Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Battle of Jutland 5 - Jellicoe and Scheer's encounter

SMS Markgraf. One of Behncke's elite Konig class
Dreadnoughts - pride of Scheer's High Seas Fleet
Beatty's headlong charge to the north was pulling the squadron of Hipper and Scheer's fleet full tilt behind him. The Germans believed they had achieved their ideal scenario. The more potent QE Squadron of Evan-Thomas were the only ships still within German range and the four of them kept up a formidable fire against around twenty pursuing capital ships. Both sides took multiple hits, but fortunately for Evan-Thomas none of his four QE Dreadnoughts was slowed down significantly. Beatty slackened the pace once he was out of Hipper's range to allow his ships' crews to take a short break and repair some of the damage, but within a few minutes he was back in contact with Hipper, exchanging fire as he turned to east across the approaching Jellicoe. The clash of the world's greatest fleet with its nearest rival was only minutes away.

17.30 During Beatty’s run to the south, and for the following hour, Jellicoe increased the speed of the BGF to its maximum of 20 knots, although this would be insufficient to gain on them. However, he also took the decision to detach Hood’s faster (25 knots) 3rd Battle cruiser squadron - already some distance ahead of the main fleet - to hurry south and offer support to Beatty. This apart, Jellicoe was deprived of information and unable to do much else. He could only keep heading south at battle alert, in variable visibility. He signalled ‘fleet action imminent’ to the Admiralty, unleashing frenetic activity there and at every port on the southern and eastern coastlines of Britain.  He was completely unaware of Beatty’s precipitate turn to the north. Indeed, from 16.45-18.06, Beatty failed in his duty to inform his Commander-in-Chief of the GHSF’s whereabouts. Just after 18.00 Jellicoe caught sight of Beatty’s Lion, leading his squadron eastwards across his bow, and firing broadsides to the south at an invisible Hipper. For the first time Jellicoe had clear information on Beatty’s position, and he signalled immediately “where is enemy’s battle fleet?” receiving only a couple of tardy and vague responses. With such poor information Jellicoe now faced the momentous decision regarding deployment of his fleet – moving his six columns of 4 Dreadnoughts into a single fighting line of 24 ships six miles in length.  

17.45 Meanwhile Hood’s force, comprising Invincible (his flagship), Indomitable and Inflexible (I3); light cruisers Chester and Canterbury, and 4 destroyers, had forged ahead south east of the BGF. The I3 battle cruisers were Fisher’s first generation of Dreadnoughts, and so despite their speed were no longer state of the art. Ironically they had been at Rosyth with Beatty, until the exchange with the QE squadron, one week previously, and were now about to meet up in spectacular fashion. At 17.45 the Chester, leading the group, encountered four German cruisers emerging from the mist, and came under concerted fire, suffering 17 hits in less than five minutes. She would surely have sunk but for the arrival of the I3, which chased away the cruisers, sinking one of them. The heroic actions of Chester gunner Jack Cornwell, 16, still firing as the only survivor at his gun turret, became famous after his posthumous VC award (the 3rd youngest to be so honoured).

18.15 At 18.15 Jellicoe made his move, deploying to port, rather than starboard. This was the more cautious option, placing his fighting line 4000 yards further away, but consequently less vulnerable to torpedo attack. (His decision was vindicated post war, including by the official German history, but endlessly criticised at home.) Nevertheless, a smooth deployment ran to plan, and Scheer's advance company of the GHSF, Admiral Behncke's four elite Konig class Dreadnoughts soon appeared in view. At either end of Jellicoe's line tremendous congestion of the smaller flotillas occurred. This was particularly so at the south-western extreme, where Beatty was leading his force across their bows. In the ensuing chaos, Arbuthnot’s cruiser squadron of 4 was dispersed, and his impetuous dash with Defence and Warrior to sink the Wiesbaden (which had been badly disabled by fire from the I3) took him straight at the GHSF, which emerged from the mist at a distance of 8000 yards. Within minutes, Defence was blown up and sunk with all hands. Warrior, similarly vulnerable was saved, fortuitously, by running into Evan-Thomas and the QE Battle Squadron. Of these four Dreadnoughts, Warspite was hit in the stern, damaging her steering so that she too was heading straight for the GHSF. This drew their fire, enabling Warrior to escape. Warspite managed to fix her steering and withdraw from the action, but she was hit 29 times in those few minutes and was ordered by Evan-Thomas to limp back to Rosyth.

18.15 The next drama occurred at the other (eastern) end of the British formation where Hood, after his intervention with Hipper’s cruisers, pushed west in search of Beatty. Very soon, he encountered Lion heading due east straight towards him, so he had to put about, and lead Beatty’s line back eastwards.
The desperate sight of Invincible, her two halves
wedged on the sea bed in shallower North Sea water
This put him opposite Hipper’s leading battle cruisers Lutzow and Derfflinger and he engaged them in fire. Invincible scored eight hits on Lutzow before at 18.34 she herself was hit directly in the main gun turret and, through the same vulnerability as Queen Mary and Indefatigible, blew up breaking in two. The sea at that point was 180 feet deep, and the Invincible was 570 feet long. Each half rested vertically on the sea bed, leaving 100+ feet of hull sticking in the air – what an image. Only 6 men were saved out of a crew of 1031. One of the 6 was the gunnery officer Dannreuther, who happened to be the godson of Richard Wagner.
This disaster meant that Beatty had now lost three of his nine battle cruisers, but at least his remaining six were in much better shape than four of Hipper’s five. Hipper was now forced to leave his flagship Lutzow, which was barely seaworthy, and via destroyer he visited in turn Derfflinger, Seydlitz and von der Tann, each of which was in a worse state than Lutzow and unable to take his flag. He was forced to stay on the destroyer until 22.00, when he was eventually able to transfer his flag to his remaining battle cruiser Moltke.

18.15 Because of their varying top speeds, the ships of Scheer’s fleet were by now somewhat strung out, and Scheer himself was 13 miles behind Hipper’s vanguard, with as little information as Jellicoe. He was unaware of Hipper's problems, and still ignorant of Jellicoe's proximity. He urged Behncke's Konigs to make maximum speed and secure victory over Beatty. As they did this, they emerged from a patch of mist and ran into withering fire from Jellicoe's leading ships. Scheer belatedly realised that they had ‘crossed his T’ - a classic naval move. He was in mortal danger. At 18.36 he ordered the well rehearsed (now famous) 180 degree turn. This was accomplished so smoothly and quickly that within minutes he had vanished from the view of the BGF, even before Jellicoe's deployment was fully complete. The engagement of the two major fleets had lasted only from 18.15 to 18.36.

18.55 The most extraordinary moment came 20 minutes later at 18.55. Scheer abruptly ordered another about turn, and headed back due east towards the BGF battle line. Scheer’s post hoc explanations covered counter-attack, valiant support for the trailing and badly damaged Wiesbaden, and escape to the east (the further west he travelled, the more likely all his escape routes would be cut off). It meant that once again, Hipper’s badly damaged battle cruisers were in the vanguard of what became known as 'the death ride'. Direction and visibility were now working against the Germans, and within minutes they were in an unprecedented bombardment from the BGF. In addition to further punishment for Hipper’s ships, Scheer’s leading Dreadnoughts also suffered, with five of them receiving direct hits from 15” shells. Although the German gunnery had been superior in the earlier stages, it was now much less effective. Only two hits landed on the BGF battleships, both landing on the Colossus, which was undamaged. 

19.00 A few minutes of this was enough for Scheer. He ordered his Dreadnoughts to make their third 180 degree turn of the evening, while leaving Hipper's battle cruisers on their ‘death ride’ plus throwing a destroyer torpedo attack at the BGF. This lasted only a few minutes during which Scheer’s main ships drew further away from the action; Hipper’s ships received further pounding, and Jellicoe made his decision to turn away to port and guard against the torpedo attack. At 19.17 Scheer permitted Hipper’s ships to break off the action and limp away to starboard. This critical 17 minutes brought Scheer’s salvation. It was worth the cost of crippling Hipper’s fleet and damaging a number of his own Dreadnoughts. His torpedoes did no damage – only two thirds of them reached the BGF and none of them inflicted damage – but provoked Jellicoe’s caution, opening the distance between the fleets. For Jellicoe, his move to port would haunt his reputation, even though as a defensive tactic it was 100% successful.

By 19.15 dusk was approaching; the main fleets were out of contact, and only Beatty was still firing, determined to fight to the finish with his badly damaged enemy Hipper. The main confrontation was over, but not the battle.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant exposition of a very complex subject. Thanks Sean