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

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Jutland and the U.S. Navy, Part I

From:  Naval War College Review, Autumn 2016,  David Kohnen, with contributions from Nicholas Jellicoe and Nathaniel Sims

Part I

Capt. Wm. Sims, 1910
While the United States remained neutral, the war dominated strategic discussions at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. U.S. naval professionals monitored the conflict from afar, using the innovative “chart maneuver” methods of Captain William McCarty Little and information from all available sources to reconstruct battles. Following the earlier battles of the Falkland Islands and Dogger Bank, the epic battle of Jutland of 31 May and 1 June 1916 particularly sparked major debate within the ranks of the U.S. Navy about the future of naval warfare. This article is the first to analyze the USN studies of the Battle of Jutland that were conducted within weeks of the actual battle in 1916.

Battleships remained the predominant focus within the Navy Department, but Captain William S. Sims advocated for the continued development of a “balanced” American fleet.  He believed the U.S. Navy also required more lightly armored battle cruiser designs that offered firepower similar to that of battleships, combined with speed and endurance.

Yet the British battle cruisers had suffered withering losses at Jutland. The poor performance of British battle cruisers prompted Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels to consider cancelling further American investment in battle cruisers. Sims strongly disagreed, warning Daniels to avoid drawing false conclusions from newspaper accounts about Jutland. Sims acknowledged having “read carefully the American press accounts of the action” but claimed special insight gained from a “considerable number of clippings received from England which give a much fuller account.”

Sims applied Naval War College methods of analysis to reconstruct the Battle of Jutland in detail. He then offered a strikingly accurate assessment of the strategic consequences of Jutland in an 8 July 1916 report to Daniels. Sims also enjoyed unique access to information provided by his longtime friend Royal Navy admiral Sir John Jellicoe—the commander of the Grand Fleet during the Battle of Jutland. Shortly after the battle, in June 1916, Jellicoe sent a packet to Sims that included an advance copy of his official report, appended to another study of the battle by British journalist Arthur Pollen. Few outside the Admiralty had access to such information at the time. These documents enabled Sims to begin framing the basic chronology of the Battle of Jutland.

The body of information Sims compiled in the summer of 1916 demonstrates the importance U.S. naval professionals placed on the battle at the time. However, after the publication in 1942 of the only comprehensive biography of Sims, Admiral Sims and the Modern American Navy by Elting Morison, these particular records fell into general obscurity within the historiography.

Yet it was over the course of this half a year—from the time of the Battle of Jutland to the end of 1916—that domestic and external events and the efforts of Sims (and others) combined to set precedents for naval officer education, historical and strategic study, USN fleet organization, and concepts of combined and joint command that informed American naval strategic thinking through the Second World War and into the Cold War era. A century ago, Sims and his associates set the course that led to the U.S. Navy of the 21st century.

Jellicoe, as commander of the Royal Navy Grand Fleet at Jutland, had faced a difficult decision—to seek a smashing victory akin to Trafalgar or to ensure the preservation of the Grand Fleet so as to maintain the ability to fix the German High Seas Fleet in place. During the action in the North Sea approaches to the Skagerrak, British battle cruisers under Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty had charged ahead of the Grand Fleet, into the teeth of the battleships of the High Seas Fleet—and sustained heavy losses. Heroic accounts of the British battle cruiser action at Jutland made it appear comparable to the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava or the dramatic last stand at the Little Bighorn; at Jutland, battle cruisers seemed to have been completely inadequate compared with battleships.

Within minutes of Beatty making contact with the German battle cruisers, under Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper, the Germans sank two battle cruisers under Beatty’s immediate command. As the Grand Fleet under Jellicoe closed with Beatty and the remaining battle cruisers, and as the Germans maneuvered to the sanctuary of port, the latter continued inflicting heavy damage on the former.

While the Germans lost one battle cruiser, four light cruisers, one pre-dreadnought, and five torpedo boats at Jutland, the British lost three battle cruisers, three armored cruisers, and eight destroyers. Within 72 hours, an estimated 2,551 Germans and 6,094 British sailors were killed in the battle of Jutland.

The Grand Fleet at Jutland ultimately achieved its actual mission—forcing the Germans to withdraw from the battlefield. Jellicoe successfully maintained the integrity of the Grand Fleet, ensured Royal Navy superiority in European waters, and retained for Britain the strategic advantage at sea. But the German High Seas Fleet remained a potent threat after the battle. Critics castigated Jellicoe for being indecisive, while his subordinate Beatty blamed the Grand Fleet for failing to support the battle cruisers at Jutland. British newspapers also highlighted the losses the Royal Navy had sustained under Jellicoe, which seriously damaged his reputation as a “future Nelson.”  Facing the media, Jellicoe fueled perceptions of a Pyrrhic victory at Jutland. He emphasized the strategic necessity of preserving the superiority of the Royal Navy so as to keep the German High Seas Fleet in check. Jellicoe also believed that Beatty had acted on his own initiative, charging headlong with the Battle Cruiser Fleet into the mist.

Jellicoe was frustrated by the severe price he paid in the popular media for failing to deliver a spectacular victory akin to that at Trafalgar. While he grappled with that imperfect victory, Jellicoe turned to his old American friend, Sims. Additionally, from the British perspective, Jellicoe recognized the importance of fostering ties between the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy.

On the other side of the Atlantic, reports of the stunning losses of the British battle cruisers inspired members of Congress to make official inquiries. Within the Navy Department, Secretary Daniels considered the option of cancelling construction of USN battle cruisers because of the British losses at Jutland. Learning of these discussions, Sims warned Daniels to avoid making false assumptions about the lessons of Jutland.  As early as 8 July 1916, Sims applied Naval War College methods of analysis to construct a detailed study of what actually had happened during the battle of Jutland, which he then submitted to Daniels. By refuting Daniels’s assertions about battle cruisers, Sims sparked even greater interest within Congress to understand the consequences of Jutland. Congress launched an official inquiry to determine whether the U.S. Navy should continue constructing battle cruisers. In response, Sims produced two highly detailed reports in July 1916.

SMS Koenig at Jutland

First Sims provided an astonishingly accurate account of the battle of Jutland, suggesting that “the action in question was in reality a skirmish.” He then defended Jellicoe’s actions by placing responsibility for the ambiguous results of the encounter squarely on Beatty’s shoulders. In a six-page report, Sims suggested that of course the Germans knew that Admiral Beatty would come after them with his battle cruiser squadrons. Doubtless, also, they assumed, from his supposed reputation for impetuosity and ambition for distinction, that he would attack at once and try to head them off at their base. He apparently did so, and the battleships came up and pounded him between the two forces, with the inevitable result that he got the worst of it until the British battleships [of Jellicoe] came to his support and forced the Germans to retreat.

Evaluating all available evidence, Sims concluded on 31 July 1916 that Jellicoe had acted correctly and Beatty had mishandled the battle cruisers at Jutland by ignoring the “fundamental principle that involves bringing against the enemy a greater force than he has at [emphasis in original] the point of contact.” Sims argued that Jellicoe had acted in the better strategic interests of the Royal Navy, whereas Beatty had violated the basic rule of using “just plain common sense unrestricted by any sentimental fool traditions of the glory type.” Sims concluded that “control of the sea is accomplished when the enemy’s fleet is defeated or ‘contained’; and the German fleet has been contained since the beginning of the war, is now contained, and doubtless will remain so.”

Sims strongly cautioned American policy makers against abandoning the construction of battle cruisers. “There is nothing,” Sims argued, “in the incidents of the [Jutland] fight to justify any argument against the necessity of battlecruisers.” According to Sims’s conclusions, Beatty had employed his battle cruisers improperly. Sims also rushed to the defense of his friend Jellicoe. By implication, Sims argued that Jutland actually resulted in as decisive a British victory as that of Trafalgar more than a hundred years earlier.

To prove these points, Sims used war-gaming and chart-maneuver methods to produce objectively detailed studies of the Battle of Jutland. Fighting the separate battle for the future of professional education within the U.S. Navy, he also organized a war-game study of Jutland at the Naval War College. This took place a short two months after the actual battle, in September 1916.

Part II, in which this early war-gaming of the Battle of Jutland is discussed, appears tomorrow.

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