The Battle of Jutland

When the First World War started in August of 1914, Great Britain was still the dominant world naval power that it had been for the previous one hundred years. Nelson's victory over the combined French and Spanish Fleet at Trafalgar guarranteed continued colonial expansion as well as world naval dominance throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. Britain's colonial empire would be based on trade and depend heavily on naval power for protection. Without the navy, her far flung colonial outposts could be isolated and overcome.

Britain's naval power was established and maintained during the age of wooden ships and cloth sail. However, the latter half of the nineteenth century brought certain technological advances that rendered these vessels obsolete. HMS Warrior, built by Britain in 1860, featured iron construction, steam propulsion, heavy armor and guns that fired explosive shells as opposed to solid shot. Warrior is generally regarded as the first modern battleship, she still survives today as a museum exhibit alongside HMS Victoy (Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar) at Portsmouth naval dock.(outside link)

Great Britain's geographic location astride the trade routes of Northern Europe helped secure its dominant position and at the same, time deny opportunities for overseas expansion to her naval rivals; France, Russia and a recently unified Germany. The advent of the iron warship created an opportunity for the nations of Europe to compete with Great Britain for position of naval supremacy on a newly levelled playing field. None the less, the cost of rapidly building a large iron navy was a burden that most European countries chose not to incur. As a result, Britain was able to maintain a lead until almost the turn of the century when her declining economic fortunes allowed the other naval powers to close the gap.

Technological advances at the begining of the twentieth century were to again even the balance . Built in 1906, HMS Dreadnought was a revolutionary design of warship encorporating speed, armour protection, improved accuracy and fire power. Depending on the firing arcs, she had two or three times the firepower of existing battleships. No other ship in the world was her equal and since Britain only had one, all the world's navies were pretty much outdated overnite. Even in England, there was controversy over whether or not Dreadnought should have been built. Jackie Fisher was in charge of the Navy (First Sea Lord) at that time and was the person reponsible for pushing through this and other reforms.

The ensuing naval arms race between Britain and Germany was one of the direct causes of the First World War. (more later)

When war came in 1914, part of Germany's strategy was to lure the Royal Navy into a decicive battle in German territorial waters where it was hoped that a combination of underwater mines and submarine attacks would reduce the British fleet to a level of relative parity with the smaller German High Seas Fleet. It was further hoped that the ensuing naval exchange would, by combination of superior German construction techniques and lady luck, result in a catasrophic loss of material for the Royal Navy. This would clear the way to open ocean and future overseas German expansion. The flaw in this plan was that Britain discounted Germany trying to access the Atlantic Ocean by way of the English Channel as too risky to Germany. After war broke out, Britain withdrew its mighty battle fleet to the northern ports of Rosyth, Edinburgh, Cromarty and Scapa Flow where it could easily intercept any German attempt at break through to the North Sea.

By May 1916, the war had been going on for almost two years. Britain was enforcing a very effective naval blockade of Germany's home ports and was also keeping the German fleet bottled up after only one inconsequential engagement known as Doggerbank. Unfortunately for the allies this same German fleet was also doing a good job of keeping much needed supplies from reaching Russia through the Baltic Sea.

In March, Admiral Scheer commander of the German High Seas Fleet, annoyed by the blockade and his own fleet's inactivity, developed a plan in which he would lure small pieces of the Royal Navy out of their home ports and destroy them using submarines and surface ships. On the night of 24-25 April Scheer's fleet blasted the British coastal towns of Norwich, Lowestoft, Yarmouth and Lincoln. A more extensive effort was subsequently planned for late May but had to be modified at the last moment because of bad weather. It was decided that the battle cruiser portion of the fleet would loiter around the coast of Norway, hoping to attract the attention of their counterparts in the Royal Navy and with the help of their battleships, destroy them. This plan would lead to the Battle of Jutland, or Skaggerak as it is also known.

The battle itself is generally divided into five parts which I will discuss in turn. The participants, of course, were the German Navy and the British Navy. More specifically, these fleets were divided into roughly two sections each. The 5th Battle Squadron (new fast battleships) along with the Battle Cruiser fleet under Admiral Beatty was one section for the British and was generally a fast group used for scouting. This group actually had a sea plane carrier as well (HMS Engadine) for air reconaissance. The second more powerful force was The Grand Fleet under Admiral Jellico. This was the most powerful naval force in the world; consisting of twenty four dreadnoughts plus supporting ships. The British goal in any battle was to have the battle cruisers spot the enemy fleet and then blow a path through the screening vessels for the Grand Fleet to move through and subsequently destroy the main portion of fleet with its superior firepower. This would recreate a Trafalgar like victory. Against this armada, the Germans pitted their 1st and 2nd Scouting Groups under Admiral Hipper, and the High Seas Fleet under Admiral Scheer. These groups pretty much mirrored the British but were smaller. The High Seas Fleet had only sixteen dreadnoughts and six pre-dreadnoughts. This would have been more than enough to destroy the British battle cruisers, which was the original German gaol. The problem was, Britain could read German radio messages and they knew that the Germans were about to go to sea. In fact, Jellico's fleet actually left Scapa Flow before the Germans ever left their ports!

The first two phases of the action involved the battle cruisers of each side discovering each other and each trying to draw the other into the range of their sides battleships. First the British were drawn towards the Germans, then after sustaining damage, withdrew leading the Germans into range of the Grand Fleet. The next two phases involve the battleships of each fleet slugging it out. It is here that the British battleships enjoyed the advantage of superior position and were able to force the Germans to withdraw after inflicting heavy damage. The fifth and final part of the battle was a series of night engagements by the light forces of each fleet.

On the afternoon of May 31st, 1916, both fleets were in the North Sea and steaming towards each other. The two German groups, having just left port, were each headed north. Admiral Beatty with the British battle cruisers, was headed east and Admiral Jellicoe with the Grand Fleet, was a little ways above and behind him headed south east. The picket line of German submarines had failed to intercept any British ships as they were supposed to. The whole German plan was predicated on a successful U-Boat interception of the enemy battle cruisers. Jellicoes's Grand Fleet had also managed to elude the submarines. Bad weather had prevented any Zeppelins from flying reconaissance missions. Therefore, Admiral Scheer had no idea that he was about to run into the enitre Royal Navy. By chance, a neutral merchant vessel was steaming along the line of advance of both fleets. Her smoke was sighted almost simultaneously by both sides who sent cruisers to investigate.

The fleets then spotted each other at about 2:00 pm and Beatty led his battle cruisers in to attack. It is unfortunate for the British that the fleets met in this way, for had that merchantman not been there, they would have met later and the High Seas Fleet would have been that much further from home. It was the British plan to cut off a German retreat by positioning itself between the German Fleet and its home ports. It is also unfortunate for Beatty that the battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron failed to get the signal to attack and continued on toward a predetermined rendez-vous with Jellicoe and the rest of the fleet for several precious minutes. Thus Beatty's battle cruisers was drawn unsupported towards Hipper's . This was not what these ships were designed to do and they paid dearly for this misuse of force. In the ensuing exchange, the British lost the battle cruiser HMS Indefatigable sunk, and the battle cruiser HMS Lion heavily damaged. By now the ships of the 5th Battle Squadron had turned around to engage the Germans. Queen Mary came under heavy fire and consequently blew up. Even so, the British now had the Germans out gunned and would have truimphed had Scheer not been spotted approaching from the south with his main battle fleet. This compelled Beatty to withdraw north and started the second phase of the battle.

As Beatty turned north, the 5th Battle Squadron was still heavily engaged with the Germans. Two battleships, Barham and Malaya suffered damage. The German ships Lutzow, Derfflinger and Seydlitz were also damaged. It is during this phase that the heavy guns of Beatty's battle cruisers heavily damaged three German cruisers; Wiesbaden, Pillau and Frankfurt. As this was going on, the battleships of Jellicoe's Grand fleet were heading south. Before they could engage the enemy, one British armoured cruiser, Warrior, was heavily damaged and another, Defence, was sunk. The battle cruiser Invincible and her group, ahead of Jellicoe's main force came into sight of the Germans before the rest of The Grand Fleet. Invincible came under fire from the leading German battleship and was sunk around 6:00 pm.

The battleship portion of the battle began with a tremendous advantage for Jellicoe. His ships had 'crossed the T' of the High Seas Fleet and taken Admiral Scheer by surprise. Jellicoe's battleships scored numerous hits on the Germans while they continued to fire at the 5th Battle Squardron. The Grand Fleet was unscathed during this exchange. After ten minutes, Scheer had had enough and ordered his ships to retire from battle. They performed an abrupt turn and disappeared through clouds of smoke and the gathering dusk. In order to escape, Scheer had turned his ships due west towards England, and headed directly away from ths British Fleet. After ten minutes, around 7:00 pm, he turned his ships around 180 degrees, hoping to pass by the rear of the British line. Unfortunately for him, Jellicoe had guessed correctly his course of action and was able to bring the Germans under fire once again around 7:10 pm. This time the British were able to score hits on the Germans without sustaining any damage to themselves. After less than ten minutes, Scheer again was forced to withdraw. He gave the order for his smaller units to lay smoke and deploy for torpedo attack and for Hipper's battle cruisers to charge the enemy while the battleships made an abrupt turn away. Hipper's charge had about the same results as Beatty's did earlier in the battle; Seydlitz, Derfllinger and Von Der Tann were all heavily damaged. The torpedo attack, although it scored no hits, distracted the British battle line long enough for Scheer to distance himself from Jellicoe. This time for good.

As darkness fell, Jellico was still between Scheer and Germany and Hipper's battle cruisers were still being punished by Beatty. Scheer ordered his force of six pre-dreadnoughts to come to the aid of the battle cruisers, by covering their escape from Beatty. Both fleets were now converging on each other headed south in darkness. Through-out the night, there were serveral enagements invloving many components of both fleets. During this time, several ships on both sides were lost; the Germans lost the cruiser Frauenlob and the pre-dreadnought Pommern. At last, the German battle line was able to break through to safety by sinking the British cruiser Black Prince.

Thus ended the Battle of Jutland and both sides returned to their respective home ports. It is hard to say which side actually won the battle. The Germans sank more ships than the British but they also had many that were very badly damaged. The German Fleet was twice subjected to bombardment by the Grand Fleet. It is a testimate to Greman ship building design that so many of their ships were able to stay afloat and reach port. Although I have read that the British ships were issued defective ammunition, their shells were heavier and could shoot farther than the Germans.

The British also lost more men than the Germans; 6000 compared to roughly 2500. The battle cruisers Queen Mary and Invincible went down with nearly all hands.

Why did the British lose so many ships? There was a defect in the way they were constructed. The turrets were designed in such a way that a shell could penetrate the turret and start a fire in the ammunition handling rooms which could easily spread to the magazine. The fire would then, of course, blow up the ship. HMS Lion was in fact damaged this way and was saved by the heroism of a dying man who managed to close the door that led to the magazine. The German ships originally had this defect too. At the Battle of Dogger Bank, a battle cruiser was damaged in this manner and the Germans were able to learn from it. By the time of Jutland, they were able to make the necessary improvements to their ships.

You may have noticed that the battle cruisers on both sides, particularly the British, suffered disproportionately high losses. Why? Well, for one thing, they were involved in almost all phases of the battle from beginning to end. But more importantly, they weren't really used in the proper manner. A battle cruiser was designed to go fast and to shoot really big guns a long way. Its mission was to patrol the open ocean and track down smaller enemy ships that were raiding merchant ships. In order to do this, the designers were forced to save space and weight by decreasing the amount of armor the ship could carry. A heavily armored ship simply could not be made to travel as fast as the fastest light ship. When used properly, they could be deadly because their guns could fire at ranges that were out side the range of their prey's smaller weapons. Earlier in the war, there was a battle near the Falkland Islands which was a perfect example of battle cruiser tactics. Germany lost four out of five marauding raiders while Britian lost nothing. Battle cruiser Invincible was one of the victorious participants. She went down with all hands at Jutland.

The problem with battle cruisers was that they looked a lot like battleships. As their design evolved, they became just as large as, in some cases larger battleships. This is when their commanders kind of lost sight of their purpose in battle. If battleships were the infantry, if you will, then battle cruisers were the cavalry. They should have been used for scouting but then quickly moved to the rear once contact was made. They were not designed to stand in the line and slug it out with the battleships. They certainly should not have charged the enemy the way they did at Jutland. Why would Beatty move towards the enemy when he knew his guns had a longer range and the main British force was behind him and that the High Seas Fleet must surely be near by?

In order to defeat the British Navy, Germany needed to destroy a large number of British ships. In this, she ultimately failed. Britain basicly shrugged off its losses at Jutland. After the Grand Fleet returned to Scapa Flow, Jellico telegraphed the Admiralty that he could be ready to sail in four hours notice. Remember, his battleships survived the battle unscathed. Scheer's fleet was in need of serious repair and would not be ready for action again for several months. Actually, Germany never again would challenge the Grand Fleet in open battle, preferring instead to switch its emphasis to submarine operations. Inwhich she enjoyed some measure of success.

One Britain's goal was to relieve the blockade of Russia in the Baltic Sea. This goal too, was not achieved but the threat of the German High Seas Fleet was removed. The fleet sat idle for the rest of the war. This I, believe was the principle result of the battle. As long as Britain ruled the seas, she could not lose her empire, and Germany could not gain one. In the long run, I beleive, Jutland was a British victory.
Return to Table of Contents