31 MAY, 1916: Swansong

You may not need me to tell you that the Battle of Jutland began a century ago today, because it’s one of very few wartime events outside the Western Front deemed worthy of the full treatment by the British heritage industry.  Unfortunately, a high heritage profile comes with a requirement for drama and significance, so the BBC (to pick on the best of them) is coming at you with shows entitled ‘The Navy’s Bloodiest Day’ and ‘The Battle That Won The War’.   You get the message?   Well, it’s nonsense.  Jutland was a miserable non-event, significant only in what it failed to achieve, best viewed as a clear signal that the age of the battleship was well and truly over, and had ended with a whimper.  That said, I’ll try and describe it.

Jutland was the only full-scale wartime confrontation between the two most powerful battle fleets in the world, the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet, stationed either side of the North Sea.

The High Seas Fleet was the fruit of rapid German naval expansion during the previous two decades, which was in turn a product of Kaiser Wilhelm’s ego.  Built around 27 modern battleships and battlecruisers (like battleships, but with most of the armour sacrificed for speed), it was not regarded as powerful enough to beat the British in a full-scale battle, but was designed to keep the Royal Navy’s biggest guns away from duties elsewhere, particularly the blockade of German ports, and to whittle away the Grand Fleet’s strength in advance of any possible confrontation.

Based at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, the Grand Fleet was the Royal Navy’s principle strike force, an enormous armada built around 35–40 modern battleships and battlecruisers, designed to respond to any threat, anywhere in the world, but primarily concerned with nullifying the threat of invasion and preventing attempts to interfere with the blockade.  Its ultimate task was seen as the destruction of the High Seas Fleet, and for that purpose the British Admiralty was careful to maintain a significant numerical advantage in the North Sea.

According to contemporary naval orthodoxy – established since the advent of armoured, coal- or oil-powered warships – battle fleets required not just modern battleships (costing the equivalent of about half a billion pounds each in modern terms), but also cruisers, destroyers, submarines and hundreds of smaller support craft to provide protection and reconnaissance for the bigger ships.  In short, fleets cost a fortune.

Understandably enough, admirals, politicians, press and public expected value for money from battle fleets in the event of war, and at the same time regarded the loss of wildly expensive major units as nothing short of a national catastrophe.  This required naval strategists to take risks while being risk averse, a tricky enough problem at the best of times, made almost insoluble by 1914 because the leviathans of the sea had become dangerously vulnerable to spectacularly cheap mines and torpedoes.

I’ve devoted plenty of space in the past to the paralysis produced by this situation, and a glance through the blog’s naval warfare category might be helpful if you’re interested in arguments and examples.  In North Sea terms, it meant neither side dared risk a major battle unless they were quite sure of winning, so the High Seas Fleet didn’t want to be caught in a battle at all, and the Grand Fleet’s attempts to engineer one were so timid they were hardly perceptible.

By 1916 both fleets had spent most of two years being pilloried by political, press and public opinion for their perceived inactivity, and both needed to prove themselves.  The British could only maintain their numerical supremacy and effective dominance of the theatre, avoiding trouble and hoping an open goal would present itself.   With the German high command in the process of prioritising submarine warfare at the expense of the High Seas Fleet, its new commander, Admiral Scheer, was under more immediate pressure to act.  In the late spring of 1916 he planned an expanded version of the nuisance raids on the British coast that had boosted the Fleet’s reputation in 1914.

Scheer’s plan was to send Admiral Hipper’s fast battlecruisers to raid the northeast English port of Sunderland, and to entice the British battlecruiser squadron, based at Rosyth, out onto the guns of the main fleet, following behind.  In addition, thirteen U-boats were positioned for ambush off British North Sea ports, with orders to stay there until 1 June.  Scheer was only prepared to take this risk if aerial reconnaissance confirmed that the Grand Fleet was still in Scapa Flow, but poor weather prevented deployment of the only machines able to do the job, Zeppelins, throughout late May.  Rather than do without his U-boats, Scheer switched to a slightly less bold demonstration of the High Seas Fleet’s powers, sending his battlecruisers as bait ahead of an otherwise pointless sortie up the Danish coast.

The German ships moved out of the Jade Bight, off Wilhelmshaven, at one in the morning on 31 May, unaware that the Grand Fleet had put to sea from Scapa Flow two hours earlier.  Because the Royal Navy’s Room 40 had broken German naval codes, Grand Fleet c-in-c Admiral Jellicoe had been informed of their impending departure on 30 May, but not of their destination, and had decided to undertake his own sweep of the Danish coast, planned for 2 June.

The two fleets, led by their battlecruiser squadrons, were on course for a head-on collision during the morning of 31 May, but didn’t know it.  In an age before radar and in the absence of aircraft (a seaplane aboard the converted ferry HMS Engadine was the only plane available to either fleet), the only way they were going to find out was by direct visual contact through the fast, modern cruisers both sides used for scouting.  British and German cruisers spotted each other in mid-afternoon, as both sides moved to investigate a stationary Danish merchant ship, and after a brief exchange of fire both sides hurried off to inform their battlecruisers that the enemy had blundered into their trap.

Admiral Beatty, in command of the British battlecruisers, manoeuvred to the south of Hipper’s ships, which turned to face the enemy, leaving both sets of battlecruisers in the path of the other’s main fleet.  Unknown to Hipper, four modern, Queen Elizabeth Class battleships were also attached to Beatty’s squadron, and were coming up fast when, at 3.45 in the afternoon, the battlecruisers opened fire, 13km apart and closing.  Beatty turned south to cut off what he assumed was a German retreat, and after Hipper followed suit the squadrons spent forty-five minutes exchanging broadsides.

2-WEB-Duckworth-3.30pm-Coloureed
This is how a battle looked on a dark day in the North Sea… battlecruisers going broadside.

The action went badly for the British.  While escorting destroyers fought a secondary battle, with each side losing two ships, three British battlecruisers had been damaged and two, Indefatigable and Queen Mary, had exploded by the time the Queen Elizabeths joined the fray (from 17km) at four-thirty.  Hipper’s success had something to do with the position of the sun, which helped German gunners on a hazy day polluted by gunsmoke, but also highlighted British operational weaknesses that would be evident throughout the battle: the inherent vulnerability of British ships to internal explosion; a spate of poor signalling; and the unexpected weakness of the Navy’s heavy shells, which tended to disintegrate on contact.

The arrival of four battleships to join the four British battlecruisers still in the fight shifted the odds against Hipper – but not for long.  At four-forty Beatty’s scouting cruisers reported that the entire High Seas Fleet was coming into range.  Wrongly informed that morning that Scheer was still in port, Beatty turned and ran north for Jellicoe and the Grand Fleet.  The British battleships missed the turn and barely escaped the High Seas Fleet (with damage inflicted by both sides) before joining Beatty’s faster ships and quickly pulling away. Hipper’s squadron – battered, short on ammunition and with their gunners now facing a dipping sun – followed to prevent what he assumed was an attempt at escape.

Shortly before five-thirty Beatty turned east to a prearranged rendezvous with Jellicoe, crossing Hipper’s path to cut off any scouting ships that might report the trap, and drawing an attack from German cruisers and destroyers.  Three more British battlecruisers, commanded by Admiral Hood, then arrived on the scene from the east, severely damaging three of the German light cruisers and launching a destroyer attack of their own – and that was enough to convince Hipper he’d run into the entire Grand Fleet.

The actual Grand Fleet stumbled upon Beatty’s squadron just after six, when scouts sighted HMS Lion firing its guns at opponents out of visual range.  Jellicoe, who had thought he was still 20km northwest of Beatty, immediately formed the fleet in a line to port (turning east, in other words).  The manoeuvre was complete by six-thirty, just in time to put the Grand Fleet in perfect position to ‘cross the T’ of the High Seas Fleet.  Meanwhile Scheer, coming up from the south, found British warships to his north and northwest, and so turned east, heading straight for Jellicoe.

During this phase, one of the Queen Elizabeths, Warspite, survived 13 hits when a jammed rudder forced it to circle twice under the High Seas Fleet’s guns, and two British cruisers were sunk when they ran into the German fleet by accident.   The British also lost a third battlecruiser, when Admiral Hood’s flagship, Invincible, was illuminated by a random patch of clear air, attracted concentrated fire and exploded after a shell penetrated a turret.

The explosion tool place at 18.33, and the Grand Fleet opened fire at once.  Two minutes later Scheer ran away, and the High Seas Fleet did a brilliant job of it, executing a ‘battle turn away’ (Gefechtskehrtwendung, effectively a massed u-turn) and leaving Jellicoe chasing its taillights, all for the loss of one cruiser to British gunfire.  Jellicoe more than matched Scheer’s caution, refusing to chase his prey into what he thought might just be a submarine trap. Instead he ordered the Grand Fleet to turn southeast and then south, hoping to intercept Scheer’s homeward journey before nightfall.

It shouldn’t have worked, but Jellicoe got lucky.  Scheer turned his fleet north and then back on itself, aiming to get behind the British, but he overestimated the Grand Fleet’s speed and instead steamed back into its guns, which opened up at ten past seven.  This time Scheer sent Hipper’s squadron (backed by destroyers) to charge at the Grand Fleet, guns blazing, while the rest of the German force pulled off another u-turn.  A destroyer was sunk, and the battlecruisers took another pounding (but didn’t explode) before turning away, but within a few minutes the High Seas Fleet was disappearing to the west.

Still confident that he could intercept Scheer’s presumed route home, Jellicoe turned the Grand Fleet southeast.  At eight-fifteen Beatty’s battlecruisers, some 10km ahead of the main fleet, sighted Hipper’s ships sailing south, and a few minutes later opened fire, damaging two battlecruisers and sinking the Lützow.  Scheer responded by sending six vulnerable pre-dreadnought battleships into a holding action, and after keeping Beatty’s guns busy for a few minutes they rejoined the German fleet escaping to the west.

Scheer then turned south for home, and although the two fleets were less than 10km apart and converging when night fell, at about nine, they never met again.  Scouting forces on both sides battled on through the night in a series of costly and often confused actions, costing the German fleet one pre-dreadnought battleship, three cruisers and a destroyer, the British a cruiser and six destroyers.

Partly thanks to effective radio jamming by German crews, no reports of the night actions reached Jellicoe, who let anxiety govern his next move.  Worried about night actions against an enemy with superior searchlights, and about Admiralty reports suggesting Scheer was behind him, he kept on steaming south, enabling the High Seas Fleet to escape around the rear of the Grand Fleet and reach the relative safety of Horn’s Reef by about three in the morning of 1 June.  Jellicoe turned his fleet for home half an hour later.

The two fleets got home without interference from submarines stationed in wait, and the last casualty of Jutland was the German dreadnought Ostfriesland, badly damaged by a British mine in the Jade Bight.

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There’s your map. Thanks, Wikipedia…

Both sides claimed victory.  Both were right and both were wrong. The German Navy won on numbers, and could justifiably claim that both its ships and crews had performed better on the day.  The Royal Navy took a lot of criticism for its operational failures, and the Grand Fleet’s commanders took their fair share for behaving cautiously, but British claims to victory are based on the many months it took the High Seas Fleet to get back into operational shape (the Grand Fleet was pronounced ready for action on 2 June), and on the fact that it never again ventured out in force.  The latter claim is perfectly true, but was hardly a product of the battle, and that brings me back to ‘The Navy’s Bloodiest Day’, ‘The Battle That Won The War’ and the heritage hype.

Jutland involved 274 warships and about 70,000 seamen.  The Royal Navy lost 14 ships, 6,097 men killed and 510 wounded; the German Navy 11 ships, 2,551 killed and 507 wounded.  So yes, Jutland was the Royal Navy’s most costly day out in terms of casualties, but this was hardly surprising when so many men took part in the nearest thing to a major sea battle since the dawn of the mechanised age.

As for Jutland winning the War, that’s rubbish.  The High Seas Fleet was already slated for effective mothballing by the German High Command, and only a huge success at Jutland (or Skagerrak, as it’s known in Germany) could have altered that.  You might say that Jellicoe’s caution spared the Royal Navy any risk of losing control in the North Sea, but otherwise Jutland is a story of errors, failures and accidents, a  series of chaotic skirmishes that very nearly turned into a battle.  Does that really constitute a victory when its only effect was to leave  everything about the naval war unchanged?

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