Battle of Jutland

The Battle of Jutland WWI by 1 Montague Dawson, National Geographic 1949
Chrono date: 
1916 May 31 to 1916 Jun 01

There was only one action between the Royal Navy Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet in the World War, the battle of Jutland. This was indecisive, but even in a history with the limits of this book it deserves a chapter of its own. In the magnitude of the forces engaged, a magnitude less in numbers of ships—great as that was—than in the enormous destructive power concentrated in those ships, it was by far the greatest naval battle in history. Moreover, this was the one fleet battle fought with the weapons of to-day. Any discussion of modern tactics, therefore, must be based for some time to come on an analysis of Jutland. Finally, the indecisiveness of the action has resulted in a controversy among naval critics that is likely to continue indefinitely. Meanwhile the debatable points are rich in interest and suggestion.

In earlier wars the nation with a more powerful fleet blockaded the ports of the enemy. In this war the sea mine, the submarine, the aircraft and the long-range gun of coast defenses made the old-fashioned close blockade impossible. Such blockade as could be maintained under modern conditions had to be "distant." The Royal Navy made a base in the Orkneys, Scapa Flow, which had central position with relation to a possible sortie of the German fleet toward either the North Atlantic or the Channel. The intervening space of North Sea was patrolled by a scouting force of light vessels of various sorts and periodical sweeps by the Grand Fleet. On May 30, 1916, the Grand Fleet, under Admiral Jellicoe, set out from its base at Scapa Flow for one of these patrolling cruises. On the same day Vice Admiral Beatty left his base Rosyth (in the Firth of Forth) with his advance force of battle cruisers and battleships, under orders to join Jellicoe at sea. On the following day the High Seas Fleet took the sea and the two great forces came together in battle.

It is not certain why the German fleet should have been cruising at this time. Having declined to offer battle in the summer of 1914, on account of the Royal Navy superiority of force, the High Command could hardly have contemplated attacking in 1916 when the odds were much heavier. From statements published by German officers since the war, the objects seem to have been, first, to prevent a suspected attempt to force an entrance into the Baltic; secondly, to fall upon Beatty's Battle Cruiser Squadron, during its frequent patrolling cruises, when it was detached from the main force; and, thirdly, to destroy the British trading fleets which were conducting an important volume of commerce from the ports of Norway with England and Russia. It is not easy to see, however, why the High Seas Fleet should be sent out on a mere commerce destroying raid. The Germans had been out twice before, since April 1st of that year, and probably it was considered good policy to send the fleet to sea every now and then for the moral effect. The people could not relish the idea of their navy being condemned to inaction in their own harbors, and there was bad feeling over the fact that the government had just yielded to President Wilson's protest on ruthless submarine warfare. A victory over Beatty's battle cruisers, or some other detached unit of the Royal Navy fleet, would have been very opportune in bracing German morale. At the same time Admiral von Scheer had probably reckoned on being able to avoid battle with the Grand Fleet by means of a swift retreat under cover of smoke screens and torpedo attacks. Certainly the odds were too heavy to permit of any other policy on his part.

The First Phase

Cruising formation of Royal Navy Battle fleet at Jutland.


(After diagram by Lieut.-Comdr. H. H. Frost, U.S.N., U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Nov., 1919.)



Dreadnought Battleships


Battle Cruisers


Light Cruisers


Armored Cruisers



Note: One destroyer accompanied each armored cruiser.



At 2 p. m. of the 31st of May, 1916, the Royal Navy main fleet, under Admiral Jellicoe, was in Latitude 57° 57' N., Longitude 3° 45' E. (off the coast of Norway), holding a south-easterly course. It consisted of 24 battleships formed in a line of six divisions screened by destroyers and light cruisers, as indicated in the accompanying diagram. Sixteen miles ahead of the battle fleet was the First Cruiser Squadron under Rear Admiral Arbuthnot and the Second Cruiser Squadron under Rear Admiral Heath; these consisted of four armored cruisers each. They were spread out at intervals of six miles, with the HMS Hampshire six miles astern of the HMS Minotaur to serve as link ship for signals to and from the main fleet. Four miles ahead was the Third Battle Cruiser Squadron of three ships under Rear Admiral Hood. These were steaming in column, screened by four destroyers and two light cruisers (HMS Chester and HMS Canterbury). The diagram shows the complete formation of the Battle Fleet and Cruiser Squadrons, under Admiral Jellicoe's personal command. It is interesting as an example of the extreme complexity of fleet formation under modern conditions, especially when it is realized that the whole fleet was proceeding on its base course by zigzagging.

Map showing Beatty's cruising formation, Battle of Jutland.


(After diagrams by Lieut.-Comdr. H. H. Frost, U.S.N., U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Nov., 1919.)

Seventy-seven miles to the southward Vice Admiral Beatty, commanding the scouting force, was heading on a northeasterly course. His force was spread out in scouting formation. The First Battle Cruiser Squadron of four ships, headed by the flagship Lion, was flanked three miles to the eastward by the Second Battle Cruiser Squadron of two ships, and five miles to the north by the Fifth Battle Squadron, consisting of four of the finest battleships in the fleet, 25-knot Queen Elizabeths, under Rear Admiral Evan-Thomas. Each of these squadrons had its screen of destroyers and light cruisers. Eight miles to the south the First, Second, and Third Light Cruiser Squadrons were spread out in line at five-mile intervals. The formation is made clear by the accompanying diagram.

At the same hour, 2 p. m., Vice Admiral Hipper, with the German scouting force, was heading north about 15 to 20 miles to the southeast of Beatty. Hipper commanded the First Battle Cruiser Squadron, consisting of the Lützow (flag), Derflinger, Seydlitz, Moltke, and Van der Tann, accompanied by a screening force of four or five light cruisers and about 15 destroyers. Fifty miles south of this advance force was the main body of the High Seas Fleet under Vice Admiral von Scheer. It consisted of three battle squadrons arranged apparently in one long column of 22 ships escorted by a screen of 62 destroyers, eight or ten light cruisers, and the one remaining armored cruiser in the German navy, the Roon.

Thus the stage was set and the characters disposed for the great naval drama of that day.

Drawing of the German battle cruiser Derflinger, Battle of Jutland.

At 2.20 the light cruiser Galatea (v. diagram), which lay farthest to the east of Beatty's force, reported two German light cruisers engaged in boarding a neutral steamer. Beatty thereupon changed course toward Horn Reef Lightship in order to cut them off from their base, his light cruisers of the first and third divisions spreading out as a screen to the eastward. It would be interesting to know why, at this point, he did not draw in his battleships and thus concentrate his force, for when he did establish contact with the Germans, Evan-Thomas's squadron was too far away for effective support. Ten minutes later Hipper got word of Royal Navy light cruisers and destroyers sighted to the westward and, changing course to northwest, he headed for them at high speed. At 2.45 Beatty sent out a seaplane from the Engadine to ascertain the enemy's position. This is the first instance in naval history of a fleet scouting by means of aircraft. The airplane came close enough to the enemy to draw the fire of four light cruisers, and returning reported their position. Meanwhile the Galatea had reported heavy smoke "as from a fleet."

At the first report from the Galatea, which had been intercepted on the flagship, Iron Duke, Jellicoe ordered full speed, and despatched ahead the Third Battle Cruiser Squadron, under Hood, to cut off the escape of the Germans to the Skagerrak, as Beatty was then heading to cut them off from their bases to the south. Admiral Scheer, also, on getting report of the English cruisers, quickened the speed of his main fleet.

At 3.30 Beatty and Hipper discovered each other's battle cruiser forces. Hipper turned about and headed on a southerly course to lead the Royal Navy toward the advancing main fleet. Beatty also turned, forming his battle cruisers on a line of bearing to clear the smoke, and the two forces approached each other on converging courses as indicated in the diagram.

At this point it is worth while to compare the two battle cruiser forces:[1]













Queen Mary



8 13.5″





8 12″




8 13.5″





8 12″




8 13.5″





10 11″

Princess Royal



8 13.5″





10 11″




8 12″






New Zealand



8 12″










[Footnote 1: Table from Lieut. Comdr. H. H. Frost, U. S. N., U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Nov., 1919, p. 850.]

A glance shows the superiority of the Royal Navy in guns and the German superiority in armor. The Royal Navy had six ships to the German five, and if the four new battleships of Evan-Thomas's division could be effectively brought into action, the Royal Navy superiority in force would be reckoned as considerably more than two to one. These battleships had 13" armor, eight 15" guns each, and a speed of 25 knots. They were the most powerful ships afloat.

Drawing of the British Royal Navy battle cruiser HMS Lion, Battle of Jutland

In speed, Beatty had a marked advantage. He could make 29 knots with all six of his cruisers and 32 knots with his four best,— HMS Queen Mary, HMS Tiger, HMS Lion, and HMS Princess Royal. Hipper's squadron could make but 28 knots, though the Lützow and Derfflinger were probably capable of 30.



At 3.48 Royal Navy and German battle cruisers opened fire. According to Beatty's report the range at this moment was 18,500 yards. Beatty then turned to starboard, assuming a course nearly parallel to that of Hipper. Almost immediately, three minutes after the first salvo, the HMS Lion, the HMS Tiger, and the HMS Princess Royal were hit by shells. In these opening minutes the fire of the Germans seems to have been fast and astonishingly accurate. The Lion was hit repeatedly, and at four o'clock the roof of one of her turrets was blown off. It is said that the presence of mind and heroic self-sacrifice of an officer saved the ship from the fate that subsequently overwhelmed two of her consorts. By this time the range had decreased to 16,000 yards (Royal Navy reckoning) and Beatty shifted his course more to the south to confuse the enemy's fire control. Apparently this move did not succeed in its purpose for at 4.06 a salvo struck the HMS Indefatigable on a line with her after turret, and exploded a magazine. As she staggered out of column and began sinking, another salvo smashed into her forward decks and she rolled over and sank like a stone.

About this time the Fifth Battle Squadron came into action, but it was not able to do effective service. The range was extreme, about 20,000 yards, and being some distance astern of the battle cruisers, on account of its inferior speed, it had to contend with the battle smoke of the squadron ahead as well as the gradually thickening atmospheric conditions. In addition the Germans frequently laid smoke screens and zigzagged. Evan-Thomas's division never saw more than two enemy ships at a time.

The shift of course taken by Beatty at four o'clock, accompanied possibly by a corresponding shift of Hipper, opened the range so far in a few minutes that fire slackened on both sides. Beatty then swung to port in order to close to effective range. At 4.15 twelve of his destroyers, acting on the general order to attack when conditions were favorable, dashed out toward the German line. At the same instant German destroyers, to the number of fifteen accompanied by the light cruiser Regensburg, advanced toward the Royal Navy line, both forces maneuvering to get on the bows of the opposing battle cruisers. For this purpose the Royal Navy flotilla was better placed because their battle cruisers were well ahead of the Germans. The German destroyers, therefore, concentrated their efforts on the battleship division, which turned away to avoid the torpedoes. In numbers the advantage lay with the Germans, and a fiercely contested action took place between the lines conducted with superb gallantry on both sides. The Germans succeeded in breaking up the Royal Navy attack at a cost of two destroyers. Two of the Royal Navy destroyers also were rendered unmanageable and sank later when the High Seas Fleet arrived on the scene.

Chart of the Action Between Battle Cruiser Forces. First Phase of Battle of Jutland.


Action Between Battle Cruiser Forces.

Meanwhile, at 4.26, just before the destroyers clashed, a salvo struck the Queen Mary, blew up a magazine, and she disappeared with practically all on board. Thus the second of Beatty's battle cruisers was sent to the bottom with tragic suddenness.

At 4.38, Commodore Goodenough, commanding the Second Light Cruiser Squadron, who was scouting ahead of the battle cruisers, reported that the German battle fleet was in sight steering north, and gave its position. Beatty at once called in his destroyers and turned his ships in succession, sixteen points to starboard, ordering Evan-Thomas to turn similarly. Thus the capital ships turned right about on the opposite course, the battleships following the cruisers as before, and all heading for the main fleet which was then about fifty miles away to the north. Commodore Goodenough at this point used his initiative in commendable fashion. Without orders he kept on to the south to establish contact with the German battle fleet and hung on its flanks near enough to report its position to the commander in chief. He underwent a heavy fire, but handled his frail ships so skillfully as to escape serious loss. At the same time the constant maneuvering he was forced to perform or a defect in the Royal Navy system of communication made his reports of bearing seriously inaccurate. Whatever the cause, this error created a difficulty for the commander in chief, who, fifty miles away, was trying to locate the enemy for attack by the Grand Fleet.

The Second Phase

The northward run of the Royal Navy advance force and the German advance force, followed by their main fleet, was uneventful. The situation was at this stage exactly reversed. Beatty was endeavoring to lead the German forces into the guns of the Grand Fleet, while ostensibly he was attempting to escape from a superior force, much as Hipper had been doing with relation to Scheer during the first phase. Beatty's four remaining battle cruisers continued to engage the five German battle cruisers, at a range of 14,000 yards, assisted by the two leading ships of Evan-Thomas's Battle Squadron. The other two battleships engaged the head of the advancing German battle fleet at the extreme range of 19,000 yards as often as they could make out their enemy. The visibility grew worse and apparently neither side scored on the other.

As the British Royal Navy main fleet was reported somewhat to the east of Beatty's position, he bore toward that quarter; and Hipper, to avoid being "T-d" by his enemy, turned to the eastward correspondingly. The mistiness increased to such a degree that shortly after five o'clock Beatty lost sight of the enemy's battle cruisers and ceased fire for half an hour. Between 5.40 and six o'clock, however, conditions were better and firing was opened again by the Royal Navy ships, apparently with good effect. Meanwhile clashes had already taken place between the light cruiser Chester, attached to the Third Battle Squadron of the main fleet, and the light cruisers of the enemy, which were far in advance of their battle cruisers.


The Third Phase

We have already noted that as soon as Jellicoe learned of the presence of the enemy he ordered Hood, with the Third Battle Cruiser Squadron, to cut off the German retreat to the Skagerrak and to support Beatty. Hood's course had taken him well to the east of where the action was in progress. At 5.40 he saw the flashes of guns far to the northwest, and immediately changed course in that direction. Fifteen minutes later he was able to open fire on German light cruisers, with his four destroyers darting ahead to attack with torpedoes. These light cruisers, which had just driven off the Chester with heavy losses, discharged torpedoes at Hood's battle cruisers and turned away. The latter shifted helm to avoid them and narrowly missed being hit. One torpedo indeed passed under the Invincible.

At this point another group of four German light cruisers appeared and Hood's destroyers advanced to attack them. The fire of the cruisers damaged two destroyers though not before one of them, the Shark, had torpedoed the German cruiser Rostock. The Shark herself was in turn torpedoed and sunk by a German destroyer. At about the same time action had begun between the ships of the armored cruiser squadron under Arbuthnot and another squadron of German light cruisers.

A moment later (at 5.56) Beatty sighted the leaders of the Grand Fleet and knew that contact with his support was established. At once he changed course to about due east and put on full speed in order to head off the German line, and by taking position to the eastward, allow the battle fleet to form line astern of his battle cruisers. Such an overwhelming force was now concentrated on the German light cruisers that they turned back. Of their number the Wiesbaden had been disabled by a concentration of fire and the Rostock torpedoed. Hipper then made a turn of 180° with his battle cruisers in order to get back to the support of the battleships which he had left far to the rear. Then he turned round again, and continued to lead the German advance. All this time he seems to have had no suspicion that the Grand Fleet was in the neighborhood.

Drawing of the British Royal Navy battle cruiser HMS Iron Duke, Battle of Jutland.png

As Beatty dashed across the front of the approaching battle fleet he sighted Hood's Third Battle Cruiser Squadron ahead of him and signaled him to take station ahead. Accordingly Hood countermarched and led Beatty's line in the Invincible. Evan-Thomas was by this time so far in the rear of the speedier battle cruisers that he was unable to follow with Beatty, and in order to avoid confusion with the oncoming battle fleet he turned left 90° in order to form astern of the Sixth Battle Division, by this move, however, leaving Beatty's cruisers unsupported. Meanwhile the armored cruisers of Arbuthnot were already under fire from Hipper's squadron and suffering severely. At 6.16 the Defense, the flagship of the squadron, blew up; the Warrior was badly disabled, and the Black Prince was so crippled as to be sunk during the night action. As Evan-Thomas made his turn, one of his battleships, the Warspite, was struck by a shell that jammed her steering gear in such a way as to send her head on toward the Germans. She served to shield the Warrior from destruction, but suffered thirty hits from heavy projectiles before she was brought under control and taken out of action.

Map showing BATTLE OF JUTLAND, MAY 31, 1916, Second and Third Phases.


2nd and 3rd phases

Between six and 6.15 Jellicoe received bearings from Vice Admiral Burney (of the Sixth Battle Division), Evan-Thomas, and Beatty which enabled him for the first time to plot accurately the position of the German battle fleet. This information revealed the fact that previous plotting based on bearings coming from Goodenough and others was seriously wrong. The Germans were twelve miles to the west of where they were supposed to be. Jellicoe then formed line of battle, not on the starboard wing, which was nearest the head of the German advance, but on the port wing, which was farthest away, and speed was reduced to 14 knots in order to enable the battle cruisers to take station at the head of the line. Indeed some of the ships in the rear or sixth division had to stop their engines to avoid collision during deployment. By this time the ships of the sixth division began to come under the shells of the German battle fleet and they returned the fire. By half past six all sixteen of the German dreadnoughts were firing at the Royal Navy lines, the slow pre-dreadnoughts being so far to the rear as to be unable to take part. The battleship fire, however, neither at this point nor later showed the extraordinary accuracy displayed by the battle cruisers at the beginning, but this may possibly be attributed to the gathering mistiness that hung over the sea, darkened by the low-lying smoke from the host of ships.

As soon as Scheer realized that he had not only run right into the arms of the Grand Fleet, but lay in the worst tactical position imaginable with an overwhelming force concentrated on the head of his line, he turned away to escape. The battle cruisers (at 6.30) swung away sharply from east to south, the ships turning in succession. Meanwhile the torpedo flotillas tried to cover the turn by a gallant attack on the Royal Navy battle line. At the same time smoke screens also were laid to cover the retirement. The Invincible, Hood's flagship, which was leading the Royal Navy line, was at this juncture struck by a shell that penetrated her armor and exploded a magazine. The ship instantly broke in two and went to the bottom, and only four officers and two men were saved. Almost at the same instant the German battle cruiser Lützow, Hipper's flagship, was so badly disabled by shells and torpedo that she fell out of line helpless. Hipper managed, however, to board a destroyer and two hours later succeeded in shifting his flag to the Moltke.

Drawing of the German battle ship the Koenig, Battle of Jutland.


At 6.35 Scheer performed a difficult maneuver that the fleet had practiced for just the situation that existed at this time. He wheeled his battleships simultaneously to starboard, forming line again on a westerly course. Twenty minutes later, finding that he was no longer under fire from the Grand Fleet, he repeated the maneuver, the ships turning again to starboard and forming line ahead again on an easterly, then southerly course. These changes of course were made under cover of smoke screens and were not observed by the Royal Navy.

By this time the Grand Fleet had formed line of battle on a southeasterly course and by 7.10 its leaders were concentrating their fire on the head of the German line, which was now caught under an overwhelming superiority of force. Unfortunately for the Germans the visibility conditions at this time were worse for them than for their enemy, for while the Royal Navy ships were nearly or quite invisible, the Germans every now and then stood silhouetted against the western sky. The Royal Navy fire at this time was heavy and accurate. The German fleet seemed marked for destruction.

For Scheer it was now imperative to withdraw if he could. Accordingly at this juncture he sent out a flotilla of destroyers in a desperate effort to cover the retreat of his fleet. They fired a number of torpedoes at the English battle line, and retired with the loss of one boat. Their stroke succeeded, for Jellicoe turned his whole line of battleships away to avoid the torpedoes. Beatty, holding his course at the head of the line, signaled Admiral Jerram of the King George V to follow astern, but he was evidently bound to the orders of his commander in chief. For the second time that day Beatty was left unsupported in his fight at the head of the line.

Meanwhile Scheer's capital ships had simultaneously wheeled away in line to the westward under cover of the torpedo attacks and smoke screens made by the destroyers. This was the third time within an hour that they had effected this maneuver, and the skill with which the battleships managed these turns in line under a rain of fire speaks well for German seamanship. Meanwhile, to rëenforce the covering movement made by the destroyers, Scheer sent out his battle cruisers in a sortie against Beatty, who was pressing hard on the head of the German line. The following account from Commander von Hase of the Derfflinger, which led this sortie, is interesting not only for its description of what occurred at this time but also as a picture of a personal experience of the terrific fire that the battle cruisers of both sides had to sustain throughout the greater part of the engagement. It was on them that the brunt of the fighting fell. The narrative is quoted from the pages of the Naval and Military Record:

"By now our Commander-in-Chief had realized the danger threatening our fleet, the van of which was enclosed in a semicircle by the hostile fleet. We were, in fact, absolutely 'in the soup' (in absoluten Wurstkessel)! There was only one way to get clear of this tactically disadvantageous position: to turn the whole fleet about and steer on an opposite course. First to evade this dangerous encirclement. But the maneuver must be unobserved and executed without interference. The battle-cruisers and torpedo-boats must cover the movement of the fleet. At about[1] 9.12 the Commander-in-Chief made the signal to alter course, and almost simultaneously made by W/T [wireless] the historic signal to the battle-cruisers and torpedo-boats: 'Charge the enemy!' (Ran an den Feind!) Without turning a hair the captain ordered 'Full speed ahead, course south-east.' Followed by the Seydlitz, Molke, and Von der Tann, we steamed at first south-east, then, from 9.15 onward, directly towards the head of the enemy's line.

[Footnote 1: There was a difference of two hours in time between the German and the English standard.]

"And now an infernal fire was opened on us, especially on the Derfflinger, as leading ship. Several ships were concentrating their fire upon us. I selected a target and fired as rapidly as possible. The range closed from 12,000 to 8,000 meters, and still we steamed full speed ahead into this inferno of fire, presenting a splendid target to the enemy, while he himself was very difficult to see. Salvo after salvo fell in our immediate vicinity, and shell after shell struck our ship. They were the most exciting minutes. I could no longer communicate with Lt. von Stosch (who was in the foretop control), as the telephone and voice-pipes had been shot away, so I had to rely an my own observations to direct the fire. At 9.13, previous to which all four 12 in. turrets were in action, a serious catastrophe occurred. A 15 in. shell penetrated the armor of No. 3 turret and exploded inside. The gallant turret captain, Lt. von Boltenstern, had both his legs torn off, and with him perished practically the entire guns' crew. The explosion ignited three cartridges, flames from which reached the working chamber, where eight more cartridges were set on fire, and passed down to the magazine, igniting still more cartridges. They burned fiercely, the flames roaring high above the turret—but they burned only, they did not explode—as our enemy's cartridges had done—and that saved the ship! Still, the effect of the burning cartridges was catastrophic; the flames killed everything within their reach. Of the 78 men of the turret crew only five escaped, some badly wounded, by crawling out through the holes for expelling empty cartridge cases. The remaining 73 men died instantly. A few seconds after this catastrophe another disaster befell us. A 15 in. shell pierced the shield of No. 4 turret and burst inside, causing frightful destruction. With the exception of one man, who was blown out of the turret hatch by the blast of air, the entire crew, including all the men in the magazines and shell-rooms, 80 souls in all, were instantly killed. All the cartridges which had been taken out of their metal cases were ignited, so that flames were now shooting sky-high from both the after turrets....

"The enemy's shooting was splendid. Shell after shell crashed into us, and my heart stood still as I thought of what must be happening inside the ship. My thoughts were rudely disturbed. Suddenly it was to us as if the world had come to an end. A terrific roar, a mighty explosion, and then darkness fell upon us. We shook under a tremendous blow, which lifted the conning-tower bodily off its base, to which it sank back vibrating. A heavy shell had struck the gunnery control station about 20 inches from me. The shell burst, but did not penetrate because it had hit the thick armor at an angle, but huge pieces of plating were torn away.... We found, however, that all the artillery connections were undamaged. Splinters had penetrated the lookout slits of the conning-tower, wounding several people inside. The explosion had forced open the door, which jammed, and two men were unable to move it. But help from an unexpected quarter was at hand. Again we heard a terrific roar and crash, and with the noise of a thunderbolt a 15 in. shell exploded beneath the bridge. The blast of air swept away everything that was not firmly riveted down, and the chart-house disappeared bodily. But the astounding thing was that this same air pressure closed the door of the conning-tower! The Englishman was polite; having first opened the door, he carefully shut it again for us. I searched with my glass for the enemy, but, although the salvos were still falling about us, we could see practically nothing of him; all that was really visible were the huge, golden-red flames from the muzzles of his guns.... Without much hope of hurting the enemy I fired salvo after salvo from the forward turrets. I could feel how our shooting was calming the nerves of the crew. Had we not fired at this moment the whole ship's company would have been overpowered by a great despair, for everyone knew that a few minutes more of this would finish us. But so long as we fired things could not be so bad with us. The medium guns fired also, but only two of the six 5.9's on one side were still in action. The fourth gun was split from end to end by a burst in the muzzle, and the third was shot to pieces...."

The battle-cruisers were recalled just in time—so it would appear—to save them from annihilation, and Com. von Hase proceeds:

"All hands were now busy quelling the fires. Thick clouds of yellow gas still poured from both after turrets, but the flooding of the magazines soon got rid of this. None of us had believed that a ship could stand so many heavy hits. Some twenty 15 in. hits were counted after the battle, and about the same number of bad hits from smaller calibers. The Lützow was out of sight (she sank later), but the Seydlitz, Moltke, and Von der Tann were still with us. They, too, had been badly punished, the Seydlitz worst of all. Flames still roared from one of her turrets, and all the other ships were burning. The bow of the Seydlitz was deep in the water. Every battle-cruiser had suffered severe casualties.... But the death charge had achieved its purpose by covering the retreat of the battle fleet.... Our ship was very heavily battered, and in many places the compartments were mere heaps of débris. But vital parts were not hit, and, thanks to the strong armor, the engines, boilers, steering gear, and nearly all auxiliaries were undamaged. For a long time the engine-room was filled with noxious fumes, necessitating the use of gas masks. The entire ship was littered with thousands of large and small shell splinters, among which we found two practically undamaged 15 in. shell caps, which were later used in the wardroom as wine coolers. The belt armour was pierced several times, but either the leaks were stopped or the inflow of water was localized in small compartments. In Wilhelmshaven we buried our dead, nearly 200 in all."

By 8 o'clock the German battleships had vanished, with the Royal Navy steering westward by divisions in pursuit. But never again did the two battle fleets regain touch with each other. Occasional contact with an enemy vessel was made by other units of Jellicoe's force. About 8.20 another destroyer attack was threatened, and again Jellicoe swerved away, at the same time, however, sending the Fourth Light Cruiser Squadron and two destroyer flotillas, which succeeded in breaking up the attempt. At 8.30 he reformed his fleet in column and continued on a southwesterly course until 9 o'clock.


Fourth Phase

As darkness came on, Jellicoe, declining to risk his ships under conditions most favorable to torpedo attack, arranged his battleships in four squadrons a mile apart, with destroyer flotillas five miles astern, and sent a mine-layer to lay a mine field in the neighborhood of the Vyl lightship, covering the route over which the Germans were expected to pass if they attempted to get home via the Horn Reef. He then headed southeast. Beatty also drew off from pursuit with his battle cruisers. Jellicoe's plan was to avoid a general night action, but to hold such a position as to compel the Germans to fight again the following morning in order to reach their bases. During the night (between ten and 2.35) there were several sharp conflicts, mainly between the destroyers and light cruisers of the opposing fleets, with considerable loss on both sides. On the Royal Navy side, two armored cruisers, Black Prince and Warrior, went down—both crippled by damages sustained during the day—and five destroyers. Six others were severely damaged. On the German side, the battle cruiser Lützow sank as a result of her injuries, the predreadnought battleship Pommern was blown up by a torpedo, three light cruisers were sunk, and four or five other ships suffered from torpedo or mine.

The contacts made by British Royal Navy destroyers and cruisers confirm the accounts of the Germans as to the course of their fleet during the night. About nine o'clock Scheer changed course sharply from west to southeast and cut through the rear of the Royal Navy fleet. At dawn, about 2.40, he was twenty miles to eastward of Jellicoe on the road to Wilhelmshaven. At noon the greater part of the German fleet was safe in port. Some of the lighter ships, to escape the assaults of the Royal Navy destroyers during the night, headed north and got home by way of the Skagerrak and the Kiel Canal.

Jellicoe had avoided a night pursuit for the sake of fighting on better terms the next morning, but at dawn he found his destroyers scattered far and wide. Judging it unwise to pursue the High Seas Fleet without a screening force, and discovering by directional wireless that it was already south of Horn Reef and in the neighborhood of the mine fields, he gave up the idea of renewing the engagement and turned north. He spent the forenoon in sweeping the scene of the previous day's fighting, collecting his dispersed units, and then returned to his bases.

The claim of victory, which was promptly and loudly made by the German press, is absurd enough. After the Grand Fleet arrived there could be only one thought for the Germans that was a fighting retreat. Nevertheless, they had every reason to be proud of what they had done. They had met a force superior by a ratio of about 8 to 5 and had escaped after inflicting nearly twice as much damage as they had sustained. These losses may be compared by means of the following table[1]:


Three Battle Cruisers,











Three Armored Cruisers,











Eight Destroyers,






























One Battle Cruiser




One Pre-dreadnought,




Four Light Cruisers,














Five Destroyers,



















Personnel, killed and wounded: BRITISH, about 6,600: GERMANS, 3,076.

[Footnote 1: Figures in these tables taken from Lieut. Comdr. H. H. Frost, U. S. N., U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Jan., 1920, p. 84.]

With all allowance for the poor visibility conditions and the deepening twilight, it must be admitted also that Scheer handled his ships with great skill. Caught in a noose by an overwhelming force, he disentangled himself by means of the torpedo attacks of his destroyer flotillas and turned away under cover of their smoke screens. After nightfall he boldly cut through the rear of the Royal Navy fleet in battle line, and reached his base in safety with the great bulk of his ships. Meanwhile at practically all stages of the fighting German gunnery was both rapid and accurate, the seamanship was admirable, and there was no lack of courage of the highest order.

As to material, Admiral Jellicoe notes the superiority of the German fleet in range-finding devices, searchlights, smoke screens, a star shell—unknown to the Royal Navy and invaluable for night fighting—and in the armor piercing quality of the shells. Moreover the Germans were completely equipped with systems of director firing, while the Royal Navy were not. According to Admiral Sir Percy Scott,[1] "at the Battle of Jutland ... the commander in chief had only six ships of his fleet completely fitted with director firing ... he had not a single cruiser in the fleet fitted for director firing."

[Footnote 1: Fifty Years in the Royal Navy, p. 278.]

The greatest superiority of all probably lay in the structural features of the newer German ships. For some years prior to the war Admiral von Tirpitz had devoted himself to the problem of under water protection, to localize the effect of torpedo and mine on the hull of a ship. To quote the words of von Tirpitz:[2]

[Footnote 2: My Memoirs, Vol. I, p. 171.]

"We built a section of a modern ship by itself and carried out experimental explosions on it with torpedo heads, carefully testing the result every time. We tested the possibility of weakening the force of the explosion by letting the explosive gases burst in empty compartments without meeting any resistance. We ascertained the most suitable steel for the different structural parts, and found further that the effect of the explosion was nullified if we compelled it to pulverize coal in any considerable quantity. This resulted in a special arrangement of the coal bunkers. We were then able to meet the force of the explosion ... by a strong, carefully constructed steel wall which finally secured the safety of the interior of the ship."


The only German armored ship that succumbed to the blow of a single torpedo was the Pommern, an old vessel, built before the fruits of these experiments were embodied in the German fleet. The labor of von Tirpitz was well justified by the results, as may be seen by the instantaneous fashion in which the three Royal Navy battle cruisers went to the bottom, compared with the ability of the German battle cruisers to stand terrific pounding and yet stay afloat and keep going. According to the testimony of a German officer,[1] the Lützow was literally shot to pieces in the battle and even then it took three torpedoes to settle her. Actually she was sunk by opening her seacocks to prevent her possible capture. The remarkable ability of the battle cruiser Göben, in Turkish waters, to survive shell, mines, and torpedo, bears the same testimony, as does the Mainz, which, in the action of the Heligoland Bight had to be sunk by one of her own officers, as in the case of the Lützow. It is possible that Jellicoe assumed an inferiority of the Royal Navy armor piercing shell because of this power of the German ships to stay afloat. But photographs published after the armistice showed that British shells penetrated the 11-inch turret armor of the Seydlitz and the 13-inch of the Derfflinger with frightful effect. The difference was in the fact that they did not succeed in sinking those ships, which, after all is the chief object of a shell, and this must be attributed to better under-water construction.

[Footnote 1: Quoted in Naval and Military Record, Dec. 24, 1919, p. 822.]

The only criticism it seems possible to suggest on Scheer's tactics is the unwariness of his pursuit, which might so easily have led to the total destruction of the German fleet. Strangely enough, although a Zeppelin hovered over the Royal Navy fleet at dawn of the day after the battle, no aircraft of any kind scouted ahead of the Germans the day before. In pursuing Beatty, Scheer had to take a chance, well aware that if the Grand Fleet were within reach, Beatty's wireless would bring it upon him. But Scheer was evidently perfectly willing to risk the encounter. Such criticism as arose in Germany—from Captain Persius, for example—centered on "Tirpitz's faulty constructional methods"; which, in the light of the facts of the battle would seem to be the very last thing to hit upon.

As for types and weapons it is clear that the armored cruisers served only as good targets and death traps. The Royal Navy would have been better off if every armored cruiser had been left at home. The dominating feature of the story is the influence of the torpedo on Jellicoe's tactics. It is fair to say that it was the Parthian tactics of the German destroyer, both actual and potential, that saved the High Seas Fleet and robbed the Royal Navy of a greater Trafalgar. At every crisis in the battle it was either what the German destroyer did or might do that governed the Royal Navy commander's maneuvers. At the time of deployment he formed on the farthest rather than on the nearest division because of what German destroyers might do. When the Grand Fleet swung away to the east and lost all contact with their enemy for the rest of the battle, it was because of a destroyer attack. At this time eleven destroyers accomplished the feat of driving 27 dreadnoughts from the field! Again, the pursuit was called off at nightfall because of the peril of destroyer attacks under cover of darkness, and finally Jellicoe decided not to risk an action the following morning because his capital ships had no screening forces against the torpedo of the enemy. It is worth noting in this connection that although the Admiralty were aware of the battle in progress, they held back the Harwich force of destroyers and light cruisers which would have proved a welcome reënforcement in pursuing the retreating fleet. The reason for this decision has never been published.

In connection with the important part played by the German destroyers at Jutland it is worth remarking that before the war it was the Admiralty doctrine that destroyers could not operate successfully by day, and they were accordingly painted black for night service. The German destroyers were painted gray. After Jutland the Royal Navy flotillas also were painted the battleship gray.

Naturally the failure of the superior fleet to crush the inferior one aroused a storm of criticism, the most severe emanating from English naval writers. The sum and substance is the charge of overcaution on the part of the Royal Navy Commander in Chief. It is held that Jellicoe should have formed his battle line on his starboard instead of his port wing, thus turning toward the enemy and concentrating on the head of their column at once. Forming on the port division caused the battle fleet to swerve away from the enemy and open the range just at the critical moment of contact, leaving Beatty unsupported in his dash across the head of the enemy's line. It is said that the latter even sent a signal to the Marlborough for the battleships to fall in astern of him, and the failure to do so made his maneuver fruitless. Apparently this message was not transmitted to the flagship at the time. In answer Jellicoe explains in great detail that the preliminary reports received from Goodenough and others as to the position of the High Seas Fleet were so meager and conflicting that he could not form line of battle earlier than he did, and secondly that deploying on the starboard division at the moment of sighting the enemy would have thrown the entire battle fleet into confusion, blanketed their fire, and created a dangerous opening for torpedo attack from the destroyers at the head of the German column. On this point Scheer agrees with the critics. Deploying on the starboard division instead of the port, he says, "would have greatly impeded our movements and rendered a fresh attack on the enemy's line extremely difficult."

The second point of criticism rested on the turning away of the battleships at the critical point of the torpedo attack at 7.20, under cover of which the German battleships wheeled to westward and disappeared. Jellicoe's reply is that if he had swung to starboard, turning toward the enemy, he would have headed into streams of approaching torpedoes under conditions of mist and smoke that were ideal for torpedo attack, and if he had maintained position in line ahead he would have courted heavy losses. In connection with this turn he calls attention to the fact that Royal Navy light cruisers and destroyers could not be used to deliver a counter attack because, on account of the rapid changes of course and formation made by the battlefleet, they had been unable to reach their proper station in the van.

Thirdly, if conditions for night battle were too risky why did the Grand Fleet fail to keep sufficient touch with the enemy by means of its light flotillas so as to be informed of his movements and prevent his escape? There were frequent contacts during that short night, and the Germans were sighted steering southeast. The attacks made by Royal Navy destroyers certainly threw the German line into confusion, and some of the light vessels were driven to the north, reaching German bases by way of the Baltic. Nevertheless the fleet succeeded in cutting through without serious loss. To this there seems to be no answer.

Lastly, to the query why Jellicoe did not seek another action in the morning, as originally intended, he replies that he discovered by directional wireless that the Germans were already safe between the mine fields and the coast, and that he could not safely proceed without his screening force of destroyers and light cruisers, which, after their night operations, were widely scattered. From German accounts, however, we find no mention of a shelter behind mine fields, but astonishment at the fact that they were permitted to go on their way unmolested. Morning found the two fleets only twenty miles apart, and the Germans had a half day's steaming before they could reach port. They were in no condition to fight. The battleship Ostfriesland had struck a mine and had to be towed. The battle cruiser Seydlitz had to be beached to keep her from sinking, and other units were limping along with their gun decks almost awash.

Certainly the tactics of Jellicoe do not suggest those of Blake, Hawke, or Nelson. They do not fit Farragut's motto—borrowed from Danton[1]—"l'audace, encore l'audace, et toujours l'audace," or Napoleon's "frappez vite, frappez fort." War, as has been observed before, cannot be waged without taking risks. The British had a heavy margin to gamble on. As it happened, 23 out of the entire 28 battleships came out of the fight without so much as a scratch on their paint; and, after deployment, only one out of the battle line of 27 dreadnoughts received a single hit. This was the Colossus, which had four men wounded by a shell.

[Footnote 1: And borrowed by Danton from Cicero.]

The touchstone of naval excellence is Nelson. As Mahan has so ably pointed out, while weapons change principles remain. Dewey, in deciding to take the chances involved in a night entry of Manila Bay did so in answer to his own question, "What would Farragut do?" Hence in considering Jutland one may take a broader view than merely a criticism of tactics. In a word, does the whole conduct of the affair reveal the method and spirit of Nelson?

At Trafalgar there was no need for a deployment after the enemy was sighted because in the words of the famous Memorandum, "the order of sailing is to be the order of battle." The tactics to be followed when the French appeared had been carefully explained by Nelson to his commanders. No signal was needed—except the fine touch of inspiration in "England expects every man to do his duty." In brief, the British fleet had been so thoroughly indoctrinated, and the plan was so simple, that there was no room for hesitation, uncertainty, or dependence on the flagship for orders at the last minute. It is hard to see evidence of any such indoctrination of the Grand Fleet before Jutland.

Again, Nelson was, by example and precept, constantly insisting on the initiative of the subordinate. "The Second in Command will ... have the entire direction of his line to make the attack upon the enemy, and to follow up the blow until they are captured or destroyed.... Captains are to look to their particular line as their rallying point. But in case signals can neither be seen nor perfectly understood, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy." At Jutland, despite the urgent signals of Beatty at two critical moments, neither Burney of the sixth division nor Jerram of the first felt free to act independently of the orders of the Commander in Chief. The latter tried, as Nelson emphatically did not, to control from the flagship every movement of the entire fleet.

Further, if naval history has taught anything it has established a point so closely related to the responsibility and initiative of the subordinate as to be almost a part of it; namely, a great fleet that fights in a single rigid line ahead never achieves a decisive victory. Blake, Tromp, and de Ruyter fought with squadrons, expecting—indeed demanding—initiative on the part of their flag officers. That was the period when great and decisive victories were won. The close of the 17th century produced the "Fighting Instructions," requiring the unbroken line ahead, and there followed a hundred years of indecisive battles and bungled opportunities. Then Nelson came and revived the untrammeled tactics of the days of Blake with the added glory of his own genius. It appears that at Jutland the battleships were held to a rigid unit of fleet formation as in the days of the Duke of York or Admiral Graves. And concentration with a long line of dreadnoughts is no more possible to-day than it was with a similar line of two-decked sailing ships a century and a half ago.

Finally, in the matter of spirit, the considerations that swayed the movements of the Grand Fleet at all stages were apparently those of what the enemy might do instead of what might be done to the enemy, the very antithesis of the spirit of Nelson. It is no reflection on the personal courage of the Commander in Chief that he should be moved by the consideration of saving his ships. The existence of the Grand Fleet was, of course, essential to the Allied cause, and there was a heavy weight of responsibility hanging on its use. But again it is a matter of naval doctrine. Did the Royal Navy fleet exist merely to maintain a numerical preponderance over its enemy or to crush that enemy—whatever the cost? If the battle of Jutland receives the stamp of approval as the best that could have been done, then the British or the American officer of the future will know that he is expected primarily to "play safe." But he will never tread the path of Blake, Hawke, or Nelson, the men who made the traditions of the Service and forged the anchors of the British Empire.

Thus the great battle turned out to be indecisive; in fact, it elated the Germans with a feeling of success and depressed the British with a keen sense of failure. Nevertheless, the control of the sea remained in the hands of the English, and never again did the High Seas Fleet risk another encounter. The relative positions at sea of the two adversaries therefore remained unaltered.


On the other hand, if the Royal Navy had destroyed the German fleet the victory would have been priceless. As Jervis remarked at Cape St. Vincent, "A victory is very essential to England at this hour." The spring of 1916 was an ebb point in Allied prospects. The Verdun offensive was not halted, the Somme drive had not yet begun, the Russians were beaten far back in their own territory, the Italians had retreated, and there was rebellion in Ireland. The annihilation of the High Seas Fleet would have reversed the situation with dramatic suddenness and would have at least marked the turning point of the war. Without a German battle fleet, the Royal Navy could have forced the fighting almost to the very harbors of the German coast—bottling up every exit by a barrage of mines. The blockade, therefore, could have been drawn close to the coast defenses. Moreover, with the High Seas Fleet gone, the Royal Navy fleet could have entered and taken possession of the Baltic, which throughout the war remained a German lake. By this move England would have threatened the German Baltic coast with invasion and extended her blockade in a highly important locality, cutting off the trade between Sweden and Germany. She would also have come to the relief of Russia, which was suffering terrible losses from the lack of munitions. Indeed it would have saved that ally from the collapse that withdrew her from the war. With no German "fleet in being" great numbers of workers in English industry and vast quantities of supplies might have been transferred to the support of the army. The threat of invasion would have been removed, and the large army that was kept in England right up to the crisis of March, 1918,[1] would have been free to reenforce the army at the front. Finally, without the personnel of the German fleet there could have been no ruthless submarine campaign the year after, such as actually came so near to winning the war. Thus, while the German claim to a triumph that drove the British from the seas is ridiculous, it is equally so to argue, as the First Lord of the Admiralty did, that there was no need of a British victory at Jutland, that all the fruits of victory were gained as it was. The subsequent history of the war tells a different tale.

This work is from the chapter, World War 1: Battle of Jutland :-

A History of Sea Power, by William Oliver Stevens and Allan Westcot


[Footnote 1: A quarter of a million men were sent from England at this time.]


The Grand Fleet, 1914-1916, Admiral Viscount Lord Jellicoe of Scapa, 1919.

The German High Seas Fleet in the World War, Vice Admiral von Scheer, 1920.

The Battle of Jutland, Commander Carlyon Bellairs, M. P., 1920.

The Naval Annual, 1919, Earl Brassey.

A Description of the Battle of Jutland, Lieut. Commander H. H. Frost, U. S. N., in U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 45, pp. 1829 ff, 2019 ff; vol. 46, pp. 61 ff.

The British Navy in Battle, A. H. Pollen, 1919.


Established in 2003, Royal Navy History is the leading and official website for the History of the Royal Navy.
Copyright © 2017, Royal Navy History