Battle of Jutland: Battlecruiser Invincible


By the spring of 1916, the Imperial German Navy and the Royal Navy had already exchanged courtesies in various parts of the ocean. A sequence of events, triggered by the increased activity of the German High Seas Fleet, led the opposing fleets to clash in the only major battle at sea that unfolded during the First World War. Dozens of scientific papers are dedicated to this outstanding encounter, but we'll only touch upon the history of battlecruiser Invincible, the flagship of Rear Admiral Horace Hood's 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron.

Pioneering a new type of capital ship, the first battlecruiser in the world entered service on March 16, 1909. After a minor refit in August 1914, the ship returned to join the Grand Fleet as the flagship of the 2nd Battlecruiser Squadron. Invincible had her combat debut at the Battle of Heligoland Bight, fought on August 28 when a squadron of British warships under the command of Vice Admiral David Beatty sank three German cruisers and a destroyer. In that battle, Invincible contributed to the destruction of light cruiser Cöln.

On November 11, Invincible set a course for the shores of South America where the British squadron intended to hunt down the German ships commanded by Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee who, by that time, had already caused the British a lot of trouble. On December 8, Spee's squadron was spotted near the Falkland Islands. Spee's fleet had to engage and was utterly destroyed. The British ships outnumbered their German opponent. Their main guns had a longer firing range. These factors contributed to the sinking of the German armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau as well as light cruisers Leipzig and Nürnberg. During the battle, Invincible fired 513 shells at enemy ships, and suffered 22 hits herself, which didn't cause any significant damage to the ship. Only two members of the crew were injured.

The following 18 months turned out to be a peaceful spell for the cruiser's crew. Invincible was assigned to the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron. On May 30, 1916, she set out from Scapa Flow to find her destiny soon after.

Under the warm sun rays of the last day of May, the two massive steel Armadas were unknowingly steaming towards each other in the waters of the North Sea. The British ships commanded by John Jellicoe had a superior force of 155 pennants against the 99 pennants of Reinhard Scheer. However, the opponents were ignorant of each other's plans and forces.

The German fleet proceeded north, heading for the mouth of the Skagerrak. The British forces were steering eastward, to the same destination. The two fleets could have passed well clear of each other without a single shot had Fjord, a Danish steamer, not gotten right between them. Both sides sent scouts to investigate the strange ship: the Germans detached destroyers B-109 and B-110, while the British sent Galatea with Phaeton. On approach, the British ships identified the enemy and at 14:28 opened fire from a distance of 10,000 m. Those were the first shots to be fired during the epic naval encounter between the two fleets.

At the forefront of the battle, Admiral Beatty's 1st and 2nd Battlecruiser Squadrons clashed with Admiral Hipper's I Scouting Group. From that moment until the battle ceased, hazy changing weather had to be factored in as well. During the early stages of the encounter, the silhouettes of the German ships, which were painted light gray, dissolved into the gray haze spreading above the sea surface on the German side. On the opposite side, British ships—bearing predominantly dark gray color tones—were clearly visible against the cloudless sky. During the ensuing battle between battlecruisers, blood was first shed at 15:50 by the German ship Moltke. Several of the ship's salvos landed on the British Tiger, crippling two of the ship's main guns. Meanwhile, a couple of shells from Lützow struck Lion, causing heavy loss of life among the crew operating the unprotected 102 mm secondary battery guns. In response, Queen Mary fired a salvo at Seydlitz, with the first shell damaging the ship's electric wiring and another one penetrating her armor before exploding inside one of the ship's 280 mm turrets, killing all of the turret's crew. At 16:05, the British suffered their first loss. Several shells from Von der Tann struck Indefatigable. The battlecruiser's magazine detonated, and the ship immediately disappeared underwater with a loss of 1,018 crew, leaving just four survivors. At 16:26, another British ship, Queen Mary, fell victim to the concentrated fire of German ships. The sinking cruiser resembled a funeral pyre, entombing 1,266 of her crew members in the abyss of the ocean.

In the meantime, the Royal Navy's 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron comprising Invincible (flagship), Inflexible and Indomitable, which was acting as the vanguard of Jellicoe's main battlefleet, was ordered to sea to support Admiral Beatty. The warships of Rear Admiral Horace Hood were escorted by light cruisers Chester and Canterbury and a group of four destroyers Shark, Acasta, Ophelia, and Christopher. The first light cruiser patrolled the vanguard of the squadron, moving in line-ahead formation with another light cruiser moving on the starboard beam. At 17:27, the crew aboard Chester heard the distant echo of gunfire to the south-east. Captain Lawson, Commander of the cruiser, steered the ship towards the approaching cannonade. Several minutes later, the British saw the vague silhouettes of ships drawing closer to them on intersecting courses. They were German light cruisers of the II Scouting Group, escorted by destroyers. Lawson began to turn right so he could fire off as many of his guns as possible. This maneuver could seal the ship's fate as she found herself alone and relentlessly engaged by five German cruisers. For five minutes, Chester was under a hail of German shells, suffering considerable damage with 76 crew members killed and wounded.

Meanwhile, Hood drove his squadron to help Chester, with destroyers pushing ahead on the port quarter of flagship Invincible. After a while, the distinctive silhouettes of German cruisers appeared, drawing closer from the south-east. Flotilla leader Shark immediately went on the attack, making the other destroyers follow. And then, unexpectedly for the British, a group of German destroyers appeared out of nowhere intending to attack Hood's squadron. The Germans ships discerned Shark's intentions and turned to defend their cruisers. In the fierce encounter that followed, the glorious British destroyer was fatally damaged.

At that moment, Invincible, commanded by Hood, approached the area of action to throw a shower of shells at the enemy ships in retaliation for the deaths of their fellow men. Well-aimed volleys of 305 mm main guns left German light cruiser Wiesbaden heavily damaged and disabled. Wiesbaden became a sitting target for most of the British fleet but continued her struggle until the morning of June 1, when she finally went silent. Pillau and Frankfurt didn't escape the wrath of the British fleet, either. After sustaining extensive damage, they had to retreat.

By 18:20, Hood's squadron had moved to head Admiral Beatty's line of battlecruisers. Invincible and the other warships opened fire almost immediately at approximately 9,000 m from Lützow, which had emerged from the murk engulfed in flames after sustaining several hits. Hood's flagship was engaged by battlecruisers Lützow and Derfflinger, but the changing sunlight didn't leave a chance for the German ships to score a successful hit, while the British ship found herself in a perfect firing position. As remembered by Georg von Hase, First Gunnery Officer of Derfflinger, "When a heavy shell hit the armor of our ship, the terrific crash of the explosion was followed by a vibration through the whole ship. The Commander had to break formation several times to avoid hits." However, at 18:29, the fog that had been protecting them parted, abruptly turning Invincible, which was steering on a parallel course to Hipper's ships, into a clear target for the German gunners. The first salvo from Derfflinger hit the British cruiser on the stern. Thirty seconds later, another salvo hit the ship's bow, and 20 seconds later, the German ships delivered salvos almost simultaneously. The next moment, the sea boiled up from several horrific explosions. A ghastly jet of flame burst out into the sky, scattering parts of the ship's hull in all directions. In less than one minute, the two halves of Hood's flagship fell to the seabed engulfed in a thick wall of black smoke. The area where the battlecruiser perished was shallow, making the ship's fore and aft parts jut upwards from the seabed. The ship's crew of 1,020, including Admiral Hood, lost their lives.

Only six survivors were picked up by destroyer Badger that steered to the scene of the catastrophe. This is where the battle route of Invincible, the first battlecruiser in the world that had previously emerged victorious in the Battle of Heligoland Bight and the Battle of the Falkland Islands, ended.

The active phase of the Battle of Jutland continued into the early morning hours of June 1, filling the depths of the sea with blood and metal. The battle ended with the Kaiserliche Marine’s High Seas Fleet losing 3,039 men, one battlecruiser, one pre-dreadnought, four light cruisers, and five destroyers. The Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet lost 6,784 men, three battlecruisers, three armored cruisers, and eight destroyers.