May 31st marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. There, off the Danish coast, British and German naval forces fought as the Royal Navy sought to bottle up the German battle fleet in the North Sea and the Germans aimed to cripple the Royal Navy. In The World Crisis, Winston Churchill’s eloquent and controversial account of the Great War, the future prime minister describes the transition of the Royal Navy from its peacetime bases in southern England to its war station in Scapa Flow, Orkney:
We may now picture this great fleet with its flotillas of cruisers steaming slowly out of Portland harbor, squadron by squadron, scores of gigantic castles of steel wending their way across the misty, shining sea, like giants bowed in anxious thought.
More importantly for the officers and men aboard Churchill’s “castles of steel,” the two greatest fleets ever assembled were unknowingly steaming toward the only fleet action between dreadnought battleships.
Over eight thousand men died, many entombed in ten or twenty thousand-ton sunken steel coffins. Both Imperial Germany and the United Kingdom immediately claimed victory in the clash, but the Battle of Jutland more closely resembled a draw. Recriminations flew between high-ranking British officers for decades afterwards, which, combined with the carnage of the continental war, obscured Jutland’s valuable lessons.
A century later, as the United States allows its power to wane while its rivals strengthen, this great naval clash provides insight in three areas: strategy, technology and fleet design, and command. Applying these insights to modern strategy will help the U.S. Navy navigate an environment that is not only volatile, but could easily create multiple high-level conflict situations.
Read the Remainder at War on the Rocks