The British Empire relied heavily on their merchant shipping lines to support the United Kingdom with crucial supplies, while Germany was under a blockade. The German High Seas Fleet needed to break out and challenge the British shipping, which meant overcoming the might of the British Grand Fleet.
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Admiral Reinhard Scheer intended to draw out the Grand Fleet by attacking small British coastal towns to get a response from part of the massive fleet, allowing him to isolate and eliminate the smaller squadron with the full strength of his own ships. The plan initially worked, as the British Admiral Sir John Jellicoe moved a battlecruiser squadron under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty further south.
Now was the time for the German fleet to spring the trap, though they were unaware that British Intelligence had already been made aware of their plan -- German naval encryption had fallen into British hands early in the war!
At 11:00 AM on May 30, Jellicoe was warned that the German fleet would set sail on the morning of the following day. He ordered his fleet to position itself off of Norway, so they could cut off any German attempts to enter the North Atlantic or the Baltic Sea.
At around 15:30, the two opposing battlecruiser squadrons (the eyes and bait of their respective fleets), spotted each other, closed in, and opened fire.
The two squadrons exchanged fire while heading south towards the rest of the German main fleet. During the encounter the Germans scored two devastating strikes against the British ships; sinking the battlecruisers HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary. This created a dire situation for Beatty’s squadron which was now facing an overwhelming fleet, and led him to remark: "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today."
Beatty ordered a withdrawal from the engagement and steamed north to meet Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet, under hot pursuit from the entire German fleet.
Jellicoe then deployed his fleet from six travel columns into a single long battle line. A complicated maneuver in the best circumstances, he risked being caught out of place halfway through the deployment.
It was a risk worth taking: this move allowed Jellicoe effectively cross Scheer's "T" by bringing his ships' broadside armaments to bear on the enemy's bow, allowing the Germans to engage with only their front armament. The tactic was named thus because it created an upper case "T" shape with the British ships forming the horizontal bar, and the Germans forming the vertical one. His tactic worked and the German fleet found itself in a trap.
Scheer and his officers were taken completely by surprise; not expecting to find more than the first squadron, they emerged from drifting clouds of mist to find themselves facing the entire Grand Fleet battle line.
To escape his predicament, Admiral Scheer ordered a 180-degree combat turn for every ship in the fleet , directing them to steam away from the 2-mile long British battle line.
Scheer knew it was not yet dark enough to escape and that his fleet would suffer terribly in a stern chase. He then ordered an audacious turn, this time directly towards Jellicoe's fully deployed battle line, to surprise his enemy.
Once again Jellicoe ordered his fleet to cross "Scheer's T" and fire! Their barrage was denser and deadlier, causing severe damage to the German battleships. Scheer was forced to steam away from the Grand Fleet yet again, and his formation began to crumble under concentrated gunfire.
To help his fleet retreat, Scheer ordered a torpedo attack, carried out by destroyers, and a potentially sacrificial charge by his four remaining battlecruisers to cover the main group. Jellicoe, fearing a torpedo run, turned his ships away.
As darkness fell, German fleet broke away as British destroyers clashed with the German fleet in a confused melee at point-blank range.
Both sides claimed victory in this pivotal encounter: the German fleet stood up against the much larger Grand Fleet and caused nearly double the British total in terms of ships sunk and damage caused. From a strategic standpoint, however, the High Seas Fleet had shot their bolt. The British Grand Fleet could keep them bottled up and away from their vital shipping lanes by sealing them into their home harbor in Wilhelmshaven and Cuxhaven, Germany.
The Battle of Jutland is remembered as the largest clash of dreadnoughts in documented naval history, and a fine example of steel titans, strategy, and raw nerve dueling it out on the high seas.