HMS Chester

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Jutland

HMS Chester

A "Birkenhead" class light cruiser (sometimes called a "Town" class) these were modified Chatham/Sidney class cruisers originally planned for export to Greece but purchased, part built, by the British government in 1915. "Chester" was laid down at Cammell Laird in October 1914 (as "Lambros Katsonis") and entered service in early May 1916. Three weeks later, on the 31st May 1916, at Jutland, Chester fought as part of the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron (led by Admiral Hood who placed his flag upon and perished upon HMS Invincible)

Chester was scouting ahead of the 3rd Squadron when, at 5.27, she was ambushed at 6,000 yards by German light cruisers, using intercepted British signals. Chester was hit by 17 150mm shells and suffered casualties of 29 men killed and 49 wounded. Fortunately the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron intervened from the north east, surprising the Germans. Invincible (Hood's flagship) disabled Wiesbaden and Regensburg crippled Shark. This intervention by Hood distracted the Germans whilst Jellicoe belatedly deployed the Grand Fleet into the line of battle and thus prevented the Germans from "crossing the Grand Fleets T" before it was deployed. If this had happened it would have been utterly disastrous for the British. The following extract from the Official History; " Naval Operations" by Sir Julian S. Corbett. 1923 tells the story of the Chester at Jutland:

  • ........Admiral Hood, in response to the order to support Admiral Beatty, had reached about twenty-five miles ahead of the battle fleet with the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron. One of his attached light cruisers, the Canterbury, was about five miles further forward; the other, the Chester, was the same distance to the westward on his starboard beam, while his four destroyers, Shark, Acasta, Ophelia and Christopher, formed his antisubmarine screen ahead. The Chester was thus nearest to the enemy, and at 5.27 her commander, Captain R. N. Lawson, hearing the sound of guns to the south-westward, turned in that direction to investigate. Soon he could see far-away flashes breaking the mist where the 5th Battle Squadron was still fighting, and in another minute or two the form of a three-funnelled cruiser with some destroyers took shape crossing ahead of him. Realising at once that she was an enemy, he turned to starboard to bring his guns to bear, but as this movement brought one of the destroyers in admirable position for attack on his port bow he swung north and was opening fire on his phantom enemy when he saw she was not alone. Two other ghost-like forms were astern of her, and in a minute or two the Chester was smothered in bursting shell. Within five minutes she had three of her guns disabled : the majority of the guns' crews were lying dead or wounded, and with only her after gun in action she turned away north-eastward at utmost speed, dodging the salvoes like a snipe. It was Admiral Boedicker's light cruiser squadron (2nd Scouting Group) she had run into, as on Admiral Hipper's disengaged side it was continuing to the northward some four miles on his starboard beam, and the ships chasing the Chester were the Frankfurt (flag), Wiesbaden, Pillau and Elbing. The Chester seemed doomed, but rescue was at hand. Directly Admiral Hood heard the firing abaft his starboard beam he swung round north-west (5.37). As the German cruisers were closing to the eastward the courses quickly converged. In a few minutes our battle cruisers could see emerging from the mist the Chester zigzagging in the storm of shell splashes that were drenching her. A minute later her eager pursuers came suddenly into view. Immediately they saw their danger they swung round to starboard on the opposite course to Admiral Hood, but it was too late. As they passed, his guns crashed into them, while the Chester escaped across the HMS Invincible's bows, firing her last shots as she ran northward into safety........

Hood's intervention to save HMS Chester had further and far greater effects than were realised at the time. In diverting his squadron to the North-West to aid Chester, Hood had inadvertently confused the German battlecruiser commander Admiral Hipper into believing that the main British force was approaching from the North-West and this mistake prompted his withdrawal of the main German fleet, an act which has been claimed saved the British battlecruiser fleet from destruction. Hood meanwhile attached his squadron to the British battlecruiser squadron of Admiral Beatty and with them formed the vanguard of the British battlefleet, which was now heading directly for the approaching Germans.

"HMS Chester on the Mersey" by Arthur James Wetherall Burgess. Arthur Burgess was born in Sydney, Australia, but settled in England in 1901. He specialised in maritime art and for many years produced paintings for Cammell Laird shipbuilders. The painting hangs in the Town Hall at Chester.

The vanguards of the battle-fleets, made up of battle-cruisers and smaller ships collided just before 18.00. The German fleet, possessing better gunnery and organisation, had the best of the early exchanges; HMS Defence, an old armoured cruiser commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot, was blown up with all 903 hands and the fast battleship HMS Warspite badly damaged and forced to limp back to Britain. Hood's squadron was heavily engaged, Invincible facing the combined batteries of SMS Lützow and SMS Derfflinger and inflicting damage on Lützow which would force her abandonment and scuttle during the night. The combination of the two ships proved too tough for Hood's flagship however, and a shell from Derfflinger penetrated the "Q" turret of Invincible.

The unstable cordite ammunition carried by Invincible, coupled with fatal flaws in her turret design and armour, resulted in a catastrophic explosion from "Q" turret's magazine. Of HMS Invincible's 1,021 crew, just six survivors were pulled from the water by attendant destroyers. Admiral Hood was not amongst them.

The rest of the battle

HMS Invincible, having rescued Chester around 18:00, abruptly appeared as a clear target before Lützow and Derfflinger and was blown-up at 18:30.

The German High Seas Fleet's intention at Jutland was to lure out, trap and destroy a portion of the British Grand Fleet, as the German naval force was insufficient to openly engage the entire British fleet. Vice-Admiral Franz Hipper's fast scouting group of five modern battlecruisers would lure Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty's battlecruiser squadrons into the path of the main German fleet (under Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer). However, the British has surmised this plan through intercepted German codes and while they gave the impression of falling for it, the British Grand fleet (under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe) put to sea with the intention of surprising the Germans. On the afternoon of 31 May, Beatty encountered Hipper's battlecruiser force long before the Germans had expected. In a running battle heading south), Hipper successfully drew the British vanguard into the path of the High Seas Fleet. Beatty willingly sailed towards this trap, knowing that the plan was that the British Grand Fleet would set another.

It was during this phase of the battle that the evnts concerning Chester, described above, occurred. To assist Beatty, early in the battle at about 16:05, Jellicoe had ordered Rear-Admiral Horace Hood's 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron to speed ahead to find and support Beatty's force, and Hood was now racing SSE well in advance of Jellicoe's northern force. At 17:38, the scout cruiser HMS Chester, screening Hood's oncoming battlecruisers, was intercepted by the van of the German scouting forces under Rear-Admiral Bödicker.

By the time Beatty sighted the larger force of the German High Seas Fleet and turned back towards the British Grand Fleet, he had lost two battlecruisers from a force of six battlecruisers and four battleships. For the next hour, the 5th Battle Squadron acted as Beatty's rearguard, drawing fire from all the German ships within range, while by 17:10 Beatty had deliberately eased his own squadron out of range of Hipper's now-superior battlecruiser force. Scheer had no indication that Jellicoe was at sea, let alone that he was bearing down from the north-west, and was distracted by the intervention of Hood's ships to his north and east. The officers on the lead German battleships, and Scheer himself, were taken completely by surprise when they emerged from drifting clouds of smoky mist to suddenly find themselves facing the massed firepower of the entire Grand Fleet main battle line. Realising he was heading into a death trap, Scheer ordered his fleet to turn and flee at 18:33. Under a pall of smoke and mist, Scheer's forces succeeded in disengaging by an expertly executed 180° turn in unison - narrowly escaping the trap. Conscious of the risks to his capital ships posed by torpedoes, Jellicoe did not chase directly but headed south, intending to keep his ships between the German fleets and their home port. Meanwhile, Scheer, knowing that it was not yet dark enough to escape, and that his fleet would suffer terribly in a stern chase, doubled back to the east at 18:55. At 19:17, for the second time in less than an hour, Scheer turned his outnumbered and out-gunned fleet to the west, ordering a potentially sacrificial charge by Scouting Group I's four remaining battlecruisers as a rearguard action. While his battlecruisers drew the fire of the British fleet, Scheer slipped away, laying smoke screens. At 21:00, Jellicoe, conscious of the Grand Fleet's deficiencies in night fighting, decided to try to avoid a major engagement until early dawn. Scheer opted to cross Jellicoe's wake and escape. Jellicoe and his commanders did not understand that the furious gunfire and explosions to the north (seen and heard for hours by all the British battleships) indicated that the German heavy ships were breaking through the screen astern of the British Grand Fleet. By morning, the Germans were sailing home.

At Jutland, the Germans, with a 99-strong fleet, sank 117,000 tons of British ships, while a 151-strong British fleet sank 63,000 tons of German ships. The British lost 6,094 seamen; the Germans 2,551. While the British had not destroyed the German fleet and had lost more ships than their enemy, the Germans had retreated to harbour; at the end of the battle the British were in command of the area.

Jack Cornwall

Cornwell with Victoria Cross (it was awarded posthumously and he is wearing the wrong hat)

Those killed on the Chester included John Travers Cornwell (VC) - aged 16. Much propaganda was made out of Jack's death with numerous parallels to the death of Giocante Casabianca at the battle of the Nile (origin of "the boy stood on the burning deck..."). The bible belonging to "Jack" Cornwell is in Chester Cathedral as is a memorial to the ship and it's dead (and the ship's ensign and union flag). The gun served by Cornwell is preserved in the Imperial War Museum in London. Cornwell was awarded the VC for bravery posthumously and was the inspiration for the "Scout Victoria Cross" (The Cornwell Scout Badge). The Captain of H.M.S. Chester wrote to Jack Cornwell's mother as follows :-

  • "I know you would wish to hear of the splendid fortitude and courage shown by your boy during the action of May 31. His devotion to duty was an example for all of us. The wounds which resulted in his death within a short time were received in the first few minutes of the action. He remained steady at his most exposed post at the gun, waiting for orders. His gun would not bear on the enemy, all but two of the ten of the crew were killed or wounded, and he was the only one who was in such an exposed position. But he felt he might be needed - as indeed he might have been - so he stayed there, standing and waiting, under heavy fire, with just his own brave heart and God's help to support him. I cannot express to you my admiration of the son you have lost from this world. No other comfort would I attempt to give to the mother of so brave a lad, but to assure her of what he was and what he did, and what an example he gave. I hope to place in the boys' mess a plate with his name on and the date, and the words " Faithful unto death." I hope some day you may be able to come and see it there."
The "Boys Own Paper" version - the real version would have been a lot more gory.

Admiral Lord Beresford wrote to the readers of "Boy's Own Paper":-

  • "Cornwall has set an example of devotion to duty which will be an inspiration to British boys for all time. It will not fall to the lot of every boy to prove so devotedly his obedience, discipline, and self-sacrifice; but every boy can endeavour to live up to his example by practising discipline and being obedient in small things. In this way character is formed, and we are able - when a crisis arises and there are big things to be done - to do them."

After all the propaganda the family were forgotten. Jack's father, Eli a Private in the 57th Royal Defence Corps died from bronchitis in October 1916 and at his mother's request was buried in the same grave as his son, yet, despite her double loss, Jack's mother Alice received only a very small pension. Jack's step-brother Arthur Cornwell was killed in action in France in August 1918. Alice was refused funds and had to work in a sailors' hostel to supplement her income. She was found dead in rooms she was forced to take in Stepney when her son's memorial fund refused financial aid at the age of 48.

Further Information

HMS Chester served with the 3rd Light Cruiser Squadron until the Armistice and was subsequently placed in reserve. She was offered for re-sale to Greece but the offer was declined and the ship was sold for scrapping on 9 November 1921 to Rees, of Llanelly. The gun served by Cornwell is preserved in the Imperial War Museum in London.

Jack's position on the gun turret, service number and mess place were taken over by Arthur Cecil Harrison. Leading Seaman Harrison lived at 3 Sunny Bank Lane Chester and he was educated at the St Paul's School in Boughton.

Mount Cornwell (2,972 metres) is a peak in the High Rock Range in British Columbia, part of the Canadian Rockies, which was named in his honour in 1918. There is also a Mount Chester (3,054 metres) in Alberta, named after HMS Chester in 1917.

On display in the Mayor's Parlour at the Town Hall is a clock, carved to resemble the west front of Chester Cathedral, is one of six similar clocks presented to HMS Chester by the citizens of Chester in May 1916.

An entirely fictional "HMS Chester" appears in the James Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies". "HMS Chester" was supposed to be Type 23 (DUKE class) frigate (using exterior shots of HMS Somerset - a real Type 23 - and interiors of HMS Westminster. Chester was the first of three frigates to appear and is the only one of the ships to have a number of the side (F82, which actually belongs to the real Type 23, HMS Somerset). Chester is seen patrolling off the coast of Russia in the pre-credits sequence of the film and it is used to launch a Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM - simply referred to as a cruise missile on-screen) at an arms bazaar. At the time the film was made, the RN did not actually have these TLAMs, but were in the process of purchasing some following their successful use by the US Navy during the Gulf War.

In 2006 it was announced that Jack Cornwell VC would feature in a series of Royal Mail postage stamps marking the 150th anniversary of the Victoria Cross.

"The boy stood on the burning deck"

Many assume that Jack was the origin of the phrase "The boy stood on the burning deck". However, that line comes from the poem Casabianca by British poet Felicia Dorothea Hemans, first published in the New Monthly Magazine for August 1826. The poem commemorates an actual incident that occurred in 1798 during the Battle of the Nile aboard the French ship Orient, which was being shelled by the English under Nelson. The young son Giocante (his age is variously given as ten, twelve and thirteen) of commander Louis de Casabianca remained at his post and perished when the flames caused the ship's magazine to explode. Nelson was buried in a coffin made from the mast of Orient.

sources and links

  • HMS Hood was not named after the admiral who rescued the Chester: she was named after the 18th-century Admiral Samuel Hood. Like Invincible, Hood sank quickly after a magazine explosion blew her in half.