After Jutland; The Naval War in Northern European Waters

After Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Waters June 1916 – November 1918. By James Goldrick. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2018.

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

TO those who have a passing interest in the World War One war at sea the Battle of Jutland, 31 May-01 June 1916, figures prominently. Naval historian and retired RAN rear admiral James Goldrick uses Jutland as an ‘interval’, albeit a cataclysmic one, between his first work ‘Before Jutland’ (Naval Institute Press 2015) and this new book, ‘After Jutland’. In both works he centres on the operational aspects of the main protagonists, the Royal Navy, the Imperial German Navy and, to a lesser extent, the Imperial Russian Navy.

‘Before Jutland’ is an overview of the three navies at the beginning of the war, the operational challenges, war plans, the initial skirmishes of Heligoland Bight, the Scarborough Raid and Dogger Bank and the threats from submarines and mines. The Battle of Jutland was not the wished-for ‘Der Tag’ for Germany or the ‘second Trafalgar’ that the British nation expected. Instead the battle fleets retired to their bases – the British losing twice as many ships and men as Germany – and both waited for the day to re-engage with more conclusive results.

Goldrick takes up the story from when the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet and the German High Sea Fleet returned to port in June 1916. ‘After Jutland’ is centred on two propositions, which Goldrick propounds in his introduction and answers in the last chapter. He assesses that the status quo remained at the battle fleet level after Jutland, despite the technological advances which entered service in the second half of the war at sea. He asks whether the navies achieved all they could have in the two years after Jutland and if they didn’t, why not?

To answer these questions Goldrick takes the reader through a ‘minefield’ of missed opportunities, tactical failures (and some localised successes) on both sides. To set the scene, we are provided with a well-researched overview of the war at sea, from June 1916 to the end of the war, analysing the British, German and Russian positions. Three-dimensional naval war was foremost in commanders’ minds; the submarine had influenced Jellicoe’s manoeuvres at Jutland as had the presence of mines. Germany, largely cut off from global resources, were contemplating a wider use of U-boats to break an impending stalemate. Aircraft, both lighter and heavier-than-air were developing into serious combatants. Submarines and mines were to make the war one of small ships with the major fleets ‘hull down’ in the background to directly or indirectly afford protection.

The author provides a foundation for the book by his analysis of strategic command considerations for the British, German and Russian navies. His discussion of the routine aspects of life in the fleets gives the reader an appreciation of personnel qualities. The Royal Navy concentrated on maintenance of morale to keep the thousands of sailors locked into ships in the fastness of Scapa Flow efficient and focussed while the German and Russian navies’ gulfs between officers and sailors were to have long term consequences.

The chapter on Operational Challenges is most absorbing. Here Goldrick draws on his sea-going experience to examine the essential topics of navigation in the tempestuous North Sea, unit effectiveness and engineering. To the modern reader the challenges of navigating and manoeuvring major and minor warships in company in poor visibility and high seas with visual signalling obscured by funnel smoke and without electronic navigation aids gives one cause to respect the sailors of a century ago and back off the ‘armchair experts’ critique of tactical errors.

Goldrick argues that the post Jutland period reflected the war behind the U-boat, the mine and the Allied blockade. The main battle fleets sought to protect their respective naval campaigns now morphed into one of small ships and submarines directed towards economic warfare while, at the same time, seeking decisive results in another fleet action.

Most of the book is devoted to largely small ship actions in the North Sea and Baltic. The zeppelin threat, initially seemingly invulnerable, was countered by improved interception tactics. Anti-submarine tactics were similarly ineffective against U-boats, exacerbated by the unrestricted campaign which angered the US and was instrumental in that country joining the Allies; however, with improved countermeasures U-boat losses increased. The narrative is detailed, and absorbing reading supported by extensive primary and secondary resources, the former drawing on Admiralty official documents and personal manuscript collections.

Goldrick concludes that Germany did not employ its navy well. Its fundamental error was the unrestricted submarine campaign which, as mentioned earlier, brought the US into the war. This also led to Britain tightening the blockade against Germany bringing severe food and materiel shortages. Logistics and engineering deficiencies and political agitation caused the collapse of discipline in the High Sea Fleet (as it did in the Russian fleet in 1917).

A further conclusion is the unimaginative use of the German main fleet. Commerce raiders demonstrated the potential of this traditional maritime warfare on a global scale but German scouting groups and flotillas, supported by the High Sea Fleet, could have achieved substantial successes beyond the North Sea. The High Sea Fleet was in name only, blighted by limitations in fuel and latterly in personnel as the best officers and sailors were hived off to the U-boats and small combatants.

Turning to the Admiralty, Goldrick addresses the traditional criticism that the Admiralty adopted convoy much later than it should. While valid, this also showed that the British government was not organised on what we understand today to be ‘whole of government’ so there were other factors involved. The British approach to mine warfare was a missed opportunity, largely inhibited by poor mine design – not rectified until 1917 – as well as delayed mining in the Heligoland Bight and the Kattegat. More effective mining could have progressively worn down the High Sea Fleet.

Goldrick is mildly critical of naval aviation development claiming that the Admiralty should have supported this arm more robustly. This might have yielded more effective bombing aircraft to attack the High Sea Fleet in harbour as well as other strategic naval targets. A re-reading of ‘The Royal Navy’s Air Service in the Great War’ (David Hobbs, 2017) might disabuse this view as development of the naval air arm was significant, though not without drama and many frustrations.

The lack of properly qualified planning and analytical personnel on operational commanders’ staffs was a major defect in the Royal Navy. For example, Commodore Tyrwhitt, Harwich Force commander of this highly engaged combatant force throughout the war, had only three operational staff officers, one engineer and three administrators on his staff. Goldrick comments: ‘while he probably did not want it any other way, this was a sea-going battle staff, not an organisation to do the detailed planning required for the multitude of complex initiatives that the Harwich Force attempted over the years’. This lesson was learned; World War II operational staffs were sometimes criticised for being too large.

‘After Jutland’ approaches the First World War at sea from a refreshingly different angle and deserves attention from serious maritime history enthusiasts.

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