Admiral Beatty was credited as the real hero of Jutland and was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet.The Admiralty lied to the public throughout the war. It’s official reports and accounts of politically sensitive events like the sinking of the Lusitania and of the one major encounter at sea between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet have been discredited over the last century. [1] Nameless officials doctored ‘evidence’. Courts of Enquiry, especially that of the sinking of the Lusitania, were rigged and embarrassingly flawed. When he was First Sea Lord in 1920, Admiral Beatty falsified his own signature to battle plans concerning Jutland four years after the event. [2]

Immediately after the war the Conservative MP Commander Carolyn Bellairs wrote ‘The Jutland despatches withheld the truth about the battle; and Mr Balfour [First Lord of the Admiralty] who is said to have set aside responsible advice from within the Admiralty itself, refused to assemble a court-martial to inquire into all the circumstances. [By] Retaining Lord Jellicoe in command, he knew, and indeed asked the press, that criticism should be silenced.’ [3] This direct request to the press from the Secret Elite’s Arthur Balfour also covered the period when harsh questions were being asked about the fate of HMS Hampshire. ‘Criticism should be silenced.’ [4] What were they afraid of?

Bellairs had reached the rank of Commander after eighteen years service in the navy before becoming a journalist and politician in 1902. By 1915 he was Conservative member for Maidstone Borough and brought a great depth of knowledge and criticism to parliamentary debates on the navy. He and several other critics tackled the Admiralty’s apparent inability to answer relatively simple questions about the sinking of the Hampshire in a House of Commons debate in July 1916. [5] Despite requests that they should not raise difficult questions that might aid the enemy, many MPs wanted to know what was really going on. Firstly, why did the Admiralty reject a public enquiry into the loss of the Hampshire on 5 June at Marwick Head? Protocol laid down that whenever a ship was lost at sea, a public court-martial should be held with the survivors to ascertain precisely why. Lord Kitchener’s death commanded huge public interest and concern. Still there was no public enquiry.

Kitchener Memorial Service at St Paul's in London.

Sir Richard Cooper correctly pointed out that in refusing to answer questions, the evasive Admiralty only added to wild speculation. They would not confirm whether the sea lane used by HMS Hampshire had been swept for mines. We know that it had not. Jellicoe admitted this in his own history of the Grand Fleet. [6] There was no credible answer to questions raised about the announcement of Lord Kitchener’s death. Cooper pointed out that the formal communique about the loss of the Hampshire was issued in London at 2pm on 6 June 1916, and that evening, the details of Kitchener’s memorial service at St Paul’s were made public before the War Office could reasonably assume that he had not survived. [7] Strange. The bodies picked out of the sea or caught smashed against the jagged rocks were collected and quickly buried. There was no coroner’s inquest, or since the jurisdiction was in Scotland, fatal accident inquiry. [8] It was as if the evidence had to be removed from the scene of the crime. Strange, indeed. To make matters worse, the Admiralty slapped a formal restriction on anyone going to or from the Orkneys on 7 June. Why did they want to keep journalists away from the island? Such restrictions could hardly have restricted spies, if such was the purpose. At every turn officials behaved as if there was something to hide.

The Secretary of the Admiralty issued a summary of the conclusions reached by Jellicoe’s own staff after they had interrogated the 12 survivors of the doomed ship. The Admiralty published their official statement on Saturday 10 June. [9] The narrative was brief and succinct to the point of mere repetition of what had already been published in the newspapers. It focussed on the weather, the unexpected mine and the dignity of Lord Kitchener as he bravely faced death. How fortunate that one of the witnesses, Petty Officer Wilfred Wesson [10] was able to confirm that Lord Kitchener was last seen on deck before the ship went down.

Survivors of HMS Hampshire. The sailor wrapped in bandages is Fredrick Sims who sustained burns when the Hampshire exploded.Many years later in a newspaper article [11] Wesson’s story offered food for thought. Despite the fact that the noise of storm and confusion was deafening, ‘there were orders being shouted. They were mostly being caught in the gale and lost… the wind howled ..immeasurable banks of waves burst in shivering cascades …and then Lord Kitchener came on deck. An officer shouted “Make way for Lord Kitchener”. The captain had called to him to come up to the fore bridge .. that was the last I saw of Lord Kitchener.’ [12] Putting aside journalistic license, we might well wonder how Petty Officer Wesson actually heard what he claimed to have borne witness to in the raging storm? However, what was important to the Admiralty was that they produced a witness who could confirm that Herbert Kitchener made it onto the deck, and so must have been lost with the captain and other senior officers.

During the House of Commons exchanges on 6 July 1916, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty, Dr Macnamara, insisted that ‘a full and careful Court of Enquiry’ had been held and ‘a full summary of the report published’ covering the evidence from each survivor. [13] It would appear from subsequent evidence that questions were limited to ‘do you think the Hampshire hit a mine’ and ‘did you see Lord Kitchener?’ Why? Did they have reason to doubt that HMS Hampshire hit a mine? Were they concerned that some story of an internal explosion might raise other issues? And what did it matter if the Secretary of State for War was or was not seen on deck? It was as if the sailors were being asked leading questions.

Aberdeen harbour at the turn of the twentieth century. The Effort was slightly larger than the small fishing vessels in the picture.

The naval authorities did not consider it worthwhile to open an investigation on the allegations from the crew of the Aberdeen trawler, Effort, that the seas were much calmer when they passed the signs of wreckage or search for information from the Dutch trawler reported to have been around the scene of the sinking. [14] Commander Bellairs was once again on his feet to suggest that ‘one of the reasons why the Admiralty of late have taken a dislike to courts-martial is that … they have been known to bring in verdicts blaming the Admiralty. [15] He made one further startling statement: ‘Recently there has been a column in the newspapers about HMS Hampshire and the Battle of Jutland: some of us know that the Hampshire was never in the Battle of Jutland.’ [16]

What? The official order of battle would disagree – but Bellairs was the naval correspondent to War Illustrated and a member of parliament who had many connections inside the Admiralty. Surely he was wrong – or was this yet another alteration made after the event by Lord Jellicoe when he was promoted to First Sea Lord? [17] The more one learns of the Admiralty’s complicity in hiding the truth, the more one wonders what that truth really was.

Yet there was a full official report. It was kept secret. When asked in Parliament where the official enquiry had been held and who conducted it, the evasive answer given was ‘at a naval base under the presidency of a captain of the Royal Navy.’ [18] No names, dates or places. Little wonder suspicion of a cover-up began within a few days of Kitchener’s death.

Rumours ran rife. All of these muddied the waters with suggestions of foul play which ranged from an internal explosion masterminded by Sinn Fein in reprisal for the Easter Rising, to slack talk in Russia which had alerted the Germans who sent a submarine to sink the Hampshire. Such nonsense turned the public away from the most certain of facts. The Admiralty was at fault to the extent that we have every right to suggest complicity. Ten years after Kitchener’s death his friend and biographer, Sir George Arthur, had suffered so many queries about the ‘truth’ surrounding the sinking of the Hampshire that he wrote a public letter to the Editor of The Times [19] in which he exposed the Admiralty’s duplicity:

Front cover of Sir George Arthur's biography of his friend Lord Kitchener.

‘…early in 1920 the First Lord of the Admiralty (the late Lord Long)  invited me to read the secret , or unpublished, report on the sinking of the Hampshire, on the understanding that I would not divulge a word of it to anybody. I declined to read the document under these conditions, as my object was to give in my “Life of Lord Kitchener” the correct version of the tragedy – and this I could not do if material were in my hands which I was not allowed to use. I told the First Lord that I should submit in my book that neglect, or at any rate carelessness, must be charged to the Admiralty, or the Commander of the Grand Fleet, in the arrangements made for Lord Kitchener’s voyage. The reply of the First Lord was, “I do not think you could say otherwise.” [20]

The impact of this revelation hit the Admiralty like a naval broadside. There had been a secret report. There were ‘versions’ of the tragedy. ‘Neglect’ or ‘carelessness’ had been covered-up. George Arthur forced the issue. The Admiralty was obligated to print the official narrative of the sinking of the Hampshire in the form of a White Paper [21] which could be bought for sixpence in August 1926. It added little to the information which had dripped into the public domain save repeating statements already published. Indeed, having considered the lack of new revelations you would have to ask why this had not happened much earlier.

There is another important but contentious fact. According to naval records, HM Drifter Laurel Crown was one of eight boats in a flotilla crossing the site of the Hampshire’s sinking, when she was struck by one of the U-75’s mines on 22 June 1916, some seventeen days after the tragedy. There were no survivors. No-one to tell the tale. A number of concerns emerged.

The first was how could a small 81 ton drifter, literally a fishing boat pressed into minesweeping service, hit a carefully located mine placed some seven meters from the surface? [22] One of the most important factors that seemingly explained HMS Hampshire’s fate was that her weight and displacement on the surging seas combined to take the ship to sufficient depth to cause the collision of mine and cruiser. In theory the German trap laid by U-75 was set to catch much bigger fish than even the Hampshire. Yet a tiny drifter hit one of these mines? How bizarre.

Mine-laying U-Boat 75, sunk in 1917.

Secondly, there is a clear difference in official records concerning the date of the Laurel Crown’s demise. In the document, ‘Navy Losses, 1914-1918’ published in 1919, the hired drifter Laurel Crown is recorded to have been “Sunk by mine west of Orkneys on 2.6.16”. [23] The official German naval history, [24] described the U-75’s voyage in May 1916 and recorded that ‘on June 2nd the drifter Laurel Crown ran into one of U75’s mines and was sunk.’ Thus both official records from the major combatants clearly stated that the Laurel Crown was sunk on 2 June, 1916. [25] Given that these official naval records corroborate each other, the Admiralty must have known of U75’s mine barrier. It would have been abundantly clear to the authorities at Scapa Flow that there was a minefield sewn across the path of HMS Hampshire. Are you prepared to believe that in the confusion after the Battle of Jutland, reports of the trawler’s sinking were delayed, ignored, or otherwise unknown to the senior staff in Scapa Flow?

However, records from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the crewmen of Laurel Crown give their date of death as Thursday 22 June 1916. That is the same date recorded by the Court of Inquiry held in Kirkwall a week later [26]. Have these too been adjusted to suit the Admiralty’s cover-up? The sinking of Laurel Crown is not included in the official British naval history, “Naval Operations, Volume IV” written by Henry Newbolt and published in 1928. [27] How odd. Official dates, altered dates, strange omissions. For reasons that have never been challenged, the sinking of the Laurel Crown has been relegated to claims and counter claims about the date of its demise.

If, as is surely the case, the official records in Britain and in Germany are correct, Lord Kitchener, his party, and around 700 seamen were sacrificed to ensure that he was lost at sea. Do not be dissuaded by the enormity of the cost. Barely one month later on the killing fields of the Somme, hundreds of thousands more brave men were  needlessly sacrificed in the name of civilisation. Crushing Germany was all that mattered. One more ship was easily lost in the fog of Jutland’s confusion.

[1] Carolyn Bellairs, The Battle of Jutland, The Sewing and the Reaping. 1919.
[2] John Brooks, The Battle of Jutland, p. 307, footnote 198.
[3] Bellairs, Jutland, Preface, p. X.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 6 July 1916 vol 83 cc1796-813.
[6] Viscount Jellicoe, The Grand Fleet (!914-1916): Its Creation, Development and Work, p. 427, where he states that had he ordered the seas ahead of HMS Hampshire swept, Kitchener would have lost three days in consequence. Alas it was his life that was lost.
[7] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 6 July 1916 vol 83 cc1796-813.
[8] In Scottish Law a fatal accident inquiry would have been the appropriate means of investigation. This legal process would take place before a Sheriff and does not require a jury.
[9] Details given in Parliament. See House of Commons Debate 22 June 1916 vol. 83 cc316-3.
[10] Wesson’s service number was PO201136(PO). A full list of survivors and their identification number was published.
[11] Sunday Express, 8 July, 1934.
[12] Jane Storey, HMS Hampshire, Survivors and Their First Statements,
[13] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 6 July 1916 vol 83 cc1813.
[14] see previous blog
[15] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 6 July 1916 vol 83 cc1813
[16] Ibid.
[18] Hansard House of Commons Debate, 27 June 1916 vol 83 cc732-3.
[19] The Times, 10 February, 1926, p.10.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Cmd. 2710.
[22] Fregattenkapitän Oskar Groos. Der Krieg zur See 1914-18, Nordsee Band V pp. 201-2.
[23] National Archives ADM 137/3138.
[24] Groos, Der Krieg zur See 1914-18, Nordsee Band V.
[26] National Archives ADM 137/3138
[27] Henry Newbolt, History of the Great War, Based on Official Documents. Naval Operations, Vol IV, pp. 1-21.