At the time of the Battle of Jutland the British Grand Fleet was based at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands over 200 miles (320km) from the coast of Denmark, whilst the Battlecruiser Squadron was anchored at the Forth of Firth. There was also a southern detachment - Harwich Force - located at Harwich in Southern England. From these bases the Royal Navy maintained continuous sweeps to ensure the uninterrupted flow of men and material to the British Expeditionary Force across the North Sea and the English Channel and to the other British forces overseas.
As perhaps the greatest and strategically most important naval battle of the Great War, there has always been much interest in the Jutland naval action itself, the events that led up to it, and the effect it had on the course of the War. This raises, even for the amateur Great War historian, some interesting questions and observations.
Who were the belligerents?
The battle was a long awaited contest between large elements of the German High Sea Fleet and the British Grand Fleet. The two fleets were commanded respectively by the Germans, Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer (Battle Fleet) and Vice-Admiral Franz Hipper (Battlecruiser Fleet), and the British, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe (Battle Fleet) and Vice-Admiral David Beatty (Battlecruiser Fleet).
On paper, the Royal Navy was incontestably numerically superior to the German Navy, but because of other world-wide commitments, the British only had a superiority of a two Dreadnoughts in the North Sea theatre of operations (17 to 15) and parity with five Battlecruisers.
How many warships were involved in the Battle of Jutland?
The Germans put to sea with a total of 99 warships whilst the British had 149, as follows.
- German Navy: 16 Dreadnoughts; 6 Pre-dreadnoughts; 5 Battle-cruisers; 11 Light -cruisers and 61 Destroyers.
- Royal Navy: 28 Dreadnoughts; 9 Battle-cruisers; 8 Cruisers; 26 Light-cruisers and 78 Destroyers.
So, numerically, the British also had the upper hand at Jutland, but as we she see the Germans ships and crews were technically superior in certain vital areas.
Additionally, the British capital ships carried higher calibre guns than the Germans, and had a longer range: the standard British naval gun was 13.5inches with 24,000 yards (22,000m) range and the German gun 11 or 12inches with a range of 19-21,000 yards (17-19,000m).
A final important factor was that the British warships generally carried less armour-plate than the Germans; particularly so the British Battlecruisers that relied principally on speed to keep them out of trouble.
How did the warships come to meet one another on the 31st May?
From the outset of the war, the German Kaiser and his admirals had understood full well that a direct confrontation with the Royal Navy must be avoided at all costs as the numerical superiority of the Royal Navy was too great. The principle guiding consideration for the German High Command was that the High Seas Fleet was not to be put at risk other than to repel any Allied coastal assault in the Baltic and North Sea, or to take advantage of any Allied weakness that might present itself.
The expectation of the German High Command was that the German Army's Schiefflen Plan would quickly crush the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front and bring to an abrupt end Britain's joint military action in France and Belgium. So, the German Navy felt it could sit in its safe anchorages at Wilhelmshaven and elsewhere. To emerge from time-to-time to attack piece-meal British mainland targets and whittle away by superior force the responding squadrons of the Grand Fleet of the Royal Navy. Hopefully, a side effect of these actions would be to relax the already painful British blockades on the German North Sea ports. To this end, monthly nuisance raids were conducted on the English coast and elsewhere without producing a climatic showdown.
In early 1916, Admiral Scheer was appointed commander of the German High Seas Fleet. In answer to growing political and military criticism of the inactivity of the Fleet, his staff developed a decisive plan to reduce the numerical superiority of the Royal Navy. The German High Seas Fleet would lure a part of the British Grand Fleet to sea, and then entrap and destroy it by the rapid deployment of a greatly superior force. This was to be the Armageddon of the Royal Navy and was designated as 'Der Tag' (The Day).
A bombardment of the northwestern English seaport of Sunderland was to be the bait to draw the Royal Navy out. But operational difficulties changed the operation to a scouting adventure along the Danish/Norwegian coast - the Skagerrak - with a backup submarine trap.
On the 31st May 1916, five German Battlecruisers of the First Scouting Group, with supporting warships, left their base in the Jade River Estuary in western Germany and sailed up the coast of Denmark. Behind them at a considerable distance sailed another armada of German ships that included 22 battleships of which 16 were the superior Dreadnoughts. However, unbeknown to the Germans, the code-breakers of the British Admiralty's Room 40 had broken the German naval cipher code. The Admiralty Operational Division had partially appraised the Grand Fleet commanders of the German plans but, in the event, not fully so: at all costs the code-breakers wished to preserve as best they could the secrecy of their decoding successes.
On the 30th May 1916, the British had already despatched two elements of the Grand Fleet to meet the Germans and bring them to battle, but did not know precisely where the Germans were heading or with what intent.
Quite accidentally, the British and German advance naval units (Battlecruisers and support ships) met around at 1420 hours on the 31st May 1916 and the first tentative exchanges of gunfire were made.
Which Fleet had the technological superiority?
As we have already observed, the British had the numerical superiority in warships and the heavier calibre guns with the longest range, but there were other critical factors at work.
- Organisation and training: The Royal Navy was strictly hierarchical with initiative strictly discouraged in the junior ranks: everything had to be done ‘by the book’, Royal Navy style. A strong competitive element was encouraged but this led to the cutting of corners to obtain that essential edge. The German Navy was more concerned with overall efficiency and innovation.
- Safety precautions. In this spirit of competition, individual Royal Navy gun crews tended to overlook the essential elements of safety in order to shave off critical seconds from their drill times. No-where was this more evident than in the measures required for the prevention of ‘flash-backs’ to the ship’s magazines where the explosive shell propellant material and the H.E. shells themselves were stored. Protective doors were left open and explosive material was stored not only at the ready in the gun turrets themselves, but also in the handling chambers that linked them to the magazines. Three of the British capital ships at Jutland were to be destroyed by explosions arising from this fatal laxity in safety procedures. Due to an earlier failure from this cause the Germans had wisely heightened their own safety measures. This included the fitting of effective anti-flash doors on all of their warships.
- Target Detection/Range Finding and Gun Laying: The Germans and the British navies used different optical devices for target detection and the ranging of their guns. The German methodology proved to be superior in action, although their system was more liable to error in inexperienced hands. Accordingly, the German Navy gave top priority to practice and drills in these skills. At Jutland, this difference in efficiency proved to be significant when the warships drew within firing range.
- Quality of shells: The British naval armour-piercing shells proved to be inferior to those of the Germans. The British shells were brittle and frequently simply disintegrated on contact without penetration. When the explosive content did activate it proved to be too weak to ensure an effective impact explosion. Large British shell fragments were found strewn on the decks of the German warships and could be simply fitted together to reform the complete shell casing, thus amply demonstrating the inefficacy of the explosive content of the shell. The Germans shells also had delayed action fuses that considerably improved their efficacy.
- Communications: Both sides had problems with their signals. Although it was early summer, murk, as well as smoke generated by the warships – especially the highly mobile destroyers – and water splashes from shell bursts, made eye-to-eye contact unreliable. Many messages were only partially communicated, or not received at all. At night, the British were on occasion careless with the lamp signalling: several vital messages were read and successfully interpreted by the Germans. Both sides had little faith in radio transmissions and had problems with maintaining radio silence – vital to avoid Detection Finding – but the Germans definitely proved to be superior at jamming the British radio output. Certainly, these lacunae in signalling capability played a large part in the missed opportunities and the confusion that determined to a large extent in the outcome of the battle; but particularly so for the British.
Losses in men and ships
At a glance, the loss of ships and the crew's casualty figures indicate a clear victory for the Germans. But, as is often the case, a more carefully study reveals that the outcome was not quite so clear cut.
- Ships lost: The German naval losses totalled 11: 1 Battle cruiser; 1 Pre-dreadnought; 4 Light-cruisers and 5 Destroyers - 62,000 tons in all.
The British losses in ships totalled 14: 3 Battle cruisers; 3 Armoured-cruisers; 8 Destroyers - 110,000 tons.
- Ships casualties: A high proportion of both the German and the British casualties were killed or drowned.
The German dead totalled 2,511 and the British 5,999.
Although disparity in the balance of the types of ships lost was not all that great, the British loss of three of their capital ships - the Indefatigable, the Queen Mary and the Invincible - was indubitably due to the magazine flash-back problem. These three sinkings alone accounted for 3,309 of the British dead (55%).
Aerial and submarine support
Earlier, it was mentioned that the German High Fleet had planned the entrapment of the British Grand fleet by a force of 13 submarines and the use of mines. But in the confusion of the chase this plan never come to fruition.
Only a single reconnaissance aircraft - from the British carrier HMS Engadine - was involved in the battle. One of the reasons for the German's abortion of the operation to bombard the British port of Sunderland, was that the air cover by Zeppelin airships was cancelled due to bad weather.
Certainly, the Germans, who were operating so close to their bases, missed a great tactical opportunity by not using their ample aviation, sea-mines and submarine resources in an appropriate way.
When the outcome of the Battle was fully known there was much exultation in Germany and despondency in Britain. A feeling was current in Britain that the Royal Navy had missed its best opportunity so far in the War to give the German Navy a knockout blow and many had anticipated another Battle of Trafalgar. Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, the former First Lord of the Admiralty, did his best to put the battle in its true perspective. He maintained that although the British had made tactical errors, and the Germans had enjoyed exceptionally good luck, strategically Britain had come out well. Twice the Germans had fled the British naval onslaught and the British numerical advantage remained effectively unchallenged: in fact it was even improved after the battle.
Churchill's assessment subsequently proved to be the correct one as the German Navy largely stayed in port for the rest of the War - the Grand Fleet was ready for sea again by the 2nd June 1916 - and never threatened the Royal Navy's supremacy in the North Sea, or elsewhere.
Perhaps most importantly, Jellicoe's fear of 'Losing the War in an afternoon' had been averted.
The main outcome of the battle was to force the Germans into a return to unrestricted submarine warfare in an attempt to break the British naval blockade campaign. A project doomed to antagonise the Americans and eventually bring them and their vast resources of men and materiel to support the Allied cause.