Some battles are never over and the Battle of Jutland is such a battle. One the 100th anniversary of the Jutland, the Telegraph of London published the following by Nick Jellicoe, Admiral John Jellicoe’s grandson.
(London Daily Telgraph)
Even Nelson could not have done better at Jutland than my grandfather
Britain’s military greatness was founded on its maritime power – and yet in the First World War, while the Royal Navy maintained a crucial economic blockade on Germany, there was just one great sea battle: Jutland.
One hundred years ago on Tuesday, the fleets of Great Britain and Germany confronted one another in the North Sea off the coast of Denmark. To this day, controversy rages over what exactly happened and which side, if any, won the day.
The Kaiser claimed victory, citing heavier British losses in men and ships. But numbers are misleading: yes, the Germans suffered smaller absolute losses – but these represented a far higher percentage of their strength and so were difficult to absorb.
However, the Germans got their version of the battle out while the British were still at sea. The Admiralty bungled its communiqués so badly, it took five revisions before Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty and a former journalist, was recruited to get the British story across.
Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet, reaching the top of a flight of steps on board a battleship. A small group of sailors is stood below looking up at him whilst a capital ship sails astern of the ship. (Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum
So what really happened? My grandfather, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commanded the British Grand Fleet that day and his reputation has arguably never recovered. True, Jutland wasn’t the second Trafalgar the public had expected.
But Jellicoe’s achievement – that of maintaining naval surface supremacy – was quickly lost in the hunt for scapegoats for the failure to secure an outright victory. Those who, like Churchill, had formally approved his written tactical intentions two years previously now accused him of having been too cautious.
The sea was in Jellicoe’s blood through maternal connections back to Nelson and Phillip Patton, an Admiral of the Red. His own father went to sea aged 12 and Jellicoe joined the Navy at 13, passing out of Britannia, with a first-class certificate two years later, in 1874. His career advanced rapidly; but it was under Jacky Fisher that his expertise in gunnery and understanding of ship design developed.
Aged 31, Jellicoe was promoted Commander, then became second-in-command to Admiral Tryon on the ill-fated HMS Victoria (later involved in a fatal collision). Eventually, Jellicoe became Chief-of-Staff on Admiral Seymour’s – unsuccessful – relief expedition to the beleaguered legations in Peking. Friendships with future adversaries would survive war; but after a second brush with death (Jellicoe was shot in the chest leading an attack against Boxer troops), he was invalided home.
To meet the emerging German threat, Fisher as First Sea Lord worked on re-balancing Britain’s naval power centred on Gibraltar and the Channel. But the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 (Jellicoe was on the design team) fuelled a new naval arms race. Jellicoe, meanwhile, had a spell as Director of Naval Ordnance, during which he uncovered poor quality in British munitions. However, his tenure was too short to make a difference, and this left the Fleet at a disadvantage as it faced the enemy at Jutland.
The battle itself was fought late in the day, May 31, 1916. The visibility was appalling, induced by a combination of North Sea fog, lingering cordite fumes and chemical smoke screens. Often, only two ships could be seen at any moment. The battle began ignominiously with the destruction of two British battlecruisers, Indefatigable and Queen Mary. Later that evening, Horace Hood’s Invincible and an older armoured cruiser, Defence, also blew up.
But it was not all bad. Admiral Sir David Beatty, who commanded the Battlecruiser Squadron, lured the Germans back to Jellicoe, who masterfully deployed his 24 dreadnoughts into a five-and-a-half-mile long battle line, twice catching the leading German ships in a “T”, a classic naval warfare tactic.
But Jellicoe did not follow the German battle turns. He judged that he would not have caught them, and also feared that, in the thick fog, he might steam straight on to mines dropped in their wake. As dusk began to fall, he turned his fleet away from a massed German torpedo attack.
Many later saw this as his biggest mistake. Some naval strategists argue even now that he should have turned towards the torpedoes. But Jellicoe was concerned that a 25,000-ton dreadnought’s lack of manoeuvrability would have made them a sitting target for the German torpedoes.
Indeed, not one hit home. However, it meant that Jellicoe lost contact with the rest of the fleet.
Not willing to fight a night action where, in his mind, too much was left to chance, he steamed to where he thought the badly damaged German fleet would run. But even though Admiralty codebreakers knew where the Imperial High Seas Fleet intended to go, they failed to pass these vital signals to Jellicoe. When morning broke, no German ships could be found. They had returned to port claiming victory, perpetuating a myth that has lasted to this day.
For many years, it was averred that that the Grand Fleet wasn’t really engaged at Jutland. But the statistics tell a different story: in the first 75 minutes, the British scored 17 heavy hits against the Germans’ 44. In the last hour of battle fleet engagement, the opposite was the case: 49 to 3. Fourteen British and 11 German ships were sunk, with thousands killed on both sides.
Why had losses been so catastrophic? To begin with, magazine safety was sacrificed for gunnery speed and unstable cordite charges were stacked outside battle-cruiser magazines. A single spark could rip a whole ship apart. The protective scuttles through which cordite was fed to the guns were seldom used and even, in some cases, removed.
Furthermore, Fisher put emphasis on speed and gun caliber, thereby failing to give the battle-cruiser enough armoured protection. Jellicoe had privately voiced concerns about these weaknesses.
I seriously doubt that, under the conditions that day, a Nelson would have done any better. He knew that a failure at Trafalgar only risked a third of British naval assets, whereas Jellicoe was, in Churchill’s famous words, “the only man on either side who could have lost the war in an afternoon”.
The entire complement of British first-line ships was deployed at Jutland, and both sides were fighting with new and mainly untried technologies – long-range gunnery, fire control systems, torpedoes, mines, new ship designs.
The stalemate at Jutland convinced the German high command that they could never win a fleet-to-fleet action. Instead, they aggressively resumed unrestricted submarine activity as the only chance of winning a war bogged down on the western front.
Defeating the U-boat menace became Jellicoe’s next task; and yet, despite great success, public opinion had turned against him. Even though half the Admiralty Board threatened to resign, he was sacked on Christmas Eve 1917.
For a country used to great naval victories, Jutland was a disappointment. On the other hand, without the lessons learned that day, the Navy would have been even less prepared than it was for the next war. Progress was made in independent divisional and night-fighting tactics, destroyer tactics, gunnery, signals management, magazine protection and ordnance and officer training.
This was Jellicoe’s legacy; and fittingly, when he died in November 1935, the flags of the Royal Navy, the French Marine Nationale and Hitler’s Kriegsmarine were all lowered in tribute and respect.
detailed article with slide shows and photographs here: