One hundred years ago today, one of the biggest naval battles in history was fought during World War I in the North Sea off the coast of the Danish peninsula of Jutland. The Battle of Jutland pitted the British Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe against the German Imperial Navy’s High Seas Fleet under Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer. It was the only full-scale battle between battleships during the war and only the third battle between steel battleships until that point in history.
Since the High Seas Fleet had only 16 dreadnought-class battleships against the Royal Navy’s 28, the Germans knew they could not win a head-to-head clash. (Dreadnoughts were the capital ship of the early 20th Century sporting “all big gun” armaments — up to 15 inches — and steam turbine propulsion.) So Scheer developed a plan to lure out and trap a portion of the Grand Fleet and destroy enough ships so that they could break the British blockade of German ports. The Royal Navy for their part pursued a strategy to engage and destroy the High Seas Fleet, or keep the German force contained and away from Britain’s own shipping lanes.
The German plan was to use Vice-Admiral Franz Hipper’s fast scouting group of five modern battle cruisers to lure Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty’s battle cruiser squadrons into the path of the main German fleet. Submarines were stationed in advance across the likely routes of the British ships. However, the British learned from signal intercepts that a major fleet operation was likely, so on May 31st, Jellicoe sailed with the Grand Fleet to rendezvous with Beatty, which disrupted the German plan.
On the afternoon of May 31st, Beatty encountered Hipper’s battle cruiser force long before the Germans had expected. In a running battle, Hipper successfully drew the British into the path of the High Seas Fleet. By the time Beatty sighted the larger force and turned back towards the British main fleet, he had lost two battle cruisers. The battleships were the last to turn forming a rearguard as Beatty withdrew drawing the German fleet in pursuit towards the main British positions. Between 6:30 p.m. and nightfall two hours later, the two fleets – totalling 250 ships between them – directly engaged twice.
Fourteen British and eleven German ships were sunk, with great loss of life. After sunset, and throughout the night, Jellicoe maneuvered to cut the Germans off from their base, hoping to continue the battle the next morning. But under the cover of darkness, Scheer broke through the British light forces forming the rearguard of the Grand Fleet and returned to port.
Both sides claimed victory. The British lost more ships and twice as many sailors The British press criticized the Grand Fleet’s failure to force a decisive outcome. But Scheer’s plan of destroying a substantial portion of the British fleet also failed. At the end of the year, after further unsuccessful attempts to reduce the Royal Navy’s numerical advantage, the German Navy turned its efforts and resources to unrestricted submarine warfare and the destruction of Allied and neutral shipping which, by April 1917, triggered America’s declaration of war on Germany. And we all know how that turned out for Germany.
The total loss of life in the Battle of Jutland was 9,823 men, of which the British losses were 6,784 and German losses were 3,039. No dreadnoughts were destroyed on either side during the battle.
The last surviving veteran of the battle, Henry Allingham, died on July 18, 2009, at age 113. On that date, he was the oldest documented man in the world and one of the last surviving veterans of World War I.
Also among the British combatants was then 20-year-old Prince Albert who served as a turret officer on the dreadnought battleship, HMS Collingwood. When Albert was born in 1895, he was fourth in line for the British throne. Growing up, he often suffered from ill health and was described as “easily frightened and somewhat prone to tears.” He also had stomach problems, knock knees, and suffered from a bad stammer. The deaths of two relatives moved him up in succession. In 1936, when his older brother Edward VIII abdicated, he became King George VI. His reign of just over 15 years encompassed World War II and its aftermath including the breakup of the British Empire and transition to the Commonwealth. A heavy smoker, he died of a coronary thrombosis in 1952 at age 56. His daughter Elizabeth — now age 90 — continues to reign as Queen.
Contributor: Mark Randol, Chameleon Associates