Naval Power in the Present War
PART III: The Battle of Jutland

By Lieutenant Charles C. Gill United States Navy

[The New York Times/Current History, March 1917]

This article is the third in a series contributed to CURRENT HISTORY MAGAZINE by Lieutenant Gill of the superdreadnought Oklahoma—with the sanction of the United States Naval Department for the purpose of deducing the lessons furnished by the naval events of the European war.

The United States has decided that the price of security is a first-class navy. Notwithstanding the optimism, more or less prevalent, that armies and navies may possibly be done away with at some future time, the people of this country feel that an army and a navy are now necessary as a policy of national insurance, and will continue to be necessary for some time to come.

Nations taking part in the war will profit more from its naval lessons than can neutral nations, who, as mere spectators, are denied much of the information attending actual experience. This should act as an additional incentive for the United States to look closely into current events in Europe and, by reasoning from them, get as much help as possible in planning America's defense program. What constitutes an adequate navy? What should be the composition of a modern fleet? How many battleships? How many battle cruisers, light cruiser scouts, air scouts, destroyers, submarines, mine layers, and auxiliaries? What should be the size, radius of action, speed, armor, and armament of these different types of ships? How is the personnel to be supplied and trained? How should the ships be grouped together under the various modifying conditions governing naval strategy? How should they be used in fighting an enemy in the variety of circumstances affecting naval tactics?

To search for answers to these questions in the light of the experience of the present war is the function of the Navy General Board, headed by the Chief of Operations, and assisted by the War College Staff, by the Office of Naval Intelligence, and by recommendations from the commanders of the various fleets and shore stations. It requires expert knowledge to make the necessary technical analysis and work out the details of the naval program. The average citizen has neither time nor inclination to go exhaustively into details, and this task devolves properly upon those who have devoted their lives to a study of naval science.

On the other hand, the naval experts cannot do it all. The success of their endeavors depends primarily upon the intelligent interest and co-operation of the nation they serve. In order to get a first-class navy it is essential that those who vote should understand the general principles governing the size, composition, and training of battle fleets. It is the objective of these pages to help the non-technical man to a comprehension of these principles, which are not difficult to understand, although they are of first importance as the starting point from which the highly scientific deductions proceed.

Battle Off Dogger Bank

Before turning to the battle of Jutland it might be well to give brief attention to the Dogger Bank action, fought seventeen months earlier, on Jan. 24, 1915. This was a running fight in the North Sea between two battle cruiser squadrons, during which the German armored cruiser Blücher was sunk, having been abandoned by her retreating consorts. No English ship was lost.

The battle cruiser engagement off the Dogger Bank was the first between modern big-gun ships. Particular interest is also attached to it because each squadron was accompanied by scouting and screening light cruisers and destroyers. It was fear of submarines and mines, moreover, that influenced the British to break off the engagement, and it is also reported that a Zeppelin airship and a seaplane took part, and perhaps assisted in the fire control of the Germans.

At daybreak on Jan. 24, 1915, Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty's battle cruiser squadron, consisting of the Lion, Princess Royal, Tiger, New Zealand, and Indomitable, were patrolling in company with four light cruisers, while three light cruiser flotilla leaders, with their destroyers, were in station ahead. At 7:25 A. M. the Aurora, one of these flotilla-leading light cruisers, engaged an enemy ship.

This scouting and screening force got in touch with and guided the British battle cruisers toward the enemy battle cruiser squadron, under Rear Admiral Hipper, consisting of the battle cruisers Seydlitz, Derfflinger, and Moltke, with the armored cruiser Blücher. The German capital ships were also accompanied by light cruisers and destroyers. It was a stern-chase fight, in which ranging shots were tried at about 20,000 yards and hits reported made at about 18,000 yards. It appears that practically all the fighting between the battle cruisers was done at long ranges. The slower armored cruiser Blücher dropped astern, and early in the fight developed engine trouble. Her 8.2-inch guns were of little use, and at 10:48 she drew out of line in a defeated condition. At 12:37 she sank, having received, very likely, her deathblow from a torpedo.

Disregarding the Blücher, the stern fire of the German battle cruisers consisted of four twelve-inch and sixteen eleven-inch, as opposed to the British bow fire of twelve 13.5-inch guns from the leading three ships and the bow twelve-inch from the New Zealand and Indomitable. These latter two ships, however, being two or three knots slower than the other three, appear to have fired for the most part only at the Blücher. At 11:03 the Lion was put out of action, and she was later towed into port with a considerable list. Considering the long range, the gunnery on both sides appears to have been excellent, and it is hard to say which side did the better shooting or whose battle cruisers suffered the more damage.

The light cruisers and destroyers took little part in the actual fighting. The British flotillas were kept most of the time on the unengaged quarter of Admiral Beatty's squadron. At about 9:30 the German destroyers threatened an attack, and one division of the British destroyers manoeuvred so as to pass ahead of the battle cruisers and screen them; but the threatened attack was not made. Later on the German destroyers again appeared to be preparing for an attack, and the Lion and Tiger opened fire on them, causing them to retire and resume their original course. Shortly before noon, about seventy miles from Heligoland, the engagement was broken off by the British because of the alleged presence of enemy submarines.

The conditions surrounding this battle were ideal for illustrating the functions of battle cruisers. The German warship raid on the British coast of the previous month was still fresh in mind; and when this situation off the Dogger Bank arose, the timely interposing of Admiral Beatty's superior force, the fast chase, the long-range fighting, the loss of the Blücher, and the hasty retreat of the enemy, were all particularly pleasing to the British people. As a result the battle cruiser type of ship attained great popularity.

The question of speed, armor, and armament, however, is a perplexing problem. If the British cruisers had been faster, with less armor, they might have destroyed the inferior German squadron. On the other hand, had the German ships been slower, with heavier guns and better armor protection, they might have protected the retreat of the Blücher and beaten off the faster British ships with greater damage to them and less danger to themselves. Before going deeper into this question it is advisable to consider further data on the war-time usefulness of battle cruisers. This type of ship will therefore be adverted to later on.

Turning now to the battle of Jutland, it is appreciated, in attempting a narrative of the principal events of the engagement, together with a discussion of some of the points in strategy and tactics illustrated, that many of the details are lacking. Some of these details will be uncovered in the course of time, but many—having been lost in the sea along with the ships that went down can only be subject matter for speculation.

The battle of Jutland was fought between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet during the late afternoon and evening of May 31, 1916, with torpedo attacks continuing throughout the night. A decisive engagement was probably prevented by thick weather and approaching darkness, but hard blows were given and sustained on both sides.

It is a well-recognized experience of history that the public gauges the magnitude of a battle by the consequent changes in the political and military situation. At times a comparatively minor engagement between relatively small forces wherein little actual fighting occurs will, if followed by a decided change in an international situation, assume in the public eye the proportions of a big battle. On the other hand, it sometimes occurs that a great battle, measured by the size and power of the forces involved and the actual fighting done, will, if indecisive and unproductive of changes in the status quo, appear small in the public eye and often arouse a certain amount of popular dissatisfaction on both sides. It may be that history will place the battle of Jutland in this latter class. But, even so, when one considers the actual fighting done, and judges by the size, number, and various types of the ships engaged, their ability to manoeuvre, their power to give and their power to sustain hard blows, this battle is far and away the biggest the world has ever seen. Never before has there been brought together such an array of fighting machines—dreadnoughts, scout cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and aircraft. Also, it took intelligence, nerve, and endurance of the personnel to operate this powerful machinery under varying conditions of wind, sea, and weather. Assuredly it would seem that in this action and all that it exemplifies both in the ships engaged and in the requirements demanded of the personnel there must have been illustrated the best there is of naval art and naval science.

The Forces Engaged

The British Grand Fleet comprised:

(a) An advance force under Vice Admiral Beatty, consisting of six battle cruisers, (four Lions of 28.5 knots speed, each carrying eight 13.5-inch guns, and two Indefatigables of 25 knots speed, each carrying eight 12-inch guns), supported by the Fifth Battle Squadron, under Rear Admiral Evan-Thomas, (four 25-knot battleships of the Queen Elizabeth class, each carrying eight 15-inch guns).

(b) The main body, under Admiral Jellicoe flying his flag in the Iron Duke consisting of a fast wing under Rear Admiral Hood, (three 26-knot battle cruisers of Invincible class, each carrying eight 12-inch guns), a division of four armored cruisers under Rear Admiral Arbuthnot, and twenty-five dreadnoughts in three squadrons commanded by Vice Admirals Burney, Jerram, and Sturdee.

(c) About twenty light cruisers and 160 destroyers, divided between the advance force and the main body.

The German High Sea Fleet comprised:

(a) An advance force under Vice Admiral Hipper, consisting of five battle cruisers, (three Derfflingers of probably 27 knots speed, each carrying eight 12-inch guns, and two Moltkes of probably 28 knots speed, each carrying ten 11-inch guns).

b) The main body under Admiral Scheer, consisting of sixteen dreadnoughts and six predreadnought battleships.

(c) About twenty light cruisers and eighty or ninety destroyers, divided between the advance force and the main body.

At 2:30 P. M., May 31, 1916, the naval situation in the North Sea was approximately as follows: The German advance force of five battle cruisers under Vice Admiral Hipper was some eighty or a hundred miles to the northwestward of Horn Reef, while fifteen miles to the south and west of him was Vice Admiral Beatty with the British advance force of six battle cruisers, supported by four fast dreadnought battleships under Rear Admiral Evan-Thomas. Admiral Jellicoe, in command of the British Grand Fleet, was about fifty miles distant with the main body to the northeastward, while Admiral Scheer, in command of the German High Seas Fleet, was about the same distance away with his main body to the southeastward. German submarines were sighted soon after the beginning of the engagement. British and German aircraft were present, but do not appear to have figured very prominently in the conflict.

It is convenient to divide the battle into the following four phases:

First Phase: British advance force encounters German advance force. Six British battle cruisers, supported by four dreadnought battleships, engaged with five German battle cruisers; (3:49 P. M. to 4:45 P. M.).

Second Phase: Action between British advance force and van of High Seas Fleet. Four British battle cruisers and four dreadnought battleships engaged with five German battle cruisers and van of German battle fleet, (4:45 P. M. to 6:15 P. M.).

Third Phase: British Grand Fleet engaged with German High Seas Fleet (6:15 P. M. to dark).

Fourth Phase: Torpedo attacks and screening operations during the night (May 31 to June 1).

Each one of these phases will be taken up separately in the order named.

The First Phase

Encounter between the Battle Cruiser Squadrons Commanded by Vice Admiral Beatty (British) and Vice Admiral Hipper (German).

The British Grand Fleet had left its bases on the 30th, and was sweeping through the North Sea to the southward with Vice Admiral Beatty's force cruising well in advance of the main body. Besides the six battle cruisers led by Vice Admiral Beatty in the Lion and the four 25-knot battleships of the Elizabeth class, led by Rear Admiral Evan-Thomas in the Barnham, this advance force was accompanied by three light cruiser squadrons and four flotillas of destroyers. At 2:20 P. M. the light cruiser Galatea reported the presence of German ships in considerable force and at 2:25 a British seaplane was sent from its mother ship Engadine to scout to the northeastward. Visibility at this time was good. The wind was southeast.

At 3:31 the German battle cruiser squadron (five ships) under Vice Admiral Hipper was sighted to the northeastward at a range of 23,000 yards. The two squadrons formed for battle, and approached each other on slightly converging southeasterly courses. Light cruisers and destroyers of both sides assumed screening formations, and the opposing light cruisers in the more advanced stations were engaged during the battle approach. At 3:48 fire was opened simultaneously by both sides at about 18,500 yards range. The squadrons fought on parallel courses curving to the southeast. At 4:08 the battleships under Rear Admiral Evan-Thomas opened fire at 20,000 yards' range, but it is doubtful if these ships got close enough to do any effective work during this phase of the battle. About this time submarines were reported both on the engaged and unengaged beams of the British battle cruisers. Destroyers were active in attempts to screen the big ships from underwater attack.

Ten minutes after the engagement become general an explosion occurred in the Indefatigable, and she sank almost immediately. At 4:15 twelve British destroyers moved forward to attack the German battle cruisers; German light cruisers and destroyers made a similar advance at the same time. A fierce engagement ensued between these light craft at close quarters. The Germans did not press their torpedo attack, but six of the British destroyers continued the advance under a heavy shell fire, and fired torpedoes at the German lines.

At 4:30 a mighty explosion occurred in the Queen Mary, and she went down so quickly that the following ships in the formation are reported as having steamed right over her. At 4:42 the German battle fleet was sighted to the southeast, and the British ships turned right about (180 degrees) in succession. The German battle cruisers also altered course 16 points, and the action continued on a northwesterly course, beginning what we will call the second phase. According to German Admiralty reports, during the first phase, lasting about an hour, from 3:49 to the time the British changed course 16 points at 4:45, the British battle cruiser Indefatigable, (tonnage 18,750, main battery eight 12-inch, carrying 899 men,) was sunk at 4:05, and the Queen Mary, (tonnage 27,000, main battery eight 13.5-inch guns, carrying 1,000 men,) was destroyed at about 4:35. It is also reported that the British lost four destroyers and the Germans two. Before taking up the second phase of the battle, a few points bearing on the first phase will be briefly discussed.

Cause of British Losses

Several theories have been advanced as to the probable causes of the loss of the two British battle cruisers. It is also reported that both ships suffered heavy explosions which appeared to come up through turret tops. This has led to the opinion that enemy shells exploded in the respective turrets, and, igniting chains of powder to the magazines, caused the blowing up of the magazines. This is not at all unlikely, and directs attention to the need of safety precautions in the supply of ammunition to turret guns. Still another theory is that these two ships were sunk either by mines or torpedoes; while a few credit the surmise that the explosions were of internal origin, either in turret or magazine, and having nothing to do with enemy fire.

There has been some comment in the press to the effect that Admiral Jellicoe may have violated the principle of concentration of forces by sending in advance a squadron of four battleships to support Admiral Beatty's battle cruisers. The consensus of professional opinion, however, does not appear to support any such criticism. This advance force was composed entirely of fast ships, (the battleships had the unusually high speed of 25 knots), operating on interior lines between the supporting British fleet and the enemy main fleet, with little or no chance of being cut off by a superior enemy force.

There is also more or less criticism to the effect that Admiral Beatty rashly exposed his command; that the Germans counted on his impetuosity; and that he did just what Admiral Hipper expected him to do and wanted him to do. On the other hand, it may be argued that at the start of the action the situation was not unfavorable to the British because Admiral Hipper was almost cut off by a superior force and in danger of being compelled to turn toward the British Grand Fleet. The plan of co-ordination between the main body under Admiral Jellicoe and the British advance force is not altogether clear, but it is evident that Admiral Beatty tried to get to the southward of Admiral Hipper, and upon the approach of the High Seas Fleet was compelled to make a right about turn, a manoeuvre likely to prove disastrous if attempted under gun fire. Reports are somewhat obscure as to just what happened at this time, but it seems that the British ships accomplished the turn without suffering much damage, and that the German battle cruisers turned around at about the same time. Perhaps the battleships under Admiral Evan-Thomas were used to provide a covering fire while Admiral Beatty countermarched. Some incline to the opinion that Admiral Hipper failed to take advantage of his speed to draw ahead to a semi T-ing or capping position where he might have hammered Admiral Beatty's ships on the knuckle of their pivoting point without subjecting his own ships to anything worse than a long range fire from the 15-inch guns of the enemy battleships. It may be that the German battle cruisers did not have enough speed to do this, or it may be that Admiral Hipper was intent only on drawing the enemy into the fire of the approaching German battle fleet. At any rate, whatever the actual circumstances, neither side lost any ships at this time and the battle continued on northerly courses, beginning the second phase.

The Second Phase

Action between British Advance Force of Battle Cruisers, Supported by Four Battleships, and German Battle Cruisers Supported by German High Seas Battle Fleet.

The Fifth Battle Squadron is reported to have closed the German battle cruisers on an opposite course, engaging them with all guns, when Admiral Beatty signaled Admiral Evan-Thomas the position of the German battle fleet and ordered him to alter course 16 points. At 4:57 the Fifth Battle Squadron fell into line behind the battle cruisers and came under the fire of the leading ships of the German battle fleet, which, in the meanwhile, had joined the line of battle in rear of Admiral Kipper's battle cruisers. The action continued at about 14,000 yards range on northwesterly courses curving north and then northeasterly. At 5:56 Admiral Beatty sighted the leading ships of the British Baltic battle fleet bearing north, distant five miles, and altered course to east, increasing speed to the utmost, thereby reducing the range to 12,000 yards, and opening a gap between his battle cruisers and Rear Admiral Evan-Thomas's supporting battleships. The German van also turned eastward.

This completed the second phase of the battle, during which four British battle cruisers and four battleships were engaged for about one hour and a half with the van of the German fleet led by five battle cruisers followed by battleships of the Koenig class. Light cruisers and destroyers were also intermittently engaged during this phase and a few isolated but determined torpedo attacks were pushed home. These apparently met with little success, the attackers suffering severe punishment.

In this second phase, while at first glance it appears that four British battle cruisers supported by four battleships were engaging the entire German High Seas Fleet, such was not strictly speaking the case. The superior speed of the British squadrons enabled them to keep in the van, out of range of the enemy centre and rear. At this time the advantage of light was with the Germans, because the British ships had a sky brightened by the setting sun for background, while the German ships were more obscured in the mist by reason of their dark background. But the British Vice Admiral reports administering severe punishment to enemy ships during this phase. It is not clear whether the Germans turned to the eastward to avoid being capped or T-ed by the faster enemy ships, or whether they originated the easterly change of course because of the approaching British battle fleet, but this manoeuvre put the British fleet in a tactically favorable position for gun fire as well as ultimately placing them between the German fleet and its bases.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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