The German Raid on North East England 16 December 1914

On 16 December 1914 German battlecruisers raided Scarborough and Hartlepool; they were commanded by Rear Admiral Franz Hipper ( he did not become von Hipper until after the Battle of Jutland in 1916). This was the second raid by the German battlecruisers on the east coast of Britain. On 3 November a German force under Hipper had bombarded Yarmouth.

Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, the Commander-in-Chief of the German High Seas Fleet, did not want to take the offensive in the North Sea. However, he was keen to carry out minelaying operations and coastal raids in order to maintain morale. The naval staff’s orders to him were that:

‘The Fleet must…be held back and avoid actions which might lead to heavy losses. This does not, however, prevent favourable opportunities being made use of to damage the enemy…There is nothing to be said against an attempt of the big cruisers in the North Sea to damage the enemy.’[1]

The odds then were in fact the best that they were going to be the Germans to have challenged the British Grand Fleet. The loss of the King George V class dreadnought HMS Audacious to a mine on 27 October and refits and technical problems briefly reduced British advantage in dreadnoughts to 17 to 15 German.[2]

In battlecruisers both sides for a period had four in the North Sea, excluding SMS Blücher, which was deployed as a battlecruiser but was really the ultimate armoured cruiser. The British had two in the Mediterranean, watching SMS Goeben, which the Germans had transferred to the Ottomans. HMAS Australia was still in the Pacific and after the German victory at Coronel on 1 November two British battlecruisers had been sent to the south Atlantic and one to the Caribbean . They did not return until after the British victory at the Falklands on 8 December.

The British had more ships under construction, meaning that the odds later moved heavily against the Germans.

The attack on Lowestoft was to be carried out by Hipper’s three battlecruisers, Seydlitz (flag), Moltke and Von der Tann, plus SMS Blücher, , and four light cruisers. Hipper’s squadron sailed at 4:30 pm on 2 November, followed 90 minutes later by two battle squadrons, which were to operate in support.[3]

The plan was, according to the post war British Naval Staff Monograph, to lay mines and bombard certain coast works which the imaginative German spies had reported as in place at Great Yarmouth.’[4] Hipper’s squadron narrowly missed a force of British light cruisers and destroyers that had been sent out to look for submarines and mines.

Just after 7:00 am HMS Halcyon, an elderly gunboat converted into a minesweeper, encountered the Germans. She escaped serious damage thanks to the destroyer HMS Lively, which laid a smoke screen, the first to be used in the war.[5] The destroyer HMS Leopard also came under fire, but the only Halcyon suffered casualties: the Naval Staff Monograph says one man was ‘severely wounded’ and Naval Operations ‘three men wounded’, but naval-history.net names one man as dying of wounds.[6]

There were three British submarines at Yarmouth, D3, D5 and E10. They left port when firing was heard, but D5 struck a mine, probably a British one that was adrift as it was a long way from the course that the Germans had been taking. Only five men survived, with 21 dying.

The Germans had been delayed by navigational problems resulting from the removal of the buoys that marked shoals off the Norfolk coast in peacetime and poor visibility making it difficult to take bearings. They were therefore behind schedule and Hipper decided to withdraw. The Naval Staff Monograph argues that the ‘boldness of the Halcyon and Lively…saved…Yarmouth from such damage as a well-directed bombardment would have inflicted.’[7]

The British were unable to intercept the retreating German force, but the armoured cruiser SMS Yorck, which had been part of the covering force, struck two German mines on her way back into port. The other German ships had anchored outside Wilhelmshaven because of thick fog, but Yorck, needing urgent dockyard repairs, was given permission to go into port.

Hipper suggested that breaking out into the Caribbean or South Atlantic to conduct commerce raiding would be a better use of his battlecruisers than coastal raiding or trying to lure the British into a trap. However, his plan, which ‘was vague on the inevitable question of coaling’, was rejected.[8] Ingenohl preferred to launch another raid on the east coast of England.

As a result of this raid, the Admiralty moved the Grand Fleet back to Scapa Flow from Lough Swilly. The 3rd Battle Squadron, consisting of the eight King Edward VII class battleships, the penultimate British pre-dreadnought class, was moved from Portland to Rosyth, arriving on 20 November. They were joined there by the four Devonshire class armoured cruisers of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron. The battlecruisers remained at Cromarty.

The German plan was to bombard Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool on 16 December. The British discovered this by intercepting German signals that were decoded by Room 40, the Admiralty’s code-breaking centre. This was so secret that it was not mentioned in the post war Naval Staff Monograph, a Confidential document intended for Royal Navy officers only.[9]

Hipper’s force, augmented by the recently completed battlecruiser SMS Derfflinger, sailed on 15 December. It was to be intercepted at Dogger Bank on its return home by a British force consisting of Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty’s four battlecruisers, HMS Lion (flag), Tiger, Queen Mary and New Zealand, Vice Admiral Sir George Warrender’s 2nd Battle Squadron, the 3rd Cruiser Squadron, the five ships of the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron and seven ships from the 4th Destroyer Squadron. The 2nd Battle Squadron consisted of the three surviving dreadnoughts of the King George V class and three dreadnought of the Orion class: HMS Thunderer was unavailable because of a refit.

A line of eight submarines was placed along the German route. As the Germans were expected to have more destroyers, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, requested the support of the Harwich force of light cruisers and destroyers. However, its four light cruisers and 23 destroyers was ordered only to be off Yarmouth at daylight, leaving it 100 miles in a straight line and 115 by swept channels from the rendezvous point. Two more destroyers were detached on a scouting mission.[10]

This force was more than adequate to deal with Hipper’s four battlecruisers, one armoured cruiser, four light cruisers and two destroyer flotillas. However, the British were unaware that he was being supported by 14 dreadnoughts and eight pre-dreadnoughts of the High Seas Fleet.  The Admiralty had refused to allow Jellicoe to take his full fleet to sea, thus giving the Germans an opportunity to reduce or even eliminate the RN’s numerical advantage by engaging a detachment of the Grand Fleet. [11]

At 5:15 am the destroyers HMS Lynx and SMS V155 encountered each other. A confused action followed in which Lynx and HMS Hardy were damaged. Two of Hardy’s crew were killed and 15 wounded. The British sighted a light cruiser at 7:10 and then three light cruisers when the visibility improved 40 minutes later. They then retired at full speed, losing sight of the enemy at 8:35 am.

If Ingenohl had continued on his planned course, he would have been 30-40 miles north west of Warrender’s squadron by 7:30 am. However, he changed course to south east at 5:30 am and headed home, wanting to avoid an attack by torpedo craft in the dark. He also feared that the destroyers might be the screen of the full Grand Fleet. His orders from the Kaiser were to not risk major losses and to avoid action outside the German Bight.[12]

Hipper had divided his force into two. SMS Derfflinger and Von der Tann bombarded Scarborough for half an hour, starting from 8 am, whilst the light cruiser Kolberg laid mines. The battlecruisers then moved to Whitby, firing about 50 rounds from 9 am.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer claimed that the Germans believed that there was a gun battery at Scarborough.[13] However, both were undefended ports and thus not legitimate targets.[14] This website lists the 18 people in Scarborough and three in Whitby who were killed. All were civilians except one coastguard.

The Germans were on stronger legal ground in their attack on Hartlepool, which was defended by three 6 inch guns and a flotilla of the scout cruiser HMS Patrol, four destroyers and a submarine. Patrol and the destroyer HMS Doon were damaged, with casualties were four dead and four wounded and two dead and 10 wounded respectively: see naval-history.net. Naval Operations gives casualties on land as being 86 civilians and nine soldiers killed and 424 civilians and 12 soldiers wounded.[15]

However, the Germans had to face return fire at Hartlepool. Moltke and Blücher were both damaged by the shore battery, with one hit on Blücher killing nine men and wounding three.

The German battlecruisers were now 150 miles from the British, who ought to have been able to intercept them. However, a combination of luck, weather, poor signalling and other mistakes mean that the Germans escaped.

The fact that the Germans had attacked Britain and escaped caused great anger in Britain. However, the civilian casualties gave the British a propaganda victory, which was used in Army recruitment posters, some of which are reproduced on the BBC website, along with some then and now pictures and quotes from survivors. Another BBC page describes the 100th anniversary commemoration of the Hartlepool raid.

In naval terms, both sides missed an opportunity to inflict significant losses on the enemy. For the Germans, this was their best such chance of the war. The east coast raids inflicted little military damage on Britain, apart from the loss of D5 to a friendly mine, which was more than cancelled out by the loss of Yorck to the same cause.

 

 

[1] R. Scheer, Germany’s High Sea Fleet in the World War (London: Cassell and Company, 1920), p. 68. Scheer says on p. 67 that the orders ran ‘somewhat as follows’ so this is his summary of them rather than a direct quote from them.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 38.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xii, Home Waters part iii, November 1914 to the end of January 1915. p. 6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 9.

[6] Ibid; J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 251

[7] Naval Staff vol. Xii. p. 10.

[8] Halpern, Naval, p. 40.

[9] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. iii. Monograph 8 – Naval Operations connected with the Raid on the North-East Coast, December16th, 1914, pp. 167-208.

[10] Ibid., pp. 177-79.

[11] Halpern, Naval, p. 41.

[12] Naval Staff vol. iii. pp. 179-81.

[13] Scheer, Germany’s, p. 70.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 31-32.

[15] Ibid., p. 85.

1 Comment

Filed under War History

The First VC Awarded to a Submariner

The first submariner to be awarded the Victoria Cross was Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, captain of HMS B11. He received Britain’s highest award for gallantry after his boat sank the elderly Ottoman pre-dreadnought battleship Messudieh (alternatively Mesudiye) on 13 December 1914.

The British Admiralty, keen to move as many ships as possible to the Grand Fleet, had proposed that the blockade of the Dardanelles be left to the French. However, the threat from the German battlecruiser Goeben, now flying the Ottoman flag, meant that the French insisted that the British battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable should remain.

Consequently, the blockading force consisted of Indefatigable, the light cruiser HMS Dublin and the French pre-dreadnought battleships Gaulois, Vérité, St Louis and Charlemagne, the armoured cruiser Amiral Charner and seaplane carrier Foudre. Each navy also contributed six destroyers and three submarines.[1]

The British submarines were B9, B10 and B11 of the B class. Although only eight years old, the rapid pace of development of submarines meant that they were obsolescent by 1914. They were designed for coastal patrol work with a range of 1000 nautical miles at 8.75 knots surfaced, a maximum speed of 12 knots surfaced and 6 knots submerged, an armament of two 18 inch torpedo tubes and a crew of 15. The petrol engine used on the surface made conditions for the crew even worse than in later diesel powered boats.

They had hydroplanes on each side of their conning towers to improve underwater handling, an innovation that was not repeated until US nuclear submarines were similarly fitted for the same reason 50 years later.[2]

The Ottoman navy was active against the Russian one in the Black Sea, but sat on the defensive at the Dardanelles. The Messudieh was positioned as a stationary guard ship.

The Allies conducted an active submarine campaign in the Dardanelles from December 1914, two months before the Gallipoli campaign began with a naval attack and four months before the first troops were landed. There was, however, a bombardment of the forts at the mouth of the Dardanelles by British and French warships on 3 November 1914, five days after the Ottoman fleet attacked Russian bases in the Black Sea, but two days before Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire.

Entering the Dardanelles was difficult for submarines even without the Ottoman minefields because of the current and differences in the layers of the water that made it hard to manoeuvre underwater. The British submarines were more manoeuvrable, and thus more successful, than the French ones.[3]

On 13 December 1914 B11 was chosen to be first Allied submarine to enter the Straits. They were protected by five lines of mines, but her diving planes were fitted with special guards to prevent her becoming tangled up in the mines’ wires.

Holbrook dived his boat underneath the mines, succeeding in passing them despite the strong current. He then came up to periscope depth, spotted a large enemy warship, closed to 800 yards range, fired a torpedo and dived. After hearing an explosion, he brought his boat back to periscope depth and saw that the enemy ship was settling by the stern.

The return journey was made more difficult by the fact that the lenses of B11’s compass had steamed up, making it unusable. Holbrook was not even certain where he was and had to estimate the time that it would take to clear the minefields on the way home. B11 bumped along the bottom several times. Eventually, he felt it safe to return to periscope depth. He could then see the horizon and steer for it. However, the compass was still unusable. B11 returned to base after being submerged for 9 hours to learn that she had sunk the Messudieh.

Holbrook’s VC was gazetted on 22 December, making it the first ever awarded to a submariner and the first of the war to a sailor to be announced. Commander Henry Ritchie’s VC was given for an act of gallantry on 28 November, but gazetted later than Holbrook’s. Every member of B11’s crew was decorated: Lieutenant Sydney Winn, the second on command, received the Distinguished Service Order and the other members of the crew either the Distinguished Service Cross or the Distinguished Service Medal. The DSC was awarded to officers and warrant officers, the DSM to petty officers and ratings.[4]

The citation for Holbrook’s VC, taken from this website, stated that:

For most conspicuous bravery on the 13th December 1914, when in command of the Submarine B-11, he entered the Dardanelles, and, notwithstanding the very difficult current, dived his vessel under five rows of mines and torpedoed the Turkish battleship “Messudiyeh” which was guarding the minefield.

Lieutenant Holbrook succeeded in bringing the B-11 safely back, although assailed by gun-fire and torpedo boats, having been submerged on one occasion for nine hours.

Note that English spelling of Turkish names differ.

The Ottomans blamed the loss of the Mesudiye on the Germans, who they said had insisted on putting her in an exposed position despite their opinions. She sank in shallow waters, making it possible to cut holes in her in order to extract trapped men. 37 men were killed out of a crew of 673. Many of her guns were salvaged and used in shore defences of the Dardanelles.[5]

In August 1915 the town of Germanton changed its name to Holbrook. Norman Holbrook visited Holbrook several times and his widow donated his medals to it a few years after his death. His VC is now on display at the Australian War Memorial, with a replica on show in Holbrook near a model of B11.

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 70-72.

[2] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 87. This source has been favoured where its information differs from the Wikipedia entry linked in the text.

[3] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 119.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 72-73.

[5] Ibid. vol. ii, p. 73, note 1.

Leave a comment

Filed under War History

The Battle of the Falkland Islands 8 December 1914

Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s East Asia Squadron of the armoured cruisers SMS Scharnhorst (flag) and Gneisenau and the light cruisers SMS Dresden, Leipzig and Nürnberg arrived at the Falkland Islands on the morning of 8 December. Their intention was to destroy the local facilities and wireless station

These were the ships that had won the Battle of Coronel on 1 November. The previous entry in this series described the intervening events, including the despatch of the battlecruisers, HMS Invincible (flag of Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee) and Inflexible to the South Atlantic.

The Falkland Islanders had expected to be attacked by Spee since they learnt of Coronel on 25 November. They had formed a local defence force in case of invasion, whilst Captain Heathcoat Grant had deliberately beached the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Canopus on mud to protect the harbour. A signal station had been established on Sapper Hill in order to watch for enemy ships and to direct Canopus’ fire. A row of electric mines laid across the entrance to the outer harbour.

However, Sturdee’s force, also including the armoured cruisers HMS Carnarvon (flag of Rear Admiral Sir Archibald Stoddart ), Cornwall and Kent and the light cruisers HMS Bristol and Glasgow had arrived at the Falklands the day before with the intention of coaling before heading for Cape Horn in search of Spee. The Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Macedonia was also present. Another AMC, HMS Orama, was escorting Sturdee’s colliers to the Falklands.

The Naval Staff Monograph, written in 1921, says that German prisoners later told the British that the only ships that Spee expected to meet were HMS Canopus, Carnarvon, Kent, Cornwall, Glasgow, Bristol, Newcastle and possibly Defence at the Falklands.  This probably does not mean that he expected to encounter all of them.

The 1938 edition of Naval Operations, the British Official History, which was revised after the publication of the German Official History, Der Krieg zur See, 1914-1918, says Canopus, Carnarvon, and possibly Defence, Cornwall, and Glasgow.[1] The Germans could outrun Canopus and had heavier guns than all the others except Defence. Any British ships present would probably be coaling, so vulnerable to attack.

Spee’s plan was that Gneisenau and Nürnberg would carry out the attack, with the rest of his squadron standing off in support. They would enter Port Stanley behind a line of minesweeping boats. Gneisenau would take the Governor on board, whilst Nürnberg would enter the inner harbour and destroy the dockyard and wireless station. If hostile warships were present, they would withdraw to the rest of the squadron.

At 7:50 am the look outs spotted Gneisenau and Nürnberg approaching. Coaling had been slow because the first of Sturdee’s own colliers, had only just arrived at the Falklands to join three that were already there. Only Carnarvon and Glasgow had completed coaling. the battlecruisers and Bristol were coaling and the other three ships had not yet started to do so. Kent, as guardship, had steam at 30 minutes notice and the others were at two hours notice, except Bristol which needed engine repairs, so was at six hours notice.[2]

At 8 am the Germans spotted wireless masts and heavy smoke, which they initially assumed was the British burning their coal stocks. Gneisenau’s gunnery office, Kapitänleutnant Busch, is believed to have reported seeing tripod masts, which would have meant that British dreadnought battlecruisers or battleships were present. However, his report was not believed.[3]

The following account is based on Sturdee’s Despatch, available from this link to ‘The World War I Primary Documents Archive’, unless otherwise footnoted.

8:00 am: The signal from Sapper Hill reached Sturdee. He ordered Kent was to weigh anchor and the squadron to raise steam for full speed.

8:20 am: The signal station reported another column of smoke to the south.

8:45 am: Kent took up station at the harbour entrance.

8:47 am: Canopus reported that the first two ships were eight miles away and that the second column of smoke seemed to come from two ships about 20 miles away.

8:50 am: The signal station reported a further column of smoke to the south. Macedonia was ordered to weigh anchor and await orders.

9:20 am: Canopus opened fire on the two leading enemy ships at 11,000 yards. They turned away. Their masts and smoke were now visible at a range of 17,000 yards from Invincible’s upper bridge. A few minutes later the Germans changed course, as if to close on Kent, but then changed course and increased speed in order to join their consorts, apparently having spotted the battlecruisers.

9:40 am: Glasgow weighed anchor in order to join Kent.

9:45 am: Carnarvon, Inflexible, Invincible and Cornwall weighed anchor and left harbour in that order. The sea was calm, the sun bright, the sky clear and visibility at its maximum. There was a light breeze from the north west. The five German ships became visible once the squadron had passed Cape Pembroke Light.

Canopus missed the German ships, but the size of water splashes from her shells indicated that they were from 12 inch guns. Spee ordered his ships to turn away after Gneisenau reported that there were six enemy warships present.

The Naval Staff Monograph says the Germans saw the six British ships leaving the harbour at 10 am, but identified them as being two pre-dreadnought battleships, three armoured cruisers and a light cruiser and did not realise that could see that the two largest ships were battlecruisers rather than pre-dreadnoughts until 10:20am. The Germans were then heading east at 20 knots, The subsequent battle was so one sided that the Naval Staff Monograph concludes its account at this point by saying that ‘von Spee knew that his hour had come.’[4]

Naval Operations states that the Germans identified the battlecruisers at 9:40 am. Whenever they made the identification, it came as a great shock to them. There had been US newspaper reports that Invincible had been sent south, but Spee was unaware of them.[5]

Spee’s squadron could out run but not out fight pre-dreadnoughts. It could neither out run nor out fight battlecruisers. Withdrawing was the best action if he thought that he faced pre-dreadnoughts, but if he had realised that he faced battlecruisers, his only chance would have been to attack the first ship to leave harbour, Kent, in the hope of sinking her and obstructing the exit of the rest of the British squadron.

By the time that the battlecruisers had been identified, Spee’s only hope was that his doomed armoured cruisers could hold the British off for long enough that his three light cruisers might escape in order to carry out commerce raiding. The following table shows that the British had an overwhelming superiority.

Ship Completed Tonnage Speed (knots) Guns Weight of Broadside (lbs)
Scharnhorst 1907 11,420 23.8 8 x 8.2″ 1,957
6 x 5.9″
Gneisenau 1907 11,420 23.8 8 x 8.2″ 1,957
6 x 5.9″
Nürnberg 1908 3,400 23.0 10 x 4.1″ 176
Leipzig 1906 3,200 23.3 10 x 4.1″ 176
Dresden 1909 3,592 24.5 10 X 4.1″ 176
German Total 33,032 4,442
Invincible 1909 17,373 25.5 8 x 12″ 5,100
16 x 4″
Inflexible 1908 17,373 25.5 8 x 12″ 5,100
16 x 4″
Carnarvon 1905 10,850 22.0 4 x 7.5″ 900
6 x 6″
Cornwall 1903 9,800 22.4 14 x 6″ 900
Kent 1903 9,800 22.4 14 x 6″ 900
Glasgow 1911 4,800 25.3 2 x 6″ 325
10 x 4″
British Total 69,996 13,225

Sources: R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985) pp. 24-25, <<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Carnarvon>&gt; [accessed 8 December 2014], Marder, A. J., From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919. 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70), vol. ii, p. 109, 122. Cornwall and Kent have been assumed to be identical to their sister Monmouth.

Kent and Leipzig both had reputations as being poor sailors that rarely achieved the designed speeds quoted above. The Germans ships were all in poor condition after four months of cruising.[6] Bristol and Macedonia have been omitted because they did not take part in the main action.

10:20 am: The signal for a general chase was given.

11:15 am: Speed reduced to 20 knots in order to allow the armoured cruisers to close up to the faster battlecruisers and Glasgow.

12:20 pm: Sturdee decided to attack the enemy with the battlecruisers and Glasgow.

12:47 pm: Sturdee signalled ‘Open fire and engage the enemy.’

12:55 pm: Inflexible fired the first shots at a range of 16,500 yards at Leipzig, the closest ship, which was dropping back from the rest of her squadron.

1:20 pm: The range was down to 15,000 yards. The three German light cruisers now turned away to the south west. Sturdee ordered Kent, Glasgow and Cornwall to follow them, whilst the battlecruisers and Carnarvon concentrated on the German armoured cruisers. Thereafter, the battle split into two separate actions.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Falkland_Islands#mediaviewer/File:Falklandschlacht.jpg

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Falkland_Islands#mediaviewer/File:Falklandschlacht.jpg. Originally from Eduard Rothert, Karten und Skizzen zum Weltkrieg, Druck und Verlag von A. Bagel, Düsseldorf, 1916

Naval Operations says that Spee had taken ‘a decision which did him and his service the highest honour.’[7] He would sacrifice himself, his two armoured cruisers and their crews in order to preserve the three light cruisers, which could then raid Allied commerce.

Action with the Armoured Cruisers:

1:25 pm: The Germans turned to port, opening fire five minutes later. Sturdee wanted to keep the range between 13,500 yards (the maximum of the German 8.2 inch guns) and 16,400 yards (the maximum of the British 12 inch guns). Spee wanted to close to less than the 12,000 yard range of his 5.9 inch guns.[8]

1:30 pm: The Germans opened fire. Soon afterwards, Sturdee ordered a turn.

2:00 pm: The range had opened to 16,450 yards.

2:10 pm: The Germans turned away and another chase began.

2:45 pm: The battlecruisers opened fire.

2:53 pm: The Germans turned.

2:55 pm: The Germans opened fire.

Naval Operations says that the German 5.9 inch guns were in range by 2:59 pm, but had little effect at their maximum range. The smoke from the battlecruisers was making gunnery very difficult for both sides, but Gneisenau was listing by 3:10 pm. Five minutes later, Scharnhorst, which was on fire and whose fire was slackening, lost a funnel.[9]

3:30 pm: Scharnhorst turned, apparently to bring her starboard guns into action. She was on fire and steam was coming from her. Around 4:00 pm (the linked file says 4:40 pm but this must be a typo), she listed heavily to port. Her colours were still flying.

4:17 pm: Scharnhorst sank with all hands.

5:08 pm: Gneisenau’s forward funnel fell and her fire slackened.

5:15 pm: A shell from Gneisenau hit Invincible.

5:30 pm: Gneisenau turned towards Invincible. Sturdee ordered ‘Cease fire’, but cancelled it before it had been raised after Gneisenau fired a single gun.

5:40 pm: The three British ships closed on Gneisenau. One of her flags appeared to be hauled down, but another was still flying.

5:50 pm: Sturdee signalled ‘Cease fire.’

6:00 pm: Gneisenau suddenly turned over and sank.

She had been pounded from 4,000 yards before being scuttled on the orders of Kapitän Julius Maerker. He did not survive, but Hans Pochhammer, his second in command, did. Invincible picked 108 men, 14 of whom were found to be dead, Inflexible 62 and Carnarvon 20.[10]

Invincible suffered no significant damage and no casualties, Carnarvon was not hit and Inflexible had one man killed and three wounded.[11]

Action with the Light Cruisers

3:00 pm. Glasgow exchanged shots with Leipzig at 12,000 yards.

The British 6 inch and German 4.1 inch guns could fire at this range, but not the British 4 inch guns. Captain John Luce of Glasgow successfully aimed to entice Leipzig to turn towards his ship, thus delaying her in order to allow the British armoured cruisers to catch up.[12]

3:36 pm: Cornwall ordered Kent to attack Nürnberg, the enemy ship closest to her.

4:00 pm: The weather changed, considerably reducing visibility. This helped Dresden, the fastest German ship, to escape. Only Glasgow was fast enough to catch her, but she was busy with Leipzig.

4:17 pm: Cornwall opened fire on Leipzig.

5:00 pm: Kent, whose engine room crew performed excellently, contrary to her reputation as a poor sailor, was in gun range of Nürnberg.

Robert Massie says that she was faster because the lack of coal on board made her light. Her crew made up for this by feeding as much wood as they could spare. including furniture, ladders, doors and even deck timbers into her furnaces.[13]

6:35 pm: Nürnberg was on fire and ceased fire. Kent closed to 3,300 yards, but re-opened fire after seeing that the German ship was still flying her colours. They were taken down after five minutes according to British reports, which Naval Operations says was ‘no shame'; it notes that the German Official History denies that they were hauled down.[14] At Coronel Nürnberg had been forced to carry on firing at the helpless HMS Monmouth when she refused to strike her colours.

Kent was only able to launch two hastily repaired boats. They were on their way to Leipzig when she sank just before 7:30 pm. The British searched until 9:00 pm, but was able to find only twelve men alive, five of whom later died.[15]

Sturdee’s report said that four men were killed and 12 wounded on Kent, but naval-history.net lists five men killed and 11 wounded, with three of the latter later dying.

Most of Kent’s casualties were inflicted by a single shell that struck a gunport. It caused a flash that went down the hoist into the ammunition passage. Without the courage and quick thinking of Royal Marine Sergeant Charles Mayes, this would most likely to have caused an explosion that would have destroyed the ship. Mayes was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, second only to the Victoria Cross for man of his rank. Sturdee’s Despatch stated that:

A shell burst and ignited some cordite charges in the casemate ; a flash of flame went down the hoist into the ammunition passage. Sergeant Mayes picked up a charge of cordite and threw it away. He then got hold of a fire hose and flooded the compartment, extinguishing the fire in some empty shell bags which were burning. The extinction of this fire saved a disaster which might have led to the loss of the ship.

However, the Admiralty failed to learn the lessons of this near disaster, with the result that three battlecruisers, including Invincible, blew up at Jutland in 1916.[16]

7:17 pm: Leipzig was on fire and Cornwall and Glasgow ceased fire.

Naval Operations says that ‘[n]o ship could have done better against such odds’ than Leipzig.[17] She was no longer firing, but she was moving through the water, her colours were flying and she Leipzig sea cocks had been opened in order to scuttle her.

According to Massie, the Germans were unable to pull their flag down because of a fire round the mast. They fired two green distress signals at 8:12 pm, which Luce took to be a sign of surrender. The British launched boats at 8:45 pm. Leipzig sank at 9:23 pm. Only 18 of her crew were rescued.[18] Glasgow had five men wounded, one of whom later died. Cornwall suffered no casualties.

In the late morning Bristol and Macedonia were ordered to see in response to a report from a local woman, Mrs Felton, that there were three ships off Port Pleasant. There was a possibility that they might have been transports carrying troops recruited from German residents of South America.[19]

There were actually two, the Baden and Santa Isabel, and they were carrying coal. Captain Basil Fanshawe of Bristol obeyed the letter of Sturdee’s orders and sank them, after taking off their crews. He did not then know that the British had defeated Spee’s squadron. The third collier, the Seydlitz, managed to evade the British and was interned in Argentina in January 1915.[20]

All but one warship and one collier of Spee’s squadron had been sunk. Only 201 German sailors were rescued, and it is not clear from the sources quoted whether or not all of them lived. The ships sunk had total crews of at least 2,140, which may not include Spee’s staff on his flagship.[21]

Spee, the captains of all the ships sunk and his two sons, Otto on Nürnberg and Heinrich on Gneisenau, were amongst the dead. The British lost 6 dead and 19 wounded, with 4 of the wounded later dying.

Sturdee was acclaimed for his victory, except by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord Fisher. Sturdee received a baronetcy in January 1916. Fisher, however, had not forgotten that Sturdee had been on the other side in his feud with Admiral Lord Charles Beresford. He initially refused to allow Sturdee to return home until Dresden had been sunk, but this was vetoed by Winston Churchill, the First Lord.

Fisher argued that he should take much of the credit for his decision to send two battlecruisers after Spee, that Sturdee’s poor dispositions had led to the defeat at Coronel and that he had been lucky to encounter Spee at the Falklands. These comments were fair, but his criticisms of Sturdee for taking a long time and using a lot of ammunition to defeat an inferior enemy were not. Sturdee could not risk damage to his battlecruisers solely in order to win more quickly.

Sturdee’s performance in both his roles in 1914 shows that he was a man more suited to sea command than to shore based staff duties.

The British victory at the Falkland Islands removed the main German surface threat to Allied merchant shipping. This meant that a large number of RN warships could now be recalled to home waters, increasing the Grand Fleet’s superiority over the High Seas Fleet.

 

[1]Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. i. p. 165; J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 411

[2] Naval Staff vol. i. p. 163.

[3] Ibid., p. 166.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p, 416.

[6] Ibid. vol. i, p. 426.

[7] Ibid. vol. i, p. 419.

[8] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, pp. 122-23.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, pp. 421-22.

[10] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), pp. 272-74.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, pp. 425-26.

[12] Ibid. vol. i, p. 427.

[13] Massie, Castles, p. 277.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p. 432 and note 1.

[15] Massie, Castles, p. 278.

[16] G. Bennett, Naval Battles of the First World War (London: Pan, 1983), p. 110.

[17] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p. 429.

[18] Massie, Castles, pp. 276-77.

[19] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 99.

[20] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 433.

[21] Bennett, Naval Battles, p. 122. 765 on each armoured cruiser, 290 on Leipzig and 320 on Nurnberg.

3 Comments

Filed under War History

Coronel to the Falkland Islands 1914

Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee’s East Asia Squadron of the armoured cruisers SMS Scharnhorst (flag)  and Gneisenau and the light cruisers SMS Dresden, Leipzig and Nürnberg defeated Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Craddock’s British squadron at Coronel, off the coast of Chile, on 1 November 1914. The British force was inferior to the German one, but the British were so used to naval superiority that any defeat was a major psychological blow to them and a boost to their enemy.

The existence of Spee’s squadron disrupted British South American trade. It might also appear off South Africa, where a significant proportion of the Boer population was pro-German. A large number of British ships were tied up in escorting convoys and hunting for German raiders.[1]

There had been three German light cruisers outside European waters at the start of the war as well as Spee’s squadron and three out of five German merchant ships armed as auxiliary raiders at the start of the war were still operating at the start of November.[2]

Spee had detached the light cruiser SMS Emden to operate in the Indian Ocean. Her highly successful cruise did not end until 9 November, when she was destroyed by HMS Sydney. SMS Königsberg was blockaded in the Rufiji River in East Africa by November 1914, but still tied up several British cruisers by her presence. SMS Karlsruhe successfully raided Allied shipping off north east Brazil before being destroyed by an accidental explosion on 4 November. However, it was some time before the British learnt of her fate.

However, Spee had problems of his own. The Japanese entry into the war made his principal base of Tsingtao in China, now Qingdao, untenable. British Empire forces, mainly from Australia and New Zealand, captured Germany’s bases and wireless stations on various South Pacific islands. He could obtain coal and intelligence from German agents and diplomats in South America, but he had no means of repairing his ships or replenishing their ammunition.[3] They had suffered little damage at Coronel, but had used 666 out of their 1,456 8.2 inch shells.[4]

He told a former German Navy surgeon, who was then living in Valparaiso, that:

‘You must not forget that I am quite homeless. I cannot reach Germany, we possess no other secure harbour, I must plough the seas of the world, doing as much mischief as I can, till my ammunition is exhausted, or till a foe far superior in power succeeds in catching me.’[5]

The two German armoured cruisers and Nürnberg had entered Valparaiso after Coronel, but left on 4 November. The Admiralty had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the German squadron until 14 November. Dresden and Leipzig had entered Valparaiso the day before, but were not allowed to coal. They left at 1 am on 14 November and were reported to have met the rest of their squadron outside the port.

The Naval Staff Monograph argues the visit of the two light cruisers to Valparaiso, which may have been to allow their crews a chance to visit a port ‘was a mistake…[that] served no purpose of military utility’ and let the Admiralty know that Spee was still off the Chilean coast.[6]

On 21 November Spee’s squadron arrived at St Quintin Bay in Chile, along with seven colliers. It coaled from four of them: the Memphis, Luxor, Ithakotis and Amasis. The other three, the Seydlitz, Baden and St Isabel, carrying 17,000 tons of coal, sailed with the warships when they left St Quntin on 26 November. The squadron needed about 7,000 tons of coal every fortnight. [7]

On 2 December the British three masted barque Drummuir, carrying 2,800 tons of coal, was captured by Leipzig. The German squadron then detoured to Picton Island to transfer the coal to the bunkers of its colliers, which took until 6 December.

That day, Spee called a conference of his captains and senior staff officers. He informed them that he intended to attack the Falkland Islands, destroy its wireless station and dockyard and capture its governor in retaliation for the British capture of the German governor of Samoa. The majority opposed his plan, but he over-ruled them.[8]

The German squadron sailed for the Falklands that afternoon, first scuttling the Drummuir . The three days spent at Picton Island would prove to be a fatal delay for the Germans.

The British, meanwhile, had responded decisively to their defeat at Coronel. Admiral Lord ‘Jackie’ Fisher had been re-appointed First Sea Lord following the resignation of Prince Louis Battenberg on 29 October because of ‘rising agitation in the Press against every one German or of German descent.’[9]

On 4 November, six hours after learning of Coronel, Fisher decided to send two battlecruisers, HMS Inflexible and Invincible, to hunt for Spee’s squadron. Four days later they arrived at Devonport, where they were to take on stores and Invincible was to undergo repairs. The dockyard said that they would take until 13 November, but Fisher said that the ships must sail on 11 November, with dockyard workers on board if necessary. They made this target.

The Royal Navy cruiser squadron in the South Atlantic was commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Archibald Stoddart. The battlecruisers were, however, a Vice Admiral’s command and one was now available.

Fisher had both professional and personal objections to Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee. the Chief of the War Staff at the Admiralty. Sturdee had been on the side of Admiral Lord Charles Beresford in his feud with Fisher. Additionally, Fisher blamed him for the loss of three cruisers to a single U-boat in September and for poor dispositions that led to Coronel. Fisher said that ‘[n]ever such utter rot as perpetrated by Sturdee in his world-wide dispersal of weak units! Strong nowhere, weak everywhere.’[10]

However, Winston Churchill, the First Lord, trusted Sturdee and did not want it to seem as if he was being fired because of Coronel.[11] Sturdee had declined Fisher’s offer of command of the China Station because he would be based on shore rather than at sea. Churchill then suggested giving him command of the squadron being sent to the South Atlantic. Sturdee was therefore appointed to command in the South Atlantic and Pacific, ‘embracing as it did a wider extent of sea than had ever yet been committed to a single admiral.’[12]

Sturdee’s orders were:

‘Your main and most important duty is to search for the German armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and bring them to action, all other considerations are to be subordinated to this end. It is not intended that you should confine your operations to the limits of your station should the movements of the enemy render it necessary for you to pass beyond them.[13]

As well as the two battlecruisers being sent with Sturdee, another, HMS Princes Royal, was sent to the Caribbean on 12 November. There was a risk that Spee might come through the Panama Canal. The USA allowed three belligerent warships in it and three in US territorial waters at each end at any one time, so Spee’s squadron could have transited it in less than a day.[14] However, the Naval Staff Monograph, written after the war for internal RN use only, says that the main reason for the despatch of Princess Royal was the risk of German cruisers breaking out from Germany into the Atlantic.[15]

The removal of three battlecruisers from the Grand Fleet meant that it was outnumbered five to four by the German High Seas Fleet in that type of ship. Its commander, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, was concerned that he had too small a margin over the enemy. He did not regard the recently completed ships, the battlecruiser HMS Tiger and the battleships HMS Benbow, Emperor of India and Queen Elizabeth, as being ready for action. However, Paul Halpern praises Fisher as showing ‘considerable nerve and moral courage for he correctly foresaw the need for overwhelming force at the decisive place.’[16]

Sturdee’s squadron sailed south at a slow speed in order to conserve coal. It lost 12 hours searching for the German auxiliary cruiser Kronprinz Wilhelm, which had wrongly been reported to be in the area, and another 12 clearing a wire that had fouled one of Invincible’s propellers during target practice.

On 26 November he rendezvoused with Stoddart’s squadron of the armoured cruisers HMS Carnarvon (flag), Cornwall and Kent, the light cruisers HMS Bristol and Glasgow and the Armed Merchant cruiser HMS Orama at the Abrolhos Rocks off north east Brazil. The armoured cruiser HMS Defence was also present, but she was to proceed to South Africa after transferring her modern wireless equipment to Invincible. It was hoped that this would prevent a repetition of the communications problems that had been an issue with Craddock’s squadron before Coronel.[17]

Sturdee had originally intended to remain at the Abrolhos Rocks until 29 November, transferring stores to Stoddart’s ships, but Captain John Luce of HMS Glasgow persuaded him to sail a day earlier. The British squadron therefore reached the Falkland Islands, where it intended to coal, on 7 December, a day before the Germans. The Germans would have been there first if they had not delayed at Picton Island or if Sturdee had not been persuaded by Luce to leave the Abrolhos Rocks sooner.

The next entry in this series will describe the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914.

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. i. ‘Monograph 3: Operations up to the Battle of The Falkland Islands’, pp. 140-41.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  Review of German Cruiser Warfare 1914-1918.

[3] For an analysis of Spee’s strategic options see P. Overlack, ‘The Force of Circumstance: Graf Spee’s Options for the East Asian Cruiser Squadron in 1914′, The Journal of Military History 60, no. 4 (1996), pp. 657-82.

[4] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, p. 118.

[5] Quoted in Naval Staff vol. i. p. 154.

[6] Ibid., p. 148.

[7] Ibid., pp. 153-54.

[8] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 414.

[9] Ibid. vol. i, p. 246.

[10] Quoted in Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 120

[11] G. Bennett, Naval Battles of the First World War (London: Pan, 1983), p. 90; P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 94; R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 248.

[12] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p. 365.

[13] Naval Staff vol. i. pp. 155-56.

[14] Halpern, Naval, p. 96.

[15] Naval Staff vol. i. p. 144.

[16] Halpern, Naval, p. 94.

[17] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 409.

1 Comment

Filed under War History

The First Royal Navy VC of WWI

The first member of the RN to be awarded the Victoria Cross in WWI was Commander Henry Peel Ritchie. He was an officer of the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Goliath, which in November 1914 was blockading the port of Dar-es-Salaam in the German colony of East Africa (now Tanzania). When the German light cruiser SMS Konigsberg sank HMS Pegasus she was operating from Dar-es-Salaam and several German merchant ships that could have supplied raiders were trapped in the harbour.

On 28 November Ritchie was put in charge of a raiding party that was ordered to disable the German merchantmen in the harbour. It came under heavy fire and Ritchie was wounded eight times, but he steered Goliath’s steam pinnace to safety. The citation for his VC stated that:

‘For most conspicuous bravery on the 28th November 1914 when in command of the searching and demolition operations at Dar-es-Salaam East Africa Though severely wounded several times his fortitude and resolution enabled him to continue to do his duty inspiring all by his example until at his eighth wound he became unconscious The interval between his first and last severe wound was between twenty and twenty five minutes.’

He was awarded the medal by the King in April 1915. According to Wikipedia, British casualties were one dead, 12 seriously wounded and 12 captured. Three large merchantmen were immobilised, several shore installations destroyed and 35 prisoners taken. As well as Ritchie’s VC, two men were awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal and seven the Distinguished Service Medal. Goliath and the protected cruiser HMS Fox bombarded the port two days later.

Ritchie’s wounds meant that he was unable to return to sea service and he had to retire in 1917. He lived until 1958, when he died in Edinburgh, just after one of his three daughters emigrated to the USA. He was buried in Warriston Cemetery. Nothing is known about his family since then, and the location of his VC is unknown. The UK Government, the RN and Edinburgh City Council have made a call for information on the missing parts of Commander Ritchie’s family tree.

On 28 November 2014, the 100th anniversary of his act of gallantry, a plaque to Ritchie was unveiled at his birthplace, 1 Melville Crescent, Edinburgh, which is now a government office. In 2013, the UK  Government announced that paving stones would be laid in their birthplaces to commemorate all British WWI VC recipients. After it was pointed out that a number of them were born outside the UK,  the plan was amended to give them a stone in the place in the UK with which they had the greatest connection.

4 Comments

Filed under War History

The Destruction of HMS Bulwark 26 November 1914

On the morning of 26 November 1914, the pre-dreadnought HMS Bulwark blew up whilst moored near Sheerness. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, told the House of Commons later that day that:

‘I regret to say that I have bad news for the House. The “Bulwark” battleship, which was lying in Sheerness this morning, blew up at 7.53 a.m. The Vice and Rear-Admirals who were present have reported their conviction that it was an internal magazine explosion which rent the ship asunder. There was, apparently, no upheaval of water. The ship had entirely disappeared when the smoke had cleared away. An inquiry will be held to-morrow, which may possibly throw more light on this occurrence. The loss of the ship does not sensibly affect the military position; but I regret to say that the loss of life is very severe. Only twelve men are saved, and all the officers and the rest of the crew, which, I suppose, amounted to between 700 and 800 persons, have perished. I think the House would wish me to express on their behalf the deep sympathy and sorrow with which the House has heard the news, and the sympathy they feel with those who have lost their relatives and friends.’ [click here for online version of Hansard, the record of debates and statements in the British Parliament.]

Witnesses reported seeing a large sheet of flame and thick smoke, followed by an explosion. The ship had, apart from some debris, disappeared once the smoke cleared. Crockery and glassware on nearby ships was broken, buildings up to six miles away were shaken and debris was found over a wide area.

Rumours that the explosion resulted from sabotage, a U boat torpedo or a mine were dismissed by the Admiralty. Rear Admiral E. F. A. Gaunt, the President of the Admiralty Court of Enquiry told the Inquest into the 39 of the deaths that Bulwark had suffered an accidental internal explosion. It was impossible to be sure what had happened, but the court suspected that hot ashes had been piled up against the bulkhead that separated a boiler room from a magazine.

Six inch shells might also have been left in passageways after a recent exercise. This was against regulations, but Gaunt noted that a large proportion of Bulwark’s crew were reservists, who might not have properly followed the rules.

The Inquest concluded:

‘That the vessel had been destroyed by the exploding of a magazine or magazines – it was not certain which – and it was probable that some loose ammunition or cordite may have been detonated by some means that caused the explosion. There was no evidence of any external cause and the burns and multiple injures was the cause of death in almost all of the cases heard so far. The findings of the Court of Enquiry were satisfactory and endorsed that cause of death was by accident”. The jury agreed and returned a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ in the thirty-nine cases.’ [quoted on the website of the Wessex Branch of the Western Front Association, which also includes a number of statements from witnesses and survivors.]

Churchill stated that there were 12 survivors, but there were actually 15 or 16 men alive when he spoke, of whom nine lived. However, he was speaking shortly after the event, so probably had incomplete information. Naval-history.net lists the dead and 16 survivors, of whom one died the same day, one on each of the next three days, two on 30 November and one on 18 January 1915.

Bulwark was an old ship and Churchill was correct that, even from a military rather than a human point of view,  the loss of the men was a more severe blow than the loss of the ship.

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under War History

The First British Invasion of Basra, 22 November 1914

At the outbreak of the First World War Britain intended to send three forces from its Indian Army overseas. The largest, Indian Expeditionary Force A, was headed for France. IEF B and C were both to be sent to East Africa, the former to attack German colonies and the latter to defend British ones.

Once it became likely that the Ottoman Empire would enter the war on the side of the Central Powers an additional force, IEF D, was sent to Basra in the Persian Gulf, now part of Iraq but then Ottoman territory. The British in those days normally called modern day Iraq Mesopotamia.

The IEF sailed from India on 16 October. The Royal Navy’s role in the transport of IEF A and C was confined to protecting them from German cruisers by escorting them to their destinations. However, IEF B and D had to land on enemy territory.

IEF B arrived at Tanga in German East Africa (now Tanzania) on 2 November, landing the next day. On 4 November it was defeated by local German forces commanded by Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. The defeated troops were re-embarked the next day.

The British Official History of Naval Operations suggests that defeat was owed ‘partly perhaps to insufficient artillery support from the sea.’[1] The expedition was accompanied only by the protected cruiser HMS Fox. The pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Goliath had suffered mechanical problems and the modern light cruisers HMS Chatham, Dartmouth and Weymouth were blockading the German light cruiser SMS Königsberg in the Rufiji River.

IEF D was intended to protect Britain’s interests in the Gulf, the most important of which were the oil refinery on the Persian (now Iranian) island of Abadan at the mouth of the Shatt at Arab river and the pipeline connecting it to the Persian oilfields. The oilfields, pipeline and refinery were owned by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now BP).

The Royal Navy had gradually switched from coal to oil in the 10 years leading up to the war. By 1914 the light cruisers and battleships under construction were to be fuelled exclusively by oil. This meant that it needed secure supplies, so in 1914 the Admiralty took a 50% stake in APOC and gave it a 20 year supply contract in return for providing the capital needed to develop the Persian oilfields.[2]

Admiral Sir Edmond Slade, the Admiralty’s oil expert, wanted troops to be sent to protect the oilfields:

‘It is…of urgent importance that the troops indicated should be sent at once in order to safeguard our supply of oil…This question of defence has nothing to do with the investment of Government capital in the Company…It is necessary in order to ensure the due supply of oil required for the Fleet.’[3]

On the other hand, Winston Churchill, who as First Lord of the Admiralty was responsible for the deal with APOC, disagreed with Slade, writing on his minute that ‘[t]here is little likelihood of any troops being available for this purpose. Indian forces must be used at the decisive point. We shall have to buy our oil from elsewhere.[4]

Churchill’s reluctance to protect the Persian oil installations appears surprising given his role in the government’s purchase of shares in APOC, but it is consistent with his pre-war opinion. In a 1913 Cabinet memorandum on naval oil supplies he assumed ‘that in time of war money would be no object.’[5] The objective of the APOC contract was to build up an oil reserve of six months’ wartime naval oil consumption relatively cheaply in peacetime.

The oil facilities were very important, but they were not Britain’s only interest in the region. It is now assumed that everything in the Middle East is about oil, but in 1914 General Sir Edmund Barrow, the Military Secretary to the India Office, argued that:

‘troops could be landed on Persian soil at Mohammerah [now Khorramshahr] or at Abadan island, ostensibly to protect the oil installation, but in reality to notify to the Turks that we meant business and to the Arabs that we were ready to support them… With the Arabs on our side a Jihad is impossible, and our Indian frontier is safe from attack.’[6]

Britain then had good relations with a number of Arab rulers who were nominally subjects of the Ottoman Empire but had a fair degree of autonomy. It feared that in a war with the Ottoman Empire the Ottoman Sultan, who was also the Caliph, might call a Jihad, resulting in a revolt by Britain’s Muslim subjects, especially in British India, which included modern Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Despite Churchill’s views IEF D was sent to the Gulf. It initially consisted of the 16th Brigade of the 6th (Poona) Division, commanded by Brigadier-General Walter Delamain.

There were only three small British warships in the region: the sloops HMS Espiègle and Odin of the Cadmus class and the Indian Marine ship Dalhousie. They were too small to deal with SMS Emden, which was known to be in the Indian Ocean, so IEF D was escorted by the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Ocean, captained by Captain Arthur Hayes-Sadler, who was put in charge of the naval part of the operation.

IEF D reached Bahrain on 28 October. The next day the Ottoman fleet, commanded by the German Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, and including the battlecruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau, attacked Russian bases in the Black Sea. On 30 October, Delamain was ordered to proceed to the Shatt-al-Arab and another brigade of the 6th Division, the 18th, was sent to the Gulf. The next day he was warned that war with the Ottoman Empire was imminent.

Lord Crewe, the Secretary of State for India, had given the following instructions to the Indian Government regarding the operation:

‘The intention is to occupy Abadan, with the Force under orders, protect the oil-tanks and pipe-line, cover the landing of reinforcements, in the event of such being necessary, and show the Arabs that our intention is to support then against the Turks.’[7]

The British force reached the sandbar in the estuary of the Shatt-al-Arab on 3 November. Two days later Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire. The next day the convoy entered the Shatt, apart for Ocean, which was too big to cross the bar. A battery of four guns beside the ruined fort of Fao was quickly silenced by Odin and the position taken by a landing force of 600 men. An Ottoman force appeared near Abadan, but were dispersed by gunfire from Espiègle.

Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Meso-WW1-1.jpg Original Source: http://www.westpoint.edu/history/SiteAssets/SitePages/World%20War%20I/WWOne43.jpg This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code

Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Meso-WW1-1.jpg
Original Source: http://www.westpoint.edu/history/SiteAssets/SitePages/World%20War%20I/WWOne43.jpg
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code

Delamain then took the rest of his brigade, two or three miles up the river and landed on the Ottoman side. By 10 November his troops, less a small garrison at Fao, were entrenched in a position that covered the oil refinery. An Ottoman attack on 11 November was beaten off.

The Ottoman telegraph cable from Upper Mesopotamia connected to the British one to Persia and India at Fao. The Ottomans had cut the cable, but the British quickly repaired it.

By 15 November the 18th Brigade and the artillery and divisional troops of the 6th Division had arrived. Its commander, Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Barrett, had instructions to take Basra. Intelligence from prisoners indicated that an attack by up to 10 Ottoman battalions was likely. A rapid victory was also likely to impress the Arabs, so Barrett decided to move on Basra quickly.[8]

Delamain’s brigade, plus two batteries of mountain artillery, defeated an Ottoman force at Saihan on 15 November. By the next day all the infantry and cavalry but only part of the artillery was ashore. Barrett decided to advance, with Odin, Espiègle, the armed yacht Lewis Pelly and the armed tug Sirdar-i-Naphte providing fire support from the river.

The main Ottoman force covering the route to Basra was attacked on 19 November at the mud fort at Kut-az-Zain. The Ottomans withdrew once the fort was destroyed by artillery and naval gunfire, but heavy rain turned the ground into a quagmire, meaning that the British cavalry could not turn the retreat into a rout. This action is referred to as being at Sahil by the British Official Histories.[9] “Sahil” is actually the local word for “shore”, so the name probably results from a misunderstanding.[10]

The Ottomans now made an attempt to block the Shatt-al-Arab using a Hamburg-Amerika liner that had been trapped in Basra and a number of smaller vessels. Barrett’s force was dependent on river transport, so this was potentially a very serious setback to his plans

On 19 November Hayes-Sadler went to investigate the obstacle in Espiègle. She came under fire from a shore battery of four 15 pounders, an armed launch and the gunboat Marmariss. Espiègle silenced the shore guns, sank the launch and forced Marmariss to withdrew without being hit herself. It then transpired that the passage was not completely blocked.

The Ottoman forces defending the approach to Basra and the city’s garrison withdrew the next day. By 5 pm on 21 November Espiègle, Odin and the newly arrived Indian Marine ship Lawrence were anchored off Basra’s Custom House. A blank round was fired in order to discourage looters, and naval parties were landed to deal with the fires that they had started. The first infantry arrived on the morning of 22 November.

The next day it was proclaimed that Basra was under British protection. The Sheikh of Kuwait was informed that Britain now recognised his territory as being an independent principality under British protection. The Ottoman Empire claimed it, but the Sheikh had placed himself under British protection by treaty in 1899.

The next stage of the campaign was an advance up river to Qurna, which was taken on 9 December. The initial objectives had then been achieved, but the Mesopotamian Campaign then grew as a result of mission creep. The capture of one place led to claims that somewhere else had to be taken to protect it. Easy early victories led to over confidence and there was a desire for further victories in a war that was going badly.

The lack of railways and roads meant that the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris were vital for communications, meaning that the RN continued to play an important role in this land campaign.

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 374.

[2] M. Gibson, ‘”Oil Fuel Will Absolutely Revolutionize Naval Strategy”: The Royal Navy’s Adoption of Oil before the First World War,’ in A Military Transformed? Adaption and Innovation in the British Military, 1792-1945, ed. R. Mahoney, Mitchell, S., LoCicero, M. (Solihull: Helion and Company, 2014), pp. 110-23.

[3] NA, ADM 137/6, ‘Persian Gulf, Part 1, 30 July – 31 October 1914′, 1914.

[4] Ibid.

[5] NA, CAB 37/115/39, ‘Oil Fuel Supply for H.M. Navy’, 1913, p. 5.

[6] Quoted in F. J. Moberly, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1914-1918, 4 vols. (London: HMSO, 1923). vol. i, p. 87.

[7] PP, Mesopotamia Commission. Report of the Commission Appointed by Act of Parliament to Enquire into the Operations of War in Mesopotamia, Together with a Separate Report by Commander J. Wedgwood, D.S.O., M.P., and Appendices, HMSO 1917 [Cd. 8610]. p. 12.

[8] Moberly, Mesopotamia. vol i, p. 109.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p. 389; Moberly, Mesopotamia. vol. i, p. 120.

[10] A. J. Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign (New York, NY: Enigma, 2009). This book was originally published in 1967 under the titles The Neglected War in the UK and The Bastard War in the US.

Leave a comment

Filed under War History