May 31st, 1916

May 2011


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.

Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Air Force, Aviation, Books, Foreign Policy, Hard Power, History, Marine Corps, Maritime Security, Navy

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  • alfred_the_great


    it was Adm Sir John Jellicoe RN as the Grand Fleet’s Commander; Vice Admiral David Beatty RN was the Commander of the Battle Cruiser Fleet.

  • Mike M.

    Jutland merits study for one other reason…it was, like Salamis two millenia earlier, a battle with all the chips on the table. Neither side had a strategic reserve. As Winston Churchill put it, “He (Jellicoe) was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.”

    But I would not call it indecisive. It was a tactical defeat for the British, who took much higher losses – but a strategic victory of the first water.

    And it resonates to this day – through a rather indirect route. Jutland was a command & control mess. Which led a chemist and part-time science-fiction writer named Edward Smith to come up with the idea of a display system that would provide commanders with a “God’s eye” view of the battlespace – an idea that was promptly grabbed by the Navy and developed into the Combat Information Center of World War II. It’s descentants are still in use today.

  • Chuck Hill

    I would agree that it was a strategic victory for the British. Not only were they able to continue their blockade of the Continent, they broke the will of the High Seas Fleet and destroyed any illusion that the Germans could make up for the numerical weakness by the use of Zeppelin or torpedo craft.

  • alfred_the_great

    It was a Strategic Victory for us in the sense that it allowed us to maintain our distant blockade of the Germans through a Fleet in Being strategy.

    If you’re interested to see in which way a Royal Navy Officer ‘flops’ in terms of C2, ask them who is the villain (and hero!) of Jutland. Andrew Gordon in “The Rules of the Game” sets out an interesting thesis over exactly this point.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Alfred, You are correct, obviously. Needed more caffeine. Beatty’s counterpart was Hipper. Jellicoe’s, Tirpitz. Will fix. Ugh.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    And Alfred, thanks for the suggestion on Gordon’s thesis. Sounds like interesting reading. Norman Friedman in “Network Centric Warfare” also has interesting comments regarding information flow and use of intelligence in the RN leading to, and during the battle.

  • Mike M.


    I tend toward a somewhat middling view of Jellicoe’s tactics for Jutland.

    It must ALWAYS be borne in mind that the British and Germans had asymmetric goals for any fleet engagement in the Great War. The Germans had to win – the British merely had to avoid defeat. They already HAD control of the seas, the Germans had to wrest it from them.

    Which led Jellicoe to a more centralized command and control model than he might have used otherwise. He wanted centralized command to avoid defeat.

    I believe that if he had been set the task of actively defeating the Germans, he probably would have emulated Nelson at Tralfalgar and directed his battle squadrons (each of 5-6 dreadnoughts, IIRC) to engage independently as opportunity arose. This would have led to the van of the German line being engaged by the entirety of the Grand Fleet, with devastating consequences.

    That being said, matters were not helped by the peacetime thinking prevalent in both forces. Peacetime advancement tends to come from administrative excellence and failure avoidance, rather than the aggressive, risk-taking mindset required for success in wartime. The lessons for the USN are obvious, but perhaps not learned.

  • Xander

    Chuck: While one of the results was certainly the continued existence of the blockade, I wouldn’t say it “broke the will” of the High Seas Fleet at all. Note the tremendously successful Operation Albion conducted the following year, whereby much of the High Seas Fleet (including ships that had fought at Jutland) successfully knocked the Russians out of the war.

  • alfred_the_great


    the problem about Jellicoe’s attempted control at Jutland can be traced back to the 1890s (at least), and in some ways back to 1803. Jellicoe was simply the sine qua non of a tradition that believed battles could be controlled, specifically that a series of instructions from the Flagship could be relayed in good enough time to allow detailed direction to be exercised by the Admiral.


  • Chuck Hill

    Xander, but the next time they were asked to fight the British fleet they had a mutiny. Lack of will or discipline, call it what you will, the hope that they could defeat the British was gone.


    URR…Good idea to post this on the day of the 95th anniversary. But a note to your own note: Tirpitz never commanded at sea. Jellicoe’s counterpart was Reinhard Scheer, while the battle cruiser COs were Hipper and Beatty.

  • YN2(SW) H. Lucien Gauthier III

    “Jellicoe was simply the sine qua non of a tradition that believed battles could be controlled”

    So, then the tradition of Rooke–Hawke–Nelson, was an Anomaly?

  • alfred_the_great

    Lucien (H?!)

    1803 saw the introduction of the Signal Book by Adm Sir Home Popham, thus enabling for the first time messages of a significant length to be passed around the Fleet. Nelson used it at Trafalgar to make his famous comments, which did provoke a little bit of grumbling from his Captains when received.

    What is important to note though is that Nelson and his ‘Band of Brothers’ had a) spent a lot of time together as a Fleet before 1803 and b) no-one had really got to grips with the “potential” offered by the Signal Book. In the 111 years between Trafalgar and Jutland 2 important things happened: we stopped being continually at war and the “Communication Branch” gained power and influence. Without the former, we lost sight of the messiness of war, and a series of Officers sought to remove the inconvenience and disorder of battle during those periods we merely practiced at it. The latter took this opportunity and introduced more and more signals that relied solely upon the halyards of the Flagship and the ability of the escort’s signalmen to read them.

    A foresight of how this stymied the RN can be seen in the CAMPERDOWN/VICTORIA incident in 1893 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Victoria_%281887%29). I would submit that the RN (and USN if my operations with you in the Gulf and Med are anything to go by) are approaching the level of inefficiency shown in that period simply due to our reliance on modern C4ISTAR equipment. I have had to justify a tactical decision to C5F’s representative, and when I asked I had to justify it, the reply was “I was just curious and wanted to know what was going on….”. At no point in the combined chain of command (4 layers) did anyone stop the discussion between a junior Lt RN and AA (C5F’s man)!

  • Stephen Lucchetti

    On May 31st “Mike M.” says that Edward Smith came up with the idea for a display system that was developed into the Combat Informatioin Center — CIC. Does anyone have a direct citation to verify this? This is an apocryphal story in science fiction but NOBODY seems to have a specific link to absolutely nail this down. . . .

    Help . . Please!

  • alfred_the_great


    the RN started a way of systematic plotting all ships positions on a paper chart separate from the navigation chart. This was introduced in 1916, and by 1933 we had a dedicated series of courses for Officers and Ratings (sailors) in the ‘art’ of plotting.

    Source – A Gordon ‘The Rules of the Game’ 2ed, pp 572, referencing ‘Handbook of Action Information Organisation and Plotting’ Section 1 (CB 4357 Dec 1945)

    I don’t know how the USN developed their system.

  • McZ

    The counterpart of Jellicoe was Scheer, not Tirpitz.