Frost's Battle of Jutland

By Keith Allen (

I have just finished reading Holloway Frost's "The Battle of Jutland," published in 1936 by the Naval Institute Press. For those who do not know him, Frost was an active-duty commander in the U.S. Navy who was a promin ent writer on historical and tactical subjects between the wars; among other things he wrote a book on shiphandling entitled "On A Destroyer's Bridge." He died suddenly of meningitis at age 45 just before finishing the Jutland book, and Edwin Falk (author of "Togo and the Rise of Japanese Sea Power") finished it for him.

Frost's book is well worth reading, despite some serious faults. I don't think it gets quite the attention it deserves, perhaps because it was written by an American and the historiography of Jutland is, not surprisingly, dominated by the British (with the important exception of Arthur Marder). It is still, I believe, the most comprehensive narrative of the battle. It is also a highly opinionated analysis of the action, and here its main weakness lies. As Marder rightly says, Frost has a tendency to be very wise after the event. For a seagoing officer, he often seems surprisingly oblivious to the fog of war, and is at times unforgiving of mistakes made in the confusion of battle; he does not always seem to recognize that it is one thing to fight an action on the game floor at Newport and another matter entirely to fight it in the North Sea.

Most of Frost's criticisms are directed against the British. Frost sees a fundamental weakening in the Nelsonian spirit of the Royal Navy. There are historians--British as well as American--who would agree with that assessment, while others (including Marder) would not. He is extremely critical of both Jellicoe and Beatty, as well as many of their subordinates, although he praises some British commanders highly (such as Evan-Thomas, Goodenough, and Stirling). His criticisms of the British commanders would have more credibility if he were not at times overly smitten with the Germans, especially Scheer; Frost is probably the only serious historian of the battle who actually believes Scheer's claim that in turning back to the east after the initial battle-line engagement, he was attempting to attack the Grand Fleet rather than to escape it (to be fair, though, he does severely criticize the death-ride order at the same time).

With those caveats in mind, I still recommend the book. It is an extremely thorough account of the action, even if some of Frost's interpretations are suspect. Despite his treatment of British high command, Frost does not seem to have any visceral bias against the British; he is fulsome in his praise of the courage of the crews on both sides. One thing I particularly liked was his detailed treatment of the light forces, which can easily be regarded as an afterthought in the midst of dreadnoughts and battlecruisers; Frost was a destroyerman himself and gives the small ships the attention they deserve.

Frost is quite critical of the failure of the British destroyers--with the exception of the 12th Flotilla--to launch concerted torpedo attacks against the German battle line during the night. In making this point, probably quite valid in itself, he makes the more surprising contention that night destroyer attacks were a favorite tactic of the United States Navy, and says rather smugly that "if the 4th Flotilla had been American destroyers on the night of May 31, I am certain that there would have been disaster to either the Germans or ourselves, probably to both!" The results of the night actions in the Pacific in 1942-early 1943 do not suggest that the U.S. Navy was quite as proficient in this area as Frost believed. His comment, though, does suggest that the interwar USN might have paid more attention to night-fighting than we might think.

In discussing the night destroyer actions, Frost notes that close-range destroyer gunfire was surprisingly effective against the upperworks and bridges of battleships. This is an observation that would be borne out against HIEI off Guadalcanal.

Byron F. Angel ( adds:

H H Frost initially prepared the Office of Naval Intelligence evaluation of the Battle of Jutland, from which much data found their way into his later book. IMO, one item of great value contained in "The Battle of Jutland" was the North Sea map showing British and German minefields circa May 1916. Without this information, it is impossible to understand some of the grand tactical movements which were made by both sides during that period.

Last Updated: 11 February, 2000.

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