How Britannia Lost the Waves. (Foreign Policy & Defense)

The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

How Britannia Lost the Waves. (Foreign Policy & Defense)


"The Continuing Argument over Jutland" by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., in The Virginia Quarterly Review (Autumn 2001), Univ. of Virginia, One West Range, P.O. Box 400223, Charlottesville, Va. 22904-4223.

The Battle of Jutland, one of the great naval battles in modern history, fascinates British sea historians the way Gettysburg fires the Southern imagination, each spawning a steady stream of critical studies. Both battles held out the tantalizing promise of total victory--yet each ended in a measure of failure.

According to Rubin, an emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, a cataclysm such as Jutland seemed predestined once Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II decided in the early 1900s to build a navy capable of challenging Great Britain's domination of the seas. It may have been the greatest mistake the Kaiser (who was a grandson of Queen Victoria) made, since it ensured that Britain would not ally itself with Germany in case of a European war.

Both navies were constructing a new class of superbattleships patterned after the HMS Dreadnought (launched in 1906), an 18,000ton warship bristling with ten 12-inch guns, capable of 21 knots. By the time World War I broke out in 1914, the British navy had 20 such ships, while Germany had 13.

By May 1916, frustrated by a British blockade, the German navy tried to lure the superior British Grand Fleet into a trap in the North Sea along the Danish coast, But the British, privy to German wireless communications, were already steaming eastward as the Germans headed north. The ensuing sea baffle would pit 150 British vessels against 100 German ships.

What should have been a decisive victory for the British never materialized. Their force, under the overall command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, blundered several times, and its officers showed little initiative. Miscommunication and bad luck cost the British several chances to wreak havoc on the German fleet. …

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