Cruisers at Jutland
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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
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
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 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.
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.
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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.