We start today on our story of the greatest naval battle of the war, it was an action that took place on the North sea on May the 30th and into the next morning. It involved 150 British ships and 100 German vessels. It would be both the biggest and the last purely surface encounter of primary fleets in naval history. Its result would be somewhat ambiguous with discussions even to this day on who was in fact the winner. The battle would be called Jutland by the British and Skaggerak by the Germans.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 76. This week I would like to thank XXX. We start today on our story of the greatest naval battle of the war, it was an action that took place on the North sea on May the 30th and into the next morning. It involved 150 British ships and 100 German vessels. It would be both the biggest and the last purely surface encounter of primary fleets in naval history. Its result would be somewhat ambiguous with discussions even to this day on who was in fact the winner. The battle would be called Jutland by the British and Skaggerak by the Germans. Why this particular fleet action occurred, and at such scale is part of the story. It was not like both sides decided to meet up for a good old fashioned slugfest in the middle of the ocean, it just sort of happened that way. On the British side they had the advantage, more ships, bigger ships, but in some cases, was will be seen, not the best ships. On the German side the fact that Jutland even happened was a bit of a surprise. They were always going to be the numerically inferior fleet, unless they got really lucky. However, the German run of successes in late 1915 and early 1916 had built up their confidence that maybe they could beat the Grand Fleet, or at least take a good stab at Beatty and his battlecruisers. Both sides also just wanted some action, at least as far as the men on the ships were concerned. The Germans, after their long idleness after Dogger Bank in 1915, and the British as well, who did not have a good way to cause an action to occur and instead had to wait for the Germans to do something, were both becoming more bold in their actions. For the battle of Jutland there would be five distinct phases of the battle, and this is how you will see it broken up in most texts. The first would be the encounter of the battlecruisers under the command of Beatty and Hipper, which had happened several times already in the war. These two groups would the move south with the Germans leading the British into the waiting arms of the German fleet. Once Beatty discovered that he was being led into a trap he would then turn around to the north and the hunter became the hunted in a run to the north. This would then lead the Germans into the British Grand Fleet steaming south under the command of Jellicoe. The main battle fleets would then clash, then the Germans would turn away, only to then turn back again into the British guns, for whatever reason. Finally, the Germans would turn away again and run for home, through the night as the destroyers of both sides clashed in the darkness. These five phases will be covered over the next several episodes of the podcast, but today we will set the stage. First we will discuss the actions of early 1916 as the German navy grew more and more bold in their actions. Then we will look at the German and British situations before the battle, since it has been over 6 months since we discussed any naval action. This will be a lengthy series so settle in, and it will unfortunately be the last great naval battle of the war.
After the events of Dogger Bank, when the Germans received the short end of the stick in the battlecruiser engagement the High Seas Fleet had spent most of its time in port or close to port behind their protective minefields. There were often discussions about operations, some out in the North Sea, even some to assist in land based objectives like taking over Denmark, or invading Norway, or other similar operations some of which would be revived by the German High Command in World War 2. However, none of these plans were put into play due to the risk of Royal Navy involvement. During this time a reserved posture was kept at all levels of high command in the German Navy, this included the commander of the High Seas Fleet Admiral Hugo von Pohl. Right after the beginning of 1916, things began to change, and it started with Pohl. He had to be removed from his flagship because of liver cancer and he would die on February the 23rd. During his stint as commander there had been 11 months of little action for the German Navy. Tirpitz was becoming impatient, after all of the work he had put into building the German fleet it was hard to watch it sit in port and rust. Up until the change in command the Kaiser had always been cautious with his ships and resisted any plans to give them a more active role in the war. However, when Von Pohl’s replacement took command this would start to change, as he was far more aggressive. Admiral Reinhard Scheer had a 38 year career before being put in command of the High Seas Fleet, and he would only be 53 years old in 1916. He had entered at the age of 15 and had risen through the ranks, apparently mostly on merit which was somewhat unique at this period of history. He had served before the war in the Navy Office Torpedo Section and he was known for his work on a textbook for destroyer torpedo tactics. I mention this fact because it would turn out to be important during the battle at Jutland both his proclivity for destroyer launched torpedoes and the German navy’s skill in their use. When the war started Scheer had been given the command of the 3rd Battle Squadron which contained some of the most powerful ships in the entire German Fleet. He was well liked by his subordinates as well. His Flag Lieutenant at Jutland would say that “There were many stories of his exploits as a young lieutenant. His old friends had given him the odd nickname Bobschiess [Shooting Bob] on account . . . of his likeness to his fox terrier which he was fond of provoking to bite his friends’ trousers.” and Scheer’s Chief of Staff Captain Adolf von Trotha would say “He was a commander of instinct and instant decision who liked to have all options presented to him and then as often as not chose a course of action no one had previously considered. In action he was absolutely cool and clear. Jutland showed his great gifts and a man like that must be allowed to drive his subordinates mad.” Scheer’s view on how the German navy should be used is perhaps best explained by von Trotha’s quote about it, in which he wrong that Scheer had “no faith in a fleet which has been brought through the war intact … we are at present fighting for our existence … In this life and death struggle, I cannot understand how anyone can think of allowing any weapon which could be used against the enemy to rust in its sheath.” When Scheer took over command he would release a work titled “Guiding Principles for Sea Warfare in the Northe Sea” and in this he would lay out his guiding principles for all of his future actions. Here is Robert K. Massie from Castles of Steel with a summary “The first principle was acceptance of the continuing fact that the unfavorable ratio of numbers of ships ruled out a decisive, all-out battle with the Grand Fleet. The second was that, within this framework, constant pressure should be exerted on the British fleet to force it to send out some of its forces to respond to German attacks. The third was that in these offensive operations, the German navy should use every weapon available: airship and submarine operations were to be combined with operations by the High Seas Fleet in deep offensive thrusts into the North Sea.” Essentially, Scheer was determined to use the German fleet in some kind of offensive capacity and he could even make an argument that it might be successful. The first argument would have been that the German ships were qualitatively, if not quantitatively superior to the British, and this was an argument that he would be proved right in during the battle. Scheer was even able to talk the Kaiser into believing that his plan was the right one, eventually getting the Kaiser to publically approve of the planned offensive operations. One of the sources I used for these episodes was a pretty biased work entitled The Battle of Justland by Holloway H. Frost which if you are wondering is not what I would suggest for first time readers due to its writing style and some dubious conclusions that it draws during analysis and criticism still has some fun lines in it like this “While Scheer’s decision to use the High Seas Fleet as a whole for offensive operations involved risks out of all proportion to the results he might reasonably hope to gain, we nevertheless heartily approve his bold resolve”
The Battle of Jutland did not just happen on the first time that the German fleet left the Jade but instead it was just one of several sorties out into the North Sea in early 1916. The general plan of these actions was that Hipper would be sailing out ahead while Scheer followed behind with all of the German High Seas Fleet. Some of these raids would be hindered by weather like the planned raid against the British coast on March the 5th. After this raid Hipper was beginning to show signs of extreme exhaustion, he was barely able to sleep and was often wakened by the slightest of noises. On March the 26th he was forced to apply for sick leave. Scheer would visit Hipper and soon after approve his request. There is some evidence that around the time Scheer took command he was somewhat jealous of Hipper’s success. Hipper had been the real star of the first 2 years of the naval war and even with his loss of one of the older battlecruisers at Dogger Bank he was still considered Germany’s best leader at sea. This possible jealousy does not seem to have affected events. Hipper would take 5 weeks off and would return on May the 13th, just in time for the action at Jutland, when he would put his flag on the newly commissioned battlecruiser Lutzow. During the time that he was gone the Germans had launched another raid against Lowestoft and had shelled the town from off shore for a short time before retreating to the High Seas Fleet. The High Seas Fleet then retreated back to port out of fear that the Grand Fleet was on its way. While this seems like a pointless raid, or at least one that does no bear too much of a mention it would also have effects on Jutland because after the raid the British government demanded that a reasonably strong force be sent to the Thames to give better protection to the southern British coastline, it was thought that this was necessary to reassure the British people living on the coasts that they would be safe in the future. This force would end up including the HMS Dreadnought. Because of this the ship that had given an entire generation of warships its name would miss the most important battle for the ships.
After the raids Scheer was not satisfied with dropping a few shells on the British coast, and he started to think bigger. His goal was to get the battlecruisers in a position where he could ambush Beatty without undue risk to his own ships. He also had always liked the idea of trying to use submarines to ambush the British fleet either on their way to battle or on their way back. In early 1916 he had this option because the submarines were no longer being used for unrestricted submarine warfare which left some boats available. The key was to find something that would draw the British out to a predictable location at a predictable time. He decided on sending Hipper and the battlecruisers to bombard the town of Sunderland near Newcastle upon Tyne. This would be very close to where Beatty called home in the Firth of Forth and the challenge was sure to bring the British ships out to sea. However, before the British ships reached open sea they would have to move through the planned submarine ambush and then straight into the entire High Seas Fleet. A concern in any of these operations was the location of the Grand Fleet, and to counter this threat Scheer planned to use Zeppelins to scout. The problem with this plan was that Scheer did not know about Room 40 and the British ability to quickly vector his ships onto the Germans. He was planning to have over 6 hours with Beatty before Jellicoe arrived, more than enough time to deal with the battlecruisers and then escape. This would simply never happen with the British ability to gather intelligence, but it would not end up mattering because before the plan could be put into action it was discovered that some of the newest German ships of the Konig-class had problems in their condensers. These Konig-class dreadnoughts were an essential group of ships for the High Seas Fleet, so the operation had to be delayed until May 23rd to allow for repairs. The Seydlitz was also under repair at this time after hitting a mine on April the 24th, and it was also thought to be ready for sea by the 23rd. All of the planning for the future operation was based around this date, but unfortunately there was a delay in the repairs that would mean that the ships would not be prepared until the 28th. Then there was a spat of bad weather and again the operation had to be delayed, this time until the 30th. These delays were highly regrettable but would not have been problem except for the fact that on May the 17th the U-Boats had been dispatched and would be on position on the 23rd. Once the subs left the German coastline the clock was ticking on the operation because they only had enough fuel to be on station until the 30th and they would then have to return to Germany. They had been ordered to stay on location as long as possible, but they were ordered to only use wireless under urgent circumstances. Because of all of this it was mostly impossible to give them any information or to get any information from them. But with a timer on the operation, and the ships still under replay, and finally the weather against him Scheer was forced to come up with an alternate plan. Since it was thought essential to have zeppelins for scouting when near the British coast, the concern was that the Grand Fleet would find a way to get around behind the Germans, blocking their retreat and forcing an all-out confrontation on their own terms. So with the Zeppelins grounded by the weather, the plan now had to take place further away from the coast, and Scheer settled on an area to the east, near the Skagerrak. The hope was that Hipper, in this location would pose enough of a threat to British shipping that Beatty and Jellicoe would be pulled into the area. The risk of a confrontation with the Grand Fleet was deemed to be acceptable because it would take place so close to Germany. At 3Pm on May 30th Scheer decided to put his plan into motion and at 1AM on May the 31st the High Seas Fleet would weigh anchor and make their way out to sea. Scheer would have with him the most powerful fleet in German history with 18 battleships, 5 battlecruisers, 7 second-line battleships, 14 light cruisers, and 76 destroyers.
Since the beginning of the war the British had been continuously building new ships and by April 1916 they had added 13 battleships or battlecruisers. As a person who would be categorized as a millennial, and who had been using Twitter for a very long time, I can’t help but think, everything I talk about the British building more ships that it is probably the most British thing that they could do, or maybe the second most British thing after afternoon tea. By 1916 the British had been building ships for centuries, #JustBritishThings. The British were not just building ships with big guns either, they also had another ship that was pretty close to the first of its kind, the Campania, which was an 18,000 ton passenger liner was being turned into an aircraft carrier. Since 1914 Jellicoe had been asking for an aircraft carrier for aerial scouting but also to try and hinder the German zeppelins. Without some kind of aircraft carrier the British did not really have any way of counter the Zeppelins, which could just hover over the fleet for long periods of time. The Campania, even though it was quite large, was not large enough to handle the heavier of the British Scouting craft, but it could launch smaller, lighter fighter plans from its deck but also had to maintain a large hanger for seaplanes. Regardless of this new toy that the Royal Navy now possessed it still had a problem, it had a disease, and it was called extreme boredom. The vast majority of the Royal Navy had been stuck in Scapa Flow since the war started. During all of this time they had to be supplied, which was no small task since while Scapa Flow was a safe location for the ships there was no connection via land to the harbor, so everything had to be brought in via ships. It was from these ships that everything was brought to keep the ships afloat and the men on board alive. This meant fuel, ammunition, and food, most importantly food to the tune of 300 tons of meat, 800 tons of potatoes, and 6,000 bags of flour along with a massive amount of other commodities. Besides just supplying the fleet another problem came when trying to find something for the men to do beyond the endless routine of training aboard the ships. Because of the isolated location the men were never given leave unless a ship left to go south for repairs. With being stuck in a deserted area of Scotland the men became pretty good at finding ways to entertain themselves. First of all the islands around the shore were quickly populated with various activities like football grounds, tennis courts, and even a full 18 hole golf course. Jellicoe also made a specific request to the Admiralty that schoolmasters be dispatched from the naval schools so that the men could be educated when off duty, which many took advantage of. One of the biggest reasons that all of the activities were encouraged by officers was to try and maintain some form of physical fitness, important when the men could be sent into battle at any time. The officers were also big on physical fitness, but even though Jellicoe was at the top of that list, he was still having health problems by 1916. In September 1915 he was suffering from rheumatism and neuralgia but he stayed with the fleet as much as possible. This created a bond between him and the men under his command, and he was well loved by almost all of the sailors. During my research I read several stories as to why this was the case, specific examples that showed him doing things that many commanders probably would not, but this one stuck out to me. On reading that one of the young staff officers on one of the ships had become a father he sent him to London, which just so happened to be where his wife was, to deliver some papers to the Admiralty. The man was told that he was expected to appear at the admiralty to deliver the papers 8 hours after his train arrived in London and that it was hoped he could find a way to spend those 8 hours. These type of actions are great to read about, even though for most of 2 years of war the British ships did little but train, drill, and try to figure out a way to get the Germans to come out and face them.
While the ships were idle much of the time, there was other action up the Naval command chain that revolved around tactics, strategy, and resource allocation. In late 1915 and early 1916 this final category, resource allocation bubbled up to the top of the list, mostly revolving around the fate of the Fifth Battle Squadron. In early 1916 all 5 ships of the Fifth Battle Squadron had been assembled, they were all of the brand new Queen Elizabeth class of superdreadnoughts, and they carried 8 fifteen inch guns each bigger than anything the Germans had. They were undisputedly the finest battleships in the world. Even though Beatty had more battlecruisers than Hipper it did not stop him from wanting more ships and what he really wanted was the 5 Queen Elizabeths of the 5th Battle Squadron. This was viable because the 5th Battle Squadron could easily keep up with the battlecruisers, with the same top speed. Batty requested these ships several times, but Jellicoe always shut him down. One of the Jellicoe’s concerns was that if Beatty was too strong he would seek independent action against the Germans, which could then lead to disaster. However, by mid-May it became apparent that giving the ships to Beatty was the correct move. This change was because of several reasons, the first was the fact that the Lutzow had joined the High Seas Fleet, adding another battlecruiser to Hipper’s command and cutting the British numerical advantage. Second, on April 22nd the New Zealand and Australia collided, putting them both out of action for some time. Finally, in the actions of early 1916 the battlecruisers had not exactly set the world on fire with their gunnery, in fact it was abysmal. Beatty blamed this on the fact that his ships did not have a gun range near their anchorage in the Firth of Forth, in contrast to the excellent ranges that they had at Scapa Flow. Because of these three reason Jellicoe and Beatty came to an agreement where the Fifth Battle Squadron would be given to Beatty in exchange for a rotating squadron of battlecruisers who would go to Scapa Flow for a few weeks to work on their gunnery before rotating back to Beatty at which point they would be replaced by another group. This would meant that on both sides it was critical that these ships be integrated into their respective fleets in case of action. Jellicoe and Beatty were very different commanders with different command styles and different expectations, and it was essential that all of this be properly communicated to the ships that were under each’s command at any given time, neither would do this very well. Beatty was probably worse at it though, in the 10 days that the 5th Battle Squadron was with Beatty before Jutland he did not once meet with their commander, Admiral Evan-Thomas to discuss tactics or Beatty’s style of command. This would be important during the battle because of how different Jellicoe and Beatty were. Log this fact away, it will come back later, and it will almost have disastrous consequences.
Back to the idea of the British trying to draw the Germans out. While the Germans had been trying to figure out a way to engage the British fleet with an advantage the British were just trying to get the Germans out from behind their protective minefields. The British were in a good situation, but there was far more to think of than just slowly winning the war. The British navy was built on a legacy of bold actions, and there had been very few of those during the war. The Royal Navy yearned for another Trafalgar, for another chance to charge into the enemy guns blazing. While this is easy to understand in the more aggressive commanders like Beatty, even Jellicoe and other Admirals like him were frustrated. There was a constant stream of letters between London, Scapa Flow, and the Firth of Forth proposing various offensive possibilities. At some point everything probably made it onto the table, only to be vetoed by Jellicoe. This included really crazy ideas like suicide rides of old battleships to clear a way through the mine fields, or massed destroyer attacks against the German fleet at anchor. Jellicoe was flat against anything that involved the Germans staying behind their mine fields and the Royal Navy engaging them. He would state that “Until the High Seas Fleet emerges from its defences, I regret to say that I do not see that any offensive against it is possible. It may be weakened by mines and submarine attack when out for exercises, but beyond that no naval action against it seems practicable.” Jellicoe’s three main requirements for action were to: only fight in the northern North Sea, do not pursue the Germans through their defenses, and make sure the entire force of the Grand Fleet was ready and concentrated for action. While Scheer was getting ready for his bold move Jellicoe was also planning one of his own that met all of his criteria, and he also planned to enact it at the beginning of June. His plan was to use a group of British Light Cruisers sailing by Denmark and Sweden to pull the Germans out of their protection. This plan, while containing a reasonable chance of success would never need to be enacted because the news would be delivered to both Jellicoe and Beatty on May 30th that the German ships were preparing to leave their ports on their way out into the North Sea. Jutland was on.