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Battle of Jutland

History -- Military history -- List of battles -- World War I

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.

Table of contents
1 General Naval Tactics in 1916
2 German tactics for Jutland
3 British tactics for Jutland
4 The Fleets
5 The Battle
6 Battle Damage Assessment
7 Losses

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 battlecruisers 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 battlecruisers 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 battlecruisers, while Scheer had sixteen dreadnoughts, five battlecruisers 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. The first shots of the battle were fired when the Galatea of the British 1st Light Cruiser Squadron mistook two German destroyers for cruisers and engaged them. Galatea was subsequently hit at extreme range by her German counterpart, the Elbing, of Rear-Admiral Bodicker's Scouting Group II.

At 15.30 Beatty 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. Thus began the opening phase of the fleet action, known as the "Run to the South".

The Germans drew first blood. Hipper's five battlecruisers promptly registered hits on three of the six British battlecruisers; nearly 10 minutes passed before the British managed to score their first hit. The first near-disaster of the battle occurred when a 12" salvo from Lützow wrecked 'Q' turret of Beatty's flagship Lion. Dozens of crewmen were instantly killed but a far larger catastrophe was averted when the mortally wounded commander of the turret's marine gunners ordered the magazine doors shut and the magazine itself flooded, thereby preventing sparks from the fickle propellant from setting off a massive explosion. Lion was saved but Indefatigable was not so lucky. At 16:00 she was smashed aft by three 11" shells from von der Tann, the damage sufficient to knock her out of line, but not realizing this, von der Tann landed another 11" salvo on one of her 12" turrets at near-maximum range. The plunging shells easily pierced the armor and, with no time for the heroics that saved Lion, Indefatigable was ripped apart by a magazine explosion, sinking in moments with all but two of her 1,000+ crew.

The odds had been evened to Hipper's benefit, but not for long. Rear-Admiral Evan-Thomas had finally brought up his 5th Battle Squadron of four "superdreadnoughts" - fast, 15"-armed warships of the vaunted Queen Elizabeth class that would serve prolifically in both world wars. With 15" shells landing on his ships and unable to respond effectively at the range enjoyed by such caliber, Hipper was in a tight spot but knew Scheer's main body was fast approaching and his baiting mission was close to completion. The battlecruiser action intensified again, at 16:25 Queen Mary was hit by what may have been a combined salvo from Derfflinger and Seydlitz, she disintegrated in a magazine explosion with all but nine of her 1,285 crew lost. Viewing this debacle, Beatty noted "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today" to his flag captain.

At about 16:30 the Southampton of Beatty's 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron led by Commodore Goodenough sighted the main body of Scheer's High Seas Fleet, dodging numerous heavy-caliber salvos to report the detailed strength of the Germans: 16 dreadnoughts with 6 older battleships. Simultaneously a destroyer action raged between the battlecruiser fleets as British destroyers meleed with their German counterparts and managed to put a torpedo in the Seydlitz. The destroyer Nestor under Captain Bingham sunk two German torpedo boats before she was herself hit and abandoned as Scheer's dreadnoughts sped by. Beatty decided to head north to draw the Germans towards Jellicoe and broke contact with the Germans at about 16.45. Beatty's move towards Jellicoe is called the "Run to the North". In this phase the superdreadnoughts of the 5th Battle Squadron inadvertently lagged behind the battlecruisers and for a period had to fend off the lead German dreadnoughts and Hipper's battlecruisers on their own. Malaya sustained heavy casualties in the process but the 15" fire of the British ships remained effective.

Jellicoe was now aware that full fleet engagement was nearing but with insufficient data on the position and course of the Germans. Rear-Admiral Hood's 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron was ordered to speed ahead to assist Beatty, while Rear-Admiral Arbuthnot's 1st Cruiser Squadron patrolled the van of the main body for eventual deployment of Jellicoe's dreadnought columns. Around 17.30 the cruiser Black Prince of Arbuthnot's squadron, bearing southeast came within view of Beatty's leading 3rd Light Cruiser Squadron, establishing the first visual link between the converging bodies of the Grand Fleet. Simultaneously the signals cruiser Chester, steaming behind Hood's battlecruisers, was intercepted by the van of the German scouting forces under Rear-Admiral Bodicker. Heavily outnumbered by Bodicker's 4 cruisers, Chester was pounded before being relieved by Hood's heavy units which swung back westward for that purpose. Hood's flagship Invincible disabled Wiesbaden as Bodicker's other ships fled toward Hipper and Scheer, mistakenly believing Hood was leading a larger force of British capital ships from the north and east. Another destroyer action ensued as German torpedo boats attempted to blunt the arrival of this new formation.

In the meantime Beatty and Evan-Thomas had resumed their engagement of Hipper's battlecruisers, this time with the visual conditions to their advantage. With the battle-worthiness of his ships greatly attrited, Hipper turned back to Scheer around 18.00, just as Beatty's flagship Lion was finally spotted by Jellicoe on the Iron Duke. Jellicoe promptly demanded the latest positioning data of the German forces from Beatty.

Jellicoe had been 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.

Meanwhile Hipper had rejoined Scheer and the combined High Seas Fleet was heading north again, directly toward Jellicoe. Scheer had no indication that Jellicoe was arriving from the northwest and was distracted by the intervention of Hood's ships to his north and east. Beatty's 4 surviving battlecruisers were now crossing the van of the British dreadnoughts to join Hood's 3 battlecruisers, as he did so he nearly rammed Rear-Admiral Arbuthnot's flagship Defence. Arbuthnot's obsolete armored cruisers had no real place in the coming clash between modern dreadnoughts but he was attracted by the drifting hull of the crippled Wiesbaden. With the Warrior, the Defence closed in for the kill, only to blunder right into the gunsights of Hipper's and Scheer's oncoming capital ships. Defence was destroyed in a spectacular explosion viewed by most of the deploying Grand Fleet, sinking with all hands. Warrior was hit badly but spared immolation by the mishap of the nearby superdreadnought Warspite. Warspite had been steaming near 25 knots to keep pace with the 5th Battle Squadron as it tailed Beatty's battlecruisers in the run north, creating enough strain to jam her rudder. Drifting in a wide circle, she appeared as a juicy target before the German dreadnoughts and took 13 hits, inadvertently drawing fire from the hapless Warrior. Despite surviving the onslaught Warspite was soon ordered back to port by Evan-Thomas. As Defence sank, Hipper moved within range of Hood's 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron. Invincible inflicted two below-waterline hits on Lützow that would ultimately doom Hipper's flagship, but about 18.30 abruptly appeared as a clear target before Lützow and Derfflinger. A series of 12" shells struck Invincible which blew up and split in two, taking with her all but 6 of 1,032 crew, including Rear-Admiral Hood.

By 18.30 the main fleet action was joined for the first time, with Jellicoe effectively crossing Scheer's 'T'. Jellicoe's flagship Iron Duke quickly scored a series of hits on the lead German dreadnought, Konig, but in all as few as 10 of the Grand Fleet's 24 dreadnoughts actually fired shots in this brief exchange lasting only minutes. The Germans were hampered by poor visibility in addition to being at an unfavorable tactical position. Realizing he was heading into a trap, 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.

Conscious of the risks to his capital ships posed by torpedoes, Jellicoe did not seek chase but headed south, determined to keep the High Seas Fleet west of him. Scheer doubled back to the east, probably in an attempt to slip past the Grand Fleet's wake, instead running into the British again. Commodore Goodenough's 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron dodged the fire of German battleships for a second time in reestablishing contact with the High Seas Fleet shortly past 19.00. By 19.15, Jellicoe had crossed the 'T' yet again. This time his arc of fire was tighter and deadlier, causing severe damage to the Germans, particularly Rear-Admiral Behncke's leading 3rd Battle Squadron. For the second time in less than an hour, Scheer turned and fled, ordering a major torpedo attack by his destroyers and a "death ride" by Scouting Group I's 4 remaining battlecruisers - Lützow being out of action and abandoned by Hipper - to deter a British chase. In this portion of the engagement the Germans sustained 37 heavy hits while inflicting only 2, the Derfflinger alone receiving 14. Nonetheless Scheer slipped away as sunset (20:24) approached. The last major engagement between capital ships took place as the surviving British battlecruisers caught up with their German counterparts, which were briefly relieved by Rear-Admiral Mauve's obsolete predreadnoughts. As the King George V and Westfalen exchanged a few final shots, neither side could have imagined that the only encounter between British and German dreadnoughts in the entire war was already concluded.

Jellicoe, knowing of the Grand Fleet's deficiencies in night-fighting, hoped to avoid a major engagement until early dawn. He placed a screen of cruisers and destroyers behind his battle fleet to patrol the rear as he headed south to guard against Scheer's expected escape to Ems. In reality Scheer opted to bypass his wake and escape via Horns Reef. Luckily for Scheer, Jellicoe's scouts failed to report his true course while Jellicoe himself was too cautious to judge from extensive circumstantial evidence that the Germans were breaking through his rear. While the nature of Scheer's escape and Jellicoe's inaction indicate the overall superiority of German night-fighting proficiency, the night battle's results were no more clear-cut than the battle as a whole. The Southampton, Commodore Goodenough's flagship that had scouted so proficiently, was heavily damaged but managed to sink the German cruiser Frauenlob. The Black Prince of the ill-fated 1st Cruiser Squadron met a grim fate at the hands of the battleship Thüringen, blowing up with all hands as her squadron leader Defence had done earlier. Flotillas of British destroyers launched daring torpedo runs on the German battle lines and at the cost of five sunk and some others damaged managed to sink the predreadnought Pommern with all hands, as well as torpedoing the light cruiser Rostock and causing another, the Elbing, to be rammed by the dreadnought Posen and abandoned. Additionally the battlecruiser Lützow was scuttled after being abandoned by her 1,150 survivors. In addition to Jellicoe's caution, the Germans were helped by the failure of British naval intelligence in London to relay a critical radio intercept giving away the true position of the High Seas Fleet. By the time Jellicoe finally learned of Scheer's whereabouts at 4.15 it was clear the battle could no longer be resumed. There would be no "Glorious First of June" in 1916.

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 battlecruisers 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.




British order of battle

The Battle Fleet
The Battlecruiser Fleet

German order of battle

The Battle Fleet
The Battlecruiser Force