The outcome of the Battle of Jutland on 31st May and 1st June 1916 was controversial at the time, with both sides claiming it as a victory. Losses in the British Grand Fleet were considerably heavier than in the German High Seas Fleet, but afterwards the commander of the latter was convinced that his numerically inferior force could not win a major fleet action. This had major consequences for the future conduct of the war and the eventual defeat of Germany.
Battle of Jutland maps. Adapted from File:Jutland1916.jpg, a work of the Department of History at the United States Military Academy, which is in the public domain. You can click the image to enlarge it.
Great Britain had a large empire in 1914 and, as the first nation to industrialise, was highly dependent on overseas trade for raw materials and foodstuffs. To support this trade it had a massive fleet of merchant ships, in the region of 50% of the world’s total tonnage in 1914. To protect its trade routes, it also had the world’s largest navy, deliberately maintained at a level more powerful than the two next largest navies. Although its overseas territories were far smaller, Germany was also dependent on imports of food and raw materials. And driven largely by Kaiser Wilhelm’s vanity, it built a large navy which was seen as a direct challenge to the Royal Navy.
When war broke out in 1914, the Royal Navy’s overall strategy was to protect Britain’s international trade routes and also to deny Germany its imports by maintaining a distant blockade of German ports. The British public, whose pride in the Royal Navy was immense, expected the Grand Fleet to sail forth immediately and challenge the High Seas Fleet to battle and repeat the outcome of Trafalgar. However, the vast changes in naval weaponry over the intervening century made this unwise. In particular, the development of mines, submarines and torpedoes provided new and potentially deadly weapons, and there was real fear of their power, even against immensely well armed and armoured battleships and battlecruisers.
Germany would like to have challenged the numerically much stronger Royal Navy, and lifted the blockade, and its tactics were to reduce British naval strength by meeting smaller detachments which it hoped it could defeat. Hence raids were mounted on British coastal towns (Lowestoft, Scarborough, Hartlepool) in the hope that part of the British force would sally forth and give battle. The excursion of the High Seas Fleet into the North Sea on 31st May 1916 was another such operation, with the intention of attacking Sunderland.
British naval intelligence was routinely breaking German codes and knew that the High Seas Fleet was sailing. Admiral Jellicoe, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, was alerted, and sailed his main battle fleet from Scapa Flow. In the North Sea it would rendezvous with the smaller but faster battlecruiser force led by Admiral Beatty.
Admiral David Beatty by Sir John Lavery, 1917. Source: Wikipedia.
The battlecruisers were first to contact German ships, meeting the equivalent force on the German side, led by Admiral Hipper. In a very one-sided battle Hipper’s five ships scored many more hits on Beatty’s six, two of which, Inflexible and Queen Mary, blew up with the loss of the great majority of their crews. Beatty’s flagship Lion was repeatedly hit and was fortunate to escape the same fate. Beatty famously blamed the construction of his ships, which to save weight and ensure a higher speed than contemporary battle ships, had reduced armour plating. In fact, it is almost certain that risky armament handling, condoned by authority in order to give a higher rate of fire, was responsible. Cordite was stored in gun turrets, and a hit on a turret caused a fire which could rapidly spread to the ship’s magazine, resulting in a catastrophic ignition of tons of explosives.
Beatty’s remaining ships turned north towards Jellicoe’s much larger force, and were followed by Hipper’s ships and the rest of the High Seas Fleet under Admiral Scheer. The latter was disconcerted, to say the least, when contact was made with the entire Grand Fleet. The latter’s gunnery proved far more effective than that of Beatty’s ships, sinking the modern battle cruiser Lutzow and inflicting such damage on the Seydlitz that only with immense difficulty was she brought back to Wilhelmshafen. However, a third British battle cruiser, Invincible, blew up at this stage of the battle.
Despite this, Scheer realised he was outnumbered and outgunned: the most modern British battle ships had 15-inch guns in comparison to the German’s 12-inch. Scheer therefore ordered a retreat, during which he sent his torpedo boats against the British battleships. Jellicoe, who has been described as a born pessimist, feared such an attack and turned his ships away from the torpedo boats. By reducing their size as targets, this helped avoid any torpedo hits. But in hindsight turning towards the attack would also have done so, and would have maintained his contact with the enemy’s main units, almost certainly causing much more damage to the High Seas Fleet. However, in poor visibility and with dusk approaching, Jellicoe lost contact, and in any case he was very wary of an action at night. He was proved right, as attacks on the German ships by British destroyers during the night very costly but relatively ineffective, and Scheer was allowed to make his escape.
The Germans were quick to claim a major victory, and maintained that the battle had proved the Royal Navy was not invincible. The response of the British was slow and half-hearted, and it was widely assumed that Jutland represented a major defeat. When Germany finally admitted the scale of its losses, its credibility was damaged, and British accounts made the telling point that a victorious fleet does not beat a rapid retreat from the scene of battle.
The truth was that British command of the North Sea was still absolute. The Grand Fleet remained much the stronger and ready to put to sea again if necessary within hours of its return to port. New and more powerful battlecruisers about to be commissioned would make up for its losses. Some of the German ships, especially Seydlitz, had been badly mauled in the main fleet action, and would be out of commission for months.
Realising that defeating the Grand Fleet in a surface action was not a realistic possibility, and with stalemate on the Western Front, Germany decided that its only option was to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. It was calculated that strangling Britain’s trade would knock it out of the war, and do so before the USA could mobilise its forces and enter the fray on the Allied side. Although its impact on shipping was initially very serious, the renewed U-boat campaign annoyed the USA to the extent that diplomatic relations were almost immediately broken off and within three months it declared war on Germany. Convoying of merchant ships was belatedly introduced, stemming losses and allowing mainly British ships to carry the US army to Europe. The reinforcements thus brought to the western front were an important factor in the eventual allied victory. However, so was the near-starvation brought to Germany, including its armed forces, by the British blockade which was in no way reduced by its losses at the Battle of Jutland.
Thus, whilst the battle could not be regarded as an outright victory for Great Britain, it yet represented a major defeat for Germany. There is a strong case that, with the effect it had on German strategy and hence the war’s outcome, Jutland was the most decisive battle of the First World War.