This is an extract from the book Warships and Sea Battles of World War I, edited by Bernard Fitzsimons (BPC Publishing Ltd, 1973), being an account of the Battle of Jutland written by the Captain of the German battlecruiser SMS Seydlitz.
The contributor - Edward Wittenburg (email@example.com) - introduces the story... While browsing through the stacks at my local library, I came across a work entitled "Warships and Sea Battles of World War I". Since I've always had an interest in World War I naval tactics (especially those connected with commerce warfare -- raiders and submarines) I checked it out. In the sections dealing with Jutland, I came across an account of the battle from the captain of SMS Seydlitz. I thought it was very well written, and it gives an insight to the battle which I don't think is often considered in other histories. As I enjoyed it immensely, I herewith post it in its entirety for the members of the WWI-L to read and hopefully comment upon.
Although the Germans did not lose any of their battle-cruisers in explosions such as those which destroyed HMS Invincible and Queen Mary, they did nonetheless suffer terribly. One ship which took an enormous pounding was SMS Seydlitz: battered almost out of recognition and with her foredeck level with the water, she managed to limp back home. Here we reprint the Seydlitz's captain's [Kaptain zur See von Egidy] account of the feat.
When our battle-cruisers put to sea on May 31, 1916, SMS Seydlitz was no longer in the van but sailed as "Tactical Number Three", for Vizeadmiral von Hipper had hoisted his flag in the new SMS Lutzow. As always at the beginning of an operation, all watertight doors were thoroughly examined, every piece of apparatus tested and spare parts broken out to be handy in emergencies. The watch kept a sharp outlook for submarines, while the men off watch dozed. When at 1400 hours the message "Enemy in sight" came in, bugles and drums sounded the General March to call all hands to battle- stations. Within minutes, every station reported to the bridge that it was ready for action.
Soon the British light cruisers came in view, and behind them dense clouds of smoke. Then tripod masts and huge hulls loomed over the horizon. There they were again, our friends from Dogger Bank. At 1545 hours we opened fire. After a short time, HMS Indefatigable blew up, followed 20 minutes later by HMS Queen Mary, our target as Tactical Number Three. The spectacle was overwhelming, there was a moment of complete silence, then the calm voice of a gunnery observer announced "Queen Mary blowing up", at once followed by the order "Shift target to the right" given by the gunnery officer in the same matter- of-fact tone as at normal gunnery practice.
Now four fast British battleships came up and directed heavy fire against our rear ships. But our main fleet came up, too; the British battle-cruisers turned away to the north, and we took up station ahead of our own battleships. We had not gone unscathed. The first hit we received was a 12-inch shell that struck Number Six 6-inch casemate on the starboard side, killing everybody except the Padre who, on his way to his battle-station down below, had wanted to take a look at the men and at the British, too. By an odd coincidence we had, at our first battle practice in 1913, assumed the same kind of hit and by the same adversary, the Queen Mary. Splinters perforated air leads in the bunker below and gas consequently entered the starboard main turbine compartment.
Somewhat later the gunnery central station deep down reported: "No answer from 'C' turret. Smoke and gas pouring out of the voice pipes from 'C' turret." That sounded like the time of Dogger Bank. Then it had been "C" and "D" turrets. A shell had burst outside, making only a small hole, but a red-hot piece of steel had ignited a cartridge, the flash setting fire to 13,000 pounds of cordite. 190 men had been killed, and the two turrets had been put out of action. Afterwards, a through examination showed that everything had been done in accordance with regulations. I told the gunnery officer: "If we lose 190 men and almost the whole ship in accordance with regulations then they are somehow wrong." Therefore we made technical improvements and changed our methods of training as well as the regulations. This time only one cartridge caught fire, the flash did not reach the magazines, and so we lost only 20 dead or severely burned, and only one turret was put out of action. When Beatty turned to the north, we had a wonderful view of the British destroyer flotillas going full speed into the attack. They were intercepted by two of our flotillas, but we did not have much time to watch the furious engagement between the lines. Our foretop reported first one, then more torpedo tracks. We tried to avoid them by sharp turns, but finally one got us a bit forward of the bridge. The blow was much softer than gunnery hits or near misses, no loud report, but only a rattling noise in the rigging. It was almost the same spot near the forward torpedo flat where we had struck a mine five weeks before. For the damage control party it was a repeat performance, and although they grinned it was otherwise not much of a joke. The torpedo bulkhead held, but it was seriously strained, as were parts of the armoured deck. Where the rivets had gone completely, the holes could be stopped with wooden pegs. Where they only leaked, which they did in great numbers - more than enough for our needs - they became a distinct menace because there was no way to plug them effectively.
Both forward generators were casualties; one stopped entirely, while the other ran but failed to generate any current. Soon all this part of Compartment XIII was flooded, and with one third of our electric supply gone, all circuits had to be switched to the generators aft. There the air leads had been damaged by splinters, and in the dynamo room the temperature rose to 72 C (164 F). The men had to on gas masks but some fainted and had to be carried out. Eventually, the room had to be evacuated, although a stoker returned from time to time to lubricate the bearings. The lights failed, but the petty officer at the electrical switchboard succeeded in reswitching all the circuits from memory. In view of the intricate battle arrangements this was quite a feat. He could do it only he simply lived for his work and among his work. Besides this, the turbo-fans, the strong lungs of the ship, repeatedly failed because their leads were damaged, casings bent and vents perforated. However, the repair parties took special note of them and got them working again every time.
In the conning tower we were kept busy, too. "Steering failure" reported the helmsman and automatically shouted down from the armoured shaft to the control room: "Steer from control room." The order: "Steer from tiller flat" was the last resort. We felt considerable relief when the red helm indicator followed orders. The ship handling officer drew a deep breath: "Exactly as at the admiral's inspection." "No," I said, "then we used to get steering failure at the end whereas now the fun as only just started." Fortunately, we soon found some springs holding down levers in the steering heads had not been strong enough for the concussions caused by the hits. Quite simple, but try finding that under heavy fire.
The helmsman was a splendid seaman but every six months or so he could not help hitting the bottle. Then he felt the urge to stand on his head in the market square of Wihlemshaven. Each time this meant the loss of his Able Seaman's stripe. At Jutland he stood at the helm for 24 hours on end. He got the stripe back and was the only AB in the fleet to receive the Iron Cross 1st Class. The first casualty in the conning tower was a signal yeoman, who collapsed silently after a splinter had pierced his neck. A signalman took over his headphone in addition to his own. In our battle training we had overlooked this possibility.
Meanwhile, visibility decreased and there seemed to be an endless line of ships ahead. But we saw only incessant flashes, mostly four discharges in the peculiar British 'rippling" salvoes. Our ship received hit after hit but our guns remained silent because we could not make out any targets. This put us under a heavy strain which was relieved, to some extent, by ship handling, changes of formation and zigzagging towards and away from previous salvoes. The port casemates suffered heavy damage, and chains had to be formed to get ammunition from the lee battery. In 'B' turret, there was a tremendous crash, smoke, dust, and general confusion. At the order "Clear the Turret" the turret crew rushed out, using even the traps for the empty cartridges. Then they fell in behind the turret. Then compressed air from Number 3 boiler room cleared away the smoke and gas, and the turret commander went in again, followed by his men. A shell had hit the front plate and a splinter of armour had killed the right gunlayer. The turret missed no more than two or three salvoes.
In the port low-pressure turbine, steam leaked out and the men had to put on gas masks. The leak was repaired by a man creeping on his belly in the bilge directly under the turbine casing. Electric light and boiler room telegraphs also ceased under the frequent concussions. Fortunately we had practiced working in the dark. Our men called these exercises "blind-man's-bluff" because they were blindfolded to learn handling valves etc by touch. The stokers and coal trimmers deserved the highest praise, for they had to wield their shovels mostly in the dark, often up to their knees in water without knowing where it came from and how much it would rise. Unfortunately, we had very bad coal, which formed so much slag that fires had to be cleaned after half the usual time, and grates burnt through and fell into the ash-pits. The spare ones had to be altered in the thick of the battle because even the beams supporting the grates were bent by the heat.
Our repair parties were very efficient, the efforts of the electricians eclipsing all the others. They found solutions for the trickiest problems, invented new connections, created electric bypasses, kept all necessary circuits going and crowned their achievements by repairing the electric baking-oven so that on the morning we got pure wheat bread, a rare treat for us
Our aerials were soon in pieces, rendering our ship deaf and dumb until a sub-lieutenant and some radio operators rigged new ones. The anti-torpedo net was torn and threatened to foul the propellers, but the boatswain and his party went over the side to lash it. They did it so well that later, in dock, it proved difficult to untie it again. According to regulations our paymasters were expected in a battle to take down and certify last wills, but we preferred them to prepare cold food forward and aft, and send their stewards round to battle-stations with masses of sandwiches.
Around 2000 hours we came under especially heavy fire, and then there followed a distinct lull, during which turrets could be opened and fresh air blown through the whole ship. When we left the conning tower we stood before a frightful scene. One of the last shells had passed through the admiral's charthouse and burst in the lee of the conning tower, killing or mutilating my aide and his party of messengers and signal ratings there.
Now darkness fell, and we had to make preparations for the next morning-for we were sure to meet the British again. Searchlights were repaired, night recognition signals were rigged, and ammunition carried to the undamaged guns. At first, we could continue to follow the battle- cruiser SMS Moltke, but soon we had to slow down, for water began to come over the forecastle as our bows settled. Steering was difficult, as was finding the right course, for the main gyro compartment was flooded and the after gyro unreliable. Its normal circuit had been destroyed, and the new connection short-circuited off and on. The shocks had made the magnetic compass entirely undependable. Sounding had its problems, too. The sounding machines in the casemates were scrap, while the hand-leads fouled the torn nets and then parted. Our charts were covered with blood and the spare charts were inaccessible in a flooded compartment. Under the circumstances it was not at all easy to make the correct course for the Horns Reef lightship. Moreover, all coal near the boilers had been used up, and bringing up more supplies from the more distant bunkers became increasingly difficult as a result of damage and the amount of water in the ship. Fortunately, our boilers could also burn oil, and supplies of this continued to flow, although the oil-pipes needed constant attention to keep them from clogging.
In this situation, the aft look-out reported: "Several large ships, darkened, approaching from astern." Our night glasses showed four huge ships, British, no more than 2,000 yards away. Blast! They must have seen us and would therefore open fire at any moment. Should we try to ram? But their guns were still trained fore and aft! Our ship was too heavily damaged to attack, and I gave the orders: "Hard-a-starboard, full speed ahead, engine room make as much smoke as possible - give British recognition signal." A yeoman flashed the latter "J", the leading ship promptly answered "O". That was the only light they showed for they had an excellently darkened ship. In a minute we got up so much smoke that they disappeared from view. [Other accounts make it clear that there was no exchange of signals, but Thunderer did not open fire as her captain thought Seydlitz was a destroyer and to open fire would give away the position of the British. Ed. note]
When we reported this encounter by W/T, bright sparks flashed all over our rigging because torn wires touched the improvised aerials when the ship heeled over. At dawn, neither the Horns Reef light vessel nor any other ship was in sight. Suddenly our stern wave rose high, a sign of shallow water. Before my order "Full speed astern" could take effect our bows scrapped over the sea bottom, but soon the water became deeper again. A buoy gave us our position, and at the lightship we got in touch was the rest of our fleet, the light cruiser SMS Pillau being detached to pilot us to the Jade river. Now a dogged fight to save the vessel began. The entire forecastle was riddled like a sieve. Through rents, holes, leaky seams and rivets water entered one room after the other until only the forward torpedo flat could be held. The big "swimming bladder" gave the forward part of the ship just enough buoyancy. But she was so much down by the bows that the sea started getting into the forward casemates. Their covers were destroyed or bent, and the wood for shoring up leaks was somewhere under the forecastle. We used everything we could get our hands on, mess tables, benches, eventually even the empty shelves from the shell-rooms to the dismay of the head gunner.
Quite a few compartments had to be kept clear by incessant bailing over a period of two days. Some bulkheads had to be watched carefully and shored up again from time to time. The whole ship's company was kept busy, and so sleep was possible only in snatches. Late on June 1, pump steamers arrived but so also did a stiff breeze from the north-west. We were off Heligoland then, with a list of eight degrees and very little stability, and could proceed at no more than three or four knots whether going ahead bows first or stern first, which we did part of the time. When seas started breaking over the waist, the Pillau made a lee on our starboard bow, and a tug laid an oil-slick. That helped until the wind abated. We could not have stood a heavy gale.
On June 2, we anchored near the Jade light vessel to wait for the tide, for we drew 47 1/2 forward against 30 feet amidships under normal conditions. But we made it and arrived in the early morning of June 3 off Wilhelmshaven locks, where we were welcomed by hurrahs from the crews of the battleships anchored there. The Seydlitz had been hit by 21 heavy shells and one torpedo, lost 98 men killed and 55 injured and had four heavy and two medium guns put out of action.
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