In mid-1916, the war’s major sea battle was fought, the Battle of Jutland. The Admiralty was highly conscious of the advantages of air support for the fleet. Two ships—more seaplane tenders than aircraft carriers—were to sail into battle with the Grand Fleet and its accompanying Battle Cruiser Squadron. Earlier in the year, the former 20,000-ton Cunard liner Campania was converted by the British to carry seaplanes and was assigned to Adm. Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet. May approached and nearly ended before the German High Seas Fleet, now under Adm. Reinhard Scheer, made a definite move to encounter the Royal Navy. Jellicoe was ready. Advised in advance that a squadron of German battle-cruisers had been ordered to Norwegian shores for a show of force, he ordered Adm. Sir David Beatty, leading a similar but larger British squadron, to intercept.
HMS Engadine, operating with Beatty’s squadron, launched a seaplane for reconnaissance at 15:30 on the 31st. The pilot reported three enemy cruisers and ten destroyers taking a northwesterly course. Fifteen minutes later, the German ships changed course to the south. The pilot tried to flash this signaI by searchlight, but his message was not received. One of the ships of the squadron noted the alteration, however, and the ships shifted in time. Thereafter, poor visibility and rough water kept Beatty’s plane on deck.
The two squadrons clashed and, even though outnumbered, the German ships under Adm. Franz von Hipper, sank two of Beatty’s vessels. Scheer’s High Seas Fleet crested the horizon, and Beatty led his remaining ships on a strategic retreat, north toward Jellicoe.
On the day before, Campania had conducted a series of successful gun-spotting training flights, returned to her Scapa Flow anchorage about five miles from the main fleet, and awaited orders.
At 17:35, a signal was flashed to all ships of Jellicoe’s fleet to stand by to get under way. At 19:00 the order to raise full steam was given and two-and-a-half hours later, Campania was ready. At 22:54, the “proceed” signal was flashed—but Campania did not receive it. Several hours passed before her C.O. realized that the rest of the fleet had gone. She sailed two hours and fifteen minutes later. Even though she was slowly overtaking the fleet early in the morning of 31 May, she was ordered to return to Scapa Flow, as she lacked an escort and German submarines had been reported in the area. Until 02:00 the following morning, Jellicoe assumed his aircraft “carrier,” Campania, was in company. Thus, Jellicoe's Grand Fleet at Jutland fought without benefit of aerial observation.
At battle’s end, each fleet had lost several ships, but the British suffered more heavily in tonnage—by almost double. In post-battle retrospect, the Battle of Jutland could easily have ended in a triumphant victory for the Allies, had Jellicoe had the advantage of Campania’s plane to report movements of Scheer’s ships. The German fleet had no seagoing aircraft. This, combined with lessons already learned in previous sea encounters with the enemy—especially in countering U-boats—strengthened more than ever the British Navy’s dedication to the perfecting of the aircraft carrier.
Source: "Decisions Out of Jutland," Sean MacDonald, Naval Aviation News, Mar 62
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