The clash of dreadnoughts was as gigantic as it was indecisive. Both sides were losers. Nonetheless, the battle was a turning point.
John Keegan’s inspiration has been to focus on something too often overlooked: the experience of the individual soldier on the battlefield. How much terror and pain and confusion is embodied in those unavoidable map arrows showing unit and ship movements, so like the anonymous shuttling of boxcars in a railyard Keegan’s The Face of Battle (Viking) has become one of the most influential works of military history in the past two decades, and justifiably so. He has lately added a naval version, The Price of Admiralty (Viking), from which the following account of Jutland is excerpted. Nineteen sixteen was the year of the huge materiel battles–Verdun and the Somme as well as Jutland–in which the brute industrial force of the Western Allies began to wear Germany down in a way that their uninspired military leadership could not. Jutland was the first–and also the last–great clash of dreadnoughts, technological marvels of their age; the mechanized havoc inflicted on their crews was appalling. Though the entire confrontation lasted just 12 hours, it was for thousands involved a nightmarish ordeal. In terms of comparative losses in ships and men, the German High Seas Fleet was the victor, narrowly. But sometimes even indecisive battles can be decisive, and in this case decisive, that worsened word, may apply. Why was it that the High Seas Fleet would never fight again?
Admiral Reinhard Scheer, the commander of Germany’s High Seas Fleet during World War I, proved a sailor of Nelsonian stamp. Reserved in expression and unassuming in manner, Scheer achieved high command only because fatal illness removed his predecessor. Once established in office, however, he showed a marked capacity for dismissing difficulty, concentrating on the strengths rather than the weaknesses of the German navy. A torpedo specialist, he believed that his surface and submarine forces had the capacity to inflict unacceptable damage on the British Grand Fleet if it could be maneuvered into unfavorable circumstances. Throughout the spring of 1916, he worked on refining plans for an extended operation that would run his opponents’ battleships and battlecruisers onto a series of submarine-laid minefields, and allow his capital ships to pick off casualties and detached units at small cost to himself.
In 1916 the High Seas Fleet counted 16 dreadnoughts (revolutionary new turbine-driven battleships that were more heavily armed and armored than any ship then afloat) and five battlecruisers to the Grand Fleet’s 28 dreadnoughts and nine battle cruisers; it also had six pre-dreadnoughts (the heaviest battleships carrying mixed-caliber batteries before development of the dreadnought). The balance of force, given what was then being built, could not improve in Scheer’s favor. He therefore concluded that the time to act was now or never; and in the early morning of May 31, 1916, he ordered his squadrons to sea in the hope of returning to port with losses fewer than those he inflicted.
Altogether 22 battleships, five battlecruisers, eleven cruisers, and 61 torpedo boats of the High Seas Fleet put to sea. The modern capital ships were organized into two battleship squadrons of eight dreadnoughts each, as well as the 1st Scouting Group of five battlecruisers. Scheer commanded the battleships; Vice Admiral Franz Hipper was in command of the battle cruisers. Hipper’s ships began to leave their North Sea ports at one o’clock in the morning; Scheer followed at 2:30 a.m. The best speed of the dreadnought squadrons, determined by their slowest ships, the Posen, Rhein, and, Nassau, and Westfalen, was 20 knots; but it was further reduced to 18 knots by six pre-dreadnoughts that Scheer had included to bulk out numbers. The 1st Scouting Group had a maximum speed of 26 knots and was committed to the role of finding and “fixing” the location of the enemy’s fleet until the heavier ships came up.
Scheer’s plan did not envisage a decisive action. Realistically he recognized that his inferiority in numbers of ships and in weight of broadside (400,000 to 200,000 pounds, reflecting the lighter calibers of his ships’ main armament) ruled out a German Trafalgar. He hoped nevertheless to come off the better by entangling the Grand Fleet with a U-boat line he had deployed off the British bases and by inflicting losses on ships and squadrons temporarily separated from the main body. The High Seas Fleet was to steer due north, toward the outer mouth of the Baltic, the Skagerrak, by which the Germans were to name the ensuing battle. News of its sortie was trusted to draw the Grand Fleet southward to a rendezvous.
However, the news came to the Grand Fleet much sooner than Scheer had expected. Through the capture of three cipher books, the Admiralty had acquired the key to the whole German maritime and overseas cipher system–a priceless advantage that enabled the Admiralty to detect Scheer’s intention to “come out” as early as May 16, when his U-boats departed for their patrol lines. It was confirmed on May 30, and Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commanding the Grand Fleet, was immediately warned. As he had on hand plans for a “sweep” of his own, the third undertaken that year, he rapidly translated his scheme for a probe into orders for a major action. Two hours before Hipper left Jade Bay, the Grand Fleet, including its Battle Cruiser Fleet, was already at sea, heading for an encounter off the west coast of Danish Jutland.
The battle that followed is conventionally divided by naval historians into five phases: the battle-cruiser action, encompassing two of the phases–a “run to the south” and a “run to the north”; the first and second encounters of the battleships; and a night action, involving many clashes between light forces, in which the High Seas Fleet made its escape to the Elbe River and Jade Bay.
The Battle Cruiser Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, comprised his six fastest ships–the Lion, Tiger, Princess Royal, Queen Mary, Indefatigable, and New Zealand–and was accompanied by the fast battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron, the Barham, Valiant, Warspite, and Malaya. These were the most formidable ships on either side, heavily armored, mounting 15-inch guns, and capable of 25 knots–as close to the kaiser’s cherished ideal of a “fast capital ship” as was then possible. They were superior to any other battleship and barely slower than the fastest battle cruisers, which were safe against them only by taking flight.
The Battle Cruiser Fleet passed undetected through Scheer’s U-boat patrol line (as Jellicoe’s battleships later would), thus robbing the High Seas Fleet’s sortie of much of its point–and gravely compromising its security. But the Admiralty staff had perversely misinterpreted the cipher intelligence, and so assured Jellicoe that the enemy was still in port nine hours after it had put to sea.
In consequence, Beatty’s and Hipper’s battle cruisers managed to arrive within 50 miles of each other, some 90 miles west of the mouth of the Skagerrak, at two o’clock in the afternoon, without either having knowledge of the other’s proximity. Chance drew them together: Light forces on each side detected a neutral merchant ship lying between their axes of advance and blowing off steam. Diverting to investigate the unknown vessel, they found each other. Fire was exchanged, signals were sent (HMS Galatea: “Enemy in sight. Two cruisers probably hostile in sight bearing ESE course unknown”), and the battle cruisers were ordered by their commanders to change course and steer for each other.
By the sort of mischance that would have been excusable at Trafalgar, when flags were the only medium of intercommunication, but not at Jutland, where radio provided a means of duplication, Beatty’s fast battleships missed his hoist directing them toward the Germans and persisted in a prearranged turn northward to rendezvous with Jellicoe. The result was that Beatty led his lightly armored battle cruisers to challenge Hipper’s ships unsupported. And when action was joined, at 3:45 p.m., it did not go the British way.
Hipper, on sighting Beatty’s ships, ordered a turn to draw them down onto Scheer’s battleships following forty miles in his rear. The British, silhouetted by the sun in the western sky, showed up crisply in the German rangefinders. “Suddenly my periscope revealed some big ships,” recorded Georg van Hase, gunnery officer of Derff Unger. “Black monsters; six tall, broad-beamed giants steaming in two columns.” A few minutes later Hipper signaled “open fire” and the German battle cruisers began observing and correcting their fall of shot. Beatty, whose range takers had overestimated the distance separating the two lines, was busy getting a radio message off to Jellicoe and did not yet respond. Some five minutes after the Germans had begun to engage, Beatty’s flag captain ordered the “open fire” on his own responsibility and also began to observe effects.
Because British range-finding was inferior to German (due to the better quality of German optics), the Battle Cruiser Fleet, which outranged the 1st Scouting Group, had allowed itself to run within the fire zone of the enemy’s guns. Hipper’s 11- and 12-inch armaments were therefore straddling and scoring hits on Beatty’s 12- and 13-inch-gun ships when more prudent ship handling would have denied them the opportunity. Bad signaling also misdirected British gunners so that one of the five ships in Hipper’s line (Der flinger) was spared altogether from attack by Beatty’s ships for nearly 10 minutes. The consequences were not long delayed. Gunnery control officers on both sides were trying to hit hulls and particularly turrets that, even if heavily armored, were the access points to magazines, detonation of which was the quickest way to put an enemy out of action.
Such a direct hit on a lightly armored and unprotected sector of the ship normally killed or wounded everyone who was in the vicinity. On armor, however, shells exerted erratic effects. In Q turret of HMS Tiger, which was hit on its armored roof at 3:55 p.m. by an 11-inch shell from the Moltke, two men were killed outright and a midshipman was mortally wounded. Four other sailors were wounded, but three of them were able to help bring the turret back into action. “The dead were placed to one side,” according to one report, “the wounded given first aid, and necessary substitutes were brought up from below to replace casualties.”
A quick survey of the damage revealed that the more fragile machinery and instruments had been disabled but that the guns and loading gear still were in working condition; as the directors of strategic bombing were to discover during World War II, it is almost impossible to destroy high-grade steel machinery with explosive, however accurately it is delivered.
But there was one thing that put the German guns at an advantage: All the British capital ships had a fundamental design defect–an insufficiency of “antiflash” devices between the turrets and the magazines. The Germans had learned a lesson from the battlecruiser Seydlitz‘s near-fatal internal fire after a direct hit on a turret the year before at the Battle of Dagger Bank. The fire had traveled down the turret trunk–the tube for bringing shells up from the magazine. Consequently the High Seas Fleet’s ships had been modified to avert the passage of flash down their turret trunks. The British ships had not. A subsequent investigation revealed that the British crews, in their determination to achieve the highest possible rates of fire in gunnery competitions, had removed antiflash devices from the trunks without realizing that cordite flash in the turret labyrinth posed the gravest danger to dreadnoughts. A third of the British battle cruisers would be destroyed as a result.
This nearly happened to Beatty’s flagship, the Lion. Her Q turret was hit by a 12-inch shell from the Lützow at four o’clock, killing everyone in the gunhouse. But one of the gun’s numbers, as he died, involuntarily sent the loading cage of the right gun down into the working chamber. A fire, apparently spreading down the turret’s electrical cables, ignited the cordite in the cage and the working chamber; and fire passed thither down the turret trunk toward the magazines. The turret officer, Major F.J.W. Harvey, managed with his dying breath (he had lost both his legs) to order that the magazine doors be closed and the magazine flooded. In giving this order, for which he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, he saved the ship.
The fire that the shell started below the turret was fatal to all the crew in the workspaces above the magazine. As was stated in a later report:
[It] passed down the main trunk into the shell room and handling room and up the escape trunk into the switchboard compartment. In this latter compartment were stationed, beside the switchboard men and certain of the electrical repair party, the after medical party under the charge of a surgeon. All these men, together with the magazine and shell-room crew, were killed by the cordite fire….[Their] bodies and clothes were not burnt and, in cases where the hands had been raised involuntarily, palms forward, to protect the eyes, the backs of the hands and that part of the face screened by the hands were not even discolored. Death to these men must have been instantaneous.
Beatty’s flag captain pulled the ship out of the line to take her from the danger zone. The Germans believed her finished.
Shortly afterward, the Indefatigable, which had been exchanging salvos with the Von der Tann, also suffered hits. The Lion‘s were to prove survivable; the Indefatigable‘s were not. One salvo penetrated her thinly armored deck. Another, hitting near her fore turret, set off a fatal internal explosion, and at two minutes past four she turned over and sank.
In terms of battle cruisers, numbers were now equal. “I gazed at this in amazement,” remembered Beatty’s flag captain. “There were only five battle cruisers in our line…. I glanced quickly toward the enemy. How many of them were afloat? Still five.” Beatty now ordered his light forces into action in the 15,000-yard space separating the two battle lines. Light cruisers and destroyers, engaged by the German battle cruisers’ secondary armament, tried to launch torpedoes against the enemy’s heavy units; Hipper’s light forces swung into action against them. And then, while light cruisers and destroyers fired their 6- and 4-inch guns against each other, the four battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron, redirected at last onto their proper targets, began to fire their shells, tossing columns of water larger than any that had yet been seen around the German battle line. Suddenly the odds among the heavy ships were again in Beatty’s favor: nine against five, with greater range and weight of shell on his side.
But German gunnery achieved one more success: A full 12-inch salvo hit the Queen Mary, consort of the Tiger and Lion. She did not survive. About 4:26 p.m., after several earlier hits, she was struck on one of her forward turrets. A cordite fire entered the forward magazine, and the resulting explosion blew off the forepart of the ship. Shortly afterward a hit on X turret blew up the after magazine, and the remains of the ship capsized. Gunner’s Mate Francis, a survivor of the X turret crew, described the sequence:
Then came the big explosion [the detonation of the forward magazine], which shook us a bit, and on looking at the pressure gauge I saw the [hydraulic] pressure had failed. [Hydraulic power trained the turret, elevated the guns, and worked the ammunition lifts and loading rammers.] Immediately after that came … the big smash and I was dangling in the air on a bowline, which saved me from being thrown onto the floor of the turret. … Numbers two and three of the left gun slipped down under the gun, and the gun appeared to me to have fallen through its trunnions and smashed up these two numbers. Everything in the ship went as quiet as a church, the Roof of the turret was bulged up and the guns were absolutely useless…. I put my head up through the hole in the roof of the turret and I nearly fell back through again. The after four-inch battery was smashed right out of all recognition and then I noticed the ship had an awful list to port. [X turret, behind the bridge, gave no view of the missing foreparts of the ship.] I dropped back inside the turret and told Lieutenant Eward [the turret officer] the state of affairs. He said, “Francis, we can do no more than give them a chance; clear the turret.” “Clear the turret,” I called out, and out they all went.
Francis and Midshipman Lloyd-Owen of X turret were to be among the Queen Mary‘s 20 survivors, of a crew of 58 officers and 1,228 men. The Indefatigable sank with the loss of all but two of her crew of a thousand. These catastrophes, with the later loss of the Invincible, were to be the great tragedies of Jutland, because of their unexpectedness. The vulnerability of the Invincible and Queen Mary to long-range, armor-piercing fire was the most unsettling outcome of all the events of the Jutland encounter. It was the Queen Mary‘s loss that prompted Beatty’s notorious remark, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”
Meanwhile, however, under the cumulative effect of Beatty’s much heavier gunnery, Hipper’s line was now running ever deeper into danger. Well-aimed salvos were falling about his ships every 20 seconds; some were scoring hits, and the British officers on the bridges of the battle cruisers and battleships who could see enough to judge the course of the action were now certain that the destruction of the 1st Scouting Group was at hand.
Then, at 4:30 p.m., Beatty received a signal from one of his advance light cruisers that she had “sighted enemy battle fleet bearing approximately SE, course of enemy N.” The implication was clear: If Beatty continued making his “run to the south,” he would arrive under the guns of Scheer’s battleships, against which his Battle Cruiser Fleet, even with the support of the 5th Battle Squadron, could not hope to stand without devastating consequences. At 4:40, therefore, he signaled a turnaway, toward Jellicoe’s approaching squadrons, and the “run to the north” began.
Commodore W.E. Goodenough, commanding the British light cruisers that had sighted Scheer’s ships-it was the dense clouds of black smoke from their coal-burning engines, working at full revolutions, that had drawn his attention toward the eastern horizon-held on far into the danger zone while he established their number and bearing. When he at last turned away, he was followed by torrents of shells, any one of which could have obliterated him or a consort. Forty large shells fell within 75 yards of the cruiser Southampton as she made her escape at 25 knots toward Jellicoe, zigzagging between the shell fountains to confuse the German range takers.
Beatty’s battle cruisers had meanwhile put enough distance behind them to be out of danger. But the fast battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron, once again misled by a signal, had not. They were five minutes late in turning away, and in the interval the Barham and Malaya were hit by German fire, the Malaya heavily. One of her secondary batteries was knocked out and she was holed beneath the waterline. But the fast battleships’ advantage in gunpower told in reply. Several German battleships and battle cruisers were struck by salvos from the retreating British ships, the Seydlitz so hard that she risked sinking.
But the Seydlitz herself scored hits, notably on the battleship Warspite. At about 5:30 the Warspite was hit several times. In the next few minutes a shell burst in the starboard secondary battery. Commander Walwyn reported that “a sheet of flame came down through the slits of sliding shutters…[and he] heard a lot of groaning.” When he went forward, he found that the burst had started a fire in the ready-use cordite among the guns of the starboard secondary battery. The fire had “frightfully burnt” two gun crews and was also blazing around the conning tower, through the slot of which “signalmen and messengers peering out…looked like thrushes in a nest, gaping and shouting, ‘Put the fire out.’ We eventually got a steam main connected and got water.”
The fire had also taken hold below, in the navigating officer’s cabin, burning a store of 400 life jackets nearby.
The stench of burning rubber being perfectly awful…smoldering wooden uprights of doors kept on breaking out again…decks were all warped and resin under corticine [deck covering] crackling like burning holly…. [E]verything in the fore superstructure was wrecked and it looked like a burned-out factory all blackened and beams twisted everywhere….twelve-inch had come through the after funnel, through the beef-screen [meat-storage area] and smashed the second cutter to matchwood. On its way through the beef-screen it had carried a whole sheep with it, which was wedged into the gratings. At first I thought it was a casualty.
That a sheep’s carcass could be mistaken, even briefly, for a human casualty testifies to the appalling nature of wounds that high-explosive projectiles frequently inflicted in the confined spaces of armored ships.
But the “run to the north,” though a withdrawal, had scored hits on German ships and reunited Beatty with Jellicoe. It was therefore as much a British success as the “run to the south” had been a British setback. Still, both had been preliminary engagements. Shortly after 6:00 p.m. the battle fleets themselves at last drew within range of each other. Their covering screens of cruisers and light cruisers had already been in action and the Germans had fallen under the guns of Beatty’s battle cruisers with disastrous results: Three cruisers–the Wiesbaden, Pillau, and Frankfurt–had suffered crippling damage. But so too had a British destroyer, the Shark, overwhelmed by heavier fire, and a cruiser, the Chester, in which the boy hero of Jutland, Jack Cornwell, had been killed. (The 16-year-old Boy First Class, though wounded, remained at his post and received the Victoria Cross posthumously.) And there were to be more losses before the dreadnoughts began their artillery duel. Two British armored cruisers, supporting Jellicoe’s battle ships, came under fire from Scheer as they steamed ahead of the Grand Fleet; the Warrior was rapidly wrecked and the Defence blown up, both hit by shells against which their thin sides offered no protection, at ranges too long for their 8-inch guns to straddle.
And there was to be another catastrophe before Jellicoe’s and Scheer’s battleships saw each other. Three battlecruisers, the Indomitable, Inflexible, and Invincible, oldest and weakest of their type, were accompanying the Grand Fleet. At 6:01 p.m., the Lion, which had returned to the fight, had come within sight of Jellicoe, who signaled to Beatty, “Where is the enemy’s battle fleet?” The answer was ambiguous, but it persuaded the commander that he must now anticipate imminent action and deploy from column into line-the formation best suited for the concentration of maximum gunpower on the enemy. As his six columns began their 15-minute deployment, the Invincible, steaming ahead of the main formation, out of sight of Jellicoe but in sight of Beatty, also came within view of the Germans.
It was an unlucky rendezvous. Cloud and mist, which until now had concealed their presence, suddenly parted to reveal the isolated squadron of three battlecruisers to the leading German battleships, which opened fire instantly. The Invincible, the leading ship, was the focus of the attack and was hit repeatedly. At 6:33 p.m. a shell penetrated the roof of Q turret amidships and blew her into halves. Among the six survivors of her thousand men was the composer Richard Wagner’s godson, who had been observing the fall of shot from the highest point in the ship.
Fortunately the surviving battle cruisers were not to bear the brunt of the ensuing action, while the battleships, which were, had external armor sufficiently thick to keep out the projectiles that had damaged the Invincible and Beatty’s ships so fatally. Moreover, Jellicoe’s battleships were to join action with Scheer‘s on highly advantageous terms.
Ambiguous and intermittent though the signaling of his advance forces had been, Jellicoe was the more fully alerted of the two commanders to the approach of his opponent. Hipper had been able to warn Scheer of the imminence of fleet action with no clearer signal than “Something lurks in that soup. We would do well not to thrust into it too deeply.” Scheer, who had hitherto believed he had the British Battle Cruiser Fleet in a trap, now had to grapple with the anxiety that it might be supported by the rest of the Grand Fleet, yet without clear indication of its location. Jellicoe, on the other hand, not only knew Scheer’s positions and heading but also could calculate that his own heading put him between Scheer and his line of retreat to the North German ports, and therefore that he could “Trafalgar” the enemy if daylight and the accuracy of his gunnery availed.
The Grand Fleet’s 28 battleships, deploying from columns to line as they passed the wreck of the Invincible (many British sailors thought she was a German ship and cheered as they saw her), now enjoyed the advantage of the light–an advantage that earlier in the day had been the enemy’s–and could see their targets clearly on the western skyline. To Scheer’s range takers, Jellicoe’s ships were “indicated on the horizon ahead of us [only] by the firing of heavy-caliber guns. The entire arc stretching from North to East was a sea of fire. The muzzle flashes were clearly seen through the mist and smoke on the horizon, though there was still no sign of the ships themselves.”
The opening range was about 12,000 yards, well within the reach of the guns on the leading British ships, which, by classic tactics, had “crossed the T” of the German line and were pouring fire at its head. British observers were convinced they were scoring a succession of hits and sinking ships. Several German battleships–and battlecruisers, leading the fleet–were hit in this exchange; 22 shells struck altogether. The Germans inflicted 33 in return, all on British battle cruisers, cruisers, and fast battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron; Jellicoe’s line of dreadnoughts was not touched. As it steamed imperturbably onward, steadily closing the range and interposing itself more deeply between the High Seas Fleet and home, Scheer’s nerve cracked. After only 10 minutes’ engagement, he ordered a simultaneous turnaway to take his fleet out of danger.
The German ships disappeared instantly and mysteriously from the British range takers’ field of vision as the smoke and gathering dusk of a misty evening enclosed them. They might have turned south. Jellicoe correctly guessed that Scheer had chosen the quickest way out of danger and turned due west, toward the English coast. He ordered an alteration of course south ward, to better his chances of cutting off the enemy’s retreat, and held on ward. So, too, for some 10 minutes (6:45-6:55 P.M.) did Scheer, until, hoping to escape across the rear of the Grand Fleet, he signaled a reversal of course and began to steer due east. His intention was to reach the coast of Jutland and then work his way home behind the minefields fringing it in German territorial waters.
His order, however, was timed too early. Overestimating the speed of Jellicoe’s advance, he suddenly found himself at about 7:10 under fire once more from the British battleships, his T crossed again, his weakest ships–the battle cruisers–in the van, and last light silhouetting his line while it hid the British ships from his guns. This “second encounter” of the battle fleets went far worse than the first for the Germans. They scored only two hits on Jellicoe’s line (both on the Colossus) while the British scored 27 in return, on the already heavily stricken battle cruisers.
Less than 10 minutes of this treatment persuaded Scheer to break off action. At 7:18 he signaled another simultaneous reversal of course to his battle line, having meanwhile ordered the battle cruisers to “charge” the enemy and his light cruisers and torpedo boats to lay smoke and mount a torpedo attack. Hipper’s “death ride”–an allusion to the last charge of Prussia’s armored horsemen in 1870–put all but one of his ships out of action. The torpedo attack was more profitable. Jellicoe deployed his own light cruisers and destroyers against it as the Germans approached and caused most to launch at extreme range, or not to launch at all. Nevertheless 21 torpedoes traveled the distance, forcing Jellicoe to order a general turnaway and individual ship captains to maneuver sharply. No hits were scored, but by the time Jellicoe resumed his pursuit, Scheer had put himself at extreme range of the Grand Fleet–some 10 to 11 miles–and was heading south for home with the British abreast of him to the east and slightly to his rear.
Light was failing fast as the last phase of the battle-later to become known as “the night action”–opened. The sun set at 8:24 p.m. At 8:30 Scheer ordered his squadron of six pre-dreadnoughts to go to the aid of his battle cruisers, which, lying to his east, were still under fire from Beatty’s ships; his, in turn, were running ahead of Jellicoe’s line of advance. While the pre-dreadnoughts exchanged fire with Beatty’s fleet, Hipper’s battle cruisers were able to make good their escape; eventually, as Beatty’s range takers lost definition on the darkening horizon, so did the pre-dreadnoughts, which were able to disengage unscathed.
While the darkness grew thicker, the battle fleets converged on southerly courses in complete ignorance of each other’s whereabouts. In the six miles of sea that separated them, there were to ensue nine encounters between German and British light forces, and between British light forces and the German battle fleet. In the first, none of the four torpedoes fired struck a target. In the second, the British destroyer Castor was hit a number of times and in the confusion failed to report the German position to Jellicoe for half an hour. In the third, the British cruiser Southampton sank the German cruiser Frauenlob by torpedo. In the fourth and largest engagement, the destroyer Tipperary was sunk with heavy casualties, and the Elbing, the ship that had opened the battle hours earlier, was fatally crippled; it sank four hours later. In the fifth, British destroyers attacked the German dreadnoughts at ranges that closed to a thousand yards and damaged one by ramming. In the sixth, a British destroyer put a torpedo into the German pre-dreadnought Pommem, found its magazine, and blew it up. In the seventh, a British armored cruiser, the Black Prince, was set on fire by salvos from a German dreadnought and also blew up. The eighth and ninth were destroyer actions, in which one German torpedo boat was lost.
While these brief and chaotic encounters, the last timed at 3:30 a.m. on June 1, were taking place, the High Seas Fleet, holding to its southerly course and making several knots less than the Grand Fleet, had passed behind the British and gotten safely to the coast of Jutland and its minefields. It was in sore straits. One of its battlecruisers, the Lützow, had sunk; of the four remaining, only one, the Moltke, was still capable of fighting.
The Lützow‘s captain described her end, which came early on the morning of June 1:
After it became clear that it was not possible to save the ship, because she had 8,300· tons of water in her and was on the point of heeling over, I decided to send off the crew….She was so down by the bows that the water came up to the control tower and the stem was right out. On my orders the ship was sunk by a torpedo fired by G-38 [a German torpedo boat]. She keeled over and after two minutes swiftly sank with her flag flying.
The only other German capital ship not to return from Jutland was the pre-dreadnought Pommern, which had been blown up during the night action by a torpedo fired from the destroyer Onslaught. The German pre dreadnoughts were not elaborately subdivided and had no underwater protection. The explosion broke Pommem in half. There were no survivors from her crew of 844.
That terrible toll is largely explained by the near impossibility of finding survivors on the surface of the sea during the hours of darkness. That some initially did survive her wreck is suggested by the aftermath of the Queen Mary and Invincible disasters, in which 26 were picked up; even from the Indefatigable, two crewmen survived and landed in German hands. The Pommem‘s broken hull remained afloat for at least 20 minutes after the torpedo strike. The surmise is that the ship was destroyed by a succession of explosions, beginning in the magazines of the secondary armament and spreading to where the 11-inch charges and shells were stored. Men in the tops and on the bridge must have been thrown into the sea, and others in the upper decks would probably have been able to make an escape. All were subsequently lost, however, to the darkness and the cold.
Those most imperiled by internal explosion–indeed without hope of escape at all–were the ammunition and engine-room crews. Ammunition handlers, if at the flash point, suffered instantaneous extinction. Stokers and mechanics might undergo a protracted and awful agony. That must certainly have been the fate of the engine-room crews on the Pommem, as well as on the Indefatigable and Queen Mary, trapped in air pockets belowdecks, plunged into darkness, engulfed by rising water, perhaps also menaced by escaping superheated steam and machinery running out of control.
The details of the last minutes of those engine-room spaces are mercifully hidden from us. Some impression of what the victims underwent is conveyed by the experience of the engine-room crew of the Warrior, the British armored cruiser attacked by Derfflinger and other German battlecruisers at about 6:00 p.m. The Warrior, which was quite inappropriately attempting to support the British battlecruiser line, suffered hits by 15 heavy shells, one of which struck at the waterline, causing flooding in the whole engine-room space.
The damage trapped the survivors among the engine-room crew in the working spaces. There were initially eight of them. The engineer officer in charge attempted to lead the others out of the engine room, but he was defeated. He “found by the glimmer of the sole remaining oil lamp that the water was coming over the floor plates, and the crank pits were full up and the cranks were swishing round in the middle of it.” The Warrior was not a turbine ship but a reciprocating–engine one–massive pistons worked in cylinders that were as tall as the engine-room ceiling, perfectly safely while the ship was proceeding normally, but at great risk to the engine-room crew as soon as anything went awry. According to a later report, the engineer officer first tried to ease the engines and shut off steam, fearing further accidents, but by this time the water was breast high over the floor plates, and he decided the only thing to do was to clear out. But by this time the ladders were inaccessible as the floor plates were dislodged, and there was every chance of being drawn into the racing cranks. They climbed up over pipes and condensers, holding hands to prevent the swirling water carrying them away. Unfortunately their chain was twice broken, with the result that several men were jammed somehow and drowned. The remainder climbed from one vantage point to another as the water rose until they reached the upper gratings, but by this time it was quite dark, and having no purchase any where they could not dislodge the gratings overhead, and apparently found themselves doomed to certain death.
Not only were they expecting to be drowned, but escaping steam almost suffocated them, and they kept splashing oily water over their faces to keep themselves from being peeled. Some men had wrapped scarves around their heads to protect themselves, and all kept as much of their heads as they could in the water. The surprising thing was that the engines went on working till the water was halfway up the cylinders and only stopped then because the boilers were shut off.
[T]his agony of terror went on for nearly two and a half hours in pitch darkness and apparent hopelessness….A stoker petty officer…absolutely refused to recognize the horror of the situation and kept talking and cheering them all up….[T]hey kept hold of each other to save their lives as long as possible, but one by one they kept dropping off and getting lost and drowned in the water, till at last there were only three of them left. (The engineer officer himself would have been lost, having slipped from his hold and finding himself being drawn into the machinery, but the petty officer held on to him and kept him up until he recovered somewhat.) They thought at one time that the ship had been abandoned…then they felt a noticeably cold stream of water coming in…and from this they apparently had the idea that the ship must be under way, and therefore in tow of someone, which encouraged them. At last they heard some order being “piped” round the ship and they all shouted together and this led to their rescue.
There was to be no rescue for the engine-room crew of the battleship Pommem, any more than there had been for those of the battle cruisers Queen Mary and Indefatigable. The crews of the turbine-driven battle cruisers were spared the horror of crushing and dismemberment by cranks and pistons as the shattered hulls of their ships carried them down into the deeps. The older Pommem, a juggernaut of the sea, must have mangled many of her stokers and mechanics as she made her last plunge. And in all three ships the escape of propulsive steam would have flayed men alive before drowning deprived them of life.
By 6:30 a.m. on June 1, most of the ships in the High Seas Fleet had reached the safety of the Jade estuary; the last casualty was the battleship Ostfriesland, which at 5:30 a.m. struck a mine laid by HMS Abdiel but managed nevertheless to limp home. The Seydlitz, which twice grounded on the approach to the Jade, had to be hauled ignominiously into harbor stern first. The Battle Cruiser and Grand fleets, with their accompanying shoals of destroyers and cruisers, had returned to Scapa Flow and Rosyth by June 2. At 9:45 that evening Jellicoe reported to the Admiralty that his warships were ready to steam out again on four hours’ notice.
That signal writes the strategic verdict on Jutland. Britain’s navy remained fit for renewed action, however soon it should come. Germany’s did not. The kaiser preferred to ignore this fact. He exulted that “the magic Trafalgar has been broken,” distributed Iron Crosses wholesale to the crews of the High Seas Fleet when he visited it on June 5, and kissed many of the captains. He promoted Scheer to full admiral and invested him with the Pour le Merite, Germany’s highest military honor. Scheer himself, however, was much less convinced of his “victory.” Shortly after the battle, reflecting on its conduct to fellow admirals, he conceded that “I came to the thing as the virgin did when she had a baby,” and in his official report on Jutland to the kaiser on July 4, he warned that “even the most successful outcome of the fleet action,” which he implicitly conceded Jutland had not yielded, “will not force England to make peace.”
“The High Seas Fleet,” Scheer said in his report to the kaiser, “will be ready by the middle of August for further strikes against the enemy.” However, contemplating and acting are two different things.
True to Scheer’s word, the High Seas Fleet did put to sea, on August 19, and steamed north to bring the English east coast town of Sunderland under bombardment. Scheer’s approach was covered, however, by 10 of the zeppelins he had not been able to take to Jutland, and when one reported that the Grand Fleet was bearing down on him from the Scottish anchorages, he reversed course and raced for home. The Admiralty cryptographers had detected his sortie, and were to do so again when he next put to sea, in October, with the same humiliating outcome. That was to be the High Seas Fleet’s last open challenge to the Royal Navy. In April 1918, when it slipped out of port once more, its mission was mere commerce raiding against the Scandinavian convoys. An engine-room accident in one of the battle cruisers, causing the battleships also to reduce speed, then obliged Scheer to call off the operation and return to port.
For more than half the war, therefore–from June 1, 1916, until November 11, 1918, 29 months in all–the High Seas Fleet had been at best “a fleet in being,” and for its last year scarcely even that. Much explains its inactivity: the growth of the Grand Fleet’s strength relative to its own (Britain launched nine capital ships between 1916 and 1918, Germany only three), the addition of the Americans to the British dreadnought fleet after April 1917, and the kaiser’s increasingly neurotic opposition to taking any naval risk whatsoever. But the central factor in the reduction of the High Seas Fleet to an inoperative force was the action of Jutland itself. Germany had built a navy for battle. But in the only battle fought by its united strength, the navy had undergone an experience it did not choose to repeat.
Germany could publicly celebrate Jutland because the raw “exchange ratio” was in its favor. The High Seas Fleet had inflicted far greater damage than it had suffered. Three British battlecruisers, the Indefatigable, Invincible, and Queen Mary, were sunk, as were three armored cruisers, the Black Prince, Defence, and Warrior, and eight destroyers. And five British capital ships had suffered hits by 11-inch shells or heavier, notably the Lion, Tiger, and Warspite. The High Seas Fleet, by contrast, had lost only one battlecruiser, the Lützow; the other ship casualties were either pre-dreadnoughts like the Pommern or secondary units like the four light cruisers and five torpedo boats.
Three to one, in rude terms, did make Jutland look more like a German than a British victory. But calculated in refined rather than crude terms, the “exchange ratio” was very much more in Britain’s than Germany’s favor. Three of her fast battleships–Warspite, Barham, and Malaya–had suffered damage requiring dockyard attention. But the battleship fleet itself was almost unscathed; and despite losses, the Battle Cruiser Fleet on June 1 still outnumbered the German 1st Scouting Group, which moreover was crippled by damage. The German dreadnought battleships had also suffered grievously. Konig, Markgraff, and Grosser Kurfurst all needed major refits when they returned to port, and the German battle line could not have met the British at four weeks’ notice, let alone four hours’, except at risk of outright defeat. The balance of forces had not been significantly altered by relative losses. The Grand Fleet still outnumbered Scheer’s, 28 dreadnoughts to 16.
The human cost, however, had fallen far more heavily on the British. True, her long tradition of “following the sea” and her large seafaring population made her losses easier to replace than the German. But the truth was that over 6,600 British officers and sailors had gone down with their ships or been killed on their decks while the Germans had lost only a few more than 2,000.
The casualties of ironclad warfare, as compared with those of wooden wall warfare, were gruesome. The solid shot exchanged by the ships at Trafalgar dismembered or decapitated, and tossed showers of wooden splinters between and across decks. But if the missiles did not kill outright, their victims retained a chance of clean and quick recovery, even under the hands of surgeons whose only tools were the probe and the knife. The casualties at Jutland suffered wounds almost unknown to an earlier generation of naval surgeons: metal fragmentation wounds, scouring trauma by shell splinter, and, most painful and hardest of all to treat, flash and burn effects and flaying by live steam. An officer on the destroyer Tipperary described coming across a sailor “with a large portion of his thigh removed, probably the result of scouring by a shell splinter. ‘What can I do with this, sir?’ asked the torpedo gunner who was attempting first aid….I merely covered the wound with a large piece of cotton wool and put a blanket over him. ‘Feels a lot better already,’ said the wounded man.” He was among the majority who drowned when the Tipperary foundered two hours later.
Even the wounded who came for care where care was organized–as well as it could be–did not find great comfort. The medical officer of the battle cruiser Princess Royal described a surgical center in which wounded men were wounded again by incoming German shells (“the next day about 3 lbs weight of shell fragments…were swept up from the deck”) and where fumes from explosions elsewhere in the ship, sinking through the internal spaces because heavier than air, forced staff and patients to don respirators.
Casualties began to arrive, amongst them a gun-layer from the after turret, which had been put out of action by a direct hit.
He…had a foot nearly blown away….This gun-layer had developed German measles about two days previously, and should by rights have been landed, but owing to the mildness of his complaint, and because he was an important rating, he had been isolated on board and permitted to come to sea. Later on I amputated his leg….I proceeded to operate on a…marine who had been brought down bleeding seriously from a punctured wound of the face….We had hardly started operating before rapid firing developed, and the tray with all my instruments was deposited on the deck…[but we] proceeded to operate on the gun-layer. The light was most trying (gunfire had forced the doctors to depend on barely adequate oil lamps], the securing of arteries during the operation being particularly difficult….The dressing of large numbers of bums, some very extensive ones, now fully occupied the time of the whole staff….Most of the wounded, who numbered exactly 100, were seriously burned.
Aboard the cruiser Southampton, which was a smaller ship, the doctors had to work under even more makeshift conditions. The operating room, according to one of her lieutenants, was the stokers’ bathroom…about eight feet high, 12 feet broad, and 12 feet long. The centre of the room was occupied by a light portable operating table. A row of wash basins ran down one side and the steel walls streamed with sweat….Stepping carefully between rows of shapes who were lying in lines down each side of the passageway, I put my head inside the narrow doorway. Bare-armed the fleet surgeon and a young doctor were working with desperate but methodical haste. They were just taking a man’s leg off above the knee….
I went aft again and down to the ward-room. The mess presented an extraordinary appearance. As it was the largest room in the ship we placed in it all the seriously wounded.” [The Southampton had suffered 40 killed and 40 to 50 wounded.] The long table was covered with men, all lying very still and silently white. As I came in (the doctor) signaled to the sick-berth steward to remove one man over who[m] he had been bending. Four stokers, still grimy from the stokehold, lifted the body and carried it out. Two men were on top of the sideboard, others were in arm-chairs. A hole in the side admitted water to the ward-room, which splashed about as the ship gently rolled. In the ankle-deep flood, blood-stained bandages and countless pieces of the small debris of war floated to and fro…. [T]he most dreadful cases were the bums–but this subject cannot be written about.
Both fleets, as they made their way back to harbor from their inconclusive North Sea encounter, were encumbered below decks with “dreadful cases” that “cannot be written about.” The first–it was to be also the last great clash of dreadnoughts had inflicted appalling human damage on their crews. But the toll of casualties is not to be compared with the bloodlettings of the western front. Exactly one calendar month after Jutland, the British Expeditionary Force was to attack the German trench line on the Somme and suffer 20,000 killed in a single day of action. There had been such massacres before, and others would follow before the exhaustion of the combatant armies would bring the agony of trench warfare to an end. Set against the 5 million deaths in action suffered during the First World War by the British, French, and German armies alone, Jutland is small beer. As a proportion of crews present, some 110,000 in all, the total of fatal casualties, approaching 9,000, is high, but it must be set against the consideration that the event was unique. Earlier actions had not been costly in lives, and there were to be no major fleet actions after May 31, 1916.
Jutland ranks among the costliest naval battles ever fought. Not until the great Japanese-American clashes of the Second World War in the Pacific would action at sea bring death to so many sailors. And there is another dimension to the engagement: It called into question all the presumptions on which the great ironclad fleets–the dreadnoughts being their ultimate embodiment-had been built.
As Ernie Chatfield, Vice Admiral Beatty’s staff commander in the Battle Cruiser Fleet, put it in retrospect:
What would happen [in Nelson’s time] when two ships met and engaged was, as far as material was concerned, known within definite limits from handed-down experience and from a hundred sea-fights. [Nelson] knew exactly the risks he ran and accurately allowed for them. He had clear knowledge, from long-considered fighting experiences, how long his ships could endure the temporary gunnery disadvantage necessary in order to gain the dominant tactical position he aimed at for a great victory….We had to buy that experience, for our weapons were untried. The risks could not be measured without that experience….Dreadnoughts had never engaged, mod em massed destroyer attack had never taken place.
The passing of the wooden walls and the coming of the iron, steam driven warship had wrenched naval strategy from its foundations. For about two centuries, admirals had manipulated a naval system in which the fighting qualities of their ships and the rare “clash transaction” of battle–Clausewitz’s term-had been but two among the factors by which the balance of sea power was struck. There were many others, including the possession of overseas bases at strategic points, the availability of trained seamen, the distribution of ports that were adaptable to naval operations, the interoperability of land with sea forces, and, besides all these, the will and capacity of a government to maximize its material advantages for military purpose in great waters.
The British had proved supremely successful at the adjustment of means to ends in the pursuit of national power through the maintenance of a wooden-wall navy. But the supersession of wood by iron and sail by steam in the middle of the 19th century had consigned the Royal Navy to the working-out of an invisible crisis that, though it would take decades to emerge in its plenitude, threatened to undermine all the assumptions on which wooden-wall supremacy had been established. Ironclad navies, vulnerable to defeat “in an afternoon,” as Winston Churchill percipiently put it, were fragile instruments of national supremacy. They were expressions of the strength not of a whole national system–social, financial, and industrial but of no more than a single one of its technological aspects.
Germany’s naval technology was proved by Jutland to be superior to Britain’s. Her ships were stronger, her guns more accurate, her ordnance more destructive. German shells had usually penetrated British armor when they struck; the reverse had not been the case. Because the German navy took second place in national life to the German army, on which the bulk of the state’s wealth was spent, Germany’s admirals could not transform technological into strategic advantage over their British counterparts. But because Britain’s admirals were themselves the servants of a naval technology supported by a financial and industrial power that since the 1870s had been in relative and irreversible decline, their strategic posture was also defective. In the years from 1914 to 1916, the Grand Fleet, and its battle-cruiser appendix, was perhaps the largest embodiment of naval strength the world had ever seen in weight of firepower, it unquestionably was. But it was a pyramid of naval power trembling on its apex, at risk of being toppled by any new technological development that threatened its integrity. MHQ
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1989 issue (Vol. 1, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Jutland
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