This is a unique blog in that I have a set of a few book reviews planned but I can’t reasonably expect people to follow them without some background: which is this. My goal is to provide the basics, a nutshell, of the great World War I sea battle “The Battle of Jutland” or as it’s known in Germany, “Skagerrak”. Jutland is one of my favorite moments in history, it was a moment where had the British lost the battle, in a few short hours they would have lost World War I completely. Likewise, a crushing German defeat would remove the threat of Germany outside of the continent of Europe and deal a devastating blow to morale.
What was it:
The battle involved a sortie (mission) by the vast majority of the German fleet. The idea was to separate, and trap, part of the British fleet as the main British force, “The Grand Fleet” was deemed too big and powerful to meet in open battle. Yet, the German fleet and British fleet mirrored each other in overall disposition.
German High Seas Fleet – 22 battleships
German 1st Scouting Group – 5 battlecruisers
British Grand Fleet – 24 battleships + 3 battlecruisers temporarily attached to the fleet.
British Battlecruiser Fleet – 6 battlecruisers + 4 battleships temporarily attached to the fleet.
What happened – Run To The South:
On the 31st of May, the German 1st Scouting Group of battlecruisers (think battleships with less armour and therefore faster) met the British Battlecruiser Fleet off the coast of Denmark, known as Jutland. At first Vice Admiral David Beatty of the British Battlecruiser Fleet thinks he has the German 1st Scouting Group cornered. He does not know nor believe the entire German fleet is sailing towards him. The 1st Scouting Group engages the British Battlecruiser Fleet and lures them in a running battle to the south, towards the main German fleet as was planned.
This first stage, the Run to The South, sees the British Battlecruiser Fleet badly mauled. First, shots from the oldest German battlecruiser “Von Der Tann” strike the HMS Indefatiguable and she blows up due to a magazine explosion. Next, the much more modern Queen Mary, often considered one of the best ships in the world with one of the best crews, is hit almost simultaneously with shells from two German battlecruisers and also blows up. When a later salvo heavily damages the ship behind him, thinking it also blew up, Beatty makes one of the most famous quotes in naval history “There’s something wrong with our bloody ships today.”
If you’re wondering why this was going so good for the outnumbered Germans the answer is fourfold.
1.) The British through communication error left the 5th Battle Squadron (the 4 battleships attached to the Battlecruiser Fleet, which were the top 4 strongest battleships in the world at the time) behind and out of the battle for around 45 minutes.
2.) The British had terrible aim.
3.) The British were accidentally doubling up on which German ship they were firing at.
4.) The British had very bad safety procedures to protect their gun magazines from fires. This permitted the two ships to explode.
Run To The North:
At this point the British Battlecruisers run right into the German High Seas fleet, so they turn around 180 degrees and hightail it towards their own Grand Fleet that is behind but sailing south. The Germans don’t know the Grand Fleet is out there so they pursue. There is some frantic action as the 5th Battle Squadron known as “The Goods” – the four super powerful battleships likewise need to turn 180 degrees, but they’re turning at the exact same point and the Germans have them zeroed in for gunnery. Two of the four almost explode – Warspite and Malaya – with Warspite’s rudder taken out doing circles as it gets abandoned and hammered by shells (it later limps home alone).
At this point the Admiral of the British Grand Fleet, John Jellicoe, is steaming with all his battleships in small columns, side-by-side, he needs to get them into one solid battle line but he only has once chance…To form them on his west or east side. The right decision will lead the Germans right into all his guns, the wrong decision would lead them away and let the battlecruisers eventually get eviscerated. If he delayed too long, he could be caught out of position and the Germans would hammer him. He chooses eastern deployment, this ended up being correct because it let him cross Admiral Scheer’s “T”. This is the most important move in naval combat.
Crossing the T allows a turreted battleship to fire all guns on a target, while that target can only fire forward guns at it. Therefore it has a roughly 2-1 shot advantage. Such as this:
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ (ships have front and rear guns able to fire)
I (ships only have frontal guns able to fire)
During this time crazed Scotsman Robert Arbuthnot and his armoured cruisers (one step below a battlecruiser) charged the German line, almost ramming his own ships on the way. His ship, HMS Defence, and her partner HMS Warrior, were annihilated with Defence blowing up visible to all and Warrior slowly sinking. This was the stupidest move of the battle, with Arbuthnot being called according to Wikipedia “A bulldog with it’s teeth in his prey…If only he and they existed”. Many British captains stated the moment they saw Arbuthnot sail in they knew he was doomed before a shot was fired. It was the German flagship battlecruiser SMS Lutzow which saw HMS Defence emerge full in her gunsights providing one of the easiest targets of the battle. The other German ships couldn’t even move their turrets in time towards Defence before Lutzow eviscerated it at close range, alone.
The two fleets meet and while you’d think the Germans would take catastrophic damage from their “T” being crossed, they don’t. They take hits, but they escape. Scheer actually turns back towards the British ships – twice – but then retreats again. Soon it’s nightfall and unfortunately for the British, the Germans sneak past them at night. Many British ships saw, but never reported the Germans leaving which was a terrible and mysterious mistake. I’m skipping a lot of details here as a lot of cool stuff happened, including an old German battleship being torpedoed at night and another British battlecruiser (attached to the Grand Fleet, not Beatty’s fleet) accidentally charging out of smoke right into the Germans and is obliterated, exploding as well.
The most important German ship lost is the big, new, battlecruiser Lutzow. It’s actually scuttled late in the battle after it takes horrific damage but it doesn’t explode or sink solely due to enemy damage. The battle ended up with the British taking way more casualties but the strategic situation in the sea didn’t change – so historians often call it a ‘tactical’ victory for the Germans but a draw overall. Even a strategic victory for John Jellicoe simply because he didn’t lose the battle.
A lot of details are missing but as I delve into the various books I’ve read over the next few months this post will be referred to as background reading. If you have any questions about the battle, I’m always happy to talk about it!