Key point: The giant ships spent the first tense moments deploying into battle lines.
In the spring of 1916, as the result of intense international pressure, Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer called in all his submarines after Germany announced an end to unrestricted underwater attacks on transatlantic merchant ships. With his subs idle, Scheer, the newly appointed commander of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s High Seas Fleet, had to come up with another plan for their use. He would send a portion of the fleet to attack a British port to draw out part of the Grand Fleet. Meanwhile, the submarines would lie in wait at the mouth of the Firth of Forth, Moray Firth, Scapa Flow, and other enemy naval bases to attack the British ships as they raced out to protect the homeland. German surface ships would then draw the enemy fleet farther away from the British mainland into the waiting range of the German fleet. If done properly, Scheer’s audacious plan could break the British North Sea blockade that slowly but surely was strangling Germany.
Mistakes on Both Sides
The plan was a good one, but there were multiple delays. Earlier damage to the 23,000-ton battle cruiser Seydlitz, armed with ten 11-inch guns, postponed the start of the operation. Captain Herman Bauer, commander of the U-boats, suggested that the submarines go out at the earliest moment for reconnaissance. Scheer agreed, sending the subs out in mid-May. This turned out to be a tactical error, since it took the U-boats out of the upcoming battle. Because of further delays, Seydlitz was not ready until May 29. By then, the submarines were low on fuel and Scheer’s ambitious plan had to be put into action quickly or else the window of opportunity would close. On that day, Scheer radioed his submarines with another change of plans. Instead of attacking a British coastal port, the Germans would scout for commercial ships around the Jutland peninsula of northern Denmark. There was a problem with the message—most of the German submarines did not hear it, but the men in Room 40 did. That was the top-secret room in the British Admiralty where cryptologists listened in on German radio signals and decoded their messages. The British knew exactly when the Germans had set sail, and Admiralty dispatched the entire Grand Fleet to attack them.
There was a blunder at the beginning on the British side, as well. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander in chief of the Grand Fleet, was told that Scheer was still in his base on the Jade River. Jellicoe assumed from the message that the entire German fleet would not be offering battle, and that Scheer would only venture out to cover Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper’s return. Since Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, commander of the Battle Cruiser Squadron, was 70 miles farther out to sea and traveling a more southerly route than Jellicoe, this meant that Beatty most likely would engage the enemy first. Accordingly, Jellicoe proceeded at a leisurely 15 knots toward a rendezvous with Beatty, which was scheduled for around 1530 off the coast of Denmark. In the meantime, both Beatty’s and Hipper’s scouting ships spotted a Danish tramp steamer, N.J. Fjord, in the vicinity. The German ship Elbing sent two torpedo boats, B109 and B110, to investigate. At the same time, the British light cruisers Galatea and Phaeton broke off from Beatty’s force to get a better look at the lone steamer. Both pairs of scouts reported enemy ships on the horizon. At 1428, Galatea and Phaetonfired their 6-inch guns at the German torpedo boats, inaugurating the Battle of Jutland.
As soon as Beatty was told about the enemy ships, he turned south-southeast to meet them in battle. He wanted to get between the German line of ships and their home base near Horns Reef. As he turned to engage the enemy, Beatty had his flagman signal the change in direction. Owing to the distance between them, Rear Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas did not see the signals. Evan-Thomas commanded the 5th Battle Squadron, which included four 27,000-ton Queen Elizabeth-class dreadnoughts with eight 15-inch guns apiece. A devotee of Jellicoe’s who had been sent to Beatty’s command only 10 days earlier, Evan-Thomas was used to taking orders and following them faithfully and dutifully. He received the first message instructing him to turn north, but when Beatty changed course, his second signal was not received. Although Evan-Thomas could see the turn being made, he continued north until there was a distance of 10 miles between the ships, well out of range to assist in the opening of the battle. Instead of 10 British capital ships against five German ships, the battle would begin with a much more even 6-to-5 ratio.
The giant ships spent the first tense moments deploying into battle lines. Beatty had effectively cut off Hipper’s escape, and assuming that the rest of the German fleet was nowhere nearby, he was certain of victory. Hipper, in turn, steamed his ships south as though he were running away; instead, he was drawing Beatty into the trap set by the German High Seas Fleet—the same fleet the British thought was still sitting idly in the Jade River.
Dueling Naval Ship Doctrines
The British ships had been built for speed and power. Their guns ranged in size from 12-inches to 15-inches. The Germans, on the other hand, had smaller 11- to 12-inch guns. Only two of their ships had the larger 15-inch guns, but the Germans had thicker armor. Theoretically, all the British had to do was fire at the farthest range of their guns and keep maneuvering at higher speeds. This would keep their ships out of range of the Germans, while their own larger projectiles rained down on the enemy at will. But the German ships had a dull-gray eastern sky behind them that masked their precise position, while the British were exposed by a cloudless, sun-drenched western sky. Their vision was also obscured by smoke blowing in front of them. To make matters worse, the British rangefinders were inferior to their shooting distance, while the German scopes magnified their targets at 23 times greater than the naked eye. Unsurprisingly, they were better marksmen. The Germans were able to get the British in their sights and fired the first shots with their heavy guns. Thirty seconds later, the British line opened fire as well. The Germans had the better luck in the opening salvos. The British capital ships Lion, Princess Royal, and Tiger all took hits in the opening rounds. In return, Seydlitzwas hit twice and Lutzow was struck by a salvo fired from Beatty’s flagship, Lion.
At the same time that Lion scored a hit on Lutzow, she almost went down in a white flash of cordite charges. A lucky German shot had struck Lion’s center gun turret, blowing half of the turret roof into the air. It fell on the upper deck with a resounding crash, igniting the cordite charges in the loading cages, which were about to be entered into the guns. The explosion and subsequent fire killed every man in the gun house. Only the quick thinking of the turret officer, Major F.J.W. Harvey, saved both Lion and Beatty. After the initial explosion, the mortally wounded Harvey—he had lost both legs—ordered that the magazine doors be closed and the magazine flooded. His dying order prevented the fire from reaching the rest of the stored charges. For his heroism, Harvey was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Indefatigable was not so lucky. She had been under heavy fire for about 15 minutes when there were fierce explosions in the center and rear of the ship. The 18,500-ton steel vessel disappeared from sight, the first ship sunk in the battle. The Germans were raining down hellish fire on Beatty’s five ships, but salvation came in the form of Evan-Thomas’s 5th Battle Squadron, which arrived at about 1610. Although the distance was still great and the German line was shrouded in smoke, Evans-Thomas’s four ships were able to inflict enough pain on the German vessels to relieve the immediate pressure on Beatty, who smartly altered his course when he realized that Evan-Thomas had joined the battle. Hipper did the same. The fleets, which had been drifting apart and out of each other’s line of sight, came back into range and resumed firing.
Queen Mary was hit next. According to observers on board Tiger and New Zealand, three shells struck Queen Mary simultaneously. From the flying splinters and the deep-red glow of fire at the moment of impact, it seemed as though the shells had failed to pierce the armor. Two more shells struck the ship. Again, only a little black smoke, apparently coal dust, was seen to issue from the shot holes. Then a tremendous dark-red flame and large masses of black smoke belched forth amidships and the hull appeared to burst asunder. A similar explosion followed in the forward section of the ship. Queen Mary broke in two, the roofs of her turrets hurled 100 feet into the air, and in a moment she disappeared from view, with the stark exception of her stern and its still-revolving propellers. Only 20 men out of a complement of 1,286 survived the sinking.