The Naval Blockades: (2) Germany

During the First World War both the United Kingdom and Germany attempted to carry out naval blockades of the other. Each country used actions by the other to justify escalations by the other. The Germans laid unanchored, floating mines in the North Sea early in the war. International law said that such mines had to become inoperable after an hour. It was not feasible to do so, but this gave the UK an opportunity to argue that it was Germany that had first broken international law.

The UK then tightened its blockade beyond what was permitted by the 1909 Declaration of London. On 5 November the Admiralty announced that the whole of the North Sea was a war zone, warning that ships entering from the north would do so at their own risk. The official reason for this was the German minefields, but the real one was to force neutral ships heading into the North Sea to go through the English Channel, making it easier to search them for contraband.

On 4 February 1915 Germany announced that the waters round the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland would be a war zone from 18 February. It justified this by reference to the British declaration of 5 November. All hostile merchant ships in this area would be destroyed without warning. The safety of neutral ships could not be guaranteed because British ships had been flying neutral colours. U-boat captains were ordered that their first duty was the safety of their boat, so they should not take risks to find out if a ship was really neutral.[1]

In 1914 the most important successes of German U-boats had been against warships. This continued in 1915, with U24 sinking the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Formidable in the early hours of the year.

It was extremely difficult for submarines to comply with the rules of cruiser warfare, which required raiders to stop and search enemy merchant ships. Merchant ships could be sunk or captured only if their cargoes contained either war materials (absolute contraband) or items such as food or fuel that had peaceful uses but were intended for the enemy’s military (conditional contraband).

The safety of the crews of merchant ships that were sunk had to be ensured. Submarines had no space for prisoners and no spare men to act as prize crews for captured ships, so could comply with this only if the sinking occurred close to land.

One man had predicted before the war that submarines would sink merchant ships without warning. This was the British Admiral Lord Fisher, who by February 1915 was in his second spell as First Sea Lord. In late 1913 he had written a paper arguing that the invention of the submarine meant that the main threat to the UK was having its food and oil supplies cut off by submarine attacks on its merchant shipping

Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and Admiral Prince Louis Battenberg, then the First Sea Lord, both refused to believe that any country would use its submarines in such a way. They thought that Fisher’s view that it would be done weakened his arguments about the risk of submarine attack on the UK’s food and oil supplies.[2]

Only four British merchant vessels had been sunk by U-boats before 30 January. In each case the Germans had given the crew time to abandon ship and no lives were lost.[3]

The most controversial incident had come on 26 October when Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schneider’s U24 torpedoed but did not sink the 4,590 ton French steamer Amiral Ganteaume. She was carrying 2,500 Belgian refugees, 40 of whom were killed. However, Schneider may have thought that she was a troop ship. Whether he did or not, the incident showed the potential political and diplomatic implications of submarine warfare against merchant shipping.[4]

In the Irish Sea on 30 January U21, which had sunk the cruiser HMS Pathfinder in September, the first moving warship ever to be sunk by a submarine, stopped, searched and sank three British merchantmen after allowing their crews time to take to their boats. On the same day, however,  U20 torpedoed and sank three British merchant ships off Le Havre without warning. The crews of the Tokomaru and Ikaria all survived, but all that was found of the 21 man crew of the Oriole was two lifebuoys discovered near Rye on 6 February.[5]

Before the war Kapitänleutnant Ulrich Blum of the Kaiserliche Marine, the German navy, had estimated that 222 U-boats would be needed to successfully carry out a war against British commerce under international law, far more than Germany possessed in early 1915.[6]

The KM began the war with 24 operational U-boats, plus four older ones that were used for training and 16 under construction. By 22 February 13 more had been completed, but one of the new boats and six of the pre-war ones had been lost. Seven newly completed boats were under sea trials, leaving the KM theoretically with 23 to attack British trade. The need to refit, repair and resupply meant that there was an average of 5.6 and a maximum of 12 boats at sea on any one day between March and May 1915.

After the German capture of the Belgian coast gave them bases much closer to the UK, they had begun to build smaller UB and UC coastal submarines. The latter were minelayers, which initially were armed only with mines, although later ones also had torpedo tubes and guns. They were supposed to take four months to build compared with 18 for an ocean going boat, but UB1 was constructed in 75 days. By mid July 1915 17 UBs and 15 UCs had been completed, but the first six UBs were not operational until the latter part of April and UC1 not until early June. [7]

The U-boat war against British trade would eventually cause great problems for the UK, but Germany had too few submarines when it first launched its offensive. However, British counter-measures were also inadequate at first.

The Germans had lost a high proportion of their submarines so far in the war, but two had been rammed by warships whilst on the surface, four had struck mines and the seventh had been sunk by another U-boat on the surface after failing to respond to a challenge. The method that British warships possessed of sinking submerged submarines was the towing of explosive sweeps.

The British had laid a minefield across the Dover Straits in an attempt to stop U-boats entering the English Channel, but 4,000 out of just over 7,000 mines laid between 2 October 1914 and 16 February 1915 drifted or sank to the bottom because the weights holding them in position were too light.[8] The British also laid nets and organised patrols of small, armed ships, but the U-boats were able to pass through the Dover Straits.

The orders issued to U-boat captains on 18 February were that they should attack all hostile ships except hospital ships, unless clearly acting as troopships, and Belgian Relief ships. Neutrals should be spared. However, they were told that ‘if, in spite of the exercise of great care , mistakes should be made, the commanding officers will not be held responsible.’[9]

However, the first ship to be attacked in the new campaign was the Norwegian Belridge, which was carrying a cargo of oil from New Orleans to Amsterdam for the Dutch government. She was torpedoed on 19 February, but managed to make a British port. The Germans apologised and paid compensation.[10]

 

[1] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 293-94.

[2] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 24.

[3] C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. i, pp.358, 365-66.

[4] Halpern, Naval, p. 292.

[5] Fayle, Seaborne. vol. i, pp. 366-68.

[6] Halpern, Naval, p. 291.

[7] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), p. 7.

[8] Ibid., p. 17.

[9] Gibson, Prendergast, German, p. 31.

[10] Fayle, Seaborne. vol. ii, p. 12

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The Naval Blockades: (1) The United Kingdom

 

During the First World War both the United Kingdom and Germany attempted to carry out naval blockades of the other.

Blockades had been a part of British strategy in its wars with European enemies for many years. In the early 18th century they were mainly strategic, with the intention of giving warning if enemy fleets came out of port. By the end of that century, they also aimed at damaging enemy trade.

The UK had paid little attention to the rights of neutrals during its 18th and early 19th century wars: this was one of the causes of the War of 1812 with the United States of America. In 1856, however, it signed the Declaration of Paris, which stated that belligerents should not interfere with neutral trade. including enemy cargoes carried in neutral ships and neutral cargoes carried in enemy ships.

However, the protection offered to neutral trade did not extend to contraband, which was divided into two categories. Absolute contraband was items useful only to the military. Conditional contraband meant goods with both peaceful and military uses that were clearly destined for the enemy’s armed forces.

Conditional contraband was not defined by the Declaration of Paris. The UK insisted that it did not include food, but other countries disagreed. France, supported by Germany, declared it to be contraband during its 1885 war with China, as did Russia in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War.

The UK was the world’s largest shipping carrier, a net importer of food and an exporter of manufactured goods. It had to consider the issue from three viewpoints: as a neutral in other people’s wars; the defensive one of defending its own trade; and the offensive one of blockading the enemy. Defensively, in a war with another country, it could continue to import from the USA in US ships. However, other European countries were less vulnerable to blockade than they had been before the development of railways, provided that they neighboured neutral countries.

In 1909 the Declaration of London attempted to define contraband. Absolute contraband was confined to a small number of purely military items, whilst the list of supplies defined as conditional contraband included food provided that it was for military, not civilian consumption.

The British delegates agreed the terms of the Declaration of London, but the UK never ratified it. There were protests from the public, which focussed mainly on the neutral and defensive angles, and a petition signed by 138 retired admirals.

Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, and the Foreign Office accepted the Declaration. They were concerned mainly with the neutral and defensive issues of protecting Britain’s merchant fleet and its wartime food supply.[1]

The Admiralty was planning to conduct economic warfare in the event of a war with Germany, which makes the agreement of its delegates to the London Conference more puzzling. Avner Offer suggests that it may have been ‘partly a matter of muddle and neglect’, but also offer a ‘more Machiavellian interpretation'; Admiral Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, may have wanted the UK to have legal protection when a neutral, but expected it to act in its self interests in wartime.[2]

Some contemporary writers, such as Thomas Gibson Bowles, feared that the 1909 Declaration of London would prevent the Royal Navy from exerting the same pressure on a future enemy that they claimed had won past wars. However, Archibald Bell, the Official Historian of the British blockade, argues that Bowles’s claim that past blockades had been decisive was wrong. Bell contends that British leaders of the past ‘had never hoped that a continental enemy could be brought to terms by stopping its commerce.’[3]

Fisher’s immediate successor as First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, was sceptical about the merits of blockade, but he had retired by 1914. By then British strategy was to blockade Germany in wartime. The UK was allied to France and Russia, so the fears that a naval blockade would be circumvented by trade with neighbouring countries no longer applied. Germany was surrounded and her trade with the rest of the world could be stopped if Antwerp and Rotterdam were blockaded.[4]

Just before the start of the war the British decided that the traditional policy of a close blockade of enemy ports was no longer viable because of the threat of attack from torpedo armed enemy vessels on the blockading force. Instead, a distant blockade would be carried out. The Channel Fleet would block the English Channel, whilst a line of cruisers from the Shetland Islands to Norway would close the northern entrance to the North Sea.

There were, however, some difficulties in implementing the blockade when war came. One was the doctrine of continuous voyage. Absolute contraband intended for Germany could be stopped even if it was to be first unloaded in a neutral port such as Rotterdam and then transported by land to Germany. However, the Declaration of London stated that conditional contraband could only be stopped if it was heading directly to an enemy port.

The UK was reluctant to abandon entirely the Declaration of London, partly because Grey did not want to give up his support for neutral rights and international law and partly because it did not want to offend the USA.

However, the Germans laid unanchored, floating mines in the North Sea early in the war. International law said that such mines had to become inoperable after an hour. It was not feasible to do so, but this gave the UK an opportunity to argue that it was Germany that had first broken international law. The UK then announced that it would apply continuous voyage to conditional as well as to absolute contraband.

The UK also decided the treat food as contraband after it received reports that all food distribution in Germany was to be taken over by the government. The reports were actually an exaggeration of a plan to control food prices, but the British went ahead. However, the early British efforts at blockade did not have the desired effect. There was a reluctance to take measures that would offend neutrals who also supplied the UK.[5]

The naval force carrying out the blockade was also weak. Eric Osborne describes Rear Admiral Dudley De Chair as ‘an excellent choice for the job’ of commanding the 10th Cruiser Squadron, responsible for closing the northern approaches to the North Sea.[6] However, he initially had only six Edgar and two Royal Arthur class cruisers, launched in 1890-92. They were too slow to catch blockade runners and struggled in the harsh weather of their patrol area. they also had to take part in sweeps of the North Sea by the Grand Fleet. On 15 October one of them, HMS Hawke, was sunk by U9.

On 5 November the Admiralty announced that the whole of the North Sea was a war zone, warning that ships entering from the north would do so at their own risk. The official reason for this was the German minefields, but the real one was to force neutral ships heading into the North Sea to go through the English Channel, making it easier to search them for contraband. A number of Scandinavian shipping companies agreed that their ships would call at Kirkwall for inspection in return for being allowed to use the northern route.

The blockade was also strengthened in December by the replacement of the 10th Cruiser Squadron’s old ships with 23 armed merchant cruisers, merchant liners requisitioned by the navy and armed. They were both more numerous and more suitable for their role than the old warships initially assigned to it.[7]

The British blockade was not as successful in 1914 as its planners had hoped. It later tightened because the UK signed agreements with neutral countries, but only one of these, with the Netherlands on 23 November, was concluded in 1914. The UK had to move slowly because it could not afford to offend neutrals, especially the USA.[8]

The greatest British success in destroying German trade in 1914 was in sweeping the German merchant fleet from the seas, causing major economic problems for Germany. In November there were 221 German merchant ships were laid up in German ports and 1,059 in neutral ports, with another 245 having been interned in Allied ports.[9]

Osborne argues that:

‘The official reports on Germany’s economic conditions for November and December revealed hardship, but not sufficient to cripple the German war effort…The greatest achievement of British negotiations in 1914 was not the practical results achieved but the establishment of a foundation for future tightening of the blockade…The deadlock on the Western Front meant that economic pressure was vital to the success of the Allied cause and measures to date were not satisfactory.’[10]

The development of the British blockade was an example of the way in which a breach of international law by one side would be used by the other to justify a further breach, leading towards total war. The next escalation would be made by the Germans, when they used the British declaration that the North Sea was a war zone to justify the implementation of unrestricted submarine warfare.

 

[1] A. Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), pp. 271-77.

[2] Ibid., pp. 278-79.

[3] A. C. Bell, A History of the Blockade of Germany and of the Countries Associated with Her in the Great War – Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, 1914-1918 (London: HMSO, 1961), p. 18.

[4] Offer, First, pp. 285-99.

[5] E. W. Osborne, Britain’s Economic Blockade of Germany, 1914-1919 (London: Frank Cass, 2004), pp. 58-65.

[6] Ibid., p. 59.

[7] Ibid., pp. 72-73.

[8] Ibid., pp. 76-78.

[9] Ibid., p. 61.

[10] Ibid., p. 79.

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The Sinking of HMS Formidable 1 January 1915

As in 1914, the most important success of German U-boats in January 1915 was against Allied warships. In the early hours of 1 January U24 sank the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Formidable, the largest ship yet to be sunk by a submarine.

Formidable, along with the other 7 pre-dreadnoughts of the 5th Battle Squadron of Vice Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly’s Channel Fleet, left Sheerness at 10 am on 30 December 1914 in order to carry out gunnery practice. They were escorted to Folkestone by six destroyers, but from there were accompanied by only two light cruisers, HMS Diamond and Topaze.[1] The destroyers on patrol in the Channel needed frequent maintenance because of weather damage. On the night of 28-29 December eight of the 24 based at Dover were under repair.[2]

Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schnieder’s U24 spotted the battleships at 9:50 am on 31 December. He was unable to get into a firing position, and had to abandon the attempt at 1:30 pm in order to re-charge his batteries.

At 7 pm Bayly ordered his squadron to change course in accordance with a standing order that ships sailing at less than 14 knots in areas where U-boats might be operating should change course just after dark in case they were being followed by a U-boat. The squadron was making only 10 knots.

At 10:30 pm U24 got underway, with her batteries re-charged. She spotted three large warships at 1:08 am on 1 January 1915. They were the lead ships of the 5th Battle Squadron. At 1:58 am U24 fired a torpedo at HMS Queen from 750 yards at an acute angle. It missed, but neither it nor the U-boat were spotted by any of the British ships.

The other five battleships then appeared. U24 crossed their wake and at 2:25 am fired two torpedoes at the last in the line, Formidable. One of them struck her abreast the forward funnel. She lost steam and developed a 10 degree list to starboard. Boats were launched, but more than 500 men were left on board. They brought tables and other wooden items up in order to make makeshift life rafts. A well lit liner then appeared, and Topaze, which was picking up survivors, signalled her to help. She acknowledged, but continued on her way.

By 3:10 am U24 had worked her way to Formidable’s port side. She fired another torpedo, which hit the battleship amidships. This corrected the list, but caused Formidable to settle by the bows. Captain Noel Loxley of Formidable then ordered Topaze to leave the sinking battleship because of the risk that the U-boat posed to her. The light cruiser spotted U24, but could not fire on her because of the positions of men in the water and Diamond. The U-boat then escaped.

The two light cruisers then attempted to rescue survivors, which was extremely difficult because of the wind and seas. Formidable sank at 4:39 am.[3]

547 men of Formidable’s 780 strong crew were lost, including Captain Loxley. The survivors included 2 warrant officers and 71 men who were rescued from her sinking launch in a gale by the Brixham trawler Provident, which carried only four hands:  Captain William Pillar,First Hand William Carter, Second Hand John Clarke and Apprentice Daniel Taylor, né Ferguson. All four were awarded the Sea Gallantry Medal.

The Board of the Admiralty admitted that the orders issued to Bayly regarding the movements of his squadrons could have been more precise. However, they ‘severely blamed him for faulty and careless conduct, which resulted in the disaster.’[4] He was ordered to exchange positions with Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Bethell, the commander of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. Bayly was later given command of RN forces in Ireland, distinguishing himself in the battle with U-boats in the Atlantic.

 

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, p. 57.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xii, Home Waters part iii, November 1914 to the end of January 1915. pp. 147-48.

[3] Ibid., pp. 149-52.

[4] Ibid., p. 153.

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The Battle of Dogger Bank 24 January 1915

On 23 January 1915 the British Grand Fleet under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe had 18 dreadnoughts ready at Scapa Flow and eight King Edward VII class pre-dreadnoughts and five battlecruisers at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth. The battlecruisers had been moved there from Cromarty after the German raid on the north east coast on 16 December 1914 so that they could respond more quickly to future attacks.

Jellicoe thought that his margin over the German High Seas Fleet was too narrow. It had 17 dreadnoughts, 22 pre-dreadnoughts and four battlecruisers. There were other British pre-dreadnoughts on the Channel Fleet, but these were not under his command.[1]

Jellicoe always counted the number of ships that he had actually available, excluding those under repair or refit or newly built ones that we not fully worked up. He assumed that the Germans would not come out unless they were at full strength, which proved not to be the case.

The British battlecruisers, commanded by Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, had recently carried out a sweep into the Helgoland Bight, but had not encountered the enemy. They returned to base on 20 January 1915.

The Germans planned an operation of their own for 23 January. The battlecruisers of Admiral Franz Hipper’s 1st Scouting Group of three battlecruisers and the armoured cruiser SMS Blücher, the four light cruisers of the 2nd Scouting Group and two flotillas with a total of 18 torpedo boats would carry out a reconnaissance towards Dogger Bank. The Germans called their destroyers as torpedo boats.

Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, commander of the High Seas Fleet, wrote in an after action report that:

‘The intention was to make an extended destroyer advance with cruiser support, in order to clear the course to the Dogger Bank of trawlers employed in enemy service, and, if fortune were favourable, to surprise light forces on patrol.’[2]

He was reluctant to carry out such an operation at a time when the rest of the High Seas Fleet was not in a state of preparedness to support it. However, he agreed because he assumed that the Grand Fleet would be in port coaling, as it had carried out a sweep of the North Sea on 19 January.

The Germans had begun to realise that the British had accurate intelligence on their movements, but did not suspect that it came from reading coded German signals. They believed instead that trawlers or possibly dockyard spies were responsible.[3] A 1922 German analysis of the battle states that it the war it had then ‘only recently transpired’ that the Russians had recovered the code books of the German light cruiser Magdeburg in August 1914 and shared them with their allies.[4]

The British intelligence slightly over estimated the strength of Hipper’s force at four battlecruisers, six light cruisers and 22 torpedo boats.[5] Jellicoe’s assumption that the Germans would come out only when all their ships were available was wrong, since the battlecruiser SMS Von der Tann was in dry dock. This was for a routine overhaul, and the story that she was being repaired after colliding with another warship during the Cuxhaven Raid is wrong: it came from prisoners taken at Dogger Bank who either lied to mislead the enemy or else repeated false gossip.[6]

Beatty had the five battlecruisers of the 1st and 2nd Battle Cruiser squadrons and the four ships of the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron under his command: a sixth battlecruiser, HMS Queen Mary, was undergoing maintenance. He was ordered to rendezvous with the three light cruisers and 35 destroyers of Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt’s Harwich Force at 7:00 am on 24 January near Dogger Bank.

The King Edwards of the 3rd Battle Squadron and the armoured cruisers of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron were positioned about 45 miles northwest of the rendezvous point in case the Germans were driven north. Four submarines were sent to intercept the Germans on their way home, but received the signal too late to do so if they got back to port before dusk on 24 January.[7]

Jellicoe and the rest of the Grand Fleet were ordered to sea, but too late to make the action. He later complained that his ships could have been at Beatty and Tyrwhitt’s rendezvous point by 9:30 am on 24 January had he been told to raise steam as soon as the Admiralty learnt that of the German operation. In the event, his ships were 140 miles away from the battle.[8]

The light cruiser HMS Aurora of the Harwich Force came into contact with the Germans just before sunrise. Beatty headed South South East at full speed in the hope of getting to the south of the Germans and cutting them off from their bases. Even if a chase developed, the wind would be blowing the smoke of the coal fired ships towards the Germans, giving the British an advantage on visibility, The Germans were in sight at 8:00 am and the British fired their first ranging shots at 20,000 yards at 8:52 am.[9]

The British ships were sailing in the order Lion (Beatty’s flagship), Tiger, Princess Royal (these three all had eight 13.5 inch guns), New Zealand (Rear Admiral Sir Archibald Moore, commanding 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron’s flagship) and Indomitable (the last two both had eight 12 inch). The German order was Seydlitz (Hipper’s flagship with 10 11 inch), Derfflinger (eight 12 inch), Moltke (10 11 inch) and Blücher (12 8.2 inch).  Blücher was outclassed, but the smaller guns of the German ships were otherwise counter-balanced by superior armour.

Beatty’s despatch claimed that Lion achieved a speed of 28.5 knots, although the highest given in her log was 27 knots. Indomitable could make only 25 knots. so fell behind. New Zealand claimed to have managed 27 knots, a knot faster than in her trials two years before. At 9:52 am Beatty had to slow down to 24 knots so that his squadron could keep close enough together to support each another.

The German claimed maximum speeds of about 28 knots for their three battlecruisers, but they were held back by Blücher, which managed only just over 22 knots, below her designed speed. The German squadron stayed together until 9:30 am, when the battlecruisers increased speed to 23 knots, pulling away from Blücher.

By 09:05 am all three 13.5 inch gun ships were firing on Blücher. The two 12 inch armed ones were still out of range. At 09:24 am Lion switched her fire to Derfflinger. The three German battlecruisers were all firing on Lion. At 09:35 am Beatty ordered his ships to fire on their opposite number in the enemy line.

This should have meant Lion at Seydlitz, Tiger at Moltke, Princess Royal at Derfflinger and New Zealand at Blücher; Indomitable was out of range. However, Tiger, not realising that one British ship was not able to fire, targeted Seydlitz, meaning Moltke was not being fired at and creating spotting problems for Lion and Tiger.

At 09:43 am Lion hit Seydlitz’s aft turret, creating a cordite fire that put the two aft turrets out of action and required the flooding of the magazine. However, Lion was suffering heavy damage and started to lose speed from 10:45 am. Blücher, which by then was on fire, turned north in an attempt to escape at about the same time.

At 10:54 Lion thought that she had spotted a periscope, almost certainly wrongly as the German Official History later stated that there were no U-boats in the area.[10] Beatty therefore ordered a turn to port, taking the course to North North East . Hipper ordered a torpedo boat attack on the battlecruisers at 11:00 am, but it was cancelled at 11:07 am because of their change of course.

Lion had been hit 15 times, her port engine was stopped, all her lights were out, her speed was down to 15 knots, she was listing 10 degrees to port, her searchlights and wireless were out of action and she had only two signal halliards.

The rest of the squadron had to immediately resume the chase in order to take advantage of an opportunity to destroy the German squadron, but it was lost because of signalling errors. Beatty ordered two signals to be raised: ‘Course N.E’ and ‘Attack the rear of the enemy.’ They were then followed by ‘Keep nearer the enemy – repeat the signal Admiral is now making.’

Beatty’s intention was that the squadron should head north east, taking it clear of any mines that he wrongly feared the German torpedo boats might have dropped, and cutting Blücher off from the German battlecruisers. However, Blücher was north east of the British squadron and Moore, who was now in command since Lion could not keep up, did not know why Beatty had ordered the earlier turn.

Beatty’s first two signals were interpreted as a single one: ‘Attack the rear of the enemy bearing north east.’ The British battlecruisers therefore pounded the stricken Blücher to destruction, whilst the rest of the German squadron escaped. They fired on Tiger for a while, hitting her seven times and putting one turret out of action, before moving out of range to the south east.

Blücher was now under attack from four battlecruisers and several light cruisers and destroyers. She was still putting up a fight and badly damaged the destroyer HMS Meteor, but stopped firing at 11:38 am after the light cruiser HMS Arethusa put two torpedoes into her.

At 11:40 am the battlecruisers headed south east in pursuit of the Germans. Five minutes later Tyrwhitt reported that Blücher had struck her colours. The British then began to rescue survivors, observed by a Zeppelin that had been fired on by the light cruiser HMS Southamption around 10:30 am. A German seaplane appeared at 12:30 pm and dropped bombs. The rescue effort was called off at 12:40 pm, by when most of the men in the sea had been either rescued or killed by the bombs. Presumably the seaplane crew assumed that the sinking ship was British. She was then the only large German ship with a tripod mast, but all British dreadnoughts and battlecruisers had tripod masts.[11]

Beatty had meanwhile called for the destroyers to come alongside Lion. At 11:25 am he transferred his flag to the destroyer  HMS Attack, which took him to HMS Princes Royal. He was onboard her by 12:20 pm, but it was now too late for the British to catch the Germans.

Dogger Bank was a clear British victory, with a German armoured cruiser and no British ships sunk. It could have been a greater victor had the British battlecruisers pursued the retreating Germans. It is possible that the a pursuit might have turned victory into defeat, given the way in which three British battlecruisers would blow up at Jutland in 1916.

However, Seydlitz was already badly damaged, and her near loss shows that the in 1915 the Germans were also making the mistakes in ammunition handling and flash protection that cost the British three battlecruisers a year later. A German U-boat crewman who was captured in 1918 had been a gunlayer on Seydlitz at Dogger Bank. The British report on his interrogation said that:

‘Great damage was done by a shell which hit her aftermost turret and exploded the ready ammunition (6 rounds per gun) stowed there. A flame rose mast high and also went down the ammunition hold, causing the magazine to be flooded hurriedly to save the ship. The entire turret’s crew, including the men in the magazine perished. Informant could not remember if a fire was actually started.

In consequence of this, precautionary measures were taken which had a very considerable influence on the Battle of Jutland. These were:-

1. At the top and bottom of all cartridge hoists double flap doors were fitted through which every cartridge has to pass.

2. Similar doors were fitted to the projectile hoists in the turrets and working chambers, but not in the shell rooms.

3. The ready supply of six rounds in the turret was abandoned.

4. The hatchways to magazines and shell rooms were ordered to be kept closed while at sea, and the only exits from these compartments is then by way of an escape through the central hoist into the turret.

5. The manhole in the well under the slide of each gun was ordered to be kept permanently closed.’[12]

The British had also had a chance to learn from their mistakes when HMS Kent was saved from blowing up at the Falkland Islands by the courage and quick thinking of Royal Marine Sergeant Charles Mayes, but did nothing other than awarding Mayes the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

Naval-History.net lists lost 14 British killed and 29 wounded: 17 wounded on Lion, 10 killed and 11 wounded on Tiger and 4 killed and one wounded on Meteor. Lion had to be towed back to port by Indomitable, and took four months to be repaired.[13]

German casualties were 959 killed, 90 returned to port wounded and 234 captured, 45 of them wounded: 792 killed and all the captured on Blücher, 159 killed and 88 wounded on Seydlitz and 8 killed and two wounded on the light cruiser SMS Kolberg. Seydlitz was ready for sea on 1 April and Derfflinger on 17 February.[14]

The battle resulted in von Ingenohl being replaced as commander of the High Seas Fleet by Admiral Hugo von Pohl on 2 February. Moore, who was deemed to lack the initiative required to command a battlecruiser squadron, was transferred to command a cruiser squadron in the Canaries.

Admiral Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, wanted to dismiss Captain Henry Pelly of Tiger, who had fired on the wrong target and then should, according to Fisher, have disobeyed Moore’s orders and continued the chase. Fisher, looking back to Lord Nelson, said that ‘In war the first principle is to disobey orders. Any fool can obey orders!’[15] Tiger’s gunnery was also poor, but Pelly kept his job.

Another who retained his position was Lieutenant Ralph Seymour, Beatty’s Flag Lieutenant. He had made a crucial signalling error during the pursuit of Hipper’s squadron after the North East Raid and was clearly not good enough at signalling to do the job. He had other duties, such as being the admiral’s social secretary when ashore, but signalling was by far the most important task. Beatty, who was loyal to his immediate subordinates, liked him. However, if he did not want to fire Seymour he could have arranged to promote him away to a destroyer command, but he kept him on to make more mistakes at Jutland.[16]

Dogger Bank was a British victory, but it was one that glossed over many problems, such as poor gunnery, dangerous ammunition handling procedures and signalling errors. Derfflinger was hit once, which set her on fire. Seydlitz was hit only twice, but the almost catastrophic nature of one of the hits caused the Germans to correct mistakes in their anti-flash procedures, which the British did not do.[17]

 

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, p. 82.

[2] The National Archives (TNA), Kew, CAB 45/284, ‘German Navy and Sources of Material: Dogger Bank Action, 1915: Translation of German Account, by Commander Groos’  Quoted in ‘The Action of the Dogger Bank 24th January, 1915′ by Commander Groos, ‘Marine Rundeschau’, March 1922, p. 22.

[3] K. Yates, Flawed Victory: Jutland, 1916 (London: Chatham, 2000), pp. 79-80.

[4] CAB 45/284, p. 4. Footnote.

[5] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 84.

[6] R. D. Layman, The Cuxhaven Raid: The World’s First Carrier Air Strike (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 118-20.

[7] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. iii. p. 211.

[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, p. 157-58.

[9] Except where otherwise stated, the description of the battle is based on Naval Staff vol. iii. pp. 212-17. Note that there are a number of alterations to the text, some hand written, some printed and attached to the original text, in the copy consulted.

[10] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 97. Footnote 1.

[11] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 407.

[12] TNA, CAB 45/283, ‘German Navy and Sources of Material: Dogger Bank Action, 1915: Miscellaneous Reports from German Sources’. BATTLE CRUISER “SEYDLITZ”

[13] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 166.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 102.

[15] Quoted in Marder, From. vol. ii. p. 169. Italics in Marder.

[16] G. A. H. Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996), pp. 93-97.

[17] Marder, From. vol. ii, pp. 164-65.

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The First Zeppelin Raid on the United Kingdom 19 January 1915

On 3 September 1914 the Admiralty was put in charge of the defence of the United Kingdom against air attack. Its strategy was to use its limited number of aircraft in attacks on airship bases rather than on defensive patrols.[1]

A seaplane carrier raid was launched against the airship base near Cuxhaven on 25 December 1914. An attack on the Emden base was planned, but was postponed on 14 January 1915 because the weather was unsuitable for seaplanes.[2]

Night attacks were expected in 1914, so some restrictions on lighting were introduced in London, Birmingham and coastal towns. These did not entail a full blackout because of the potential effect on road safety and business. Major thoroughfares and bridges had their lighting broken up and parks were given lights in order to stop enemy airmen using them to find their targets. Lights on public transport were reduced to the minimum and ones in shops shaded.

A Naval Corps of Anti-Aircraft Volunteers was established to man anti-aircraft guns, with recruitment starting on 9 October. However, there were so few guns that only London, Dover and Sheffield could be defended at first. The dockyards were so busy that it was decided that their lights would be put out only when a raid had been detected.

Guns and searchlights were deployed in ports as more became available, but the RN did not have enough men to man them. A conference on 16 October 1914 therefore decided that the army would responsible for the aerial as well as the land defence of defended ports, with the help of the aircraft of the Royal Naval Air Service. Once enemy aircraft or airships had crossed the coast it was up to the Admiralty to destroy them. The aircraft of the army’s Royal Flying Corps would be principally responsible for aiding the army in fighting an enemy invasion, but when available would help the RNAS in combating air raids. [3]

The first German air raids were carried out by aircraft. One dropped two bombs into the sea off Dover on 21 December. Three days later another dropped the first aerial bomb to land on British soil, also on Dover. The only damage was broken glass. Another aircraft appeared the next day. It was attacked by British anti-aircraft guns and pursued by three aircraft, but it ecaped.[4]

The German navy had discussed using its airships to attack the UK in September 1914, but had decided that it did not then have enough Zeppelin airships to do so whilst carrying out the more important task of fleet reconnaissance. By 7 January 1915 it had 12 airships, and Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, the Commander-in-Chief of the High Seas Fleet, decided that four could be used to bomb the UK. The long nights of January and February were thought to be particularly suitable for airship raids. There was also a desire to act before the British repeated their raid on the airship sheds.[5]

The intention was to attack military targets, with damage to historical buildings and private property being limited as far as possible. The German Admiralty thought that London was a military target, but Kaiser Wilhelm ordered that:

‘London itself not to be bombed at present; attacks are to be confined to dockyards, arsenal, docks (those near London also), and military establishments of a general nature, also Aldershot Camp, if there are no German prisoners there.’[6]

The first date on which the weather was suitable was 19 January. Three Zeppelins set off between 9:00 am and 11:00 am. L6 (Oberleutnant Freiherr von Buttlar) had to turn back because of engine problems, but L3 (Kapitänleutnant Hans Fritz) and L4 (Kapitänleutnant Graf von Platen) arrived over the east coast of England at 8:00 pm.

Their target was Great Yarmouth. The authors of the British Naval Staff Memorandum note that it ‘seemed to exercise a curious fascination over the minds of those planning raids in Germany…in preference to more valuable objectives.’[7] It had been the target of a raid by surface ships on 3 November 1914. It was a defended port, so was a military target, but not an important one, so was most likely chosen for geographical rather than military reasons.

L3 crossed the coast at Winterton and turned south towards Yarmouth. Fritz reported being fired upon by anti-aircraft guns on the north side of the town, and dropped six 110 pound explosive and seven incendiary bombs from 4,900 feet. He then headed home, crossing the English coast at 8:27 pm and reaching Fühlsbüttel at 9:00 am on 20 January.

L4 made a navigational error and found herself over the small town of Sheringham around 8:35 pm. Von Platen dropped two bombs on it, before heading west and dropping one bomb on each of the villages of Thornham, Brancaster, Hunstanton, Heacham and Snettisham, He stated that his airship then found itself over a large town at a height of 820 feet. It was caught in searchlights and came under fire, so he dropped seven 110 pound explosive and one incendiary bombs. The town was King’s Lynn.[8]

The British Naval Staff Monograph states that:

‘The firing and the searchlights which the airships reported they had been met with were entirely imaginary. Althoguh the British air stations had been warned at 8:40 pm, and L4 did not get clear of the Norflok coast until 12:30 am, January 20, no anti-aircraft action was taken either by guns of aeroplanes.’[9]

It is difficult to see why an internal document, intended only for the use of RN officers and written in 1925, would lie, so it would appear that the Germans imagined the anti-aircraft fire.

Four British civilians were killed in the raid. Samuel Smith, the first person in Britain to be killed by aerial bombardment, and Martha Taylor in Yarmouth and 14 year old Percy Goate and Alice Gazely, a 26 year old war widow, in King’s Lynn. Three were injured in Yarmouth and 13 in King’s Lynn. This link includes pictures of the damage.

It is widely claimed, including by the Daily Mail and Gorleston & Great Yarmouth History websites linked in the previous paragraph, that the Kaiser forbade attacks on London because he did not want to risk injuring his relatives in the British Royal Family. However, this website notes that L4 flew over Sandringham, one of the Royal Family’s houses, leading to allegations at the time that it was a target of the raid, which it was not.

 

 

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xii, Home Waters part iii, November 1914 to the end of January 1915. pp. 173-74.

[2] Ibid., p. 169.

[3] Ibid., pp. 174-75; W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. iii, p. 83-86.

[4] Raleigh, Jones, War in the Air, p. 89.

[5] Naval Staff vol. Xii. p. 175.

[6] Quoted in Ibid., p. 176.

[7] Ibid.

[8] There are some differences in times and number of bombs dropped in various sources. The ones quoted here are from Ibid., pp. 176-77.

[9] Ibid., p. 177.

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The Capture of the USS President 15 January 1815

The United Kingdom and United States of America agreed terms to end the War of 1812 on 24 December 1814. They were ratified by the UK government three days later, but the slow speed of communications from Europe to America meant that fighting continued until well into February.

The American frigate USS President (44 guns), the sloops USS Hornet and Peacock and the schooner USS Tom Bowline were in New York at the start of 1815. Commodore Stephen Decatur, captain of the President, intended to break out in order to raid British shipping. The harbour was large, but difficult to enter and leave in bad weather because of the many sand banks between Coney Island and Sandy Hook.[1]

On 13 January the port was blockaded by the razee (a 74 gun ship of the line cut down to be a heavy frigate), HMS Majestic (58) and the frigates HMS Endymion (40), Pomone (38) and Tenedos (38). Note that ships often carried more guns carried than their official rating. Captain Henry Hope’s Endymion, which had recently suffered heavy casualties in an unsuccessful attempt to capture the American privateer Prince de Neufchatel, had just arrived to replace her sister HMS Forth.

USS President: 32 x 24 pound long guns, 22 x 42 pound carronades (very powerful but short ranged guns), one 18 pound long gun.

USS Hornet: 18 x 32 pound carronades, two 12 pound long guns.

USS Peacock: 20 x 32 pound carronades, two 12 pound long guns

USS Tom Bowline: 12 guns. Size unknown.

HMS Majestic: 28 x 32 pound long guns, 28 x 42 pound carronades, two 12 pound long guns.

HMS Endymion: 26 x 24 pound long guns, 20 x 32 pound carronades, two 9 pound long guns.

HMS Pomone: 28 x 18 pound long guns, 16 x 32 pound carronades, two 9 pound long guns.

HMS Tenedos: 28 x 18 pound long guns, eight 32 pound carronades, 10 x 9 pound long guns.

The British squadron was clearly superior, whilst in a single ship action Majestic outgunned President, which was stronger than any of the British frigates, which were far superior to the three smaller US ships.

The British commander, Commodore John Hayes of Majestic, was expecting a break out, as the British had intelligence that the President ‘was victualled and stored for a very long voyage, even…seven or eight months…with…charts of the East Indies.’[2]

There was a snow storm on 14 January, which split up the British squadron for a period. Decatur decided to take advantage of this to slip out that night. The President was accompanied by the Macedonian, a supply ship owned by the first John Jacob Astor. She was a merchantman, not the frigate of the same name that then served in the United States Navy after being captured by Decatur’s USS United States from the Royal Navy in 1812. The Tom Bowline should also have gone with them, but she ran aground on 13 January, so was ordered to sail with the Peacock and Hornet later.[3]

The night was dark and windy, which made it easier to evade the blockade force, but hard to safely navigate the difficult waters. This was compounded by the fact that, although Decatur and his crew were very experienced seamen, this was the first time that they had taken her to sea; they had been transferred to her from the United States in May 1814, as there was no prospect of the latter breaking out from New London.[4]

The President, deeply laden with stores because she had been ordered to undertake a lengthy cruise, ran aground at 8:00 pm. She managed to free herself after over an hour and resumed her course. Her damage reduced her speed; Alfred Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt both state that she would have returned to port for repairs if the westerly gale had permitted this, but Andrew Lambert thinks it ‘more likely’ that Decatur did not want to rather than could not return to port.[5]

At 5:00 am the President encountered Majestic, Pomone and Endymion, which had been separated by the storm, but were now together again. A chase developed, with Tenedos re-joining by 8:00 am. The winds lightened around mid-day, and the heavy Majestic fell back. Decatur tried to lighten ship, jettisoning stores, but his and his crew’s lack of knowledge of their ship made it hard to optimise her trim.[6]

Endymion, the fastest of the ships involved, gained on the President, which opened fire on her at 2:00 pm. The British quickly replied.

Both captains intended to slow the enemy down by damaging her rigging. The British had won many actions against brave but poorly trained and led French and Spanish crews by quickly closing to close range, firing at the enemy’s hull and boarding if required. These tactics had failed against the Americans, who were better seamen and tacticians than Britain’s other opponents of this era. The US ships carried 20 per cent more anti-rigging ammunition than British ones, using it to cripple the British ship’s sails and masts before they could close the range. The Americans could then out manoeuvre the British.[7]

By 5:00 pm Endymion was just over 100 yards off the President’s starboard quarter, ‘a near perfect position’ from which few American guns could reply.[8] Decatur’s problem was that if he turned his ship to try and bring her superior broadside to bear she would no longer be heading away from the other British ships. However, in the current position she would soon be slowed by damage to her masts and rigging, so at 5:30 pm he turned her in an attempt to cross Endymion’s bow and rake her.

Hope could not allow his ship to be raked, so reacted to this move, resulting in the ships exchanging broadsides. The President fired at Endymion’s rigging, hoping to disable her in order to allow herself to escape. The British ship fired into the American one’s hull, aiming to inflict casualties and destroy guns. The effect of the American gunfire was reduced by poor quality powder.[9]

By around 8:00 pm Endymion’s rigging was mostly shot away. Lambert says that the President showed a light in her rigging at 7:58 pm, the night signal of surrender. Hope prioritised repairing his ship’s rigging and did not have any intact boats to send to take the surrender, so the President was able to sail away.[10] A ship that had struck her colours could not fire on the enemy, but was not obliged to heave to and wait to be boarded.

Roosevelt, however, makes no mention of the President striking her colours, writing that ‘Decatur did not board [Endymion] merely because her consorts were too close astern.’[11] Mahan argues that ‘[t]here is…no ground whatever for the assumption that the Endymion did, or singly would, have beaten the President.’[12]

Pomone, followed by Tenedos, caught up with the President by 11:00 pm. The American ship surrendered after Pomone had fired two broadsides at her. Lambert contends that Decatur’s failure to resist proves that he had struck his colours to Endymion.

Mahan quotes Decatur as saying that the damage and casualties suffered by his ship and the strength of the enemy meant that ‘without a chance of escape, I deemed it my duty to surrender.’[13] However, he goes on to suggest that Decatur ought to have engaged Pomone unless his ship was as badly damaged as the British claimed, since putting a second British frigate out of action would have significantly weakened the blockade of New York.[14] Roosevelt argues that Decatur had beaten Endymion, but then acted ‘rather tamely’ in surrendering.[15]

The most likely explanation is that, whether Decatur did or did not strike his colours to Endymion, his ship was too badly damaged to resist two British frigates even if they were both weaker than his ship. The British were able to examine the President after they captured her, so could see how bad the damage was. They took her into service under the same name, but broke her up only three years later. Another and very similar HMS President was then built. The actions of Decatur, whose personal courage has never ben doubted, at the time, and the RN three years later suggest that his ship was very badly damaged in its action with Endymion.

Casualties were 24 killed and 55 wounded out of 450 men on the President according to Roosevelt, but Lambert says 35 were killed and 70, including Decatur, wounded. Both give 11 killed and 14 wounded out of 346 on Endymion. Roosevelt says that many of the US casualties were inflicted by Pomone’s two broadsides.[16] Lambert notes that Decatur claimed this, but quote the President’s chaplain, Mr Bowie, as saying that Endymion caused all her casualties.[17]

Endymion had inflicted most, if not all, of the damage, but the RN’s rules were quite clear; the victory, and thus the prize money, was shared between the whole squadron since all were in sight of the enemy.

The other three American ships managed to get out of New York on 20 January, heading for a rendezvous at Tristan da Cunha. The Hornet arrived first, on 23 March. She met a British sloop, HMS Penguin, which was slightly inferior to herself: 16 x 32 pound carronades, and three 12 pound long guns, one of which could fire on either broadside.

Lambert says that the British knew that the war was over and told the Americans, but a fight still took place.[18] Penguin was forced to surrender, being so badly damaged that she had to be scuttled. Hornet suffered little damage. The British lost 14 killed and 28 wounded, the Americans one killed and 10 wounded.[19] This was one of the more evenly matched battles in a war in which the naval actions were normally won by the side that ought to have won on paper.

The Peacock, Tom Bowline and Macedonian arrived at Tristan da Cunha the next day. Peacock captured the East India Company sloop Nautilus on 30 June, but the prize had to be returned to its owners as the war had then been over for four and a half months.

 

 

[1] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle edition location 6896 of 12307

[2] Quoted in Ibid. location 6934.

[3] Ibid. location 7001.

[4] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. ii, p. 397.

[5] Lambert, The Challenge. location 7005; Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, p. 398; T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. ii, p. 146.

[6] Lambert, The Challenge. location 7043.

[7] Ibid. locations 7067-90.

[8] Ibid. location 7100.

[9] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii, p. 150.

[10] Lambert, The Challenge. locations 7175-87.

[11] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii, p. 148.

[12] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, p. 401.

[13] Quoted in Ibid. vol. ii, p. 402.

[14] Ibid. vol. ii, p. 403.

[15] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii, p. 153.

[16] Lambert, The Challenge. location 7230; Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii. pp. 149-50.

[17] Lambert, The Challenge. location 7304-11.

[18] Ibid. location 7280.

[19] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, p. 406-7.

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The Battle of New Orleans 8 January 1815

Negotiations between the United Kingdom and the United States to end the War of 1812 began in Ghent in late August 1814. A peace treaty was signed on 24 December and ratified by the British government three days later. However, the slow speed of communications in those days meant that it took some time until the news reached the USA. Fighting therefore continued for nearly two months.

In December 1814 10,000 British troops landed near New Orleans. They were commanded by Sir Edward Pakenham, like most of his men a veteran of the Peninsular War. The advance guard under Major General John Keane camped nine miles from New Orleans at noon on 23 December. By the early evening his initial 1,900 men had been joined by another 400.[1]

Andrew Jackson, who had been in command of the defences for only three weeks, decided to strike the first blow. He attacked Keane with a force of just over 2,000 after dark on 23 December. The British troops were more experienced as well as more numerous. They could possibly claim a tactical victory as they held their ground, albeit at the expense of nearly 300 casualties versus over 200 American. The latter withdrew three miles.

However, the action was a strategic success for the Americans, who halted the British advance for long enough to erect a series of breastworks, defended by 3,000 men, with their flank protected by the corvette USS Louisiana in the Mississippi.

Pakenham advanced to the breastwork on Christmas Day. He then halted for three days, before launching a series of probing assaults. Heavy British guns were brought up, with the intention of attacking on 1 January. However, the Americans had the better of the pre-attack artillery duel, so Pakenham cancelled the assault.

The next attack was to take place on 8 January. A canal would be dug to take 1,500 men under Colonel William Thornton to the Mississippi in ship’s boats. They would then cross the river and assault a redoubt that had been established on the west bank with three 24 pounders and six 12 pounders, which could fire into the flank of the attack by the other 8,500 men on the east bank.

The official US returns stated that there were initially 4,698 men on the east bank and 546 on the west. Another 500 men were ordered by Jackson the reinforce the latter, but 100 did not arrive in time and only 250 of the others were armed. This gives a total of 5,494 Americans at the battle, but Theodore Roosevelt notes that there may be a double counting of the 500 sent to the west bank, reducing Jackson’s force to about 5,000.[2]

The sounds of the British preparation alerted Jackson the impending assault, so his men were on the alert before dawn. The British attackers on the east bank were initially protected by a fog, but it lifted when they were 400 yards from the American defences.

The sides of the canal that was intended to take Thornton’s force to the river caved in, with the result that it was late in setting off and only 700 men crossed. They landed in the wrong place, but were able to take their objective. Jackson organised a counter attack, but the British withdrew before it went in as Colonel Alexander Dickson, the British artillery commander, estimated that 2,000 men would be needed to hold the position.

By then, the main British attack had been repulsed with heavy casualties. Pakenham, his second in command Major General Sir Samuel Gibbs being killed. Keane was wounded, leaving Major General Sir John Lambert, the only uninjured British general present, in command. Gibbs, Keane and Lambert had all been knighted on 2 January. Wikipedia gives British casualties as being 2,042: 291 killed, 1,267 wounded and 484 captured or missing. American ones were 71: 13 dead, 39 wounded and 19 missing.

The two armies then faced each other for 10 days. The position was too strong for the British to take, especially as Jackson was receiving reinforcements. However, he was unwilling to attack, since the British troops were more experienced than the Americans, so would have an advantage fighting in the open.

Lambert retreated his force on 18 January. It re-embarked on its transport ships and headed for Mobile. On 8 February 1,500 men were landed at Fort Boyer, which surrendered with the honours of wars on 12 February, a few hours before the news of the end of the war arrived. Casualties were 11 Americans and 31 British.

New Orleans was a major US victory that saved the city and Louisiana from being devastated. As Americans learnt of it before they heard about the end of the war, it was natural for them to assume that it won them the war. However, this was not the case as peace terms had already been agreed. Jackson, the architect of the victory, was rightly regarded as the best American general of the war and later became President.

 

 

[1] Troop numbers and casualties are from T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. ii, pp. 211-68

[2] Ibid., p. 238. Note 2.

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