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Why Pop Thought the History Books Got It Wrong About the Sinking of Indefatigable at Jutland

10/06/2016 17:00

I am no military historian, but this week's centenary of the Battle of Jutland has a special significance for me. My grandfather, Harry Burden - known to successive generations of the Burden family as "Pop" - was there.

Last week I visited the Jutland exhibition in Portsmouth Dockyard. It brought lots of memories of Pop and other family members who are no longer with us except in those precious memories. It also brought home to me the sheer horror of what Harry had lived through during those chaotic 36 hours at the end of May 1916.

It all got me re-reading Pop's autobiography, Mr Chips RN. If you get hold of a copy and read it yourself, you will quickly find my politics are hardly "aligned" with his. But there you go, I am who I am and Pop was who he was. I just wish he had got himself a good editor/advisor/publisher for his book. There is fascinating stuff in there which I wish we could know more about, just as there is a weight of detail about other things that could probably have been; well - cut down a bit. But, as I say, Pop was who he was and Mr Chips RN are his unvarnished words.

I can hear him saying them.

That is why, on the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, I want to flag up something that Pop always said and that he features in Mr Chips RN. He reckoned the history books wrongly recorded the circumstances in which HMS Indefatigable was destroyed in the early hours of battle on 31st May 1916.

In an online timeline to the documentary screened to coincide with the centenary, the BBC say this about the sinking of Indefatigable.

"HMS Indefatigable, the last of Beatty's battlecruisers, was hit by German shellfire and exploded in a vast ball of flame. From a total crew of 1019 men, only two survived. Later it was found that cordite, the propellant used to power shells, was to blame. Against safety procedures, cordite was being stockpiled in the ships' magazines to allow for quicker shelling. But flashes from exploding German shells caused it to ignite, ripping the ship apart."
http://www.bbc.co.uk/timelines/zp9x39q

Pop agreed that the open doors, stockpiling of cordite and disregard of safety procedures were indeed crucial to the speed with which Indefatigable was destroyed. Unlike the BBC and the history books, though, he was convinced it was not German shells that caused the explosion which ripped the battle cruiser apart.

Shipwright Harry Burden was aboard HMS Fearless at the time. His book records that:
'At 2.30pm on the afternoon of 31st May we went to action stations when Galatea first sighted the enemy and opened fire on the Elbing. Being in charge of the after repair party, I was on the upper deck aft throughout the whole of the action, and as Fearless escaped being hit at all this gave me the opportunity to witness the whole of the action since we were in the thick of the fighting all the time until the following morning'.

On the following page Harry describes why he thinks the history books have got it wrong.

'At this time Indefatigable was leading the line of battle cruisers racing towards the enemy at full speed, which would be about 25 to 30 knots. She suddenly opened fire with her foremost turret and the flash was followed by a terrific explosion forward and a reverberating roar as the flames must have spread aft through her fore and aft passage, and then her after magazine blew up, and within seconds, Indefatigable had disappeared. In a matter of minutes we were passing over the area where she had disappeared and the surface of the sea was littered with dead fish of all sizes, chairs, hammocks and all sorts of floating wreckage from the battle cruiser.

'As we had seen no flashes of the enemy's guns for a matter of minutes before Indefatigable blew up, I said to Bill Robson, standing near me on deck, "We must be in a minefield," and he agreed, but suggested that her loss might be due to a submarine attack, I felt that would hardly be possible with such a comprehensive screen provided by the destroyers of the two flotillas. We were both certain that gunfire was not the cause of Indefatigable's destruction and that she must have been mined or torpedoed. Afterwards we were convinced that she was destroyed by the back flash of her own guns igniting a charge in the turret and handing room and down to the magazine. Captain MacIntyre's book Jutland credits the sinking of Indefatigable to Von Der Tann and says "She staggered out of the line and another salvo struck her aft". As an eye witness I can confirm that her destruction was instantaneous after firing her foremost guns, and it is significant that, after Jutland, all magazines, handing rooms and ammunition hatches were fitted with anti-flash self closing doors, a vital protection previously omitted. '(Harry Burden: Mr Chips RN New Horizon 1983 ISBN 0 86116 633 7 pages 62 and 63)

So was Pop right? Was HMS Indefatigable destroyed by a back flash from her own gun turret rather than enemy fire? I have no idea. But this week, on the centenary of Jutland, I want Harry Burden to have his say.

Rest in Peace, Pop.

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