May 31st in German History: The Battle of Jutland

Battle of Jutland - HISTORY

The Battle of Jutland was the largest naval battle of the First World War. It saw the German High Seas Fleet engage the British Grand Fleet in the last battle fought primarily by battleships. While tactically indecisive, it would solidify the naval balance of power and thus ensure the outcome of the war.

In the years leading up to WWI, Germany and France engaged in a naval arms race. Britain, seeing her naval dominance threatened, responded to a German naval buildup ordered by Kaiser Wilhelm II by launching its own plan to expand ship building. This arms race was one of the contributing factors to the tension that facilitated the outbreak of the war. Ironically, for all of the resources sunk into them, the battle fleets of the two nations were inactive for most of the war. In keeping with the Fleet-in-Being Doctrine, Germany kept most of her ships in port in order to force the British navy to remain nearby and maintain the naval blockade against Germany. Struggling under the weight of this blockade, Germany looked for any opportunity to reduce the numerical advantage of the British and thus end British supremacy on the seas. To this end, a plan was created to draw out part of the British fleet and destroy it, thus shifting the balance in Germany’s favor. However, the British intercepted communications and learned that there would be a major naval operation and so on May 30th, British Admiral John Jellicoe sailed with the Grand Fleet to join with Vice Admiral Beatty’s battle cruiser force. Of May 31st Beatty encountered the force of five battle cruisers under German Admiral Franz Hipper earlier than Hipper had planned. However, Hipper was able to sink two British battle cruisers. The High Seas Fleet under Richard Scheer was drawn out into direct engagement with the Grand Fleet, and between 8:30 and 10:30 on May 31st the two fleets engaged twice. In that engagement the British lost 14 ships to Germany’s 11. Nearly 10,000 men were killed in total. Jellicoe attempted to cut the Germans off from their ports but Scheer was able to break through the British rearguard and bring his ships safely to port.

When comparing the losses of the two sides in a naval battle it is generally a bad idea to look only at the number of ships. This is because of the great disparities in size and quality of ships: a loss of five destroyers is far less significant than the loss of a battleship. Further, even within the same general class of ship disparities in quality can mean that one ship is so obsolete as to make its loss inconsequential. Thus, a better measure to use is tonnage. In both number and tonnage of ships lost Germany comes out ahead. The British sunk 62,000 tons while the Germans sank 113,000 tons. However, the Germans failed to shift the naval balance of power. Even though the British suffered losses nearly twice as high, Admiral Hipper determined that at that rate Germany would still run out of ships before Britain did. Further attempts to isolate parts of the British Fleet also failed. Germany thus had to resort to unrestricted submarine warfare in its attempt to cut Britain off from world trade. This decision would lead to US entry into the war the next year. Thus, while the Battle of Jutland may have been a tactical victory for Germany, strategically the status quo was maintained and that status quo would lead to German defeat in the First World War.

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