The First World War was the peak of the age of the battleship as dreadnoughts from Germany and the United Kingdom, including the actual HMS Dreadnought that all similar ships are named for, faced each other across the North Sea and the world’s greatest empires duked it out on land.
In the 1916 Battle of Jutland, the German and English fleets fought in what was — when measured by the tonnage of the ships involved — the largest naval battle in history. Approximately 100,000 sailors and 250 ships took part.
And, though the British fleet was larger and enjoyed training and technological advantages, the Germans achieved a clear tactical victory.In May 1916, the British and German fleets were each looking for a major triumph over the other. An ongoing British blockade of Germany was damaging, but neither side had clear control of the North Sea.
The Germans devised an ambush a few hundred miles off the coast of Denmark, but the British intercepted the plans.
So a massive British fleet with 151 ships, including 28 battleships and nine battlecruisers, set forth on May 30 with knowledge of the German positions and intent. The next afternoon, the scouting parties from each force sighted each other and began a running gun battle.
Five German battlecruisers fired on six British ships and the two raced in parallel lines while maintaining fire on one another. But the British had made two big mistakes.
The German scouting party sank two of the British cruisers while drawing the British scouts towards the main German fleet with another 94 ships. The British ships realized their error just in time, turning back north while suffering fierce fire from German pursuers.
The British had already lost thousands of sailors and two large ships, but they were about to hold the advantage. The British cruisers fleeing north failed to properly communicate with the main fleet, but they were still drawing the German ships towards the larger British concentration.
And while the British main fleet commander wasn’t given the needed intelligence to properly prepare, he was able to swing his ships into a single line that he curved into an ambush position that the Germans sailed right into. The British semi-circle saturated the German fleet with fire.
The Germans broke contact and circled back around, but the British were again able to position themselves “crossing the T,” where a line of British ships presented their broadsides with their main guns towards the front of a German line which could only present a few guns in response.
And the British were positioned to prevent a German escape while they also enjoyed a visibility advantage thanks to the sun behind the German ships.
But the desperate Germans had already inflicted heavy damage, causing fires and leaks that would sink more ships throughout the evening. And the German commander managed to turn the fleet about and escape west.
But the Germans needed to get east and south. One attempt to break east failed under heavy British fire, so the Germans launched a massive torpedo barrage that forced the British to turn away and allowed the Germans to escape. None of the torpedoes hit, though.
Still, Germany held the advantage at night, as the darkness would limit Britain’s range advantage and allow German torpedo ships to draw close.
Throughout the night, Germany tried to fight its way home, frequently winning small clashes and eventually punching through to head home.
The Germans had inflicted losses of over 6,000 sailors and 14 ships in less than 24 hours of fighting, while suffering 2,551 sailors and 11 ships lost. Germany claimed its tactical victory, but the strategic situation was dire.
Many more German ships had been heavily damaged and would need weeks for repairs while plenty of British ships remained to enforce the blockade. Germany was forced to turn to submarine warfare to break down British supply lines across the Atlantic.
But even that strategy would fail when America entered the war with new technologies and equipment for hunting submarines.