JOHN RUSSELL TOWNSEND (known as Jack) was born in Hockley, Essex on 9th April 1896, the son of William and Jane Elizabeth Townsend and brother to Dorothy Townsend (born 23/07/1893). In 1911 the family lived in The Cricketers Inn (now the Mucky Duck Inn), Rudgwick, where Jack’s father was the Inn Keeper.
SERVICE WITH THE ROYAL NAVY
Jack’s Royal Naval record sheet indicates that he enlisted on 17th July 1912, at the age of 16. Initially he served aboard HMS ‘Impregnable’ as a Boy (Second Class). ‘Impregnable’ was a training ship for ‘boys’ who joined the navy between the ages of 15 and 16½. She was originally a 121 gun wood hulled ship launched as HMS ‘Howe’ in 1860, but with the advent of steam power and iron clad vessels became obsolete. She was moored in Devonport as a training vessel. Jack remained on ‘Impregnable’ until 25th October 1912 when he was transferred to HMS ‘Ganges’.
HMS ‘Ganges’ was a shore based training establishment in Shotley, Suffolk. It is likely that Jack undertook signal training whilst at ‘Ganges’, qualifying as a ‘signalboy’ on 9th February 1913. He continued at ‘Ganges’ until 6th June 1913 when he was transferred to HMS ‘Victory I’, a shore base in Portsmouth.
Jack remained shore based in Portsmouth until 26th August 1913, but in this period it appears that he served aboard HMS ‘Black Prince’, ‘Excellent’ and ‘Terrible’, presumably to gain experience.
On 27th August 1913, thirteen months after joining the Navy, Jack was posted to HMS ‘Black Prince’ for service at sea. ‘Black Prince’ was a Duke of Edinburgh Class armoured cruiser, with a main armament of six breach loading 9.2 inch guns arranged in single gun turrets (two fore and aft, and two on each beam). Her secondary armament consisted of ten 6 inch guns mounted in single casemates, twenty Vickers Quick Firing three-pounder guns and three submerged 18 inch torpedo tubes.
She was built by the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company, Blackwall, London, launched on 8th November 1904 and completed on 17th March 1906. Her crew compliment was 789 men and when Jack joined her she was one of four armoured cruisers serving with the First Cruiser Squadron of the Mediterranean Fleet and commanded by Captain Frederick D. Gilpin-Brown.
WAR IN THE MEDITERRANEAN
In early August 1914 the ‘Black Prince’ together with the other warships of the Squadron participated in the pursuit of the German battle cruiser SMS ‘Groeben’ and the light cruiser SMS ‘Breslau’. In October 1912 war had broken out in the Balkans and the German General Staff dispatched the ‘Groeben’ and the ‘Breslau’ to the Mediterranean to project German power in the area. With the commencement of the First World War in August the German vessels bombarded French Algerian coastal towns before sailing for Messina (Sicily) to take on coal. The German ships intended to sail to Constantinople, but the four armoured cruisers of the British First Cruiser Squadron lay in their path. The ‘Groeben’ and the ‘Breslau’ initiated a successful feint towards the Adriatic which due the British cruisers, and then evaded their pursuers on the night of 6th August, finally arriving at the port of Constantinople safely. Here, the German vessels were transferred to the Ottoman navy and renamed, her crews exchanging uniforms and becoming a part of the Turkish fleet.
Following the escape of ‘Groeben’ and ‘Breslau’ the ‘Black Prince’ was sent, together with HMS ‘Duke of Edinburgh’ to the Red Sea to search for German merchant shipping. The ‘Black Prince’ captured two German ocean liners, the ‘Sudmark’ and the ‘Istria’, before being ordered back to Gibraltar on the 6th November 1914. Here she joined a mixed Anglo-French squadron to search for German warships off the African coast.
RETURN TO THE BRITISH ISLES
In December 1914 the ‘Black Prince’ and the First Cruiser Squadron joined the Grand Fleet, based in Cromarty on the Moray Firth. The Grand Fleet was the main fleet of the Royal Navy during the First World War and had been formed in August 1914. On 3rd January 1915 command of the ‘Black Prince’ passed to Captain James D. Dick who remained with the ship for just over a year. On 22nd January 1916 Captain Thomas P. Bonham took command of the vessel.
Whilst effectively creating a naval blockade of Germany by dominating the North Sea, the Grand Fleet was disinclined to put to sea due to the German U-boat threat, however on the 28th May 1916 a German Naval radio message was decoded that ordered the German High Seas Fleet to be ready for sea on the 30th. A further coded radio message was intercepted on the 30th which made it clear that something significant was going to occur the following day.
THE BATTLE OF JUTLAND
Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet, was notified of the German intentions, and chose to take the fleet to sea. He intended to position the Grand Fleet off the coast of Norway such that it might blockade any breakout that the German fleet might attempt, either into the Atlantic to attack Allied shipping or through the Skagerrak into the Baltic.
Jellicoe sailed from Scapa Flow at 22.30 on 30th May 1916 and was joined by the First Cruiser Squadron from Cromarty (including the ‘Black Prince’). The armoured cruisers (‘Cochrane’, ‘Shannon’, ‘Minataur’, ‘Defence’, ‘Warrior’, ‘Duke of Edinburgh’ and ‘Black Prince’) formed a scouting screen 16 miles in front of the main section of the Grand Fleet, with the ‘Black Prince’ on the extreme right of the rank.
Sailing the following day to join him from the Rosyth on the Firth of Forth was a faster force of two battlecruiser squadrons and four fast battleships commanded by Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty. The intended place of rendezvous was 90 miles west of the mouth of the Skagerrak. Whilst enroute, at 14.20 (BST), scouting elements of Beatty’s force sighted enemy vessels which turned out to be a scouting force of battle cruisers commanded by Admiral Hipper.
With both formations of vessels in two parallel lines cruising in a southerly direction Beatty’s force prepared for action. This course took both forces towards the main German High Fleet formation to the south, and away from Jellicoe. At 15.38 both sides opened fire at a range of approximately 18,000 yards (10 miles). The subsequent engagement lasted an hour, and saw the loss of the British battle cruisers HMS ‘Queen Mary’ and HMS ‘Indefatigable’ with almost their entire crews.
At 16.40 Beatty’s force sighted Admiral Scheer’s main German High Seas fleet to the south, and turned once again to the north. This was matched by Hipper’s ships to the east of them. Beatty’s ships were now heading back towards Jellicoe, who was approaching from the north. As Beatty’s force was faster than Hipper’s, he began to pull away from the German line, and initiated a gradual turn to the east. To maintain the maximum amount of guns bore at the British, Hipper had to match the turn east, keeping the British vessels on their port boardside.
HMS ‘BLACK PRINCE’ IN ACTION
At 17.33 the ‘Black Prince’ sighted the lead of Beatty’s ships and shortly afterwards Rear-Admiral Arbuthnot (commanding the First Cruiser Squadron) lead his ships through Beatty’s line of advance in an attempt to engage damaged German warships before they could escape. His flagship, HMS ‘Defence’ was immediately engaged by Hipper’s battlecruisers, and blew up with all hands lost. Second in Arbuthnot’s line, HMS ‘Warrior’ was critically damaged and had to withdraw. She sank the following day. ‘Duke of Edinburgh’ and ‘Black Prince’ were unable to engage. Hipper had turned 360º starboard and rejoined Scheer’s main fleet to continue north. It appears that ‘Black Prince’ was damaged at some stage in the late afternoon although she was not sighted by the British fleet after this point. A signal was received from her at 20.45 reporting a U-Boat sighting.
At 18.15 Jellicoe ordered his fleet, sailing in six columns, to turn to port and enter line of battle. His intention was to ‘cross the T’, a naval manoeuvre in which one line of ships crossed in front of another line of advancing vessels, allowing all the broadside fire of one column to be concentrated, whilst only the forward ‘in range’ guns of the other column could be brought to bear.
At 18.30 the main fleet action began. To this point Scheer was completely unaware that the entire Grand Fleet was at sea and had joined Beatty. His first sight of the massed fleet was with the British warships crossing the path of his High Seas Fleet in a commanding position. Three minutes later Scheer commanded his fleet to make an immediate 180º turn to escape. Rather than pursue (due to the danger posed by torpedo attacks) Jellicoe turned his fleet south to keep Scheer to his west. Scheer turned east once again at 18.55 in an attempt to foil the British, but ended up steering once again into the Grand Fleet. By 19.15 Jellicoe had once again crossed the T of the German fleet and for a second time Scheer had to command a ‘battle turn about’, covered by a massed torpedo attack. By 20.35 contact had ceased and night had fallen.
Jellicoe endeavoured to avoid a night contact, and headed south to cover Scheer’s expected escape route, but Scheer crossed his wake and escaped to the east. In doing so the German warships engaged several British vessels, but the overall situation was not apparent to Jellicoe. The last radio message was received from ‘Black Prince’ at about 23.00.
Between 23.20 to 02.15 several British destroyer flotillas launched torpedo attacks on the Germans. These violent actions lead to a number of losses on both sides. Shortly after midnight ‘Black Prince’, at the rear of the British Fleet became aware of what her commander thought was a main line of British warships. He asked for directions by searchlight signal, and then apparently realised that the ships were enemy vessels.
The ‘Black Prince’s searchlight was extinguished, and the German warship SMS ‘Thuringen’ flashed out a challenge that when unanswered. This was repeated twice before the Germans opened fire on the ‘Black Prince’. Captain Bonham attempted to turn away from the German battle line, but the range was extremely close, at a little over 1,000 yards.
On ‘Black Prince’ her main armament was destroyed almost immediately, ‘A’ turret being blown clear of the vessel by the first German salvo. She only managed to return a few salvos of 6 inch shellfire from her secondary armaments before that too was swept away.
After 15 minutes of bombardment a large explosion was heard aboard the ‘Black Prince’, followed by several smaller ones. As she drifted away from the German battle line a final massive explosion destroyed HMS ‘Black Prince’ together with her entire crew of 857 officers and men, including the 20 year old signaller from Rudgwick, John Russell Townsend. All are commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.
The German Official Naval History's describes her end: “She presented a terrible and awe-inspiring spectacle as she drifted down the line blazing furiously until, after several minor detonations, she disappeared below the surface with whole of her crew in one tremendous explosion”.
Portsmouth Naval Memorial
Sailors Personal Record
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Jutland, The German Perspective (V.E.Tarrant)