The tales of Captain Bourne and Private Lambert at the Battle of Jutland

Today is the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of the First World War. It’s a battle that provokes argument and debate amongst people who know about it and looks of blank incomprehension from people who have only encountered the Western Front narrative of the war.

I am not going to try to tell the story of the battle here, or even say which side of the various arguments I come down on. Instead I am going to explain why I find it so haunting.

For me Jutland really highlights the completely impersonal nature of naval warfare. It is completely different to land battles Read this quote:

Shots were continually passing over or falling short. The suddenly out of the mist, only 10,000 yards away, emerged a battle cruiser of the Lutzow class.

Cpt Hill, RMLI HMS Colossus

Yes, it really does describe the enemy as being “only” 10,000 yards, or slightly over five and a half miles away. Ships were engaging over vast distances where they could only see each other through binoculars. Sailors were engaging enemy ships rather than individual enemies, in this case not even an individual enemy ship but one whose class they can work out. Just think about that for a moment.

Admiral Beatty’s quote

One of the most famous lines from the battle was, allegedly, uttered by Admiral Beatty:

“There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”

It was uttered in response to the catastrophic loss of HMS Invincible at 1830, HMS Indefatigable at 1603 and, worst of all, HMS Queen Mary at 1626. All of them blew up suddenly and sank with the loss of almost all hands. There really did seem to be something wrong with the ships.

It appears that the way that cordite was handled meant that a direct strike on a turret stood a good chance of setting fire to the magazine where the cordite was stored. This caused the ships to explode. It’s not quite as straightforward as that.

But this is where it gets interesting.

Alan Bourne on HMS Tiger

Captain (later General) Alan Bourne RMA was a Royal Marine in X Turret on HMS Tiger  at the battle and kept a diary of the day. It gives a very interesting, human scale view of the battle:

…when I could not see any enemy ships, I got the gun house crew onto the top of the turret to give them a change, and we passed the remains of the “Invincible” sticking up out of the sea- she had broken in half + the broken parts were on the seabed with the ends sticking up. The 3 or 4 survivors were standing on a raft + cheering as the ship went past.

Cpt. Bourne, MVO RMA HMS Tiger

So there were opportunities for a pause in the hostilities, but there is also the haunting sight of the wreckage of Invincible with only “3 or 4 survivors”.

However, it gets even more interesting with the tale of Private Lambert. I’d never heard of him either, but listen to this:

…to avoid this, Private Lambert, a young soldier of 19 years age who had been brought up as a spare No. 5 at the left gun in place of the No. 5 on leave, suggested to the second captain of the turret that the main cage should not be brought up until the Gun-loading cage was raised.

So, here’s a lad of 19 years, who is only temporarily in the crew, suggesting to his superiors that there might be another way of doing gunnery drill. You can imagine how that went down.

For some reason they listened to him, which is important because:

At 3.56 pm “X” Turret hit by 11” shell on the barbette, directly between the guns. The body of the shell and a large piece of the barbette lodged on top of the lever for jacking up the guns, and two more large pieces covered the manhole between the centre sight setter’s position an the working chamber. The central training shaft was knocked into the dynamo compartment and bent across the dynamo. There was a shower of sparks, like a rocket, in the gunhouse and working chamber, and thick fumes.

Indeed, Private Lambert’s suggestion was only

… completed some minutes before “open fire” and before the German 11 inch shell entered the turret. Burning material fell all over the empty receiving trays, and the fact of them being empty of exposed charges probably saved the ship from blowing up.


Or, to put it another way: there is a fair chance that, without the actions of the Private Lambert, HMS Tiger could have suffered a similar fate to Invincible, Indefatigable and Queen Mary.

Without Private Lambert’s actions I would not be reading Alan Bourne’s diary and he would not have gone on to the stellar career that he had.

The simple actions of one man potentially saved the lives of over a thousand.


Clr. Sgt. Magson got a “mention in Depsatches” but Pte. Lambert got nothing- to my regret, as I think he deserved it,

Often, when I think about the Battle of Jutland, I think on the poignancy of this simple story, and wonder how many others there were of simple bravery, intelligence and humanity that have gone unrecorded.


Posted by Past Participants Andy

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