John Cornwell, a 16-year-old on HMS Chester, who was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross for his gallantry during the Battle of Jutland in 1916

Jutland was the greatest naval battle of the First World War, yet its result was ultimately inconclusive with both sides claiming victory. In May 1916, British Admiral John Jellicoe was intent on trapping the German “High Seas Fleet”, while its Commander, Reinhard Scheer, was trying to force a tactical mistake from the British “Grand Fleet”.

At the end of May, Scheer attempted to provoke the Royal Navy by launching a naval sweep into the Skagerrak, south-east of Norway, to destroy any small British forces that might be there. Scheer’s hope was that he could draw out the battle-cruiser squadron commanded by British Admiral David Beatty, and destroy it before Jellicoe could arrive with his Grand Fleet. However, Scheer was unaware that British intelligence specialists had succeeded in deciphering German wireless codes, and Jellicoe was forewarned of the attack. As such, both fleets were put to sea early.

On 31 May 1916 at 2:28pm, Beatty’s squadron came across German battle-cruisers commanded by Admiral Franz Hipper. The HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary were sunk and Beatty’s flagship, HMS Lion, was badly damaged. When Beatty saw the rest of the German High Seas Fleet approaching, he ordered a retreat, and was pursued by Scheer until the Grand Fleet arrived. The Illustrated London News published Admiral Beatty’s account of the battle:

“At 3.48pm the action commenced at a range of 18,500 yards, both forces opening fire practically simultaneously… At 4.08pm the fifth Battle Squadron came into action and opened fire at a range of 20,000 yards. The enemy’s fire now seemed to slacken… our fire began to tell, the accuracy and rapidity of that of the enemy depreciating considerably. At 4.18pm the third enemy ship was seen to be on fire.”

Though the High Seas Fleet managed to sink another British battle-cruiser, HMS Invincible, the Germans were now very much outgunned by the Grand Fleet. Scheer was forced to turn home. During the withdrawal the German battle-cruiser Lutzow was sunk, but the majority of the High Seas Fleet escaped undamaged.

Victory was claimed by both sides, but The Illustrated London News stated that Jutland had been Britain’s victory and that “the Admiralty entertain no doubt that the German losses are heavier than the British”. In reality, the British lost 14 ships and 6,094 men whereas the Germans lost 11 ships and 2,551 men. Though the Royal Navy had suffered greater losses, it could afford to, unlike Germany.

Jutland had effectively ended any threat that the High Seas Fleet posed to the Royal Navy in the North Sea, and proved that Germany could not challenge Britain’s naval supremacy in this war.

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