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Sunday Battleship Blogging: HMS Iron Duke

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Part IV of a five part series on the Battle of Jutland.

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

HMS Iron Duke was the second battleship named after the Duke of Wellington. The first, scrapped in 1906, had been distinguished only by its experience, in 1875, of ramming and sinking its fellow battleship HMS Vanguard. The second Iron Duke was the name ship of the last class of dreadnoughts to enter Royal Navy service prior to the beginning of World War I. Iron Duke carried 10 13.5″ guns in five twin turrets, displaced 25000 tons, and could make 21 knots (although this had slowed by the end of the war). Iron Duke was a well-designed ship, capable of outgunning her German (if not her American) counterparts, and served as the basis for the Chilean battleship Almirante Latorre.

HMS Iron Duke became flagship of the Grand Fleet upon its creation in August, 1914. Iron Duke carried the flag of Admiral John Jellicoe, who had been promoted by Winston Churchill to command at the beginning of the war. Jellicoe’s job was not to lose the war, and the way to do that was to avoid being destroyed by the German High Seas Fleet. given that the German fleet was smaller than the Grand Fleet and was limited geographically, this was an achievable task. Jellicoe understood that numerical superiority was key to victory in modern naval engagements, and steadfastly refused to allow the Royal Navy to meet the High Seas Fleet in detail.

On May 30, 1916, the British received intelligence that the High Seas Fleet was about to sortie. The German plan was to lure the Grand Fleet into a series of submarine ambushes, but the U-boats failed to find any targets. Iron Duke and the rest of the Grand Fleet left Scapa Flow some two hours before the High Seas Fleet put to sea. This put the Grand Fleet in an ideal position to intercept the Germans, who expected the British to arrive much later, and much weaker. The initial contact was made by the battlecruisers of both fleets, and resulted in the destruction of two British capital ships. Admiral David Beatty, however, drew the Germans north into the British trap, and on the afternoon of the May 31, the 24 dreadnoughts of the Grand Fleet became visible to the German van.

The German response was to execute a 180 degree turn away from the British fleet. This left the Germans on the wrong side of the Grand Fleet, however, and Admiral Scheer soon ordered another 180 degree turn. This took the Germans directly into the center of the British line. Understanding that this path led to annihilation, Scheer ordered yet another turn, and ordered his remaining battlecruisers to cover the retreat of the battleships (the wisdom of this move is questionable; the battlecruisers were already seriously damaged, and were by nature less able to withstand the British onslaught). Scheer also gave a critical order to his destroyers to execute a torpedo attack against the British line. This move saved the German fleet from destruction.

Faced with the German destroyers, Jellicoe had to decide whether or not to turn into the torpedos or turn away from them. By turning in, the British line might have suffered some losses, but would have been able to keep in contact with the Germans. By turning away, the British risked losing the Germans. Jellicoe, in accordance with normal practice of the day, turned away. After the war, this move was examined in great detail. In Jellicoe’s favor, it was noted that he had a reasonable expectation that it would be possible to maintain contact with the German fleet and to prevent it from returning to its bases. The German torpedo attack might have cost several dreadnoughts, it was argued, and given the widespread belief that the Germans had ship-to-ship superiority, this could have nullified the British advantage. Finally, it was argued that Jellicoe’s job was not to destroy the German fleet, but to prevent the destruction of the Royal Navy.

I agree with the first argument, but it should be noted that breaking off contact had obvious risks. General signalling ineptitude on the part of the Royal Navy would allow the entire German fleet to escape during the night. Jellicoe knew that this was possible, and could have worked more vigorously to solve Royal Navy communications problems before the battle. The second argument I find uncompelling. The British had 27 dreadnoughts and six battlecruisers at the time of the turn. The Germans had 16 battleships and four battlecruisers. Moreover, the German fleet had suffered a much more severe battering than the British. Also, I seriously disagree with the idea that the British battleships were inferior to their German counterparts. While the German ships may have had better survivability characteristics, the British were much more heavily armed. Even accepting the loss of several ships, the Grand Fleet had a commanding superiority over the High Seas Fleet.

The last argument is most interesting from a strategic point of view. Had the High Seas Fleet somehow destroyed the Grand Fleet, or at least severely reduced it in size, then the British war effort might have been devastated. Theoretically, the German Navy could have raided the British coast, could have attacked British trade on the surface, and could have threatened the supply lines to France. The same was not true, however, of the German war effort. Had the High Seas Fleet suffered complete annihilation, I doubt that the British would have been able to turn it to serious advantage. It would have been very difficult for the Royal Navy to enter the Baltic in any force, and Germany was not dependent on foreign trade. Trafalgar, it should be noted, did not lead to the defeat of Napoleon. On this point, Jellicoe was quite correct to avoid a risky situation.

The British public and the British government, however, did not want a calm and judicious decision. They wanted Nelson and Trafalgar. Jellicoe was eventually “promoted” out of the command of the Grand Fleet, and replaced by David Beatty. The crew of Iron Duke didn’t care for the new admiral, so Beatty moved his flag to Queen Elizabeth. The rest of Iron Duke’s World War I career was uneventful.

The battleships fleets of the world were constrained by the Washington Naval Treaty, but Iron Duke survived the first cut of 1922. The London Naval Treaty of 1930 further reduced the battleships allowable to the three great naval powers, and Iron Duke was reclassified as an auxiliary. She was used as an accomodations ship in World War II, and was hit by several German bombs in 1939. In 1948 Iron Duke was sent to the breakers. John Jellicoe was made Governor-General of New Zealand after the war, and died in 1935.

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