In action

Built in so a short time at the beginning of hostilities that she does not appear in Jane’s Fighting Ships for 1914, H.M.S. CAROLINE is the sole survivor of the Battle of Jutland, a key factor in decisions by the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund to grant aid the National Museum of the Royal Navy for the restoration of this ship in Belfast in time to commemorate the centenary of the battle in June 2016.

TestH.M.S. CAROLINE at Scapa Flow (copyright IWM) 

 The Battle of Jutland has been popularly regarded as an inconclusive encounter between the British Grand Fleet and the German Imperial Fleet in which very little action took place. However losses by the two navies totalled 25 ships sunk and 8,648 men killed (6,096 British and 2,551 German) and it is generally held that by turning the Imperial Fleet back to port, the battle ensured that the German Fleet did not come out again in force to fight the Royal Navy. It was therefore a crucial action – it has been observed that Admiral Jellicoe was the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon.

The light cruiser HMS CAROLINE is the last ship afloat that was present at the Battle of Jutland (1916). A lucky ship – she lost only one man (washed overboard) during the course of the war and even survived Jutland with barely a scratch to her paintwork. Apart from Jutland she had a relatively quiet war, but this was not from lack of effort  – she was nicknamed ‘restless Caroline’ because she was believed to have made more passages in and out of Scapa Flow than any other vessel in the fleet.

CAROLINE was launched by Cammell Laird in Birkenhead on 21st September 1914 and was commissioned on 4th December. After her sea trials she joined the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow on 18th December. A few days later she took part in her first of many ‘sweeps’, steaming to the Skagerrak (the strait that lies between Denmark, the southwest coast of Sweden and the southeast coast of Norway). The aims of the sweeps were to lure enemy ships westwards where ships of the Grand Fleet were lying in wait and to stop and search foreign merchant ships, seizing any contraband cargo.

Apart from these sweeps, most of CAROLINE’s wartime career was spent in ‘PZ’ exercises -- tactical or strategic exercises in the company of other warships. Her captain, H. Ralph Crooke, was enthusiastic for gunnery and torpedo practice, and on one of these exercises in October 1915 one of CAROLINE’s torpedoes ended up running into the side of H.M.S. NATAL (two months later, NATAL was sunk by an internal explosion, with the loss of around 400 lives).

However she also took part in at least one clandestine operation. On the evening of 2nd October 1915 she anchored near the Forth (rail) Bridge and  two ‘civilians’ came on board. CAROLINE then steamed at 23-25 knots across the North Sea. When the Norwegian torpedo boat LOM was sighted off the Norwegian coast, the ship’s whaler was lowered and the two ‘Foreign Office officials’ were transferred to her. 

CAROLINE did not participate in the Battle of Dogger Bank (24th January 1915) but the ship’s mascot, a rabbit, was given the name ‘Blücher’ in honour of the German armoured cruiser sunk at that battle. The following year, on 9th February, CAROLINE docked at Tynemouth, only to be greeted with astonishment by the dockyard workers. It had been reported in the press that she had been sunk in the Humber with a great loss of life. On hearing this, Captain Crooke immediately gave permission for those on board to get to the local post office and telegram their relatives that they were alive and well.

News of the German raid on Lowestoft (24th April 1916) reached CAROLINE the following day and with four sister ships, five battleships and a cruiser she set off in pursuit. Unfortunately they failed to catch the enemy. She returned to Scapa Flow but very soon back at sea for the busiest month of her career.

Most of May was taken up with sweeping the Norwegian coast, but without encountering any German vessels. She returned to Scapa Flow in the early hours of 26th May, but four days later she was away again -- this time as part of the Grand Fleet under Admiral Jellicoe, sailing along with the Battle Cruiser Squadrons. CAROLINE was part of the 4th Light Cruiser Squadron, which took the lead as the Fleet sailed south. Even though her steering gear broke down, and she nearly collided with another ship, this did not prevent her from steaming towards the great naval battle of the First World War – the Battle of Jutland, fought on 31st May 1916.

 The first shots of the battle were fired by Admiral Beatty’s ships at 2.36 pm, but CAROLINE first became involved in the action three hours later when the 1st and 2nd Light Cruiser squadrons steamed passed, followed by the battle cruisers. The 4th Light Cruiser Squadron turned and followed.  They were now on the disengaged side of the battle cruisers, in danger from any German shells that overshot. Indeed, two destroyers astern of CAROLINE were hit, but the three or four shots that came close to her fell short or flew just over her. At 6.21 pm the battle cruiser INVINCIBLE, ahead of CAROLINE, was hit: at least one shell detonating the midships magazine.  The ship sank in 90 seconds with the loss of 1026 lives. Only six men survived.

CAROLINE’s squadron was then ordered to move to the engaged side of the battle fleet, with the IRON DUKE’s squadron firing over the top of them. The Germans now began to organise a torpedo attack. CAROLINE was sent ahead to disrupt this, and was nearly hit herself, one torpedo missing her stern by inches, another passing just ahead. She also rammed something – it may have been a submarine the officers had seen dead ahead, but it could not be confirmed. Similarly, a destroyer CAROLINE had been firing at disappeared, but in the mist it was impossible to tell if she had been sunk.

After a short lull in the fighting, around 9.00 pm, CAROLINE edged forward and came upon a line of ships just short of three miles away. At first the men on the bridge were uncertain whether these were British or German, but they turned out to be of the DEUTSCHLAND class battleships, the van of the High Seas Fleet. Captain Crooke signalled Admiral Jerram, commander of the 2nd Battle Squadron, on board KING GEORGE V. Jerram replied “Negative attack. Those are our battle cruisers.” Crooke answered back: “They appear to be enemy ships”; to which Jerram responded “If you are quite sure, attack.” CAROLINE fired two torpedoes, both of which missed their targets, before turning away. Smoke was created to mask her, but for the next eight minutes CAROLINE had to face salvos from the German ships. Fortunately, not one shell hit her. CAROLINE then re-joined her squadron’s flagship, CALLIOPE, and although she remained on action stations through the night, the battle was over. At 3.00 pm the next day, she set her course back to Scapa Flow.


Bow of H.M.S. CAROLINE (copyright IWM)

For the remainder of the war, CAROLINE combined sweeps and exercises with convoy duties.  She underwent a major but quick refit early in 1917, which introduced the distinctive tripod mast she carried to this day. She was back at sea in mid-February. CAROLINE was at anchor at Scapa Flow on the evening of 9th July 1917 when she was rocked by a huge explosion a quarter a mile away. This was the moment that VANGUARD blew up, killing all but two on board.

In 1918, CAROLINE was fitted with a platform from which light aircraft – Sopwith Camels –could be launched but they were never launched other than in training exercises.

Where is she now?

 H.M.S. CAROLINE is currently moored in Alexandra Dock, Belfate, undergoing conservation. It is planned to have this completed in time for the centenary of the Battle of Jutland.


HMS Caroline, Belfast: The Blackstaff Press

Ian Collard, Cammell Laird volume 2: The Naval Ships

H. W. Fawcett & G. W. W. Hooper (eds.) The Fighting at Jutland