Memorable Event

The Battle of Jutland
May 31, 1916

German Fleet Maneuvers Before the War

In the years leading up to World War I, both Germany and Britain constructed massive fleets and established themselves as the two foremost naval powers in the world. Britain had traditionally ruled the seas, but the German challenge sparked a naval arms race. After the declaration of war, it was only a matter of time until these two fleets clashed. The clash took place on May 31, 1916 at the Battle of Jutland. Prior to this battle, naval warfare in World War I had been characterized by skirmishes and raids, no large battles. The German navy had accepted they could not outbuild the British and realized the geographic weakness of their position (Keegan, 1998). Instead, the Germans undertook a policy of attacking British ships through numerous and repeated raids, this was known as the kleinkrieg. German naval policy only permitted battle under favorable circumstances.

Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the British Grand Fleet, was concerned that German success, and the need to disperse ships to other regions, was weakening British superiority. In April 1916, the British Fleet had 31 Dreadnoughts and 10 battle cruisers to the German fleet's 18 Dreadnoughts and 5 battle cruisers. This concern was elevated in 1916 when Admiral Scheer took command of the German High Seas Fleet and undertook sorties against the English coast. Efforts to catch Scheer were fruitless, but the British cracked the German naval code in 1916. On May 31, unbeknownst to Scheer, a total of 250 ships sailed towards battle.

Admiral Beatty
Br. Battlecruiser Commander
Scheer formulated a plan to catch the British battle cruiser squadron under Beatty, but unknowingly ran into the entire Grand Fleet. Jellicoe had 28 Dreadnoughts and 9 battle cruisers available compared to Scheer's 15 Dreadnoughts and 5 battle cruisers. Beatty's squadron was to draw the Germans into combat. Scheer had taken the entire High Seas Fleet to sea and this move made it conceivable that the British could cut off or overwhelm the German fleet. Prior to the battle, a mistake in British intelligence caused Jellicoe to believe Scheer was still in port and resulted in Beatty's squadron sailing ahead, while the main portion of the fleet slowed to conserve fuel. The battle consisted of five phases. During the first phase, Beatty's fleet encountered the German First Scouting Group and opened fire. The German fire fell on ships defective in armour and turret design and laden with poorly place proplleant containers. The Indefatigable and Queen Mary suffered hits, caught fire, blew up and sank. This reduced Beatty's superiority in number. After the arrival of supporting battleships, Beatty ran into the main German fleet and shifted course.

The second phase was Beatty's squadron's retreat after running into the main German force. These two actions led to the two main fleets coming to combat. After turning his Dreadnoughts away, Scheer's force turned back and ran into the brunt of Jellicoe's fleet. German ships sustained 27 high caliber hits, while the British sustained two (Keegan, 1998). Scheer ordered a retreat with his cruisers and destroyers covering his retreat. While the Germans sailed away, Jellicoe held back due to fear of torpedo attacks and this prevented reining in the German fleet.

German Battlecruiser Seydlitz
Severely Damaged But Survived Battle

Scheer lost a battlecrusier, a pre-dreadnought, 5 destroyers, 4 light cruisers, and 2551 sailors (Keegan, 1998). Jellicoe lost 8 destroyers, 4 armored cruisers, and 3 battlecruisers, as well as 6094 sailors. Despite the losses, the British continued controlling the North Sea. The Germans claimed victory, but the British had inflicted significant enough damage to prevent any German challenge to the British fleet for months. The resulting German inactivity would eventually give impetus to the naval rebellion at Kiel towards the end of the war. After Jutland, the Germans switched to focusing on U-Boats as their main naval tactic. The Battle of Jutland was the largest naval battle to date in 1916, but did little but preserve the strategic naval status quo.

By Matt Church
University of Louisville

Works Cited

Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Viking Press, 1995.

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