M is for Maritime Manoeuvres – a pass & a fail

April 15, 2014 at 8:39 am | Posted in Family History, History, War and Conflict | 3 Comments
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A2Z-BADGE-000 [2014]


HMS Warspite – pass

In August 1915, when my grandfather, James Atkinson (Mum’s father) was 21, he was called up for service in the Royal Navy “for the duration of hostilities”.

In October, he joined HMS Warspite as an Ordinary Seaman. He was a stoker, which meant he fed coal to the furnaces that operated the steam engines. It was a dirty job – and a dangerous one in wartime. If the ship were torpedoed or sank, the odds against surviving for those working below decks were very high.

James Atkinson HMS Telemachus WWI

The name HMS Warspite has long been a part of British naval tradition. The first sailed under the command of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1596. The eighth is a nuclear submarine.The seventh Warspite, a mighty battleship, a superdreadnought, fought her way through both World Wars, seeing action in some of the greatest naval engagements of the twentieth century.

HMS Warspite

On 31 May 1916, Warspite took part in the first and largest engagement in her career, the Battle of Jutland.

Warspite’s steering jammed after she had attempted to avoid collision with her sister-ship Valiant. Her captain decided to stay on course, in effect going round in circles, rather than stop and reverse, a decision that would have made Warspite a sitting duck.

Warspite received fifteen hits from main armament guns from the German capital ships, which resulted in considerable damage, so that she came close to foundering.

However, these manoeuvres had the effect of saving the HMS Warrior, for the Germans switched their attention from that badly damaged cruiser to the more tempting target of a battleship in difficulty. This gained her the eternal affection of the crew of Warrior, who believed Warspite‘s actions were intentional.

The crew finally regained control of Warspite after two full circles, though the actions undertaken to stop her circling had the negative aspect of potentially taking her straight to the German High Seas Fleet. So the order was given for Warspite to stop to allow repairs, after which she was underway once more.

During the battle, Warspite was holed 150 times and suffered fourteen killed and many wounded. She sailed for home, despite considerable damage, after being ordered to do so by the commander of the 5th Battle Squadron. On her journey home, she came under attack from a German U-boat which unsuccessfully fired two torpedoes at her.  A second attack occurred soon after, with another torpedo launched but missing her.

Only a short while after that incident, Warspite confronted a U-boat directly in front of her; she attempted to ram the U-boat but failed. She safely reached Rosyth, Scotland, where her damage was repaired.

James was promoted to Able Seaman a couple of months after the Battle of Jutland. He served out the war, and was demobilised in February 1919 as a Leading Stoker, having received training as an electrician.

James Atkinson & Agnes Moxham c.1918-350

James married Agnes Moxham a few months after returning home.



HMS Opal – fail

James Atkinson’s younger brother, Frederick, joined the Royal Navy on 13th February 1917 “for the duration of hostilities”. After training, he was appointed as an Ordinary Seaman to HMS Diligence, but was transferred to the “M” class destroyer HMS Opal.

Fred A 1917

HMS Opal, like HMS Warspite, was a part of the Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland. She also participated in other major fleet sorties during the next two years, as well as pursuing her regular duties of minesweeping, convoy protection and anti-submarine patrols in the North Sea.

On the 12th January 1918, HMS Opal and her sister ship HMS Norbrough ran aground and were wrecked in northern Scottish waters, on the east side of South Ronaldsay Island, Orkney Islands.

HMS Opal 1917

Both ships were serving with the Grand Fleet flotillas, and were returning to base at Scapa Flow from patrol off the east coast of the Orkneys on a pitch-black night and in a blizzard. They both ploughed into the rocks of Clett of Crura, halfway down the east coast of South Ronaldsay Island.

In the terrible conditions, just one man survived out of a total of 180 men; an able seaman found 36 hours later stranded on a cliff ledge.

A Court of Enquiry later found that the leading destroyer, Opal, had not made sufficient allowance for sea conditions during course changes.

Frederick Atkinson was among those killed – he had just turned 19. After Fred went down with HMS Opal, James and Fred’s sister, Ethel, wouldn’t look at opals; she always claimed they were unlucky. I don’t think if Fred’s body was ever recovered.

WW1 Memorial Plaque aka the Dead-Man's Penny

WW1 Memorial Plaque aka the Dead-Man’s Penny

The site of the wrecks is classified as an official war grave.

Do you know much about the naval battles of WWI? Did you lose a relative as a result of the war?


(c) Linda Visman  15.04.2014  (788 words)


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  1. We spent a good period of time this year studying WWI in history in our homeschool. My oldest has really become interested in learning anything about the wars in history.

    AJ’s AtoZ wHooligan
    Tales of a Pee Dee Mama

    • Thanks for visiting, TaMara. It is good your child is interested in history. Hopefully it will show how not to do things that have been done badly in the past. 🙂 All the best with the home schooling too. I think it often teaches the parents as much as the kids. 🙂

  2. The photos help to bring the story to life. The lessons of History have much to offer.

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