The 'Death Ride'

On the bridge of his flagship SMS Friedrich der Grosse – Frederick the Great – Reinhard Scheer realised he faced possible annihilation with the entire Grand Fleet before him.

“The entire arc stretching from north to east was a sea of fire,” he recalled. “The flash from the muzzles of the guns was seen distinctly through the mist and smoke on the horizon, although the ships themselves were not distinguishable.”

Outnumbered and outgunned, Scheer ordered his ships to turn 180° and flee the battle, while destroyers covered his retreat with bravely-led torpedo attacks which caused jitters in the British ranks – and damaged at least one battleship, the Marlborough.

The German flight was brief. Unable to outrun the Grand Fleet before darkness set in, after about 15 minutes Scheer ordered another 180° turn by his ships – supposedly to unnerve the British. It brought the weight of the core of the Royal Navy down on his ships. For a quarter of an hour, the German ships, silhouetted again the slowly-setting sun, presented “a perfect target, each ship standing out black and clear”, recalled Harold Wright, a chief engine room artificer in the bowels of HMS King George V.

“Every time there was a hit a roar would go up from the lads – everyone was very excited. I am sure we served out a lot of punishment.”

Five German battleships suffered a succession of hits – mauled so badly that after about 20 minutes of a seemingly-one-sided fight, Scheer ordered his ships to turn around a second time – for good. To cover the battleships’ withdrawal, he ordered his battle-cruisers to charge the British lines – a move which has become known as the ‘death ride’.

Jutland 100
SMS Lützow

After receiving numerous hits, knocking out her two forward turrets, SMS Lützow was no longer a fit flagship for Admiral Franz von Hipper. Wounded gunnery officer Johannes Groth returned to his turret in a bid to rescue wounded shipmates. It was, he remembered, “a sorry sight”. At least seven men were dead, the rest were injured – at least half a dozen of them mortally so.

“Everyone had suffered from minor or severe burns. The minds and spirit of every man had suffered a severe blow – in some cases it meant they had to be discharged later on. As far as I know, only one man was fit for service again. Rescuing these wounded men posed tremendous difficulties as they were all raging to a greater or lesser degree and the entrance to the compartment was very narrow. In several cases their feet and hands had to be bound to make transporting them possible. Every one of them yelled for water continuously.”

Yet the death ride paid off. The German battleships slipped away into the growing gloom of dusk. At 7.45pm, the British capital ships lost contact with their foe.

In the half-light of sunset, the German Fleet appeared for the final time before night entirely cloaked the North Sea. A little after 8.20pm, Hipper’s bruised battle-cruisers ran into half a dozen British counterparts – some mauled, others virtually unscathed. 

For 20 or so minutes, the two sides again traded shells – mostly in the RN’s favour (eight hits to one in return) before Beatty decided his quarry was too indistinct to continue shooting. At 8.40pm, his guns fell silent. 

Never again in the Great War would capital ships engage in action.

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Battle of Jutland Centenary

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