Chapter 18 A Tale of Two Fleets – The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I

Chapter 18 A Tale of Two Fleets


In This Chapter
  • Submarine technology
  • Germany: “unrestricted submarine warfare”
  • The Battle of Jutland
  • The “death run” and “the crisis”
  • Tactical victory for Germany, strategic victory for Britain

Chapter 11, “A World War,” covered the action at sea early in the war. After the disaster suffered at the Battle of the Falklands in December 1914, German naval officials kept most of the surface fleet in home waters, for fear that the Imperial Navy would lose more capital ships. The Germans increasingly turned from the surface to the water below and conducted an intensified program of submarine warfare, chiefly targeting supply as well as passenger vessels, including many civilian ships. Few expected that 1916 would bring one last great battle between surface fleets, let alone bring the biggest naval battle in history.

The Enemy Below

Although the submarine was not an innovation of World War I—it had made its combat debut during the American Revolution as a one-man, human-powered submersible designed to wreak havoc on moored vessels—the Great War was the first conflict in which it was used extensively.

By 1900, three innovations had made the combat submarine practical: the development of the all-steel hull, efficient electric motors and batteries for underwater propulsion (on the surface, gas or diesel motors were used), and the self-propelled Whitehead torpedo.


 Words of War A Q-ship was a warship disguised to look like a merchant vessel, with its guns and other weaponry hidden. Its primary purpose was to lure submarines into ambush.


On the eve of the war, most submarines were small, displacing only 100 to 750 tons, although some craft displaced more than 2,000 tons. Later in the war, some boats displaced as much as 2,650 tons. All carried torpedoes and, for combat on the surface, medium-caliber deck guns. Periscopes permitted a view of the surface while submerged. The maximum diving depth for the early World War I vessels was 300 to 500 feet, but the boats had to surface or at least come to periscope depth to fire torpedoes. Torpedo attacks could be made from as far as 10,000 yards away, although most submarine captains preferred coming in closer.


 Words of War A depth charge is an explosive weapon launched or otherwise jettisoned from a surface ship and set to detonate at a given depth to rupture the hull of an enemy submarine.


The hazards of submarine service were many. Structural and mechanical failures were routine, breathable air was at a premium, and the presence of huge storage batteries was always dangerous. If seawater contaminated the sulfuric acid in the batteries, toxic gases would be released. In the cramped confinement of a submerged boat, asphyxiation of the crew—22 to 36 officers and men, typically—could occur in a matter of minutes.

A submarine sailing on the surface was vulnerable to artillery fire and to ramming. Larger, heavier surface vessels could easily run down and roll over the lighter, low-profile subs. The Allies also developed Q-ships, vessels disguised to look like civilian merchantmen, but covertly armed with medium-caliber artillery. Submarines that surfaced either to issue a warning of intended torpedo attack or to use their deck guns (to conserve valuable torpedoes) were vulnerable to ambush by a Q-ship.

Early in the war, submerged submarines were essentially safe from attack or retaliation by surface ships. This changed in 1916, when the hydrophone, an underwater listening device, was developed by the British and installed on Royal Navy vessels. Also at this time, depth charges were made available. Equipped with hydrostatic timers, which could be set to explode at a certain depth, these devices were highly effective at destroying submerged boats. Even deadlier to the U-boats were mines, which, late in the war, the British and Americans laid across the exits from the Baltic into the North Sea.

World War II submarines often worked in formations called by the Germans “wolfpacks.” This enabled a high degree of coordination when preying on enemy shipping. In World War I, however, submarines typically sailed solo, cruising for targets of opportunity and attacking when and as they could. As more merchant vessels were equipped with radios, it became easier to track the whereabouts of submarines and to warn other ships of their presence. Early in 1917, the Allies also adopted the convoy system, in which merchantmen traveled in groups escorted by several warships, equipped with hydrophones and depth charges. With this, submarine attack became far riskier for the hunter.

A German Proclamation

At the outbreak of hostilities, the British Royal Navy held the lead in building and stockpiling submarines: 74 were operational in August 1914, and a total of 203 would be in service by 1918. France had 75 boats by the end of the war, and Russia had completed construction of 59 at the time of its separate peace with Germany. Italy operated a handful of small submarines. When the United States entered the war, it did so with 47 submarines and added another 20 by the time of the Armistice.

Although submarines were widely used by the Allies, it was Germany that would become most closely—and infamously—identified with what Germans called the Unterseeboot, or “U-boat.” Germany entered the war with only 29 craft ready for action, but with its surface fleet threatened, the nation threw itself into a submarine building frenzy, launching no fewer than 372 new boats before the armistice. Another 162 were under construction—but never completed—at the time of Germany’s capitulation.


 Words of War The convoy system is a method of grouping together supply, passenger, or merchant ships in formations that may be readily defended by warship escorts.


The German navy’s reliance on submarines had not been planned before the war. The original intention had been to use U-boats chiefly for reconnaissance to aid and protect the surface fleet. But, as we saw in Chapter 11, on September 22, 1914, a single U-boat, the obsolescent U-9, sank three British cruisers, the Hogue, Aboukir, and Cressy, off the Dutch coast. After this extraordinary demonstration of the weapon’s effectiveness, the Germans put their major naval effort into submarine warfare.

Within six months after the declaration of war, U-boats began attacking merchant shipping and soon turned their attention almost entirely away from warships to concentrate on commerce vessels. On February 4, 1915, Berlin declared a “war zone” around the British Isles, and official warnings were published in newspapers across the world. Within the war zone, U-boats were authorized to attack merchant ships—if possible, giving warning first, but, if necessary, attacking without warning while submerged.


 Voices of Battle “All the waters surrounding Great Britain and Ireland, including the whole of the English Channel, are hereby declared to be a war zone. From February 18 onwards, every enemy merchant vessel found within this war zone will be destroyed without it always being possible to avoid danger to the crews and passengers.

“Neutral ships will also be exposed to danger in the war zone . . . .”

—German Admiralty Declaration, February 4, 1915


A Pledge and Secret Orders

As discussed in Chapter 11, the policy of “unrestricted submarine warfare” created worldwide outrage, especially among neutral nations, including the United States. American anger rose to a crisis with the sinking of the British liner Lusitania. Of the 1,959 on board, 1,198 lost their lives, including 128 United States citizens.

In response to President Woodrow Wilson’s diplomatic protest, Kaiser Wilhelm II issued secret orders not to sink any more passenger ships. In addition, on May 10, three months after the British liner Sussex was sunk (also with loss of American lives), Germany issued the “Sussex Pledge,” promising to sink no passenger vessel without warning. But on August 15, 1915—entirely without warning—a U-boat sank another British passenger steamer, the Arabic. Yet again, Americans died. Wilson issued another protest, and the kaiser, fearing U.S. entry into the war, secretly ordered a halt to all U-boat activity around the British Isles.


 From the Front German U-boats sank 5,554 Allied and neutral merchant ships during World War I, a terrible toll. Yet this also was only a small portion of the thousands of Allied sailings throughout the war. The Germans lost 178 U-boats in combat.


The Germans were still free to sink passenger and merchant ships after surfacing and giving fair warning, but the threat of retaliation from Q-ships led to a call for the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. German politicians, fearing that such a resumption would bring America into the war, blocked it until the beginning of 1917. At that point, feeling that America’s eventual entry into the war was inevitable in any case, on January 9, 1917, the kaiser ordered unrestricted submarine warfare to resume effective February 1. On February 3, President Wilson severed diplomatic relations with Germany.

The Jutland Opportunity

Despite the success of the U-boats, Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer wanted to make productive use of Germany’s High Seas Fleet of great surface ships, whose commander he had been appointed in January 1916. His plan was to provoke an encounter on the open sea between the entire High Seas Fleet and some smaller portion of the British fleet. If Scheer could contrive the confrontation so that the entire British fleet could not assemble, he would enjoy a temporary superiority of numbers that would surely bring victory.

As Scheer wanted to lure out elements of the British fleet, so the British admirals wanted to lure the Germans into fatal action. In February 1916, German cruisers swept past the Dogger Bank, and three weeks later a combined zeppelin and High Seas raid attempted to draw the British Harwich Force out to sea. The British replied with a series of similar raids, including a seaplane attack on supposed zeppelin sheds at Hoyer. These operations failed, and Scheer resolved to ambush Admiral David Beatty’s battle cruiser squadron at Rosyth, halfway up Britain’s eastern coast, and attack and destroy it before reinforcements from the Grand Fleet’s main base at Scapa Flow, on the northern tip of Scotland, could arrive. To bait the trap, Scheer ordered five battle cruisers (designated the 1st Scouting Group), together with four light cruisers (the 2nd Scouting Group, under Rear Admiral Friedrich Bodicker, who was screened by two flotillas of destroyers), to sail north under the command of Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper from Wilhelmshaven, Germany, to a position off the southwestern coast of Norway. Scheer, commanding the battle squadrons of the main High Seas Fleet, would follow 50 miles behind and would entrap Beatty’s ships between the High Seas Fleet and Hipper’s and Bodicker’s squadrons.

It was a daring and risky plan that depended entirely on secrecy; however, the radio message initiating the operation was intercepted by British naval intelligence. On May 30, the entire British Grand Fleet set off for Norway’s southwestern coast.


 From the Front The Battle of Jutland is also called the Battle of the Skagerrak because it was fought in the Skagerrak, an arm of the North Sea, about 60 miles off the coast of Jutland, Denmark.


The Stakes

For both sides, the stakes were the highest possible. Admiral Scheer saw an opportunity to reduce the British Grand Fleet, thereby evening the odds of the naval war and putting Germany in position to dominate the high seas. Moreover, if the British fleet was sufficiently damaged, the British blockade of Germany might well be broken. Sir John R. Jellicoe, the British admiral, understood that he had an opportunity to surprise the German High Seas Fleet and to overawe or destroy it with superior British numbers. He was also well aware, as Winston Churchill would later put it in a history of the war, that “he was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.”


 Combatants John Rushworth Jellicoe (1859–1935) was a journeyman admiral called on to conduct the biggest naval battle in history. The son of a merchant ship’s master, he entered the navy as a cadet in 1872 and soon built a career as an expert in naval gunnery. In 1897, Jellicoe served as a member of an important ordnance committee and then was made commander of H.M.S. Centurion the following year, serving as flag captain to Admiral Edward Seymour on the China Station. During the Boxer Rebellion, Jellicoe sailed in the First Peking Relief Expedition (June 10–26, 1900) and was severely wounded in one exchange.

In 1905, Jellicoe was appointed director of naval ordnance at the Admiralty and then was promoted to rear admiral (August 1907) in the Atlantic Fleet. In 1908, he returned to the Admiralty as third sea lord and then was made acting vice admiral in command of the Atlantic Fleet in December 1910. He transferred to the Home Fleet as commander of the 2nd Division and was confirmed as Vice Admiral in November 1911. The following year, he supervised gunnery experiments and was responsible for introducing important innovations.

Promoted to Second Sea Lord, Jellicoe was second in command of the Home Fleet under Admiral Sir George Callahan, whom he replaced as commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet at the outbreak of World War I on August 4, 1914.

In the Battle of Jutland (May 31–June 1, 1916), Jellicoe generally exhibited less aggressiveness and less tactical skill than his German counterpart, Reinhard Scheer, but he did avoid potential disaster and, at great cost, achieved a strategic victory by effectively neutralizing the German High Seas Fleet.

Jellicoe was elevated to First Sea Lord (November 28, 1916–December 1917) and was made Viscount Jellicoe of Scapa in December 1919. That same year he was made Admiral of the Fleet, and from 1920 to 1924 he served as Governor-General of New Zealand. He was made earl in 1925.


Substantial losses would be very bad for the Germans, but such losses would be totally catastrophic for the British. Naval superiority was the chief advantage the Allies enjoyed. It kept them supplied, and it prevented the Germans from cutting them off entirely. If the British lost many ships, that advantage would collapse. With it would collapse the Allied war effort.

German High Seas Fleet

Admiral Scheer led 99 vessels into battle, many of them of the most advanced new design. These included the following:

16 dreadnought-class battleships

6 pre-dreadnought-class battleships

5 battle cruisers

11 light cruisers

61 destroyers (standard, light destroyers)

British Grand Fleet

Admirals Jellicoe and Beatty had 151 ships, but a number of them were of older design than the German vessels. They included these:

28 dreadnought-class battleships

9 battle cruisers

8 armored cruisers

26 light cruisers

5 destroyer leaders (heavy destroyers)

73 destroyers (standard, light destroyers)

1 minelayer

1 seaplane

“Engage the Enemy Closer”

At 2:20 in the afternoon of May 31, Beatty’s advance guard of light cruisers spotted Bodicker’s scouting ships, light cruisers, and opened fire. Both English and Germans were surprised, but Hipper had spotted Beatty first and, after making visual contact with the British battle cruisers, turned, then began to steam back toward the German main fleet. At 3:31 P.M., Beatty turned on a course parallel to Hipper’s squadron. This is precisely what Hipper had hoped for; however, he was unaware that Beatty had signaled Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas, in command of a squadron of four new super dreadnoughts, to follow.


 From the Front Both the British and the German fleets had about 45 submarines available, but these were never called upon in the Battle of Jutland.


Now the two battle cruiser forces opened fire on one another at a range of 16,500 yards. The German guns were bigger and their gunnery more accurate than the British, and the German ammunition was superior. By the cold mathematics of war, this gave Hipper all the cards. Within 50 minutes, Beatty’s flagship, the Lion—and Princess Royal and Tiger as well—had been severely damaged, and the lightly armored British battle cruisers began to fall. The Indefatigable exploded and capsized, and the Queen Mary was sunk 20 minutes afterward. The Seydlitz, Derfflinger, and Lutzow had also taken heavy hits.

Beatty was left with four ships against Hipper’s five, although Evan-Thomas was steaming behind him with the great battleships. Recognizing that the Germans had a gunnery advantage at long range, Beatty refused to turn tail but instead boldly ordered his ships to “engage the enemy closer.”

Flagships Fall

A lesser man than Beatty would have panicked. After all, in the opening minutes of the engagement, the German guns had proved more powerful and more accurate than the British, and the German ships themselves stronger, capable of taking multiple hits and still remaining serviceable. But Beatty kept his head, and he kept his focus on the objective at hand. In the meantime, Hipper had sighted the super dreadnoughts of Evan-Thomas’s 5th Battle Squadron. A running fight ensued, in which ships on both sides took substantial damage. H.M.S. Queen Mary exploded and sank at 4:26 P.M. At this time, Beatty was still to the west of the German squadron, a position that silhouetted his ships against the evening sun. Throughout the engagement, while the great ships raced southward, the light cruisers and destroyers fought their own grim duels between the lines of battling leviathans.

At about 4:30, Commodore Goodenough’s 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron, which had steamed ahead of Beatty, sighted the masts and black coal smoke of Scheer’s battleships. He sent a radio signal to Jellico: “Have sighted enemy battle fleet, bearing SE. Enemy’s course North.” Jellicoe’s main force was now approaching in great parallel columns from the northwest.


 Voices of Battle “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”

—Sir David Beatty, to his flag captain, on British losses sustained in the opening hour of the Battle of Jutland


Beatty, now warned that the German fleet was about 12 miles ahead, immediately ordered a turn back toward Jellicoe and the fleet. As the British battle cruisers headed north, Beatty attempted to signal Evan-Thomas, but poor visibility delayed the order until the super dreadnoughts were dangerously close to the Germans. These battleships were severely mauled as they turned away. Meanwhile, Beatty, still paralleled by Hipper, turned his ships to the northeast across the front of Jellicoe’s advancing fleet.

At the head of the fleet and in advance of it was the 3rd Battle Squadron, consisting of three battle cruisers and two light cruisers led by Rear Admiral Sir Horace Hood. Hood raced to the southeast to support Beatty, believing that Beatty was still ahead. Seeing gunfire to the west, however, he now turned and headed toward the action. He was quickly engaged in a swirling battle with Hipper’s cruisers and destroyers.

Then Hood’s luck ran out. He found himself under fire from both Scheer and Hipper. As usual, the British ship proved less survivable than its German counterpart. Hit at 6:34, Hood’s flagship exploded, breaking in two before it plunged to the bottom, carrying with it the admiral and all hands. Two British cruisers, Defence and Warrior,were also sunk. Despite these losses, the British Grand Fleet had now maneuvered across the front of the German High Seas Fleet. This maneuver, a classic naval battle tactic, is called crossing the T. Scheer’s fleet was positioned like the vertical stroke of the letter T, while the British fleet was perpendicular to it, like the T’s horizontal stroke, blocking the progress of the Germans. Moreover, in this position, more of the British ships could bring to bear more fire than the German ships could return. The British vessels were arrayed so that they had clear fields of fire, whereas the German ships were stacked up, one behind the other.

Jellicoe took every advantage of his excellent position. Yet, despite their intense peril, the German ships survived. They were built superbly, and their crews were courageous and thoroughly disciplined under withering fire.

In a display of brilliant seamanship, Scheer generated a smoke screen and dispatched his destroyers to attack whatever they could—all in an effort to mask a perfectly executed 180° “battle turn” by his entire fleet. It was a supremely difficult maneuver that required that all of the ships turn simultaneously, but it was a maneuver the Germans had practiced constantly. This sent the German fleet westward and took Scheer’s ships out of the range of most of the British fleet. Jellicoe had been taken totally by surprise.


 Words of WarCrossing the T is a classic naval battle maneuver in which a fleet is maneuvered so that it is perpendicular and broadside to the enemy. In this way, more guns can be trained on the enemy, which, in turn, cannot bring as many of its guns to bear.


But now it was Scheer’s turn to be fooled.

He had no intention of running away from the British. At 6:55, he executed another 180° turn to steam back toward Jellicoe’s fleet. Presumably, he believed that the British admiral had divided his forces, which would give him a new opportunity to take advantage of his own temporarily superior numbers. This proved a terrible mistake because Scheer was now once again under the guns of the entire British force. Jellicoe had—yet again—crossed Scheer’s T. The outcome of the battle suddenly seemed a foregone conclusion. Scheer looked to be doomed.

The “Death Ride”

But Scheer did not give up. While four German battle cruisers charged suicidally in what contemporaries called a “death ride” toward the British line, Scheer turned the rest of his fleet away from Jellicoe.

The “death ride” battle cruisers were hammered and severely damaged—two of them, the Seydlitz and the Derfflinger, were consumed in flames—yet they remained in action. Under cover of a smoke screen, fast German destroyers now closed in on Jellicoe’s battleships to fire torpedoes.


 Words of War A smoke screen consists of heavy smoke, purposely produced by ships (usually destroyers) to obscure the enemy’s view of ship movements.


Historians of the Battle of Jutland refer to this moment as “the crisis.” If Jellicoe had boldly ordered the Grand Fleet to advance through the confused and disorganized array of German battle cruisers, Scheer would almost surely have been defeated. Instead, however, the British commander was overcome by fear of torpedo attacks from the destroyers. In a fit of prudence, he ordered his fleet to turn away—precisely when boldness would have meant victory. By the time the British admiral decided to reengage the enemy, Scheer had disappeared over the horizon.

Most astoundingly of all, the four German battle cruisers, though badly battered, had come through the death ride, having both accomplished—and survived!—a suicide mission.

Jutland: Darkness Falls

Scheer knew all too well that he had not escaped. After all, Jellicoe had achieved the principal objective of his own maneuvering: He had positioned the Grand Fleet between the German High Seas Fleet and the German ports. But Scheer had decided that the High Seas Fleet could not survive another all-out slugfest.

Short of options, Sheer turned to the southeast under cover of darkness, heading directly into the formation of light cruisers that brought up the rear of Jellicoe’s fleet. From about 9:30 until 3:00 in the morning, the battle degenerated into a bloody chaos of intensive gunfire and ship-to-ship collisions, some accidental and some deliberate. Screened by the mayhem, Scheer limped away, having eluded Jellicoe’s blocking action in the hellish night.

Keeping Score

Some historians call Jutland an indecisive or drawn battle. In truth, the outcome was quite definite, if paradoxical. That the British lost more than the Germans in ships and men makes the Battle of Jutland a tactical victory for the Germans. Three battle cruisers, 3 cruisers, 8 destroyers, and 6,274 officers and men were sacrificed on the British side. The Germans lost a battleship and a battle cruiser, in addition to 4 light cruisers, 5 destroyers, and 2,545 officers and men.

A tactical victory is measured in raw numbers such as these. Whoever loses the most loses, and whoever loses the least wins. Yet, while grave, the British losses were not sufficient to reduce the numerical superiority of the British fleet over the Germans. And, as a result of the Battle of Jutland, the German High Seas Fleet would never again seriously venture out from the security of its home ports. Although still intact, the High Seas Fleet had been neutralized as an instrument of war. This was a result that affected the war’s big picture. For the British, it was a strategic victory—albeit achieved at shocking cost.

End of an Era

In the history of naval warfare, the Battle of Jutland stands as a kind of grand finale. Never again would so many great ships fight it out within eyesight of one another. In terms of maneuver, it was an old-fashioned naval battle, the kind that Admiral Horatio Nelson and his ilk had fought against Napoleon’s navy at the start of the nineteenth century. But in terms of firepower, Jutland was unmistakably modern. It was the first and last time these two discordant elements—classic combat maneuver and modern firepower—would be combined.

High Seas Coda

After Jutland, surface action on the high seas was all anticlimactic. On August 18, the German High Seas Fleet briefly sortied out of its home waters to meet the British Grand Fleet. But both Admiral Scheer and Admiral Jellicoe withdrew without even making contact with one another. From the Battle of Jutland onward, German surface naval activity was limited to two hit-and-run light-cruiser raids on the British coast (see Chapter 11) and some surface action against merchant vessels. Otherwise, the German navy remained submerged, dealing death from underwater until the day of Armistice. And in pursuing this course of unrestricted submarine warfare, Germany brought on its own ultimate defeat by provoking neutral America to enter the war against it.


The Least You Need to Know
  • The submarine was not a World War I invention, but it came to rapid maturity as a highly destructive weapon in that war.
  • Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare was destructive to Allied shipping, albeit not decisively so; ultimately, the policy sealed Germany’s doom by provoking the United States to shed its neutrality and join the Allied cause.
  • Admiral Reinhard Scheer provoked the Battle of Jutland in an effort to reduce the British fleet and thereby end British control of the seas and the British blockade of German shipping.
  • Although the British Grand Fleet enjoyed numerical superiority over the German High Seas Fleet, the Germans possessed stronger (more “survivable”) ships, better guns, and better ammunition than their British counterparts.
  • The Battle of Jutland ended in a tactical victory for the Germans, who inflicted more damage than the British did, but it was a strategic victory for the British, who maintained control of the seas and effectively bottled up the High Seas Fleet in German home waters.