In August 1914 the German High Seas Fleet was outnumbered and outgunned by the British Grand Fleet. The Royal Navy had more modern battleships and battlecruisers, and so any major sea battle would lead to defeat for Germany. In order to erode this superiority, German warships made forays into the North Sea, bombarding coastal towns such as Great Yarmouth and Hartlepool, hoping to lure out British warships which could be attacked by submarines or led into a stronger German force waiting over the horizon.
After several engagements over the course of 1915 and early 1916, a full-scale battle became increasingly likely. Sailors on both sides were impatient for 'Der Tag', the day when the world's strongest fleets would finally clash.
From the early stages of the conflict, British naval intelligence was able to decrypt German radio messages and gain vital information about the movements of the enemy fleet. On 30 May 1916, the Admiralty intercepted German communications which were decoded by a facility known as 'Room 40'. They revealed that the High Seas Fleet was preparing to sail.
Admiral Scheer - pictured on the right - had initially intended to target Sunderland, but poor weather and technical difficulties meant that the plan was changed. Instead, German warships were ordered to sail north towards the Skagerrak - the waters between Denmark, Norway and Sweden - to threaten merchant shipping. They left Wilhelmshaven at 2am on 31 May 1916.
Before the German fleet had even left harbour, Beatty's battlecruisers were dispatched from the Firth of Forth to act as the British vanguard, followed by warships of the Grand Fleet from Orkney, along with a detachment of battleships from Cromarty, all sailing under the command of Admiral Jellicoe in Iron Duke. Along with cruisers and destroyers, the combined Grand Fleet included 37 battleships and battlecruisers, whereas the German fleet had only 21 of these major warships.
Scheer steamed out into the North Sea unaware of the presence of the British armada. Yet failures of understanding and staff work meant that Jellicoe was led to believe that the High Seas Fleet was still in harbour. He ordered his vessels to slow, preserving fuel but losing time and daylight.
The Battlecruiser Action
On the afternoon of 31 May, the scouting vessels ahead of Beatty's battlecruisers spotted German ships, and at 2.28pm HMS Galatea and HMS Phaeton of the British 1st Light Cruiser Squadron opened fire on German torpedo boats. Shortly before 4.00pm, Beatty's battlecruisers engaged the German scouting force of battlecruisers, commanded by Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper. At this stage, Beatty remained unaware of the presence of the High Seas Fleet, and Hipper sought to lure him south towards Scheer's battleships. For an hour, the two squadrons duelled, accompanied by the boom of guns and a haze of smoke.
While British ships struggled to find their range, they were silhouetted by the sun and presented excellent targets for accurate German gunnery. In many ships, ammunition handling prioritised speed over safety, and propellant charges were left exposed to the blast of a shell strike on the turrets. HMS Indefatigable was hit and engulfed in flame before rolling to port and sinking. Soon afterwards, Queen Mary was obliterated by a series of explosions, leaving only a thick black cloud. Within minutes, more than 2,280 British sailors had been lost.
Destruction of HMS Queen Mary (NMRN)
HMS Lion, Beatty's flagship, could have suffered the same fate, were it not for the preparations before the battle and the actions of Royal Marine Major Francis Harvey. Mortally wounded, he ordered the flooding of a magazine which saved the ship from destruction, before dying of his wounds shortly afterwards.
Destroyers fought in the waters between the two forces, targeting each other as well as attempting to torpedo the larger warships. The destroyer HMS Nestor, under the command of Captain Edward Barry Bingham, led the British attacks. His ship, and HMS Nomad, were severely damaged by shells, and later sunk. Bingham was rescued and taken prisoner.
Having suffered serious casualties, Beatty's force was bolstered by the arrival of a squadron of battleships under the command of Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas, but soon after 4.30pm sailors aboard HMS Southampton of the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron sighted the German High Seas Fleet approaching on the horizon.
Damage to the HMS Southampton (NMRN)
The Run to the North
As soon as the High Seas Fleet was sighted, Beatty's task changed: from seeking to destroy Hipper's battlecruisers, he now had to lead the German fleet north towards Jellicoe's guns. The battlecruiser force turned away, but signalling problems meant that Evan-Thomas' battleships were the last to manoeuvre and were exposed to direct German fire. They then acted as a rear-guard while the German fleet pursued Beatty's force. Among the ships badly damaged were HMS Barham and HMS Malaya, in which severe fires below decks killed or seriously burned more than 100 men.
Shortly after 5.30pm, the vanguards of the main British and German fleets clashed. The 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron, under Rear-Admiral Horace Hood, had been sent to scout ahead of Jellicoe's fleet, while the 1st Cruiser Squadron was patrolling several miles in front of the battleships. HMS Chester, protecting Hood's battlecruisers, took heavy fire and suffered serious casualties among the exposed gun crews.
In a confusing action carried out in a haze of mist and smoke, destroyers again attempted to attack with torpedoes. One British destroyer, HMS Shark, was immobilised, but continued to fire at enemy ships for another hour before sinking. The 1st Cruiser Squadron suffered heavily under German fire: Black Prince lost contact and was later sunk during the night, Warrior was seriously damaged and later sank, while shells hit Defence, detonating magazines and causing explosions which destroyed the ship. There were no survivors among some 900 on board.
Jellicoe was aware that a fleet engagement was forthcoming, but had little reliable information about the whereabouts of the German ships. At 6.15pm he ordered his vessels to redeploy into a line towards the east. It was a risky manoeuvre which took twenty minutes, and the decision was one of the most critical of the war. If successful, it would 'cross the T' and bring to bear all of his vast firepower onto the German ships. If it failed, it could leave his fleet exposed to catastrophic damage.
Meanwhile, the forces of Beatty and Hood continued to engage the German fleet. While Hipper's flagship Lützow sustained serious damage which would later lead to her abandonment and scuttling, German fire hit a turret aboard the battle cruiser HMS Invincible. Her magazines detonated, and the ship exploded and blew in half, sinking rapidly. Over 1,000 men, including Rear-Admiral Hood, were killed.
The Fleets Engage
At 6.30pm, through the evening haze and smoke, lookouts on the foremost German battleships sighted the vague shapes of Jellicoe's battle fleet, formed in a line six miles long arcing from north to east, the full weight of their fire focused on them. Until the distant flashes of their guns began to appear on the horizon, Scheer had been unaware of their presence. After facing heavy fire for only a few minutes, he ordered his ships to turn through 180 degrees and retreat.
Both fleets moved south until around 7pm. With the skies darkening, Scheer turned to the east but once again met the full battle line of Jellicoe's fleet. In this second clash, far greater damage was caused to the German battleships and Scheer ordered an emergency about turn once again. Among the British ships engaged was HMS Caroline, the last surviving vessel from the battle which today can be found at Belfast in Northern Ireland.
In order to protect his ships from being chased down, Scheer sent destroyers, torpedo boats and four battle cruisers to attack the Royal Navy battleships. In what became known as the 'death ride', they sustained heavy damage. As the last daylight faded away, the remaining German ships escaped under smoke screens while the British fleet manoeuvred away from torpedo attacks.
German Battlecruiser Seydlitz on fire (NMRN)
The Night Action
By 9pm, the final engagements between the battleships were over. Unwilling to risk a night battle, Jellicoe deployed his forces to cover Scheer's anticipated escape routes towards the German ports to the south. Instead, the German fleet manoeuvred to the rear of Jellicoe's force, and headed east towards Horns Reef, off the Danish coast.
As the German battleships passed through the lighter British forces, there were several brief but brutal clashes at close range which lasted into the early hours of the morning. Five Royal Navy destroyers were lost, although they torpedoed or damaged several ships including SMS Pommern, which exploded and sank, killing over 800 men. These clashes in the dark proved to be the last of actions of the Battle of Jutland. By dawn on 1 June, the last German vessels had passed astern of the British battleships, and the High Seas Fleet had escaped.
Around 100,000 men fought at Jutland, aboard some 150 Royal Navy and 99 German vessels. In all, the British lost 14 ships and more than 6,000 sailors and marines were killed, while the German fleet lost 11 ships and over 2,500 men.
Most of the Royal Navy's dead were lost with their ships, or stitched inside hammocks and committed to the deep. Nearly 675 Royal Navy and over 500 German seamen suffered injuries, including many who were seriously burned. On reaching British shore bases, the wounded were transferred to medical facilities, some succumbing to their injuries despite the best efforts of surgeons and nurses.
Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to Royal Navy personnel. They included Royal Marine Major Francis Harvey of HMS Lion, Commander Loftus Jones of HMS Shark, Commander Edward Barry Bingham of HMS Nestor, and sixteen year-old Jack Cornwell of HMS Chester. Cornwell had remained at his post, manning one of the ship's guns, despite being wounded and seeing the rest of his crew killed or injured. He died in hospital in Grimsby on 2 June 1916. After the battle, David Beatty mentioned Boy Cornwell in his official dispatch, and Jack's story became widely known through the press. As a result of overwhelming public interest, his body was exhumed and reburied with full honours at Manor Park, Essex, on 29 July 1916. Cornwell was the youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross during the First World War.
HMS Lion hit on Q turret (NMRN)
Jutland was the most significant naval confrontation of the First World War. In the aftermath of the battle, German propaganda emphasised the casualty figures and claimed a victory, while the British press began to express dismay that the clash had not resulted in a 'second Trafalgar', and the annihilation of the German fleet.
Jellicoe's official dispatch was a plain account of the action and losses, and could not describe the tactical and strategic complexities of the outcome. He was, as Churchill would famously write, 'the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon'. Over the following months and years, the Jutland controversy would continue to simmer, with supporters of both Jellicoe and Beatty engaged in often bitter disagreement over the actions of the two principal British officers.
Jutland had maintained the Royal Navy's command of the sea, and the Grand Fleet was soon ready for action again. The damage to the High Seas Fleet proved harder to absorb, and it was several weeks before German warships ventured out once more. There were several near misses, but there was little appetite for another major clash and, by the end of the year, further attempts to erode the Royal Navy's dominance had failed. Unable to succeed with warships, Germany began a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917. Two months later, partly in response, the USA declared war on Germany and entered the conflict on the side of Britain and her Allies.