Tuesday, May 31, 2016

100th Anniversary of the Battle of Jutland

Painting of the Battle of Jutland showing the opening battle cruiser action
Oil on canvas by Claus Bergen

From 1919-1935, the Battle of Jutland received an abundance of scholarly attention at the Naval War College. Lieutenant Junior Grade Holloway H. Frost produced a report on Jutland in November 1916 that became the standard work on the subject for students at the College. He later expanded his study to a book that was published posthumously in 1936. Visiting lecturers from Great Britain and Germany, some of whom had served at Jutland, traveled to Newport to weigh in on the controversies surrounding the battle. Students also spent a significant amount of time playing war games during this period. Most classes in the interwar years participated in three major games as part of their studies: a hypothetical war with Japan (ORANGE), a hypothetical war with Great Britain (RED), and a historical battle. Jutland and Trafalgar were the two most gamed historical battles and, more often than not, faculty and staff chose to game Jutland as the historical battle, especially in the decade following World War I. After studying the battle in the classroom, students replayed the action using war gaming models and debated with one another about which side maneuvered more effectively. Each student then wrote a paper in which he presented his conclusions and identified lessons to be learned.

In general, the students covered the battle in comprehensive fashion for the first eight years after the battle, devoting most of their time to analyzing the tactics employed by both fleets. Beginning in 1925, the paper topics became narrower and more focused, presumably because the overall events of the battle were well known by that point. General discussions also suffered from the fact that student research was confined to the same set of sources found in the Naval War College library. The result was that from year to year, students reached similar conclusions and tended not to advance any truly new viewpoints for discussion.

U.S. Navy doctrine of that era emphasized offensive action as the preferred mode of warfare.  Naval War College students thus came down harshly on Jellicoe for acting too cautiously during the battle. Many blamed him for turning away from the High Seas Fleet at the critical point in the battle, allowing it to escape. They also faulted him for exercising rigid control over the Grand Fleet and failing to encourage his subordinates to act on their own initiative. Most students commended Beatty for his aggressive maneuvering while engaging the German battlecruisers, though they also recognized that he failed to report critical information to Jellicoe. Scheer received criticism for reversing course multiple times, a maneuver considered to be indecisive.

Chart from The Diagrammatic Study of the Battle of Jutland (1921) by LCDR Holloway H. Frost

The most common criticism offered by the students was that British Admiral Jellicoe acted too cautiously. Reflecting the idea of the decisive battle that featured prominently in the Naval War College curriculum, the consensus was that Jellicoe could have destroyed the High Seas Fleet if he had acted with an offensive rather than defensive mindset. Many students also questioned German Admiral Scheer’s decisions, especially his turn back towards the Grand Fleet after the first battle turn away, though in general they felt that the Germans exhibited more spirit in the attack than did the English.

In later years, focus shifted to the various components of the fleets and how they were used. Between 1925 and 1931, the actions of the destroyers on both sides received a good deal of scrutiny. Student opinion ran almost universally against the British on this subject, with most arguing that the Royal Navy wasted its destroyers in a defensive role and had no real doctrine governing their use. The Germans again received more favorable commentary for at least using their destroyers to attack, even more so because their attacks were coordinated to support Scheer’s battle turn away from the British line.


By the mid-1930s, naval technology had advanced to the point where the tactics employed at Jutland no longer held much relevance. Study at the tactical level began to drop, but interest in the strategic lessons to be learned remained high. Students writing during this period began to back away from the generally positive commentary that earlier classes offered on the German navy. Many argued that while individual German ships were technically superior to their British counterparts, the German high command never articulated a coherent strategy for the High Seas Fleet's use.

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum

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