The Battle of Jutland, fought 100 years ago between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet, was the largest and most important naval engagement of the First World War. Although it ended somewhat indecisively, it was perhaps a victory for Britain, since Germany had failed in its objective of breaking the dominance of the Royal Navy and its persistent blockade of German ports. Much has been written about the action, but who were the principal commanders that held the fate of the war in their hands in mid-1916?
John Rushworth Jellicoe, Royal Navy
Admiral John Jellicoe commanded the British Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May / 1 June 1916. He had joined the navy as a cadet in 1872, aged 13, later becoming a midshipman on the frigate HMS Newcastle two years later. Several promotions followed over the next few years, including sub-lieutenant in 1878 and lieutenant in 1880. He would find himself in action on land in 1882, when he commanded a company of the Naval Brigade during the British invasion of Egypt.
Following the Egyptian campaign, Jellicoe would become a gunnery officer, joining the staff of the gunnery school at HMS Exeter in 1884. In 1885, he would help in the rescuing of the crew of a steamer that had capsized near Gibraltar, an act for which he was awarded the Board of Trade Silver Medal. By 1891, he had been promoted to commander and was serving aboard the battleship HMS Sans Pareil, after which he also served aboard the battleships HMS Victoria and HMS Ramillies.
He was promoted to captain, in 1897, and assumed command of HMS Centurion, and acted as chief-of-staff to Admiral Edward Seymour during the Boxer Rebellion in China. It would be during this conflict that he was wounded at the Battle of Beicang, later defying the doctor’s prognosis of having fatal injuries. By 1905, he was director of naval ordnance, and promoted to rear-admiral two years later. He worked hard to modernise the Royal Navy, greatly supporting the introduction of the Dreadnought battleships and Invincible class battlecruisers.
Promotion to full admiral came in August 1914, when he was given command of the Grand Fleet. As such, he would go on to command the British fleet during the Battle of Jutland, the only full-scale clash of battleships during the war. His handling of the action has resulted in a degree of controversy, mostly due to claims he acted too cautiously and failed to pursue the German Highs Seas Fleet after it disengaged from the battle. However, he knew losing the Grand Fleet would probably lead to Britain losing the war, a gamble he simply could not take.
David Richard Beatty, Royal Navy
Admiral David Beatty commanded the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland. He was younger than Jellicoe, having been born in 1871, and had joined the navy in 1884, serving on HMS Alexandra as a midshipman in the Mediterranean two years later. In 1890, while serving aboard HMS Ruby, he was promoted to sub-lieutenant, after which he attended the gunnery school at HMS Excellent before being posted to the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert in 1892.
Beatty would be present during Kitchener’s campaign to re-conquer Sudan from the Mahdists between 1896 and 1898, where he acted as second-in-command to Stanley Colville, who commanded a small flotilla of gunboats and other steamers on the Nile river. Colville, however, would be wounded early in the campaign, and so command passed to Beatty for the assault on Dongola, for which he would later be awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Later, when Kitchener was granted permission to advance further into Sudan, Beatty again commanded a number of gunboats and was present at the decisive Battle of Omdurman in 1898.
More active service soon followed, this time during the Boxer Rebellion in China, where Beatty served aboard the battleship HMS Barfleur in 1899. The following year, he would land with 150 men in order to help defend Tientsin from the Boxers; he would later be wounded during the subsequent fighting. However, he would recover and be promoted to captain in November.
By 1910, Beatty had been promoted to rear-admiral, and was appointed to command the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron of the Grand Fleet in 1913. By the time the First World War had begun, he had again been promoted, this time to vice-admiral, and during the war he led his squadron at the actions at Heligoland Bight in 1914, Dogger Bank in 1915 and the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Unlike Jellicoe, Beatty is remembered for being a more aggressive leader, although he has received some criticism for making tactical errors at Jutland and for his lack of effective communication with the commander of the Grand Fleet.
Reinhard Scheer, Kaiserliche Marine
Admiral Reinhard Scheer commanded the German Highs Seas Fleet at the Battle of Jutland, and was, therefore, Jellicoe’s principal opponent. Scheer had joined the German navy at the age of 15, in 1879, joining the East Africa Squadron following completion of his training in 1884. During this time, he was posted to the frigate SMS Bismarck, aboard which he would be promoted to Leutnant. He would return to Germany to conduct training in torpedoes before returning to the East Africa Squadron aboard the corvette SMS Sophie.
In 1890, he again returned to Germany and took up a post as an instructor at the Torpedo Research Command in Kiel, becoming a noted specialist in torpedo weapon technology. More promotions followed, including Korvettenkapitän of the SMS Gazelle, Kapitän zur See in 1905 and command of the battleship SMS Elsass in 1907. Several years later, he was aboard the SMS Prinzess Wilhelm as chief-of-staff to Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, the then commander of the High Seas Fleet. By January 1913, he was commander of II Battle Squadron of the High Seas Fleet.
Promotion to Vizeadmiral came in December of the same year, and in early 1915 he was placed in command of III Battle Squadron. However, command of the High Seas Fleet finally arrived in January 1916, when Admiral Hugo von Pohl, its previous commander, became too ill to remain in his post. Scheer, therefore, was to command the German fleet during the Battle of Jutland, following which he published his assessment of the engagement, in which he strongly urged the use of unrestricted submarine warfare as the only realistic means of defeating Britain.
Franz Ritter von Hipper, Kaiserliche Marine
Franz von Hipper
Admiral Franz von Hipper joined the Kaiserliche Marine in 1881 as a cadet, spending time aboard the SMS Niobe and the training ships Mars and Friedrich Carl. Following completion of his naval education, he was appointed drill instructor to new recruits at the First Naval Battalion in Kiel in 1885. However, within only a few months he left to attend the Executive Officer’s school, after which he was posted to the Coastal Defence Artillery in 1886.
In March 1887, he was again posted to the Friedrich Carl as a watch officer, before serving aboard a number of other vessels, including the frigate Friedrich der Grosse. Between 1894 and 1895, he found himself serving on the battleship SMS Wörth during which time he was promoted to Leutnant, following which he commanded the Second Torpedo-Boat Reserve Division then the Second Torpedo-Boat Reserve Flotilla in 1897. Promotion to Kapitän zur See came in 1907, taking command of the cruiser SMS Gneisenau the following year. Later, in 1911, he commanded the cruiser SMS Yorck, as well as acting as chief-of-staff to Gustav von Bachmann, who Hipper would succeed as Deputy Flag Officer of Reconnaissance Forces.
During the First World War, Hipper would command a number of battlecruisers and conduct raids on British coastal towns, including Great Yarmouth, Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby. He would also be present at the Battle of Dogger Bank in 1915 and commanded the I Scouting Group at the Battle of Jutland the following year – known as Skagerrakschlacht, or the Battle of Skagerrak in Germany.