In the period just before I World War the arms race of the future opponents was speeding up. British First Sea Lord, admiral John „Jackie” Fisher, was a strong supporter of a battlecruiser doctrine. It was the concept of warships with main battery guns similar to those of dreadnoughts and more powerful engines allowing them to reach higher speeds.
All that, was at the expense of armour, which was insufficient and, in the future, would be the cause of many losses. Soon, new classes of battlecruisers were created. In 1909 and 1910, two Lion class units (HMS Lion, HMS Princess Royal) were laid down. They were the first ships to be armed with 13.5-inch battery. Their design evolved into the battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary, built as the only ship of its class.
Queen Mary was similar to the Lion class battlecruisers to such an extent that they are described by many sources as sister ships. In reality she was heavier and beamier than her predecessors. She had an improved power plant and armour. The ship was laid down, as a part of the 1910-11 program, on 6 March 1911 at Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company in Jarrow. The construction process was fast, and she was launched on 20 March 1912. In August 1913 the ship was completed and ready for service. Queen Mary was the last British battlecruiser built before the Great War.
The main battery of Queen Mary was the same as that of the Lion class. It constituted of eight 13.5-inch BL Mk V guns. It was the latest heavy gun of the Royal Navy. Solid construction of the barrel made the gun very accurate, reliable, safe and guaranteed low rifling wear. After the first tests, it became apparent that there was a considerable safety margin. That allowed the gun to be adapted for firing a heavier projectile than originally planned. Queen Mary mounted new, heavier Mk V (H) version of the gun. The results of test firing 635 kg projectiles were very satisfactory. The 13.5-inch guns were twin-mounted in four turrets which were a larger and improved version of turrets used for 12-inch guns. The “A” and “B” turrets were installed traditionally – on the foredeck in superposition, the “Q” turret was at the midships, separating the two boiler rooms, the “X” turret was on the low stern deck. The turrets had a system allowing the guns to be loaded at every elevation angle. At first, the system was discussed as space and weight consuming but the need to re-aim the guns after each reload convinced the designers to retain it.
Initially, the fire control posts were to be placed on the stern superstructure and on the bow mast. However, the mast smoking, caused by the first funnel placed closer to the bow, on the newly built Lion, forced design modifications. Positions of the first funnel and the bow mast were switched but, due to that modification, the director could not be mounted on a high platform. Finally, two 9-foot Argo rangefinders were installed on the conning tower behind the “B” turret and on the stern fire control post. Those were well armoured areas but they were too close to the waterline to track targets effectively. Queen Mary was the first battlecruiser to receive 9-foot rangefinders for each gun turret. Therefore, if communication with the fire control was lost, they could acquire and engage targets individually. Maximum elevation angle of the guns was 20° although the rangefinders could only operate within 15° range. It was due to the assumption that all battles would be fought at short distances only slightly exceeding 10,000 meters. That drawback was fixed before the Battle of Jutland. At the same time, the structure of the foremast was altered in order to mount the main battery director.
Queen Mary had a strong secondary battery whose task was to engage small but deadly targets – torpedo boats. It consisted of sixteen 4-inch guns on single mounts. The ship’s predecessors had their deck guns vulnerable to enemy fire and weather conditions so it was decided to provide the guns with better protection. The bow battery of eight guns was mounted in casemates and armoured, the eight guns mounted on the stern superstructure were protected by thin plating on the sides and top.
As nobody predicted the plane to become a dangerous adversary, the ship’s designers did not see the need to mount anti-aircraft artillery. When Queen Mary entered service, her only small calibre artillery were four, not very effective, Hotchkiss 3-pounders used mainly as saluting guns. They were placed on the stern superstructure deck, at the mast base. In October 1914, one 3-inch and one 6-pound anti-aircraft gun was fitted and the redundant 3-pounders finally disappeared from the battlecruiser’s deck at the beginning of 1915.
Queen Mary was also armed with torpedoes. Two single, submerged torpedo tubes were fitted on both sides of of the bow section, in front of the “A” tower barbette. Each of them carried seven torpedoes. The target’s data was transferred from a control post under an armoured cupola on the stern superstructure. The effectiveness of this weapon system was very limited and it was never used in combat. Lion and Princess Royal were the only battlecruisers to ever fire a torpedo during a battle.
The passive protection of Queen Mary was similar to that of her predecessors of the Lion class. According to the battlecruiser doctrine, the armour’s task was not a full protection against projectiles but to minimize damage caused by enemy fire. The priority was to limit the possibility of damage to crucial ship areas like engines, steering, main battery and command centres. The thickest armour was at the main waterline belt, the sides and front of the main artillery turrets and the barbettes. The poor armouring of the two decks contributed to the weak horizontal protection. The torpedo bulkhead was also too thin. Details are presented in the chart.
Queen Mary had two 19-metre engine rooms separated by a centre-line bulkhead. Each of them housed Parsons turbines driving two propellers on each side. The designed output of the turbines was 75,000 shaft horsepower although during trials, the ship achieved 83,000 shp. The turbine revolutions were transferred directly to the propeller shaft without a reduction gear. Queen Mary was the last battlecruiser with Parsons turbine of that type. Her successors were fitted with the more effective Brown-Curtis turbines or Parsons turbines with a reduction gear.
The condensers were located in a separate 15-metre room. The steam was supplied by 42 large-tube Yarrow boilers, six in each of seven boiler rooms. The10-metre-long No.1 boiler room with two rows of three boilers was in the ship’s axis at the height of the foremast. Further towards the stern, the hull was beamier and the remaining six boiler rooms were placed in three pairs separated by the centre-line watertight bulkhead. Each room had three rows of two boilers (16 metres total). Four engine rooms were placed between the first and the second funnel, and the next two were behind the “Q” turret barbette. To protect the second and the third funnel against the blast from that turret, vertical metal deflectors were fitted on the deck.
Lighting was provided by sixteen 24-inch searchlights mounted in pairs. Eight such sets were placed on the platforms of the forward and aft superstructures. On the deck there was plenty of space for communication boats. They were arranged as follows:
− two 32-foot cutters - on davits on both sides at the height of the first funnel
− two 32-foot cutters, a 30-foot cutter, two 27-foot whalers, two 30-foot gigs, a 16-foot dinghy and a balsa wood raft - on the platform between the first and the second funnel
− two 50-foot steam pinnaces, a 42-foot launch and a 36-foot pinnace - on the main deck in the area of the stern superstructure.
Three booms were used to lower the boats: the main one was fitted to the aft mast, the two smaller ones were placed symmetrically on the sides of the boat platform. Coal was loaded through numerous hatches on the main deck. It was performed with the help of four booms located in the area of the two aft funnels.
Like most of her contemporaries, Queen Mary was equipped with torpedo nets. Eighteen booms, fitted on each side, were used to lower a steel ring net. This barrier’s task was to set off the torpedoes in safe distance from the hull. While not deployed, the net was rolled up and placed along the edge of the deck and the booms were set up along the sides. Due to difficulties in handling the nets, they were dismantled from the ships’ decks, however Queen Mary retained hers till the end of her service.
The ship did not undergo many modifications. During docking in Portsmouth from January till February 1915, the foremast was shortened, replaced by a tripod and a main battery director platform was fitted. An observation platform was located on the stern superstructure, right behind the torpedo fire control centre.
HMS Queen Mary was laid down, as the third Lion class battlecruiser, on 6 March 1911 at Palmers Shipbuilding and Engineering Co. Ltd in Jarrow. Launching ceremony took place on 20 March 1912. The hull was moored at a fitting-out berth where armament, superstructures and masts were fitted and further construction work continued. John Brown’s factory in Clydebank supplied the propulsion system. In May 1913 Queen Mary was almost finished and ready for the first sea trials which lasted till August 1913. Meanwhile, on 1 July 1913, Captain William Reginald Hall became the first commanding officer of the ship. During trials conducted at the measured mile, Queen Mary achieved 28.17 knots at 83,003 shp.
After the trials had been completed, the ship fully equipped and minor defects removed, the commissioning ceremony of the new battlecruiser took place at the Portsmouth Royal Navy Base on 4 September 1913. On that day Queen Mary left the shipyard, formally joined the Royal Navy and was assigned to the First Battlecruiser Squadron. After the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Queen Mary, along with the entire First Squadron, was assigned to the Grand Fleet, formed shortly before the war and made of the latest British battleships.
The Grand Fleet began its operations at the beginning of August 1914. Its main task was to protect shipping in the North Sea and gaining supremacy on these waters in the face of the mighty fleet of Kaiser’s Germany. The baptism of fire for Queen Mary and especially her gunners came with the first major encounter with the warships of the Kaiserlischemarine, the Battle of Heligoland Bight.
The squadron of the battlecruisers, under the command of acting Vice-Admiral Beatty, was intended to support the light cruisers and destroyers of the Royal Navy commanded by Commodore Tyrwhitt, operating close to the German fleet bases at Wilhelmshaven, Bremerhaven and Cuxhaven. Eight cruisers and two flotillas of destroyers were attacked by superior German forces. Although the German ships outnumbered the British, they lacked heavy units which gave Beatty’s task force considerable advantage. The clash was a huge victory for the Royal Navy. The British losses were: one light cruiser damaged (HMS Arethusa) and a total of 35 killed. The Germans lost 712 killed and 336 captured. The light German cruisers SMS Mainz, SMS Cöln and SMS Ariadne were sunk. Queen Mary was the third ship in Beatty’s formation, behind the flagship HMS Lion and HMS Princess Royal - second in formation. Her gunners contributed largely to the sinking of the German cruiser Ariadne.
On 13 October, Captain Hall was replaced as the commanding officer of Queen Mary by Captain Cecil I. Prowse. In December, Vice-Admiral Beatty’s squadron had another chance to engage German ships. On 16 December 1914, 1st Scouting Group commanded by Rear-Admiral Franz von Hipper approached the British coast at Yorkshire County and fired their heavy guns at harbour towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby. Unfortunately the opportunity to wage battle against the German ships was lost. Because of navigational mistakes, Beatty’s task force did not intercept the fleeing German units which managed to return to their base safely.
Upon her arrival to the base, Queen Mary was docked and underwent some repairs. At that time, all four Hotchkiss salutation guns were removed and replaced by two anti aircraft guns – 76 mm L/20 cwt Mk 1 on HA Mk II mount and 57 mm (6-pounder) HA Mk Ic Hotchkiss.
While being overhauled between 1914 and 1915, Queen Mary could not share the battlecruisers Squadron’s spectacular success that was achieved on 24 January 1915 on the waters of Dogger Bank. Vice-Admiral Beatty’s 1st Squadron (Lion, Princess Royal, Tiger, New Zeland and Indomitable) clashed with the Hochseeflotte battlecruiser squadron (Derfflinger, Moltke, Seydlitz and Blücher). The artillery engagement was a defeat for Rear-Admiral Hipper’s task force. Derfflinger was damaged by a single 343 mm shell, the cruiser Seydlitz received three hits and Blücher was sunk. On the British side, Beatty’s flagship – the battlecruiser Lion was damaged and put out of action. One can only speculate if Queen Mary’s participation in the Battle of Dogger Bank would have contributed to higher German losses as her gunners’ exceptional performance was famous in the Grand Fleet.
After the defeat at Dogger Bank, the Hochseeflotte command was not eager to send its heavy warships to the North Sea nor other areas controlled by the Grand Fleet for fear of encountering its mighty battlecruiser armada. Their concerns were caused by the possibility of losing modern battlecruisers and dreadnoughts so valuable to Germany. The initiative was taken over by the U-Boots whose success rate started to rise.
Meanwhile, throughout the whole of 1915, tens of battlecruisers and dreadnoughts of the Grand Fleet were forced to unusual idleness. The inactivity was interrupted by fleet manoeuvres and artillery exercises during which Queen Mary’s gunners proved their superiority and turned their ship into the most fire effective battlecruiser of the Grand Fleet.
At the beginning of 1916, the ship underwent modification of the foremast tripod. The strengthening of the structure did not affect the appearance of the ship but significantly increased damage resistance of the construction of the command tower and fire control posts at the top of the mast.
The beginning of 1916 did not bring any changes in the European naval theatre of war which was fought mainly with modest, light forces. The unquestionable supremacy of the British fleet and the pestering naval blockade of Germany forced the Hochseeflotte command to start counteracting and find the way to weaken the British sea power. A plan was developed to place numerous U-Boots at the approaches to the British bases and to lure out the biggest ships of the Grand Fleet. A squadron of German battlecruisers commanded by Hipper was tasked with leading Beatty’s battlecruisers, in a mock retreat, into the line of fire of the main forces of the Hochseeflotte – Vice-Admiral Scheer’s dreadnoughts. This was to ensure the destruction of the British battlecruisers.
The plan was uncovered by the British intelligence and before Hipper’s ships started their mission on 30 May, the British had sent the core of the Grand Fleet to the sea from the Scapa Flow base. The armada consisted of 24 dreadnoughts and 3 battlecruisers under the command of Admiral Jellicoe (Invincible, Inflexible and Indomitable were commanded by Rear-Admiral Hood). The Grand Fleet was to meet with two battleship task forces commanded by Beatty. They were: 4 modern and fast Queen Elizabeth class dreadnoughts of the Fifth Battlecruiser Squadron commanded by Rear-Admiral Evan-Thomas, First Battlecruiser Squadron with Princess Royal, Queen Mary and Tiger, Second Battlecruiser Squadron with New Zealand and Indefatigable. The whole group was commanded by Vice-Admiral Beatty from his flagship, the cruiser Lion.
The combined task forces of the Grand Fleet were supposed to ambush the enemy about 90 Mm west of the Skagerrak Strait at the coast of the Jutland Peninsula. It was not foreseen by the Germans who also wanted to avoid confrontation of the whole Hochseeflotte with the Grand Fleet. They were fully aware of the British predominance. The might of the Grand Fleet consisted of 28 battleships and 8 battlecruisers whereas the German Hochseeflotte had 16 of the former and 5 of the latter. Admiral Scheer’s task force had been supplemented by 6 older battleships, so called pre-dreadnoughts, which were far inferior to the ships of the König or Kaiser class and could not be taken into account as fully-fledged battleships for the oncoming encounter.
The British also had more ships of other types and stronger light forces. It is worth noting that British supremacy was not that obvious. The German ships had much superior fire control systems, their guns had exceptional technical parameters and the ships themselves had stronger construction than their British counterparts. The passive protection of the German ships was almost perfect. Anti torpedo systems and watertight compartments gave them higher damage resistance. Projectiles and propellants were of much higher quality than, fire sensitive, cordite charges stowed in the magazines of the Grand Fleet battleships.
The idea of luring out the British fleet with the submarines turned out to be a failure. Not only had the U-Boots not sunk any of the British units but they also failed to deliver any valuable intelligence information. The Germans were not aware of the fact that the British had been alerted of the departure of their armada of battleships and cruisers and were making preparations for the encounter with the Hochseeflotte. British intelligence also failed to some extent misinforming Admiral Jellicoe that the German fleet was 9 hours further than it had been previously estimated.
On 31 May, about 15:20 the first unexpected encounter of the light forces took place. Two German torpedo boats along with the light cruiser Elbing stopped a neutral Danish steamer to investigate it for contraband. The ship turned out to be quite “innocent” but, accidentally, it became the cause of the biggest naval battle of World War I. While the ship was being inspected, Hipper was awaiting information about the results of the search but instead, he was notified of smoke on the horizon indicating approaching British forces. First to be spotted were Galatea and Phaeton - light cruisers of Vice-Admiral Beatty’s scout force. What is interesting is the fact that those ships had also been ordered to inspect the Danish freighter. Beatty was also notified of the presence of the German ships and immediately ordered his battlecruisers to intercept the enemy and prevent his escape. At 15:30 Beatty’s ship spotted Hipper’s battlecruisers steming North-West and the pursuit began. Hipper, aware of Beatty’s cruisers chasing him, turned to lead the British into the line of fire from Scheer’s battleships’ guns. At 15:45 both battlecruiser squadrons were moving on parallel courses. The British cruisers were moving at the speed of 24 knots and the distance between the two task forces was decreasing rapidly.
At 16:35, the German crews were on full battle alert and their gunners were ready to open fire. Finally, at 16:47, observers from Lion, which was the first ship in the British formation, spotted flashes on the silhouettes of the German ships indicating the beginning of the artillery duel. The targets were “distributed” and the flagship Lützow targeted Lion - Lion was to fire at Lützow. The cruiser Derfflinger, the second in the German formation, directed its fire towards the battlecruiser Queen Mary. Due to communication errors, Queen Mary also opened fire on Lützow which left Derfflinger unharassed by any British ship. Soon however, Queen Mary shifted her fire to the battlecruiser Seydlitz. At 16:57 the German ship was hit by a 343 mm shell at the barbette of the third “C” turret, which was put out of action.
Meanwhile, the last ship in the British formation met its tragedy. Indefatigable, shelled by the German cruiser Von Der Tann, was hit in one of her magazines. At 17:05 the ship exploded. The ship that took two years to build, disappeared from the surface within minutes and only two crew members survived. The shocking sight left both Beatty and the Germans stunned. Meanwhile the battle raged on and the German ships straddled the British. After the shock of losing such a large ship as Indefatigable, another tragedy occurred.
The battlecruiser Queen Mary, moving as the third ship in the formation behind Lion and Princess Royal, was targeted by Derfflinger’s gunners. She was also subjected to fire from Seydlitz however her 280 mm shells could not penetrate the British battlecruiser’s armour. Unfortunately, not the whole ship was protected by the thick armour. The first German 305 mm shell hit the “Q” turret at Queen Mary’s midship. The right gun was damaged but the left was still operational so the hit did not pose any danger to the battlecruiser. Further 305 mm shell(s) that smashed into the ship caused much more damage. The thin armored deck over the 4-inch battery was pierced and the ready-to-use ammunition below ignited. The blast went down the shaft and caused fire in the propellant charge magazine. Observers on other ships saw flash at the base of the first funnel. This was evidence of the route of the shock-wave through the fore boiler room’s ventilation shafts.
The crippled ship was moving on, listing to the portside, when exactly at 17:21 another explosion blasted. Cordite propellant charges located in “A” and “B” barbettes went off. The explosion virtually destroyed the whole bow section of the battlecruiser, including the conning tower, up to the observation posts on the main mast.
Having seen this terrible view, admiral Beatty said the famous words: “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”. The explosion was so powerful and destructive, it torn apart the huge over two-hundred-meter hull of the battlecruiser into two pieces. The fire and the explosion caused an enormous cloud of smoke reaching six hundred meters. In a blink of an eye, the battlecruiser Queen Mary became a flaming wreck with her bow and upward-pointing stern sinking separately. The battlecruisers Tiger and New Zealand, following the doomed ship, had to take evasive actions to avoid the sinking parts of Queen Mary. Sailors from Tiger saw her stern pointing upwards with propellers still running, which was a really nightmarish sight. They also saw sailors jumping out from the aft tower and companionways, trying to save their lives swimming farther away from the sinking ship. They were the few crew members of the aft tower who managed to survive the ship’s tragedy.
When the cruiser New Zealand was passing Queen Mary within about 150 metres, the ship capsized showing her brownish red bottom. Another explosion shook the sinking hull showering the passing ships with a hail of metal debris. Although many sailors jumped into the water, they died sucked in by powerful whirlpools and currents caused by the sinking pieces of the ship. Out of the total number of 1286 crew members, the British destroyers picked up only 18 survivors, the German ships saved two. Queen Mary became the grave of 1266 members of her crew.
The battlecruiser’s wreck was discovered in 1991, 75 years after her sinking. The wreck is 60 meters under water with the tallest elements at 45 meters. This made Queen Mary hardly reachable for plundering commercial divers contrary to other ships sunk during the Battle of Jutland. The ship’s remains may be divided into three major parts. The first one is the bow section, torn apart after the explosion of the ammunition magazines of the “A” and “B” turrets. One of the 13.5-inch guns is visible within the remains with its breechblock in the silt and the barrel pointing towards the surface. Further on there is a field of different bow boiler room equipment debris which fell out of the hull after it had broken up. The best preserved is the hull section from the foremast to the stern, which sank in one piece and lodged itself bottom up in the silt. A hole in its front section shows the inside of the magazines of the middle “Q” turret. Piles of well preserved projectiles and propellants are witnesses to the fact that there was no explosion in this part of the ship. The only missing elements of the wreck are the propellers, probably recovered by one of the diving expeditions. In 2006, by the act of the British Parliament, the resting place of Queen Mary was pronounced a protected area, and all salvage operations have been forbidden ever since.
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