Feature: Remembering the Leamington teenager who survived the Battle of Jutland in World War One

Four other seamen from Leamington and Warwick were killed on May 31, 1916, in what was largest sea battle since Trafalgar at the time

Monday, 17th May 2021, 2:29 pm
Updated Monday, 17th May 2021, 2:32 pm
Henry Gordon Farmer.

Leamington historian David Eason tells the story of a teenager from the town who survived the Battle of Jutland for which the 105th anniversary will take place on Monday May 31. Jutland, which took place in 1916 during the First World War, was the largest sea battle since Trafalgar at the time and four men from Leamington or Warwick were killed in it. But, as David has written, Henry Gordon Farmer, 16, of Willes Road was serving on HMS Malaya and was not killed in the battle. Here is David's account.

Henry was educated at the Leamington Municipal School until 1910 when the family returned to Coventry residing at 23a Coundon Road.

He completed his education at nearby Bablake School in 1914.

5th Battle Squadron Jutland.

After leaving school Henry was employed as a core-maker at the local Coventry Ordnance Works on Stoney Stanton Road where ironically at the time they were making HMS Malaya's 15inch guns.

On June 8 1915, Henry enlisted at Coventry into the Royal Navy as a Boy 2nd Class and began his training at Devonport in Plymouth onboard the training ship HMS Impregnable, and where later that year on November 13 he was raised to Boy 1st Class, and after completing his basic training was posted to HMS Victory Royal Naval Barracks in Portsmouth on December 7 where he served until January 27th 1916 when he was posted to HMS Malaya.

The Queen Elizabeth Class, 'Super-Dreadnought' Battlecruiser, Malaya was ordered by the Royal Navy in early 1913, paid for by the Government of the Federated Malay States of British Malaya at the cost of £2.945.709 and built at High Walker Dockyard on the Tyne by Sir W.G. Armstrong Whitworth Company, launched on March 18 1915 she was commissioned on February 1st 1916 with her gun trials starting three weeks later under the Command of Captain, Hon. Algernon Douglas Edward Harry Boyle.

With her gun trials completed, the Malaya joined Rear-Admiral, Sir Hugh Even-Thomas' 5th Battle Squadron with Admiral, Sir John Jellicoe's Grand Fleet at Scarpa Flow in the Orkneys where she remained until May 22 1916 when the 5th Battle Squadron moved south to join Vice-Admiral, Sir David Beatty's Battlecruiser Fleet at Rosyth.

Henry Farmer's name on the Leamington War Memorial.

Unknown at the time was that the German High Seas Fleet Commander, Vice-Admiral Reinhardt Sheer, had ordered the Fleet out to attack allied shipping and punch a hole in the British blockade north of Skagerrak, a waterway located between Norway and northern Denmark, off the Jutland Peninsula, however, unknown to Sheer was that the order had been intercepted in Room 40 at the Admiralty on Tuesday May 30 and the Grand Fleet warned.

At 8pm on Tuesday May 30 1916 the 5th Battle Squadron with the mighty Barham, Valiant, Warspite and Malaya raised anchor and moved under the Forth bridge and out into the North Sea, the fifth ship of the Squadron, Queen Elizabeth had gone into dry dock that morning and wouldn't rejoin the Squadron until after June 1.

Suddenly, at 3.30pm on Wednesday May 31 the bugles sounded for action onboard the Malaya with young Henry taking up his post as range-finder with the port side six inch gun battery as someone somewhere had sighted a German Destroyer, then shells began to fall around the 1st Battle Squadron ahead, and then seen from her decks the terrible sight of HMS Indefatigable disappear in a huge fire ball after being hit by the Van der Tann killing all but two of her 1,019 crew, but it wasn't until 4.05pm that the 5th Battle Squadron sighted the German Battlecruisers firing at maximum range as both sides raced south.

The Barham and Valiant engaged the Moltke, leaving the Warspite and Malaya's 15inch guns to reap revenge on the Van der Tann, by 4.50pm it became clear that they were being led into the High Seas Fleet and four minutes later the order was given to change course to north;

Plymouth War Memorial.

Lieutenant, Patrick Brind, HMS Malaya, said: "When we had turned or rather I had turned my turret (B) to the starboard side, I saw our battlecruisers who were proceeding northerly at full speed , were already quite 8.000 yards ahead of us, engaging the German battlecruisers, I then realised that the four of us alone- Barham, Warspite, Valiant and Malaya- would have to entertain the high Seas Fleet.”

After their turn the 5th Battle Squadron suffering minor damage raced north back towards the Grand Fleet following David Beatty's Battlecruisers, behind them in hot pursuit came the German 3rd Battle Squadron leaving them now exposed to an alarming concentration of fire from the leading German Dreadnoughts none more so than the Malaya at the rear with shells coming in at a rate of 6-9 a minute resulting in her being hit again but with little damage.

At 5.20pm her luck ran out when she received a serious hit abreast of her 'B' turret , seven minutes later another this time further aft on her 'X' turret, but worse was to come when three minutes later at 5.30pm a shell burst on No 3 gun on her starboard 6inch gun battery where young Henry was, the consequences were dreadful, the gun crew had been killed outright and it had ignited the cordite charges that had been placed on trolleys at the rear of the guns, the aftermath of the fire as casualties and the dead were brought out was stomach-churning.

Wireless telegraphist, Frederick Arnold, of the HMS Malaya said: "We in the main wireless office could see the first aid parties passing our door, going to the aft deck carrying bodies and wounded, laying them out and treating where possible, the badly burned and shock cases, some of the dead were so burned and mutilated as to be unidentifiable, the living badly burned cases were almost encased in wrappings of cotton wool and bandages with just slits for their eyes to see through, in fact, the few walking cases, who could wonder about the after deck presented a grim, weird and ghoulish sight."

HMS Malaya in action.

Out of the 121 men and boys of the starboard battery, no less than 104 were killed or wounded, including Henry, just 16 years-old. At 5.35pm the Malaya was hit a further two times below the waterline, and at 6.10pm good news came;

Lieutenant, Patrick Brind, of the HMS Malaya said: "The report was passed round the ship that the grand fleet was in sight and would shortly deploy into action. This was extremely welcomed news for matters were not looking too cheery for our squadron, it could hardly be hoped that we four ships could continue to engage the whole German battle fleet for much longer without sustaining very serious damage, to say the least of it."

With the Grand Fleet now engaging, the 5th Battle Squadron were moved further south, the following night action could be clearly seen from the battered decks of Malaya, and just before dawn broke a single shell landed just short of her, it was later discovered that it had been fired from HMS Revenge, some 15 miles away which had taken a pot-shot at a Zeppelin.

At 6.30pm on Thursday June 1 1916, HMS Malaya's engines slowed as Surgeon Lieutenant, Duncan Lorimer, who had fought so hard to save the lives of those wounded, until he had collapsed and was forced to get around on his hands and knees came up on deck.

He said: "The ship had slowed down and there was a burial going of the poor unrecognisable scraps of humanity from the explosion.

"I had been asked previously to try and identify 'Young' and 'Cotton' , but it was impossible, it was a gloomy scene, the grey sky, the grey sea, the stitched up hammocks, the padre with his gown blowing in the breeze.

"The 'Last Post' was sounded by the Marine buglers and our shipmates plunged into the sullen waters."

At 8.30pm on Friday June 2, the 5th Battle Squadron and the survivors of the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron returned under the Forth Bridge and were met by HMHS Plassy who took onboard many of the wounded while others were transferred by train to Queensferry.

Henry was one of the 65 who were buried at sea from HMS Malaya, he is commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, Devon on Panel 13.

He is also commemorated on the Bablake School Memorial Tablet and Book of Honour, as well as in the Coventry WWI Roll of Honour.

In 2014 Henry's name was included on to the WWI Memorial Stone at the base of the Leamington Spa War Memorial, and once again stands by the side of his brother; Private, Albert Edward Farmer, 16881, of the 10th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, who was killed in action near Arras on Monday June 25 1917, aged 21.

The seamen from Leamington or Warwick who died at Jutland and are named on the Leamington war memorial were

Sub-Lieutenant, Algernon William Percy, HMS Queen Mary, of Guys Cliffe, Old Milverton, aged 31.

Engine Room Artificer, 2nd Class, Ernest Thomas Jones, 271140, of the HMS Queen Mary, Leamington, aged 28.

Lieutenant, Charles Auriol Sperling, HMS Petard, Leamington, aged 24.

Private, John Henry Collett, PLY/14601, Royal Marine Light Infantry, HMS Indefatigable, Leamington Spa and Exeter, aged 32.