Not Quite Trafalgar: The Battle of Jutland
The Battle of Jutland was the largest naval battle of the First World War and has recently been described as the battle that won the war. This may be a bit over-optimistic but there is no doubt that the Battle of Jutland is right up there with other land battles such as the Somme, Mons, Ypres, Verdun etc that are traditionally seen as ‘pivotal’ battles of the war.
The raw numbers behind the Battle of Jutland are eye-watering: 250 ships, 105,000 men in action, 25 vessels lost, 8,500 men killed. In fact, the number of sailors and ships that took part in the fight at Jutland exceeds the combined strength of all Europe’s navies today. Yet despite all of this, the battle still seems to be somewhat obscure and overlooked in the grand history of the First World War. Well, as we approach the centenary of the battle here is my summary of what happened in the North Sea almost exactly 100 years ago.
Kaiser Wilhelm II had an obsession with the Royal Navy. Not a school boy obsession where he dreamt of sailing the world’s seas, keeping them safe from pirates and war mongers. No. He was obsessed with destroying it. Obsessed with building up the German High Seas Fleet to be the biggest and baddest navy of them all and smash the British sailors to pieces. It was an obsession that, even before the outbreak of war, had got up the noses of the Royal Navy. How dare Germany even attempt to build a navy that came anywhere near the size and scope of theirs? It was simply not cricket. Not surprisingly naval tempers had risen way before the opening bell of summer 1914.
By 1916, both fleets were straining at the leash and ready to go, like two heavyweight boxers at the pre-fight head-to-head. In the tale of the tape, they were well matched. Yes the British had a few more ships and bigger main guns, but the Germans had better armour protection and their secondary guns were much more effective at countering Destroyers. Towards the end of May 1916 both sides had put together a large battle fleet and were independently planning to sail towards the Danish coast in order to lay a trap for the other side. Armed with piecemeal and hazy intelligence of what the Germans were up to, the British left harbour first.
The British Grand Fleet, under the watchful eye of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, left their bases at Scapa Flow and Cromarty, and to the south the 1st and 2nd Battlecruiser squadrons let by Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty were also on their way. It was a huge combined force sailing east towards Denmark and they were on a collission course with a large German scouting groups of five BattleCruisers led by Vice Admiral Hipper. About sixty miles behind was the main German fleet.
The two massive fleets stumbled across each other rather by chance as each one sent scouts out to investigate a small Danish steamer. All of a sudden it was seconds out, round one. The Battle of Jutland was about to begin.
The first round started when Admiral Beatty, commanding the British battle cruisers, engaged with his counterpart Admiral Hipper. Beatty thought he had the beating of Hipper and chased what he thought were retreating ships to the south. During the chase each set of battle cruisers exchanged broadsides as they travelled along parallel courses. Despite having bigger guns and a longer range Hipper delayed giving the order to fire until the gap between the two sides favoured the German fleet. The British suffered badly. HMS Indefatigable blew up at 16.05 and was quickly followed by HMS Queen Mary at 16.25. HMS Lion, HMS Tiger and HMS Princess Royal were badly damaged. Over 2,000 men were lost in less than half an hour. It was most definitely round one to the Germans.
As the battle moved south the Germans came into range of the big British Battleships who started scoring hits from a distance of ten miles. Nice work. That was round two to the British. However, just a few minutes later Beatty discovered that he was heading straight towards the entire German Fleet, and they were in range. He immediately ordered his ships to turn around and head north towards Admiral Jellicoe and the remainder of the British Fleet. With a bit of luck he would lead the Germans nicely into a trap. Round three was perhaps a draw.
The Germans did give chase, and indeed they got a nasty surprise when they fell under a huge bombardment from Jellicoe’s battle fleet, which they thought had been too far north to be of any consequence. At 18.30 Admiral Scheer found himself surrounded to the north and north-west. The only option was to turn east. The Grand Fleet threw everything they had at Scheer, who ordered an about turn to every ship in his command at 18.35. Executed perfectly, within a few minutes the German High Seas Fleet slipped into the murk and out of sight. The British were sure they had sunk a number of ships, but in reality only one was lost. Whereas the British had lost HMS Warrior and HMS Invincible, and HMS Warspite was severely damaged. The Germans were ahead on points going into round five.
As the Germans fled, Jellicoe refused to follow directly, fearful of a minefield or submarine trap. Instead he turned southeast, then south in an effort to cut Scheer off indirectly.
Then, inexplicably, Scheer turned his fleet to the North, and basically steamed straight back into the heart of the British Fleet. Jellicoe thought Christmas had come early and at 19.10 he let the Germans have it in a big way. Within twenty minutes, one German destroyer was sunk and many had taken an absolute pounding before the German fleet were able to about turn and retreat. This time Jellico went on the chase, heading southwest in an effort to intercept. And intercept he did, sighting the enemy at 20.15 just before sunset. The guns flashed in the gathering gloom and more German ships were destroyed and damaged. At 20.30 Scheer sent six torpedo ships forward to occupy the British guns while he gathered the rest of his fleet and got out of there.
By 21.00 Jellicoe called it a day and made preparations to avoid any other major engagements until the morning. He was not as well equipped for night fighting as his enemy was and really didn’t fancy a scrap in the dark. He put together a protective screen of destroyers to patrol the rear while he headed south in an effort to cut of Scheer’s cheeky escape. However, Scheer had not gone south. He had actually chosen to cross directly behind Jellicoe’s main force, but despite the British rearguard spotting and engaging the German fleet on seven seperate occassions during the night, Jellicoe recieved no reports informing him of anything untoward happening. By the time Jelloico learned of the true whereabouts of Scheer it had gone 04:00 and the Germans were to far away to give chase. It was an opportunity lost.
The Battle of Jutland was over. It would turn out to be the largest and the last of the great battleship battles. Never again would either side meet each other in such numbers. In the immediate aftermath of the battle the British public were upset, they had expected another Trafalgar. On the other hand the Germans celebrated Jutland as a victory, and yes they did inflict more losses on the British than the other way around. However, the Grand Fleet was straight back in training and was ready to fight again by the 2nd June, whereas the German High Fleet was crippled for months. It never really recovered and was never risked again in a North Sea battle.
Despite not delivering ‘another Trafalgar’, The Royal Navy had retained dominance of the seas.
Text taken from WW1: A Layman’s Guide