On this day in 1916, the British and German navies clash in the North Sea off Jutland. It is the last major engagement in history fought between squadrons of battleships.
An overview of the battle
The battle which took place off Denmark’s Jutland peninsula was the largest naval battle of the war and it was definitive in terms of naval engagement for the remainder of the hostilities. The Battle of Jutland was the only time that the British and German fleets of ‘dreadnought’ battleships actually came to blows. It was a confused and bloody action involving 250 ships and around 100,000 men. It saw the greatest ever exchange of naval gunfire.
Commander Edward Bingham from Bangor was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership in command of Nestor. Captain Herbert Meade, DSO, commanded HMS Royalist of 6th. Light Cruiser Squadron. The Flag Captain of HMS Iron Duke was Frederick Dryer from Armagh. Over eighty men from Northern Ireland were amongst the casualties.
The battle resulted in the loss of the battlecruisers Queen Mary, Indefatigable, and Invincible; the cruisers Defence, Black Prince, and Warrior; and of HM Torpedo Boat Destroyers Ardent, Fortune, Nestor, Nomad, Shark, Sparrowhawk, Tipperary, and Turbulent.
The German navy sought to engage the Royal Navy with a view to weakening it so that in any later engagements the balance of power would be more in its favour. The German commander, Admiral Scheer, planned to attack British merchant shipping to Norway, expecting to lure out both Admiral Beatty’s Battlecruiser Force and Admiral Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet, further away at Scapa Flow. Scheer hoped to destroy Beatty before Jellicoe arrived
On May 30th 1916, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet, in accord with the general policy of periodic sweeps through the North Sea ordered the ships of the fleet to leave their bases. In the afternoon of Wednesday 31st, May, Jellicoe in his official account of the battle reported, “the Battle-cruiser Fleet, led by Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty, fought an action under, at times, disadvantageous conditions, especially in regard to light, in a manner that was in keeping with the best traditions of the service.”
On 31/05/1916, Beatty’s battlecruisers, supported by battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron, encountered Admiral Hipper’s German battlecruisers at 2:28pm. The Germans damaged Beatty’s flagship HMS Lion and sank HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary, both of which blew up when German shells penetrated their ammunition magazines.
When Beatty sighted the rest of the German fleet, he turned away. Scheer pursued him until Jellicoe arrived with the main fleet. Although the Germans sank another British battlecruiser, HMS Invincible, and an old cruiser, the Germans were now outgunned and Scheer turned for home.
Both sides lost destroyers during the night in a series of confused actions, and the old German battleship Pommern and the badly damaged battlecruiser Lutzow were sunk, but most of Scheer’s fleet escaped unscathed.
The British lost 14 ships and 6,094 men were killed. The Germans lost 11 ships and 2,551 men.
Jutland was undoubtedly a material victory for the German High Seas Fleet whilst being a strategic victory for the British Grand Fleet. The Germans had inflicted heavier losses on the numerically superior Grand Fleet and had escaped near destruction but had failed to break the British blockade or control of the North Sea and had not altered the balance of power in any meaningful way.
The Royal Navy had failed to achieve a new Trafalgar, to both it’s and the British public’s disappointment, although it had ended the battle in control of the battlefield and with the balance of power unchanged, still being the dominant power in the North Sea. Despite it’s heavier losses, damage to German ships kept the Royal Navy’s margin of superiority in all categories, except Battlecruisers, unaltered and the Grand Fleet was ready for sea before the High Seas Fleet.
Jellicoe always had to bear in mind that a heavy defeat for the German navy would not have brought Germany to her knees but a heavy defeat for the British could quite easily result in Britain being knocked out of the war. Winston Churchill, a strong critic of Jellicoe, commented that he was the only person on either side who could loose the war in an afternoon.
Nevertheless, following the Battle of Jutland, the British were ready for action again the next day, and the Germans never again seriously challenged British control of the North Sea.
The most far reaching result of Jutland was that it convinced Scheer and the German Naval staff that the only way of gaining naval victory was via unrestricted submarine warfare, and not by defeating the British in battle. The Germans had fought Jutland as well or better than could be expected, whilst the British could be expected to perform better next time, and yet nothing had changed. However it was not the German submarine blockade of Britain but the British blockade of Germany, maintained under the guns of the Grand Fleet, that eventually did most to bring the war to an end.