On 15 June 1888, the twenty-year-old Kaiser Wilhelm II was
crowned emperor of Germany. Although capable of moments of brilliant insight,
Wilhelm II was infamous for his obnoxious arrogance, uncontrollable temper and
erratic decision making. Intensely Anglophobic, he despised the British Empire
and felt that Germany was being denied ‘a place in the sun’ by a conspiracy of
British and French interests. Wilhelm II was determined to redress this
Germany began to build its colonial empire in the 1890s
using a handful of warships, but Wilhelm II dreamed of creating a fleet that
would one day topple the Royal Navy itself. In 1897 he appointed Konteradmiral
Alfred von Tirpitz as Secretary of the Imperial Navy Office. Tirpitz shared
Wilhelm II’s naval ambitions and had the political skill to steer the proposals
through the Reichstag. Within a year, Germany had passed the First Naval Bill,
which called for the construction of nineteen battleships by 1904. In 1900,
Tirpitz used the pretext of strained Anglo-German relations as a result of the
Boer War to increase the provision of battleships to thirty-eight vessels.
The gauntlet had been thrown down to Britain. For almost a
century the Royal Navy had been the undisputed master of the oceans. Lord
Horatio Nelson’s legendary victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 had
established such an overwhelming sense of British naval superiority that no
other major power had dared to challenge it – until now.
The British government quickly perceived that German naval
building was not merely a danger to the empire, but, by virtue of Germany’s
geographic position, represented a grave threat to Britain itself. The Royal
Navy responded to German construction in kind. The first great arms race of the
twentieth century had begun.
In 1906 the Royal Navy changed the terms of the contest with
the launch of the revolutionary battleship Dreadnought. This vessel was faster,
better armoured and more heavily armed than any ship then afloat. Dreadnought
was so advanced compared to her rivals that from that point on battleships
would be classed either as modern dreadnoughts or outdated pre-dreadnoughts.
Some strategists in Britain hoped that the launch of
Dreadnought would convince the Germans that they were beaten and thus end the
ruinously expensive contest. They had reckoned without the determination of
Wilhelm II and Tirpitz. Germany saw the launch of Dreadnought as an
opportunity, for although the new ship had rendered the German fleet obsolete,
it had also done the same for the vast majority of existing British
battleships. The balance sheet was cleared and it would now be a contest to see
who could build dreadnoughts fastest. The arms race intensified in the years
that followed as both sides strained to manufacture ever greater numbers of modern
From Dreadnought onwards, each successive class of ships was
bigger, faster, and more powerful than the last. Covered in thick steel plate,
driven by the largest and most powerful engines available and carrying the
heaviest guns it was possible to mount, the modern battleship was the most
powerful weapon system in the world. The dreadnoughts were supported by
battlecruisers, formidable vessels of comparable size that were built to
emphasise speed and armament at the expense of armoured protection. In
addition, both navies constructed numerous light cruisers, destroyers, and
torpedo boats to support the heavy ships.
The naval race strained finances to the limit, but it was
Britain which emerged as the clear leader. By the outbreak of war the Royal
Navy had launched twenty dreadnoughts, with another twelve under construction,
compared to thirteen German dreadnoughts, with seven being built.
Germany now faced a serious strategic problem. During the
arms race, Tirpitz had deluded himself with the hope that the fleet would be a
deterrent weapon that would intimidate Britain and convince it to stay neutral
in the event of war. At its heart the policy was a bluff – and the bluff was
abruptly called in August 1914. The German Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) now
had to consider how to overcome the numerically superior Royal Navy.
The Balance of Power
Although heavily outnumbered, the High Seas Fleet had some
advantages over the rival Grand Fleet. The most obvious was that it was
concentrated in the North Sea. Whereas the British had to provide vessels to
police the imperial trading lanes, the Germans could focus all their attention
on the main theatre of operations. The expectation of operating in the North
Sea had influenced German ship design. The vessels of the High Seas Fleet
tended to be less heavily armed but more heavily armoured than their British
counterparts. This trade-off was considered viable given Germany’s numerical
disadvantage. Each vessel was precious and therefore survivability was of foremost
There was no doubt that the German ships were highly
resistant to damage. However, this fact was well known to the British
Admiralty, and during the naval arms race a number of measures had been taken
to nullify the German advantage in armoured protection. The British had
increased the calibre of their heavy guns so that their latest vessels mounted
mighty 15-inch batteries. More importantly, the British had also given serious
thought to the design and effectiveness of their armour-piercing shells. Firing
exercises had discovered numerous flaws with existing British ammunition. The
most serious was the tendency of the shells to burst against armour plating
rather than tearing through the steel and exploding in the interior of the
enemy ship as they were intended. The problem was traced to a combination of
inadequate fuses and unreliable explosive.
Director of Naval Ordnance and future commander of the Grand
Fleet John Jellicoe was at the forefront of demanding improvements in
ammunition. Although promotion soon took him away from his role with the
ordnance department, he continued a vigorous campaign for better shells. The
Admiralty reacted with the tardiness typical of large bureaucracies but
Jellicoe refused to let the matter rest. The reform of the design, testing, and
procurement process for new shells was painfully protracted but on the very eve
of the war a new type of armour-piercing shell was finally accepted. Jellicoe
was well pleased with the improved ammunition, claiming that it ‘certainly
doubled’ the effectiveness of the Grand Fleet’s big guns. However, production
delays caused by the demands of war meant that it took until mid-1915 for the
fleet to be fully equipped with the new shells.
At the same time that ammunition was being improved, a
fierce and often ill-tempered debate was raging over the best methods of fire
control. At the heart of the issue was the firebrand Captain Percy Scott, who
campaigned for centrally directed fire control and a wholesale reform of
gunnery training. An abrasive and arrogant character, Scott nevertheless drove
his reforms through and conclusively proved the value of his methods during
gunnery trials. Admiral Sir John Fisher offered a blunt assessment of Scott: ‘I
don’t care if he drinks, gambles and womanises; he hits the target.’
A particularly important reform pioneered by Scott was the
adoption of a ‘double salvo’ system of fire. Under this system a capital ship
would fire two quick salvos spaced several hundred yards apart. The fall of
shot would be observed and appropriate corrections made: for example, if one
salvo fell short and the other went over the target then the distance clearly
lay in the middle and could be quickly calculated. Once the double salvo had
acquired the range the guns would switch to rapid fire and smother the target
with shells. The advantage of double salvo was that it allowed guns to zero in
far quicker than if the range was determined using a single salvo.
The combined effect of these reforms was considerable. The
Grand Fleet possessed more numerous and noticeably heavier guns than the High
Seas Fleet. It was clear that in a fleet encounter the mighty broadsides of the
British ships would prove decisive. As a result, Germany planned to fight a
klienkrieg – a ‘small war’ – using mines and submarines. These subtle weapons
would whittle away at the Royal Navy’s numerical preponderance until the number
of British capital ships was so reduced that a fleet action could be fought on
Unfortunately for Germany, the strategy was bankrupt from
the very beginning. The Royal Navy instituted a distant blockade based on
closing the exits of the North Sea and refused to charge recklessly into German
waters which were teeming with undersea hazards. For their part, the Germans
limited their efforts to some commerce raiding and the occasional ‘tip and run’
bombardment of British seaside towns. However, the latter operations were
abandoned after the German battlecruisers of the 1st Scouting Group barely
escaped from a bruising encounter with their British opposites at the Battle of
Dogger Bank on 24 January 1915.
Forbidden by order of Wilhelm II from taking undue risks,
the High Seas Fleet spent the rest of 1915 in a state of inertia. Meanwhile,
the British blockade slowly tightened. Rationing was introduced in Germany in
early 1915. The German nation was in the grip of a British stranglehold and
only the navy had the power to break it.
In early 1916 a new commander, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, took
charge of the High Seas Fleet. Scheer recognised that the naval situation was
intolerable for Germany. Its attempts to use submarines to attack British
commerce had succeeded only in alienating the United States. By contrast,
Britain’s surface blockade was unrelenting and would remain so as long as the
Grand Fleet was still afloat.
Scheer proposed a new strategy. The High Seas Fleet would
take the fight to the British by returning to ‘tip and run’ attacks and
aggressive operations designed to lure the Grand Fleet into an unfavourable battle.
Scheer hoped to inflict stinging losses by ambushing isolated squadrons of the
Royal Navy and escaping before retribution followed. The High Seas Fleet would
work alongside submarines and minelayers to draw the British into ambush zones.
Yet unbeknownst to Scheer, the strategy had a fatal flaw –
the British knew his every move. In August 1914 the German cruiser Magdeburg
had run aground in the Baltic and been captured by the Russians. Onboard were
three copies of the German naval signals book and cyphers.8 The Russians shared
a copy with the British, and by November the Admiralty had established a
dedicated naval cryptography department codenamed Room 40. By 1916, Room 40
could decode virtually all German naval signals traffic. Relevant information was
swiftly passed to Jellicoe and the Grand Fleet.
Ignorant of these developments, Scheer spent May 1916
planning an ambush for the British. The fast battlecruisers of the 1st Scouting
Group would draw out the British battlecruisers and lead them on a chase that
would ultimately carry them into the arms of the German battleships. Locally
outnumbered, the British would be destroyed before reinforcements could arrive.
It was a simple and effective plan that may well have worked
– but the British knew of it before it had even begun. In the small hours of 31
May, before Scheer had even set sail, the entire Grand Fleet had left port and
was steaming towards the ambush area. Jellicoe planned to turn the tables on
the Germans. His battlecruisers, under the command of flamboyant Vice- Admiral
David Beatty, would ‘allow’ themselves to be drawn into Scheer’s trap. However,
as soon as the German battleships appeared, Beatty was to turn about and lead
them into a head-on collision with the awesome force of the entire Grand Fleet.
The trap was set.
The Battle of Jutland started in unassuming fashion.
Beatty’s vessels were cruising in the region of anticipated German activity but
the disappointing absence of enemy ships was in danger of dampening the mood.
At 2.20 p.m. the light cruiser Galatea noticed a small tramp steamer blowing
off an unusually large amount of steam, an action consistent with suddenly
being forced to stop. Curious, the Galatea turned away from her sister ships
and approached the civilian vessel. It was a minor incident in what had so far
been an uneventful sweep.
As she approached the steamer, Galatea observed two unknown
ships approaching from the opposite direction. Several pairs of binoculars
snapped onto the newcomers and less than a minute later the signal ‘ENEMY IN
SIGHT’ was flying from her yardarms and an urgent message had been whisked down
to her wireless station. Seconds later she fired the first shot of the great
battle, hurling a 6-inch shell at the approaching German ships.
The signal had an electrifying effect on Beatty’s squadron
of six battlecruisers – Lion, Princess Royal, Queen Mary, Tiger, New Zealand,
and Indomitable. With Beatty’s flagship Lion in the lead, the battlecruisers
swung around towards the approaching enemy. The call ‘Action Stations!’ was
sounded and dense smoke poured from the funnels of the fast, sleek ships as
they worked up to their fearsome top speed of some twenty-seven knots.
Following close behind were the four battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron – Barham,
Valiant, Malaya, and Warspite – under the command of Rear-Admiral Hugh
Evan-Thomas. Ships of the Queen Elizabeth class, they were known as ‘super
dreadnoughts’ due to their cutting-edge combination of armour, guns, and speed.
Due to their high top speed of twenty-five knots the Queen Elizabeth class were
the only heavy units capable of operating alongside battlecruisers; however, in
any prolonged chase they would inevitably start to lose ground.
Fortunately for the British, Beatty had taken account of 5th
Battle Squadron’s lower top speed and had kept the ships close to his
battlecruisers so that they would not be left behind in any sudden change of
course.9 Both battleships and battlecruisers now turned to the south-east,
increasing speed and clearing the decks for action. Union flags were hoisted at
the main mast and numerous white ensigns were run up the yardarms. Malaya
raised the flag of the Federated States of Malaya. Ten formidable warships were
now surging through the sea to meet the Germans head on.
Their opponents were the five battlecruisers of Rear-Admiral
Franz von Hipper’s 1st Scouting Group – Lutzow, Derfflinger, Seydlitz, Moltke,
and Von der Tann. A German gunner onboard Derfflinger recorded the approach of
the British ships: ‘even at this great distance they looked powerful, massive …
It was a stimulating, majestic spectacle as the dark-grey giants approached
like fate itself.’ However, Hipper remained calm. His task was not to engage in
a stand-up fight but instead to lure the British into reach of Scheer’s
battleships. As Beatty and Evan-Thomas bore down on him, Hipper reversed course
and began to race away to the south-east. The chase was on.
The range steadily decreased as the British closed in on the
fleeing Germans. Beatty’s battlecruisers had reached twenty-five knots, with
Evan-Thomas’s ships straining to keep up behind him. British and German
destroyer flotillas rushed into the ‘no man’s land’ between the capital ships,
prows bursting from the sea as they raced along at thirty-five knots. The
tension was almost unbearable. A stoker in New Zealand remembered an
‘incredible thrill’ at hearing the order ‘All guns load!’ being relayed through
the internal telephone system.
It was the Germans who began the firing. The broadsides of
their battlecruisers rippled with flame as their sent out their first salvo at
approximately 18,500 yards range – and closing fast. The British immediately
returned fire. A crewman on Malaya remembered: ‘It was the most glorious sight
and I was tremendously thrilled.’ Incoming shells ‘appeared just like big
bluebottles flying straight towards you, each time going to hit you in the eye;
then they would fall and the shell would either burst or else ricochet off the
water and lollop away above and beyond you; turning over and over in the air.’
But shells soon began to smash home. Visibility favoured the
Germans and they exploited their advantage to the full. Tiger was set ablaze
and a direct hit on Lion blew the roof off a forward turret and started a
dangerous fire that threatened to detonate the magazine – and with it the
entire ship – until the chamber was flooded by order of the fatally injured
Major Francis Harvey, who won a posthumous Victoria Cross for his action. Most
seriously of all, the Indomitable was simultaneously struck by almost every
shot of a salvo fired from Von der Tann. The damage was catastrophic: ablaze
from stem to stern, Indomitable turned away from the action and tried to open
the range, but within a minute she was engulfed in a huge explosion and
disappeared beneath the waves.
The British battlecruisers returned fire furiously but their
gunnery was wayward, for their crews were not as thoroughly trained as their
Grand Fleet comrades. However, the big guns of the 5th Battle Squadron were a
different proposition. A German crewman recalled of the Queen Elizabeths:
‘There had been much talk in our fleet of these ships … Their speed was
scarcely inferior to ours but they fired a shell more than twice as heavy as
ours. They opened fire at portentous ranges.’
The effect was swift. Fifteen-inch shells plunged down
around the German ships, causing devastation wherever they struck. All of
Hipper’s ships felt the force of this fire, but Von der Tann was hit
particularly hard. Shells wrecked her superstructure and caused serious
flooding below decks. One crewman recalled that the ‘tremendous blow’ of being
hit by a 15-inch shell made the ‘hull vibrate longitudinally like a tuning
Although visibility favoured Hipper’s ships, the greater
weight of British fire began to tell on the 1st Scouting Group. German vessels
shuddered beneath high-calibre-shell hits that sliced through steel plate as
though it were paper. Soon Hipper’s battlecruisers were cloaked beneath the
smoke of the numerous fires that raged aboard. Von der Tann was so heavily
damaged that she could scarcely fire a single gun, but her captain courageously
kept her in the line so that the British could not concentrate fire on her
sister ships. German fire slackened as the 1st Scouting Group adopted a zigzag
pattern to try and throw off the aim of the British ships.
However, Hipper could endure such punishment as long as he
could fulfil his part of the German plan. Every minute of the chase brought the
British closer to Scheer’s battleships. The trap was about to be sprung.