June 01, 2018

Jutland Part 6 - Aftermath and Analysis

In May of 1916, the British and German Fleets clashed in the North Sea. The initial battlecruiser encounter saw three British ships lost to magazine explosions. The battlecruisers, under David Beatty, lead the Germans straight into the teeth of the Grand Fleet under John Jellicoe. The British drove the Germans off, then repeated the performance when the Germans came back. Darkness fell, and Jellicoe had maneuvered his fleet between the Germans and safety, but the Germans broke through the British fleet with minimal losses despite a chaotic series of night actions.

Jutland: Aftermath

As both fleets returned home, the immediate analysis of Jutland on both sides was as a German victory. The Germans had lost one battlecruiser, one pre-dreadnought, four light cruisers, and five destroyers totaling 62,300 tons and approximately 2,500 men killed. The British total was three battlecruisers, three armored cruisers, and eight destroyers, 113,300 tons and about 6,100 men. The Germans also managed to get into port first, and put out a press release while the British were still on their way home, listing British losses accurately, but neglecting to mention the loss of Lutzow. The British government, badly bungled their messaging, and the resulting public perception of a defeat deeply shocked the British. The beginning of the Somme pushed it off the front page just as a more nuanced view began to come out.

German naval zeppelin L 12

The High Seas Fleet only sortied into the North Sea three more times. The first, in August, was an attempt to repeat the bombardments that had taken place earlier in the war. The British, warned by Room 40, attempted to intercept, but were spotted by a German zeppelin1 and Scheer managed to avoid action. Another sortie, in October, was cancelled due to poor weather.

Grosser Karfurst during Operation Albion

In 1917 and 1918, the High Seas Fleet mostly remained in port. In late 1917, 11 capital ships supported Operation Albion, the capture of the Gulf of Riga from the Russians. In April of 1918, they attempted to raid a convoy between Britain and Norway and destroy the squadron of dreadnoughts escorting it, but the German staff got the day of the convoy's sailing wrong, and they found only empty ocean. Good operational security meant that the British didn't get wind of it until the Germans were already at sea, and the last mass sailing of the Grand Fleet was also futile.

The High Seas Fleet in Kiel

Jellicoe was made First Sea Lord in December of 1916, with Beatty taking over command of the Grand Fleet. The German U-boat campaign was becoming increasingly worrying, and in February of 1917, they began a second round of unrestricted submarine warfare. The U-boat campaign is outside the scope of this article, but it came worryingly close to bringing the British to their knees.

Sailors demonstrating in Wilhelmshaven

The German fleet quickly began to disintegrate as the men faced horrible conditions, in particular a lack of food. Anti-war and socialist activities became common aboard the ships. Desertion and absenteeism were rife, many participated in work stoppages and hunger strikes, and at least one German captain was pushed overboard by his men. In August of 1917, 200 men were arrested as part of an effort to stop these actions, and two were executed. In late October 1918, Scheer decided to launch one last do-or-die sortie against the Thames Estuary. The sailors, recognizing this would be a suicide mission, refused to raise anchor. The sortie was cancelled, but the revolt that began there quickly spread to Kiel and within barely two weeks it had brought down the German Empire.

The German battlecruisers arriving at Scapa Flow

As part of the Armistice, the High Seas Fleet was interned at Scapa Flow. Conditions there were, if anything, worse than those that the fleet had faced during the war. The Germans were not allowed off of their ships, and had limited food and mail. The admiral in command, von Reuter, switched flagships due to a group of sailors who would stomp on the deck above his cabin all night. On June 21st, 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was supposed to be signed, although a last-minute delay was added.

Derfflinger being scuttled

This was apparently not communicated to von Reuter, who ordered his ships scuttled at 1120, to keep them from falling into allied hands. Of the 16 capital ships in Scapa Flow, only one, the battleship Baden2 was beached before she sank. This was a great relief to the British, who had wanted to avoid the major shift in the balance of naval power that the distribution of the German battleships would represent. Nine German sailors were killed during the scuttling, the last casualties of the war, and most of the wrecks were salvaged over the next few decades. A few ships remain on the bottom of Scapa Flow today.

Jutland: Analysis

From a century away, Jutland was clearly a British victory. They never lost control of the North Sea, and the blockade was ultimately a key factor in the end of the war. The simple analysis of losses ignores the fact that the High Seas Fleet on the whole was much more badly damaged than the Grand Fleet. After the fleets returned home, Jellicoe had 23 battleships and 4 battlecruisers ready for immediate action, while Scheer had only 10 battleships and no battlecruisers. The German ships spent a total of 40% more days in drydock than did the British in the aftermath of the battle.

Damage to Derfflinger

There were many lessons learned on both the technical and operational sides by the British.3 The destruction of the battlecruisers was obviously worrying, and Jellicoe and Beatty both blamed inadequate ship design instead of the true culprit, suicidal magazine-safety practices. They also discovered that their armor-piercing shells were not good at penetrating under conditions other than a hit at right angles to the plate, to the point where some German 8” plates had survived hits from 15” shells at much closer ranges than they should have been able to. Improved shells were developed, but did not reach the fleet until April of 1918. Frederic Dreyer, the captain of Iron Duke at Jutland, estimated that an additional 6 German ships would have been sunk if these ‘Greenboy’ shells had been available there based on the hits made.

Marlborough after Jutland, with coffee-box searchlights circled

Ultimately, the most important lessons came from the night battle. The British needed better tactics, equipment, and doctrine there. Post-Jutland photos of Grand Fleet battleships can often be recognized by the ‘coffee-box’ towers around the mainmast, for the new searchlights. These allowed the lights to be warmed up without being visible, and concentrated them amidships so they didn’t give away the ship’s course.

Seydlitz shortly after the battle

Jellicoe was sacked as First Sea Lord in December of 1917, due to political infighting dating back to 1909. After the end of the war, a major fight began between Jellicoe’s and Beatty’s supporters over the responsibility for the lack of an overwhelming victory. Beatty’s interest in self-promotion became particularly problematic when he became First Sea Lord. The British media was soon full of salvos from supporters of both admirals, with Beatty placing his thumb on the scales of the official records. He continued to claim that the battleships had barely been engaged, ignoring the fact that they had in fact fired as many shells as his battlecruisers had. He also denigrated Hugh Evan-Thomas’s contributions, and refused to own up to his own mistakes. Jellicoe tried to stay out of the controversy, and it finally began to die down in the mid-30s. The final blow to it was Jellicoe’s death in late 1935, followed months later by Beatty’s.

Damage to Warspite

On the German side, something interesting is revealed by their name for the battle, Skagerrak. This is the strait between Denmark and Norway/Sweden, although the battle took place well to the south of the Skagerrak. The Germans did not know of the British system for keeping track of their ship movements, and thus believed that the battle was a chance encounter during a British attempt to break into the Baltic. Ultimately, this system would prove as important to the defeat of Germany as any battleship squadron.

The total damage to the Grand Fleet - HMS Colossus

Next time, in our last installment, we will examine the waht-ifs of Jutland, looking at places where the battle might have gone differently and the long-term consequences of such a change.

1 The weather during Jutland had kept the extensive German zeppelin reconnaissance force grounded.

2 She had been commissioned after Jutland, which is why she hasn't previously been mentioned.

3 I don’t have good sources on the Germans here, and frankly their doctrine worked about as well as it could at Jutland.


  1. June 01, 2018ADifferentAnonymous said...

    Bringing up the German name for the battle makes me realize that in all my reading I never thought to look into the British name--that is, I never knew or wondered what 'Jutland' is.

    (In case other readers are like me, it's that peninsula with the non-island part of Denmark on it. So named not because the land juts out into the sea, but after the ancient Jute tribe, who in turn have nothing to do with burlap).

  2. June 01, 2018bean said...

    That's a good point. I never thought to mention that, because I've known it for years, and sort of assumed everyone else did, too. I'll add a footnote somewhere.

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