Battle of Jutland

Battle of Jutland also known by the Germans as the Battle of the Skagerrak (Skaggerakschlacht) occurred on 31 May – 1 June 1916, the first and the only fullscale battleship clash during WW I between the German High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte) and the British Grand Fleet. After an inconclusive encounter both sides claimed victory.

General Naval Tactics in 1916

The general idea was that a fleet approaching battle should be in columns moving parallel in line ahead in order to present the minimum target to torpedoes. During the actual battle the fleet should deploy into a single line, abeam to the enemy so that the maximum number of guns could be brought to bear and the enemy could only fire with the front turrets of the leading ships – ‘cross his T’. If this did occur it would be largely luck, more likely would be a heavy exchange between two fleets on roughly parallel courses.

German tactics for Jutland

In 1916 the failure at Verdun and the increasing effectiveness of the economic blockade led the German government to try and break (or at the least weaken) the control of the Royal Navy. The German hope was to station a large number of submarines off the British naval bases and lure the Grand Fleet out. The German battle cruisers under Admiral Hipper would leave Wilhelmshaven and hopefully bring out the British cruisers of Admiral Beatty. After being attrited by the U-boats the British would be drawn by Hipper towards the German dreadnoughts under Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer and destroyed.

British tactics for Jutland

The British were aware of the German plan due to signals intercepts and the Grand Fleet of twenty-four dreadnoughts and three battlecruisers left Scapa Flow under Admiral John Jellicoe before Hipper left the Jade on the 30th May. Jellicoe’s intention was to rendezvous with Beatty’s force (sailing from the Forth) of four dreadnoughts and six battle cruisers 90 miles west of the Skagerrak off the coast of Jutland and wait for the Germans.

The Fleets

There was no chance that the German fleet would seek an head-to-head encounter with the British. The Royal Navy’s superiority in numbers was massive – thirty-three dreadnoughts compared to eighteen German craft. During the battle the actual force under Jellicoe was twenty-eight dreadnoughts and nine battle cruisers, while Scheer had sixteen dreadnoughts, five battle cruisers and six obsolete pre-dreadnoughts. The British were superior in lighter vessels as well. In terms of weight of broadside the British had an advantage of 332,360 lb against 134,216 lb.

This British superiority was countered by certain technical factors – German gunnery was more accurate, their ships had thicker armour against torpedo attack and more water-tight doors, their armour-piercing shells were more effective than the British shells and vitally the British used an oversensitive propellant and their magazines were not well protected. Another serious blow to the British was the exceptionally poor communications between their ships.

The Battle

The German submarines were completely ineffective – they did not sink a single ship and provided no useful information as scouts. Jellicoe’s ships proceeded to his rendezvous undamaged but unfortunately misled by Admiralty intelligence that the Germans were nine hours later than they actually were.

At 14.20 on the 31st May scouts from Beatty’s force reported enemy ships to the south-east, when light units of both sides encountered each other while investigating a neutral Danish steamer which was sailing between the two fleets, and Beatty moved to cut these ships off from their base. At 15.30 he sighted Hipper’s cruisers moving north-west, Hipper promptly turned away to lead Beatty towards Scheer. At 15.45 with both fleets roughly parallel at 15,000 yards Hipper and Beatty opened fire. At around 16.05 the Indefatigable exploded (two survivors) and at 16.25 the Queen Mary did the same (twenty survivors). Beatty stated “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”. At about 16.30 a scout from Beatty’s force sighted the sixteen dreadnoughts of Scheer, Beatty decided to head north to draw the Germans towards Jellicoe and broke contact with the Germans at about 16.45, ending the opening phase of the battle, known as the “Run to the South”. Astonishingly Beatty sent no message to Jellicoe between 16.40 and 18.10 and the message that Jellicoe finally did received suggested the entire German fleet was active. Beatty’s move towards Jellicoe is called the “Run to the North”.

Jellicoe was now in a worrying position, over-estimating the enemy numbers he needed to know the position of the Germans so that he could judge when to deploy from columns to single line. His choice was onto the western or eastern column, and this had to be carried out before the Germans arrived but early deployment could mean losing any chance of a decisive encounter. Deploying west would bring his fleet closer to Scheer, important because dusk was approaching but they could be caught during manouvering. Deploying east would take the force away from Scheer but gave the chance of crossing the ‘T’ and Jellicoe’s ships would have the advantage of silhouetting Scheer’s forces to the west. Deployment would take twenty irreplaceable minutes and the fleets were approaching at quite a high speed. Jellicoe ordered deployment to the east at 18.10.

Scheer saw the British fleet at about 18.30, ahead of him in a line across his advance. After a very brief exchange of fire (enough for the Invincible under Rear Admiral Hood to be destroyed with only six survivors) Scheer ordered his fleet to perform a 180 degree turn and flee at 18.33. Amid a pall of smoke and mist Scheer’s forces succeeded in disengaging. Jellicoe headed south and Scheer doubling back to the east ran into the British again at 19.15. Scheer turned and fled under the protection of brave torpedo runs from his battle cruisers as darkness fell. As the battle degenerated into a series of night encounters between destroyers, Jellicoe wrongly guessed that the main German force under Scheer would head for Ems and headed south, a brief clash with German forces at 20.20 was the final engagement between capital ships. At night, an old pre-dreadnought SMS Pommern sunk with all hands, torpedoed by the British destroyers, also battlecruiser SMS L├╝tzow sunk from damages. Jellicoe’s scouts failed to report the actual course of the main German force to the north-west and Horns Reef. By early morning Scheer’s fleet was out of danger and when Jellicoe finally learned of this at 4.15 he had little option but to return home.

Battle Damage Assessment

The British lost fourteen ships of 111,000 tons total and 6,784 men. The Germans lost eleven ships of 62,000 tons total and 3,058 men. Several other ships were badly damaged, as HMS Lion and SMS Seydlitz. But regarding ships that could fight again at the end of that day the British had twenty-four dreadnoughts and battle cruisers ready to fight while the Germans had only ten, the British still had command of the sea. For the British, the outcome could be seen as giving a tactical loss but a strategic gain. The Germans left the field, the British remained and were ready to continue the next day. On the other hand, the threat from the German navy did not disappear. Contrary to some opinions, it remained still active, though both battle fleets have never met again.

The design and faulty use of the battlecruisers was important in the serious losses of the British. The battle is often regarded as demonstrating that the Royal Navy was technologically inferior to the German Navy. At the time the caution of Jellicoe was also attacked, but it should be noted that Scheer was not seeking a fight and with two fleets of roughly equal speeds it is difficult to decisvely fight an enemy determined not to. On the other hand, Scheer was perhaps lucky in the chances of events and Jellicoe was unlucky and the battle began late in the day.

Scroll to Top