This Week in the First World War: The Battle of Jutland, 31 May-1 June 1916   Leave a comment

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The Battle of Jutland happened exactly a hundred years ago, and was the only major naval engagement of the First World War. Both sides claimed victory, with the Imperial German Navy attempting to break through the Royal Navy’s lines in the North Sea, but despite some successes, this attempt was not decisive. British losses were greater, including the sinking of HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary by German shells. After being hit, both ships exploded and sank quickly. From Indefatigable, there were only two survivors from a crew of 1,119. Vice-Admiral David Beatty, after hearing this news, remarked:

There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.

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From  A Sketch-map History of the Great War and After, 1914-1935 (London: Harrap, 1938).

In 1914, the German navy was more powerful than the combined French and Russian fleets, but the entry of Great Britain into the war had given the Allies a greater preponderance of sea-power.

Instant Readiness…

…has always been an essential part of the Royal Naval tradition, and at the beginning of August 1914 this meant that the Fleet went straight from its annual exercises to its war stations six days before hostilities began. By a fortunate chance the British navy was assembled at Portland for a practice mobilization in July 1914. When war became imminent it was ordered not to disperse and was therefore prepared to exercise its superiority as soon as hostilities began. The surprise lay in what followed: instead of the expected Trafalgar against the German High Seas Fleet, the Grand Fleet found its enemies locked in their harbours, behind their impregnable coastal defences where (except for occasional sorties) they would remain for nearly two years. This meant that German overseas trade had to be abandoned immediately, but is also resulted in the Grand Fleet itself very much being anchored to its base, Scapa Flow, a bleak, uninviting anchorage almost devoid on amenities on shore. One sailor remarked:

Scapa left its mark on all who served there. To go to Scapa was to join a club whose membership you could never quite disown… There were times when men spat the name out like a four-letter word…

(Brown and Meehan, Scapa Flow, 1968.)

A virtual blockade of the North Sea was instituted and all ships were stopped by search-parties from British warships. Germany had to rely on foreign supplies reaching her circuitously via neutral countries. By contrast, Allied shipping was hardly interrupted. There were a few German warships on the high seas when war broke out, and these attacked the principal trade-routes. The damage they did, however, was relatively slight, and the German raiders were practically all destroyed by 8 December 1914. After that the Allies were free to transport men and munitions to every theatre of war and to draw freely upon foreign food-supplies. Moreover, this freedom of movement was denied to the Central Powers, which was ultimately why, suffering such shortages of vital raw materials and food, they were unable to continue the war in 1918.

The situation on the seas was so favourable to the Allies that Admiral Jellicoe adopted a policy of extreme caution, refusing to risk losing these advantages even for a probable naval victory. Any defeat of the British navy would have reversed the tables, for Britain could be starved out within a few weeks by a blockade. Jellicoe therefore abandoned the Nelsonian tradition of seeking out the enemy and forcing him to give battle.  Admiral Beatty won a small victory in the Heligoland Bight, which confirmed the Germans in their decision to remain on the defensive. Three British cruisers were sunk by the submarine U9 off the Dutch coast, the first indication of the future role that these craft were later to play in the two world wars. Scarborough, Hartlepool and Yarmouth were bombarded by German cruisers, but a repeat attempt at this was thwarted by Beatty in the Battle of Dogger Bank early in 1915 and the Germans abandoned coastal raids thereafter, and with them discarded any thought of landing any troops on British shores.  At the beginning of 1916, Jellicoe was quite firm in his rejection of any attempt to draw the German Imperial Fleet into battle on the open seas:

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Jellicoe knew that Churchill was correct in his assessment that he was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon. He would have liked to have fought another Trafalgar, but was well aware of the recent advances in mines, torpedoes and submarines, to which even the most modern Dreadnoughts were vulnerable. The German Admiral Scheer, on the other hand, was determined to hazard a fleet-engagement, since the pressure of the sea blockade made it necessary to take some risks. He planned to destroy Beatty’s cruiser-squadron by engaging it with the whole of the German High Seas Fleet. The battle which resulted took place off Jutland, the northern part of Denmark (see maps above and below). The course of the engagement was very confused, although we do have some eye-witness accounts from officers on board surviving British ships.

It was late afternoon on 31 May, at about 3.50 p.m. that the Navigating Officer of the New Zealand reported the action as having begun, almost simultaneously, on both sides. A few minutes later, the Admiral’s Secretary came across to where the Torpedo Officer was stationed in the conning tower and drew his attention to the Indefatigable. He crossed at once to the starboard side and laid his glasses on her:

She had been hit aft, apparently by the mainmast, and a good deal of smoke was coming from her superstructure aft, but there were no flames visible. He thought it was only her boom boats burning. We were altering course to port at the time, and apparently her steering gear was damaged, as she did not follow round in our wake, but held on until she was almost about 500 yards on our starboard quarter, in full view of the conning tower.

Whilst he was still looking at her through his glasses she was hit by two shells, one on the fo’c’sle and on the fore turret. Both shells appeared to explode on impact. Then there was an interval of about thirty seconds, during which time there was absolutely no sign of fire or flame or smoke, except the little actually formed  by the burst of the two shells. At the end of the thirty seconds the ship completely blew up, commencing apparently from for’ard. The main explosion started with sheets of flame, followed immediately afterwards by a dense, dark smoke, which obscured the ship from view. All sorts of stuff was blown high into the air, a fifty-foot steam picket boat, for example, being blown up about two hundred feet, apparently intact though upside down. 

The second report comes from the Commanding Officer of HMS Ardent, one of the destroyers lost during the action:

A terrible scene of destruction and desolation was revealed to me as I walked aft (with some difficulty). All boats were in pieces. The funnels looked more like nutmeg graters. The rafts were blown to bits, and in the ship’s side and deck were holes innumerable. In the very still atmosphere, the steam and smoke poured out from holes in the deck perfectly straight up into the air. Several of my best men came up and tried to console me and all were delighted that we had  at length been in action and done our share. But many were already killed and lay around their guns and places of duty. Most of the engine-room and stokehold brigade must have been killed outright.

The Ardent gave a big lurch, and I bethought myself of my ‘Grieve’ waistcoat. Another lurch, and the ship keeled right over, and threw me to the ship’s side. I could feel she was going, so I flopped over into the sea, grabbing a lifebuoy that was providentially  at hand. The ‘Ardent’s’ stern kept up a few moments, then she slowly sank from view. As the smoke and steam cleared off I could see many heads in the water – about forty or fifty I should think. There was no support beyond life-belts, lifebuoys and floating waistcoats, so I was afraid that few of us could possibly survive, especially  as I realised that all the destroyers had gone on, and that no big ship would dare to stop, even if they saw us in the water.

I spoke to my men, and saw most of them die one by one. Not a man of them showed any fear of death, and there was not a murmur, complaint, or cry for help from a single soul. Their joy was, and they talked about it to the end, that they and the ‘Ardent’ had ‘done their bit’, as they put it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Source:  H W Fawcett & G W W Hooper, The Fighting at Jutland (1921)                                         

The significance of the battle:

  • The British fleet was prepared; the Grand Fleet was ordered to sea, and the German attempt to isolate and destroy part of it was frustrated.

  • British caution and the fear of submarine ambush permitted the German fleet to make good its escape when it might have been cut off and destroyed.

  • German tactics, ship-construction and gunnery proved in many ways superior to those of the British, who suffered more serious losses.

  • The German fleet was once more driven off the seas.

  • Most important of all, the battle gave the Germans no alternative but to renew and intensify their submarine campaign. This had momentous results in 1917.

Altogether 250 ships were involved in the battle, 25 of which were destroyed, fourteen British and eleven German. The RN suffered 6,094 fatalities, with 510 wounded. The Imperial Fleet suffered 2,551 fatalities, with 507 wounded. In addition to the ships already mentioned, a third battlecruiser, Invincible was also lost to the British, as well as three armoured cruisers (Black Prince, Defence and Warrior), and eight destroyers. The Germans lost one battlecruiser, Lützow, a battleship, Pommern, four light cruisers and five heavy torpedo boats.

RIP.

Despite their losses,  the Royal Navy was able to continue its operations, and the German High Seas Fleet mostly remained in port for the rest of the war. Admiral Jellicoe was, somewhat unfairly, heavily criticised if not scapegoated for the British losses, but the overall result was that the German Fleet was kept ‘at bay’ for the rest of the war, as this captioned map shows:

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Above: Map from The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History, Harmondsworth: 2001

 

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