When, on the 4th of August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany, the Kriegsmarine was numerically inferior to the Royal Navy. Indeed, after the Battle of the Falkland Islands, on December 8th 1914, the Kriegsmarine had no credible surface fleet other than the High Seas Fleet, based at Wilhelmshaven. This led Admiral Reinhard Scheer to formulate a strategy intended to lure elements of the British Grand Fleet into deadly ambushes, where the British ships would be outnumbered. It was anticipated, in German naval circles, that this would gradually reduce Britain’s numerical superiority to the point where the two Fleets could meet on even terms. It was this strategy that led to the Battle of Jutland on the 31st May 1916.
It might be argued that the first shots of the Battle of Jutland were fired on the 16th of December 1914, when the battlecruisers of Admiral Hipper’s 1st Scouting Group shelled the east coast towns of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool. This led to the redeployment of Admiral Beatty’s battlecruiser fleet from the Grand Fleet’s base at Scapa Flow to Rosyth, in an attempt to improve the defence of the east coast. It might be said that this was despite the criticism levelled at the British battlecruiser fleet; for badly addressed signalling from Beatty’s flagship had meant his force failed to trap Hipper’s retreating battle cruisers. Criticism that was again levelled, when a similar signalling faux pas had meant that a superior British naval force, again under Beatty, had failed to bring to action Hipper’s inferior force, at the Battle of Dogger Bank, in January 1915.
There was increased tension in British naval circles after Scheer’s appointment to command of the High Seas Fleet, in January 1916. This was stoked up when Hipper’s battle cruisers shelled Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth on the 25th of April. The suspense was heightened even further with a withdrawal, in May, of German submarines from the North Sea; suggesting the distinct possibility of imminent German fleet operations in that area. Admiralty concerns were well founded. Scheer’s staff planned a new bombardment of Sunderland by Hipper’s 1st Scouting Group, to entice Beatty’s Battlecruiser Fleet into a High Seas Fleet trap in the Dogger Bank area. This plan was abandoned due to adverse weather conditions, with a less adventurous foray up the Danish coast to be undertaken instead. The High Seas Fleet’s order to prepare for sea was actually deciphered in the Admiralty within two hours of its issue. The result of this was that Admiral John Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet, and Beatty’s Battlecruiser Fleet had put to sea before the German High Sea’s Fleet, including Hipper’s 1st Scouting Group, had weighed anchor. Jellicoe did have the problem, however, of successfully rendezvousing with Beatty.
By the morning of May 31st Beatty’s force was steaming east to rendezvous with Jellicoe, unknowingly on an approximate interception course with Hipper’s battle cruisers that were steaming north, in advance of Scheer’s High Seas Fleet. Beatty’s and Hipper’s forces first sighted each other at 1450 hours. Hipper, according to plan, turned south, to draw Beatty’s force toward Scheer. Beatty gave chase, and the opposing battlecruisers exchanged fire. Due partly to poor British gunnery, faulty shell fuses, and poor safety procedures, Beatty’s force suffered the most. Indefatigable was the first Royal Navy ship lost, exploding with the loss of all but two of her crew, closely followed by the loss of the Queen Mary, in similar circumstances. By 1640 hours Beatty’s force sighted Scheer’s High Seas Fleet; with Beatty undertaking a less than speedy about turn to draw Scheer and Hipper toward Jellicoe and the Grand Fleet. Due to the lack of signals from Beatty’s force Jellicoe had no accurate position for the German High Seas Fleet, and consequently had to delay the deployment of the Grand Fleet, into their preferred battle formation, until the last moment. The Grand Fleet was, how ever, almost fully deployed when Hipper’s force first began to appear from the rolling fog banks at 18:20 hours; followed by the vanguard of the High Seas Fleet. Scheer ordered a ‘battle turnaround‘, efficiently executed, at 18:35. Then, naval historians suggest, inexplicably, Scheer turned his force back toward the Grand Fleet, who had actually lost sight of them in the fog, ten minutes later. With the 300 heavy guns of the Grand Fleet dreadnoughts starting to inflict increasing damage on his forces Scheer, at 19:14 hours, ordered Hipper’s already battered battlecruisers to cover a second High Seas Fleet withdrawal, together with a destroyer torpedo attack on the British Fleet. To counter the torpedo attack Jellicoe employed the then standard defence, and ordered the Grand Fleet to turn stern on to the enemy; thereby presenting the smallest target.
By the time the torpedo attack had been repelled, and the Grand Fleet was again in a position to pursue the German Fleet the moment was lost. In addition, Jellicoe was very wary of both U-Boat ambushes, and being lured into minefields; plus the visibility was poor. The battle did continue throughout the night, until mid-afternoon on 1st June, in the form of isolated actions rather than the decisive fleet action many had anticipated. The whole nation, including the Royal Navy, had expected a pitched battle, and a comprehensive victory, in the manner of Trafalgar. All felt ’cheated’; failing possibly to grasp the enormous technological advances that had taken place in the intervening century that made a Trafalgar style naval action a thing of the past.
The morose feeling of the British nation was not placated by the fact that the German High Seas Fleet returned to their home port before the British Fleet did, and claimed, to the world’s press, that they had defeated the Royal Navy, on the basis that they had lost less ships and men. In as far as it went there was some basis for their claims. British losses were 14 ships, including 6 Portsmouth ships, and 6097 men, while the German losses were 11 ships and 2551 men. The German claims, together with the apparent reticence of the Admiralty to release all but the barest information, led to British ships and men receiving a less than warm welcome home. In fact, in certain instances their welcome could be described as positively hostile.
With the benefit of hindsight we can now more accurately assess the true outcome of Jutland. Firstly, it has to be pointed out that it was the German Fleet who, twice, turned away from a full scale naval battle. In addition, Admiral Jellicoe was able to report that the Grand Fleet was again battle ready within a few days, and the ships lost were replaced within a few months; though the loss of so many, mainly experienced, men, was irreparable; to both the Royal Navy and their families. The German Navy was never able to replace the ships they lost, and German surface vessels never again ventured from port in any numbers. Most importantly the British blockade held firm for the duration of the war; playing a considerable part in bringing about the end of the conflict.
Steve Doe, Portsdown U3A Jutland Research Group.