The Battle of Jutland - The only major Naval engagement of the First World War

The Battle of Jutland took place in the North Sea, North West of Denmark. It was the first time that the new Dreadnought Battleships, developed in the early 1900s had come to blows and only the third time that the big Steel Battleships had engaged each other, following the smaller battles in the Russo-Japanese War.

The Battle of Jutland 31st May - 1st June 1916
The Battle of Jutland 31st May - 1st June 1916

The battle was fought by the British Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet with elements of the Royal Australian Navy and Royal Canadian Navy commanded by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe and the German High Seas Fleet commanded by Vice-Admiral Rheinhard Scheer.

The Germans, recognising their fleet was inferior to the Royal Navy, intended to draw out and destroy part of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet, which was a numerically superior force, and thereby break the crippling blockade of German ports.

The Royal Navy similarly wanted to draw out the High Seas Fleet and destroy it. With that in mind Scheer dispatched Vice-Admiral Franz Hipper’s Battlecruiser squadron to locate the Grand Fleet and its’ own scouting
force of Cruisers. Reconnaissance Planes were still in their infancy at this point and could not cover the North Sea effectively, hence the use of the fast and well-armed Cruisers.

Enigma this! – Ok so the Germans weren’t using enigma yet but “Naval Communication Encryption This!” didn’t sound nearly as good! The Royal Navy, true to form, had previously decrypted German Naval communications with the help of a codebook captured by the,Russians from the SMS Magdeburg. Intercepting the German signals they were alerted to the dispatch of Hipper’s Battlecruiser squadron and the Grand Fleet was ordered to make
sail and engage.

The Grand Fleet composed of 24 Dreadnought Battleships, 3 Battlecruisers, accompanied by 8 Armoured Cruisers, 4 Scout Cruisers, 51 Destroyers, 1 Destroyer- Minelayer and one of the first Aircraft Carriers operational. The Reconnaissance Cruiser Squadron was made up of 4 Fast Queen Elizabeth Class Dreadnoughts, 6 Battlescruisers, 14 Light Cruisers and 27 Destroyers – are we sure this force was for scouting?

The German High Seas Fleet was numerically smaller and composed of some outdated vessels. The main force consisted of 16 Dreadnought Battleships and 6 Pre-Dreadnought Battleships accompanied by 6 Light
Cruisers and 31 Torpedo Boats.The German Scouting Force under Vice Admiral Hipper consisted of 5 Battlecruisers, 5 Light Cruisers and 30 Torpedo Boats.

At 15:48 on 31st May 1916, The Grand Fleet’s reconnaissance squadron commanded by Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, received the first fire from the High Seas Fleet Reconnaissance squadron. Poor visibility resulted in the British return fire falling far beyond the attacking German Squadrons. At 16.00 Beatty’s flagship HMS Lion was struck by a salvo of 12 Inch shells that destroyed one of her turrets and very nearly detonated her magazine if not for the timely intervention of the turret commander, Major Francis Harvey of the Royal Marines to seal the doors and flood the magazine.

The First of Many

HMS Indefatigable, not to be confused with Horatio Hornblower’s HMS Indefatigable, was less lucky, at 16.02 she was hit aft by three 11 Inch shells from SMS Von Der Tann detonating her aft magazine. Soon after at maximum range Von Der Tann fired again putting a single shot through her forward magazine. The resulting explosion was devastating and the ship sunk immediately with
almost all of her crew. Only two men survived.

At 16.25 despite the increasingly desperate position of the Germans, HMS Queen Mary was struck by combined fire from Defflinger and Seydlitz, this again detonated the magazines of the British Warship resulting in her rapid sinking and all but nine of her 1275 man crew lost.

Just a minute later HMS Princess Royal was struck by a salvo from the German guns prompting Beatty to utter the famous phrase “Chatfield, there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today!”

At 16.40 the vanguard of the main German force had been sighted and Beatty ordered his squadron to turn North and draw the German fleet towards Admiral Jellicoe and the RN Grand Fleet.

At 18.30 with both fleets converging and heavily engaged, HMS Invincible was identified as a lone target and singled out by the Lutzow and Derfflinger. A 12" Inch shell struck one of her turrets amidships and detonated the magazine. She sank quickly; all but six of her 1032 crew were killed.

Don’t mess with the Shark

As the fleets converged Scheer and the German battle line were taken completely by surprise when they exited from mist and smoke facing the entire Grand Fleet’s main battle line. The lead German Dreadnought SMS Koenig was hit several times before the Germans were able to execute a “Battle About Turn to Starboard” a well-practiced emergency 180° turn.

HMS Shark a destroyer disabled in the opening action was continuing to engage four German destroyers and was able to disabled SMS V98 before succumbing to a Torpedo hit and sinking. Her captain Loftus Jones would be awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroism in continuing to fight despite the odds.

As the night crept in the Germans began to withdraw, coupled with the indecisiveness of the Grand Fleet due to night fighting deficiencies the Germans were able to disengage.

Several German ships were damaged or destroyed during the disengagement. Lutzow, Admiral Scheer’s flagship was actually sunk under Scheer’s orders by a German Destroyer; SMS G38 . The Pre-Dreadnought Battleship SMS Pommem was sunk after being hit by torpedoes fired by HMS Onslaught. These detonated her magazines resulting in a large explosion, breaking the ship in half and killing the entire crew.

British Torpedo-boat destroyers engage a Flotilla of hostile destroyers of which they sink two
British Torpedo-boat destroyers engage a Flotilla of hostile destroyers of which they sink two

Won or Lost?

The outcome of the battle is the subject of some debate amongst historians. While the German High Seas fleet sank significantly more ships and tonnage than the Grand Fleet did, the damage inflicted on them was enough to put the fleet out of action for the rest of the war. The German high command realised that the attrition rate could not be maintained to a favourable end and the High Seas Fleet would be exhausted long before the Royal Navy.

The battle is also the subject of controversy notably around Jellicoe’s action and the state of safety procedures regarding ammunition handling in the Royal Navy. Jellicoe was criticised for being indecisive and missing the chance to destroy the High Seas fleet. However, as Winston Churchill commented “Jellicoe was the only man on either side who could have lost the war in an afternoon.” If he had thrown the Grand Fleet against the High
Seas fleet even with its numerical advantage there was no guarantee of success and had the Grand Fleet failed and in turn been destroyed the story of World War One would have been much different.

The Losses

6,784 British Sailors were killed in the battle, the magazine explosions of several large ships contributing significantly to that total. They gave their lives in an effort to bring about a quick end to the war. The crippling longevity of the British Blockade of German ports was one of the contributing factors to the German surrender in November 1918. Had the blockade been broken, potentially the war could have lasted longer with the German Fleet being able to challenge Allied Merchant and Supply ships.

We must also remember the 3,039 German Sailors killed as well. They too fought just as hard as their British counterparts for a cause they believed in.

Do you know enough about your ancestors who fought in the First World War?

Why not log on to Forces War Records and start your family research - there could be a war hero in your family just waiting to be discovered, and remembered…

Also please read the Jutland Special Edition we released last year along with many other downloads and tutorials for FREE

Forces War Records - Jutland Special Edition
Forces War Records - Jutland Special Edition


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