The Peculiar Cruelty and Mercy of War

A visit to the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester provoked thoughts on the peculiar cruelty and mercy of war, particularly in relation to a warship blown apart at the Battle of Jutland just over a century ago.

When soldiers fall in battle there is often, though not always, some spot in a foreign field that will forever be a place of pilgrimage for their descendants to go and commemorate their loss.

At sea, those killed in action are often lost with no sign of their passing. The wreckage of their vessels soon disappears below the waves. Smoke and blood lingers for mere moments before dissolving on the surface of the sea or being diluted to nothing. The fact that there will never be any fixed grave for the loved ones of those killed in sea combat makes the loss all the harder and more devastating.

Such was the case for the battle-cruiser HMS Indefatigable, last in the fighting line among David Beatty’s hard-charging battle-cruisers at the Battle of Jutland on May 31, 1916. Hammered by German shells, Indefatigable rolled over and blew up. Not long afterwards the battle-cruiser HMS Queen Mary was also sunk with huge loss of life.


The Devonport-built and manned battle-cruiser HMS Indefatigable, which was blown apart at the Battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916. Photo: Strathdee Collection.

An officer in the super dreadnought battleship HMS Warspite – steaming fast with the rest of her heavyweight squadron to provide the battle-cruisers with support – later remarked: ‘I suddenly saw our battle cruisers coming close by about four cables in the opposite direction and I realised they had turned back. I saw Queen Mary and Indefatigable were adrift but never for a moment realised they had gone.’

Like Indefatigable, the Warspite was both a Devonport-built and manned ship. While the latter survived the battle to fight another day, the destruction of Indefatigable and the obsolete cruiser Defence (also manned by men of the Devonport division) delivered a devastating blow to hundreds of families in the city of Plymouth (which to this day plays host to Devonport dockyard and naval base).

In the aftermath of Jutland worried relatives gathered at the dockyard, outside the office of Commander-in-Chief Plymouth and at the Western Morning News Building in the city centre. Reports based on an official Admiralty communique were placed in the windows of the newspaper offices: 1,017 men had been killed in Indefatigable with a further 900 lost in Defence.

On seeing the names of destroyed ships confirmed in black and white, wives and mothers broke down and had to be escorted away by friends and relatives. A few sad souls remained late into the night, lingering outside the newspaper offices hoping for further news that might hold out some hope a loved one had survived after all.

The names of Devonport-based sailors killed in the two world wars of the 20th Century are recorded at the Naval Memorial that dominates Plymouth Hoe. In its shadow are information plaques on selected ships lost and how they met their fates, not least Indefatigable and Defence. The Imperial War Museum North, in Trafford, Manchester also has a moving reminder of the loss of Indefatigable. There is even a remnant of the ship herself.


A grizzled Royal Navy sailor as carved in stone on the Naval Memorial, Plymouth Hoe.
Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

A tour of the capacious, softly lit interior of the Main Exhibition Space in IWM North brings you face-to-face with the disaster as revealed in a simple, but powerful wall display. In addition to horrifying photographs of the ship exploding, it presents a lifebelt emblazoned with the ship’s name. Notes reveal that it was retrieved from the sea by a British warship searching desperately for survivors. A Jutland veteran donated the lifebelt to the IWM in the 1930s.

What really rams home message of war’s cruelty is the notion that the lifebelt not only weathered a cataclysm that ripped apart steel and the mere flesh of her men, but also that it failed to serve its function. It is more than likely nobody was able to use the lifebelt while they awaited rescue.

One of the only two survivors from Indefatigable does, however, get to tell us his tale, via a quote extract that is included in the display. Interviewed by the IWM in 1964, as part of efforts to ensure veterans’ accounts are preserved for all time, Signaller C. Farmer recounted how he clung for dear life to a piece of wood.

As night clashes between the Grand Fleet and the German High Sea Fleet raged around him, he prayed for salvation. By 3.00 a.m. on the morning of June 1, Farmer was giving up hope of being saved. In a transcript of the IWM sound archive recording he recounts: ‘all of a sudden I could hear something coming towards me and I had to gaze up. It was a German destroyer. Two sailors got down, picked me up and dragged me aboard…’


The very symbol of British maritime power a century ago: The battleships of the Grand Fleet steaming in line abreast formation in the North Sea, 1915. Photo: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

While Farmer was in the hands of the enemy, he was at least luckier than the 6,097 sailors and marines of the Royal Navy killed at Jutland. Despite that loss it was ultimately considered a strategic victory for the British, as the Kaiser’s fleet rarely poked its nose out of its bases from then on and mutinied before surrendering in 1918.

Showing the human face of war and terrible loss is the core rationale of the IWM North, which also numbers among its exhibits a heartbreaking exchange of letters between the parents of a child evacuated to Canada and the Children’s Overseas Reception Board, the organisation running the process.

The letters crossed in the post. Even as her parents’ asked if she had reached Canada safely, nine-year-old Beryl Myatt had already lost her life. The evacuation ship SS City of Benares was torpedoed on September 18, 1940 by U-48, with 83 children killed among the 260 who lost their lives. A subsequent request for a wreath to be dropped on the spot where Beryl died was requested by her mum and dad, but was refused by the Admiralty due to the risk from U-boats.

In addition to such letters, the same display at IWM North tells us that Marion Evans, also being sent to Canada, survived the sinking of SS Volendam. Remarkably, though hit by two torpedoes, the Dutch evacuation liner did not sink. The vessel was taken in tow after suffering only a single death. The bitter twist in the tale is that Volendam’s near sinking was in August 1940 and some of the children who survived that attack were later put aboard the City of Benares and lost their lives to U-48’s attack.

While the large central void of IWM North is used very effectively for performances that bring to life aspects of war at home and on the front line, it is also filled with larger artifacts. These illustrate the technology of warfare and also convey the results of conflict, not least a US Marine Corps Harrier and jagged fragments of the Twin Towers destroyed by Al-Qaeda attack.

In one of the displays along the walls of the Main Exhibition Space there is even J.R.R. Tolkein’s revolver. The ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ author saw action on the Somme during the summer of 1916, but, after contracting trench fever, was rendered unfit for further service. Anyone who has read his novels or seen the movies based on them can be in no doubt that, as he lay in hospital during WW1 – and for many years thereafter – Tolkein brooded on the many faceted nature of war and men, its mass cruelty and moments of kindness.

Among these could be included the Germans who blew apart the British battle-cruiser Indefatigable one moment and held out the hand of mercy to save one of her sailors the next. Then there was the lottery of being evacuated to Canada for safety’s sake and straying into the path of a prowling U-boat. Such are the thoughts stirred up by a visit to the IWM North.


The striking exterior of the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.
This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the August edition of WARSHIPS IFR magazine and also the Western Morning News 
Iain Ballantyne recounts the loss of the battle-cruisers and other moments during the Battle of Jutland in his book ‘Warspite’ (Pen & Sword, £14.99, paperback).
The fate of the City of Benares and the toll of Allied shipping taken by U-48 will be touched upon in the forthcoming book ‘The Deadly Trade: A History of Submarine Warfare’, which Iain is currently labouring over.
IWM North is located at The Quays, Trafford Wharf Road, Manchester, M17 1TZ. Admission is free and it is open daily from 10.00am to 5.00pm, except for December 24 – 26. Further details here.

Is the way forward for the UK’s hard-pressed Submarine Service a case of going back to the future and buying in German technology?

In 1910, the intrepid Captain Roger Keyes, who had as a young naval officer participated in operations against slave traders off east Africa and helped quell the notorious Boxer Rebellion in China, found himself in command of the Submarine Service of the Royal Navy.

A surface fleet outsider with no specific technical skills or even sea-going experience related to submarines, Keyes nonetheless delegated well. He also quickly assessed that development of Britain’s submarines was being hampered by the monopoly that Vickers held over construction of the vessels and provision of their equipment, including periscopes and engines.

Keyes went overseas for better periscopes and diesel engines and even bought in French and Italian submarine designs. The off-the-shelf engines and designs were not necessarily a success. The procurement of French and German retractable periscopes – soon copied and improved on by British firms – represented a huge step forward. Rather than a fixed scope on the outside of the hull – elevated via a knuckle pivot, with the submarine porpoising to poke it above the waves or withdraw it – the new style periscope could be extended and retracted mechanically from inside the submarine (which could keep a steady depth). Keyes’ efforts were not the first, nor would they be the last instances of the British fleet copying and improving on German technology.


An early A Class submarine of the Royal Navy, which did not have a German or French origin retractable periscope at the time (1903). Photo: Used by kind permission of BAE Systems.

The three prime protagonists in the undersea contest at the core of the Cold War – the USA, Russia and Britain – all based their 1950s and 1960s diesel-electric patrol submarines on advanced technology U-boats produced for the Nazi regime during WW2.

The Royal Navy also had to move into nuclear-powered submarines to stand a chance of competing, even in a minor way, with the immense efforts of the Soviet Union. Ironically, the massive nuclear submarine fleet Moscow built played a key role in bankrupting the USSR and handing victory to the West.

Today nuclear-powered submarines are more expensive and complex than ever – a bigger challenge than the Space Shuttle to manufacture – with the Royal Navy’s new Astute Class attack submarines costing between £1.6 billion and £747million each (they get cheaper the more you build). The latest comparable Russian vessels cost well in excess of that.

As a consequence, any nation without deep pockets (or a willingness to bypass state provision of Social Welfare and universal healthcare) finds it really hard to afford more than a few nuclear-powered submarines, if any.

In an age of economic austerity, with the UK’s Conservative government beginning its new term of office with an instant £500 million sliced off the defence budget, can the UK afford to stay in the business of nuclear-powered submarines? Does building just seven Astutes offer value for money in terms of global presence and operational capability?

There have been claims the Astutes are too slow to keep up with the new aircraft carriers they are meant to protect and have suffered from other technical problems, though the Navy insists the teething problems are being ironed out.


The Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarine HMS Astute arrives at Naval Station Norfolk in the USA for combat exercises against an American attack boat. Photo: Todd A. Schaffer/US Navy.

At the moment – with the older generation Trafalgar Class submarines based at Devonport being decommissioned and the Astutes slow to come on line – the UK is lucky if it can get two attack submarines on deployment.

Yet there are a wide variety of jobs for British submarines to do around the world, including intelligence gathering, protecting the UK’s Trident submarines and hunting other vessels. Last year, at the Undersea Defence Technology (UDT 2014) conference in Liverpool, the current head of the Submarine Service, Rear Admiral Matt Parr, suggested modern navies are perhaps pushing their people too far and destroying their quality of life. It is no secret that fewer British boats are spending more (and longer) periods away from home and it is placing a huge strain on the home lives of the submariners.

Rear Admiral Parr, who in the 1990s commanded a Devonport-based submarine and is a former deputy boss of Plymouth-based Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST), last week told the UDT 2015 conference in Rotterdam there is increased demand for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Special Forces operations. Rear Admiral Parr revealed the Prime Minister himself decides the nature of modern British submarine operations.

Even so, there is a feeling that the current government is afflicted with incoherence in foreign and defence policy and it doesn’t really know what the Navy is for (or it wouldn’t cut defence spending, drive down warship numbers and make highly skilled sailors redundant).

With the strain on submariners and the mission portfolio for the smaller numbers of vessels as broad as ever, is it time for a revolutionary idea to be considered? Is it time to buy German again?

Having gone all-nuclear in the early 1990s, by abandoning diesel-electric ‘conventional’ submarines, might Britain be better off ditching the nukes and going back to the cheaper, greener and much-easier-to-build diesels?

Should it buy lots of U-boats? The Germans make excellent submarines that offer capabilities undreamed off during the Cold War. Their Type 212A U-boats are cutting edge and proven – quieter than a nuclear-powered submarine, small enough to more easily carry out Special Forces operations in shallow waters and with powerful submarine-detecting sonar. Their weapons load is impressive, though it does not currently include cruise missiles or Anti-Shipping Missiles (ASM). 


The new Type 212 U-boat U35 undergoing tests and trials. Photo: Björn Wilke/German Navy.


The Type 212 German submarine U32 surfacing. Photo: Björn Wilke/German Navy.

The Type 212A’s Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) means it can stay submerged (and hidden) for up to three weeks. It is capable of crossing the Atlantic without once surfacing, or even using its snorkel system, to take in fresh air and expel fumes. The Achilles Heel of previous generation conventional submarines was potential exposure to an enemy when expelling fumes or sucking in fresh air.

Each Type 212A costs 370 Euros (£260 million, around a third of the cost of a single Astute). If even bankrupt Greece can build a variant of the most modern U-boat (the Type 214 export version), could the Type 212A not be built at Devonport, the UK’s primary submarine refit yard? Babcock does still construct small surface warships, although at Appledore rather than in Plymouth, so why not conventional submarines? Submariners with long and deep experience of submarine operations will tell you that if the UK wants to remain a serious global player it does need the sheer power, huge endurance and reach of nuclear-powered attack submarines.

They are many times more capable and better armed than any diesel, the battleships of today. Why not save the Astutes for the long-range missions and use the U-boats closer to home and for specialist missions such as landing Special Forces?

That way submariners could be rotated through a less gruelling work routine and Britain would have the force levels necessary to counter the rising Russian threat and handle a lot more besides. This would include the job of training warships receiving ASW training with FOST, a task currently undertaken by the diesels of the German and Dutch navies. The new British U-boats could even be based at Devonport. It will have empty submarine berths once the last Trafalgar Class submarine has been decommissioned in 2022.


For more news and analysis of modern naval issues see WARSHIPS International Fleet Review . In addition to being the founding and current editor of WARSHIPS IFR, Iain Ballantyne is the author of the true-life thriller ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion), which tells the dramatic story of British submarines and submariners in the Cold War, including how the two sides in that long confrontation developed submarines from WW2 German technology.
An edited version of this article was published a commentary in the Western Morning News on June 15.



Hunter-killer submarine’s ‘iceberg collision’ is a case of Déjà vu

During the previous Cold War it was easier to cover up collisions at sea between submarines, but now, across the battleground of social media and online news reporting, it is far harder to keep a lid on things. In fact, the actual truth now comes in way behind the devastating offensive weapons of on-line satire and mythmaking.

DailyMailIcebergIn the latest so-called submarine collision incident the British have come off looking somewhat pompous (and lacking credibility) while the Russians look good. Nobody is asking the latter to provide any hard proof on the other side of the story.

It all blew up when news organisations in the UK published reports about Trafalgar Class hunter-killer submarine (SSN) HMS Talent returning home not long ago with a severely crumpled fin. The Devonport-based vessel also suffered the misfortune of a photographer loitering on the nearby shore with a very high power lens on his camera.

The Daily Mail’s take on the submarine collision claim. Via Daily Mail web site.

The Daily Mail hedged its bets by splashing a headline suggesting Talent suffered £500,000 worth of damage due to ‘floating ice’ while tracking Russian naval vessels.  Some experts have suggested the repair bill is likely to be far higher. Meanwhile, a less lurid (much shorter) yarn in The Daily Telegraph suggested ‘Surface wound: Sub has repairs.’

Russian TwitterIn Russia, Pravda had a fun time, publishing a cartoon showing Talent being held aloft by a sheepish looking, rather portly Royal Navy officer surrounded by circling Russian Navy submarine periscopes.

Score one for the Kremlin? One Russian Internet wag retweeted the Pravda cartoon while another mickey-taking twitterer scoffed: ‘The crew of " ice floes " was not injured.’ Other Russian tweets suggested the ‘ice floe’s’ operators were to receive medals.

Oh what fun they had: Russian social media reaction to the Talent ‘ice collision’ incident. Via Sputnik International.

And that is where the problem lies because, regardless of whether or not Talent really did crunch her fin on a Russian surface vessel (while taking a sneaky underwater look), have a brush with another submarine or, in fact, suffer a collision with ice, the UK Ministry of Defence has a history of covering things up by suggesting that it was ice what done it.  This time, on being quizzed by Russian media, a Ministry of Defence spokesperson reportedly observed rather haughtily: “where journalists found their information, it hardly corresponds with reality.”

Unidentified defence officials had earlier been ‘adamant’ when quizzed by the Daily Mail about Talent making contact with ‘floating ice’ rather than a Russian submarine. They would not say where or when the incident happened.

It would have been better to make no comment at all or just say the incident was caused ‘during training’. Another alternative would have been to provide the full story from the British side. The claim of ‘hitting ice’ (even if true in this case) is the submarine equivalent of crying wolf too many times. It has the opposite effect to that which is intended, because it has become a euphemism for a collision between two submarines. Sneering comments doubting the veracity of journalists’ work only stoke the fires, especially when there is a photograph to base the story on.

HMS Talent

The hard-working British hunter-killer submarine HMS Talent on a deployment in the warmer waters East of Suez, more than a year before her alleged collision with ‘ice’. Photo: US Navy.

The MoD was less than amused that my book ‘Hunter Killers’  included insider-based details of the two most serious incidents involving British submarines and ‘ice’ – in reality Soviet Navy nuclear submarines – namely HMS Warspite’s October 1968 coming together with an Echo II in the Barents Sea and HMS Sceptre’s scrape with a Delta Class ballistic missile boat (SSBN) in May 1981, also in northern waters.

In both cases, at the time, while photos like those of Talent with her bashed in fin were not published, the newspapers did carry stories about collisions with ice (which were over subsequent years debunked by sources in the West and Russia including people who were there). In both Warspite and Sceptre’s case there were attempts to make the damage less obvious before they were brought home to Barrow (Warspite) and Devonport (Sceptre) for major repairs. No such measures appeared to have been taken when Talent came back into Plymouth and cruised through the very public arena of the Sound on her way to Devonport. This might tend to suggest the culprit in this case was actually ice – nothing to hide here folks! Or was it just a double bluff?

Beyond all the points scoring of today on the social and news media battleground, in which the Kremlin deploys many different means to convey its propaganda and also spin stories to its advantage, whatever caused Talent’s damage must have been pretty scary for those involved. Both the submariners and the submarine will need careful rebuilding and handling from now on.

Such incidents were certainly extremely stressful for submariners of the old Cold War, engaged as they were in a deadly serious game on the most important front of that confrontation. Nuclear-powered submarines, some of them carrying nuclear weapons too, were trailing each other in very close proximity. The stakes were incredibly high for both the men and their nations.

Back in an era where MPs seemed to be more grown up about the topics they debated, there were numerous questions asked in Parliament about the potential dangers of a nuclear incident arising from such an accidental clash.

The fact that the submariners’ job was dangerous was certainly no secret and MPs on several occasions in the 1980s expressed concern the risks were becoming too great. A 1986 episode involving the British submarine HMS Splendid made a big splash in UK newspapers, provoking further heated discussion in Parliament.  On Christmas Eve, the Swiftsure Class boat had encountered a Soviet Typhoon SSBN in the Barents Sea, momentarily making physical contact, with the towed array sonar of the British vessel allegedly torn away.

In 2015, with Parliament broken up for the General Election, there will be no similar questions asked in the House of Commons. Knowledge of naval affairs is, anyway, very thin on the ground and hard questions are unlikely to be asked due to a shortage of what could be termed ‘naval intellect’ (or front line maritime experience) among MPs. As a former Secretary of State for Defence termed it recently ‘there are no votes in defence’ so the majority of politicians in the UK are just not interested. They should be, for it is vitally important today’s submariners get the backing they need and that their dangerous missions carry on. The alternative is to allow the Russians to continue exploiting UK and NATO capability gaps at sea. Gaps created by the unwise defence cuts of British politicians (who seem keen to make even more in the next Parliament).

Let’s not forget that back in the old Cold War it wasn’t just the British and Russians who jousted with each other – and sometimes suffered a collision – for the Americans were also in there. Like the Russians, but unlike the British, the Americans suffered actual losses of nuclear vessels (the Soviets several and the USA two, but none of them in collision with opposition submarines).


During the Cold War it happened to the Russians too:  Starboard bow view of a badly damaged Soviet Victor Class nuclear-powered submarine while alongside an auxiliary tender.  The submarine is believed to have collided with a merchant vessel. Photo: US DoD.

There is no such thing as a non-serious collision between dived submarines but figures for the exact number of undersea bumps are hard to come by. In the mid-1970s a report to Congress by the US Navy admitted to nine such incidents in waters close to the Soviet Union between 1965 and 1975.  For their part the Russians confessed to seven crashes involving their submarines and those of the US Navy in the period 1968 – 1987.  The British won’t officially admit to any.

Anyway, if it really was a collision between submarines, somebody ought to ask the Russians how they allowed a British hunter-killer to get that close to them? It shows pretty poor Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) skills on the Russian side that the first they knew of a Royal Navy SSN being on their tail was the crunch of it hitting their vessel. Never mind Talent, what scale of damage has been caused to the Russian submarine (or even surface ship) allegedly involved?

Cockiness on social media and via partisan news outlets is one thing, but the truth remains that American, if not British, submarines are potentially out there silently and stealthily monitoring every move the Russians make.

And in nearly all cases the Kremlin’s boats will have no idea they are there.

Or perhaps it was ice, after all and the Russian Navy has nothing to worry about?

The main question that should be posed in the UK today, with one of its few operational SSNs out of commission due to a damaged fin, is: When are force levels are going to be raised again (to meet the revived Russian threat)?

At the height of the Cold War the Royal Navy operated four ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), nine hunter-killers and 18 diesels in front line service, a total of 31 submarines of all kinds. Today there are still four SSBNs, but no diesels and a nominal seven SSNs (though in reality there are probably only three ready for world-wide operations, if you’re lucky).

T boat in ice

The real deal: A Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarine of the same type as HMS Talent operating in the Arctic amid the ice in 2007. Photo: US Navy.

Regardless of how capable a new Astute Class submarine is, it can only ever be in one place at a time. Closing with the opposition – ready to take assertive action if needed – requires operations in the same patch of sea. Or is the UK going to be forced into an entirely passive role due to its lack of units? Will it let the threat come knocking on its front door, rather than trail the potential foe and deter the danger at a safer distance, in the Far North? That would be a reversal of the forward deployed, aggressive policy that won the Cold War and a fatal error with tough customers like the Russians. Give them an inch and they will take the whole territory.

Regardless of whether or not it was ice that caused Talent’s damage, there are now so few British submarines that any lack of availability severely affects NATO and the UK’s ability to defend itself against increasingly assertive Russian behaviour at sea. That is a cold hard fact. Somebody in whatever government comes to power next month (May) needs to get to grips with it, or abdicate rule of the northern oceans, and possibly waters around the UK, to the Kremlin.

To read the exciting inside story of collisions between submarines, and many other dramatic episodes across the span of the Cold War under the sea, buy ‘Hunter Killers’ by Iain Ballantyne (Orion Books, £10.99, paperback). It is available direct from the publisher or via Amazon and other retailers.

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