One hundred years ago today, on May 31 – June 1, 1916, 151 British and 99 German ships-of-war participated in one of the defining naval battles of the First World War, just east of the British Isles, off the coast of Denmark. A huge assemblage of modern warships, Dreadnoughts, battle-cruisers, destroyers, and lighter ships gathered in one of the largest battles wherein modern warships have participated. This was one of largest clashes of modern warships that the world has ever seen. This is the story of the Battle of Jutland.
The battle began with the one of the Admirals of the German Navy, Franz von Hipper, attempting to lure one of the Commanders of the British fleet, Admiral David Beatty, into a trap where Admiral Reinhard Scheer was waiting with his main battleships. Despite Beatty’s maneuvering, before he could react, two of his larger British battle cruisers were sunk by German gunfire. However, with some quick thinking, Beatty turned the tactic around and drew the pursuing German Navy toward the Royal Navy. Within a few minutes Hipper found himself in front of a formidable force of British warships. Soon enough, Admiral Scheer also steamed up without realizing the danger in which he would be placing his ships.
Here the British made one of the most important tactical decisions of the battle. Instead of heading his fleet of ships in line astern down the side of German fleet, British Admiral John Jellicoe turned his ships to port(left) and lead them across the front of the German column of ships. This prevented the German fleet from bringing to bear the full power of their guns, and, in return allowed the British to concentrate their full firepower on the German battleships. German Admiral Scheer realized the predicament he was in, and carried out a brilliant maneuver by turning all his ships away from the British fleet and laid a smokescreen for protection.
Yet for some unexplained reason, Scheer turned back to the British fleet and ran into the same problem. Knowing that a smokescreen could not save him now, he ordered his destroyers to launch a full scale torpedo attack on the British warships. Admiral Jellicoe, like many naval commanders of the day, was very cautious about torpedoes, and turned his ships away from the German fleet. This ensured his ships would be less likely to be hit by torpedoes, but it also meant that now he could never win the battle. By turning away, Jellicoe let Scheer escape beyond range of his guns, and let the German fleet speed away to their home port. Jellicoe gave chase, but both sides never came within range of the other again.
At the end of the battle both sides claimed victory, despite each suffering heavy losses. The British fleet however, may in hindsight have been the victors. Even having lost three of their best ships, they had hit the German Navy hard enough that they never put out to sea again for the duration of the war. But still, there was a terrible cost in lives on both sides. The British Grand Fleet, having more ships than the German High Seas Fleet, lost proportionally more men. There were 6500 casualties for the British, while the Germans only suffered 3000 casualties. An equal number of heavy ships were lost on each side, with the Royal Navy losing a few more destroyers than the German Navy. Despite all that, the German fleet had more ships seriously damaged then the British fleet, which reported 24 ships ready for action the following day. Thus, Britain remained in control of the sea for the duration of the war.
“World War One remains characterised by imagery of the trenches of the Western Front. Yet the sea was Britain’s lifeline and the supremacy of the Royal Navy was crucial to national survival. It is right, a century after Jutland – the largest and last clash between dreadnoughts – that we join together to remember those lost from both sides,” wrote First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas during preparations for the 100th Anniversary commemorations. As this post is being read, a few thousand miles away in Scotland, and elsewhere, services of remembrance are being held for those who died in the Battle of Jutland, and to commemorate the events of 100 years ago. May we never forget the bravery and courage displayed on both sides of the fighting these many scores of years past.