Day of the Dreadnoughts: Battle of Jutland

owedtojoy

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This battle, fought on May 31st - June 1st 1916 was the biggest surface battle ever fought between "dreadnoughts", the battleships and battlecruisers that had reached the pitch of their development just before the war.

The intricacies of the battle are complex enough but at a high level it was simple enough.
  1. The German High Seas fleet planned to lure a smaller force of British battlecruisers into a trap
  2. The British had broken German codes and in turn planned their own ambush.
  3. The German plan worked at first - Admiral Hipper's Scouting Squadron of 5 battlecruisers engaged David Beatty's 1st and 2nd Battlecruiser Squadrons of 5 battlecruisers, supported by 4 battleships, and drew him towards Admiral Scheer's High Sea Fleet.
  4. This was the worst period of the battle for the British - two of Beatty's ships blew up and sank with almost total loss of life. Two others were badly damaged, and were only narrowly saved from magazine explosions.
  5. Sighting Scheer's approaching ships, Beatty turned and headed towards the approaching Grand Fleet of his C-in-C Admiral Jellicoe.
  6. Soon it was the turn of the Germans to get a nastry shock as the Grand Fleet appeared, crossing their "T", so that all the British fore and aft guns could bear on the approaching Germans.
  7. Scheer ordered a 180 degree turn for his battleships, and ordered his destroyers and cruisers to make smoke and attack the British with torpedoes.
  8. This was the crucial moment of the battle, and Jellicoe is often criticised for what he did next - ordered his ships to turn and adopt defensive manoeuvres rather than go in for the kill on the High Seas Fleet.
  9. Despite some further exchanges, Scheer and his fleet made good their escape, and the surviving ships of both sides returned to port.

Well, who won?

That has been disputed ever since. The German Navy claimed the victory - they sunk more ships and killed more sailors than the British had. But, at the same time, when the "victory" celebrations were over, they only ventured out into the North Sea on one other occasion during the entire war. And they skedaddled home on the approach of the British. Not the strategy of victors then. The British were allowed to continue their blockade of Germany unhindered.

So, a tactical victory only for the Germans, but the overall strategic situation remained unchanged. But German ships and gunnery in the early stages of the battle had been proven superior. Two British battle cruisers exploding were shown to the be product of incompetent management of ammunition, where bags of explosive cordite were left in piles below gun turrets and flash doors left open, meaning that a direct hit caused a cascading explosion leading to the ships' magazines. Senior officers had been complicit in order to increase the ships' rates of fire.

Beatty's own ship was saved only by the order of a dying Royal Marine major, with both legs blown off, ordering the magazines flooded, before dying. Among the Admirals in command that day. Beatty was the least competent. His communications and orders were confusing and hindered the British. The British system of signals was also proven inferior.



Yet if the battle had gone on longer, the superior British numbers and fire-power (28 dreadnoughts to 16) would have told, and the Germans realised that.

For the British, in the aftermath, Beatty proved the more successful publicist, and managed to attach to Jellicoe the blame for a bungled engagement, and the corresponding blow to British morale. Historians now regard Jellicoe as an very good manager of his fleet, competent and intelligent, but perhaps lacking in killer instinct.

In defence of Jellicoe, many cite Churchill's words that "Jellicoe was the only man who could have lost the war in an afternoon", and the terrible consequences of a defeat may have weighed heavily on him.

Jutland, though, was not without consequences. The stalemate in the North Sea led inevitably to the adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans, and the entry of the USA into the war.
 


parentheses

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The British clearly won the battle. They remained in control of the sea.



.
 

owedtojoy

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The British clearly won the battle. They remained in control of the sea.



.
Tactical defeat: if you lose more ships, twice as many men, and let the enemy escape, a claim of "victory" sounds a bit hollow.

It did not appear as a victory to the British public, who wanted nothing less than a complete Trafalgar. Popularity of the Royal Navy plummeted and sailors were booed and jeered at when they appeared in uniform.

I should probably have mentioned that - since the pre-war arms race, the British had awaited the Day of Reckoning, but when it came it was a bit of a disappointment.

The Kaiser's and Tirpitz's strategy of building a fleet had been disastrous for Germany, though - once built, it was too valuable to risk losing it in a major battle. At the end of the war, the German Navy mutinied and set of the wave of strikes that forced the Kaiser to abdicate.

Since the strategic situation was unchanged, and the British could afford to lose a few ships due to their advantage in numbers, they could justifiably claim a strategic victory.
 

slippy wicket

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Very interesting OP.

My secondary school had a picture of David Beatty as first sea Lord on deck of one of his battleships, in pride of place in their main hall.
It's only recently that I learned that he lived for a time near Enniscorthy.
 

owedtojoy

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Very interesting OP.

My secondary school had a picture of David Beatty as first sea Lord on deck of one of his battleships, in pride of place in their main hall.
It's only recently that I learned that he lived for a time near Enniscorthy.
Beatty was Anglo-Irish, and quite a swash-buckling figure who liked fox hunting. He wore his cap at a rakish angle and talked a Nelsonian aggression. However, the performance did not match the ambition.



After Indefatigible blew up and sank, he made the famous remark "There's something wrong with our bloody ships today". A cynic would say that it was him.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Beatty,_1st_Earl_Beatty

His moment of glory came at the end of the war, when by the terms of the Armistice, the Germans had to sail all their dreadnoughts to the Orkneys and surrender to the Royal Navy. Beatty, who succeeded Jellicoe, received what must have been one of the biggest surrenders in history.

Later the Germans scuttled their ships at Scapa Flow - I think all the High Seas Fleet ended up in Scottish scrapyards.
 
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owedtojoy

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The Von der Tann on the way to the scrapyard after being scuttled by her own crew at Scapa Flow.



It was a sad end to the vision of the Kaiser and Admiral Tirpitz. The notion of competing with Britain on the high seas was a disastrous error - it alienated the UK and helped to drive it into French arms. When war came, the fleet turned out to be more of an expensive liability than an asset.
 

niall78

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Beatty was Anglo-Irish, and quite a swash-buckling figure who liked fox hunting. He wore his cap at a rakish angle and talked a Nelsonian aggression. However, the performance did not match the ambition.



After Indefatigible blew up and sank, he made the famous remark "There's something wrong with our bloody ships today". A cynic would say that it was him.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Beatty,_1st_Earl_Beatty

His moment of glory came at the end of the war, when by the terms of the Armistice, the Germans had to sail all their dreadnoughts to the Orkneys and surrender to the Royal Navy. Later they scuttled their ships at Scapa Flow - I think all the High Seas Fleet ended up in Scottish scrapyards.
Beatty was in many ways a throw back to the old traditions Nelson promoted. Aggression personified when in many cases such action was an impediment in WW1 surface combat.

He favoured weight of fire over accuracy. Many historians blame that for his two of his battle cruisers exploding - they were ignoring flash protection protocol to gain an extra few shots a minute - leaving flash doors open and bags of cordite scattered all over their gun casements. When a casement was hit in such circumstances the ship was instantly doomed. He also hadn't trained his crews well on gunnery accuracy - that coupled with world leading German optics and good training lead to his squadron getting hammered while not hitting much in return.

Beatty also was stupid enough to 'go for' the main German fleet with his battle cruiser squadron. He was lucky to have any left by the time he turned back and ran to his own main fleet. He simply didn't seem to understand that his ships were completely outclassed by proper dreadnoughts.

His biggest failing by far was his communications. He left Jellicoe with scant information about what he was facing and where - a crime for the commander of a scouting squadron - which was exactly the battle cruiser squadrons function. Jellicoe worked a miracle crossing the German T with the information Beatty provided. Beatty failed horribly in his main task - fixing the position of the German High Seas Fleet for his commander in the British Grand Fleet.

History has been good to Jellicoe - it is scathing of Beatty. A better self-publicist in my view than he ever was a fleet commander.

For me one of the saddest parts of Jutland was the deaths of the armoured cruisers Black Prince and Defence after the disastrous actions of the armoured cruiser squadron commander. Again this guy thought he was Nelson and ran his obsolete ships right at the German fleet. These ships lasted minutes before they blew up or were disabled for zero gain. The armoured cruiser was never put on the line again - deemed a failure of ship design. They weren't great ships - something maybe a less aggressive - or suicidal commander - might have realised without sacrificing a few thousand lives.
 

between the bridges

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As you say tactical victory for the German's and strategic one for RN, the day after the battle the RN could still put 20+ heavies to sea but all the remaining German ones were in need of repair.
The only surviving ship from the battle HMS Caroline is docked in Belfast.
 

niall78

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The Von der Tann on the way to the scrapyard after being scuttled by her own crew at Scapa Flow.



It was a sad end to the vision of the Kaiser and Admiral Tirpitz. The notion of competing with Britain on the high seas was a disastrous error - it alienated the UK and helped to drive it into French arms. When war came, the fleet turned out to be more of an expensive liability than an asset.
You should have a read of Cox's Navy: Salvaging the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow 1924-1931 by Tony Booth. It details the guy who salvaged the High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow after the war. An amazing feet of engineering that developed many of the techniques used to this day for raising large ships.
 

Dame_Enda

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The Kaiser was unnerved like Hitler in WW2 with his much smaller fleet didn't want the loss of prestige of risking losing his big battleships. However the German navy still created chaos for the Brits in the Indian Ocean for a while too.
 

niall78

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As you say tactical victory for the German's and strategic one for RN, the day after the battle the RN could still put 20+ heavies to sea but all the remaining German ones were in need of repair.
The only surviving ship from the battle HMS Caroline is docked in Belfast.
It was no type of German victory when exposed to any kind of historical scrutiny. They 'won' by surviving to reach their home port the next day. The British controlled both the battlefield and the strategic balance remained heavily in favour of the British.

What it does show us is that getting in first with the propaganda works in many cases. It sure did for the Germans in the immediate aftermath of the battle. No sane commentator counts it as any type of a victory though.

Jellicoe was the big winner that day. He didn't lose the war for Britain. That in the end doomed Germany more than anything in the preceding years. The blockade remained and German was slowly starved of materials and food.
 
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between the bridges

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It was no type of German victory when exposed to any kind of historical scrutiny. They 'won' by surviving to reach their home port the next day. The British controlled both the battlefield and the strategic balance remained heavily in favour of the British.

What it does show us is that getting in first with the propaganda works in many cases. It sure did for the Germans in the immediate aftermath of the battle. No sane commentator counts it as any type of a victory though.

Jellicoe was the big winner that day. He didn't lose the war for Britain.
The German's faced a superior force, inflicted heavier loses of ships and men and survived to (not) fight another day. Imho that was a tactical victory however it changed nothing strategically.
 

owedtojoy

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You should have a read of Cox's Navy: Salvaging the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow 1924-1931 by Tony Booth. It details the guy who salvaged the High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow after the war. An amazing feet of engineering that developed many of the techniques used to this day for raising large ships.
Actually, I think I read that book many years ago ... a great read, thanks for reminding me of the name.
 

niall78

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The German's faced a superior force, inflicted heavier loses of ships and men and survived to (not) fight another day. Imho that was a tactical victory however it changed nothing strategically.
The Germans have an old WW2 saying - "we win ourselves straight into defeat". Maybe that applies here.

I don't count it as a tactical victory. It was an amazing tactical escape after Jellicoe crossed the High Seas Fleet T. I don't think raw accounting can ever tell you the tactical victor. A large enough percentage of the British losses were completely useless as modern ships in any case - the Armoured Cruiser Squadron being a case in point. Going on every metric but numbers lost the British won the day both tactically and strategically.
 

owedtojoy

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It was no type of German victory when exposed to any kind of historical scrutiny. They 'won' by surviving to reach their home port the next day. The British controlled both the battlefield and the strategic balance remained heavily in favour of the British.

What it does show us is that getting in first with the propaganda works in many cases. It sure did for the Germans in the immediate aftermath of the battle. No sane commentator counts it as any type of a victory though.

Jellicoe was the big winner that day. He didn't lose the war for Britain. That in the end doomed Germany more than anything in the preceding years. The blockade remained and German was slowly starved of materials and food.
I think the High Seas Fleet deserves great credit.

For example, it took 23 hits to sink the dreadnought Lutzow, and even then it was scuttled in case the British captured it.

Indefatigable and Queen Mary blew up after a few hits because of the catastrophic ammunition storage errors.

It used to be said that German gunnery was more accurate because of superior optical equipment, but I am not so sure. I saw somewhere the proportion of hits to shells fired, and the British rate was lower, but not significantly so. The main British negatives came from Beatty and his squadron.

It was a "typically German" military performance - thoroughly professional and highly competent, but not enough to make up for the lack in numbers, or the cracking of their codes by the British.

When Lutzow was scuttled, some men were still trapped below decks and had to be abandoned. The last men to leave the ship could hear them singing as they awaited death. You have to salute that type of courage, not matter what country
 
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owedtojoy

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The Germans have an old WW2 saying - "we win ourselves straight into defeat". Maybe that applies here.

I don't count it as a tactical victory. It was an amazing tactical escape after Jellicoe crossed the High Seas Fleet T. I don't think raw accounting can ever tell you the tactical victor. A large enough percentage of the British losses were completely useless as modern ships in any case - the Armoured Cruiser Squadron being a case in point. Going on every metric but numbers lost the British won the day both tactically and strategically.
I think the British embarrassment and frustration in the aftermath tells its own story.

No one in Britain called it a "strategic victory" in the months after the battle. We can say so only with hindsight.

At the time, anything short of a smashing victory was a severe blow to British morale. Having taken on the Grand Fleet, doing it some damage, and escaping was a corresponding boost to German morale.

That faded in time, but contemporaries saw it as a German victory.
 

Malcolm Redfellow

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I hope all of us here assembled acknowledge Robert K Massie, whose two books are (I assume) still definitive:
The relevant sections are Chapters 30 to 34 of the second book.

[I have a .pdf of that text, so could extract for anyone who sends an email to mredfellow "at" gmail dot com.]
 


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