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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Battle of Jutland, May 31, 1916

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Today in 1916, the German High Seas Fleet and the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet met in the North Sea near Denmark. The battle that followed, now called the Battle of Jutland, was the largest of the First World War and, although few realized it at the time, also marked the end of an era in naval warfare.

By May, 1916, World War One had been raging for nearly two years. While the mighty European armies battled one another in a line of trenches running from the North Sea to the Swiss border, the British and German navies had not yet met in a fleet-sized battle. The main reason for this was the numerical superiority of British battleships; in 1916, the Royal Navy had 33 dreadnoughts while the German High Seas Fleet had only 18. Instead of meeting the Grand Fleet in one large battle, the Germans planned to launch a series of offensive strikes into the North Sea in the hope of drawing out smaller groups of British ships which could be fought on more equal terms. What the Germans did not know was that British naval planners had access to the German code books and knew of the plan to fight the Royal Navy in small groups.

The Germans proceeded with the first stage of their plan. A large number of U-boats were sent to patrol near British naval bases on the North Sea. They then sent a squadron of ships to raid Sunderland on the English coast, knowing that this would draw out a squadron of Royal Navy battlecruisers. The ships not sunk by the waiting U-boats would be led on a chase by the fleeing German squadron, a chase that would end with the British ships being surrounded and outnumbered by the German High Seas Fleet, which would be ready and waiting for the encounter.

In response to the German plans, the British Fleet put to sea with 28 battleships, 9 battlecruisers, 34 light cruisers and 80 destroyers in two groups. The German fleet consisted of 16 battleships, 5 battlecruisers, 6 obsolete battleships known as “pre-dreadnoughts”, 11 light cruisers and 61 torpedo boats. While the British had superiority in tonnage and gunnery, the German ships had thicker armor and their guns fired more effective armor-piercing shells.

The German U-boats were completely ineffective and sank none of the British ships on their way to the battle. Around 3pm local time on the 31st of May, scouting ships of the two forces opened fire on each other. After a confusing battle in which the British scouting force fought a delaying action while waiting for the rest of the fleet to arrive, the two main fleets joined the the battle at 6:30.

The British quickly put themselves in an advantageous position when their line of battleships crossed the bows of the German battle line. In naval warfare, this is known as “crossing the T”; in essence, the British ships were able to train all their guns on the German ships while the Germans could only train their forward guns on the British. The German fleet turned from the trap, but would be caught in the same situation again less than an hour later. Although the battle was intense, no action by either fleet proved decisive and as darkness approached, the German High Seas Fleet disengaged.

Fierce fighting between smaller groups of ships continued for most of the night, during which time the two main fleets lost track of one another. The Germans safely escaped to their home waters and the British set sail for home after realizing that another attack was impossible.

In all, the German High Seas Fleet lost over 2,500 men and 11 ships of 62,000 tons total. The British Grand Fleet lost over 6,000 men and 14 ships of 111,000 tons total. While these numbers would point to a clear German victory, the damage to other German ships was extensive, so much so that after the battle the British still had 24 capital ships ready for battle while the Germans had only 10.

Furthermore, the Royal Navy continued to dominate the North Sea for the duration of the war while the High Seas Fleet remained, for the most part, bottled up in port. Their presence meant that the Royal Navy could never completely blockade the German coast, but nor could the Germans ever mount another naval offensive.

The Battle of Jutland was the last time two large fleets of battleships and cruisers would duke it out on the open seas. Within a generation, the aircraft carrier became the centerpiece of the battle group, relegating the battleship to secondary roles such as shore bombardment and escort duty. Although battleships continued to serve in the world’s navies until the 1990’s, they never again held the interest of the world as they had on a spring day in 1916.

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