The stakes at Jutland | 28 May 1916

It’s a slightly unusual opening today. Bear with me and you’ll see where I’m going with this.

The Skagerrak and the Kattegat

Hey, have you ever wondered why Sweden and Denmark used to be major international players a few hundred years ago? It’s geography time. For the answer, we need to look what happens in the east of the North Sea, before it becomes the Baltic Sea. There’s that bit of Denmark called Jutland, the peninsula jutting up out of continental Europe and pointing directly at Scandinavia. As the North Sea gets squeezed tighter and tighter between Jutland and Scandinavia, eventually it stops being the North Sea and becomes a large strait called the Skagerrak.

The Skagerrak then narrows again as it takes a right turn and begins flowing south, and it becomes the Kattegat, a notoriously tight and shallow sea area. The Kattegat then flows through three exceptionally tricky channels between some islands, and on the other side of those channels you are now in the Baltic Sea. Control those islands and you control the flow of trade from the Baltic to the rest of the world. (To get around this problem, Germans have first built and then significantly widened the Kiel Canal.) Question answered.

All very nice, but how does this relate to the war? Let us now join Admiral Scheer of the High Seas Fleet. He’s steadily getting more and more annoyed and more and more nervous. We’ll hopefully remember that he even now has U-boats lurking near the Royal Navy’s ports, ready to attack as the British ships leave port to fend off an apparent battlecruiser raid on Sunderland. The operation is time-limited by the submarines’ fuel, and the clock is about to run out. May 23rd, his original alternative date, had seen fine and clear weather in the North Sea. Now, the weather has turned against him, keeping the fleet in port.

Weather is critical to the High Seas Fleet, since its fleet battle tactics have been heavily based on having Zeppelins available for long-range scouting from the air. The giant airships can cover vast amounts of sea and remain on patrol for days at a time. With the larger Grand Fleet having no comparable capability, it’s a vital advantage. But it can only be used if the weather complies. The weather is not complying. Scheer is now facing the possibility of having to call everything off, to postpone Der Tag yet again, well into June.

The German Navy needs a Plan B. Or, indeed, a Plan S. Britain is still enthusiastically trading with Scandinavia. The Skagerrak is heaving with British merchantmen sailing to and from neutral Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. They’re secure in the knowledge that the American ultimatum protects them from submarines, and if the Germans try to use surface raiders then the Grand Fleet will be after them. And this knowledge is now what Scheer turns to.

The basic concept remains the same. Scheer will use his own battlecruisers, under the command of Admiral Hipper, to lure his headstrong opponent Admiral Beatty into the clutches of Germany’s dreadnoughts. They will destroy the Royal Navy’s Battle Cruiser Fleet, escape before the Grand Fleet catches up with them, and begin the process of whittling the RN’s strength down to the point where the HSF might stand a chance in a straight fight.

However, instead of feigning a bombardment of the British coast, Scheer will pretend to be attacking commercial ships in the Skagerrak. The Royal Navy will still have to respond. Operating in the confined waters of the Skagerrak and the eastern North Sea, there will only be one direction from which the German fleet might be attacked. They will also be almost on top of their own port and minefields; the necessary reconnaissance can be done with destroyer and cruiser screens. All this will, apparently, compensate for the absence of the Zeppelins.

As last-minute Plan B efforts go, this is a pretty damn good one. Of course, it’ll all come to nothing, and the fleets will miss each other by an annoyingly short distance again, just like every other time in the war. But it’s surely worth a try. Scheer gives himself until tomorrow afternoon to make a decision. Either way, he’s going out. If the weather improves and the Zeppelins can go up, they sail to Sunderland. And if not, they go to Jutland.

Battle of Jutland

Deep breath. Meanwhile! We’re not done with all this yet. It is politically prudent in Britain that the Grand Fleet develop a plan to force a battle on its own terms. Both Jellicoe and Beatty agree that this is not a good idea, but appearances must be maintained. England does not just expect that every man will do his duty. England expects that eventually, the fleet will run Harry Hun’s pop-gun battleships to ground, and give him six of the best, trousers down. The idea that the Navy could be, for instance, defeated at the Battle of Coronel, prompted mass wailing and gnashing of teeth in the British press.

So Jellicoe’s staff have come up with their own plan involving the eastern end of the North Sea. It involves sending a light cruiser squadron all the way into the Kattegat and all the way to the edge of the channels into the Baltic, being sure that everyone knows where they are. They’ll be accompanied by a dreadnought squadron in the Skagerrak. This will effectively be the military equivalent of ordering a Scottish infantry battalion to climb up on the parapet and moon the German trenches.

The High Seas Fleet will then emerge from their North Sea port at Wilhelmshaven and sail up the Danish coast to sort the British cruisers out. Then the Grand Fleet will fall on the HSF from the north-west, and ideally trap them in the confines of the Skagerrak. As plans that you don’t really want to carry out go, this one is really rather good. That is, as long as the British battleships can avoid sailing into each other or exploding for no reason, both things that have already happened in the war. Pending Admiralty approval, there’s a 2nd June date pencilled in for the operation. Dear God, what a horrendous and brutal knife fight it could have been.

However, the Admiralty’s attention has recently been occupied by some very worrying messages from Room 40. Which, of course, is using its German naval codebook to decode and translate all the German Navy’s radio signals. They’ve noticed that German submarines have been sent out. They’ve also noticed that German submarines are not going after any merchants, not even under Prize Rules. Today it seems like the High Seas Fleet might well be assembling to leave port. Thoughts of the Kattegat raid are quickly shelved. No need, if the Germans are coming out to play of their own accord…

Let’s now just go over one more time how important all this is. The entire course of the war is being determined by decisions that rest primarily on what is happening on the Western Front. A vital supporting column for what is happening on the Western Front is that the British Expeditionary Force has now swelled to be well over one million men strong, after having gone to France in 1916 with 90,000. Were the BEF to disappear from France, the French Army would be extremely hard-pressed to cope with the loss of a million fighting men to its cause.

And, if some disaster were to come to the Grand Fleet in the North Sea, they might not be able to keep the Germans out of the English Channel. If the Germans could start raiding the BEF’s supply lines, then at best, they’ll have to switch to an extremely convoluted set of supply lines from Liverpool and Bristol out into the Atlantic and round into the Bay of Biscay. All the British assumptions since November 1914 have been based on undisputed control of the Channel ports and the shortest possible supply lines. The War Office might have to consider, if not withdrawing the BEF completely, at least greatly reducing it in size.

And then there’s the Blockade of Germany, which every month bites just a little deeper. For over a year, ordinary Germans have had to eat ersatz bread, KK-Brot, made from potatoes. Vital foods have been rationed since January 1915. Imports of every kind of vital material and trade good are getting harder and harder to come by. A disaster for the Royal Navy will seriously impact their ability to sustain the blockade and keep German industry under pressure. (More about the blockade to come, incidentally.)

So that’s what’s at stake every time the fleets put to sea. That damn Churchill quote rears up again. “Admiral Jellicoe was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” It is a slight exaggeration, but the emphasis is on slight. Any fleet action in the North Sea, no matter how comedic it seems at the time as they blunder around failing at everything, has the potential to immediately change the entire course of the whole war. No land offensive in this war has had that immediate potential. Even the German invasion of France in 1914 took a month to play out. A battle at sea, once joined, could (with considerable luck) be settled decisively in an hour.

Africa

You know what I find interesting? The number of times that events in other theatres of the war have a tendency to just quieten down enough to be glossed over for a day or few while I go deal with something major. We do need to quickly check in with Africa, and the Rhodesian invasion of the south-west of German East Africa. It’s going extremely well, better than even the most optimistic general could have predicted. True, they’ve arrived at the Namema fort to find it even more imposing than they’d suspected. Artillery is having little effect, and the Schutztruppe have again cut the bush back to give their machine-guns a perfect view of any infantry attack.

But they’ve successfully encircled the fort and begun a siege. And tonight, they’ve earned a gigantic stroke of luck. The German commander, Lieutenant Franken, personally led a night probe of the besiegers’ strength. In the wrong place in the wrong time, he was fatally wounded. Amusingly, it is said that when his body was recovered, in his pocket he was carrying a notebook belonging to local commander Colonel Murray’s intelligence officer. Oopsie.

E.S. Thompson

Even our correspondents have been compliant and not filed any copy for today! Mostly. There’s a short note from E.S. Thompson at Kondoa Irangi, who is not getting any better after spilling boiling fat all over himself.

As it is Sunday the Germans only shot 3 shells into the town, only one of which burst. My foot has swollen a good deal and gave me no little pain, so I loosened the bandage and eased it a bit. I noticed there were big blisters down the side of my leg. Had an interesting talk with a 2nd South African Horse signaller, who told us that the Native Commissioner of Moshi had been captured, and that he had said that in 5 months there would be no British army in German East Africa. Of course this is his version, but half our men are sick with fever, dysentery, etc.

The Germans shot a shrapnel shell at the 10th Regiment at about 4 o’clock, and another a quarter of an hour later. The boys brought the water for the stew late so the meat could not be boiled much and was rather hard but I managed to finish my share. Wrote a ten page letter to Mother in the afternoon. Slept fairly well though my leg troubled me a lot.

“Half our men” is a serious understatement.

Henri Desagneaux

We conclude with a nasty, worrying little message from Henri Desagneaux, near Nancy.

Yet again there is talk of our being relieved and going to Verdun. They have been fighting there for three months now. All divisions are going there in turn.

Great. The only positive spin I can put on this is an extremely selfish one; a hope that he will go somewhere other than Hill 304, where Louis Barthas was.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago

Further Reading

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