In World War I the British and German fleets threw everything they had at each other, including 46 of the largest battleships of the era—then both claimed victory.
Standing on the bridge of his flagship Lion, Vice Admiral David Beatty stared at the debris of two of his majesty’s proudest battle cruisers, HMS Indefatigable and Queen Mary. They had blown up within minutes of each other and vanished. With surprising calm, Beatty turned to his flag captain and said, “Chatfield, there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” Meanwhile Princess Royal was limping and Beatty’s own ship was on fire. Beatty himself was still alive because a quick-thinking officer had ordered the magazine doors closed with his dying breath, preventing Lion from going down.
The British fleet had been invincible for a century, but now half the nation’s battle cruisers had been destroyed or crippled in the opening salvos of World War I’s greatest naval battle. And the worst was yet to come, in what would later be known as the Battle of Jutland.
Several days before the fight, Admiral John Jellicoe, commander in chief of the British Grand Fleet, knew a major German operation was in the offing by the large number of U-boats operating in the North Sea and because British cryptanalysts had been decoding German messages. Established plans called for Jellicoe to take his Grand Fleet and dangle a few cruisers in front of Vice Adm. Reinhard Scheer and the German High Seas Fleet out in the open North Sea, away from lurking U-boats. While Jellicoe distracted the Germans, Beatty would take his battle cruisers, supported by a squadron of super-dreadnoughts, and annihilate the High Seas Fleet on its flank. From the beginning Beatty worried that the battleships were too slow to keep pace with his lighter cruisers and might not arrive when he needed their firepower. Jellicoe reassured him that the dreadnoughts could keep up. The British goal was to annihilate the German fleet. They were sure they had the firepower to do so.
Scheer’s goal was more modest. He planned to use Vice Adm. Franz von Hipper’s battle cruisers to bombard the British coast, hoping that both Beatty and Jellicoe would rush to intercept the attack. Hipper’s cruisers would then draw Beatty’s ships toward the High Seas Fleet, where they would be destroyed before Jellicoe could race to the rescue. The Germans believed they could confront the rest of the British fleet later with more even odds.
Forewarned by their intercepts of the German code, the Grand Fleet sailed from Scapa Flow the same morning the Germans left Wilhelmshaven. The plan was for the Grand Fleet to be only a few hours away when Beatty made contact with the Germans, then rush in at the last moment to save the day. It should have been a second Trafalgar for the British. Instead, the battle became a textbook example of how overconfidence can have fateful consequences.
The missteps began when the director of naval operations, Captain Thomas Jackson, swept into the decoding room on the morning of May 31, 1916, and asked a single question about Scheer’s call sign, “DK.” Told that it showed Scheer was still in port, he abruptly left. But the translators failed to mention that the DK sign was always and only used in port, and that Scheer was using a different call sign at sea. Believing that most of the German fleet was in harbor, British admirals decided to limit their operations to a scouting sweep of the North Sea.
Jellicoe concluded that the most he would encounter was the German cruisers, which superior British forces could handily dispatch. Meanwhile Scheer thought that the most his fleet would encounter was Beatty’s cruisers.
On May 31, both fleets were ignorant of each other’s location until a chance encounter between a Dutch tramp steamer and a German destroyer drew scouts to investigate. About 1410 hours, as the Germans checked the steamer’s documentation, the British battle cruiser Galatea appeared in the distance. Time stood still as the warships faced one another. The British broke the spell: They hoisted signal flags indicating “enemy in sight” and began firing. Der Tag (“The Day”), as both navies referred to the inevitable encounter, had begun.
Beatty immediately ordered the fleet’s course changed to south-southeast and its speed increased, using signal flags. Protocol called for hauling down the flags, signaling the ships to implement the instructions, then flashing searchlight signals as insurance against visibility problems. But Beatty failed to notice that flashes were not sent immediately. The superdreadnoughts—already lagging five miles behind and unable to see the flags through the dense smoke—continued to head in the opposite direction—northwest, away from the gathering battle. Unfortunately for the British, that was just the first of many signaling mishaps.
The gap doubled before the dreadnoughts swung around, leaving the battle cruisers to face the enemy alone during the first crucial minutes. Nonetheless, the British cruisers still had the advantage of superior range. Their guns could begin firing almost three miles before the Germans could return fire, so sailors on both sides were shocked as the distance closed with no orders to fire from Beatty. Only after the range advantage had been lost and the German cruiser Lützow opened fire at 1548 did battle begin.
The sea erupted into chaos as smoke and water spray from the salvos worsened the already murky visibility. The British weakness in gunnery, long lamented by Jellicoe, showed immediately as shell after shell sailed harmlessly over the Germans—some hitting as far as two miles away. Aided by Zeiss sights, the German gunners were ruthlessly accurate. They were also helped by another misunderstanding that meant Queen Mary and Tiger targeted the wrong ships, leaving Derfflinger unmolested.
Derfflinger’s crew calmly focused attention on Princess Royal, slamming shell after shell into it before the British ship returned fire. By then every ship on both sides was engaged in its own private duel, and more shells found metal. Decks became scenes of unspeakable horror—blood, oil and twisted, searing steel. Doctors worked feverishly to save lives, but too often the effects of concussive blasts, shards and blazing fires proved deadly.
Shortly after 1600, two salvos scored direct hits on Indefatigable, and the British habit of keeping magazine doors open during battle to save time moving munitions proved disastrous. Flames shot 300 feet high as metal, guns and bodies showered from the sky. In an instant Indefatigable disappeared. Only two of its 1,019-man crew survived.
Fifteen minutes later Lion briefly dropped out of the British line, spurring Derfflinger to shift its fire from Princess Royal to Queen Mary, which was already under devastating fire from Seydlitz. A shell detonated in a forward magazine, and after a moment of eerie silence an enormous explosion engulfed Queen Mary in an 800-foot plume of fire. Only eight of the ship’s 1,286 men were rescued. The Germans couldn’t believe their luck.
Beatty was stunned by the unimaginable disaster before him. He could accept the loss of Indefatigable, the oldest of the battle cruisers, but Queen Mary was scarcely three years old and the pride of the fleet. The rest of his cruisers had absorbed tremendous punishment. Only New Zealand had thus far escaped injury. Many onboard that cruiser attributed the ship’s luck to the promise of a Maori chief: The ship would stay safe if the captain wore full Maori battledress during any action. He cheerfully did.
Meanwhile neither side in this engagement knew that their opponent’s main fleet was drawing closer. Knowing that Scheer was on his way, Hipper turned the German cruisers east, with drawing from the immediate battle, hoping to draw Beatty into the trap with the rest of the British fleet. Backed by the firepower of his super-dreadnoughts, then just arriving, Beatty took the bait. When British scouts spotted the German main fleet, Beatty was stunned. As the first shots from the German dreadnoughts fell around him, he ordered a course change to the northwest and headed toward the rendezvous with Jellicoe, hoping to confront the Germans with the full power of the Grand Fleet.
But the British flag signals were once again not followed up with searchlights. The dreadnought crews could not make out the flag signals, and continued south toward the German fleet for a full five minutes before they finally turned north. The commander’s excuse was that Beatty had not made the order “executive” until five minutes later, but common sense should have dictated heading north when the rest of the fleet was going in that direction.
Abandoned by Beatty’s other ships, two disabled destroyers, Nestor and Nomad, became target practice for the Germans. By 1730 both were sunk.
Scheer took up the chase. Although unsure of the Grand Fleet’s whereabouts, he was willing to gamble for a chance to topple British naval superiority.
The German battle cruisers soon caught up with the lumbering dreadnoughts and began to pound them with fire. The monstrous ships absorbed the blows and fired back, hitting Seydlitz and Lützow as they turned north. The German ships kept up the chase, firing at the trailing ship Malaya, which—after receiving a direct hit to a 6-inch battery— resorted to firing its own shells short to throw up a water screen. That hit almost sank Malaya, but an officer doused the fire and saved the ship.
Superior armor, accurate fire and pure luck allowed the rest of the British battleships to escape without further damage, and Scheer was forced to watch them slip away into the mist. He was completely unaware that the full power of the British fleet lay just over the horizon.
Jellicoe knew that if Scheer could destroy a significant portion of the Grand Fleet, the Germans could gain numerical superiority. That would make them unstoppable. Jellicoe also realized that the Germans had better-designed ships and superior gunnery skills. Still, the British had more ships with greater range than the Germans, as well as experience built on 200 years of naval power. As the German fleet headed straight for him, the British admiral retained absolute faith in his men and equipment.
Due to a plotting error, Beatty’s ships were then seven miles farther west than planned and Jellicoe’s were four miles farther east than intended. Moreover, the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron, which had sailed from Scapa Flow with the Grand Fleet, had completely missed the rest of the fleet and blundered upon some German scouts. Only strong nerves and quick thinking saved them from annihilation. Nonetheless, the Battle Cruiser Fleet had accidentally done exactly what Jellicoe hoped for—tempted the German fleet to move directly toward the waiting British.
Both Scheer and Jellicoe knew their fleets would collide, but were operating with faulty intelligence. Although some British ships had the enemy in sight, their crews incorrectly assumed that Jellicoe could see everything they could, and failed to send detailed reports to him. Meanwhile the German sightings of the British fleet were inaccurately reported to Scheer. As a result, the two fleets met about 10 minutes earlier than either admiral anticipated.
The main battle was predictably fierce, as both fleets unleashed their full firepower. Visibility now favored Britain’s Grand Fleet. Shell after shell fell on the German ships as British gunners finally made good use of the range advantage of their heavy guns. Lützow was sunk first, forcing Hipper to transfer his flag to a nearby destroyer. But the Germans pummeled the dreadnought Warspite, sending it limping back to port.
As reports came in, Scheer finally realized that he was facing the entire Grand Fleet. While the 24 British dreadnoughts unleashed their power, the Germans were blinded by a setting sun and heavy mist, and their previously unerring gunnery became less effective. The British started thinking their enemies had lost nerve. But when the fog began to lift, the German gunners scored another victory, blowing up Invincible and killing all but six of its men.
Nonetheless, the tactical tide began turning against the Germans, and shells rained down on their ships. Twenty minutes after the first shell had been fired, Scheer decided to break off, using a screen of torpedoes to help him escape. Although critics would later claim that Jellicoe should have pursued him, the British admiral had said two years earlier that he would not chase a retreating force due to the threat of mines and submarines. He assumed the main battle was over.
Suddenly the German fleet reemerged from the mist—Scheer had turned back toward the British. The reason for his reversal has been the source of speculation. Some historians credit him with an audacious move, while others say he simply misjudged the British position. Whatever the reason, the German fleet now stood out against the setting sun, each ship sharply silhouetted on the horizon as a target.
Although the British now had plenty to shoot at, the torpedo attack had put their line into disarray. They could not fire effectively, but what they did deliver was brutal. Scheer soon realized his mistake, turned his fleet west and retreated again. British commanders failed to report Scheer’s turn to Jellicoe, again assuming that he had also witnessed it. Precious minutes were lost before Jellicoe ordered a pursuit.
The Germans had not lost as many ships or men as the British, but as night fell Scheer’s position remained perilous. His ships were battered, they were outnumbered and the British blocked their passage home.
Mindful that Scheer would have to sneak past the Grand Fleet in order to return to port, Jellicoe ordered his ships to deploy along the most likely route, with a few held back to counter any unexpected moves. Scheer decided to take the most direct route, balancing the risk of encountering British submarines with the need to get his ships back to port as soon as possible.
The two fleets were on a collision course, so close to one another that light signals from Beatty’s fleet were intercepted by the Germans. Shortly before midnight, the battle began anew. First the British sank the light cruiser Frauenlob with a torpedo. Then the Germans struck back, sinking Tipperary. The most bizarre event occurred after the helmsman of the British destroyer Broke was killed. He turned the wheel as he fell, steering his ship directly into Sparrowhawk with such force that the two ships locked together, and another destroyer, Contest, sideswiped them. Sparrowhawk subsequently sank.
Inexplicably, Jellicoe never committed the full force of his fleet to assist the light cruisers and destroyers. In a night of lost opportunities, German targets presented themselves but were not fired upon by confused and disorganized British commanders, who were slow to identify enemy ships. Due to Jackson’s earlier error, Jellicoe had lost faith in British intelligence on the mainland, and did not trust their latest message that the German fleet was headed straight past him. In the end, Scheer passed Jellicoe’s line without losing a single major ship, although the destroyers continued to skirmish for some time. By dawn it was clear that the Germans had escaped.
The Germans touted their success as the British navy returned to Scapa Flow to lick its wounds. The British were stunned as first reports painted a German victory. The numbers seemed to bear it out: 14 British ships and 5,672 men lost versus 11 German ships and 2,115 men. But history would show the Grand Fleet fared better than was first thought.
While the Germans might have arguably scored a tactical victory, the British won the all-important strategic one: The Grand Fleet was again ready for action within a day. The British still had 24 dreadnoughts, while the Germans could muster only 10. Given their long tradition of naval sacrifice, the British shook off their losses, and morale ran high after the battle. The British also quickly implemented many of the lessons learned from the battle and were soon stronger than ever.
Scheer realized how close he had come to annihilation. He lost his taste for confronting the Royal Navy on the surface, turning to unrestricted submarine warfare. Except for one more foray in October 1916, the High Seas Fleet remained at harbor for the rest of the war, then surrendered 70 ships to the British in 1918.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.