On This Day – 31 May – The Battle of Jutland

The Battle of Jutland (German: Skagerrakschlacht, the Battle of Skagerrak) was a naval battle fought by the British Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, against the Imperial German Navy’s High Seas Fleet under Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer during the First World War. The battle was fought from 31 May to 1 June 1916 in the North Sea, near the coast of Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula. It was the largest naval battle and the only full-scale clash of battleships in the war. It was the third fleet action between steel battleships, following the smaller but more decisive battles of the Yellow Sea (1904) and Tsushima (1905) during the Russo-Japanese War.

The High Seas Fleet’s intention was to lure out, trap and destroy a portion of the Grand Fleet, as the German naval force was insufficient to openly engage the entire British fleet. This formed part of a larger strategy to break the British blockade of Germany and to allow German mercantile shipping to operate. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy 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 battlecruisers to lure Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty’s battlecruiser 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 30 May Jellicoe sailed with the Grand Fleet to rendezvous with Beatty, passing over the locations of the German submarine picket lines while they were unprepared. The German plan had been delayed, causing further problems for their submarines which had reached the limit of their endurance at sea.

On the afternoon of 31 May, Beatty encountered Hipper’s battlecruiser force long before the Germans had expected. In a running battle, Hipper successfully drew the British vanguard 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 battlecruisers from a force of six battlecruisers and four battleships, against the five ships commanded by Hipper. The battleships, commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Hugh Evan-Thomas, were the last to turn and formed a rear-guard as Beatty withdrew, now drawing the German fleet in pursuit towards the main British positions. Between 18:30, when the sun was lowering on the western horizon, back-lighting the German forces, and nightfall at about 20:30, 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 manoeuvred 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 rear-guard of the Grand Fleet and returned to port.

Both sides claimed victory. The British lost more ships and twice as many sailors, and the British press criticised 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. The Germans’ “fleet in being” continued to pose a threat, requiring the British to keep their battleships concentrated in the North Sea, but the battle confirmed the German policy of avoiding all fleet-to-fleet contact. 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 the United States of America’s declaration of war on Germany.

Subsequent reviews commissioned by the Royal Navy generated strong disagreement between supporters of Jellicoe and Beatty concerning the two admirals’ performance in the battle. Debate over their performance and the significance of the battle continues to this day.

The total loss of life 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.

British

113,300 tons sunk:

  • Battlecruisers Indefatigable, Queen Mary, Invincible
  • Armoured cruisers Black Prince, Warrior, Defence
  • Flotilla leaders Tipperary
  • Destroyers Shark, Sparrowhawk, Turbulent, Ardent, Fortune, Nomad, Nestor

German

62,300 tons sunk:

  • Battlecruiser Lützow
  • Pre-Dreadnought Pommern
  • Light cruisers Frauenlob, Elbing, Rostock, Wiesbaden
  • Destroyers (Heavy torpedo-boats) V48, S35, V27, V4, V29

Selected honours

The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded for valour “in the face of the enemy” to members of the British Empire armed forces. The Ordre pour le Mérite was the Kingdom of Prussia and consequently the German Empire’s highest military order until the end of the First World War.

Pour le Mérite

  • Franz Hipper (SMS Lützow)
  • Reinhard Scheer (SMS Friedrich der Grosse)

Victoria Cross

  • The Hon. Edward Barry Stewart Bingham (HMS Nestor)
  • John Travers Cornwell (HMS Chester)
  • Francis John William Harvey (HMS Lion)
  • Loftus William Jones (HMS Shark)
RNA Norwich

RNA Norwich

The Norwich Branch is one of 300+ branches of the Royal Naval Association world wide. It was commissioned in 1979 and today has a membership of just over 90. It is a registered charity in its own right - the Registered Charity Number is: 1068699

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