This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine
Between the hazy late afternoon of 31 May 1916 and the grey dawn of 1 June, more than 100,000 British and German seamen aboard 250 warships fought a brutal naval engagement. They were battling for control
of the North Sea, global oceanic trade and, ultimately, victory in the First World War.
For the British it became known as the battle of Jutland. For the Germans it was the Skagerrak. By the end, 25 ships had been sunk, almost one in 10 of those sailors was dead, and Europe’s fate had been decided.
For both sides, this battle was a new experience. The British had been the undisputed masters of the seas since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, more than 100 years earlier. However, the last time the Royal Navy had fought a sea battle against an enemy fleet, it had entered the fray with wooden sailing ships armed with muzzle-loading cannon. The service now went to war in armoured, steel ships, powered by steam engines and armed with breech-loading rifled guns in revolving turrets. Uninterrupted peace in western Europe had arguably led to complacency, failure of imagination and tactical stagnation. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy was still the most powerful navy in the world.
The Kaiserliche Marine, or Imperial German Navy, had existed only since Germany unified from a multitude of kingdoms and principalities into a single, Prussian-dominated state in 1871. The German kaiser, Wilhelm II, was determined to make Germany a world power, and in 1897 he had appointed Rear (later Grand) Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz as secretary of state of the Reichsmarineamt, or Imperial Navy Office. Tirpitz was a compelling advocate of the need for a larger navy, and within a year he had persuaded the German parliament to pass the first of a series of naval bills calling for the construction of 19 battleships and 50 cruisers. The British responded in kind, and an expensive arms race between the two powers followed, vociferously supported on both sides of the North Sea
by popular nationalist lobbying.
In 1906, the British reset the arms race. Under the dynamic leadership of the visionary First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John ‘Jackie’ Fisher, they emphatically replied to the German challenge by launching the revolutionary battleship HMS Dreadnought – faster, and with better armour and more heavy guns than anything else afloat. At the same time Fisher developed a new type of ship, the battlecruiser, with heavy guns but light armour to allow exceptional speed, intended to outgun enemy cruisers but able to use its speed to escape enemy battleships. At a stroke, the existing British and German battle fleets were rendered out of date. It was a gamble, but it stemmed from absolute confidence that Britain could outbuild Germany, which was trying to maintain the largest army in Europe at the same time.
A new and even costlier arms race followed, with both sides building ‘dreadnoughts’, as the new battleships became known. But the British had judged correctly. Between 1905 and 1914 Germany’s defence budget increased by a staggering 142 per cent, but when Britain declared war on 4 August 1914, the British had 28 dreadnoughts and nine battlecruisers. The Germans had only 16 dreadnoughts and five battlecruisers. The battle of Jutland was essentially decided two years before the first shots had been fired.
The British war plan was to concentrate the Royal Navy’s most modern warships into a Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands, from where it could maintain a close watch on the North Sea and blockade German trade. The blockade stopped vital imports of food and raw materials, including nitrates from South America, essential for producing both fertilisers and explosives. The German Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) was essentially under house arrest, able to patrol the North Sea but unable to make a meaningful impact on the war.
The status quo favoured Britain, which really did not have to take any action at all to be assured of gradually starving its enemy, leaving the French, its continental ally, to fight the land campaign against a progressively more demoralised and weaker foe. The onus was on the Germans to defeat the far bigger Grand Fleet, unlock the door to global trade, and change the outcome of the war.
The first two years of the war at sea were characterised by confrontations that were little more than skirmishes, in the North Sea and further afield, with the Royal Navy rounding up and destroying Germany’s small overseas naval forces. The German fleet was constrained by the kaiser’s unwillingness to risk his expensive battleships.
But in January 1916, a new, more energetic officer took command of the High Seas Fleet: Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer, who persuaded the kaiser to approve a more aggressive strategy. Scheer proposed a plan to give the Germans their holy grail: Kräfteausgleich – equalisation of forces, the numerical parity that was an essential prerequisite for
victory. Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper’s
battlecruisers were to threaten British trade convoys to neutral Norway, hoping to provoke a response. Scheer assumed that the British would respond in force, but he also assumed that the British battlecruiser force, under Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, would reach his chosen battlefield before the Grand Fleet because the former was based in Rosyth on the Firth of Forth – closer than the Orkney Islands. Scheer was gambling that he could destroy Beatty’s squadrons, which had been reinforced by the Royal Navy’s four newest and most powerful dreadnoughts, giving him Kräfteausgleich by the time the Grand Fleet, under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, arrived.