Second battle ship squadron at Battle of Jutland. In spite of Admiral Beatty’s orders to move expeditiously toward his battlecruisers and close the enemy, these battleships just waddled along and the squadron was extremely slow in its maneuvering. (Official Royal Navy photo in the public domain).
The Battle of Jutland
31 May 1916
9,000 Men Killed, 250 Warships Clash, 25 Sent to the Bottom
There continues to be an odd debate about who won this battle. This continued debate is who is ridiculous. The British Royal Navy won. The idea that the Battle of Jutland was a “tactical victory” for the Germans because they sank more British ships and a “strategic victory” for the British because the Germans did not break British control of the North Sea is laughable. After the battle, the German High Seas Fleet turned around, steamed back to their anchorage at Kiel and never again made a serious challenge to British control of the North Sea.
Damage to Q turret on battlecruiser HMS Lion, Admiral Beatty’s Flagship at the Battle of Jutland (Photo courtesy of IWM)
In spite of the damage to his ship and other battlecruisers in his squadron, Beatty was the British Admiral who most lived up to the “Nelson Touch” at the Battle of Jutland. Beatty deserved the praise and promotions he received since he “steered for the thunder of the guns.”
Since every source gives slightly different figures, I have taken the following figures verbatim from the after action summary prepared by Lion’s Captain during the Battle of Jutland, A.E.M. Chatfield. (Later Admiral of the Fleet and First Sea Lord or Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy)
In the Royal Navy this is formally known as “Report of Proceedings.” The report was made to Vice-Admiral Beatty, Commanding the Battle Cruiser Fleet. As mentioned, HMS Lion was Beatty’s flagship during the battle hence he was aboard the entire time.
HMS Lion surrounded by waterspouts from enemy gunfire as HMS Queen Mary explodes at right. (photo courtesy Imperial War Museum)
“The damage to the ship is not serious, except that “Q” turret is wrecked, but is reparable. The ship was hit altogether twelve times by enemy heavy shell, but the damage, which I have already reported to you separately, does not seriously affect our seaworthiness or fighting efficiency……”
“…the heavy casualties, which amounted to 95 killed and 49 wounded, mostly in the first two hours of the action, were a tremendous strain on the strongest discipline, yet there was never the least sign of wavering in the least degree from their duty.”
HMS Lion hit by German shellfire at Jutland. Photograph downloaded and scanned from The Literary Digest History of the World War, 10 volumes, Halsey, Francis Whiting, ed; Funk & Wagnalls Co, New York and London, 1920
The complete Report of Proceedings can be found on the following website:
For some reason, naval historians and enthusiasts continue to debate who the actual victor was in this battle. True, the battle was confusing, to put it mildly. Huge formations of ships on the same side were often out of sight of each other.
Wireless communications were in their infancy so admirals on the scene were compelled to communicate to their various squadrons using signal flags. Unfortunately, long and complex orders required long strings of signal flags which were very difficult for signalman on other ships to read because of the conditions.
With low cloud cover, visibility was a limited so reading the flag signals was difficult. Because the battle began at 5:30 pm British time, the light began to fade within a few hours.
All warships on the scene were powered by coal and produced huge clouds of smoke especially when they were steaming at speed. When ships fired on other ships, this generated clouds of powder smoke. To sum it up: many captains couldn’t see a damn thing much less distant flag signals from their Fleet or Squadron commanders.
Admiral of the Fleet David Richard Beatty, 1st Earl Beatty, Admiral Commanding Battlecruiser Squadron at the Battle of Jutland who showed the Nelson Touch by steering to the thunder of the guns. Beatty’s flagship, HMS Lion, was hit five times and Beatty almost killed. He saw the Germans and went at that. He is the great hero of Jutland and was so recognized by the public and most of the government and the Royal Navy after the battle.
portrait by Sir John Lavery, oil on canvas, 1917. National Portrait Gallery.
Because of this, there is still debate over where different formations were at different times. The most fascinating question in a history of any battle is: “what facts did commanders know, when did they learn those facts and how much weight did they give various facts over others?”
Jutland is a battle where the debate over these issues has continued to this very day and will continue for decades to come so I well understand why naval enthusiasts continue to debate the details. However, many historians and amateur historians, suggest Jutland was a “strategic victory” for the British and a “tactical victory” for the Germans. Reason: Germans sank a larger number of Royal Navy ships than the British sank German ships. This is both by number and tonnage.
This is historical hair-splitting, which I say with due respect to those who like to engage in this debate.
Admiral of the Fleet John Jellicoe, 1st Earl Jellicoe, GCB, OM, GCVO, SGM (Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, Order of Merit, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, Sea Gallantry Medal. (1859-1935). (Photo courtesy of the US Library of Congress).
There is absolutely no doubt that at Jutland, Sir John Jellicoe, the commander of the Grand Fleet, was slow to come up and missed the opportunity to get between the German Fleet and their path of retreat to their base anchorage at Kiel. He was deeply aware that losing this battle could be catastrophic and he was very fearful of German submarines and their torpedoes. Yet his hesitation was unjustified. He had a massive fleet and could have taken significant losses.
After he maneuvered his entire battle fleet of more than thirty battleships from divisions to “in line abreast,” it would have been very difficult for U-Boats to have made successful attacks. Further, he was protected from U-boats by his large number of supporting destroyers and lighter ships.
At a critical moment, Jellicoe reduced speed to fifteen knots and it was that brief time at that slower speed that cost the Royal Navy the naval victory of the century.
While Jellicoe was trying to decide what to do, Admiral Beatty in his lightly armoured battlecruisers did most of the fighting and sustained most of the major ship losses.
As I wrote previously, the British Grand Fleet won the battle hands down because the German fleet never again sortied in fleet strength from their main base although smaller squadrons dashed out from time to time. But the High Seas Fleet mainly spent the rest of the war anchored behind heavy torpedo netting and other barriers to British attack.
It is worth noting that after Jellicoe prematurely gave up the chase and returned to his anchorage at Scapa Flow, the men “coaled ship.” That is refueled. In spite of their losses in ships and men, after “coaling,” Jellicoe reported to the Admiralty that the Grand Fleet was available to steam with one hour’s notice.
SMS Seydlitz at the German fleet anchorage. The ship had been hit 21 times by British shells. She inflicted serious damage in return, sinking the Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary in concert with another German ship. SMS is an acronym for ‘Seiner Majestät Schiff’ which translates from German as “His Majesty’s Ship”.
In the lat month of World War One, Admiral Scheer, the German Fleet commander, was going to stage a last Wagnerian suicide mission by taking the fleet to sea in the last few weeks of the war. This precipitated mutiny aboard the ships of the High Seas Fleet and most German ships and bases were seized by mutinous sailors. These naval mutinies in Germany spread to other naval bases and led to the collapse of the Imperial German Government and the downfall of the Kaiser who was a pathetic and silly little man.
While Sir John Jellicoe was C-in-C of the Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland, it was Beatty who commanded the battlecruiser squadron, who became the national here. One of the reasons for this was Beatty’s aggressiveness in closing the enemy which resulted in his flagship, HMS Lion, being hit five times by German shells.
1919. Admiral of the Fleet and Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet David Beatty making his farewell speech to the ship’s company of his Fleet Flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth of the Grand Fleet. Captain Ernle Chatfield and Commander Geoffrey Blake are with him. (photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)