hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 31 May 2016


“This much is certain, he that commands the sea is at great liberty and may take as much or as little of the war as he will, whereas those that the strongest by the land are many times nevertheless in great straits”.

Sir Francis Bacon

Der Tag. 31 May, 2016. At 1815 hours on 31 May, 1916 peering through the North Sea mist, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet, on board the battleship HMS Iron Duke, raised the signal, “hoist equal speed pendant south-east by east”.  With the execution of the signal from the flagship the Royal Navy’s twenty-four mighty Super-Dreadnought and Dreadnought battleships and battlecruisers began to swing into battle line astern. South south-east of Jellicoe Admiral Reinhard Scheer’s twenty-one battleships and battlecruisers of the German High Seas Fleet were forging northward in pursuit of Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty’s battered Battlecruiser Fleet and the four enormous Queen Elizabeth-class Super-Dreadnought battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron.

At 1628 hours fire had commenced marking the start of the main Battle of the Jutland Bank. Over the ensuing two hours Vice-Admiral Franz von Hipper’s superbly-handled German battlecruisers had the better of their British counterparts. In short order HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary blew up under accurate German gunfire with the loss of almost three thousand officers and men. Worse, the British were shortly to lose another battlecruiser, Rear-Admiral Horace Hood’s HMS Invincible, to the guns of SMS Derfflinger.

However, the reckoning was at hand and two men could see what was about to happen. First, Commodore Reginald Goodenough, of the Second Light Cruiser Squadron exclaimed, “Now we have them”. Between the Grand Fleet and the High Seas Fleet Goodenough watched the Grand Fleet deploy as it ‘crossed the T’ of an as yet oblivious Scheer.  And then, having chased Beatty’s damaged force northwards for over an hour, Rear-Admiral Paul Behnke on the bridge of the German battleship SMS Konig to the fore of Scheer’s force, became bemused as to why Beatty began to turn his ships to starboard across the path of the High Seas Fleet bent on his destruction. To Behnke it seemed like tactical suicide and for a moment he must have thought victory was at hand. It was not.

As Behnke emerged from a bank of mist he was met with a terrifying sight. Stretched out before him, huge white battle ensigns flying, over one hundred 12.5 inch, 13.5 inch, 14 inch and 15 inch heavy guns training round towards him, Behnke watched as the Grand Fleet began to commence rapid, rippling fire. The High Seas Fleet had sailed into a trap. Scheer did not even know that Jellicoe was at sea.

Heavy gunfire spread rapidly across the horizon to Scheer’s north and east as the Grand Fleet threatened to surround the High Seas Fleet. Not only had Admiral Jellicoe succeeded in gaining a critical tactical advantage, he had also surprised Scheer, had the advantage of admittedly fading light, and whilst Jellicoe could see Scheer, all Scheer could see of Jellicoe was a sea of gunfire to his north and east. Worse, Jellicoe threatened to cut off the retreat of the High Seas Fleet back to its fleet anchorage at Wilhelmshaven. This was the schwerpunkt of Der Tag.

Had it not been for one superbly-executed and well-exercised about-turn under fire (gefechtskerhtwendung), and one rather more hastily-contrived turn, the outstanding build quality of the German ships, the questionable penetrating power of British armour-piercing shells, and an inability of British gunnery officers to identify fall of shot given that so many were raining down on the High Seas Fleet, a second Trafalgar seemed momentarily in the offing. But, Scheer slipped away, although the battle was not over. Probably believing he would pass astern of the Grand Fleet at 1855 hours Scheer turned the High Seas Fleet about and sailed straight back into the waiting British guns which re-opened a ferocious fire on their German counterparts.

In what was seen by Scheer himself as miraculous his battered force eventually escaped with the loss of ‘only’ two capital ships; the battlecruiser SMS Lutzow and the ageing pre-Dreadnought battleship SMS Pommern. The German press of the day in a fit of propaganda claimed ‘Skagerrak’ as a victory. However, Scheer knew otherwise for in his after-action report to Kaiser Wilhelm II he acknowledged that the British had superior intelligence and firepower and that the High Seas Fleet must never again be drawn into a direct confrontation with the Grand Fleet.
One contributing factor in Scheer’s escape was that offered the opportunity to turn towards Scheer and finish the rout, but faced with the threat of an all-out torpedo attack from German destroyers and the risk of damage to his fleet, Jellicoe chose caution and turned two points away. Jellicoe was much criticised after the battle for this decision. However, as Winston Churchill remarked after the battle; “Jellicoe was the only man on both sides who could have lost the war in an afternoon”.

As an example of British sea power Jutland was probably as important as Trafalgar for it preserved the blockade which was so crippling Germany, and effectively knocked the High Seas Fleet out of the sea war by establishing once and for all the Royal Navy’s superiority.  It would take months to repair grievously damaged German ships. Jellicoe’s force was ready for renewed action the next day and over the ensuing months became even stronger in relative terms.

Lessons? Jutland was a tactical defeat for Beatty and a strategic success for Jellicoe.  However, if ever the aphorism 'fog of war' proved apposite it was at the Battle of Jutland. The battle revealed many shortcomings in the Royal Navy of the time: the dangers of a split force and a lack of unity of effort between Commander-in-Chief Jellicoe and commander of the battlecruisers Beatty; the adoption of a gunnery range-finding system known to be inferior to its German counterparts; the loss of at least two capital ships due to poor weapons-handling procedures in battle as Beatty compensated for a lack of gunnery practice with rapid rate of fire; at times appalling malpractice in fleet signalling partly due to reliance on flag signals dating back to the Nelsonian era over a battlespace many more times larger than Trafalgar; a refusal to use the then new wireless radio technology; and a refusal to properly exploit good intelligence. In spite of all that Jellicoe’s sudden appearance in the battle proved decisive and the Royal Navy won the Battle of Jutland.

This blog is in honour of all the men on both sides who fought at the Battle of Jutland and the 8645 men who on 1 and 2 June 1916 did not return to port.

Julian Lindley-French 

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