Involving some 250 ships and 100,000 men, this battle off Denmark’s North Sea coast was the only major naval surface engagement of World War I. The battle began in the afternoon of May 31, 1916, with gunfire between the German and British scouting forces. When the main warships met, British Admiral John Jellicoe maneuvered his boats to take advantage of the fading daylight, scoring dozens of direct hits that eventually forced German Admiral Reinhard Scheer into retreat. Both sides claimed victory in this indecisive battle, though Britain retained control of the North Sea.
The British Grand Fleet enjoyed a numerical advantage over the German High Sea Fleet of 37:27 in heavy units and 113:72 in light support craft. It also enjoyed the advantage of having broken German signal codes. There were two major phases of the battle. At 4:48 p.m. on May 31, 1916, the scouting forces of Vice Admirals David Beatty and Franz Hipper commenced a running artillery duel at fifteen thousand yards in the Skagerrak (Jutland), just off Denmark’s North Sea coast. Hipper’s ships took a severe pounding but survived due to their superior honeycomb hull construction. Beatty lost three battle cruisers due to lack of antiflash protection in the gun turrets, which allowed fires started by incoming shells to reach the powder magazines. Commenting that “[t]here seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today,” Beatty after this initial encounter turned north and lured the Germans onto the Grand Fleet.
The second phase of the battle started at 7:15 p.m., when Admiral John Jellicoe brought his ships into a single battle line by executing a 90-degree wheel to port. Gaining the advantage of the fading light, he cut the Germans off from their home base and twice crossed the High Sea Fleet’s “T.” Admiral Reinhard Scheer’s ships took seventy direct hits, while scoring but twenty against Jellicoe: Scheer’s fleet escaped certain annihilation only by executing three brilliant 180-degree battle turns away. By the full darkness at 10:00 p.m., British losses amounted to 6,784 men and 111,000 tons, and German losses to 3,058 men and 62,000 tons.
Kaiser Wilhelm II Wilhelm II (Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert; 27 January 1859 – 4 June 1941), anglicised as William II, was the last German Emperor (Kaiser) and King of Prussia. His reign lasted from 15 June 1888 to 9 November 1918. Despite strengthening Germany’s position as a great power by building a blue-water navy and promoting scientific innovation, his tactless public statements and reckless foreign policy greatly antagonized the international community and ultimately plunged his country into World War I. When the German war effort collapsed after a series of crushing defeats on the Western Front in 1918, he was forced to abdicate, thereby bringing an end to the Hohenzollern dynasty’s three hundred year rule.
Wilhelm II (q.v.) showered his sailors with Iron Crosses and his admirals with kisses; nevertheless, by early morning, June 1, Jellicoe stood off Wilhelmshaven with twenty-four untouched dreadnoughts and battle cruisers, while Scheer kept his ten battle-ready heavy units in port. Three German battle cruisers and three dreadnoughts required extensive repairs.
Strategically, Jutland proved as decisive as the Battle of Trafalgar. The German High Sea Fleet had been driven home and would put out to sea only three more times on minor sweeps. Like the French after Trafalgar, the Germans now turned to commerce raiding. In his after-action report to the kaiser on July 4, Scheer eschewed future surface encounters with the Grand Fleet because of its “great material superiority” and advantageous “military-geographical position,” and instead demanded “the defeat of British economic life–that is, by using the U-boats against British trade.” Although the British public was disappointed with Jutland, Winston Churchill percipiently noted that Jellicoe was the one man who could have lost the war in an afternoon. Jutland instead proved Jellicoe’s mettle.
The signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, at Compiègne, France, effectively ended the First World War. The Allied powers agreed that Germany’s U-boat fleet should be surrendered without the possibility of return, but were unable to agree upon a course of action regarding the German surface fleet. The Americans suggested that the ships be interned in a neutral port until a final decision was reached, but the two countries that were approached – Norway and Spain – both refused. Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss suggested that the fleet be interned at Scapa Flow with a skeleton crew of German sailors, and guarded in the interim by the Grand Fleet.
The scuttling of the German fleet took place at the Royal Navy’s base at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands of Scotland, shortly after the First World War. The High Seas Fleet was interned there under the terms of the Armistice whilst negotiations took place over the fate of the ships. Wikipedia
On the night of 15 November, Rear-Admiral Hugo Meurer, the representative of Admiral Franz von Hipper, met Admiral David Beattyaboard Beatty’s flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth. Beatty presented Meurer with the terms, which were expanded at a second meeting the following day. The U-boats were to surrender to Rear-Admiral Reginald Tyrwhitt at Harwich, under the supervision of the Harwich Force. The surface fleet was to sail to the Firth of Forth and surrender to Beatty. They would then be led to Scapa Flow and interned, pending the outcome of the peace negotiations. Meurer asked for an extension to the deadline, aware that the sailors were still in a mutinous mood (which earlier had led to the Wilhelmshaven mutiny), and that the officers might have difficulty in getting them to obey orders. Meurer eventually signed the terms after midnight.
The first craft to be surrendered were the U-boats, which began to arrive at Harwich on 20 November 1918; 176 were eventually handed over. Hipper refused to lead his fleet to the surrender, delegating the task to Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter. The German fleet was met by the light cruiser Cardiff on the morning of 21 November, and led to the rendezvous with over 370 ships of the Grand Fleet and other allied navies. There were 70 German ships in total; the battleship König and the light cruiser Dresden had engine trouble and had to be left behind. The destroyer V30 struck a mine while crossing, and sank.
The German ships were escorted into the Firth of Forth, where they anchored. Beatty signalled them:
The fleet was then moved between 25 and 27 November to Scapa Flow; the destroyers to Gutter Sound and the battleships and cruisers to the north and west of the island of Cava. Eventually, a total of 74 ships were interned there, König and Dresden having arrived on 6 December accompanied by the destroyer V129, which replaced the sunken V30. The last ship to arrive was the battleship Baden on 9 January 1919. Initially, the interned ships were guarded by the Battle Cruiser Force (later reduced to the Battle Cruiser Squadron), commanded in succession by Vice-Admiral William Pakenham, Rear-Admiral Henry Oliver and Rear-Admiral Roger Keyes. On 1 May 1919, Vice-Admiral Leveson and the Second Battle Squadron of the Atlantic Fleet took over guard duties, and were succeeded on 18 May by Vice-Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle and the First Battle Squadron.
Of the 74 German ships interned at Scapa Flow, 52 (or an equivalent of about 400,000 tons of material) were scuttled within five hours, representing the greatest loss of shipping in a single day in history.
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