Now it is time for the largest naval battle of the war, and I think the largest one in history up to 1916, so let’s get to it.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 79. This week I would like to thank all of the podcast’s Patreon subscribers and the two new supporters Uhlan and Michael. They help make the show possible for everyone who is listening, so make sure to send them some pleasant thoughts as you listen to this. This is our second to last episode on the battle of Jutland and it is finally time for the full power of the Grand and High Seas Fleets to meet. I should probably say that everyone might want to temper their expectations, because it will not last very long and will be pretty much the opposite of decisive. Up to this point in the podcast most of our discussion have been around land battles during the war, in these situations the Generals were very concerned with holding specific positions, they were also trapped by their relative immobility into holding positions once they were attacked. That is pretty much the entire reason that the Western Front happened. At sea there were no such constraints. With the speed and mobility of ships and the fact that they could not really hold ground in the same way there were no such constraints. When an Admiral saw that he was in a bad spot he did not have to slowly find a way to withdraw, likely suffering many casualties in the process, instead he could just run away and this is exactly what Scheer would attempt to do when confronted by Jellicoe and the Grand Seas Fleet. Jellicoe and Beatty would try to stop him, but they would run into a serious problem, it was already 6PM and while sunset was very late this time of year in the North Sea it was still going to come eventually. Over the next 3 hours they would do their best to close in on Scheer before darkness started to settle in at about 9:30PM. During that time there would be engages, dis-engages involving something called a Gefechtskehrtwendung, and then more re-engages and then more disengages all while both Admirals were trying to put their ships into the best position to engage an enemy they could barely sea. Now it is time for the largest naval battle of the war, and I think the largest one in history up to 1916, so let’s get to it.
We ended last episode with Jellicoe making his very important decision on how he should deploy his forces, a decision he had to make without a lot of information on where the Germans were. Sir Julian Corbett, official Royal Navy historian for the great war called this decision “the supreme moment of the naval war” while Professor Aurthur Marder called it “the peak moment of the influence of sea power upon history.” I love love love hyperbolic statements by historians. Regardless of how much stock you put in this specific moment and what is means in the history books, Jellicoe turned his ships to port, and the battle was on. After they turned they could see the Lion to the South, and the other battlecruisers under Beatty firing to their south at an enemy that was at the moment outside the Grand Fleet’s area of vision. With the big ships turning there was also a frantic movement of smaller ships to try and conform to the new course, destroyers and light cruisers all passed through the lines of dreadnoughts to try and get back into position and out in front Beatty was racing ahead of the fleet to get in his position at the head of the line. It would take 15 minutes for the dreadnoughts to get into proper order and for other ships to get out of their way and during that times the German guns were still firing, mostly at Evan-Thomas. As he came north he expected that the Grand Fleet would turn to starboard, which would put his ships right at the front of the line. However, he soon realized that the fleet had turned the other way, a decision which I am sure made his men a bit disappointed since they would be at the rear of the line instead of leading it. As the 5th Battle Squadron got closer to the 1st Battle Squadron lead by the dreadnought Marlborough it was apparent that the ships were going to come too close together as the 1st squadron turned to take its place in line. This forced Evan-Thomas to quickly reduce speed and turn as fast as he could. The Valiant and Malaya were forced to conform to his movement and also slam on the breaks. The final ship in the line was the Warspite, which also turned, but right as it was making its turn the ship was hit near the stern by a German shell. This hit had the unfortunate effect of jamming the rudder 10 degrees to starboard. This could have every quickly led to disaster but instead of slowing down, something that would have sealed its fate the captain decided to continue at maximum speed in a circle. For awhile the Warspite was being fired at by a good portion of the German ships, something like 20 full salvos were fired at the ship as it made its circles. Miraculously there were very few hits from these shells, I was unable to find out the exact number of hits during this time, but the ship was only hit 13 times in total during the battle, so it could not have been too many. The crew worked as fast as possible to try and get the rudder to once again work, or at least get to a point wehre it was not jammed in one direction. It took some time, long enough for most of the ships to move on without the Warspite. When some control was restored to the Warspite it tried to join the battleline once again but Evan-Thomas ordered it to set course for home at about 9PM. For the Warspite the war was pretty much over, with only an accident of running into another British ship to look forward to, but there would also be another war in its future, a story for another day. The first shells from the British Dreadnoughts at the German ships seemed to have been fired by the Marlborough at about 6:17 at a range of just 13,000 yards. For the next 15 minutes only about a third of the British ships could engage the Germans, and for once it was not because of their positioning or because of the weather. Most of Jellicoe’s ships had a problem, with Beatty racing in front of them to try and get ahead of the line the amount of smoke that his ships were generating made it impossible to see the German fleet, let along engage them. To try and reduce this problem Jellicoe sent out an order to reduce speed to 14 knots, which would let Beatty get the hell out of the way sooner. However, not all of the ships in the line received the order in time and the battle line became a bit of a mess, quickly bunching up and having to turn out of the way to avoid collisions. One group of ships that I have not talked much about was the three battlecruisers under the command of Read-Admiral Hood. This group was made up of the Invincible, Inflexible, and Indomitable, man I love British ship names, and these were the three battlecruisers that had been sent north to Scapa Flow in exchange for Evan-Thomas so that they could practice their gunnery at the ranges used by the Grand Fleet. When Hood saw how the line was developing he made a quick decision, generally his position would be at the rear of Beatty’s ships, but with the position of Beatty, Jellicoe, and himself he made the correct call instead get ahead of Beatty so as not to cause yet more confusion. This did mean though that these ships found themselves at the head of the entire British line. This gave them the opportunity, fresh from gunnery practice, to engage the Lutzow and Derfflinger at just 9,000 yards. This new enemy put Hipper in a spot where he had to make a decision. His 5 battlecruisers were all in pretty bad shape, his flagship the Lutzow was so bad that the bow was so deep in the water that the water was often sloshing over the boards. This forced Hipper to abandon his flagship so that it could move out of line and head back home. He boarded a destroyers with the goal of coming alongside the Moltke to board and resume command. Unfortunately for Hipper the course of the battle meant that he would remain on his destroyers until 10PM without only limited ability to control the course of the battle. His battlecruisers would continue to be impactful on the course of events though, even in their current state. They were being fired on, but they were still able to dish out some punishment and for the moment most of that ability was focused on the Invincible. The Invincible was hit several times before a shell hit the aft area do the ship and it suddenly exploded. It is probably that the shells that caused this damage came from the Derfflinger. In what was becoming a very common occurrence on board the battlecruisers a shell had penetrated one of the turrets and had ignited the power when then caused an explosion that travelled down to the magazine, which then caused the explosion. The Invicible basically just broke in half with both halves sinking separately. In an interest occurrence the ship did not actually sink though because in the area where it exploded the sea was only 180 feet deep, and the ship even cut in half was longer than that. So when the two halves of the ship sank they went vertical and then stuck up in the area. Unfortunately this did not help the men who were on board, and only 6 men out of over a thousand would survive.
With the battlelines engaged the German ships found themselves in a tough spot. Scheer himself was not at the front of his ships, instead being the 13th in line near the middle so as reports of the British Grand Fleet started to filter in he could not see them. One of Scheer’s lieutenants would say after the battle that the completed lack of information that Scheer had at his disposal meant that he “had but the foggiest idea of what was happening.” As they looked to the north none of the German captain had much information about what they were now facing, in fact as they looked north they could not see a single British ship, however they could see the British guns firing because of the muzzle flashes. This was problematic at 6:17 when the firing started but as time went by and the Germans still could not identify and spot their targets the situation became completely unsustainable. The Germans could only vaguely shoot in the direction of the British ships while the British themselves could make out the German ships quite well. Scheer would say of this moment that “The entire arc stretching from north to east was a sea of fire. The flash from the muzzles of the guns was seen distinctly through the mist and smoke on the horizon although the ships themselves were not distinguishable.” It was now time for Scheer to make another decision, he would write after the war that “While the battle is progressing a leader cannot obtain a really clear picture, especially at long ranges. He acts and feels according to his impressions.” Scheer would quickly decide that the only course of action was the break contact with the British and the order that he sent out to his ships was “Gefechtskehrtwendung nach Steuerbord!” or “Battle about turn to starboard!” When this order was executed every ship in the German line was expected to make the hardest 180 degree turn that they could simultaneously. They would then go in the exact opposite direction but at the same speed. When this was executed at Jutland it went off beautifully. At 6:36PM Jellicoe records that he looked south and was quite confused, the ships that had been right in front of him, sailing right towards him, were now completely gone. Very few of the British captains had seen the Germans turn, they were too busy supervising their own ships. Jellicoe, unsure of where the enemy was, did not immediately turn towards where the Germans were because he was concerned about sailing into a trap. He instead decided to turn directly south and he based this on the fact that whether or not he found the German fleet again, he thought they might have went southwest, which is in fact what they did, and by sailing south he could come between them and their path home. Completely unrelated to all of this, it was around this time that the most critical damage to any of Jellicoe’s dreadnoughts occurred when the Marborough hit either a mine or a torpedo, nobody seems to kknow which. The explosion destroyed 30 feet of the side of the ship and resulted in the ship now having a maximum speed of just 17 knots, but for now it was able to stay in the line. With one of their number wounded, and in fact that being the only damage suffered by any of Jellicoe’s dreadnoughts at this stage of the battle, the British fleet sailed south without any real clue what they were sailing into.
Scheer continued on his new course for 20 minutes, steaming away from both his home port and the British. Then he did something that nobody expected, he once again sent out the order “Gefechtskehrtwendung nach Steuerbord!” and the High Seas Fleet executed another about face, only this time they were headed into instead of away from the British fleet. Why on earth would he do this? Willfully and intentionally go into the Grand Fleet. That is a great question, and I do not have a great answer. Scheer would later claim a few different reasons for this move the first was that the “acknowledged purpose was to deal a blow at the center of the enemy’s line.” Later, when the Kaiser asked him the very valid question of what on earth he was doing he would go into a bit more detail “It was as yet too early to assume night cruising order. The enemy could have compelled us to fight before dark, he could have prevented our exercising our initiative, and finally he could have cut off our return to the German Bight. There was only one way of avoiding this: to inflict a second blow on the enemy by advancing again regardless of cost, and to bring all the destroyers forcibly to attack. Such a maneuver would surprise the enemy, upset his plans for the rest of the day and, if the blow fell really heavily, make easier a night escape. It also offered the possibility of a last attempt to bring help to the hard-pressed Wiesbaden, or at least of rescuing her crew.” A bit of information I forgot to mention earlier, the Wiesbaden was a German light cruiser that had been disabled by a British shell shortly before Scheer ordered his original turn, so it was helpless against the British. After the war Scheer would claim that “The fact is, I had no definite object. . . . I advanced because I thought I should help the poor Wiesbaden and because the situation was entirely obscure since I had received no wireless reports.” All of this is to say that the specific reason why he made the turn is somewhat beside the point, what matters was that he did it and the Germans were going to meet the Grand Fleet again. Nothing had really changed in terms of weather or visibility, they would still be on the bad end of both, but here they went. At 7:04Pm the German ships started to come within the visible range of the British ships and once again the firing started. First the St. Vincent, then the Neptune, then Revenge, then Agincourt, so on and so forth down the British line. At 7:05, in an attempt to get more of his ships into the action, Jellicoe ordered all of his ships to turn toward the enemy which meant that they would not be perfectly in battle line, but at least they could all start engaging the Germans as soon as possible. All of this was done without really knowing precisely where all the German ships were, most of the British ships would only see a ship or two at a time due to weather conditions. Even after the war Jellicoe, and many other people who were at Jutland, did not seem to have a great grasp on what the precise position of the enemy fleet was. When I read the accounts it seems to me that most of the British ships were working off of instinct and guessword. While the disposition of the British ships was not perfect they were still far better than what was happening on the German side. When the British shells started falling again among the German dreadnoughts they could still not see anything but the flickering of gun flashes through the haze. All of this was happening at a range of no more than 14,000 yards, but even at this reduced distance the Germans were still out of luck. 10 minutes after the firing started again Scheer decided that this just was not going to work, he had attempted something very bold and it was clear that it was now time to turn away. At this point he gave three orders in close succession. The first was that the dreadnoughts should prepare for a third battle turn, once again turning away from the British. The second signal, and the far more surprising one, was that the battlecruisers should charge into the British regardless of losses. The third was for a mass destroyer attack on the Grand Fleet to cover his withdrawl. The second order was obviously the most important for us to talk about because it meant that the remaining 4 German battlecruisers would be charging to their deaths. Even with this four ships heavily damaged Captain Hartog off the Derfflinger, designated commander of the battlecruisers in Hipper’s absence, turned towards the British at 20 knots. At 7:15Pm they became the sole targets of the British ships and quickly began to take damage. The Derfflinger was hit square on the D turret, and was only saved the explosive fate of the British battlecruisers because the fire door on the magazine held. At 7:17Pm, just 4 minutes after they had started towards the British line, Captain Hartog saw another signal from Scheer, ordering them to turn away. During the 4 minutes that they had attacked the British alone the Derfflinger had been hit 14 times, with the rest being hit at least 5 times. With the final retreat of the battlecruisers all of the German ships were now moving away from the British, and they had successfully vanished into the mist due to the results of Scheer’s third order, the torpedo attack by the German destroyers.
When the order was executed 14 destroyers were in position to mount the attack, each carrying 4 torpedoes. The little ships charged toward the much larger British guns at 30 knots, coming under fire from the primary and secondary armaments almost immediately. They were able to get a total of 31 torpedoes in the water and moving towards the British before they withdrew. The next decision by Jellicoe, with torpedoes racing toward his ships, would cause a huge amount of controversy after the battle was over. With the torpedoes in the water Jellicoe ordered all of his ships to turn away from them, which meant he was also ordering them to turn away from the German fleet. Jellicoe had two options at this moment, he either turns toward or away from the torpedoes so lets talk about these two options. Both of them have the advantage of presenting the much smaller bow or stern of the ships to the torpedoes which drastically reduces the chance of a hit. By turning towards the torpedoes the speed of advance of the ships would be added to that of the torpedo and the closing speed would be very fast. This would reduce the amount of time a captain had to make a decision and act accordingly. By turning away the exact opposite would happen, the speed of the ship would be subtracted from the speed of the torpedo and the relative speed would drop precipitously. This would give each ship more time to react to the torpedoes that were sighted in their area. By turning toward them though Jellicoe might be able to re-engage with the German ships which at the moment he could not see. By turning away he would likely completely break contact with them and could only hope to catch them back up during the night. By turning toward there was a reasonable chance that he would lose some ships. With all of these pros and cons in his mind, he turned away from the threat. It should be noted that before the war this was the suggested action, approved by all levels of the Royal Navy and all the other major navies of the world, when faced with a massed torpedo attack. Still though, Jellicoe would get a lot of flak for this decision, not very Nelsonian I think is the main problem people had with it. I think in some of my previous naval episodes I have mentioned how I find this type of hindsight criticizing to be a bit silly. From what I know, both of pre-existing naval theory and Royal Navy practices and also what Jellicoe knew at this moment, he made the correct decision. Could he have been more bold? Sure. Could he have damned the torpedoes and went full speed ahead? Sure. But all of those decisions could have led to disaster. It is easy for armchair Admirals to later second guess these decisions when the weight of the situation is removed, and the results are known. So he turned away from the Germans, and for about 10 minutes he sailed to the southeast away from the torpedoes that the German destroyers had launched. When he turned back the British were now 12 miles away from the nearest German ship, but of course they did not know that. However, at about 8PM one of Beatty’s light cruisers spotted a German ship, probably one of the battlecruisers and the news made its way up to Jellicoe. Therefore he turns his ships to the west and Beatty sent his light cruisers in that direction to try and get a better bead on the situation and report back. However, by this time the light was failing and for the men of both navies it was going to be a very long night.