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World War I - Battle at Sea - A Hundred Years Ago

Updated on May 8, 2016

German High Seas Fleet

Warships of the German High Seas Fleet sail into the North Sea to confront the British at Jutland.
Warships of the German High Seas Fleet sail into the North Sea to confront the British at Jutland. | Source

On the Home Front - USA

A hundred years ago in May and June, 1916, the nations of France, Great Britain, Russia and the vast reaches of their satellite nations are fighting a bloody, consuming war against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy and their spheres of influence. No nation is left untouched.

The United States has thus far avoided sending soldiers on the ground into this bottomless pit of death and destruction. The United States Congress and the President have sent thousands of tons of aid in the form of raw materials for war as well as food supplies and rations through the British ports. However, the time has come for President Woodrow Wilson to prepare the American people to sacrifice their sons.

First, on May 17, 1916, President Wilson announces that the United States must have a role in any peace making process. The President has realized that this war is going to change the political make-up of the world. He finally understands that the United States must have a say in molding these changes. The United States must be there to pick up the pieces and help to re-assemble them. On May 27, 1916, the President puts forth his plan for an international body with authority to maintain peace and the freedom of the seas.

The American public continues to bulk at sending troops to Europe. No one wants to fight Germany, but the ways of the world appear more and more to point in that direction. Americans can't continue to standby while England and France flounder. So, warfare draws closer to home. Americans pay close attention to the events of the war, and on May 31, 1916 through June 1, 1916, WWI has turned to the sea.

Room 40

The British interception and cryptologic services located in the Admiralty Old Building, Room 40, was far superior to the German intelligence service. Room 40 had benefitted from three pieces of extraordinary luck at the outset of the war.

In August the German light cruiser Magdeburg went aground in Russian waters. The signal books and key were recovered and sent to England.

In October, the merchantman code, seized from a German steamer interned in Australia also reached London.

A third codebook, used by German admirals at sea, was jettisoned by a senior officer following the sinking of a group of German destroyers in a small action off the Dutch coast. This codebook was dredged up accidently in the nets of a British fishing boat and brought to the Admiralty.

These three documents opened the secrets of German naval signaling to the officers of Room 40. Often the British could read enemy transmissions in real time as the recipients decoded the message.

Informed by the intelligence gatherers of Room 40 that the German High Seas Fleet planned a sortie , the British Home Fleet commanded by Admiral Sir David Beatty (Battle Cruiser Fleet) and Admiral Sir John Jellicoe (Dreadnoughts) put to sea to intercept the German High Seas Fleet commanded by Admiral Sheer.

Jutland in the North Sea was the biggest encounter of main fleets in naval history. No sea had ever seen such a large concentration of ships or ships so large and so armored. Gray ships on gray water against the gray sky converged toward one another further than the eye could see.


Admiral Jellicoe

Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the British Home Fleet at Jutland
Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the British Home Fleet at Jutland

The Battle Of Jutland

The Five phases of the Battle of Jutland:

1. Run to the south as Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Fleet encounters the weaker German battlecruiser force.

2. The Run to the north upon meeting the German Dreadnoughts in an attempt to draw the German Dreadnoughts to Jellicoe’s Grand Gleet.

3. Two encounters between the Dreadnaughts.

4. A German turning away.

5. Night action in which the light forces of both sides seek to inflict damage by torpedo attack.

In the first phase known as the run to the south, the British suffer the greater loss with the sinking of the Indefatigable and then the Queen Mary. The surviving battlecruisers of the Battle Cruiser Fleet discover they have run down the main body of German Dreadnoughts.

Phase two, the run to the north began. The 15-inch gunfire of the fast British battleships inflict heavy damage on the Germans. Sheer’s battle line is in disarray when his Dreadnaughts unwittingly fall under the fire of the British under Admiral Jellicoe after six o’clock in the evening. The German’s do sink a third battlecruiser, the Invincible.

In Phase three, the British superior weight of shell proves so overpowering that Admiral Sheer orders a retreat and disappears into the gloom of the North Sea darkness. However Admiral Sheer decides to turn back. As a result of circumstances, the Germans present a T to the British. The Germans are caught in a straight horizontal line ahead of the British in a long vertical line. Ten minutes of fighting and the Germans suffer twenty-seven hits by large caliber shells while the British suffer only two. Sheer again turns away.

By the morning of June 1, 1916, when Sheer has his German fleet home, he has lost a battlecruiser, a pre-Dreadnought, four light cruisers and five destroyers. Jellicoe and the British remain in command of the North Sea but have lost three battlecruisers, four armored cruisers and eight destroyers. For the British, 6,094 sailors die. For the Germans, 2,551 sailors die. Germany claims victory due to inflicting the greater harm. However Germany fails to break the British blockade.

After the Battle of Jutland Germany’s attempt to win a decision at sea would be conducted exclusively through the submarine arm.

That the Battle of Jutland was a British victory of some sort is not now denied. The Germans failed to push the British from their superior position. However, the victory was not decisive.


Queen Mary

The British battlecruiser Queen Mary sinks after being hit by shells from the German Derfflinger. The sinking resulted from internal explosions of stored munitions.
The British battlecruiser Queen Mary sinks after being hit by shells from the German Derfflinger. The sinking resulted from internal explosions of stored munitions.

Reasons the Battleships Sank

Three basic reasons for the British losses are of their own making and are preventable.

1. The light cruisers were not built for battle. These ships were intended for reconnaissance rather than engagement.

2. The interior ship design of all of the British ships place shells, ammunition and explosive materials in unprotected areas of the ships. All three battlecruisers lost are sunk from the secondary explosions of their own ammunition. While the German battlecruisers sustain heavier damage, they are not sent to the bottom of the sea with a heavy loss of men.

3. The final British issue is the ineffective signaling between ships. The British fail to communicate between the forward battlecruisers and the Dreadnaughts. As a result the Dreadnaughts are slow to the battle. Only by the gods of the sea do Jellicoe's Dreadnaughts catch the German fleet in a straight line ahead of them.

The British Admiralty will fix these issues and maintain their superiority at sea.

German Surface Ship Policy and Mutiny

The German command placed a high priority on fleet construction but fail to grasp the limitations and difficulties of their naval policy. Because the German's always have to operate from a position of weakness to the superior British fleet, their strategic plan is to avoid confrontation unless they can separate and destroy small parts of the British fleet.

The German policy makers gradually lose faith in their battle fleet when it proves incapable of breaking the British blockade in the North Sea. In the final months and weeks of the war, the German navy come to mutiny. In July - August, 1917 inactivity and discontent with their food and treatment lead to rebellion. In November of 1918, the sailors refuse orders which leads to general mutiny and surrender.

Battle of Jutland 1916

Jutland Bank off the coast of Denmark is at the top of this map.
Jutland Bank off the coast of Denmark is at the top of this map.

Who Won?

The Battle of Jutland is the most studied battle of naval history and the most disputed. Every movement of the battle has been studied and analyzed without conclusive agreement. The Germans claim victory as The Battle of Skagerak due to inflicting the most damage. The British allow themselves to claim an unsatisfactory victory because they remain in control of the seas.

No significant surface battle is fought after Jutland in WWI. The Germans use effectively their U-Boats. The British continue to effectively blockade the German ports.

Indefatigable

Hit by the German battlecruiser Von der Tann, the British battleship is blown apart.
Hit by the German battlecruiser Von der Tann, the British battleship is blown apart.

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