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First World War – The Battle of Jutland –  31st May 1916

The Battle of Jutland was the only major naval battle of the First World War. It was fought in the North Sea off the coast of Denmark near the Jutland Peninsula. In Germany it is known as the Battle of Skagerrak.

Admiral Sir John Jellicoe had taken command of the Grand Fleet on the outbreak of war. Jellicoe, concerned by the threat from German submarines, had based most of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.

In response to the bombardment of towns on the east coast by German battleships, the 1st Battlecruiser Fleet under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty was based further south at Rosyth.

British cruisers patrolled the sea between Scotland and Norway. Minefields and ships from Harwich and Dover protected the southern North Sea and the English Channel. This allowed the Royal Navy to successfully close the North Sea to German shipping and impose a blockade on Germany.

The German Plan

The High Seas Fleet was based at Wilhelmshaven on the North Sea coast. There had been several small-scale raids, but for most of 1915 the German fleet had largely remained in port. Unwilling to risk their ships in an all-out fight with the Grand Fleet, Germany had instead concentrated on a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare against merchant shipping.

In January 1916 Admiral Reinhard Scheer took over the command of the High Seas Fleet. International condemnation had forced Germany to suspend its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Admiral Scheer wanted to go on the offensive and break the Royal Navy’s blockade of Germany.

Scheer intended to avoid a straight battle with the full Grand Fleet. Instead he would send out a small force of battlecruisers under the command of Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper, to lure Beatty’s ships from Rosyth into the North Sea. Hipper would then lead Beatty towards Scheer’s waiting High Seas Fleet. Beatty’s force would be overwhelmed by their superior numbers and destroyed before Admiral Jellicoe and the rest of the Grand Fleet could arrive. German submarines would also lay new minefields and ambush the British fleet as they left port.

However, unknown to the German Navy their radio signals were being intercepted and decoded by Admiralty intelligence, known as Room 40. The British Admiralty knew that German U-boats had headed into the North Sea and that a major operation was likely to be underway.

On Tuesday 30 May, Jellicoe was warned that the High Seas Fleet would be putting to sea the following day. Later that evening, the Admiralty ordered Beatty’s Battlecruiser Force at Rosyth and Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow and Cromarty to put to sea. The minefields and U-boat screen around the coast were ineffective and the ships left port virtually without incident.

Admiral Scheer and the High Seas Fleet left harbour at 2.30am on the 31 May unaware that the bulk of the Grand Fleet had already put to sea.

31st May 1916

The squadrons of heavy battleships sailed in columns surrounded by a protective screen of destroyers and lights cruisers. Jellicoe and Beatty’s forces totalled 151 ships including 4 super dreadnoughts and 24 dreadnoughts. Scheer and Hipper had a total force of 99 ships, of which 16 were dreadnoughts and 6 were pre-dreadnoughts.

Jellicoe had the numerical superiority and was prepared to fight the High Seas Fleet. However, as he had previously warned the Admiralty, the Germans tended to rely on submarines, mines and torpedoes and were superior to the Royal Navy in this respect. Jellicoe was fully aware that significant losses to the Grand Fleet would end British control of the North Sea. The Royal Navy would be unable to continue the blockade of Germany and it would leave Britain vulnerable. Sir Winston Churchill later remarked that Jellicoe was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon”.

Jellicoe intended to rendezvous with Beatty’s forces in the North Sea off the coast of Jutland, near to the entrance to the Skagerrak and wait for the High Seas Fleet.

Jellicoe and Beatty received a misleading signal from the British Admiralty giving the impression that the High Seas Fleet had not put to sea. However the German fleet was at sea and they were also heading towards the Skagerrak.

Enemy in Sight

Hipper’s forces, which included the five battleships Lützow, Derfflinger, Seydlitz, Moltke and Von Der Tann, were about 50 miles ahead and out of sight of Scheer’s High Seas Fleet.

Shortly before 2pm the German light cruiser SMS Elbing spotted the N.J.Ford a Danish merchant ship and two destroyers were sent to check its cargo. Just after 2pm the British light cruiser HMS Galatea, of Beatty’s force, also spotted the Danish merchant ship and set off to investigate along with HMS Phaeton. Seeing the German destroyers the Galatea signalled ‘Enemy in sight’ and at 2.28pm opened fire with the first shots of the battle.

Beatty ordered his ships to change course to the south east and increase speed to intercept Hipper. Beatty had six battlecruisers: Lion, Princess Royal, Queen Mary, Tiger, New Zealand and Indefatigable. He also had the Fifth Battle Squadron of Queen Elizabeth class battleships, Barham, Valiant, Warspite and Malaya. These were known as super dreadnoughts. They were fast, heavily armoured and had firepower superior to any other ship in the Royal Navy. Rear Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas in command of the Fifth Battle Squadron did not immediately receive the order to change course as they were unable to read the flag signal. By the time they did turn round, the Squadron was 10 miles behind Beatty’s battlecruisers.

By 3.30pm Hipper and Beatty had sighted each other’s main battle squadrons. Hipper turned his fleet southwards hoping that Beatty would follow him towards the High Seas Fleet.

Run to the South

Beatty pursued Hipper and ordered his ships to form their line of battle. However, Beatty’s failure to concentrate his forces and the delay in turning of the Fifth Battle Squadron had cost Beatty a significant firepower advantage over Hipper. Furthermore, problems reading the flag signals led to mistakes in the distribution of fire along the line of British battlecruisers, leaving the SMS Derfflinger untargeted.

There was poor visibility due to mist and smoke and many of the British shells missed their targets. The German ships fired with greater accuracy and their ships better withstood the bombardment.

At 4pm Beatty’s flagship HMS Lion was hit by a shell from the Lützow which destroyed the Q gun turret, killing or wounding most of the crew inside. The turret commander Major Francis Harvey was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Despite being mortally wounded Major Harvey ordered the magazine to be flooded, which prevented an explosion and “thereby saving the ship.”

Just after 4pm the battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable was hit by shellfire from the Von Der Tann. The Indefatigable exploded and sank in minutes with the loss of 1,017 men. There were only 2 survivors. The battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary, taking hits from both the Seydlitz and the Derfflinger, suffered a series of explosions and sank at about 4.26pm with only 20 survivors out of her crew of 1,286 men. Beatty remarked to Captain Chatfield of HMS Lion, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today!”

The Fifth Battle Squadron of super dreadnoughts had finally come into firing range of the German battlecruisers shortly after 4pm, giving Beatty a greater advantage over Hipper.

There was fierce fighting between the German and British destroyers as they attempted to launch torpedoes at the battlecruisers. Captain Edward Barry Bingham led the destroyer attacks from HMS Nestor, which continued to fire despite being put out of action, earning Bingham a Victoria Cross.

Just after 4.30pm Beatty received a signal from the light cruiser HMS Southampton that battleships had been sighted to the south-east. Hipper had successful lured Beatty’s forces to Admiral Scheer. Until now, Beatty had had no information that the High Seas Fleet was even at sea. Beatty ordered his ships to change course and head north towards Admiral Jellicoe and the Grand Fleet.

Flight to the North

Realising that he was greatly outnumbered Beatty tried to increase the range between his ships and the German fleet. Hipper and Scheer pursued Beatty unaware that the Grand Fleet was about 40 miles away and steaming towards them.

The Fifth Battle Squadron had delayed their turn to the north due to another signalling error. Trailing behind Beatty’s battlecruisers they came under heavy fire from the leading German battleships. HMS Malaya, at the back of the line, took a direct hit on the starboard battery which ignited the ammunition charges. The ensuing flash fire left 104 men dead or wounded. Despite the intensity of the shellfire directed against them, the super dreadnoughts managed to repeatedly hit the German ships and stay afloat.

Jellicoe had ordered the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Horace Hood to reinforce Beatty. While scouting ahead the light cruiser HMS Chester came under attack. Boy (1st Class) Jack Travers Cornwell was badly wounded but he “…remained standing alone at a most exposed post, awaiting orders until the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all around him.”  Sixteen year old Jack Cornwell died of his wounds and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Shortly before 6pm the leading battleships of the Grand Fleet came into view of Beatty’s flagship HMS Lion.

Crossing the T

Admiral Jellicoe on board his flagship HMS Iron Duke had received a wireless signal that Beatty was leading the High Seas Fleet towards him, but he had had no accurate reports of where they actually were. Poor visibility made the situation worse. At 6.14pm Jellicoe finally received a report on the position of the German fleet. He ordered the Grand Fleet to deploy into its battle formation.

Jellicoe deployed his battleships side-on to the oncoming German fleet, into a single battle line that would cross the path of the German ships in a manoeuvre known as ‘crossing the enemy T’. This gave Jellicoe the opportunity to have the maximum number of guns firing on the German ships.

As the Grand Fleet deployed, Rear Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot ordered his flagship HMS Defence and HMS Warrior to launch an attack on the light cruiser SMS Wiesbaden which had been left immobilised. Suddenly finding themselves in the path of the approaching German fleet they came under fire from several of the leading battleships. A hit to the ammunition stores on HMS Defence caused a massive explosion and the Defence sank with the loss of all 903 crewmen.

Hipper’s ships were engaged with Beatty’s battlecruisers and Hood’s 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron. Just after 6.30pm a shell ignited the ammunition stores below Q turret on Hood’s flagship HMS Invincible. The explosion blew the ship in two and Invincible went down in seconds. Eyewitnesses reported many men in the water but of the crew of 1,032 only 6 survivors were picked up by the destroyer HMS Badger. The battlecruiser SMS Lützow which was badly damaged and taking on water withdrew from the attack, forcing Hipper to leave his flagship. During the night the crew were taken off and the Lützow sank after a hit from a torpedo.

By 6.30pm Jellicoe’s battleships had deployed in formation and had effectively ‘crossed the T’ of the oncoming German fleet.


Scheer was taken by surprise as the line of British battleships came into view. He was unaware that the Grand Fleet was even at sea. Finding himself in an unfavourable tactical position, Scheer ordered his ships to turn away from the battle. He sent in his destroyers to attack the Grand Fleet and laid down a smoke screen to cover his retreat.

Jellicoe headed south, to keep Scheer to the west and cut off his retreat to his base at Wilhelmshaven. Knowing that he could not successfully escape until nightfall, Scheer ordered his ships to head directly towards the Grand Fleet. Jellicoe once again ‘crossed the T’ of the German fleet and opened fire leaving several of the German battleships badly damaged.

At around 7.15pm Scheer ordered the High Seas Fleet to turn about. Battlecruisers covered their retreat and drew the fire of Jellicoe’s battleships, while destroyers launched torpedo attacks. Admiral Jellicoe, always fearful of the risk to his ships from torpedoes, ordered his battleships to turn away. Under the cover of a smoke screen Scheer fled westwards.

Night Action

Jellicoe did not want to fight during the night as it was a risky strategy that left too much to chance. Instead he headed south with the intention of blocking Scheer’s route back to port, so that the battle could be continued at dawn.

The Grand Fleet sailed in close formation surrounded by a protective screen of cruisers and with the destroyers positioned 5 miles to the rear. Scheer was attempting to reach the safety of the Horns Reef which was the entrance to the minefields of the Heligoland Bight. During the night the High Seas Fleet cut across the rear of Jellicoe’s line.

There was much confusion in the dark. Three British destroyers collided with each other. The German battleship SMS Nassau ran into the destroyer HMS Spitfire. The cruiser HMS Black Prince got lost and strayed into the path of the High Seas Fleet. Vastly outgunned, the Black Prince exploded and went down with all 857 crewmen.

As the High Seas Fleet crossed the rear of Jellicoe’s line the destroyers came under heavy fire from the German battleships. Five British destroyers were sunk. The German fleet also suffered losses. The pre-dreadnought SMS Pommern was hit by two torpedoes. It blew up and sank with the loss of all hands.

Admiral Jellicoe did not receive any reports that the destroyers had engaged the full High Seas Fleet. The Fifth Battle Squadron which had sighted the encounter with the German battleships did not turn to engage the German ships or inform Jellicoe of their position. There was unwillingness amongst the British ships to give away their positions by signalling or opening fire. The flashes of gunfire could be seen in the distance and the explosions heard by the rest of the fleet, but Jellicoe believed this to be small-scale clashes with German destroyers and light cruisers. The British Admiralty also failed to pass on all the information it had decoded regarding the position and heading of the German fleet.

By 3.30am the bulk of the High Seas Fleet had reached the safety of the Horns Reef and the Battle of Jutland was over.

Strategic Victory

14 British ships and 11 German ships were lost. 6,094 British and 2,551 German sailors were killed.

The German authorities declared a great victory over the Royal Navy as they had sunk the most ships. This news reached Britain before the Grand Fleet had returned to port. There was disappointment and criticism that the Royal Navy had not delivered the expected grand victory, as at Trafalgar.

However, Admiral Scheer’s strategy had failed. The Royal Navy still had control of the North Sea and the blockade of Germany remained. The High Seas Fleet never seriously attempted to challenge the Grand Fleet again and British naval superiority remained intact.

On 1 February 1917 Germany resumed its campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare against merchant shipping.

The Battle of Jutland