Definitive engagement to test Britain’s sea power

Professor Andrew Lambert.

Professor Andrew Lambert.

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When Professor Andrew Lambert, of King’s College, University of London, gave his lecture on the war at sea 1914-18 for the Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project at Northumbria University early in 2014 he contended that the Great War for the Royal Navy had ended effectively in December 1914 with Admiral Sturdee’s victory at the Battle of the Falklands.

He said that thereafter, having all but removed the threat of German commerce raiders, all that remained for the Royal Navy to do was to maintain the containment of the German High Seas fleet within the confines of the North Sea.

The Battle of Jutland would be the greatest engagement by two surface fleets in history up to that date.

For the next 16 months that policy – countering the strategic threat to the UK and our overseas trading routes – was carried out effectively.

And a few minor encounters did not allow the German fleet the opportunity to surprise the Royal Navy and inflict any serious losses on the number of Britain’s capital ships, which would destabilise the strategic balance of firepower which had been established by British naval planners to maintain a navy with capability equal to that of the combined firepower of the next two largest surface fleets.

That the maintenance of that balance overlooked the emergence of the use of submarines was almost immediately apparent when the German submarine U9, commanded by Kapitanleutenant Otto Weddigen, sank three aged British cruisers in barely 90 minutes on September 22, 1914, off the coast of the Netherlands, with the loss of 1,450 lives.

Submarines would come to pose the greatest threat to the ability of Britain to continue its prosecution of the war, with the risk of starvation at home if the losses of merchant ships could not be contained. That problem would come to a head in 1917.

Meanwhile, from 1914 to May 1916 the German navy was looking for an opportunity to surprise the British Grand fleet and draw it into a definitive engagement, which could unlock the containment of the Kaiser’s warships and allow its surface ships, with their extensive range and firepower, to wreak havoc along the vital sinews of trade that kept the British economy functioning and the nation fed.

The engagement would take place in a clash of the two great fleets in 16 hours, from the afternoon of May 31, 1916, into the early hours of June 1. The Battle of Jutland would be the greatest engagement by two surface fleets in history up to that date. The outcome, with the Royal Navy suffering serious, but not crippling losses, would engage the minds of naval historians for the next hundred years.

With three ships blowing up and the loss of more than 6,500 sailors against much lesser casualties amongst the enemy’s fleet, argument about the tactics, communications and armour of the British force would fuel debate up to the present, with suspicions of attempts by some of the major naval and political personalities involved to see history written as they would wish to have it recorded.

The Battle of Jutland and its manifold connections with the River Tyne and our communities will be examined in an exhibition being prepared by the project, which will open at the Old Low Light Heritage Centre on May 28 for four weeks and later move around the borough.

Anyone with information about anyone who died as a result of the war from North Tyneside is asked to contact the project. The project workroom is open from 10am to 16pm each weekday at Room B9, Linskill Community Centre, Linskill Terrace, North Shields.

Our address for correspondence is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields, NE30 1AR.