The dead of Jutland are among the sailors 'who have no other grave than the sea' remembered on the UK's Chatham Naval Memorial (Photo: Centenary News)

100 Years Ago Today: Battle of Jutland

Posted on on 31 May 2016
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The British and German fleets fought the biggest naval battle of the First World War off the coast of Denmark on May 31st/June 1st 1916.

Two hundred and fifty warships converged in the North Sea for the long-awaited encounter between the full might of Britain's Royal Navy and the emerging naval power of Germany.

This year's Centenary has been the cue for fresh debate about the outcome, in museum exhibitions on both sides of the North Sea, and in television and radio programmes.

Although the British suffered greater losses of men and ships, the German surface fleet didn't again mount a significant challenge. Instead, Germany returned to unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917.

Both sides at the Battle of Jutland were equipped with the most advanced firepower then afloat. But the outnumbered Germans wanted to lay a trap for part of the British fleet, rather than risk an all-out clash.

Intercepted signals alerted the Royal Navy to the imminence of a challenge.

Running battle

The first major action in the afternoon of May 31st involved two forces of battlecruisers, heavily armed ships designed to move at speed but with less protective armour.

Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper lured his British counterpart, Sir David Beatty, towards the main body of the German fleet as the two sides fought a running battle.

Two British ships, HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary, were hit in quick succession, sinking within minutes as their ammunition magazines blew up. More than 2,200 crewmen were killed.

Vice Admiral Beatty famously remarked: "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today." His own flagship, HMS Lion, was badly damaged. 

Sighting the main German force, Beatty then turned north, drawing it towards the British Grand Fleet, led by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe.

In the clashes that followed, Jellicoe succeeded in concentrating his firepower on the Germans, even though he was hampered by poor visibility and communications. He moved his ships into a line across their path, a manoeuvre known as 'Crossing the T'.

The German Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, was forced to turn away. What happened next is still the source of much of the controversy about the Battle of Jutland.

German escape

Jellicoe also turned away to protect the Grand Fleet from a torpedo attack ordered by Scheer to cover his escape, and lost contact. A series of rearguard actions lasted into the night as the Germans returned to Wilhelmshaven but by the morning of June 1st, the battle was over.

Germany immediately proclaimed victory, while in Britain, the Admiralty was very slow to get out its version of events, fuelling talk of a defeat. "Huge British and German losses", ran a newspaper headline.

The British public had expected 'another Trafalgar', a decisive encounter like that of Nelson against Napoleonic France. Instead, some of the returning Royal Navy crews were booed. 

Winston Churchill's description of Jellicoe as 'the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon' encapsulates the pressure on the Grand Fleet's Commander-in-Chief.

The British lost more than 6,000 lives at Jutland, the Germans more than 2,500. 

Twenty five warships were sunk - 14 from the Royal Navy and 11 from the Imperial German Navy (among them Admiral Hipper's flagship, SMS Lützow).

But the surviving German ships had suffered greater damage, and the British still had significantly more Dreadnoughts available for deployment.

Admiral Scheer himself called for unrestricted submarine warfare to be resumed to beat the British blockade while the High Seas Fleet remained confined to the North Sea.

As an American newspaper commented: "The German fleet has assaulted its jailer but it is still jail.'

After 1916
The intensified U-boat campaign in 1917 triggered two significant events - US entry into the Great War and the introduction of convoys to protect Allied merchant shipping.
In November 1918, a mutiny in the High Seas Fleet sparked the revolt which forced Kaiser Wilhelm II to abdicate as the First World War ended.
Germany's ships were interned after the Armistice at Scapa Flow, the vast natural harbour in the Orkney Islands which had been the base for the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet. They were scuttled in June 1919, a week before the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

Sources: Wikipedia/various

Images: Centenary News

Posted by: CN Editor