The Battle of Jutland involved around 100,000 men from both the British and German navies. Four of these men in particular were crucial to the events that took place. It was German commander Admiral Reinhard Scheer who instigated the battle, with a clever strategy to draw out and destroy part of the British fleet. His vice admiral, Franz Hipper, spearheaded this daring scheme with his battlecruiser scouting group. British Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty led the British battlecruisers to meet the Germans, ahead of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe and the bulk of the British fleet. The decisions and actions that all of these men made during the Battle of Jutland ultimately contributed to its outcome.


Admiral Reinhard Scheer

Reinhard Scheer joined the Imperial German Navy in 1879. He was a dynamic, confident leader who brought optimism to his role in command of the German High Seas Fleet, which he gained control of in early 1916. After nearly two years of war, there had been no decisive battle between the two major naval rivals, Britain and Germany. Scheer was eager to change that and came up with a strategy to defeat the British. At the core of his plan was his intention to divide the numerically superior British fleet and destroy part of it – the Battlecruiser Fleet (BCF). The BCF was based at Rosyth, Scotland and was commanded by Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty.

Scheer sent a scouting force of German battlecruisers, led by Vice Admiral Franz Hipper, to lure Beatty's ships out into the North Sea. While the battlecruisers exchanged fire, the rest of the German fleet rapidly approached. Scheer hoped that Beatty's force could be destroyed before the rest of the British fleet arrived to support it. His plan almost worked. Beatty took the bait and met the Germans at Jutland, off the north coast of Denmark. But, as the remainder of the German fleet headed towards the battle, so too did Admiral Jellicoe's Grand Fleet. The British had cracked Germany's naval codes and knew what was planned. Scheer suddenly found himself faced with a full-strength Grand Fleet. His plan was rapidly unravelling, but he made some clever manoeuvres and avoided losing his entire fleet. The High Seas Fleet withdrew from the battle and returned to Germany. It had sustained some damage and lost 11 ships but had avoided being totally wiped out.

The Germans never again seriously challenged the British at sea for the remainder of the war. Scheer's gamble had failed and, in his report on the battle to Germany's leader Kaiser Wilhelm II, he urged a return to unrestricted submarine warfare. Although Scheer failed to achieve what he intended at Jutland, his career survived the battle. He became Chief of the Naval Staff in August 1918 but retired from the Imperial German Navy in December that year. Scheer died in 1928 and was buried at Weimar.


Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty

David Beatty was a charismatic and dashing leader. He joined the Royal Navy in 1884 and his confidence and abilities ensured he quickly rose up the ranks. He was appointed rear admiral at the comparatively young age of 38 and was a favourite of Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, who made him his Naval Secretary in 1911. Beatty became commander of the Battlecruiser Fleet (BCF) in 1914, leading it through the early engagements of the war at Heligoland Bight and the Dogger Bank.

On 30 May 1916, British naval intelligence warned that German Admiral Reinhard Scheer was planning an operation in the North Sea the following day. The British fleet, led by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, was ordered to sea by the Admiralty. Beatty's force formed the vanguard and came into contact with the German battlecruisers, led by Vice Admiral Franz Hipper, at just before 4 pm on 31 May. Both sides opened fire, with mixed results. The British had more firepower but they suffered from poor visibility, while the Germans were more accurate in their firing. Beatty's battlecruisers sustained more direct hits than their German counterparts, leading him to exclaim, "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today".

Two early losses were HMS Queen Mary and HMS Indefatigable, which were sunk at around 4 pm. Beatty's flagship, HMS Lion, also suffered extensive damage from frequent hits. When the German High Seas Fleet arrived in support of Hipper, Beatty realised he was outnumbered and ordered his force to turn away. The Germans pursued him and he led them straight into the path of Jellicoe and the entire British Grand Fleet. His battlecruisers now joined with the rest of the fleet as the battle continued to rage. They caused damage to several of Hipper's battlecruisers, including  SMS Seydlitz and SMS Lützow. Beatty's role in the battle now came to a close and he took no real part in the night fighting that followed, as the Germans turned for home.

It was a frustrating encounter for Beatty, who never managed to gain an advantage over the Germans. His independent nature led to a difficult working relationship with his commander, Jellicoe, which caused problems at Jutland. Confusion, poor visibility and a lack of communication within the British fleet all contributed to the disappointing outcome of the battle. After Jutland, Jellicoe was given a non-operational role and Beatty stepped in to replace him in command of the Grand Fleet. In 1919, he became First Sea Lord, a position he held until 1927. After he retired, his health steadily declined and he died in London in 1936.


Admiral Sir John Jellicoe

A quietly confident, unassuming man, Jellicoe joined the Royal Navy in 1872. His polite, studious nature and attention to detail ensured he steadily advanced through the naval promotion system and he was second in command of the Home Fleet as war approached. He was 54 years old when he was made commander of the Grand Fleet as war broke out in August 1914. He was reluctant to take up the post, however, and only did so after some intervention from the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Jellicoe's cautious and considered style of leadership was the opposite of Beatty's dashing boldness. On 30 May 1916, he learned that the Germans were planning something in the North Sea and ordered the fleet out of its bases. Initially, Jellicoe did not rush to meet the German force, as he lacked specific information on its movements, strength and plans. This hampered his decision-making throughout the battle. Once Beatty reported contact with Hipper's ships in the early afternoon of 31 May, Jellicoe ordered his force to advance at full speed. As the battle between Beatty's and Hipper's battlecruisers intensified, Jellicoe – and the bulk of the Grand Fleet – rapidly approached. Beatty turned away and led the Germans straight towards Jellicoe's fleet, which was assembled in a line.

The British managed to 'cross the T' of Admiral Scheer's force. This was the naval term for a manoeuvre which essentially meant the British had a firing advantage over the Germans. Scheer now decided to turn away and the German fleet managed to escape the British guns. Jellicoe ordered the British to bear south and soon came into contact with the Germans, again managing to 'cross the T'. But Scheer evaded the British once more and the German fleet disappeared into the mist, firing off torpedoes at its pursuers. Jellicoe followed his pre-battle plans for such a situation and turned away to avoid the torpedoes. By the time he could turn back and pursue the Germans, they had effectively escaped. As night fell, there were some small clashes that lasted through into the next morning. By then, the opportunity to inflict any real damage on the High Seas Fleet had been lost and Jellicoe was unwilling to engage in serious night fighting. In the confusion and darkness, the German fleet managed to get away.

Jellicoe has been criticised for the outcome of the Battle of Jutland. It was felt that he was too cautious in his dealing with the Germans and should have taken a more aggressive approach. His defenders, however, note the significant risk of losing the fleet – a vital aspect of Britain's wartime defence – as explanation for his calculated restraint. Churchill too understood the magnitude of Jellicoe’s responsibility, describing him as "the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon". In November 1916, Jellicoe was appointed First Sea Lord and never again took part in operations at sea. He died in 1935 and was buried at St Paul's Cathedral.


Vice Admiral Franz Hipper

Franz Hipper joined the Imperial German Navy in 1881. After holding several commands and serving around the world, he was put in charge of all German scouting forces in 1913. Vice Admiral Hipper was an excellent tactician, who commanded effectively during the Battle of the Dogger Bank in 1914. As commander of the I Scouting Group of battlecruisers, Hipper played a key role in putting Admiral Scheer's plan into effect at Jutland. Not long after 2pm on 31 May, Hipper and Beatty's battlecruiser forces made contact with each other. 

Hipper turned south, hoping to draw the British towards the rest of the German fleet. It worked, and Beatty followed him. The two opposing battlecruiser forces soon opened fire on each other. Hipper's ships scored several early hits on the British, destroying HMS Queen Mary and HMS Indefatigable. The gunners on Hipper's battlecruisers had the advantage. The British ships were clearly visible against the skyline, whilst the Germans were less distinct targets. The Germans were able to capitalise on this, and achieved a better accuracy and range of fire during the fight between the battlecruisers.

When Scheer approached with the High Seas Fleet, Beatty turned away and headed north. The Germans followed and soon met the British Grand Fleet. A fierce battlecruiser encounter took place between the German ships SMS Lützow and SMS Derfflinger and Britain's HMS Invincible. Invincible exploded and all but 6 of her crew of 1,000 were lost. At one stage in the battle, Hipper had to transfer to a new flagship, SMS Moltke, as his had sustained too much damage and eventually sank. Under increasing pressure from the Grand Fleet, as night fell the Germans disengaged and turned for home. Hipper's force sustained some damage in the night fighting that occurred as the High Seas Fleet desperately tried to get home intact. Despite this, he and his remaining battlecruisers managed to return to their bases in Germany. Hipper's role at Jutland was judged to have been carried out well, as his battlecruisers decisively won the initial clash with Beatty's force. In August 1918, Hipper took over from Scheer in control of the High Seas Fleet. He retired from the Imperial German Navy a few months later. He died in 1932.

Related Content

Commander Loftus William Jones, Royal Navy, awarded the Victoria Cross, HMS SHARK, Jutland, 31 May 1916.
© IWM (VC 658)

Commander Loftus Jones VC

Commander Jones' torpedo boat destroyer, HMS Shark, came under heavy attack from German shellfire during the Battle of Jutland. Jones, though mortally wounded, encouraged his men to the last and only left his ship when it was beyond saving.

Battlecruiser HMS Lion.
© IWM (Q 75277)
First World War

A Guide To British Ships At The Battle Of Jutland

The Battle of Jutland, fought over two days from 31 May 1916, was the largest sea battle of the First World War. It pitted 151 British warships against 99 German ships and was the first and only time the two battle fleets confronted each other. 

Officer Cadets of the Junion Division (still in civilian cloths) marching past the Old College at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, November 1917.
© IWM (Q 54239)
First World War

Major Francis Harvey VC

Major Francis Harvey was in command of 'Q' turret on board Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty's flagship, HMS Lion, during the Battle of Jutland. He acted quickly and selflessly when a shell destroyed the turret and severely wounded him.