May 31, 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the largest naval engagement of World War I. In the North Sea off the coast of Denmark, the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet, 250 ships and 105,000 men, fought in poor visibility through the night and into the wee hours of June 1. At the end of the twelve-hour battle, the Royal Navy had lost 14 ships and 6,000 men (including three admirals), the German Imperial Navy 11 ships and 2,500 men. Both sides claimed victory, as neither fleet had vanquished its foe. The Germans escaped to their base at Wilhelmshaven and the British retained their supremacy on the high seas.
There were three phases to the battle: a running fight between the battle cruisers, two very short encounters between the dreadnoughts (battleships), and a confused night engagement. In the first phase, Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, having spotted the German line under Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper, maneuvered his ships to block Hipper’s supposed retreat to his home base. In actuality, Hipper was leading Beatty into the teeth of the High Seas Fleet. The battle cruisers pounded away at one another for roughly one hour. Indefatigable, under a massive barrage from Von der Tann, exploded in a sheet of flame, taking 1,015 officers and men with her as she sank by the stern below the waves. There were just two survivors. Twenty-five minutes later, taking salvos from Derfflinger and Seydlitz, Queen Mary blew up, rolled over, and sank, her propellers still turning. She left behind a black, thick cloud of smoke and eight survivors of her crew of 1,258.
Commodore Goodenough on Southampton saw 16 German dreadnoughts steaming north, the High Seas Fleet under the command of Admiral Reinhard Scheer, and signaled the intelligence to Beatty. Fourteen minutes after Queen Mary’s destruction, Beatty headed north to lead Hipper and Scheer into the Grand Fleet. The four battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron, part of Beatty’s command, were somewhat behind the battle cruisers as the ships turned north. The dreadnoughts took heavy fire from the German battle cruisers and fleet, but gave Beatty a respite.
Beatty’s line had effectively screened the Grand Fleet, under command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, from Hipper and Scheer. The Germans had wanted a stern chase that ended with the annihilation of a smaller force. Instead, they were headed straight for the Grand Fleet and possibly their own destruction. Jellicoe moved his vessels so that they crossed Scheer’s “T,” a classic naval maneuver that subjected the German fleet to the concentrated fire of the British dreadnoughts. Scheer ordered a “Battle Turn” to escape the onslaught. For some reason, never satisfactorily explained, Scheer executed a second “Battle Turn” that headed his fleet back into Jellicoe’s trap. The brunt of the fighting fell on the German battle cruisers, now severely damaged from sustained hits. Once again, Scheer executed a “Battle Turn” to get away from the British guns.
As dusk fell, the German fleet vanished. There were several encounters throughout the night between British destroyer flotillas and light cruiser squadrons and portions of the German fleet, but Scheer was able to get past Jellicoe in the dark and return to his base at Wilhelmshaven. Never again during the war did the High Seas Fleet venture forth to challenge the Grand Fleet. The failure, however, of the British Navy to crush its enemy led to questions about the conduct of the battle and criticism of the commanding officers, controversy which has continued into the present century.
Der Deutsche Sieg vor dem Skagerrak am 31. Mai 1916 by Georg Oskar Immanuel von Hase