It’s the centenary of the Battle of Jutland today – the first and only clash of the great fleets during the First World War.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016