Naval aviation in the Battle of Jutland

The Battle of Jutland, fought a century ago, is principally remembered as the biggest clash of battleships ever – one of the last hurrahs of the mighty surface fleets before air power began to have a major impact on naval engagements. But Jutland was also one of the first, if not the first, fleet engagements where naval aviation played a part. Both sides used embryonic air assets – with dramatically differing philosophies – to assist them in conducting the battle, and while there was no thought that the aircraft involved would take part in the fighting, they sowed the seeds for future conflicts.

The British Grand Fleet in May 1916 included two seaplane carriers in its order of battle. The Royal Navy’s experiments with flying aeroplanes from ships had begun with the elderly cruiser HMS Hermes, which had been converted to a seaplane tender in 1913. By the outbreak of war, Hermes had been converted back to a standard warship. As aircraft rapidly increased in capability and performance, the potential to use them in conjunction with the ships of the fleet became ever more apparent. Aircraft could carry out reconnaissance, being able to see further and travel faster even than destroyers. Aircraft could project the fleet’s power over land, by dropping bombs outside the range of naval artillery. Aircraft could spot the fall of shot from the fleet’s main weapons – the big guns. As Dan Snow found in the recent BBC documentary, The Battle of Jutland: The Navy’s Bloodiest Day, using an unstabilised optical rangefinder to finely judge distance over miles of sea is not easy. Factor in typically poor North Sea visibility and immense volumes of smoke issuing from coal and oil-fired engines at full power, and it’s easy to see how an aircraft, able to fly above the murk, between the opposing fleets, could help the gunners target their weapons.

A Short 184 and Royal Navy Air Service personnel from the Seaplane Base at South Shields

In 1914, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, with typical focus on the offensive, ordered the creation of four seaplane carriers with a view to carrying out air raids on the Zeppelin sheds at Cuxhaven, which were then out of the range of land-based aircraft. The German Navy’s Zeppelin airships were arguably the most advanced and capable naval air assets of the first half of the war. For the duration of the war, the Royal Navy attempted to develop rigid airships, without success, to match those which the German Navy could field routinely. The Royal Navy’s airship force consisted of shorter-range non-rigid craft, which reached a fairly high level of sophistication by the war’s end, but could not match the practicality of the rigid Zeppelins for long-range reconnaissance.

The most capable of the Grand Fleet’s air assets actually missed the battle. HMS Campania had been converted from an 1892-built liner. She had actually been retired and sold to a shipbreaker, before being rescued in 1914 by the Royal Navy, which was on the lookout for vessels to convert into armed merchantmen. The RN had begun the conversion when Churchill ordered the four seaplane carriers. Campania, the largest of the conversions, had a large steel hanger built on its after deck, in which up to eleven aircraft of various types could be housed, and a flying-off deck forward. The flying off deck was a neat solution to the problem of launching seaplanes in open sea. The smaller single-seat examples of the relatively light, frail biplanes then in service could take off on a wheeled trolley from a short flight deck more easily and safely than they could from a rough sea, although the larger two-man Short seaplanes still needed to take off from the water when fully loaded. On 12 April 1916 Campania joined the Grand Fleet, and Commander-in-Chief Admiral Sir John Jellicoe was enthusiastic about the possibilities afforded by her floatplanes.

Unfortunately, there was a breakdown in communication when the Fleet left its anchorage, and Campania did not sail. When the captain realised the Fleet had gone, he weighed anchor and proceeded after the warships, but Jellicoe was worried about the vulnerability of a single vessel with little protection, and ordered her back to port.

The Battle Cruiser Force’s commander, Vice-Admiral David Beatty, had the smaller seaplane carrier HMS Engadine with him at Jutland. Engadine, a former cross-Channel ferry, was another of the four seaplane carriers created at Churchill’s behest. Engadine was smaller than Campania, and initially only had a canvas hangar to protect her aircraft, but this was replaced with a permanent structure in 1915. She carried four aircraft – two Short 184 reconnaissance bombers and two Sopwith Baby scouts. Her steam turbines enabled a speed of 21.5 knots, some two knots faster than Campania’s reciprocating engines afforded the larger vessel.

The remnant of Short 184 No.8359 that was flown by Rutland and Trewin at the Battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916. The aircraft was preserved at the IWM but damaged during an air raid in the Second World War and the forward fuselage is now all that remains

When the cruiser HMS Galatea first reported enemy warships at 2.39pm on 31 May 1916, Beatty quickly decided to send up one of Engadine’s aircraft to get a better view of the forces he might be facing. At 2.47pm, he ordered an aircraft up, though the seaplane carrier’s captain had earlier warned Beatty that conditions were dangerous for seaplane operations. The haze covering the sea made it difficult for the pilot to judge their height when landing. The seaplane carrier halted, and winched Short 184 ‘8359’ over the side, crewed by Flight Commander FJ Rutland (thereafter to be known as ‘Rutland of Jutland’) and Assistant Paymaster GS Trewin RNR. At 3.08 pm, Rutland took off. Just over 20 minutes later, despite thick cloud and mist that forced Rutland to stay below 1,000ft, the Short sighted German light cruisers and destroyers heading North West, and radioed the discovery at 3.31pm, while under heavy fire from the enemy ships.

Unbeknownst to Rutland and Trewin, their signal, despite having been received by Engadine, had not been seen by Beatty. Engadine observed the prohibition on ship-to-ship wireless communication (imposed to prevent the Germans from using the bearings of signals to locate the fleet) and attempted to pass on the intelligence via signal lamp. Not for the last time that day, the method proved inadequate, and the flagship, Lion, did not see the signal.

In what must have been a heart-stopping moment for Rutland and Trewin, a fuel line on their Short became detached during the flight, and Rutland had to set the seaplane down between the two opposing battle cruiser squadrons. Trewin radioed Engadine, and tried desperately to semaphore a passing British cruiser with the location of the enemy fleet. Fortunately for the airmen, Engadine soon located them, and at 4.00pm, the Short was recovered aboard. The 52 minutes between the Short’s take-off and recovery marked the first time that heavier-than-air reconnaissance had played a part during a naval battle. The aircraft and its crew had played their part perfectly – their effectiveness had only been limited by the inadequate ship-to-ship communication that hampered the British force throughout the Battle. British naval aviation played no further role.

The German naval Zeppelin L31 and the battleship SMS Ostfriesland. The German Navy deployed numerous Zeppelins over 31 May-1 June 1916 but only one, L-11, made contact, and that after the battle had ended (IWM)

Meanwhile, no fewer than five German naval Zeppelins were in the air trying to locate the British ships. Largely due to poor visibility, none of the airships made contact with either fleet, and they were recalled in the late afternoon. The following morning, more were sent out, and at first light, L-11 located the main British force. By then, the battle was over, but the sighting of the Grand Fleet prevented further sweeps that might have located some of the damaged German vessels attempting to limp home.

In the end, naval aviation played only a small role in the Battle of Jutland, but the writing was on the wall.

Another ship at Jutland with a naval aviation connection was HMS Caroline, the WW1 cruiser now preserved at Belfast – see a blog on Caroline’s naval aviation history here

One response to “Naval aviation in the Battle of Jutland

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 03, Vol. #41 | Whewell's Ghost·

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