The Greatest Sea Battle

The Greatest Sea Battle

The Greatest Sea Battle : “At 5.50pm [May 31st, 1916], Konig and her sisters, still believing that they were in pursuit of the fleeing Beatty, raced into a thick mist. At 5.59pm, they emerged from it to behold a terrible sight: the [British] Grand Fleet spread before them across the northern horizon. Twenty-four British dreadnoughts and a host of cruisers and destroyers were 16,000 yards away, racing towards them at 20 knots”.

Castles of Steel”, Robert K. Massie

The Greatest Sea Battle

Alphen, Netherlands. At present I am preparing a speech on the future of naval warfare, and finally completing a model of HMS Iron Duke, the flagship of the Royal Navy in 1916, which has taken me three times as long to build as the real ship! Thus, my mind has been cast back to a previous age and a controversy that has now raged for over a century, albeit in an increasingly small academic circle (storm in a tea-cup?): who won the Battle of Jutland Bank, and what, if any, are the lessons for naval warfare today and tomorrow? This brief essay will thus consider several aspects of the battle; materiel, tactics and leadership, firepower and performance, the place of the battle in British war strategy, why the controversy, and, finally, what lessons does the battle provide for naval warfare today…and tomorrow.

The argument over the Battle of Jutland Bank is by and large a peculiarly British contention between three main schools, all three of which imply the Royal Navy suffered a defeat on that grey day in May 1916. The arguments can be thus summarised: the Royal Navy missed a great opportunity to inflict a second Trafalgar on the German High Seas Fleet; the Royal Navy was very badly-handled during the battle; the British materiel was markedly inferior to that of their German opponents; and that lingering contentions within the late-Victorian and Edwardian naval establishments resulted in a Royal Navy in 1916 in which strategy, tactics, targeting and signalling were hopelessly behind technology and firepower. Something which perhaps contemporary naval commanders might ponder.

The Battle of Jutland Bank

The Battle of Jutland Bank began at 1545 hours on 31st May, 1916, when the British battlecruiser HMS Lion, flagship of Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty’s Battlecruiser Fleet, reinforced by the four mighty ‘15 inch’ gunned (muzzle diameter) super-Dreadnoughts of the Queen Elizabeth class, opened fire on the German battlecruiser SMS Lutzow, flagship of Vice-Admiral Franz von Hipper’s Scouting Groups 1 and 2. The battle itself can be divided into four distinct sections.  The initial ‘run to the south’ saw Hipper gain a clear victory over Beatty as first HMS Indefatigable, and then HMS Queen Mary, blow up with the loss of almost all hands.  The second phase of the battle has become known as the ‘run to the north’. Beatty, realising he was being drawn by Hipper onto the massed guns of the Dreadnoughts and pre-Dreadnoughts of Admiral Reinhard Scheer’s High Seas Fleet, turns north (albeit clumsily) to escape. For two hours Scheer and Hipper chase Beatty, the High Seas Fleet commander firm in the belief that his strategy of isolating and then destroying a portion of the much stronger Royal Navy was about to reap rich reward.

Carl Friedrich Heinrich Reinhard Scheer

 And then came what historian Arthur Marder called the “the peak moment of the influence of sea power upon history”. Locked in pursuit of Beatty Scheer and Hipper sail the High Seas Fleet slap bang into the mighty trap laid by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe and the entire British Grand Fleet.  Even as the Grand Fleet engages a third British battlecruiser, HMS Invincible, blows up, killing all but three of its crew of over 1000 men.  Twice, in less than the ensuing hour the entire British battle-line, huge white battle ensigns flying from masts and halyards, hurls concentrated death down on the High Seas Fleet. Twice Scheer expertly extricates his fleet from a second Trafalgar, but only at great cost.  For a time Scheer’s fleet is trapped to the west of the Grand Fleet unable to get home to its port of Wilhelmshaven.

What follows thereafter is something of an anti-climax.  The night action is mainly between cruisers and destroyers, during which the British succeed in destroying the German pre-Dreadnought battleship SMS Pommern, whilst in the morning the modern German battlecruiser and Hipper’s erstwhile flagship SMS Lutzow is so badly-damaged that, with the crew evacuated, she is sunk by a single torpedo from a German destroyer.  A mixture of skilful German ship-handling, missed opportunities by the British, allied to a Grand Fleet that is ill-prepared for night action, finally enables Scheer, Hipper and their battered ships to slip past his British enemy and retreat to safety.


The Battle of Jutland Bank was a bit like Sparta versus Athens. As warfighting machines there can be little doubt that most of the German ships were better designed and built ships. By the time that the most modern German ships at the battle were constructed Berlin had given up hope of a large overseas empire. Consequently, the Spartan German ships were simply built with one aim in mind – to go out into the North Sea and fight the Royal Navy to break the naval blockade Britain was imposing on Germany. Given the greater weight of fire the British could on paper deliver the ‘vital spaces’ of the German ships (engines, guns, magazines and command and control infrastructures) had to be be very heavily-protected. Equally, Scheer was also compromised. The presence of the slow, obsolete pre-Dreadnought Westfalen-class battleships greatly reduced Scheer’s tactical freedom, whilst adding next to nothing.

By contrast, the British ships at the battle were a compromise. Most were designed not just as warfighting platforms, but were also critical to the Royal Navy’s imperial policing duties and maintenance of imperial sea-lines of communication. In other words, crews had to live on British ships for very long periods, whilst their German counterparts did not. Worse, from a warfighting perspective, the British battlecruisers were dangerously obsolete, even the new ones, reflecting an ill-conceived and outdated belief back in the early part of the century that speed rather than adequate armour afforded protection against falling, piercing shot. This failure was reflected in the catastrophic loss of HMS InvincibleHMS Indefatigable, and themodern HMS Queen Mary at the battle.

However, the ‘best’ ships present at the battle were undoubtedly British. The four Queen Elizabeth super-dreadnoughts were heavier, as fast, better armoured and had greater firepower than any other ships at the battle.  Initially, the Fifth Battle Squadron, which the four ships formed, were attached to Beatty’s Battlecruiser Fleet and were poorly handled. However, once three of the four ships entered the main gun exchange (HMS Warspite had been badly damaged) their 15 inch/38cm guns inflicted immense damage, particularly on the ships of the First Division of the High Seas Fleet.

The Greatest Sea Battle

Tactics and leadership

Any tactical evaluation of the four main commanders suggests the following ranking: Jellicoe, Hipper, Scheer, Beatty. 

Jellicoe: In spite of being forewarned of the presence of the High Seas Fleet at sea by the code-breakers and transmission-plotters of the Admiralty’s renowned Room 40 (a forerunner of Bletchley Park), Admiral Jellicoe is poorly served at the tactical level by his subordinate commanders about the course, speed and position of the High Seas Fleet. Jellicoe battled tactical uncertainty and ambiguity right up to moment when he hoisted his inspired signal, “Hoist equal speed pennant south-east by east”. With this command Jellicoe deployed his mighty fleet from six parallel columns into a single battle-line. With this command Jellicoe not only opens the arcs of all the big guns of all his big ships, he closes the arcs of the German ships by ‘crossing Scheer’s T’.  In other words, Scheer’s fleet can only bring the forward guns of his ships to bear on the already preponderant Grand Fleet. Jellicoe also ‘seizes the light’ by forcing Scheer’s ships to be silhouetted against a setting sun, whilst all Scheer can see of Jellicoe is when over the space of a few minutes the horizon erupts into heavy gunfire across an arc from north to east.

 Hipper: In the early part of the battle Hipper beats Beatty, plain and simple. Hipper is dashing, brave, and yet methodical. His ships outgun Beatty’s, and he performs far more effectively than Beatty in his role as scout for his commander-in-chief. However, once his flagship SMS Lutzow is effectively shot from under him he effectively loses command and spends much of the main phase of the battle scuttling from battered battlecruiser to battered battlecruiser in a vain attempt to re-establish command and control.

Scheer: Admiral Scheer commands the High Seas Fleet with courage and resolution, and at 1836 hours masterfully extricates his fleet from pending disaster by making what, in effect, was three handbrake turns or ‘battle-turns to starboard’. However, Scheer makes two poor decisions which come close to denying Germany its fleet. First, he should have realised that when Beatty headed north, rather than north-west towards Britain, that there must have been a bigger British force waiting for him over the horizon. Especially so when, towards the end of the ‘race to the north’, Beatty began to turn his ships to starboard, allowing Scheer to close the range on the British commanders ‘big cats’, but at the same time masking the approach of Jellicoe. His second poor decision is to reverse his first ‘battle-turn to starboard’ and turn straight back into Jellicoe’s massed guns. Scheer tried to claim after the battle that the decision was partly a question of honour, and partly to rescue the doomed cruiser SMS Wiesbaden. One of his captain’s suggested instead that Scheer had little idea where Jellicoe was, or indeed he was even facing the full might of Jellicoe. It seems more likely that he tried to slip around the stern of the Grand Fleet to get home, but got his calculations horribly wrong.

David Beatty

Beatty: The weakest commander at Jutland Bank is Beatty, and his weakness stemmed from his attraction to Nelsonian tactics of a past age. Indeed, ‘engage the enemy more closely’ may well explain why he allowed himself to get too close to Hipper’s battlecruisers before opening fire. His larger 15 inch and 13.5 inch guns should have enabled him to stand off from Hipper and inflict punishing damage on the German ships which were armed with smaller 12 and 11 inch guns with a much shorter effective range.  

Beatty’s command style may also have had something to do with his failure at Jutland.  Unlike Jellicoe, who had methodically trained the Grand Fleet in accurate gunnery, Beatty believed in rate of shot (very Nelsonian) rather than accuracy of shot. Worse, his demand for very fast rates of shot led to short-cuts by his own gunners as they strove to get both shells and cordite sacks into the guns. Anti-flash doors were locked open, which in addition to the inherent concept and design flaws of the British battlecruisers may also help explain the catastrophic loss of HMS IndefatigableHMS Queen Mary, and HMS Invincible. All three ships succumbed to exploding main armament magazines.

Beatty also failed to make any proper use of the four Queen Elizabeth-class super-Dreadnoughts assigned to his command, possibly because of a personal dislike of the 5th Battle Squadron’s commander, Evan-Thomas.  Their 15 inch guns would have devastated Hipper’s battlecruiser’s if properly used. Beatty’s signals discipline was also appalling and he repeatedly failed to provide Jellicoe with accurate information as to the location, course, speed and size of the enemy force.

 Firepower and Performance

One of the many myths about the Battle of Jutland Bank is that German gunnery was markedly better than British gunnery. In fact, if one takes away the relatively poor shooting of Beatty’s battlecruisers against the relative accuracy of Hipper’s gunners, Jellicoe’s fleet performs well. Recent research shows that the Germans fired 2,424 12 inch shells and 1,173 11 inch guns. Of these 122, or 3%, were on target. The British fired 4,480 15, 13.5 and 12 inch heavy shells, of which 123 were on target, or 2.75%. However, a significant number of German shells were fired at point blank range into HMS Warspite, which temporarily went out of control, and other British ships that strayed too close to the High Seas Fleet. In other words, British and German firepower performance was roughly equal, and in fact British gunnery was more accurate over a ranges above 8,000 yards. Interestingly, prior to the battle both navies had assumed a hit rate of around 5%, rather than the 3% achieved. Fog of battle and all that.

The Place of the Jutland Bank in British War Strategy

It is Jellicoe’s decision to turn away rather than towards Scheer as the latter covered his second retreat from the Grand Fleet’s guns, with what appeared to be a massed destroyer-led torpedo attack, which reveal Jellicoe to be a strategic leader, not just a naval commander.  Churchill famously said that Jellicoe was the only man who could have lost the war in an afternoon. When Jellicoe chose to defy the tyranny of Nelson and protect his Dreadnoughts from torpedoes he would have known the criticism he would face. However, he understood clearly that his mission was to maintain the naval blockade on Germany as part of Britain’s war aims, and preserve the Grand Fleet as a mighty fleet in being. Destruction of the enemy was an important but secondary consideration to be achieved only if the tactical risk clearly suggested strategic reward.

The Greatest Sea Battle

Why the controversy?

First, the British lost more ships and men than the Germans. The British lost 14 ships of all classes with 6,097 personnel killed, whilst the Germans lost 11 ships with 2,551 personnel killed.

However, whilst the British lost three battlecruisers to one German battlecruiser at Jutland Bank, two of the British battlecruisers were obsolete. In strategic terms the loss of the modern HMS Queen Mary and SMS Lutzow were thus comparable. The Germans also lost one pre-dreadnought battleship, SMS Pommern, which was even more obsolete than the British battlecruisers lost. Second, the Germans got home first and exploited to effect what today would be called ‘strategic communications’ to claim victory. In fact, in his after-action report to Kaiser Wilhelm Admiral Scheer at one point says that Germany must never fight such a battle again. Third, a jingoistic British public and press had too high a set of expectations that a second Trafalgar was imminent.

Battle of Trafalgar

The quality of German ships, commanders and crews under Scheer bore no relationship to the state of the enemy Nelson faced in 1805.  When the land war was not going well, the British public tended to the belief that there was ‘always the Navy’. The Royal Navy in 1916 was not just the largest navy in the world by far, it was seen by much of the world as the finest fighting machine ever to grace the planet.  Fourth, Beatty was always careful to cultivate his political and public image as an officer replete with ‘the Nelson touch’, whereas Jellicoe saw himself as first and foremost a professional officer. When Beatty succeeded Jellicoe as First Sea Lord he did all in his power to suppress any report that in any way presented his actions at the battle as erroneous. He also embarked on a campaign that came close to defaming the dignified Jellicoe by claiming that it was the latter’s caution that prevented ‘Der Tag’ becoming the second Trafalgar.

The real damage to the Royal Navy was perhaps a loss of reputation from which the Naval Service never fully recovered. Ironically, it was Scheer’s respect for that reputation that handed Jellicoe the upper hand.  Scheer’s behaviour when faced with the Grand Fleet suggested he too believed the legend of the Royal Navy.

Lessons for Naval Warfare Today and Tomorrow

The battle took place just at the moment the relationship between strategy, command, systems and naval platforms were undergoing revolutionary change. Put simply, by 1916 the range of naval artillery was such that visual observation was inadequate in most sea states to ensure accurate gunfire against fast moving targets armed with similar firepower. Ironically, this conundrum was only solved right at the very end of the Dreadnought age at the December 1943 Battle of North Cape. Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser sank the German battlecruiser KM Scharnhorst with a system that linked the main 14 inch armament of the battleship HMS Duke of York to radar and a rudimentary computer.  Quite simply, the Scharnhorst never saw what was coming.  The solution to the Jutland problem was in time to make the aircraft-carrier the main capital ship of fleets. Aircraft became the heavy shells of their age enabling a fleet commander to achieve accuracy of shot by putting human eyes on targets at extended ranges.  

Today, navies must contend with weapons systems with super-extended ranges, able to travel at great speed, possibly reinforced by robotic swarms of fully autonomous weapons with eyes on target provided by remote electronic means. In other words the Jellicoes and Scheers of the future will not have the time to calmly consider their options in battle. The human decision-making loop is becoming dangerously slow when faced with interlocked hyper-war systems. Equally, as an Oxford historian, the one constant between the battle and the future of sea warfare is sea warfare has a future.

The Greatest Sea Battle

Who won the Battle of Jutland Bank?

When suddenly faced with the unexpected might of Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet Scheer fled the field.  And, although Jutland Bank was not the second Trafalgar the British public longed for, the irony of the battle is that to all intents and purpose Jellicoe pretty much achieved the same result in 1916 as Nelson had in 1805. The blockade was maintained, which in time would help force Germany to capitulate, and the Germans came to realise that their huge investment in surface capital ships had failed. Rather, they turned to the submarine and unrestricted commerce warfare, which helped drag the United States into World War One in 1917.

The ultimate testament to Jellicoe’s victory came at 2145 hours on 2 June, 1916 when Jellicoe reported to the Admiralty that his fleet was ready to sail at four hours’ notice with a force of 25 Dreadnought and super-Dreadnoughts, 6 battlecruisers, 25 cruisers and 60 destroyers. It would be months before Scheer’s badly damaged fleet could sail again in anything like strength. Had he been forced to act on 2 June the most his fleet could have mustered was 12 battleships, both Dreadnoughts and pre-Dreadnoughts, 2 battlecruisers, 3 cruisers, and some dozen torpedo boats.

Who won the Battle of Jutland Bank? That is the easiest question of all to answer; Admiral Sir John, later the Earl Jellicoe GCB, OM, GCVO, SGM, DL. For, as the official German war history states in support of Jellicoe’s critical decision at the critical moment to deploy the Grand Fleet on the port wing and thus ‘cross the German T’, “One must agree that…[a deployment on the right wing] would have been only too welcome to the German fleet”.

The motto of the Royal Navy is ‘si vis pacem para bellum’ (‘if one wants peace then prepare for war’). It may not be as yet necessary to prepare for war but Britain, Germany, and all the democratic allies, had at least better start seriously thinking about it.

In memory of the officers and men of both the High Seas Fleet and the Royal Navy who lost their lives at the Battle of Jutland Bank.

The Greatest Sea Battle Written by Julian Lindley-French 

Analyst, author, commentator and speaker with ten books to my name, including two for Oxford University Press (and about to publish my third for Oxford “Future War and the Defence of Europe), My job is to speak truth unto power in an age when the gap between power, people and politics is growing dangerously wide. My focus is the tension between strategy and politics with an emphasis on security and defence policy. My analysis is the product of many years policy and practitioner experience, allied to long and deep research. Sadly, I also support Sheffield United Football Club – the triumph of endless hope over long, hard, and painful experience!

Forthcoming Book

Future War and the Defence of Europe (Oxford University Press English Edition and Kosmos Press German Edition)

Recent Books:

2017: The Geopolitics of Terror – Demons and Dragons (Routledge)
2015: NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2015 (Routledge)
2015: Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power ( 2nd and paperback edition) (Amazon)
2014; The Oxford Handbook of War (paperback edition) (Oxford University Press)
2014: Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power (Kindle e-book)
2012: The Oxford Handbook of War (Oxford University Press)
2007: A Chronology of European Security and Defence (Oxford University Press)
2007; NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2007 (Routledge)
2003: Terms of Engagement (EUISS)
1998: Coalitions & the Future of Security Policy

General David Petraeus on Leadership & WW2

Kursk Submarine Disaster : The Genesis of Putin’s Post-Soviet Russia