Great Sea Fights: The Battle of Jutland, 1916 Part 2 – The German Accounts

June 2021

Today we have Part 2 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. Part 1 outlined the events and included a fantastic interview with Dr Stephan Huck, head of the excellent German Naval Museum in Wilhelmshaven. Today we are exploring in more detail the German perspective with a number of eyewitness German accounts of the battle. The accounts are read both in English and their original German. Part 3 will follow soon and will introduce you to a host of British eyewitness accounts.

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    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 II of our 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. Part I outlined the events and included a fantastic interview with Dr Stephan Huck of the excellent German Naval Museum in Wilhelmshaven. Today, we are exploring in more detail the German perspective with a number of eyewitness German accounts of the battle. Part III will follow soon and will introduce you to a host of English eyewitness accounts. So now to the German accounts, these are read in English but at the end of the podcast, you can hear them all read in their original German, which even if you don’t speak German, I’d urge you to listen to as it is both lyrical and evocative, and the most powerful and immediate way to realize both how different but also how similar the two sides were on that day. We begin with five short accounts and then go back to two of those diarists to hear lengthier excerpts from their diaries which provide fascinating context to the war and the development of the German Navy. These accounts have been provided with the kind help of the German Naval Museum in Wilhelmshaven. So, if you want to express your gratitude, go and visit when you can. I certainly shall be and many, many thanks to Stephan Huck, and Suzanne Foxley. The first account comes from Seaman Rupert Berger of the Dreadnought battleship SMS Nassau, and he described the tense waiting for the battle. Berger was born in 1896 in Traunstein, Upper Bavaria and join the youth division of the Imperial Navy in 1912. He’s one of the few surviving combatants in the Imperial Navy to keep a war diary, and he finds the anticipation before the start of the battle, particularly oppressive.

    Rupert Berger

    A strange oppressive feeling took hold of everyone. Besides me, there was still a coxswain’s mate and a machinist’s mate, and a stoker in the steering room. No one said a word. Each man concentrated on his own task at hand. The minutes dragged on, and no shots were fired. This smothering feeling before the battle is unbearable. I tried to force all thoughts from my mind. I said some ‘our fathers’ for our victory and a happy homecoming. Time passed very slowly. In an attempt to rid myself of my tormenting thoughts, I began to read a Wilhelmshaven newspaper that laid crumpled in a corner. A sharp bang penetrated down to us, the ship keeled to the side, we had shot our first salvo; with the first shot, the oppressive feeling receded and the others became talkative again.

    Sam Willis

    The second account is from Johan Carl Groth, lead gunner on board the battlecruiser Lutzow. He writes to his family describing the terrible injuries and destruction which was caused by the heavy shelling of the Lutzow during the main battle.

    Johan Carl Groth

    The sailor Verino, from the reserve operation, lay buried under the debris. He seemed to hear my voice and he asked me if I would help him; he could not get out alone. He wasn’t injured, he said. After much effort, I managed to clear away enough rubble so as to pull him out. But he made for a sorry sight; both his legs were torn off at the knees and his left arm at the elbow.

    Sam Willis

    The third account comes from leading seaman Carl Richard Linke of the battleship SMS Helgoland and explores how he experienced the movements undertaken by Vice Admiral Scheer during the battle. Linker was born in 1889 in Forst, the son of peasant farmers. A few years later, his father founded a bicycle shop. The father’s vocation became the son’s passion; Richard joined a cycling club and completed an apprenticeship as a mechanic. He started his military service in 1911 on the Helgoland with plans to become a cycle factory manager when his service was over. But the First World War laid waste to his plans. He recorded his experiences of the war in detail, there’s always a great deal of scepticism in his reports, particularly so, with his account of the Battle of Jutland. The world beyond the war, and beyond his military service is a constant presence in his diaries. Just a year after Jutland, Linker was wrongly accused of political activity. He was arrested during the naval unrest that plagued the German Navy in the subsequent months and was sentenced to six years in prison.

    Carl Richard Linke

    It is around 7:30 am. Our torpedo boats go on the attack and because we cannot fire, we are forced to remain inactive. Our cruisers pursue the enemy. Suddenly, at 740, the compass starts to dance, it turns into we’re actually steering the opposite course. So as our cruisers go forward, we go back. We were gratified to see, however, that the compass did not point long the opposite course. Soon it turned back to the old course. To our surprise, we have gone round in a circle, but it is a mystery to us what purpose that served in the battle. Our discussion of this peculiar course of events was interrupted at 8:19 am by new commands.

    Sam Willis

    The fourth account comes from Seaman Richard Stumpf, who like Carl Linker, is onboard the battleship Helgoland. Stumpf was born in Grafenurg in 1892. And after completing an apprenticeship as a tinsmith, he joined the Helgoland at Wilhelmshaven in 1912. From that moment on, he diligently kept a diary, and his written memories now count as among the most important sources for the naval history of the German Empire. His account of Jutland is full of anguish but also reflects his increasing dissatisfaction with conditions on board. After the war, Stumpf became a political author and is heard as an expert witness in a committee set up to establish the causes of the collapse of the German Empire.

    Seaman Richard Stumpf

    If it were my task to describe the grandiose spectacle that now presented itself to my eyes, as I felt it inside me, it would result in a painting of the most vivid colours. I would have put the most reluctant sentiments on paper, and I am convinced that it is impossible for a person to reproduce those feelings and thoughts precisely as they assailed him in that baptism of fire. I’d be lying if I said that I was afraid: no, it was an indefinable mixture of joy, fear, curiosity, indifference, and something else that the word ‘thirst for action’ cannot express quite correctly.

    Sam Willis

    The final short account is from head stoker Hugo Zenne of the light cruiser Wiesbaden. Zenne reports to the naval attach in Norway a few days after the Battle of Jutland, on the topic of the sinking of the Wiesbaden in the early morning of the 1st of June 1916, and the desperate struggle for survival on the open ocean, which only he survived.

    Hugo Zenne

    Around 3 am the SMS Wiesbaden listed to starboard a little more: lifeboats were let down aft, it was already quite bright. A cruiser and a destroyer with four funnels came into view but took no notice of us. The ship listed further and further. We all went aft down to the rafts, the seriously wounded had to be left behind. All of a sudden, the Wiesbaden, with a fluttering flag had suddenly disappeared. I clung on to a floating raft with around 10 men. I felt nauseous and had to throw up, then my head was clear again. Gradually our strength gave way and one after the other let go; finally, we were three men. We then sat on the raft. Suddenly it capsized and one of us didn’t come up again.

    Sam Willis

    We are now going back to hear more from the diaries of seaman Richard Stumpf and leading seaman Carl Richard Linke, as their accounts are so rich and provide crucial context to the battle. First up here’s Carl Richard Linke, on the 31st of May 1914, just before the outbreak of the war.

    Carl Richard Linke

    We had to break off our summer trip because of the menacing Austrian Serbian war, and we had all been looking forward to it so much because the autumn manoeuvre was to be coupled to it. During this time, we had hoped to stay as bathing guests, and in mid-September, after three months, we would have been discharged from service to home. First thing after arriving in Wilhelmshaven was a warlike colling. When I went on land yesterday, everything seemed no different from before. There was also a lot to be heard, from which little could be learned. Some claimed it will definitely come to a war because Russia would already be mobilizing and we would then have to stand by them, according to our treaty. Others claimed the danger of war had been settled through the negotiation of our Kaiser. In the shipyard, the old, decommissioned cruisers that lie in the graveyard are being rigged up. At the beach, some searchlights are being set up, and some tugboats are already bringing in the buoys. When I came up from below deck on the SMS Heligoland, our deck seemed entirely unfamiliar to me. The boats along with their rigging, and cleats were no longer aboard, as were the steel ropes and moorings with their wheels. Along with them, a few comfy chatting and seating areas had disappeared. The whole upper deck seems bigger, almost creepy. Our benches are no longer on board, and in front of the vessel, are three pianos waiting for whatever will come. In the afternoon, about 4 pm, the order was given to pack up the duffel bags, because these were also all to be taken. I prefer to keep all my things and have thus brought them into my storeroom.

    Sam Willis

    Now here’s Linke on the 6th of June 1915, writing about everyday life on board.

    Carl Richard Linke

    Lately, I have occupied myself a lot by reading because one then, in part, forgets this whole wretched life. I think that one gains more by purchasing an informative and interesting book than by undertaking a trip because one can read a book repeatedly after a certain time, and thus has free entertainment. The reading of novels is entertaining, but it is a waste of time as one does not have much use of them afterwards. My year cannot enjoy their time onboard anymore. We want to disembark onto some other tub: to Flanders or somewhere, but one will not let us go, even if only for the sake of annoying us. If our superiors only had a kind word for us or recognition for being here, words are so cheap, and everyone needs recognition if all good qualities are not to be put to sleep by boredom – this simple rule of life is known to all except our superiors. The service we are giving here can be done by others because it merely consists of labour service, physical exercises, cannon hop and inspections in Sunday best, inspections in combat suit, inspections in white, inspections with utensils, inspections with duffle bags, inspections and inspections again.

    Sam Willis

    Here’s Linke again at the beginning of the Battle of Jutland

    Carl Richard Linke

    Last night, we clashed with the English for the first time, and we had a row of engagements within that dragged on until the dawn. The starboard watch was relieved at three o’clock. I sat around the chimney coat with my more intimate comrades because I had been at my battle station since mid-day, and as air circulation is shut down at sea in the liaison office, I had a desire for fresh air and daylight. Because of our, until then, more than negative connotations with war, we were not very optimistic. But when around five o’clock, [translate] was called, we did exchange our home addresses amongst each other. And in case one or other of us might turn into sea mud, we would send message home: ‘shell piece to the head or the heart dead upon the spot’. We agreed to meet up between the aft towers should we need to disembark – then we split up.

    Sam Willis

    On the 18th of February 1917, Linke writes about the unequal treatment of officers and crew.

    Carl Richard Linke

    Strong embedment was present on board due to the unequal distribution of foodstuffs. Whilst there was very little bread, nearly no fat, but all the more swedes for the crew, our officers never attempted any restrictions. When 1100 sorted herrings were bought for the 1100 men on board, we had to share with the warrant officers. This was no Christian sharing, but a military one in which the warrant officers acquired one barrel and generously left us the other. Whilst the warrant officers thus got 25 hearings per person, we had to share one hearing between two of us, but in a Christian fashion, not split in head and tail, but in a left and right side. This is how material wants and political worries about the future pressed down on the minds of the crew. Additionally, the monotony and loneliness of life on board, caused by isolation from the outside world, encouraged imagination. In general, it was thought that we should not lose the war; but we were also not obliged to die for our fatherland through starvation because the officers were dealing part of our rations that we were entitled to behind our backs. That was treason. In addition, they were attempting to draw out the war into all eternity, with their all-German anti-government propaganda. That is why it is not a crime when one steals back the stolen foodstuffs.

    Sam Willis

    Upon his release from prison, Linke talks to his comrades from the SMS Helgoland on the 9th of November 1918.

    Carl Richard Linke

    Comrades, after so many adventurous trips we have met here again. When we were ripped apart a year ago, we chatted about the history of the Balkans, now we are talking about the history of Germany; yes, maybe we are even making world history. The resistance against the planned advance of the fleet has grown to a highly political movement, which is like a hot flame spreading across our country from the Jade; she is rising above us to heights. We only notice her as a smooth warm, but in high places, her burning embers are melting crowns. Since the Wurrtembergers have already renounced the crown, the news just came in that the Hohenzollern have also abdicated. Once the Emperor promised people to lead us to glorious times; he led us along the path from Jenna to Tilsit, but it will not have been glorious times which he led us to. However, for him also, his glorious days are over days of spring parades with a vivacious army and ceremonial trumpet marches with their white trousers and ponytails. The days of the keel week, of the Nord land and Mediterranean trips, are over.

    Sam Willis

    Now we hear once more from Richard Stumpf, who like Linke was on board the battleship Helgoland. On the 28th of July 1914, he writes about the approaching war.

    Richard Stumpf

    We were just sitting at table when the well-known whistle sounded all men astern, something was up everyone realized. The first officer corvette Captain Laffert let us race up and then held the following speech: “as you all know, three weeks ago, the Austrian heir to the throne and his wife were murdered in Sarajevo. The murderers were Serbs and carried out the attack with the support and aid of their government. In consequence, Austria felt it necessary to demand certain guarantees against the Serbian participators. Those involved should be held responsible and single organisations and parts of the press suppressed. Our allies set a deadline of 48 hours to fulfil his demands. The time passed without results upon which the Austrian envoy in Belgrade handed over a declaration of war in the name of his government and left. At the same time, the Serbian envoys in Vienna were given their passports. Our alliance with Austria will only be relevant when a third country Russia gets involved. There is not the least reason to worry about this at present”. What a shame I thought, “For us, it is mainly about quickly finishing our colling; every half-hour is worth gold. I have telegraphed to the commanding officer’s fleet flagship that we will be finished by half nine. This will only be possible if you go to work with full strength. We need another 500 tons – we must finish. If it works, I will pay each of you one mark in cash”. A cheerful hooray rewarded the officer for his rather heartfelt words.

    Sam Willis

    On the 15th of March 1915, he writes about everyday life and supplies onboard.

    Richard Stumpf

    In general, these military trips with these ones is trying to distract us by making us march up and down the dike a little bit in set rows, or by making us lie down in the dirt on the parade grounds. I’m really not against such physical exercises, they’re even rather healthy if they are done in a useful and purposeful manner. Our comrades are also lying out there in the dirt in wind and weather, but at least they know why they’re doing it. We don’t. Supplies are also running low, like everywhere in Germany, but nobody complains about it. Everyone knows it must be. We have to limit ourselves if we really want to endure. Bread rations have been reduced by half – a bit much if you consider what role bread has taken on in our current supplies. In the mornings at coffee and evenings for tea, bread and butter is the only addition. Even so, it is still alright – a little bit of hunger doesn’t change anything; one often gets a little packet of foodstuffs from home.

    Sam Willis

    At the Battle of Jutland, he writes his experiences of the first day’s battle on the 31st of May 1916.

    Richard Stumpf

    I would have to lie if I were to say that I was scared. No, it was an undefinable mixture of joy, fears, curiosity, indifference, and something else that might not be described that well by the word ‘Tatendrang’ (thirst for action). But what a view my eyes saw, one may imagine a pitch-black area in which a match lights up every few moments. There were two groups where the matches lit up frequently – in any case, cruisers or destroyers. They must, however, have been very far away because there was no thundering of cannons to be heard. Loud talking on the bridge was deprecated, who did speak to his neighbour did so quietly in a secretive tone. All senses were heightened, for at any moment the torpedo boats could appear. There they are! From the front one, the glowing fingers shot into a grey thing and latched on to it. A giant flame shot out of all cannons 1: 2: 3: the impact went over the top too far. Another volley and this one hit.

    Sam Willis

    The following October Richard Stumpf explains why he cannot respect a majority of the officers.

    Richard Stumpf

    I met with such mountains of stupidity and malice in my superiors that I finally gave up the unequal fight and tired and embittered, endured everything. From people who are much less educated than I was, I was supposed to simply accept the roughest of insults without protest. But I did not and bluntly told every idiot my opinion: told everyone who wanted to harass me why would not recognize him as my superior and the reasons why I had no respect for him as a human being; and flooded him in his mistakes with unrelenting corrosive ridicule. That is why to this day I have not even made the cut as leading seaman, like most of my comrades. Personally, I don’t give a damn. The picture would not be complete if I did not add that even under my superiors there are some that earn not only respect but also love – but there are only a few. The military results in ruining one’s character and softening one’s bones. Those who have silently swallowed every thinkable, meanness and have no opinion of their own are considered good, capable, useful soldiers.

    Sam Willis

    Ten days after the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, on the 1st of November 1918, Richard Stumpf analyses his situation.

    Richard Stumpf

    We are already living the 10th day of this new freedom. But still pure joy about this does not want to overcome us. The worry about what will come is resting on everyone’s minds too much. Only a few know they shall have a regular and worthwhile work, there are plenty of pessimists who paint the future in the darkest colours. We hear terrible things of the riots of the rear echelon troops. Undoubtedly among us, there are also enough people only waiting for the signal to start plundering – then woe to the businessmen. There is no shortage of hate towards them as they only treated the soldiers as objects to be plundered. Thankfully, at present, there is a great point of distraction, which lets one forget everything else. Going home – just leaving here. That is what everything is about. Every thinkable push is undertaken just to get away. As if everything were dependent on a few days. The soldier’s council can do nothing else but say yes to everything: it does not have any true authority. If the gentlemen were seriously to stand up against some demand, they would be laughed at. One thing is certain under such a regime, we would not have been able to wage war for four months, let alone four years. Out of necessity earlier authorities are starting to take up their positions again. Elsewhere, it is always the loudest and most radical shouters that are likely to move up.

    Sam Willis

    Well, that’s it for the German accounts. I hope you enjoyed them. And if you want to hear them in the original German, which I would urge you all to do, please listen right to the very end of this podcast. For those of you who are too busy, well, thanks for listening anyway, do please catch up with everything that we’ve been doing @snr.org.uk. And if you’ve enjoyed this episode on a ‘Great Sea Fight’, please do check out the previous episodes in this series. We’ve got episodes on the Battle of the River Plate, the Battle of Cape St Vincent and the Battle of Tsushima. And please do find the Society for Nautical Research and the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast on social media. In particular, do seek out the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast on YouTube, where there are some excellent and innovative animations bringing the maritime past to you like never before. Most of all, please, please, join the Society for Nautical Research: your subscription will go towards publishing the most important maritime history and to preserving our maritime past. So now to finish off, here are those German accounts in their original German.