100 years ago today saw a titanic struggle between the British and German fleets in the largest naval battle of the First World War. In between the smoke and the mist of the North Sea, over 50 of the most powerful dreadnought battleships and battlecruisers fought in a deadly game of cat and mouse. Neither side achieved the result they were looking for and the battle has become one of the most heavily contested aspects of the history of the First World War. New research being done between The National Archives and the National Maritime Museum is serving to return the stories of the individual service personnel to this and will provide a vital new tool for genealogists and historians interested in the battle.
On 30 May 1916 the German battlecruiser squadron under Admiral Hipper put to sea, shortly followed by the main High Seas Fleet under Admiral Scheer. Their aim was simple; to try to use the battlecruisers as bait to lure a part of the numerically superior British fleet into action with the main German force. If they could destroy part of the British fleet in detail it would help shift the balance of power at sea in Germany’s favour, something that could knock Britain out of the war. Yet unbeknownst to the Germans, the British were aware of their movements. For some time they had been intercepting and decoding German signals, and saw this as a perfect opportunity to achieve the decisive victory over the German fleet which had alluded them for the previous two years. By dusk on 30 May the two most powerful battlefleets yet assembled were steaming towards each other, both intent on action. The scene was set for the greatest naval battle of the First World War.
The two forces met in the afternoon of 31 May, when scouts for Admiral Beatty’s British Battlecruiser Squadron sighted smoke on the horizon. Further investigation revealed it to be the five battlecruisers of Hipper’s opposing force. (ADM 137/1642) A year earlier they had met in the Battle of Dogger Bank and Beatty had failed to destroy his numerically inferior rival. This time he was desperate to finish the job. The Germans immediately began retreating to the south with Beatty in hot pursuit. The two forces opened fire at a range of 18,500 yards, but the German gunnery proved to be ‘very rapid and effective’. (ADM 137/301) In a relatively short space of time the British ships Indefatigable and Queen Mary were both struck by shells that penetrated their armour and caused explosions in their magazines, sinking both ships with the loss of almost their entire crews. Beatty’s flagship Lion was also badly damaged and only survived when a magazine was flooded to prevent a catastrophic explosion. Continue reading »