I know I have dwelt on this subject before but, as you all know well, it is not in my nature to be a bore - sorry, didn't quite catch that! Last night Channel 4 broadcast a programme on the Battle of Jutland promising to expose hitherto unknown secrets. They didn't, at least nothing that radically altered what I already know of the battle. However, it was a good reminder that the 100th anniversary is approaching on May 31st/June 1st and it has prodded me into writing this.
I would rate the battle of Jutland as one of the most fascinating battles ever fought. It had all the ingredients. First, it was a war winning/losing battle on which the future of Europe and the world rested. Second, it was the culmination of a frighteningly rapid development of technology the impact of which could only be guessed at. Finally, the personalities of two of the main players were the stuff of which a William Shakespeare would have made a great play.
It was under 100 years since the first iron-clad steam ship had been launched at sea. From modest beginnings warships developed into behemoths with huge armour-plating, massive guns capable of hurling exploding shells over huge ranges and driven at high speed by new diesel-powered rotary engines. From the accession of (the half English) Wilhelm 11 to the German/Prussian throne it was only a matter of time before his rank detestation of all things English would lead to rising tensions and the threat of war. Happily, in those late Victorian times the British tried as hard as possible to keep clear of European wrangles - a lesson there for the EU-lovers of today! However, when the Kaiser determined that Germany would build a bigger and better navy than the British then 'glorious isolation' was ended.
The Germans built a massive fleet which they based at Wilhelmshaven on the North Sea. It copied the British model in being formed mainly of Battleships - big armour, big guns but slow - and Battlecruisers - equally big guns but with much thinner armour and therefore much faster. Immediately on the outbreak of war the British slapped on a Napolean-era blockade. They had moved their Battleships, with overall Fleet Commander Admiral Jellicoe, to Scapa Flow in order to prevent the Germans from sneaking out of the North Sea but kept their Battlecruisers, under Admiral David Beatty, further south in the Firth of Forth (see main map). This division of forces was to lead to problems.
However, it was not just the different locations that were a problem. It was the different temperaments of both men that was to add to the difficulties. Jellicoe was your archetypal, close-lipped, proper, Victorian, British gent, a man of few words but a deep thinker on naval strategy and tactics. Beatty was an incredibly brave man but also hot-headed and a bit of a cad. It was probably a relief to both of them to be stationed well apart but that did not auger well for them to work together.
The famous 'Room 40' at the Admiralty picked up the German signals traffic which warned the British that after nearly two years of hiding up in Wilhelmshaven the Germans were coming out in force. Immediately, Beatty was ordered to race across the North Sea to find out what the Germans were up to. At the same time Jellicoe ordered the lumbering British battle fleet to move down to the south. Beatty bumped into his German equivalent, Hipper, who promptly turned south chased by Beatty. In the exchange of gunfire several British warships blew up. Partly this was due to the pre-war practice of holding gun shooting competitions in which the captains who could fire first were highly praised. This led many of them to quietly drop the safety procedures which kept explosive charges well separated from shells inside the guts of the ships.
The charge to the south ended abruptly when Beatty realised that Hipper had led him on to the approaching German Battleship fleet. At that point he led his ships into a 180 degree turn and raced off up north with the German fleet lumbering along behind him. In his haste, however, he ordered his ships to conduct their turns at the same place one after the other thus allowing the Germans to pinpoint the turning point and plaster it with shells (See top right map.) More important than all of that was the fact that as he raced north Beatty forgot to keep Jellicoe in the picture as to what was happening, in fact after a while the superior speed of Beatty's cruisers took him out of sight of the Germans - not exactly what was required of a commander whose main duty was reconnaissance!
Jellicoe was now faced with an exquisite conundrum. His fleet was sailing in groups of squadrons but he had to deploy them into line in order to 'cross the enemy's T' - but because of Beatty's laxity he had no clear idea of what course the enemy were on and if he got it wrong it would be his 'T' that was crossed by the Germans. Remaining totally calm - despite the anxieties in his mind - he ordered the British fleet to deploy in line to the left and shortly there-after it became clear that Germans under the command of Admiral Scheer had sailed straight into the trap - their 'T' had been well and truly crossed which meant they were approaching the British in line, one ship at a time, whilst the British could fire broadsides from all of their ships at once and thus 'chew up the line'! Scheer, instantly recognizing his dangerous predicament carried out an emergency manoeuvre in which he ordered all his ships to do the naval equivalent of a handbrake turn and head off as fast as possible in the opposite direction.
It was at this point, with the Germans in headlong flight and the British in line behind them that Jellicoe took his toughest decision. The likes of Beatty and an enormous number of 'know-nothings' insisted that Jellicoe, in true Nelsonian style should have ordered a general pursuit and chewed his way down the retreating German line taking out one ship after another. Instead, as night fell, Jellicoe played safe and steered his line of ships south keeping his fleet between the German fleet and their sanctuary in Wilhelmshaven. He, unlike the ignorant wiseacres who were to criticize him after the event, knew all too well that the fleeing German ships were likely to roll mines off the stern of their ships and one mine could cripple a Battleship. Also their small but fast torpedo ships could dart in and out loosing off an array of torpedoes which could, in effect, break the back of the British fleet whose continued existence was absolutely crucial t0 the British war effort.
In my view, Jellicoe was a great naval commander, up there with Nelson, and Beatty was a prat!