Today and tomorrow are the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland.
Jutland is one of the few battles of the First World War that I feel I
can wrap my head around. So many of the land battles are so utterly
incomprehensible. I read about them, and I think to myself 'that can't
possibly be true. I must have misread.' But it was true. It did
happen. Jutland, at least, is comprehensible.
The lead up to
Jutland was simple. The first and most important maneuvre of the war by
the British was the Naval blockade. While one of the main causes of
the war may have been the naval arms race, the British admiralty didn't
actually want to use their expensive new ships. They would institute a
distant naval blockade, and ultimately starve the Germans out of the
By 1916 the Germans were starting to feel the effects of the
blockade. The German High Seas fleet was smaller than the British, and
their high command knew they would lose in a straight fleet on fleet
action, so they sought to draw a small portion of the British grand
Fleet into a battle where they could be overwhelmed, thus balancing the
scales a little. For that reason, German units began slipping into the
English Channel and bombarding towns and other targets along the shore
in a series o hit and run attacks.
The plan worked. The
Commander of the British Grand Fleet, Admiral Jellicoe, was asked to
send a detachment of the Fleet south from Scapa Floe to a more southern
port in England. Jelicoe resisted, unwilling to break up the Fleet, but
at last was compelled to do so. He sent two squadrons of
Battlecruisers and a squadron of super dreadnaughts, along with escort
cruisers and destroyers to a southern port, under the command of Admiral
It was exactly what the Germans wanted. They sortied
the entire Fleet under Admiral Scheer.. Target: Beatty's squadrons.
But what the Germans did not know was that the British could read the
German Naval codes. The British knew the High seas Fleet would be
making their move, and the British Fleet set out to sea an hour before
The battle began with a meeting of Battlecruisers.
Beatty, sailing to met the British Grand Fleet, ran into the advance
German forces. Beatty somehow left the heavily armoured Super
Dreadnaughts behind as he chased the German Battlecruisers in his own.
The rival ships formed into rapidly moving parallel lines, firing
broadsides at each other. Two British ships exploded and sank in the
fight, either from falling fire or mishandled gunpowder charges. When
the second, the Queen Mary, blew up, Beatty turned to one of his aides
and famously remarked 'There's something wrong with our bloody ships
today." Beatty was in a dreadful position now, and his position got
worse when he realized the Germans ships were leading him right into the
guns of the entire High Seas Fleet.
Beatty had commanded badly
so far, and very nearly lead his squadrons into a disaster. But when
the High Seas Fleet coming into view, Beatty realized he had a chance to
turn the tables on the Germans, for the Germans were unaware the Grand
Fleet was out of port. He turned around, and began leading the Germans
into a British trap.
Jellicoe was steaming towards a rendezvous
point with his fleet. With the Germans coming, he had to arrange the
British lines from a cruising formation into a battle formation. If he
called for the maneuvre too soon, he would be out of position when the
Germans arrived. Too late, and the Germans would fall upon the British
before they were ready. Jellicoe had only one chance to get it right,
and he got it exactly perfect.
The Germans chased Beatty right
into the British battle lines. Jellicoe had performed the classic naval
maneuvre and crossed the German's 't'. His ships could fire full
broadsides while the Germans could only fire their forward guns.
Jellicoe had the High Seas Fleet exactly where he wanted it.
Scheer was no fool. Realizing he was in exactly the position he did not
want to be in, he called for his ships to perform a handbrake turn. In
this maneuvre, which the British did not practice, each ship turns and
heads in the opposite direction. The British, in comparison, preferred
to turn in a continuing line in order to preserve formation.
German Fleet appeared to be retreating when elements of the fleet
returned, sailing towards the British for a torpedo run. Jellicoe had
three options: Maintain his battle formation, and take what hits came,
turn towards the attacking ships in order to present a smaller profile
to their torpedoes, or turn away from the attackers, which would also
present a smaller profile, but disengage the British Fleet from the
Germans. He chose to turn and outrun the torpedoes. By the time the
British turned back, the Germans had made good their escape. Some
isolated elements slashed off and on for the remainder of the day and
into the evening, but that really was the end of the battle.
terms of damage, the British lost more ships and men. In terms of
achieving goals, it was a British victory, though a costly one. The
Germans sought to end the naval blockade, and the British sought to keep
the blockade intact. In Jellicoe's words: "They have assaulted their
jailer, and they remain in jail."
The two fleets never clashed
again. The ships started the war, in a fashion, yet they spent almost
the entire war in port. The Battle marked the end of an era. It was
the last time Fleet would clash gun to gun with Fleet. Germany would
continue to starve, and, ultimately, it would be starved out of the war.