The Battle of Jutland Analyzed

By Admiral Sir Cyprian Bridge

[The New York Times/Current History, August 1916]

To my mind in general the engagement shows highly distinguished strategic conception, highly capable tactical leading, great readiness to seize initiative, and admirable support of their leaders by all ranks. It was a brilliant achievement for the British Navy. To put the situation succinctly, it may be said that before the battle the British fleet at sea was divided into two parts, one force under Sir David Beatty, and the other, the battle fleet or main body, under the Commander in Chief, Sir John Jellicoe. This distribution of the ships was the dominating factor in bringing on the battle. Had the whole British fleet been massed and close together, it is more than likely that no battle would have occurred at all. So with the British fleet divided the Germans were encouraged to give battle with Beatty. Sir David, determined to get them into a fight, arranged the management of the action so that he could draw them nearer and nearer to Jellicoe's main body, which was coming up in support. He thus greatly shortened the interval between the first collision and eventual participation in the action by Jellicoe's battleships.

Even to a layman it must be plain that this was a tactical performance of the highest merit. The tactical merit was fully equaled by the dash and courage with which Beatty entered into the fight as he became aware that the whole strength of the German High Sea Fleet was soon to be on the scene. Jellicoe in bringing up his main body manoeuvred so as to get between the Germans and the coast of Jutland, which practically meant between them and their own bases. This manoeuvre, with the enemy not inclined to help you in it, must be a difficult one, and the fact that it was successfully executed in spite of the very unfavorable effect of the misty weather, which occasionally hid the enemy, raises its merits still higher. The dash and courage are shown in the British being able to engineer this manoeuvre at all. It drew on the German fleet until the distance between Beatty's fleet and the main body of the British fleet was less—considerably less than that between the German battle cruisers and their main body before Beatty began the action. That alone shows the effect of Beatty's move in trying to hold the German fleet in action.

In the early stages of the battle Beatty's force was considerably further away from the main British fleet than later on, owing to Beatty's rushing so fast after the Germans. After Beatty had got the Germans into the encounter he was able to keep them fighting until Jellicoe and his fleet arrived. When Jellicoe got to the scene of action the result of the battle was decided, for no longer did the Germans want to wait.

Our main body not only came up in time to take a decisive part in the battle, but was for more than two hours in the action. When one considers the distance at which the main British fleet was from Beatty's force in the early stages it is important to realize that effective strategy dictated that it was desirable for us to avoid the appearance of being in too great force, for had the enemy known the British fleet was ready to attack him in force he would have had every reasonable excuse to go away, without giving battle. Our only hope of engaging him was to employ tactics that would hide the real strength of our fighting force.

A satisfactory thing about the whole engagement, without going into minute details, was that the naval materials and appliances of today, which had not been long enough in use to permit of our knowing how they might be employed, were successfully handled and proved almost free from breakdown. The gunnery of the British fleet was the more accurate of the two. This was due not only to very thorough training, but also to the cool and deliberate manner in which the guns were fired. The Germans, in the earlier stages of the battle, fired more rapidly, but after their early shots they showed no accuracy of aim. As to the whole engagement, after reading Admiral Jellicoe's report, I can say unhesitatingly that it was one of the most decisive the British ever fought. In fact, there are only three others, to my mind, which outvie it in respect to strategy and final result. These are Lord Hawkes's battle of Quiberon, Nelson's battle of the Nile, and Nelson's Trafalgar.

Interesting evidence of the decisive character of the victory is shown by the fact that during the month of June the British vessels which had been shut up in the Baltic, since the beginning of the war have been returning day after day to British ports. This shows that the Germans have less control than ever of the seas.

The losses sustained by the British fleet were not greater than experts expected they would be in modern naval warfare for any engagement of this character. In all sea fights in which there has been vehement fighting the losses have been considerable, and in the early days of any particular kind of naval material, such as the period in which we are at this moment, the losses of ships on both sides have been almost a regular feature of battles. No one ever objected to the brilliancy of Admiral Robert Blake's performances because in the action several of his ships were sunk.

To Admiral Bridge's clear summary may be added the following extract from an official statement issued by the British Government through its embassies:

Seen in its broadest aspect, the battle stands out as a case of a tactical division of the fleet, which had the effect of bringing an unwilling enemy to battle. Such a method of forcing an action was obviously drastic and necessarily attended with a certain measure of risk. For great ends, however, great risks must be taken, and in this case the risk was far less great than that which St. Vincent accepted off Cadiz, and this division fought unsupported the battle of the Nile, the most complete and least debated of all British victories. Then the two portions of St. Vincent's fleet were divided strategically, with no prospect of tactical concentration for the battle.

In the present case there was only an appearance of division. The battle fleet was to the north and the battle cruiser fleet to the south, but they formed, in fact, one fleet, under a single command, and were acting in combination with one another. They were at the time actually engaged in carrying on, as they had been in the habit of doing periodically, a combined sweep of the North Sea, and Admiral Beatty's fleet was, in effect, the observation or advance squadron.

[The statement then goes into a description of the battle, and concludes:]

It was a beaten and broken fleet that escaped from the trap. Many of its units had been lost; its gunnery had become demoralized, and no one can blame its discretion in making for home at its topmost speed and leaving the British fleet once more in undisputed command of the North Sea. For this, in a word, was the result of the battle. What the enemy hoped to achieve we cannot tell. Whatever their efforts signified, it failed to shake our hold upon the sea, and that is what really matters.

We have fought many indecisive actions, but few in which the strategical result was further beyond discussion, few which have more fully freed us of all fear of what the enemy fleet might be able to accomplish. It is by such standards that history judges victories and by such standards that the country cherishes the memory of the men who prepared and won them. Current opinion will always prefer the test of comparative losses.

Let these standards be applied, and it will be found that the battle off Jutland will well hold its own against all but a few of our most famous victories.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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