Why did British ships explode at Jutland?

Why did British ships explode at Jutland? Let’s have a look at the Battlecruiser Fleet in and around the time of Jutland.

The Battlecruiser Fleet being based at Rosyth there was little space for full caliber Gunnery Practice. Unlike the spaces available to the Grand Fleet proper based at Scapa. 

However whilst at Rosyth ships could still practice “Sub Calibre” shoots using 4″ Guns, so they could still practice with the equipment. And it was quite often a case that the Battlecruisers would conduct Gunnery Drills while out on patrol (the Battlecruiser Fleet had actually conducted Gunnery Drills while at sea on the Morning of May 31st).

And whilst the 5th Battlesquadron was available and up to strength the Battlecruiser Squadrons were taking it in turns to spend some time at Scapa going through an intensive crash course of Gunnery trials and drills, with the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron at Scapa in the days running up to Jutland.

Many historians state that as a result of this, the choice was made to achieve a high rate of fire to smother their targets with hits.

On this historians are on shaky ground. And ignore the fact that for the opening phases of the Run to the South the German Battlecruisers actually had a faster rate of fire. And that the British rate of fire was somewhat inhibited by the fact that they were struggling to spot in the visibility conditions, but also after the Battle of Dogger Bank, Beatty had been somewhat reprimanded for the high rate of fire in that battle leading to expensive wastage in shells.

There has never been or was an order from Beatty to the Battlecruiser Fleet to concentrate on Rate of Fire.
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And the only book mentioning this is now rather outdated. And has largely been surpassed by newer studies and volumes. Here Many historians get themselves into what I can only think of as a bit of a muddle. They describe the British as using what can only be called a double ladder system to gain the range quickly on a target.

This was actually a German method of finding the range.

Initially British Gunnery Protocol stipulated firing of individual guns until the range had been found, and then swapping to salvo’s.

This was found to be impractical, and so a ladder system was worked out.

With the ladder a salvo, usually of half the main guns of the ship would fire with the shells aimed to fall in a spread. So that the nearest and the furthest shells of the spread were a set range apart, something like 800 to 1000 yards distance initially to help give an indication. And the Gunnery Officers would then make adjustments until the spread straddled the target. at which point they would close the spread with the aim of getting hits.

In the British system one Salvo would be fired and spotted at a time.

The German System used what was called a double ladder. Whereby  two salvos were fired in quick succession at set ranges to land in an extended spread, covering twice the distance of the British Ladder in less time. This allowed the Germans to find the range of their targets much quicker than the British. And is something that the British actually adopted in the aftermath of Jutland.

Many historians believe that Flash Doors were removed from the Battlecruisers to help achieve this.

This is just plain wrong.

There is no order on record that states Flash Doors could be removed from British Capital Ships.

Many historians also state that Shells and Cordite were stored in places outside the magazine, in the Turrets themselves. And in the Turret Handling Rooms to help sustain a high rate of fire. This is also wrong.

It might help for a moment if we look at the Loading process for a big gun on a Capital Ship.

Inside the Turret is a hoist, basically an elevator that brings a shell and its Cordite charge from the Magazines at the bottom of the ship to the breech of the gun to then be loaded.

Even on a 12″ gunned Capital Ship an AP shell weighs 850lbs, and cannot be manhandled easily, not without mechanical means. The charges would weigh another 80-100lbs usually in quarter charges.

The Shell is taken from the magazine using a pulley and grabbed from the shell room, and moved into the Hoist Lobby where it is loaded into the Cage. At the same time the Cordite charges are taken from protective cases in the magazine and put through a Flash Proof scuttle into the Hoist Lobby to also be loaded into the Cage.

The Cage is then elevated up to a working chamber located just below the turret itself. Where the contents are mechanically transferred to a loading cage and then up to the gun to be rammed home.

Note, once the Shell and Cordite is in the Elevator it’s pretty much all mechanically moved around the loading system.

To have shells and Cordite outside of this loading system and to try and manually load the cage would actually slow things down considerably. In a similar way to how Plant Machinery has an SOP to work it correctly these Gun Turrets also had an SOP, work outside of that the speed of the system fails.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Turrets themselves were incredibly cramped. With just about enough space for the guns, the machinery and crew, there was barely enough space to store anything else. And certainly no space to store Cordite and Shells as a ready magazine.

So what happened!? 

HMS Queen Mary exploding.
We have first hand accounts from several of the Battlecruisers from gun crews. The most easily accessible is Gunner Grant who was posted to one of the gun crews on HMS Lion. 
HMS Lion Q turret

Battle Of Britain

Standing Orders that only as much Cordite as was needed was to be taken out of its cases in the Magazines.

Grant’s memoirs state that in order to help speed up the loading process the magazine crews would take more Cordite than was needed out of the bins in the Magazine. Furthermore the Cordite for the main caliber guns was stored in brass containers labelled cartridge cases or powder cases. The crew were removing the lids of the cases in preparation to load into the hoist system. 

In order to speed up the process the crews had stopped using the Flash Proof Scuttles. And were using the Main Magazine door to pass Cordite from the Magazine to the Hoist Lobby. The Hoist Lobby would have Charges in there ready to load into the hoist. The Turret hoist would be loaded with a shell and its Cordite and kept in the turret working chamber ready to load into the loading Cage.

And the Loading Cage had a shell and Cordite in it ready for when the gun had fired to ensure it was reloaded as quickly as possible. Each part of the loading system was preloaded with a fresh charge ready to move up the chain and load the gun. Meaning that anywhere between three and possibly four shells and charges per gun were in the system at any one time.

Again to reiterate there was no Shells or Cordite kept in the Turrets.

Or Turret Working Chambers of the Battlecruisers as a ready magazine, this is confirmed by the recollections of not only Gunner Grant of HMS Lion, but also Petty Officer Francis who was part of the Turret Crew of X Turret on HMS Queen Mary (and survived the sinking).

Beatty and Jellicoe were aware of this practice of leaving the Magazine’s open, and had actually ordered it to cease in the run up to Jutland.

The exact circumstances into the loss of HMS Queen Mary, Indefatigable and Invincible have been discussed ad nauseam, and can be looked at again in depth another day, but suffice to say many historians have enough details either wrong or muddled or missed out to suggest many errors on Jutland.

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Surviving Jutland

Why did British ships explode at Jutland?
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Why did British ships explode at Jutland?