Battle of Jutland: May 31st 1916

The Battle of Jutland took place on the 31st May 1916 during the First World War. The battle saw two of the greatest and largest fleets in history come together which saw a huge loss of life and a battle which both sides claimed victory. I enjoy naval history, my family have served in the navy or been in naval disasters, with a relative who died on the Hood when it exploded from a shell from the Bismarck, another who died on the Titanic, and with my Great-Uncle and a Grandfather both being chief-engineers in the Navy and merchant navy, and many others working in Sheppey and Chatham dockyards, the opportunity to write about Jutland was one I could not simply miss. So I hope this brief blog will give an insight into the battle.

The English fleet was classed as the best and the most efficient of the time, however this can be easily contested as just as another Victorian tradition, which Eric Hobsbawm argues; that by the beginning of the 20th century, the navy was tactically and technologically behind other European states, but the idea of Britannia ruling the waves prevailed. This is important to note, as it could be argued that the British were complacent in their ship design because of this belief.

As tensions rose at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, it could be seen that England had involved itself with an arms race with Germany before the war had started. J.R. Jones, a leading historian in the field of the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the seventeenth centuries, states that ‘a study of the Rumps reaction to the Dutch decision to set out a massively expanded fleet in 1652 would have warned the Kaiser and Tirpitz that the enlarged High Seas Fleet would be seen in Whitehall as a provocative challenge to be met. The Anglo-Dutch War is an important comparison, as it allows us to see many similarities as well as noting the age-old idea that history repeats itself. So, with both nations building dreadnoughts and super dreadnoughts, it was inevitable that both navies would clash at some point and when both navies met at Jutland, it would be hard to predict who would win.

Before the battle itself is discussed, the location must be analysed. The battle took place in the North Sea, off the coast of Denmark and just below Norway. This battle was important because it would decide who controlled the North Sea, and this is very significant, mainly due to the fact that Germany needed supplies from its colonies and other countries which could only be sent via the North Sea. Therefore if England had won the battle, the Germans would effectively be blockaded, whilst if the Germans had won, then the North Sea would be open to trade and supplies. It can be seen that Jutland was an extremely important battle, and one that could be argued as a turning point in the war.

My details on the battle come from a variety of sources, such as the BBC and the History channel. I will however try to briefly describe what happened that the battle, to give a summary of events. It can be noted that the English did have an advantage in the battle, they in fact enjoyed a ‘numerical advantage over the German High Sea Fleet of 37:27 in heavy units and 113:72 in light support craft.’ This is quite a large difference in numbers, but if you have studied any military history, then you would know that numbers do not necessarily mean victory. However the British Grand Fleet also enjoyed the advantage of having broken German signal codes.

The battle itself can be described in two very distinct phases. The first phase took place at 4:48 p.m. The scouting forces of Vice Admirals David Beatty and Franz Hipper located each other around in the Skagerrak, otherwise known as Jutland, and started a running artillery duel at around fifteen thousand yards. What was noted during this duel was the impressive craftsmanship of the German ships. It was noted that Admirals Hipper’s ships took a severe pounding but survived due to their superior honeycomb hull construction. The German ships were not surprisingly better made the their English counterparts, which would lose three battle cruisers, with the reasons being that there was a lack of antiflash protection in the gun turrets, which allowed fires started by incoming shells to reach the powder magazines. The English Admiral Beatty commentated stating that “[t]here seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” In this first phase, the superiority of the German fleet was made known, even with fewer numbers; they outgunned the British fleet and survived the British firepower. It does question the notion of England ruling the waves, which I argue as a historian was never really the case.

The second phase started at around 7:15pm. Admiral John Jellicoe used the advantage of the fading light to outmaneuver the German fleet and cut them off from their home base, and causing damage to the German flagship. However, the German fleet escaped this hangman’s noose, which can be only described as great seamanship and leadership. However by the end of the battle, losses were heavy, British losses amounted to 6,784 men and 111,000 tons, and German losses to 3,058 men and 62,000 tons. If we look at the battle as terms of what was lost, the British lost, but battles are never that simple, and with the German fleet retreating to port, it allowed the British to keep a blockade on German ports, which would prove disastrous to the German nation, with food supplies running low.

The battle lead Germany to change naval tactics to that of the U-boats and raiding, which reminds us a lot of the Second World War. The Battle of Jutland was the only major naval battle of the First World War, but it was decisive, it saw the British Navy claim the seas, even though the losses on the British side were much higher than that suffered by Germany. Eric Hobsbawm’s idea of the invented tradition seems to be justified by the battle, Britain no longer had the best fleet, Jutland proved that the British ships were inferior to their German counterparts, but the sheer quantity of ships and manpower gave the British a slight advantage. The German admirals were as efficient as their British counterparts. Finally the battle saw a huge loss of life for both sides all because of the arms race that happened a decade before. The rivalry between European states, would lead to the largest and one of the most devastating naval battles in our history.

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