Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. This was one of the largest naval battles ever fought and although a confused and indecisive battle of itself in some ways marked a major turning point in the First World War. In essence it was a tactical victory for the Germans against the deeply intellectual, apparently very caring to his men, but cautions British admiral John Jellicoe: a tactical victory snatched from what could have been the jaws of defeat by excellent seamanship and the superiority of the German battlecruisers over their British counterparts.
At another level it was Jellicoe’s and the Royal Navy’s massive contribution to the British victory in the First World War. By maintaining his imprisonment of the German fleet and despite his losses increasing the British advantage in serviceable ships Jellicoe maintained the economic blockade of Germany which had by that stage already weakened its manufacturing and agricultural base (German agriculture was heavily dependent on sea imported fertilizers). Two years later the final collapse of Germany was largely due to this blockade squeezing the life out of its economy.
The next thing we need to mention briefly is the sorts of ships involved. In 1904 Jackie Fisher became First Sea Lord and in 1906 HMS Dreadnought entered service. She was a stunning advance over all previous battleships and instantly made all her predecessors obsolete. The world’s powers then embarked on a building programme of these ships and by the outbreak of the First World War all sides had a number of them. Battleships were designed to sink other battleships. There is, however, another group of ships, a brief understanding of which is vital to analysing Jutland: they are battlecruisers. These were ships as large as battleships with slightly fewer (equally large) guns but higher speeds. They also had less armour (especially the British ones). They had been intended to roam the seas sinking other nation’s cruisers, which themselves were used to sink merchant ships. However, against Fisher’s plans they ended up being used in fleet actions against other battleships and battlecruisers. Something the British ones especially were not designed to do.
Turning to Jutland itself: the British fleet was mainly based at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. Some were based at Sheerness and the battlecruisers based at Rosyth. The Germans could not hope to defeat the whole British Grand Fleet and so hoped to split it and sink parts of it to reduce the British numerical advantage.
As such the whole German High Seas Fleet set sail hoping to catch Beatty’s battlecruisers. The Grand Fleet set out on 30th May 1916 hoping to catch the whole German fleet. The plan was for Beatty’s battlecruisers to lure the Germans to Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet of battleships.
At about 3.30pm the battlecruisers of both sides began to fire at one another: Beatty failed to use his ships superior speed to keep the Germans under Admiral Hipper at long range where Beattie’s longer range guns would have been unable to be answered. As such although the British battlecruisers inflicted considerable damage on the more heavily armoured German battlecruisers, the Germans sank two British battlecruisers HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary. These ships seem to have been hit on turrets with a flash fire then causing the magazines to explode. In each case practically the whole crew were killed. The flash fires were in part because the British battlecruisers were known to have poor accuracy and as such Beatty, against admiralty directives, allowed more shells to be kept in the turrets to allow faster rates of firing and hence, when the turrets were hit: a vast explosion. Beatty’s own ship HMS Lion should have suffered the same fate but the dying turret officer Francis Harvey ordered the turret flooded saving the ship (he received a posthumous Victoria Cross).
To add to Beatty’s problems the German battleships now arrived on the scene. At this point the German plan was working perfectly and it was quite clear even to the relatively reckless Beatty that he faced the annihilation of his ships. As such he increased speed to try to escape. He was saved, however, largely by the arrival of the 5th battle squadron. These ships of the Queen Elizabeth class (though HMS Queen Elizabeth was not actually there) were the most powerful warships of their day: a time when British military technology was truly superior. They were almost as fast as battlecruisers (due to oil power rather than coal: oil sourced from Iraq which Britain became involved in, in order to supply the fleet), they were however very heavily armoured and possessed eight 15” guns, the largest and most powerful guns any warship had. These four ships (Warspite, Valiant, Malaya and Barham) then fought a running battle with the whole German fleet bearing down on them. All save Valiant were damaged and Warspite had to limp home at the end of the battle. None, however, were sunk by the German ships. They were more accurate than the battlecruisers and inflicted heavy damage on the German battlecruisers and the leading line of German battleships to the extent that several of the German ships although not sinking were almost unable to fight.
The day was still, however, going the way of the Germans and, powerful as the Queen Elizabeths were, the Germans still anticipated victory. Against the whole German fleet even these ships could not prevail. Beatty rejoined the battle along with more battlecruisers that were with the main Grand Fleet and another British battlecruiser HMS Invincible promptly blew up.
Then, however, the situation changed. As Scheer’s ships came through a patch of fog they saw the whole of Jellicoe’s grant fleet turning to face them. The leading German battleships were facing forward: the British coming crosswise to “Cross the T.” This would allow all the British guns to fire on the Germans yet they would be unable to fire anything like as many guns in reply. The British had 24 battleships as well as the 4 Queen Elizabeths and the surviving battlecruisers. The Germans had 16 battleships and 5 battlecruisers and were in a considerably inferior firing position: and with several ships already heavily damaged. Jellicoe’s plan had worked perfectly. Whilst the German battlecruisers were superior to the British ones, the British battleships had as good armour as the Germans and larger guns. The moment for destruction of the Germans had arrived; another Trafalgar was presented before the Royal Navy. Scheer, however, rather impolitely, refused to be play the role the British wished to assign him to and much to Jellicoe’s surprise he ordered a perfect 180-degree turn and fled.
Then the strangest part occurred: After a few minutes Scheer made his only real mistake and performed another 180-degree turn to come right back towards the British. Even after the war Scheer could not explain why he did this; he might have hoped to cross behind the British T but in reality he now sailed straight towards the whole British fleet, 28 battleships in perfect line. To make matters worse the Germans were framed against the setting sun and could easily be seen yet could not see the British properly. Every British ship started to fire. A second chance for Trafalgar appeared. After 10 minutes of effectively unanswerable firing with his leading battlecruisers and battleships being hit repeatedly Scheer performed his master stoke. He ordered the battlecruisers (most hardly able to fire and slowly sinking) to charge the British and also ordered the destroyers, which had been having their own equally confused and indecisive battle, to charge the British and launch torpedoes. Both the battlecruisers and destroyers suffered massive fire. No torpedoes hit: however, that was because the British turned away from the torpedoes increasing the range and making a smaller end on target. This gave the Germans time to escape. Jellicoe hoped to catch them later but the Germans got back to base apart from the battlecruiser SMS Lutzow and the old battleship SMS Pommern which was sunk during the night by a British torpedo. SMS Seydlitz effectively sank as she docked but was refloated over the next months.
The debate about who won began shortly afterwards: the Germans had sunk three major British warships for 1 of their own and due to the British ships exploding the British lost many more men (6095 vs 2551). However, all the German battlecruisers were heavily damaged, some hardly still afloat and the leading German battleships had also been massively damaged especially by the Queen Elizabeths. The British were able to fix their damaged ships more quickly and had not even had all their ships present. The British numerical superiority had actually increased despite their greater losses. Warspite for example was taken into dock to be repaired and her sister ship the lead ship of her class HMS Queen Elizabeth which had not been present at the battle was simply sailed out of dock.
The German battlecruisers had defeated the British ones and the German admirals had out thought the British (especially Beattie). Scheer, however, only once brought his fleet out again and never seriously challenged the British after Jutland. He also advised the Kaiser that he thought a surface fleet naval victory impossible and pushed for unlimited submarine warfare: a decision that directly led to the USA entering the war. The British were left in command of the North Sea and continued the blockade of Germany.
There was much criticism of Jellicoe for having turned away from the torpedoes. Had he turned towards them he would almost certainly have destroyed all the German battlecruisers and quite possibly the battleships as well. He was not to know, however that relatively few torpedoes had been fired and might still have lost ships. Beattie, always the more popular admiral was lauded for his heroism although the professional naval observers supported Jellicoe’s actions. Also had the German fleet been sent to the bottom of the North Sea it would have had relatively little material effect on the war whereas had the Grand Fleet been destroyed the British would almost certainly have had to sue for peace. Hence, caution was probably the wisest option for Jellicoe: as Churchill (no fan of Jellicoe) once said Jellicoe was “the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon.”
Possibly the best way to describe the battle was that the Germans had done as well as they could have expected and the British as badly as might have been expected yet although the Germans won a marginal tactical victory the British won a strategic victory. The British could also afford to suffer an identical level of “defeat” repeatedly and the Germans would have run out of serviceable ships long before them. One of the most famous quotes on the issue, which summed it up well is “The German navy assaulted its gaoler but was still in gaol.”
Whatever way one analyses it, however, almost 10,000 people died 100 years ago today and although small by comparison to the numbers killed in the land battles of the First World War it was still a huge number of people. Whilst we will remember the Somme in a few weeks time the horror of Jutland should also be marked.
This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.