The Orkney Islands beyond the northern most tip of Scotland can be a cold and miserable place. Even at this time of year the temperature barely bothers double figures. Thirty-six year old Gunlayer First Class William Alfred Marfleet is a nineteen year naval veteran. He goes about his business aboard the HMS Royal Oak. She’s the flagship of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the largest assembly of the most powerful fleet the world has ever seen. They’re about to enter the biggest naval battle in history.
The First World War’s Battle of Jutland was fought 100 years ago this week. In the North Sea near the Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula, around 250 ships blasted away for 36 hours from May 30th to June 1st 1916. It resulted in a tactical stalemate between the British Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy. Yet it was a British strategic victory, because the Germans retreated to port never to re-emerge for the duration of the war. The toll was heavy with 6,094 British and 2,551 German dead. William Marfleet was one of the survivors.
William was the youngest of seven siblings from Bromley in south east London. His brother also served in the Navy as petty officer, but was court-martialled for striking a superior. A cousin was a head gamekeeper in Buckinghamshire who gained international notoriety when he shot and killed the village squire. Another cousin served in the Australian Light Horse and was convicted of unlawfully trading military trousers.
On a fine starless night, word came for Royal Oak to awake. The ships of the enormous fleet all silently and simultaneously slipped anchor and formed up. No lights were visible, not a sound to be heard but the swish of the waves. William was self-assured after spending more than half his life at sea. He was a gunlayer whose job it was to direct a gun turret.
A third British battlecruiser was hit, a flash fire rushed through the turret and shell-handling room, detonating its magazine. She sunk within ninety seconds, ending another 1,000 lives. The explosion was in full, devastating view of the entire fleet. Royal Oak fired her first salvo. William ordered his gunners to fire as quickly as cordite and shells could be reloaded. A mistake was made, and Royal Oak was straddled by potentially fatal shellfire coming at her from both sides. She steamed ahead, escaped, and turned for more. She fired a total of thirty-eight 15-inch and eighty-four 6-inch shells, claiming one hit on a German cruiser and three on a battlecruiser, putting one of its turrets out of action.
The centenary of the Battle of Jutland this week commemorates the sacrifices of the dead, as well as those who survived. After the war William continued his naval service, and in 1920 married his sweetheart Ethel. A fortnight earlier, a cousin, who’d served in the army, left England for America where he built a successful leather goods business. The cousin even sold a custom-made briefcase to gangster Al Capone. William passed away in 1935 aged fifty-six. He was outlived by his ship Royal Oak, but only just, because in 1939 she was the first Royal Navy ship sunk in the Second World War.
William is another of my family featured in my new book due at the end of this year. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to register your interest and receive a discount voucher when the book is released.