Jutland, Grey wastes: 1916 (Book review)

Jutland book cover

Jutland 1916

 Book review by Fred Lane
Steel, N. and P. Hart. Jutland 1916: Death in the grey wastes. Cassell: London, 2003. 439pp. Photographs and Maps. Paperback $19.75.

The biggest naval battle since Trafalgar in 1805 was the 1916 Battle of Jutland. Fought during 31 May and the early hours of 1 June, between no less than 250 warships, it pitted two brilliant admirals against each other: ADML Sir John Jellicoe and VADM Reinhard Scheer.

The latter’s fast scouting group of five battlecruisers under VADM Franz Hipper crucially outperformed Jellicoe’s equivalent, four Queen Elizabeth class battlecruisers under VADM Sir David Beatty. In one sense it was fortunate that the British could read German navy cyphers but the failure of a small number of critical communications from the Admiralty to Jellicoe in the strategic sense, and from Beatty to Jellicoe in the tactical sense, led to a less than satisfactory British outcome.

The Kaiserliche Marine entered WW I with fewer heavy units than the RN, but they hoped to lure small elements of the Grand Fleet into traps that would in time lead to numerical equivalency.

The build-up and battle are eloquently described by Steel and Hart. Sheer’s near major success is attributed, in part, to operational and tactical shorcomings in the British fleet, especially with Beatty’s Fifth Battlecruiser Squadron.

Ample warnings of gunnery, communications and armour deficiencies were demonstrated at the Battle of Dogger Bank in January 1915. These warnings, however, were chiefly ignored. Both the Royal Navy and the Kaiserliche Marine planned North Sea sweeps around May and June 1916. This was known to the Admiralty, but they delayed passing this important enemy intelligence to Jellicoe.

At Jutland, Beatty was correctly deployed ahead of Jellicoe’s main fleet when he ran into Hipper’s ships. The enemy smartly and correctly retreated towards their main body, enticing Beatty to follow. This, plus a Beatty-ordered “turn in succession” instead of a “turn together” contributed to the loss of two RN battlecruisers. His own ship, HMS Lion, was only saved by the heroic action of a mortally wounded turret officer who flooded his magazine. Then, Beatty’s signals, such as “Enemy bearing SE” were of little help to Jellicoe when he had no idea of Beatty’s whereabouts.

Superior fleet handling

Finally, the German ships were generally handled in a superior manner. Scheer’s brilliant “Turn about together” manoeuvre, when his T was crossed, had never been used in war before, but it saved the German fleet from a severe mauling. The British lost 14 ships and 6094 men at Jutland. The German losses were 11 ships and 2551 men. Both sides reported heavy damage to many units.

Victory was claimed by both sides. In fact, although they might well claim a tactical victory on the simple grounds of ships and men lost, the Kaiserliche Marine never again challenged the Royal Navy in a fleet action. Therefore the RN had very good grounds to claim a strategic victory.