Battle of Jutland

Battle of Jutland

The Battle of Jutland was the largest naval battle of World War 1 and the greatest Dreadnought battle in history. It took place from May 31st to June 1st 1916, off the North Sea coast of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula.

Forces

The Grand Fleet, commanded by Jellicoe, brought 28 battleships, 9 battlecruisers, 8 armored cruisers, 26 light cruisers, and 79 destroyers into the battle. The High Seas Fleet, commanded by Scheer, numbered 16 battleships, 5 battlecruisers, 11 light cruisers, and 61 destroyers, and 6 pre-Dreadnought type battleships (obsolete). Each fleet had a scouting force and a main force, commanded by Beatty for Britain and Hipper for Germany. The forces were disposed as follows-

ship typeGrand FleetHigh Seas Fleet
 main forcescouting forcemain forcescouting force
battleship246160
battlecruiser3405
armored cruiser8000
light cruiser121465
destroyer52273130
pre-Dreadnought0060

The British fleet not only outnumbered the German’s but also had an advantage gun power. The total of the British ships’ weight of broadside was 332,360 lb (150,760 kg), while the German fleet’s total only amounted to 134,216 lb (60,879 kg).  Offsetting these numerical advantages were the superior German protection systems, heavier armor, and higher muzzle velocity for their guns (giving greater penetration). 

Strategic Situation and Plan of Battle

Germany relied on maritime trade for food and some raw materials. In view of this and their naval superiority, England initiated a blockade of Germany upon the outbreak of war. This was being gradually felt by Germany’s civilian population. British strategy was based on maintaining blockade and preventing portions of the German fleet from attacking the coasts of England. The British also hoped to lure out and destroy as much of the German fleet as it could.

This last aim was secondary to the preservation of the British fleet, however, and maintenance of blockade. A naval victory was thus not essential to British naval aims, while a defeat could be fatal. Churchill, then Lord of the Admiralty, noted that the British Grand Fleet commander, Jellicoe, was “the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon.” English strategy was thus very cautious despite their marked numerical superiority.

John Jellicoe

Germany was of course aware of the numerical inferiority of their fleet. Their strategy was thus to lure out a portion of the Grand Fleet and overwhelm it by the full German fleet. Unlike England, Germany would lose the naval war without inducing some kind of battle at favorable odds. Germany’s initial fleet commanders were very cautious, not wishing to lose the ships which were the pride and joy of the Kaiser.

Reinhard Scheer

The new commander, Reinhard Scheer, however, was much more aggressive, and meant to induce an action if he could. One way of inducing a British response was to bombard a portion of the eastern English coast. One such bombardment led to the battle of Dogger Bank, in 1915. While indecisive, both sides had ships nearly destroyed by poor shell handling. Flash doors, meant to prevent turret fires from spreading to the magazine, were left open for rapidity of fire. This was corrected by the Germans but not the English, an issue which would have great bearing on Jutland. 

Ammunition storage procedures were corrected after Jutland

Jutland evolved out of a German effort to lure out elements of the Grand Fleet, and the British response, which was to send the entire fleet.

Tactical Considerations

England had broken the German naval code, and thus typically knew when and how many German ships sortied from their anchorage at the Jade. In the case of Jutland, Britain did not realize the entire High Seas Fleet had sortied, and expected only to catch and destroy a portion of it.

British shells had defective fuses, causing them to explode prematurely, before full penetration into a ship’s hull. This was not known at the time. British gunnery was also very poor in the battlecruiser squadrons. Their commander, Beatty, did not emphasize gunnery training. In addition, British range finders were smaller and less accurate than their German equivalents. British signaling was erratic. This was another fault of Beatty’s, which had muddled Dogger Bank and was to cause trouble again at Jutland.

British Range Finders

The Battle

The British scouting force made contact with the German scouting force at 1420 on May 31. The German ships, unaware of the British main fleet to the north, thought they were engaging the British battlecruisers, and lured them south, toward their own main fleet.

During this time both faulty signaling and poor gunnery led to the loss of two British battlecruisers, Indefatigable and Queen Mary. Both were lost to turret hits which penetrated to the magazines.

HMS Lion

Lion suffered a similar hit but the turret officer managed to close the flash doors between turret and magazine, saving the ship. These losses brought the forces from 6:5 in favor of Britain to 5:4 in favor of Germany.

The battleships attached to the scouting force could not see Beatty’s signals, and came into action late in this phase, before sighting the German main fleet. When this was recognized the British forces realized their longed-for situation was at hand. The scouting force now turned north, bringing the German scouting force and main fleet toward the British main fleet.

The German battlecruisers came into sight of the British fleet at 1820. In the next 10 minutes further errors of coordination led to the loss of Invincible. Like the other two battlecruiser losses, her magazines exploded when a shell penetrated a turret.  At 1830 the German fleet saw the Grand Fleet, which was deployed in a vast, shallow arc crossing the ‘T’ of the German fleet. At 1833, after only 3 minutes of firing, the German fleet turned away together, breaking action in the face of overwhelming force and a poor tactical situation.

David Beatty

Scheer turned south but Beatty also steamed south, keeping his fleet between the Germans and their anchorage. The Germans, not knowing this, again turned east, and again ran right into the Grand Fleet, which again crossed its ‘T’. This time the gunnery was excellent, and multiple German battleships were damaged. Desperate to get away, Scheer ordered the German battlecruisers to attack the British line while the battleships again turned away together. The German battlecruisers took terrible damage, sustaining multiple heavy shell hits, but managed to escape through superior speed and British caution.

Battle of Jutland

That night there was a further brief exchange between the two fleets’ battleships, and much more extensive fighting between British destroyers and German battleships.

Scheer got around behind Jellicoe’s fleet, passing north of them as they moved south. British destroyers and individual battleship captain made multiple sightings of German battleships, but none were reported to Jellicoe, another major failure of British signaling and communication.

Destruction of the British Armoured Cruiser HMS Black Prince during the night of 31st May 1916 at the Battle of Jutland: picture by Willy Stoewer

The British fleet was not well trained in night fighting, and Jellicoe opted to not pursue such an engagement, consistent with the British caution to maintain their fleet and their blockade.

During the night the German battlecruiser Lutzow, mortally wounded, was sunk by German torpedoes.

The battlecruiser Seydlitz sustained 21 heavy shell hits and one torpedo. Two of her turrets were destroyed as well as her entire bridge. Her draft, normally 30 feet, was 43 feet forward.  She grounded on her way into the Jade, and was so damaged she had to sail backward to prevent her bow from plowing into the sea. She was confidently reported by the British as sunk, but in fact was fully repaired, a tribute to the construction of German warships.

HMS Iron Duke Admiral Jellicoe’s Flagship opening fire at approximately 6.15pm on 31st May 1916 at the Battle of Jutland. Iron Duke is followed by other British Battleships. The ship on the extreme left of the picture is the disabled British destroyer HMS Acasta: picture by Lionel Wyllie

Losses

Britain lost 3 battlecruisers, 8 destroyers, and 3 armored cruisers, with 6784 casualties. Germany lost 1 battlecruiser, 5 destroyers, 4 light cruisers, and 1 pre-Dreadnought, and 3058 casualties.

Gun Crew in action on a British Light Cruiser at the Battle of Jutland 31st May 1916: picture by Lionel Wyllie

Outcome

In tactical terms, Jutland was a German victory. She inflicted more losses, and more significant losses, in terms of men and ships.

In strategic terms, however, Jutland was a British victory. Britain’s fleet was intact. The blockade remained unchanged. For all its tactical effectiveness, the German fleet sortie did not alter the strategic situation which was so unfavorable to Germany.

Members of the crew from HMS Black Prince sunk at the Battle of Jutland 31st May 1916 with all hands

It was the blockade more than any other single thing that demoralized the German population, and led to pressure for peace. Jutland can reasonably be seen as a major contribution to the Allied victory in World War One.

The Battle of Jutland : Written by Professor Theodore Tsaltas

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Dr. Theodore Tsaltas is a clinically retired professor of OBGYN, lately of the University of Tennessee. He has published 5 book chapters, several articles, and made numerous national, regional, and local presentations. He has a strong interest in naval history and battleship design.