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The Autobiography of Chief Gunner Alexander Grant

Posted by Neil Jackson, on April 25th, 2021

This post focuses on an extract from an excellent article written for the Society by the late Eric Grove, who sadly passed away earlier this month. It is a first-rate example of Eric’s meticulous attention to detail, and of his appreciation of the importance of the technical expertise within the ranks and rates of the Royal Navy.

This extract comes from the autobiography of a Warrant Officer who served aboard the flagship of the Battle Cruiser Fleet during the battle of Jutland in 1916, HMS Lion. Chief Gunner Alexander Grant had recently joined the ship in Rosyth, and immediately set about making key improvements to the handling and stowage of ammunitions stores, as described in the introduction;

‘What his account revealed was the shockingly lackadaisical manner in which ammunition was handled in the Battle Cruiser Fleet and in the Grand Fleet as a whole at the time of Jutland. This, more recent historians have argued, rather than intrinsically poor protection was the reason the three battle cruisers, Indefatigable, Queen Mary and Invincible, blew up when hit in their ammunition systems. Only Grant’s courageous insistence on proper precautions in Lion prevented the flagship and Battle Cruiser Fleet’s ebullient commander David Beatty sharing the same fate. The effect of such a loss, coming in addition to the losses actually suffered, would have made Jutland even more of a disappointment than it was. It is also a sign of the less than perfect staff system in the BCF that Grant’s improved system was not imposed on the other ships of the Fleet before the battle. Leaving those vessels to continue in their old and dangerous ways allowed the Germans their major successes of the engagement,’

The following extract describes Grant’s perspective of the early stages of the battle, and provides a compelling insight into the inner workings of a battlecruiser engaged in a large fleet action.

Extract from ‘The Naval Miscellany, Volume VII: The Autobiography of Chief Gunner Alexander Grant: H.M.S. Lion at the battle of Jutland‘ by Eric Grove, NRS Vol. 153 (2008), pp.397-399.

As I am writing only of my memories the reader will not expect an account of all that happened in this, to my mind, decisive action. Granted the enemy were not annihilated as at Trafalgar. They, however, received a far worse battering than was credited at the time, and because of it surrendered ignominiously at a subsequent date. The Battle of Jutland has been described many times by far abler men than I and controversy has ranged around these writings. I can, however, give an account of some of the happenings on board the Lion. The civilian sometimes has an idea that because a man takes part in a battle, he must have seen everything that was taking place. Shells hurtling through the air, ships blown to pieces, destroyers attacking with torpedoes, squadrons of ships steaming at full speed to cut off the retreat of the enemy. It is perfectly true that many officers and men in Light cruisers and Destroyers do see what is taking place due to the guns being hand-worked with little or no protection. Whereas in large ships, where guns are worked by power, everyone is below decks except those on the bridge and control tops at the mast head. Even the men who man and load the guns cannot see the ships they are firing at.

I had no special duty in action. To use a naval phrase I had a roving commission, to be here, there and everywhere. My first concern, however, was the supply of ammunition to the turret guns, as the new supply method was being used and therefore I wanted to see it applied in its entirety. There were four turrets named A, B, Q and X. Each one had four separate magazines. As soon as fire had opened I made for A and B magazines. They were in the fore part of the ship and in close proximity to each other. I found everything quite satisfactory, no delay, only one door opened, and not more than one full charge in the handing room. The supply was meeting the demand. I left orders that if there was a lull in the firing, the party must not forget to close the door of the magazine in use.

I thought at first of going up the trunk to see at first hand what had happened. The turret was out of action, however, and as I had not yet been to X magazine I decided to go there, first ordering the men who came from the working chamber to go up into the flat above as the handing room was overcrowded. I have ever regretted not going up into the disabled turret as a subsequent disaster might, or might not, have been averted. In X magazine everything appeared to be in order. There was a lull in the firing at the time so the door was closed with no charges in the handing room. I did not stay very long, feeling rather uneasy about the flooded magazine of Q, and made to that place again. I had reached the hatchway leading to the flat above the magazine and by the providence of God had only one foot on the step of the Jacob’s Ladder, when suddenly there was a terrific roar, followed by flame and dense smoke. Had I been a few seconds earlier and thus further down the Ladder, I would have met the same fate as all those fine men below who were burned to death. I instantly ran into the next compartment thinking the end had come. I regained my breath and self-possession and immediately went back to the hatchway and down to the bottom of the ladder. I could not get any further for smoke and fumes of cordite and scorched paint. Gas masks of those days were rather primitive and it was found that they were no use in this atmosphere. Numbers of my shipmates were either in their last agonies or already dead. I could see there was no fire and as soon as we got below endeavoured with the help of other men to rescue any who might be alive. We hauled up a few through the small hatchway but by this time all hope of saving life was gone.

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About Neil Jackson

Neil Jackson is the Editor of the Members’ Blog, and a serving warrant officer in the Royal Navy. He has a BA(Hons) in History from the Open University.