It is often said that generals usually are preparing to win the last war. That was certainly the case with admirals during World War I. They imagined a clash of mighty battleships, dreadnaughts, and auxiliaries, that would prove decisive like the battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Of course little thought was given about what would happen if the weaker side did not obligingly steam their fleet out to be obliterated. That is just what happened in 1914-1918 where the British Grand Fleet kept the German High Seas Fleet bottled up in its ports, a bystander to the War. One hundred years ago however, the High Seas Fleet made its major sortie of the War and the world held its breath for two days as these two mighty antagonists came to blows.
Admiral Reinhard Scheer had commanded the High Seas Fleet only since January of 1916. Scheer reflected the general German opinion that the defensive stance of the fleet had to change in order for it to play a productive part in the War. He hit upon the scheme of having the fleet sortie into the Skagerrak that lay north of the Jutland peninsula that made up most of Denmark. He planned to sink or capture many British cruisers and merchant ships and then retreat back to port. It wasn’t a bad plan. The problem for Scheer is that the British knew all about it. The British code breaking wizards of Room 40 had broken the German naval code in 1914, and the British could decipher intercepted German radio communications swiftly, and thus the Grand Fleet knew precisely what the Germans were doing. Here was a brilliant opportunity for the British to inflict a decisive defeat on their adversaries. It did not turn out that way.
Over two days, May 31-June 1, a confused series of clashes took place during which the British lost 6,094 killed, 674 wounded, 177 captured, 3 battle cruisers, 3 armored cruisers and 8 destroyers to German losses of 2,551 killed, 511 wounded, 1 battle cruiser, 1 pre-dreadnaught, 4 light cruisers and 5 torpedo boats. The German loss in tonnage was just over half what the British was. The German fleet retired to its ports with the British losing a good opportunity to intercept them. Jutland was a clear tactical defeat for the Grand Fleet and the British held plenty of commissions in the months and years following to figure out what went wrong.
Aside from command mistakes, and there were plenty of them, here is what went wrong.
- The British in building their battle cruisers emphasized speed over armor and this made the British battle cruisers more vulnerable to plunging fire than their German counterparts. During the battle Admiral Beatty in command of the British 1rst Battle Cruiser Squadron, observing how his ships were vulnerable to German fire famously remarked to his Flag Captain, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”.
- The British had turned down the Argo Clock invented by Arthur Pollen, the worlds first electrical analogue mechanical computer to be used in swiftly solving the equations necessary for accurate fire of the naval long range guns. The Navy instead adopted the system developed by Lieutenant Frederic Dreyer which was both inferior and, in part, a blatant rip off of ideas in Pollen’s system. This totally man made error helped account for some of the poor British gunnery displayed at Jutland.
- Incredibly Room 40 naval intercepts were ignored by British commanders during Jutland including such critical information as the path the German fleet intended to take back to their ports.
- Subordinate commanders showed little initiative during the battle, content to follow orders that were usually out of date. Lord Nelson, who habitually ignored orders he considered foolish, would have been appalled.
- In spite of the advent of radio, the main means of conveying information and orders during the battle was by flag semaphore, just as in Lord Nelson’s day. Commanders swiftly found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of flag traffic, issuing orders that were often out of date by the time they were drafted and sent.
- British armor piercing shells usually didn’t due to inferior steel and inferior explosives when compared to German armor piercing shells.
The British learned from most of their mistakes. However, it was fortunate for them in the short term that the High Seas Fleet did not attempt such a grand sortie again during the War. Because of this the battle of Jutland was a strategic British victory. Scheer realized that although his fleet had handled the British roughly, in a more sustained engagement weight of numbers would have led to a British victory. He became an enthusiast for unrestricted submarine warfare, realizing that in a battleship to battleship fight, the High Seas Fleet would come off second best and that submarine warfare against British merchant vessels was the only nautical path to victory for Germany.