Battle of Jutland 31 May to 1 June 1916
The Battle of Jutland involved 279 ships and nearly 100,000 men. It was fought in the North Sea off the coast of neutral Denmark. Some Australians took part in the battle, but no Australian vessels were involved. The enormous clash between the British and German fleets dwarfed all previous naval engagements. Germany claimed a tactical victory because the British Fleet lost more ships and more men. In effect, the battle was a strategic victory for the United Kingdom (UK) because Germany was denied control of the seas and her fleet remained hemmed into the North Sea. Without the dominance of the oceans, Germany could not win the war.
Intentions before the battle
Both the British and German fleets were using intelligence and reconnaissance to make decisions about naval operations in the lead up to the battle.
The commanders of the German Fleet had been looking for an opportunity to take offensive operations against the British.
Naval Intelligence code breakers in Room 40 told Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet, that the German Fleet planned to leave port near the end of May 1916. Despite known problems with intelligence, Admiral Jellicoe acted on that information.
Admiral Jellicoe sailed with the British Grand Fleet from Scapa Flow. He also directed Admiral Sir David Beatty to sea with the Battle Cruiser Fleet. Amongst the British Fleet was:
- HMS New Zealand — a gift to Britain from New Zealand
- HMS Caroline — the only vessel from the Battle of Jutland still with us today
British intelligence had been correct. Admiral Franz von Hipper led the German Battle Cruisers to sea on 31 May 1916. Hipper planned to lead the British battlecruisers into a trap against Admiral Carl Sheer and the High Seas Fleet.
Action in the battle
Despite their intentions, both sides entered the battle accidentally.
At about 2:10pm on 31 May 1916, ships from both the British and German fleets went to investigate the identity of a merchant ship in the North Sea. When each fleet identified the presence of the other, they moved to battle stations and went into action at about 3:45pm.
On the British side, the Grand Fleet's 5th Battle Squadron could not join the battle immediately due to faulty signalling.
The opposing fleets opened fire at a distance of about 15,000 yards (13.7km). Beatty's Battlecruiser Fleet flagship, HMS Lion, was hit several times.
The battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary hit the battlecruiser SMS Seydlitz with 2 heavy shells at about 4:55pm. Half an hour later, the Queen Mary exploded and sank after being hit by 4 heavy shells from Seydlitz.
At this point, Admiral Beatty famously quipped:
There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today
Signalling continued to be a problem between Beatty and Jellicoe throughout the battle. The 5th Battle Squadron managed to inflict a great deal of damage on the German battlecruisers. The 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron detached from Jellicoe's Fleet and intercepted German destroyers that were attempting a torpedo attack on the Grand Fleet.
At about 6:30pm, the HMS Invincible received several hits and disappeared in a tremendous explosion.
Other British and German ships were sunk in the evening, including the armoured cruiser HMS Defence. The ship exploded at about 6:20pm and caught fire. No one survived from a crew of about 900 men.
The British Grand Fleet was now within range and fired on the German ships. They turned away from the British attack as visibility worsened.
Jellicoe's fleet was situated between the German North Sea coast and Sheer's Fleet, in a good position to attack the Germans the next day. But the German Fleet managed to slip through the British Fleet to the safety of harbour in Germany.
Australian sailors in the Battle of Jutland
It's difficult to work out how many Australians served onboard British ships during the Battle of Jutland.
Many Australians at the time were born in the UK. If they enlisted in the Royal Navy instead of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), then their names do not appear in the Australian war service records.
Current research notes that some serving members of the RAN were involved and some Australians were serving in the Royal Navy.
We do know that Chaplain Patrick Gibbons was onboard HMS Indomitable, part of the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron in the battle. Gibbons was born in Ireland and became the first Roman Catholic chaplain of the RAN. He was on loan to the Royal Navy during the war.
John Gill was on board HMS Benbow, the flagship of the 4th Battleship Squadron. Gill was a veteran of the Boxer Rebellion in China where he had served with the South Australian Navy. He was on loan to the Royal Navy during the war.
When HMS Defence sank with all loss of life, Australians on board included:
- RAN Sub-Lieutenant Joseph Mack, from Berry Bank in Victoria, aged 19 years
- RAN Sub-Lieutenant George Paterson, originally from England, aged 20 years
- Royal Navy Able Seaman William Furneaux, aged 21 years
- Royal Navy Stoker 2nd Class Mortimer Froude, from Balmain in New South Wales, aged 18 years
Mack and Paterson had joined the RAN but were on loan to the Royal Navy at the time of the battle for further training.
Cost of the battle
The main action had involved:
- 29 British battleships and 8 battlecruisers led by Admirals Jellicoe and Beatty
- 22 German battleships and 5 battlecruisers led by Admirals Hipper and Sheer
The German Fleet lost 11 ships, including a battleship and a battle cruiser, and suffered 3058 casualties. Another 10 German ships were seriously damaged.
The British sustained much heavier losses. The Grand Fleet lost 14 ships, including three battlecruisers, and suffered 6784 casualties.
Victory in the North Sea
Both sides claimed victory.
At first, many people in Britain and other Allied countries thought the Germans won the Battle of Jutland. The British Fleet lost the most vessels and men.
Strategically, it soon became clear that Britain had retained control of the seas.
After the battle, the German Fleet only ventured from port on three occasions and it avoided major contact with the British Fleet. The Germans relied on their U-boats to continue maritime warfare.
If the German Fleet had convincingly won the battle, Germany would have controlled the flow of shipping into Britain and might have starved the British into surrender. Instead, Britain was able to blockade Germany.