Jutland Was the Battleship Battle of All Battleship Battles

Jutland Was the Battleship Battle of All Battleship Battles

"If done properly, Scheer’s audacious plan could break the British North Sea blockade that slowly but surely was strangling Germany."  

At 1855, Scheer sent the High Seas Fleet steaming straight at the full force of the British fleet. This move surprised the British, but the gamble did not pay off for the Germans. The British could see the German ships clearly, while the late-afternoon sun was blinding the German gunners, who could only make out the flashes of the British guns. Without a good target to shoot at, the Germans were sitting ducks waiting for the British hunters. Hercules fired on Seydlitz; Colossus and Revenge on Derfflinger; Neptune and St. Vincent on Derfflinger and Moltke. Marlborough, ignoring her own torpedo injury, fired 14 salvos in six minutes and saw four of them hit home. Monarch, Iron Duke, Centurion, Royal Oak, King George V, Temeraire, Superb, and Neptune all reported scoring hits. The German ships were being slaughtered and could hardly see well enough to try to hit back. During the whole time the British were ravaging the German ships, the Germans only landed two shots, both on the luckless Colossus.

A Chance at a New Trafalgar?

Ten minutes of withering attacks was all Scheer could stand—he would have to extricate his ships again. He sent his battle cruisers and torpedo boats to attack the enemy’s battleships and leave a smoke screen to shield their retreat. Signal flags went up commanding: “Battle cruisers at the enemy. Give it everything!” Derfflinger with eight 12-inch guns, Seydlitz with ten 11-inch guns, Moltke with its ten 11-inch guns, and Von der Tann (which could not fire its fore turret) would have to shield the German fleet from the entire British fleet, while having scores of 12-, 13- and 15-inch shells raining down upon them. The four ships were facing down the British battle line, while the German ships attempted to make another 180-degree turn. During the 10-minute-long bombardment by the British, the German battle line became bunched up, making tight maneuvering extremely dangerous. Scheer turned to port instead of starboard to make room for other ships to turn. Still, some of the ships almost collided as they attempted to turn.

The battle cruisers were followed by torpedo boats. Their job was to lay down a line of torpedoes to cover the escape of the High Seas Fleet. This they failed to do, but the secondary result of their attack nevertheless helped save the Germans. The British used a turn-away tactic that was common at this time by most navies. Upon seeing the track of an enemy torpedo, a captain would turn his ship away from it and attempt to outrace it. Some 31 torpedoes were fired at the British line, and though none of them hit their targets, by forcing the British to turn they changed the outcome of the battle. Had Jellicoe turned toward the torpedoes and pursued Scheer, instead of turning away, he might have inflicted heavy damage on the Germans and perhaps even brought about their total destruction. Instead, he sacrificed his advantages of time and range, while Scheer made good his escape. Afterward, Jellicoe was accused of forsaking the Royal Navy’s chance for a new Trafalgar. The ghost of Nelson would haunt him for the rest of his life. But to be fair to the British commander, turning away from a torpedo attack was the accepted practice of the day. Moreover, he was still between the German High Seas Fleet and their path home. The Germans would have to cross the British line to find safe harbor. As far as Jellicoe was concerned, they would do battle again at daybreak the next day.

In the Confusion of the Night

Scheer had extricated his fleet from imminent disaster for a second time, but he still had a problem. He had to take his battered ships to Horns Reef off the Denmark coast. From there the Germans had a clear lane back to the Jade River, 100 miles to the south. Jellicoe had to deliver the death blow to Scheer’s fleet before they reached Horns Reef. Scheer had one more ace left up his sleeve. The Germans were practiced at night battles, while the British were not. But daylight would come early in this northern section of the earth. Sunrise was around 0300. Scheer would have to act quickly.

At 2215, four British light cruisers met five German light cruisers. In the near-total darkness, it was hard to identify the ships. Commodore W.E. Goodenough on Southampton came in contact with some unidentified ships crossing his path and fired a shot at them. They returned fire in a barrage of shells. Although much damage was done to the British ship, she was still able to fire a torpedo, which hit and sunk the light cruiser Frauenlob. The rest of the British ships seemed reluctant to engage or even to disclose their positions at night. Because of this fear, two of Scheer’s dreadnoughts, Moltkeand Seydlitz, were allowed to pass through the British lines unmolested. Both ships were heavily damaged and ripe for attack, but both were allowed to limp away.

At about midnight, the British 4th Flotilla of Destroyer Escorts, which was keeping station with the 5th Battle Squadron, converged with the van of the German High Seas Fleet. Tipperary was leading 12 destroyers when she spotted unknown ships to the starboard, about 1,000 yards away. Searchlights and a barrage of 5.9- and 3.5-inch shells turned Tipperary into a blazing hulk. Spitfire, which was behind Tipperary, had to maneuver to avoid hitting the burning ship. As she turned, she encountered the German battleship Nassau coming at her from the other direction. Nassau altered her course straight for Spitfire and the two ships collided port bow to port bow, then screeched by each other. Nassau fired her 11-inch guns at the smaller ship. Although the projectiles went over the top of the destroyer, the blast still wrecked the bridge, the foremost funnel, and the mast. Spitfire was able to limp away, but she was badly damaged and useless for the rest of the battle.

Another British captain was reluctant to fire first and paid the price. Commander Allen on the destroyer Broke signaled an unidentified ship and was met by a hailstorm of blinding lights and shells. In less than a minute, Broke was decimated and spun out of control, ramming the next ship in line, Sparrowhawk. Contest also rammed Sparrowhawk, taking off 30 feet of her stern. Broke and Contest were able to pull out of the mess, limping out of action. Sparrowhawk floated around until the next day, when she was scuttled by her crew. The German light cruiser Rostock was hit by a torpedo, taking on 930 tons of water but was able to follow the German ships slowly and from a distance.

Breaking through the British Lines

In the 4th Flotilla, command passed to Commander Hutchinson of Achates. He was followed by Ambuscade, Ardent, Fortune, Porpoise, and Garland. It was Fortune whose luck would run out. Hutchinson wanted to reconnect with the British line and steered a course merging instead with the lead of the German line. Westfalen and Rhineland opened fire. It took less than a minute to send Fortune to the bottom. Achates and Ambuscade thought they were being chased by a German cruiser. It was actually one of their own, Black Prince, an armored cruiser, which had fallen behind the British line because of damage to her engines. Soon after 0100, both Nassau and Thuringen sighted the ship, which did not reply to their signals. Thuringen open fire on Black Prince from a range of 1,000 yards. All her shots were direct hits. Nassau, Ostfriesland, and Frederick der Grosse pitched in with more fire. Black Prince blew up and sank into the North Sea, sending hundreds more British sailors to a watery grave.

Ardent was the final destroyer of the 4th Flotilla to meet the German line, be illuminated by the searchlights, and be destroyed by a hailstorm of small-caliber shells. None of the British destroyers had radioed Jellicoe about the action with the German dreadnoughts. Had they done so, they might have altered the course of the battle. The battle of destroyers versus dreadnoughts was a mismatched fight from start to finish and quickly turned into a massacre. All the while, Jellico had no idea that Scheer was successfully cutting across the rear guard of his ships and escaping. Despite other minor encounters, the German ships managed to break free. At 0415, Jellicoe learned that the High Seas Fleet had gotten away. It was only now that Beatty got around to telling Jellicoe of the loss of battle cruisers Queen Mary and Indefatigable. Jellicoe was shocked to hear the news, especially when he learned that they had been lost early in the battle and that his battleship commander had failed to keep him informed of such a catastrophe. It might have changed Jellicoe’s attitude of pursuit in order to seek revenge for the losses.