A Brief Discourse on the Naval Battle of Jutland (1916)
Naval surface confrontation between the Kaiser’s Navy and the Admiralty demonstrates the superiority of British naval intelligence and the best traditions of the Royal Navy. Admirals Beatty and Jellicoe secured the victory but First Sea Lord Fisher built up the Royal Navy’s strength between 1900-1914 in anticipation.
The stage was set for this severe and terrible naval surface ship confrontation in the run up to the First World War: namely 1900-1914 when Sir Henry Fisher was first Sea Lord. He insisted Britain should match and beat Germany’s warship building programme with our own Dreadnoughts and modern men of war. The Kaiser’s Navy was clearly being constructed by Von Tirpitz (Admiral) to challenge our own naval supremacy. At that time battleships, battle cruisers, cruisers, frigates, destroyers and minesweepers were crucial to our Royal Navy and likewise Germany’s. The Royal Navy had ruled the seas since the Battle of Trafalgar (1805).
Construction and Gunnery
The German Admiralty were quicker to construct oil fired war ships instead of coal powered. Moreover the German shipbuilders constructed their ships with their arsenals less exposed to enemy naval gun fire. Finally their naval gunnery was of the highest standard and superior to our own in accuracy and high explosive impact. We relied on coal fired ships which were slower across the water and our warships’ munitions stores proved very vulnerable to modern German naval gunnery at the Battle of Jutland. Thus several of our warships were sunk when their ammunition stores received direct hits and those warships blew up. (The same applied to HMS Hood sunk by the German vessel the Bismarck pocket battleship in World War II in the Denmark straits.
Our British naval intelligence was second to none and the Admiralty was apprised of the movements of the German high seas fleet soon after it left ports such as Bremerhaven and Hamburg and Kiel Canal to engage our Royal Navy in 1916. The German Navy’s Intelligence simply did not rival ours and relied on more elementary methods. The two British Admirals concerned: Jellicoe – High Admiral of the Grand fleet and Beatty Rear Admiral of the Battle Squadron were well informed of the decisions and positions of Admiral Scheer of the High Seas fleet and his subordinate Admiral Hipper. The chessboard had been laid – The German High Seas fleet were playing with white and Scheer made the first move to test the technical strength of his own fleet and the resilience of the Royal Navy. How would Jellicoe and Beatty respond? The High Seas fleet had left the Skagerrak and the comfort of its ports and was “steaming” in to the North Sea to confront the British Grand fleet. Scheer and Hipper wanted a fight and Jellicoe and Beatty would not deny them.
Jellicoe and Beatty
With the Grand fleet, Jellicoe immediately left port on the Scapa Flow and “steamed” into battle against Scheer. Neither Navy could see the other – poor visibility. Jellicoe knew he would only have one opportunity to win a decisive encounter with the Kaiser’s Navy and this was it. He did not wish to sail in to a trap – the High Seas fleet was an unknown quantity. Beatty and Jellicoe both realised Scheer and Hipper had to be engaged fully in a decisive naval engagement. Beatty with his Battle Squadron raced ahead and engaged Hipper’s warships. Hipper took him on and Beatty suffered seriously but still he hit back at the High Seas fleet despite his losses – true British grit and phlegm. Beatty gave as good as he got as they say. There would have been no Battle of Jutland off the Denmark coast in 1916 without Beatty. If it had not been for Beatty the German fleet would never have been engaged in battle. Jellicoe was not prepared to risk his fleet straight away as Beatty did his Battle Squadron. Jellicoe was more than prepared to engage the German High Seas fleet in conjunction with Beatty’s Battle Squadron when he (Jellicoe) had taken stock of Scheer’s plan of battle and his firepower. Scheer had deployed all the High Seas fleet as it turned out, but did not seek to engage directly with Jellicoe. You have to get stuck in to a battle and not prevaricate which Beatty heroically and properly did despite grievous losses in ships and men. Jellico would have done the same thing but soon after its engagement with Beatty the German fleet slipped away behind a smoke screen.
The opportunity for the whole of the Grand fleet to engage head on all the German High Seas fleet had gone like a disappearing apparition or mirage never to reappear in the 1914-18 war. The real victor was the British Royal Navy therefore. The Kaiser’s Navy was scuttled by order of senior German Naval Officers when anchored off Scapa Flow in Scotland after it had surrendered in 1918 November at the end of the Great War to Britain’s Admirals.
What are the lessons of the Battle of Jutland (1916)?
Firstly, always grasp an opportunity whatever the difficulties. When an opportunity comes it must be acted upon and courageously. Look at Beatty’s prompt and sensible decision to engage the High Seas fleet despite being faced with the more powerful enemy formation against him which essentially gained the win for the Royal Navy and tested our ships against Germany’s Navy. An engagement is always more instructive than avoidance. Beatty’s intense engagement with Admiral Hipper’s force caused Jellicoe to move up to support Beatty’s Battle Squadron. It was the impending arrival of the Grand fleet hard on Beatty’s heels that lead to the retreat of the High Seas fleet. Scheer did not want to take on Jellicoe. That is clear. Thus Jellicoe also emerges with considerable credit. He did all the right things as Admiral in charge of the Grand fleet in uncharted manoeuvres and in exerting caution at first then boldly and expeditiously following up in his subordinate Admirals wake namely Beatty. It is likely the flag officers on Jellicoe’s flagship and indeed he himself would have heard the sound of the exchange of gunfire between Beatty and Hipper’s warships even though those men of war would have been out of sight. Naval gunfire at that era was petrifying and extremely frightening even to serving Royal Naval and enemy personnel, certainly in this Battle of Jutland 1916. This applied whether you were receiving the gunfire or returning it or observing it.
- Jack Cornwell aged 16 years posthumous VC died of his wounds sustained in this Battle three days after the encounter with the enemy. He had helped man a gun turret and “stuck to his guns” despite the turret being put out of action and all other personnel manning the turret being incapacitated by enemy fire. He served on HMS Chester in Beatty’s Battle Squadron and was in the advance guard.
- I also have a handwritten account by a survivor of the battle who was a rating serving on HMS Centurion, a smaller ship of the Royal Navy who observed the British and German naval gunfire at Jutland from his own vessel. He found it very intimidating particularly the velocity of the gun flashes, the salvoes and the splashes as these heavy naval guns went into rapid and repeated action not to mention the impacts. He would never forget the experience (I met his grandson). Naval surface ship warfare in 1916 was Naval gunnery at its most fiersome and damaging.
Secondly Beatty and Jellicoe secured the victory between them and it was no less a victory because the fight did not go the full distance. The enemy was seen off. I would argue Jellicoe and Beatty worked well together and interacted to very good effect in the Battle. Neither could have done it without the other. They acted in the best traditions of the Royal Navy and its Naval Commanders against a very sly, elusive yet highly dangerous enemy who would not take his “gloves off” and really show himself. The British victory was built on the proper understanding and trust between Jellicoe and Beatty – essential in all lifetime alliances and enterprises.
Thirdly, the role of the pre-war First Sea Lord Fisher should not be overlooked. It was he who had the foresight and prudence to build up our Royal Navy’s strength to a war footing despite political opposition and filibustering in Parliament. Germany would not have been humbled at Jutland in 1916 without Fisher’s prompt preparations for this naval war before the Great War broke out in 1914. Tirpitz had thrown down the gauntlet. Fisher picked it up without demur. He could see the Battle was coming from early on. If we had lost Jutland the maritime blockade of Germany would have been lifted and the war prolonged if not lost. Thanks to Fisher, Jellicoe and Beatty and the Senior Service, the day was saved for the Entente Cordial and the Western Front.