No-one was taken to task.

As we have previously shown [19] the Admiralty in London had gained possession of the three major codes used by the Imperial German Navy to transmit information to their ships and submarines before the war was even four months old. The decoders in Room 40 were able to decipher every naval wireless transmission and from these, plot German ship movements and build up detailed profiles on U-Boat commanders. [20] As the German preparations for what would be known as the Battle of Jutland took shape, three ocean-going submarine minelayers were sent to the sea lanes off the Firth of Forth, the Moray Firth and Orkney.

Kurt Beitzen, commander of U-75The commander of U-75, Kurt Beitzen duly laid his mines in five groups of four across the sea-bed on the precise route which Jellicoe selected for the Hampshire. Back in Room 40 at the Admiralty, U-75’s course, and that of its two sister ships, had been detected and decoded. Take stock of this statement. When Kitchener’s journey was being planned and approved at the Admiralty they knew of the risks caused by submarine activity. So too did Jellicoe. Two intercepts from 31 May and 1 June placed the new ocean-going minelaying U-75 west of Orkney. On 3 June, U-75’s movements were transmitted to the Longhope station, and Admiralty records show that three messages logged on 5 June, all timed and dated from the Cape Wrath station, identified a submarine, U-75, at 2.40 pm, 5.15 pm and 7.15 pm. [21] Hampshire had put to sea at 4.45 pm, but was in radio contact with Longhope. Undeniably, Jellicoe had instructed HMS Hampshire to sail into a section known to have been occupied by a mine-laying U-Boat. [22]

These were not the errors of some raw recruit or the hapless mistakes of an inexperienced trainee. Each of these decisions was dictated by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander in chief of the Grand Fleet. It is claimed that Kitchener had been keen to press on with his journey despite the weather, and consequently the Hampshire’s departure was not delayed. [23] Really?

Admiral Jellicoe onboard in calmer waters.

Are we to believe that had Admiral Jellicoe not taken time to explain the debilitating effect of a force 9 storm, Kitchener would have over-ruled his advice? In fact, there was no such discussion. Jellicoe latter wrote that, in his opinion, ‘I did not consider the delay necessary as I should not have hesitated, if need had arisen, to take the Grand Fleet to sea on the same night and on the same route…’ [24]  Of course Kitchener wanted to get underway, but was sufficiently astute to understand the adage ‘more haste less speed’. He was a poor sailor. Claims that blame lay with Kitchener’s blind determination to sail through the cyclonic storm ring hollow. The same might be said of the choice of HMS Hampshire. Of all the options available to Jellicoe, the old armoured cruiser was the least-cost option. Her coal-burning boilers generated both power and steam and had she made Petrograd safely, how many submarine packs might have lain in wait for the return voyage.

In the weeks and months that followed, a great deal of heat was generated by allegations and conjecture about who, outside Britain, may or may not have known about Kitchener’s proposed visit to Russia as if that had bearing on the outcome. One factor, and one alone, did. Whoever knew about the U-75 and its minelaying activity around Orkney, knew that the passage to Marwick Head was a death-trap. Whoever instructed Captain Savill to take the route, must bear some responsibility. But did Jellicoe act alone? How far does the trail of complicity stretch? At the Admiralty there was one man in the inner circle of the Secret Elite whose authority over-rode all else. That was the First Lord, Arthur J Balfour.

But the mystery deepened when the Orcadians shared their shocking experience with the world, and ten years later, when the Admiralty Inquiry was eventually made public.

[1] Kitchener’s interference in munitions and his belief in a fair peace alarmed the Secret Elite leader, Lord Milner and his political allies, Leo Amery, Andrew Bonar Law, Sir Edward Carson and many others. Asquith and Lloyd George wanted rid of him quickly as did the press baron, Lord Northcliffe . These men represented the poisoned tip of an anti-Kitchener lobby which had no public support.
[2] Sir George Arthur, The Life of Lord Kitchener, pp. 349-50, is typical of the misleading notion that the Secretary of State for War was invited by the Czar to go to visit him in Russia.
[3] The Times 1 June 1916, p. 10.
[4] John Pollock, Kissinger, p. 475.
[5] The Times, 3 June 1916, p. 8.
[6] Nicholas A Lambert, Our Bloody Ships or Our Bloody System? Jutland and the loss of the Battle Cruisers, 1916. Journal of Military History, vol. 62, no. 1, January 1998, p. 47.
[7] http://www.battle-of-jutland.com/jutland-gains-losses.htm
[8] S W Roskill, The Dismissal of Admiral Jellicoe, Journal of Contemporary History, vol.1, no. 4 (October 1966) p. 69.
[9] Arthur Balfour was at that point First Lord of the Admiralty. His Secret Elite credentials placed him in the inner core of the secret society. See Carol Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, pp.17-18 and 312.
[10] George H Cassar, Kitchener, Architect of Victory, p. 476.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Alexander McAdie, ‘Fate and a Forecast’, Harvard Graduate Magazine, September 1923, p. 46.
[13] Trevor Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 364.
[14] Rev C H Hamilton, The Times, Letters to the Editor, 9 June 1916, p. 9.
[15] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 18 February 1914 vol 58 cc961-3W
[16] Both vessels were listed in Churchill’s lists of 252 ships to be oil-fired.
[17] The Times, 10 August, 1926, p. 9.
[18] Trevor Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 367.
[19] See blog: Lusitania 1: The Tale of the Secret Miracles, posted 28 April, 2015.
[20] Patrick Beesly, Room 40 British Naval Intelligence 1914-1918, pp. 21-33.
[21] National Archives ADM137 / 4105.
[22] Royale, Kitchener Enigma, pp. 369-70.
[24] George H Cassar, Kitchener, Architect of Victory, p.476. or Royle, Kitchener Enigma, p. 480.
[25] Viscount Jellicoe, The Grand Fleet(1914-1916): Its Creation, Development and Work p.427.