HMS Defender (1911)

HMS Defender was an Acheron class destroyer that started the First World War with the Harwich Force, and took part in the battles of Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank and Jutland. From June 1916-March 1917 she was attached to the 3rd Battle Squadron, a force of older battleships posted on the Thames, then spent time based at Portsmouth and Devonport, before ending the war based at Gibraltar.

HMS Defender from the left HMS Defender from the left
The Defender was laid down at Denny on 7 November 1910, launched on 30 August 1911 and commissioned in January 1912.

On 7 October 1913 the destroyer Jackal collided with the battleship Thunderer, suffering serious damage. The Defender was with the fleet and was ordered to dash to the Navy’s Tay Base to summon aid from the depot ship Alecto. The Alecto was able to tow the damaged destroyer back to safety, although at a very low speed – only 2.5 knots when she crossed the bar into safety!

In July 1914 she was one of twenty destroyers in the First Flotilla of the First Fleet, which contained the more modern battleships. At the time the Flotilla contained all of the Admiralty, Yarrow, Thornycroft and Parsons types of the Acheron or I class of destroyers.

First World War

In August 1914 she was one of twenty I class destroyers in the First Flotilla of what was about to become the Grand Fleet, and was at sea when war broke out. After the outbreak of war the flotilla became part of the Harwich Force, a ‘swing’ force that could be used to support the Grand Fleet in the North Sea or the Channel Fleet as required.

Heligoland Bight

The Defender took part in the battle of Heligoland Bight (28 August 1914). She was part of Division 3 of the First Flotilla (Ferret, Forester, Druid and Defender).

At the start of the battle the Defender’s flotilla, lead by the cruiser Fearless, were second in the British line, behind Commodore Tyrwhitt in the Arethusa (leading the Third Destroyer Flotilla). The fighting began when Tyrwhitt detached some of his destroyers to chase down a German destroyer, before joining in the chase with the rest of his flotilla. However the Germans were aware of the British plan, and had set a trap of their own. Tyrwhitt soon found himself under attack by two German cruisers, Stettin and Frauenlob. The Fearless and her flotilla reached the scene just after 8am, and the Stettin began to withdraw to the east. Fearless and the First Flotilla gave chase, but soon afterwards the German guns on Heligoland began to fire, and Tyrwhitt gave the order to begin the second part of the British plan, a sweep to the west. The Fearless and her destroyers received the order at 8.12am, and turned west, leaving the Stettin alone.

At 8.15 the flotilla sighted the German destroyer V-187. Fearless opened fire, and Division 5 was ordered to give chase. However a few minutes later the order was cancelled in the mistaken belief that V-187 was actually the Acasta class destroyer Lurcher , which was in the area working with her submarine flotilla. At 8.25 V-187 was sighted again and Division 5 moved to attack. V-187 attempted to escape to the south, only to run into the cruisers Nottingham and Lowestoft. She attempted to turn east, but found her route blocked by Defender and the rest of Division 3. V-187 then attempted to escape by turning north to run through the 5th Division, but was caught and knocked out of action. At 8.50 Divisions 3 and 5 were left to finish her off, while the Fearless rejoined the rest of the flotilla, still moving west. In the belief that the battle was over the British destroyers lowered their boats to begin a rescue attempt, but the Germans had not yet surrendered, and in the belief that they were about to be boards opened fire with one remaining gun. The British opened fire again, and V-187 sank at 9.10. The rescue attempt was then resumed, but the German cruiser Stettin then appeared and opened fire. Most of the British destroyers were able to recover their boats before moving off, but the Defender came under heavy fire and was forced to withdraw leaving her boat in the war. Luckily for them, they were then rescued by the submarine HMS E4, which had been close by waiting for a chance to take part in the battle.

At about 11am, early in the third phase of the battle, the damaged cruiser Arethusa became involved in a battle with the German cruiser Stralsund. The Fearless and the entire First Flotilla were ordered to launch a torpedo attack on the German cruiser, which withdrew in the face of such a large attack. The Arethusa, Fearless and their destroyers then turned back west. However a few minutes later the German cruiser Stettin appeared from the east, and another fight began, this time between the Stettin and the two British cruisers. At 11.20 the Acheron received an order to lead the 1st division in a torpedo attack on the German cruiser and turned back to head towards the last known location of this fight.

At about the same time the rest of the flotilla sighted another German cruiser, the Mainz, which appeared to their south-west, heading north across their course on her way to help the Stralsund. The 2nd Division turned north to try and engage her. The 3rd (Ferret, Forester, Druid and Defender) and 5th Division followed her, and a long range gun battle followed. The Defender also fired torpedoes, but without success. However after twenty minutes the Mainz turned though 180 degrees and began to run to the south, after sighting Commodore Goodenough’s four light cruisers coming from the north. The 2nd and 3rd Divisions turned west to join up with the light cruisers, while the 5th Division turned south to try and keep up with the Mainz.

In November 1914 she was part of the First Flotilla, which now contained nineteen I class boats and three new M class boats.

In November the Defender was one of eight destroyers that were sent from Harwich to support the four Duncan class battleships when they bombarded Zeebrugge on 23 November,

At the battle of Dogger Bank (24 January 1915) she was part of the 2nd Division of the First Flotilla (Ferret, Forester, Defender and Druid). This was the same group of ships that had formed the 3rd Division at Heligoland Bight. However this battle was dominated by the battlecruisers, and the destroyers had little to do.

On 30 January 1915 the Defender, Druid, Ferret and Hind left Harwich to escort the Irresistable to Portland. They then moved to Sheerness, where they were used as escort ships while submarines were known to be in the area.

On 3 February 1915 the Defender and Ferret left Portland to escort the Implacable to Devonport, where her guns were to be changed.

On 9 February 1915 the Attack, Defender, Druid, Forester, Goshawk, Lapwing, Ferret and Phoenix replaced a group of M class destroyers on escort duty, covering minelayers that were laying a new mine field across the Dover Straits, in an attempt to stop German submarines operating so freely in the English Channel.

On 15 February the Defender and Druid arrived at Portsmouth, escorting an important transport vessel. That evening they were used to escort a transport carrying 15in howitzers to Boulogne.

On 24 February the Defender, Druid, Ferret and Forester were chosen to escort the transports carrying the Royal Naval Division on the first stage of their voyage from Avonmouth to the Dardanelles. They were to reach Avonmouth by 27 February, but it was soon realised that in the winter weather the destroyers were unable to keep up with the transports, so most of them sailed without escort. The destroyers remained at Avonmouth until the start of march, when they were replaced by other destroyers from Harwich.

In June 1915 she was one of twenty one destroyers in the First Flotilla at Rosyth, made of the original I class boats and one flotilla leader.

In January 1916 she was one of twenty one destroyers in the First Flotilla, made of the original I class boats and one flotilla leader

On the night of 27-28 March 1916 the Badger, Beaver and Defender escorted the damaged Arethusa class cruiser HMS Undaunted, which had collided with HMS Cleopatra during an attempted air raid on a Zeppelin base at Hoyer. On the following day the Undaunted reached Newcastle

Jutland

On the eve of Jutland the Defender was with the part of the First Destroyer Flotilla that was with the battlecruiser fleet at Rosyth. The flotilla only contained nine Acheron class destroyers.  She sailed with the fleet on 30 May.

The flotilla was part of Admiral Beatty’s battle cruiser fleet. That fleet put to sea late on 30 May, and moved towards a rendezvous position about seventy miles to the south of the main Grand Fleet.

During the advance east across the North Sea the destroyers were used to guard the flanks of the battle cruiser fleet, while the light cruisers advanced ahead of the fleet. At 2.25pm on 31 May, just after the first contact between Beatty’s cruisers and the German cruisers, the destroyers were ordered to form an anti-submarine screen heading S.S.E. He then followed with his capital ships, in the hope of cutting off the retreat of the German cruisers that had been spotted. The German battlecruisers turned south, and retreated towards the main High Seas Fleet. This chase lasted until around 4.30, when the British spotted the German battleships of the High Seas Fleet, and Beatty was forced to abandon his attack and turn north to run towards the battleships of the Grand Fleet. During this period the Defender and the rest of the flotilla spent most of their time on the dis-engaged side of the battlecruiser fleet.

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.

The Defender’s part in the battle ended at about 6.30pm when she was hit by a 12in shell, which killed one stoker petty officer and knocked the forward boiler room out of action, before coming to rest in the ashpit. Luckily it failed to explode, but the Defender had to fall out of the line to deal with the damage. By the time the fires caused by the shell had been  put out, the action had moved away from the Defender. However she then spotted the badly damaged destroyer Onslow and went to her aid. For an alarming period the two destroyers were static as the battle appeared to be moving back towards them, but by 7.15pm the Defender was able to get under way, towing the Onslow towards safety at 12 knots. By 1am on 1 June the weather was so bad that the tow parted, but the Onslow was able to move under her own steam for a few hours. By 5am the Onslow wasn’t making any progress, so the Defender began to tow her again. At 9.30am the two destroyers spotted land, and by 1pm the Onslow had been handed over to tugs from Aberdeen. The Defender then continued on to Rosyth. For part of the time the two destroyers were joined by the badly damaged battleship Warspite, but she soon had to leave them to get out of the danger zone.

Commander Palmer of the Defender was awarded the DSO for his efforts. Despite this heavy involvement, only one crewman was killed and two wounded.

Repairs to the Defender were completed by 23 June.

After Jutland

In June 1916 eight members of the class were detached to join the 3rd Battle Squadron (Druid, Forester, Ferret, Defender, Hind, Hornet, Sandfly and Beaver), while the other ships remained with the 1st Flotilla. The 3rd Battle Squadron had been based at Rosyth, but in April 1916 it was moved south to Sheerness to help guard against any further German raids on the east coast. It came under the control of the Nore Command on the Thames.

In August 1916 the Defender was detached at Devonport.

In November 1916 the Defender and the other destroyers attached to the 3rd Battle Squadron became the First Destroyer Flotilla, while those destroyers that had remained with the original First Flotilla at Harwich were dispersed to other units. The new First Flotilla was still attached to the 3rd Battle Squadron.

In mid January 1917 the Druid, Defender and Ferret were hunting submarines between the Isle of Wight and Lyme Regis. They may have come close to UB-37, just before that submarine was sunk by the Q Ship Penshurst.

At the start of February 1917 Beaver, Defender, Druid, Forester and Hornet were all based at Portsmouth, from where they were hunting U-boats.

In April 1917 the connection to the Third Battle Squadron ended, and the Defender and the rest of the flotilla were now officially based at Portsmouth. She was based there into August 1917.

On 20 May 1917 the Defender was escorting the transport Southwestern Miller from Southampton to Boulogne, when she was attacked by a U-boat that fired a torpedo but missed. The Defender then attacked the U-boat, which submerged, ending the attack.

In September 1917 the Defender moved to the large Fourth Destroyer Flotilla, under the orders of the Commander-in-Chief of her new base at Devonport. She remained with this flotilla into May 1918.

On 18 October 1917 the Defender was part of the escort of a convoy when the steamer Madura was torpedoed by U-62. TheDefender, along with HMS Hind and HMS Fanning came alongside to support the stricken ship, and all of her survivors had been rescued by the time she sank. The Fanning took on two of the survivors, the Defender the rest.

In January 1918 she was part of the large Fourth Destroyer Flotilla at Portsmouth, and was undergoing repairs.

By June 1918 she had moved to the Mediterranean, and was part of the large Fifth Destroyer Flotilla at Brindisi.

In August 1918 she was one of two destroyers based at Gibraltar, and she was still recorded there as late as December 1918.

On 9 November 1918 the Defender along with USS Decatur were escorting the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Britannia near Gibraltar. At 7.14am the battleship was hit by a torpedo fired by UB-50, and at 10.47 she sank, making her the last British warship to be lost during the First World War.

She was listed in the February  1919 Navy list as one of a number of ships that had been ordered to return home.

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

The Defender was awarded battle honours for Heligoland, Dogger Bank and Jutland.

War Service
August 1914-May 1916: 1st Destroyer Flotilla, Harwich Force
June-October 1916: Destroyer Flotilla with 3rd Battle Squadron
November 1916-March 1917: 1st Destroyer Flotilla, 3rd Battle Squadron
April 1917-August 1917: 1st Destroyer Flotilla, Portsmouth
September 1917-May 1918: 4th Destroyer Flotilla, Devonport
July 1918: 5th Destroyer Flotilla, Brindisi
August-December 1918: Gibraltar

Commanders
Lt & Commander Walter J. Fletcher: 13 January 1912-January 1914-
Lt-Com Cecil H.H. Sams: 2 October 1914-January 1915
Lt Com L.R. Palmer: -May-June 1916-
Lt-Com Ralph W.H. Roberts: 10 January 1918-December 1918-
Lt-Com Harald E. Wharton: 13 December 1918-February 1919- (Emergency)
Lt Hubert J.F. Hibbard: 3 May 1919-January 1920-
Commanding Engineer Frederick Oldrelve: -January 1921-

Displacement (standard)

778t

Displacement (loaded)

990t

Top Speed

27 knots

Engine

3-shaft Parsons turbines
3 Yarrow boilers
13,500shp

Range

 

Length

246ft oa

Width

25ft 8in

Armaments

Two 4in BL Mk VIII guns
Two 12-pounder/ 12cwt guns
Two 21in torpedo tubes

Crew complement

70

Laid down

7 November 1910

Launched

30 August 1911

Completed

January 1912

Sold

November 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 (10 June 2021), HMS Defender (1911), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_HMS_Defender_1911.html

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