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During the Battle of Jutland (31 May 1916), the battlecruisers Invincible, Queen Mary, and Indefatigable exploded with only a few survivors; Lion was almost lost in a similar manner. This provoked the famous quote that is attributed to Beatty: ‘There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.’

Various, partly contradictory analyses of the battlecruiser action or the entire battle exist. Several major problems of the Royal Navy have been identified:

  • Departure from the original battlecruiser concept (Originally, battlecruisers were not intended to be used in a battle line against enemy capital ships. In particular, battlecruisers should have avoided combat with the more powerful but slower battleships.)

  • Tactical mistakes (In particular, Beatty left behind Evan-Thomas’ fast battleships and held his fire for too long until he was within range of the German guns although the larger guns mounted on British ships would have allowed an engagement at greater range.)

  • Weather (Wind and visibility were favourable for the initial German position.)

  • Gunnery of the German battle-cruisers (The Germans were quicker in determining the correct range to targets.)

  • Shell performance (German armour-piercing shells were more effective than the British ones.)

  • Weak armour (in particular of the decks, turret roofs, and magazines)

  • Ammunition handling (stockpiling unprotected cordite charges while emphasising speed over safety)

  • Composition of propellant charges (British cordite propellant was vulnerable and tended to burn violently.)

  • Signalling (The Germans used wireless communication, whereas the British preferred signalling using flag and lamp signals.)

  • Fixed standing orders (which prevented individual actions of squadron or ship commanders)

Accordingly, several changes were introduced as a result of the lessons learned in the battle. However, which of the identified problems were actually crucial for the disaster for the British battlecruisers? Can a single cause be isolated that was significantly responsible for the outcome, or was a combination of multiple problems necessary? Were correct improvements introduced as a result of experience gained – in particular, in view of the fact that the battlecruiser Hood was sunk during the Battle of Denmark Strait (24 May 1941) in a comparable manner? (The later loss of Repulse in the Pacific War was certainly not related.)

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  • BBC history magazine did an article on this recently - you may wish to look at it.
    – MCW
    Jul 21 '16 at 18:17
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    The key point is the first on your list. The British battlecruiser concept was flawed in so much as they were used as cheap battleships rather than as super-heavy cruisers. Jul 21 '16 at 18:19
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    Trying to identify just one cause is fruitless here - they all contributed. Hood had some different factors, or so it is thought.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 21 '16 at 18:40
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    @KillingTime, most ships, even tiny destroyers, quietly sink as a result of excess damage. Explosions are very much not the normal failure mode.
    – Mark
    Jul 23 '16 at 0:18
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    The battlecruiser concept was much the same as the 'super-frigate' concept was during the age-of-sail. You can out-run anything capable of out-fighting you and you can out-fight anything capable of keeping up with you. Conceptually, they were never intended to stand in the line of battle or to trade blows with battleships. If they hadn't been used in the line-of-battle in Jutland, their other flaws wouldn't have been exposed.. Jul 23 '16 at 9:24
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All of the factors you mentioned did play a role in the loss of the ships. But the largest factor in the ships themselves actually blowing up was the absolute horrendousness in the ammunition handling of the battle-cruisers and basically every other British ship. To that point, the battle-cruisers also had less armour than battleships which made it easier for shells to penetrate the ship, which then set off the badly-placed cordite charges in the turret and ammunition shafts.

In the loss of the Indefatigable and Queen Mary, the problems in signalling (to Evan-Thomas's battleships) had more of a hand. However, the presence of battleships might not have made too much of a difference since the Defence, an older "armoured cruiser", and Invincible were lost while steaming with the main battlefleet.

I must also note that the Germans had also had a problem with ammunition flash explosions in a previous battle (Dogger Bank I think it was) and they instituted a system to prevent that from happening again. So, even though the Germans had a few errors on their part in the battle, none of their battle-cruisers blew up.

In all, the largest cause of the loss of the British battle-cruisers was the problems in ammunition handling which was exploited by the lack of armour on those ships and the others which also exploded (Defence and Black Prince). On the Hood, the largest problem was that her armour was not up to par with the weapons she faced, permitting a shell to go into her magazines.

If you like, here is a documentary that goes into more detail on what caused the explosions.

I must say that I have probably overstudied this battle for too many years.

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  • Regarding the disaster of HMS Hood, I've heard theories that poor ammunition storage may have been a contributing factor in that one too. Historians have to tried guess at what was stowed on the deck where the fatal hit fell.
    – Smith
    Jul 21 '16 at 21:25
  • I think this is spot on. For an excellent rejoinder I recommend the I think it was called "The Battle of Easting" during the First Gulf War where the Abrams Tanks went head to head and toe to toe with top of the line Russian T-72's. It was no contest and I think "lessons learned from the Battle of Jutland" as explained above were a big reason why. Jul 21 '16 at 23:54
  • @(SMS von der Tann) I can't quote the OP author's name for some reason, but if he's reading this, his link is broken.
    – Eugene
    May 5 at 18:07
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Out of all the ones that you've mentioned gunnery was the biggest factor, since the quality of the British battlecruiser gunnery at Jutland was recognized as atrocious by the Admiralty themselves and lead directly to another of the issue on your list.

It was worse than the Germans before the war for the very British reason that their captains could suffer career consequences if they got caught without their ship looking "smart" and nothing messes up the paint-job like firing the big guns, so they'd literally try to schedule gunnery drills only before a re-paint was scheduled, while the Germans were a lot more pragmatic in this respect and practiced more often.

During the war, the British battlecruisers had to be based in Rosyth to counter the German ones and due to the confined anchorage, couldn't practice their gunnery at all, so their comparative quality just plummeted even further. The British were aware of this and tried rotating their battlecruisers to Scapa Flow for gunnery practice whenever possible, but couldn't do it very often logistically.

The battlecruiser commanders were aware of the issue and decided to make the best of a bad situation, by having their crews continuously practice loading, which they could do in Rosyth and this also lead to the disastrous ammo handling protocols, because they intentionally bypassed safety protocols to increase their rate of fire to the max, to make up for what they knew would be inferior accuracy with sheer volume of fire. Unfortunately for them, their accuracy was so dismal due to lack of practice at that point that it couldn't.

The dreadnaughts of the Grand Fleet had all of the other issues, like fire control tables, ammo quality, etc. but had no issues giving a great account of themselves, simply because they'd been practicing a lot of gunnery for 2 years before the battle.

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  • Good supplementary answer to explain why the ammunition handling was so unsafe.
    – Schwern
    May 5 at 19:26

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