The Battle of Jutland: The Largest Naval Clash of World War One

Gerald Toghill

5 mins

12 Jun 2019

The Battle of Jutland, which took place on 31 May to 1 June 1916, saw the world’s largest battle fleets ranged against each other in what was destined to become their swansong.

The intention of the German High Seas Fleet, comprising 22 Battleships, 5 Battlecruisers and a large number of Cruisers, Destroyers and smaller warships, was to lure a part of the British Grand Fleet into a trap and destroy them.

Unfortunately for them, instead of enticing a portion of the Grand Fleet out into the open sea and certain annihilation, they found themselves facing the whole of the Grand Fleet – comprising 28 Battleships, 8 Battlecruisers with Cruisers, Destroyers etc. under the Command of Admiral Jellicoe. In fact, The British Battle Fleet on the 31 May 1916 was the greatest concentration of naval fire-power the world had ever witnessed.

The Grand Fleet sailing in parallel columns during the First World War.

The first salvoes

The opening gambit involved the Battlecruiser Squadrons, the British under Vice Admiral Beatty and the Germans commanded by Vice Admiral Hipper.  Despite a slight numerical advantage, the British had nowhere near the efficiency of the Germans. Within three minutes of engagement three British Battlecruisers had been hit and badly damaged, while British shooting was so bad that initially their shots were falling into the sea as much as a mile beyond the German line.

Eventually, some seven minutes after opening fire, HMS Queen Mary scored two hits on the German Seydlitz, but the German Damage Control, far superior to the British, contained the damage to the turret that had been hit and the ship remained in good fighting order.

With unbelievable inefficiency, British guns continued to fire on the German protagonists with precious little effect. By contrast the British ships suffered drastically. Indefatigable, engaged with the German Von der Tann, was on the receiving end of three shells which, slicing through her armour, plunged deep into her bowels.  Severely damaged, she dropped out of the battle line, then, struck by another salvo, she disappeared in a massive explosion – taking with her all but 2 of her 1,017 crew.

Indefatigable sinking after being struck by shells from Von der Tann.

The 5th Battle Squadron enters the fray

With the exception of HMS Queen Mary, Beatty’s flagging ships had been severely damaged and their prospects were bleak. But relief was at hand with the arrival of the four mighty Battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron with their great 15-inch guns.

Unlike the grossly inefficient Battlecruisers, they immediately found the range and their guns spoke to great effect scoring hit after hit on the Germans. This should have been disastrous for Hipper but, as the saying goes, ‘it never rains but it pours’.

There was a serious design fault with the British 15” shells which, instead of piercing the German armour and exploding inside the target, were disintegrating on impact, expending their energy relatively harmlessly outside the target.  British materials were a terrible let-down.

Now it was the turn of the so far successful Queen Mary to run out of luck.  Three shells struck her, resulting in a tremendous explosion which tore the great ship apart.  With her stern rising into the air there was another massive explosion and she sank out of sight, taking all 1,266 of her crew with her.

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Advantage Germany

It was time for Beatty to beat a hasty retreat with the remnants of his mangled squadron.  Ordering the 5th Battle Squadron to follow, he turned his Flagship in a 180o turn ordering the ships following to turn in succession.

This was a serious tactical error and condemned the ships to steam in single file to the point where the Flagship had manoeuvred to turn 180o, and this within range of the enemy’s guns.  The British ships obligingly steamed onto the exact spot and all the Germans had to do was to concentrate their fire on it.

With the Battleships of the 5th Squadron following suit, the shells poured out of the sky.  Both HMS Barham and HMS Valiant were hit and sustained casualties, while the HMS Malaya, the last in the line passing through this hell-hole, was on the receiving end of a salvo every ten seconds.  Remarkably she suffered only 100 casualties and her main armour remained intact.

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A reversal of fortune

With darkness falling, Barham and Valiant were in a position to engage the German Battlecruisers, inflicting serious damage. Where the men of the German Battlecruisers had been contemptuous of Beatty’s shoddy gunnery, when on the receiving end of the Battleships’ fire they hastily reconsidered.

In the meantime the main Battle Fleets were manoeuvring to engage but Jellicoe was starved of information.  Time and again his Cruisers and Destroyers failed to keep him informed, so that for the most part he was totally unaware of what the Germans were doing or even where they were.  There were desultory engagements from time to time but not the serious battle Jellicoe wanted.

Eventually, due to this lack of communication and the gathering gloom, the High Seas Fleet was able to withdraw into the darkness and gain the sanctuary of their base with much less damage than should have been inflicted upon them.

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Conclusion

Brilliant opening tactics on Jellicoe’s part had delivered the enemy into his hands but an absence of initiative by his subordinates, grave tactical errors, miserable gunnery and material malfunctions, all conspired to rob him of an outstanding victory.

Both sides claimed a victory. The Germans reckoned that they had inflicted far greater losses on the British than they had themselves sustained.  The British claimed a great victory, for never again would the High Seas Fleet attempt to take command of the seas.  From 1 June 1916 the Grand Fleet was in complete and unchallenged command.  The totally cowed German Navy was obliged to turn to their submarine service in an attempt to redress the balance.

Gerald Toghill entered the Royal Navy at the age 15 with HMS Vincent. He served aboard a variety of ships before retiring from the Navy after twenty-five years of service, subsequently pursuing a variety of civilian careers. He has a passion for naval history. ‘Dreadnoughts: An Illustrated History‘, is his first book, published on 15 May 2019 by Amberley Publishing