WWI Centennial: Day of the Dreadnoughts – Jutland

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Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 237th installment in the series.

May 31-June 1, 1916: Day of the Dreadnoughts – Jutland 

While for many ordinary people the outbreak of war in 1914 came as a shocking “bolt from the blue,” for the sailors of the British and German navies it first seemed like the long awaited consummation of the pre-war naval rivalry between Europe’s two greatest powers – followed by a discouraging anti-climax.

Indeed the First World War was above all a continental struggle whose outcome would ultimately be decided by fights on land, with naval power generally playing a secondary role. Although the navies made important contributions to the war effort – most notably the Royal Navy’s blockade of Germany – it soon became apparent that they were unlikely to take part in a decisive naval battle like Trafalgar. 

Knowing it was outnumbered, the German Admiralty kept its High Seas Fleet close to its home ports on the North Sea, where it fulfilled its role as a “fleet in being” – keeping a large part of the Royal Navy tied down simply by existing. On the other side, despite their numerical superiority the British were reluctant to attack the German ships in port, leery of mines, submarines and land-based defenses.

Despite this strategic stalemate, commanders on both sides believed it was still possible to fight a decisive battle and achieve victory. For the British, this meant luring the German High Seas Fleet into a spot where it could be engaged by the larger Grand Fleet (the main body of the Royal Navy) and destroyed. By contrast, success for the Germans depended on dividing the enemy: an encounter with the entire British Grand Fleet was to be avoided at all costs, but if the High Seas Fleet could lure part of the enemy fleet away and destroy it, it might be able to even the odds for another battle later on, or at least force the British to loosen their blockade. 

This was the strategic background for the biggest naval clash of the war, at the Battle of Jutland. Unfortunately for both sides, things didn’t quite turn out as they’d hoped.

Strange Symmetry

The battle unfolded with strange symmetry, beginning with the opposing sides’ plans. After the end of the North Sea’s rough winter, in the spring 1916 both the British commander, Admiral John Jellicoe, and his German counterpart, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, decided the time had come to coax the enemy fleet into a major battle – hopefully on their own terms. 

Basically, both admirals hoped to trick the other side into rushing into the North Sea by dangling bait in the form of a smaller detachment of ships to lure the enemy force into a trap. Running out to sea, the enemy force would first come under attack by submarines and mines – the German U-boats lying in wait near the British bases in Rosyth and Scapa Flow, the British subs near the Heligoland Bight off northwestern Germany. Then the entire surface fleet would close to destroy the rest of the enemy force (in the British plan this meant the entire German High Seas Fleet, in the German plan a large part of the British Grand Fleet). The symmetry extended even further to the order of battle for both sides, as both Jellicoe and Scheer dispatched smaller “scouting” forces of battle cruisers ahead of their main dreadnought fleets – the British battle cruisers under Admiral David Beatty, the Germans under Admiral Franz von Hipper – to serve as bait, luring the enemy within range of the heavily armed dreadnoughts. 

The scale of the coming clash was mind-boggling: between the battle cruisers, dreadnoughts, submarines, and swarms of light cruisers and destroyers, around 250 ships crewed by roughly 100,000 men would take part in the Battle of Jutland. However the main fight would always be between the heavy battle cruisers and dreadnoughts, and here the British advantage showed, with 28 dreadnoughts versus 16 for the Germans, and nine battle cruisers versus five. 

The outcome depended entirely on local circumstances: if the British were able to bring their whole fleet to bear against the Germans, the latter would be wiped out – but if the Germans could attack and destroy part of the British fleet in isolation, British naval dominance would suffer a body blow. 

First Encounter

With the opposing sides following two very similar plans, it all came down to timing – and here the Germans got the jump on the British (or so they thought). In fact that British had an additional edge in intelligence, as the Allies had cracked the German naval code early on without their knowledge: on May 30, 1916 Jellicoe received word that the German High Seas Fleet was preparing to sail into the North Sea. That evening the British battle cruiser squadron, followed by the super-dreadnoughts of the Fifth Battle Squadron, set forth from their base in Rosyth, Scotland, while the rest of the Grand Fleet headed south from the base in Scapa Flow, about 300 miles to the north; crucially, this meant that the British battle cruisers would meet the Germans before the British dreadnoughts. 

Click to enlarge

The first phase of the German plan quickly proved to be a dud, as not a single British ship was lost to U-boat torpedoes or mines – but Hipper would more than make up for this disappointing start during the second phase of the battle, when he benefited from an unexpected British mistake. When Beatty’s battle cruiser squadron left port the accompanying Fifth Battle Squadron, composed of powerful dreadnoughts meant to cover the battle cruisers, trailed behind by five miles, leaving the battle cruisers exposed to their more heavily armed German peers. Worse still, reports from British ships monitoring German radio traffic indicated (mistakenly) that the German High Sea Fleet hadn’t actually put to sea, meaning Beatty and Jellicoe both assumed they were just facing the German battle cruiser squadron, not the dreadnoughts. They were in for quite a surprise (below, the British fleet).

With these massive forces approaching each other off of the Danish peninsula, known as Jutland, events took an absurd turn with the appearance of a small Danish civilian steamer, which unwittingly sailed between the rival forces, provoking destroyers and cruisers from both sides to hurry over to check it out – of course spotting each other in the process. As they reported sighting the enemy ships via wireless, the ships opened fire on each other at 2:28 p.m. The battle had begun. 

Battle Cruiser Action 

After the initial sighting, the two battle cruiser squadrons made visual contact at around 3:25 p.m., with the British (to the west) heading south and the Germans heading north. Both sides swiftly changed course to close with the enemy, and then turned on to roughly parallel courses, heading southeast, still trying to shorten the distance while bringing their guns to bear on each other. 

This was exactly what Hipper hoped for, as it would lead the British battle cruisers (without their super-dreadnought protectors) directly into Scheer’s rapidly approaching High Seas Fleet, about 50 miles south of Hipper. Even worse, the German gunnery during the battle cruiser phase was clearly superior, as evidenced by the uneven losses suffered by the two sides, and British battle cruisers suffered from an unrecognized flaw in their armor plating around the gun turrets. Following the first German battle cruiser shot at 3:48 p.m., as high explosive 12- and 13.5-inch shells hurtled thousands of yards a couple dozen feet could spell the difference between a harmless fountain of water and a deadly plume of metal and fire. 

For its human participants the battle was characterized by an odd mix of terror and detachment, as recalled by a gun control officer on the British battle cruiser New Zealand:

I had great difficulty in convincing myself that the Huns were in sight at last, it was so like battle exercise the way in which we and the Germans turned up on to more or less parallel courses and waited for the range to close sufficiently before letting fly at each other. It all seemed very cold-blooded and mechanical, no chance here of seeing red, merely a case of cool scientific calculation and deliberate gunfire.

The experience would soon become much more real for crew members aboard the British battle cruiser Indefatigable. At 4:02 p.m. the German battle cruiser Von der Tann scored two direct hits on the Indefatigable, which apparently penetrated one or more of its gun turrets and ignited the cordite charges used to propel the shells, which in turn ignited the ship’s main magazine, resulting in a gigantic explosion. In less than a minute the Indefatigable sank with 1,017 men aboard, leaving just one survivor (below). 

This shocking loss was only the beginning of the British misfortunes. With the super-dreadnoughts of the British Fifth Battle Squadron slowly coming in range, the British battle cruisers were still highly vulnerable to German gunnery, especially concentrated fire from multiple enemy vessels. At 4:21 p.m. disaster struck again, as two German battle cruisers, the Derfflinger, both turned their fire on the Queen Mary – the pride of the British battle cruiser fleet – and again scored lucky shots on the weak battle cruiser turrets (below, the Queen Mary sinks to the right; Lion to the left). 

Commander George von Hase, the first gunnery officer aboard the Derfflinger, recalled the Queen Mary’s fate: 

First of all a vivid red flame shot up from her forepart. Then came an explosion forward which was followed by a much heavier explosion amidships, black debris of the ship flew into the air, and immediately afterwards the whole ship blew up with a terrific explosion. A gigantic cloud of smoke rose, the masts collapsed inwards, the smoke cloud hid everything and rose higher and higher. Finally, nothing but a thick, black cloud of smoke remained where the ship had been.

Petty Officer Ernest Francis, a gunner’s mate aboard the Queen Mary, was one of the few survivors. As the ship was wracked by explosions, eventually splitting in half, Francis recalled swimming desperately to avoid the whirlpool which would follow her sinking: 

I struck away from the ship as hard as I could, and must have covered nearly 50 years, when there was a big smash, and stopping and looking round the air seemed to be full of fragments and flying pieces. A large piece seemed to be right above my head, and acting on an impulse I dipped under to avoid being struck, and stayed under as long as I could, and then came to the top again, when coming behind me I heard a rush of water, which looked very much like a surf breaking on a beach, and I realised it was the suction or back-wash from the ship which had just gone. I heardly had time to fill my lungs with air when it was on me; I felt it was no use struggling against it, so I let myself go for a moment or two, then I struck out… 

By this time the other ships in the British battle cruiser squadron – Lion, Tiger, and Princess Royal – had also sustained damage, and the super-dreadnoughts of the Fifth Battle Squadron arrived not a moment too soon. In fact the Barham, Warspite, Malaya and Valiant got there just in time to greet the approaching German High Seas Fleet, first spotted at 4:30 p.m. and closing fast. The day of the dreadnoughts was at hand.

Dreadnought Battle 

The main phase of the battle, involving the main bodies of both fleets, commenced in late afternoon and continued as the sun went down through nightfall, forming a dramatic image as over 200 ships of all sizes blasted away at each other in the dusk.

As the Germans rejoined forces to the south, at 6:15 p.m. Jellicoe ordered his dreadnought battle fleet, previously cruising south in six rows of four ships, to form a single line for battle heading east to engage the Germans. For their part the Germans were completely taken by surprise by the appearance of the Grand Fleet under Jellicoe, which delivered a blistering barrage as it sailed perpendicularly across the path of the lead German ships – a classic battleship maneuver called “crossing the T.” However German gunnery continued to tell, as the Derfflinger and Lutzow sank the Invincible around 6:30 p.m. (below, the Invincible explodes). 

A crewman from the British destroyer Badger later recalled rescuing the few survivors from the Invincible:

As we neared the wreck we could see the water all round thick with flotsam and jetsam, mainly composed of floating seamen’s kit bags, with a few hammocks scattered amongst them. We also spotted a raft on which were four men, and on the bridge they spotted two other survivors in the water… It was a great shock to us when [the commander] made us understand that… we were picking up the only six survivors from her ship’s company of a thousand men.

Under heavy fire, around 6:33 Scheer ordered his outnumbered fleet to reverse course, heading west, but Jellicoe was determined to engage them before they slipped away, while also avoiding the risk of torpedoes from German destroyers, requiring him to keep a certain distance. At 6:55 Scheer, knowing that nightfall and relative safety wouldn’t come until 8 p.m., decided to pull a surprise move by reversing course again and heading right for the British Grand Fleet – a daring maneuver which caused no little confusion, as intended. Then at 7:15 p.m. Scheer reversed course yet again (this time for good) and made a run for it, leaving behind destroyers and the battle cruisers to lay down a covering fire against the onrushing British. 

Throughout this period the battleships pounded each other at relatively close ranges of as little as four miles, resulting in incredible carnage on both sides. One British sailor, a 16-year-old midshipman aboard the battle cruiser Malaya, recalled the scene below decks around 7:30 p.m.: 

I went down to the battery, where everything was dark chaos. Most of the wounded had been taken away, but several of the killed were still there. The most ghastly part of the whole affair was the smell of burnt human flesh, which remained in the ship for weeks, making everybody have a sickly nauseous feeling the whole time. When the battery was finally lighted by an emergency circuit, it was a scene which cannot be forgotten,– everything burnt black and bare from the fire; the galley, canteen, and drying-room bulkheads blown and twisted into the most grotesque shapes, and the whole deck covered by about 6 inches of water and dreadful debris…

The main phase of the Battle of Jutland was already ending, but fighting would continue through the night of May 31 into the morning of June 1, as the British pursued the retreating Germans with limited success, including a point-blank engagement between British destroyers and some older German battleships in the hours around midnight, while the British cruiser Black Prince was sunk after losing contact with the main British fleet. A British officer aboard the destroyer Southampton recalled the surprising engagement: 

At that moment the Germans switched on their searchlights and we switched on our. Before I was blinded by the lights in my eyes I caught sight of a line of light grey ships. Then the gun behind which I was standing answered my shout of “Fire!”… The range was amazingly close – no two groups of such ships have ever fought so close in the history of this war. There could be no missing. A gun was fired and a hit obtained; the gun was loaded, it flamed, it roared, it lept to the rear, it slid to the front; there was another hit.

Another British officer described the night engagement: 

The sea seemed to be alive with bursting shells and the air with the whistle of passing projectiles… Suddenly a huge explosion took place in the third German ship, and with a deafening noise and shock she seemed first of all to open out, then to close together, then to go. Evidently someone’s torpedo had hit, but as explosions were taking place all round from bursting shells and guns were firing, a torpedo explosion was almost impossible to distinguish until the ship itself blew up. 

In the days following June 1, both sides tallied up the costs of Jutland. The British had clearly suffered more, losing 14 ships and over 6,000 killed, versus 11 ships and 2,500 dead for the Germans. Meanwhile propaganda machines immediately sprang into motion, with both sides claiming Jutland as a victory – but it quickly became clear that it was something closer to a draw, a huge outpouring of blood and treasure which nonetheless left the basic situation unchanged.

The British diarist Vera Brittain summed up the ambiguity:  “I returned to a London seething with bewildered excitement over the Battle of Jutland. Were we celebrating a glorious naval victory or lamenting an ignominious defeat? We hardly knew; and each fresh edition of the newspapers obscured rather than illuminated this really quite important distinction.” 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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