On May 31, 1916, 250 German and British ships and 100,000 sailors clashed in the North Sea in the Battle of Jutland—the biggest naval battle of World War I.
Germany wanted to break the British blockade but knew that Britain’s Grand Fleet of 150 ships outnumbered their own High Seas Fleet of 100. So the Germans planned to use a small group of decoy ships to lure part of the British navy away from the Grand Fleet so the High Seas Fleet could then destroy it. Unfortunately for them, the British intercepted and decoded the Germans’ plans, so the British Grand Fleet, under the command of Admiral Jellicoe, set sail to meet the German High Seas Fleet.
Sailing south of the main British fleet was Vice-Admiral Beatty’s group of 50 ships: 10 warships (6 battlecruisers and 4 super-dreadnoughts) and a flotilla of support ships. Beatty and his ships were supposed to join with the Grand Fleet, but Beatty spotted the small group of German decoy ships and, with motivation unclear, decided to change course and attack them—without waiting for the rest of the Grand Fleet. Beatty signaled to the 4 super-dreadnoughts, who were 5 miles behind the rest of his group, to catch up and attack the Germans, but the dreadnoughts didn’t see the signal and instead sailed in the wrong direction.
Without the super-dreadnoughts, Beatty only had his 6 battlecruisers, which had a longer firing range but were less heavily armored. The British battlecruisers also had a longer range than the German battlecruisers, but due to poor visibility, Beatty lost the advantage of firing first. Once the Germans began firing, Beatty’s ships rushed to fire back but had low accuracy. Not long into the battle, two of the British battlecruisers violently exploded, killing almost all of the 2,300 members of the crews.
Within the hour, Beatty spotted the rest of the German High Seas Fleet, who had been following behind the small German group. Beatty’s ships fled north to the British Grand Fleet, hoping that the Germans would follow—which they did.
Admiral Jellicoe of the Grand Fleet intercepted the German fleet and began firing, until the High Seas Fleet, under cover of a smoke screen, turned to flee. However, for unknown reasons, the Germans turned back around and sailed at the British once more, again receiving heavy fire. To save themselves, the Germans ordered a mass torpedo attack. Jellicoe followed his established protocol of always turning away from torpedo attacks, which allowed the German fleet to escape. Jellico then sailed the fleet south, hoping to intercept the Germans before they reached port, but under the cover of darkness, the Germans were able to slip by and return home.
The battle had lasted less than 12 hours, but 6,000 British and 2,500 Germans were killed in the battle, and 14 British and 11 German ships were lost. Controversy over which side won remains to this day, since the Germans lost fewer men and ships, but the British were able to maintain the status quo and prevent the German navy from sailing in any major strength for the rest of the war.