Sunday 22 May 2016

The Battle of Jutland, 1916

An interesting, well-researched documentary was shown about the Battle of Jutland by Channel 4 on Saturday 21st May 2016.  New technology enabled divers to have a close look at the wrecks lying on the bed of the North Sea.   It is hard for us these days to imagine what life was like in WW1 when ordinary folk did not have telephones at home and there was no television or radio (wireless).

During the First World War, Cecil Roberts was a young journalist working for the “Liverpool Echo”.  In early May 1916 Roberts went with a party of other journalists on a “special naval mission” to “see the Navy in its various activities”.  They visited ships, arsenals and building yards around the coast of Britain.   After meeting Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty on HMS. Lion at Rosyth, they went to Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, which Admiral Sir John Jellicoe had decided was the safest harbour for the main British Fleet.  Although Scapa Flow was too far north to protect the east coast from the German bombardments (Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool, December 1914), it meant that the German fleet were “bottled up… save for the odd hit-and-run exploit.”

Roberts interviewed Sir John Jellicoe aboard HMS Iron Duke.  As an amateur pianist himself, he asked the Admiral if he played the baby grand piano that was in the Admiral’s cabin. ”Very badly,” replied the Admiral.  With regard to the war, Sir John Jellicoe warned: “The main danger which we have to guard against is that of the Fleet being forced to make false strategic moves owing to some outcry being caused by people who think that unless guns are being fired, or the Fleet is constantly in the vicinity of the enemy coast, the Navy is not doing its work to win the war.”

The British Navy had not seen significant action since the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805 but warfare had been very different back then when there were no submarines or mines.   Sir John Jellicoe knew that, compared to British ships, the German ships were faster and better equipped with thicker armour plating.  German ships had better range-finders and optical instruments for gunnery.  However, Jellicoe’s warning to the Admiralty of July 1914 about the inferiority of British ships, went unheeded.

According to Roberts, ‘Our shells were inferior… the magazine chambers had dangerous defects, ship design was faulty and our cordite was defective, being unstable at high temperatures’.    Writing in 1968, Roberts added a note with regard to those defects which were the possible cause of the sudden explosions that destroyed Vanguard, Bulwark, Natal, Princess Irene and Glatton.   This would indeed seem to have been the case, for the documentary showed a German ship that, in spite of having been hit 24 times by British shells, was afloat and had to be scuttled with most of her crew still on board to avoid her falling into British hands.

After the Battle, Roberts went to a lot of trouble to try to find out the truth and came to the conclusion that, while the Germans could claim a ‘tactical success’, they “never again dared to challenge the British Fleet”.  Their ships “rotted in the harbours with deteriorating crews” and they were “forced to resort to unrestricted submarine warfare which in turn failed and brought in the U.S.A.”  Roberts felt that Jellicoe was right to urge caution and had the British Fleet engaged the German ships at Jutland, there would have been a far greater loss of life and shipping on both sides.

Cecil Roberts “The Years of Promise” (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1968), Chapter Three “Beatty, Jellicoe and Jutland”, pp. 89 – 133.

Illustration: A painting by Charles Dixon, RI entitled "Windy Corner, Battle of Jutland" - depicting HMS "Bellerephon", a Dreadnought.