Armored Cruisers at Jutland
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
November 2017

At the turn of the last century, battle fleets consisted of battleships armed with four heavy guns and a speed of between 17 and 20 knots. These ships laid down before the coming of Britain’s bigger and faster Dreadnought would later be called “pre-dreadnoughts.”

Ahead of the fleet, armored cruisers scouted for enemies. These mounted guns heavier than those of the light ships of torpedo flotillas, but not as powerful as the battleships' big guns. Touted in the naval press as “maids of all work,” armored cruisers served to show the flag on distant stations as well as working with the battle fleet. They were faster than the battleships, making about 20 to 23 knots. And as with the battleships once Dreadnought appeared, they too would be made obsolete overnight by the appearance of the battle cruiser Invincible, a faster armored cruiser with a battleship’s guns.

Great War at Sea: Jutland includes the last battles of the armored cruisers, including the namesake battle where three British armored cruisers would be sacrificed for no military purpose. The expectations of the time did not let a Royal Navy officer decline action easily, and the politicians and taxpayers did not understand that the ships for which they had expended vast sums little more than a decade earlier had become militarily useless.

A Question of Honor

By the halfway point of the First World War, Germany had lost most of her armored cruisers. Blücher had been sunk at the Battle of Dogger Bank and Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at the Battle of the Falklands, each action proving that armored cruisers could not stand up to the heavy guns of battle cruisers. Two others, Yorck and Friedrich Carl, were sunk by mines in November 1914 while Prinz Adalbert was sunk by a submarine in October 1915. Germany’s three remaining armored cruisers became stationary office or barracks ships.

Across the North Sea, the Grand Fleet had two squadrons of armored cruisers when it sailed for what became the Battle of Jutland in late May 1916. The indifferently-led Second Cruiser Squadron of four ships saw no action there. The First Cruiser Squadron had a much different experience.

The squadron began the war in the Mediterranean Sea, provoking controversy when its commander, Rear Admiral E.C.T. Troubridge, declined to engage the German battle cruiser Goeben and was court-martialed. Though Troubridge was ultimately acquitted, he would never again be employed at sea and many of his officers felt their honor stained. After a brief employment searching for the German cruisers of the East Asia Squadron, the four armored cruisers reported to the Grand Fleet.

Their new commander was Rear Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot, formerly in charge of the Second Battle Squadron’s second division of Orion-class “super dreadnoughts.” His squadron had a reputation for excellent shooting (his flagship, Orion, garnered all of the fleet’s gunnery prizes) and Arbuthnot told his crews that he planned to fight any battles “at paint-scraping range.” Short and energetic, Arbuthnot fanatically demanded maximum efficiency of his men and the sailors passionately hated him.

Their wishes appeared to have been answered in December 1914, when Second Battle Squadron sighted the German battle cruiser squadron during the Scarborough Raid. Arbuthnot would not allow Orion’s captain, the gunnery expert F.C. Dreyer, to open fire without a signal from Vice Admiral Sir George Warrender’s squadron flagship, King George V.

“He never spoke to me about it afterwards,” Dreyer recalled later, “but I am certain from his silence that he was mortified to realise that he had been too punctilious.”

Arbuthnot saw his transfer to the cruiser squadron as a demotion, though some in the Admiralty noted that First Cruiser Squadron had a reputation for “slackness” and needed a firm hand to repair the damage done to the crews’ morale by their failure to engage Goeben off Zante. Arbuthnot seemed just the man, but the combination of an admiral and captains eager to wipe away whispers of cowardice plus four obsolete ships totally outclassed by their enemies would bring the needless deaths of over 1,800 British sailors.

The Admiral Attacks

When the Grand Fleet made steam on 30 May 1916, First Cruiser Squadron was at Cromarty in Scotland, together with Second Battle Squadron and the 11th Destroyer Flotilla. Arbuthnot had four armored cruisers: his flagship Defence, plus Warrior, Duke of Edinburgh and Black Prince. They joined up with the rest of the Grand Fleet heading south from Scapa Flow the next day and the 1st Cruiser Squadron took up its scouting position on the fleet’s right wing.

HMS Defence explodes (right), by Claus Bergen.

Black Prince was the first ship to sight the High Seas Fleet, passing a report to the fleet flagship at 1735. The flag staff, having lost the word “enemy” from the transmission, took this to mean that the British Battle Cruiser Force had been spotted and discounted the report. But at 1747 Defence and Warrior spotted German light cruisers and moved to engage them. Meanwhile British battlecruisers hit and stopped the German light cruiser Wiesbaden dead in the water.

Seeing his prey, Arbuthnot ordered his squadron “right at 'em” in the best Royal Navy tradition. The 1st Cruiser Squadron turned across the path of the Battle Cruiser Force, with Warrior missing Lion by less than 200 yards, and into the path of the oncoming High Seas Fleet. All four cruisers made huge amounts of smoke at top speed, which now drifted back across the other British heavy ships and masked them from German fire. With no other targets, the German battleships and battle cruisers opened fire on the hapless armored cruisers while Arbuthnot ordered all his ships to maintain their fire on Wiesbaden. The inadvertent smokescreen laid by the cruiser squadron prevented the British battleships from firing on the Germans, who suffered no distractions while they concentrated their attention on the armored cruisers.

Within minutes, Defence had been hit by at least seven 11- or 12-inch shells. At 1819 one more hit blew fire down her aft ammunition passages and her magazines exploded; in early 1915 Arbuthnot had rejected flash baffles for these passages, stating that “with the number of guns to be supplied it is better to accept some risk than to reduce the rate of supply.” All 903 of her crew died in the blast, including the admiral.

Warrior’s Escape

Warrior meanwhile also attracted heavy fire, taking at least 15 heavy shell hits and six hits from medium-caliber guns. One shell passed through both engine rooms, causing steam leaks and fires that killed most of her “black gang” and left a hole under the starboard engine room which repair crews could not reach. But before she could join her flagship at the bottom of the North Sea, the battered hulk of the battleship Warspite came out of the smoke and into view of the Germans. Warspite’s helm had jammed, and she circled helplessly between Warrior and the High Seas Fleet while most of the German battleships switched their fire to her, though the German dreadnought König fired a torpedo at Warrior that missed.

Saved by the battleship’s joyride, Warrior limped away and was eventually taken in tow by the seaplane carrier Engadine. Engadine towed the cruiser through the night but when water started coming over Warrior's main deck, the captain decided to save his crew while the carrier could still come safely alongside. Seventy-one men died in Warrior, but 720 survived to become the nucleus of the new battle cruiser Glorious’ complement. On reaching Rosyth, Warrior’s survivors streamed aboard Warspite to offer tearful thanks.

Duke of Edinburgh became separated from the other cruisers when she tangled with the British battle cruiser line, and after firing five salvoes at Wiesbaden she joined up with Second Cruiser Squadron and did not engage the enemy again. The squadron’s only survivor, she was scrapped in 1920.

Battleship Thüringen fixes Black Prince in her searchlights in Willy Stower’s painting.

Black Prince also failed to navigate past the battle cruisers, and at 1812 received a heavy shell hit from the battleship Markgraf that may have damaged her engines. During the confused night action between cruisers and destroyers that followed the German turn to the south she became tangled with the 12th Destroyer Flotilla and drawn toward the German battle line. At 2336 she exchanged shots with the dreadnought Rheinland, knocking out the German ship’s searchlights with a well-placed six-inch shell.

Shortly after midnight, lookouts on the German dreadnought Thüringen spotted a cruiser looming out of the darness. Training all her guns on the stranger, the battleship challenged twice. On the second challenge, the ship began to veer sharply to port and Thüringen switched on her searchlights and opened fire with all her batteries at the murderous point-blank range of 1,100 yards.

Night Action

Aboard Black Prince, the crews of her main guns were probably asleep at their posts, as was standard for “Night Action” stations in the Royal Navy. The first shells from Thüringen tore away her after turret and exploded the forward turret. Flames burst out on the cruiser from stem to stern, climbing as high as her masts as Thüringen continued to fire at maximum rate. Black Prince actually fired several rounds from her six-inch battery, to no effect, and may have tried to launch a torpedo. But it was all in vain. As the line of German battleships passed the burning wreck, Ostfriesland, Nassau and Friedrich der Grosse all poured broadsides into her as well.

Four minutes after Thüringen opened fire, Black Prince exploded. All 857 aboard died with her. “Engaged, set on fire and disabled enemy battlecruiser with four funnels,” Thüringen reported. The official German report would list 15 hits by heavy shells and six by medium caliber, a number often repeated in secondary works, but this is the same number of hits the Germans claimed on every sunken British armored cruiser and appears to have been either a guess or a copying error. Thüringen alone reported 41 hits: 24 by 12-inch shells and 27 from lighter weapons.

Claus Bergen’s take on the end of Black Prince.

Arbuthnot’s quest for redemption had cost him his life, three of his four cruisers and over 1,800 sailors aboard them. The armored cruisers were slightly faster than the dreadnoughts but not appreciably so, with an advantage of one or two knots at best, and they had never been intended to stand up to a battleship’s guns even when designed. Horatio Nelson had taught that no captain could do wrong by laying his ship alongside that of an enemy, but this dictum meant less in the age of steel.

Click here to order Great War at Sea: Jutland!

Sign up for our newsletter right here. Your info will never be sold or transferred; we'll just use it to update you on new games and new offers.

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold is very fast.