What If: Britannia Rules the Waves: The Battle of Jutland, 1916 Part II

Montague Dawson paints the German High Seas Fleet, under command of Admiral Reinhard Scheer, perform a daring and untested full speed turn in unison to escape the range of the British Grand Fleet under command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe on the horizon.

The Run to the North

At approximately 4.35 p.m. a barrage of signals burst from Beatty’s advanced light cruiser screen. The most important was ‘Have sighted enemy battlefleet SE. Enemy course north.’ Scheer and his battleships were on the way.

However, Beatty had been prepared for this due to the information relayed by Room 40. Wasting no time, at 4.40 p.m. he ordered his squadron to swing about and begin its own race to the north. In a role reversal, Hipper’s ships turned and now became the pursuers, whilst Scheer and his dreadnoughts increased their speed and strained to bring their heavy guns to bear.

Fortunately for the British the turn away from Scheer was executed with skill. The 5th Battle Squadron fell into line behind Beatty’s battlecruisers and the two squadrons raced north. The battle against Hipper’s ships continued, and the 5th Battle Squadron exchanged long-range fire with the van of Scheer’s battlefleet. A British sailor remembered that ‘their salvos began to arrive thick and fast around us at the rate of 6, 8, or 9 a minute.’ Visibility once again favoured the Germans, but both sides scored hits. By now the 1st Scouting Group was feeling the effects of an hour of fierce combat. At around 5 p.m. Von der Tann, listing and ablaze, suffered a serious hit to her engine room that brought her to a shuddering halt. Down at the bows and crippled beyond repair, she sank within the hour.

Scheer was prepared to accept these losses if he could catch and destroy Beatty’s force. Unfortunately for the Germans, every minute brought them closer to the British trap. Beatty was sending a steady stream of positional reports to the rapidly approaching Jellicoe, who was well informed as to the German course, speed, and bearing.18 At 4.51 p.m. Jellicoe had felt sufficiently confident to send a tantalising signal to the Admiralty: ‘FLEET ACTION IS IMMINENT’.

Jellicoe had a little longer to wait. It was not until around 5.40 p.m. that Beatty made contact with the advance elements of the Grand Fleet. At this point Beatty made an important and decisive manoeuvre, turning his ships on a north-easterly course and cutting across the German vessels that were running parallel to him. This caused the Germans to turn onto a similar course themselves to avoid Beatty ‘crossing the T’ and being able to concentrate the fire of his entire squadron on the first ship in the German line. A German officer later commented that this was ‘an excellent tactical manoeuvre’, for it blinded Scheer to the approach of the Grand Fleet until it was far too late.

Concealed from German view and with the element of surprise on his side, Jellicoe gave orders for his massive fleet to change from cruising formation to a battle line. This was a decision that could have momentous consequences. If Jellicoe got the manoeuvre wrong his ships would blunder into battle in a state of disorganisation and possibly be defeated as a result. The stakes were enormous. In Winston Churchill’s memorable words, Jellicoe ‘was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon’.

If the gravity of the situation weighed on Jellicoe’s mind, his ice-cold demeanour did not betray the fact. His orders were clear and his crews thoroughly trained. With a smoothness that belied the complexity of the manoeuvre, twenty-four dreadnoughts deployed into a compact fighting line approximately six miles in length. Years after the battle, the famous fighting admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham remarked: ‘I hope I would have the sense to make the same deployment that JJ did.’

The Tables Are Turned

Scheer was about to receive the shock of his life. A fellow officer on the bridge of the Friedrich der Grosse noted that Scheer did not have ‘the foggiest idea of what was happening’. The German fleet of sixteen dreadnoughts and six pre-dreadnoughts was heading directly towards the massed broadsides of the Grand Fleet. Beatty’s sharp turn had blinded the Germans to the danger which they were about to face.

Hipper’s battered vessels were the first to feel the force of the British guns. Localised fog had descended across part of the seascape and Hipper was surprised when several fresh British battlecruisers – the vanguard of the Grand Fleet – suddenly emerged at medium range. Both sides opened fire immediately but the British gunnery was exceptionally good. Invincible rained shells on the German ships, prompting her captain to inform his gunnery officer: ‘Your fire is very good. Keep it up as quickly as you can. Every shot is telling!’ The punishment proved too much for Hipper’s flagship Lutzow, which staggered away from the action with mortal damage below the waterline. Hipper transferred his flag to a torpedo boat but was unable to get aboard a capital ship for the remainder of the battle, thus removing his dynamic leadership from the German fleet.

However, this short, violent clash of battlecruisers was only a precursor to the main event. At around 6.20 p.m. ‘the veil of mist was split across like the curtain at a theatre’ and Scheer’s battlefleet was confronted with an image of Armageddon. One officer recalled that all he could see on the horizon was ‘the belching guns of an interminable line of heavy ships, salvo followed salvo almost without intermission.’

The results were devastating. Jellicoe’s flagship Iron Duke singled out the König and fired forty-three shells at her in less than five minutes, scoring hit after hit. Shell splinters ripped through the armoured compartments, gun turrets were torn asunder, and an officer recalled being knocked off his feet as a result of ‘several violent concussions in the forepart of the ship’ that produced a drastic list to port. More hits followed until the König suddenly lurched over and capsized.

Elsewhere the courageous battlecruisers of the 1st Scouting Group finally met their nemesis. The gunnery officer of Derfflinger recalled: ‘Several heavy shells pierced our ship with terrific force and exploded with a tremendous roar which shook every seam and rivet.’ With her lower compartments flooded, her funnels shot away and her gun turrets reduced to burning wreckage, Derfflinger finally disappeared beneath the deluge of fire. Her sister ships Moltke and Seydlitz only escaped a similar fate by retreating into the mist, concealed by smoke from the uncontrolled fires that raged aboard. The 1st Scouting Group had effectively been destroyed. Seydlitz would sink later that night and Moltke was lucky to be able to limp home with severe damage.

Scheer had a single chance to save his fleet. With shells plunging down around his ships and the König vanishing beneath the waves, Scheer ordered a Gefechtskehrtwendung – a sudden, simultaneous turn away – to take his ships away from Jellicoe’s punishing fire. It is a testament to the quality of German training that the manoeuvre was carried out comparatively successfully, although Scheer’s lead ships were subjected to a hail of shells that inflicted further damage. Turning his back to the British, Scheer led his vessels away into the darkening mist.

Jellicoe was not in a position to observe the manoeuvre and was initially perplexed as to what had happened. Expecting Scheer to re-emerge from the fog at any moment, Jellicoe steered his fleet to the south to close in on his quarry. At this point, Scheer made a fatal mistake. As the firing died out, he reasoned that if he were to reverse course again then he would pass in the wake of the Grand Fleet, effectively slipping behind them while they fruitlessly cruised south. This done, he would be able to escape into the dusk and retreat to safer waters.

However, Scheer had miscalculated. Instead of slipping behind the Grand Fleet, he mistimed his turn and led his ships right into the middle of the southbound British line. The position was even worse than during the initial clash. The German line was in a state of disorganisation, many ships were struggling to put out fires caused by the earlier encounter with Jellicoe, and the 1st Scouting Group had been forced to withdraw from the action, leaving the High Seas Fleet partially blind. Visibility decisively favoured the Grand Fleet: British ships were partially concealed in the North Sea mist, but German vessels were silhouetted against the horizon and presented a perfect target.

The German situation was dire. Scheer’s vessels were closely bunched as a result of their earlier sharp turns. The congestion at the head of the fleet was so severe that some ships were forced to stop to avoid collisions with their sisters. One officer described the situation as an ‘absoluten Wurstkessel!’ A tornado of British fire swept through the German line. Salvo after salvo shrieked in from the east, with the source only visible from the constant gun flashes that illuminated the horizon.

With the 1st Scouting Group gone from the battle, the British were able to concentrate every available gun on Scheer’s dreadnoughts. The damage was catastrophic. A shell smashed into the engine room of the Markgraf and exploded with dreadful force. A survivor recalled: ‘The terrific air pressure resulting from [an] explosion in a confined space roars through every opening and tears through every weak spot. Men were picked up by that terrific air pressure and tossed to a horrible death among the machinery.’ Grosser Kurfurst was struck by a 15-inch round that blew a thirty-foot-wide hole below her waterline and caused her to list sharply to port. A shell ripped through a casemate gun battery aboard Kaiser and ignited stored ammunition, causing a huge gout of flame to erupt from the side of the ship.

With his battleships reeling under the remorseless guns of the Grand Fleet, Scheer desperately ordered a second Gefechtskehrtwendung. But the manoeuvre was no easy matter under heavy fire, with the High Seas Fleet dangerously bunched and forced to steer around the crippled Markgraf. In the confusion Kronprinz and Prinzregent Luitpold collided, with both ships suffering severe damage as a result. Attempting to buy time, Scheer ordered his torpedo boat flotillas to rush the Grand Fleet and launch a mass torpedo attack.

The small vessels raced towards the Grand Fleet, braving a barrage of fire from the secondary batteries of the battleships. Jellicoe responded by steering his ships away from the oncoming attack, causing many of the torpedoes to run out of range well short of his battle line. The few that reached the battleships were easily avoided. The manoeuvre was a ‘skilful dodge’ that left Jellicoe’s line undamaged and fully formed.

However, the turn away had broken contact with Scheer’s ships, which had disappeared into the gloomy twilight, leaving behind only the stricken Markgraf, which was swiftly ‘blotted out’ by a hail of heavy shells. Steering towards Scheer’s last position, Jellicoe’s ships sporadically opened fire at dim sightings in the mist, but the fading light prevented a renewal of battle.

The darkness saved the High Seas Fleet from complete destruction, but the German fleet experienced a harrowing night. On several occasions the picket lines of light cruisers and destroyers brushed against one another, prompting sudden, savage skirmishes in which both sides lost ships. More seriously for Scheer, British destroyer flotillas slipped through the German cruiser screen to launch daring torpedo attacks against his battleships. In the confused engagement that followed, the German pre-dreadnought Pommern was hit and sank with all hands.

As the night wore on, Scheer planned his escape route. He guessed that the British would be steaming south to try and cut off his retreat. He hoped to slip behind them and take his surviving ships home to Wilhelmshaven via the Horns Reef. He reasoned Jellicoe would be unlikely to pursue for fear of running into hidden German minefields.

But Room 40 was a step ahead. At 10.10 p.m. they had decrypted a signal from Scheer which asked for zeppelin reconnaissance over Horns Reef at first light. The message was in Jellicoe’s hands by 10.30 p.m. and he altered the Grand Fleet’s course to intercept Scheer at first light. This was not a simple manoeuvre and involved a great deal of what Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt described as ‘groping in the dark’. Tensions were high and the night was punctuated by sudden bursts of gunfire at real or imagined targets.

Both British and German officers anxiously scanned the horizon as the grey dawn began to break over the North Sea. However, it was the weather – the ultimate arbiter of naval warfare – that would define the engagement of 1 June. The sea around Horns Reef was shrouded with dense fog that gradually broke up into thick clouds of drifting mist. Visibility was poor and information sketchy.

In places the mist suddenly cleared and short, sharp actions broke out. These engagements proved fatal for several damaged German vessels. The most serious loss was the Prinzregent Luitpold. The ship was already listing due to severe damage below the waterline as a result of her earlier collision when she was suddenly engaged at long range by Benbow. Prinzregent Luitpold was hit several times in the brief exchange of fire that followed, causing further flooding and forcing her crew to abandon ship.

However, there was to be no general engagement on 1 June. Visibility was poor and although Jellicoe was aware from sighting reports that he was in rough proximity to the southbound High Seas Fleet, he was increasingly concerned that he was in danger of leading his vessels into one of the many German minefields in the area. Ultimately, a fresh Room 40 decrypt informed Jellicoe that Scheer was in the region of Heligoland to the south. The High Seas Fleet had slipped away in the mist. Jellicoe was disappointed and afterwards criticised himself for not pressing the retreating Germans harder, but he was comforted by a letter from Beatty in which the latter reminded his commander, ‘When you are winning, risk nothing.’

Nevertheless, it was clear that the Royal Navy had won a striking victory. The High Seas Fleet had been mauled, losing four battlecruisers in the form of Lutzow, Seydlitz, Derfflinger, and Von der Tann, five battleships – König, Kaiser, Grosser Kurfurst, Markgraf, and Prinzregent Luitpold – as well as the pre-dreadnought Pommern and a considerable number of lighter ships. In addition, unbeknownst to the British the battleship Ostfriesland struck a mine on its way home and sank.

The Battle of Jutland was over. The triumph was not quite on the scale of Trafalgar, but it was a great victory for the Royal Navy all the same.

The Fruits of Victory

The Grand Fleet returned home in a jubilant mood. They had inflicted a heavy defeat on the Germans and suffered few casualties in return – Indefatigable was the only British capital ship lost during the fighting. Jellicoe was the hero of the hour and was lauded by press, public, and navy. Beatty also received lavish praise, although he was heard to grumble that without the efforts of his battlecruisers the battle would never have occurred, much less been won. After almost two years of difficulties and setbacks on the land front, the British public savoured the moment of triumph. The ‘spell of Trafalgar’ had been recast.

The Admiralty soon sought to capitalise on the victory. There was bold talk of withdrawing the Royal Naval Division from the Western Front and using it in an amphibious assault against one of the small islands that dotted the German North Sea coast. Daring attacks on Heligoland and Borkum were proposed as a precursor to a landing on the coastline of Germany itself. However, the painful lessons of Gallipoli were still fresh in British minds and there was little appetite for another risky amphibious operation. Furthermore, such naval adventures would needlessly place elements of the Grand Fleet at risk and allow the Germans to extract some measure of revenge for Jutland.

Nevertheless some of the bolder officers of the Royal Navy saw merit in making feints against the German coast. They reasoned that the psychological effect of ‘demonstrations, raids, and harassment’ in enemy waters would be considerable. The inability of the High Seas Fleet to prevent such operations would be revealed, thereby harming public morale and perhaps even persuading the German General Staff to transfer additional army resources to defend the coast.

Over the course of 1916 the Royal Navy launched several raids against German coastal islands and associated shipping. The highly trained Harwich Force and its dynamic commander, Commodore Roger Keyes, were at the forefront of these operations. Although the attackers were at risk from mines and submarines, they were secure in the knowledge that the battleships of the cowed High Seas Fleet would not emerge to destroy them. Germany’s coastal defence forces consisted of small or obsolete vessels that were no match for the modern destroyers and light cruisers of Harwich Force. Several German ships were intercepted and sunk during raids in June and July. In August, Harwich Force took advantage of a captured map that revealed the swept channels in the German minefields and carried out a daring bombardment against shore installations on Heligoland. One of the shells struck an overstocked magazine and caused a huge explosion that was visible on the German coastline. The incident sparked alarm amongst the civilian population, who feared that it was a precursor to a British invasion. As a result, the army sent additional forces to Hamburg and invested considerable effort in improving Germany’s coastal defences.

The most important consequence of the Battle of Jutland was the tightening of the Allied blockade. Although the naval cordon was already formidable, there were some weaknesses that allowed neutral powers to continue trade with Germany. For example, Norway had continued to trade materials such as coal, copper ore, and nickel on the basis that they were not classed as contraband under the terms of the London Naval Conference of 1909. However, the dominance of the Royal Navy after Jutland allowed Britain to pressure Norway and other neutrals into ceasing maritime trade with Germany altogether.

In addition, the victory had altered the balance of power in the Baltic. Russian and German vessels had sparred with one another throughout 1915, but Russian efforts were hampered by concerns that Germany would deploy the High Seas Fleet to the east and overwhelm Russia’s Baltic defences. Jutland removed this fear and allowed Russia to adopt a more aggressive naval strategy. Encouraged by Britain, Russia targeted Germany’s iron-ore trade with neutral Sweden. Although the delicate nature of Russo-Swedish relations made it impossible to halt the trade entirely, the efforts of the Russian Navy greatly diminished the flow of the precious raw material.

In combination, these changes applied a deep chokehold on Germany’s economic windpipe. The pressure steadily mounted in the second half of 1916 and the effects would be severely felt the following year.

Recriminations and Consequences

In Germany, the search for a scapegoat began scant hours after the battered remnants of the High Seas Fleet had limped into Wilhelmshaven. On hearing news of the disaster Wilhelm II worked himself to such a pitch of fury that witnesses feared for his health. The worst of his wrath fell upon Scheer. Citing the example of Admiral John Byng, a British officer executed by firing squad in 1757 for ‘failing to do his utmost in battle’, the Kaiser demanded that Scheer be placed on trial for his very life. The demand met with concerted opposition from officers and men of the fleet – including its new commander, Franz von Hipper – as well as from ministers and politicians.

Wilhelm II ultimately backed down in the face of threats of resignation and mutterings of mutiny in the fleet. Soon, his mood had changed from anger to despair. Depressed over the fate of his beloved navy, he refused to visit the remaining vessels of the High Seas Fleet and lost all interest in naval matters. The Kaiser’s apathy hurt the survivors of Jutland deeply, contributing to a precipitate decline in morale that would fester into open mutiny by early 1917.

The Naval Staff remained detached from the post-battle recriminations and devoted their efforts to formulating a new strategy. The possibility of an Allied landing against the German coast was studied in depth. Although the exploits of Harwich Force caused a degree of concern, the Germans judged that the British were unlikely to risk capital ships in mine-infested coastal waters. Nevertheless, the Naval Staff gratefully accepted the offer of army support and the construction of heavy-gun emplacements on the North Sea coastline.

A much more serious problem was the remorseless and intensifying blockade. Planners warned that the German economy would be brought to its knees in 1917 unless the stranglehold was broken. But how was this to be achieved? There was no prospect of defeating the Grand Fleet in battle. In the view of many key naval officers the only hope lay in the submarine. In late June, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff produced a controversial memorandum arguing that a return to unrestricted U-boat warfare was Germany’s only hope of victory. This was a risky proposal, for a new submarine campaign would bring the United States into the war on the side of the Allies. Holtzendorff’s case rested on the belief that submarines could inflict such severe damage on maritime trade that Britain would be forced to seek terms within six to eight months. Britain would thus be defeated long before America had fully mobilised. The plan was a huge gamble, but it offered the tantalising prospect of victory.

On 1 September 1916 Germany announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. Despite initial successes the policy would prove disastrous. Neutral opinion was enraged and the United States declared war in November. Worse still, Britain was ultimately able to overcome the submarine menace through introducing the convoy system and assigning large numbers of destroyers from the Grand Fleet to serve as escorts. The full and terrible consequences of Germany’s policy would become apparent in 1917.

The Reality

The Battle of Jutland is one of the most studied naval engagements of all time. The debate still continues as to which side ‘won’ the battle. The Germans inflicted heavier losses, sinking the battlecruisers Indefatigable, Queen Mary, and Invincible and only losing the battlecruiser Lutzow in return. But ultimately the High Seas Fleet fled from the engagement damaged and in disorder. The experience was sufficient to convince Scheer that future surface engagements were best avoided. As a result the German Navy would not seek battle in the North Sea for the remainder of the war. After casting about for a solution for several months, Germany finally returned to submarine warfare in February 1917. The High Seas Fleet languished in harbour and was wracked by mutiny in November 1918.

There are innumerable ‘what ifs’ around the Battle of Jutland, many of which focus on the contrasting personalities and decisions of Beatty and Jellicoe. Much of the interest of Jutland centres on how close the British came to a crushing victory. Historically, the British had a tremendous advantage in the form of Room 40 and possession of the German code books. As described in the story, British intelligence on Scheer’s movements was so good that the Grand Fleet actually set sail before the High Seas Fleet had left port. Such accurate intelligence placed the initiative firmly in the Royal Navy’s hands. Beatty managed to lead the unsuspecting High Seas Fleet into range of Jellicoe’s guns and Scheer’s ships were in mortal danger, particularly when they blundered into the Grand Fleet for the second time. However, Jellicoe lost sight of the enemy by turning away to avoid a torpedo attack and was unable to regain contact in the evening gloom.

In this scenario the main change to the history is technical rather than tactical. A fundamental problem for the Royal Navy was the inadequacy of their armour-piercing shells. A detailed study of damage at Jutland discovered that British armour-piercing shells managed to penetrate heavy armour and explode internally on just one occasion (a 15-inch hit from Revenge on Derfflinger). Historically, Jellicoe was aware of the problems with British shells as early as 1910, but made little effort to make changes.

In the story these problems are corrected by Jellicoe prior to the war. I have assumed the Royal Navy are equipped with the improved shells that appeared in 1917–18, making British gunnery far more powerful. I have also had the navy adopt the ‘double salvo’ system prior to the war; historically it was introduced post-Jutland to speed up gunnery, but there is no reason why it could not have been introduced earlier.

The main tactical change in the scenario is Beatty’s performance in the opening of the battle. In reality, Beatty made a serious tactical error by leaving the 5th Battle Squadron too far behind his battlecruisers, thus denying himself their powerful support in the engagement against Hipper. Here I have assumed he handles his forces with more skill and keeps the Queen Elizabeth class close. This would have dramatically changed the nature of the fighting and probably saved the Queen Mary from destruction. Finally, I have introduced the Room 40 decrypt that revealed Scheer was heading to Horns Reef, thus allowing the Grand Fleet a few parting shots. Historically, it remains a mystery why this message was never passed on to Jellicoe.

I am very grateful to Dr Philip Weir for his assistance in researching this scenario.

By Spencer Jones

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