May 31, 2016, marks the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, the only major naval engagement of the Great War with two hundred and fifty combat ships involved. The British, as they say, lost the battle but won the war. British losses in ships and men were double those of the Germans but the German fleet stayed in port for the remainder of the war and Germany returned to unrestrained submarine warfare which eventually brought in the Americans.
Sea power had kept Great Britain safe and powerful for centuries. The strategy was simple: maintain a fleet stronger than the combined fleets of the next two navies. Only when Kaiser Wilhelm decided German deserved a place in the sun did Britain find herself in an arms race. To realize her ambitions, Germany MUST have a navy that could take on the British. The British were just as determined that this was NOT going to happen. Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War is a very readable history of the decades before the war, the rivalry between Britain and Germany as they race to build Dreadnought class battleships and the events leading directly to the declaration of war.
The following is a very rough summary of the excellent Wikipedia article, link above. The article printed out in 38 pages including 6 pages of footnotes, bibliography, further reading suggestions and external links. The table lays out the numbers of combat ships involved in the battle, (NOTE: German torpedo-boats are the equivalent of British destroyers).
The Germans, anchored in Wilhelmshaven, knew they could not beat the British in a full-on naval battle so they devised a strategy to draw British ships, a few at a time, into a trap and whittle down the numbers. The plan was to send Hipper with a squadron of five battlecruisers, six light cruisers, protected by 31 torpedo-boats, to the Skagerrak Neck where the Baltic joins the North Sea between Denmark and Norway to harass British shipping and any British patrols. This would bring British ships to the area in response and Scheer, who would follow Hipper with the full might of the High Seas Fleet, would catch them and dispose of them.
Except the British had the German code book and knew something was cooking but did not know what. So Jellico sent Beatty out with a squadron of six battlecruisers plus four fast battleships, protected by destroyers, to scout the area and planned to meet up with him west of the Skagerrak Neck with the remainder of the Grand Fleet.
Everyone set out May 30 for a rendezvous with fate. Communications were primitive and trying to control and coordinate that many ships was problematic at best. Flags were still the main method of ship to ship communication (hence flagship). Beatty came into contact with Hipper about 1400 hours May 31st. He should have had the advantage but the four battleships didn’t get the message in time and ended up too far away to help immediately. As well, Beatty held fire for 10 minutes after he came within range.
Beatty attacked and everything went to hell. The Germans found the range quickly and sank the Indefatigable with all hands. Hipper headed south towards Sheer’s fleet, chased by Beatty in a running battle with damage on both sides but with the Germans outshooting the Brits 4 to 1 and sinking the Queen Mary. All was going according to Scheer’s plan.
Beatty spotted Scheer’s vanguard, turned his ships around and “got out of Dodge”, with the Germans in hot pursuit. He would lead them to Jellicoe who had no idea they were there. It seems he had asked British Intelligence for information and got the right answer but had asked the wrong question.
On the way North, the four battleships which had caught up by this time, acted as rearguard to the fleeing British battlecruisers. Hipper rejoined Scheer and Beatty rejoined Jellicoe though not without some difficulty in maneuvering of ships and the loss of Defense. Scheer had no idea Jellicoe was at sea, never mind bearing down on him. It was a shock when the Germans ran into the entire Grand Fleet. Scheer was now outnumbered and outgunned.
Jellicoe wanted the Germans to the west of him so they would be backlit by the setting sun and he managed to do so, though he lacked information as to their exact whereabouts. The main battle was joined at 18:30 hours. It was Scheer’s turn to get out of Dodge. Jellicoe managed to “cross the T” with Scheer’s battle line twice in an hour while Scheer managed to escape extreme damage by two “battle about turn” in the same time frame. (I have no idea what this means but it sounded cool).
German ships took a pounding but no battleships on either side were sunk. Wikipedia gives all the gory details as to who sunk who and when. Cruiser and destroyers were the big losers as they swarmed around fighting each other and trying to torpedo the big ships. By 2100 hours it was dark and the Germans were able to break off and get away and by 0500 June 1, they were safely on their way home.
Both sides claimed victory. And the arguments continue to this day about Beatty’s communications and Jellicoe’s allowing the Germans to get away in the dark.
One of the reasons that the German fleet escaped so lightly was the defective nature of British armour piercing shells. The Germans were using TNT which would detonate AFTER the shell had pierced the armour while the British were still using Lyddite which would often detonate prematurely. The problem had been pointed out to the Admiralty however nothing had been done about it, nor would the faulty shells be replaced until April 1918. It was ever thus.