Saturday, November 18, 2017

Laid out on the deck

‘We were then allowed to leave our stations to get some supper. In order to get aft it was necessary to go along the mess deck. Many people did not know till then that we had been hit, but one realised it terribly then. There was an extraordinary reek of T.N.T. fumes, which mixed with the smell of disinfectant and blood was awful. Nearly all the killed, some twenty-four in number, were lying laid out on the deck, and many were terribly wounded, limbs being completely blown off and nearly all burnt.’ This is Patrick Blackett, born 120 years ago today, writing in a diary he kept as a teenager while serving in the British Navy during the First World War. He went on to become a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and to play an important role in the Second World War as Director of Naval Operational Research.

Blackett was born in London on 18 November 1897, the son of a stockbroker. He was schooled in Guildford, then at the Royal Naval College, on the Isle of Wight, and at Dartmouth. During WWI, he was assigned to active service as midshipman on HMS Carnarvon, serving in the Falkland Islands, and, having been transferred to HMS Barham, at the Battle of Jutland. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1918, but resigned from the navy in early 1919 to study mathematics and physics at Cambridge. After graduating from Magdalene College in 1921, he worked as an experimental physicist at the university’s Cavendish Laboratory (under Ernest Rutherford) becoming a fellow of King’s College in 1923.

Blackett married Constanza Bayon in 1924; they had one son and one daughter. Soon after, he spent time at Göttingen, Germany, working with James Franck on atomic spectra, but he remained at the Cavendish Laboratory until the early 1930s. He then spent four years at Birkbeck College, University of London, as professor of physics. During this period, he became more involved with government military issues, joining a committee that advocated development of radar for defence against enemy air attack. In 1937, he moved to Manchester University, as the Langworthy Professor, where he launched a major international research lab. He was a committed socialist, and would often campaign for the Labour Party.

At the start of WWII, Blackett joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment where he worked on the design of the Mark 14 bombsight, and by 1940 he had become a scientific adviser to General Frederick A. Pile, the commander-in-chief of anti-aircraft command. By the end of 1941, he was Chief Adviser on Operational Research (later Director of Naval Operational Research) at the Admiralty, where he was a major influence in the British strategy against U-boats. Towards the end of the war, and thereafter, his left-wing views were often at odds to mainstream thinking (he argued against saturation bombing of German cities, for example, and British development of an atomic bomb). In 1948, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his investigation of cosmic rays using the counter-controlled cloud chamber (his own invention).

In 1953, Blackett was appointed professor and head of physics at Imperial College, where he became senior research fellow in 1965. The same year, he was made president of the Royal Society, and a Companion of Honour by the Queen. In 1969, he was created a life peer. He died in 1974. Further information is readily available online at Wikipedia, the Nobel Prize website, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required), Informs, or a YouTube animation!

As a young man, during WWI, Blackett kept a diary. Today, this is held by his son, Nicolas. However, he has transcribed it and deposited copies at the Admiralty Library, Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, and the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Although the diary has not been published, quotes from it can be found in the biographical essays that make up Patrick Blackett: Sailor, Scientist and Socialist (Frank Cass, 2003, edited by Peter Hore), notably in the opening chapter - Boy Blackett - written by Blackett himself, and chapter four (which overlaps the same time period) - Blackett at Sea - written by Hore. Some pages can be freely sampled at Googlebooks.

After the 25 May 1917 diary entry (see below), Hore explains: ‘The diary upon which this story depends was becoming more and more spasmodic. . . What entries there are increasingly reflect his moods and intellectual curiosity rather than the routine of life in a destroyer in the Grand Fleet. There was one entry between May and August, which had needed the restorative effect of a vigorous sail in the ship’s whaler (‘the mizzen unshipped and two reefs in the main and fore’). On 30 September he had required the stimulation of near drowning, when, after Sturgeon had broken down in a gale and was struggling to pass a tow, he narrowly avoided being swept off the rolling deck into the sea.’

31 May 1916
‘The day dawned glorious but with a slowly falling glass. When I got up I heard that the Lion, five miles ahead of us had sighted a submarine and the Royalist fired at it. During my forenoon watch we had several submarine scares, once when the Lion sighted one ahead of us. We could not see her, however. Some suspicious neutral trawlers were about as usual. Our station was five miles astern of the Battle Cruiser Squadrons. The latter were six in number, the Lion and 1st BCS in one line and the Indefatigable and New Zealand on their port beam. The Australia is in dock as is also the Queen Elizabeth. We went to Exercise Action in the forenoon to clear away and to get the cages loaded. I slept all the afternoon and just after tea, about 3.50 p.m. ‘Action’ was sounded. When we realised it was without the ‘G’: real action that is, we wondered what was up. Of course I could not find my Gieve [life belt] - I had put it in the gunroom five minutes before, but it had apparently vanished. We closed up and learnt that some light cruisers of the enemy had been sighted. Just before five o’clock we loaded and trained on a light cruiser - the first German ship I have seen since the Falkland Islands. At 4.57 p.m. we opened fire at about 18,000 yds. range. A few minutes earlier we had seen the flashes of the Battle Cruisers firing ahead of us. After two salvoes at the light cruiser, both of which failed to hit, we shifted target on to the 2nd German battle cruiser from the left, probably the Seydlitz. The visibility was not good but our shooting might have been much better. I saw a lot of misses for deflection. I could see through my periscope quite well at first, but later it got misty and was eventually smashed. We were firing on and off, when we could see, and for the first part were not being fired at. After a short time we passed a destroyer picking up survivors from an oily patch on the water. I had, of course, no idea what it was that had sunk but learnt later that it was the Queen Mary. I also saw one of our ‘M’-class destroyers with her bow out of the water and very much down by the stem. I did not like it a bit when we began to be fired at, seeing the splashes a few yards short, all their shots falling very close together. The noise of them falling was just like our six inch guns going off. Things did not seem to be going very well then, but I was very cheered to see one beautiful straddle we made on one of the German Battle Cruisers, one of our shots bursting on the waterline armour. I saw the flash of it. We then fired four more salvoes rapid and straddled again. After this I saw an explosion aft. We then shifted target. About a quarter to six the British battle cruisers turned sixteen points to starboard and crossed our line of fire. About 6 p.m. we also turned and during it got a bad strafing from the German 3rd Division, their crack squadron. As the Battle Cruisers crossed in front of us I saw that there were only four instead of six, so knew they must have been badly strafed. I saw one of the Lion’s turrets out of action by a shell, also one of the Princess Royal’s.

About this time we got the cheering news that the Grand Fleet was coming up. We carried on firing at ranges varying from 24,000 yds. to, at the end, as little as 8000 yds. Most of the time we could see nothing but the flashes of their guns. These were very curious. The guns fired in succession beginning with the after gun, so that one saw a succession of flashes, not all at once, as with our director control, or haphazard as in individual control. It was very horrible seeing the flashes, then waiting for the salvoes to fall. They formed very small splashes of far lesser height than ours, and they caused practically no interference with our fire.

The terrible part of it was that we could not see them to reply, for they had the modern ‘weather gauge’ not of wind but of light. We were silhouetted against the bright western sky and they were merged in a great haze.

About this time we got our ‘five minutes hate’. It really lasted much longer and was extraordinarily unpleasant. It is estimated that some five hundred 12-inch bricks were fired at the Barham and the rest of the squadron. How we survived with so very few hits I have no idea. Many people say that we were saved by one of the armoured cruiser squadrons. They got in front of us and made a very great smoke screen, which I believe was meant to shield themselves, but it effectively screened us and saved us from a far worse strafing. The terrible fate of the ships I did not see luckily. We do not quite know why Arbuthnot (R.A.Defence) got there at all.

Soon after this the German destroyers attacked and met ours in the middle between the lines. One got through and about five torpedo tracks were seen from the ship, all of which we avoided, but one mouldy [torpedo] struck the Marlborough. This ship was three ahead of us in the line of the Grand Fleet, when deployed but she continued in the line after being hit. She had a ten degree list. Everyone was very relieved that the Grand Fleet had joined up, for it was exceedingly unpleasant alone. About this time we trained fore and aft and lined up. I went on top of the turret and saw the battle line extending miles into the mist. The German ships were not visible. We avoided more than one torpedo attack by submarine and the Revenge, two ships ahead claims to have rammed and sunk one. The 1st Battle Squadron was next ahead of us and did a good deal of shooting. The 4th ahead of them did less and the 2nd in the van practically none. If we had only another hour of daylight I drink very few Germans would have got back. We tried to close them about 9 p.m. but had to draw off eventually owing to the gathering dark.

We were then allowed to leave our stations to get some supper. In order to get aft it was necessary to go along the mess deck. Many people did not know till then that we had been hit, but one realised it terribly then. There was an extraordinary reek of T.N.T. fumes, which mixed with the smell of disinfectant and blood was awful. Nearly all the killed, some twenty-four in number, were lying laid out on the deck, and many were terribly wounded, limbs being completely blown off and nearly all burnt. I then learned that the Padre and Paymaster had been killed in the Forward Medical Distributing station. When I got to the gun-room flat, I found the whole place completely wrecked. The gun-room and the Eng. Comm’s cabin were merged into one and the flat outside riddled with holes. The after cabin was also in an appalling mess.

I got some food in the wardroom and then returned to my turret. As I was going there I saw a very violent action, some way off on our starboard beam. Some of our light cruisers had met and blown up a German one. Various actions continued all night, the flashes being very visible and one huge explosion being seen. The night was very trying, waiting closed up - trying to sleep in turns.

We expected to renew the action at dawn and had everything ready.’

1 June 1916
‘Dawn was welcomed as an end to waiting. I had the morning watch and left my turret to go on to the bridge. The weather was thick and beastly. We were with the rest of the Grand Fleet and were steaming up and down, in order to try and keep the huns from returning to port. The battle cruiser suddenly appeared and then went off again. There were five, not six of them, the Indomitable and Inflexible having joined up. The German fleet had been reported S.W. of us. Until 2 a.m. we were in touch with them and small actions were going on. But after that we lost touch owing to the thick weather. We could only see about three miles. The battle cruisers reported sighting a Zep. It was probably this that enabled them to escape.

We sighted nothing but a mine, which passed fairly close to us. About noon we turned round and made for Scapa, rather disappointed to have not finished the show off, but I must say longing to get into a defended harbour and sleep. For it had been a great strain, twenty-four hours at actions stations, and part of it, when we were under a very heavy fire without being able to reply, had been terrible.

I learnt at intervals of incidents in the fight which I had not seen: the blowing up of the three British battle cruisers after a very few salvoes, the terrible strafing the 1st armoured cruiser squadron got, ending in the Defence and Black Prince blowing up and sinking, and the Warrior blowing up aft and being taken in tow by the Engadine, but sinking eventually.

Several destroyer attacks were made and a lot of light cruiser and destroyer actions occurred between the lines. We sank one German destroyer by 6 inch fire - I think the one that torpedoed the Marlborough. A submarine was sighted close to the ship but disappeared on being fired at. The Revenge claims to have sunk one by ramming. As to the enemy losses it is very difficult to decide anything as we could see so little. But one ‘Kaiser’ class certainly blew up amidships and a battle cruiser or two very badly strafed indeed. One curious three funnelled ship was sunk, but what she was we do not know.

We had great hopes of good results from the night’s actions, for we had seen one light cruiser given hell by ours and left a glowing mass.

We had several fires on board but they had been very quickly put out. The worst hit was forward. A shell, or rather two came in on the starboard glacis. They both burst on or near the mess deck. One, the forward of the two, wrecked the boys’ mess deck and medical store, splinters smashing the starboard hydraulic pump and the telemotor in the lower conning tower. It was this hit which killed Mr. Blythe. The other shell hit the cordite in the forward end of the battery and then burst in the Forward Medical Distributing station causing many casualties. The irony of it lay in the fact that the sick bay, from where everyone had been removed, as it was unprotected, was entirely untouched. The cordite fire in the battery caused many serious burns and only escaped flashing down to the magazine by a miracle; a fragment did actually penetrate there, Lieut. Porter did very well in the battery, putting the fire out and rescuing the men. He got badly burnt.

We steamed back to Scapa with the Grand Fleet, the weather getting nasty as we went.

The Valiant, being uninjured, left us for Rosyth. The Warspite, who had boon damaged in the engine room hauled out of the line and then went back to Rosyth. The Marlborough managed to get back to Immingham.

We arrived at Scapa about 12.30 a.m. on June 2nd and at once started to oil and get out empty cordite cases. The C. in C. and numerous other flag officers came on board to examine the damage and we heard we were to dock in Plymouth at once and had been allowed a month to repair and refit it.

At last we get a night in, we are still terribly tired.’

25 May 1917
‘I was sleeping lightly between a first & morning [his watches on the bridge, 2000 to midnight and 0400 to 0800], when a distinct noise of the helm hard over woke me. I slipped off my bunk & put on sea boots, then realising that we had increased speed, walked on deck. There I first noticed the funnel sparking, so guessed we had gone on quickly. When I reached the bridge (I had a sweater but no coat on) I saw a man bending over the starboard depth charge release handle, so at once knew what was up. I said to the Captain ‘Is it really a Hun, this time?’ but the reply was inaudible or possibly not given. Anyhow, ‘Safety pins out’ to the man at the handle release, answered the question. I went to the port gear and took out the pin. My eyes, not being yet accustomed to the dark, did not spot the submarine, until I saw her bow sticking out of the water some half cable on our starboard quarter. The starboard charge was let go. Nothing happened for a bit, so that I almost feared a dud, but then a shake and a crash dispelled my fear. I then noticed some smoke hiding the position of the sub, & said to the Captain that she was making smoke. A little later I realised that it was smoke from the charge. So it cannot have been far off. We then turned, zigzagged & swept with searchlight, but all to no effect. She was down & whether damaged or not we do not know. She had been sighted steering south about a mile on our starboard bow. We went full steam to ram. But when at 3 cables off she dived. Just as we crossed the track her bow appeared on our starboard beam, whereas she dived when on our port beam. So we must have missed her stem which was down by inches. Probably the depth charge exploded within 100 feet of her. So there is a chance that some damage was done. It is sickening to have missed by so little. The time was 2.10 GMT & the day was beginning to lighten. We searched the whole area, between the [Realge] & the French coast, but saw no signs. If only we had an explosive sweep to help the search!’

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