Despite commanding the world's greatest naval force, Admiral Jellicoe's actions allowed the German High Seas Fleet to escape. What influenced his decisions?
At the time the First World War, the British Grand Fleet was the most formidable naval force in the world. Commanded by Admiral John Jellicoe, the British Grand Fleet hoped to engage the German High Seas Fleet in a pitched battle, but at the same time, both sides were reluctant to commit themselves.
The Germans knew that they could not take on the much larger British Grand Fleet, while the British knew they had little to gain from a victory and everything to lose by a defeat. Victory over the German High Seas Fleet would not harm Germany’s war effort in the slightest, whilst defeat - unlikely but possible - would cause Britain to lose the war.
The German High Seas Fleet, commanded by Admiral Reinhard von Scheer, planned to avoid an all-out battle until they could sink enough British warships to make the numbers more even. To this end, the German battlecruisers carried out numerous attacks on British coastal towns to lure Royal Navy battleships out to sea where they could be sunk by waiting German submarines.
By May 1916, Admiral Scheer decided to put the entire German High Seas Fleet to sea with the intention of sending ahead the German battlecruiser squadron under Admiral Hipper as a decoy to lure out the British battlecruisers. Hipper would then lead the British battlecruisers straight toward the might of the German battleships.
However, unknown to Scheer, the British were able to decode German radio messages and, sensing German action, Admiral Jellicoe ordered the entire British Grand Fleet to sea at night to avoid the patrolling German submarines.
On May 31st 1916, the two most powerful naval forces were on a collision course with each other, but incredibly, neither knew each other was at sea! The two fleets would spectacularly collide off the mainland of Denmark - the stage for the Battle of Jutland had been set.
Visual contact was first made by the battlecruiser squadrons of both sides, sent ahead of the main fleets by their British and German commanders. Hipper turned around and lured the British battlecruisers, commanded by Admiral Beatty, toward the unseen but advancing main German battleship fleet.
Beatty's battlecruisers suffered losses but he saw the German High Seas Fleet approaching in the distance and turned his battlecruisers around. The entire German fleet chased the British battlecruisers not realizing that Beatty had now turned the tables and was leading them towards Jellicoe and the massed guns of the main British fleet.
Facing almost certain destruction, Admiral Scheer carried out a brilliant maneuver. He ordered the entire German fleet to turn at the same time, making smoke to conceal their whereabouts and sail at full speed in the opposite direction away from the British guns.
Unbelievably, Scheer turned back toward the British Grand Fleet and this time Jellicoe was able to "cross the German T", concentrating nearly all the British gunfire on a single advancing line of German battleships.
This time, turning alone would not save Scheer. As a desperate gamble he ordered a mass torpedo attack on the British fleet by his remaining destroyers.
Admiral Jellicoe now had his chance to destroy the German High Seas Fleet but instead he made the decision to turn away from the retreating Germans. He mistakenly believed that the Germans had developed a torpedo that left no trail of bubbles as it travelled through the water, and so was invisible.
Jellicoe was later heavily criticized for this action but the British Grand Fleet had already suffered many losses and the Germans had been routed. Facing the German torpedoes and further losses was a risk Jellicoe did not need to take.
The First Sea Lord Winston Churchill had famously remarked that Jellicoe was "the only commander on either side capable of losing the war in a single afternoon." By turning away at the Battle of Jutland, Admiral Jellicoe ensured that Churchill's remark didn't turn into prophecy.
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