The War at Sea in 1916
Naval stalemate at the Battle of Jutland
author Paul Boșcu, August 2018
During 1916 the German fleet sought again to implement its plan to attack the British in a major battle in an effort to weak the British Grand Fleet in a decisive manner. The plan led to the Battle of Jutland. The British did not fall for the German plan, however, despite having the larger fleet at Jutland, they failed to achieve the sweeping victory hoped by the Navy as well as the British public.

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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.

At Jutland the British suffered seriously from problems with fire control, inadequate armor protection, especially on the battle cruisers, the unsafe handling of powder in dangerous magazine practices that were an effort to compensate for the poor gunnery of the battle cruisers, poor signaling, and inadequate training, for example in destroyer torpedo attacks and in night fighting.

For the Royal Navy, there was a general problem of underperformance. German gunnery at Jutland was superior to that of the Royal Navy (ie more accurate), partly because of better optics and better fusing of the shells, and partly because of the advantages of position, notably the direction of light. The Germans were far less visible to opposing fire, and their range firing was therefore easier.

The British employed their fleet by deterring the Germans from acting and thus challenging the British blockade or use of the sea. This deterrence thwarted the optimistic German plan of combining surface sorties with submarine ambushes in order to reduce the British advantage in warship numbers, a plan for attrition that was difficult to implement. This advantage was supplemented by British superiority in the intelligence war, especially the use of signals intelligence. The location of German warships was generally known by the British.

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.

Born in Obernkirchen, Hanover, Scheer joined the Imperial German Navy in 1879. By 1907 he had risen to be Chief of Staff of the High Seas Fleet. On the outbreak of World War I he advocated the use of surface ships to lure British warships into the path of submarines lying in ambush. On being promoted to Admiral of the Fleet, he used a similar tactic at Jutland. The skill of his maneuvers in the battle enabled the German fleet to escape and even to claim victory.

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.

Combined with the British blockade of Germany, the submarine conflict ensured that the war was more clearly one between societies, with an attempt to break the resolve of peoples by challenging not only their economic strength but also their social stability and, indeed, demographic health. The role of food shortages in weakening resistance to disease was well understood. As such, this method of war led to a sense that extreme means were already at play.

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.

In April American President Woodrow Wilson fired his own shot across the bows of the U-boats: ‘I have deemed it my duty, therefore, to say to the Imperial German Government that if it is still its purpose to prosecute relentless and indiscriminate warfare against vessels of commerce by the use of submarines, notwithstanding the now demonstrated impossibility of conducting that warfare in accordance with what the Government of the United States must consider the sacred and indisputable rules of international law and the universally recognized dictates of humanity, the Government of the United States is at last forced to the conclusion that there is but one course it can pursue; and that unless the Imperial German Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of warfare against passenger and freight carrying vessels this Government can have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the Government of the German Empire altogether.’

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.

‘England’s purpose of strangling Germany economically without seriously exposing her own fleet to the German guns had to be defeated. This offensive effort on our part was intensified by the fact that the prohibition of the U-Boat trade war made it impossible for us to aim a direct blow at England’s vital nerve. We were therefore bound to try and prove by all possible means that Germany’s High Seas Fleet was able and willing to wage war with England at sea.’ (Admiral Reinhard Scheer, SMS Friedrich der Grosse)

In practice, Scheer’s strategy meant drawing the main fleet into a submarine or mine trap and/or cutting off and defeating in detail the Battlecruiser Force under the command of Admiral Sir David Beatty.

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.

Jellicoe kept the bulk of the Grand Fleet safely tucked away at Scapa Flow, although he had begun to think of ways of provoking a clash with the High Seas Fleet on favorable terms.

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.

When it was decided to address the proven inadequacies in the gunnery standards achieved by the Battlecruiser Force by sending squadrons one at a time to practise in the open spaces of Scapa Flow, the Fifth Battle Squadron was the obvious temporary replacement.

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.

The Grand Fleet left Scapa Flow before the German High Seas Fleet had even put to sea. It was an amazing sight as the mighty dreadnoughts emerged, their very names embodying an enduring naval tradition that stretched back across three centuries. Young Midshipman John Croome watched in awe from the Indomitable, which with the rest of 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron had been practising its gunnery at Scapa Flow: ‘The grey monsters wheeled in succession and silent majesty which marks the departure to sea of a perfectly trained fleet. Finally as the last of the long line passed us, we in turn began to swing, weighed the last few links of cable and stole stealthily away in the wake of the Grand Fleet. A more powerful exhibition of majestic strength and efficiency devised solely for the utter destruction of the enemy it would be hard to imagine and the impression upon my youthful mind can never be erased. Moreover, I was proudly conscious that I was part of this huge machine and firmly convinced that the machine was invincible, if not even invulnerable.’ (Midshipman John Croome, HMS Indomitable, 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron)

Jellicoe had arranged a rendezvous with Beatty and the Battlecruiser Force some ninety miles from the Skagerrak. The whole situation was then confused when the intelligence from Room 40 was misinterpreted by Admiralty staff, and both Jellicoe and Beatty were erroneously informed that the High Seas Fleet was not at sea after all. This would have considerable repercussions. The result was that the two fleets were drawing ever closer to each other, but neither had any idea that their opponents were at sea.

Initially the light forces made only accidental contact when both sides went to investigate a harmless merchant ship that happened to be sailing between the fleets. Once cleared for action, firing between the cruisers began. The Battle of Jutland had begun.

Hipper’s battlecruisers fell back to the south, intending to draw Beatty on to Scheer’s unseen High Seas Fleet. However, as Beatty ordered the pursuit, he utterly failed to concentrate his forces, allowing a 10-mile gap to open between the 1st and 2nd Battlecruiser Squadrons and the Fifth Battle Squadron. This was a two-stage process: first, his original dispositions had placed the super dreadnoughts some five miles behind his flagship the Lion, but then this was exacerbated by a further confusion over signalling protocol.

As the range closed between the opposing battlecruisers there was considerable tension before fire was finally opened. Right from the start, the German gunnery was disconcertingly accurate and it was not long before it drew blood. The Lion was badly hit when a shell crashed on to the ‘Q’ turret, causing a fire that, had the magazine not eventually been flooded, would surely have doomed the ship. At the back of the line the Indefatigable was not so lucky when shells from the Von der Tann crashed home triggering a vast explosion that killed all but two of the ship’s company of 1,019 men.

As the Queen Mary was sunk, Beatty, however, was unmoved, as witnessed by his Flag Captain, Alfred Chatfield: ‘I was standing beside Sir David Beatty and we both turned round in time to see the unpleasant spectacle. The thought of my friends in her flashed through my mind; I thought also how lucky we had evidently been in the Lion. Beatty turned to me and said, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today!” A remark that needed neither comment nor answer. There was something wrong.’ (Flag Captain Alfred Chatfield, HMS Lion, 1st Battlecruiser Squadron)

There was a huge explosion as the Queen Mary was hit by shells from the Seydlitz and Derfflinger: ‘Everything in the ship went as quiet as a church, the floor of the turret was bulged up and the guns were absolutely useless. I must mention here that there was not a sign of excitement. One man turned to me and said, “What do you think has happened?” I said, “Steady, everyone, I will speak to Mr Ewart.” I went back to the cabinet and said, “What do you think has happened, Sir?” He said, “God only knows!” “Well, Sir,” I said, “it’s no use keeping them all down here, why not send them up round the 4” guns and give them a chance to fight it out.” I put my head through the hole in the roof of the turret and I nearly fell through again. The after 4” Battery was smashed right out of all recognition and then I noticed that the ship had an awful list to port. I dropped back inside and told Lieutenant Ewart the state of affairs. He said, “Francis, we can do no more than give them a chance, clear the turret.” “Clear the turret!” I called out and out they went. Lieutenant Ewart was following me; suddenly he stopped and went back into the turret. I believe he went back because he thought there was someone left inside. When I got to the ship’s side there seemed to be a fair crowd and they did not appear to be very anxious to take to the water. I called out to them, “Come on, you chaps, who’s coming for a swim?” Someone answered, “She will float for a long time yet!” But something, I don’t pretend to understand what it was, seemed to be urging me to get away, so I clambered up over the slimy bilge keel and fell off into the water, followed I should think by about five more men.’ (Petty Officer Ernest Francis, HMS Queen Mary, 1st Battlecruiser Squadron) A few seconds later the Queen Mary was blown to pieces, killing 1,266 of her crew.

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.

The armor of the British battlecruisers was not thick enough to withstand the shells of their German equivalents. And, once a shell had penetrated their armor, the inadequate anti-flash precautions coupled with dangerous working practices which were intended to improve the rate of fire meant that a flash could rip from the working chambers down into the magazine below, with disastrous consequences. No ship could survive such an explosion.

‘In a matter of minutes we were caught up in a maelstrom of whirling ships as we swerved and jockeyed for a breakthrough position. We were under helm most of the time, the ship heeling as she spun. Events moved far too quickly for stereotyped gun control procedure and we let fire at anything hostile that came within our arc of fire. It became a personal affair and I have a vivid recollection of the sweating Trainer cursing as he strove to change his point of aim from ship to ship as I tried to seize fleeting opportunities. Quite apart from the difficulty in making split second decisions on friend or foe our legitimate enemies swept past at aggregate speeds of up to 60 knots and there was scant time to make a wild guess at range and deflection and get the gun pointed and fired before the chance passed and we were frantically trying to focus on a new target. It was quite impossible to pick out one’s own fall of shot in a sea pocked with shell splashes, nor was there time to correct the range had we been able to do so. We fired many rounds at more or less point blank range but had no idea if any found their mark though several bright flashes gave hope that we had inflicted punishment. In the heat of swift action senses become keyed up by the high tempo and feeling for time is lost. I would have been at a loss to say if we had been engaged for minutes or hours. Crowding incidents made it seem an eternity and yet the period of action passed in a flash.’ (Sub-Lieutenant Henry Oram, HMS Obdurate, 13th Flotilla) Even though the Seydlitz was hit by one torpedo, the resulting damage barely impeded her progress. The German battlecruisers were indeed proving tough opponents.

By this time Hipper had succeeded in leading Beatty almost into the very jaws of Scheer and his High Seas Fleet. Scouting ahead of Beatty, the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron sighted the long line of approaching German dreadnoughts. It was a chilling moment: exciting, but at the same time threatening. On board the Lion Beatty reacted with exemplary speed and decisiveness. After checking the sighting, he reversed course and headed straight back towards the Grand Fleet, seeking to reverse the situation and lead the High Seas Fleet into the grip of the Grand Fleet.

A further signalling blunder needlessly endangered the Fifth Battle Squadron when it was allowed to continue sailing south after the battlecruisers had turned, before conforming belatedly. The chance to cut off and destroy the Fifth Battle Squadron represented a great opportunity for Scheer and during the run to the north German shells crashed around and about the mighty super-dreadnoughts. But their thick armor prevented anything but superficial damage. Meanwhile, their own shells were crashing down on the German battlecruisers and the leading dreadnoughts of the High Seas Fleet.

‘We suffered bad hits, two or three heavy shells striking us during this phase. When a heavy shell hit the armor of our ship, the terrific crash of the explosion was followed by a vibration of the whole ship, affecting even the conning tower. The shells which exploded in the interior of the ship caused rather a dull roar, which was transmitted all over by the countless voice-pipes and telephones. This part of the action, fought against a numerically inferior but more powerfully armed enemy, who kept us under fire at ranges at which we were helpless, was highly depressing, nerve-wracking, and exasperating. Our only means of defense was to leave the line for a short time when we saw that the enemy had our range. As this maneuver was imperceptible to the enemy, we extricated ourselves at regular intervals from the hail of fire.’ (Commander Georg von Hase, SMS Derfflinger, 1st Scouting Group)

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.

Tension ratcheted up on the bridge of his flagship the Iron Duke and even when Beatty finally hove into view Jellicoe still did not know exactly where the German dreadnoughts were. Finally he signalled in desperation, ‘Where is the enemy fleet?’ Beatty replied: ‘Enemy’s battlecruisers bearing South East.’ This did not answer the question.

‘Before it is possible for anyone to realise the difficulties which confronted me as Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland it is essential for a clear idea to be formed and clearly kept in view of the two main factors to which those difficulties were entirely due. These two factors were: 1) The absence of even approximately correct information from the Battlecruiser Fleet and its attendant light cruisers regarding the position, formation and strength of the High Seas Fleet. 2) The lack of visibility when the Battle Fleet came in sight of a portion of the High Seas Fleet, due largely to mist, and partly to smoke from our own battlecruisers and other vessels.’ (Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, HMS Iron Duke, Fourth Battle Squadron)

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.

Ahead of the Grand Fleet the 1st Cruiser Squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot aboard the Defence, was suddenly caught under the very guns of the onrushing German fleet. In a few seconds the Defence was sent to the bottom while, behind her, the Warrior was pelted with shells. Below decks Engineer Commander Henry Kitching was going about his duties: ‘I heard a tremendous explosion at the after end, a heavy jar went through the whole fabric and most of the lights went out. Immediately afterwards there was a heavy roar of water and steam and my impression was that we had been torpedoed. Several men came running forward from that end, one of them with blood streaming down his face. In that moment I realised fully what cold drawn funk is like. But I had to make a decision and, advancing towards the after end, I tried to gauge the extent of the damage. The engines still went on running, which seemed to show that the cylinders had not been hit, but in the dim uncertain light I perceived what appeared to be Niagara at the after end of the engine room though whether the sheet of water was rising up from below or pouring down from above I couldn’t be sure at the time. Anyhow, a blast of steam on my face warned me that I hadn’t long to think about it and I soon made up my mind that no pumps could deal with the quantity of water that was coming in, and that the only thing to do was to get the men out as quickly as possible.’ (Engineer Commander Henry Kitching, HMS Warrior, 1st Cruiser Squadron)

Amidst Jellicoe’s deployment, the ships of the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron had taken station at the head of the line. As their guns blazed out, they deluged Hipper’s battlecruisers with shells. The changing light conditions meant that the Germans could not see their tormentors and their response was ineffectual.

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.

‘Suddenly our turret manned was struck between the two 12” guns and appeared to me to lift off the top of the turret and another of the same salvo followed. The flashes passed down to both midship magazines containing 50 tons of cordite. The explosion broke the ship in half. I owe my survival, I think, to the fact that I was in a separate compartment at the back of the turret with my head through a hole cut in the top. Some of the initial flash must have got through to my compartment as I was burnt on the hands, arms and head – luckily my eyes escaped, I must have instinctively covered them with my hands. The rangefinder and myself had only a light armour covering. I think this came off and, as the ship sunk, I floated to the surface.’ (Marine Bryan Gasson, HMS Invincible, 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron)

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.

‘I could see nothing of our cruisers, which were still farther forward. Owing to the turning aside that was inevitable in drawing nearer, they found themselves between the fire of both lines. For this reason I decided to turn our line and bring it on to an opposite course. Otherwise an awkward situation would have arisen round the pivot which the enemy line by degrees was passing, as long-distance shots from the enemy would certainly have hit our rear ships. As regards the effectiveness of the artillery, the enemy was more favourably situated, as our ships stood out against the clear western horizon, whereas his own ships were hidden by the smoke and mist of the battle. A running artillery fight on a southerly course would therefore not have been advantageous to us.’ (Admiral Reinhard Scheer, SMS Friedrich der Grosse, Third Battle Squadron)

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.

No British battlecruiser could have survived this kind of assault, but Scheer’s ships had better armor, superior gunnery safety procedures and were better subdivided below decks into watertight compartments.

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.

‘The alternatives to a turn away were a turn towards, or holding the course and dodging the torpedoes. A turn towards would have led to great danger if the first attack had been followed by a second and a third, and no one could say that this would not be the case. To hold on and dodge might meet with success if the tracks could be seen. Information had reached me that the Germans had succeeded in making the tracks of their torpedoes more or less invisible. Therefore there was danger in this alternative.’ (Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, HMS Iron Duke, Fourth Battle Squadron)

Caution has been condemned by populist commentators who believe he should have turned towards the High Seas Fleet, thereby triggering a final decisive action. But Jellicoe’s innate caution was grounded on a realistic assessment of what could and could not be risked to achieve the destruction of the High Seas Fleet.

To Jellicoe the Germans appeared to have several options: to sail back northeast and pass through the Skagerrak into the Baltic; to go via Horns Reef north of the British minefields filling the Heligoland Bight; to take the navigationally tricky passage that went right through the minefields; or to try and sail south of the minefields to pass along the north Friesland coast to safety.

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.

Jellicoe’s destroyer flotillas would follow some five miles behind the fleet, to cover the Horns Reef channel and the minefield gap options, while at the same time removing them from the possibility of being involved in accidental clashes with the Grand Fleet in the pitch dark.

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.

One typical incident occurred when the 4th Flotilla encountered a line of German dreadnoughts led by the Westfalen at about 23.15: In the darkness the British challenged, at which point the dazzling German searchlights blazed on and the 11-inch turrets and secondary 5.9-inch batteries crashed out: ‘They were so close that I remember the guns seemed to be firing from some appreciable height above us. At about the same instant the Tipperary shook violently from the impact of being hit by shells. I was told afterwards that the first salvo hit the bridge and it must have killed the Captain and everyone there. I opened fire with the after guns as soon as the enemy opened on us. Proper spotting was out of the question, but crouching behind the canvas screen of my control position – I felt much safer with this thin weather screen between me and the enemy guns, though it wouldn’t have kept out a spent rifle bullet – I yelled at the guns to fire. I don’t think they heard me, but they opened fire all right. During this time both our starboard torpedo tubes were fired, but the enemy was so close that I think that the initial dive that torpedoes usually take as they enter the water made them go under the enemy ships. The enemy’s second salvo hit and burst one of our main steam pipes, and the after part of the ship was enveloped in a cloud of steam through which I could see nothing.’ (Sub-Lieutenant Newton William-Powlett, HMS Tipperary, 4th Flotilla)

‘We closed the Tipperary, now a mass of burning wreckage and looking a very sad sight indeed. At a distance her bridge, wheelhouse and charthouse appeared to be one sheet of flame, giving one the impression of a burning house and so bright was the light from this part that it seemed to obliterate one’s vision of the remainder of the ship and of the sea round about, except that part close to her which was all lit up, reflecting the flames.’ (Lieutenant Athelstan Bush, HMS Spitfire, 4th Flotilla)

Again and again the British officers saw their enemies and had a brief opportunity to launch deadly concentrated torpedo attacks, but they lacked the courage of their convictions to take sufficiently bold action as they sought more confirmation that the blackened shapes slipping by were indeed German dreadnoughts. As they waited, so their chances slipped away. In one last attack the 12th Flotilla managed a direct hit and sank the pre-dreadnought Pommern, exploding her magazine and killing all 844 of her crew. Yet the bulk of the High Seas Fleet swept past without further damage.

The crippled German battlecruisers were limping their way through the British columns of dreadnoughts. They were sighted at various times by British officers, but in the inspiring words of Captain James Fergusson of the Thunderer, ‘It was considered inadvisable to show up battle fleet unless obvious attack was intended.’ And so the battered Moltke, which he had had squarely in his sights, escaped to fight another day.

The Seydlitz was another beneficiary of the incredible laxness on part of the British: ‘In this situation, the aft look-out reported: “Several large ships, darkened, approaching from astern.” Our night glasses showed four huge ships, British, no more than 2,000 yards away. Blast! They must have seen us and would therefore open fire at any moment. Should we try to ram? But their guns were still trained fore and aft! Our ship was too heavily damaged to attack, and I gave the orders: “Hard a-starboard, full speed ahead, engine room make as much smoke as possible – give British recognition signal.” A yeoman flashed the latter, “J”, the leading ship promptly answered, “O”. That was the only light they showed for they had an excellently darkened ship. In a minute we got up so much smoke that they disappeared from view.’ (Captain Moritz von Egidy, SMS Seydlitz, 1st Scouting Group)

The Lutzow went down and, even then, she was vanquished as much by the sea as by her opponents. She had been so badly damaged that she had no hope of getting home and was eventually scuttled. At roughly the same time the severely battered light cruiser the Wiesbaden also finally sank beneath the waves: ‘A terrible gargling came from inside the ship, and we noticed we had slipped a little further to starboard. We realised that we would die a sailor’s death. Now everything went as quick as a flash. The ship lay further over to starboard, sinking deeper. I ran to the quarterdeck, undid the mooring of a rescue raft and climbed onboard and pushed off the starboard side. Lying on my knees I paddled with my hands desperately to the rear, to escape the suction when the ship sank. Everything was quite quiet. The companions who stood on deck jumped off towards aft and swam to my raft. We saw our wounded companions, who were lying on deck and who had previously in part fallen asleep from exhaustion, slide from the ship into the water. Now our ship Wiesbaden sank before our eyes. Until the last her masts towered from the water and our battle flag, which blew from the spanker gaff, slowly sank into the waves. We looked around ourselves. We floated between dead companions, dead fishes, hammocks and life jackets. Where this trip would take us nobody could say. We had to leave ourselves to our destiny. I asked my God not to let it last too long. All the feelings of confidence had disappeared from me. As long as one has a ship below oneself one hopes; but when one hangs in the water on a raft, the cold slowly rises from the toes and then slowly the limbs go stiff.’ (Stoker Hugo Zenne, SMS Wiesbaden, 2nd Scouting Group) One by one his comrades lost their battle with the freezing cold and slipped away. Zenne was picked up by a Norwegian steamer some thirty-eight hours later, the only survivor from the gallant Wiesbaden crew.

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.

A further subplot was the interception by Room 40 back in London of several of Scheer’s wireless messages. These were sent in summary form to Jellicoe: ‘German battle fleet ordered home at 9.14 pm. Battlecruisers to the rear. Course south-south-east ¾ east. Speed 16 knots.’ This clearly indicated that Scheer was intent on taking the Horns Reef route, but when it was passed to Jellicoe he did not believe it – after all, had he not been told the High Seas Fleet was not at sea?

The Admiralty had also, by combining the signals into one outline briefing, inadvertently concealed crucial information from Jellicoe, such as Scheer’s signal ordering an airship reconnaissance cover at Horns Reef. So it was that the Grand Fleet sailed on, preparing for a renewed battle at dawn; a battle that would never be.

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 ship had slowed down and there was a burial going on of the poor unrecognisable scraps of humanity from the explosion. I had been asked previously to try and identify Young and Cotton, but it was impossible. It was a gloomy scene, the grey sky, the grey sea, the stitched-up hammocks, the padre with his gown blowing in the breeze. The “Last Post” was sounded by the Marine buglers and our shipmates plunged into the sullen waters.’ (Surgeon Lieutenant Duncan Lorimer, HMS Malaya, Fifth Battle Squadron)

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.

The British losses, although costing the lives of 6,094 sailors, were easily replaced from ships undergoing refitting, while new and more powerful ships were also approaching completion. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, the Germans were jubilant, and the British bitterly disappointed. The performance of the Grand Fleet drew howls of rage from the jingoistic British press. While the Germans had materially the better of the encounter, however, the Royal Navy remained in command of the North Sea.

Jellicoe had not managed to annihilate the High Seas Fleet, but that had always been a secondary consideration to this most practical of men. His priority had been to maintain the maritime supremacy of the Royal Navy across the globe; that he could never risk, not even for the chance of glory. Jellicoe was above all a pragmatist: his success at Jutland was made in that image – the status quo would continue and for Germany that marked a strategic defeat.

Jellicoe’s caution, not least about night action, possibly denied the British the victory they might have obtained had the bolder Beatty, commander of the battlecruiser squadron, been in overall command. However, Beatty’s rash performance at Jutland also suggests that, had he been in overall command, there might have been more serious losses.

As an aspect of the manner in which the politics of command, personality, and faction affected current, as well as subsequent, assessments, the view that he might have delivered victory was encouraged by Beatty when he was First Sea Lord after the war. However, as Churchill was to point out, Jellicoe only needed to avoid losing.

Jellicoe was also faced by the problems of managing and winning a naval encounter of unprecedented scale and complexity. Jellicoe confronted an incomplete picture of the battle, not only of the Germans but also of the British fleet, because subordinates failed to report expeditiously. The technological possibilities of radio communications were not matched by operational practice and tactical implementation. The latter was also true with spotting for naval bombardments in amphibious operations, notably that of the British at the Dardanelles in 1915.

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.

After the battle, Wilhelm II announced at the North Sea naval base of Wilhelmshaven: ‘The English were beaten. The spell of Trafalgar has been broken.’ Nevertheless, the German fleet had been badly damaged in the big-gun exchange. Its confidence had been seriously affected by the experience of the power of the Grand Fleet, which had superior gunnery. Moreover, the strategic situation prior to the battle still remained the same.

Recognizing that Jutland had left the British still dominant in the North Sea, Scheer suggested to Wilhelm II that Germany could only win at sea by means of using submarines. In practice, though, there was still a surface threat.

In October 1916, Jellicoe, who was to become First Sea Lord in December, observed that the greater size and range of submarines and their increased use of the torpedo, meaning that they did not need to come to the surface to sink their target by gunfire, indicated that the submarine menace was getting worse. Indeed, during the war, most vessels sunk were by mines or torpedoes.