Battle of Jutland: Biggest ever Battle Involving Surface Ships(1916)
While undergoing the joint services staff course at Wellington(DSSC) one of the battles which formed part of the study was the battle of Jutland between the Royal Navy and the German fleet during World War I.Jutland is a large peninsula off the coast of Denmark. It separates the North Sea from the Baltic.
During World War I, the Royal Navy had blockaded the German ports from access to the North Sea. The Germans were bottled up and unable to restore the sea lanes to the German colonies and other nations. Their access to the Atlantic was denied.
The German ruler Kaiser Wilhelm was conscious of this fact and after due deliberation decided, the only way forward was to break the stranglehold over Germany cast by the Royal Navy. The German navy geared up to the task of a pitched naval battle with the British fleet. The die was cast for the biggest battle on the sea between surface ships. Significantly this was also the last major battle in which the battleship was involved in any decisive result. By the end of the war and the start of World War II, the mantle of the most potent warship on the ocean had passed to the aircraft carrier.
A point to be noted is that Kaiser Wilhelm had one hand tied behind his back with the blockade. `Germany was fast losing its colonies. In addition, the German army after initial victories in France was stuck in what is known as "Trench Warfare." The frontline in France had stabilized and it was imperative for Germany to break the British blockade. In such a situation the German Emperor had very little options available for him. He decided on a headlong clash with the British fleet in the North Sea and break the British blockade. Had he been successful the war may have taken a different turn.
The Clash of the Titans
The battle of Jutland took place from 31 May- 01 Jun 1916. The battle was extremely significant for Germany. The Royal Navy already held the upper hand with a fleet which was twice the size of the German fleet. Historically Germany had never been a maritime power of any significance. The Royal Navy, on the other hand, had a great maritime history and had dominated the oceans all over the globe for close to 100 years.
With the German fleet bottled up in the German ports and the ground forces not able to make headway in France, the Kaiser held a war conference in Berlin. The conference was extremely significant and attended by the top commanders of the German navy and army.
At this conference, a policy decision was taken to engage the British fleet in a major sea battle. It was decided that the stranglehold of the Royal Navy must be broken. The German Emperor along with his admirals formulated a plan for a head-on confrontation to cripple and decimate the British fleet.
Admiral Reinhart Scheer(1863-1928) was appointed the commander of the German Fleet. He was a career officer and had joined the German navy in 1879. He was promoted to the rank of Admiral and given control of the high sea fleet in January 1916.
Vice Admiral Franz Hipper (1863-1932)was given command of the dreadnaught cruiser squadron. The British war fleet was commanded by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe (1859-1935). His handling of the Grand fleet remains controversial while others find fault with the command of Vice Admiral David Beatty, who was given command of the dreadnaught squadron.
The dreadnaught was the predominant type of battleship in the early 20th century. These warships were the first of its type. They were launched in 1906 and were optimized for long-range battles. It had two revolutionary features: an "all-big-gun" armament scheme, with more heavy-caliber guns than previous ships; and steam turbine As dreadnoughts became a symbol of national power, the arrival of these new warships was a crucial catalyst in the intensifying arms race in Europe.
The German Emperor Kaiser Willhelm was very fond of warships. He had taken a decision to beef up the strength of the German navy. Despite massive shipbuilding programs, the number of warships with the German was just half of the Royal Navy.
During the Battle of Jutland, the opposing naval forces reflected the relative strengths of the two navies. The British had a greater number of warships. They had 28 battleships, compared to the German fleet that could muster only 16. Even in the field of battle cruisers, the royal navy had 9 to 5 of the German fleet. The overall superiority of the British fleet was in the ratio of 2:1. Thus the numbers were in favor of the royal navy. The German admirals were not overawed with the bigger numbers of the Royal Navy and were confident that they had the superior skill and tactics. The basis of this belief is not known but this was the primary reason the German fleet took on the numerically larger Imperial fleet.,
The German war plan had been discussed threadbare in the war room of the Admiralty in Berlin. There were three main points of the plan. The first hinged on secrecy, the second on surprise, and third on the accuracy and professionalism of the German sailors.
The first part of the plan was put into operation, by using the Zeppelin airships for reconnaissance. The idea was to get the exact location of the Royal Navy. Nothing much came of this operation as the Zeppelin airships could not take off because of bad weather and thus a crucial element of the plan went awry.
The next part of the plan was to engage the British fleet destroyers with U boats. The plan was for the U-Boats to attack the ships and allow the main German fleet to attack the English fleet. Nearly 20 submarines were commissioned for this task but despite being in the line of the Royal Navy, the German U-boats failed to sight the fleet and carry out an attack. They allowed the Royal Navy to sail past.
Breaking of the German Code
Another incident of great significance was the breaking of the German secret code which laid out the order of battle. One of the German navy ships ran aground in Russian territorial waters. Russia at that time was an ally of England and France. It was only in 1917, after the October revolution that the Russians withdrew from the alliance against Germany. Russian naval experts deciphered the German codes and immediately passed it to the British Admiralty in London. German war plans were severely compromised.
The British with the advantage of intelligence from its code-breaking section in room 40 of the Admiralty were aware that the German high sea fleet was sailing out on 30th May. The German plan was to use their cruiser squadron to act as a decoy and lure the main British fleet to a collision course. Admiral Sheer banked his plan on surprise and greater accuracy and efficiency of the German sailors.
The Germans put into effect their plan of action. In the first phase, the fleet of Admiral Hipper drew away and the British fleet began to chase it. In the second phase, the British fleet ran headlong into the German fleet. It was an all-night battle.
For the record, the British had 151 combat ships while the Germans had 99. The British navy suffered 6094 killed while deaths on the German side were 2551. The loss of British ships in terms of tonnage was twice that of the Germans. In addition, 177 British soldiers were also taken as POWs by the German navy.
The Germans won a tactical victory but at the end of the day, they sailed back to their home ports unable to break the British blockade.
Strategic Results of the Battle
The British battleships put in a better show. They could hit the German battleships 27 times. The Germans were more accurate and as the British fleet, closed in, the German gunners hit the British ships and 3 British battleships were lost.
Though the British losses were double of the Germans, yet the German fleet could not break the blockade.
The British admirals had the basic principle of war i.e. concentration of force in their favor yet failed to beat the German fleet decisively. Both sides claimed victory but In strategic terms, the Battle of Jutland failed to change the naval equation between Germany and the British.