In 1916, the Germans once again sought to implement their plan to fall upon part of the British Grand Fleet with their entire High Seas Fleet. This plan led to the Battle of Jutland. With a reasonable grasp of the operational and strategic situation, the British did not fall for the German plan. Nevertheless, despite having the larger fleet at Jutland, they failed to achieve the sweeping victory hoped for by naval planners and the public.
In January 1916 the state of the war changed with the dismissal of the ineffective German Admiral Hugo von Pohl as commander of the German High Seas Fleet. He was replaced by the far more dynamic Admiral Reinhard Scheer. The fleet had spent most of 1915 in harbor maintaining its status as a ‘fleet in being’ not to be risked in action, while the U-boats had been withdrawn from the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel. This had allowed the Royal Navy to exert an almost unchallenged domination of the oceans. Scheer was determined to find a fit and proper role for the High Seas Fleet.
Scheer faced a considerable distraction early on when, in February 1916, it was decided to resume the U-boat campaign in the war zone around Britain. This meant that attacks were allowed without warning within the zone, but not of unarmed merchant ships outside of the zone, and no attacks on passenger liners anywhere at all. This was far too complicated for U-boat commanders to follow under circumstances of great stress and confusion.
Errors of judgement were predictable and the French ferry steamer Sussex was mistaken for a minelayer and torpedoed by the UB-29 coastal submarine in the English Channel. Although she did not sink, several of the passengers injured in the attack were American and once again there was a storm of protest from across the Atlantic. Unwilling to risk war with America, the German government gave way without demur and the U-boats were meekly ordered to follow all the stipulations of international law. But this rendered the U-boats themselves far too vulnerable and they were withdrawn to port.
Withdrawing the submarines to port provided Scheer with the opportunity to use his otherwise idle submarines as an integral part of his plans to reinvigorate the naval war against Britain. He was no longer prepared to allow the Grand Fleet to exercise all the benefits of naval supremacy without ever having that put to the test. His methods of achieving this demanded the deployment of every possible German naval resource in leading the Grand Fleet into a trap in which a significant element of the fleet could be destroyed, thereby allowing a serious challenge by the High Seas Fleet on more equal terms.
Scheer raised the tempo by resuming sweeps into the North Sea and bombarding both Lowestoft and Yarmouth. This increased activity did not escape the attention of Admiral John Jellicoe, who was nonetheless determined to maintain his unromantic, but effective, domination of the seas. While his ships successfully effected an economic blockade on Germany, British trade was continuing relatively unhampered, the lines of communication of British land forces were not being seriously threatened and there was no chance of a successful German invasion of Britain.
By mid-1916 Jellicoe had received a very welcome reinforcement in the Fifth Battle Squadron, composed of the Queen Elizabeth class super-dreadnoughts. These behemoths were a portent of the future, the gradual fusion of the dreadnought and battlecruiser concepts to create mighty battleships that boasted a displacement of 27,500 tons, with eight 15-inch guns that could fire a 1,920-pound shell accurately up to about 24,000 yards, protected by armor up to 13 inches thick and propelled by huge oil-fired turbine engines that gave them a speed of nearly 24 knots.
By May 1916 both sides were planning aggressive operations: Jellicoe was intent on entrapping the High Seas Fleet, while Scheer was trying to force a mistake from his cautious opponent. In the end it would be Scheer who triggered the Battle of Jutland by launching a sweep into the Skagerrak, southeast of Norway, to prey on any British light forces there, with the aim of entrapping Beatty and pulling Jellicoe out into a submarine ambush. However, helped by the intelligence specialists of Room 40, Jellicoe was forewarned that Scheer was about to sail. Both sides claimed victory: the British lost more ships and men, but succeeded in containing the Germans.
After the initial engagement in which several British ships were sunk, Beatty sent his destroyers into the attack. As the German light forces responded, the No Man’s Land between the opposing lines of battlecruisers was filled with destroyers. The two forces cancelled each other, in a game of cat and mouse, and little of note was achieved. All in all, this phase of the battle would prove a deep disappointment for the Germans.
Unknown to Scheer, every minute he steamed north brought the High Seas Fleet ever closer to Jellicoe’s massed guns. Jellicoe was naturally desperate for accurate information on the whereabouts of Scheer’s High Seas Fleet, but Beatty failed to send any useful reports during this crucial period. As the main fleets closed, the British and German screens clashed in a series of skirmishes which proved disastrous for ships suddenly caught unawares. Jellicoe’s priority was to make sure that the Grand Fleet did not lose control of the seas. He was not willing to risk everything for the sake of a short-term victory.
At last the news came and Jellicoe sprang into action. He could not deploy on the starboard column as the ships were already too close to the German fleet, so he formed up on the port column, creating a huge line ahead, with all guns bearing on the head of the German line: or ‘crossing the T’, as it was called. This supremely pragmatic decision would set the tone for the next phase of the battle. The Germans were distracted by the arrival of the Fifth Battle Squadron maneuvering to join the main battle line of the Grand Fleet. As they did so the Warspite distracted the German gunners from their hounding of the hapless Warrior, which was also able to limp away.
The German shells crashed down in retaliation on the Invincible. Fisher’s dictum that ‘speed would be her armor’ was tested to destruction and swiftly found wanting when she blew up with shocking violence. Just six survived of the crew of 1,032 men. The ship split in the middle, its two halves resting upright on the seabed in a haunting scene that was etched on the minds of everyone who saw it. The sinking of the Invincible was a triumph, but it did not change the difficult tactical situation facing the High Seas Fleet.
Jellicoe’s dreadnoughts were now arraigned in one long line so that their shells rained down on the exposed vanguard of the German fleet, causing serious damage and threatening annihilation. Scheer had to act quickly. Scheer ordered a specially developed battle turn to starboard, a maneuver whereby the ship at the rear of the line would put her helm over first, followed by each successive ship in sequence, rippling along the line towards the front. As the German ships disappeared from his vision, Jellicoe had to decide whether to follow them into the mist and hazard everything to complete the victory, or to settle for a more cautious approach.
Rather than follow in the German tracks, Jellicoe decided to hold on a little further to the east and then turned south to place himself between the High Seas Fleet and its base at Wilhelmshaven. His maneuver was soon justified when Scheer ordered a second battle turn to bring his ships on to an easterly course. This meant Scheer’s dreadnoughts were heading directly towards the British line. They came under an increasingly devastating fire. Scheer ordered a further battle turn away while the battered battlecruisers and destroyers were ordered forward to cover the retreat. As the shells rained down they suffered terrible damage.
Meanwhile, the German destroyers were churning their way towards the British line, launching torpedoes, thereby giving the wounded German battlecruisers time to slink back into the mists. Now Jellicoe had to decide whether he would turn towards the Germans, turn away or simply hold course and face the consequences. By 21.00, when the light had completely faded away, it remained to be seen whether Scheer could evade the Grand Fleet during the night and return to port or whether he would be fended off and forced to fight a decisive fleet action come the dawn.
As several of his battlecruisers were close to sinking, Scheer had little choice but to take the shortest feasible route, which was via Horns Reef. But Jellicoe was in ignorance of this and, given the last reported German position, he decided that the route via the north Friesland coast was the most likely option. He therefore set his battle fleet on a steady southerly course. The High Seas Fleet was now sailing on a directly converging course, with Jellicoe’s destroyers at the rear of the line.
A series of confused actions followed as the High Seas Fleet crashed into the destroyer flotillas. Unlike the Germans, the British lacked properly shuttered searchlights, had no star shells and scant knowledge of the techniques required in making night-identification signals. The British light forces proved easy meat for the Germans who, by contrast, had been well drilled in night fighting. There could be no coordinated action. But, worst of all, nobody told Jellicoe some five miles ahead what was happening. Meanwhile, damaged German ships were limping away to safety.
Why did Jellicoe not react to the signs of battle behind him? It would appear that, in the complete absence of wireless reports to the contrary, he considered these to be just clashes between the British and German light forces. In this Jellicoe was certainly guilty of an error of judgement, and he should have been more pro-active in trying to determine what was occurring. But at the same time this view ignores the draining exhaustion of battle and the enormous stress that he was under – and profits from the simple certainties of hindsight.
By dawn Scheer was safely on his way back to Wilhelmshaven. For the disappointed men of the Grand Fleet, dawn brought only the miserable realisation that the High Seas Fleet had escaped retribution. There was little they could do but bury their dead. The British ships made their way dolorously back to their home ports.
The Germans were back in port first and staked their claim with considerable vigor, exaggerating the numbers of ships they had sunk and concealing some of their own losses. In the Grand Fleet the prevailing mood was one of deep disappointment that it had not managed to destroy the High Seas Fleet. But it still had twenty-four dreadnoughts and battlecruisers ready for action, as opposed to just ten available to Scheer. Furthermore the Germans failed in their ambition to destroy a significant portion of the Grand Fleet.
Jutland was decisive in that it demonstrated to the Germans that a gradual degradation of the Grand Fleet was unlikely to be possible. Therefore, while the High Seas Fleet always posed a threat and was active on occasion, it left Germany without a clear fleet strategy. Thereafter in the war, the High Seas Fleet sailed beyond the defensive minefields of the Heligoland Bight on only three occasions. The greater emphasis on submarines altered the nature of the war at sea, as submarine warfare did not offer the prospect of a decisive victory in a climactic engagement. Instead, the submarine conflict helped to ensure that the attritional dimension of naval warfare became more pronounced.