I’m going to be away for the rest of the week so I thought I’d mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland a little early. In fact this battle, by far the largest naval engagement of the First World War, started on 31st May 1916 and carried on into the early hours of the morning of 1st June when the German fleet, under Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer, retreated. It took place in the North Sea off the western coast of the Jutland peninsula, and is referred to in Germany as the Battle of the Skagerrak, the strait that separates Jutland from southern Norway.
At the time of the battle are that Germany was under a naval blockade imposed by the Royal Navy, the main parts of which were organised into a “rapid response” fleet of cruisers and battle-cruisers (led by Admiral Sir David Beatty) and a “Grand Fleet” of larger but slower battleships (under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe). Knowing that his combined forces were much smaller than those of the British, so he couldn’t afford to take them on head to head, Scheer’s plan was to draw out and destroy as much as possible of the lighter British fleet before the heavier ships could react. The problem was that the British had deciphered German communications that revealed a major operation was under way, so in fact the Grand Fleet left its base in Scapa Flow on May 30th, 100 years ago today.
HMS Barham Valiant Malaya & Warspite heading to the Battle of Jutland on May 31st 1916
The first engagement, which turned out to be a preliminary skirmish, went very much in Germany’s favour, and two of Beatty’s battlecruisers were sunk. However, he then used his fleet to lure the German ships towards Jellicoe’s forces and battle was joined between the two main fleets. The outcome of this battle in terms of lost men and material was clearly in Germany’s favour. They exploited numerous technical deficiencies in the British ships as well as tactical errors by their commanding officers, and ended up sinking 3 battlecruisers, 3 armoured cruisers, and 8 destroyers for the loss of 1 battlecruiser, 1 pre-dreadnought, 4 light cruisers and 5 torpedo-boats. In terms of casualties it was even clearer: over 6,000 were killed on the British side compared to just over 2,500 on the German side.
One other thing is clear, the cautious Jellicoe missed at least two opportunities to secure a decisive victory. The first came when Scheer’s fleet first encountered the British Grand Fleet. Staggered to see the massed battleships of Jellicoe’s force precisely where it shouldn’t have been, Scheer turned his entire flight around to the West. Jellicoe didn’t follow it, but instead turned to the East. He could have sprung the trap but didn’t. Later on he compunded this decision by allowing the German ships to slip through his formation under the cover of darkness, back towards their base, after the battle proper had ended.
The strategic outcome of the Battle of Jutland is a bit harder to judge. Some have argued that although it was a tactical defeat it was a strategic victory. The naval blockade indeed remained in place until 1918 and it undoubtedly contributed to the eventual defeat of Germany. Seen in that light, Jellicoe’s decision not to take risks to secure an outright victory is quite understandable. He didn’t need an outright victory, he just needed to keep the German flight bottled up. A draw was fine. To others, Jellicoe had simply messed up. Winston Churchill described Jellicoe as “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon”.
Jutland became a PR disaster when the British government failed to inform the public what had happened and allowed the Germans to gain a huge propaganda victory. It got worse when battered ships laden with dead and badly wounded sailors arrived at their home ports. Jellicoe was soon removed from his position as commander of the Grand Fleet and given a desk job as First Sea Lord. Beatty replaced him.
Anyway, that was all 100 years ago. It’s not such a long time by historical standards, but at least now another war between Britain and Germany is unthinkable, and has been for over 70 years. Let’s keep it that way.