The largest naval battle in history happened during a different war than you think
World War I is commonly thought of as soldiers fighting across trenches that stretched along the entire European continent, but there were major clashes on the oceans, as well. The largest was the Battle of Jutland on May 31, 1916, the only time that the famous “Dreadnoughts” of Britain and Germany actually faced off in battle.
Fought between 249 ships and 100,000 men, it is the largest naval battle in history (in terms of tonnage of ships involved).
“Dreadnoughts” were massive battleships named for the HMS Dreadnought, a British ship launched in 1906. Dreadnought was a feared battleship. It was massive, fast, and lethal. Its launch triggered an arms race that saw major navies of the world, especially Britain and Germany, race to create the largest and most technologically advanced battleships.
After World War I broke out, the people of each country eagerly awaited the chance for their navy to prove itself the most capable in the world. But the admirals on each side wanted to avoid this, fearing that a single major defeat in a battle between dreadnoughts could cripple their navy and leave the country vulnerable to attack.
But, by 1916 the British had forced Germany’s hand. An effective blockade of Germany’s coast had limited the ability of the German Navy to put to sea. Worse, German ships that made it into the North Sea couldn’t make it to the Atlantic Ocean because of British ships operating both in the English Channel and off Britain’s northern tip.
The German fleet was sent to draw out the British in late April and they did so by attacking British coastal towns. The British responded by launching the Grand Fleet. Twenty-eight of the fleet’s 32 Dreadnought and Super-Dreadnought battleships took to the waves with another 122 ships supporting them. They were coming for the 99 ships of the German fleet.
The scouting parties of each force found each other at 4:48 p.m. on May 31 and began trading blows. The British party then managed to draw the Germans into the British main fleet.
The British Admiral John Jellicoe waited until the Germans were fairly close before initiating his attack, giving up his advantage in range. But, he was able to maneuver against the German fleet effectively, three times “capping their T,” meaning he was able to get his battle line at the head of the German line.
The Germans, with the British line directly in front of them, could only engage with their forward-facing guns while the British, with their sides facing the Germans, could fire broadsides into the German ships.
Still, superior armor and ship design combined with excellent gunnery skills allowed the Germans to sink more British ships than they lost themselves. The British suffered 14 ships and 6,784 lives lost to the Germans’ 9 ships and 3,058 men.
The Germans claimed victory because of their advantage in ships sank, but the British retained control of the North Sea and had managed to cripple the German fleet. Because of the ships lost and extensive repairs needed to the rest, the Germans never again attempted a breakout from the North Sea. For the rest of the war, Germany’s naval efforts were limited mostly to submarine operations.
While the Battle of Jutland is known as the only clash between the world’s major dreadnoughts, in an ironic twist the actual HMS Dreadnought wasn’t present. It was undergoing refit at the time.
See the battle play out in the amazing animation below:
(h/t Argunners Magazine)