HMS Spitfire (1912)

HMS Spitfire (1913) was an Acasta class destroyer that served with the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, fighting against the Yorkshire Coast raid of 1914 and at Jutland, before moving to the Humber then the South Coast to take part in the battle against the U-boats.

HMS Spitfire showing damage suffered at Jutland HMS Spitfire showing damage suffered at Jutland

The Spitfire was laid down at Swan Hunter on 18 December 1911, launched on 23 December 1912 and commissioned in June 1913. When the Acasta class became the K Class the new name Keppel was chosen for her, but it was never used.

In July 1914 she was one of twenty destroyers in the Fourth Destroyer Flotilla of the First Fleet, which contained the most modern battleships. The flotilla contained all twenty Acasta or K Class destroyers.

In August 1914 she was one of twenty K destroyers in the Fourth Flotilla of what was becoming the Grand Fleet. At the outbreak of war all but the Porpoise were at sea. Over the next two years five members of the class were sunk, while the surviving members of the class remained with the Flotilla into July 1916.

In November 1914 all twenty K class destroyers were in the Fourth Flotilla, part of the Grand Fleet. She had been equipped with a submarine sweep.

Yorkshire Coast Raid

When the Germans raided the Yorkshire Coast in December 1914 the  Spitfire was one of seven Acasta class destroyers that were with Admiral Warrender’s 2nd Battle Squadron when it was sent out to try and intercept them. During the night of 15-16 December the destroyers were posted ten miles to the port of the battle squadron, with orders to close in on them at daylight. The Spitfire was part of the 2nd Division of the Fourth Flotilla during this sortie..

At about 5.15am the Lynx, at the head of the flotilla, spotted a destroyer that failed to answer the identification correctly. The Lynx opened fire and turned to port to give chase. The German retreated north, while the rest of the British destroyer flotilla followed the Lynx. The Hardy was in the middle of the column, and sighted more German destroyers off to port. A gun battle developed between these destroyers and the rear of the British column, but the Lynx then suffered a fault with her steering and turned further to port. The rest of the flotilla followed, and the second set of German destroyers disappeared to the east. The original target soon followed them.

The Lynx then turned to the south-west to close up with the battle squadron, but only three minutes later, at 5.58, a German cruiser was sighted about 600-700 yards to the port of Hardy and Shark. The cruiser switched on recognition lights, which identified her as German. A gun battle then developed between the cruiser and the Hardy and the Shark. The Hardy was soon taking heavy damage and was forced to steer to the starboard. The destroyers behind her followed, while the Lynx and Unity at the head of the column continued on their original course and were soon out of the battle.

The Hardy quickly turned back onto a parallel course with the cruiser, followed by the rest of the flotilla. However by 0600 she had been so badly damaged that her captain had to take her out of the line. Her steering gear was badly damaged, but luckily her captain had ordered an emergency system to be set up, and he was able to steer with his engines. However at this point the cruiser, which was only 500 yards away from her, turned on her searchlights and opened fire again. At this point the Hardy’s gunner fired a torpedo, which exploded very close to the cruiser. Everyone on the British side was convinced they’d scored a hit, but German records suggest they narrowly missed. Even so this was enough to convince the German cruiser to turn off her lights and retreat.

The Hardy was still under control, and was able to take up a position at the rear of the 2nd Division. This was now all that was left of the flotilla, with Lynx and Unity having lost contact, and Ambuscade having to retire damaged. The formation was now led by the Shark, followed by Acasta, Spitfire and Hardy.

The clash had been with the light cruiser Hamburg and several of the German destroyers, which were part of the screen for Admiral von Ingenohl and the High Seas Fleet, which were there to protect the forces actually carrying out the raid. News of the clash with British destroyers convinced von Ingenohl to withdraw, as part of his orders were not to risk losses

At about 6.50 the Shark sighted smoke to the south-east, and by 7.00 could make out five German destroyers. The flotilla gave chase, and were soon able to open fire. However a few minutes later they spotted a heavy cruiser, which they believed to be the Yorck class cruiser Roon. By now the Germans were retiring, so the Roon didn’t open fire open fire, and the four British destroyers were able to shadow her for some time. By 7.30 they had alerted Admiral Warrender, who moved east to try and catch the cruiser. Admiral Beatty with the battlecruisers also arrived on the scene, but didn’t join the chase until just before 8.20. By this point the situation for the destroyers had changed. Visibility had got worse, and at about 7.40 the destroyers had been forced to get closer to the Roon to keep her in sight. At this point the Germans sent three light cruisers to chase them off. The British destroyers turned north in an attempt to lure the Germans into a trap, but by about 8.35 the Germans had turned back to rejoin the fleet. The destroyers then found the British light cruisers and joined with them.

In the aftermath of the clash the Spitfire escorted the damaged Hardy back to the Humber.

1915-1916

In January 1915 she was part of the Fourth Destroyer Flotilla, under the direct control of the commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet. In June 1915 all twenty K class destroyers formed the Fourth Flotilla, along with two flotilla leaders. In January 1916 nineteen K class destroyers were in the Fourth Flotilla, based at Scapa. She had been equipped with a modified sweep.

In April 1916 Admiral Jellicoe asked for eight of the class to have one of their 4in guns converted to a high angle gun by placing it on a trap door that could tilt up to fifty degrees. The Spitfire was one of the ships selected to be converted.

Jutland

The flotilla contained sixteen Acasta class destroyers and one Repeat M class destroyer at Jutland.

The flotilla put to sea with Admiral Jellicoe and the main body of the Grand Fleet by 10.30pm on 30 May.

As the Grand Fleet advanced into contact with the High Seas Fleet, part of the flotilla was with the British 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron (Shark, Acasta, Ophelia and Christopher), forming an anti-submarine screen ahead of Admiral Hood’s capital ships. The 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron was some way ahead of the main battleship force and was thus the first part of the Grand Fleet to get into action. The destroyers found themselves on the port flank of Hood’s battlecruisers, in a position to attack a force of German cruisers. However they soon became engaged in a battle with German destroyers which left the Shark crippled, but stopped the Germans attacking Hood’s battlecruisers. 

The two main fleets finally came together at about 6.30pm on 31 May. By this point the battleships of the German High Seas Fleet were heading north, while the battleships of the Grand Fleet were forming a line running roughly east to west in front of them. For a few minutes the British were able to concentrate their fire on the leading ships of the German line, but the Germans then carried out their famous sixteen point turn, and within a few minutes were heading away south into the North Sea mist. However Admiral Scheer then mis-judged the British movements, and turned back east in the hope that he could pass behind the main British force. Just after 7pm the Germans found themselves steaming straight towards Jelicoe’s battleships, and by 7.15 the bulk of the Grand Fleet was finally able to open fire on the Germans. Once again Scheer was forced to reverse course. During this phase of the battle the destroyer flotillas struggled to keep up with the fast moving battleships and rather disappear from the narrative. After more confused manoeuvres the two fleets came into range of each other for a third time after 8pm, but the Germans turned away for a third time, and disappeared into the mists by 8.35.

Jellicoe was unwilling to risk a night battle, and at 9.17 ordered the fleet into its night cruising formation. The battleships formed up into lines in their divisions, with the destroyers following behind. The entire formation began to move south in an attempt to keep between the Germans and their home bases. By 10pm the destroyer flotillas were in line, with the 12th Flotilla at the eastern (left) end of the line, then the combined 9th and 10th Flotillas, 13th Flotilla, 4th Flotilla and finally the 11th Flotilla at the western (right) end of the line.

The 4th Flotilla was now split into three. Ophelia and Christopher were with Beatty’s battlecruisers off to the south-west. Owl, Hardy and Midge were with the armoured cruisers. That left ten destroyers and two flotilla leaders with the main part of the flotilla.

At about 10.10pm four German destroyers were sighted to the rear of the flotilla. They fired torpedoes, which missed, and the British fired a few rounds before the Germans disappeared once again.

The key moment of the night actions came at around 11.30, when the High Seas Fleet finally attempted to pass behind the Grand Fleet and ran into the British destroyers. The Germans would make contact with the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, which was towards the right of the British line. There was then a seven mile gap to the 13th Flotilla, with the 9th and 10th Flotilla close by, and the 12th Flotilla to their rear.

The 4th Flotilla first spotted ships approaching from their right at about 11.20, but couldn’t be sure who they were. The flotilla’s commander Captain Wintour waited until the Germans were within 1,000 yards before issuing the challenge of the day. The Germans immediately opened fire, killing Wintour and wrecking his flagship, Tipperary. The Spitfire was second in line behind the Tipperary.

However the German cruisers were forced to turn away, and the Elbing was rammed by the battleship Posen while they were attempting to pass through the German battle line. Soon after this the Spitfire actually rammed the German battleship Nassau, and stayed afloat. The Nassau couldn’t depress her guns far enough to actually hit the destroyer, but the blast from her forward guns blew away the Spitfire’s bridge, searchlight platform, took of sixty feet of bow plating and ripped open the forecastle.  The German briefly turned to starboard before Scheer ordered it back onto its course. In the meanwhile the Spitfire was able to limp away, and she eventually reached safety, still carrying part of the Nassau’s anchor gear! During the battle she lost six men killed and three officers and sixteen men wounded. Five men died on 31 May and a sixth died of his wounds on 1 June. Despite the damage, the Spitfire was still able to make six knots, and headed west, eventually reaching safety.

Repairs were completed by 31 July.

After Jutland

In August 1916 the Fourth Flotilla was relegated from the Grand Fleet, and now formed the Humber Force. It contained fifteen of the K class destroyers.

On 12 September 1916 the Porpoise, Spitfire and Unity spotted a U-boat to the north-west of Ushant and dropped depth charges on her, but without result.

In early September the Porpoise, Spitfire, Unity and Midge were sent from Immingham on the Humber to help deal with an outbreak of U-boat activity off Ushant. On 12 September they were sent from Portsmouth to Plymouth, and on the night of 12-13 September found a submarine right on their route. The submarine was almost too close to be successfully attacked, but the Spitfire dropped two depth charges which may have caused some damage, as the area remained quiet for a few days after the clash.

On 27 November 1916 the Christopher, Contest and Spitfire were hunting submarines in the area between the Isle of Wight and Beachy Head.

On 28 November a submarine clashed with the armed trawler Gavina. The Cockatrice, Contest and Spitfire were sent out from Portsmouth to hunt the U-boat but without success.

In December 1916 the Spitfire and the Fourth Flotilla moved again, and was now based at Portsmouth. It had also been reduced in size once again, and now contained ten K class destroyers (and the light cruiser HMS Active). The remaining five members of the class moved to the Sixth Flotilla at Dover.

In March 1917 the Fourth Flotilla moved to Devonport. It now contained ten Acasta class destroyers and six Laforey or L class destroyers. In April the five ships from Dover rejoined the flotilla at Devonport.

On 1 March 1917 the Spitfire, Orestes and Medina were at sea hunting for submarines, part of a regular routine for the Devonport boats.

On 19 March the Spitfire reported spotting a submarine that was heading east, possibly UC-61, which had to return home because she dived too deep to avoid a destroyer.

On 24 March 1917 UC-17 encountered a fishing fleet south of the Eddystone. The crews were allowed to get into their boats, and nine of the fishing boats were then sunk with bombs. The Spitfire and Q.12 arrived on the scene too late to save the ships, but were able to rescue their crews.

On 11 May 1917 the first convoy from Gibraltar set sail, heading for the UK. On 16 May UC-17 attacked the Hermitte, heading from Falmouth to Australia. The Commander-in-Chief at Plymouth sent the Achates and one other destroyer out to sweep that area, then meet up with the convoy. They were due to meet early on 18 May, but the convoy was east of its expected position, so they didn’t join up until 18 May. On 19 May the Hardy, Laurel, Porpoise, Spitfire and Acasta joined the convoy, which reached the UK safely. This was the first experimental convoy, and was judged to have been a great success. 

On 31 May 1917 U-88 torpedoed and sank the Miyasaki Maru, 110 miles from the Scillies. The Begonia and Spitfire rescued the survivors.

On 6 July 1917 the Spitfire was part of the escort for convoy HH.4, the fourth trans-Atlantic convoy to leave the United States in June, when the oiler Wabasha was torpedoed. The Achates and Garland attacked the U-boat, while the Spitfire escorted the damaged Wabasha into Falmouth.

On 20 December she formed part of a hunting party that was gathered to try and find a U-boat operating in Lyme Bay. This force swept across the bay in the hope of picking up some sign of the U-boat, which had sunk several ships in the previous days, but by this point the submarine had moved east, so nothing was found.

In January 1918 she was one of forty destroyers in the Fourth Destroyer Flotilla at Plymouth, which was now made up of a mix of various types. In June 1918 she was one of fifty destroyers in the Fourth Destroyer Flotilla at Devonport, made up of a mix of types. In November 1918 she was one of forty destroyers at Devonport.

In November 1919 was in the hands of a care and maintenance party in the Devonport reserve. She was sold to be broken up in May 1921.

The Spitfire was awarded a battle honour for Jutland.

War Service
August 1914-July 1916: 4th Destroyer Flotilla, Grand Fleet
August-November 1916: 4th Destroyer Flotilla, Humber Force
December 1916-January 1917: 4th Destroyer Flotilla, Portsmouth
March 1917-December 1918: 4th Destroyer Flotilla, Devonport

Commander
-May 1916-: Lt Commander W.L. Allen

Displacement (standard)

1,072t

Displacement (loaded)

1,300t

Top Speed

29 knots

Engine

2-shaft Parsons turbines
4 Yarrow boilers
24,500shp

Range

 

Length

267ft 6in

Width

27ft

Armaments

Three 4in/ 45cal BL Mk VIII
Two 21in torpedo tubes with four torpedoes

Crew complement

73

Laid down

18 December 1911

Launched

23 December 1912

Completed

June 1913

Sold for break up

May 1921

British Destroyers From Earliest Days to the Second World War, Norman Friedman. A very detailed look at the design of British destroyers from their earliest roots as torpedo boat destroyers, though the First World War and up to the start of the Second World War, supported by vast numbers of plans and well chosen photographs [read full review]
cover cover cover

Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (28 April 2022), HMS Spitfire (1912) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_HMS_Spitfire_1912.html

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