Inside the First World War – Part Five

  • 5 January, 2014
  • Bravery
  • Medals

Published in the Sunday Telegraph on 05 January 2014.

Loftus William Jones – ‘No finer act’ had the Royal Navy ever known.

Immediately the First World War began, it was clear that Britain’s navy, for so many centuries the pride of the nation, would play a vital role and turn the war into a global conflict.

The Royal Navy is the oldest of the British armed services and it is therefore the most senior. Because of the Royal Navy’s formidable reputation and its great strength built up over the preceding decade, Germany was reluctant to take it on in a head-to-head battle. However, there were several crucial naval battles over the four years of the conflict that resulted in acts of astonishing bravery displayed by Royal Navy personnel of all ranks.

One of the finest naval VCs of the Great War was the decoration awarded to Commander Loftus W Jones RN. Born in Petersfield, Hampshire, on November 13, 1879, he was the second son of Admiral Loftus Jones and his wife Gertrude. With his father being such a senior Royal Navy officer, it was not surprising that “Willie”, as he was affectionately known, went into the senior service. Indeed, of the four brothers, three served in the Royal Navy (the fourth breaking with tradition and entering the Indian Army).

After being educated at Eastman’s Royal Naval Academy in Fareham, Hampshire – which the young Jones never warmed to – he rose quickly through the officer ranks and, at just 21, was in command of his own small ship, the gunboat Sandpiper. In June 1914, he was promoted to commander. Following the outbreak of the conflict, Jones initially captained the destroyer Linnet which, along with three other destroyers, sank the German minelayer Königin Luise as early as August 5, 1914, in the first British action of the war. From October 11, 1914, Jones commanded Shark, a destroyer which, late in December 1914, clashed with the German High Seas Fleet, aggressively pursuing and helping to see off the superior force.

At 2pm on May 31, 1916, Shark, captained by Commander Loftus W Jones, was providing protection from enemy submarines, along with three other destroyers and two light cruisers, for the Third Battlecruiser Squadron as it headed south in the North Sea in advance of the British battle fleet. No enemy ships were known to be in the vicinity and the 91-strong complement of officers and men on the Shark were as relaxed as they could be two years into the First World War.

However, at 2.20pm messages were received that an enemy force was at sea and the ships’ companies were ordered to action stations as they proceeded, at full speed, to intercept the enemy. At 5.20pm, the first sounds of fire were heard: no one knew it at the time but they were the opening salvoes of the Battle of Jutland, the long-awaited battle between the main British and German fleets.

Twenty minutes later, German destroyers and light cruisers appeared. When 10 German destroyers launched a torpedo attack on the Third Battlecruiser Squadron, four British destroyers, including the Shark, broke up the offensive. Soon after the four destroyers had returned to join their two light cruisers, three German battlecruisers appeared and started firing on the six British ships.

Under a heavy fire, the Shark was hit and a shell fragment destroyed its bridge steering wheel. Commander Jones ordered the after steering wheel to be manned and, along with the wounded coxswain and a signalman, he ran down the bridge ladder and along the upper deck.

The enemy fire remained intense and it was using shrapnel, some of which struck Commander Jones in the thigh and face, leaving him to stem the flow of blood with his hands. Meanwhile, the coxswain was hit a second time and lapsed into unconsciousness. Realising that the Shark had been largely disabled by heavy fire, the captain of the Acasta brought his destroyer between the stricken vessel and the enemy ships. Commander Jones was told by the signalman that his fellow captain had offered to assist. “No, tell him to look after himself and not get sunk over this,” was the captain’s firm and selfless reply.

As the Third British Battlecruiser Squadron disappeared from sight, the enemy closed in on the Shark: its after gun was put out of action almost immediately, and its crew killed or wounded, while the forward gun had already been blown away. The situation was worsening by the minute although, even in a hail of shrapnel, the crew on the Shark were desperately trying to load their final torpedo into the tube. However, the torpedo itself was struck by an enemy shell and exploded, causing heavy casualties and leaving only one gun in action.

Petty Officer William Griffin, who had been wounded in the attack, later recalled the scene: “On all sides there was chaos. Dead and dying lay everywhere around. The decks were a shambles. Great fragments of the ship’s structure were strewn everywhere.”

The Shark was still under fierce attack. Some shells exploded on the ship itself and others fell into the sea, throwing vast amounts of water on to the stricken destroyer. Unsurprisingly, the one surgeon on board was overwhelmed by his task. When he too was wounded, he was bandaged by a man who had lost an arm when the ship’s torpedo had been struck.

By now the enemy was at close range and preparing for the kill. Commander Jones ordered the collision mats over the shot holes as attempts were made to keep the ship afloat.

When the crew of the last gun – the midship gun – was reduced to two men, the Shark’s bloodied captain stood beside it, giving the range. As one of the two men fell, weakened by the loss of blood, the captain took his place.

However, moments later, Commander Jones was struck by a shell which blew off his right leg above the knee. As his men tied an improvised tourniquet – made from pieces of rope and wood – on his leg, Jones continued to direct the firing of the gun. As the German destroyers closed in, and the captain feared his ship would be captured, Commander Jones ordered the ship to be sunk. However, just at that moment the Shark’s gun fired another round so he countermanded his order by shouting “Fight the ship”, to encourage his men to carry on the battle.

At this point, Commander Jones, weakened by his own loss of blood and in great pain, noticed that the ensign had been shot away and ordered a new one to be hoisted. “That’s good,” was the captain’s observation when he saw that the flag was flying defiantly once more.

The bows of the Shark were already disappearing below the waves and other parts were awash with water as two German destroyers closed in to only a few hundred feet in order to finish off the stricken ship. “Save yourselves,” was Commander Jones’s final order to his men, shortly before he was eased into the sea and floated clear of his ship with the help of a lifebelt.

Some 20 survivors clambered on to two rafts and pieces of wreckage as two more torpedoes hit the Shark, blasting the dead and wounded into the water. Her stern rose up and she sank with her colours flying. Commander Jones, who had been placed on one of the rafts and propped in a sitting position, smiled and said: “It’s no good, lads.” Eventually, however, battlecruisers swept past in pursuit of the enemy. Jones sought confirmation that they were British ships and, when told they were, whispered: “That’s good.” Minutes later his head fell forward as he gave his final breath. Jones was 36 when he died.

Some of those who had made it on to the rafts also died from their injuries or fell into the water and either drowned or died from the cold. Shortly after midnight, however, a flare fired from the other raft was spotted and six survivors from the 91-strong company were eventually rescued by a Danish steamer, the SS Vidar.

Commander Jones’s body was washed ashore off the coast of Sweden still in the lifebelt that he had donned after being forced to leave his ship. On June 24, 1916, he was buried in Fiskebäckskil Churchyard, Vastra Götaland. The funeral was attended by many local people and a monument was erected through subscriptions from local fishermen.

Margaret Jones, Commander Jones’s widow, received letters from the Admiralty with information about her late husband’s body and burial. Indeed, four years later, accompanied by their daughter Linnette, Mrs Jones visited her husband’s grave in Sweden (although, in 1961, Commander Jones’s remains were transferred to the British War Graves plot at Kviberg Cemetery in Gothenburg). Mrs Jones also retrieved some of his personal effects.

Mrs Jones made extensive inquiries into how her husband had perished during the Battle of Jutland. She discovered that one of her husband’s last acts had been to say: “Let’s have a song, lads.” The first lieutenant started singing Nearer, My God, to Thee, and the survivors sang until they were exhausted.

Jones’s posthumous VC was announced on March 6, 1917, when his citation said the decoration was “in recognition of his most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in the course of the Battle of Jutland. The full facts have only now been ascertained.” Six survivors from the ship, including Petty Officer Griffin, received the Distinguished Service Medal.

Mrs Jones received her husband’s VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace on March 31, 1917. The dramatic and moving account of the Shark’s final hours was put together from interviews with the survivors, some of whom spoke to Mrs Jones.

I bought Commander Jones’s VC and service medals last year in a private sale, along with a number of personal effects including his waterstained wristwatch, his smashed binoculars and the lifebelt he was wearing when he died. I am delighted that his VC (along with his damaged watch) have gone on display at the Imperial War Museum’s Victoria Cross and George Cross gallery in London.

Over the years, many people have praised Commander Jones’s bravery but perhaps the greatest compliment to his courage came from Admiral Beatty, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet during the war and later the first Earl Beatty. He said: “No finer act had been produced in the annals of Her Majesty’s Navy.”

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