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  • Jutland – the most Decisive Battle of the First World War by Phil Carradice

    The Battle of Jutland, fought on 31 May 1916, has long been regarded as an indecisive stalemate with neither side willing to risk the safety of its capital ships. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

    Jutland 1 The Grand Fleet at sea, led by Admiral Jellicoe in the battleship Iron Duke - in Churchill's words, Jellicoe was 'the only man who could have lost the war in a single afternoon'. It was a responsibility that weighed heavily on the admiral's mind.

    Jutland was actually the most significant action fought during the four long years of war, either on land or on the ocean. It was a battle where both sides claimed victory. The British lost more ships and men but the German vessels suffered more crippling and long-lasting damage. The German High Seas Fleet managed to escape total destruction at the hands of Jellicoe’s battleships, leaving the scene of the action in the gloom of evening. However, the only question needing to be asked is: ‘Who retained control of the field at the end of the battle?’

    Jutland 3 Admiral Reinhard Scheer, mastermind of the German plan and commander-in-chief of the High Seas.

    The answer is simple – the British. After the battle Admiral Scheer retired to port and, with the exception of one tentative venture that ended without action or contact between the fleets, the next time the High Seas Fleet left port was to surrender in 1918.

    After 31 May 1916 the Royal Navy retained control of the North Sea, effectively bottling up the German capital ships and allowing them to play no further part in the war. It meant that the naval blockade of Germany became increasingly effective, so much so that by the spring and summer of 1918 there was starvation and destitution in many German cities.

    If the British blockade of Germany was a major factor in the Allied victory, Germany also nearly pulled off a similar coup. Following the failure of its surface fleet to destroy the Royal Navy, Germany turned in ever greater desperation to its submarine fleet. Not only did the sinking of Allied and Neutral cargo ships almost bring Britain to her knees in 1917 and 1918, the indiscriminate use of U-boats effectively brought the USA into the war.

    Once America entered the conflict it became essential to cripple Britain before supplies, weapons and troops from the New World began to arrive in huge numbers. This, of course, meant more submarine sinkings and a degree of terror on the Atlantic that was only really ended by the adoption of the convoy system. Arguably, the success of the U-boats in 1917 and 1918 spawned the creation of Dönitz’s U-boat fleet in the Second World War.

    Jutland 4 Admiral Beatty - hero or villain of Jutland, depending on your source.

    None of this would have come about had Admirals Scheer and Hipper managed to destroy the Grand Fleet at Jutland. They certainly had a good go at it, aided by the criminal laxity of Admiral Beatty, commander of the British battlecruiser squadron.

    Beatty and his commanders were obsessed with the concept of rapid fire. The battlecruisers were notoriously inaccurate with their gunnery – only a few weeks before Jutland the captain of the Tiger had been reprimanded for poor returns during gunnery practise. Consequently Beatty felt that the weight and quantity of shells fired in action would be a good alternative to accuracy.

    Jutland 5 At dawn on 1 June Admiral Jellicoe found his fleet spread out across the North Sea. But of the German High Seas Fleet, there was no sign. He had won the day and, with the threat of submarine attack growing more likely by the hour, he ordered a return to Scapa Flow and Rosyth.

    In order to facilitate this quick firing, cordite was removed from its protective casings before action began and unprotected charges were stacked on mess decks and in gun turrets all across the ships. In addition, the doors to the magazines were left permanently open so that charges and shells could be moved more quickly. What that meant was that the British battlecruisers were little more than floating bombs, waiting to go off once accurate German fire hit home.

    Two battlecruisers exploded and sank in the early stages of the battle, one more just before the end, causing Beatty to make his famous remark, ‘There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.’ There was – it was Admiral David Beatty and his captains. Interestingly, the commander of the battlecruiser Princess Royal refused to have anything to do with the shoddy practise of the other ships. The Princess Royal was hit by dozens of German shells but the closed magazine doors saved lives and his ship.

    Jutland 6 The High Seas Fleet had lost fewer ships (eleven German compared to fourteen British) and with 2,545 men killed, compared to 6,097 British, they claimed a victory. However, their ships had sustained considerably more damage and several of them never sailed again. This shows the damage to Hipper's flagship Seydlitz.

    In the wake of the battle an enquiry, headed by Admiral Tudor, was held to determine the cause of the British losses. Tudor’s report was condemnatory of the ‘open doors’ policy employed on the battlecruisers but the Navy chose to suppress the report and blame, instead, the poor deck armour of the ships. Admiral Tudor was even forced to write a letter of apology to Beatty and was subsequently posted to the backwater of the China Fleet.

    Despite the higher British losses (6,097 men compared to just 2,545 German sailors) Jutland was a hugely decisive and effective battle, particularly for the Royal Navy. At the end of the day, as the High Seas Fleet retreated to its base, the war had been effectively won by the British. The conflict might drag on for another two years but naval commanders, planners and politicians on both sides were supremely aware that the outcome of the war was decided on 31 May 1916.

    031589 1916 at Sea CVR.indd

    Phil Carradice's book 1916 The First World War at Sea in Photographs, along with the rest in the series, is available now.

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