Narrative of Petty Officer (Gunner's Mate) E. Francis, of "X" Turret

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This represents a copy of a letter I sent to the Senior Surviving Officer of H.M.S. Queen Mary, and I am asking that whoever reads this at any time will please remember that the writer is much handier behind a pair of 13.5-inch guns than behind a pen. I had the first dog watch (4.0 to 6.0 p.m.), in the battery so I made arrangements with the Gunner's Mate on watch to send a man down and let me know when it was 3.30 p.m. We lay down and had quite a comfortable sleep, having nothing on our mind to keep us awake. At 3.30 an able seaman came down and said, "Petty Officer Francis, it is nearly seven bells." I thanked him, and said, "Anything doing up top?" He said "No." I got up, took off my jumper, and had a wash in a bucket of water, and just as I had finished I heard in the distance a bugle sound of "Action." I was so surprised that I could hardly believe my ears, but the rush of feet by the door forced it upon me. I took the first hatchway up, and came up to the foremost 4-inch battery, starboard side, and raced for "X" Turret. When I got inside everyone was there. I yelled out "Turret's crew, number." They were correct from top to bottom, and I reported to the Lieutenant of the Turret. He said, "Test loading gear, "but for goodness' sake don't let them go too rash." The loading gear and machinery were tested, and immediately afterwards came the order to load all cages. As soon as the cages were loaded, it was reported to the Transmitting Station, and then came the order to load; the guns were loaded and brought to the half-cock and reported, and then came the order to bring the right gun to the ready, director laying and firing. Shortly after this the first salvo was fired, and we had started on the great game. I had no means of telling what the time was, and if I had I probably should not have looked, because getting a turret started is an anxious rushing time for a Captain of a turret; once started it is easy to keep going. Taking everything into consideration, I put it as about 3.45 or 3.55 ; that's as near as I can go. The gun's crew were absolutely perfect, inclined to be a little swift in loading, but I gave them a yell and pointed out to them that I wanted a steady stride, and after that everything went like clockwork, until suddenly both rammers gave out, my gun going first. This was caused through No. 3 opening the breech before the gun had run out after firing; the carrier arm part of the breech must have hit the rammer head and slightly metal-bound it. I dropped the elevating wheel, got hold of a steel pinch bar, forced the end in behind the rammer head, at the same time putting the rammer lever over to "Run out"; out went the rammer, and I rushed it back again, and then out again, and it went all gay once more. Then the lever was passed over to the right gun, and both rammers were once more in working order. I was pleased to get them going again, as it would have been such a damper on the crew if we had had to go into hand loading. My No. 3 said, "Petty Officer Francis, can you see what we are up against?" Well, I had been anxious to have a look, but could not spare the time, but as soon as my gun had fired and while the loading was being completed I had a quick look through the periscope, and it seemed to me there were hundreds of masts and funnels. I dropped back into my seat and laid my gun by pointer, being in director firing, and while the loading was being completed again I told them there were a few battle cruisers out, not wishing to put a damper on them in any way; not that I think it would have done so, as they were all splendid fellows and backed me up magnificently. Up till now I had not noticed any noise, such as being struck by a shell, but soon afterwards there was a heavy blow struck, I should imagine, in the after 4-inch battery, and a lot of dust and pieces were flying around on top of "X" turret. My attention was called by the turret trainer, A.B. Long, who reported the front glass of his periscope blocked up. This was not very important, because we were in director training, but some- one in rear heard him report his glass foul, and without orders dashed on top and cleared it. He must have been smashed as he did it, for he fell in front of the periscope, groaning, and then apparently fell off the turret. I wish I knew his name, poor chap, but it's no use guessing. Another shock was felt shortly after this, but it did not affect the turret, so no notice was taken. The Transmitting Station reported that the third ship of the line was dropping out. First blood to Queen Mary. The shout they gave was good to hear. I could not resist taking a quick look at her at their request, and I saw the third ship of their line was going down by the bows.
I felt the turret training a bit faster than she had been, and surmised we must have shifted on to the fourth ship of the line; being in director firing no orders were required for training. I looked again, and the third ship of the line was gone. I turned to the spare gunlayer, P. O. Killick, who was recording the number of rounds fired, and asked him how many rounds the left gun had fired, and he said 30 something odd figures. I didn't catch the exact number. A few more rounds were fired, and I took another look through my periscope, and there was quite a fair distance between the second ship, and what I believe was the fourth ship, due, I think, to the third ship going under. Flames were belching up from what I believe to be the fourth ship of the line. Then came the big explosion, which shook us a bit, and on looking at the pressure gauge I saw the pressure had failed. Immediately after that came what I term the big smash, and I was dangling in the air on a bowline, which saved me from being thrown down on to the floor of the turret; these bowlines were an idea I had brought into the turret, and each man in the gun-house was supplied with one, and, as far as I noticed, the men who had them on were not injured in the big smash. Nos. 2 and 3 of the left gun slipped down under the gun, and the gun appeared to me to have fallen through its trunnions and smashed up these two numbers. Everything in the ship went as quiet as a church, the floor of the turret was bulged up, and the guns were absolutely useless. I must mention here that there was not a sign of excitement. One man turned to me and said, "What do you think has happened?" I said "Steady every one, I will speak to Mr. Ewart." I went back to the cabinet and said, "What do you think has happened, sir?" He said "God only knows." "Well, sir," I said, "it's no use keeping them all down here, why not send them up round the 4-inch guns, and give them a chance to fight it out. As soon as the Germans find we are out of action they will concentrate on us, and we shall all be going sky high." He said, "Yes, good idea. Just see whether the 4-inch guns aft are still standing." I put my head up through the hole in the roof of the turret, and I nearly fell back through again. The after 4-inch battery was smashed right out of all recognition, and then I noticed the ship had an awful list to port. I dropped back inside the turret and told Lieut. Ewart the state of affairs. He said, "Francis, we can do no more than give them a chance; clear the turret." "Clear the turret," I called out, and out they all went. P.O. Stares was the last I saw coming up from the working chamber, and I asked whether he had passed the order to the magazine and shell room, and he told me it was no use, as the water was right up the trunk leading from the shell room, so the bottom of the ship must have been out of her. Then I said, "Why didn't you come up?" He simply said, "There was no order to leave the turret." I went through the cabinet and out through the top with the Lieutenant of the Turret following me; suddenly he stopped and went back into the turret. I believe he went back because he thought there was someone left inside. It makes me feel sore-hearted when I think of him and that fine crowd who were with me in the turret. I can only write about the splendid behaviour of my own turret's crew, but I am confident, knowing the Queen Mary as I did, that the highest traditions of the service were upheld by the remainder of the ship's company, from the Captain down to the youngest boy. Everyone was so keen on being in a big fight, and each member of our ship's company knew he was one of the small cog-wheels of a great machine; it was part of a man's training as laid down by our Gunnery Commander, and due to his untiring efforts to make the Queen Mary the splendid fighting unit I knew her to be. I was half-way down the ladder at the back of the turret when Lieutenant Ewart went back; the ship had an awful list to port by this time, so much so that men getting off the ladder went sliding down to port. I got on to the bottom rung of the ladder, but could not by my own efforts reach the stanchions lying on the deck from the starboard side. I knew if I let go that I should go sliding down to port like some of the others must have done, and probably get smashed up sliding down. Two of my turret's crew, seeing my difficulty, came to my assistance; they were A.B. Long, turret trainer, and A.B. Lane, No. 4 of the left gun. Lane held Long at full stretch from the ship's side, and I dropped from the ladder, caught Long's legs, and so gained the starboard side. These two men had no thought for their own safety; they saw I wanted assistance, and that was good enough for them.
When I got on to the ship's side there seemed to be quite a fair crowd, and they did not appear to be very anxious to take to the water. I called out to them, "Come on, you chaps, who's coming for a swim?" Someone answered, "She will float for a long time yet," but something, I don't pretend to understand what it was, seemed to be urging me to get away, so I clambered up over the slimy bilge keel and fell off into the water, followed, I should think, by about five other men. I struck away from the ship as hard as I could, and must have covered nearly 50 yards, when there was a big smash, and stopping and looking round the air seemed to be full of fragments and flying pieces. A large piece seemed to be right above my head, and acting on an impulse I dipped under to avoid being struck, and stayed under as long as I could, and then came to the top again, when coming behind me I heard a rush of water, which looked very much like a surf breaking on a beach, and I realised it was the suction or back-wash from the ship which had just gone. I hardly had time to fill my lungs with air when it was on me; I felt it was no use struggling against it, so I let myself go for a moment or two, then I struck out, but I felt it was a losing game, and remarked to myself mentally, "What's the use of you struggling, you're done," and actually eased my efforts to reach the top, when a small voice seemed to say "Dig out." I started afresh, and something bumped against me. I grasped it, and afterwards found it was a large hammock; it undoubtedly pulled me to the top, more dead than alive, and I rested on it, but I felt I was getting very weak, and roused myself sufficiently to look around for some- thing more substantial to support me. Floating right in front of me was a piece of timber (I believe the centre baulk of our pattern 4 target). I managed to push myself on the hammock close to the timber, and grasped a piece of rope hanging over the side. My next difficulty was to get on top, and I was beginning to give up hope, when the swell lifted me nearly on top, and with a small amount of exertion I kept on. I managed to reeve my arms through a strop, and then I must have become unconscious. When I came to my senses again I • was half-way off the spar, but managed to get back again. I was very sick, and seemed to be full up with oil fuel. My eyes were blocked up completely with it, and I could not see ; I suppose the oil had got a bit dry and crusted. I managed, by turning back the sleeve of my jersey which was thick with oil, to expose a part of the sleeve of my flannel, and thus managed to get the thick oil off my face and eyes, which were aching awfully. Then I looked around, and seeing no one else, believed I was the only one left out of that fine ship's company. What had really happened was the Laurel had come up and picked up the remainder, and not seeing me lying on the spar had gone away out of the zone of fire, so how long I was in the water I do not know. I was miserably cold, but not without hope of being picked up, as it seemed to me that I had only got to keep quiet and a ship would come for me. After what seemed ages to me some destroyers came racing along, and I got up on the spar, steadied myself for a second, and waved my arms. The PETARD, one of our destroyers, saw me and came over, but when I got up on the spar to wave to them the swell rolled the spar over, and I fell off. I was nearly exhausted again getting back. The destroyer came up and a line was thrown to me, which, needless to say, I grabbed hold of for all I was worth, and was quickly hauled tip on to the decks of the destroyer. The first words I heard spoken were English, not German, and I must have managed to convince them that I was English. I re- membered no more until I came to and found I was lying on what seemed to be a leather settee, and someone was telling me that I was all right and not to struggle. I could not see the faces round me, so concluded I was blind, but did not feel then that it mattered much ; my thoughts flew to the fine crowd who had gone under. I cannot speak too highly of the way I was cared for on board the Petard, and I thank them one and all. I was given some spirits of some sort, and then must have gone to sleep ; someone came over to me and said, " Don't get excited if you hear any shooting, but we are going to carry out an attack on a big German." I wasn't in a fit state to worry much about attacks on Germans. My eyes were very painful, and I must have said something about them, for I believe a young doctor came down and started to bathe them, when suddenly there was a big smash, and I was told afterwards that a shell came through, killed the doctor and eight men, and I never received a scratch.
I couldn't see, and, being a gunnery man, I took the smash to be a 4-inch gun being fired ; I had no idea it was a German shell. I must have gone off to sleep again, when I was wakened by some of the chaps who were taking me down to the Petty Officers' quarters, as by this time they had found out I was a Gunner's Mate. I believe in the first place I told them I was a Stoker. Nothing happened after this of any importance, only I was in awful agony with my eyes. I was told we were steaming at greatly reduced speed to Rosyth, and arrived, as near as I can guess, about midnight on the 1st June. The Hospital Boat came over, and I was very quickly taken to Queensferry Hospital, where I was soon made nice and comfortable in bed, feeling that my troubles were over, and thanking God, Who I feel was very near me on that great day, and Who pulled me through. I fell asleep and woke up to find the doctor waiting to clean my eyes ; he would not disturb me before. After my eyes had been seen to I felt much relieved ; the doctor told me to keep the bandage on and my eyes would be all right again soon. I left the Hospital on the Monday (June 5th), having previously on two days running asked the Fleet Surgeon to let me go south ; I felt the groans of the burnt and wounded would have driven me mad. He told me that if I could get some clothes I could go. I met a Ward Master whom I had known some years ago, and he fitted me out with clothes gathered from the Hospital Staff, and made me look quite presentable. I left Edinburgh by the midnight train, and on arrival at London went to the Union Jack Club, where I had a good breakfast. I left London and arrived at the Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth, where I reported myself, and was allowed to proceed home. The next day I was given some clothes, and saw the doctor who advised me what to do about my eyes, and very kindly allowed me to go home on 14 days' leave. When I returned off leave I saw the doctor again, and he said, " Your nerves are gone, you want a rest," and sent me home for another 14 days. When I returned off leave I was feeling much better, and my eyes were nearly quite well again. At the time of writing they are all right, but tire very quickly. To finish my account, I will say that I believe the cause of the ship being blown up was a shell striking " B " turret working chamber and igniting the shells stowed there in the ready racks, and the flash must have passed down into the magazine, and that was the finish.