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

Thursday, November 20, 2014

What Was Wrong With Beatty's "Bloody Ships" at Jutland?

“There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today,” said Admiral David Beatty on 31 May 1916. This famous comment was provoked as Beatty was losing three of his battlecruisers, Indefatigable, Queen Mary, and the inaptly named Invincible, in the opening of the Battle of Jutland. Many analyses of the battle assert these ships had major design flaws with their turrets and magazines. In British Battlecruisers, 1914–18, (Osprey, 2006), however, authors Lawrence Burr and Tony Bryan conclude other issues led to the loss of the ships.

Battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable, Lost in Action at Jutland

  • Technological deficiencies of offensive systems, including: the inadequate Dreyer fire-control system (except on Queen Mary), range finders inaccurate at long distances, the less stable qualities of the Royal Navy's cordite as compared to the German formula and poor-quality armor-piercing shells.

  • Operational and procedural matters, including: a lack of gunnery practice and the unsafe ammunition-handling practices that had been sped up by leaving cordite stacked in the turrets' working chambers and magazine doors left open.

  • Given the above problems, the authors conclude: "The problem with British battlecruisers at Jutland was that their crews were too eager to come to grips with the enemy."

    1. Surely the fundamental problem was that battlecruisers had much thinner armour than battleships. They were never intended to fight in the Line of Battle; they were intended as large cruisers capable of hunting down enemy cruisers. Hence they had battleship-sized guns but with thinner armour to enable a higher speed. This was nothing new; at the turn of the century some armoured cruisers were larger than some battleships. When battlecruisers were used for their intended purpose of hunting down cruisers they performed very well, as at the Battle of the Falkland Islands. But somehow their role was lost sight of, and at Jutland they were thrown into battle against battleships. The Germans also had battlecruisers, which directly engaged the British ones. The German battlecruisers were less radical in terms of reducing armour protection. If you have thin armour and are hit by a large shell, it really doesn't matter whether the ship firing the shell also has thin armour or not. The victor will be the one with the better fire direction system who scores a hit first. And the same thing happened with Hood vs Bismarck in 1941.

    2. The last statement is not completely true, as Britain had a more advanced fire control system, director firing, and yet due to inexperience (lack of training facilities for gunnery at Rosyth), Beatty's battlecrusiers had a horrible hit rate. (see British Battlecruisers vs German Battlecrusiers, Mark Stille). The Germans managed to get close to Beattys ships, allowing for them to get he first hits and yet strategically they still lost the battle. (Tactically it is more arguable). The High Seas Fleet under Jellicoe had extremely effective long range gunnery, which did help turn the tide of Battle and caused the majority of damage to the Germans. So Germans scored the first hit, and didnt win. British (Beatty only) had better fire control system, but dreadful gunnery and didnt score the first hit but won. The British did have significantly less armour than the Germans, and did take more damage/losses from those hits. But this is arguably due to the innefectivness of the British shells, in which admiral tudor analyzed nearly 70% of shells would fail to detonate at Oblique Angles, and the Lyddite propellant would often prematurely detonate before penetrating the armour, deflecting the explosive force and minimizing the damage. (Marder, Arthur, From Dreadnoughts to Scapa Flow, Vol 3.) British Ordinance Board Analysts such as Tudor who analyzed the Battle later determined that 6 more German Capital ships would have been lost had the shells worked properly, which would have resulted in an overwhelming British victory, strategically and tactically. So the armour played a role, but so did shell effectiveness, gunnery, and cordite handling. The British Admiralty later found that Cordite propellant was left exposed, flash doors had been removed, safety protocols ignored, and a fine flammable dust developed which produced flash fires (Battlefield Detectives, Jutland, History Channel. Also, Diary of Alexander Grant, Gunnery officer aboard HMS Lion, Beattys flagship. "Through the Hawse Pipe."). The Cordite led to the rapid explosions by penetrating into the magazine, the shells didnt detonate properly causing innefective shots, the inexperience of Beatty and his rash decisions placed the ships in harms way where they werent intended, and the German gunnery and night fighting proved superior to Britans (excluding Jellioes later long range gunnery, see 'Project Dreadnought ' website or Stille, Mark British Dreadnought vs German Dreadnought).

      Many technical factors played a role, and so did the human decisons by Beatty and crews regarding the cordite handling techniques, gunnery and tactics. Unfortunately this battle is complex, and to simplify it to only one factor does a disservice to the truth, as the combination of factors led to the outcome.

    3. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

      Your article is very well done, a good read.