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Long Read Military History Sea

Reflections on the Battle of Jutland

More than a hundred years after Jutland this famous sea battle remains a source of controversy.  Much ink has been spilled over what happened and why.  Undeterred, let me spill some more.

An Airman’s interest is piqued…

My interest in Jutland – not as a credentialed scholar but as an omnivorous reader of military history – is longstanding, starting many decades ago to when I read Cyril Falls epic one-volume history, The Great War1 which included a chapter on Jutland.  Around that time I also played the old Avalon Hill Jutland board game a few times with an avid wargamer friend.  “Board game” is a misnomer, as Jutland actually required a vast uncluttered floorspace to accommodate the dozens of cardboard ship counters and the enormous distance scale of the action.  But my serious interest began many years later when I read The Swordbearers 2, which (to my mind) considerably boosted Correlli Barnett’s standing as a historian.  His chapter on Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, “Sailor With a Flawed Cutlass,” remains, in my opinion, a masterpiece of interdisciplinary historical analysis.  Other fine books followed, including John Campbell’s Jutland:  An Analysis of the Fighting3, which dug as deeply into the details of the battle damage inflicted on May 31st, 1916 as anyone could wish.  Eventually (after a few detours) I embarked on a career as a military intelligence analyst, which encouraged even more interest in reading military history – for the sake of context, and from an ingrained belief that most of history has lessons to teach.  Barnett and Campbell had whetted my analytical instincts, and my interest escalated even further several years ago when I read Andrew Gordon’s magnificent thought experiment, The Rules of the Game:  Jutland and British Naval Command4.

Three Key Questions

Apart from these and other books, a couple of scholarly articles in the Journal of Military History, by Nicholas A. Lambert5 and Jason Hines6, have struck me as being very much on point with regard to three specific questions which have, over time, moved to the forefront of my thinking about the battle.  Two of these questions I believe to be of considerable albeit not quite decisive significance, but there is one final question that really does seem to be decisive by any standard, and the issue with which it is concerned – dissemination of sensitive intelligence in a secure manner to operational commanders – is of considerable interest to me as a former military intelligence analyst and a onetime U.S. Air Force pilot who witnessed something like the same problem in Vietnam (a story for another day).  Taking these three questions in order, from lesser to greater significance, specifically:

  • Why did Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty, commanding the British Battle Cruiser Fleet engage the German battlecruisers with only part of his force during the battle’s opening phase?  
  • During the battle, why did three British battlecruisers blow up in such catastrophic fashion after being hit by relatively few enemy shells – while the same not happen to their German counterparts? 
  • Finally, with the British Grand Fleet having successfully interposed itself between the German High Seas Fleet and the latter’s home base, how did the Germans escape after setting a course for the safety of the Horns Reef passage – a course and destination known almost immediately to British Naval Intelligence?

All three questions are, to my mind, critically relevant to the outcome of the Battle of Jutland, which might be best characterized as a strategic victory for the Royal Navy, albeit a hollow victory given the disparity in ship losses.

Why engage at all?

Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, commander of the British battlecruiser fleet

To answer the first question let me postulate a couple of things:  Vice-Admiral Beatty was a charismatic officer with a high public profile, but in my opinion his wartime record suggests that on a couple of climactic occasions – Dogger Bank and Jutland – he did not exhibit notable competence in leading the Battle Cruiser Fleet (BCF).  Abundant evidence of this is documented in Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game8.

This, in practical terms, might be considered a distant ancestor of what is now a much-revered touchstone of military command and control, “commander’s intent.”  (Related jargon much in vogue these days includes “mission-type orders” and, inevitably, auftragstaktik).  However, in Tryon’s time it could be characterized as “don’t be overly concerned with flag signals, but follow the leader, using whatever course and speed you think best.”  A fleet in column followed the flagship at its head; divisions and sub-divisions apart from the main column followed their own flagships or pennant-ships, who in turn were keeping a close eye on the admiral commanding.  Tryon’s concept found much theoretical acceptance within the Royal Navy, but also – probably not surprising to those familiar with military bureaucracies – substantial resistance and criticism.  Still, he exercised the Mediterranean Fleet in his AT tactical method, and thus the only sensible explanation for the fatal collision of June 22nd, 1893 was (as Gordon suggests) is that Admiral Tryon suffered a mental lapse and misjudged, in his own mind, the proper turning radius of his ships. 

Fast-forward 23 years to Jutland, in the opening phase of which Rear Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas, commanding the 5th Battle Squadron with four of the fastest and most powerful battleships in the world, attached only eight days earlier to Sir David Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Fleet, observed Beatty’s abrupt turn to the southeast with the two battlecruiser divisions, but failed to discern the admiral’s intentions (compounded by flag signaling difficulties).  He continued to follow Beatty’s earlier order to alter course to the north, and thereupon found his squadron many miles astern of Beatty’s six battlecruisers when they engaged the five German battlecruisers under Vice Admiral Franz Hipper.  Beatty’s force was seriously worsted by Hipper, losing two battlecruisers to catastrophic internal explosions.  Subsequently sighting the main body of the German High Seas Fleet under Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer approaching from the south, Beatty reversed course and headed north with his four surviving battlecruisers. 

By this point in time the 5th Battle Squadron, its commander having finally grasped the situation, had reversed course, increased speed, closed the distance and begun exchanging fire with the German battlecruisers, but Evan-Thomas remained unaware for several minutes that his course would also take him within range of the approaching German battleships.  After a brief engagement with the German battlecruisers, during which (in response to Beatty’s signal) he passed to the west of the northbound battlecruisers, Evan-Thomas sighted the High Seas Fleet battle line emerging out of the mist in front of him.  Beatty thereupon – belatedly – ordered Evan-Thomas to execute a column turn to the north:  a dangerous sequential turn, rather than a simultaneous turn by all four battleships.  The 5th Battle Squadron was briefly taken under fire by the High Seas Fleet battleships during this highly vulnerable turning maneuver, and Evan-Thomas – blindly following orders –incurred serious damage to two of his splendid ships but fortunately, none were fatally crippled.  Thus ended the first and most costly phase of the battle, which by any measure Vice-Admiral Beatty had tragically mismanaged. 

The record is all too clear that prior to the battle, Vice-Admiral Beatty made no effort whatsoever to ensure the proper integration of the 5th Battle Squadron into his Battle Cruiser Fleet.  When this squadron had joined the battlecruisers eight days earlier in Rosyth anchorage (substituting for the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron, which had been sent north to Scapa Flow for gunnery practice), Beatty somehow found no opportunity to visit his new subordinate while still in harbor at Rosyth, or even see to it that Evan-Thomas received a copy of the BCF’s standing orders before the fleet was ordered to sea9.  Gordon mentions many friendly interactions between officers and crews of Beatty’s ships and those of the 5th Battle Squadron, but:

Interaction between Beatty and Evan-Thomas appears … to have been non-existent10.

A certain awkwardness between the two was all but inevitable, given the fact that Beatty was younger and had previously served under Evan-Thomas, well before Beatty’s meteoric rise in rank (fuelled in part by the favoritism lavished on him by the even younger prewar First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill).  A longer stay in harbor might have resulted in a better relationship, although one wonders if the often-imperious Beatty could have been sufficiently welcoming and friendly. 

Events, however, intervened.  Around midday on May 30th, 1916 the Admiralty’s intelligence unit in London decrypted wireless signals indicating a probable sortie into the North Sea by the High Seas Fleet.  Responding to Admiralty orders, Admiral Jellicoe ordered the Grand Fleet to sortie from its three bases at Scapa Flow, Invergordon, and Rosyth, intending to proceed south and east to the mouth of the Skagerrak and, it was hoped, bring about an engagement with the High Seas Fleet. 

The opposing forces in May of 1916 were not evenly matched, with the High Seas Fleet bringing out only 16 dreadnought battleships and 5 battlecruisers while the Grand Fleet sortied 28 battleships and 9 battlecruisers.  German Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer has earned historians’ generally favorable regard as a capable and aggressive commander-in-chief of the High Seas Fleet, and his plan was fairly straightforward:  to engage part of the Grand Fleet, most likely the battlecruisers, and sink enough ships to push the overall odds closer to even.  But he made a crucial error that hampered his mobility, yielding to the pleas of the admiral commanding the 2nd Division of battleships, consisting of six old pre-dreadnoughts which were slow and under-gunned.  Taking the 2nd Division along on this sortie reduced Scheer’s cruising speed to a maximum of 16 knots without appreciably increasing his available firepower.

Across the North Sea, after exiting the harbor at Rosyth on the night of May 30th the Battle Cruiser Fleet maintained an easterly course.  Dawn found Beatty’s ships steaming in three columns with Evan-Thomas’s four battleships to the rear of the two battlecruiser squadrons, about five miles from the flagship.  The formation was zig-zagging to avoid submarine attacks.  As Gordon surmises, Beatty’s placement of the slower 5th Battle Squadron to the rear of his formation strongly suggests that he did not anticipate engaging the High Seas Fleet on May 31st11.

British Battle Cruisers opening fire in the opening stages of the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916: from the right HMS Lion Princess Royal, Tiger, Queen Mary, New Zealand and Indefatigable: picture by Lionel Wyllie

Shortly after noon on the 31st Beatty ordered a course alteration to the north at a pre-planned waypoint, intending to close on the main body of the Grand Fleet, approaching from the north.  But several minutes later, after receiving (via wireless) sighting reports from his light cruiser screen indicating the presence of German cruisers and destroyers, the vice admiral ordered a sharp turn to the southeast, using flag signals.  These signals should have been repeated by searchlight from HMS Tiger, the ship which had initially been closest to the 5th Battle Squadron, as the latter was too far distant to identify Beatty’s flags.  After the turn to the north, however, Tiger was no longer the closest ship to the 5th Battle Squadron and therefore neglected to repeat the signal.  As a result, no one passed the word to Evan-Thomas, who – violating not only the BCF Standing Orders he had never received, but also the Grand Fleet Standing Orders he surely would have known – compounded the confusion by failing to keep a close enough eye on what the BCF flagship and the rest of the fleet was doing12. He continued northward and then northwest for at least 8 more minutes, having apparently concluded that Beatty’s turn to the southeast was in keeping with the fleet’s antisubmarine evasive maneuvering, and disregarding advice from his flag captain and other staff officers who urged him to conform to Beatty’s movements:

[…] the 5th BS persisted with its west-of-north course for several fateful minutes, long after it should have been clear that the BCF’s turn was much more drastic than a mere zigzag […]13.

Evan-Thomas thus put rapidly increasing distance between his four battleships and Beatty’s six battlecruisers. 

Evan-Thomas finally realized that his superior had in fact brought the battlecruisers around to the southeast, put them into line ahead formation, increased speed, and was preparing to go into action.  He altered course to bring the 5th Battle Squadron around to the southeast and increased speed, but by this time a gap of almost 15 miles had opened up between his ships and Beatty’s.  The 5th Battle Squadron thereby missed the crucial first phase of the battle.  Had Beatty communicated in a better manner with his new subordinate so as to ensure that the 5th Battle Squadron would join his battle line – perhaps breaking radio silence, as his light cruisers had done upon sighting the German destroyers – the five German battlecruisers would have faced ten British capital ships when the engagement began, including four equipped with 15” guns.  The volume of fire those ten ships delivered could well have made a significant difference in the relative damage inflicted on both sides during the first phase of the battle.  By virtually ignoring the 5th Battle Squadron, Beatty squandered an opportunity to bring overwhelming force to bear against the German battlecruisers. 

Vice Admiral Franz Hipper, commander of the German battlecruiser squadron

Even without the 5th Battle Squadron’s participation in the first phase of the battle, Beatty’s six battlecruisers enjoyed a significant superiority of firepower over the Germans, bring greater numbers of 13.5” and 12” guns to bear against Hipper’s five battlecruisers, mounting 12” and 11” guns.  However, the British Battle Cruiser Fleet was hampered by unaccountable difficulty getting into proper line ahead formation, an inexplicable delay in opening fire, and a westerly breeze that pushed smoke from the funnels toward the east, partially obscuring their view of the enemy.  Thus the Germans opened fire first, managing not only to shoot with better accuracy – scoring an estimated 44 hits on the British battlecruisers against the latter’s 17 hits in the battle’s opening phase14 – but they also blew up two of the British battlecruisers – HMS Queen Mary and HMS Indefatigable – in spectacular fashion.  In the general engagement between the two fleets that followed, a third British battlecruiser, HMS Invincible, also blew up.  Why did this happen? 

Handle With Care!

Nicholas Lambert has a compelling two-part answer that begins with the nature of the propellant charge used in the big guns of the Royal Navy’s battleships and battle cruisers.  The British fleet used cordite, which was highly volatile, i.e., explosively combustible, in contrast to other types of chemical propellants used in big guns.  (The German Navy, as Lambert notes, used nitrocellulose, which was much slower to ignite.)15. The second and most important factor Lambert identifies was the prewar doctrine, universally accepted in the Royal Navy, calling for rapid fire at the outset of an engagement.  Overwhelming the enemy ships with quick salvoes, even uncorrected, would (it was believed) hamper the enemy’s fire control system and eventually score enough hits to gain the upper hand.  This required the ammunition handlers to move propellant charges for the main gun rounds more rapidly to the turret crews and, just as important, made it desirable to carry more ammunition aboard ship, to avoid running low during a prolonged engagement.  Captains of capital ships in the Grand Fleet, with concurrence of their admirals, were permitted to increase the number of shells and propellant cartridges carried aboard, far above the designed ammunition load which had been established to comply with safe storage practices16.

HMS Invincible blowing up at the Battle of Jutland, 1916.

The ammunition flow was designed as what would today be called a “just in time” system that moved propellant and shells (the two ammunition components) from the magazines to the turrets, without leaving exposed combustibles in open storage.  Increasing the ammunition load, however, exceeded the capacity of the magazines.  How and where would this extra ammunition stored aboard ship?  Lambert carefully examines the evidence and finds that when the ammunition load was increased, safety considerations took a back seat to the imperative for rapid fire and the concomitant need for more ammunition readily available, i.e., stored outside the magazines17. The initial solution was to provide flame-resistant boxes to hold the propellant charges, but this proved cumbersome and did nothing to speed up the ammunition flow.  Gradually, as Lambert documents, the “open storage” of propellant charges came into use, with extra charges stored in the turrets themselves – specifically the “gunhouse” (the rotating main section of a turret, where the guns are mounted) as well as in the “working chamber” below the turret, the “handling room” and the passageways coming out of the magazines.  This state of affairs increased the danger of a flash fire resulting from an enemy shell penetrating a turret or one of the adjacent chambers or passageways, or even breaching the magazine, leading to a catastrophic explosion.   This was not a remote threat; the armor protection of British battlecruisers was substantially less than that of battleships (or the German battlecruisers, for that matter). 

This increased risk from dangerous ammunition storage practices was known to senior officers in the Grand Fleet, and seems to have been an accepted risk, a “cost of doing business” that would pay off in more rapid fire during the initial phase of an engagement.  This state of affairs was also well understood by the Admiralty, particularly the office of the Third Sea Lord, responsible for naval materiel.  It was no surprise, therefore, that the latter’s analysis of the Jutland battlecruiser losses focused on the risky ammunition storage practices aboard ship. 

Nicholas Lambert recounts the obvious conclusion:

After reviewing all the available evidence and interviewing the few survivors, the Third Sea Lord (Rear Admiral Frederick Tudor), the Director of Naval Ordnance (Rear Admiral Morgan Singer), and the Director of Naval Construction (Tennyson d’Eyncourt) swiftly agreed that the explosions were due to the gun crews having ignored cordite safety regulations in an effort to speed up their rate of gunfire.  They found ample evidence to indicate that in addition to the charges normally in transit from the magazines to the guns there were large numbers of unprotected cartridges inside the turrets stacked for “ready use.” Under these conditions, they concluded, each turret became its own magazine in which case a single hit on any turret would have produced an enormous explosion and consequently the loss of the ship. In effect, the officers and men of the lost battle cruisers were largely responsible for their own deaths. The senior officers who had condoned the dangerous practices, moreover, were guilty of complicity18.

John Campbell arrives at the same conclusion in his book:

Details of events in the Indefatigable and the Queen Mary are meagre, but there is little doubt that flash reaching a magazine from cordite charges ignited in a gunhouse, working chamber or trunk, was responsible for their destruction19.

After the battle, accusations flew back and forth between the Battle Cruiser Fleet and the Admiralty over this issue, with Beatty and his subordinates insisting that prescribed ammunition handling procedures were followed and the fault for the loss of the three battlecruisers was inadequate armor protection.  But the Third Sea Lord was adamant:

There can be no doubt … that the amount of exposed cordite about the ships was enormous20.

He was strongly supported by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Jackson, who, some months after the battle, directed the Secretary of the Admiralty to write to Beatty, informing him in no uncertain terms that the Admiralty was convinced that the three battlecruisers were lost because

[…] the precautions essential to the safety of cordite charges [being] to a certain extent subordinated to the great desire necessarily felt to achieve a rapid rate of fire21.

Needless to say, Beatty was outraged by the Third Sea Lord’s report as well as the letter from Admiral Jackson’s staff.  But he was quietly exculpated before too long.  In December of 1916 Admiral Jellicoe came down from Scapa Flow to replace Admiral Jackson as First Sea Lord, and Beatty was elevated to command of the Grand Fleet.  Once ensconced in London, Admiral Jellicoe lost little time in quashing memoranda from the Third Sea Lord and others that placed the blame for the battlecruisers’ loss on ammunition handling, and even forced a retraction of the subsequent letter from the Admiralty Secretary to Vice Admiral Beatty22. Quashed and retracted these documents may have been, circulated no more in the corridors of the Admiralty, but bureaucratic inertia preserved them for later historians to rediscover.  Nicholas Lambert footnotes in his article that Arthur Marder, the famous historian of the Royal Navy from the Victorian era through the end of World War II, saw “edited copies” of these documents, but made only passing reference to them.  Lambert goes on to assert that:

As far as can be determined, the official opinion of the British naval administration has never been previously reported23.

We may wonder, and it’s certainly interesting and relevant to do so, whether the ammunition handling situation was ever rectified within the British battle cruiser force.  A quarter-century later another battle cruiser, HMS Hood, was lost in yet another catastrophic explosion after being hit by a few German shells during the opening minutes of the Battle of the Denmark Straits.

While the Grand Fleet’s doctrinal mandate to shoot with utmost rapidity was undeniably a principal cause of the ammunition handling that almost certainly caused the loss of three battlecruisers, a byproduct of this mandate seems to have been the abysmal accuracy of its gunfire, particularly within the Battle Cruiser Fleet.  It was for this reason that Beatty had been ordered to send his 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron north to Scapa Flow earlier in May, to undergo intensive firing drills; eventually, Beatty’s other two squadrons were scheduled to eventually follow suit.  Concern early in 1916 within the Grand Fleet about possible increases in the strength of the German battlecruiser force (the 1st Scouting Group) – later shown to be unfounded, based on faulty intelligence – thus dictated the transfer of the 5th Battle Squadron to reinforce the Battle Cruiser Fleet while its 3rd squadron was detached for gunnery training.  When battle was joined between the BCF and the 1st Scouting Group in midafternoon of May 31st, the high volume of British gunfire, as noted, scored very few hits.  The Germans shot with greater accuracy, for a couple of reasons:  the visibility conditions in the afternoon were much better looking westward than toward the east, and the Germans’ stereoscopic rangefinders – products of a world-class optics industry – were superior to those on the British ships24.

HMS Indefatigable sinking

Thus we see that during the first phase of the battle, Beatty’s command and control problems and the Grand Fleet’s doctrine of rapid fire and larger ammunition loads were principal contributing factors in what amounted to a clear tactical defeat for the British.  Nevertheless, while this near-disaster was playing itself out, Admiral Jellicoe and the main body of the Grand Fleet were moving steadily into position to gain the upper hand from an operational/strategic standpoint.  Approaching on a southeasterly heading in six parallel columns of four battleships each, still invisible to the Germans, Jellicoe was unaccountably kept in the dark about the precise location of the High Seas Fleet.  Beatty and his subordinates were in fact leading the Germans straight into a catastrophic trap, but neglected to signal complete and reliable position reports to the commander in chief.  Jellicoe knew only that a major engagement was taking place to the south or southwest of his own advancing fleet, still deployed in its cruising formation of six parallel columns.  Eventually, as the Battle Cruiser Fleet came tearing into view, Jellicoe could wait no longer.  He chose precisely the right moment to alter course to the east and carry out the difficult maneuver to form a single column, with each division of battleships altering course to port, to fall in behind the columns to their portside.  With his long battle line moving steadily east before turning again to the southeast, Admiral Jellicoe was about to achieve his goal of cutting off the High Seas Fleet from its bases. 

The battle line of the Grand Fleet was able to remain undetected while this complex maneuver was underway because in the battle’s opening moments, German Vice Admiral Hipper had turned both the battlecruisers of his 1st Scouting Group and their accompanying light cruisers of the 2nd Scouting Group around from a northerly to a southeasterly heading to engage Beatty’s battlecruisers.  In doing so he missed his chance to catch sight of the approaching main body of the Grand Fleet, closing on a southeasterly course some fifty miles to the north at the start of the action.  Following the battlecruiser engagement Hipper reversed course to a northwesterly heading, with Scheer following in headlong pursuit of Beatty’s ships.  While on this course they sighted the three battlecruisers of the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron, speeding southward well in advance of Jellicoe’s battleships and then, as both the friendly and enemy battlecruisers came into view, turning hard toward the west to link up with Beatty.  Taking them under fire, Hipper’s battlecruisers scored one more great success, hitting the battlecruiser HMS Invincible, flagship of the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron, which blew up in catastrophic fashion. 

Keep in mind the reduced visibility in the easterly direction through the late afternoon haze.  When Scheer and Hipper finally altered course to the east/northeast, they encountered a shocking sight:  the Grand Fleet battle line, 24 dreadnoughts, heading south by southeast – having crossed the “T,” every admiral’s nightmare, and interposed itself between the High Seas Fleet and its home port.  The next phase of the battle saw the long-awaited but disappointingly brief exchange of gunfire between the two battle fleets as Scheer not once but twice attempted to turn east toward home, only to see the Grand Fleet across his bows.  And twice he extricated his fleet with a skillful gefechtswendung maneuver, a simultaneous turn away of his entire battle line, disappearing into the accumulating haze of the early evening.  During the second of these “battle turn away” maneuvers he interposed Hipper’s damaged battlecruisers between his main force and the British line, where they suffered considerable additional damage.  The Grand Fleet did not get off easy, however; two armored cruisers on Jellicoe’s starboard flank maneuvered aggressively close to the German formation and were sunk.  In return the Germans lost a light cruiser.

The Great Escape

As darkness fell the High Seas Fleet, despite having sunk an impressive number of British ships, was in a desperate situation.  By aggressively pursuing Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Fleet to the northwest it had allowed Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet – unseen until quite late in the day – to interpose itself between the High Seas Fleet and its home ports.  The stage was set for a decisive British victory that would wipe out the disappointments of the daylight action on May 31st. 

Admiral Jellicoe knew that the German fleet, somewhere in the murky twilight to the west of his own fleet, had three possible routes to its home base in the Jade estuary.  One was the long way around Denmark into the Baltic, and thence via the Kiel Canal to the Jade Estuary.  The second route lay to the south, in a minefield-protected corridor near the Frisian Islands.  The third was to the southeast – the Horns Reef route, where another mine-protected passageway ran along the lower Danish coast into German waters.  Jellicoe did not wish to fight a night engagement, and planned to intercept the High Seas Fleet at dawn.  He was uncertain which of the three routes his enemy would steer for, but initially concluded that the southern passageway, via the Frisian Islands, was most likely, and therefore continued steaming to the south. 

‘The Battle of Jutland’ by Montague Dawson, oil on canvas, 1949. Illustration via Vallejo Gallery

Here is where British Naval intelligence might have played a decisive role, examined in Jason Hines article about the role of intelligence in the Battle of Jutland.  The Admiralty had, early in the war, come into possession of two principal German naval codebooks recovered from enemy ships run aground or sunk.  The Navy had also recruited a staff of world-class codebreakers, many drawn from academia, working in what later became famous as “Room 40” in the Admiralty.  Thus by the spring of 1916 the Royal Navy was reading the verbatim text of German naval wireless traffic picked up by its network of receiving stations.  It was also obtaining approximate position fixes of German ships at sea transmitting by wireless, thanks to the direction-finding (D/F) stations along the British coast.  Position information on enemy ships derived from D/F intercepts was regularly transmitted to British warships at sea.  The Admiralty was aware that these messages could be picked up by German wireless receivers and possibly decrypted, but this was not a serious worry, as D/F information could be received by anyone and was accordingly less sensitive than other information. 

The verbatim decrypted German naval messages contained in these transmissions, however, represented extremely sensitive communications intelligence (COMINT in today’s parlance), and the fact that the British had broken the German codes needed to be protected at all costs.  While the Grand Fleet was in harbor the content of these messages could be passed to Jellicoe, Beatty, and other admirals via secure land line.  At sea, however, the Admiralty resorted to a cumbersome practice of incorporating, whenever possible, the rewritten (“sanitized”) content of decrypted COMINT into D/F position reports on enemy ships.  This was an ad hoc practice, lacking specific guidelines or methodology.  And unfortunately, long experience at sea had given Admiral Jellicoe a low opinion of the reliability of D/F intercept reports, and he tended to ignore these for the most part.  The decrypted information masked in these reports was inconsistent in quality and generally of low intelligence value.  The most important intelligence information decrypted by Room 40 was usually unable to be successfully sanitized or masked as D/F intercepts, and in order to protect what we now call “sources and methods,” this vital content was not transmitted to the fleet at sea. 

Thus it came to pass that Vice Admiral Scheer, as twilight fell on May 31st, issued a series of three wireless messages.  One directed the High Seas Fleet to alter course to the east/southeast, toward Horns Reef.  A second directed the battlecruisers to move to the rear of the formation.  A third message, sent to German Naval Headquarters, requested Zeppelin airship reconnaissance of the Horns Reef passage during the early morning hours.  Scheer’s intent was to evade or break through the Grand Fleet during the night, and arrive off Horns Reef at daybreak.  Room 40 swiftly decrypted these messages, but the Admiralty operations staff determined that there was no possibility of sanitizing the vital content of the Zeppelin reconnaissance request message in a bland D/F message to Admiral Jellicoe, and so this critical COMINT was not passed to him.  The other two messages, however, were decrypted and the Admiralty staff inexplicably decided to sanitize this information in a laughably transparent manner, and the following message was passed to Jellicoe:

GERMAN BATTLEFLEET ORDERED HOME AT 9:14 PM.  BATTLECRUISERS IN REAR.  SPEED 16 KNOTS.  COURSE SSE ¾ E25.

The course reported was a direct heading for Horns Reef.  But Admiral Jellicoe tragically and inexplicably judged that this message, like others he had received during the long day, was based on D/F intercepts, the course information probably unreliable, and therefore chose to ignore it26.  He famously kept his own counsel and apparently believed, during the first hours of darkness, that Scheer would probably continue heading south toward the protected passageway along the Frisian Islands to the Jade, and thus Jellicoe kept the Grand Fleet on a steady southerly course during most of the night.  Also, for reasons which today seem baffling, Jellicoe was apparently not informed in a timely or coherent manner about the growing uproar at the rear of his formation as the High Seas Fleet barged through in the darkness.  He may have chosen to dismiss this as minor skirmishing, and indeed he received no detailed situation reports from his subordinate commanders at the rear of the formation, nor from any of the ships engaged.  And so, while the High Seas Fleet, at some cost, pushed its way through the rearmost formations of the Grand Fleet on a direct heading toward Horns Reef, the latter continued its stately progress toward the south for several hours, before belatedly reversing course to the north.  Dawn found the two fleets far apart, with the High Seas Fleet approaching home waters and out of danger.

Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Jellicoe

This uninformed decision on Jellicoe’s part – to continue south and ignore the dangerous but ultimately successful effort of the High Seas Fleet to break through the rear of the British line and head towards Horns Reef – is to my mind the worst failure on the part of the British naval command and the reason why the Battle of Jutland went into the history books as a hollow strategic victory gained at immense cost.  Jellicoe later expressed his opinion that the Admiralty’s failure to inform him of the German request for Zeppelin reconnaissance of Horns Reef was “absolutely fatal” to his prospects for victory27.

And victory, indeed, would have been within his grasp had he possessed certain knowledge of Scheer’s destination and altered course to the east/southeast.  Had dawn on the 1st of June found the Grand Fleet closing on the High Seas Fleet in the vicinity of Horns Reef the German situation would have been desperate.  Four of the five German battlecruisers had been seriously damaged, with one in sinking condition as it neared Horns Reef.  Furthermore, as noted, Scheer had made a major, avoidable error in taking with him on this sortie the six pre-dreadnoughts of the 2nd Battle Squadron, which could manage no more than about 16 knots at top speed.  One of these had already been sunk while attempting to break through the rear of the British line during the night, and the remaining five would certainly have been sunk by the Grand Fleet in a daylight engagement.  Scheer’s only option would have been to make a desperate run for it, taking his 16 dreadnoughts and a couple of battlecruisers on a high-speed dash to the north, hoping to round Denmark and gain the safety of the Baltic, but any ships crippled in this headlong retreat would have been doomed.  It’s not difficult to see an outcome where the British loss of three battlecruisers and two armored cruisers on May 31st would have been more than balanced by the German loss, on June 1st, of two or three battlecruisers and six pre-dreadnought battleships at a minimum. 

Admiral Jellicoe was certainly not ignorant about the significance of Room 40’s codebreaking efforts, and he clearly wanted to be able to receive sensitive intelligence reports from communications intercepts while at sea without jeopardizing the security of this invaluable source.  To that end Jellicoe had written to Vice Admiral Beatty on April 1st, 1916 (nearly two months before the battle):

I am asking Admiralty to compile and issue at once to you and Tyrwhitt, myself and Burney only a special cipher for use in giving us enemy dispositions.  The enemy gets hold of our ciphers so rapidly that I am in mortal terror they should find out how much we know by cipher W being compromised.  It would be absolutely fatal …28.

Sadly – and crucially – Hines does not report in his article what the Admiralty did with Jellicoe’s request.  Could British naval intelligence have found a way to give Jellicoe and his senior admirals a special intelligence channel at sea, with greater security than the principal British naval code, the aforementioned cipher W?  I believe they most certainly could have, and should have done so even earlier in the war. 

A special cypher with complex keys would certainly have been simple to implement and provided adequate security for highly sensitive messages, particularly with frequent key changes.  An alternative might have been implementation of what was undoubtedly the most secure cipher system to come into use early in the twentieth century:  the “one-time pad,” in which each consecutive message is enciphered using a unique key that would not be repeated, thereby eliminating the “depth” of intercepted messages enciphered in the same key, which gave cryptanalysts a “window” to facilitate deciphering enemy code systems.  The concept of one-time secure encryption was invented in 1882 by Frank Miller, an American banker29. Not until 1917 was it adapted for use in telegraphic communications, but it seems strange that the cryptography experts in Room 40 and elsewhere in the Admiralty could not find a way to implement Miller’s original concept in response to Admiral Jellicoe’s expressed desire for a secure communications channel.  Identical booklets of one-time pad key material could have been held at the Admiralty and also issued to select staff officers with each of the senior admirals at sea, as Jellicoe had requested.  German communications intercepts picked up and decrypted by Room 40 could have been promptly enciphered in this one-time pad system and transmitted to the fleet, perhaps with a unique alphanumeric header to indicate to the wireless operator aboard ship that the enciphered text of these messages should be transcribed verbatim and immediately delivered to the admiral’s senior staff officer responsible for keeping the one-time pad in his possession, who would decipher the signal. 

Had this been done, Jellicoe not only would have received the verbatim transcript of Scheer’s order for his fleet to proceed on a direct course toward Horns Reef in a timely manner.  He would also have received, about the same time, confirming intelligence in the form of Scheer’s request for Zeppelin reconnaissance of Horns Reef.  With this intelligence in hand, Jellicoe would certainly have altered the Grand Fleet’s course to the east/southeast, so as to intercept the enemy at first light. 

So, we should ask, why did the Admiralty not “close the loop” between intelligence and operations as Admiral Jellicoe had requested, via use of a one-time pad system or another cipher using a different and innovative key system that would have enabled senior admirals to receive the most sensitive communications intelligence in a timely manner while at sea?

I wish I knew.


About the author

Ralph M. Hitchens, Lt. Col. USAFR (Ret.)

Ralph M. Hitchens, Lt. Col. USAFR (Ret.) is a graduate of Southern Illinois University and the National Defense Intelligence College.  His Air Force career took him to Vietnam and Europe, and he subsequently worked as a corporate pilot before joining the government as a civilian analyst with Army Intelligence, attached to NSA.  He later moved to the Intelligence Office at the U.S. Department of Energy, where he oversaw current intelligence reporting, drafted and contributed to National Intelligence Estimates, and served as Information Technology Program Manager.  Retiring in 2004, he worked as a contractor in the DOE Office of Classification and other program offices.  He regularly contributes book reviews to the Journal of Military History as well as other publications.  He and his wife Janet live in Poolesville, Maryland.

Footnotes

  1. Falls, Cyril, The Great War (London & New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959).
  2. Barnett, Correlli, The Swordbearers:  Supreme Command in the First World War (New York:  Morrow & Sons, 1964).
  3. Campbell, N. J. M., Jutland:  An Analysis of the Fighting (New York:  Lyons Press, 1986).
  4. Gordon, Andrew, The Rules of the Game:  Jutland and British Naval Command (London:  John Murray, 1996).
  5. Nicholas A. Lambert, “Our Bloody Ships” or “Our Bloody System”?  Jutland and the Loss of the Battlecruisers, 1916,” Journal of Military History 62 (January 1998), pp. 29-56.
  6. Jason Hines, “Sins of Omission and Commission:  A Reassessment of the Role of Intelligence in the Battle of Jutland,” Journal of Military History 72 (October 2008), pp. 1117-1153.
  7. Gordon, Andrew, The Rules of the Game:  Jutland and British Naval Command (London:  John Murray, 1996).[/note], a noteworthy book in many respects.  No reader can help but be impressed with Gordon’s authorial audacity in executing a sudden, seismic shift from his detailed narrative of the battle’s opening phase to the mother of all digressions.  In the early chapters of this book we are engrossed in the minute-by-minute chronological account of the confusion attending the battle’s initial phase, with Vice-Admiral Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Fleet heading east from its base at Rosyth, turning briefly north, then abruptly reversing course to the southeast when his cruiser screen encounters enemy destroyers and eventually the German battlecruiser force.  These maneuvers saw the BCF temporarily leaving behind, in the process, the immensely strong 5th Battle Squadron.  In the subsequent shootout with the German battlecruisers Beatty suffered heavy losses, culminating, as the 5th Battle Squadron finally joined the fight, with the startling appearance of the German High Seas Fleet battle line directly ahead, bringing Beatty’s ships under dangerous fire.  All this is narrated in thrilling detail when suddenly, without warning, we find ourselves immersed in what might be termed an extended socio-professional history and analysis of the Royal Navy’s officer corps in the Victorian era. 

    The subsequent chapters analyze how the culture of initiative that characterized the great days of the Royal Navy in the age of sail – the era of Rodney, Howe, Nelson, and a hundred lesser lights – declined over the course of a century (“the long calm lee of Trafalgar”) into a stratified command culture that subordinated initiative to overreliance on increasingly-complex flag signaling and rigorously enforced, unquestioned obedience to higher authority – a point noted earlier by Correlli Barnett in his essay on Sir John Jellicoe. 

    The apex of this 19th century cultural shift was a famous disaster off the coast of Lebanon in 1893, when the commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon, ordered a simultaneous inward turning maneuver by the two parallel columns of his fleet – i.e., the ships of the starboard column turning to port, and those of the port column turning to starboard – that resulted in a collision in which his flagship, HMS Victoria, was rammed and sunk by another battleship, HMS Camperdown.  About 350 British sailors and officers from the Victoria lost their lives.  

    Any number of officers on both ships knew as soon as Tryon’s order was issued that this maneuver was impossible to execute safely given the narrow separation of the two columns and the wide turning radius of the ships, and that if it continued a collision was inevitable.  Still, no one (including the captain of the Camperdown and the rear admiral aboard that ship) thought to exercise a modicum of initiative or common sense and disobey the order.  Months later the denouement of this dreadful incident was, to any modern reader, baffling but characteristic of the state of mind that brought it about:  a court martial exonerated the captain of the Victoria, and the admiralty saw no reason to prosecute either the captain or the rear admiral aboard the Camperdown.  Sir George Tryon himself was conveniently absent, having gone down with his flagship.

    This episode is redolent of both symbolism and irony.  It certainly symbolized the near-extinction of initiative permeating the upper ranks of the Royal Navy by the end of the 19th century.  The irony is that Sir George Tryon was an avid reformer, one of a handful of leading lights within the Navy who sought to reduce the rigid dependence on excessively detailed signaling called for by the two-volume, 500-page Signal Book, issued in 1886 after extensive staff discussion and often acrimonious commentary.  Signaling was recognised by many naval officers as liable to break down quickly in combat, where incoming shellfire might take an unexpected toll on the halyards, signals yeomen, and officers of the watch, rendering continuous, detailed communication impossible.  Tryon’s principal effort to reform this state of affairs involved use of one principal signal – TA – which deserves to be described in full, excerpted from the Signal Book:

    Observe very attentively the Admiral’s motions as he will probably alter his course, make or shorten sail, increase or decrease speed, etc., with or without signals, as may be most convenient7Gordon, p. 197.

  8. Gordon, p. 55.
  9. Gordon, p. 54.
  10. Gordon, p. 69.
  11. The BCF Standing Orders (reflecting the institutionalization of Sir George Tryon’s AT signal doctrine, discussed above) were explicit about a squadron or ship commander’s responsibility to maintain awareness of what the BCF flagship was doing, and when in doubt, follow suit.   A similar requirement was also stated in the Standing Orders for the Grand Fleet.  Gordon, p. 54-55.
  12. Gordon, p. 83.
  13. Campbell, pp. 78 & 94.
  14. Lambert, pp. 30-31.
  15. Lambert, p. 37.
  16. Lambert, p. 38.
  17. Lambert, p. 31.
  18. Campbell, p. 60.
  19. Lambert, p. 51.
  20. Lambert, p. 51.
  21. Lambert, p. 52.
  22. Lambert, p. 32.
  23. Gordon, p. 110.
  24. Quoted in Hines, p. 1141
  25. Hines, p. 1142-1143.
  26. Hines, p. 1142.
  27. Hines, p. 1131.
  28. Bellovin, Steven M. “Frank Miller: Inventor of the One-Time Pad,” Cryptologia, 35:3, July 2011, pp. 203-222.

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