The Battle of Jutland, which was fough between the English Royal Navy and the German High Fleet on 31 May 1916, holds an enduring fascination for naval warfare historians. It was the first, last and only major sea battle fought between two fleets armed with dreadnought battleships before the advent of radar, the aircraft carrier and widespread use of radio, when the battleship was still the queen of the seas. As such then the Battle of Jutland was the culmination of centuries of naval warfare as well as the last hurrah of the battleship. It was also the only major seabattle of World War I. The other reason that the battle still fascinates historians is that the outcome of the battle was so inconclusive, with both sides claiming victory.
Now to be honest, I myself was never that interested in battleships or naval warfare, certainly not in the Battle of Jutland. However, this book looked interesting enough to take home from the charity shop in which I found it. Long out of print now, Jutland is written by retired Royal Navy captain Donald MacIntyre (D.S.O., 2 bars D.S.C.) and hence looks at the battle largely through British eyes. That said, MacIntyre may tell the story of the battle from a British point of view, but he's honest enough to not make this into some jingoistic tale of Royal Navy derring do. Instead he has created a thorough account of not just the battle, but also of the circumstances in which the battle took place.
MacIntyre starts with explaining the maritime arms race that was taking place between England and Germany before the First World War. England had enjoyed unquestioned naval supremacy for over a century, while Germany was the brash young upstart, unsure of its place in the world and wanting to be the best in everything. Both countries therefore poured a lot of money into building up a first rate navy once the invention of the Dreadnought battleship made all existing battleships in the world obsolete in one stroke..
Strategically speaking, starting a naval arms race with Britain was a huge mistake for Germany, but was pursued because the emperor Wilhelm II wanted Germany to have a strong fleet; ironically enough he was a great Anglophile and may have partially wanted this fleet out of a deepseated feeling of inferiority, which also enveloped the country as a whole. Germany never wanted a war with Britain and did not really need a grand fleet: their most likely adversaries were France and Russia, both of whom needed a land army, not a navy to defeat. Building such a fleet then would only run the risk of drawing Britain into a European war. Nor was it likely that Germany could outbuild Britain in battleships, which indeed it didn't, so the German fleet would not even be able to guarantee freedom of the seas for its merchant navy or to prevent a blockade.
And indeed, when war broke out in August 1914, Britain was drawn into it eventually, established a naval blockade of Germany and the German High Fleet was too weak to stop them. However, while weaker than the British navy, it still formed a threat to it. As long as the fleet existed, it could either sent out its ships piecemeal as commerce raiders (as the German fleet would do in World War II) or threaten individual squadrons of the British fleet. Which mean that the British Home Fleet had to stay concentrated at Scapa Flow, ready to sail out once the German High Fleet did so.
The Gemran strategy therefore was to lure part of the British fleet out, by e.g. raiding the British coast well away from Scapa Flow, while the British tried for their part to lure the entire German fleet out by offering tempting targets and then pouncing with their whole fleet. After a few unsuccesful attempts on both sides, described in some detail by MacIntyre, these strategies resulted in the Battle of Jutland.
The Germans attempted to lure the British battlecruiser squadron under Sir David Beatty to their main fleet, while the British tried to use the bait of this battlecruiser squadron to lure the whole German fleet into the path of their main fleet, commanded by Sir John Jellicoe. The British plan almost worked. The two battlecruiser squadrons met and exchanged fire in which the Germans got the better of the British due to a number of factors: better fire drill, better armour, etc. Once the main body of the German fleet was sighted, Beatty broke contact and attempted to lure the German fleet into the path of Jellicoe's fleet. This almost succeeded and a brief but intensive action between the two main fleets broke out, after which the Germans turned back home and succeeded in doing so...
After the battle both sides claimed victory, though in reality neither succeeded in achieving their goals. The British had not destroyed the German High Fleet but neither had the Germans reduced the British naval superiority and they would never attempt to do so again. The battle did however draw attention to some very seriosu flaws in the British fleet and ships. Their armour piercing shells fell short of the German ships' armour, while the communication between British ships and the commanders was less then adequate. It was also shown that the gunnery organisation on the German side was superior to the British.
Worse though may have been the psychological shock to the British. For the first time in literally centuries a major naval battle did not end in a British victory and a British admiral did not vigerously pursue a fleeing enemy. It meant the end of Jellicoe's career, though MacIntyre is not slow in criticising Beatty either for being bullheaded and glory seeking. On the wider war, the battle had little influence: there was still a standoff between the British and German fleets in the North Sea, the British blockade was intact but the German fleet was still a threat. In the end of course Germany went for unlimited submarine warfare in an attempt to do the same to Britain as Britain did to Germany while her surface fleet sat out the rest of the war...
Webpage created 10-12-2004, last updated 12-11-2006