31 May 2016

Today (and tomorrow) in history

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 war.

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 Beatty.

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 Germans.

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.

But 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.

The 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.

In 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.

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