THE BATTLE OF JUTLAND: AN ‘UNPALATABLE’ RESULT

This is the second in a series of posts connected to a King’s College First World War Research Group and Corbett Centre Event to mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. 

DR JOHN BROOKS

After an industrial career in computing and telecommunications, John Brooks published his first historical paper – on circular dividing engines – in 1992, when he also joined the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London as a part-time post-graduate student. His 2001 doctoral thesis was the basis for his book Dreadnought Gunnery and the Battle of Jutland: the question of fire control (2005) which was first to challenge the then widely accepted views of ‘revisionist’ naval historians. He has also written articles on naval fire control, ordnance, policy and tactics and for the Oxford DNB. His new book, The Battle of Jutland (2016) is being published by Cambridge University Press.

The Battle of Jutland (in Germany of the Skagerrak) took place on 31 May and 1 June 1916. It was the only fleet encounter of World War I with 151 British and 99 German warships present: battleships, battlecruisers, armoured cruisers, light cruisers and destroyers. The battle ended with the British Grand Fleet still dominant in the North Sea and with the German High Seas Fleet retreating to its bases. But the price of this strategic victory had been no less than a tactical defeat. British casualties were 6,768 killed and wounded, while the German total was 3,058. The Royal Navy lost three battlecruisers, three armoured cruisers and eight destroyers: Germany, one battlecruiser, one predreadnought battleship, five destroyers and also four light cruisers. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the British Commander-in-Chief, wrote of the battlecruiser actions that ‘the result cannot be other than unpalatable’ but this verdict can apply equally to the whole battle. Part of the explanation lies in the greater tendency for fires in British gun propellant to develop into catastrophic magazine explosions. But why was the British fleet unable to inflict greater losses on its weaker opponent?

Just before 3.30pm on 31 May, the opposing scouting forces sighted each other – they were the British Battle Cruiser Fleet (the BCF) led by Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty and the German Ist Scouting Group (the ISG) commanded by Vice-Admiral Franz Hipper. Of the BCF’s three squadrons, that commanded by Rear-Admiral Horace Hood was with the battlefleet but temporarily Beatty had been given four fast battleships from the 5th Battle Squadron (the 5BS). Hipper reversed course, enticing Beatty in ‘the Run to the South’ towards the advancing German battlefleet led by Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer. Yet, despite a report of nearby heavy enemy ships, Beatty had done nothing to concentrate his forces; the 5BS would take no part in the first phase of the coming action. Beatty still had six battlecruisers to the German five. But his approach was too steep; when Hipper opened fire, the British battlecruisers were still manoeuvring to free themselves from smoke interference; in the main, their ranges were inaccurate; the two rear battlecruisers were still struggling to get into line; not all the British turrets were bearing; and one German ship had not been selected as a target. In this first phase, the British ships made only 6 hits to at least 22 German, including those that caused the cordite explosions that sank Indefatigable. In the second phase, the British battlecruisers probably scored only three hits whereas the 5BS made as many as seven at long range. The ISG obtained at least thirteen more hits and Queen Mary also blew up but, just afterwards, Hipper was forced to turn away by the fire from the 5BS and by a timely attack by Beatty’s destroyers. As soon as Beatty sighted the High Seas Fleet, he turned about, with the 5BS trailing some three miles astern, to lead Scheer in the ‘Run to the North’ towards Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet. But the battlecruisers went out of action for almost 25 minutes, leaving the battleships to engage all the German forces. Also, Beatty allowed his destroyer flotillas to remain on his disengaged flank, where they were no threat to the pursuing enemy.

As soon as Jellicoe learned that Beatty was in action, the C-in-C sent Hood’s three battlecruisers ahead to rejoin the BCF, leaving the armoured cruisers as the battlefleet’s only advanced force. Just as the two battlefleets made contact, at 6.15pm Jellicoe deployed his battleships from columns into single line and ‘crossed the T’ of Scheer’s line. But the armoured cruisers led by Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot were caught between the lines, his flagship Defence blowing up and Warrior being fatally damaged. Shortly afterwards, at the end of a brief action with the ISG, Hood’s flagship Invincible also exploded, though not before crippling Hipper’s flagship Lützow. Visibility was now bad, especially for the Germans, and Scheer had to disengage by an action-turn-about, that is, a near-simultaneous course reversal by his whole line. To the British, the enemy disappeared into the mist but Jellicoe delayed turning in pursuit. Nevertheless, by making a second action-turn-about prematurely, Scheer found Jellicoe once again crossing his T. Meanwhile, Beatty had refused to pursue the ISG; instead, at about seven o’clock, he led his reunited battlecruisers through a complete circle, after which they were in a position to fire only a few ineffective salvos at long ranges as the battle reached its climax. Scheer again vanished when, to get out of trouble, he ordered a third action-turn-about under cover of attacks by his battlecruisers and some destroyer flotillas. Partly due to Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Jerram’s hesitant leadership of the British van, Jellicoe had not yet reformed his battleships into single line. With the attacking German flotillas posing a clear threat, at least to the rear British divisions, Jellicoe elected to turn all his battle squadrons away, losing contact for good with the enemy battlefleet. Then Commodore (Flotillas) James Hawksley led an attack, though by only a half-flotilla, but he was peremptorily recalled by Jellicoe before he could find the disorganised enemy. About an hour later, with dusk approaching, Beatty briefly encountered the ISG and the German predreadnoughts but he did not follow them when they turned away.

As night fell, Jellicoe turned South for the night, with his flotillas and a light cruiser squadron five miles astern of his battleship columns: but Scheer decided that he must return SSE’wards past Horns Reef off the Jutland coast. As he crossed astern of the British battlefleet, costly attacks by British light forces led to the loss of three German light cruisers. Three more flotillas were still well-placed for a massed attack from ahead on the advancing German line but this opportunity was lost when Captain James Farie suddenly turned his 13th Flotilla sharply away from the enemy. Some destroyers still crossed ahead of the German van but they neither attacked nor reported the enemy. Later, at daybreak, one division of the 12th Flotilla, led by Commander Anselan Stirling, sank the predreadnought Pommern but Maenad (Commander John Champion), by turning about, obstructed the attacks of those boats that had been following her.

After dark, Jellicoe received one Admiralty signal stating clearly that Scheer had ordered his forces to return past Horns Reef, a course that was consistent with the firing that could be seen from the British flagship. But the only clear report from Jellicoe’s own ships gave the German course as South and he chose to believe that the enemy fleet was still following him. At 2.30am, Jellicoe turned North but his hopes of quickly picking up his destroyers and encountering the High Seas Fleet were both disappointed – the enemy forces were already out of reach.

Throughout the battle British commanders (knowingly or not) missed opportunities to inflict more damage on enemy ships, to limit losses to their own ship, or even both at once. The battle began badly when Beatty made the elementary tactical blunder of not engaging with his whole force. If his ten ships had concentrated on Hipper’s five, most probably Indefatigable and Queen Mary would have survived and the ISG would have been finished as a fighting force. If Beatty had supported the 5BS throughout the Run to the North, they would have received less damage and inflicted more on the German battleships; also his destroyers were not in a position to intervene at the critical moment of deployment. He would not pursue the enemy battlecruisers either after the sinking of Invincible or when he encountered them again at the end of the day; at either time, even a few more hits on Seydlitz would have ensured her loss.

Despite minimal information about the enemy, Jellicoe made the best possible deployment but it was marred by the destruction of Arbuthnot’s armoured cruisers and Invincible, the unforeseen consequence of sending Hood ahead. Since the outbreak of the War, Jellicoe had been apprehensive of attacks with torpedoes and mines and of his ships’ ability to withstand underwater hits; these concerns discouraged him from pressing home his advantages, while Jerram’s hesitant leadership of the van added to his problems; eventually Jellicoe turned away from the enemy and lost contact. He undoubtedly misjudged Scheer’s movements during the night but, if they had met near Horns Reef at dawn, it is far from certain who would have inflicted the greater damage.

Of the destroyer leaders, after Jellicoe’s rebuke Hawksley missed two opportunities to attack during the day. But Pommern’s sinking by Stirling’s flotilla showed what might have been accomplished during the night if Farie had not broken up the destroyer concentration that stood in the way of the retiring High Seas Fleet.

The strategic outcome of the Battle of Jutland would probably not have been much different anyway. But if British commanders had seized their tactical opportunities, the losses in ships and men would have been more evenly balanced and the tactical result would have been much more palatable.

HMS Queen Mary exploding after her forward magazine ignited, via wikimedia commons.

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