Key Point: Berlin built some of the biggest warships there were. Here is how they clashed, but lost, to Britian's Royal Navy.
A century ago, the two greatest fleets of the industrial age fought an inconclusive battle in the North Sea. The British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet fielded a total of fifty-eight dreadnought battleships and battle cruisers, ships over the twice the size of most modern surface combatants. Including smaller ships, the battle included 250 vessels in total.
This first appeared in 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.
The two fleets fought to a draw, with the Germans inflicting more casualties, but still being lucky to escape alive. The Grand Fleet could very easily have annihilated the Germans, an outcome which, however tragic, would not have moved the needle on the rest of the war. But what if the Germans had won?
The Battle Situation
First things first, how could the Germans have won? The High Seas Fleet faced very tough odds at Jutland. It only enjoyed a numerical advantage near the opening stages of the battle, when the German battle cruisers (commanded by Adm. Franz von Hipper) drew a contingent of British battle cruisers and fast battleships (commanded by David Beatty and Hugh Evan-Thomas) within range of Reinhard Scheer’s German battle line.
We can imagine a different outcome if we alter some of the events at the opening of the battle. HMS Lion, the flagship of the British battle cruiser squadron, nearly exploded in the early minutes of the battle, after suffering a devastating hit from SMS Lutzow, Hipper’s flagship. The early detonation of Lion would have allowed the Germans to build advantage upon advantage; guns targeted at the lead battle cruiser would have focused on the next in line, and so forth. The British lost two battle cruisers during this stage anyway, and it is easy to imagine the loss of Lion leading to disarray in the British squadron. At the extreme, the concentration of German gunfire on fewer ships, and the lack of command and control on the part of the British, could have led to the loss of all six British battle cruisers and four fast battleships (all four of the latter would serve capably in World War II, meaning that a German victory might have had long-term effects).
To be clear, this would have been an astonishing German victory; the destruction of ten British capital ships would have shocked the world. But Scheer, the overall German commander, always believed that he could have won a great victory by engaging the Grand Fleet as it entered line formation to his north. Frankly, however, it’s hard to see how this happens; the German were themselves disordered, and Admiral John Jellicoe brought twenty-four dreadnoughts and three battle cruisers to the party.
But let’s be generous; in the chaos, the Germans might have isolated and hammered another three to five British capital ships before escaping back to Kiel. If we allow the additional destruction of three dreadnoughts and two battle cruisers, this leaves the Germans with what amounts to a 15–0 scorecard—a truly devastating success on par with the greatest naval victories in history.
But what would this have won? Such a victory would have substantially cut the British advantage in the North Sea. The Royal Navy had two dreadnoughts and one battle cruiser in reserve, and two more battle cruisers and three dreadnoughts would enter service before the end of the year. The Germans had one battleship in reserve, and would shortly commission one new battle cruiser and two new battleships. By the end of the year, the Germans would have eighteen battleships and six battle cruisers, the British twenty-six battleships and four battle cruisers. In short, the remnant of the Grand Fleet could pose a credible threat to even a victorious High Seas Fleet.
And Britain had allies.
Seven French dreadnoughts operated in the Mediterranean, backstopping the Italian navy’s efforts to pin Austria-Hungary in the Adriatic. An emergency in the North Atlantic would likely have drawn them into support of the Grand Fleet. Further afield, Japan operated six dreadnoughts and four battle cruisers, almost all of outstanding construction. The Imperial Japanese Navy would eventually deploy a squadron in support of Entente operations in the Mediterranean, but in case of emergency London might have made the diplomatic concessions necessary to accessing the greater part of Japanese naval power.
Finally, the United States had twelve dreadnoughts in the waiting, and Brazil would eventually contribute a pair of (poorly maintained) dreadnoughts to the cause. Both Brazil and the United States entered the war as a direct result of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare campaign, but a German victory at Jutland might have changed thinking in Washington and Rio de Janeiro. We will return to this question.
Could German victory have shocked the British public into demanding an end to the war? Anything is possible, but maritime vulnerability drove anti-German sentiment in the prewar period, and there is little reason to believe that it would cause the British to throw in the towel in 1917. Moreover, the British public suffered similar (in fact, more devastating) setbacks in 1940 and 1941, and continued to support the fight.
German Naval Activity Post-Jutland
Defeating the Grand Fleet would undoubtedly have taken a severe toll on the Germans; many ships would have taken months to repair. But the problem for the Germans ran deeper than battle damage.
Imperial Germany built the ships of the High Seas Fleet for one purpose: to destroy the battlefleet of the Royal Navy. For this purpose they were good ships, but they offered little for other tasks. The ships of the High Seas Fleet lacked the range, habitability and underway replenishment techniques necessary to engage in a long-range raiding campaign, much less a sustained blockade of British ports.
Moreover, the High Seas Fleet could not have broken the British blockade, which depended more upon Britain’s favorable geography than the power of the Grand Fleet. German ships could perhaps have escorted specific merchant vessels through, but the Royal Navy had global reach; if necessary, it could take those merchants before the Germans had a chance to escort them.
The Germans could have engaged in more vigorous efforts to bombard the British coastline (especially with the gutting of the British battle cruiser force), although such bombardments would have had only a very marginal effect on the British economy. The High Seas Fleet could potentially have disrupted channel traffic for a while, forcing the British to rely more on France’s Atlantic ports, although this would have proven more an inconvenience than a real hardship.
What about the effect on U-boats? The German high command reacted to Jutland by refocusing its efforts on submarine warfare, an attempt to strangle Britain out of the war. A major victory might possibly have delayed this decision, pushing back U.S. entry into the war. Although the submarine campaign created some perilous moments for the United Kingdom, it did not meaningfully degrade the effectiveness of the British Army in the field. Thus, a delay to U.S. entry might have bought the Germans more time to win the war in France.
But this depends very much on U.S. reaction to a German victory at Jutland. Both presidential candidates in 1916 ran on peace platforms, making it unlikely that the United States would have reacted by immediately entering the war. However, a German victory might have shaken American confidence in British success, leading to additional support for the war effort. Overall, however, it is hard to argue that the success of the Germany surface fleet would have had as negative an effect in the United States as the resumption of submarine warfare.
It helps to win battles, and the Germans would undoubtedly have derived some benefit from defeating the Royal Navy at Jutland. However, the Reich had much bigger maritime problems than the Grand Fleet alone; its disadvantageous geographic position made it difficult for Germany to take access international markets even under the best wartime conditions. Moreover, while Great Britain’s international position meant that it had responsibilities around the world, it could also draw on more global resources, including allies.
Germany’s biggest advantage might have sprung from the confidence that it could, in fact, win battles at sea against the Royal Navy. This confidence might have forestalled the risky, and ultimately disastrous, gamble of unrestricted submarine warfare. The German offensive of spring and summer 1918 very nearly succeeded, despite the material and military support of the United States. Had the United States been less involved, Germany quite possibly could have prevailed.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book.
This first appeared in 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.