The Battle of Jutland was the most significant naval battle of the First World War. Lasting 36 hours, the battle spanned the 31st May and 1st June 1916. The Battle was fought as an attempt by the German navy commanded by Admiral Scheer to damage a portion of the British Grand Fleet. The British intercepted the German Fleet off the Danish Peninsula of Jutland. The Battle saw three main phases and resulted in Capital ships of both fleets being sunk.
The German Plan
Germany was suffering as a result of the British blockade of her shipping lanes. To counter this the fleet came up with a plan. They would take the offensive to the British. Submarines would be used to harass British shipping and to lure parts of the Fleet into open waters and a trap. This policy had been reasonably effective but the Germans needed to inflict more damage to the British Fleet if they were to open up supply routes. Pressure had been put on Germany to stop attacking merchant shipping by the Americans. As a result of this, the tactics needed to change.
The plan was to have submarines lure a portion of Admiral Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet into open waters. This would be achieved by attacking military vessels, not merchant ones. If submarines attacked the fleet, they would be chased and attacked. If there were several submarines, the number of vessels put to the open seas would be larger. The submarine force could be used to lure these vessels into a trap. If timed correctly the British would have a small portion of the fleet chasing the submarines and the might of the German fleet could engage them.
British codebreakers had the ability to locate German ships and to read the encrypted messages sent. The Admiralty therefore knew that a German operation at sea was impending. Plans were put in place to take countermeasures. The cryptologists were to be consulted on German positions which would enable the full weight of the Royal Navy to be brought to bear on the German Fleet. The codebreakers knew that the German Fleet had set sail. The Admirals of the Fleet and commanders of the ports were not given this news. The GCHQ website explains the reasons for this. Whilst the codebreakers knew that the Fleet had left port, they were only asked where the German Admirals call sign was currently situated. The codebreakers accurately stated that his call sign was located at Wilhelmshaven. They were not asked about the Fleet or whether the Admiral was using the call sign: he was on the flagship and using the ships call sign. The message sent to British ships was that the German fleet had not left port, they were safe to sortie into the North Sea. This is a case of the wrong question being asked and the answer being misinterpreted. It led to the Royal Navy being surprised and unready when they spotted the German Fleet at sea.
The Fleet was put to sea on 30th May in anticipation of the German operation. The German plan to trap the British would be turned into a trap for the German Fleet. The Grand Fleet left Scapa Flow into the North Sea. The smaller fleet of battlecruisers commanded by Admiral Beatty also put to sea. The Interception plan relied on the two fleets combining, Beatty’s ships were no match for Dreadnought class ships.
The misunderstanding of intelligence posed a problem.
The Battle of Jutland: Phase 1
Beatty’s Battlecruisers left the Forth in the early hours of 31st May. They soon saw German submarines. The Germans fired on some of the Battlecruisers but were forced to dive to evade others. Not realising that the Royal Navy were sailing in zig zags, they sent information to Scheer that the British ships were in a split formation. Beatty, aware that submarines would have been present as part of the German plan, continued to his rendezvous point.
The first contact came as the scouting vessels of each fleet saw each other. Hipper’s German vessels sighted the British at 3.22pm, organised themselves and fired on the British line at 3.58pm. Within minutes the German navy had secured their first hit as HMS Indefatigable was struck. Her magazine exploded and she sank with just two surviving. The Queen Mary was hit shortly after, also sinking with just 8 survivors.
Beatty rearranged his ships to engage the German Fleet more effectively. Unfortunately some vessels had transferred from the Grand Fleet and were not aware of the standing orders nor or Beatty’s methods when faced with changing circumstances. A consequence of this was that not all British ships would be engaged at the same time in a later phase of the battle.
Hipper harried and engaged Beatty’s Battlecruisers whilst maintaining a southerly direction. This was intended to bring Beatty’s Battlecruisers into contact with Scheer’s Fleet. The British seem to have been disorganised at this point. The Battleships available did not receive messages for several minutes, meaning they sailed on the a different heading and were out of range at critical moments. The Fleet did not fire at the Germans for minutes, even though they were in range. It is thought that there was a delay in altering the fleets formation into a battle ready formation. Each of these can have consequences in a naval battle, minutes make a lot of difference.
The Battle of Jutland: Phase 2
The German plan to lure the British toward the Destroyers under Scheer had worked. At 4.30pm the British sighted the German Destroyers. The bulk of the British Fleet under Beatty now turned north to evade Scheers stronger force. The Destroyers in Beatty’s fleet engaged the German ships, an action for which Captain Bingham was awarded the Victoria Cross as the few British Destroyers at this stage were heavily outnumbered.
Beatty’s plan now mirrored that which the Germans had used to lure his ships toward Sheer. In what is called the Run to the North he turned and made for the Grand Fleet of Jellicoe. Not all of the line received the orders though, poor signalling left some vessels within range of the German Destroyers who engaged them from distance. This small group of battleships endured a pounding as they acted as a rearguard but not were lost.
The Battle of Jutland: Phase 3
The two British fleets converged at around 6pm. The German Fleet was also converging. Both sides now needed to know the precise location of the other. Whichever side had this information first had a huge advantage. They would be able to set a formation that brought about maximum firepower while limiting the risk to their own ships. British records show that Admiral Jellicoe was received little accurate information. Based on that and the balance of risks he opted to deploy at 6.15pm to a line that, if right, would silhouette the German fleet against the sunset.
Scheer had no intelligence of Jellicoe’s fleet being in the vicinity. He believed that he was facing a smaller force. At 6.30pm they sailed straight into the full line of British Destroyers. Fire was rapid and Scheer quickly realised that his fleet was in grave danger. He turned his fleet 180 degrees for them to evade the Grand Fleet.
Soon after Scheer realised that his ships would not be safe in the direction that they were headed. They remained silhouetted. He took the brave decision to turn to the east. This meant crossing Jellicoe’s line but offered the possibility of safety at sea overnight. As the Germans reached their weakest point they deployed some vessels to attack the British head on. The Scouting group assigned this tasks undertook what has been termed the ‘Death Ride’ to distract the British from aiming at the main German fleet. Despite facing the fire of 18 British Battleships and suffering heavy casualties, the ships survived this assault.
Fighting during the night was confused and sporadic. The German fleet managed to blast its way through the screen of ships the British had to the north. Messages did not reach Admiral Jellicoe. During the night the British lost five destroyers.
The German Fleet made her way back to port with few further attacks made by either side. The Battle of Jutland had lasted in the region of 36 hours from the first torpedo to the last.
Who won the Battle of Jutland?
The immediate aftermath of the Battle of Jutland saw the Germans declaring victory and the British concurring that they had suffered losses. It was several days before the German losses themselves were realised by which time the British public believed the longed for sea battle had in fact been lost.
If the measure of victory is the number of lives lost, or ships lost, then the victor was indeed the German Fleet. The Royal Navy lost 6094 men. 115,000 tons of British ships were sunk. The German Fleet suffered the loss of 2551 lives. 63,000 tons of shipping was sunk.
Strategically the Battle of Jutland led to changes. The German Fleet did not set sail into the North Sea again, instead concentrating on the Baltic. Scheer changed his approach toward the British by instituting unrestricted U-Boat campaigns against shipping going to British ports. The inability of Scheer to damage the British Grand Fleet (it had recovered its losses within a month) meant that Germany had not broken the blockade. This was incredibly significant to the overall picture within the war.
Jutland 1916 – Centenary website