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Posted on Nov 28, 2021 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Jutland: The Latest Salvo. Book Review

Jutland: The Latest Salvo. Book Review

Ray Garbee

Clash of Capital Ships: From the Yorkshire Raid to Jutland Author: Eric Dorn Brose. Publisher: Naval Institute Press.  Price $ 49.95

There’s been a lot of ink spilled on Battle of Jutland, so much so that it is reminiscent of the Battle of Gettysburg, and rightly so. While a common perception of Jutland is that it revealed defects with the British battlecruisers, it’s best known as a decisive moment where the Royal Navy could have lost the war in a single afternoon.

Eric Dorn Brose wades into this clash of historical narrative with his book Clash of the Capital Ships: From the Yorkshire Raid to Jutland published in 2021 by Naval Institute Press.

Cover of Clash of the Capital Ships

Dr. Brose has crafted a narrative that synthesizes the work of prior historians into an engaging and informative narrative of the battle. Dr. Brose charts a course through British and German naval strategy from the beginning of the war through the Battle of Jutland. The story explores how the political and military constraints on both sides put the respective fleets onto a course that led to the engagement off the Jutland peninsula.  

Starting with the loss of Graf Spee’s German East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron in the Falklands, Dr. Brose lays out the motivations behind the leaders on each side that were driving naval strategy. The British wrestled with two primary aims, the first o of which was being to enforce the strategic maritime blockade of Germany that would starve the Germans of resources.

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The second goal was to protect the British Isles from German invasion – which was considered a serious possibility in the pre-war period. As it became clear that invasion was not likely, the Royal Navy sought to bring about a naval battle that would yield another “Glorious First of June” with a crushing defeat of the German High Seas Fleet.

The German Kriegsmarine had similar, but opposing goals. The blockade needed to be lifted. But how to lift the blockade was the rub – winning a decisive naval victory would help, but the balance of fleet strengths meant the Germans would need to defeat the British in detail rather than a single massive fleet on fleet engagement. Rounding out the German motivations, Admiral Spee’s demise off the Falklands provided the added impetus of revenge to the Germans.

The loss of Graf Spee’s cruisers put a damper on the planned role of commerce raiding as a tool to impact the British Empire’s trade routes, and draw off ships from the North Sea theater. (To be fair, this had worked all too well, as shown by Spee’s fatal encounter with the British battlecruisers off the Falklands).

From this point, the narrative walks the reader through naval operations beginning with the German naval raid on Yorkshire. Dr. Brose provides clear insights into the processes of why fleets sortied and how battle was sought and how the strategic aims of each side shaped operational decisions that governed deployment of their ships.

HMS Lion

The Battle of Jutland itself is covered in detail, with Dr. Brose’s narrative providing an excellent, accessible description of the events across the duration of the battle, through a synthesis of historical summary and eye-witness descriptions.

Dr. Brose takes the threads of the historical narrative and weaves in a substantial amount of background material. This includes the classic technological factors of guns, shell, speed and armor. Which side had the better ships and better gunnery was often a matter of perspective and perception. Those technological factors—while important—were secondary to the strategic objectives on each side. But the perception of the technological status quo did play a role in the leadership factors that contributed to the battle.

Where Dr. Brose shines is in exploring how the psychological makeup of the senior leaders impacted operations. It may be a cliché, but leadership matters, and so does the temperament of the political leaders and officers who were directing naval operations. The story explores the conflicting leadership styles of Jellicoe’s patience against Scheer’s (and also Beatty’s) preference for action.

The history can be read with an eye towards demonstrating how leaders manage their subordinates, with Jellicoe trying to subtly reign in Beatty’s aggressive tendencies. Sometimes it’s best to be direct with your subordinates to ensure your message and meaning are getting conveyed clearly.

This carries over into one of the classic tales of Jutland – how the operational challenges related to unsafe shell and gunpowder handling contributed to catastrophic losses amongst the British battlecruisers. When leadership demands results at any cost, you should not be surprised when that cost is unexpectedly high.

HMS Warspite and Malaya during the Battle of Jutland

Dr. Brose does solid service in his post-battle assessment. Like many who have come before him, the acrimony surrounding Jutland raised numerous complaints including the quality of the leadership on both sides, the operational failure of shell handling, the technical faults with British shell design. through the intelligence failures committed by both sides. Like the Battle of Gettysburg, there are factions even today that continue to champion their favorites, but Dr. Brose provides an objective lens that lays out his point of view while acknowledging where others may differ with his conclusions.  

Most useful is his willingness to acknowledge the counterfactual aspects (also categorized as the ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ arguments). Counterfactual views often fall into the purview of the wargame designer, but here Dr. Brose lays out how the various complaints about what Jellicoe, Scheer, or even the Admiralty could have done differently that might have changed the outcome of the battle. It’s an interesting assessment and one that gets to the heart of much of the lingering acrimony surrounding the battle and its aftermath.

The text is accompanied by a fair number of maps and charts that lay out how each side viewed the North Sea as a battlespace. The charts are spartan, which helps focus on conveying the key elements tied to the narrative. They are not a substitute for a good atlas on the subject (see Faulkner’s The Great War At Sea, for great maps of the battle space)

Clash of the Capital Ships is a relevant read for our modern age. Students of naval history will enjoy this accessible summary of the events culminating in the battle. More broadly, Clash of the Capital Ships can be read as historical allegory of current events and trends. It’s easy to see the South China Sea as the new North Sea, and though it’s clearly an inexact analogy, understanding the lessons of Jutland is the first step towards not repeating them. The naval arms race that took place prior to World War One may be viewed as a mirror onto which the strategies and operational decisions that led to Jutland are reflected in comparison to current global challenges. Clash of the Capital Ships is a solid addition to any naval history library.

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