With the land war mired in a bloody stalemate, the British public was hungry for a morale-boosting naval victory. So why, people asked, was the powerful British fleet sitting idle at its great anchorage at Scapa Flow? True, Germany’s East Asia Squadron had been sunk off the Falkland Islands in December, and its hunted merchantmen scattered to the four corners of the earth. But the German Navy had put up a stiffer resistance than expected, and, although it had subsequently been confined to the North Sea, there had still been no decisive battle.
So when Vice-Admiral David Beatty promised the “complete destruction” of the German Imperial Navy’s High Seas Fleet, hopes were high that a glorious victory was imminent. The prestige of the Royal Navy was immense, and its admirals – household names such as Admiral of Fleet John Jellicoe, Vice-Admiral Beatty and First Sea Lord Fisher – were trusted implicitly to rule the waves.
“Make the German fleet fight and you win the war!” Lord Fisher declared – a more positive view than that expressed by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty (and Fisher’s detested rival). In August 1914 Churchill had described Jellicoe as “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon”.
By January, the need for a high-profile engagement had trumped the need for caution. But the German fleet was bottled up in its Baltic ports, and Lord Fisher knew that he needed to force the Germans to fight at sea. A chance for battle came on 24 January, when elements of the German fleet were reported to have sallied forth into the North Sea. Admiral Beatty’s battlecruiser squadron had been forewarned by the Navy’s crack “Room 40” code-breaking section and quickly set out from Rosyth to meet the threat.
The Germans’ aim was to destroy the British fishing fleet, which their naval intelligence blamed for warning the Royal Navy of its approach during its December raid on the Yorkshire coast.
Beatty’s force linked up with another fleet of British destroyers and cruisers sailing from Harwich and set a trap for Admiral Franz Hipper’s ships.
The trap worked. Hipper’s force of battlecruisers fled the shallows of Dogger Bank with the Royal Navy in hot pursuit. Beatty’s flagship HMS Lion quickly crippled SMS Blücher, but weak communications and poor gunnery allowed most of the German fleet to escape. Meanwhile, despite facing nearly the entire British column, SMS Blücher fought on, putting one British destroyer out of action and damaging a cruiser.
Eventually, battered by more than 50 direct hits, Blücher went to the bottom. British destroyers, fearing torpedoes, didn’t linger long to pick up survivors, and more than 800 German sailors were left to drown.
The rest of the German fleet was relatively unharmed. HMS Lion limped back to port (but not military dry-dock, so as to downplay the damage), and the indecisive encounter was presented as a great victory. Vice-Admiral Beatty was hailed as a national hero, while his deputy, responsible for the worst of the communications errors in battle, was also decorated.
Perhaps as a result, few lessons were learnt. The Royal Navy failed to address its problems with communications and gunnery or to recognise the strength of the Imperial Navy. The fact that the cream of the British fleet had succeeded in sinking just one heavy cruiser (with only seven shells, apart from the strikes on Blücher, hitting home) was overlooked. The lethal price of this complacency would be paid a year later, at the Battle of Jutland.
Tomorrow: Honour for the nurses of Pervyse
‘Moments’ that have already been published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar