Part I of a four part Jutland Series, in honor of the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland.
German shipbuilding was deeply affected not only by the construction of Dreadnought, but also by the construction of the battlecruiser Invincible. Although the debate between a cruiser navy and a battleship navy had largely been settled in the favor of battleships by 1906, Germany wanted to keep a respectable cruiser fleet. HMS Invincible, in response, was designed to hunt down and kill enemy armored cruisers. The Germans learned of the construction of Invincible, but German intelligence, unfortunately, misreported her armament as consisting of 9.2″ guns. The German response was the cruiser Blucher, a hybrid design that, because of her small guns and insufficient speed, was utterly outclassed by Invincible.
Nevertheless, German battlecruiser design advanced very quickly. Six German battlecruisers were complete by mid-1915, and most could be regarded as superior to their Royal Navy counterparts. Only five battlecruisers were available to the High Seas Fleet as the sixth, Goeben, had constituted the bulk of the German Mediterranean squadron. The German Navy learned at important lesson at the Battle of Dogger Bank (which did not incluede Lutzow) when Seydlitz almost exploded from a magazine fire. From that point forward, the Germans took extreme care with their magazine spaces, ensuring that no single hit could destroy a ship. The Royal Navy, sadly, would not learn this lesson until 1916.
SMS Lutzow, displacing 27000 tons, carrying 8 12″ guns in four twin turrets, and capable of 26.5 knots, was the flagship of Admiral Franz von Hipper on May 31, 1916. The German plan was to force an engagement against a portion of the Royal Navy, thereby weakening the whole. Contemporary naval theory suggested (correctly) that material advantage in a naval battle was exponential, rather than additive. In other words, a larger force could be expected to perform much better than a small force; numerical superiority was more important than usual. The High Seas Fleet could never defeat the Grand Fleet in open battle, but could hope to destroy a portion of it without significant cost. German battlecruisers would try to lure out the British battlecruisers, which would then be attacked with the whole of the High Seas Fleet. The Grand Fleet (including 24 of the 31 British dreadnoughts) was based at Scapa Flow, in the far north of Great Britain, and could not arrive in time to save the British battlecruisers. The Grand Fleet would be further hampered by pre-positioned U-boats.
The German move successfully lured out the British battlecruisers. The situation was ideal for the Germans, as the British battlecruiser squadron had been weakened by damage to HMS Australia and the temporary transfer of three older battlecruisers to Scapa Flow. The Royal Navy battlecruiser squadron under David Beatty would intercept Hipper’s battlecruisers with six, instead of ten, ships.
The German advantage was reinforced by tactical conditions and by Beatty’s incompetence. Four battleships of the Queen Elizabeth class, largest, fastest, and most powerful in the Royal Navy, had been placed under Beatty’s command. However, the battleships trailed the battlecruisers by a considerable distance, and would not join Beatty as quickly as possible due to signalling problems. The German ships were also favored by mid afternoon lighting conditions, and were able to fire first upon the British ships.
The German fire was devastating. Two of the six Royal Navy vessels suffered magazine explosions. A third, Beatty’s flagship Lion, was saved only by extraordinarily heroism and luck. While the German ships suffered a battering, none exploded, and none were mortally crippled. Lutzow, Hipper’s flagship, suffered from the most severe damage. When the British finally solved their signalling problem, the German battlecruisers came under devastating fire from the four Royal Navy battleships. However, they maintained their place in line, and continued firing on the British battlecruisers until the Grand Fleet appeared on the horizon.
Because of excellent intelligence, the Grand Fleet had left port two hours before the High Seas Fleet, and, having suffered no U-boat damage, was in an excellent position to intercept the Germans. The lead ships in Grand Fleet were three Invincible class battlecruisers, which opened fire (with great accuracy) upon Lutzow. Lutzow and her sister Derfflinger hit the lead ship, Invincible, with several salvos, the last resulting in a magazine explosion. Lutzow, however, was too badly damaged to contine the battle. Admiral Hipper transferred his flag to a destroyer, and Lutzow was dispatched to Kiel. Having taken 24 hits, including at least 4 15″ shell hits, Lutzow took on a considerable amount of water, and sat too deep in the water to make it through the Kiel Canal. In what was probably a poor decision, Lutzow was scuttled at the entrance to the Canal estuary in order to avoid British capture.
Admiral Hipper was well regarded for his command of the German battlecruisers at Jutland. While the other three admirals (Beatty, Jellicoe, and Scheer) made identifiable mistakes, Scheer handled his ships very well against superior numbers. He was eventually promoted to command of the High Seas Fleet, although he failed in his effort to put down the Kiel Mutiny. He died in 1932, fourteen years into retirement.
Incidentally, if I haven’t mentioned it before this is an outstanding source of information on the Imperial German Navy.
Trivia: What was the first British battlecruiser to abandon wing turrets?