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Jutland: The Decisive Battle that Wasn’t

June 17, 2016


British Dreadnoughts at Jutland, the “castles of steel” did not achieve a Nelsonian victory – Source:

World War I came to a seemingly natural crescendo in 1916. The fact that the war had not been finished by Christmas, 1914 had shocked the warring powers. 1915 had seen haphazard, poorly planned, and executed offensives, and an attempt to expand the war; into the air, under the sea, and by drawing in nations like Italy, and the Ottoman Empire. This is the first installment in a four part series on the titanic battles of 1916: Jutland, Verdun, the Somme, and the Brusilov Offensive.

Two weeks ago was the one hundredth anniversary of the largest naval battle the Atlantic had seen since the days of sail. Between May 31st and June 1st, 1916, the British Royal Navy, and the German Imperial Navy dueled for supremacy in the North Sea. At the end of the battle both sides would claim victory. The Battle of Jutland was the quintessential naval battle of the First World War. It was large. It was industrial. It costs thousands of lives, and destroyed large amounts of material. And it accomplished almost nothing. 

USS Texas, a pre-dreadnought battleship, notice the guns arrayed along its side – Source: Wikipedia

I. Background

Following British Admiral Horatio Nelson’s decisive victory over Napoleon’s navy at Trafalger in 1805, naval battles between European powers had been few and far between. Thus, naval technology advanced, but not in ways that anyone could effectively test. For instance, throughout the the twenty years after the introduction of ironclads in the 1860’s, warships that were more or less immune to the artillery of the period, naval strategist were convinced that ramming would be the way of the future. This thinking disappeared with advances in naval gunnery. During the Russo-Japanese War of 1905-06, the Japanese had destroyed almost the entire Russian Navy; first at Port Arthur, and then at the Straits of Tsushima. However, the battleships that fought in that war were Frankenstein monsters. They carried guns of all sizes, and in places where the exact positioning of the ship was critical. At Tsushima, the Japanese realized that most of the damage they had done to the Russian fleet had been carried out with their largest guns, while their smaller guns had failed to reach the enemy. British naval observers also noticed this and within a year of the end of the Russo-Japanese War a new warship left the dry-dock at Portsmouth, HMS Dreadnought. A ship, that in an instance had obsoleted all other warships then in existence.



HMS Dreadnought – the warship that made every other navy in the world obsolete – Source: Wikipedia

The creation of the all big gun battleship kicked off an arms race between Great Britain and Germany. Britain was attempting to maintain its, by then, traditional role as naval superpower. Germany, with dreams of a world spanning empire, attempted to outgun the British to realize that dream.

When World War I broke out eight years after the creation of Dreadnought, the British immediately declared a blockade of Imperial Germany. The German response was to create a “fleet in being.” All German naval units not already out of port were gathered together into one, much larger, fleet. The rationale behind this move was that the German fleet could move in any one direction, thus forcing the British to disperse their ships in a wider arc, thus allowing for a better opportunity to steam out and break the blockade.

II. The Battle

Throughout 1914 and 1915 the Royal Navy and the German Navy had fought a series of small, mostly one sided (for Britain) naval engagements. Most of the German Navy that had not been in port at the outbreak of hostilities in August, 1914, were – by the spring of 1916 – either captured, interned at a neutral port, or at the bottom of the ocean. The Germans had hoped that unrestricted submarine warfare could strangle the British.  The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 – with 128 Americans killed in the process – brought the United States to the brink of war. Germany, hoping to keep America out, backed down from unrestricted submarine operations. The surface fleet then would have a chance to break the British blockade. The German fleet would steam out of Wilhelmshaven in two groups. The first under Admiral Hipper would consist of battle cruisers, while a second, under Admiral Scheer would contain the main fleet. Hipper would lure the British fleet into a battle, and Scheer would ambush them from behind, finishing them off.

There was just one problem, the British knew all of the German plans just as they were being made. The British had obtained a set of German code books earlier in the war. This intelligence coup was to pay large dividends at Jutland. Armed with foreknowledge of Hipper and Scheer’s plans, Admirals Beatty and Jellicoe of the Royal Grand Fleet sortied out to meet the Germans.

Admiral Beatty (left) commander of the British Battle Cruiser Force, and Admiral Jellicoe (right) commander of the British Battleship Force – Source: BBC

Admiral Beatty would aim for Hipper’s force, drawing him north into the jaws of Jellicoe’s battleships. Then with Hipper’s force destroyed, they would turn around and go home. Neither Beatty nor Jellicoe knew that Scheer’s fleet had left port. Both sides were sailing into traps. The Germans, unaware that the British knew of their plan. The British, through an administrative error, unaware that two fleets – not one – had left port.

The battle was a confused affair. One must remember that there was no GPS in 1916, nor was there radar, nor even effective aerial reconnaissance. The two navies plunged blindly into the North Sea hoping to lure the other into their traps.

When Beatty finally made contact with Hipper’s force, Hipper had been starting to return home, even as Scheer continued north. Beatty turned to chase Hipper, he was now moving further away from Jellicoe who was still to the north. At 3:49 p.m. the two forces began trading shots. Only a few minutes inot the fighting a plunging shell nearly destroyed the British flagship, Lion, which was only saved when her crew flooded their ammunition magazine to prevent an explosion. Less than fifteen minutes after that, HMS Indefatigable took a hit to its forward turret. For the first few seconds it appeared that the ship was fine. It then erupted into a fireball. Over 1,000 men perished with her, only two crew members were found. The fighting continued with intensity, the Germans having lost none of their ships yet, but being sorely tested, when a salvo of shells hit Lion‘s sister ship, Queen Mary. The ship disappeared in a sheet of flame and smoke. Admiral Beatty, aboard Lion, is supposed to have turned to the captain of his flagship and uttered, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” The British attempted to move closer to the Germans to increase their chances of scoring killing blows. Hipper knew that it was only a matter of time before Beatty’s superiority in weapons would begin to tell, thus he began withdrawing to the south to meet up with Scheer, and attempt to turn the tables.

Map of the Battle Jutland – (left) movements of Beatty, Jellicoe, Hipper, and Scheer, (top right) the action between Beatty and Hipper going south, (bottom right) full fleet action – Source: Wikipedia

When Scheer arrived on the scene, Beatty became severely outnumbered. Thus he did the sensible thing, turned north and steamed as fast as he could toward Jellicoe and the main British fleet. The problem that Jellicoe faced was that he did not know precisely where either Beatty or the Germans were. Thus he had to take the approach slowly so as to not miss his quary.

At about six in the evening, Jellicoe finally spotted Beatty’s fleet. He ordered his battleships to turn into line just in time for Hipper and Scheer to come out of the mist and into the maw of thirty-two British battleships. The weight of British shells began to tell on the German fleet. Hipper in particular had been fighting for over two full hours and his battle cruisers were spent.

Scheer realized that the battle was now over, the British had him out maneuvered. If he continued the entire German surface fleet would be lost and the British could clear the way for a closer blockade, shore bombardments, or even amphibious landings. The German fleet therefore conducted a maneuver the British believed to be impossible; they turned all their ships around, in line, at once. Just as the British thought they had the Germans in the bag, the Germans had slipped the noose and were steaming west. With the light fading, the British could not pursue.

The British were now between the Germans and home. Scheer ordered his ships to steam through the night, full speed for home. They were not to bother engaging the British, simply race for the safety of the minefields off the German coast. Jellicoe did not have the time nor the inclination to react and the German fleet made it home.


German propaganda poster showing the disparities in losses at Jutland - Source: Wikipedia

German propaganda poster showing the disparities in losses at Jutland – Source: Wikipedia

Who won the Battle of Jutland? That was a question that was hotly debated even during the war. Both sides claimed victory. The Germans because they had sunk more tonnage of ships, and inflicted more casualties on the British than they had suffered. The British because the status quo of the blockade was maintained, and thus Germany would continue to slowly starve. That was good enough for the British. Certainly, it was not a second Trafalgar, but the British did not need that, they needed to keep the German fleet bottled up. That happened. The German fleet never left port again, and would in fact mutiny rather than launch a last desperate sortie in 1918. As stated at the beginning of this post, the battle was costly, large, and ultimately hard to justify.


Horne, Alistair, Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century. New York: HarperCollins, 2015

Marshall, S.L.A., World War I. New York: Mariner Books, 1964.

Keegan, John, The First World War. New York: Random House, 1998.

Rose, Lisle A., Power at Sea: The Age of Navalism, 1890-1918. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2007.

Stokesbury, James L., A Short History of World War I. New York: Harper Collins, 2002.

Strachen, Hew, The First World War. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.


The Great War Series on YouTube has great World War I videos, including this one on Jutland.

Jutland has other great resources about the battle, along with this amazing video showing the sequence of the battle in great detail.

If you liked (or didn’t like it I suppose) this post feel free to leave comments or questions, I’ll do my best to answer them. I hope you enjoyed it.


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