Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, May 30, 2016

100 Years Ago: Setting Sail for the Battle of Jutland

Flagship HMS Lion and British Battlecruisers Opening Fire at Jutland
Tomorrow, it will be 100 years since the Battle of Jutland. This was the only major fleet vs. fleet naval battle of the First World War and took place between the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet. Over 6,000 British and 2,500 German sailors lost their lives in the fighting.

In 1914 Britain had the biggest and strongest navy in the world. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849–1930) greatly expanded the size and quality of the Imperial German Navy, until the German Navy grew to become one of the greatest maritime forces in the world, second only to the British Royal Navy.

After the British success at Dogger Bank in holding back the German attack in January 1915, the German Imperial Navy chose not to confront the numerically superior British Royal Navy in a major battle for more than a year, preferring to rely on its lethal U-boat fleet. However, in May 1916, with the majority of the British Grand Fleet anchored far away at Scapa Flow, Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer believed the time was right to resume attacks on the British coastline. Scheer ordered 19 U-boats to position themselves for a raid on the northeast coastal town of Sunderland, using air reconnaissance craft to keep an eye on the British fleet. Bad weather hampered the airships, however, and Scheer called off the raid, instead ordering his fleet to head north, to the Skagerrak, a waterway located between Norway and Denmark off the Jutland Peninsula, where they could attack the Allied naval interests and, with luck, punch a hole in the stringent British blockade.

Unbeknownst to Scheer, however, a newly created intelligence unit in Britain had cracked the German communication codes and warned the British Grand Fleet’s commander, Admiral John Rushworth Jellicoe, of Scheer’s intentions. Consequently, on the night of 30 May, a British fleet of 28 battleships, nine battle cruisers, 34 light cruisers and 80 destroyers set out from Scapa Flow, bound for positions off the Skagerrak.

On 31 May, a British naval force commanded by Vice Admiral David Beatty spotted a German squadron of warships and confronted them some 75 miles off the Danish coast. The two squadrons opened fire on each other simultaneously. This lasted around 55 minutes, during which time two British battle cruisers (HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary) were destroyed with the loss of 2,000 sailors. The remainder of the German fleet then joined, so Beatty was forced to fight a delaying action for the next hour, until Jellicoe arrived with the rest of the Grand Fleet. Both fleets faced off in their entirety, and a great battle of naval strategy commenced. As sections of the two fleets continued to engage each other throughout the late evening and the early morning of 1 June, Jellicoe maneuvered 96 of the British ships into a V-shape surrounding 59 German ships. The German flagship, Lutzow, was disabled by 24 direct hits but was able, before it sank, to sink the British cruiser Invincible.

Post-Battle Damage to Battlecruiser SMS Defflinger
German Ships Demonstrated a Superior Ability to Absorb Damage at Jutland

The German fleet withdrew under cover of darkness at 18:30 on 1 June, thus ending the battle, and cheating the British of the major naval success they had envisioned. The Battle of Jutland engaged a total of 100,000 men aboard 251 ships over the course of 72 hours. The Germans claimed it as a victory for their High Seas Fleet. At first the British press agreed, but it was not so clear-cut. The German navy lost 11 ships, including a pre-Dreadnought battleship and a battle cruiser, and suffered 2,500 casualties; the British sustained heavier losses, with 14 ships sunk, including three battlecruisers, and 6,000 casualties.  

On 4 July, Vice Admiral Scheer advised the German high command that further fleet action was not an option and that submarine warfare was Germany’s best hope for victory at sea. This strategy when implemented fully would bring the United States into the war. Despite the heavy losses, the Battle of Jutland had left British naval superiority on the North Sea intact.

Article from the Jutland 100 History Project of the British Royal Legion


  1. Regarding the painting: if "opening fire" implies the beginning of the battle, the British Battlecruisers would have been firing to port [left].
    In 1916, the weather for May 30th-1st June was dismal and cold, with low cloud and intermittent rain. It's the same today, exactly 100 years later. The English weather doesn't change.

  2. It may have been a German victory but one victory does not a war win. England maintained naval supremacy. Germany could not hope to replace their lost ships at this rate and that is the lesson they learned. Wars are ultimately won by the side who can replace lost men and equipment at a rate greater than the foe.