Montague Dawson paints the German High Seas Fleet, under command of Admiral Reinhard Scheer, perform a daring and untested full speed turn in unison to escape the range of the British Grand Fleet under command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe on the horizon.
Admiral Reinhard Scheer, commander of the High Seas Fleet, seemed to enjoy a closer relationship with his sovereign than had either of his predecessors. He certainly possessed more drive and the success of the raids against Lowestoft and Scarborough, while modest, suggested that here was a commander who could produce results. His concept of grand strategy also exceeded theirs in that he was able to convince the Kaiser that continued naval raiding would erode the trust of the British population in the Royal Navy and that if, as originally envisaged, a significant portion of its strength could be eliminated, the spectre of invasion would so haunt London’s politicians that many thousands of British troops, together with all their artillery, aircraft and equipment, would be withdrawn from the Western Front for the defence of the homeland. Thanks to the Zeppelin raids, thousands of men, antiaircraft guns and fighter aircraft were already being held back in England rather than sent to France. In due course the Western Front would be so severely weakened that the French would request an armistice. This alone would justify further aggressive use of the High Seas Fleet, coupled with continued air attacks, and warrant taking the obvious risks involved. As for Russia, her capacity to fight had all but been destroyed in two years of total war, and her collapse was simply a matter of time.
It might have been a German dream, but at Scapa Flow Admiral Sir John Jellicoe had already worked out the details for himself. A German defeat at sea would have no effect on the German armies’ performance on land, whereas a British defeat would have a disastrous effect on Allied strategy. Winston Churchill, who had also evaluated the potential of the situation, perceptively described Jellicoe as ‘the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon’. For that reason Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Fleet had been strengthened by the addition of Rear Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas’s 5th Battle Squadron consisting of the fast battleships Barham, Valiant, Warspite and Malaya.
Scheer accepted the fact that every time the High Seas Fleet put to sea, Beatty seemed to be waiting, although he did not know why. His plan was to trap and destroy Beatty’s ships by tempting them south with a bombardment of Sunderland, to be carried out by the German battle cruisers, once more under the command of Hipper. At this juncture the High Seas Fleet would pounce before Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet could intervene and Germany would achieve an important naval victory. Early warning of the enemy’s approach would be provided by a flight of scouting Zeppelins.
When the operation commenced on 31 May a haze covered the operational area. Despite this, Scheer decided to proceed without the Zeppelins. Hipper steered north and then north-west on a course that would avoid Dogger Bank and then take him directly to the objective, while Scheer followed with the High Seas Fleet, its battle squadrons in line ahead, on a more northerly heading. Both suspected that Beatty and Jellicoe were at sea but lacked any hard intelligence. In fact, Beatty and Evan-Thomas were already well on their way towards the intended battleground, and Jellicoe was pounding south from Scapa Flow with the Grand Fleet’s battleships deployed in six columns, ready to form line to port or starboard as the situation demanded.
At 15:00 Beatty and Hipper were still some distance apart when an entirely innocent event brought them together. Between the two fleets a Danish tramp steamer, the F.J. Fjord, was going about her lawful business. She was not in the best of health and her chief engineer distrusted the accuracy of her steam gauge. Tapping it, he saw the needle jump to the red sector. Reaching for the voice pipe, he informed the captain that it would be necessary to heave to and reduce pressure to safe levels. The captain agreed and the slow thump of the engine died away. With a shattering roar a continuous plume of steam leapt upwards from the funnel as the engineer opened the escape valve.
There was little wind to disperse it and cruisers and destroyers from both opposing screens closed in to investigate its source. Recognising each other, they opened fire at once. The Battle of Jutland, an encounter unique in the history of naval warfare, had begun. Clouds of funnel smoke identified the converging presence of both fleets, the respective commanders of which reached instinctive decisions. Hipper turned south with the intention of luring Beatty to destruction under the guns of the High Seas Fleet, while Beatty swung onto a parallel course, hoping to destroy his old enemy. Five German battle cruisers (Lutzow, Derfflinger, Seydlitz, Moltke and Von der Tann) were opposed by six British (Lion, Princess Royal, Queen Mary, Tiger, New Zealand and Indefatigable), although Beatty has been sharply criticised for not creating a decisive situation by waiting for Evan-Thomas’s slightly slower dreadnoughts to catch up.
At 15:48 the battle cruisers of both sides opened fire, closing the range from 18,000 to 12,000 yards. Hipper had informed Scheer of the situation and the latter, presently some 60 miles to the south, was doing his best to close the gap quickly and complete Beatty’s destruction. This was no easy matter as the speed of his fleet was limited to 18 knots, all that could be squeezed out of his pre-dreadnought battleship squadron. Simultaneously, Jellicoe’s dreadnoughts were heading towards the scene of action at their best speed.
As the opposing lines of battle cruisers charged south, they passed either side of a barque, her sails hanging limp in the windless air. For the crew of the sailing ship, the experience must have been terrifying as hundreds of large calibre shells passed overhead in both directions with a sound like tearing cloth. There was no doubt that the German gunnery was the better. Aboard Beatty’s Lion, Q (midships) turret was penetrated and most of its crew were killed.
Burning cordite charges would have flashed down into the magazine had not a mortally wounded Royal Marine Light Infantry officer, Major Francis Harvey, ordered the magazine doors to be closed and the compartment flooded. At 16:05 a shell exploded in Indefatigable’s A turret. The flash passed down the trunking into the magazine and the ship was simply blown apart in a huge column of smoke and flame. Of her entire crew, only two men survived. At 16:26 the Queen Mary shared a similar fate. By coincidence, for the second time in her history, one of Seydlitz’s turrets was penetrated by a shell that killed everyone within it. On this occasion, however, the repairs previously effected prevented the flash reaching the magazine and she survived.
By now, Evan-Thomas’s dreadnoughts had caught up. Their gunnery was far batter than that of Beatty’s battle cruisers and they soon began handing out a beating to Hipper’s ships. Hipper, horrified by the damage that was being inflicted, turned away as soon as he sighted the leading ships of the High Seas Fleet at 17:00. The destroyer flotillas of both sides now surged forward to engage in a fast-moving melee in which the German V27 and V29 were sent to the bottom while a torpedo launched by Petard blew a huge hole in the side of Seydlitz. Some British destroyers even launched suicidal attacks on the leading dreadnoughts of Scheer’s line. Of these, Nestor and Nomad went down fighting with their colours flying, the survivors of the former being chivalrously picked up by a German destroyer. In the meantime the light cruiser Southampton had pressed on to the south and radioed the position, course and strength of the High Seas Fleet. This priceless piece of intelligence was confirmed by Beatty, who reversed course at 17:26. The move was covered by Evan-Thomas’s battleships who shot so well that they not only obtained hits on the leading dreadnoughts of Scheer’s line, Konig, Grosser, Kurfurst and Markgraf, but also on Hipper’s battle cruisers, which were now beginning to look increasingly battered. The tables had now been turned and it was Hipper and Scheer who, all unsuspecting, were sailing into a trap.
Jellicoe’s columns deployed to port to form a line extending across the horizon, while the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron, consisting of Invincible, Inflexible and Indomitable, set off south to join Beatty. On sighting the Grand Fleet, Beatty swung eastwards to take up position at the head of the British line. At 18:15, emerging from the murk created by hundreds of smoke-belching funnels, Scheer and Hipper were horrified to discover that Jellicoe had crossed their T and that having been the hunters they had now become the hunted. Hipper was particularly taken aback by the fact that despite losing two of his battle cruisers, Beatty was now actually stronger than he had been at the start of the battle. In due course, his chagrin evidently communicated itself to the German official historian who described the Royal Navy as a hydra, referring to the mythical monster with so many heads that it did not matter how many one cut off. At 18:17 gunfire blazed the length of Jellicoe’s line, blasting thousands of shells towards the German fleet. Lutzow, Hipper’s flagship, became a battered, hopeless wreck. Hipper was forced to transfer his flag to a destroyer from which he watched his battle cruisers, the pride of the Imperial Navy and the favourite of the German public, progressively blown apart. All of Von der Tann’s turrets were put out of action; Seydlitz was awash from the bows with water slopping as far as her middle deck; Derfflinger, having received no less than twenty hits, was also down by the bows and had lost the ability to use her radio. Her commander, Captain Hartog, had temporarily assumed command of the battle cruisers in Hipper’s absence, and this made his task doubly difficult.
In Scheer’s line, Konig, hit time and again, was listing badly while Markgraf, with serious engine room damage, was forced to reduce speed. This was the last situation Scheer had hoped to find himself in, but as a sound professional he had allowed for it and exercised his ships in a manoeuvre known as the Battle Turn-Away in which each ship reversed course individually rather than turning in succession at the same point. By 18:35 he decided that his ships had taken more than enough punishment and he gave the signal. As the German fleet began to fade into the evening mist a final salvo from Derfflinger exploded aboard Invincible, which blew up from exactly the same cause as the earlier battle cruiser losses.
The fighting between the capital ships had been savage, but equally fierce duels were being fought between the cruisers and destroyers of both fleets. The light cruiser Chester unexpectedly found herself surrounded by an entire German light cruiser squadron consisting of the Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, Pillau and Elbing. Despite being hit repeatedly and sustaining heavy casualties among her crew, she succeeded in leading her opponents to within range of the British battle cruisers. The result was that a 12-inch shell exploded inside Pillau’s engine room, putting four boilers out of action and thereby turning her into a cripple, while Frankfurt limped off, seriously damaged. Wiesbaden was reduced to a blazing hulk but whatever chance her damage control parties might have had of saving her vanished when the destroyer Onslow and the armoured cruisers Warrior and Defence came upon her. Nevertheless, she continued to fight on as best she could until a torpedo finally sent her to the bottom. In response, Defence was seriously damaged by the fire of Derfflinger and no fewer than four German battleships. The destroyer Shark was smashed to burning wreckage by the fire of enemy cruisers and destroyers while leading a hopeless torpedo attack on the enemy’s battle cruisers. Her captain, Commander Loftus Jones, having already lost his right leg and sustained further wounds to his face and thigh, ordered a White Ensign to be hoisted in place of that which had been shot away. One by one, Shark’s guns were silenced until only one, manned by three men, continued to spit defiance. The moment came when Loftus Jones recognised that she was going down by the bows and gave permission for the ship to be abandoned. Shortly after, she was given the coup de grace by two torpedoes. Loftus Jones was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross and the six men of his crew who survived were given the Distinguished Service Medal.
Jellicoe could have pursued Scheer and doubtless sunk a number of German stragglers, but he wanted to inflict even greater damage on his opponents. Scheer had retreated westwards and it was obvious that sooner or later he would have to turn east to regain his bases. Jellicoe therefore set the Grand Fleet on a southerly course, confident that Scheer would have to cross this. This was exactly what happened. At 19:20 the High Seas Fleet again ran head-on into Jellicoe’s line of battle and sustained a fearful pounding of which the battle cruisers received the major share. Aboard Seydlitz and Derfflinger damage control parties struggled to bring raging fires under control. Von der Tann was left with only one gun in action and a wrecked control tower but her captain gallantly remained in line hoping that his ship would draw fire intended for her consorts. Lutzow, crippled, fell further and further behind until, at 01:45, she was torpedoed by her own destroyer escort. Only Moltke retained some semblance of normality, enabling Hipper to board her later and assume control of his shattered command.
Thanks to their being silhouetted against the setting sun, the Germans had much the worst of this exchange of fire, while their opponents, hardly visible against the darkening sky to the east suffered little. Scheer stuck it for about five minutes, during which his dreadnoughts Markgraf, Grosser Kurfurst and Konig all received further punishment while Helgoland, lying fourth in his battle line, was hit by a 15-inch shell that wrecked a 5.9-inch gun and punched a huge hole in the hull through which some 80 tons of water flooded into the ship . Close to hysteria, he ordered another Battle Turn-Away while the remaining battle cruisers covered the manoeuvre by charging the British line. This would have achieved very little and almost certainly have resulted in heavy if not terminal loss for those involved. Nevertheless, from such seeds do legends grow. It was said, and became an article of faith in the German Navy, that he had ordered the battle cruisers to ‘close the enemy and ram!’ His actual words were, ‘Grosser Kreuzer, Gefechtswendung rein in den Fiend! Ran!’ (Battle cruisers, turn toward the enemy and engage him closely! At him!) Obediently, the four battle cruisers that could, commenced their attack, surging through a torrent of exploding shells. Minutes later, Scheer recovered his composure and cancelled the order, leaving his destroyers to mount a mass torpedo attack.
In such circumstances, the defence was to turn towards or away from the running torpedoes, allowing them to pass harmlessly between ships. Jellicoe chose to turn away, giving an added margin of safety by letting the torpedoes run to the point that their fuel was exhausted. Not one torpedo found its mark, while six German destroyers were damaged and a seventh, S35, was sunk. There were those who, with the benefit of hindsight, criticised Jellicoe for not turning towards the torpedoes, as this would have meant that the enemy remained within range and in view. Against this, he had no wish to let Scheer claim serious damage to or sinking of several British dreadnoughts. It was unfortunate that contact was temporarily lost but both fleets were now running south on parallel courses and it seemed quite probable that it would be regained. At 20:20, with the last of the light fading rapidly, there was a brief engagement between the battle cruisers and the German pre-dreadnoughts, leading Scheer’s line since the last Battle Turn-Away which were sent to assist but were forced to retreat when hits were scored on the battleships Schleswig-Holstein and Pommern as well as on the cruiser Stettin.