On May 30th, 1916, the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe (NOT Beatty! Thanks Alfred!) put to sea to upon hearing that Germany’s Hochseeflotte was preparing to depart Keil, likely headed for a raid or bombardment of the English coast. The German fleet, under Admiral Alfred Tirpitz, had planned to lure the English out of harbor and into an open fight in order to break the stranglehold blockade that was already having serious consequences for the German war effort.
On the afternoon of May 31st, 1916, 95 years ago today, the two fleets sighted each other in the stormy North Sea off the Danish coast. The result was the most famous sea battle of the First World War. Called Jutland by the British, and Skaggerak by the Germans, the battle would be the great test of the massive forces of dreadnought capital ships that each nation had so feverishly designed and built over the last decade.
Accounts of the battle are legion, in superb detail or in overview, and I will not attempt recitation here. Jutland, however, remains a strange case study by Naval historians and enthusiasts alike. The battle itself was a far-flung, confused, brutal slugging match that contained heroism, timidity, skill, incompetence, good information ignored, bad information believed, and heartbreaking loss and sacrifice.
The greatest irony is that, with the entire of the effort expended by hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of sailors, Jutland was entirely indecisive. Neither fleet accomplished their objectives tactically, and the situation strategically remained virtually unchanged, as if the battle had never taken place. However, the examination of the Battle of Jutland is more than a dead academic exercise. There are lessons of command and control, clarity of orders and intent, intelligence and communications success and failure, aggressiveness and passivity. The value and limitation of obsolescent warships, employed by both sides, is pertinent today. Jutland provides object examples of asymmetric warfare in its modern sense, with the torpedo and the vessels that carried it, being feared by the commanders of both fleets. Also, Jutland shows decisively the value of ships designed to absorb punishment as well as mete it out. Indeed, two of the iconic images of the battle in the cold and stormy waters are, respectively, the badly-damaged German battle-cruiser Seydlitz, burned and holed, down by the bows with 5,000 tons of water in her, limping into the Jade, and the grainy image of a massive column of smoke and flame that marked the instantaneous death of the British battle-cruiser Queen Mary.
Jutland was perhaps the culmination of six decades of development of steel warships, and had its roots in the echoes of Tsushima, Manila Bay, Santiago, and even Hampton Roads. Jutland also provided us a harbinger of new and nascent capabilities, aircraft and aircraft carriers, that would come to dominate the next great war and beyond. Technologically, the Battle of Jutland was a watershed whose effects still resonate with navies worldwide. And it was fought 95 years ago this day.