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Profile - Jutland: A Century On

The Battle of Jutland on May 31-June 1, 1916 remains one of the largest sea battles in history. Hundreds of books have been published about the battle, its aftermath, and the various controversies that sprang up almost as soon as the guns stopped firing.

Background: The clash between the British Grand Fleet, commanded by Admirals Jellico and Beatty, and the German High Sea Fleet, commanded by Admirals Scheer and Hipper, took place in the North Sea near the Danish Jutland peninsula

The Grand Fleet consisted of 151 warships, from small fragile torpedo boat destroyers to the most powerful battleships in the world. The fleet was organised into two main bodies, the powerful dreadnaught battleships and the faster battle cruisers. Both forces were supported by flotillas of light cruisers and destroyers organised to both act as the eyes of the fleet and to protect the heavy units from torpedo attacks by enemy light units.

The German High Sea fleet, of 99 warships, had the same basic organisation, with a Scouting Force built around the battle cruisers and a main force with the battleships.

Opening Round. On the day in question the weather conditions were hazy with patches of fog - this greatly reduced visibility and caused the Admirals of both sides significant problems trying to work out what was going on as the battle unfolded

By tradition, the battle began at 14:20 when light forces from both sides went to inspect a neutral steamer which was by chance between the two fleets. Within minutes fighting broke out between the destroyers and light cruisers - the battle cruiser squadrons from both sides moved to support their units. At this time neither force realised that the entire British Grand Fleet and German High Sea fleet were nearby.

By 15:30 the two battle cruiser forces sighted each other and opened fire. There followed a complicated set of moves as the respective battle cruiser forces tried to lure their enemy into contact with the main battleship squadrons.

Phase 1: Contact and the Run to the South. The opposing battle cruiser forces raced to the south. The Britsh battle cruisers, under Admiral Beatty, outnumbered their German opponents, and the admiral was keen to close in and sink them. Unknown to him the German battle cruisers, under Admiral Hipper, were retiring straight towards the main German fleet. This initial exchange of fire lasted until 16:45, during which the Germans had the better of the action. They managed to score a total of 45 hits with heavy guns against only 11 by the British. Two British battle cruisers (HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary) blew up and sank, and Beatty's flagship was badly damaged (see Major Harvey below). Fortunately for Beatty the four fast battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron, the most powerful warships in the world at the time, arrived and started scoring hits on the Germans. This situation then changed as the British finally spotted the German battleship force.

Phase 2: The Run to the North. Surprised by the appearance of the German battlefleet, Beatty reversed course and headed north, towards the battleships of the Grand Fleet., while ordering the British destroyers to attack the German fleet (see Barry Bingham below).

The Germans were now chasing Beatty's ships, hoping to slow them down to enable their battleships to destroy the British battle cruisers and fast battleships, not realizing that they were heading straight towards the Grand Fleet. As Beatty's ships were faster than Hipper’s, the range slowly increased and the firing decreased. At 1730 a new unit of three British battle cruisers appeared, escorted by a number of light cruisers and destroyers, among them HMS Chester, emerged from the mist and haze to be confronted by four German cruisers (see Jack Cornwall below). These new ships changed the balance of the fighting and the German battle cruisers changed direction, seeking to join the rest of their fleet. The “Run to the North” had not seen any of the big ships sunk but improved British gunnery saw increasingly heavy damage inflicted on the German battle cruisers. Additionally both sides destroyers had attempted attacks, during one of which HMS Shark was sunk (see Loftus Jones below).

Phase 3: The Battlefleets Collide. At 1800 the two main battlefleets were still invisible to each other, but were closing at a combined speed of nearly 40 knots. Despite incomplete information and poor visibility, Admiral Jellico managed to position his battleship squadrons across the path of the German Fleet. As the range closed Admiral Scheer was appalled to realise he was faced by the entire Grand Fleet, and within minutes the leading German battleships were being pounded by their British counterparts. Admiral Scheer ordered a reversal of course. Meanwhile the battle cruisers continued exchanging fire and HMS Invincible was hit and blew up. As the German ships retreated into the mist, firing eased, but the Germans had learned that the British were between them and their base; they had to get around them, or face destruction. Admiral Scheer again reversed course, thinking to pass the rear of the British line. Jellico had anticipated this, however, and again British fire started to hammer the leading German ships. Scheer desperately ordered his battle crusiers and light forces to "charge" the British line - whilst he withdrew his battleships.

Phase 4: The "Death Ride" of the German Battle Cruisers. The already battered German battle cruisers steamed right for the British ships, and under heavy fire they were soon in a desperate state and forced to adjust course, but their sacrifice had enabled the rest of the German fleet to turn away and lose itself in the mist and haze.

Phase 5: Night Action. With the light failing ,the two fleets lost contact. But the Germans still had to get past the British fleet. Flag signal systems, which had had failed several times during daylight, were completely useless in the dark, and communications broke down. Despite their best efforts, the two fleets were soon fumbling around in the dark, many opportunities were lost as ship and squadron commanders, not sure if the shapes they could see were friendly or hostile, and often lacking initiative, failed to act. The Germans moved to get past the British by crossing behind the Grand Fleet’s battleships. As the night progressed a series of uncoordinated, vicious close range actions took place between 2100 on the 31st and 0300 on the 1st, during which both sides lost several destroyers and cruisers, and SMS Pommern, an old predreadnought battleship, was sunk by torpedo.

During the rest of the night the High Seas Fleet continued to withdraw towards its main base and in the morning the Grand Fleet was alone in the North Sea

The Outcome: The battle had lasted about ten hours. The Germans had sunk 14 Royal Navy warships and killed 6000 men, while the British had sunk 11 German warships and killed 3000 men. Many ships that survived the fight were damaged and several were out of action for months afterwards. And while both sides claimed victory, the Germans on the strength of having inflicted greater casualties on the British, the British believing the Germans had suffered more heavily, the strategic outcome was simple, the German Fleet never attempted so risky a major operation again, their Admirals realising that although the fleet had performed well, it they had been extremely fortunate to escape total destruction.

A century later it’s difficult to imagine the conditions faced by the Admirals on both sides as they struggled to control their forces, which totalled 250 warships, in their efforts to defeat the enemy. For most of the battle neither side knew with any accuracy exactly where their own forces were, never mind those of the other side. Whilst most of the ships carried radios, these were not reliable and neither side had developed procedures that could be trusted to work in the heat of battle. Needless to say there was no radar. For the most part, orders were issued by flags, as they had been for hundreds of years, but whereas in Nelson’s day ships were moving at five or six knots, at Jutland the fleets were moving at 18 or more, while the battle cruisers and some ligher lighter units could get close to 30.

Footnote: The Victoria Cross at Jutland

During the battle there were many individual acts of heroism and bravery, and the Royal Navy awarded four VCs, three of them posthumously.

Francis John William Harvey, VC ( April 29, 1873- May 31, 1916), a veteran major in the Royal Marines and a specialist in gunnery, commanded Q turret on HMS Lion. Early in the battle, as the battle cruisers were exchanging fire, Lion was hit by nine shells from SMS Lutzow, and at 16:00 one struck the turret, blowing off the roof and started a fire. Although mortally wounded, ordered the turret’s magazine to be flooded, preventing tons ammunition from exploding and destroying the ship, a deed which prompted Winston Churchill to comment: "In the long, rough, glorious history of the Royal Marines there is no name and no deed which in its character and consequences ranks above this". Harvey ‘s name is inscribed on the Chatham Naval Memorial.

The Honourable Edward Barry Stewart Bingham VC, OBE (July 26, 1881- September 24, 1939), a commander, he led a division of 12 destroyers at Jutland, undertaking attacks against German destroyers and battle cruisers. Although most of his destroyers were soon out of action, he took his flagship, HMS Nestor and the remaining vessel, division, HMS Nicator in to attack the German battleline at some 3,000 yards despite heavy enemy fire. Nestory was hit reapetedly, and sank at about 1730. Captured by the Germans, Bingham remained a prisoner of war until the Armistice of 1918. He returned to duty with the Royal Navy, and retied as a rear admiral in 1932.

John Travers Cornwell VC (January 8, 1900- June 2, 1916), commonly known as Jack Cornwell or Boy Cornwell, was a gunsight setter aboard the cruiser HMS Chester, which scouting ahead of the Battle Cruiser Squadron when the ship turned to investigate gunfire in the distance. At 1730, Chester came under intense fire from four German cruisers which emerged from the haze and smoke. At least four German shells struck in the vicinity of Cornwell’s 5.5-inch gun, killing or mortally wounding everyone but Cornwell, who, although severely wounded, managed to reamain at his post during until the end of the action. He died two days later in a hospital. The Admiralty recommdend Cornwell for a posthumous VC, which was endoresed by King George V. Cornwell is the third youngester person to have received the decoration.

Commander Loftus William Jones VC (November 13, 1879- May 31, 1916). The son of an admiral, had risen to commander in the Royal Navy, and was captain of the destroyer HMS Shark. His VC citation reads:

On the afternoon of the 31st May, 1916, during the action, Commander Jones in HMS Shark, Torpedo Boat Destroyer, led a division of Destroyers to attack the enemy Battle Cruiser Squadron. In the course of this attack a shell hit the "Shark's" bridge, putting the steering gear out of order, and very shortly afterwards another shell disabled the main engines, leaving the vessel helpless. The Commanding Officer of another Destroyer, seeing the "Shark's" plight, came between her and the enemy and offered assistance, but was warned by Commander Jones not to run the risk of being almost certainly sunk in trying to help him. Commander Jones, though wounded in the leg, went aft to help connect and man the after wheel. Meanwhile the forecastle gun with its crew had been blown away, and the same fate soon afterwards befell the after gun and crew. Commander Jones then went to the midship and the only remaining gun, and personally assisted in keeping it in action. All this time the "Shark" was subjected to very heavy fire from enemy light cruisers and destroyers at short range. The gun's crew of the midship gun was reduced to three, of whom an Able Seaman was soon badly wounded in the leg. A few minutes later Commander Jones was hit by a shell, which took off his leg above the knee, but he continued to give orders to his gun's crew, while a Chief Stoker improvised a tourniquet round his thigh. Noticing that the Ensign was not properly hoisted, he gave orders for another to be hoisted. Soon afterwards, seeing that the ship could not survive much longer, and as a German Destroyer was closing, he gave orders for the surviving members of the crew to put on lifebelts. Almost immediately after this order had been given, the "Shark" was struck by a torpedo and sank. Commander Jones was unfortunately not amongst the few survivors from the "Shark" who were picked up by a neutral vessel in the night.

Commander Jones' body later washed ashore in Sweden, and he was eventually interred in British War Graves plot in Kviberg Cemetery, in Gothenburg. His VC is on display at the Imperial War Museum.

--Cliff Hudson

Our Contributor: A wargamer from his teenage years Cliff Hudson, now retired after many years in retailing and marketing, has a lifelong interest in history, especially military history.

 


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