May 31, 2018

Jutland Part 5 - The Night Action

The stalemate in the North Sea finally ended in May of 1916. The battle began with a clash between the two side's battlecruisers. David Beatty then lead the German High Seas Fleet into the arms of John Jellicoe's Grand Fleet. Jellicoe managed to pound the High Seas Fleet, but Scheer eventually broke contact. Unfortunately, Jellicoe was still between him and his base, and it was now night.

Jutland: The Night Action

After darkness fell, Jellicoe kept his fleet moving south, trying to cut off the direct path to Wilhelmshaven. To cover the possibility that the Germans would make for Horns Reef instead, he dispatched a minelayer to the area to join the submarines already on station. For the night, he placed his battleships in four columns alongside each other, and placed his destroyers behind his fleet to catch the Germans if they tried to cut behind him. The cruisers were spread out on the flanks and ahead. Beatty was steaming parallel to Jellicoe, ahead and to the west. He had cut ahead of the Germans, and was directly in front of them by 2230.

The night action is when the British performance really began to fall apart. Reporting up the chain of command was basically nonexistent, apparently because most officers assumed that Jellicoe already knew the situation. Of the few ships that did attempt to return radio signals, some were jammed by the Germans. Jellicoe’s orders were not entirely clear, which didn’t help. Many of his subordinates thought that they were not supposed to engage without orders, at least partially because of a fear of the Germans having superior night-fighting capability and equipment. Most notably, the British spotlights took time to warm up, and their filaments continued to glow after they were shut down, providing a target for the Germans, who did not suffer from either disadvantage. There were also the lingering effects of the stagnation the Royal Navy had undergone in the 19th century, as the reminders of the Napoleonic Wars faded. This is often overstated, but the night action at Jutland gives critics plenty of ammunition.

In fairness to the British, night actions are inherently risky things, and the chance of a German victory changing the balance of forces in the North Sea was too great. A particular risk is that ships on the same side would start to engage each other,1 and the British after the battle put much more emphasis on ship recognition. Likewise, the initiative that is so often considered necessary to military success is a double-edged sword. While it is important in single-ship or small-unit actions, it can become disastrous in cases where large numbers of powerful units are operating in close proximity.

Things began to go wrong at 2200, when Lion, who had lost her codebooks, signaled Princess Royal for the night’s recognition codes. This signal, and part of the reply with the code, was seen by a German cruiser, and contributed to the later confusion. At 2245, Jellicoe transmitted a position signal to the fleet, then fell into a fitful sleep on the flag bridge of Iron Duke.

At the same time, Scheer was turning his fleet southeast for Horns Reef. He sent several signals, which Room 40 picked up. Some of them were transmitted on to Jellicoe, but not enough to overcome the distrust that the report placing Scheer in the Jade that morning had produced. There is speculation that not all of the information was sent, to prevent the Germans realizing the British had broken their codes, although this is impossible to confirm.

I’m not going to go into detail on all of the actions that occurred between the British destroyers and the German fleet. There were seven, spread between 2300 and 0430. The first was a skirmish between British and German destroyers, which blunted an attempted German destroyer attack with no losses on either side. A few minutes later, another group of British destroyers clashed with German cruisers, the British light cruiser Castor, leading the destroyers, suffering heavy damage. Unusually, this incident was reported to Jellicoe, who misinterpreted the cruisers as supporting a German destroyer attack on the Grand Fleet, instead of being part of the main body’s screen.

Goodenough’s 2nd LCS was also a participant, fighting a short action with a group of German cruisers at around 2320. This time, the German cruiser Frauenlob was torpedoed and sunk, but Southampton, lucky earlier in the day, was badly damaged by 18 hits. Goodenough’s radio was damaged, and his report did not reach Jellicoe for over an hour. Jellicoe and the battleships could hear and see these actions, but did not respond, for reasons that are not apparent a century later.


HMS Broke, one of the survivors of the 3-way collision

An hour later, the British finally encountered the German main body. Due to the problems of recognition at night, the destroyer leader Tipperary managed to close to within 700 yards of three German battleships, who pummeled her with 5.9” fire. Her destroyers scattered, fighting a wild, chaotic night action that saw three of them collide at high speed, and two of the crews involved attempt to abandon ship into the other vessel.2 The German cruiser Elbing was also rammed by the battleship Posen, and had to be abandoned after both engine rooms flooded.


HMS Spitfire after the battle

A third collision occurred when the destroyer Spitfire hit Nassau, the first German dreadnought. Spitfire’s bow was badly damaged, but the Germans discovered that Nassau’s guns could not depress enough to bear on her. However, their muzzle blast was sufficient to blow away her bridge, funnels, and boats. Eventually, Spitfire got free and returned home, bearing a 20-foot length of Nassau’s side plating. The British attempts to launch torpedo attacks were totally unsuccessful, and two more of their destroyers were sunk by gunfire during this phase of the action. The armored cruiser Black Prince, part of the same squadron as Defense and Warrior, blundered into the middle of the action, and was sunk with all hands around midnight by the fire of five German battleships. This was made even more tragic by the fact that at least one British battleship, Thunderer, saw the action, and could have intervened if her captain had not been afraid of betraying the fleet's location.

At around 0200, after a brief lull, the British destroyers again clashed with the German fleet. They were running low on torpedoes, and several were damaged. One, Turbulent, was sunk when rammed by Rheinland. Again, no report was made to Jellicoe.


SMS Pommern

The British finally managed to score a serious blow at 0307, when the 12th Destroyer Flotilla launched a torpedo attack which hit the pre-dreadnought Pommern. Pommern shared the fate of Black Prince, lost with all hands. By this point, Scheer was well to the east of Jellicoe, and only 16 miles from the entrance to Horns Reef and safety. A last, indecisive, clash half an hour later brought the battle to a close.

The survival of Moltke and Seydlitz was particularly surprising. Moltke passed right by Thunderer, and survived only due to her captain’s insistence on not giving away the battle fleet. Seydlitz apparently passed three British dreadnoughts, and even exchanged recognition signals with them. Marlborough’s gunnery officer later regretted not disregarding orders to hold his fire. Seydlitz nearly ran aground on Horns Reef but managed to avoid taking any more damage.


SMS Lutzow

Lutzow was not so lucky. At around 0300, it became obvious that she was not going to survive, and most of her crew was taken off by destroyers. Some were unable to evacuate, and a total of 597 men went down with her.

At 0330, Jellicoe ordered the Grand Fleet back to the north, and reformed it into daylight formation at 0513. Two minutes later, he learned that the Germans had in fact reached safety. He didn’t learn of the loss of Indefatigable and Queen Mary until 1100, a final example of Beatty’s tardiness in reporting, and it took another round of signals to learn the circumstances of their loss. After a few hours of searching for survivors (or any remaining German ships), the British turned for home.

The greatest clash of dreadnoughts was over, but the controversy it sparked would rage on for decades, with some issues undecided even today, over a century later. That will be our subject for next time.


1 This problem recurred in night actions throughout WWII, justifying the British concern.

2 One of them sank, while the other two made it back to Britain.

Comments

  1. May 31, 2018doctorpat said...

    There were also the lingering effects of the stagnation the Royal Navy had undergone in the 19th century, as the reminders of the Napoleonic Wars faded.

    I've heard a vague mention of this before. Is it a subject you can expand upon?

  2. May 31, 2018bean said...

    The late Victorian RN has a reputation for being rather complacent and more concerned with paintwork and polish than combat effectiveness. There's some truth to it, although the extent is often overstated. Unfortunately, I can't give a full summary offhand. I haven't read a whole lot on that era lately, which means the evidence has been pushed out by other stuff. Jackie Fisher was a leading advocate of being ready to fight on a moment's notice, and he got policies changed quite effectively when he was in charge, but before him, a typical firing schedule was a couple rounds twice a year, at a stationary target at short range.

  3. June 01, 2018doctorpat said...

    That would be related to the fact that the British navy didn't face any actual foes between 1815 and 1914 wouldn't it?

  4. June 01, 2018bean said...

    That's not quite true, despite what the traditional account would have you believe. There was a fairly serious naval component in the Baltic during the Crimean War, although it's barely remembered today. The RN also participated in all of the various colonial wars, although usually not with battleships. Those did see action once, and I've discussed that here. There was a very real threat from France and Russia throughout. While it never materialized, it shouldn't be written off as a driver of British thinking.

  5. June 02, 2018bean said...

    I've added a new paragraph about some justifications for the British performance after checking Fighting the Great War at Sea. It's the second one below the first map.

Comments from SlateStarCodex:

  • bean says:

    Naval Gazing is celebrating the 102nd anniversary of the Battle of Jutland (May 31st) this week by republishing last year’s series with illustrations and maps.
    So far, I’ve covered the strategic background, the preliminaries and run to the south, the run to the north and deployment and the last clash of the main fleets.

    • bean says:

      Happy Jutland Day, all!
      Today, the narrative comes to the end of the battle proper, with the night action as the Germans slipped by the British.

      • gbdub says:

        What shocks me about the night action (and really the whole battle) is how unaggressive the British seem to be. One would not think that would be an issue for Navy men raised on legends of Nelson.

        Basically the entire British naval strategy in the North Sea revolved around forcing or tricking the numerically inferior German fleet into a decisive battle and more or less completely destroying it. This could only happen with one of:
        1) Colossal stupidity/incompetence on the part of the Germans
        2) Dumb luck
        3) A well coordinated and executed plan that used superior British numbers to trap the High Seas Fleet and force a climatic battle.

        Only one of those was under British control, and they completely flubbed it, seemingly content to rely on the first two. Yeah, radios and coordinated intelligence were in their infancy – but how could they NOT know that excellent signalling and coordination of some type was going to be key to their strategy, and rehearse it religiously? Instead they have this weird situation where every captain apparently has this blind belief that the system will work perfectly, without taking any personal responsibility to make sure it did.

        Despite all that, the Brits found themselves in a position to force the battle they supposedly wanted, but threw it away. First with Jellicoe’s turn away, which may have been the safe/smart move, but certainly was not the move of an aggressive commander confident in his ships and his numerical superiority.

        Then you’ve got the apparent reluctance of Room 40 to reveal all their cards – what were they saving them for? Who cares if they know you broke their codes after you’ve sent their whole fleet to the bottom? This was their one chance to do it!

        And finally the night action, where apparently every commander got it in their head that Jellicoe was a psychic, and clearly would have told them if he wanted to do anything other than wave politely at the HSF as it steamed past them. One would think that the obvious conclusion would be “hey, I see some Germans, and haven’t been told to attack them. Gee, I know the whole point of this little joyride was to blow up a bunch of Huns, so if ol’ Jelly hasn’t told me to go blow up these particular Huns he must not know about them. I jolly well better tell him (and maybe send some steel downrange while I’m at it)!” Or the completely ridiculous excuse of “well I didn’t want to give away the position of the fleet by blowing away this dreadnought right in front of my damn guns”. Again, that was the whole point of the exercise! Bring the two fleets together, and sink the German one.

        Basically, it seems like the British were unprepared or reluctant to make the aggressive moves they should have known they’d need in order to execute their supposed grand strategy. Why even have that strategy if you were going to wimp out at the key moment?

        • bean says:

          I think you sort of have it backwards. The one thing that the British absolutely positively could not let happen is the destruction of the Grand Fleet. Jellicoe was famously the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon, and the turn-away reflects that. It was unquestionably the right decision. I examine this more in Parts 6 and 7, but destroying the High Seas Fleet doesn’t gain them all that much in the long term. Maybe you can break into the Baltic and help the Russians put down the Revolution. Borkum becomes a base against the U-boats. But you’re looking at cutting maybe 10% off the war. If they lose their fleet, then they lose the war. End of story.

          Then you’ve got the apparent reluctance of Room 40 to reveal all their cards – what were they saving them for? Who cares if they know you broke their codes after you’ve sent their whole fleet to the bottom? This was their one chance to do it!

          Two points:
          1. Room 40 was not an ideal setup. Basically, interpreting that kind of data is a specialized skill, which nobody had figured out at the time, so Room 40 just passed raw data to the operations people. The OIC of WWII was the first time someone did this right. They saw the situation and the data, and got to meld it together before passing it off. Room 40 almost certainly wasn’t getting the data on what Jellicoe was reporting (assuming anyone ashore knew), and thus had other priorities.

          And finally the night action, where apparently every commander got it in their head that Jellicoe was a psychic, and clearly would have told them if he wanted to do anything other than wave politely at the HSF as it steamed past them.

          I believe I once characterized the night action as something I’d dismiss as a particularly stupid and implausible alternate history if it hadn’t actually happened. So I don’t have a full explanation. There might have been reasons they’d emphasized following orders over initiative, and I suspect that nobody particularly wanted to fight a night action. Those were incredibly messy things in the days before radar and good plotting. Also, fatigue almost certainly played a part.

          Basically, it seems like the British were unprepared or reluctant to make the aggressive moves they should have known they’d need in order to execute their supposed grand strategy. Why even have that strategy if you were going to wimp out at the key moment?

          Their grand strategy wasn’t to destroy the High Seas Fleet. Their grand strategy was to maintain control of the sea. By that standard, they won the battle. Risking the fleet at night (where the risks were higher) might well have been seen as a bad idea.

          • gbdub says:

            There might have been reasons they’d emphasized following orders over initiative

            That’s kind of what I was getting at, but it just feels like an attitude you’d get in a world with perfect communication, not in a world where most of the time anything beyond the horizon is unreachable and you expect to be on your own.

            The one thing that the British absolutely positively could not let happen is the destruction of the Grand Fleet. Jellicoe was famously the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon

            Then why offer battle and pursue the Germans at all? Jutland was risky – if they wanted to minimize risk, the British could have been even more defensive. But if they wanted to cripple the German fleet, they were unwilling to grab at the opportunities they needed to do to do that. They took a big risk by (mostly voluntarily and intentionally) getting into the big battle in the first place, but then mostly refused to take smaller risks to collect the payoffs that would have made the initial risk worth it.

          • bean says:

            That’s kind of what I was getting at, but it just feels like an attitude you’d get in a world with perfect communication, not in a world where most of the time anything beyond the horizon is unreachable and you expect to be on your own.

            But it might well be the attitude you get when you go from a world where the horizon is the limit to one where it isn’t. The right balance for this kind of stuff wasn’t properly worked out until WWII. Rules of the Game is on my shelf and I believe it address this, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

            Then why offer battle and pursue the Germans at all? Jutland was risky – if they wanted to minimize risk, the British could have been even more defensive. But if they wanted to cripple the German fleet, they were unwilling to grab at the opportunities they needed to do to do that. They took a big risk by (mostly voluntarily and intentionally) getting into the big battle in the first place, but then mostly refused to take smaller risks to collect the payoffs that would have made the initial risk worth it.

            What does not offering battle look like? When do they fight the Germans? When they try to leave the North Sea? When they’re camping off the British coast? At some point, if the other guy rides out, you have to offer battle. But you have an option of how satisfied you are with simply seeing him off as opposed to crushing him. And the former is safer, which in this case means I think it was the better option during the turn-away. The night action was the result of stupidity and doctrinal issues, but that kind of stuff is hard to get right.

          • bean says:

            I’ve looked into this more, and found confirmation of a couple of things. First, the British were genuinely terrified of a night action. Those are chancy things, and Jellicoe believed it to be a case where the Germans might reverse the balance of forces. Also, the British were not particularly good at recognition, which is a lot harder than it sounds. In Fighting the Great War at Sea, Friedman points out that initiative is a dangerous thing, particularly when you’re dealing with a force the size of the Grand Fleet, and could easily trigger a fatal melee, with lots of Blue-on-Blue action.

        • John Schilling says:

          I think you sort of have it backwards. The one thing that the British absolutely positively could not let happen is the destruction of the Grand Fleet.

          Note that this has been true since approximately the days of the Spanish Armada, and has been hard-coded into British naval strategy and tactics for most of that period. Literally hard-coded; for several centuries the Royal Navy’s Permanent Fighting Instructions only included flag and semaphore codes for conservative, essentially defensive fleet tactics to make sure no damn fool admiral tried to actually win a naval battle.

          If the status quo is that you rule the seas already, you don’t have to win battles, you just have to not lose. And for several centuries, the British did manage to rule the seas with essentially an unending series of draws where the enemy never quite managed to land an army on English soil or strangle England’s trade or break England’s blockade, even if it looked for a while like they might come close.

          Nelson was an outlier; the Royal Navy favored aggressive cruiser captains but very cautious admirals. And if any of Nelson’s aggressive moves had not lead to victory, his “legend” would have been very different.

          • Lillian says:

            It was not really Nelson that was the outlier so much as the entire period from early in Seven Year’s War through to the end of the Napoleonic Wars that is the outlier. It started with the execution in 1757 of Admiral Byng after the Battle of Minorca for “failing to do his utmost to take or destroy the enemy’s ships”. He was explicitly punished for not being aggressive enough, a change of policy brought about by the Royal Navy’s frustration with their lack of success in the early years of the war. Voltaire sardonically commented that the Royal Navy had to execute an admiral from time to time “pour encourager les outres”, but encourage them it did. British naval commanders were very aggressive in conducting combat operations for the rest of the war. Most dramatically and crucially at Quiberon Bay, where the British pressed battle into a literal fucking storm in close waters unfamiliar to them, and yet emerged victorious.

            You could say then that Nelson’s aggressiveness half a century later was at the time old fashioned rather than newfangled. It had however passed completely out of fashion by the First World War, as Britain got comfortable with her long unchallenged rule of the seas.

    • Lambert says:

      Is it me, or do both sides at Jutland seem terribly incompetent?
      I get that WWI and II both involved a lot of mistakes on both sides in all theatres of battle, but that account of the battle seems to involve a lot of randomly meandering around the North Sea for no reason, miscommunication and other random dumb stuff.

      • James C says:

        In an era before radar and even reliable radio communication there’s a limit to how coordinated a fleet at sea can be even at the best of times. Jutland has the unfortunate added complication of being the first battle of its kind so many of the practices and procedures that were common sense by WWII were still being worked out.

      • bean says:

        By modern standards, they were, but it’s unfair to judge them by those standards. The big difference was a very different concept of how to use information in battle. Keep in mind that the senior officers had come of age in a world with no radio, where ships at sea were entirely on their own once beyond the horizon. They hadn’t managed to grasp how important the act of reporting in is. This is particularly apparent during the night action, when lots of captains assumed Jellicoe knew what they did, and thus did nothing. The British were also a bit paranoid about using the radio for various reasons, and some of their people just forgot to use it. (This is leaving aside stuff like Beatty’s choice of a Signal Lieutenant who couldn’t tie his own shoes, which I can’t defend.)

        The British did have the advantage of a plot, which took all available information and integrated it to form a picture of the battle. They still had a lot to learn about how to do it well, but it gave Jellicoe a major advantage. The Germans were somewhat better about communications, but Scheer had to keep the whole battle in his head.

        This is an area of my interest, and one I intend to cover in some detail at some point in the future. Can’t say exactly when, sadly.

        (And as James points out, they had no radar.)

        • cassander says:

          I like to point out that Admiral Fisher’s first posting was to a ship of the line, and when he left the service for the last time they were building aircraft carriers. Fisher was about 20 years older than Jellico, but still, that’s a lot of change to see in one lifetime.

          • bean says:

            I’m actually writing a post on Fisher right now, and that’s pretty much my opening line. But yes, it’s rather amazing that anyone did as well as they actually did given the amount of change involved.

      • gbdub says:

        In what sense did the Germans seem incompetent? Apart from the (major) communication error that resulted in the submarine trap not being sprung, things seem to have gone about as well as possible for the Germans once the battle was actually joined. Ultimately they did more damage, fairly deftly escaped several bad tactical scenarios, and ended a battle that could have gone very badly for them with their fleet mostly intact.

        • Lambert says:

          True.

        • Protagoras says:

          Though it is of course not specific to this engagement (and for the various reasons bean mentions, in this engagement it didn’t hurt them as much as it would have if the British had been more competent), the Germans definitely lose points for being insufficiently paranoid about the possibility of communications being intercepted and codes broken.

          • bean says:

            That’s a pretty general problem. It affected them in both world wars, but it also affected the British, the Americans, and I believe the Russians, just off the top of my head.

        • cassander says:

          the german incompetence is reflected in the total lack of an overall strategic plan and their failure to make use of the fact that they could take the initiative whenever they wanted. they should have been continually forcing the Grand Fleet to sortie over pre-positioned submarine screens.

    • bean says:

      And for the day after Jutland, Aftermath and Analysis.

    • bean says:

      The Jutland series concludes with a look at other paths the battle could have taken

      Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting. It’s been fun.

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        When you started saying “what if the British had won” my immediate thought, which I’m glad to see came up in your analysis, was a surprising “so what?” It’d have been great for English morale and the honor of the fleet if they’d routed and sunk the German DNs, but a ship’s a fool that fights a fort held true until large scale carrier aviation. (In fact, at least as presented in Massie, it’s stunning to me how enthusastic Fisher was about Baltic operations. Why was he in love with that plan where he had hated the Dardanelles, and been proved right???)

        Opening traffic to the Ruskies is one thing, I guess. (Were the northern convoys insufficient? Too limited by weather/ice?) But it is interesting–and surprised me when the thought came into my head–that as far as I can see, giving the British fleet total and unquestioned supremacy in the sea would not have meaningfully changed their ability to operate against Germany.

        Sad, really.

        • bean says:

          Fisher is genuinely hard for me to understand. On one hand, he was clearly a visionary, and right about more things than anyone else around. On the other, he’d latch on to weird and stupid ideas like Incomparable, and I’d probably classify the Baltic campaign under the latter. But it looks like he never explained the whole scheme to anyone (classic Fisher) so we don’t know exactly what he was thinking.

          Why was he in love with that plan where he had hated the Dardanelles, and been proved right???

          He hated the Dardanelles because it was an alternative to the Baltic. Also, it is fair to point out that Gallipoli was a terrible place to land troops, and the North German coast is somewhat better.

          I’m not sure the effect of a victory would be nothing at all. With the HSF intact, the British were forced to husband the Grand Fleet, and not do risky things with it. More than that, they couldn’t do risky things in general near the German coast because they’d run into the High Seas Fleet. Suddenly, sending expendable monitors and pre-dreadnoughts into the Baltic or into the approaches of Wilhelmshaven becomes a viable option. And don’t discount the ability of the Baltic Scheme to tie up German troops, even if never executed. They couldn’t take the chance that the British were serious about it.

          All that said, my estimate of a British victory at Jutland is the war ending a couple months sooner, not that it suddenly comes crashing to a halt. When you have the choice between not losing and a 50/50 chance of victory 10% sooner or defeat, you take the sure thing.

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