'Press reports were rather bad: 6,097 killed'

On Armistice Day, one of the last eight survivors of the naval battle of Jutland tells his tale
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The Independent Online
Now 96 and in very good health, Captain Brian de Courcy-Ireland (right, today, and in 1918) is a veteran of Jutland and the only naval officer alive who witnessed the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet in 1919.

In the early part of 1916 I joined HMS Bellerophon as a "wart" [junior midshipman]. On our first day we were given a good sound dozen lashes by the sub-lieutenant, so from day one we knew our place and what would happen if we stepped out of it. I was 15.

On 31 May 1916, we guessed something was up. We knew nothing, we just had a feeling. I was positioned in the 12-inch turrets working the Dumaresq course and distance calculator. We went into action some time after 5 o'clock. We were kept very busy in the turret and I reckon Bellerophon fired about 100 rounds of 12-inch. It was very noisy. At one point we were told we had sunk a German destroyer.

During a lull we came out of the turret to get some fresh air, and there, floating around us, was a whole mass of bodies and debris. Some of our sailors were cheering because they thought they were Germans, but unfortunately they were from HMS Invincible. It was a terrible sight and my first experience of death.

For the night action I was on the bridge, which, looking back, was exciting for a young midshipman. We continued firing into the early hours, then disengaged. We didn't really know what had happened until we got back. The press reports of the battle were rather bad: we had lost 6,097 killed. I had lost 13 of my team of 80, one of whom was Anthony Eden's youngest brother. The ship went into a bit of depression for a few days, but we all suffered it together because we got no leave. We simply went back into routine patrols of the North Sea.

I spent my first Christmas Day in the Navy coaling ship, starting at 5.30am and finishing at 6pm. We were doing sweeps of the North Sea. We got a corned beef sandwich at midday and when it was all over we had to scrub the ship clean.

On 9 July 1917, HMS Vanguard, anchored in the next line to us at Scapa Flow, blew up just before midnight. The explosion was terrific: its magazines went up almost simultaneously. Out of 800 men on board there were only two survivors. I was one of those who walked along the beach of Flotta with a bucket, picking up the remains of the men. Kipling refers to us in his poem The Scholars:

"They have touched a knowledge outreaching speech as when the cutters were sent/ To harvest the dreadful mile of beach after the Vanguard went."

On 21 November 1918, ten days after the Armistice, I witnessed the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet at sea. By then I was a lieutenant on HMS Westcott. We went out to meet them half-way, fully manned and ready. Everyone was uncertain about what was going to happen.

Out of the mist on that sunny day it really was quite a sight to see them coming towards us. As the German flag was hauled down at sunset to the sound of a bugle, Admiral Beatty was given a round of cheers by all of us in the Grand Fleet. We escorted them to Rosyth and later round to Scapa Flow. Then we spent a lot of time as guard destroyer looking after their destroyers and smaller ships.

That whole period was really rather dicey for us. You weren't allowed to fraternise and we knew their morale was very poor. I remember going slowly past one of their destroyers whose crew, as always, was trying to barter with us to get some food. I saw a sailor go up to an officer and pluck the Iron Cross off his coat and offer it to us for some cigarettes. The officer could do nothing.

On 21 July 1919, we were having a gin before lunch when a sub-lieutenant ran into the wardroom and shouted "The Germans are abandoning ship". We thought at first he was being funny, but we rushed up on deck and indeed they were abandoning ship, every ship. In fact they were scuttling them, but there was nothing we could do. Our C-in-C had rather foolishly taken the rest of the Fleet out on exercise and we were the only warship left on duty. We went at full speed towards them to prevent their crews abandoning ship. They took no notice, so we fired a few rounds close to one of them and the whole lot jumped straight over the side! We just stood there and watched this giant cruiser go down in front of our eyes.

The Hindenburg looked as if she wasn't going down as fast as the others, so the First Lieutenant, myself and about 20 men got on board her. Before her crew had left they had opened all the watertight doors and done everything needed to sink a ship. She was in a bad state, full of rust, and all power had been disconnected, so we had to work in the dark and close the hatches. We soon realised that she was gradually going down, and as she was sinking, the water pressure just blew the hatches.

We were beginning to feel a shade anxious and scurried up to the bridge. When the water got up to well over the upper deck we began to get pretty worked up and were seriously thinking of jumping over the side. Fortunately she hit the bottom and settled upright. One of our whaling boats came out and picked us off the bridge.

Everywhere we looked we saw mast after mast sticking out from the water. It was an awesome sight. An entire fleet of 71 ships, many of which had fought at Jutland, all scuttled. We were the only warship to witness this extraordinary event.

Eighty years on, I still very much mourn my friends. It is important that we remember their sacrifice and the sacrifice of those who were to follow in the next war.

Captain Brian de Courcy-Ireland spoke to Max Arthur, who is author of 'The True Glory of the Royal Navy, 1914-1939', Hodder and Stoughton, pounds 20.

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