The battle of jutland is the largest naval battle of World War I, between the British and German fleets, on May 31 and June 1, 1916. As the war on land becomes mired in the trenches and then hell of Verdun, the clash has not yet taken place at sea between the two European rivals, the British Empire and the German Empire. It was at the end of May 1916, off the coast of Denmark, that their fleets finally met.
German and British strategies
The beginning of the 20th century saw the German Empire become a serious competitor to British power. This is particularly the case in the field of the navy, with the decisive influence of Grand Admiral Alfred Von Tirpitz (1849-1930) who will move the Hochseeflotte from sixth to second place among naval powers, just behind England, by a series of laws between 1898 and 1908. However, Kaiser Wilhelm II refused him the right to face the British fleet when the war had started ...
Two strategies clash at the start of the conflict: the British believe in a war of attrition (thanks to their mastery of seas and strategic straits), the Germans in lightning war (especially since they have long hoped for a neutrality of the part of the English); strategies which obviously have their influence on the maritime domain.
On the German side, there is quickly a dilemma: should we use Tirpitz's remarkable weapon, or keep it as a threat for possible negotiations? The first option is risky because, despite the progress of the German fleet, the Allies do have mastery of the seas and it would take a significant effort (and the risks that go with it) to challenge them. The chosen strategy is therefore defensive, to the chagrin of Admiral Tirpitz: the fleet must protect the coasts, support the land offensive and all the same begin to wear down the enemy navy, dividing it with targeted attacks. It’s a racing war, although it doesn’t go as far as the one started in 1939 ...
On the British side, the Grand Fleet is vital for the very survival of England! Its role is above all to maintain communications between Great Britain, its Empire and the rest of the world. This control of communications also serves to isolate the German enemy, through the blockade. But the growing submarine threat and the underestimated system of mines (the Jutland area is very conducive to it) undermine this strategy. This forces the Admiralty to keep its ships in ports and watch any enemy sorties to counterattack. That’s exactly what’s going to happen off the Jutland Peninsula.
The forces in Jutland
As we have seen, Tirpitz's policy greatly improved the German navy, making it the first rival of the British fleet. However, it still has a good head start, especially in quantitative terms: Admiral Jellicoe's Grand Fleet has twenty-nine dreadnoughts (including the flagship Iron duke), five battle cruisers, eight battleship cruisers, fourteen light cruisers, and dozens of destroyers, all organized into five "battle" squadrons and a lighting force of three squadrons (plus torpedo flotillas). To this must be added the Channel Fleet, which acts in coordination with the French navy, and which is made up of old battleships and destroyers, even if it is far from Jutland, theater of the battle to come.
Germany, on the other hand, can field thirteen modern and twenty-two ancient battleships, four battle cruisers, fourteen modern and five ancient cruisers, eighty-eight torpedo boats and twenty-eight submarines; Most of it is concentrated in the Hochseeflotte, commanded by Admiral von Ingenohl (later Pohl), which made Jutland one of its strategic areas.
While the number is therefore largely in favor of the British, especially on heavy vessels, the quality is different. First, it is artillery, where the Germans are clearly superior, whether in terms of precision, reliability, speed of fire or the quality of the shells! In addition, torpedoes and submarines, but also mines, are of better quality on the German side.
We can therefore say that the confrontation that looms is far from over in advance ...
The beginnings ofnaval battle of jutland appear at the beginning of 1916, first with changes in the command of the Hochseeflotte, then with the first German attacks aimed at preparing the naval offensive which must be swift and decisive. But the British secret services are watching ...
Von Scheer and the Zeppelins
The first important moment in the coming battle was the appointment of Vice-Admiral Reinhard von Scheer to the head of the Hochseeflot in January 1916. Unlike Pohl, his predecessor, Scheer was in favor of a more offensive strategy. His British counterpart, John Jellicoe, is on the other hand, as the navy is so crucial to England's survival, and he sees a massive clash between the two fleets as only "the last resort."
Scheer intends to take advantage of what he considers to be reluctance on the part of the enemy: without engaging the bulk of his fleet, he gets to be able to exert more aggressive pressure against Great Britain, by the action of the under -marines against communications, by exits of its ships to attract a divided British fleet into its waters, and finally by bombardment on English soil in retaliation for the blockade. This is where the Zeppelins come into action, which in January 1916 blindly bombarded Liverpool! Airships also used as reconnaissance vehicles to avoid being surprised by the Grand Fleet.
Over the next few weeks, Scheer launched further offensives to test enemy defenses, primarily with torpedo boats. This begins to embarrass the British because the pursuits fail on their nightmare, the dreaded German minefields! British opinion rises that its fleet does not manage to protect its coasts, and a degree is crossed when Scheer, covered by the bombardment of Zeppelins on the south and the east of England, manages to bring about twenty ships of the line off Zeebrugge; but fortunately for England he does not dare to go as far as Pas-de-Calais ... Raids are organized to destroy the airship factories, without success. Vice-Admiral Beatty, known for his spirit of initiative, tries with his battle cruisers to counterattack in his turn; Scheer saw the opportunity to trap him and deal a major blow to the English fleet, but bad weather dissuaded him from pushing his efforts any further, despite some skirmishes.
Such is taken who believed to take?
The month of April saw the intensification of German airstrikes, to the chagrin of the civilian population. Scheer actually intends to push Beatty into error, get him out and attack him in redundancy with the Hochseefleet and the help of the submarines. At the end of April, the German vice-admiral sends out his entire fleet, but the British secret services, which have deciphered the enemy's messages, allow the Grand Fleet not to be surprised; she sets course for Heligoland. But, once again, Scheer's haze and caution postpones the big fight after a few shots exchanged between the cruisers.
It was only partly postponed as the pressure weighs on the two commanders: the English population is exasperated that its fleet cannot protect it from raids, and on the German side the abandonment of excessive submarine warfare (under the American threat ) puts all hopes on a decisive action by the Hochseeflotte. Jellicoe, despite his (too?) Cautious character, must resolve to a confrontation, which Scheer hopes but obviously with the initiative.
On May 30, British intelligence informed the Admiralty that the enemy fleet was regrouping, and the order was given to set anchor. For his part, Scheer is totally unaware that the English are aware of his movements, and that he will fall into the trap he intended to set! Scheer's "carrot" is Rear Admiral Hipper's squadron, which is to remain in North Jutland, the aim being once again to attractBeatty, British vanguard and isolated from the Grand Fleet.
Despite the intelligence, the British made several mistakes, and the fate seemed to turn in Scheer's favor: first, the trap against Beatty worked, because he was not waiting for the Grand Fleet to rush towards Hipper who was swooping towards Jutland; indeed, the Admiralty does not know that Scheer, if he has sailed, is also not far south of Hipper's position. Then, a confusion of transmissions led Jellicoe to deprive himself of his transport of seaplanes, which was to provide lighting for his fleet. Fortunately for the English, Scheer must in turn deprive himself of aerial reconnaissance, but also of submarines, incapable of damaging the enemy fleet and above all of preventing his exit from the roadsteads!
The first shots and the first victim
Beatty arrives at his meeting point near Jutland, and positions himself to "receive" Hipper's squadron. He is sure of his strength, in fact he has six battle cruisers and four dreadnoughts, while opposite Hipper should only field five battle cruisers. But a coincidence then intervenes which makes these battles so legendary: a Danish freighter passing by is simultaneously spotted by the two squadrons which then send a vanguard for confirmation; of course, they keep track of each other! The fight begins, and it's the British cruiserGalatea which received the first shell of the Battle of Jutland.
The British squadron was surprised and Beatty, who was already not well placed at the start, was forced to detach his battle cruisers from his dreadnoughts in order to retaliate under better conditions. Confusion is once again great on both sides, and the fleets still come together for confrontation; but Hipper managed to steer Beatty south so that they both headed straight for the Hochseefleet! Meanwhile, the Grand Fleet accelerates the pace to come to the aid of its vice-admiral ...
The two squadrons advance in parallel lines, separated by 18,000 meters, theLion by Beatty and theLützow of Hipper at the top of each. The German cruiser opened fire first, followed by the leading British ships. Beatty has the numerical advantage, but the German orders are more precise, as are the shots: the English flagship and thePrincess Royalare hit twice, theTiger four times ! It's the latter and theLion which suffer the most serious damage. Fortunately, theQueen mary manages to touch theSeydlitzand lessen his shot, then theLützow is affected in turn. It is 4 p.m., the fight has not started for a quarter of an hour since theLion is once again struck very violently, and put almost out of action! But this is the cruiserIndefatigable, stunned by theVon Der Tann,who is the first victim of the Battle of Jutland: he capsizes with almost 1000 men (there will only be two survivors rescued)!
The arrival of British dreadnoughts off Jutland
The fray continues, more and more confused, especially with the decision of the German cruiserMoltke to launch torpedoes. Rear Admiral Hipper then tries to increase his initiative by approaching the enemy, but he finds himself under the threat of the armored squadron (the dreadnoughts) that Beatty must have left behind and who finally joined him! This squadron is made up of the most recent heavy ships of the English navy, and it is therefore a heavy reinforcement for Beatty, struck by Hipper's attack: theBarham open fire on theVon Der Tann,followed by theValiant, theWarspite and theMalaya which also target theMoltke. This gives Beatty a break, and Hipper cannot deliver the final blow: the intensity of the fight decreases ...
The fight however resumes more violently as Hipper has managed to get closer once again: theLionis hit hard, just like the German side theVon Der Tannand theSeydlitz. However, the latter, helped by theDerfflinger, focuses his shot on theQueen mary ; the one explodes at 4:26 p.m.! If most of the German ships suffered damage, the British already deplore the loss of two cruisers… But Beatty still refuses to withdraw.
The Hochseeflotte is in sight
Then it's up to the light vessels, the torpedo boats, to join in. Then begins a furious ballet between these fast and agile ships which exchange blow for blow. The British take the advantage, hitting the German cruisers, forcing them to deflect the fire of their English rivals. It was about time, because Scheer's Hochseefleet is already in sight! It is barely 5 pm, the English have lost two cruisers and two destroyers, the Germans two of these light ships also, but none heavy; however, several of their cruisers saw their firepower diminished by the hits, and without Scheer's arrival Hipper's squadron was at great risk. The Battle of Jutland is not over.
The appearance of the Hochseeflotte obviously does not reassure Beatty, who then tries to drag Scheer and Hipper towards the North of the Jutland region, right on the Grand Fleet. Indeed, the Germans still do not know that Jellicoe's fleet has set sail. But transmission errors still intervene, and the English fleet is partly disorganized and divided: the armored squadron (that of theBarham) must engage the Hochseeflotte, while Beatty attempts to join the Grand Fleet. TheWarspiteis hit hard, but it is mostly theMalaya who takes the blows ofKonig. Fortunately, the damage was not decisive and the result was not very heavy, much to the dismay of the Germans. Beatty can then breathe a little. It is 5:15 p.m.
The shooting resumed less than a quarter of an hour later, entering on one side theLion (very damaged), thePrincess Royal, theTiger, theNew Zealand, and on the other theLützow, theSeydlitz and theDerfflinger. The German flagship is hit hard, and Hipper must withdraw! At the same time, Rear Admiral Hood's squadron arrives, forcing the German commander to try to rejoin the Hochseeflotte. Beatty, he receives the support of the cruisersChesterandCanterbury; but the former is a little too reckless and, assailed by German fire, he owes his salvation only to the help ofThe Invincible. The Grand Fleet is meanwhile deploying in a bit of confusion, as the Germans understand its arrival too late.
It was then that theDefense, an old English cruiser who wants to join in the battle, while not level with enemy ships; accompanied byWarrior, he adds to the confusion by wanting to complete theWiesbaden ! Caught under fire fromLützow, he explodes and disappears with all his crew! It takes little for his companion to suffer the same fate, but he is saved by the unintentional intervention of the dreadnoughtWarspite : the latter, hit at the rudder, found himself a priority target for the Germans, and theWarrior can withdraw!
Scheer facing Jellicoe
The Grand Fleet, it finally arrives in the fray of Jutland placing itself with difficulty, andthe Iron Dukeopens fire at 6:23 pm, with some success; unfortunately, other vessels have reduced visibility, and Jellicoe cannot take full advantage of his tactical advantage; however, he decides to maneuver to keep the enemy fleet to his west, as Scheer quickly realizes that he will not be able to resist for long with this unexpected arrival of Jellicoe.
Hood's squadron has since fully entered the battle and attacked Hipper's ships; this one retaliates with theLützowand theKonig : Hood's flagship,the Invincible, is struck to death! This is the fourth victim of the Germans ... against zero!
The Hochseeflotte tries to get in the best position to withdraw safely, far from Jutland: Scheer carries out complicated but carefully prepared maneuvers to attract the enemy by taking advantage of the success of Hipper's cruisers (who must abandon theLützow too damaged), while avoiding being outnumbered. But shortly before 7:00 p.m., the Vice-Admiral attempted a blow he knew nothing about: he tacked to tack straight into the center of the arc formed by the Grand Fleet! Scheer explains in his memoir that he decided on this maneuver to keep the initiative before dark, when he risked being put in difficulty by the enemy; the only way he thought was to surprise the opponent.
The British fleet thus sees the German cruisers approaching, and its vanguard, made up among others of the cruisersHercules andColossusfired: theDerfflinger and theSeydlitzcome under heavy fire and take severe blows from a total of thirteen enemy buildings! TheVon Der Tann, he must resist the fire ofValiant andMalaya… They are soon joined bythe Iron Duke. Scheer's maneuver has therefore failed, and his fleet is trapped under constant fire that threatens to annihilate him; he then decides to do an about-face again but above all to sacrifice his battle cruisers: "Order the battle cruisers to run on the enemy by engaging fully! Charge, ram! ". He wants to save the rest of his fleet from total annihilation. Once again, it was the torpedo boats that stood out: escorting the battle cruisers, they charged up the British fleet to cover Scheer's retreat as well. Their torpedoes threaten the English ships of the lines and they must push them back by concentrating their fire on them; Jellicoe is even forced to change course and move away from the enemy: he loses the opportunity to really stay in contact with Scheer, and therefore the chance to annihilate him ...
Fighting in the middle of the night
As night falls off Jutland, German hopes remain: Scheer is in his element against a Jellicoe who prefers to remain cautious. The fighting resumes, sporadic and just as confused as during the day. Scheer tries to avoid the encirclement, Jellicoe follows him, trying to hit him without taking too much risk.
These are the light cruisers who resume combat after 10 p.m.Southampton manages to sink theFrauenlob. It is then the English destroyers who light up the night with their fire by launching new attacks. The cruiserBlack prince is less successful: he has lost contact with the Grand Fleet and is unlucky when he comes face to face with 1time German battleship squadron! Shortly after midnight, it exploded under fire fromThüringen, ofNassau andFriedrich der Grosse… The attacks of the British destroyers did not cease, however, and they were finally rewarded when a torpedo sent the battleship down.Pommern ; it is 2:10. Meanwhile, theLützow was abandoned and scuttled.
The results of the Battle of Jutland
The Battle of Jutland is over: the Hochseeflotte has managed to regain its waters, and Jellicoe knows there is no point in pushing. The results are impressive: in the waters of Jutland, the British have definitely lost the battle cruisersQueen mary, Indefatigable andInvincible, the battleship cruisersDefense, Warrior andBlack prince and eight destroyers for more than 6,000 dead (for 60,000 engaged). Germans deplore loss of battle cruiserLützow, ofbattleshipPommern, light cruisersWiesbaden, Elbing, Rostock andFrauenlob as well as five destroyers, for more than 2000 dead (out of 45000 engaged). The Battle of Jutland saw nearly 250 ships clash, over 100,000 men, which fired over 20,000 shells! At points, it is obviously the Hochseeflotte that wins, in particular thanks to its artillery superiority. England has shown its superiority in terms of intelligence, but little more. However, the strategic victory is surely to the advantage of the British: the Grand Fleet retains its ability to defend the coasts and the lines of communication, while imposing a blockade on the Germans; the latter, on the other hand, will no longer dare to take their fleet out of the whole war.
The tragic fate of the Hochseeflotte
The powerful German fleet met an even more tragic fate in 1919: scalded by Jutland, the British forced their enemy to deliver the Hochseefleet to them in their own harbor of Scotland, at Scapa Flow, supreme humiliation! Refusing that his fleet be divided between the victors, Vice-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter ordered the ships to be scuttled on June 21, 1919. The British, surprised, could not prevent more than fifty ships from escaping them! Among them, several heroes of the Battle of Jutland, including theFriedrich der Grosse, theKonig, theSeydlitz, theDerfflinger where theVon der Tann…
- F.E. Brézet: Jutland, 1916: the most formidable battle of all time. Economica Publishing, 1992.
- F. Léomy, The Battle of Jutland, 1916, Socomer editions, 1992.