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Happy Jutland Day!

[ 0 ] May 31, 2006 |

This is the fifth and final post in a series commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland.

Part I: SMS Lutzow
Part II: HMS Lion
Part III: SMS Friedrich Der Grosse
Part IV: HMS Iron Duke

These ships also participated in the battle:

HMS Barham
HMS Warspite
HMS New Zealand
HMS Canada
HMS Invincible
SMS Ostfriesland
SMS Schleswig-Holstein

The battle is counted as a tactical German victory and a strategic British victory. British losses (3 battlecruisers, 3 armored cruisers, 8 destroyers, and 6097 sailors) were heavier than German (1 battlecruiser, 1 pre-dreadnought, 4 light cruisers, 5 destroyers, and 2551 sailors), but several German ships were very badly damaged, and the High Seas Fleet did not play a significant role in the rest of the war. Allied surface naval dominance would continue to increase, and the Germans would turn to the submarine to win the naval war. Moreover, while it’s easy to imagine scenarios in which the British inflict much more damage on the High Seas Fleet, it’s hard to see how the Germans could have done much better than they did.

I’ve already suggested that I don’t think that a British decisive victory would have significantly changed the course of the war. What about a German decisive victory? Let’s assume that Scheer had managed to pull of a Nelson at Trafalgar. Let’s say that the High Seas Fleet manages to destroy 20 of the 28 British dreadnoughts and six of the nine battlecruisers, while only suffering losses of one battleship and one battlecruiser. That’s wildly implausible given the technology of the day, but we’ll accept it for the sake of argument. The Germans had one dreadnought in reserve, bringing their total to 16 dreadnoughts and four battlecruisers. The British had two dreadnoughts and one battlecruiser in reserve, giving them 10 dreadnoughts and 4 battlecruisers. This would seem to leave the Germans with a substantial, and potentially war-winning, advantage.

But not so fast. France had seven dreadnoughts that weren’t doing anything particularly vital in the Mediterranean. It’s likely that these would have been immediately incorporated in the Grand Fleet. The six Italian dreadnoughts were plenty to counter the four Austrian ships, leaving the Allies in control of the Med. British construction was also more advanced than German. Two battlecruisers and three battleships would enter the Royal Navy in 1916, compared with one battlecruiser and two battleships for the German fleet. By the end of 1916, assuming no further losses on either side, the Grand Fleet would have consisted of twenty dreadnoughts and six battlecruisers, while the High Seas Fleet would have had eighteen dreadnoughts and five battlecruisers. In short, having won one Trafalgar, Scheer would have had to win another Trafalgar to achieve a decisive superiority over the Royal Navy. This would have had to be done before US entry into the war (which might well have been accelerated by a German victory at Jutland), and the commitment of twelve additional dreadnoughts (not including the slow Michigan and South Carolina) to the Allied cause. Also, had the Allies needed them, the two Brazilian dreadnoughts almost certainly would have been put into service more quickly than they were. Finally, Japan had four battlecruisers and six dreadnoughts that the British attempted to lease during the war. Japan eventually committed a naval squadron to the Mediterranean, and it’s not wholly unreasonable to think that a disaster at Jutland might have forced the British to make concessions necessary for additional Japanese assistance.

Of course, this doesn’t include the effect on British morale, which might have suffered dramatically from a German decisive victory. Then again, British morale didn’t collapse at the height of the U-boat campaign. The fall of France in 1940 might be counted as a reasonably similar event, and it didn’t result in a British collapse. It’s possible that a German victory could have driven Britain from the war, but unlikely.

It’s strange that a battle of this caliber, representing so much investment from both sides, had so little impact on the course of the war and involved so little damage to the belligerents involved. Jutland would be the only major conflict in either war between fleets of dreadnought battleships. Battleship combat in World War II would never involve more than one or two ships on either side, and the aircraft carrier, especially in the Pacific, would come to dominate naval warfare.

Other Jutland Resources:

Wikipedia
World War I Naval Combat
Battle of Jutland.com
Daily Mirror/BBC

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