100 years since Germany tried to break UK's grip on the seas

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Tom Barfield - [email protected]
100 years since Germany tried to break UK's grip on the seas
An oil painting of the Battle of Jutland by Claus Bergen, on display in Germany's Naval Memorial in Laboe, Schleswig-Holstein. Photo: DPA

100 years ago on Tuesday, the British and German navies met in the biggest sea battle in history off the Danish coast – one which has become as controversial and hard to make sense of as the First World War itself.


Britain and Germany had spent around 20 years building their navies in anticipation of war in Europe.

It was a time when Britain still truly ruled the waves with its Grand Fleet – which was quickly put to work enforcing a blockade of Imperial Germany's north coast after war broke out in 1914.

With the British prowling the North Sea, Kaiser Wilhelm II's armies and civilian subjects were starved of supplies arriving by ship.

Most of the British fleet was kept in harbour in Rosyth, Cromarty and Scapa Flow, ready to block the German High Seas Fleet from escaping into the Atlantic where it could attack the Allies' own supply convoys.

But the Germans knew that the British fleet would be too powerful for them if the two sides were to fight an open battle using all their forces.

Germany boasted just 16 'dreadnought'-class battleships, compared with the 28 fielded by the British.

Instead, in early summer 1916 they came up with a plan to inflict heavy losses on the Royal Navy by drawing its ships out piecemeal.

A small group of battlecruisers commanded by Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper would move out in advance of the Germans' main force, led by Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer.

German admirals Reinhard Scheer (l) and Franz Hipper (r). Photos: Wikimedia Commons/Bundesarchiv

Hipper's fast ships were supposed to draw out just some of Britain's battlecruisers from port into the open ocean, where they could be attacked and destroyed by the German main fleet.

But the British knew that something was up as they had captured a copy of the Germans' codebook early in the war and were able to decipher many of the Imperial Navy's signals.

Ruse and counter-ruse

So when Hipper and Scheer set off for their mission, the British quickly left port as well and headed for the Skagerrak – the strategic gulf between Denmark and Norway.

By 3:45 pm on May 31st, Admiral Hipper's group of fast ships encountered Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty's forces and the two sides began exchanging fire.

British admirals Sir John Jellicoe and Sir David Beatty. Photos: Wikimedia Commons

Beatty's plan was to lure the Germans towards the main British fleet, commanded by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe.

But his force suffered severe losses as Hipper was able to sink two of his ships, the Indefatigable and the Queen Mary, within an hour of battle being joined.

When the much larger German main fleet under Admiral Scheer arrived, Jellicoe was still too far away from Beatty to help, and a third British ship, Invincible, was sunk just after 6:30 pm.

When Jellicoe finally arrived, the Germans realised that they were outmatched and decided to retreat northwards – while the British, fearing a trap, decided not to give chase.

Instead the Admiral took his ships to the south so that they could intercept the Germans later when they were heading home to Wilhelmshaven and other ports on the north coast.

When the two fleets clashed again the Germans suffered serious damage to the ships Seydlitz and Derfflinger, and Admiral Hipper's flagship Lutzow had to be scuttled by her own sailors.

So who won?

During the war, the German authorities sought to represent the battle as a victory for their High Seas Fleet.

After all, they had sunk 14 British ships and killed 6,094 enemy sailors – while losing 11 of their own ships and 2,551 men.

“The Imperial Navy was able to win a tactical victory, not only escaping destruction by the much more powerful British fleet, but causing them more losses of ships and men,” Dr Jann Witt of the German Naval Federation (DMB) told The Local.

“German and British historians have been arguing for 100 years over who really won. But strategically it has to be seen as a German defeat,” he went on.

German naval commanders had hoped to decide the war at sea with a single big battle that they had been preparing for around two decades.

But when it came to the crunch, the Germans were unable to land the decisive blow on the British that they needed to break the Royal Navy's command of the seas.

A group of German ships seen from the air in an undated WWI photograph. Photo: DPA

“It was almost the bankruptcy declaration of the German strategy,” said Witt.

“They realized that they had no chance of defeating the British fleet and they made the fatal decision to go on with an indiscriminate U-Boat (submarine) war.”

Anger over German U-Boats' attacks on merchant shipping – and the famous sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania – have long been seen as a factor that drew the USA into the war in 1917, effectively deciding the war against Imperial Germany.

How is Jutland remembered today?

Today, like so many of the great battles of the First World War, the anniversary of the Battle of Jutland (or as the Germans call it, the Skagerrakschlacht) is a time of joint remembrance for former enemies.

Dignitaries including Prince Edward, Duke of Kent – also head of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – and Germany's Europe Minister Michael Roth will come together on Tuesday to lay wreaths at the German Naval Memorial in Laboe, just north of Kiel.

The Naval Memorial in Laboe, Schleswig-Holstein, where the remembrance service will be held on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

But there's no denying that the war for the seas is less well remembered in Germany than the grim battles on land, especially on the Western Front - which was commemorated in part with a Franco-German memorial at Verdun, site of one of the most costly battles, on Sunday.

Over two million German servicemen lost their lives in the First World War, of whom just 35,000 were sailors.

“Enormous masses of troops were deployed on the Western Front and lived through these traumatic experiences,” Witt explained. “That became more deeply implanted in the public consciousness.”

While sailors had to contend with poor leadership from their officers, low morale, and shortages of supplies, nothing at sea could quite compare to the horror of the trenches.

What's more, while Britain and France continue to have strong memories of the First World War, for Germans the Second World War became a much deeper trauma – almost overlaying the pain the population went through during the First.

What can we learn from Jutland?

The battle at sea and its counterpart on land were the result of decades of mistrust among the leaders of the European great powers as they pursued their competing ambitions with a wary eye on one another.

“There was no institution like the EU or NATO or OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe], no mechanism to peaceably resolve conflicts,” Witt said.

“It was all stoked by massive nationalism at the time, this national selfishness and a lack of readiness to compromise.

“When we lose the ability to peacefully resolve differences with others through compromise – moving towards the other and taking one's own interests back a step – that's a big danger for Europe”.

SEE ALSO: First service marks battle of Jutland centenary


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