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Local men who lost their lives in sea battle 100 years ago are remembered

PUBLISHED: 08:00 31 May 2016

Battleships of the Grand Fleet on patrol in the North Sea. National Museum of the Royal Navy/PA Wire

Battleships of the Grand Fleet on patrol in the North Sea. National Museum of the Royal Navy/PA Wire

While the summer of 1916 is best remembered for the slaughter in the trenches at the battle of the Somme, on May 31 the only meeting of the British Grand and German High Seas fleets off Jutland in Denmark resulted in tragedy affecting families from the Waveney Valley, as well as in just about every town and city in the country.

While the British warships in the battle outnumbered the Germans by three to two overall, the latter’s smaller calibre heavy guns had greater muzzle velocity which, together with superior shells, afforded better armour penetration than the British shells.

When added to the sacrifice of armour for speed in the British battle-cruisers and poor magazine protection, the results were disastrous.

Using tactics virtually unchanged from Nelson’s day, the fleets manoeuvred all afternoon and evening, the British relying on superior numbers and heavier broadside, while the German’s superior range finders proved crucial in the periods of poor visibility that developed during the battle.

The first local casualties were Royal Marine Gunners George Everett, 35, whose family lived in his birthplace of Bungay, and Samuel Cossey, 39, whose family lived in Ellingham. They were on board HMS Lion, flagship of the battle-cruiser fleet under Admiral David Beatty. During the initial phase of the battle between the battle-cruisers of opposing sides, she was hit 14 times, the most serious hit destroying one main turret, the ship only being saved by flooding the turret’s magazine on the orders of a dying officer.

HMS Queen Mary, another battle-cruiser, sank after being hit, causing both her forward magazines to explode. Only 18 of her crew were rescued out of 1,266. Aged just 21, and born in Barsham, where he grew up with a brother and five sisters, Gunner Alphonso Barber was one of the unfortunate crew members to go down with the ship.

Shortly afterwards, the armoured cruiser HMS Defence drew fire from the van of the German fleet, resulting in her magazines blowing up and the loss of both ship and over 900 crew. Among the fallen were Chief Stoker Samuel Kett, 25, born in Bungay, though his parents had moved to County Durham by the date of the battle. Also lost were Stoker Albert Bird, born in Wrentham in 1889, where his family lived in Church Street, and Acting Leading Stoker Edward Moore, who was born in Reydon and whose family lived in Mount Pleasant.

The battle-cruiser fleet continued to suffer losses, with HMS Invincible blowing up at 6.33pm after her magazines exploded, splitting her in two and taking over 1,000 men to their deaths, including Stoker Arthur Goddard, 22, who was born in Barnby. Also lost on the ship that day was Stoker Arthur Fisk, who was born in Wenhaston. The German ships also suffered heavily from repeated hits, although their heavier armour and better design resulted in fewer being sunk.

The penultimate local casualty that day was Yeoman of Signals Bernard Banham, 33, who was born in Earsham.

He was a casualty on board the destroyer HMS Shark, which led an attack and was disabled by gunfire in the early evening. The Captain earned the Victoria Cross after he and three crew members continued to fire the remaining gun for a further hour, sinking a German destroyer, before the ship slipped below the waves with the loss of all but six of her complement of 86 men.

The battle continued into the night, with the German fleet breaking through the allied screen of light forces, despite the latter’s best efforts.

During a three-hour long series of destroyer attacks, HMS Ardent found herself alone, and attempting to link up with allied forces, instead ran into four German battleships.

The little destroyer was rapidly battered into a heap of scrap iron, sinking with the loss of all but two of the ship’s company of 79, including the last of the local fallen.

On board HMS Ardent was Leading Seaman John Simmons, who lived in North Cove though he was born near Wisbech.

The battle of Jutland, though a tactical victory for the Germans, was inconclusive and the combined loss of 8,642 brave souls, 14 allied and 11 German vessels had no direct bearing on the outcome of World War One. In terms of human sacrifice, the loss of virtually all the crew from several of the British ships sunk was more than comparable with the proportional loss to infantry units during the Somme and other allied offensives mounted during the remaining two years of the war.

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