Letters written 100 years ago by a teenage New Zealand sailor have revealed how he survived a catastrophic naval battle in World War I by smearing his body with heavy oil.

Royal Navy midshipman Peregrine Robert Dearden, 19, was recovered alive from the North Sea after German gunfire blew up the Queen Mary in the Battle of Jutland. All but nine of the 1266 crew on board lost their lives.

As his crippled ship broke in two, Dearden stripped off his uniform, leaped into the frigid North Sea waters and plastered himself with fuel oil.

In a letter to his mother Annie the young sailor wrote: " The surface of the water was simply covered with oil fuel which tasted and smelt horribly ... I smothered myself all over with it which I really think saved my life as the water was frightfully cold."


In another note to the headmaster at Cheltenham College Junior School, Dearden remarked that his decision to peel off his clothes made all the difference.

"I took off all my clothes before jumping in while everyone else went in with all their clothes and boots on which I am afraid was a great difficulty to them when once in the water," he explained.

Unlike most of the Queen Mary's crew, Dearden was not wearing a piece of kit which doubled as an inflatable life-jacket.

He told his mother: "As you know I never had a Gieve waistcoat and am now glad I had not ... The people with Gieve waistcoats on were the first I noticed to drown as they were held a little too high out of the water and when they became weak their heads fell forward in the water."

The 36 hour naval battle off Denmark's Jutland Peninsula a century ago claimed 8645 lives. A total of 249 warships took part, 150 vessels from the British Grand Fleet lined against 99 German ships. The ships carried a staggering 100,000 sailors, making Jutland one of the largest naval battles in history. Fourteen British vessels were sunk, including the Queen Mary, a 27,000 tonne battlecruiser.

The HMS Queen Mary battlecruiser with the British Royal Navy explodes at the battle of Jutland in the North Sea. Photo / Supplied
The HMS Queen Mary battlecruiser with the British Royal Navy explodes at the battle of Jutland in the North Sea. Photo / Supplied

Born in Canterbury in 1897, Dearden joined the Royal Navy as a cadet in 1910. He served two years before the war on Prince George, before signing on to the Queen Mary in March, 1916. He was on board on May 31 when the British fleet put to sea from Scotland to intercept a sortie into the North Sea by the German navy.

In his letter to Cheltenham, Dearden vividly recounted the moment enemy shells hit his ship.

"Suddenly there was a terrific explosion in the foremost part of the ship and all our lights went out leaving us in complete darkness.


"But for what seemed a very long time and which was really I suppose only half a minute I could see absolutely nothing and had to put on my respirator as smoke was pouring into the turret."

Dearden abandoned ship: "As soon as I reached the water I started to swim clear of the ship but had only got about 15 yards (15m) away when there was a second terrific explosion, immediately following which, I was sucked down under water ..."

HMS Queen Mary. Photo / Supplied
HMS Queen Mary. Photo / Supplied

Worse was to come. Survivors clinging to wreckage saw a British ship approach to within " 25 to 30 yards". But their hopes were dashed when the ship veered away.

"It nearly drove me frantic when she steamed off, " Dearden wrote. "She would not even leave her whaler behind to pick up the remaining 15 or 20 of us in the water, although I shouted to them to do so. Afterwards it was terrible seeing everyone else collapse and drown and I had not the strength to help any of them. He said it was was very depressing hearing the cries for help from men in the water "who must have completely lost their nerve, poor fellows."

Eventually the New Zealander was picked up by a German destroyer and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner.

His letters feature in the Imperial War Museum online archive commemorating the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. They were provided by descendants of Dearden, who returned to farm in central Hawkes Bay after left the navy, completing his service as a lieutenant-commander. He died, aged 54, in Waipukurau.