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From Scapa to Jutland: The Story of HMS Caroline at War From 1914-1917

Reviewed by CAPT Chuck Good, USN (Ret.)

“Stealth at Work” is a chapter title in this interesting and clever little book, and it fits the book itself. To outward appearance, this is a breezy picture-book, geared towards tourists and dilletantes visiting the museum ship herself at her berth in Belfast; a light souvenir, easy to slip in a backpack with the offering of a “tanner (sixpence)” in the donation bucket. But the book’s stealth is what is hidden in between the myriad of sketches, photos, vignettes, sidebars and color plates: a concise, lucid and quite professional history of the early years of World War I in the North Sea. The story takes us from mobilization to Heligoland Bight to the Dogger Bank, affords a glimpse at the dreary Fleet-in-being routine in Scapa Flow, and then brings us to “Der Tag” – the anticlimactic Battle of Jutland. All of these pieces are assembled around a thoroughbred of the Grand Fleet, a newly-commissioned light cruiser of the scouting force, who survives to this day as the only remaining Jutland veteran.

This is really three books in one: a primer on shipboard basics, such as how the Sailors of the day lashed their hammocks and stood their watches; a human-interest story of the Captain’s Steward, Albion Percy Smith, whose diary contributed much towards assembling the book; and the larger historical narrative itself. These three works are tightly knit in a well-crafted interlaced structure. Any given chapter might start with an extract from Smith’s journal regarding the activities of Captain and crew, add in sidebars and vignettes that illustrate nautical terms to the layperson, drop in some extracts from the ship’s log, and finally, move a few nautical miles forward with the historical backdrop of the war. What could come off as cumbersome and contrived instead just kind of … works, thanks to the author’s artfulness in stitching it all together.

Stepping back, a couple of things struck this reviewer. First, admiration for Britain’s mastery of ship design in the early 20th century. Although the U.S. and Germany could match Britannia in battleship design and construction quality leading up to the Great War, the Royal Navy’s cruisers and destroyers were in a class of their own. At a time when the U.S. could field only lumbering ram-bowed armored cruisers with casemated guns and coal-fired boilers, the thoroughly modern British cruisers featured trim, clipper-bowed hullforms whose oil-burning turbines were good for 30 knots and whose quick-firing gun mounts provided flexible firepower. It is worth noting that many of CAROLINE’s later sisters were still fully combat-capable into the early years of World War II, where they were in the thick of the action in the Mediterranean, North Sea, and Channel. No other nation’s pre-World War I cruiser designs can claim the same.

The second revelation was how pivotal a ship CAROLINE herself was, both as the first of the twenty eight ship “C-class” which formed the backbone of the Grand Fleet’s scouting force, as well as in her combat role at Jutland. As name-ship of her class, she received frequent and unwelcome mention in German propaganda as a particularly marked target. And at 8:45pm on May 31, 1916, she and her half-sister ROYALIST almost turned Jutland from an unsatisfactory tactical exchange to what could have been the smashing Nelsonian victory the Royal Navy expected. In the gloom and dark of Northern night, as Sir John Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet sought to bring Reinhardt Scheer’s High Seas Fleet back under their overwhelming gunfire, CAROLINE and her sister sighted, reported, and attacked a division of German battleships passing through the British formation. This would be the last engagement of the German heavy units, all brought to naught by a British battle squadron commander who was reluctant to take decisive action. 

The cultural reasons why are best detailed in Andrew Gordon’s seminal The Rules of the Game, a generational pattern of over-rigid tactical thinking and outdated signaling which led to timidity in some of Jellicoe’s subordinates which did no justice to his worthy strategic and operational mind. CAROLINE suffered no such hesitation; her Captain HR Crooke amplified his sighting report and pressed a close gun-and-torpedo attack into intense fire, all to no avail when Vice Admiral Sir Martyn Jerram would not bring his dreadnaughts up in immediate support. On such moments turn battles, and it is fitting that the intrepid CAROLINE, rather than a bulky dreadnaught which survives to this day as a living memorial of pluck, duty, and readiness for battle. 

This work is a worthy keepsake and companion to the vessel herself. My sole complaint is that, amidst the abundance of illustrations, there are only two photos of CAROLINE herself, and none of her Captain and Executive Officer, both of whom feature heavily in the narrative. As well, several pages of photo plates in the center are given over to activities (the Spithead Review of 1911) which CAROLINE never participated in and opponents (SMS BLŰCHER and VON DER TANN) which CAROLINE never actually faced in battle. Those pages could have been given instead to views of Scapa Flow, or to the specific German battleships CAROLINE so intrepidly attacked the night of May 31st. With CAROLINE surviving, it is also somewhat of a mystery why there are not numerous photos of those portions of the ship which remain relatively untouched by time; although this is not the case topside, the author himself cites several vintage belowdecks areas, including the tiller flat, which is yet “remarkably … as it was in 1916.” Suitable high-resolution photos would have enhanced the book’s otherwise flawless presentation of this venerable warhorse.

These quibbles aside, From Scapa to Jutland stands as a neat little jewel of a book, and a worthy companion to the great ship herself. Cruisers are getting rare on the world’s oceans, and all who have sailed in them should rejoice that the U.K. saw fit to preserve this luminous example. Any student of naval history visiting Belfast should pay HMS CAROLINE a visit and perhaps find their own copy of this fine book in the gift shop!

From Scapa to Jutland: The Story of HMS CAROLINE at War From 1914-1917. By John Allison (Newtownards, UK: Colourpoint Books, 2019).

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