David Stephen Penny was a teenager when he lost his life in the Battle of Jutland, the greatest naval confrontation of the Great War. Some 250 warships – 150 of them British – manned by more than 100,000 officers and men fought in the battle near the Skagerrak, about 60 miles off the west coast of Denmark on May 31, 1916. The British lost 14 ships, including three battlecruisers and eight destroyers. Almost 7,000 of their officers and men lost their lives. The Germans lost 11 ships and more than 3,000 men. Here, I reveal how David – who was connected to my mum’s family – died in the battle, in a devastating explosion.
He was just 18 when he found himself at the centre of a major battle in the North Sea – against 100 German warships.
David Stephen Penny was an able seaman in the world’s first battlecruiser HMS Invincible, one of 150 British warships facing the full might of the Imperial German Navy.
David had decided to go to sea as a very young man, joining the Royal Navy more than a year before the Great War, when he was 15.
He had served in two cruisers – HMS Powerful and HMS Edgar – before joining Invincible on March 28, 1915.
The great flagship first went into action in the Battle of Jutland at 5.45pm on May 31, 1916, avoiding a number of torpedoes fired at her.
She attacked the German battlecruiser SMS Derfflinger at 6.15pm, before opening fire on the warship SMS Lutzow, hitting her below the waterline.
The tables were turned dramatically – and catastrophically – just minutes later when the two German warships each fired three salvoes at Invincible.
She exploded, broke in half and sank in seconds after a shell penetrated and blew off the roof of one of her gun turrets and detonated an ammunition store.
More than 1,000 officers and men aboard Invincible – including David – were killed.
There were only six survivors, including Gunnery Officer Hubert Edward Dannreuther.
His report into the loss of the ship began with the grim words: ‘I deeply regret to report that HMS Invincible . . . was blown up and completely destroyed when in action with the enemy at 6.34pm on Wednesday, May 31. The total number of officers and men on board at the time was 1,031. Of these only six survived.’
He said a few moments before Invincible blew up, Admiral Horace Lambert Alexander Hood – who was among those killed in the explosion – told the control officer: ‘Your firing is very good, keep at it as quickly as you can, every shot is telling’.
Dannreuther, who was later promoted to rear-admiral, said: ‘This was the last order heard from the admiral or captain who were both on the bridge at the end.
‘The ship had been hit several times by heavy shell, but no appreciable damage had been done when, at 6.34 pm, a heavy shell struck “Q” turret and, bursting inside, blew the roof off.
‘Almost immediately following there was a tremendous explosion amidships indicating that “Q” magazine had blown up. The ship broke in half and sank in 10 or 15 seconds.
‘The survivors on coming to the surface saw the bow and stern of the ship only, both of which were vertical and about 50 feet clear of the water.
‘There was very little wreckage. The six survivors were supported by a target raft and floating timber till picked up by HMS Badger shortly after 7pm.
‘Only one man besides those rescued was seen to come to the surface after the explosion, and he sank before he could reach the target raft.
‘The Badger was brought alongside the raft in a most expeditious and seamanlike manner, and the survivors were treated with the utmost kindness and consideration by the officers and men.’
Of the Invincible survivors, Royal Marine Bryan Gasson had the most remarkable of escapes.
He was actually inside Invincible’s ‘Q’ gun turret when it was struck by a shell and hurled into the sea.
‘Suddenly our starboard midship turret manned by the Royal Marines was struck between the two 12- inch guns and appeared to me to lift off the top of the turret and another from the same salvo followed. The flashes passed down to both midship magazines . . . The explosion broke the ship in half. I owe my survival to the fact that I was in a separate compartment at the back of the turret,’ he said.
David – whose body was never recovered – is remembered on Portsmouth Naval Memorial and on Gussage All Saints War Memorial in Dorset.
Born on September 7, 1897 in Brockington. Dorset, David was the son of farm worker Walter Penny (1867-1952) and Emma Manston (1869-1958).
He was related to my mum’s family through marriage.
His sister, Hilda Daisy Penny (1892-1981), married Francis ‘Frank’ George Arscott (1896-1953) on June 19, 1923 in Gussage-all-Saints, Dorset.
Frank was the son of Henry Arscott (1855-1928) and Mary Chick (1861-1951). Henry was the son of Charlotte Arscott (1836-1906) and George Martin (1841-1912).
Charlotte was the daughter of Hugh Arscott (1809-1878), whose brother, John Arscott (1807-1879), was my great-great grandfather.
The wreckage of HMS Invincible. Public Domain image (via Wikimedia Commons) taken by an official Royal Navy photographer.
HMS Invincible. Public Domain image (via Wikimedia Commons) taken between 1907 and 1916.