Battle of Jutland Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Battle of Jutland established the decisive superiority of the British Grand Fleet over its rival, the German High Seas Fleet, despite heavy British losses in ships and men.

Summary of Event

The British navy strikes the German battleship Oldenburg during the Battle of Jutland.

(Library of Congress)

Early in 1916, the German naval staff decided to undertake an offensive campaign against the British Grand Fleet in the North Sea. Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer, commander of the German High Seas Fleet of twenty-three dreadnoughts, realized that he could conduct only limited operations against the British Grand Fleet of forty-two dreadnoughts under the command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, so he planned to lay minefields off the British naval bases and then lure the Grand Fleet out to sea. If German U-boats could take a toll on the British battleships, Scheer imagined that he could enter battle on more equal terms. Jutland, Battle of (1916) World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Battle of Jutland[Jutland] [kw]Battle of Jutland (May 31-June 1, 1916) [kw]Jutland, Battle of (May 31-June 1, 1916) Jutland, Battle of (1916) World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Battle of Jutland[Jutland] [g]Denmark;May 31-June 1, 1916: Battle of Jutland[03990] [g]England;May 31-June 1, 1916: Battle of Jutland[03990] [g]Germany;May 31-June 1, 1916: Battle of Jutland[03990] [c]Military history;May 31-June 1, 1916: Battle of Jutland[03990] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 31-June 1, 1916: Battle of Jutland[03990] [c]World War I;May 31-June 1, 1916: Battle of Jutland[03990] Beatty, David Hipper, Franz von Jellicoe, John Scheer, Reinhard

At the same time, the British became more aggressive. They wanted to attack the zeppelin bases in northern Germany and also support the Russian navy in the Baltic. They, too, hoped to lure the enemy fleet out to battle in the North Sea.

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Minor sorties began in March, 1916. German battle cruisers bombarded a few British towns without inflicting or receiving much damage. The British bombarded selected targets in Germany with even less effect. At the end of May, Scheer took his fleet out to sea, with Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper scouting ahead with battle cruisers. Fourteen U-boats were operating off British bases, and Scheer’s strategy was to attack British shipping off the Norwegian coast in the hope that the British would take to sea in force. The plan was put into effect when the British intercepted a coded wireless signal that, they believed, indicated the prelude to a German advance. On the evening of May 30, the British Grand Fleet proceeded to sea from Scapa Flow, Invergordon, and Rosyth, Scotland. The ships evaded Scheer’s submarines and mines without difficulty, and the Battle Cruiser Fleet under the command of Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty went ahead southeastward, searching for the Germans.

On May 31, light cruisers of the British and German scouting forces came into chance contact, and at 2:18 p.m. they guided the heavy ships into action. At 3:48 p.m., the battle cruisers opened fire, and Hipper retired with his five ships toward the main German force under Scheer. Beatty pursued him with six cruisers supported by four fast battleships. A fierce and resolute action developed. Accurate German gunfire and weak British protection led to the destruction of two of Beatty’s cruisers, which exploded, leaving almost no survivors. Scheer arrived on the scene at 4:48 p.m. and, led by Hipper, chased Beatty northward.

Jellicoe hurried southward with twenty-four battleships and joined forces with Beatty; together, they turned on the Germans. Between 6:30 p.m. and 6:45 p.m., the two battle fleets exchanged salvos briefly. The Germans blew up a third battle cruiser. The British built up a superior concentration of gunfire on Scheer’s battleships, but he skillfully reversed course, laid down a smoke screen, and escaped serious damage, although one of Hipper’s battle cruisers was so battered that it had to be sunk later. Once again Scheer returned to the attack, but he was forced to withdraw at 7:20 p.m. He covered his retreat with an attack by destroyers, from which Jellicoe, with great circumspection, turned away. The main bodies of the two fleets were now separated.

When darkness fell, Scheer firmly led his smaller, slower fleet homeward. By a remarkable combination of accurate gunfire and quick maneuvering, he succeeded during the night in cutting through the British destroyer flotillas to the rear of Jellicoe’s battleships and reached the safety of his mined home waters early the next morning. The battle was over. The British had lost fourteen ships, including three battle cruisers totaling 110,000 tons, and more than 6,200 men had been killed or taken prisoner. The Germans had lost eleven ships totaling 62,000 tons, including one battle cruiser and one battleship, and 2,500 men had been killed. Neither side had won a victory because the battle had done little to change the relative strengths of the two fleets.

The battle thus fell into five distinct segments. The first was the battle cruiser action during which Beatty pursued Scheer’s force south. This was followed by Beatty’s dash north after the encounter with Hipper’s main battle fleet; the dual purpose was to protect the battle cruisers and simultaneously lure the High Seas Fleet within Jellicoe’s range. The encounter between the two main battle fleets did indeed occur in two brief, destructive, but essentially inconclusive actions. Once the two battle lines separated there remained only a confused series of night actions between the lighter ships, during which time Hipper’s forces escaped to their home ports.

The statistics of the battle at first appeared to be in Germany’s favor: For the loss of one modern battleship and one “pre-dreadnought” along with some smaller vessels, the High Seas Fleet had sunk three armored cruisers, eight destroyers, and three battleships. In strategic terms, however, the Battle of Jutland was a British victory, even though its effects were long delayed. The Grand Fleet remained intact, and, on his return to port, Jellicoe signaled the Admiralty that he could steam at four hours’ notice. By contrast, Hipper’s High Seas Fleet was so battered, morally as well as physically, that it hardly dared venture out for the remainder of the war.

Significance

After Jutland, Jellicoe abandoned his attacks on the German coast and instead sat back to await the reappearance of the Germans. In August, Scheer obliged, intending to bombard the British coast again. Once more his submarines lay in ambush. Forewarned again by the Germans’ careless use of radio, the British came out to intercept. Scheer was then turned away from his objective by an erroneous report from a scouting zeppelin. He turned away from Jellicoe to pursue an isolated British squadron, which itself turned away from him. No contact was made, and both sides returned to their bases. The British had lost two light cruisers to German submarines, and the Germans suffered damage to one dreadnought. Scheer came out a third time in October, and that time the British Grand Fleet remained in port.

The German naval offensive of 1916 was essentially a failure. The German strategy had been to inflict unacceptable damage to the British fleet, thus severing that island nation’s links to the outside world. The Germans relied on a belief in the technical superiority of their ships over those of the British, especially in the vital area of armored protection, and also on their willingness to risk their fleet in all-out naval engagement. As Jutland and its aftermath demonstrated, German material superiority was real but not decisive, and the German emperor and his commanders clearly lacked the nerve to place again in harm’s way the fleet that had cost them so dear and meant so much.

German hopes of sinking British dreadnoughts by mines or submarines were dashed, and the Germans themselves lost five capital ships to British mines and submarines. The reasons for the British successes were largely geographic. The shallow waters off the German coast were easy to mine, and German ships had to put to sea through the right angle formed by the German and Danish coasts. The exits from the British bases were broader, and British coastal waters were deeper, making them more difficult to mine effectively.

The failure of Scheer’s maritime guerrilla tactics led him to abandon his campaign in the North Sea. He did make a final bid for victory in November, 1918, but the German naval crews could not forget the Battle of Jutland. They refused to weigh anchor, and the final result of this mutinous outbreak and others was demonstrated on November 21, 1918, when Beatty received the surrender of the greater part of the German High Seas Fleet. Jutland, Battle of (1916) World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Battle of Jutland[Jutland]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Campbell, John. Jutland: An Analysis of the Fighting. Rev. ed. New York: Lyons Press, 1998. Comprehensive analysis of the Battle of Jutland based on technical material available from both navies involved. Includes a preface by naval historian Antony Preston, diagrams, and charts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Costello, John. Jutland, 1916. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977. A very accessible and readable account of the engagement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halpern, Paul. A Naval History of World War I. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1994. Includes a chapter on the Battle of Jutland that is clearly presented and incisive. Places the battle within the context of the larger struggle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hough, Richard. The Great War at Sea: 1914-1918. 1983. Reprint. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2001. Places the Battle of Jutland and its aftermath within the larger confines of the Anglo-German naval rivalry as well as the war itself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keegan, John. The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare. New York: Viking, 1988. Includes a chapter on Jutland that is an outstanding example of military history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">London, Charles. Jutland 1916: Clash of the Dreadnoughts. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2000. A detailed and highly illustrated account of the battle and its aftermath. Includes chronology and select bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roskill, Stephen. Admiral of the Fleet: Earl Beatty, the Last Naval Hero—An Intimate Biography. New York: Atheneum, 1981. Presents a generally favorable yet fair picture of Beatty’s pivotal role as commander of the British battle cruiser force at Jutland.

Launching of the Dreadnought

World War I

First Battle of the Marne

Germany Begins Extensive Submarine Warfare

Germany Uses Poison Gas Against Allied Troops

Battle of Verdun

Meuse-Argonne Offensive

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