The Night Action

Nightfall found the Grand Fleet to the east of the High Seas Fleet, steaming on roughly parallel courses to the south-south-east.

Deprived of victory in daylight and ill-equipped and unprepared for a night battle – unlike the Germans, whose ships were fitted with better searchlights and bristled with torpedo tubes – Jellicoe resolved to cut his foe off from his base and complete the destruction of the German Fleet. 

He guessed – correctly – that Scheer’s battered ships would head for home by the shortest route, via the Horns Reef, then on to Heligoland and Wilhelmshaven. At first light – six hours hence – the Royal Navy would be waiting to intercept them for a truly Glorious First of June. The Grand Fleet steamed through the darkness at 17 knots.

But at the rear of the Grand Fleet’s extended lines, crews of the destroyers of the 4th Flotilla – largely separated from the rest of the British forces – began to notice the blurry outline of vessels. 

Jutland 100

They closed to within a mile of the strange shapes – cruisers scouting ahead of the main High Seas Fleet. The searchlights were switched on and the secondary armament brought to bear on the attackers, as Petty Officer Artificer Heinrich Petry on battleship SMS Westfalen recalled:

“An order sounds through the blackness of the night: “Searchlights on! Fire salvoes!”

“The gun commander presses the electrical firing mechanism and a blood-curdling blow is delivered as six 15cm and eight 8.8cm shells leave their barrels; like bolts of lightning they seek out the steel body of the enemy and turn into huge sheets of flame. Glowing yellow, tragic yet beautiful, like a blazing conflagration, follows his course. 

"On the bow, the number 60 – Tipperary, an English destroyer flotilla leader – is recognisable. Salvo after salvo pours from the German iron mouths into the North Sea night. But those on the blazing enemy ship are no cowards: suddenly, between two and four torpedoes leave their tubes heading for the German lines. 

"It was only thanks to God’s good grace that they missed their target. Amid the bursting and exploding and shells one man stands on the aft gun and carries out his duty, until he’s surrounded by a ring of fire, and he dies for his mother country. 

"Ablaze, the destroyer moves out of the Westfalen’s field of fire and then our sister ship, Nassau, dispatches it to the deep. The waves of the North Sea silently close over the proud British ship with its brave crew.”

A string of British small ships suffered similar fates this night: HMS Ardent and Fortune were sunk, HMS Spitfire mauled, while the aged German battleship Pommern exploded when hit by a British torpedo; every one of her 844 crew was killed.

SMS Lützow never saw dawn either. She was abandoned in the middle of the night, while the Wiesbaden also foundered.

Despite these fleeting encounters, the night was largely dull and monotonous for most men.

While the Britons dreamed of annihilating the German Fleet at dawn, Scheer and Hipper had guided their ships to safety; travelling more slowly than Jellicoe’s armada, the Germans simply crossed the British ‘wake’ to reach the relative safety of the Horns Reef.

When dawn on Thursday June 1 came – around 3.30am – the North Sea appeared empty of German warships. The Battle of Jutland was over.

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