Just before four o’clock on the afternoon of May 31, 1916, a British naval force commanded by Vice Admiral David Beatty confronts a squadron of German ships, led by Admiral Franz von Hipper, some 75 miles off the Danish coast. The two squadrons opened fire on each other simultaneously, beginning the opening phase of the greatest naval battle of World War I, the Battle of Jutland.
After the Battle of Dogger Bank in January 1915, the German navy chose not to confront the numerically superior British Royal Navy in a major battle for more than a year, preferring to rest the bulk of its strategy at sea on its lethal U-boat submarines. In May 1916, however, with the majority of the British Grand Fleet anchored far away, at Scapa Flow, off the northern coast of Scotland, the commander of the German High Seas Fleet, Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer, believed the time was right to resume attacks on the British coastline. Confident that his communications were securely coded, Scheer ordered 19 U-boat submarines to position themselves for a raid on the North Sea coastal city of Sunderland while using air reconnaissance crafts to keep an eye on the British fleet’s movement from Scapa Flow. Bad weather hampered the airships, however, and Scheer called off the raid, instead ordering his fleet—24 battleships, five battle cruisers, 11 light cruisers and 63 destroyers—to head north, to the Skagerrak, a waterway located between Norway and northern Denmark, off the Jutland Peninsula, where they could attack Allied shipping interests and with luck, punch a hole in the stringent British blockade.
Unbeknownst to Scheer, however, a newly created intelligence unit located within an old building of the British Admiralty, known as Room 40, had cracked the German codes and warned the British Grand Fleet’s commander, Admiral John Rushworth Jellicoe, of Scheer’s intentions. Consequently, on the night of May 30, a British fleet of 28 battleships, nine battle cruisers, 34 light cruisers and 80 destroyers set out from Scapa Flow, bound for positions off the Skagerrak.
At 2:20 p.m. on May 31, Beatty, leading a British squadron, spotted Hipper’s warships. As each squadron maneuvered south to better its position, shots were fired, but neither side opened fire until 3:48 that afternoon. The initial phase of the gun battle lasted 55 minutes, during which two British battle cruisers, Indefatigable and Queen Mary were destroyed, killing over 2,000 sailors. At 4:43 p.m., Hipper’s squadron was joined by the remainder of the German fleet, commanded by Scheer. Beatty was forced to fight a delaying action for the next hour, until Jellicoe could arrive with the rest of the Grand Fleet.
With both fleets facing off in their entirety, a great battle of naval strategy began among the four commanders, particularly between Jellicoe and Scheer. As sections of the two fleets continued to engage each other throughout the late evening and the early morning of June 1, Jellicoe maneuvered 96 of the British ships into a V-shape surrounding 59 German ships. Hipper’s flagship, Lutzow, was disabled by 24 direct hits but was able, before it sank, to sink the British battle cruiser Invincible. Just after 6:30 on the evening of June 1, Scheer’s fleet executed a previously planned withdrawal under cover of darkness to their base at the German port of Wilhelmshaven, ending the battle and cheating the British of the major naval success they had envisioned.
The Battle of Jutland—or the Battle of the Skagerrak, as it was known to the Germans—engaged a total of 100,000 men aboard 250 ships over the course of 72 hours. The Germans, giddy from the glory of Scheer’s brilliant escape, claimed it as a victory for their High Seas Fleet. At first the British press agreed, but the truth was not so clear-cut. The German navy lost 11 ships, including a battleship and a battle cruiser, and suffered 3,058 casualties; the British sustained heavier losses, with 14 ships sunk, including three battle cruisers, and 6,784 casualties. Ten more German ships had suffered heavy damage, however, and by June 2, 1916, only 10 ships that had been involved in the battle were ready to leave port again (Jellicoe, on the other hand, could have put 23 to sea). On July 4, 1916, Scheer reported to the German high command that further fleet action was not an option, and that submarine warfare was Germany’s best hope for victory at sea. Despite the missed opportunities and heavy losses, the Battle of Jutland had left British naval superiority on the North Sea intact. The German High Seas Fleet would make no further attempts to break the Allied blockade or to engage the Grand Fleet for the remainder of World War I.