I'm watching the channel The Great War on YouTube, which documents the goings on of the First World War week by week (careful, it's addictive and there are literally hundreds of episodes).

It is my understanding that the British Grand Fleet was, in size and strength, pretty much unchallenged during most/all of the First World War (and beyond). While the German Imperial Navy did a bunch of damage to the Allies/Brits, it was mostly stealthy hit-and-run tactics employing u-boats and alike against (mostly) unarmed trading ships and transports.

So my question is:

Couldn't the British Grand Fleet force an engagement with the Imperial German Navy to bring to bear their greater number of ships in a decisive battle?

Why didn't the Grand Fleet for example attack German North Sea ports and/or cities from sea? I'm sure that would have forced the Imperial Navy to intervene, leading to the big battle the Grand Fleet was longing for all along...

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    I'll leave the answers to people much more knowledgable than me, but to give a few pointers. Britains plan was to contain the german fleet and blockade the sea trade, not siege their harbours by driving through minefields. The german navy was a danger, in fact, the largest naval battle of WW1 (Jutland, 1916) was a tactical victory for Germany. It appears to me, Britain didn't want to risk losing many ships and personnel trying to break through the minefields and sieging into the german fleet, but was content at keeping the german fleet contained and thus neutralized it this way.
    – Dulkan
    Dec 14, 2017 at 9:21
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    Most German naval bases (during WW1) lie upriver or protected by landmass. With the exception of Cuxhaven. Massing battleships into a small inlet or estuary makes them a prime target for land based artillery. Look at the naval actions during the dardanelles. And the german ports were even better protected.
    – User999999
    Dec 14, 2017 at 9:32
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    If you keep the enemy in port and can blockade his forces, it is as much good as if you sink them. On the other hand, forcing a decisive battle can go wrong: torpedos were a significant threat to capital ships. When the Britts met the Germans in Jutland, it was an asymmetric payoff: if Britts suffer great damage, it is really really bad for them, and their naval position of power can suffer. if they can hit the Germans hard, even if they sink their ships, there is no much gain in it. It is just demonstrating the already known supremacy.
    – Greg
    Dec 16, 2017 at 6:41
  • A better question might be why the Germans didn't force an engagement after Jutland. Dec 17, 2017 at 13:39

4 Answers 4



Sea control is good. Sea denial is not that much worse.

Sinking an enemy ship at the cost of significant damage to your own is less desirable than keeping your enemy holed up in port (where his ships do little to no harm and your own ships stay undamaged).

As basically all naval strategy questions, this one puts too much emphasis on "defeating the enemy" and too little on the effects of a fleet in being.

  1. As long as the enemy fleet is effectively inactive, the enemy might as well not have the fleet. Even better, your enemy has to keep supporting his ships, without gaining anything of strategic value.

  2. Forcing a decisive engagement will cripple a significant number of your own ships as well, taking them out of action for many months, or possibly damaging them beyond repair. Major warships are very much a long-term investment; several WW1 battleships continued to serve through WW2 as well. And battle is a fickle thing; what might look like a perfect plan can still rapidly lead to disaster.

  3. When the Hochseeflotte did start getting more active, the Grand Fleet did engage them (Battle of Jutland). This engagement did show how quickly warships could be lost, and how good plans can lead to bad results. What could have been a decisive victory turned into a tactical defeat, with higher losses for the Royal Navy than for the Hochseeflotte. The strategic result was the Hochseeflotte returning to their bases, and not challenging the RN again in open battle; that was a good second best from the British perspective.

  4. Attacking the German harbours would be an extremely risky operation. The navigable channels are very small, approaches long, giving German forces ample time to prepare themselves. Shore batteries generally have an easier time hitting a ship than vice versa (as they are stationary, readily zeroed in), and suffer none of the limitations of size, armor, or supplies. And that is not even taking into account that the ships you want to attack can return fire as well. Picture, if you will, an attack on Wilhelmshaven. To get in sight of the shore installations, you would have to sail into the Jade Bight, a channel much less wide than e.g. the Gibraltar Strait. To even get to Kiel (not much better as far as approaching the harbour proper is concerned), you would have to first navigate the Skagerrak and the Kattegat, entering the Baltic Sea. Through heavily mined waters. And while you are shooting at shore installations and ships at anchor, all it takes to bag all your ships is a single mine layer dashing in, blocking your retreat. Heck, all it takes would be to scuttle an old freighter in the middle of the channel. You'd be serving your warships to the enemy on a platter, giving all the trump cards away.

Post Scriptum:

Have a look at this map of the aforementioned Battle of Jutland (by Wikipedia user Grandiose, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 license):

Battle of Jutland

Do you see the red area, stretching from Esbjerg in Denmark to west of the Dollart? That's labelled "mined area". Which means even getting to the aforementioned channel leading to Wilhelmshaven would be no walk in the park...

I thought it would be fitting to add the following two lines from "Heart of Oak", the official march of the Royal Navy:

If they run, we will follow, we will drive them ashore,

And if they won't fight, we can do no more.

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    I happen to regularly spend my vacations in sight of Wilhelmshaven. I suggest you visit that place at some time, especially the Marinemuseum. (They have one of the gun barrels of the SMS Seydlitz there, including the notch made by RN artillery at Jutland. And a piece of armor plate from the Tirpitz, a 15" shell from the Bismarck, and a big exhibition on the Battle of Jutland.) If you have seen the Jade Bight at ebb, and the lay of the land there, you will be disabused of any plans to attack that harbor from sea. ;-)
    – DevSolar
    Dec 14, 2017 at 10:03
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    Your answer is better then mine :-) You beat me to the punch +1
    – User999999
    Dec 14, 2017 at 10:12
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    Adding to point 3: What good does attacking german harbors bring, if you are already maintaining an effective sea blockade? What good is blowing up unused infrastructure? So, attacking the harbors would have served only propaganda purposes, as german sea-imports were already denied by the naval blockade of the north sea.
    – Dohn Joe
    Dec 14, 2017 at 13:11
  • Could you add a direct link to the original map from the Post Scriptorium? The PNG version you have in your answer is too low-resolution to be able to read any of the text. Dec 14, 2017 at 19:43
  • @AJMansfield: Done. (It's part of the Battle of Jutland WP page.)
    – DevSolar
    Dec 14, 2017 at 20:18

Because if they did, they would have been playing into German hands.

The Germans did not plan to match the British navy. What they did was create a Risk Fleet about 60% of the British fleet, one that could defeat the British fleet under ideal conditions (e.g. operating in home waters where the Germans would enjoy the benefit of mines, shore batteries, etc.). This would supposedly be sufficient to neutralize the British fleet, assuming that no British Lord High Admiral would risk such a battle of destruction.

The British Admiral (Jellicoe) was placed in a position where "he was the one man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon." Destroying the German fleet might not win the war, but losing the British fleet would allow a cross-channel invasion or other results favoring the Germans, such as surface ship help for the submarine warfare.

The one time the British tried to fight the German fleet was in the Battle of Jutland, where the British managed to meet the German fleet on open sea (rather than home waters). It was a drawn battle, one that did not encourage either side to try again.

The British fleet did not need to destroy the German fleet to obtain its (naval) objectives. It maintained a blockade that helped bring Germany to her knees. They weren't about to risk a "blockade for sure" in favor of a "maybe" of destroying the German navy.


First off: The British navy was the primary way for Britain to project their power on their colonies and the world. Being an island, Britain's mere existence was also based on a strong navy (e.g. for communication, supplies, and so on).

Risking the Grand Fleet would have had a negative impact on the power and strategical possibilities of British Empire.

But why was an attack like on Mers-el-Kébir not possible?

  1. Mines: Ports and important passageways were often protected (or blocked) using mines. Places like Heligoland Bight were completely filled with mines. Without an adequate sweep (exposing your minesweepers) prior the attack you would suffer major losses on your capital ships.
  2. Geography: The major German ports during WW1 were situated within inlets or upriver (with the exception of Cuxhaven). It would mean that you would be amassing your fleet onto a small area, exposing them to land-based guns. We all know how well the Dardanelles campaign went. And the German defences of theirs ports were even heavier than the Ottoman. (I need to find some reliable sources for this last statement).
  3. Kiel-Canal offered the German Navy an escape route to the Baltic if the threat of naval attack was imminent. Giving the Hochseeflotte the possibility to attack the Royal Navy from the rear or en route.
  4. Coastal protection. The German coast was protected by U-boats and smaller protection ships. Sandbars would prove prime ambush locations.
  • @User999999: Actually I doubt the defenses, at least at Wilhelmshaven, were that formidable. They did not need to be. The whole idea of bringing a ship, let alone a fleet, close enough to the harbor to lay down effective fire is ludicrous. Have a look at this map, and take note that the blue-grey parts are tidal flats. From Wangeroog to the Jade Bight you'd be hemmed in by a channel <2 nautical miles wide at the widest point, with less than 5 feet of water under the keel at some places... at high tide.
    – DevSolar
    Dec 14, 2017 at 11:49
  • @DevSolar I know that the 2nd, 3rd & 4th Marine artillery division was deployed to The North Sea Naval Station (Between Wilhemshaven & Brunsbuttel). though I can't find any relieable numbers regarding capacity & spread. Source Division of the Germany Navy
    – User999999
    Dec 14, 2017 at 13:13

Because the British had much more to lose than to win by provoking such an engagement.

Churchill described Admiral Jellicoe, who commanded the fleet until promoted in November 1916, as "the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon."

The previous answer discussing sea denial and the fleet in being theory is correct. The British Fleet in WWI is a classic example of a fleet in being. Coming out to seek battle with the German fleet, the result could be trading ship for ship until the Germans were out of ships. Or something could go really wrong and the Germans could get the better of the British. If the latter happened, the lost British ships would take months to replace and the Germans could break the British blockade.

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