The naval program of Tirpitz and Wilhelm II had earned the irritation and subsequently the enmity of England’s admiralty, and the search for the proper response became a continuous issue of British politics between 1890 and 1914, second only to the Irish question. Great Britain’s survival policy was never to let any single power dominate the continent, and in particular, the Channel ports, and thus the Royal Navy’s supremacy of the oceans must never be jeopardized. Hence, Britannia’s strategy was always to oppose the powers-that-be on the continent and side with the lesser nations. To support the “underdogs” also made for excellent political propaganda.
Great Britain was a sea power, and thus the strategic view of her admiralty upon possible conflicts with European land powers was one tied upon the evolution of naval warfare in the Belle Époque. The Royal Navy had dominated the seas since Nelson’s victory over the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805. The British Empire, unlike, say, Russia, depended upon the maintenance of naval pre-eminence for its economical and political survival: power over the oceans supplied cheap transport, preserved the trade and communication lines and provided the defence of the colonies and the home waters. These were the classic duties of the ships which flew the White Ensign.
In the last decade of the 19th Century, a cabal of German nationalists, history professors and other assorted lunatics convinced Kaiser Wilhelm II to build the “Hochseeflotte” or “High Seas Fleet“, a gigantic armada-at-sea which would equal or even surpass the might of the Royal Navy. Since there was simply no strategic reason for the eccentric undertaking, Great Britain could not interpret it as anything but a maritime challenge, as evidence of hostile intentions. These were all too real, considering Wilhelm’s hate for his English mother.
The equilibrium of the global battle fleets, or “ships of the line”, as they were called, had been completely upset in 1906 by the Royal Navy’s presentation, to an astonished world, of the new battleship Dreadnought, a design that immediately rendered all other capital warships obsolete. Her builders had rejected the amalgamate of small-, medium-, and large-calibre guns traditionally carried by capital ships in favour of outfitting her with only a single class of artillery, the biggest available. Thus, Dreadnought’s principal armaments were ten 12-inch [305 mm, ¶] guns, in five twin turrets.
The importance of the calibre, the diameter of the gun’s bore, lies in the fact that, with identical propellants, the effective radius of a ship’s artillery depends on the first order on its calibre; the greater the calibre, all other things being equal, the further the projectile flies, and thus the greater the radius in which the ship can bring her fire to effect. In other words, the shells of a 12-inch gun fly farther than those of a 10-inch gun, and the ship with the bigger guns can sink the opponent from a safe distance without being exposed to return fire.
The second peculiarity of Dreadnought’s revolutionary design was the thickness and the distribution of her armour: by avoiding to spend armour on non-essential systems of the ship, the constructors were able to use plates up to eleven inches thick covering the most important sections, an arrangement which became known as “all-or-nothing” armoury. The drawbacks of the massive metal coverings and the colossal guns were, of course, their contribution to the ship’s immense weight and the consequent reduction of her speed. The Dreadnoughts were rather slow for modern men-of-war, their maximum speed hovering around the twenty-knot mark. The whole conception of the Dreadnought class rendered them supremely fit for the slugfests of battling other capital ships; their low speed disabled them, however, from being used in the other half of naval warfare, the economic or cruiser war.
The word “cruiser” was coined in the 18th Century and originally denoted any warship on detached duty as a commerce raider. In the second half of the 19th Century, following the improvements in steam engines and gun technology, cruisers began to be outfitted with armour: if the ship in question had an armoured deck but no side armour she was called a “protected” cruiser, if she had both, she was called an “armoured” cruiser. The importance of cruiser warfare lies, of course, in the impediment of the flow of the opponent’s war supplies; the cruisers preferred prey were fat merchants, coal ships, or oilers. Yet, the indispensable need for speed, to chase the prey but to escape superior ships, limited the weight of armour and the size of guns available in cruiser design.
In the first decade of the 20th Century, the Royal Navy’s engineers conceived a compromise in design which at length became the so-called “battlecruiser“. A proper battle cruiser, so the idea, was to combine the guns of a Dreadnought, albeit a lesser number of them, to save weight, with as much armour as possible while retaining high speeds. The first British battle cruiser was commissioned in 1907, only a year after “Dreadnought“, and, quite modestly, named “Invincible“.
Human genius has frequently attempted to combine the advantages of two types, or designs, of weapons, while simultaneously striving to avoid their peculiar weaknesses. The creation of the battlecruiser was such an exercise in genius. Robert Massie explains (Dreadnought, Ballantine Books 1992, ISBN 978-0-345-37556-8, pp. 491 ff.):
France – still the potential enemy [pre-1890, ¶] – had provoked Admiralty concerns by suddenly launching a series of big cruisers capable of 21 knots. These ships were the brainchild of a school of French admirals who, despairing that France would ever be able to match Britain battleship for battleship, concluded that the best way to bring down the maritime colossus was to unleash a pack of swift, deadly cruisers and torpedo boats that could attack and cripple Britain’s vulnerable overseas merchandise trade. British admirals grasped the threat. Their reaction was to produce the anti-cruiser cruiser, a ship even faster, stronger and more heavily gunned, to hunt down and sink anything the French sent out.
These ships, designed to fight, not simply to shadow and report, were given more armour and called armoured cruisers. Class after class was designed, launched and sent to sea… In all, there were thirty-five of these British armoured cruisers, some of them as big, or bigger, than the Royal Sovereign or Majestic class battleships. Yet no matter how big they got or how impressive they looked, they were never expected to fight battleships. …
This was Fisher’s understanding and purpose too, at least in the beginning. [Admiral Fisher headed the design committee of the Royal Navy which was to draw up “Dreadnought” and other ships, ¶] His first battlecruisers were intended to be the ultimate in armoured cruisers, so fast and heavily gunned that they could overtake and destroy any other cruiser in the world. … Fisher wrote to Lord Selbourne [First Sea Lord, in March 1902, ¶] that he was working with Gard, the Chief Constructor of the Malta Dockyard, on a design for an armoured cruiser which would make all existing armoured cruisers obsolete.
Fisher called the hypothetical ship H.M.S. Perfection, and at the top of the list of her design characteristics he put “Full Power Speed of 25 Knots.”… The Sea Lords’ response was not everything Fisher had hoped. They authorized the Warrior and Minotaur classes, big ships with 9.2-inch guns and a speed of 23 knots, two knots beneath that what Fisher had demanded for Perfection.
Meanwhile, other admiralties were experimenting. Towards the end of 1904, word reached London that Japan was lying down two large, 21-knot armoured cruisers, each carrying four 12-inch guns and twelve 6-inch. In Italy, four Cuniberti-designed ships carrying two 12-inch and twelve 8-inch guns and capable of 21 knots were on the way. Foreigners were creeping on Perfection.
In February 1905, once Fisher’s design committee had completed the plans for Dreadnought, Perfection appeared. No longer did Fisher have to urge his projects on the Admiralty; now he was the Admiralty. [He had become First Sea Lord in 1904, ¶] And in the Fisher era, he immediately made clear, British commerce was to be protected not by scattering armoured cruisers around the world, but by building a few, immensely fast, powerful ships which could hunt down and destroy enemy cruisers wherever they fled – if necessary, “to the world’s end.”
By then, of course, the potential threat had changed nationality; it was not French cruisers that worried the Admiralty, but German ocean liners, the huge, swift, blue-water greyhounds of the North-German Lloyd and Hamburg-Amerika Lines, being constructed with a capacity to carry 6-inch guns. Designed to whisk passengers across the North Atlantic in five or six days, they could easily outrun any existing British cruiser.
Speed, then, was the preeminent requirement; speed to overtake the enemy and speed also for the new ship’s own defence: she must be able to keep out of range of battleship guns. Fisher fixed the minimum absolute margin at four knots, and, since he was building the Dreadnought to steam 21 knots, H.M.S. Perfection must be able to steam at 25 knots. Fisher also wanted maximum firepower. The biggest guns available were 12-inch, already being installed on new armoured cruisers and fast battleships by the Italians and Japanese. Having successfully argued the case for the all-big-gun battleship, Fisher now demanded an all-big-gun armoured cruiser.
Once again, the faithful and imaginative Gard gave the Admiral what he wanted. Perfection, which was to become the Invincible-class battle cruiser, came off the drawing board with eight 12-inch guns in four twin turrets. Fisher was overjoyed. With 25-knot speed and eight 12-inch guns, here was a warship capable of destroying any vessel fast enough to catch it, and fast enough to escape any vessel capable of destroying it. She could “mop up” a whole squadron of enemy cruisers with the greatest of ease, using her speed to establish her range and her long-range guns to sink the enemy without exposing herself to return fire.
She had only a single flaw: her armour was too light. Like Sleeping Beauty, for whom life was serene as long as she stayed away from spindles, the Invincible and her sisters could lead happy lives as long as they stayed away from battleships. Her speed was a precious, expensive commodity, and had been purchased at a heavy price.
The three vital characteristics of a warship – guns, speed and armour – are interrelated. A designer could not have everything: if heavy guns and heavy armour were required, then speed had to be curtailed; this was the compromise built into most battleships. If a higher speed was demanded and heavy guns retained, armour had to be sacrificed. This was the case with the Invincible and her sisters. To gain four precious knots of speed, the Invincible gave up one turret and two twelve-inch guns of Dreadnought’s armament.
This saved two thousand tons, which could be invested in propulsion machinery. A more dangerous sacrifice was made in armour. The Dreadnought, intended to steam through a cataclysm of shell bursts, was fitted along her belt amidships with armour plate eleven inches thick, enough to stop a plunging heavy shell. Over the Invincible’s vital midship spaces, the belt armour was only seven inches thick. If the battle cruiser’s mission was to scout or to engage enemy cruisers, seven inches of armour would keep her safe. But if she were to be deliberately taken within range of enemy battleships, seven inches were not enough. … Some naval experts saw the potential danger. Brassey’s Naval Annual said: “… [The problem with] vessels of this enormous size and cost [is that] an admiral having Invincibles in his fleet will be certain to put them in the line of battle where their comparatively light protection will be a disadvantage and their high speed of no value.” In short, because she looked like a battleship and carried a battleship’s guns, sooner or later Invincible would be expected to fight like a battleship.
Since no good deed goes unpunished, the Germans adopted the hermaphroditic concept and built their own battlecruisers.
Because the two nations had built capital ships at frantic speed and with enormous cost for fifteen years, everybody expected a thunderous clash to occur within the war’s opening months. But the first two years of the conflict only saw minor engagements. On August 28, 1914, Admiral Sir David Beatty’s squadron of battle cruisers cornered a mixed German flotilla of cruisers and destroyers in the Heligoland Bight and sank three respectively one of them. In January 1915, an encounter between Beatty’s fleet and a few German battlecruisers at the Dogger Bank led to the loss of the German “Blücher” and severe damage to the “Seydlitz“, while the British “Tiger” and “Lion” suffered lesser impairments.
The Germans had scored big in October 1914 when a single mine sunk the brand-new British battleship Audacious. Somewhat smaller successes were achieved by the U-boats [“Unterseeboot”, i.e. submarines, ¶]. U 9 sank three old British cruisers, the “Aboukir“, “Hogue“ and “Cressy“, in September 1914 and U 24 sank the older battleship “Formidable” on January 1, 1915. [See Post The Lethal Submarines]
Lack of action in the North Sea ended when the German Admiral Reinhard Scheer was invested with the command of the High Seas Fleet in January 1916. In a quest for a solution to the numerical superiority of the Royal Navy, he concentrated on Beatty’s battlecruiser division, which was by now stationed at Rosyth near Edinburgh. If he played his cards well, he thought it possible to lure Beatty’s ships into a trap and destroy them before the Home Fleet, anchored at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, could come to their rescue. Scheer’s plan took into account that the Grand Fleet was bigger than the High Seas Fleet by about 40%, but the multitudes of duties she had to perform necessarily meant that she was spread over the oceans. If he could bring momentarily superior forces against a smaller part of the Grand Fleet, he could overcome the numerical deficit and victory might be possible.
One tactical variable in his plan remained a question mark to him as well as to his opponents on the British side: it was the uncertainty of how the battlecruisers would fare if they faced battleships. On another tactical variable he had to trust his luck, in regard to how early or late British naval intelligence would discover his sortie. In May 1916, his plans condensed in a scheme to lure Beatty’s squadron, composed of six battlecruisers and four battleships anchored in Rosyth, southward, by dangling before Beatty’s eyes a bait of a few German battlecruisers. Since these ships were too fast for the British Dreadnoughts harboured at Scapa Flow, only Beatty’s flotilla had a chance to catch them. As soon as Beatty was informed about the German vanguard and set out to intercept it, the German battlecruisers would turn south and lead the British ships into the trap, the guns of Scheer’s battleships.
In the event, the vanguard consisted of five German battlecruisers under the command of Admiral Franz von Hipper, plus assorted escorts, which sailed northward along the western coast of Denmark on the morning of May 31, 1916. Scheer followed about fifty miles further south, but his luck was not up to date. British signal intelligence had intercepted and decoded German radio transmissions regarding Scheer’s plans for a major operation as early as mid-May and informed Admiral John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet. Scheer had barely passed Heligoland when Beatty’s battlecruisers were sent on their way south, followed, at a distance of perhaps seventy miles, by the battleships from Scapa Flow. The Brits had reversed the role of trapper and bait.
In terms of tonnage and weaponry, the engagement that was to occur became the biggest of naval history yet. The High Seas Fleet had mobilized sixteen Dreadnoughts, six older battleships, five battlecruisers, eleven light cruisers and sixty-one destroyers (99 combat ships). Jellicoe’s combined fleets comprised twenty-eight Dreadnoughts, nine battlecruisers, eight armoured cruisers, twenty-six light cruisers, seventy-eight destroyers, a seaplane carrier and a minesweeper (151 combat ships).
Contact occurred at 2 p.m. when both sides’ destroyer screens chanced to investigate the same neutral merchant ship and thus ran into each other. Their radios alerted the battlecruiser fleets of Hipper and Beatty which now turned on a collision course. Beatty’s five battlecruisers, sailing ahead of the battleships, sighted Hipper’s flotilla at around 4 p.m. and opened fire. In the battle cruiser duel, the shortcomings of the design were cruelly exposed. Beatty’s own flagship, “Lion“, was heavily damaged by hits from “Lützow“, Hipper’s flagship, but things got worse:
“Indefatigable“, duelling with the German “Von der Tann“, suffered an internal explosion which literally tore her asunder; only minutes later, “Queen Mary” exploded and sank after having received a salvo from “Derfflinger“. Only eight men survived. German ships showed much less vulnerability to the impact of British shells – whether it was better armour or a problem with the English fuses is still much discussed.
The post-battle investigation established that the German shells had penetrated the weak armour belt protecting the propellant storerooms, where the essentially unstable charges were stockpiled in the open, to be forwarded to the gun turrets. The explosion of the shell subsequently caused the detonation of the ship’s main magazine. Beatty’s first line was thus quickly reduced, but the elation aboard Hipper’s ships was of short duration. When the four British battleships emerged from the clouds of smoke and palls of rain, it was Hipper’s time to reverse course, Beatty in pursuit.
Half an hour later, the British vanguard recognized Scheer’s battleships coming up on the horizon as expected, and now it was their turn to reverse northwards, to lead Scheer into the direction of the ambush, Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet, which closed in swiftly. The slugfest continued through all these entertaining chases, and now favoured the British, who could bring the fire of their battleships’ new 15-inch guns to bear. Several hits severely damaged “Seydlitz”, again, after her unfortunate experience at the Dogger Bank and proved at least that German battlecruisers were just as vulnerable to well-aimed shells as were the British ones. “Seydlitz”‘s troubles caused disarray in Scheer’s battle formation at the exact moment when, in a confused situation, a German salvo found “Invincible”. She blew up, and her fragments joined her younger sisters in their North Sea grave. That was, however, the last lucky pot-shot for Scheer who faced an increasing curtain of 15-inch gun shells. At around six in the evening, overpowered, he decided to pull out of the game.
There might have ended, inconclusively, an already unsatisfactory encounter [from the British point of view, ¶]. Scheer, however, then decided to turn back, perhaps to come to the assistance of the damaged light cruiser “Wiesbaden” which had been left behind, perhaps because he judged that he could pass astern of Jellicoe’s fleet as it continued its advance towards the Heligoland Bight, while he made his escape through the Skagerrak into the Baltic. Jellicoe, however, once again reduced speed, with the result that the German Dreadnoughts, heading north-east, encountered the British heading south-east, and steering to pass their rear so as to cut them off from safety.
At the moment of encounter moreover, the British were deployed in line abreast, the Germans in line ahead, a relative position, known as “crossing the enemy’s T,” that greatly favoured the British. More of their guns could be brought to bear than could those of the German fleet, ranked one ship behind the other, which thus also presented an easier target. Ten minutes of gunnery, in which the Germans suffered twenty-seven hits by large-calibre shells, the British only two, persuaded Scheer to turn away again into the dark eastern horizon, leaving his battle cruisers and lighter ships to cover his retreat in a “death ride.”
The torpedo threat they presented caused Jellicoe to turn away also – for which he has ever afterwards been reproached – and, by the time he turned back, Scheer had put ten miles between his dreadnoughts and the pursuit. Many German ships remained to cover Scheer’s flight, including his squadron of vulnerable pre-Dreadnoughts, and in a series of dusk and night actions, they suffered losses. So, too, did the British cruisers and destroyers that remained in contact. By the morning of 1 June, when Scheer had his fleet home, he had lost a battlecruiser, a pre-Dreadnought, four light cruisers and five destroyers. Jellicoe, though remaining in command of the North Sea, had lost three battlecruisers, four armoured cruisers and eight destroyers; 6,094 British sailors had died, 2,551 German.
As far as tactical issues were concerned, the “Battle of Jutland,” as the Royal Navy called it, or “Battle of the Skagerrak”, as it became known in Germany, was a success for the young High Seas Fleet: both German armour and ammunition had proven superior to the British armaments. In terms of strategy, however, the advantage of controlling the North Sea and hence the approaches to the Atlantic Ocean remained with Great Britain; for the rest of the war the German fleet remained at anchor and ceased to be a threat to the Empire. The international press described the encounter at Jutland as an “attack on the gaoler, followed by a return to jail.” The German ships’ peaceful rusting in port was only disturbed in 1919, when a clause of the armistice commanded the fleet’s internment at Scapa Flow. The crews sailed the ships to the Orkney Islands as ordered but scuttled them after arrival, so that they would not fall into British hands.
The true casualties of Jutland were the battle cruisers which vanished from the arsenals of the modern navies as quick as they had appeared.
(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)