Jack Cornwell, the heroic gunner of Jutland, 100 years ago this week
Born 8th January 1900 in Essex, John “Jack” Cornwell attended school for just eight years, dropping out in 1913 to work as a van boy for a baker. Still keeping up his commitment to the Boy Scouts, he won a special award for freeing a young girl from a drain.
He was that kind of kid.
At age 14 he tried to join the Royal Navy in the opening days of WWI, but was turned down. He kept trying and he was accepted as a Ship’s Boy just after his 15th birthday and shipped out aboard the freshly commissioned 5000-ton Town-class light cruiser HMS Chester as a gun layer, manning the sights and relaying firing orders through a headset and microphone at one of the ship’s 10 BL 5.5 inch Mark I (140 mm) /50 guns. The well-drilled RN crews on these exposed guns could fire 12 rounds per minute, lobbing a 82-pound shell out past 16,000m.
Chester and Jack found themselves up to their necks in German warships at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May.
Taking on four German cruisers of the High Seas Fleet’s II Scouting Group in a night action, Chester was raked by no less than 18 hits. The Mark I guns of the cruiser had just a scant plate of armor on the front of the mount, with the backs and deck areas open to the environment. This meant that shrapnel from the German shells blasted down the decks and killed the exposed gunners at a staggering rate. Within minutes, 3 out of 10 mounts on Chester were out of action, their crews maimed.
At Jack’s mount, the forward-most 5.5 inch gun on the forecastle, every single sailor had been killed or wounded outright, horribly maimed by the combat.
During the action, Jack was credited with volunteering to go to the top of the turret to wipe the glass so that the rangefinder could line the target, and another report says that he managed to ram home one last projectile, close the breech and press the firing button and that this projectile exploded on the German ship SMS Wiesbaden, causing damage which led to her sinking. (Later evidence found post-war concluded that the shell that sank Wiesbaden came from HMS Invincible, but it does not make the tale of Jack and HMS Chester any less heroic)
Jack was found after the cruiser had disengaged, standing alone at his gun, still ready to fight. His body was riddled with shellfire, including splinters in his chest. He was still alive but barely, and eager for orders.
As British ships came alongside HMS Chester, survivors of other gun mounts sat on deck, limbless, smoking cigarette and cheering the passing fleet. Many would not see the next dawn.
Jack passed away after an agonizing two day ordeal in the ship’s infirmary, giving his last, full, measure.
His VC, awarded posthumously, states:
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of the Victoria Cross to Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell, O.N.J.42563 (died 2 June 1916), for the conspicuous act of bravery specified below. Mortally wounded early in the action, Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders, until the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all round him. His age was under sixteen and a half years.
He is the youngest recipient of England’s highest military honor.
His great grandnephew, Alex Saridis, is keeping the family tradition alive and is currently an Able Seaman in the Royal Navy. He asks in the above video only that future generations remember Jack, and those that fell alongside him and share their story.
On Jack’s grave, the epitaph reads
“It is not wealth or ancestry
but honourable conduct and a noble disposition
that maketh men great.”