Who won the Battle of Jutland?

While this thread is title as a question it is not one for which there is a factual answer–military historians and the public has disputed the outcome of the Battle of Jutland for over 100 years.

From 31 May to 1 Jun 1916, at the height of the first World War the 151 ships commanded by British Admiral John Jellicoe, constituting the British Grand Fleet (GF) met with the 99 ships under the command of Vice-Admiral Reinhold Scheer, constituting the German High Seas Fleet (HSF).

While long anticipated, this was the first large scale engagement between the two forces. Britain’s Naval superiority was vast and unquestioned against Germany, the Grand Fleet significantly outnumbered the High Seas Fleet, and was not even close to all of British Naval might. The German High Seas Fleet was the vast bulk of all of Imperial Germany’s surface ships. It had been designed over a period of many years, pushed by the Kaiser, to challenge British Naval supremacy.

The GF had 28 dreadnoughts to the HSF’s 16. Knowing his position was not tenable in a full scale engagement with the GF, Scheer had long sought to execute a strategy by which he could lure a portion of the GF out of port and defeat it with local numerical superiority, thus permanently weakening the GF and giving the HSF a chance to perhaps escape its “prison” that it had been kept bottled up in for the entirety of the war.

This page by the British Imperial War Museum has a good overview of the particulars of the timeline ( Battle of Jutland Timeline | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)). Suffice to say it appeared initially to Scheer that he had succeeded in his plot to lure out a portion of the GF, Vice-Admiral Franz von Hipper, commanding the HSF’s battlecruisers, had seemingly succeeded in luring the battlecruiser fleet of the British, commanded by Vice Admiral David Beatty, into separate combat. After initial exchange of fire and pursuing action, by 5pm on 31 May Scheer is about to engage the entirety of the GF and he does not see them coming.

In the ensuing battle the GF is able to “cross the T” of the HSF twice, Scheer flees to safe waters and never seriously threatens the British surface fleet again–in fact he reports to his superiors that Germany should focus entirely on unrestricted submarine warfare going forward.

At this point it seems obvious the British won, but that is not the story easily recorded by history. Instead, the results of the battle were widely seen as a disappointment back home. Jellicoe certainly never faced sanction (he was elevated to First Sea Lord, pushed out of that role and eventually became Governor-General of New Zealand and was granted a hereditary Earldom in retirement), but in the popular imagination Beatty was the British hero of Jutland and seen by many as the more competent naval commander (it didn’t hurt that Beatty was tight with Churchill.)

In Germany, Jutland was celebrated as a victory and its anniversary was celebrated as such for a number of years going forward.

The meat of the reason for this perception: despite an overwhelming advantage in force and in knowledge (the British knew Scheer’s plan in advance so were ready to lay the trap), the GF wasn’t able to decisively destroy the HSF. In fact, the HSF inflicted far more damage on the GF–the British lost over 6,000 sailors, 3 battlecruisers, 3 armored cruisers and 8 destroyers. The HSF comparatively lost 2500 sailors, 1 battlecruiser, 1 pre-dreadnought, 4 light cruisers and 5 small torpedo boats. Tonnage wise the British had lost 113,000 tons of ship and the Germans 62,300.

It has been said for many years there were serious defects in command by Jellicoe, and that there were additional failures in basic signaling, coordination, and seamanship exhibited by the British, that all contributed to Scheer escaping.

While opinions vary, it is my contention, that Admiral Jellicoe performed admirably at Jutland. Beatty’s advocates who would hold Jellicoe should not have turned away from Scheer’s mass torpedo firing advocate for a position that would have risked the entire British Empire for the questionable opportunity to take out the HSF. An HSF that was determined not to engage the full GF and was capably being maneuvered away by Scheer.

Jellicoe had command of the seas at the end of the battle, the GF was intact and the HSF was unable to seriously threaten it again. I believe the biggest failures by the British at Jutland were poor communication, which as ultimate commander Jellicoe does bear some responsibility for, but I think at least a decent portion of the disparity in casualty amounts related to improper armoring of the three sunk British battlecruisers that made them inappropriate for the type of fighting they were engaged in. The three cruisers–HMS Indefatigable, HMS Queen Mary and HMS Invincible comprised 3300 of the 6000 British killed. Each ended with fairly similar fates–they took hits in their turrets and subsequently their magazines exploded, in each case killing virtually everyone on board. The ill-named Invincible did succeed in delivering an ultimately mortal blow to Scheer’s flagship Lützow, but went down with almost all of its men including Rear-Admiral Hood.

Several German ships of equivalent class took far more hits in the battle and either sailed away and survived, or sailed away with enough life left in them to get their sailors home, even if they had to be scuttled later. Jellicoe shouldn’t be held responsible for the design of the ships under his command, albeit he did have some influence in ship design. He basically had some under-armored ships that had the poor fortune to be in the thick of it, and had the poor fortune to be hit mortally with only a few shells needed to do the job.

Ultimately if you view the GF as the HSF’s jailer, the HSF attempted a jailbreak, and failed. To me that’s a victory for the GF. I think the dreams of a Trafalgar style defeat of the HSF, which would have allowed the GF to be deployed elsewhere, were somewhat fanciful given Scheer’s commitment to not risking his entire fleet. It is non-trivial in the age of powered ships so close to home ports to catch out a force the size of the HSF and eradicate it when they are beating fast to escape. I think Beatty was a fine commander but Jellicoe saw a bigger picture in which the foolish loss of the GF could literally threaten the entire British Empire–the HSF would be able to get out of the Baltic/North Sea and ravage British transportation links with its dominions. Even if the odds were massively in his favor, they were not enough in his favor to have made the preferred risk by some of his detractors worthwhile.

I know Jutland has been discussed on these boards a few times, but not as far as I could tell precisely this topic,. I’m curious if any Naval history buffs have alternative or opposite views of the battle.

That sums it up.

The Germans sunk a few more ships at Jutland, but their fleet never challenged the balance of seapower again. Germany continued to be progressively throttled by the British blockade.

Strategic victory: England.

I agree with your general argument.

Jellicoe’s job was not to lose Britain’s control of the seas. It was just as much a victory as the Battle of Britain in WW2 was - where the objective was not to lose control of the skies over England.

Germany had to win both battles - the British had to ‘not lose’.

Churchill famously described Jellicoe as “the only man on either side who could have lost the war in an afternoon”. If the Germans had somehow managed to rout the whole Grand Fleet, then they could have disrupted Britain’s vital supply lines—Britain was heavily dependent on imported food to sustain its population, so quite conceivably this could have knocked Britain out of the war. Which in turn could have swung the balance of the whole war in favor of the Central Powers.

But the situation was also not symmetrical—Scheer couldn’t have lost the whole war for his side. Even if Jellicoe had managed to pull off another Trafalgar and completely crushed the High Seas Fleet, I don’t see how that would have made an enormous difference in the outcome of the war as a whole. The armies of the Central Powers would still be just as strong on the continent.

So, yeah, I agree with the consensus of the thread: Jellicoe did what he had to do (not lose the entire war), and refrained from taking unneeded risks to do something he didn’t actually have to do (destroy the High Seas Fleet), and therefore the British won the Battle of Jutland.

One thing I have to wonder (aloud) about is if the hypothetical worst-case scenario (for the UK) so commonly posed about the UK being isolated by the German Imperial Fleet and potentially losing the war as a consequence is if it was even physically possible. Did the German Imperial Fleet of 1916 and beyond, even with a smashing victory at Jutland, actually have the legs and the lungs to disrupt supply lines for any length of time?

How far and for how long could they have penetrated into the waters around the UK before an absence of friendly ports for resupply might have forced a withdraw? Could they have maintained blockading and raiding squadrons in the Channel and beyond indefinitely, or would the threat they posed have lasted only as long as their logistics support base in Germany lasted? If so, just how much coal did they have at that stage of the war? And how much were they likely to be able to get? What kind of operational capacity did they really have, and could it ever have really been decisive, never mind what Churchill and his contemporaries might have feared?

Mostly those are just rhetorical questions. But I wouldn’t mind knowing if answers actually exist.

The relative losses in men and ships is irrelevant. Unless we’re talking about on a large strategic scale, war is not about kill ratios. Even if Germany had sank 5 times as many ships as their own sank, and they were unable to do anything with that, it’s still a strategic loss.

The strategic situation greatly favored Britain. Germany would’ve had to win a decisive strategic victory there in order to change the overall naval situation, and they did not. And hence the result stayed within the range of outcomes that lead to total British naval supremacy.

The odds were stacked against the Germans. They took their shot. It didn’t work out. All Britain had to do was not to lose a massive battle at sea, and they didn’t, so it was effectively a British strategic victory.

Unrestricted submarine warfare done hard and early enough had a greater chance of creating a strategic german victory than the high seas fleet, although that one would’ve been against the odds, too.

For the war, it was a British tactical and strategic victory. Tactical since the HSF scurried back to port with none of its pre-battle objectives met and strategically since they never threatened the British on the surface again.

Winners don’t scuttle back to harbour and sit there for the next six months.
To paraphrase Col Hackworth, “If the GF aren’t losing, they’re winning. If the HSF aren’t winning, they’re losing.”

Yep, the High Seas Fleet never really left port after Jutland, and the Royal Navy kept patrolling the North Sea and everywhere else.

That’s clearly a strategic win for the UK, even if it was tactically more or less inconclusive. Yes, the Germans sank a whole lot more British ships than they lost, but ultimately the British could afford their losses, while the Germans couldn’t, even as much smaller as they were.

A German victory would have had to be a tactical win so crushing that it broke the stranglehold the GF had on the North Sea, which wasn’t going to happen.

Royal Navy Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty wins for best quote during the battle after noticing British ships exploding.

There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.

IIRC, near the end of the war, the Germans wanted to put their ships back out to sea since they had everything to gain and little to lose and the German sailors almost mutinied (and they never went anywhere).

Jutland was only a British “defeat” in that it wasn’t the Trafalgar-type victory that politicians and the public craved, especially after the vast sums that had been spent on the Navy and due to the flawed perception that British ships and sailors were better than their German equivalents.

Starving out your enemies slowly by blockade isn’t what Nelson would have understood or approved, but it worked out well.

It’s interesting to speculate what the outcome would’ve been with Beatty in command at Jutland instead of Jellicoe. It could have resulted in an annihilation of a large portion of Scheer’s fleet (though this is doubtful due in part to communications difficulties of the time). The ultimate outcome of the war wouldn’t have been affected.

IF the Imperial Navy had somehow succeeded in actually crushing the Grand Fleet (as opposed to just mauling it a bit; more so than they actually did in real life, I mean)—and it’s a mighty big “if”, and may well have been simply impossible—then I don’t see why the German Navy couldn’t have disrupted Britain’s supply lines. It’s less than 500 nautical miles from Wilhelmshaven to Plymouth or Scapa Flow. The Kaiser class battleships had a range of 7,900 nautical miles. Even the old Deutschland class pre-dreadnoughts had a range of 4,800 nautical miles. So I think the Germans would have been perfectly able to rampage through the North Sea, English Channel, and the Atlantic approaches to the British Isles…again, if they could somehow have routed the Royal Navy.

And they needn’t have gone for a total victory over Britain, with the German flag raised over the Palace of Westminster, or anything like that—just a negotiated settlement: Of course you can keep your colonial empire (heck, you can keep our colonial empire too); we’re sorry about that whole Belgium thing; you guys have never liked the French anyway, right?

Again, this is all a very very low-probability alternate history, though.

I don’t know about that; blockading enemy ports was a time-honored tactic that Nelson definitely did understand- he commanded several in his day in fact.

Was there any at-sea re-supply in WWI of naval ships? Or did they have to go back to port to re-fuel and re-arm and re-supply? (really asking…I have no idea…just curious)

Back to port as far as I can determine. Nimitz pioneered underway replenishment in 1916 as an engineering officer in Cuba.

I believe they more or less did mutiny. Scheer put it down as it only affected a portion of his ships, but it disrupted the planned suicide mission Scheer had cooked up his idea was basically to just throw every bit of the HSF into the maws of the GF, knowing he would absolutely lose, but basically hoping to destroy so many British ships that it would give Germany a better bargaining position at the post-war peace conference–that last part I think was almost certainly wishful thinking even had his plan worked. When Scheer communicated to the Kaiser the rebellious state of the Navy Wilhelm reportedly responded “I no longer have a Navy.”

What’s interesting is that as bad as Jutland was in terms of losses for the British, the submarine warfare the Germans conducted against British shipping during the war caused 13 million tons of shipping losses, and at one point had British planners seriously worried about the home island’s food supply. This was why Jellicoe was ultimately pushed out as First Sea Lord, in that non-command role it was part of his job to come up with a strategy to counter the submarine warfare. The proposal being bandied about was the formation of convoys. Jellicoe didn’t believe convoys could be effective but eventually under pressure conceded to conduct “experiments” with them. Jellicoe’s position was that there was no counter to U-boat warfare. It ended up that while not perfect, convoying did actually serve to keep Britain supplied, and Jellicoe being wrong about this was a black mark. When Lloyd George appointed Sir Eric Geddes as First Lord of the Admiralty, Jellicoe’s days were likely numbered, Geddes had a lot of issues with Jellicoe’s performance in the post, including significantly over an incident in which Jellicoe had received intelligence a Norwegian convoy was going to be attacked, and didn’t act on it. Jellicoe was basically sacked on Christmas Eve, which the other Sea Lords felt was disgraceful (even though some of them agreed in principle Jellicoe needed to go.)

Parts of the German navy absolutely mutinied and allied with workers set up soldiers’ and workers’ councils to demand an immediate end to the war. It was part of the German Revolution of 1918-19 and helped depose and dispose of the Kaiser

Was it hoped that if the HSF were annihilated, that Britain could then conduct an invasion of Germany via sea and thus bypass the deadlock on the Western Front? If so, this might explain why the battle was regarded as disappointing in Britain.

Not really. The dream would be if the Grand Fleet didn’t have to stay in and around the British Isles to keep the High Seas Fleet in check, it could be more active in other theaters of the larger war where the naval power might be useful, for example in the Mediterranean. I don’t really think it would be all that decisive in a war changing sort of way, though. Without the HSF Germany remained just as difficult for the British to defeat on the continent–the only way to beat the Kaiser’s Army was with your own Army, and that process was very tedious due to the relative balance between the forces able to be brought to bear.