This week’s blog is by Debbie Lyddon, whose artwork, The Signalman, highlights signalling systems at the Battle of Jutland.
Charles Thomas Sewell was a Leading Signalman on the Light Cruiser, HMS Southampton during the Battle of Jutland in 1916. He was also my paternal grandfather. Charlie survived the battle and left a concise, but personal account of the events of 31 May and 1 June in a hand-written memoir that was the starting point for this body of work. In The Signalman I have told the main events of the battle using key words and phrases that have been taken either from Charlie’s memoir or from the record of Naval signals that were sent during the battle.
During WW1 signalling methods in battle were a mixture of flag, semaphore, and Morse code, sent both by wireless telegraphy and searchlight. There has been much discussion about signalling during Jutland. Not only the part it played as the engagement unfolded but also in the outcome of the battle. Communication between ships that were spread out, in formation, over a wide area was difficult during battle and each form of signalling, unfortunately, had disadvantages. These drawbacks led to a failure to communicate efficiently and to widespread confusion in the passing of orders and intelligence.
Wireless telegraphy used coded Morse and was a relatively new method of communication to be added to the main signals curriculum. This new method of signalling required an electrical supply and aerials, both of which suffered during battle due to power loss and damage. The strength of the signal could vary from boat type to boat type and the Germans became good at jamming it. Wireless telegraphy wasn’t a quick procedure and required several operations to relay the signal. Typically an order would be coded by the signal officer from the signal books in the briefest and best way and sent to the wireless telegraphy office. Here it was decoded and a plain language version sent back to the signal officer to be checked against the original version before being returned for transmission. This procedure ensured correct reporting but was slow.
Flags, on the other hand, had been part of the Navy’s core skills since the Napoleonic Wars and a signalman or ‘bunting tosser’ would have been able to read and transcribe messages with ease. Semaphore used plain Morse code and the hoisting of flag signals used different flags and pennants to denote coded messages. Both methods were a purely visual form of communication and weather conditions, smoke from funnels and shelling could prevent the signals from being seen. It also meant that the ships needed to be within visual distance of each other, so ships tended to sail closer together in order to read the signals. The flagship was often placed in the middle of the battle-line so that signals could radiate out from it, but at Jutland a battle-line could consist of as many as 24 ships, 8 miles long and a signal could take half an hour to reach the ends of the line. Again this form of signalling was slow, signals could be missed and not passed on, or could – due to human error – be read incorrectly.
Searchlights had the advantage of being seen at night or at times of poor visibility. But they also needed electricity and so had the same shortcomings as wireless telegraphy. Interestingly my grandfather also highlights another serious fault with this signalling method in his memoir.
‘It was noted that at the end of the night action when the searchlights went out, a greater number of direct hits were recorded. This was accounted for by the fact that the red glow of the carbons of a searchlight would be a better target for a gunlayer through a telescope than the dazzle of the searchlights when switched on. This of course was remedied in the production of searchlights later by fitting a prismatic shutter like the shutter of a camera.’
The Signalman takes the form of three ‘flags’ where the narrative on each is notated with a different method of signal communication: Plain Morse code, semaphore and flag signals.
Flag 1: The beginning
The sea was very calm with a light haze.
Signal method: Morse Code
Linen, wire, cotton, brass
‘On Tuesday afternoon May 30th 1916 the Battle Fleet under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe (in his flagship HMS Iron Duke) and the Battle Cruiser Squadron under Sir David Beatty (in the fleet flagship HMS Lion) put to sea on customary sweeps…. my job was as a Leading Signalman, acting foreman of the Action Watch and my place on Monkey’s Island was the passing of orders to make signals.’
Flag 2: Day action
Urgent. Have sighted enemy battle fleet.
Wed 31 May 1916, 16.38 GMT
Signal Method: Semaphore
Linen, felt, cotton, brass
‘Incidents in the action were taking place very rapidly; we in HMS Southampton with our squadron ahead of HMS Lion had a close view of most events, some discouraging. At about 4.30pm we sighted the enemy battle fleet and reported the fact to Admiral Jellicoe in HMS Iron Duke…. In order to obtain the disposition and composition of the enemy battle fleet Commodore Goodenough led his Light Cruiser Squadron in between the lines and it was for all the staff on the upper bridge a very thrilling experience.’
Flag 3: Night action
Fires started. Flames engulfed the forebridge.
Signal method: Flags
Linen, cotton duck, cotton, brass
‘… at 10.20pm the roar of the claxon sounded and action stations were manned again. I took my place on the upper bridge and as soon as I could accustom myself to the darkness it was clear that a line of light cruisers was just before us on the starboard beam, steering, what appeared almost a parallel course, gradually closing upon us …. finally, both seemed to challenge at the same time and immediately there were exchanges of gunfire and torpedoes, an action which historians state lasted 15 minutes, but to me five minutes….’