The Battle of Jutland: 31st May – 1st June 1916
A month before one of the largest land battles of the First World War commenced on the Somme in the summer of 1916, a significant naval action was fought off the Danish coast – Jutland Bank to the British and the Skagerrak to the Germans. Involving 250 vessels, 96,000 men and guns capable of firing 14,000lb shells at a range of 15 miles, the Battle of Jutland was not only the largest naval battle of the First World War, it was also the largest and bloodiest battle between warships in the modern era. Written for the Brooksby Jutland Memorial Project, this short paper provides an overview of the battle.
In 1905 under the leadership of Admiral John Fisher as First Sea Lord, the Royal Navy began construction of a revolutionary battleship – the Dreadnought. This new battleship rendered all other battleships across the world obsolete, but at the same time enabled competing navies to restart their building programmes at the same starting point as the Royal Navy. During this period, the burgeoning Imperial Germany commenced a programme of investment in naval armaments – and under the support of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Admiral von Tirpitz succeeded in securing investment programmes which would enable the German Navy to rival the British in numbers of Dreadnoughts constructed. In the years running up to World War I, it was apparent that Germany intended to challenge the Royal Navy’s mastery of the seas.i
At the outbreak of war in August 1914, the Royal Navy concentrated its forces in the North Sea theatre, with the main base situated at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys – this represented the birth of the Grand Fleetii. A light cruiser and destroyer force was based at Harwich and a pre-Dreadnought force based at Portland to secure the Dover straights alongside a mobile force at Dover. Leading these fleets was Admiral Sir John Jellicoeiii (promoted to Commander-in-Chief at the outbreak of war) and Vice-Admiral Sir David Beattyiv (already in command of the battle cruiser squadrons). Initial public expectations of the Royal Navy were high, but held little appreciation of the new weapons and tactics in use. With the advent of submarines, torpedoes, mines, zeppelins and radio telegraphy – the risks to large battleships were much greater than in the heyday of the 19th Century and British commanders were required to exercise great caution in order to maintain their superiority in vessel numbers against Germany.
The Grand Fleet was the main force of battleships which would not only ensure that German vessels would remain blockaded in the North Sea, but also would be used to defeat the German fleet of Dreadnoughts should they steam into the open waters of the North Sea. The battle cruiser squadron consisted of faster, lighter vessels, carrying big guns but mainly to work with the Grand Fleet as an advance group or intercept German light forces and battle-cruisers in the North Sea. A comparison of British the German North Sea surface forces at the outbreak of war is represented below:
*Excluding the Harwich, Portland and Dover Patrol forces and other vessels stationed overseas
**Excluding vessels already overseas before the outbreak of war
On 28th August 1914 a bold enterprise by Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt of the Harwich destroyer force and Beatty in command of the battle cruiser squadron resulted in the surprise of isolated German vessels in the Heligoland Bight. Initially Tyrwhitt was at risk of being cut off by a larger force but Beatty steamed into German waters to support his colleague and in doing so saved the Harwich destroyer squadron and overwhelmed the local German forces. News of this success was well received, but was followed by a series of German victories elsewhere across the globe in 1914. vi
Earlier in August 1914, the German battle cruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau succeeded in slipping past a chasing pack of British vessels in the Mediterranean in order to escape to Turkey. This proved to be a very costly as it was instrumental in bringing Turkey into the war against the allies. Of this Beatty wrote to his wife Ethel ‘To think that the Navy should provide the first and only instance of failure. God, it makes me sick’vii
Then the sinking of the armoured cruisers Aboukir, Cressey and Hogue by a German U Boat on 22nd September 1914 was followed by a German victory under Vice-Admiral Graf von Spee in the sinking of the cruisers Good Hope and Monmouth at Coronel (off Chile) on 1st November 1914. Respite was provided at the Falklands on 8th December 1914 – where a strong British force despatched under Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee with the specific task of destroying von Spee’s squadron sunk the armoured cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, and the light cruisers Nurnberg and Leipzig. However, despite this re-assurance of British naval power, a force of four German battle cruisers bombarded Great Yarmouth on 3rd November 1914, then another attack on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby on December 16th 1914 caused outrage. Many in the press asked ‘what is the Navy doing?’ and pressure piled up upon the Admiralty to take action. Another German raid on the east coast at Lowestoft and Yarmouth on 16th April 1916 forced the Admiralty to plan the redistribution of the North Sea forces to different bases to help counter this threat.
In the early months of war, Beatty became frustrated at the lack of opportunity to tackle his opposite number in the German battle cruisers squadron, Vice-Admiral Franz Hipper – and the missed opportunities to trap this force on their return to base after the coastal bombardments made Beatty even more determined. German strategy centred around the use of raids and sporadic sorties with the ambition of reducing British numbers in small scale short engagements – with a portion of the British fleet. Due to this, the German Admiralty never intended to seek battle with the Grand Fleet on equal terms – hence forcing a full scale battle was unlikely. In order to calm Beatty, Churchill as 1st Lord of the Admiralty wrote ‘Keep your spirits up. We are sure that your squadron will give the enemy battle-cruisers plus Blucher, a most satisfactory trouncing if the chance comes. And you are the man!’viii Beatty, encouraged by this support responded that ‘nobody realises more than I do that ship for ship and man for man we are fully capable of wiping the floor with them.’ ix
Beatty did not have to wait long. On 25th January 1915 – leading a battle cruiser squadron comprising of his flagship Lion, New Zealand, Princess Royal, Tiger and Indomitable his five vessels outnumbered the four German battle cruisers (under the command of Hipper) the Seydlitz, the Derfflinger, the Moltke and Blucher. This time the German sortie into the Dogger Bank was intercepted, and resulted in the sinking of the Blucher. Although signalling problems resulted in the lost opportunity to destroy the entire German squadron – it was sufficient to restore some pride in the service. The next time Beatty would get an opportunity to face his adversaries would be at the end of May 1916 – on the Jutland Bank off the coast of Denmark.
First contact and first run to the south (battle cruiser action)
On May 30th 1916 the Admiralty intelligence department – Room 40x had picked up a high volume of wireless telegraphy traffic from the German naval bases and had deciphered that a sortie into the North Sea was being planned (initially planned to carry out a bombardment of Sunderland, but then changed to lure parts of the British fleet out by attacking merchant vessels). With this intelligence, the British forces were able to leave their bases before the Germans and enable an interception. By 02:30 on 31st May the German fleet had sailed, but the British fleet had already commenced its journey by 21:30 the night before.
When Hipper (flagship Lutzow) left the Jade and Elbe, he commanded a force of five battle cruisers, four light cruisers and thirty destroyers. The German High Seas Fleet, under Admiral Rienhard Scheer (flagship Friederich der Grosse), left its bases with twenty-two battleships (including six pre-dreadnoughts), five light cruisers and thirty-one destroyers. Under Beatty (flagship Lion) was a force of six battle cruisers, four battleships, fourteen light cruisers, twenty-seven destroyers and one seaplane carrier. Jellicoe in command of the Grand Fleet (flagship Iron Duke) left Scapa Flow and Cromarty in command of twenty-four battleships, three battle cruisers, twelve light cruisers, eight armoured cruisers five flotilla leaders, forty-six destroyers and one minelayer. xi
By May 1916, Beatty and the battle cruiser squadron was stationed at Rosyth on the Firth of Forth (partly to enable a quicker response to German raids), and temporarily had under his command the powerful 5th Battle Squadron under Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas (as part of Beatty’s battle cruiser fleet – the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron was stationed at Scapa Flow with the Grand Fleet for fire practice). The significance of the 5th Battle Squadron was that it consisted of four new hybrid battleships, with enough speed to keep up with the battle cruisers and enough fire power to take on the German Dreadnoughts of the High Seas Fleetxii. This augmentation of Beatty’s forces proved critical on 31st May 1916.
In the early afternoon of 31st May, Beatty was steering towards a pre-determined rendezvous with other British forces – unwittingly on a course just out of sight of his opposite number Hipper, leading a German battle cruiser squadron. At 14:10 a chance encounter with a neutral steamer between the two squadrons brought outlying destroyers of each side in sight of each other – the opening shot of the Battle of Jutland was fired at 14:28. It was not until 14:56 that British units confirmed the sighting and again not until 15:48 that the two main battle cruiser squadrons open fired at each other simultaneously.xiii The encounter took both sides by surprise – despite considerable efforts to enable early warnings. The Germans deployed sixteen u-boats earlier in May to wait for the British vessels to leave their bases but none were able to intercept on May 31st and a fleet of zeppelins were ordered out for reconnaissance but poor visibility resulted in their recall before they could be of use. A major innovation for the British was the use of the seaplane carrier Engadine, and although one of her planes reported enemy vessels, the report did not reach Beatty or Jellicoe.
At the opening exchange the two battle cruiser squadrons were 16,000 yards apart, but then the range closed to 14,500 yards. In this phase Beatty’s six battle-cruisers (Lion, Tiger, Princes Royal, Queen Mary, New Zealand and Indefagitable) lined up against Hipper’s five battle cruisers (Lutzow, Derfflinger, Seydlitz, Moltke and Von der Tann). Due to a signalling problem the support Beatty had available from the 5th Battle Squadron under Evan-Thomas (comprising of the new fast ‘Queen Elizabeth’ class of battleships Barham, Valiant, Warspite and Malaya) was still 10 miles out of range when firing commenced, nonetheless Beatty still held a numerical advantage over Hipper.
Favourable visibility aided the German gunnery (the British silhouetted against a western sky), which by 16:08 enabled the German squadron to score sixteen hits against three received. In the opening exchanges Beatty’s flagship the Lion was almost destroyed as a direct hit on one of its turrets almost ignited the magazine – but for the quick thinking of Major Harvey of the Royal Marines to order the flooding of the magazine. At 16:00 the unimaginable happened when Indefagitable (engaged by the Von der Tann) disappeared in a flash and sunk resulting in the loss of 57 officers and 960 men. These early engagements were also favourable to the German force as signalling errors confused the British vessels as to who they should fire against. In the confusion the German battle cruiser Derfflinger was left un-engaged for the first twelve minutes of the battle – allowing it to make undisturbed fire upon Queen Mary while she engaged the Seydlitz. The combined fire of these two upon Queen Mary soon told and at 16:26 she exploded and sunk – with the loss of 57 officers and 1209 men. At this stage Beatty remarked to his Flag Captain Alfred Chatfield – “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships to-day”. xiv
By 16:30 Beatty was now at a disadvantage with the loss of Indefagitable and Queen Mary, but by 16.10 EvanThomas with the 5th Battle Squadron was able to offer support to Beatty albeit at the maximum range of their guns. The advantage provided by this support was short lived however as heading north towards Beatty and Evan-Thomas (who were heading south to cut off Hipper and his battle cruiser squadron) was Vice-Admiral Rienhard Scheer and the German High Seas Fleet of twenty-two German battleships and supporting flotillas.
Sighting the High Seas Fleet and run to the north
At 16:33 the first sighting of the German High Seas Fleet by British units was reported. This caught Beatty by surprise as intelligence from the Admiralty suggested Scheer had not left port with the High Seas Fleet that day. At 16:40 Beatty turned 16 points (complete turn) which led to a pursuit by Scheer with Hipper (twentyfour battleships and five battle cruisers) on Beatty and Evan-Thomas (four battleships and four battle cruisers). Beatty’s role was now to bring the German High Seas Fleet into the hands of the Grand Fleet under Jellicoe and his twenty-two battleships, three battle cruisers and supporting flotillas of cruisers and destroyers. During the turn north the very first engagement between British forces and the Dreadnoughts of the German High Seas Fleet took place. During this phase the British gunnery in the run to north improved with twenty-one hits inflicted (twenty by the 5th Battle Squadron) against eighteen received.
Main fleet contact and deployment
As late as 17:30 Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet was still in cruising formation (not yet in single line-ahead battle formation) and unaware of the positions of Beatty and the enemy (both of whom were steaming towards him). Beatty sighted the Grand Fleet at 17:56 but even as late as 18:10 Jellicoe was still unaware of the location of the enemy fleet due to poor visibility. At this stage Beatty had not only brought the main enemy forces within range of the firepower of the Grand Fleet, he also manoeuvred in such a way which prevented Scheer and Hipper sighting the Grand Fleet in time to take evasive measures. Beatty finally gave Jellicoe the important information at 18:14 and even though he could not see the German fleet (it would appear twenty minutes earlier than he expected) commenced the most important manoeuvre of British battle ships in over 100 years. This manoeuvre resulted in a successful deployment against the enemy fleet – by cutting their ‘T’ position (the manoeuvre took twenty-six minutes to complete). This meant that Jellicoe was able to bring the maximum number of guns available from the Grand Fleet against a limited portion of the High Seas Fleet.
The moment Hipper and Scheer had come into view they realised that they had been outmanoeuvred and that Beatty had been successful in delivering them in a disadvantaged position in front of the Grand Fleet – despite his earlier losses. Even though the British position seemed highly advantageous, further losses were inflicted during this phase by the destruction of the armoured cruiser Defence – which blew up with all 903 hands lost at 18:20, then the battle cruiser Invincible which blew up at 18:23 with the loss of 1,026 men.
First crossing of T and German turn about
At 18:10 the Jellicoe’s flagship the Iron Duke opened fire upon the Konig (leading the German line). At this stage Scheer understood that firstly he had been outmanoeuvred, and secondly that he couldn’t take on the Grand Fleet under Jellicoe – which with the remaining battle cruisers and 5th Battle Squadron totalled thirtyfour capital ships against Scheer’s fleet of twenty-seven (which included six pre-dreadnoughts). In all, the British battleships when in line formation measured seven miles long, totalling 264 guns against the German Battle fleet’s 200. Just as it appeared certain that the High Seas Fleet would not be given an opportunity to evade its opposing vessels, Scheer gave the order at 18:33 for all units to turn away, under the cover of a smoke screenxv. This move proved very effective as it was complete by 18:45 and Jellicoe did not give orders to pursue the enemy through the smoke screen (Jellicoe always assumed such a move was designed to bring his fleet over mines or a submarine trap). In the confusion, the British fleet lost contact with the enemy and it appeared that Scheer and Hipper had escaped. Firing in this phase ceased at 18:42.
Second crossing of T and order to charge
Cautiously Jellicoe reduced the speed of the Grand fleet then decided to turn south, for fear that Scheer and Hipper were now steaming for the safety of German waters and this opportunity had been lost. These fears were short lived as at 19:10 the British fleet sighted the enemy once more, this time steering back towards them again, thus enabling the Grand Fleet to cross the enemy ‘T’ once more. For reasons still not understood, Scheer had decided to reverse back – but was again caught by surprise on the position of his enemy. At 19:13 Iron Duke once again opened fire on Konig and by 19:15 most of Grand Fleet was firing on whole German line at ranges between 11,000 to 14,000 yards. Between 19:10 and 19:30 the British line received two hits and the Germans received thirty-five. It was appearing that the Grand Fleet finally had the enemy exactly where they wanted them – in a straight fight with the superior numbers of the Grand Fleet against the German High Seas Fleet. At this point Scheer understood that he could not sustain this engagement and at 19:13 executed an order which is often referred to as the ‘death charge’. He ordered Hipper’s battle cruiser squadron to turn and steam into the British line, and for his torpedo boat flotilla’s to carry out a large scale torpedo attack. Although by 19:18 Scheer had ordered the German fleet to turn back again together, the suicidal cruiser and destroyer attack had the desired effect and at 19:22 Jellicoe ordered the Grand Fleet to turn away.
Loss of contact and turn south
There was no contact between the capital ships again until 20:15, when first the opposing scouting groups engaged, then, Beatty once more at a range of 10,000 yards had the opportunity to engage Seydlitz and Derfflinger at 20:23. Beatty ceased fire at 20:40 as the enemy changed their course to take them out of sight in the dwindling light – this was the last exchange between the capital ships of both fleets for the entire war. The objective of Beatty and Jellicoe now was to prevent Scheer and Hipper returning to German waters – but mists had come down over the North Sea and by 21:45 visibility was down to one and a half miles. Jellicoe was now forced to guess which would be the most probable route by which the Germans would return to base – there were four possible options.
Evening actions and run to the bight
Even though Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet and Beatty’s battle cruiser squadron had lost contact with the enemy, the British line still consisted of a force of vessels several miles long – including over 100 lighter vessels (consisting of armoured cruisers, light cruisers and destroyers/torpedo boats) so an encounter still seemed likely. Through the night, British lighter squadrons engaged the German scouting flotillas (which numbered over seventy at the start of the day) and even Dreadnoughts of the High Seas Fleet. Here the German flotillas were much more effective as firstly they were drilled more thoroughly in night action, and secondly the German fleet discovered the British flash-light recognition/identity signals. The latter advantage was used very effectively to trick British vessels to believe that they were being approached by friendly vessels before opening fire. Several confusing melee’s ensued, with ships rammed and firing upon each other at point blank range. This was a very costly phase for the British flotillas, including the loss of five destroyers (Ardent, Fortune, Sparrowhawk [abandoned later], Tipperary and Turbulent), and the armoured cruiser Black Prince.
Throughout the night Jellicoe and Beatty held their south-easterly course towards the Ems channel, and even though they could not see the enemy, they could hear the numerous scouting group actions around them. Despite the several encounters between British and German vessels that evening, no viable report reached Jellicoe with information on enemy positions. In fact, for a long period that night the British and German fleets were on a converging course, but miraculously the German fleet passed just behind the British fleet – over their wake between 22:00 and 23:00. Jellicoe ordered a turn north to commence at 02:30 on 1st June in the hope that his enemy were still somewhere in the North Sea, but by this stage Scheer and Hipper had already reached the safety of Horns Reef.
At the start of the day on 31st May 1916, the fleets opposing forces comprised of 151 British and 99 German vessels. xvi. The breakdown of vessels involved with losses xvii is represented here:
|Type||British||British losses||German||German losses|
|Sea Plane Carrier||1||0||0||0|
British losses in personnel were correspondingly high, with 6097 men killed out of approximately 60,000 against German losses of 2,551 out of approximately 36,000 men.
Upon returning to base the German Admiralty was quick to announce a German victory to the press, despite their fleet being chased back to base and having three times turned away in retreat from the British fleet. As these announcements were being made the British fleet was still steaming back home across the North Sea so was not in a position to provide the British Admiralty with a more balanced view of the action. Ultimately the German fleet had failed in its objective to isolate a portion of the British fleet and the morning after the battle the Royal Navy remained in undisputed command of the North Sea (at 21:45 on June 2nd Jellicoe signalled that the Grand Fleet was at four hours notice to sail, but Scheer was not in a position to make such a report until the middle of August). The strategic position was best summed up at the time by a New York newspaper which reported the battle with the line ‘The German Fleet has assaulted its jailer, but it is still in jail’. xviii
i A comprehensive yet light read on the developing Anglo-German naval rivalry is provided in Massie, R.K. Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War. Pimlico, London, 1993.
ii For further information on the early days of the Grand Fleet, see Jellicoe (Admiral Viscount), J. The Grand Fleet 1914-16: Its Creation, Development and Work. Cassell, London, 1919 (pp. 34-87).
iii For biographies, see Temple-Patterson, A. Jellicoe: A Biography. Macmillan, London, 1969 and Bacon, Admiral Sir R., The Life of John Rushworth, Earl Jellicoe. London, 1936.
iv For biographies see Chalmers (Rear Admiral), W.S. The Life and Letters of David Beatty: Admiral of the Fleet. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1951 and Roskill, S. Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty: The Last Naval Hero – An Intimate Biography. Collins, London, 1980.
v See Marder, A.J. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow Volume II. The War Years: To the Eve of Jutland. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1965 [republished by Seaforth Publishing in 2013] (pp. 4-6).
vi For detail on the naval war prior to Jutland, see Marder, A.J. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow Volume II.
vii From David Beatty to Ethel Beatty, HMS Lion 11 October 1914. The Beatty Papers, Volume I, 1902-1918. Navy Records Society (Ed. Ranft, B.M), 1989 (pp. 138-139).
viii From Winston Churchill to David Beatty, Admiralty, 22 November 1914. The Beatty Papers, Volume I, 1902-1918. (p. 166).
ix From David Beatty to Winston Churchill, HMS Lion, November 1914. The Beatty Papers, Volume I, 1902-1918. (p. 167).
x A comprehensive analysis of this departments work in the First World War can be found in Beesley, P. Room 40: British Naval Intelligence, 1914-1914. Oxford University Press, 1984.
xi For a comparison of the firepower on the day, see Bennett, G. Naval Battles of the First World War. Pan Books, London, 1983 (p. 158).
xii For an introduction to this new Queen Elizabeth Class of hybrid battleships, see Gordon, A. The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command. John Murray, London, 2000 (pp. 7-16).
xiii Times, ranges, signals and detail on the engagement are taken from the official history, published between 1920 and 1931 (Corbett, Sir J.S. Naval Operations: History of the Great War Based on Official Documents. Naval and Military Press Reprint, 2003), official dispatches (Jellicoe, J. (Earl) & Beatty, D. (Earl) The Battle of Jutland Bank, May 31-June 1 1916: The Dispatches of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe and Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty.
Oxford University Press, London, 1916) and Marder, A.J. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow Volume III. Jutland and After: May to December 1916. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1978 [republished by Seaforth Publishing in 2014].
xiv Chatfield (Admiral) A. The Navy and Defence. Heinemann, London, 1942 (p.143).
xv For detail on German signals and an analysis of the German official accounts, see Tarrant, V.E. Jutland: The German Perspective. Brockhampton, London, 1999.
xvi Marder, A.J. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow Volume III. (p. 38).
xvii Bennett, G. Naval Battles of the First World War. (p. 223).
xviii Bennett, G. Naval Battles of the First World War. (p. 226).
Robert Urquhart (Melton Mowbray, November 2014).
MARKING THE CENTENARY OF THE BATTLE OF JUTLAND AT BROOKSBY
In preparation for the commemoration of the centenary of the Battle of Jutland in 2016, the Heritage Lottery Fund and other generous donors enabled the Jutland Memorial and Admiral Beatty’s union flag to be cleaned and restored, the former by Skillingtons Workshop Limited of Grantham, and the latter by The Landi Company Limited of Stamford. At the same time the Villiers monument was cleaned and repaired aided by a grant from the William and Jane Morris Fund.
Arguably St Michael & All Angels’ Church is in better condition now than at any time in its history and we are grateful to the grant-awarding bodies and individuals who have made this possible.
A programme of talks relating to the Battle of Jutland, Admiral Beatty and Brooksby in the First World War is planned for 2016.
A fascinating link is www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-battle-of-jutland