Battle of Jutland

Conference Report: the First World War at Sea, 1914-1919


This was a major international conference, featuring a master-class of subject specialists and naval historians. Since the centenary of the Battle of Jutland was only a few days prior, the great naval battle was certainly the elephant in the room. Jutland was not, however, the only subject of discussion: the strategy and tactics of the anti-submarine campaign, the Anglo-American alliance, naval aviation and other technologies, the role of the dominions, the press, and recent archeological discoveries were all discussed.

Professor Nicholas Rodger provided the opening keynote, elaborating on the concept of the decisive battle and its cultural legacy for the western way of war. Professor Rodger described the influence of the expected “second Trafalgar” on the German, French, American, Japanese and Royal Navies. This traditional culture of decisive battle continued to dominate at the turn of the 20th century, but technological change had transformed the naval context, most profoundly, by the introduction of the torpedo. The focus on the new weapons, primarily the submarine and airplane, eventually defined modern naval tactics and strategy. Integrating the new technologies would become a major challenge for Britain, and the other global powers, going forward. Indeed, it remained unclear to what extent the United States Navy or the Imperial Japanese Navy had moved beyond the decisive battle doctrine by the time of the Second World War. As Dr. Bob Watts would argue on day two, it seems, to some extent, that the USN is still seeking the desired “second Trafalgar” to this day.

The first panels were focused on anti-submarine warfare, the blockade, and the war in China. I presented with Dr. Alexander Clarke and Louis Halewood on the subject of anti-submarine warfare, from the diplomatic and air perspectives. I argued that, during the 1912-1916 period, the RN never successfully addressed the problem of anti-submarine warfare from the air, although, important theories and new technologies were developed. Louis Halewood examined the delicate diplomatic situation, notably focusing on the complex aspect of Anglo-American relations (a story about which we will hear more later), and also the situation in the Mediterranean. By 1918, First Lord of the Admiralty Eric Geddes proposed the creation of an “Allied Admiralissimo” to unite the diverse national naval efforts into a single force, similar to the role of Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch on the Western Front. Alexander Clarke then completed the story, describing the legacy of the First World War efforts which led to tactical and technical innovations in the interwar period and, indeed, laid the foundation for the triumphs of the Second World War. Dr. Clarke described the importance of the Post-War Question Committee (the Phillimore Committee), which reached the conclusion that reconnaissance and deterrence had, in fact, been rather effective against the submarines- the famous scare-crow tactics forcing U-boat commanders to avoid aircraft and airships, regardless of the reality of the threat.

The second panel I attended, also on the submarine campaign, was presented by Dr. Norman Friedman, Isabelle Delumeau, Michael Brandao, and Dr. Elizabeth Bruton. Dr. Friedman, bringing his renowned analytical approach to the topic, observed that ultimately the introduction of the convoys, although often heralded as the decisive tactic for the protection of Allied merchant shipping, was in fact a stop-gap. The Germans were ultimately unable to utilize the signal intelligence required to find the convoys, and thus triangulate submarine groups to attack them, as would later be done in the Second World War. As a result, while the convoys provided a means of protection, they were not capable of terminating the threat itself.

The technological scramble on the Allied side to find a way to locate and destroy the submarines clearly demonstrated that the Allies were not prepared for this aspect of the war, despite some novel solutions such as the use of aircraft to directly attack the submarine bases. Isabelle Delumeau shared her findings concerning the Bretton fishermen who experienced the blunt end of German and Allied propaganda concerning the submarines, leading to the organization of the fishing fleet along militia-like lines. Miguel Brandao followed up by discussing Portuguese efforts to subvert the Allied blockade, specifically, the fascinating case of the town of Esposende, which smuggled eggs to the U-boats along the coast. Finally, Dr. Bruton described the astonishing case of Anglo-American technological and scientific cooperation in the efforts to develop hydrophone technology. Significantly, Dr. Burton described the effort of US Naval Secretary Josephus Daniels- of whom more later- to replicate the Fisherite think-tank, the Board of Invention and Research, which was studying anti-submarine measures, amongst other things.

The final panel in the lecture theatre on day one was presented by Dr. Jesse Tumblin, Dr. Eugene Beiriger and Dr. Dennis Conrad. Dr. Tumblin discussed the failure of the dominion fleet scheme, not least the result of Sir Wilfred Laurier’s inability to finance the requisite battlecruisers. The outcome of the Boer War suggested Canada’s Army, at the expense of the navy, might play a larger role in the future. Dr. Beiriger then discussed President Wilson’s role in the negotiations that led to the US Naval Act of 1916, while Dennis Conrad provided a defence of Josephus Daniels, the latter often portrayed as the antagonist of the fiery Admiral William Sims. At the evening reception, while the academics swirled their wine, Nicholas Rodger presented naval historian John Hattendorf with the print copy of the edited volume produced from the 2014 Oxford conference held in his honour: Strategy and the Sea.

The following day started at 9 am with the first panel specifically on the American role. Annette Amerman, USMC History Division, gave the first talk, looking at USMC naval aviation. The Marine Corps aviators cooperated with Wing Captain Charles Lambe’s RNAS and RAF forces at Dunkirk in bombing raids, including against submarine bases. David Winkler, Naval Historical Foundation, described the expansion of the US Naval Reserve into a large militia-like force, the model favoured by Josephus Daniels and Assistant Naval Secretary Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Chuck Steele, USAF Academy, and David Kohnen, USN War College, both presented panels on William Sims and his significance. Dr. Steele stressed Sims’ importance as a diplomat between the Navies, while David Kohnen emphasized Sims’ role as a practitioner and ad hoc innovator.

The last two panels were on Jutland: Robin Brodhurst, of the Navy Records Society, gave a comprehensive presentation on the historiography of the battle of Jutland, establishing the intense controversy that still surrounds this battle after a hundred years. Dr. John Brooks, who has recently published a reassessment of Jutland for the centenary, described some of the technical nuances of the night destroyer action, and Dr. Stephen Huck, joining the conference from the German Naval Museum, Wilhelmshaven, then illuminated the experience of German crew members, raising the important question about how the men actually perceived the battle; a social history mirrored for the Royal Navy by the book, The Fighting at Jutland: the Personal Experiences of 45 Sailors of the Royal Navy, compiled by H. W. Fawcett.

After Jutland was the name of the third and final panel in the lecture theatre. Andrew Gordon described the importance of the command failure at Jutland, importantly the critical issue of signal failures, endemic ultimately of a culture of divineness within the Royal Navy. Bob Watts summarized the significance of the Jutland and the long awaited “decisive battle” for the thinking of the US Navy, and observed the reality that the Navy, even during the Second World War, was denied its grand decisive battle. James Goldrick summarized the situation after Jutland and the novel emergence of battlespace awareness alongside the need for superior scouting and intelligence gathering in the, always questionable, North Sea conditions. With the refocus on aircraft and the submarine, by the end of the war, the torpedo had seemingly triumphed over the gun, and the chance to refight Jutland had slipped away.

Andrew Lambert’s compelling keynote summarized and concluded the conference. Professor Lambert focused on Julian Corbett, later the official historian, as the architect of Britain’s grand strategy. Corbett acted as the brain trust for the British Supreme Command, and it was Corbett’s three-phase naval war model that became the basis for Corbett’s post-war history. First Sea Lord David Beatty, wary of the mistakes made at Jutland, tried to suppress the truth about his role, in particular the gunnery failure of the Battle-Cruiser Fleet, but the truth shone through in Corbett’s third volume, based on the Naval Staff’s suppressed appreciation. The significance of Hipper and Scheer’s achievement was, however, marginalized by the High Seas Fleet’s inability to break the blockade and thus influence the outcome of the war: this meant that in the final calculus, Jutland, like Trafalgar, only reaffirmed the naval status quo.

Image: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, via wikimedia commons.

Conference Report: Jutland, History and the First World War

This is the fifth 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. Recordings of all of the papers from the event can be accessed for free here.


The role of sea power in the First World War was a source of disagreement and debate during the conflict itself and has remained so ever since. David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister at the War’s end, recalled in his memoirs how no less of a figure than the Allied Generalissimo Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch, who had played such a pivotal role in steadying the Western Front in 1918, always asked ‘What have the Navy done? Have they done any fighting?’

Foch’s question highlights one of the greatest difficulties of comparing combat on land and at sea: a highly effective naval campaign can involve very little actual combat. This proved to be the case in the First World War, where British sea power enabled her to draw upon the resources and manpower of her colonies, to trade with the remainder of the world and to isolate the Central Powers from the global economy. None of this required a decisive victory over the German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea, even if one may have been desirable.

Yet the lack of a focal Battle made the vital importance of the naval War difficult to compare with the casualty figures of the Western Front. From the War’s outset this created a problem for the naval leadership. Dissatisfaction at the Navy’s lack of an obvious success built in Britain from 1915 onwards, as a gloomy realisation that the warships of the British Fleet alone would be unable to affect events on the Continent set in. Thus, when an opportunity for an engagement did arise off the coast of Denmark in the summer of 1916, public and political expectations were for a readily comprehensible success.

The indecisive action that followed at Jutland was unpalatable to some in the Navy and many the country, and was quickly over-awed by the mammoth British offensive on the Somme the following month. The absence of a further major fleet action in the final two years of war thus resulted in an ongoing fixation on Jutland itself and in recriminations over decisions taken at the Battle that are out of all proportion with its genuine strategic significance. This has been reflected in the centenary celebrations, which have perpetuated the indefensible myth that Jutland may somehow have ‘won the war’, thereby reinforcing the simplistic and unhelpful notions that war is decided merely by a series of battles rather than on the fact that sea power under-pinned the British and thus Allied war effort throughout the entire conflict.

This event was conceived in order to set the Battle into its broader context, both within the history of the First World War and of the Royal Navy itself. It highlighted the extent to which a myopic emphasis on fighting can lead to a deeply misleading impression of war, making it virtually impossible to understand events in the past in anything more than the most superficial manner. By engaging with the past in a more nuanced, sophisticated and thoughtful manner, themes of far greater interest and relevance are not difficult to find.

Indeed, one of the most prominent themes of the afternoon was the fact that the Battle of Jutland itself was of relatively minor strategic importance in the context of the wider war. A decisive loss for the British would undoubtedly have been a major setback, but the pace of pre-War British shipbuilding was such that the Royal Navy’s numerical superiority over the High Seas Fleet was assured by 1916 and would only have continue to grow. Moreover, even a heavily bloodied British Fleet would have remained ‘in being’, effectively still denying Germany the ability to use her Fleet outside of the North Sea. Britain was in a commanding strategic position through a combination of her industrial and financial might and the miscalculations which under-pinned the German ‘risk fleet’ and these could not be undone if her commanders prioritised strategic effect over a chance at operational victory. These broader factors were of far greater import than tactical decisions taken at Jutland.

Yet the question remains could Britain have utilised her sea power in a more aggressive manner to exert pressure on Germany? There is a credible case that a more creative approach to her military strategy, utilising more combined operations and exploiting the benefits of seaborne manoeuvre may have produced an impact out of proportion to the forces employed. Whether these would have proven acceptable to the sceptical French high command and government is another issue, but here we see how an appreciation of history enabled a more creative approach to strategy making at the Admiralty than that prevalent in military circles.

As to the Battle itself, discussion in the media has tended to emphasize the disparity in relative losses, both of ships and men. The implication has been one of incompetence, either of the commanders or of those who designed the ships and prepared their crews. The reality was rather different. Mistakes were undoubtedly made during the Battle – Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty was particularly at fault for the mistakes he made in deploying his force during the opening phases of the Battle and his poor communication with Jellicoe. Yet the Fleet performed well, with Jellicoe twice crossing the German ‘T’ and obliging a hasty retreat. It is unlikely that any decisions taken on the day would have led to a decisively different outcome. False comparisons with the Battle of Trafalgar ignore the reality that the British gained little more in 1805 than was achieved in 1916: command of the sea.

Indeed, such was the impact of Jutland on German thinking that caution defined the use of the High Seas Fleet for the remainder of the conflict. The resulting shift in emphasis towards unrestricted submarine warfare by the German leadership proved a massive miscalculation, precipitating American entry into the conflict and thereby further isolating the Central Powers from global trade and finance. This enabled the British Empire to exploit the resources of neutral powers, to tighten its economic stranglehold on Germany and to use the sea to move resources around the globe. Men, munitions and supplies from Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and across the Empire proved vital not only on the Western Front and at Gallipoli, but in the Middle East, North Africa and Italy. This global war effort was ably supported by the nascent Royal Australian Navy which, in combination with French and Japanese units conducted effective trade protection, influence and counter-insurgency operations across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

So far as the Navy concerned, Jutland was undoubtedly a major disappointment. Combined with the embarrassing escape of the Goeben and Breslau in the Mediterranean in 1914, the inability to translate numerical superiority into victory left a bitter taste in the mouths of many officers. Yet failure can only be described as such if nothing is done to address its causes. The vast majority of the Navy’s senior leadership for the subsequent four decades served in the Grand Fleet, and many witnessed Jutland. The Battle thus became key in fostering a spirit of tactical offensive and mission command in the Fleet, the benefits of which were reaped in 1939-45.

This event showed how progressing commemoration beyond simplistic judgments based upon inter-service rivalries, historical shibboleths and condemnation of the First World War as a whole can produce a far more interesting, accurate and valuable discussion. The latest scholarship can be of value of all of those interested in history, whether for personal or professional reasons, and need not be divorced from the centenary experience.

Image: Warships of the Grand Fleet at sea, viewed from the quarter deck of HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH of the 5th Battle Squadron, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.











Beating Away From the Lee Shore of Jutland

This is the fourth 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. 


Rear Admiral James Goldrick AO, CSC RAN (Retired) commanded HMA Ships Cessnock and Sydney (twice), the multinational maritime interception force in the Persian Gulf, the Australian Defence Force Academy (twice), Border Protection Command and the Australian Defence College. He is an Adjunct Professor at UNSW@Canberra (ADFA) and in SDSC at ANU, as well as a Professorial Fellow at ANCORS at the University of Wollongong. He was a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford University in 2015. He is a member of the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal and of the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal. He was a member of the Expert Panel supporting the development of the 2016 Australian Defence White Paper. He was awarded a Doctorate of Letters (honoris causa) by the University of NSW in 2006. His books include: No Easy Answers: The Development of the Navies of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and Before Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Waters August 1914-February 1915, and, with Jack McCaffrie, Navies of South-East Asia: A Comparative Study.

The Royal Navy mourned Jutland. The legacy of the battle was, ‘never again.’ There was regret for tactical and material failures and the catastrophic losses they caused, regret for the deficiencies of reporting and communications and, above all, a regret for the absence of initiative on the part of so many who should have known better. In later years, there may well have been ‘too much Jutland’. Yet it is clear that the Royal Navy between 1916 and 1939 functioned in relation to the battle as a ‘learning organisation’. While there was attention to the mechanics, what may have proved most important was the focus on restoring the spirit of the tactical offensive.

The response to the Grand Fleet’s material problems was remarkable, and something of a tribute to at least one facet of Jellicoe’s leadership. However, to suggest that the command and control of the fleet moved to a looser regime, particularly after Beatty took over as C-in-C from Jellicoe in November 1916, would be to over-simplify what happened. Many practical challenges remained and had to be endured. The action seems to have confirmed that the battle fleet was too big. But, given the forces available on either side, the North Sea battle fleets would always be larger than tactically desirable. There was certainly a new emphasis on squadron and divisional tactics and a greater understanding that subordinate flag officers needed the authority to respond individually to an emerging situation. But it is notable that the drive within squadrons and divisions was to an even greater degree of coordinated manoeuvre, not less. The reason was that concentration of fire became a focus of gunnery innovation, first with two ships and then up to four as a single gunnery ‘unit’.

Night fighting was the subject of new attention, with the realisation that the uncertainty of combat in the darkness could only be mitigated by the systematic development and practice of procedures and tactics understood by all. Before Jutland, the Grand Fleet’s purely reactive attitude to action in the dark, and the doctrine and training which resulted, had been based on the assessment that a night encounter with no warning in the open sea was a practical impossibility. Arguably, however, any fleet encounter that started after noon would inevitably involve night action, particularly when it was not high summer. After June 1916, the Grand Fleet understood this.

Control and precision were emphasised in another area – reporting the enemy. By 1918, detailed analysis was being produced in the wake of each major Grand Fleet tactical exercise. This not only set out what had happened but critiqued formation commanders and individual ships. It also included an annex which listed and assessed every reporting signal – and pointed out when signals should have been sent, but were not. Keeping one’s head below the transmission parapet was no longer acceptable, particularly in a scouting unit.

However, there was more to it than greater control and precision. There was also the slow regeneration of a spirit of enterprise. There were several causes for its frequent absence at Jutland. The Navy’s culture of obedience to the senior officer present was one, particularly as the full implications of the ‘virtual unreality’ created by the assumption that radio contact equated to such presence had not been worked through. While Jellicoe must bear a considerable part of the blame, he himself was bitterly disappointed by the lack of enterprise, a disappointment that was part of his later admonition against the ‘virtual unreality’ of assuming that the admiral knew what each ship commander did: ‘Never think that the C-in-C sees what you see.’

What is notable about Jutland is the extent to which the future leadership of the navy was present at the battle. This continued well beyond the Second World War. The commander of the British and Commonwealth naval forces off Korea in 1950-51 was a midshipman at Jutland. The First Sea Lord from 1951 to 1955 was there as a Lieutenant in the Malaya. Only one First Sea Lord between 1916 and 1943 was not at Jutland (and he was commanding a light cruiser in the Harwich Force). The statistics for the other naval members of the Board of Admiralty are almost as telling. Many had their individual regrets about failures to act during the battle, while the Jutland veterans were not alone in their experience of failure and feelings of regret. A.B. Cunningham, commanding the destroyer Scorpion, was present when Rear Admiral Troubridge refused action with the battle cruiser Goeben in August 1914. An officer who was a captain in 1918 wrote that the Navy had ‘an insufficient insistence on the imperative need of really coming to grips.’ This summed up the attitude of many thoughtful officers.

The retrenchments of the 1920s were dead hands on any initiative that required financial resources. But one senses increasingly well-coordinated efforts to improve, which gained momentum as the 1920s gave way to the 1930s. The influence of officers who had direct experience of their seniors’ failures was very important. The Tactical School was a key innovation. There was a healthy dialogue, including the regular publication of ‘Progress in Tactics’ with the results of exercises and trials. What also helped was a growing realisation that the Royal Navy would not necessarily enjoy technological superiority over its opponents. This placed a premium on identifying tactics which would minimise British disadvantages.

Another vital element was the selection of officers for senior seagoing rank. The reductions of peace meant the Admiralty one priceless advantage – it could be highly selective. No matter how brilliant the specialist officer, nor how significant their staff or ship service, all were placed under a microscope. The weight given to proven initiative was clearly considerable. The promotions to Vice Admiral on the active list between 1934 and 1936 show what happened. Of 15 officers, 9 had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order and, of these, 3 had earned it in submarine command and 3 in destroyers. Rear Admirals of the same seniority tell a similar story – 4 submariner and 4 destroyer DSOs out of a total of 28 officers, 12 of whom had the award.

Risk taking in battle tactics was accompanied by a willingness to take risks with ships, a willingness that may have grown as the battle hardened reformers reached flag rank. The wider attitude being engendered was summed up by William Fisher’s response to Captain Philip Vian’s frank admission of fault in a berthing accident. ‘I was told to be more careful in future, but the Commander-in-Chief added a paragraph in the sense that he had liked the manner of the confession.’ Andrew Cunningham was not alone when he asserted that broken eggs are inevitable in making an omelette.

There were misdirections. Whatever the benefits of games for ship spirit and individual fitness, there were excessive claims about the relationship between sport and fighting instincts – and perhaps too much effort devoted to competitive inter-ship sport, as opposed to encouraging group activity. Safety also sometimes exerted too strong an influence. Night operations by submarines were almost non-existent and restrictions on their interaction with surface forces created tactical unrealities.

Unanimity on the subject of command and control was not complete. There was a fissure over the role of staffs. Much commentary has been devoted to the problem of over-centralisation within staffs and commanders who attempted to do too much themselves. But an equal problem, arguably one that has continually dogged the Royal Navy in the years since the Grand Fleet, was that of over-centralisation into staffs and their misemployment on nugatory work, particularly that of minding the individual business of worked up ships, rather than thinking creatively about tactics, operations and war.

Despite this, by 1939, the Royal Navy had successfully learnt most of the lessons needed to achieve effective remote coordination of operations at sea and the associated exercise of local initiative. Thus, when the three British cruisers under Commodore Henry Harwood encountered the Graf Spee off the River Plate in October 1939, the British had set the conditions for the encounter. Harwood had considered and gamed – imaginatively – the problem and knew what to do. It was a ‘damned nice thing, the nearest run thing you have ever seen in your life.’ But the Graf Spee suffered critical damage and was driven into harbour, from which she would emerge only to be scuttled. Afterwards, the First Sea Lord, Dudley Pound, wrote to Harwood to declare that he had set the standard for the war to come, a matter which he felt was of ‘great importance.’ Pound emphasised not only that Harwood had acted correctly, but that he would have been right to engage the Graf Spee even if his entire force was sunk.

Balance had indeed been restored, but are we balanced now?

Image: Admiral David Beatty and his secretary Paymaster Commander Frank T. Spickernell on the bridge of HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH of the 5th Battle Squadron (Grand Fleet) with Captain Ernle Chatfield RN, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The Impact of the Battle of Jutland on Economic Warfare

This is the third 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. 


Prof. Kennedy’s latest book, ‘Britain’s War at Sea, 1914-1918: The War They Thought and the War They Fought’ is now available. You can read more about it here.

Often the link between the outcome of campaigns or battles and the resulting changes to public or private perceptions; the changed nature of accessibility to critical air, sea or land domains; the subsequent inability to use military power in the same way thereafter; or, the ongoing ability to influence domestic and foreign opinion in a manner consistent with that practices prior to the combat, has gone unnoticed. Military historians have focused on the fighting; diplomatic historians on diplomatic activity; economic historians on economic factors. Rarely is any attempt made to analyse the strategic context existing at the time of battle, or to follow the ripples of tactical and operational success, or failure, through to their logical resting place amongst the strategic assessment process. Using the May 31st, 1916 Battle of Jutland, famous and infamous for its tactical indecision, questionable operational objectives, but strategic impact and enablement, we will A. show the complexity of the relationship between battle, diplomacy and strategic decision making, as well as B. reinforce the centrality of the oceanic domain to the overall war efforts of both the Allies and the Central Powers, one seeking to use it to create overwhelming power and the latter attempting to deny the Allies access to it for that purpose.

In January 1916 Anglo-American strategic relations were becoming more strained due to the increasing restrictions on American maritime commercial activity being imposed due to Britain’s blockade policy. Tighter and more extensive contraband lists, as well as an increasing number of American vessels being seized and detained for Prize Court proceedings in United Kingdom harbours, was whipping up a higher degree of anti-Britishness in the United States than had been seen since the beginning of the war. German propaganda and nominal gestures of conceding for American demands regarding attacks on merchant shipping and the contemplation of possible peace negotiations had moved the initiative as far as wooing American public opinion towards Germany for the moment. Forthcoming British replies to the American State Department rejection peace proposals and demands for a lessening of the blockade’s effectiveness would only exacerbate that condition. One of the very real dangers of a rift in Anglo-American relations was the fact that America could limit its sale of munitions to Great Britain in order to get the terms governing blockade policy changed in their favour. Such an embargo would have a crippling effect on the Allied war effort until alternative sources of munitioning could be established in Canada, Australia India, or Latin America. Sir Cecil Spring Rice, the British Ambassador to the United States hinted and insinuated to the American State Department throughout late January 1916 that they should prepared themselves for little movement by the British with regard to weakening blockade policy. While relations between the two nations did not fracture, or indeed impair the ability of the Allies to wage war, Germany retained a more favoured position within the American Congress and large swathes of the public in the spring of 1916. That governmental and public perception of Germany would change rapidly as the autumn of 1916 came to pass, and that change was a direct result of the Battle of Jutland. While Germany was held in good odour in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the great sea battle, the question of Germany’s desire and willingness to use unrestricted submarine warfare was an issue of concern to America. 

In early October 1916 the American Chargé at the Embassy in Berlin, Joseph Grew (future American Ambassador to Japan in the 1930s and at the time of the outbreak of the war in the Pacific) reported that Germany’s return to indiscriminate submarine warfare was a distinct possibility. The Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg, who was opposed to unrestricted submarine warfare, along with the Kaiser, and key senior Army officers such as Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg, continued to be able to dissuade the Reichstag from approving the unleashing of the submarine weapon, but it was thought that such a state of affairs would not last for long. The German Navy was seen to be readying itself physically for a renewed submarine offensive, with more material and resources being targeted at the construction of a greater number of such vessels. With Admiral Tripitz and other members of the naval staff agitating openly and covertly for a resumption of submarine operations it was thought not possible for many party members and leaders within the Reichstag to remain opposed to the renewal. By mid-October the conviction that submarine warfare ought to be carried out indiscriminately was gaining ground among the leading men of all parties and the great mass of the German people.

On October 13th German naval officers, heading by the commander of the High Seas Fleet, Admiral Scheer, presented the Emperor with a petition demanding the immediate resumption of submarine warfare without consideration for neutral rights as being the only way to win the war. The petition referred directly to the outcome of the Battle of Jutland for Germany’s strategic condition:

High sea battle may damage the enemy but would not force England to make peace as fleet could not overcome disadvantages of Germany’s military geographic situation and great [naval] preponderance of the enemy. Victory can be attained only by overcoming English economic life which means beginning of a submarine war against British commerce. To choose any weaker method would be in vain and I most urgently dissuade Your Majesty, as I did before, from the choice of this dubious form, not only because it does not correspond with the character of submarine weapons, but the endangering of the boats would not compensate for the profit to be obtained thereby. It would also be impossible in spite of the great conscientiousness of the commanders to avoid in England’ waters where American interests are lively such accidents as would humiliate us and which would force us to give in if we cannot hold through to the fullest extent.

More and more the realization of the Battle of Jutland signalling the end of any consideration of the use of the sea to progress German war aims in a conventional fashion was percolating throughout the German policy making system.

By November the “von Tripitz” policy, as the submarine solution was described by Grew, was frustrated still by the reluctance of the political apparatus to approve the use of full unrestricted warfare. The fear of embroiling the United States fully and openly on the side of the Allies was a major part of the opposition’s argument. And, while parts of the German Navy recognized this potential danger in escalating the situation thru such submarine actions, they believed the risk worth the investment, and that America would not engage in the war if enough effort was spent in either compensation or propaganda to put the blame for Germany’s need to take such measure squarely at Britain and her blockade’s feet. With the blockade beginning to be felt to a greater extent and through a wider range of parts of the economy, pressure to counter such effects were growing greater and greater in Germany. Denied access to the sea by the finality of the Jutland engagement, but requiring some means of exerting pressure onto the strategic lifelines that were the British Sea Lanes of Communication which ran throughout the world, Germany was left with no choice.

The Battle of Skagerrak forced the German strategic policy makers to have to return to the one thing that was assured to rekindle harsh German-American relations, and, by default, create closer Anglo-American strategic relations. To arrive at that decision took time, time that saw a strategic paralysis and dissonance within the German strategic planning elite. That disconnection and friction allowed the Allied blockade valuable time to tighten the economic blockade both at sea and in various markets, such as strategic metals. As well, the naval victory and resultant German debate over the return to submarine warfare was observed by the Americans. That German debate and resultant action worked to further influence the American strategic policy making elite into believing that Germany’s eventual ability to win the war could only revolve around actions detrimental to American strategic interests. Overall, therefore, the Battle of Jutland’s strategic ripples resulted in a great commonality and accommodation of strategic relations between Great Britain and the United States in areas related to the vital ground occupied by economic warfare.

Image: A steamer sinking after being torpedoed by a German U-boat, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.


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. 


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.

Was the Anglo-German Naval Race a Mirage?

This is the first 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. 


Matthew S Seligmann is Professor of Naval History at Brunel University London. He has written widely on Anglo-German relations before the First World War, including Spies in Uniform: British Military and Naval Intelligence on Germany on the Eve of the First World War (2006); Naval Intelligence from Germany: The Reports of the British Naval Attachés in Berlin, 1906-1914 (2007); The Royal Navy and the German Threat, 1900-1914 (2012); Military Intelligence from Germany 1906-1914 (2014) and The Naval Route to the Abyss: The Anglo-German Naval Race 1895-1914 (2015). His latest work on the Anglo-German naval race is available to view for free here.

Let’s begin with a clear statement: The Anglo-German naval race was a genuine contest. The two protagonists viewed each other with suspicion, recognized that their opponent could undermine their own policies and national objectives, and vied for naval supremacy to ensure this would not happen. To attain this clearly defined end, they built warships – principally battleships of ever greater size and power – in large and increasing numbers. On the face of it, this might not seem a particularly remarkable or even contentious point. After all, in the historiography of Imperial Germany there is little serious controversy over the fact that Kaiser Wilhelm II and his Secretary of State at the Imperial Navy Office, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, built their new navy with the clearly expressed purpose (in secret internal documents, at least, if not in public statements) of challenging British maritime power. Thus, such debate as there is falls on the question of the motive for this unprecedented act of naval rivalry rather than the fact of the challenge itself. Equally, on the British side, there has always been (and still is) a formidable body of literature that not only acknowledges the reality of the Anglo-German Naval Race but elevates it to totemic status as the archetypal, even paradigmatic, modern sea-borne armaments competition. Peter Padfield’s unambiguously titled work The Great Naval Race is a case in point. Both by name and in its broader content, this is a book that maintains that the pre-First World War naval building programmes of Britain and Germany – programmes that were explicitly aimed and measured against each other – represent the acme of great power maritime competition. Moreover, in making this case, Padfield not only epitomizes a major strand of modern historical thinking, he also mirrors the understanding of people at the time. Judging by the countless newspaper articles, the bitter party political debates, the striking metaphors found within popular literature, and the frequent public panics that all focused on the Anglo-German naval race, the contemporary British and German populations saw this competition in the same terms, namely as a major factor in the world of global diplomacy and also as the defining issue in the fraught and deteriorating relations between their two countries. The psychological consequences of this are well-known and precisely documented. A regular trope of German popular culture was the so-called ‘Copenhagen complex’, the fear that the battleships of the Royal Navy would appear unannounced off the German coast and destroy the nascent German fleet at harbour in much the same brutal manner as it had eliminated the Danish navy in the Napoleonic Wars. Equally, the idea that the German navy would support a ‘bolt from the blue’ invasion of the British Isles featured prominently in British popular discourse, most famously in the best-selling adventure fiction of Erskine Childers and the serialized disaster novels of William Le Queux. As these distinct but equivalent national neuroses illustrates, in the world of naval competition, both sides suspected each other’s motives, feared their capabilities and gauged their rival counter-exertions against those of their expected opponent.

Given how familiar the above analysis has become over many decades of research and writing the reader might well wonder why it needs to be restated so emphatically here. The main reason is that in recent times this assessment of the Anglo-German naval race has come under sharp attack from a small group of self-styled ‘revisionist’ historians who argue that the expansion of German maritime power, far from spurring the Royal Navy into determined counter-action, actually left the British naval leadership largely untroubled. It was France and Russia, or so we are told, that posed the real threat and it was their capabilities and naval force structures that drove British naval policy. In particular, it is suggested that as France and Russia had invested heavily in armoured cruisers (but Germany had not), they were the only powers with the ability to mount a determined assault on Britain’s lines of oceanic communication and trade and that this was the threat that really worried British officials. Accordingly, under the leadership of First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John ‘Jackie’ Fisher, the British Admiralty proposed to undertake a naval revolution in which battleships would be abandoned and the Royal Navy would instead defend the British Isles with torpedo craft and the high seas with battle cruisers. In this context, the German navy, composed of a battle fleet that could be bottled up in the North Sea, was little more than a defence mirage and the clamour surrounding the build-up of the German fleet was not a genuine sign of anxiety for the nation’s security, but simply ill-informed background noise exploited by a grateful Admiralty to extract ever greater budgets from a reluctant and otherwise parsimonious Treasury.

This argument is, to say the least, counter-intuitive. To start with, it is hard to see what kind of threat France and Russia actually posed, especially after the Russian Navy had been destroyed in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. By contrast the German menace was self-evident to all and sundry. This most definitely included the Royal Navy’s Naval Intelligence Department, which began to produce assessments of the potential danger posed by the German from the very start of the twentieth century. These reflected not only the scale of the German naval expansion, but also the perceived martial attributes of the German nation. In contrast to Tsarist Russia, the naval forces of which were a byword for inefficiency and incompetence, no one doubted either the excellence of German shipbuilding and engineering or the rigour and professionalism of the German navy’s trained personnel. In short, Germany was a rival to be respected and feared.

The accidents of history and geography added to the sense of danger. Britain’s Channel coast was well protected. Centuries of war with France had left a network of forts and defended harbours – Sheerness, Chatham, Portsmouth, Devonport and Pembroke – that provided secure anchorages that were admirably suited for operations during an Anglo-French confrontation. By contrast, Britain’s North Sea littoral was both long and poorly protected, with many coastal towns and dockyards there lacking anything but the most rudimentary armament and defensive facilities. Moreover, a considerable portion of this coast was nearer to the German navy’s ports than to the Royal Navy’s, making it dangerously exposed to sudden attack. In short, in the event of an Anglo-German conflict the east coast was both within easy reach of German forces and vulnerable to attack. While it might have been reluctant to admit this in public, Britain’s naval leadership was well aware of this in private.

For all these reasons, the build up of the German navy was hardly going to go unnoticed in Britain; nor was it likely to be ignored. But what was the nature of the response? Faced with a range of choices about the kind of maritime force they would construct, the German naval leadership decided to build a fleet of battleships designed to operate and fight in the North Sea. Such a fleet, they believed, would put genuine pressure on the British government. If Germany created a force of 60 battleships, the Royal Navy would need at least 90 to be certain of victory in battle. Tirpitz believed that such a force level was beyond the financial power of the British government to construct and incapable of being crewed, even if it should be built.

His calculation was wrong. The Royal Navy did not just respond in kind. It responded with vigour and determination. Tirpitz wanted a quantitative arms race only; the Royal Navy responded with a quantitative and a qualitative one. They not only built more ships than the Germans, they also kept making them bigger, faster, more technologically sophisticated and better armed with a continuous stream of incremental design improvements. In effect, the race that the Royal Navy imposed was both in increasing numbers and in growing unit cost. Most devastating of all for the now discredited revisionist case, it was not a race in torpedo craft and battle cruisers, but one largely conducted in battleships. A total of 32 of the latest dreadnought and super-dreadnought battleships had been ordered for the Royal Navy by the time that war broke out in August 1914 and all of them were stationed facing Germany in the North Sea. They did not arrive as a result of a ‘fit of absence of mind’, but as a deliberate act of policy to face down the German challenge.

Image: The launch of HMS DREADNOUGHT at Portsmouth dockyard in 1906, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum