The Battle of Jutland

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.



5 Responses to “The Battle of Jutland”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Winston Churchill made the key point.

    • yep – keeping a factor of ~2 superiority in dreadnought numbers had to be paramount to ensure control of the seas… so in that regard jellicoe “won”. even if it came at the cost of 6000 dead on his side.

  2. Bit unfair on Jellicoe there, he did successfully spring the trap on Scheer twice by crossing the T on him.

  3. From German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel:

    Even if you don’t read German, you might be interested in the photos and videos on the page, as well as links to other pages.

  4. My great uncle was on board HMS Orion at Jutland! He was 19. I have Jellicoe’s autobiography, Scheer’s autobiography and a lot of the books from the ‘Jutland controversy’ in my personal library. It’s a fascinating battle but I think the fundamental military reality is that on 1 June the sole fleet at sea was Jellicoe’s, making it a total strategic victory. His caution at dusk against a torpedo attack was understandable. He didn’t have to sink German ships in order to retain British sea superiority – but if they sank enough of his, he’d lose that superiority and with it command of the sea. British worries included the possibility of the Germans dropping mines while withdrawing. So his tactics were correct against that strategic priority. Don’t forget – he had been part of the design committee for HMS Dreadnought and knew exactly what his ships could do. And there is the fact that Jellicoe knew he was between the German fleet and their bases as night fell. He fully expected to renew the engagement in the morning – against a German fleet he had already pounded. That failure was due to a raft of reasons involving failures by his subsidiary commanders, and Jellicoe’s distrust of signals intelligence. If he had been able to re-engage Scheer next morning I think the outcome would have been that ‘second Trafalgar’ that the public – and history – expected of him. But it wasn’t needed at a strategic level.

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