It’s a century today since the great clash of dreadnoughts

It’s the centenary of the Battle of Jutland today – the first and only clash of the great fleets during the First World War.

HMS Orion during the First World War. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.
HMS Orion during the First World War. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

On the misty afternoon of 31 May 1916, off the coast of Denmark, the British and German fleets came to blows in classic form: a tussle between their lighter battlecruiser forces, then – as dusk came on – the main fleets collided in two brief bursts of fire, during which the British sent the Germans packing. Twice.

My great uncle was in the middle of it, aged 21, on board the super-dreadnought HMS Orion. He was stationed in the forward Transmitting Station, where he used a Navyphone to relay spotting details from the foretop to the men running the Dumaresq trigonometric computer and the Dreyer Fire Control Table – a Heath Robinson array of cogs and bicycle chains that calculated exactly where to point the guns. Mostly: it ran a shade slower than real time.

SMS Derfflinger, second German battlecruiser in their line, firing a salvo. Public domain, Wikipedia.
SMS Derfflinger, firing a salvo. Public domain, Wikipedia.

Jutland was the last large sea battle controlled with flag and light signals, where commanders relied on reports from far-flung scouting cruisers. It was the only clash of the main fleets during the First World War. And it was the first time  those colossal products of industrial science and imperial wealth – the dreadnoughts – came to blows with each other, as they had been designed to do.

It was one of the crucial battles of the war. The Western Front stood in deadlock; but if Britain lost command of the sea, there was little to stop Germany launching an invasion  – or, more likely (and cheaply), severing British trade routes and cutting her off from the Continent. That would effectively knock Britain out of the war.

Only Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet stood in the way: and the Grand Fleet was vastly superior to the German equivalent, the High Seas Fleet under Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer. However, Scheer had plans to whittle that down, variously with U-boat ambushes and by isolating part of the British force.

HMS Queen Mary blows up at Jutland, as seen from the German lines. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.
HMS Queen Mary blows up at Jutland, as seen from the German lines. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Jellicoe was well aware that he faced the risk of a mass torpedo attack – also whittling down his superiority – a threat that eventuated during the second brief fleet engagement at Jutland, around 6.30 pm on 31 May. His standing instructions called for a turn away, so the ships presented smaller targets and were moving away from the threat. When it had passed, Scheer’s fleet had faded into the misty dusk.

Jellicoe intended to renew the engagement next day – eschewing a night battle for the same reasons as he had avoided the torpedo attack. His fleet was between the Germans and their base. However, Scheer steamed for a different route through the minefields protecting the German coasts, towards Horns Reef. The High Seas Fleet consequently barged past the tail of the British fleet at night, and escaped. British light forces were heavily engaged, but nobody reported to Jellicoe where the Germans were. Nor did he consider a decrypted wireless intercept signalling for reconnaissance off Horns Reef to be credible.

So the British were robbed of a second ‘Glorious First of June’ in which the battered German fleet would certainly have suffered heavy losses. In the controversy that followed, higher British material losses on 31 May gave the impression of defeat, and the ‘Jutland controversy’ raged through the 1920s. Critics declared that Jellicoe ‘should have’ turned towards the German torpedo attack – thus keeping the Germans in sight for a few crucial minutes, enough probably to sink or disable the leading German dreadnoughts, which had already taken a pounding.

Sir John Jellicoe, as Governor-General of New Zealand, picnicking on Ninety Mile Beach in January 1924. Northwood, Arthur James, 1880-1949. Lord Jellicoe picnicking at 90 Mile Beach. Northwood brothers :Photographs of Northland. Ref: 1/1-006355-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Jellicoe himself was under a cloud as a result of this and his 1917 mis-handling of the U-boat threat, and in 1919 was packed off to New Zealand as its new Governor-General (where my wife’s grandmother was among his staff). But the fact was that he had done everything right. His strategic objective wasn’t to annihilate the German fleet – which wouldn’t have made any difference to the war – but to maintain British sea command. And he did that in spades: on 1 June, the only fleet at sea was the British one. That said it all. The Germans had, as one paper put it, assaulted their jailer, but they hadn’t escaped their prison.

Jutland, in short, was an overwhelming British strategic victory. It was also a clash of the highest technologies at the time – a high-tech battle, First World War style. To me the gulf between the dreadnoughts and Nelson’s wooden-walled fighting sail of a century earlier was profound – far more so than the gap between today’s warships and the dreadnoughts, not least because both the dreadnoughts and today’s ships are self-propelled metal-built vessels. Thoughts? Let’s discuss in the comments.

Blue Water Kiwis cover - 200 pxIf you’re interested in more, I’ve covered the story of Jutland – and more – in my book Blue Water Kiwis. Check it out. Now. On Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


10 thoughts on “It’s a century today since the great clash of dreadnoughts

  1. People these days under appreciate the technological changes of the early 20th Century. In one lifetime there was the introduction of electrified homes, telephones, moving pictures, automobiles, airplanes, tanks, and so many other advances. As with the comparison between our ships today and the dreadnoughts of the First World War, we’re talking about improvements more than entirely new ideas.

    1. The dreadnoughts were the very highest tech of their day – and definitely far closer to modern ships than to the ‘wooden walls’ of Nelson’s day. They had stuff in them – even down to electric lighting and cooking facilities – that we take for granted today but which were usually unknown in ordinary homes then. I have seen eyewitness accounts of NZ soldiers at Gallipoli going on board the brand new super-dreadnought the British sent for fire support and boggling at the technology.

    2. Something that I failed to appreciate until it was pointed out was that the world’s experience with essentially modern battleships like this was almost nil. I suppose there was the Battle of Tsushima and then this, and that isn’t much to learn from.

      1. That point deeply worried the naval officers of WW1 – they knew only too well that while Nelson’s ‘band of brothers’ had a century or more of experience behind them to draw on, about how ships-of-the-line performed in battle, nobody had ever fought a war with dreadnoughts until 1914. Tsushima had been an aperitif, but even then it was different because the battle ranges dramatically increased over the decade. Churchill made the point in his ‘The World Crisis’ that Dogger Bank (January 1915) was the very first time that modern heavy ships had come to blows with each other. Jutland was only the second, so it perhaps wasn’t surprising that the British found there was ‘something wrong with our bloody ships’ when it came to the crunch. Did I say ‘crunch’? I did, didn’t I…

  2. The biggest difference, of course, between Trafalgar and Jutland, was the reliance on wind and the constraints it imposed on tactics. This entirely changed the fighting style of a sail-powered ship-of-the-line from that of a dreadnought that could steam in any direction it wanted. However, between the dreadnought and today’s warship, the advent of air-power and warfare at huge distances have also invoked similarly remarkable changes in fighting tactics.

    1. Yes. While the fact of 1916 and 2016 ships being steel-built (or similar), self-propelled and equipped with guns has been a constant – albeit with improvements all along the way – the other aspects of naval warfare have been revolutionised. A lot of the difference between Jutland and today is to do with fire control and the ability to project lethal force over distance. Although I believe a modern AShM would have trouble sinking a battleship – apparently the Soviets worried about the USS Missouri and her sisters when the US revamped them in the 1980s, because they had nothing heavy enough, just then, to get through the armour. Though I suppose enough P-700 Granits would swamp the close-in defences and knock a battleship out as an effective fighting unit even if it stayed afloat.

  3. Great post! Did you ever have the chance to talk with your great uncle about his experiences?

    It is hard to fathom (pun unintended) how much was at stake for both sides yet how few precedents there were to draw upon. Similar to the first carrier battles in the Pacific.

    I do wonder how much the naval battles of the Russo-Japanese War and perhaps also the often overlooked First Sino-Japanese War influenced the decisions made by naval commanders in the First World War. They weren’t dreadnoughts, but were perhaps the closest thing to a precedent. I recall reading about one battle in the First Sino-Japanese War which was fought between ships that had been built in Germany, France and Britain. There were a number of very curious international observers!

    1. I talked a lot with him about it as a kid. He knew all about the fire control systems – after Jutland he ended up on Repulse running the rangefinder. Yes, the Tsushima experience was widely viewed as validating (or invalidating) the rival national design philosophies – British and French. Every incident was pored over though some of the lessons were askew with hindsight and more experience. It is an indictment of the pace of change of the time that – by contrast with the age of ‘wooden walls’ nobody quite knew how these products of the industrial age would quite work in practise – or how to fight them.

  4. This is great stuff. A clash of titans. Love the details of this. Jellicoe really did do things correctly. If he’d been too aggressive with Britain’s astoundingly expensive capital ships and got them sunk, history would say something different about him, and it wouldn’t be nice. Command of the seas is what Britain needed, and ultimately this led to victory.

    1. He never put a foot wrong. He knew what he was doing on many levels – had been on the design committee for the original Dreadnought, so he knew the technical capabilities of his ships completely. My wife’s grandmother later worked for Jellicoe whrn he was Governor General here in NZ. Apparently he was a very nice guy in person – kind and thoughtful – whereas his wife was an ‘old Tartar’.

Comments are closed.