Before the battle

The ultimate sword of the Royal Navy in 1916 was the Grand Fleet, the striking force of warships held in readiness at ports and bases on the western shores of the North Sea.

The core of the fleet used Scapa Flow, the huge natural harbour in the Orkney Islands, as its distant, main base, from where it enforced a distant blockade on Germany.

From the outset of the Great War, the Royal Navy’s strategy was to cut Germany off from the outside world by strangling her overseas trade – and any imports.

While the British public had been reared to expect a 20th Century Trafalgar, the man in charge of the Grand Fleet had no intention of risking his warships unnecessarily.

Admiral Sir John Rushworth Jellicoe was hailed by newspapers as a modern-day Nelson. Diligent, calm, warm, he was arguably the finest sailor of his era; the men who served with him – able seamen up to captains – admired him greatly and were fiercely loyal.

Jutland 100
Admiral Sir John Jellicoe

But Command of the Grand Fleet was a position Jellicoe took reluctantly at the war’s outset. Cautious by nature, he saw the big picture and realised what was at stake, and wanted to direct any battle accordingly with a detailed set of instructions which rather stifled individual action.

Winston Churchill famously described him as “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon”; if the Grand Fleet lost to the Germans in battle, Britain’s lifelines on the Seven Seas would be threatened. John Jellicoe saw no reason to change his strategy.

The blockade was working. Germany was dying – albeit very slowly.

His deputy could not have been more different. Commanding the battle-cruiser force at at Rosyth, 200 miles to the south, was the flamboyant David Beatty.

He too was trumpeted as a worthy successor to Nelson by the press – though he lacked that great admiral’s attention to detail and calmness.

Beatty was youthful – a mere 45 to Jellicoe’s 56 – charismatic and personally brave – he’d fought in the Sudan and China – wealthy (he married an American heiress), popular with the men and media, but also arrogant, vain, impulsive and a womaniser.

His skirmishes with the Germans so far in the war had largely been unsatisfactory, but announced as great triumphs by the British press, like the clash with light German forces off Heligoland and battle-cruisers at Dogger Bank.

While Jellicoe eschewed battle, Beatty wished only to “get at ’em. If only they’d come out.” But he also understood his master’s caution: “If the German Fleet gets wiped out it really loses little,” he told journalists in early May 1916. “If we get wiped out, we lose everything.”

On the other side of the North Sea, David Beatty had a kindred spirit in the Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy, Reinhard Scheer.

Admiral Scheer
Admiral Reinhard Scheer

The Saxon had taken charge of the High Sea Fleet in January 1916 determined to wage war more aggressively. Scheer could never challenge the Grand Fleet in a straight fight, but he could perhaps bleed it white through gradual attrition, luring some of it to its destruction.

He had tried – and failed – to entice the British with a ‘tip and run’ raid against the East Coast in April.

As May 1916 drew to a close, Scheer schemed again. His battle-cruisers would head out towards the Skagerrak – the waters between the northern tip of Jutland and Norway. British cruisers and battle-cruisers would give chase and run into the guns of the entire High Seas Fleet.

Such was the plan. And the British already knew it, for they were reading German Navy radio traffic courtesy of the codebreakers of the Admiralty’s Room 40 – forerunners of Bletchley Park and, later, GCHQ.

By 9.30pm on Tuesday May 30, the first British ships were at sea – six hours ahead of their enemy.

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