The Battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary

The HMS Queen Mary with deployed torpedo nets. Its structure of hundreds of chained rings can be seen in the close-up. Visualization 3D Stefan Dramiński

The beginning of 1916 did not bring any changes in the European naval theatre of war which was fought mainly with modest, light forces. The unquestionable supremacy of the British fleet and the pestering naval blockade of Germany forced the Hochseeflotte command to start counteracting and find the way to weaken the British sea power. A plan was developed to place numerous U-Boots at the approaches to the British bases and to lure out the biggest ships of the Grand Fleet. A squadron of German battlecruisers commanded by Hipper was tasked with leading Beatty’s battlecruisers, in a mock retreat, into the line of fire of the main forces of the Hochseeflotte – Vice-Admiral Scheer’s dreadnoughts. This was to ensure the destruction of the British battlecruisers.
The plan was uncovered by the British intelligence and before Hipper’s ships started their mission on 30 May, the British had sent the core of the Grand Fleet to the sea from the Scapa Flow base. The armada consisted of 24 dreadnoughts and 3 battlecruisers under the command of Admiral Jellicoe (Invincible, Inflexible and Indomitable were commanded by Rear-Admiral Hood). The Grand Fleet was to meet with two battleship task forces commanded by Beatty. They were: 4 modern and fast Queen Elizabeth class dreadnoughts of the Fifth Battlecruiser Squadron commanded by Rear-Admiral Evan-Thomas, First Battlecruiser Squadron with Princess Royal, Queen Mary and Tiger, Second Battlecruiser Squadron with New Zealand and Indefatigable. The whole group was commanded by Vice-Admiral Beatty from his flagship, the cruiser Lion.  
The combined task forces of the Grand Fleet were supposed to ambush the enemy about 90 Mm west of the Skagerrak Strait at the coast of the Jutland Peninsula. It was not foreseen by the Germans who also wanted to avoid confrontation of the whole Hochseeflotte with the Grand Fleet. They were fully aware of the British predominance. The might of the Grand Fleet consisted of 28 battleships and 8 battlecruisers whereas the German Hochseeflotte had 16 of the former and 5 of the latter. Admiral Scheer’s task force had been supplemented by 6 older battleships, so called pre-dreadnoughts, which were far inferior to the ships of the König or Kaiser class and could not be taken into account as fully-fledged battleships for the oncoming encounter.

View from the compass platform towards the bow.  Visualization 3D Stefan Dramiński


The British also had more ships of other types and stronger light forces. It is worth noting that British supremacy was not that obvious. The German ships had much superior fire control systems, their guns had exceptional technical parameters and the ships themselves had stronger construction than their British counterparts. The passive protection of the German ships was almost perfect. Anti torpedo systems and watertight compartments gave them higher damage resistance. Projectiles and propellants were of much higher quality than, fire sensitive, cordite charges stowed in the  magazines of the Grand Fleet battleships.
The idea of luring out the British fleet with the submarines turned out to be a failure. Not only had the U-Boots not sunk any of the British units but they also failed to deliver any valuable intelligence information. The Germans were not aware of the fact that the British had been alerted of the departure of their armada of battleships and cruisers and were making preparations for the encounter with the Hochseeflotte. British intelligence also failed to some extent misinforming Admiral Jellicoe that the German fleet was 9 hours further than it had been previously estimated.
On 31 May, about 15:20 the first unexpected encounter of the light forces took place. Two German torpedo boats along with the light cruiser Elbing stopped a neutral Danish steamer to investigate it for contraband. The ship turned out to be quite “innocent” but, accidentally, it became the cause of the biggest naval battle of World War I. While the ship was being inspected, Hipper was awaiting information about the results of the search but instead, he was notified of smoke on the horizon indicating approaching British forces. First to be spotted were Galatea and Phaeton - light cruisers of Vice-Admiral Beatty’s scout force. What is interesting is the fact that those ships had also been ordered to inspect the Danish freighter. Beatty was also notified of the presence of the German ships and immediately ordered his battlecruisers to intercept the enemy and prevent his escape. At 15:30 Beatty’s ship spotted Hipper’s battlecruisers steming North-West and the pursuit began. Hipper, aware of Beatty’s cruisers chasing him, turned to lead the British into the line of fire from Scheer’s battleships’ guns. At 15:45 both battlecruiser squadrons were moving on parallel courses. The British cruisers were moving at the speed of 24 knots and the distance between the two task forces was decreasing rapidly.