Battle of Jutland: Clash of the Titans
Posted on 19th May 2021
The First World War is remembered now for the horrors of trench warfare and the millions of young men who were dispatched into the meat-grinder of mechanised slaughter as for four long years they were ordered to advance towards the machine guns, were smashed by artillery, drowned in the mud or were left to rot on the barbed wire in the hope of making a breakthrough that never came. But there was a brief moment when the entire outcome of the war could have been decided in a single day and it occurred far away from the trenches of the Western Front, at sea, off the northern coast of Denmark near the Jutland peninsula.
By 1914 Anglo-German rivalry already had a long history. Ever since Prussia's shattering defeat of France in the War of 1870-71, and the resulting unification of Germany, Britain had been forced to acknowledge that a new threat had emerged across the sea. She had others of course, her Eastern Empire remained challenged by the presence of Russia and now an emergent Japan while the United States had long since trumped her economically. But Germany was different, it was militaristic, aggressive, had Imperial ambitions and was fast becoming the economic powerhouse of Europe.
It also had the largest and most formidable army in the world and one with which the British could not hope to compete but then Britain was an Island and her future security and that of her Empire lay in the strength of her navy.
The recently crowned Kaiser Wilhelm II was determined to challenge British naval supremacy and by the early 1900’s a full-scale arms race between the two countries was underway.
Britain was to trump the Germans and everyone else when in 1906 she launched HMS Dreadnought the world's first fully armoured all big gun battleship and from the moment of her launch navies everywhere were made obsolete.
The arms race between Britain and Germany escalated as both countries now competed to build as many dreadnoughts as possible and so concerned were the British Government by the perceived threat of German militarism that in 1909 it passed a law which guaranteed that the strength of Britain's Grand Fleet must be maintained at two and a half times the level again as the next most powerful navy in the world.
During the early months of the First World War the clash between these two great fleets was eagerly anticipated but never materialised. The Germans doubted they could defeat the Grand Fleet in a single engagement and so their strategy was to lure the British into piecemeal actions where they could chip away at her superiority.
The only major confrontation had occurred on 24 January 1915, off the Dogger Bank when the two opposing Battle-Cruiser Squadrons had clashed.
In a brief encounter the German Battleship Blucher was sunk with heavy loss of life at the cost of only minimal British casualties. It only seemed to confirm Germany's worst fears.
So, they concentrated their energies on submarine warfare, the disruption of Britain's trade routes and in cutting off of her economic life-line.
Unrestricted submarine warfare was temporarily brought to a halt however in April 1915, following the sinking of the Lusitania and subsequent American pressure. So, they reverted to their previous strategy of luring the British Navy into well-laid ambushes.
On 16 December 1915, the German High Seas Fleet bombarded the North Sea ports of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool killing 137 and wounding a further 592 men, women and children.
It was a humiliation for the Royal Navy which had failed to defend the British mainland from attack even if the German Navy had been forced to beat a hasty retreat under a hail of fire from the shore batteries and by reports that the Grand Fleet was on its way.
Yet for all the careful tactical manoeuvring and pre-laid plans, the Battle of Jutland would come about in large part, if not entirely, by accident.
In August 1914, the Russians had captured the German Cruiser Magdeburg and also its codebook which they had since handed over to the British so they were aware that the German High Seas Fleet had put to sea, but they did not know where they were or where they intended to go. Nonetheless, the Grand Fleet set sail from its bases at Scapa Flow and Rosythe with the intention of intercepting them.
Whatever the German intention was it certainly wasn’t to engage the Grand Fleet at full strength, but it had been under pressure for some time from the Kaiser who wished to see his beloved Navy flex its considerable muscle. Even so, it remained a sortie at best and the order had already been given retire to port should they encounter the enemy fleet. The fact they remained entirely ignorant of the British presence then, was an almost catastrophic failure of Military Intelligence.
The showdown that had been so long anticipated was about to take place and for a short time the people of both countries and the entire world would hold its breath.
The opposing Commanders were very different men in both character and personality:
Admiral John Jellicoe was an affable and easy-going man, one cautious by nature and willing to delegate power should he deem it beneficial to do so. He felt the burden of his responsibility that’s for sure, but he was a proficient seaman and though more a strategist than he was tactician was confident in his ability to do his job. But he was no Nelson, and he knew it, he had doubts and sometimes they loomed large - if he could not destroy the German High Seas Fleet then he would ensure his too remained safe.
Admiral Reinhard Scheer, by contrast was more hands on and a strict disciplinarian who rarely known to smile would often be absent from the Bridge of his ship on an unspecified tour of inspection. Yet despite his need to interfere in their running he had great faith in his ships and in the resourcefulness of their crews. He doubted however, his navy's capacity to defeat the Grand Fleet in any major engagement and so maintained his strategy of goading the British into small-scale but costly encounters.
But neither Jellicoe nor Scheer were to fire order the first shot fired that honour fell to the Commander of the British fast Battle-Cruiser Squadron David Beatty and his German counterpart Admiral Franz Ritter von Hipper.
The engagement started when both sides dispatched Cruisers to investigate the Danish Merchantman N.J Fjord that just happened to be steaming between the two fleets. As the British Cruisers Galatea and Phaeton approached, they could see a Squadron of advancing German destroyers sailing towards them. They opened fire. It was 14.28 on 31 May 1916, the Battle of Jutland had begun.
David Beatty in command of the Battle Cruiser Squadron was by no means a great Admiral, though he likely thought otherwise but he was certainly brave and with his hat tilted to one side and aggressive posture he was to become in the eyes of the British press at least the hero of Jutland. He had dash they said, but he would not entirely escape criticism.
He had positioned his four slower Battleships, the most powerful in the British Navy so far away during the initial engagement that they could not become fully involved until it was too late. He also hesitated to fire upon the Germans for a vital ten minutes that allowed the enemy to find their range and his signalling was so slip-shod that he failed to keep Admiral Jellicoe informed of what was going on. But then such was Beatty's nature, he would have attacked the Germans in a rowboat if that was all he had available.
His first order was to steer two points nearer the enemy. His next, as his ships came under salvo after salvo of accurate German fire was to steer two points away.
Beatty ordered his Squadron to take a course south-east then east to cut off the German ships from their base and then launched a seaplane from HMS Engadine to scout for the enemy which was the first ever use of an aeroplane in naval warfare. But in his eagerness to engage with the enemy he had steamed too far ahead of Jellicoe's Main Fleet denying them the opportunity to bring their superior firepower to bear in any engagement. Indeed, such was the speed of his ships that his line had become disordered, and they were still manoeuvring into position when the Germans opened fire.
In typical fashion Admiral Beatty had steamed at full speed towards the sound of the guns, but it wasn't long before things started to go horribly wrong. At 1600 hours and just 12 minutes into the battle, HMS Indefagitable blew up, sinking in just 90 seconds and taking 1,019 of her complement of 1,021 with her.
Twenty-five minutes later the Queen Mary likewise blew up drowning 1,266 men, only 9 survived. Their destruction prompted Beatty's famous remark: "There appears to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” He then gave the order to close with the enemy. But he had been lucky, his own flagship HMS Lion was only saved from a similar fate by a mortally wounded Royal Marine Officer, Major Francis Harvey, who, seeing his turret afire ordered its magazines flooded. He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.
For more than an hour the two fleets pounded away at one another but the superior gunnery of the Germans and design faults with the British ships had taken their toll. By 16.46 Admiral Beatty had turned his ships away. They had hit their targets 28 times but had received 92 hits in return and lost 2 Battlecruisers with considerable loss of life. The first phase of the battle was over.
Earlier, at 16.30, HMS Southampton reported that it had sighted the main German Battle-fleet.
Involved in his own life and death struggle Beatty had remained unaware that the entire German Fleet had put to sea but now fully cognisant of the fact he sped towards where he believed Jellicoe was with the Grand Fleet hoping to lure the Germans onto the more powerful British guns.
By 18.00 the two main Battle-Fleets were closing fast but in the swirling mist and with a horizon shrouded in gun-smoke they remained invisible to one another. In the meantime, a ferocious destroyer battle was taking place.
HMS Shark, which had earlier been disabled but had still managed to sink a German Torpedo Boat, began to founder. Her Captain Loftus Jones refused to abandon ship however and ordered her guns to continue firing until she was seen to disappear beneath the waves.
He was later awarded the Victoria Cross.
The British destroyed two further German Torpedo Boats and put the Battlecruiser Seydlitz out of action. In turn, both HMS Nestor and Nomad were sunk with the former’s Captain Barry Bingham also being awarded the Victoria Cross.
At around 17.30 HMS Chester was assailed by four German Cruisers and in the fierce firefight that followed her open and unprotected gun deck was devastated and awash with blood and limbless bodies even so 16 year old John “Jack” Cornwell who was a sight-setter on one of her 5 inch guns remained at his post throughout the action despite being badly wounded by shell fragments and with the rest of his gun crew already dead. He was to survive the battle but passed away two days later in hospital. He too was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
The Armoured-Cruiser HMS Warrior was hit 13 times and had to be abandoned. Meanwhile, seeing the German Battle-Cruiser Wiesbaden ablaze and low in the water, HMS Defence rushed in to finish her off only to be hit by a volley of shells that ripped her apart. She went to the bottom with all her 903 crew.
At 18.33 the steadily increasing gloom was lit up by a tremendous explosion as HMS Invincible was sent to the bottom with all but 4 of her crew of 1,026.
The explosion had broken the back of the ship and an eerie and ghostly sight was cast upon the scene as the two ends of the ship protruded from the water and those who witnessed it were haunted for many years after by the thought that there were men struggling inside with no hope of rescue.
Admiral Scheer must have been delighted at how the battle was developing. He had inflicted considerable damage upon the British while sustaining only minimal losses of his own. But he was about to receive the biggest shock of his life.
Searching the horizon he saw emerging from the mist the entire British Grand Fleet in all its majesty. He was stunned for he had not even been aware they were at sea. Events now began to take a turn for the worse.
The lead German ship, the Konigsberg, was hit seven times and the Kaiser Markgraf, Grosser Kurfurst, and Heligoland were all also seriously damaged without the British sustaining any damage in return. It appeared that the Grand Fleet had at last found its range and as darkness descended and under the weight of the British guns the German formation began to fall apart - it appeared that Scheer's worst nightmare might be about to come true.
The preservation of the fleet now became his priority and in a state of some agitation he decided to turn away and make a run for home. At 19.17 he ordered his ships to break away and steer a course back to Germany and for his destroyers to launch their torpedoes to delay the British pursuit.
The German Battle-Cruiser Squadron, no longer led by Admiral Hipper who had been forced to abandon his sinking flagship the Lutzow, was to protect the main Battle-Fleet as it escaped behind a dense smokescreen.
They were to take fearful punishment as they stood between the British Navy and their prey with the Derflinger alone being hit 14 times. In total 37 high calibre British hit home and only 2 received in return. It was now 19.40 and darkness was descending quickly.
Although none of the German torpedoes had managed to find their mark, Jellicoe was concerned that a minefield may have been laid in his path and that he was being led into an ambush. Also, few of his men had been trained in night-fighting. He decided to call off the pursuit.
Despite the two fleets having manoeuvred to disengage the fighting continued and the British sank a further German destroyer and a Torpedo Boat.
The final shots of the greatest naval engagement in history were exchanged by the King George V and the sinking Wiesbaden.
On the face of it the Battle of Jutland was a German victory. The British had lost 3 Battlecruisers, 3 Armoured-Cruisers, 8 Destroyers, and had suffered 6,094 men killed and 504 wounded. The Germans had lost 1 Battleship, 1 Battle-Cruiser, 4 Light-Cruisers, 1 Destroyer, 5 Torpedo Boats, and had lost 2,551 men killed and 507 wounded.
The German Reichstag pronounced the High Seas Fleet triumphant, and the Kaiser declared a national holiday. In Britain the response was more muted and as the truth emerged a feeling of despondency swept the country. How could this happen?
The British people had expected a Nelsonian triumph, a new Trafalgar but instead the most powerful Fleet in the world had failed to destroy its enemy, it had been bloodied, it had even lost more ships. But the facts did not bear out the despair.
The Germans never again dared to confront the Grand Fleet and the blockade that was eventually to starve Germany into submission remained intact for the rest of the war. When in October 1918, during the dying embers of the war the High Seas Fleet was ordered once more to venture into the North Sea the crews refused to do so. The subsequent mutinies at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven were to spark revolution throughout all the major cities of Germany that were to result in the Kaiser's abdication less than two weeks later.
In the weeks following the Battle of Jutland, Jellicoe's actions came under intense scrutiny and increased criticism. Yet his handling of the battle had been tactically sound.
He had twice Crossed the T (a naval tactic in which a line of warships crosses in front of a line of enemy ships allowing them to bring all of their guns to bear while receiving only fire from the forward guns of the enemy) of the German Fleet and sent them scurrying back to port in a hurry, their tail between their legs.
But the fact that the Germans no longer posed a threat, that the British blockade of Germany remained in place, and that the North Sea was now a British fiefdom simply wasn't good enough. They had expected their naval supremacy proven in sunken vessels, white flags, and drowned sailors but this had not been the case.
In November 1916, John Jellicoe was promoted to Sea Lord and his command given to David Beatty. A few months later he was fired from his post.
Jellicoe was criticised in particular for not pressing home his attack, but he had decided correctly perhaps not to risk the safety of the fleet in a night time pursuit through uncertain waters. For as Winston Churchill was later to remark: "He was the only man on either side who could have lost the war in an afternoon”.
In the end the battle that could have decided everything had decided nothing.
Share this post: