How Britannia Lost the Waves

How Britannia Lost the Waves

"The Continuing Argument over Jutland" by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., in The Virginia Quarterly Review (Autumn 2001), Univ. of Virginia, One West Range, P.O. Box 400223, Charlottesville, Va. 22904–4223.

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"The Continuing Argument over Jutland" by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., in The Virginia Quarterly Review (Autumn 2001), Univ. of Virginia, One West Range, P.O. Box 400223, Charlottesville, Va. 22904–4223.

The Battle of Jutland, one of the great naval battles in modern history, fascinates British sea historians the way Gettysburg fires the Southern imagination, each spawning a steady stream of critical studies. Both battles held out the tantalizing promise of total victory—yet each ended in a measure of failure.

According to Rubin, an emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, a cataclysm such as Jutland seemed predestined once Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II decided in the early 1900s to build a navy capable of challenging Great Britain’s domination of the seas. It may have been the greatest mistake the Kaiser (who was a grandson of Queen Victoria) made, since it ensured that Britain would not ally itself with Germany in case of a European war.

Both navies were constructing a new class of superbattleships patterned after the HMS Dreadnought (launched in 1906), an 18,000ton warship bristling with ten 12-inch guns, capable of 21 knots. By the time World War I broke out in 1914, the British navy had 20 such ships, while Germany had 13.

By May 1916, frustrated by a British blockade, the German navy tried to lure the superior British Grand Fleet into a trap in the North Sea along the Danish coast. But the British, privy to German wireless communications, were already steaming eastward as the Germans headed north. The ensuing sea battle would pit 150 British vessels against 100 German ships.

What should have been a decisive victory for the British never materialized. Their force, under the overall command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, blundered several times, and its officers showed little initiative. Miscommunication and bad luck cost the British several chances to wreak havoc on the German fleet. At one point, Admiral Hugh Thomas-Evans led his dreadnoughts straight at the Germans, apparently because he was awaiting orders from Jellicoe’s flagship to turn away. The British lost several battle cruisers when advanced German armor-piercing shells penetrated their magazines.

In the end, the German fleet was able to slip away, leaving the British in control but badly bloodied. They lost 115,000 tons of ships and more than 6,000 men, as opposed to 61,000 tons and just over 2,500 men on the German side.

Rubin places much of the blame for this unachieved victory on Jellicoe, whose overmeticulous rules of engagement filled 200 pages. In striving for "centralized control," Jellicoe produced subordinates unwilling to think for themselves, a weakness exposed by poor communications during the battle. But in a larger sense, the real culprit may have been the culture of the British navy. According to Andrew Gordon’s Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (2000), ever since the great victory by Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805, the navy had been suffused by what Gordon calls "the social religion of deference." It had always been the realm of gentlemen, but peacetime and the Victorian emphasis on structuring and ordering behavior made it even more inflexible. At the same time, technological change—steam power, iron and steel ships, and long-range guns—made the need for innovation in naval thinking much greater.

After Jutland, Jellicoe gave way to a more innovative successor who encouraged the kind of initiative that would allow the British to sink the Bismarck in 1941. But it was too late. After World War I, Britain ceded its primacy over the waves to the United States. And the Kaiser’s navy? Although he claimed victory at Jutland, Wilhelm became convinced that Germany’s surface fleet would never alter the course of the war and turned instead to unrestricted submarine warfare.


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