Today marks the centenary anniversary of the single most important naval battle of WW1 and as I have been doing for the last few years, I thought I would write a dedicated post taken from extracts of my WW1 history book, Lest We Forget, published by Endeavour Press of London.
For centuries, the Royal Navy had ruled the waves and the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 solidified that dominance for the next century. The publication of the book ‘The Influence of Sea Power Upon History’ which theorised that Britain and its Empire controlled the world due to its navy was influential not just on Germany but the United States and Japan too with all three embarking on a battleship building programme. When the British supported Japanese Navy defeated Russia in a Naval battle, no further proof was needed for Germany, who decided a strong navy was the only way not only to grow their own empire and not be forced to depend on British goodwill to keep their trade routes open.
The British believed there were five strategic seaways that were vital to not only keeping control of the seas but also to safeguard their own trade and supply requirements. These were Dover, Gibraltar, Alexandria, Singapore and the Cape of Good Hope at South Africa.
By 1909, it was clear that a naval arms race was taking place between Germany and Britain as it was leaked to the press how senior German officials had in the past visited Portsmouth harbour and were on the way to almost matching the Royal Navy in its numbers of Capital ships. There was a public outcry in Britain with demands to build more ships, as Winston Churchill put it “The Admiralty had demanded six ships; the economists offered four; and we finally compromised on eight”.
Though there were naval actions around the world in WW1, the war at sea was based around one key principle. The Royal Navy tried to keep the German surface fleet blockaded in its own waters. Even with their powerful navy, the Germans wanted to avoid any large set piece battle and instead hoped to pick off small squadrons of British vessels in an attempt to lower their numbers and allow a German blockade of the British Isles to be enacted.
As an island nation, the United Kingdom was singularly vulnerable to a naval blockade and as such it made military sense for the Germans to try and do this. The fact that they were unsuccessful however meant that the Royal Navy was able to severely limit the amount of supplies and raw materials to Germany which was vital to the war ending when it did.
The scene of the most pivotal battles was the North Sea and it was from Scapa Flow in the Orkneys that The British Grand Fleet was stationed. Aircraft carriers were only in their earliest forms at this time and so tactics and battles were dominated by Battleships, Dreadnoughts, Battle- cruisers and torpedo boats. Led by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the Royal Navy didn’t succeed in destroying the Imperial German Navy in any decisive action such as at Trafalgar but nevertheless fought three major battles in the North Sea.
Admiral Alred Von Tirpitz had been planning his naval tactics since the end of the 19th century and assumed the Royal Navy would either attack Germany outright or put in place a very close blockade which could then be picked off by U-Boats. It was also assumed that Britain would have its navy spread around the world when in reality a massive ship-building programme meant the Royal Navy had ample ships in home-waters. When Britain decided to blockade Germany but from a distance, Turpitz’s plans had in effect been blown out of the water from the start.
Just a few weeks after the United Kingdom entered the war, 54 ships of the Royal Navy including 5 Battlecruisers and 33 Destroyers confronted 37 German naval vessels in the first of two battles near Heligoland, a former British island base just off the German coast on August 28th 1914. The result was a complete British victory with 6 German vessels sank, six others badly damaged and the loss of 712 German lives with the British suffering just one damaged vessel and 35 deaths.
Still in the early days of the war, the Germans took the offensive not just to the Royal Navy but to Great Britain itself. Following a minor and ineffectual raid on Great Yarmouth in October, on December 16th 1914, the Imperial German Navy managed to reach the north-east coast of England and launched a naval barrage onto the towns of Hartlepool, West Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby. The attack caught Britain by surprise and resulted in 137 fatalities and 592 injuries with children as young as six months old being killed. The attack caused a national outrage and a general opinion that Germany had committed a war crime by deliberately targeting civilians.
In 1915, another significant battle occurred at Dogger Bank, a shallow area of the North Sea where in prehistoric times people once lived. Squadrons of the British and German navies fought on 24th January 1915. Victory belonged again to the Royal Navy though the battle suffered from tactical and operational errors on both sides with just 1 German Battlecruiser being sank for the loss of 954 lives.
The sea battle that is always remembered when World War One comes to mind is the Battle of Jutland. It was the biggest naval battle of the war though one with a less than decisive victory. Though primarily fought between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet, personnel and ships from Canada and Australia were also involved with their British Allies.
The battle was fought on 31stMay-1st June 1916 and was conceived as a way for Germany to break the blockade that was strangling their trade and supplies of raw materials. The British caught the Germans off-guard but the vanguard of its fleet was lured towards the German fleet by a small scouting squadron and several vessels were sunk. The British ships returned towards their main fleet when they saw it was a trick which was the cue for the main German Fleet to follow in pursuit. The ongoing battle was terrible with heavy casualties on both sides. The smoke and oil from the ships made it difficult for anyone to get a clear view of what was going on and it pushed both men and ship to the peak of their endurance.
During the night, the British manoeuvred and hoped to get between the Germans and their home bases but somehow the German vessels manage to slip through a lightly populated part of the fleet and escape home.
There were 151 British ships and 99 German ships and by nightfall the British had lost 14 ships and 6,094 deaths whilst the Germans 11 vessels and 2,551 deaths.
Criticism was made of Vice-Admiral David Beatty who led the initial foray and had the German vessels within range of his superior ships for 10 minutes whilst the Germans could not reach him, despite that, he didn’t fire and lost an early opportunity to shape the battle. There was much dissatisfaction in the U.K. that the Royal Navy did not achieve a decisive victory by stopping the Germans retreating during the night. Though Germany and Britain claimed a victory, in reality despite suffering less losses than the British, the Germans failed to achieve their goal of destroying a notable section of the Royal Navy and to break the blockade. For much of the rest of the war the German fleet hid in home waters behind its mine-fields. It was happy to challenge Russia in the east but not to confront Britain again head to head and this allowed the British to slowly strangle Germany in everything from munitions factories to food for the civil population.
Below are some witness reports from survivors of the Battle of Jutland taken from the Daily Mail Newspaper.
A tiny shaft of light saved the life of Royal Navy engineer Henry Kitching. At the Battle of Jutland, 100 years ago, he was below decks in the engine room of HMS Warrior on May 31, 1916, when ‘I heard a tremendous explosion, a heavy jar went through the whole fabric, the lights went out. There was a roar of water and steam’.
Groping his way up an escape ladder to the deck of the elderly armoured cruiser, he was quickly lost in the pitch black.
‘I was driven back by a rush of thick smoke and blinding fumes, and there seemed no possibility of lifting the heavy hatches above me and getting out,’ he recalled. ‘A spasm of terror came over me. I was like a trapped rat.’
The water rose and he was sure he was going to die there in the North Sea, 80 miles off the coast of Denmark, just another of the thousands of British sailors to go down with their ships in what was turning out to be the biggest and bloodiest battle in naval history.
Then a miracle happened. A figure beckoned. ‘I looked up and there was a man calling my attention to a glimmer of light above. The next minute I found myself climbing out through a hole torn in the deck.’
Kitching was one of the lucky ones. So was Leading Signalman Charles Falmer, who, as the battle roared, had been ordered 180ft up the pitching mast of the battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable to untangle a signalling flag.
‘From the top I could see all the German fleet and made out 40 ships. Suddenly, a shell hit our magazine. There was a terrific explosion and our big guns flew up in the air like matchsticks. Lots of bodies, too.
‘Within half a minute, the ship turned right over and she was gone. I was thrown well clear, otherwise I would have been sucked under.
‘I came to on top of the water and there was another fellow, Jimmy Green. We got a piece of wood, him on one end and me on the other. A couple of minutes afterwards, some shells came over and Jim was minus his head, so I was on my lonesome.’
Picked up by the Germans, Falmer was one of just two survivors from the Indefatigable’s crew of 1,019 officers and men, all obliterated in the blink of an eye.
Heroes emerged. Royal Marine officer Major Francis Harvey had both legs blown off when a gun turret on HMS Lion, the flagship of the battlecruiser fleet, took a direct hit, but managed to crawl to a voice pipe and order the powder magazines to be flooded and sealed off before the fire could get to them. He saved the ship, but lost his own life.
On the light cruiser HMS Chester, Jack Cornwell, just 16 with the rank of Boy (First Class), stayed at his post manning a gun though mortally wounded — a feat which was honoured this week as his grave in East London was given a Grade-II listed status. Both Harvey and Cornwell were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, two of the four won at Jutland.
On the same ship, an officer reported a line of casualties, the feet of every one of them shorn off at the ankles by a shell, sitting calmly smoking cigarettes with the bloody stumps of their legs tourniqueted out in front. An hour later, they were dead from shock.
Here on the high seas was carnage to compare with anything being experienced in the trenches at this desperate midway point in World War I. In fact, it was because of the stalled land war that this slaughter at sea was happening at all.