HMS Defence was a Minotaur-class armoured cruiser that was commissioned into the Royal Navy on the 9th of February 1909, having been built at Pembroke Dockyard, Wales. Defence was the last armoured cruiser built for the Royal Navy and was stationed in the Mediterranean at the outbreak of World War I.
Once the war began, Defence was part of the pursuit of the German warships Goeben and Breslau and was part of the force that blockaded the ships in the Dardanelles. Following this, Defence was ordered to the South Atlantic to rendevouz with Rear-Admiral Christopher Craddock’s squadron in the hunt for German ships. However, upon arrival in Montevideo on the 14th of November 1914 Defence learned that most of the squadron had been destroyed at the Battle of Coronel.
Defence would make runs to South Africa, ferrying troops to Britain before being reassigned to the Grand Fleet and remaining in Europe as a result. It was at this time that Defence was made the flagship of Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot and his 1st Cruiser Squadron. Arbuthnot was known as a highly dedicated but highly inflexible leader. In 1900 he had produced the book ‘A Battleship Commander’s Order Book’ which contained 300 pages of standing orders for his crew: a typical Commander of a Royal Navy ship would produce just a few pages of orders. This work made him the butt of jokes amongst his contemporaries.
He was known for spending hours on deck exercising daily (regardless of weather), for attending daily church services and for being a tremendous athlete. He had played rugby as a three-quarter back (he played for Hampshire) while also being a boxing champion. In one instance two sailors were infuriated by a punishment he had dished out: he issued them both with boxing gloves and knocked them both out. Another story notes that 3 of his men launched a surprise attack on him while ashore, resulting in two of them being hospitalised.
Admiral John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand fleet, said of him: “Arbuthnot is one of the finest fellows in the world, but somehow can’t run a squadron. His ideals are too high and he can’t leave people alone.” Still, Jellicoe believed, “He would be invaluable when there is fighting. I have the highest opinion of him.”
HMS Defence fought at the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle in the First World War. The battle was fought from 31st of May to 1st June 1916 between the Royal Navy Grand Fleet and the Imperial German Navy High Seas Fleet. Combined, 250 ships were engaged in the battle with almost 10,000 casualties. One such casualty was HMS Defence, which exploded at 18:20 with the loss of all hands (between 893-903 men) after heavy shelling from German ships.
Arbuthnot was blamed for the sinking as he ordered his cruisers to break formation and pass in front of the British battleships (blocking their line of fire in the process) and pursuing after the German light-cruiser Wiesbaden that was damaged. This move attracted the fire of the German ships and Defence was hit by multiple volleys, igniting the magazines and exploding the ship. Arbuthnot died with the rest of the crew.
So why are we telling you this? Two of the crew who died were from Ayrshire and both are remembered on the Plymouth Naval Memorial.
Malcolm Crawford died at the age of 19. He was the son of Mary Crawford of 5 Shipyard Road, Irvine.
Daniel McConnell, stoker, who died at the age of 27. Born in Ayr.