The First World War is remembered now for the horrors of trench warfare and the millions of young men who were dispatched into the meat-grinder of mechanised slaughter as for four long years men were ordered to advance towards machine guns, were smashed by artillery, drowned in the mud, or were left to rot on the barbed wire in the hope of making a breakthrough that never came. But there was a brief moment when the entire outcome of the war could have been decided in a single day and it occurred far away from the trenches of the Western Front, at sea, off the northern coast of Denmark near the Jutland peninsula.
By 1914 Anglo-German rivalry already had a long history.
Ever since Prussia’s shattering defeat of France in the War of 1870-71, and the resulting unification of Germany, Britain had been forced to acknowledge a new threat to the balance of power. She had other challenges of course, Russia remained a participant in the Imperial Great Game and the United States had long since trumped her economically; but Germany was different, it was militaristic, had adopted an aggressive foreign policy, and was fast becoming the economic powerhouse of Europe. It also had the largest and most formidable army in the world and one with which the British could not hope to compete with on the field of battle, and Germany lay on Britain’s doorstep. But then Britain was an Island and her future security and that of her Empire lay in the strength of her navy.
The recently crowned Kaiser Wilhelm II was determined to challenge British naval supremacy and by the early 1900’s a full-scale arms race between the two countries was underway.
Britain was to trump the Germans and everyone else when in 1906 she launched HMS Dreadnought the world’s first fully armoured, all big gun battleship and from the moment of her launch navies everywhere became obsolete.
The Naval Race between Britain and Germany increased as both countries now competed to build as many dreadnoughts as possible and so concerned were the British Government by the perceived threat of German militarism that in 1909 it passed a law which guaranteed that the strength of her Grand Fleet must be maintained at two and a half times the size again as the next most powerful navy in the world.
During the early months of the First World War the clash between these two great fleets was eagerly anticipated but it never materialised. The Germans doubted that they could defeat the Grand Fleet in a single engagement and so their strategy was to lure the British into piecemeal actions where they could chip away at her superiority.
The only major confrontation had occurred on 24 January 1915, off the Dogger Bank when the two opposing Battle-Cruiser Squadrons had clashed and in a brief encounter the German Battleship Blucher was sunk with heavy loss of life.
Poor communications had permitted the rest of the German ships to escape otherwise the outcome could have been worse and the incident at the Dogger Bank only seemed to confirm Germany’s worst fears regarding any direct confrontation with the Grand Fleet so they instead concentrated their energies on submarine warfare and the disruption of Britain’s trade routes and the cutting off of her economic life-line.
Unrestricted submarine warfare was halted however in April, 1915, following the sinking of the Lusitania and subsequent American pressure; with the effectiveness of its U-Boat Fleet hampered by new rules of engagement an alternative strategy had to be found particularly as the British Grand Fleet was maintaining a tight blockade of Germany’s ports.
It was decided to try and lure parts of the British Navy into well-laid ambushes where they could be destroyed piecemeal by overwhelming force. As a result, on 16 December 1915, the German High Seas Fleet bombarded the North Sea ports of Scarborough, Whitby, and Hartlepool.
It was an attack that killed 137 and wounded a further 592 British civilians and was a humiliation for the Royal Navy that had failed to defend the mainland, even if the German Navy had been forced to beat a hasty retreat by the accuracy of fire from the shore batteries and by reports that the Grand Fleet was on its way.
For all the tactical manoeuvring and best laid plans, the Battle of Jutland came about in large part, if not entirely, by accident.
In August 1914, the Russians had captured the German Cruiser Magdeburg and also its codebook which they had since handed over to the British so they were aware that the German High Seas Fleet had put to sea but they did not know where or what their intentions were.
Nonetheless, the Grand Fleet set sail from its bases at Scapa Flow and Rosyth with the intention of intercepting them.
The fact that the Germans remained entirely ignorant of the British presence was to prove an almost catastrophic failure of Military Intelligence. The showdown that had been so long anticipated was about to take place and for a short time the people of both countries and the whole world held its breath.
The opposing Commanders were very different men:
Admiral John Jellicoe was an easy going man who cautious by nature felt the burden of his responsibilities but was nonetheless willing to delegate where required. A proficient seaman, he was more an astute strategist than he was tactician.
The German Admiral Reinhard Scheer, by contrast, was a hand’s on strict disciplinarian rarely known to smile who had great faith in his ships and the resourcefulness of their crews but doubted the High Seas Fleet’s capacity to defeat the Grand Fleet in any major engagement. Instead, he continued to try and goad the British into small-scale but costly encounters.
But neither Jellicoe nor Scheer were the first to confront one another, that honour fell to the Commander of the British fast Battle-Cruiser Squadron David Beatty and his German counterpart Admiral Franz Ritter von Hipper.
The engagement started when both sides dispatched Cruisers to investigate the Danish Merchantman N.J Fjord that just happened to be steaming between the two fleets and the first shots of the long awaited for encounter were fired by the British Cruisers Galatea and Phaeton upon a clutch of advancing German destroyers.
It was 14.28 on 31 May 1916, and having stumbled upon one another both Battle-cruiser Squadrons now steamed full-pelt towards the sound of the guns – The Battle of Jutland had begun.
David Beatty was by no means a great Admiral or the new Nelson as he was often described at the time, but he was certainly dashing and brave becoming in the eyes of the British press at least the hero of Jutland, but even so he would not be free from criticism.
He had positioned his four slower Battleships, the most powerful in the British Navy so far away during the initial engagement that they could not become fully involved until it was too late. He also hesitated to fire upon the Germans for a vital ten minutes that allowed the enemy to find their range and his signalling was so slip-shod that he failed to keep Admiral Jellicoe informed of what was going on. But then such was Beatty’s nature that he would have attacked the Germans in a row boat if that was all he had available.
His first order was to steer two points nearer the enemy. His next, as his ships came under salvo after salvo of accurate German fire, was to steer two points away.
Beatty ordered his Squadron to take a course south-east then east to cut off the German ships from their base and then launched a seaplane from HMS Engadine to scout for the enemy which was the first ever use of an aeroplane in naval warfare. But in his eagerness to engage with the enemy he had steamed too far ahead of Jellicoe’s Main Fleet denying them the opportunity to bring their superior firepower to bear in any engagement.
Indeed, such was the speed of his ships that his line had become disordered and they were still manoeuvring when the Germans opened fire.
In typical fashion Admiral Beatty had steamed full-speed towards the enemy, but it wasn’t long before things started to go horribly wrong; at 1600 hours and just 12 minutes into the battle, HMS Indefagitable blew up, sinking in just 90 seconds and taking 1,019 of her complement of 1,021 with her.
Twenty five minutes later the Queen Mary likewise blew up drowning 1,266 men, only 9 survived.
Their destruction prompted Beatty’s famous remark:
“There appears to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”
He then gave the order to close with the enemy.
But he had been lucky, his own flagship HMS Lion was only saved from a similar fate by a mortally wounded Royal Marine Officer, Major Francis Harvey, who, seeing his turret afire ordered its magazines flooded. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
For more than an hour the two fleets pounded away at one another but the superior gunnery of the Germans and design faults with the British ships had taken their toll. At 16.46 Admiral Beatty broke off the engagement. His ships had hit their targets 28 times but had received 92 hits in return and lost 2 Battle-cruisers with considerable loss of life – The first phase of the battle was over.
Earlier, at 16.30, HMS Southampton reported that it had sighted the main German Battle-fleet.
Involved in his own life and death struggle Beatty had remained unaware that the entire German Fleet had put to sea but now fully-cognisant he sped towards where he believed Jellicoe was with the Grand Fleet hoping to lure the Germans onto the more powerful British guns.
By 18.00 the two main Battle-Fleets were closing fast but in the swirling mist and with a horizon shrouded in gun-smoke they remained invisible to one another. In the meantime, a ferocious destroyer battle was taking place.
HMS Shark, which had earlier destroyed a German Torpedo Boat but had been badly damaged in the fire- fight, was sinking. Even so, Captain Loftus Jones refused to abandon ship ordering her guns to continue firing until she was seen to disappear beneath the waves. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross.
The British destroyed two further German Torpedo Boats and put the Battle-Cruiser Seydlitz out of action but both HMS Nestor and HMS Nomad were sunk with the former’s Captain Barry Bingham, being awarded the Victoria Cross.
At around 17.30 HMS Chester was assailed by four German Cruisers and in the fierce fire-fight that followed her open and unprotected gun deck was devastated and awash with blood and limbless bodies.
Sixteen year old John ‘Jack’ Cornwell, a sight-setter on one of her 5.5 inch guns who remained at his post throughout the action despite being badly wounded by shell fragments and barely able to stand, was recommended for Britain’s highest award for valour. His citation read:
“The instance of devotion to duty by Boy (1st Class) John Travers Cornwell who was mortally wounded early in the action, but remained standing alone at a most exposed post awaiting orders till the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded around him.”
The badly damaged HMS Chester was forced to withdraw from the fight whilst the Armoured-Cruiser HMS Warrior was hit 13 times and had to be abandoned. Meanwhile, seeing the German Battle-Cruiser Wiesbaden ablaze and low in the water, HMS Defence rushed in to finish her off only to be hit by a volley of shells that ripped her apart. She went to the bottom with all of her 903 crew.
At 18.33 the steadily increasing gloom was lit up by a tremendous explosion as HMS Invincible was sent to the bottom with all but 4 of her crew of 1,026.
The explosion had broken the back of the ship and an eerie and ghostly sight was cast upon the scene as the two ends of the ship protruded from the water and those who witnessed it were haunted for many years after by the thought that there were men struggling inside with no hope of rescue.
Admiral Scheer however, must have been delighted at how the battle was developing.
He had inflicted considerable damage upon the British whilst sustaining only minimal losses of his own. But he was about to receive the biggest shock of his life. Searching the horizon he saw emerging from the mist the entire British Grand Fleet in all its majesty. He was stunned for he had not even been aware that they were at sea.
Events now began to take a turn for the worse.
The lead German ship, the Konigsberg, was hit seven times and the Kaiser Markgraf, Grosser Kurfurst, and Heligoland were all also hit without the British sustaining any damage in return.
It appeared that the Grand Fleet had at last found its range and as darkness descended and under the weight of the British guns the German formation began to fall apart. It appeared that Scheer’s worst nightmare might be about to come true particularly as his ships were silhouetted against the setting sun whilst the Grand Fleet would soon be lost to darkness.
The preservation of the fleet now became his main priority and in a state of some agitation at 19.17 he ordered his ships to steer a course for Germany – he turning away and making a run for home.
The Battle-Cruiser Squadron, in the absence of Admiral Hipper who’d had to abandon his sinking flagship the Lutzow, was to protect the main Battle Fleet as it escaped behind a dense smokescreen and the Destroyers launched torpedoes to try and delay the British pursuit.
They were to take fearful punishment as they stood between the British Navy and their prey with the Derflinger alone being hit 14 times, and in total 37 high calibre British shells were to hit home whilst only 2 were received in return.
It was now 19.40 and darkness was descending quickly.
Though none of the German torpedoes had managed to find their mark, Jellicoe was concerned that a minefield may have been laid in his path and that he was being led into an ambush. Also, few of his men had been trained in night-fighting – he decided to call off the pursuit.
Despite the two fleets having manoeuvred to disengage the fighting continued and the British sank a further German destroyer and a Torpedo Boat.
The final shots of the greatest naval engagement in history were exchanged by the King George V and the sinking Wiesbaden.
On the face of it the Battle of Jutland appeared a German victory; the British had lost 3 Battle-Cruisers, 3 Armoured-Cruisers, 8 Destroyers, and had suffered 6,094 men killed and 504 wounded; the Germans had lost 1 Battleship, 1 Battle-Cruiser, 4 Light-Cruisers, 1 Destroyer, 5 Torpedo Boats, and had lost 2,551 men killed and 507 wounded.
The German Reichstag was quick to pronounce the High Seas Fleet triumphant and the Kaiser declared a national holiday. In Britain the response was more muted and as the truth emerged a feeling of despondency swept the country. How could this happen? The British people had expected a victory of Nelsonian proportions, a new Trafalgar, but instead the most powerful Fleet in the world had failed to destroy its enemy, it had even lost more ships. But the facts did not bear out the despair.
The Germans had witnessed the awesome power of the Grand Fleet at first-hand and never again dared confront it. The Royal Navy remained in command of the North Sea, and the blockade that was eventually to starve Germany into submission remained intact for the rest of the war.
When in October 1918, during the dying embers of the war the High Seas Fleet was once more ordered to venture into the North Sea it was perceived as a suicide mission and the crews at both Wilhelmshaven and Kiel refused to do so sparking the revolution that followed leading to the Kaiser’s abdication less than two weeks later.
But in the weeks following the Battle of Jutland, Jellicoe’s actions came under intense scrutiny and increased criticism. Yet his handling of the battle had been tactically sound, he had twice Crossed the T (a naval tactic in which a line of warships crosses in front of a line of enemy ships allowing them to bring all of their guns to bear while receiving only fire from the forward guns of the enemy) of the German Fleet and sent them scurrying back to port in a hurry, their tail between their legs.
In future, any threat to British command of the seas would be posed by the U-Boat but the British had expected their naval supremacy to be seen in sunken vessels, white flags, and drowned sailors not tactical and strategic success.
In November 1916, John Jellicoe was promoted to First Sea Lord and his command given to Admiral Beatty, a few months later he was removed from his post and retired from service; yet despite the criticism he received for not pressing home his attack he had decided correctly not to risk the safety of the Fleet in a night time pursuit through uncertain waters -it may have lacked the Nelson touch but it was prudent.
For as Winston Churchill was later to remark:
“He was the only man on either side who could have lost the war in an afternoon.”
In the end the battle that could have decided everything had decided nothing.