After Jutland

19 Jan 19
Posted by: Simon Bellamy

It is a truism that significant fleet actions do not always lead to the rapid conclusion of a conflict. Trafalgar is an obvious example, with recent books covering the almost decade-long struggle at sea from 1805 to the final defeat of Napoleonic France. Jutland is another case in point, making this excellent work on the remainder of the First World War in northern European waters particularly important.
Retired Australian rear admiral and distinguished historian James Goldrick commendably brings the post-Jutland campaigns to the fore in this well-researched, accessible and engaging account. He seeks to answer two questions: first, did the navies achieve all that they might have done between 1916 and 1918, given their capabilities and limitations; and second, if not, why did they not succeed? His conclusions paint a decidedly mixed picture of all the combatants, with the credit and debit sides clearly set out in a searching analysis.
In retrospect, it is easy today to think that after Jutland a further fleet action in the North Sea was unlikely and that the rest of the campaign consisted of minor skirmishes. However, as this work makes clear, it didn’t look like that at the time. For instance, in a German sortie of August 1916, Jellicoe had cause to signal to his units that “The High Seas Fleet may be met at any time”. Two British cruisers were lost to submarines, but the main fleets did not meet.
The narrative extends beyond the North Sea, with coverage of the perhaps little-known campaign in the Baltic, where British submarines supported Russian forces. Today’s officers will learn much of interest about littoral operations in the rapidly changing geopolitical environment of 1917 to 1918.
The Channel and southern North Sea, vital to Britain’s communications with its armies on the Western Front, also receive due attention. In addition to clear and lively accounts of the tactical action at sea, Goldrick is excellent on strategic issues and operational analysis. A narrative of Germany’s ultimately disastrous decision to conduct unrestricted submarine warfare shows the author’s grasp of strategic matters, whilst his commentary on British tactics in the narrow seas is instructive. For example, a lack of Service-wide doctrine created problems with what we would today call Force Integration Training, causing considerable difficulties when units changed between major commands such as the Grand Fleet, the Harwich Force or the Dover Patrol. Indeed, such were the losses that, as the author tells us, the Royal Navy’s credibility was low and confidence in its leadership was close to crisis point. Night fighting was one problem, and inadequate weapons such as mines were another.
Action involving the whole range of naval operations is at the heart of the story, including mine warfare, aviation, submarines and amphibious landings (the renowned Ostend and Zeebrugge raids). However, the story is also one of continuing attrition caused by other hazards, with numerous losses to collisions and even the infamous flu pandemic of 1918.
The role of French and US forces is also covered, and the author is balanced and penetrating in his judgments throughout. NR members, though, might be particularly interested in his conclusions on the Royal Navy. Goldrick believes that the British made greater tactical and technical progress than the Germans after Jutland. These notably included the need for adequate staff in key commands (the Service learned the difference between plans and operations), and the importance of tactical training. The learning of these lessons bore fruit in the next war.
This insightful and readable narrative makes an important contribution to the neglected story of the naval war post-Jutland. It cannot be commended too highly.