On 25 April 1916, whilst returning from the Lowestoft Raid, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, Commander-in-Chief of the German High Seas Fleet (HSF), learnt that U-boats were to conduct commerce warfare in line with prize law regulations until further notice. This decision was made after the USA threatened to cut off diplomatic relations with Germany following the sinking of the SS Sussex with the loss of 50 civilian lives, some of them American. This severely reduced the effectiveness of U-boats against merchant ships, Scheer decided that it would be better to employ his long range U-boats in co-operation with his surface fleet against enemy warships.
A raid by battlecruisers on Sunderland in the north east of England, supported by battleships. was planned for 17 May but had to be postponed for six days because some battleships developed condenser problems. It was expected that Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet (GF) would respond, so U-boats were positioned to ambush them. Ten U-boats were to patrol the North Sea from 17 to 22 May. On 23 May two would position themselves off the Pentland Firth, on the Grand Fleet’s route from its base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands into the North Sea, and eight off the Firth of Forth to intercept Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Fleet (BCF) as it left Rosyth. Another U-boat would force her way into the Firth of Forth, close to Rosyth, one would reconnoitre Sunderland and two would watch the Humber, where a neutral merchantman had told the Germans, wrongly, that a large British force, including battleships, was located. Three more boats would lay mines in the Firth of Forth, the Moray Firth and west of the Orkneys.
The operation had to be postponed because repairs to the battlecruiser SMS Seydlitz, damaged by a mine in the Lowestoft Raid, took longer than expected. Technical problems with two U-boats meant that there were only eight off the Firth of Forth and the plan to send another into the Firth had to be abandoned. A coded message was sent to the U-boats on 30 May, two days before they were due to return home, informing them that the HSF was about to put to sea.
The initial plan to attack Sunderland was abandoned on 30 May because high winds made airship reconnaissance, which Scheer needed to guard his northern flank, impossible. It was replaced by a sweep in the Skagerrak, the water between southern Norway and northern Denmark, apparently aimed at the British cruisers and merchant ships that were frequently seen there. Cruisers and torpedo boats could guard the exposed flank since the HSF would not be going so far from its bases.
The GF was far bigger than the HSF. The British had 28 dreadnoughts, nine battlecruisers, eight armoured cruisers, 26 light cruisers, 78 destroyers, a minelayer and a seaplane carrier against 16 dreadnoughts, five battlecruisers, six pre-dreadnoughts, 11 light cruisers and 61 torpedo boats (equivalent to British destroyers). The full order of battle is listed in Wikipedia, with links to details of ships and biographies of senior officers.
Jellicoe thought that the odds were not as strongly in his favour as was the case. The British always assumed that the Germans would come out when at full strength, whilst some British ships would always be under refit or repair. The newly commissioned dreadnought HMS Royal Sovereign was still working up and the dreadnoughts HMS Queen Elizabeth and Emperor of India, the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, two cruisers and 17 destroyers were in the dockyard. However, the dreadnought SMS König was also in the dockyard and the new dreadnought SMS Baden, the first German ship with 15 inch guns, was still working up.
The British thought that these ships and the incomplete battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg were with the HSF, whilst Jellicoe feared, wrongly, that the Germans had completed the Greek battleship Salamis, building in a German yard at the outbreak of war, for themselves.
The six German pre-dreadnoughts were old and poorly armed ships that slowed the HSF to 18 knots, 3 knots slower than the GF. Overall, the British had a big advantage in firepower:
|Total heavy guns||272||72||344||200||44||244|
Source: Marder, A. J., From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919. 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70), vol. ii, p. 438.
The number of guns is the total carried, but the broadsides exclude guns that could not bear on both sides: British 12 12 inch and German 16 12 inch and 16 11 inch.
These numbers do not tell the full story. A warship is a trade off between speed, firepower and protection. The British put protection bottom of the list, the Germans top, as the following figures show.
The first number in the second column is the number built and the second the number at Jutland. As well as those listed above as unavailable, SMS Goeben of the Moltke class had been transferred to the Ottoman Navy, HMS Dreadnought was no longer assigned to the GF, HMS Audacious of the King George V class was sunk by a mine in 1914 and a Bayern and two Royal Sovereigns were still building. the last three British battleships listed were vessels under construction for foreign navies in British yards at the start of the war that were requisitioned for the RN.
|Class||Number||Displacement||Speed (kts)||Belt (in)||Main armament|
|1/0||17,900||21||11||10 x 12 inch|
|Bellorophon||3/3||18,800||21||10||10 x 12 inch|
|St Vincent||3/3||19,560||21||10||10 x 12 inch|
|Neptune||1/1||19,680||21||10||10 x 12 inch|
|Colossus||2/2||20,225||21||11||10 x 12 inch|
|Orion||4/4||22,200||21||12||10 x 13.5 inch|
|King George V||4/3||23,200||21||12||10 x 13.5 inch|
|Iron Duke||4/4||25,820||21||12||10 x 13.5 inch|
|Queen Elizabeth||5/4||27,500||25||13||8 x 15 inch|
|Royal Sovereign||5/2||25,750||21||13||8 x 15 inch|
|Canada||1/1||28,600||23||9||10 x 14 inch|
|Agincourt||1/1||27,500||22||9||14 x 12 inch|
|Erin||1/1||22,780||21||12||10 x 13.5 inch|
|4/4||18,569||20||11.75||12 x 11 inch|
|Helgoland||4/4||22,437||21||11.75||12 x 12 inch|
|Kaiser||5/4||24,333||21||13.75||10 x 12 inch|
|Konig||4/4||25,391||21||13.75||10 x 12 inch|
|Bayern||2/0||28,061||22||13.75||8 x 15 inch|
|Class||Number||Displacement||Speed (kts)||Belt (in)||Main armament|
|3/3||17,250||25||6||8 x 12 inch|
|Indefatigable||3/2||18,500||25||6||8 x 12 inch|
|Lion||3/3||26270-27,300||27-28||9||8 x 13.5 inch|
|Tiger||1/1||26,270||28||9||8 x 13.5 inch|
Von der Tann
|1/1||19,064||25||10||8 x 11 inch|
|Moltke||2/1||22,616||26||10.5||10 x 11 inch|
|Seydlitz||1/1||23,707||26||11.75||8 x 12 inch|
|Derfflinger||3/2||26,180-26,513||26||11.75||8 x 12 inch|
Source: Tarrant, V. E., Jutland: The German Perspective (London: Arms & Armour Press, 1995), pp. 255-57.
HMS Queen Mary of the Lion class and SMS Lützow and the incomplete SMS Hindenburg of the Derfflinger class were a little bigger and a knot faster than their sisters.
The speed of a fleet is that of the slowest vessel, so the GF was capable of 21 knots versus 18 for the HSF because of its slow pre-dreadnoughts. The British BCF and the battlecruisers of the 1 German Scouting Group (1SG) could both make 25 knots. The British had a gunnery advantage in both cases but the Germans, especially their battlecruisers were better armoured.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The British speed advantage may have been even greater than the official speeds of the ships. Welsh steam coal was superior to German coal as a fuel for ships and poor coal sometimes restricted the speed of German warships.
The German ships advantage in protection was more than the tables above suggest because their ships were divided into a much larger number of water tight compartments with strong bulkheads than British ones, allowing them to take far more punishment before foundering. This meant that German sailors had more cramped living conditions than British ones, which was considered acceptable because their ships were designed for shorter range operations. It is, however, a myth that the sailors lived ashore in barracks when their ships were in port. Some U-boat and destroyer crews based in Flanders did so but not the men of the HSF based in Germany.
The British firepower advantage was negated to a large extent by the inferiority of their armour piercing (AP) shells. The long range at which Jutland was mostly fought meant that shells struck their target’s side armour at an oblique angle. British fuses burst their shells on impact if it was at an oblique angle. Even when British AP shells did not hit at an oblique angle, the over sensitivity of the lyddite with which they were filled caused them to explode on impact instead of penetrating the enemy’s armour. British shell design and production was the responsibility of the Board of Ordnance, which was part of the War Office, not the Admiralty. Jellicoe had requested realistic trials when he was Third Sea Lord, but the issue was allowed to drop when he returned to sea in December 1910. The superior German AP shells were filled with trotyl (TNT).
The German rangefinders were superior to British ones. Their ladder method of finding the range enabled them to score hits more quickly than the British bracket system. The British waited to see if a salvo had hit before correcting the next one. The Germans fired three quick salvos several hundred yards apart in order to find where the enemy was within the ladder. All British gunnery officers at Jutland thought that the German gunnery was better than the British early in the battle but then deteriorated. This may be because the visibility favoured the Germans early on and the British later. The German stereoscopic rangefinders were excellent but hard to use. Their operators had to have eyesight that was not only excellent but identical in both eyes, whereas anybody could be trained to use a British rangefinder. One theory is that the concentration needed to use a German rangefinder might result in the operator’s performance declining under the stress and strain of battle. The Germans had better searchlights and binoculars, which gave them an advantage at night.
The British, particularly the BCF, had poor flash protection and ammunition handing procedures. An emphasis on rate of fire led to magazine doors being left open and to many charges being removed from their magazine cases. A shell bursting in a turret could then cause a flash that would travel down the hoist to the magazine. This was exacerbated by the violent way in which British charges would catch fire.
SMS Seydlitz was saved from a magazine explosion at the Battle of Dogger Bank when her executive officer ordered two magazines to be flooded. A German seaman captured in 1918, who had been on Seydlitz at Dogger Bank, told his British interrogators that extra doors had been added to her hoists and the number of charges taken out of the magazine reduced after Dogger Bank.
John Campbell argues in his detailed analysis of Jutland that Seydlitz would have blown up at Dogger Bank had she had British charges.
The British had had a warning about their poor anti-flash protection at the Battle of the Falklands in 1914. The armoured cruiser HMS Kent would probably have blown up had Sergeant Charles Mayes RMLI not put out a fire that threatened a magazine. The Admiralty gave him the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal but did not change the RN’s ammunition handing procedures.
Ironically, the one battlecruiser on which ammunition handling procedures were improved was Beatty’s flagship HMS Lion. Alexander Grant, her newly appointed Chief Gunner wrote in his unpublished memoirs, Through the Hawse Pipe, that the Gunnery Officer and Captain accepted his suggestion of:
‘drastic alterations in the supply of cordite. These were (1) One magazine to be in use only during action. (2) Not more than one full charge to be in handling room. (3) during any lull in the demand for charges the magazine door to be closed and watertight clips put on. (4) On no account should the magazines be flooded except on receipt of an order from a responsible officer.’
Click here for the full extract. A Chief Gunner was a warrant officer promoted from the ranks. Through the hawse pipe is an old RN phrase referring to an officer who had started his career in the lower deck.
Another potential British weakness was Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet Battle Tactics. They discouraged the use of initiative by the commanders of battleship divisions: the GF was divided into five battle squadrons, the first four of which each consisted of two divisions of four battleships, with the fifth containing the five fast battleship of the Queen Elizabeth class.
The first German ships left port at 1:00 am on 31 May. The GF had sailed from Scapa Flow at 10:30 pm the night before as the British were aware that the Germans were planning a major operation.
On the morning of 31 May the Admiralty’s Director of the Operations Division, Rear Admiral Thomas Jackson, visited its code-breakers in Room 40. He was told that it was in Wilhelmshaven, where it always was. It was used by Scheer when his flagship was in port, but he used another call sign when at sea, with DK then being transferred to a shore station in Wilhelmshaven. Jackson did not inquire further, but at 12:30 pm sent a signal to Jellicoe informing him that Scheer was at Wilhelmshaven. The GF consequently headed for the rendezvous with the BCF at a slower speed in order to conserve fuel.
The Battlecruiser Action 1: The Run to the South
At 2:20 pm HMS Galatea, one of the BCF’s light cruisers, hoisted the signal ‘Enemy in sight.’ Both the BCF and the SG had sent ships to investigate a Dutch merchant ship.
The BCF normally consisted of three squadrons each of three battlecruisers. However, the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron had been transferred to Rosyth, where there was more room to conduct gunnery practice, and replaced by the Rear Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas’s 5th Battle Squadron. With the battlecruiser HMAS Australia and the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth unavailable, Beatty had five battlecruisers and four battleships against Admiral Franz Hipper’s five battlecruisers. Both also had light cruisers and destroyers with them.
Beatty headed towards the enemy, which he at first thought comprised only light cruisers, but the 5th Battle Squadron did not immediately follow. The problem appears to have been that Beatty led the BCF on a follow me basis, which was more appropriate for his force than for the GF. Evan-Thomas, who had not been given a copy of the orders under which the BCF operated, was used to Jellicoe’s more regimented process and did not initially react to Beatty’s move.
The BCF included a seaplane carrier, HMS Engadine, but she launched only one of her four seaplanes, crewed by pilot Flight Lieutenant F. J. Rutland and observer Paymaster G. S. Trewin. Low clouds restricted their visibility to only one to four miles.
The GF also included a seaplane carrier, HMS Campania, but signalling errors resulted in her being left in harbour. She could have caught up but Jellicoe, who thought that her maximum speed was 19 knots rather than the actual 21.5 knots and was worried that she would be vulnerable to U-boats, ordered her to stay in port.
The SG opened fire at about 15,000 yards range at 3:48 pm, with the BCF replying seconds later. Beatty thought that the range was 18,000 yards, 500 less than the maximum of his two 12 inch armed ships. The 13.5 inch guns on the others had a range of 23-24,000 yards.
The SG now attempted to lead the BCF onto the HSF, with a high speed chase to the south developing. At 4:00 a hit on Lion’s Q turret might have caused her to blow up had it not been for the measures introduced by Chief Gunner Grant and the orders given by mortally wounded Royal Marine Major Francis Harvey to close the magazine doors and flood the magazines. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. A later post in this series will cover the Jutland VCs.
Three minutes later HMS Indefatigable blew up, with the loss of 1,017 men killed. The two survivors were picked up by the Germans. Just after this SMS Moltke launched four torpedoes, which was followed by false sightings of U-boats by the British.
The 5th Battle Squadron, after firing on German light cruisers, spotted the enemy battlecruisers at 4:05. They had just ceased fire because of the range. Evan-Thomas turned south to conform to Beatty’s course before opening fire at 19,000 yards. His squadron’s fire was more accurate than that of the British battlecruisers, but at such a long range the shells were the enemy at an oblique angle, causing the over sensitive lyddite in them to explode on contact rather than to penetrate. The visibility was now obscured by haze and smoke.
At 4:10 both Beatty and Hipper altered course to close the range and the Germans reopened fire at 4:17. HMS Queen Mary came under fire from both Derfflinger and Seydlitz. The Germans praised her shooting, but at 4:26 she blew up. Only 20 of her men were rescued, 18 by the British, one of whom later died, and two by the Germans. The other 1,266 men on board went down with her.
The next stage of the action was a destroyer action that resulted in the sinking of HMS Nestor and Nomad and SMS V27 and V29. One torpedo hit Seydlitz, but did not do much damage. Nestor’s captain, Commander Edward Bingham was awarded the VC. He was rescued by the Germans, the only one of the four Jutland VC winners to survive the battle.
About 4:30 Commodore William Goodenough’s light cruiser HMS Southampton spotted the HSF. He signalled Beatty by searchlight at 4:33 and Jellicoe and Beatty by wireless at 4:38 that enemy battleships were in sight. At 4:40 Beatty ordered his force to rejoin the GF. His mission was now to lead the enemy to Jellicoe.
The Battlecruiser Action 2: The Run to the North
The 5th Battle Squadron suffered heavy damage during the next phase of the battle, but also scored hits on the Germans. The visibility now favoured the British, with the sun appearing through the mist, behind them and low in the sky . The firing died away by 5:30, when Jellicoe and his battleships were 23 miles away, with battlecruiser and cruiser ahead of them.
At 5:35 the light cruiser HMS Chester, attached to Rear Admiral Sir Horace Hood’s 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron, was badly damaged by the light cruisers of the German 2nd Scouting Group. Hood took his three battlecruisers to her aid, leaving the light cruiser Wiesbaden wrecked and two other light cruisers badly damaged. Hood’s four destroyers then attacked the Germans. HMS Shark was sunk in a successful attempt to prevent a German torpedo attack on Hood’s battlecruisers.
Commander Loftus Jones, Shark’s captain, and 16 year old Boy Seaman Jack Cornwall of Chester were both later awarded posthumous VCs. Cornwall, the third youngest ever winner of the VC and the youngest since 1860, stayed at his post despite being severely wounded.
Rear Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot’s 1st Cruiser Squadron of four obsolete armoured cruisers now appeared. Arbuthnot was a fitness fanatic who was once attacked by three of his seamen at night. Two of his assailants ended up in hospital.
Arbuthnot took his ships towards the crippled Wiesbaden, engaging her at close range and forcing Lion to change course. The German battleships and battlecruisers then appeared and opened fire, sinking Arbuthnot’s flagship HMS Defence at 6:20 with the loss of all 903 men on board and damaging her sister HMS Warrior so badly that she later sank. Theories on Arbuthnot’s motivation include sacrificing his squadron with a torpedo attack to cover the GF’s deployment, supporting Beatty, reconnaissance in poor visibility, an offensive spirit and a berserk rush.
Warrior was saved from immediate destruction by HMS Warspite, which made two complete circles after a shell hit and jammed her helm, drawing enemy fire away from Warrior.
The Battle Fleet Action
At 6:14 Jellicoe was informed Beatty that the HSF was in sight, leaving him with a vital decision to make. On which flank should he deploy as he moved his battleships from their cruising formation into their battle line? The starboard flank was closest to the enemy, but his ships would have to turn under heavy fire and probably attacks by torpedo boats. His problem was that the lack of reports from his scouting forces meant that he had to make the decision when the enemy was closer than he would have liked. He chose to deploy to port.
A few have criticised Jellicoe’s decision, notably the Dewar brothers, two RN officers who wrote a controversial internal Admiralty study of Jutland highly critical of Jellicoe, Winston Churchill, whose account of the battle is largely based on the Dewar’s work and Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee, victor of the Battle of the Falklands and commanding the 4th Battle Squadron at Jutland. Most, however, agree that Jellicoe was correct: they include all the GF admirals except Sturdee; the British and German Official Histories; the historian Arthur Marder; Scheer’s Chief of Staff Vize Admiral Alfred von Trotha; Admiral John Godfrey, later a Staff college lecturer; Vice Admiral John Harper, author of another Admiralty study of the battle; Admiral Sir Reginald Drax, who was on Lion at Jutland; Sir Bertram Ramsay, who commanded the naval forces at the evacuation of Dunkirk and the invasion of Normandy; and Viscount Cunningham who commanded the Mediterranean Fleet in the first half of WWII, including winning the Battle of Matapan and then became First Sea Lord.
The port deployment meant that the GF crossed the T of the HSF, allowing it to fire full broadsides whilst the Germans could reply with only their forward firing guns. There was a delay, but this benefitted the GF as it gave it longer to stretch its line and complete the crossing of the T. It put the GF on the HSF’s line of retreat and gave the GF the advantage of the light. Deploying to starboard lost all these advantages in return only for getting into action quickly. the Dewars and Churchill suggested instead a deployment on the centre, but this would have been a complex manoeuvre that had never been practiced.
Hood’s three battlecruisers had now joined the BCF. Invincible scored a series of hits on Lützow, but about 6:30 the mist that had been obscuring the British ships cleared. The Germans opened fire and Invincible became the fourth British ship to blow up. There were 1,032 dead and only six survivors.
Some reports claim that more men got into the water from the sunk ships but that they were later run down by the advancing British fleet, which had no time or room to stop or alter course. However, Commander Hubert Dannreuther, Invincible’s gunnery officer and the senior survivor of the four ships that blew up, believed that the many kitbags and hammocks in the water could have been mistaken for men from the height of a battleship.
The appearance of the GF was a massive shock to Scheer. At 6:33 he ordered his battleships to carry out a battle about turn, i.e. to together turn 16 points (180 degrees) so that they were heading in the opposite direction. This was not difficult in practice and good visibility, but was a big risk of collisions when carrying it out in poor visibility, under fire and with several ships damaged. It was, however, completed successfully.
The HSF was now out of Jellicoe’s sight. At 6:44 he turned south east, altering course to south at 6:55 in order to put the GF on the HSF’s route home. Just before this the battleship HMS Marlborough was hit by a torpedo.
Also at 6:55 Scheer ordered a second battle about turn, this time to the east. His reasoning for this risky manoeuvre was that he had to do something to gain the initiative and prevent the GF blocking the HSF’s route home and attacking it as it retreated. He also sent torpedo boats to help the stricken Wiesbaden, which the British mistook for an attack on the GF.
By 7:12 the HSF was under heavy fire but could see nothing of the enemy except for the flashes of its guns. Scheer therefore issued three orders: at 6:13 he ordered the battlecruisers, less the badly damaged Lützow, which had been detached, to charge the enemy; at 6:15 he ordered his torpedo boats to attack and to lay a smokescreen; and at 6:16 he ordered his battleships to perform another battle about turn in order to escape. This time they were under even heavier fire, but the manoeuvre was again successful.
The German battlecruisers suffered heavy punishment, to which they could offer little response because of the poor visibility, but succeeded in covering the battleship’s withdrawal. The torpedo boat V48 was crippled when retiring after the torpedo attack.
SMS Derfflinger had two of her turrets destroyed by hits from 15 inch shells. According to her gunnery officer, Korvettenkapitän Georg von Hase, her cartridge cases caught fire but ‘only blazed, they did not explode as had been the case in the enemy battlecruisers. This saved the ship, but the result of the fire was catastrophic.’
The German torpedo attack persuaded Jellicoe to turn away from the torpedoes at 7:22, which cost several minutes and put him 3,000 yards further away from the HSF. No British battleships were hit by torpedoes. In the Second World War the preferred tactic was to turn towards the torpedoes and comb them, thus maintaining contact with the enemy, which in this case was beaten and in retreat. Jellicoe missed an opportunity to cause further damage and perhaps turn a retreat into a rout. However, navies then had little experience of massed torpedo attacks and Jellicoe was conscious that heavy losses of British battleships might enable the Germans to lift the Allied blockade and win the war.
The sun set at 8:19 but there would be enough light for the British to continue firing until about 9:00. Jellicoe, having lost touch with the enemy, decided to set a course to intercept Scheer on his route home. He received no information about their location until Beatty reported by searchlight at 7:40 and wireless at 7:48. These signals, however, did not give Jellicoe enough information to set a course to intercept Scheer.
There were a series of actions firstly between light cruisers, then battlecruisers and finally British battlecruisers and German pre-dreadnoughts from 8:18 to 9:40. the British battlecruisers had both a numerical advantage and better gunnery. At 8:45 Vice Admiral Sir Martyn Jerram’s 2nd Battle Squadron sighted three German battleships at 10,000 yards range but Jerram, convinced that they were British battlecruisers, held his fire.
The Night Action
Jellicoe did not want to fight with his battleships because British searchlights were poor and he thought that long range torpedoes made a night action with big ships too risky. This meant that he had to position the GF so as to intercept the HSF at dawn on 1 June.
The British had laid a minefield off the German coast. The Germans kept three channels through it clear: the first, starting from the Horns Reef, gave Scheer a 105 mile journey home from his 9:00 position; the second, starting 15 miles south west of the Horns Reef, was 110 miles long; and the third, 180 miles long, ran along the coast from the River Jade to the River Ems. The second was not known to the British, who had left a channel through the minefield, which was a 135 mile journey but was unknown to the Germans. Jellicoe thought that the Ems route was the most likely because of the last report that he had received of the HSF’s course and because the British maintained a submarine patrol on the Horns Reef route. Scheer, however, was heading for the Horns Reef.
At one point during the night the two battle fleets were sailing on converging courses, like a V. However, a number of chance factors (the British were making 17 knots, the Germans 16, the HSF were delayed because Sheer sent what had been his leading ships to the rear of his line) meant that they just missed each other.
On more than one occasion British battleships declined chances to fire on enemy ones: HMS Thunderer let SMS Moltke go because her captain did not want to reveal the position of the GF ‘unless obvious attack was intended.’ SMS Seydlitz was sighted by HMS Agincourt, whose captain did not want to reveal his division, and by HMS Marlborough, whose captain refused to allow his gunnery officer to fire as he thought that she was British.
HMS Malaya’s gunnery officer was not permitted by his captain to fire on SMS Westfalen on the grounds that Evan-Thomas, two ships ahead, must also have seen the German ship. Evan-Thomas was also informed of a sighting of two German battleships, misidentified as cruisers, by HMS Valiant, but did not pass it on to Jellicoe.
A series of actions took place during the night, mostly involving cruisers and destroyers, but also the battlecruisers. These saw the sinkings of the pre-dreadnought battleship Pommern with all 844 crew, the armoured cruiser HMS Black Prince with all 857 crew, the light cruisers SMS Frauenlob, Elbing and Rostock, the flotilla leader HMS Tipperary, the destroyers HMS Sparrowhawk, Turbulent and Ardent and the torpedo boats SMS S35 and V4. The crippled Wiesbaden and V48 both sank during the night, whilst Lützow was so badly damaged that the Germans scuttled her.
The night actions took place that showed that the German torpedo boats were better trained for night operations than the British destroyers. The Germans had obtained the British two letter challenge signal, probably by observing it, whilst their one was a display of multi-coloured lights that were shown briefly and were impossible to copy.
Sunrise on 1 June was at 3:09 am. Scheer had broken through the British destroyers and light cruisers to reach Horns Reef by 3:00. His fleet was in no fit state to fight but he had evaded Jellicoe.
Jellicoe had got Scheer’s route wrong, but there was time for him to have corrected his mistake and headed for the Horns Reef if he had learnt the truth.
A signal sent by the Admiralty at 9:58 pm on 31 May and handed to Jellicoe at 10:45 gave a position for the HSF that was obviously wrong that. It had been accurately decoded and it was the original German signal that was wrong, but this, coupled with the earlier signal that erroneously said that the HSF was still in port when it was at sea, led Jellicoe to mistrust Admiralty signals. He therefore ignored a message sent at 10:41 and decoded and in his hands between 11:15 and 11:30 that gave accurate information on the HSF’s course.
At 11:30 a searchlight message from the light cruiser HMS Birmingham reported that a number of German battlecruisers were heading on a parallel course to the GF. In fact they were battleships that had temporarily changed course in order to avoid a torpedo attack. This and other reports from his ships convinced him that Scheer was taking the Ems route.
The Admiralty, however, failed to pass on a series of German signals that gave Scheer’s position at 10:43, 11:00, 11:37, 11:43, 00:30 am and 1:00 am that Room 40 decoded between 11:15 pm and 00:25 am.
The worst mistake was not passing on a signal of 9:06 pm from Scheer requesting airship reconnaissance at Horns Reef that was in the hands of the Admiralty by 10:10. Jellicoe later wrote that ‘[t]his was practically a certain indication of his route but was not passed to me.’
The HSF passed over the British submarines at about 4:00 am without being attacked. Its ships reached the Rivers Jade and Elbe between noon and 1:45 pm. The GF was inside Scapa Flow by 11 am on 2 June and ready for sea at four hours’ notice by 9:45 am that day. U-boats attacked HMS Marlborough and Warspite on their way home but neither was hit.
For once in the war at sea, the Germans won the propaganda war, getting their claim of victory out well ahead of any British statement. In terms of losses they were correct. The British lost 14 ships of 115,025 tons with 6,097 men killed, 510 wounded and 177 captured out of 60,000. German losses were 11 ships of 61,180 tons with 2,551 men killed and 507 wounded out of 45,000; no Germans were captured. The ratio is altered a little when badly damaged ships are considered: five German battleships and four battlecruisers required dockyard repair compared with four British battleships and three battlecruisers; the last German ship left dry dock on 15 October, the last British one on 13 September. Seydlitz would probably have sunk had she faced as long a journey home as the British ships and Derfflinger suffered more damage than any British ship.
The Germans sank more ships than they lost, but the margin was not enough to cover Britain’s greater construction rate. Both navies had a battleship working up at the time of Jutland. Britain had completed a battleship and two battlecruisers by the end of 1916 and another battleship in 1917. Germany added a battleship and a battlecruiser in 1917. Neither side completed any capital ships in 1918, though both had some under construction when the war ended.
Scheer sailed into a trap, which he would have avoided had the weather permitted airship reconnaissance. He then extracted his fleet from it skilfully, taking risks that paid off.
Jellicoe had three big decisions to take. He got the first and most important, his initial deployment, correct. With the benefit of the future lessons of the Second World War, he was wrong about the second, when he turned away from rather than headed towards the torpedo attack. However, the detriment to Britain of a heavy defeat that would have enabled the Germans to lift the blockade was far greater than the benefit of a decisive victory that would have allowed it to be enforced more closely. His decision is therefore justifiable on the basis of the information available to him at the time. He was also wrong about the third, when he had to guess Scheer’s route home. He had, however, enough time to correct this mistake if the Admiralty had passed him all the intelligence that it possessed. He should take some of the blame for the lack of initiative displayed by his subordinates because of his highly detailed Grand Fleet Battle Orders.
Winston Churchill wrote that ‘Jellicoe was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.’ Jellicoe took no unnecessary risks and ensured that the RN maintained its control of the seas.
Beatty famously said, just after Queen Mary exploded, that t]here seems to be something wrong with our bloody shops today.’ He was wrong: the problems were with safety procedures and shells, not ships. Admiral Sir Frederic Dreyer, a RN gunnery expert, believed that the British would have sunk at least six German capital ships at Jutland had they had the armour piercing shells that they had in 1918.
Hipper, the only senior commander on either side to escape criticism, was awarded The Military Order of Max Josef by the King of Bavaria, which meant that he was henceforth von Hipper. He and Scheer both received Germany’s highest award, the Ordre pour le Merite. Scheer also received the Military Order of Max Josef, but this did not entitle him to call himself von Scheer because he was not a Bavarian.
After Jutland the Allied Blockade continued to prevent Germany getting the supplies of food and other crucial items that it needed to import. The Germans, realising that they could not win a major fleet action, resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare, which brought the USA into the war against them. Jutland was the last clash of dreadnoughts in the war, but it was not the last time that the HSF came out.
The best summing up of Jutland remains that made by a New York newspaper just after the battle:
‘The German Fleet has assaulted its jailor, but it is still in jail.’
For more on Jutland and the RN see naval-history.net, which has links to Naval Operations, the British Official History, Jellicoe and Scheer’s memoirs and Jellicoe’s Official Despatch, plus lists of British casualties and medal citations.
 V. E. Tarrant, Jutland: The German Perspective: A New View of the Great Battle, 31 May 1916 (London: Arms and Armour, 1995), p. 49.
 Ibid., pp. 49-51.
 Ibid., pp. 52-53.
 Ibid., p. 54.
 A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, p. 437.
 Ibid. vol. iii, p. 95, footnote 1.
 Tarrant, Jutland, p. 55.
 Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 438, note 1.
 N. J. M. Campbell, Jutland: An Analysis of the Fighting (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1986), p. 184.
 Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 200-1
 Ibid. vol. v, p. 311, note 1.
 Ibid. vol. iii, p. 203-6.
 Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 196-98 and footnotes 1 and 2 on p. 196.
 Campbell, Jutland, pp. 173-74.
 The National Archives, Kew, CAB 45/283, ‘German Navy and Sources of Material: Dogger Bank Action, 1915: Miscellaneous Reports from German Sources’. BATTLE CRUISER “SEYDLITZ”
 Campbell, Jutland, p. 374.
 Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 40-41. Timings are in GMT. German time was an hour ahead.
 Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 45-48
 Ibid. vol. iii, p. 59.
 See G. A. H. Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996), pp. 81-101. for a lengthy analysis of this issue
 Marder, From. vol. iii, p. 63.
 Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 48-49.
 Ibid. vol. iii, p. 64.
 Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 65-66
 Tarrant, Jutland, pp. 84-86. Timings given in this book are mostly to German time and have been adjusted to GMT.
 J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, pp. 336-37 and note 1 on p. 337.
 Ibid. vol. iii, p. 337 and notes 2 and 3.
 Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 68-69.
 Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 69-70.
 Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 85-87.
 Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, pp. 345.
 Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 352-54.
 Gordon, Rules, pp. 392-93.
 Ibid., pp. 444-45; Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 112-14 and note 24 on p. 114.
 Tarrant, Jutland, p. 129.
 Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, pp. 361-62.
 Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 104-5.
 Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 106.
 Gordon, Rules, pp. 450-51.
 Marder, From. vol. iii, p. 115 and note 27 on pp. 115-16.
 Tarrant, Jutland, pp. 136-41.
 Ibid., p. 149.
 Ibid., pp. 149-54.
 Ibid., pp. 157-61.
 Ibid., pp. 161-65.
 Ibid., p. 143.
 Quoted in Ibid., p. 161. Original source G. von Hase, Kiel and Jutland (London: Skiffington, 1921).
 Ibid., pp. 167-68.
 Ibid., pp. 169-73.
 Ibid., pp. 173-80.
 Ibid., p. 182.
 Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 155-60
 Tarrant, Jutland, p. 195.
 Campbell, Jutland, pp. 273-302.
 Tarrant, Jutland, pp. 195-96.
 Ibid., p. 207.
 See Corbett, Newbolt, Naval.vol. iii, 391-409
 Tarrant, Jutland, pp. 213-15.
 Gordon, Rules, p. 481. and note 22 on p. 680.
 Marder, From. vol. iii, p.p. 186-87.
 This and the last three paragraphs are based on Tarrant, Jutland, pp. 207-10.
 Quoted in Ibid., p. 210.
 Ibid., p. 234.
 Ibid., p. 237.
 Ibid., pp. 242-45.
 Ibid., pp. 246-49.
 See R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 35-36, 38-39, 149-50, 154-55.
 W. S. Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, 5 vols. (London: Odhams Press, 1939). vol. iii, Kindle edition, Chapter V, location 1466 of 8981
 Quoted in Marder, From. vol. iii, p. 67.
 Ibid. vol. iii, p. 205.
 Tarrant, Jutland, p. 247.
 Quoted in Ibid., p. 250.
8 responses to “The Battle of Jutland 31 May – 2 June 1916”
Reblogged this on History That Interests Me and commented:
Excellent account of the Battle of Jutland
Very informative, thanks
Jutland was a remarkable battle on so many levels – first and only clash of the dreadnought fleets, last battle controlled by flag signals and lights, and so on. It has always intrigued me that the usual view of the battle is ‘top down’ – accounts of the tactics and events (Marder, Tarrant, Corbett, Campbell and even Jellicoe and Scheer’s personal accounts, which I have in my collection). The ‘bottom up’ human side to my knowledge was the focus of but one book, by Peter Hart. And yet that side of the story is no less valid.I have a family example, in fact, My great uncle was aboard HMS Orion in the battle – in forward TS, running a Navyphone to pass spotting messages down from the foretop to the fire-control systems (the Dreyer Fire Control table and Dumaresq). For him the battle was invisible – a succession of spotting reports, ship movements and crashes as the guns fired. He never saw the Germans, though he knew they were out there: it must have been nerve-racking for him, even behind 12 inches of armour. And that was true of most of those who fought. I’ve covered his story a couple of times on my blog.
Thanks for that. The only other book that I have from the viewpoint of a member of the lower deck in WWI is David Gunn’s Sailor in the Desert, which tells the story of his father Philip Gunn in Mesopotamian gunboats during WWI.
I did discover, after finishing this blog entry, that The fighting at Jutland: The Personal Experiences of Forty-five Officers and Men of the British Fleet by F. W. Fawcett and G. W. W. Hooper is available free online from archive.org. I have only skimmed it, but it appears to largely consist of the 45 personal account. An earlier edition contained 60 accounts. Both have been reprinted this century, although the abridged one is easier to find online.
Forgot to mention Peter Liddle’s The Sailor’s War 1914-1918′, which tells the story of the RN in WWI via personal accounts of seamen. He did similar books on airmen and soldiers.
Thank you for this great account of the Battle of Jutland. It is only with these commemorative contributions that I have fully understood the battle in which my great uncle died as 29 year old Flag Lieutenant on HMS Invincible.
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