It started as a rush.
Admiral Beatty’s lightly armoured battlecruisers, well out ahead of Admiral Jellicoe’s enormous Grand Fleet, cut through the sea to intercept the Germans.
But Admiral von Hipper’s ships had spotted them, and now both cruiser squadrons were locked into a race, manoeuvring to escape, to intercept, and then to fire.
At around 4 o’clock in the afternoon on May 31st, 1916, Beatty ordered action stations, but Hipper’s side seized the initiative, and their guns opened up.
“They fired the first shot, and it went just over the Princess Royal… that was a good shot…they evidently had got a good range” recalled one British sailor in the BBC’s 1964 series The Great War.
The British were downwind, and gun and coal smoke in the foreground, as well as a grey sky camouflaging German ships in the background, made them misjudge the range when they retaliated.
Thus, it was German fire that hit home first - the Indefatigable was blown to pieces, killing 1,017 British sailors in the process.
This wasn't entirely down to expert German gunnery (although the Germans were proving to be crack shots). It had more to do with bad planning on the part of the British, as the BBC's Dan Snow explains in 'Battle of Jutland: The Navy's Bloodiest Day'. To the Royal Navy, the obvious thing to do was to leave key doorways in the belly of the ships clear and open, that way there was free passage between the guns, their ammo and the cordite needed to ignite and fire each round. This was meant to facilitate rapid reloading and a high rate of fire.
But the other obvious thing to do was to aim at your enemy's guns - knock them out first and the battle was as good as won. Used to ruling the waves for a century, it seems the British had got complacent. Now they were face-to-face with an enemy that was as skilful a maritime power as they were, and when their ships got hit that day, it came as a very nasty shock.
“It was a terrific explosion. The guns went up in the air just like matchsticks… and within about half a minute, she was gone,” recalled another sailor who witnessed the Indefatigable get hit. Like a chain reaction, each German round that found its way into a British gun turret would ignite the ammunition in the magazine and cause a blast that would set off the rest of the ammunition and cordite stored nearby - a highly combustible reaction that would rip apart the whole vessel.
The Queen Mary would be the next one hit and she too exploded just as spectacularly, this time incinerating 1,266 men, or sending those who survived the initial blast to a watery grave along with bits of the ship.
Admiral Beatty, quoted in episode seven of Hew Strachan’s The First World War, reportedly surveyed the carnage from the deck of HMS Lion.
“There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today,” he scowled.
Fleet Street, expecting a grand victory from the numerically superior British, poured scorn on the navy.
"Great Battle Off Danish Coast 6 British Cruisers Sunk,” “British Battle Cruiser Squadron Suffers Heavily,” “German Joy. Delirious Press. ‘Our Superiority’” and “German Official: Only Two Survivors Of The Indefatigable," were some of the headlines.
But the contrast in performance between the two navies was not as stark as the press opined.
Jutland was the culmination of a naval cold war, a chess match of shipbuilding before hostilities commenced, and of blockades after.
As a relatively small country, Britain had always been dependent on foreign trade and its empire for a strong economy in peacetime, and a steady food supply during war.
Sea power was essential, so Britain made sure that its navy was always twice as large as the next global power’s.
In 1888, the belligerent Kaiser Wilhelm II became King of Prussia and Emperor of Greater Germany.
Prussia had only managed to unite all of Germany in 1871, and while founder Otto von Bismarck had eschewed any empire building beyond Europe for fear of antagonising surrounding countries, Wilhelm had every intention of rivalling the British navy and of acquiring foreign colonies.
An arms race began, and when the British introduced the heavily armed and thickly armoured HMS Dreadnought in 1906, it became the top class battleship, and set the standard for naval power.
By 1914, Germany had 13 of them, Austria-Hungry three, the U.S. 10, and Britain 20.
Britain used its numerical superiority to its advantage, splitting its ships between the Channel and the North Sea to keep the German navy stuck in port, and squeezing the German population’s food supply.
“What we have to do,” said Admiral Jellicoe, “is starve and cripple Germany. The destruction of the German fleet is a means to an end, and not an end in itself.”
The North Sea became a naval no-man’s-land, and while the Germans raced to innovate their way out with U-boats, back in the secretive Room 40 in Whitehall, British naval intelligence doggedly worked to decipher German codes.
They got lucky, and when the Germans decided to test the blockade on May 31st, 1916, the code breakers were ready.
The German plan was to bombard the British coast and lure out and engage small Royal Navy squadrons.
This information was passed to the Admiralty, and the Grand Fleet steamed to intercept the Germans as they tried to break out – 250 warships and 100,000 men were on a collision course.
As events accelerated, Britain’s precarious position was exposed: Losing the North Sea would end the blockade, isolate the BEF on the continent, further jeopardize Britain’s food supply, and leave Britain itself open to invasion.
Jutland was The First World War’s Battle of Britain, leading Churchill to remark that Jellicoe was the only man who could lose the whole war in an afternoon.
And the Germans intended to help him.
Even though the German plan and position had been exposed, von Hipper was quick thinking enough to keep things on track.
He planned to turn, run, and lead what he thought was Beatty’s isolated battle cruiser squadron right into the jaws of the German main fleet.
But as the German “run to the south” unfolded, von Hipper’s squadron landed 42 hits on Beatty’s ships compared to only 11 hits in return, making it seem like the German cruisers might finish the British squadron all on their own.
As the German main fleet came into view, Beatty set his own trap, swinging his ships around and sprinting north, von Hipper’s cruisers and Admiral Scheer’s main fleet in hot pursuit.
Taking signalled information from Beatty, Admiral Jellicoe worked out just the right position and direction to intercept the Germans, so that the visibility problems that had plagued Beatty could, by coming at Scheer from another angle, work in Jellicoe’s favour.
It was here that the British numerical superiority would come into its own.
The Royal Navy had 151 ships to the enemy’s 99, including twelve more dreadnoughts; whilst Germany’s reliance on outdated Pre-dreadnoughts slowed down their entire fleet, lest these six vital ships be left behind, isolated, and bombarded by the British.
Weight of broadside, a measurement of what all of a ship’s guns could fire at one time, was also decidedly in Britain’s favour: 150,750 kg for Jellicoe’s entire fleet compared to 60,879 kg for Scheer’s.
Broadside would matter most if a ship could “cross the T”, and bisect the enemy’s path, leaving it with only the forward facing guns, and exposing its bow (front) to a hammering from every gun on the broadside (port or starboard) of the ship crossing its path.
And Jellicoe had every intention of crossing Scheer’s T.
At 18:30, peering through smoke and poor visibility, Scheer was astonished to see the entire British Grand Fleet bearing down on him, their guns blazing.
“The entire arc stretching north to east was a sea of fire,” Scheer recalled years later.
He executed an about turn to starboard and raced back towards Germany.
Jellicoe gave chase, and at 19:15, crossed Scheer’s T again, this time unleashing a “death ride” on the Germans; four of their five battlecruisers were slammed simultaneously by fire from 18 British battleships – Beatty’s squadron had been avenged.
Scheer used the chaos to escape into the night, and thanks to intelligence failures, Jellicoe did not receive enough information to be able to catch him.
Other than a few skirmishes, the only major naval battle of the First World War was over.
Germany had won, tactically, sinking 14 ships and killing 6,094 British seamen; whereas Britain, while sinking only eleven ships and killing 2,551, could easily have done more damage if Scheer had not escaped.
The German navy would be locked up in port for the remainder of the war.
This strategic victory for Britain propelled the German leadership along a course that ensured its downfall.
Although U-boat attacks (such as on the Lusitania) and German spies had already angered the Americans, the intensification of the U-boat campaign provoked a diplomatic downward spiral that finally led to war when Room 40 intercepted the Zimmermann telegram.
Intended to entice Mexico into bogging America down in a war over its southern border, it instead galvanised President Woodrow Wilson and much of the American electorate into joining the war against Germany.
The rest, as they say, is history.
To read more about the history of Jutland and the First World War, visit Osprey Publishing's site.
Cover image: Jutland 1916, by Charles London, illustrated by Howard Gerrard © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. https://ospreypublishing.com/jutland-1916-pb