31st May - 1st June 1916

The greatest naval battle of the First World War, Jutland was the only full-scale encounter of the British and German battle fleets. It originated in a plan by Admiral Scheer, commander of the High Seas Fleet since January 1916, to lure the British Grand Fleet from its bases with the intention of bringing part of it to battle.

Early on 31 May, 1916, the High Seas Fleet left the Jade Estuary and moved into the North Sea, parallel to the west coast of Denmark. Hipper, commander of the German scouting forces, led the way towards Skaggerak with five battlecruisers and 35 other fast ships at his disposal. A long way behind was the main fleet consisting of 59 vessels, including 22 battleships (of which 16 were dreadnoughts). Radio messages intercepted by the Admiralty had given warning of the German sortie and the Grand Fleet was ordered to sail immediately.

The main fleet, under Admiral Jellicoe, left Scapa Flow on 30 may; it comprised 99 ships, of which 24 were dreadnoughts. Sixty miles ahead of Jellicoe was Beatty's scouting force, which had left the Firth of Forth on the same day; it consisted of 52 ships, including six battlecruisers and an associated squadron of four super-dreadnoughts.

As the two fleets moved across the North Sea neither side had any clear information about the size of the opposing forces or their whereabouts. Contact was made during the afternoon of 31 May, when the British light cruiser Galatea sighted Hipper's force. Without waiting for his super-dreadnoughts, Beatty proceeded south at maximum speed on a parallel course to the German squadron, which was now moving in the same direction. Hipper had reversed course after having sighted Beatty, in the hope that he would be able to draw him towards the main German fleet.

The two scouting forces were soon in action, opening fire at 16,500 yards. More accurate German fire and faulty British ship design caused the loss of two of Beatty's battlecruisers - Indefatigable and Queen Mary. With four battlecruisers left to oppose Hipper, Beatty ordered his ships to 'engage the enemy closer'. However, almost immediately, Beatty, who had been informed that the main High Seas Fleet was still in harbour, found it steaming towards him. He immediately changed course, moving north to join Jellicoe in the hope of luring the enemy into the hands of the Grand Fleet. The Germans, who were still unaware of its presence in the area, chased Beatty northwards for two hours, with both sides inflicting heavy damage.

As Beatty sighted Jellicoe's six divisions approaching from the north-west, he turned eastwards in front of the Germans to position himself correctly. Jellicoe deployed his fleet into the line of battle on the port wing column, placing the Grand Fleet across Scheer's line of retreat to his bases in Germany.

At about 6.30pm the first British shells were fired and as all the ships of both fleets came into range there was a heavy general engagement during which the British fleet in line crossed the German 'T'. Realising that he faced imminent destruction, Scheer suddenly reversed course in a simultaneous 180-degree turn under cover of smoke and destroyer attacks. He headed west and soon his ships were out of range, as Jellicoe continued southwards. Just before 7.00pm Scheer turned back again towards the British, apparently because he believed, incorrectly, that Jellicoe had divided his fleet. The Germans again came under heavy attack from the Grand Fleet and once more Scheer turned away, with four remaining battlecruisers being ordered against the British line to cover the withdrawal. Fearing torpedo attacks Jellicoe decided to turn away at 7.20pm, allowing the enemy to escape south-west.

He positioned himself across one of the enemy's possible lines of escape in the hope of bringing Scheer to battle the following morning. However, the wrong route was chosen and Scheer was able to pass south-east through the rear of the British fleet during the night; there were several small actions but none affected the outcome of the battle. As soon as Jellicoe realised that the Germans had escaped he made arrangements to return home.

The last great naval battle fought solely with surface ships, Jutland (or the Skagerrak as it was called by the Germans) was a strategic victory for the British; the High Seas Fleet never again challenged British dominance in the North Sea and in future the German naval effort was concentrated on unrestricted submarine warfare. Tactically it was a drawn battle, there being considerable British disappointment at the failure to bring the enemy to a decisive action. British losses were heavier than the German and for this reason the battle was claimed to be the latters victory. The British had suffered 6,784 casualties, and lost three battlecruisers, the cruisers and eight destroyers; the Germans lost one old battleship, one battlecruiser, four light cruisers and five destroyers, as well as 3,099 casualties.


An Illustrated Companion to the First World War by Anthony Bruce

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