THE FAMOUS 5TH BATTLE SQUADRON
(MP120). Frank Watson Wood (1862-1953). Watercolour signed and dated 1920.
Limited Edition worldwide: 25 copies
Standard size: 24 x 8.21 ins (61 x 20.85 cms) approx.
Price band (incl mount/mat): £145-£180
It was the squadron that arguably saved Beatty’s bacon at Jutland.
There were five ships in the 5th Battle Squadron: HMS BARHAM (Captain A W Craig RN) wearing the flag of Rear Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas MVO; HMS MALAYA (Captain The Hon Algernon Boyle CB MVO RN); HMS WARSPITE (Captain E M Phillpotts RN), HMS VALIANT (Captain M Woolcombe RN); and HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH (Captain G P W Hope CB RN). But who should have operational control over these modern super dreadnoughts was fiercely contested! The Grand Fleet’s Commander-in-Chief, Sir John Jellicoe, wanted the five ships to remain with him and to be an immediate part of his order of battle; whilst his subordinate, Sir David Beatty commanding the Battle Cruiser Fleet saw in these spanking new fast battleships a most useful reinforcement for the more lightly armoured battle cruisers of his force. It so happened that during the month of May 1916 the 5th BS was allocated to Beatty as part of a temporary swap of ships between Scapa Flow (Jellicoe’s base) and the Firth of Forth (Beatty’s lair) designed to give the battle cruisers more and better quality gunnery practice which the vast spaces of Scapa offered. On 22nd May 1916 the five battleships of the 5th BS duly passed under the Forth Bridge and took up their anchor berths amongst Beatty’s ships and shortly afterwards the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron (Rear Admiral the Hon Horace Hood CB MVO DSO) weighed and proceeded north to join Admiral Jellicoe at Scapa. That same day QUEEN ELIZABETH of the 5th BS entered Rosyth dockyard for a maintenance period so that only four ships of the squadron were actually available for sea - but as far as Beatty was concerned possession, even of only four, was nine points of the law!
When it was learned on 30th May that the German fleet was coming out, the British fleet was ordered to sea; and the next afternoon off the Jutland peninsular, Beatty, following initial exchanges with the Germans, led his battle cruisers off on their celebrated dash south after Admiral Hipper’s battle cruisers. The 5th BS, owing to earlier signalling deficiencies, was many miles astern of Beatty which meant that despite his heavier and longer ranged guns, Evan-Thomas was unable to support the battle cruisers and bring his squadron into action for some while support that Beatty sorely needed as illustrated by the loss of three of his battle cruisers. Once, however, the 5th BS had managed to close the range, the Queen Elizabeths’ shooting proved excellent and VON DER TANN and MOLKTE especially felt the full weight of these super-dreadnoughts’ heavy 15 inch shells. Drawn ever further and further south and eventually surprised by the main German battle fleet, Beatty, deeply conscious of his responsibility to bring about a fleet action “in conditions favourable to the Commander-in-Chief” now had only one option. Under continuing and very heavy fire he promptly reversed course to the north west to try and draw the Germans back onto the guns of the main British battle fleet.
It was now that the 5th BS really earned its “famous” sobriquet. Still some 3 miles astern of the battle cruisers - even after the turn back to the north the four battleships now took the full force of the High Seas Fleet’s guns. In the words of MALAYA’s Lieutenant Patrick Brind “I then realised that just the four of the 5th BS alone would have to entertain the High Seas Fleet ”. Acutely aware that his squadron was now receiving the undivided gunnery attention of 5 battleships and 5 battle cruisers, Evan-Thomas brought his ships up to maximum speed as they thundered and fought their way north. BARHAM was hit heavily four times in quick succession, and then it was MALAYA and WARSPITE’s turn: both were severely hammered, the former coming close to destruction at this stage. With the Germans hot on their heels a speed reducing blow would have meant almost certain death for any one of the 5th BS: but with every minute they kept steaming north and fighting and they, too, were landing plenty of punishing rounds on the enemy the closer the still unsuspecting Scheer was being drawn towards Jellicoe’s 24 battleships.
Finally, very shortly before 1800 – some 2 hours after first going into action – Beatty’s race to the north was over as his ships burst out of the smoke and haze and into the welcoming view of Jellicoe’s battleships. But it was not over yet for the tail-end charlies of this wild dash back towards the British main fleet – the 5th BS. WARSPITE, earlier damaged aft by a shell, now developed a total steering gear failure and in perfect range of the advancing High Seas Fleet charged around in uncontrolled circles being hit anew over a dozen times. Despite this her Damage Control Parties eventually prevailed, the steering was re-connected and the ship was brought under command again; and with her main armament still in action and steam maintained to the boilers WARSPITE rejoined the line. The 5th Battle Squadron had suffered over 250 men killed and wounded but without the support of its 15 inch guns and doughty armour which resisted an impressive number of heavy shell hits its doubtful whether Beatty’s battle cruisers alone would have fended off the pursuing German fleet long enough for it to be lured into the guns of Jellicoe’s waiting battle fleet. It had fully earned Frank Wood’s title of this watercolour “The Famous 5th Battle Squadron”!