Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, March 11, 2020: Flory’s Battle-scarred Bugle
Here we see a vessel identified as the brand-new light cruiser HMS Castor, at the time the flagship of Royal Navy’s 11th Destroyer Flotilla, passing Clydebank, February 1916. A handsome ship, she would very soon sail into harm’s way.
Laid down at Cammell Laird and Co. Birkenhead three months after the war started, Castor was a member of the Cambrian subclass of the 28-strong “C”-class of oil-fired light cruisers. Sturdy 446-foot ships of 4,000~ tons, their eight-pack of Yarrow boilers trunked through two funnels and pushing a pair of Parsons turbines coughed up 40,000 shp– enough to sprint them at 29-knots.
Comparable in size to a smallish frigate today, they packed four single BL 6-inch Mk XII guns along with a more distributed battery of six or eight QF 4-inch Mk IV guns in addition to a pair of bow-mounted 21-inch torpedo tubes. With up to 6-inches of steel armor (conning tower), they could hold their own against similar cruisers, slaughter destroyers, and gunboats, and run away from larger warships.
After just 11 months on the builder’s ways, Castor was commissioned in November 1915, the fourth of HMs vessels to carry the name one of the Gemini twins since 1781.
Castor at commissioning became the flagship of the Grand Fleet’s 11th Destroyer Flotilla, which consisted of 14 Admiralty M (Moon)-class destroyers (HMS Kempenfelt, Magic, Mandate, Manners, Marne, Martial, Michael, Milbrook, Minion, Mons Moon, Morning Star, Mounsey, Mystic, and Ossory) under the overall flag of Castor’s skipper since November 1915, Commodore (F) James Rose Price Hawksley. Hawksley had previously spent much of his 19-year RN career up to then as a destroyerman, so it made sense.
With her paint still fresh and her plankowners just off her shakedown, Castor, along with the rest of the mighty Grand Fleet, crashed into the German High Seas Fleet off Denmark’s North Sea Jutland coast, the largest battleship-cruiser-destroyer surface action in history.
While covering the whole Battle of Jutland goes far beyond the scope of this post, we shall focus on Castor’s role and that of her flotilla on the night of the 31st of May. With the day’s fleet action broken up and the two fleets searching for each other in the darkness, the leading German light cruisers brushed into the British rear-guard starboard wing, that being HMS Castor and her destroyers. The official history states:
“At 20:11 hrs., the 11th Flotilla led by Commodore Hawksley, onboard Castor spotted German Destroyers to his NWN and turned to attack, supported by the 4th Light Cruiser Squadron. They had found not destroyers but the main German battle line.”
Castor’s force was soon spotted by the German ships, who approached in the darkness and mimicked the response to a British challenge signal that they had been confronted with, in turn getting one correct out of three challenges. This meant that they were able to approach much closer than usual.
Then, at a range of just 2,000 yards, the German ships threw on their searchlights and opened fire. Castor returned fire, and she and at least two of her destroyers (Marne and Magic), each snap-shotted one torpedo each at the German ships, with the cruiser aiming at the first German in line and the two lead destroyers on the following. “This was followed by an explosion. It may be taken for certain that it was Magic’s torpedo that struck the second ship in the enemy’s line.”
This confused surface action lasted for about five minutes before both sides heeled away into the safety of the black night. Some of the other destroyers reported that they were unable to see the enemy because of glare from Castor’s guns, while others believed there had been some mistake and the contact was friendly fire. No news of the engagement reached Jellicoe in time for him to react with the main battle line.
While her 14 destroyers came away unscathed, Castor received 10 large caliber shell hits, which set her ablaze, and lost 12 of her Sailors and Marines killed or missing.
The dozen killed included bugler Albert Flory, RMLI, who gave his last full measure at the ripe old age of 16.
Two others among Castor’s dead carried the rank of “Boy,” one generally reserved for apprentice sailors under the age of 18. At the time, about one in 10 of her complement were such modern powder monkeys.
Her death toll overall:
BAKER, William, Boy 1c, J 39706
BARTRAM, Leslie, Able Seaman, J 14191 (Po)
BROOMHEAD, Alfred, Stoker 1c (RFR B 4446), SS 103448 (Po)
CANDY, William A V, Ordinary Signalman, J 28149 (Po)
CHILD, Frederick T, Stoker Petty Officer, 308828 (Po)
EVANS, Alfred O, Ordinary Signalman, J 27451 (Dev)
FLORY, Albert E, Bugler, RMLI, 18169 (Po)
FOX, John E, Stoker 1c, SS 114531 (Po)
GASSON, Harry, Able Seaman (RFR B 6769), 212007 (Po)
HALLAM, Fred, Boy 1c, J 39695
KILHAMS, Alfred J, Ordinary Telegraphist, J 30359 (Po)
MACGREGOR, Donald N, Chief Yeoman of Signals, 173674 (Po)
Added to the butcher’s bill was 26 seriously and 13 lightly wounded.
Castor would spend most of the rest of 1916 and the first part of 1917 undergoing repairs and, as the High Seas Fleet didn’t sortie again until the surrender at Scapa Flow, the remainder of Castor’s war was relatively uneventfully spent on duty in the Home Islands. The most interesting action of this period was when she responded to the sinking armed trawler USS Rehoboth (SP-384) in October 1917, during which the cruiser took on the stricken vessel’s crew and sent the derelict hull to the bottom with shellfire.
On 23 November 1918, she was tasked with counting and watching surrendering German destroyers.
Hawkesley, Castor’s first skipper, and 11th Flotilla commodore at Jutland would move on to finish the war in command of the battlecruiser HMS Inflexible. He would go on to retire as a Rear Admiral in 1922 in conjunction with the Washington Naval Treaty drawdown, a rank advanced to Vice-Admiral while on the Retired List four years later. He would be replaced on Castor’s bridge by Commodore (F) Hugh Justin Tweedie, a man who would go on to retire as a full admiral in 1935. Sir Hugh would return to service in the early days of WWII, working with the Convoy Pools in his 60s.
Castor, whose 4-inch secondary battery was replaced by a smaller number of AAA guns, is listed as serving in the Black Sea with the British force deployed there for intervention into the broiling Russian Civil War from 1919-20. Such duty could prove deadly. For example, while none of the 28 C-class light cruisers were lost during the Great War– despite several showing up in U-boat periscopes and being present at Jutland and the Heligoland Bight– Castor’s sister Cassandra was sunk by a mine in the Baltic on 5 December 1918 while acting against the Reds.
Castor followed up her Russian stint service on the Irish Patrol in 1922. Then came a spell as the floating Gunnery School at Portsmouth until 1924 when she passed into a period of refit and reserve.
She was recommissioned at Devonport for China Station June 1928, to relieve her sistership Curlew and saw the globe a bit.
With the times passing and newer cruisers coming on line eating up valuable treaty-limited tonnage, Castor was paid off in May 1935 and sold two months later to Metal Ind, Rosyth, for her value in scrap metal. There has not been a “Castor” on the British naval list since. Most of her early sisters were likewise disposed of in the same manner during this period.
Just half of the class, 14 vessels, made it out of the Depression still in the fleet and most went on to serve in one form or another in the Second World War, despite their advanced age and outdated nature. Of those, six were lost: Curlew, Calcutta, and Coventry to enemy aircraft; Calypso and Cairo to submarines, as well as Curacoa to a collision with the Queen Mary.
Just one C-class cruiser survived past 1948, Jutland veteran Caroline, a past Warship Wednesday alum. Having served as an RNVR drillship in Alexandra Dock, Belfast until 2011, since 2016 she has been a museum ship. She is the last remaining warship that was at Jutland.
When it comes to Castor, a number of relics remain.
Her White Ensign (Length 183 cm, Width 92 cm) is in the IWM collection, although not on display while her (525x 425x30mm) ship’s badge is at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
One of Castor’s unidentified lost souls was finally discovered in 2016, a full century after Jutland.
Able Seaman Harry Gasson‘s body was blown to sea in the engagement and was recovered about two nautical miles off Grey Deep on 25 September 1916– an amazing four months after the battle. With no identification, he was and buried simply as a “British Seaman of the Great War Known unto God” five days later in the Danish town of Esbjerg.
As noted by the MoD:
The local people of Esbjerg maintained the grave for almost 100 years, but it wasn’t until local historians looked into the church records to find it was recorded that the sailor had the name H. Gossom written in his trousers. After work by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and checking naval records, the MOD was able to agree that the identity of this sailor was H. Gasson, and there had been an error in the transcription.
His anonymous headstone was replaced with his correct name in a ceremony attended by two of his descendants along with the ship’s company of the HMS Tyne.
As for Marine Albert Flory’s shrapnel-riddled bugle, to mark this year’s Bands of HM Royal Marines Mountbatten Festival of Music 2020, the Royal Marine Museum is giving the public the chance to “adopt” it to support the new Royal Marines Museum Campaign.
Displacement: 3,750 tons (designed); 4,320 fl; 4,799 deep load
Length: 446 ft (o/a)
Beam: 41 ft 6 in
Draught: 14 ft 10 in (with Bunkers full, and complete with Provisions, Stores and Water: 16 feet 3 inches mean)
Propulsion: 8 Yarrow Small tube boilers, 2 Parsons steam turbines, 2 shafts, 30,000 shp natural/40,000 Forced Draught
Speed: 28.5 knots max (some hit 29 on trials)
Number of Tons of Oil Fuel Carried: 841
Quantity of Water carried: For Boilers, 70 tons, For Drinking 49.25 tons
Ship’s Company (typical)
Engine-room establishment: 88
Other non-executive ratings: 44
One motorboat 30 feet
One sailing cutter 30 feet
Two whalers 27 feet, Montague
One gig 30 feet
Two skiff dinghies 16 feet
One motorboat 30 feet for Commodore’s use
Waterline belt: 1.5–3 in
Deck: 1 in
Conning tower: 6 in
4 x single BL 6″/45 Mk XII guns on Forecastle, Forward superstructure, Aft Forward superstructure and Quarterdeck
6 x single QF 4″/40 Mk IV guns
1 x single QF 4 in 13 pounder Mk V anti-aircraft gun
2 x 21-inch (533 mm) submerged torpedo tubes, typically with eight Mark IV Torpedoes
4 x single BL 6″/45 Mk XII guns
2 x QF 3-inch 20 cwt IV on Mark IV AAA mounting on foc’sle
2 x QF 2 pole Pom-pom AAA on the aft superstructure
2 x 21-inch (533 mm) submerged torpedo tubes, typically with eight Mark IV Torpedoes
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