Ninety years on, last survivor remembers the Great War's deadliest naval battle

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The Independent Online

It was night when the HMT Kingfisher, with young Henry Allingham on board, met up with the German battle fleet it had been dispatched to hunt down.

In the 16-hour Battle of Jutland that followed, the 19-year-old aircraft mechanic scarcely knew what was happening in the darkness of the North Sea.

Missiles ricocheted all around as the 250 British and German ships clashed and Mr Allingham came close to death when an enemy shell bounced over the top of his vessel.

But he survived. And yesterday, Mr Allingham was the guest of honour at an exhibition marking the 90th anniversary of what proved to be the greatest naval engagement of the First World War.

The show, Ghosts of Jutland, which is on HMS Belfast in London, tells the story of the battle off the coast of Denmark through first-hand accounts, journals and other artefacts that survived the encounter that claimed 8,600 lives.

But nothing could compare with hearing the story as told by Mr Allingham, who is Britain's oldest man as well as the only known survivor of the battle still alive. He is frail and deaf, but doughty.

"All I had to do was watch. It was our job to find the Germans but when they did come, it was dark," he said.

He recalled seeing the shells ricocheting across the sea. "There were a lot of dud shells and that saved us from a lot of harm. People ask if I was frightened but you don't have time to be frightened. I was just doing my job."

Asked what he felt about the anniversary, he admitted to mixed feelings. "I think about a lot of things I want to forget," he said. "I wanted to forget but thought it would be disrespectful to all those who gave all they had on our behalf."

The Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916 saw the Royal Navy take on the might of the German High Seas Fleet, which had been making sorties against the British coast.

Unaware that their coded messages had been broken, the Germans expected to face only a small squadron of battle cruisers but, to their surprise, found themselves up against the main British fleet which had set sail from Scapa Flow in Scotland the day before.

Although the British lost more men and more ships, they were regarded as the strategic victors for ending the German challenge at sea. However, at the time it was felt by the public that the German fleet had gained the upper hand.

Nick Hewitt, the exhibition's curator, said the Battle of Jutland had been done a disservice over the years. "It has been seen as an anti-climax, a non-event. But just because it wasn't [the Battle of] Trafalgar doesn't mean it wasn't an important event," he said.

"The Germans had been building up for 20-30 years to challenge the British at sea. It was the one time they tried to challenge the British ... and they failed to do so. People expected Trafalgar, for the enemy to be sunk or be brought back in chains, but that was never going to happen in the 20th century."

Recognition of the achievement was further overshadowed by the Battle of the Somme, which began a month later with 60,000 British casualties on the first day, including 20,000 deaths.

However, Mr Hewitt said it became more important as time went by to "take these events out of the history books and make people realise it was people who were there".

The Duchess of Gloucester, the patron of the First World War Veterans' Association, was also at the opening. She told how the battle was so ferocious it could be heard 30 miles inland in her native Denmark.

The battle had shown that even Royal Navy ships with names such as Invincible and Indefatigable were no match for the new high-explosive missiles, she said.

"Many lessons were learnt that day that are still relevant today, most acutely that the Royal Naval ships and sailors were not as invincible and indefatigable as those names implied, and the effect of high explosives on the human body was beyond imagining," she said.

While the exhibition was opening in London yesterday, the British destroyer HMS Edinburgh and the German frigate FGS Hessen met for a service of commemoration at the battle site off Denmark.

The Government announced moves to preserve the 14 British ships sunk in the battle. Tom Watson, the veterans' minister, announced that the wrecks would be "protected places" under the Protection of Military Remains Act, which meant that people could look but not touch them. "I am delighted to announce that we will be offering additional protection against disturbance and desecration to the British wrecks lost in the North Sea 90 years ago," he said.