Involving some 250 ships and 100,000 men, this battle off Denmark’s North Sea coast was the only major naval surface engagement of World War I. The battle began in the afternoon of May 31, 1916, with gunfire between the German and British scouting forces. When the main warships met, British Admiral John Jellicoe maneuvered his boats to take advantage of the fading daylight, scoring dozens of direct hits that eventually forced German Admiral Reinhard Scheer into retreat. Both sides claimed victory in this indecisive battle, though Britain retained control of the North Sea.
The British Grand Fleet enjoyed a numerical advantage over the German High Sea Fleet of 37:27 in heavy units and 113:72 in light support craft. It also enjoyed the advantage of having broken German signal codes. There were two major phases of the battle. At 4:48 p.m. on May 31, 1916, the scouting forces of Vice Admirals David Beatty and Franz Hipper commenced a running artillery duel at fifteen thousand yards in the Skagerrak (Jutland), just off Denmark’s North Sea coast. Hipper’s ships took a severe pounding but survived due to their superior honeycomb hull construction. Beatty lost three battle cruisers due to lack of antiflash protection in the gun turrets, which allowed fires started by incoming shells to reach the powder magazines. Commenting that “[t]here seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today,” Beatty after this initial encounter turned north and lured the Germans onto the Grand Fleet.
The second phase of the battle started at 7:15 p.m., when Admiral John Jellicoe brought his ships into a single battle line by executing a 90-degree wheel to port. Gaining the advantage of the fading light, he cut the Germans off from their home base and twice crossed the High Sea Fleet’s “T.” Admiral Reinhard Scheer’s ships took seventy direct hits, while scoring but twenty against Jellicoe: Scheer’s fleet escaped certain annihilation only by executing three brilliant 180-degree battle turns away. By the full darkness at 10:00 p.m., British losses amounted to 6,784 men and 111,000 tons, and German losses to 3,058 men and 62,000 tons.
Kaiser Wilhelm II (q.v.) showered his sailors with Iron Crosses and his admirals with kisses; nevertheless, by early morning, June 1, Jellicoe stood off Wilhelmshaven with twenty-four untouched dreadnoughts and battle cruisers, while Scheer kept his ten battle-ready heavy units in port. Three German battle cruisers and three dreadnoughts required extensive repairs.
Strategically, Jutland proved as decisive as the Battle of Trafalgar. The German High Sea Fleet had been driven home and would put out to sea only three more times on minor sweeps. Like the French after Trafalgar, the Germans now turned to commerce raiding. In his after-action report to the kaiser on July 4, Scheer eschewed future surface encounters with the Grand Fleet because of its “great material superiority” and advantageous “military-geographical position,” and instead demanded “the defeat of British economic life–that is, by using the U-boats against British trade.” Although the British public was disappointed with Jutland, Winston Churchill percipiently noted that Jellicoe was the one man who could have lost the war in an afternoon. Jutland instead proved Jellicoe’s mettle.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.