On May 31, 1916, the British and German navies clashed in the North Sea, off the coast of Denmark, in the biggest naval battle of World War I. This battle, known as the Battle of Jutland, lasted about 12 hours and engaged more than 100,000 men on 250 ships. When it was over, more than 8,000 sailors on both sides had been killed.
Before the Battle of Jutland, the British had established naval dominance in the North Sea and blockaded Germany. Given that the British had the strongest navy in the world, German Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer decided to fight the British fleet one piece at a time, until he had shrunk it enough that he could defeat the rest of it in a full-scale battle.
Accordingly, the Germans devised a plan wherein Rear-Admiral Franz Hipper’s scouting squadron would lure out the British Battle Cruiser Fleet under Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty. Then unbeknownst to Beatty, Scheer would follow with the German High Seas Fleet and destroy Beatty’s forces.
But British intelligence intercepted word that Hipper was putting to sea. This allowed Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the British Grand Fleet, time to order the Grand Fleet and Beatty’s battlecruisers (for a total of 151 British combat ships) to meet the Germans. However, the British were unaware that the entire German High Seas Fleet, with 99 ships, was at sea due to misinterpreted intelligence; they believed only Hipper was at sea.
The battle began on the afternoon of May 31 after a chance encounter between Beatty’s and Hipper’s ships, and Hipper successfully drew Beatty south toward the main German fleet as planned. When Beatty saw that the High Seas Fleet was in fact at sea and that he was headed straight toward it, he had his ships reverse course and in turn began drawing the Germans toward Jellicoe’s fleet.
Since the Germans didn’t know Jellicoe’s fleet was at sea, Jellicoe was able to arrange his ships at a right angle to the oncoming German ships and “cross the T,” allowing the British the superior position. The fierce battle continued, and the Germans eventually turned away, launching torpedoes in their wake to prevent the British fleet from pursuing them.
Jellicoe positioned his ships between the Germans and their home harbor to try to force a fight the next day. However, despite some localized skirmishes that night, the German ships were able to get around the British fleet in the dark.
When the Germans reached their home port, they declared victory, as the British had lost more men and ships. The British losses totaled 6,094 sailors killed and 14 ships sunk, while German losses were 2,551 killed and 11 ships sunk. However, the British emerged with what many historians consider a strategic victory, since the status quo was maintained: the British fleet still controlled the North Sea and the blockade of Germany continued.
Did you have any family members who fought at the Battle of Jutland? Tell us about them! Or learn more about the battle from the records on Fold3. We even have an entire book of British official dispatches regarding the battle.