Over 36 hours, one brutal day and night in 1916, around 100,000 British and German sailors in 250 warships fought for control of the North Sea. By the end, 25 ships had been sunk and more than 8,500 men had lost their lives.
The British, inspired by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John ‘Jackie’ Fisher, launched the innovative battleship HMS Dreadnought, which was faster, with better armour and heavier guns, than anything else afloat. At the same time he developed a new type of ship, the battlecruiser, with heavy guns but light armour to allow exceptional speed. Both the British and German battle fleets were immediately out of date.
In the subsequent arms race to build dreadnoughts, as the new battleships became known, Britain remained ahead, despite Germany’s defence budget increasing by 142 per cent.
When Britain declared war on 4 August 1914 the British Grand Fleet had 28 dreadnoughts and nine battlecruisers. The German High Seas Fleet had 16 dreadnoughts and five battlecruisers.
The British Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, knew that the naval situation favoured the British. His position was further enhanced by a civilian codebreaking team in London known as ‘Room 40’. The first two years of war saw little more than skirmishes in the North Sea, including German bombardments of British coastal towns, and the battles of Heligoland Bight (August 1914) and Dogger Bank (January 1915).
In January 1916 Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer took command of the High Seas Fleet. Scheer persuaded the Kaiser to let him use the fleet more aggressively, and devised a plan to provoke the British into making a mistake.
Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper’s German battlecruisers were ordered to attack British convoys of merchant ships heading to neutral Norway. Scheer expected Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, the Commander of the Grand Fleet’s Battlecruiser Squadron based at Rosyth, to engage Hipper, and be joined later by Jellicoe from Scapa Flow. German submarines would ambush the emerging fleets, and Hipper would engage Beatty and lure him towards the main High Seas Fleet. Destroying Beatty’s force first would give the Germans equality in numbers when they fought Jellicoe.
First contact was at 14:28 when HMS Galatea, a British scouting cruiser, spotted some of Hipper’s ships. The battle had begun.
The Germans fired first. One shell penetrated ‘Q’ turret of HMS Lion, Beatty’s flagship, causing a lethal fire. Royal Marine Major Francis Harvey, although mortally wounded, gave the order to flood the magazine and saved Lion. He was later awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. At 16:02 two salvoes struck HMS Indefatigable, which blew up in a magazine explosion. Twenty minutes later HMS Queen Mary, straddled by German fire, also rolled over and exploded.
At 16:33 Beatty spotted Scheer’s High Seas Fleet ahead of him and turned his ships back north towards Jellicoe.
Hoping to destroy Beatty’s battlecruisers, Scheer and the High Seas Fleet pursued them north. Each ship was exposed to heavy German fire, however, the superdreadnoughts’ armour protected the vital parts of each ship and they continued to inflict serious damage on the pursuing German battlecruisers.
To the north at 18:14 Jellicoe deployed into ‘line to port’, the best position to ‘cross the T’ of the enemy. This would allow his battleships to bring all their guns to bear on the Germans, while receiving fire from only their forward guns.
Nevertheless, this left Jellicoe’s screen of old armoured cruisers in a very dangerous forward position, trapped between the two battle lines. HMS Defence was quickly destroyed, HMS Warrior was badly damaged, and HMS Black Prince became separated and lost.
At 18:34 a shell penetrated the midships turret of Hood’s flagship HMS Invincible. The flash raced down into the magazines below and her midships section disappeared in a huge explosion, taking Hood and over a thousand men with her.
Facing the entire Grand Fleet and heavily outgunned, this was exactly the one-sided battle Scheer had wanted to avoid, and, after a brief, intense firefight, he turned his fleet away.
He ordered a carefully rehearsed escape manoeuvre – the ‘Gefechtskehrtwendung nach Steuerbord’ or ‘battle turn to starboard’ – and the German fleet disappeared into the mist. But minutes later Scheer emerged to face his enemy again. He later said that he was trying to rescue a badly damaged light cruiser, the Wiesbaden, but as the Germans came under fire again, he realised this was a mistake.
Eighteen British battleships fired on the German battlecruisers, while only seven fired at the main German fleet as it turned away again. In the meantime, Jellicoe himself turned away in response to the German torpedo attack.
At 20:19 darkness fell and the fleets parted.
The British were poorly prepared for night fighting and five of their destroyers were sunk. The armoured cruiser Black Prince, out of contact for hours, strayed into the German line and was blown apart in four minutes. The Germans lost three damaged light cruisers and the old battleship Pommern, sunk in the only coordinated British torpedo attack at 02:10.
The German fleet escaped, although Hipper’s wrecked flagship Lützow was scuttled by her own crew at 01:00.
Both sides claimed victory. The Germans returned to port first and Scheer was quick to tell his side of the story. Newspapers announced a German victory. Meanwhile, the Grand Fleet made for home, burying its dead along the way.
But strategically the British were the clear winners. The Grand Fleet was ready for action again the next day. The Germans had failed to destroy it, and were so badly shaken by the weight of the British response that they never again seriously challenged British control of the North Sea.
‘… a naval action on a scale unprecedented in history and deeds of individual valour that may have been equalled before but have never been surpassed …’
Daily Graphic, 7 July 1916
With kind permission from The National Museum of the Royal Navy, Jutland 1916 Exhibition. Find out more at jutland.org.uk