Reviewed by Andrew G. Wilson (Department of History, George Washington University)
Published on H-War (February, 2001)
A Trafalgar Lost?
A Trafalgar Lost?
The dust jacket of Flawed Victory states that "many books have been written about Jutland, the most important and controversial naval battle of World War I, but this work sets a new standard." On all three counts this statement is true. Jutland was important, it was controversial, and this work does set a new standard. Ever since the great battle off the Jutland Peninsula in May of 1916 occurred much has been written and argued about this engagement. Within the pages of Flawed Victory Keith Yates, an Englishman and professor emeritus with a "brief and utterly undistinguished service as a seaman in the Royal Navy," focuses new light and understanding into the dark corners of the Jutland debate (p. ix). In addition, Yates is able to present the confusion of Jutland in a very non-confusing and well-crafted manner.
Before going into greater detail, it should be noted that Flawed Victory is based largely on secondary sources; in particular, the works of Sir Julian Corbett and Arthur Marder weigh heavily in the views of Yates. However, as Yates himself points out, this work "was never intended to be a piece of original scholarly research" (p. x). Rather, Yates provides the naval enthusiast and serious scholar alike with a clear, chronological narrative of the events and issues which led up to and followed that fateful May 31st, 1916.
Flawed Victory is broken down into essentially three sections. The first deals with the naval arms race between Great Britain and Germany which will eventually culminate at Jutland. The second consists of a very detailed account of the Jutland engagement. In the third and final section of the book, Yates does a first-rate job of outlining the post-war bitterness, professional debates, and influence of Jutland on both sides of the North Sea.
One of the truly important contributions to the Jutland story made by Flawed Victory is the early section explaining the attitudes of the pre-war British Grand Fleet's leadership and collective mind-set. Yates begins his story of Jutland by first explaining the naval weaknesses brought about by the Pax Britannica and the Royal Navy's unrivaled power at sea. Recounting the infamous story of the collision between HMS Victoria and HMS Camperdown off of Lebanon during exercises in 1893, Yates points out that the Victorian navy was a navy which revolved around "obedience, seamanship, and paintwork" (p. 6). Orders were to be obeyed, not questioned--regardless of consequence. Furthermore, with few exceptions, this is a characteristic of Royal Navy leadership and thinking which would carry over into the early years of the twentieth century. In the author's own words, "As decade after decade of peace rolled by, the navy gradually changed from a tough, efficient fighting service into a complacent, near-moribund organization" (p. 6). In addition, Yates reminds the reader that the overall relationship between naval ratings and officers was poor. As for the fleet's officers, life revolved around social activities and not the study of tactics or fleet operations. Furthermore, gunnery practice was not a regular part of single-ship or fleet exercises, as the smoke tended to dirty the vessels! In short, the Royal Navy was not prepared for a shooting war with a serious naval rival. As Jutland would soon reveal, the Royal Navy had a serious naval rival.
Although the body of the work deals with the encounter off Jutland, Yates' description and analysis of Sir Jackie Fisher's role in the modernization of the British Grand Fleet, as well as the Dogger Bank action, are also quite impressive. Calling Admiral Fisher "one of the most remarkable figures in the history of the Royal Navy," Yates correctly acknowledges Fisher as the "whirlwind" which will blow the Royal Navy into the modern era, and prepare it to meet the German High Seas Fleet with confidence (p. 19-21). The British Grand Fleet might have been the dominant force at sea, but its rival across the North Sea was growing, gaining confidence, well led, and consisted of truly modern vessels. With the introduction of the Dreadnought class in 1906, under Fisher's guidance, England finally recognized the threat Germany posed to the Pax Britannica--at least at sea.
The first action between major divisions of the two great fleets would be a running battle off of the Dogger Bank on January 24, 1915. German battle cruisers on a scouting run through the North Sea were met and engaged by a larger British force. British intelligence had known of the sortie in advance and tipped off the Admiralty. The British force, under the command of Admiral David Beatty, was able to secure a technical victory, but hardly an overwhelming victory as was expected. In addition, several lessons which should have been learned and acted upon after Dogger Bank were not.
First among these was that the British battle cruisers were vulnerable to fire, magazine explosions, and hits on their gun turrets because of a lack of flash protection. Unfortunately this fundamental weakness would not be corrected until after the terrible losses suffered at Jutland. Second, armor protection on the decks of the British battle cruisers was also insufficient, but this was soon remedied. Third, British armor piercing shells were of poor quality, resulting in an equally poor rate of destruction on the receiving end. Lastly, Dogger Bank revealed that the gunnery ability of the battle cruiser force, unlike in the days of Nelson, was hardly up to par. The question left to the reader is, would these problems be adequately addressed before another encounter with the German High Seas Fleet? I will leave the answer to that question for the reader to discover.
Time and space do not here permit a full recounting of the Battle of Jutland on May 31, 1916. However, Jutland was a British strategic victory, albeit a victory at great cost in terms of men and materiel. Again, due to signals intelligence, the British were forewarned of German fleet activity, and the Grand Fleet was sent to intercept the German High Seas Fleet on a North Sea sortie. The British were expecting a second Trafalgar. The Germans were outnumbered, and were not expecting the entire Grand Fleet to be on the scene. Although there were some tactical highlights, including the Grand Fleet crossing the Germans' "T" twice, the bulk of the High Seas fleet escaped complete destruction back into the gathering darkness and the safety of their minefields off the Heligoland Bight.
As clearly outlined by Professor Yates, Jutland was not a second Trafalgar for the British for a variety of reasons. First, second, and third: communication. There was poor communication between British naval intelligence and the commanders and fleet at sea. In addition, communication between division commanders within the Grand Fleet itself was less than satisfactory. In fact, Yates refers to the communication failures as nothing less than "deplorable" (p. 196). Furthermore, he successfully argues that the Germans were better trained in night operations, and made that training pay handsomely (p. 190). One last major point, the German ships were more heavily built, and were equipped with flash suppression gear for their magazines, all of which made them better able to absorb the punishment dished out by the Grand Fleet. Many of the German ships were built for greater endurance and survivability, while those of the British (in particular the battle cruisers) were built with Fisher's theories in mind--for speed. However, in the end the British still controlled the North Sea, and the German High Seas Fleet would not emerge from its anchorage again in a serious fashion due to the drubbing it received at Jutland. As perfectly expressed by Yates, "So many errors were made at Jutland, so many chances missed" (p. 205).
This reviewer will leave the details of the battle to Professor Yates. The real strength of this work, besides the clarity and writing style, is that it looks fairly at both sides of the battle. Yates considers the German naval options and discusses the quality of German leadership, as well as ship design and construction. In the end Yates leaves the reader with a firm understanding of not only the events of the battle, but also where the professional controversy after the battle originated and why.
In addition to Yates's superb narrative and post-war analysis, the reader should also note that Flawed Victory has a good bibliography as well as several appendices regarding the opposing fleets at Jutland. The only shortcoming found by this reviewer is that the work has no notes at all. This aside though, Flawed Victory remains an excellent and lucid account of a very complex and controversial naval engagement. Jutland may have been a "flawed victory," but the work of Professor Yates is not. When read along with such works as Gordon's Rules of the Game and Herwig's The Luxury Fleet, Flawed Victory will greatly improve the understanding of this battle, not to mention the library of any World War One naval historian.
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Andrew G. Wilson. Review of Yates, Keith, Flawed Victory: Jutland, 1916.
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