Tuesday 27 September 2016

Jellicoe and the U Boats by Janie Hampton

There has been much in the news this year about the 1916 naval Battle of Jutland and the role of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe.
Admiral Sir John Jellicoe
But has anybody mentioned another Jellicoe who was also employed by the British Royal Navy and active during the First World War? I doubt it, because the other Jellicoe was a sea-lion. He belonged to Captain Joseph Woodward from Ramsgate, Kent, whose family had one of the first touring sea-lion shows. The sea-lions were trained to juggle, balance balls on their noses and dive for chocolates.
During the First World War, German U-boats were sinking tons of British merchant shipping. Captain Woodward was sure that Jellicoe and his under-water colleagues could help. Sea-lions have excellent underwater vision and hearing; can swim 25 mph (40 kph); dive repeatedly to a depth of 1,000 feet - 300 metres; and are as intelligent as dogs. The British ‘Board of Invention and Research’ agreed it was worth a try. Trials were undertaken first in an outdoor swimming pool, and then in Lake Bala in Wales. Captain Woodward’s idea was that Jellicoe would track the sound of a U-boat engine -however deep it was in the ocean- and swim towards it with a float attached to a cord. The Navy would follow the floats, and know that a U-boat was underneath. The first trick was to encourage them to track U-boats, and not fish. All went well, until they were put to work in the actual sea off Southampton. Despite wearing muzzles, they ignored the Royal Navy submarine, and went straight for the fish. The sea-lions returned home but after yet more training, in 1917 the experiment was abandoned. However, it was agreed that important developments in 'hydrophone science' had been made. Jellicoe and his comrades were demobilized and returned to civilian life. But Jellicoe’s career was not over. Hailed as "the actual Admiralty U-boat hunting sea-lion", he continued to perform in theatres such as The Hippodrome in London.
The Other Jellicoe
I first learned about Jellicoe when I found a yellowing press-cutting among my late uncle’s papers. The  Birmingham Mail revealed that in January 1921 Jellicoe was performing in the Victory Circus at Bingley Hall, Birmingham. This was not far from where my grandfather Rosslyn Bruce (great nephew of the afore-blogged Felicia Skene) was a vicar. He wanted to raise money for the poor children of Birmingham, and he loved animals. He persuaded Captain Woodward that Jellicoe would bring great publicity to the Fund – and, no doubt, the circus too.
Birmingham Mail January 14, 1921.
 "Extra-ordinary scenes were witnessed in Birmingham today," reported the Birmingham Mail, "when the sea-lion ‘Jellicoe’ drove to the Mail offices on his motor cycle combination." The convoy included two motor cars "decorated with flags and red, white and blue ribbons...Jellicoe was apparently oblivious to the flattering reception received from the huge concourse" – estimated to be the largest crowd ever seen in Corporation Street. "He sounded his horn repeatedly when anyone threatened to get in the way. Jellicoe’s instinct, however, is so intense that he requires little help to avoid obstacles. Throughout the journey he never seemed like losing control of his machine." No mention was made of Mrs Woodward, hidden beneath his flippers. "Arriving at the office of the Birmingham Mail, Jellicoe dismounted and proceeded up the steps to the front door. Introductions having been effected, Jellicoe indicated a desire to proceed to the editorial department and was directed upstairs." Around the neck of "this amphibious messenger" was a cheque for £251 8s 8d, raised at a charity concert for the Christmas Children’s Fund. "Jellicoe shook hands, saluted and descending the stairs, made his way to the motor cycle which he at once mounted and drove away, sounding his horn furiously to the great delight of the crowd." In the faded newspaper photo, my uncle Merlin, then aged 11, can be seen sitting in the side car beside Jellicoe as it travelled down New Street.
A year later Merlin Bruce went to Dartmouth Royal Naval College from where he became commander of an early aircraft carrier and was later awarded an OBE for defusing bombs.
Merlin Bruce RN, circa 1930

Since the 1960s, the US Navy has been training California sea-lions to locate sea-mines and lost divers, and even attach leg-cuffs to suspected saboteurs who can then be hauled to the surface. Sea-lions can also film live videos of the ocean floor with cameras attached to specially-designed harnesses. So far, the US Navy has not admitted to training them to drive motorcycles, with or without sidecars.
On friendly terms with its commanding officer, a sea-lion on board a submarine, 'Illustrated London News', 1919




Unknown said...

I love the story of the sea lions. I had no idea about this aspect of naval warfare. Thank you for bringing such an enchanting story to life.

Puapupule said...

Love the idea of Sea Lions driving motorbikes through Birmingham! and Lucky Uncle Merlin to be at his side.....
It's all the little stories that make History fun. thanks Janie.