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The Battle of Jutland

The Battle of Jutland was the most important sea battle for Britain in the First World War. Lasting less than two days, the action in the North Sea helped to define the course of the war and made a real difference to actions that would be taken subsequently.

The naval race between Germany and Britain in the decade before the First World War had been one of the causes of tension between the two powers. The Germans had declared that it intended to build a Navy to rival that of Great Britain, who was considered to have the most powerful and impressive naval fleet of the time. Britain had met the challenge. 

Despite Germany’s creation of a new Navy, it always had one fundamental problem -  access to the oceans. Germany’s coast was in the North of the country, part of the Baltic Sea, and in order to get out to the wider oceans it needed to pass through the channel between Denmark and Sweden and close to the British coast.

When War was declared in 1914, the British Royal Navy, the best in the world, went into immediate defensive action. It deployed part of the fleet up in Scotland to block the German fleet’s exit out of the Baltic Sea, and other vessels in the Mediterranean Sea to block German and Austrian shipping and supplies. The British also laid mines in the North Sea and kept constant patrols going so that the German fleet did not dare to venture out of its harbours. The blockade also meant that the Germans could not get vital supplies into their ports. 

To get round the blockades by British vessels, the Germans tried to use their U-boats (submarines) to attack Allied shipping. In May 1915, the passenger liner Lusitania sank after being hit by a torpedo fired from a U-boat. Over 1,200 passengers on board were killed,120 of whom were American citizens. The United States government protested and Germany agreed that U-boats would rise to the surface to check on the shipping before they fired. These restrictions made the U-boats largely ineffective.

By early 1916, Germany badly needed supplies and to stop Britain’s supply chain. Leading the British Naval defence in the North Sea was Admiral Sir John Jellicoe and his Grand Fleet, based at Scapa Flow in Orkney. 

To try and draw the British fleet out of its strong position, the German navy carried out small attacks on the Eastern coast of the UK. The build-up was slow but it was inevitable that, at some point, the two sides would have to engage in battle. The British had an extra advantage – Naval Intelligence had been able to listen in to the German Navy’s radio messages and, after breaking the codes, they knew all about the German fleet and its movements. 

31st May – 1st June  

Since attacks on the British coast failed to bring the British out, the Germans decided to put a fleet of 40 ships out to sea on the 31st May. The British now responded with Admiral Beatty leading the battlecruisers and Admiral Jellicoe in charge of the Grand Fleet. The two sides met off the coast of Denmark – Jutland. The Germans has some initial success, destroying some of the battlecruisers, but once the two British fleets joined up they hugely outnumbered the German fleet. Even using smaller swifter ships, the Germans were no match for the experienced and forceful British Navy. 

Like many sea battles, the details of what happened can be confusing as the two sides were firing at each other at a distance of around 10 miles. Eventually, the Germans tried to make a break for their port and after some further firing they returned home. 

The Germans initially claimed a victory at Jutland - the British lost 14 ships and over 6,000 men, the Germans lost 11 ships and over 2,500 men. However, the British had not lost any of their main battleships, while the Germans had. This meant that the British were prepared for action again the next day, while the Germans could not mount a serious naval force to break out of the North Sea for the rest of the war. 

Jutland had a profound effect on the war. As the Germans were unable to get their main navy out of the Baltic to stop British shipping, they had to resume unrestricted U-Boat attacks. This, in turn, caused America to declare war on Germany. 

As a result of the Jutland defeat, Germany could not protect the supplies it needed, while America joining the war and assisting in the patrolling of the Atlantic, made a huge impact on German war production and on the Home Front food supplies and morale. 

Therefore, without a doubt, the British won the Battle of Jutland. Unfortunately, only one month later, the first horrific day of the Battle of the Somme would make any previous victories seem unimportant. 

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London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too

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