Great Sea Fights: The Battle of Jutland, 1916 Part 1: The Events

May 2021

Today we have for you Part 1 of our special episode on the Battle of Jutland because, on this day in history in 1916, the German and British battlefleets met in the largest naval battle of the First World War and one of the largest in history – involving 250 ships and 100,000 men. Parts 2 and 3 will follow in the coming days and will introduce you to a host of original eyewitness sources to the battle with episodes dedicated to the German view and the English. Today we have an outline of the strategic situation and events of the day, and there follows a discussion between Dr Sam Willis and Dr Stephan Huck. Stephan has enjoyed a fascinating career: after some military training he became interested in history – particularly military history – and since 2002 has been head of the excellent German Naval Museum in Wilhelmshaven. He knows an enormous amount about the battle and his perspective is both refreshing and fascinating.

  • View The Transcription

    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, and also welcome to another of our ‘Great Sea Fights’ series. Today we have for you part one of a special episode on the Battle of Jutland because on this day in history in 1916, the German and British battle fleets met in the largest naval battle of the First World War, and one of the largest in history, involving 250 ships and 100,000 men. Parts two and three will follow in the coming days and will introduce you to a host of original eyewitness sources to the battle, with episodes dedicated to the German view and the English view. Without further ado, here is our first episode on the Battle of Jutland.

    In 1916, two years into the First World War, the war on the surface took a decisive turn. The German Army had suffered terrible casualties at Verdun, and their Navy was now led by Admiral Reinhard Scheer. Scheer needed to justify to the German nation the Navy’s existence, and he devised two operations against British shipping off the coast of Denmark and against the English East Coast, both designed to provoke the Royal Navy into battle. The Admiralty, however, had been reading his wireless signals, and on the night of the 30th of May, Commander of the Fleet, Admiral John Jellicoe, was informed by the Admiralty that something significant was afoot, and he sailed in secret into the North Sea.

    The British fleet was divided into two squadrons, a squadron of fast battle cruisers, was led by Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty. Beatty had been promoted to captain in November 1900, having proved himself a skilled and brave leader. He was only 29 and in 1900 the average age for promotion to that post was 42. Thirteen years later he was given command of the battlecruiser fleet consisting of fast armoured ships designed to contain the German’s own cruiser squadron and to locate and prevent the escape of the main German High Seas Fleet. His job was to bring about the decisive fleet action that the Admiralty craved. Beatty’s youthful vigour and offensive spirit was ideally matched to his role, which required aggression, calculation and initiative from him and all of his officers.

    The man in charge of the main British fleet, ‘The Grand Fleet’, was Sir John Jellicoe, and he couldn’t have been more different. He had survived the sinking of HMS Victoria in 1893 in a collision, and he certainly shared Beatty’s experience of combat. They had in fact both been wounded in the same action during service in China during the Boxer Rebellion, for which Jellicoe carried a bullet in his lung for the rest of his life. In terms of appearance, lifestyle, and command style and character, however, they were worlds apart. Jellicoe was steady, a bit dull, and an effective manager. He was not strikingly handsome like Beatty, and one of the most enduring descriptions of him noted his big nose and yellow complexion. He was nevertheless loved by the fleet. He had an astonishing memory, particularly for names, he was kind, thoughtful, fiercely loyal and completely unpretentious. Unlike Beatty, however, who worked carefully to encourage initiative and spontaneity among his subordinates; Jellicoe was a man of orders and formula.

    Jellicoe headed into the North Sea and organized to rendezvous with Beatty, both of them completely unaware that the entire German High Seas Fleet was at sea. Beatty was the first interaction as he stumbled into an advanced squadron of German battlecruisers under the command of Franz Hipper. They engaged, but the British ships was silhouetted against the western sky, and Beatty had withheld his fire for too long. While the British shells landed beyond the Germans, there’s found their mark time and again. Two of Beatty’s cruisers, the Indefatigable and the Queen Mary, blew up in front of him with a loss of 1,283 men. “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”, Beatty said to his flag captain. Indeed, there was – explosions travelled from the turrets down into the ship’s magazines because the safety interlocks had been removed to increase their rate of fire. Eyewitnesses said that the Queen Mary was blown into as her magazine exploded and that her guns sizzled as they sank into the North Sea. The Queen Mary was the crack gunnery ship of the Royal Navy, and her destruction was the greatest German naval success of the war. After the disastrous initial contact, Beatty turned towards Jellicoe, to lead the Germans into a trap. The Germans followed when the two great fleets met, this time, it was the British ships who had the advantage of the light. The Germans were easily visible while the British fleet was lost in the gloom. The Grand Fleet hammered the leading ships of the Germans mercilessly and did so again when they turned to retreat. But the battle was chaotic and fought at high speed and the weather poor, with neither side able to get a firm grip on the position and formation of the other fleet. There was more confusion in the following hours and more missed opportunities in which the German fleet could have been brought to action once more.

    It is generally accepted that there were three opportunities, each of them spurned, in which Jellicoe might have inflicted a crushing defeat on the Germans. “Three times” wrote Winston Churchill on being told the news “is a lot”. Inevitably, both sides claimed victory: the Germans because they had sunk more ships than the British, 15 to the British 9; and the British because many more German warships were significantly damaged and would have to spend months in port; only 6 of Scheer’s entire High Seas Fleet remained unscathed. More importantly, both sides knew there would not be another fleet battle, the Germans simply could not risk it. The naval challenge would now focus entirely on submarine warfare.

    To find out more and in particular, to find out a bit more from a German perspective, I spoke to Dr. Stephan Huck, Stephan has enjoyed a fascinating career: after some military training, he became interested in history, particularly military history – and since 2002, has been head of the excellent German Naval Museum in Wilhelmshaven, which you should all go to as soon as you are able. He knows an enormous amount about the battle and his perspective is both refreshing and fascinating. Here is Stephan.

    Stephan, thank you so much for talking to me today.

    Dr Stephan Huck

    Yes, Sam, it’s a pleasure for me to be here in your podcast.

    Sam Willis

    So, give me an overview of the course of the battle. What actually happened at Jutland? That’s a very difficult question to start with, but I’m going to give it to you.

    Dr Stephan Huck

    Yes, thank you very much. Yes, the Battle of Jutland lasted nearly 12 hours. It began on the 31st of May, in 1916, when the German High Seas Fleet left Wilhelmshaven and later on in the early course of the afternoon, met the battlecruisers of Admiral Beatty. Four great parts of the fleet were engaged in the battle. Reconnaissance forces on each side, led on the British side by Admiral Beatty and on the German side by Admiral Hipper, and afterwards the battle fleet on the British side led by Admiral Jellicoe and on the German side by Admiral Scheer.

    First of all, in the early afternoon, the battlecruisers (the reconnaissance forces) met when the Germans ran to the north and the British ones came from Rosyth to south or to south-east. Immediately when they met Hipper’s forces turned around, ran to the south, were followed by Beatty’s forces. Unfortunately, the British forces had to suffer heavy losses: two new battlecruisers, the Queen Mary and the Indefatigable, were sunk and the HMS Lion was heavily damaged – Beatty quoted: “There must be something wrong with our bloody ships”. Shortly afterwards, Beatty became aware that Hipper tried to guide him to the oncoming German battle fleet which came from the south, from Wilhelmshaven. The two fleets turned around, ran to the north, that is the second phase of the battle, tried to follow each other.

    During that time, the British battle fleet crossed the line over the T of the German battle fleet, so, that they face from the south the coming German battle fleet, with a whole broadside. Scheer’s fleet turned around, drew away from the British fleet, then, surprisingly Scheer decided to turn another time around so that both battlefleets engaged for a second time. And in the last phase of the fleet, the Germans did a third turn around, went to the south in the falling of the night, followed by the British forces. Scheer led his torpedo boats to attack the British forces so that Jellicoe decided to no longer follow the German forces and gave him the opportunity to go back to Wilhelmshaven – which they reached on the 1st of June.

    Yes, that’s in short words, the battle in four phases: the run to the south with the battle between the reconnaissance forces, the run to the north – the battle fleets fleet action, and then denied action. In the end, the British had lost 14 ships, the Germans had lost 11 ships; nearly 7,000 British sailors lost their lives and about 3,000 German sailors lost their lives, despite the fact that the British had nearly one and a half of the number of the German ships. So, in total, nearly 250 ships were involved in the battle – 150 on the British side and 100 on the German side.

    Sam Willis

    Do you know what, I think what happened at the Battle of Jutland is the most difficult question I’ve ever asked anyone on this podcast!

    Dr Stephan Huck

    Thank you.

    Sam Willis

    You did very very well indeed. It’s such a complex battle: these numerous phases; and how it’s a kind of a constant process of hide and seek, as we would say, in England; and playing cat and mouse – they’re chasing each other around the North Sea, aren’t they?

    Dr Stephan Huck

    Yes, they did. It was a little bit like a chase. And what has to be underlined is that none of the parties was aware on that day that the whole fleet of the enemy was at sea. So of course, everybody was aware that the enemy was at sea, but not that he was with the total of his number at sea. So, it was a kind of surprise for both sides.

    Sam Willis

    Once the battle had begun, one thing that both sides were very clear about, that they were trying to do, is to achieve a decisive victory. What role did the concept of the decisive battle play in German naval operational and strategic thinking before the First World War?

    Dr Stephan Huck

    Yes, I think you can say that the concept of the decisive battle was the core of German operational and strategic thinking. This depended on several factors: on the one hand it depended on general military thinking in the 19th century (so, the concept of decisive battle began also in the Napoleonic Wars, and was written down in the writings of Clausewitz and so on), on the second hand, in naval affairs, it depended also very much on the writings on Alfred Thayer Mahan (with his thinking about strategic power and sea power and what is necessary for sea power, naval superiority, and he also strengthened the opportunity to get to a decisive battle), it also depends also on the concept of Darwinism (something like superiority of races, and so on), and at least, or at last, it depended on a kind of lesson learned from former wars, especially Admiral von Tirpitz, who designed the German fleet was very interested in the younger wars, and his lessons learned from the Battle of the Yalu mouth, or the Battle of Tsushima, was that the concept of decisive battle was necessary to get war to an end and was the main task for navy. And maybe just, sorry Sam, just one last word – also the myth of Trafalgar played a role, even in German Navy thinking. We must keep in mind, the German Navy was not very old at the Battle of Jutland, nearly 50 years, and they were formally trained and influenced by the British Navy, though. Also, the myth of Trafalgar which influenced also the British Navy was relevant to the German Navy. Sorry for that.

    Sam Willis

    No, it’s absolutely fascinating that – the relative youth of the German Navy. Opposed to that, in terms of time that has passed, it’s interesting that – I’m not sure many people realize this – but the Battle of Jutland happens in 1916, right, and the First World War began in 1914. So why had it taken nearly two years for these two fleets to really face each other properly?

    Dr Stephan Huck

    It depended on the unfinished status of the German High Seas Fleet; it was obvious for the German Naval Command that the concept of decisive battle needed a certain strength of the German fleet, which wasn’t realised at the beginning of the war. So, it was an unfinished fleet on the one hand, so they didn’t have the number to threaten the Royal Navy, and on the other hand, the concept of the decisive battle always depended on the idea of, or on the assumption, of a narrow blockade of German waters and the decisive battle at the front door of the German harbours. And as we know, due to the analysis of the threat of torpedoes and mines, and so on, the Royal Navy also decided before the war to leave the concept of the narrow blockade, and to follow the concept of a far blockade. And Germany didn’t have the strength to yes, to engage the Royal Navy. And then they did some difficult experiences at the beginning of the war with Battle of Heligoland and some losses immediately after the war. And this led to hesitation of the Naval Command and the Emperor and to seek safe opportunity for the decisive battle.

    Sam Willis

    I think it’s so important with any naval battle is hearing ideas and perspectives of what happened from both sides, particularly refreshing being a British historian speaking to some Germans who will have a German perspective. From the German point of view, what were the most important kind of positions or manoeuvres or moments in the course of the battle?

    Dr Stephan Huck

    I think the first very important experience and manoeuvre was during the battle – or during the run to the south – the battle between the two battlecruiser fleets and Hipper’s success to sunk two modern battle cruisers, shortly, one after another, the Indefatigable and the HMS Queen Mary, and also to damage the HMS Lion. This underlined on the one hand the very well-trained status of training of the crews of Hipper’s forces. But we must be serious, that it depended also on a big piece of luck, as Beatty’s forces didn’t have the chance to use their longer-range firing range and opened fire at a range where they also were endangered by the Germans. And that the visibility and the weather conditions were favourable for the Germans as they fired against the light of the sinking sun and saw Beatty’s battlecruisers very clearly – very clear shaped – at the horizon, while they themselves were a little bit covered in the mist and in the smoke on the other side. So, it depended also on the good training status, but also on a big piece of luck.

    The second frequently mentioned manoeuvre were the three turnarounds of Admiral Scheer’s battle fleet in the battle fleet, in the fleet action, as they also underlined the good exercise state of the fleet, that they were able to manage this complicated manoeuvre three times without any collisions and so on. But the main question was why Scheer decided to do his second turnaround: why he decided to seek and to force Jellicoe’s forces for a second time, while he already had the chance to escape with his smaller fleet. And it’s still, there’s still room for interpretations and so on. And it depended on the one hand with Scheer’s intentions to keep the initiative and yes to, I don’t know a better word, to keep the initiative. And on the other hand, it depended on his intention to help more of the light cruiser, to help the light cruiser SMS Wiesbaden, which was heavily damaged at the beginning of the fleet action, and yes, swung between those two firing battle fleets without any chance to escape. As we all know, this wasn’t successful the Wiesbaden sank, nearly with total loss, only one stoker survived. Maybe the Wiesbaden, of course the most prominent loss of the whole battle it was the German poet Gorch Fock, Johann Kinau, who died aboard of this ship. His corpse was later on found at the south of Sweden and buried on the small island of Stensholmen. Yes, the remarkable thing was the action of the torpedo boats, which helped the fleet to escape to the safe harbour of Wilhelmshaven.

    Sam Willis

    I certainly agree the Scheer’s turn around is so dramatic, and it makes you wonder exactly what was in his mind and why he did that again. As with all naval battles, we have immediate results and also long-term results. Jutland’s a particularly tricky one, isn’t it because both sides claimed victory. What in your perspective were the immediate results of the battle?

    Dr Stephan Huck

    Well, first of all, it’s easy to count the numbers and from this point of view, of course, the Germans were more successful than the British. They started with a lower number of ships – 100 ships on the German sides 150 on the British side – they cost smaller losses of 11 ships got lost on the German side, 14 on the British side, they managed more hits of heavy artillery, I think 120 to 100. So just if you look at this battle in numbers, it seems to be a German success. And this was what was celebrated when the German fleet reached safe harbour in Wilhelmshaven. They also had – they reach the harbour earlier than the British fleet reached their home parts, so, therefore, they had their very favourite with a PR campaign, and they were able to claim victory before the British were able to claim victory.

    But a second view immediately after the battle showed that the battle had changed, didn’t change anything in the difficult strategic situation of the German fleet. The British blockade was still at work, the fleet was able to operate, we must keep in mind, it lasted until October 1916 to repair all the damaged German ships. So, even if they didn’t have such a big number of losses, they had heavily damage ships like the SMS Seydlitz. And the Grand Fleet was able to operate four hours after they returned to their home base in Scapa Flow. So this is the other side if you don’t look at the numbers, if you look on the strategic situation, and nothing had changed. And I think it was the New York Times, that found a good headline when they said that the Germans had rattled at the prison door, but they weren’t able to break out of jail. And this is a little bit of what’s happened at Jutland.

    So, it was only on first sight victory, and this was also clear for the German Naval Command. In July 1916 Admiral Scheer wrote a report to the emperor and clearly pointed out that the concept of the battle fleet wasn’t able to break the British blockade. The only way he saw to end or to do something against the British blockade was to go back to the unrestricted U-Boat warfare, with all the consequences. We know that in 1917 the USA entered the war, and this decision was one of the major decisions that lead in to the end of the war, on this side, and on the other side. So, we can say the Battle of Jutland was the peak, but also the end of the concept of the battle fleets. And afterwards, the fleet existed only as a “fleet in being” to support the unrestricted U-Boat warfare. And this had another major consequence, it led into a lot of frustration in the German fleet. This began also earlier before the Battle of Jutland, there were rumours in the fleet that they weren’t able to do their part in the war. And when they became reduced to a “fleet in being” this lead with other factors, of course, inner political factors in Germany, like the splitting of the SPD party, and so on, and last consequence to mutiny and revolution, which ended, which also played a major role at the end of the war.

    Sam Willis

    It’s fascinating how its sort of the tentacles of Jutland reached out and began to affect things in unexpected ways. And many naval battles are like that, which I think is one of the reasons that they’re so fascinating. And what about a very long view of the battle? How did the, you know, the perception and our understanding of the battle change over time?

    Dr Stephan Huck

    Well first of all, in the years between the two World Wars, I think the Battle of Jutland was remembered in the German Navy as an unfinished battle, something that had to be completed in the next war. And you can see this in several memorials that were erected in Germany to remember the Battle of Jutland. For example, at the Naval Academy in Flensburg, Murwik, where the new naval officers were told to take revenge and to fulfil the era of their ancestor from the First World War. This became also clear the inauguration of the Laboe Memorial which was also inaugurated with the words “Wieder Wagen”, which again, so they all called the naval officer corps, to complete the Battle of Jutland. And this became the major point of view between the two World Wars. And on the other hand, Jutland was always remembered as a victory and as a symbol for the strength of the Navy, which claimed themselves despite revolution and mutiny, as undefeated and as glorious and so on.

    And so, the battle was always remembered. Each year on the 31st of May, they flew the old flag on the warships. This all ended also with the end of the Second World War and afterwards remembrance of the Battle of Jutland became subsequently less important So, you can see it until the early 50s or until the 50s. Skagerrak Tag, Jutland Day was celebrated here in Wilhelmshaven this ended in the 1960s. You can see it also at the fate of one memorial that’s now located in our museum. It’s the barrel, or one of the barrels, of SMS Seydlitz, which shows the trace of a British shell. This barrel was placed before the Wilhelmshaven garrison church for nearly half a century until the year of 68 and remembered the Battle of Jutland. In the year 68, it was removed to another place to Wilhelmshaven, as it doesn’t seem any longer opportune to remember on this battle. And 30 years later, in the year of 98, when our museum opened, this barrow was removed from that place in front of the Gorch Fock House into the museum. So, it shows Jutland changed from [translate] to of public remembrance to a historic episode to something for museums and historians.

    Sam Willis

    Fascinating the way that it changed. And it inspired me to come to your wonderful museum and to have a look myself, I promise you, I’ll do that as soon as I can travel.

    Dr Stephan Huck

    I would love to welcome you here.

    Sam Willis

    Wonderful! And thank you so much for talking to me today, I really, really enjoyed it.

    Dr Stephan Huck

    Yes, thank you very much. It was a pleasure for me; have a good time and see you here in Wilhelmshaven, hopefully soon.

    Sam Willis

    So, there we go – the Battle of Jutland for you. Parts II and III will be coming your way very soon, so stay in touch that you don’t miss them. Also, remember that previous episodes in this ‘Great Sea Fights’ series are there to be listened to. They’ve covered the Battle of the River Plate of December 1939 – that’s the first naval battle of the second world war which led to the scuttling of the German pocket battleship, the Admiral Graf Spee and the Battle of Cape St Vincent of 1797, in which Horatio Nelson first shot to fame by boarding not one but two of the largest enemy ships one from the other in what he described as his patent bridge for boarding first rates. And just last week, there’s so many of them now, the Battle of Tsushima of 1905 fought between the Russians and the Japanese in huge steel battleships; one of the most decisive and fascinating naval battles in history.

    Do please follow the Society for Nautical Research on social media. You can find the SNR at Twitter and on Facebook, and the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast has its own YouTube channel with some fascinating animations on it, and also its own Instagram page. Best of all, though, please check us out online @snr.org.uk And please, if you’re not a member already do join the society and your annual subscription, modest as it is, will go towards publishing the most important maritime history and towards preserving our maritime past.

Category: |