Cruisers and destroyers had sailed with Beatty’s battlecruisers, the cruiser screen acted as both the Fleet’s scouts and defence against torpedo attacks by destroyers. HMS Southampton, a modern light cruiser, was the flagship of Commodore William Goodenough’s 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron – Southampton, Birmingham, Nottingham and Dublin.
Among the Southampton’s crew was twenty seven year old Able Seaman Herbert Upton, an experienced sailor who had joined the Navy as a boy rating ten years before. Herbert had left home not long after his father died in 1906, leaving his widowed mother Kate and seven siblings in Mitcham. Herbert was born in 1888 in Kennington, South London, were he spent the first 12 years of his life before the Upton family came to Mitcham around the turn of the century, living first in Tramway Terrace off the Carshalton Road and then Bruce Road, near Tooting Junction, a decade later.
Herbert Upton had joined the crew of HMS Southampton just two months before in March 1916, but he was old hand on ships of this type ship having served on the scout cruiser Attentive during 1914 and 1915, and others in his early years – Cressey, Powerful, Terrible and Blake. HMS Attentive was part of the Dover Patrol, and Herbrt Upton had seen action on 7th September 1915 during a naval bombardment of German positions at Ostend. The Attentive was an early victim of air power, the ship was bombed, suffering two killed and seven wounded. The air attack forced the squadron to briefly disperse, before returning to carry out the bombardment.
During the deadly exchange for fire between Beatty’s and the German battlecruisers on the afternoon of the 31st May, the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron were steaming at full speed on a roughly parallel track to Beatty’s line about a mile apart.
Sailors on the upper deck of HMS Southampton’s port side with the chance to look out could have witnessed the terrible demise of the Indefatigable and Queen Mary in the first hour of battle. Lieutenant Stephen King-Hall would later write:
At 4.15 (approx.) I as watching our line from my position in the after-control, when without any warning an immense column of grey smoke with a fiery base and a flaming top stood up on the sea, where the Indefatigable should have been. It hung there for I don’t know how many seconds, and then a hole appeared in this pillar of smoke, through which I caught a glimpse of the forepart of the Indefatigable lying on its side; then there was a streak of flame and a fresh outpouring of smoke.
I turned with a sinking heart and watched the remaining five battle-cruisers. I can – nor could I next day – remember no noise [sic]. We [the light cruisers] were not, of course, firing ourselves, and it seemed to me that I was being carried along in a kind of dream. I wondered what would happen next; each time the splashes rose on either side of the line of great ships it was like a blow to the body. We could not see from our low deck where the 13.5-inch shells were falling on that sinister eastern horizon from which the maddening jets of flame darted in and out.
At 4.23, in the flicker of an eyelid, the beautiful Queen Mary was no more. A huge stem of grey smoke shot up to perhaps a thousand feet, swaying slightly at the base. The top of this stem of smoke expanded and rolled downwards. Flames rose and fell in the stalk of this monstrous mushroom. The bows of a ship, a bridge, a mast, slid out of the smoke – perhaps after all the Queen Mary was still there? No! it was the next astern – the Tiger. Incredible as it may sound, the Tiger passed right over the spot on which the Queen Mary had been destroyed, and felt nothing. The time interval between her passage over the grave of the Queen,Mary and the destruction of the latter ship would be about 40-60 seconds.
What did worry me was that we were now reduced to four. We were by now right ahead of the Lion, and as I watched her, I saw a tremendous flash amidships, as she was hit by a shell or shells. I saw the whole ship stagger; for what seemed eternity I held my breath, half expecting her to blow up, but she held on and showed no signs of outward injury.
Actually her midship turret, manned by the marines, was completely put out of action, and had it not been for the heroism of the major of marines the ship might have gone. He lost his life and gained the V.C.
Ahead of the Lion, HMS Southampton was the first to to sight the German High Seas Fleet and raise the alarm.
Sir David Beatty at once signalled to the battle-cruiser Force to alter course 16 points (180 degrees). This manoeuvre was executed by the battle-cruisers in succession. The German battle-cruisers were doing the same thing at the same moment. The 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron continued at full sped toward the German Fleet:
We disobeyed the signal, or rather delayed obeying it for two reasons: Firstly, we wished to get close enough to the High Seas Fleet to examine them and report accurately on their composition and disposition. Secondly, we had hopes of delivering a torpedo attack on the long crescent-shaped line of heavy ships which were stretched round on our port bow.
It was a strain steaming at 25 knots straight for this formidable line of battleships, with our own friends going fast away from us in the opposite direction. As we got closer I counted sixteen or seventeen battleships with the four KÖnig class in the van and the six older pre-Dreadnoughts in the rear. Seconds became minutes and still they did not open fire. I can only account for this strange inactivity on their part by the theory that as they only saw us end on, and we were steering on opposite courses to the remaining British ships, they assumed we were a German light cruiser squadron that had been running away from the British battle-cruisers.
The Commodore saw that we could not get into a position for a torpedo attack, and gave the order for the turning signal, which had been flying for five minutes, to be hauled down. Over went the helms, and the four ships slewed round, bringing our sterns to the enemy. Lt. Stephen King-Hall, HMS Southampton.
The relative position 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron, Beatty’s battlecruisers and the 5th Battle Squadron as seen by HMS Southampton:
I took a general look round, and the situation was as follows: About three or four miles north of us our battlecruisers were steaming along, making a good deal of smoke and firing steadily at the German battle-cruisers’ distant hulls on our starboard bow. Then came a gap of two miles between the battlecruisers and the Fifth Battle Squadron. These latter four ships had passed the battle-cruisers on opposite courses when Sir David Beatty turned north, and as soon as they had passed him, Rear Admiral Evan Thomas turned his squadron to north by-west, and followed up the battle-cruisers.
It will be remembered that whilst this was going on we (Second Light Cruiser Squadron) had still been going south. When we turned to north, we found ourselves about a mile behind the last ship of the Fifth Battle Squadron. As flagship we had the post of honour nearest to the enemy. We maintained this position for one hour, during which time we were under persistent shell-fire from the rear six ships of the German line.
The Fifth Battle Squadron just ahead of us were a brave sight. They were receiving the concentrated fire of some twelve German heavy ships. Our own position was not pleasant. The half-dozen older battleships at the tail of the German line were out of range to fire at the Fifth Battle-cruiser, but though we had gradually drawn out to 15,000 -16,000 yards, we were inside their range, and they began to do a sort of target practice in slow time on our squadron. We all compared notes afterwards and decided that during this hour about fifty to sixty shells fell within 100 yards of the ship, and many more slightly farther off. I attribute our escape, as far as we were able to contribute towards it, to the very clever manner in which our navigator, zig-zagged the ship according to where he estimated the next salvo would fall.
At 6.17 p.m. the news that the Grand Fleet had been sighted right ahead spread round the ship like wild-fire. Forgotten was the steady shelling – now we’d give them hell. The battle drew on to its dramatic climax when as faintly ahead in the smoke and haze the great line of Grand Fleet battleships became visible curling across to the eastward. They had just deployed. Lt. Stephen King-Hall, HMS Southampton.
Albert Upton’s ship had survived this phase of the battle due to the combined skill, judgement, training, and team work of the officers and men who had spotted shell splashes, correctly calculated the time of travel of shells from distance ships, decided the Germans had fired to a “ladder pattern” and taken the best evasive action.
The position and general course of the opposing fleets around 6pm are show in these two diagrams, with HMS Southampton now to the west and close to the rear of the Grand Fleet’s line.
The Southampton was witness to the loss of armoured cruiser, HMS Defence. This ship was the Flagship of Admiral Arbuthnott, unaware in the poor visibility that the High Seas Fleet was so near, Arbuthnott made a misguided attempt to finish off the crippled SMS Wiesbaden. The ship astern was the Warrior, and it was evident that she was hard hit, burning in several places and wrecked. The Warspite, ahead of the Southampton, altered course for the centre of the German Line so drawing their fire, and at 8,000 yards slowly turned still firing her 15 inch guns. Lt. King-Hall described how HMS Southampton led an abortive attack on the sinking SMS Wiesbaden:
At 6.47 we reached the spot where it had taken place. The first thing we saw was a German three funnel cruiser, the Wiesbaden. She was battered badly, as she had been lying inert between the two lines, and whenever a British battleship could not see her target she opened on the Wiesbaden. We were simply longing to hit something, and this seemed our chance. Increasing speed to 20 knots we turned and led our squadron in to administer the ‘coup de grace’. Turning to bring our broadsides to bear at 6,000 yards, we directed a stream of 6-inch on the Hun, who replied feebly with one gun. There is no doubt that the men who worked that gun had the right spirit in them.
Beyond the Wiesbaden, at a range of about 14,000 yards, our old friends the pre-dreadnoughts were toddling along at the stern of the German line. During our approach to the Wiesbaden they had preserved an ominous silence. It did not remain thus for long. The six of them opened a rapid fire on us, and we were at once obliged to open the range without delay. We scuttled back to the tail of the British line as hard as we could, zig-zagging like snipe, with 11-inch crumping down ahead, on both sides, and astern of us.
Twilight was fast approaching and visibility was hampered by the pall of funnel and cordite smoke that hung over the sea. It was around 7.30pm that the Germans made their supreme effort to escape from the semicircle of the Grand Fleets fire that threatened to engulf them. Under cover of a smoke screen and a massed torpedo attack, from which Jellicoe turned his ships away, the German High Seas Fleet disappeared from view somewhere to the south-west. Around 8pm, HMS Southampton fired a salvo at 6,000 yards a she came abreast of a lone German destroyer, it remained afloat and was finished off by the Faulkner and some destroyers. Nerves would begin to strain in the growing darkness with just moments to react and decide if sighted vessels were friend or foe.
At 8.50 p.m. we sighted four German destroyers approaching us on the starboard bow, apparently intending to deliver an attack on the Fifth Battle Squadron. We opened fire at once, and hit the leading destroyer amidships. All four turned round and, pursued by our shells, disappeared behind a smoke-screen. This feeble little destroyer attack may be said to mark the conclusion of the day action as far as we were concerned. Directly afterwards we went to night defence stations, and nerve- strings were tightened up another turn. Lt. Stephen King-Hall, HMS Southampton.
The Battle of Jutland was about to enter a phase of night fighting that would continue into the early hours of 1st June. A series of confused and disjointed actions took place, often between vastly mismatched opponents and at such close ranges every shell fired was sure to hit its target with devastating effect. The Germans were better equipped for night fighting with superior search lights, star shells, and light to gunnery coordination. Unknown to the British, the High Seas Fleet was astern of Beatty and between the battlecruisers’s wake and the Grand Fleet. The most eastward German ships, on Scheer’s port bow, were the five light cruisers of the Fourth Scouting Group under Commodore Ludwig von Reuter and these ships came into contact with the British 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron and HMS Southampton was their Flagship.
I groped my way on to the bridge and had a chat with the gunnery lieutenant, as a result of which he arranged that in the event of night action he would control the guns from the forebridge and I would be in general charge aft. A signalman, and the navigator suddenly whispered, ” Five ships on the beam.” The Commodore looked at them through night glasses, and I heard a whispered discussion going on as to whether they were the enemy or the Third Light Cruiser Squadron. From their faint silhouettes it was impossible to discover more than the fact that they were light cruisers.
We began to challenge; the Germans switched on coloured lights at their fore yardarms. A second later a solitary gun crashed forth from the Dublin, who was next astern of us. Simultaneously I saw the shell hit a ship just above the water-line and about 8oo yards away. As I caught a nightmare-like glimpse of her interior which has remained photographed on my mind to this day, I said to myself: ‘My G–, they are alongside us.’ At that moment the Germans switched on their searchlights, and we switched on ours. Before I was blinded by the lights in my eyes I caught sight of a line of light grey ships. Then the gun behind which I was standing answered my shout of ‘Fire!’.
The action lasted three and a half minutes. The four leading German ships concentrated their lights and guns on the Southampton; the fifth and perhaps the fourth as well fired at the Dublin. The Nottingham and Birmingham, third and fourth in our line, with great wisdom did not switch on their lights and were not fired at. In those three and a half minutes we had 89 casualties, and 75 per cent. of the personnel on the upper deck were killed or wounded. Lt. Stephen King-Hall, HMS Southampton.
Fires broke out among the scenes of carnage and wreckage on the Southampton’s upper deck. Men manning guns had been mown down and the search light crew died instantaneously in a shell burst that carried the lights away. Others were terribly burnt or injured:
the upper deck was strewn with dead and wounded. One stumbled on them as one walked. By the aid of discreetly struck matches and shaded torches the upper deck was searched. I heard a groan and came upon a poor boy named Mellish. He could only say, ‘My leg – my arm’ Another man and myself got him down one of the two steep hatches that led to the lower deck. His injuries were sickening, but with a smile he said: ‘It’s no good worrying about me, sir!’ and then he died. I don’t think he felt any pain
Where were the Germans? Nothing but groans from dark corners. Though I did not know it at the time, the Germans had fled. They fled because our torpedo lieutenant, had fired a 21-inch torpedo. At 41 knots the torpedo had shot across and, striking the Frauenlob, had blown her in half. Out of 300 Huns in her, 7 survived. Lt. Stephen King-Hall, HMS Southampton.
The Lt King-Hall had described the death of boy sailor Thomas Charles Mellish, a sixteen year old lad originally from East London with family in Camberwell, he had joined the Navy in March 1914 and been on the Southampton since February 1915.
Only in the early hours of daylight could the full extent of the damage to HMS Southampton be assessed, her deck, bridges and superstructure had all been swept in the storm of shell.
The funnels were riddled through with hundreds of small holes, and the decks were slashed and ripped with splinters. There were several holes along the side, but the general effect was as if handfuls of splinters had been thrown against the upper works of the ship. The protective mattresses round the bridge and control position were slashed with splinters. The foremast, the rigging, the boats, the signal lockers, the funnel casing, the mainmast, everything was a mass of splinter holes. Our sailors firmly believed, and continued to do so up to the day on which I left the ship, that we had been deluged with shrapnel. It was certainly surprising that anyone on the upper deck remained unhit. Lt. Stephen King-Hall, HMS Southampton.
On HMS Southampton 35 men had been killed or died of wounds, and 1 officer and 54 men wounded, some with terrible burns. Able Seaman Herbert Upton had not survived. The bodies of the dead were committed to the deep in the age old tradition, wrapped in a sailor’s hammock and slid from beneath the flag, plunging into the cold grey waters of the North Sea.
In the misty dawn of the 1st of June, the Southampton found herself close to the 5th Battle Squadron and after passing through much of the British Fleet attached themselves to Beatty’s battlecruisers once more. Cruising slowly south as far as the German minefields and then north again there was little reason to remain in the North Sea. In worsening weather, it was a slow journey home as the some of the shores and plugs let in water. HMS Southampton did not reach the Forth of Firth until hours after the rest of the fleet – the crews of the battlecruisers cheered as they past.
Four years would pass before the Upton family had the opportunity to the honour the memory of a lost son. Although Herbert Upton’s widowed mother Kate was still living in Bruce Road, not far from St.Barnabas Church, her son’s name does not appear alongside that of BARNES and HOPSON. Herbert’s name simply appears as UPTON H. on the Mitcham War Memorial.
Footnote 1: K28504, Stoker 1st Class, George Albert GOSLING, from Beddington Corner, served on HMS Warspite during the Battle of Jutland.
J35441, Boy Richard Walter William JENKINS, from Mitcham, served on HMS Warrior during the Battle of Jutland. He lived to celebrate is seventeen birthday on 11 July 1916.