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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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Submarines in 1914

Previous entries in this blog have dealt with the several sinkings of British cruisers by German U-boats: HMS Pathfinder by U21 on 5 September 1914, HMS Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue by U9 on 22 September and HMS Hawke on 15 October 1914, also by U9.

British submarines also scored successes in the early stages of the war, with E9 sinking the German cruiser SMS Hela on 13 September and B11 the Ottoman pre-dreadnought battleship Mesudiye on 13 December 1914. The first loss of a submarine to a warship had come as early as 9 August, when HMS Birmingham rammed and sunk U15.

The main impact of submarines in the rest of the war and in the Second World War was against merchant shipping, although they continued to sink warships. In the early stages of the First World War, however, they were used mainly against warships.

The rules of cruiser warfare required raiders to stop and search enemy merchant ships. They 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 conditional contraband). The safety of the crews of merchant ships that were sunk had to be ensured, making it difficult for submarines to conduct war against merchant shipping within the rules. They had no space for prisoners and no spare men to act as prize crews for captured ships.

In 1914 Germany possessed only 24 operational boats. Four were used for training and 16 were under construction.[1] Before the war Kapitänleutnant Blum of the German Navy had estimated that 222 U-boats would be needed to successfully carry out a war against British commerce under international law. On 8 October 1914 the commander of Germany’s U-boats, Korvettenkapitän Hermann Bauer, urged that German U-boats should attack British commerce on the grounds that the British had already violated international law at sea, but his advice was not acted upon until 1915.[2]

The first sinking of a merchant ship by a submarine came on 20 October, when Oberleutnant Johannes Feldkirchner’s U17 stopped the steamship Glitra, which was carrying a cargo of coal, coke, oil and general goods from Grangemouth to Stavanger, 14 miles off the Norwegian coast. The crew were ordered to take to their boats and their ship was sunk. U17 towed the boats towards the coast, before a pilot boat then took over. A Norwegian torpedo boat appeared shortly afterwards.[3]

The Naval Staff Monograph, written by Royal Navy officer after the war for internal use, notes that there was a significant difference in the British and German Prize Regulations. Both gave officers significant leeway in deciding whether or not to sink enemy merchantmen. However, the British one warned that naval officers who sank merchant ships ‘without good cause’ might find themselves liable for the compensation due to the owners, while the German one allowed the destruction of a ship ‘if it seems inexpedient or unsafe to bring her in.’[4]

There were few sinkings of merchant ships in 1914. On 26 October, Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schneider’s U24 torpedoed the 4,590 ton French steamer Amiral Ganteaume, but she did not sink. She was carrying 2,500 Belgian refugees, 40 of whom were killed. This was described as ‘barbarous’[5], an ‘outrage’[6] and an ‘atrocity’[7] by British post war authors. 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. [8] The Naval Staff Monograph argues that he fired without ascertaining whether the people crowding her decks were civilians or soldiers.[9]

Only two more Allied merchant ships were sunk by U-boats before the end of the year. Oberleutnant Otto Hersing’s U21 stopped the steamers Malachite (718 tons) on 21 October and Primo (1366 tons) five days later. Both were sunk by gunfire after the crews had been given time to abandon ship.[10]

The most important actions of U-boats continued to be against warships. Both sides had submarines patrolling outside enemy bases and their own boats hunting the enemy ones. On 18 October Kapitänleutnant Bernd Wegener’s U27 spotted the British submarine E3 on the surface in the Helgoland Bight.

The submerged German boat approached to within 300 yards of the British one, using the rays of the sun to make it hard for the British to spot her periscope. The personnel on the conning tower were apparently all looking the other way. U27 then fired a torpedo into E3, which sank immediately. Four survivors were spotted in the water, but Wegener did not surface, fearing that there might be other British submarines nearby, and all 28 men on board E3 were lost. She was the first submarine ever to be sunk by another submarine.

U27 achieved another first 13 days later, when she sank the elderly cruiser HMS Hermes, which had been converted to a seaplane carrier before the war, and was being used as a aircraft transport. This was the first sinking of an aviation ship by a submarine. The quick arrival of other British ships meant that only 21 men were lost.

Apart from E3, the British Empire lost two submarines in 1914: the Australian AE2, probably to an accident, off Rabaul on 14 September; and D3 to a mine, probably British, during the Yarmouth Raid on 3 November.

The German lost four boats in addition to U15 in 1914: U18 was rammed by first the trawler Dorothy Gray and then the destroyer Garry inside Scapa Flow on 23 November and was so badly damaged that she had to be scuttled; U13 in August and U5 and U11 in December failed to return from patrols, presumably having struck mines.

The ships sunk by submarines in the North Sea were mostly old. The only dreadnought to be torpedoed by a submarine in 1914 was the French Jean Bart, which was damaged, but not sunk, by the Austro-Hungarian boat U12 in the Adriatic on 21 December.

 

 

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

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 291.

[3] Ibid., p. 292.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xi, Home Waters part ii, September and October 1914. p. 113. gives Glitra’s displacement as being 526 tons but most others sources follow the official history in saying 866 tons; C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. i, p. 285.

[5] A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. i, p. 268.

[6] Fayle, Seaborne. vol. i, p. 285.

[7] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 15.

[8] Halpern, Naval, p. 292.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xi. p. 144.

[10] Gibson, Prendergast, German, p. 17.

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The Cuxhaven Raid 25 December 1914

Happy Christmas to all readers!

However, 25 December 1914 was just another day of the war at sea for many British and German sailors.

It is well known that a Truce took place on parts of the Western Front on 25 December 1914, although it was by no means universal: the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website lists 149 men who died that day, of whom 57 are commemorated in France and 22 in Belgium. Some would have died of illness or accident and others of wounds suffered earlier, but the day was not free of combat.

A major operation that did take place that day was the Cuxhaven Raid, when British seaplanes attempted to attack a German airship base in the first ever combined air and sea strike. Many sailors spent Christmas Day at sea.

The Royal Flying Corps was formed in 1912, consisting initially of a Military Wing, a Naval Wing and a Central Flying School. In July 1914 the Naval Wing became the Royal Naval Air Service. That month, 17 of its seaplanes and two flights of landplanes made a fly past during in the Spithead Fleet Review.[1]

The first British warship equipped to carry aircraft was the elderly cruiser HMS Hermes, which was converted to carry two seaplanes in 1913. She was torpedoed and sunk by U27 on 31 October 1914 in the Straits of Dover, whilst operating as an aircraft transport. In 1914, the Admiralty acquired an incomplete merchant ship in order to convert her into an aircraft carrier with five seaplanes and two landplanes. She was completed in December 1914 and was the first of four British carriers named HMS Ark Royal.

Ark Royal was incomplete at the start of the war and was also slow, so three cross channel passenger packets, the Engadine, Riviera and Empress, were acquired and quickly converted into seaplane carriers. Each initially were fitted with canvas screens that allowed them to carry one seaplane forward and two aft. Later, they were re-fitted with larger metal hangars that meant they could operate four seaplanes.[2] They were attached to the Harwich Force of light cruisers and destroyers.

The air defence of Britain was the responsibility of the RNAS. Almost the RFC’s aircraft and pilots were overseas and those left at in the UK were busy training new pilots. The main aerial threat was expected to come from German airships, usually called Zeppelins, although some were built by Zeppelin’s rival Schütte-Lanz.

The threat from German airships to Britain in 1914 was far less than was popularly feared. Germany was thought to have 30 airships armed with as many as six cannon and seven tons of bombs. In fact, the German army had seven airships armed with one or two machine guns and carrying bombs converted from artillery shells. The navy had bought three, but two had been lost accidentally in 1913. It also leased a civilian one for training and would have five more delivered before the end of 1914. The army airships carried out bombing raids on Belgium in the early months of the war. The main role of the navy ones was fleet reconnaissance.[3]

Three army Zeppelins were lost to ground fire in August 1914, ZVI and ZVII on the Western Front over Belgium and ZV on the Eastern Front. On 8 October 1914 Flight Lieutenant Reginald Marix, flying from a land base, was awarded a Distinguished Service Order after bombing and destroying ZIX in its hangar at Düsseldorf.

The Zeppelin company gave its airships a production number, prefixed LZ. The two armed forces numbered their Zeppelins on separate systems, prefixed Z for the army and L for the navy. Civilian ones were usually named. In 1915 the army switched first to using the LZ numbers and then to adding 30 to them in order to conceal its strength. This post uses the military numbers.

The British were not certain of the exact location of the main German navy airship base, but thought that it was Cuxhaven at the mouth of the River Elbe on the North Sea coast. It was actually at Nordholz, eight miles south west and inland of Cuxhaven. It had a double hangar, capable of holding two Zeppelins, which was mounted on a turntable so that it could be turned into the wind.

Two more Zeppelins were located at a former civilian base at Fuhlsbüttel near Hamburg. Only four of the six Zeppelins operated by the navy in December 1914 were therefore based near the North Sea.

The first attempt to attack the base by seaplanes flying from the Harwich Force’s carriers came on 25 October. Heavy rain prevented the seaplanes taking off and a Zeppelin from spotting the attacking force.

A second attempt on 24 November was planned as part of an operation to draw out the High Seas Fleet and attack it with the Grand Fleet. The air part was abandoned after the interception of a German wireless signal indicating that a force of cruisers and destroyers was close to the take off position of the seaplanes. The main fleets did not come into contact.[4]

The third attempt was to take place on 25 December 1914. Nine seaplanes, three flying from each of HMS Engadine (Squadron Commander Cecil L’Estrange Malone), Empress (Lieutenant E. Robertson) and Riviera (Lieutenant Frederick Bowhill), would carrying out the attack. All three seaplane carriers were captained by aviators. This was the normal practice in the RNAS, although it ‘seems to have evolved informally.’[5]

It was abandoned by the British when the Royal Air Force was formed in 1918, leading to almost all RNAS officers leaving the RN, but was adopted by the United States Navy in 1926, in this case as a formal policy.

The seaplanes were all single engined, two seater biplanes manufactured by Short, of three different types: the oldest were three Type 74s on Empress and one on Riviera; Engadine carried three Type 81s, often called Folders because they were the first aircraft to have folding wings in order to make storage on a ship easier; and the newest were two Type 135s on Riviera, a more powerful version of the Folder. They had no machine guns, although one carried a rifle.

Each of the nine seaplanes carried three 20 pound bombs. The weight of explosive in the 27 bombs totalled 81.5 pounds, 3.5 pounds less than in a single 13.5 inch shell, the largest then carried by a British dreadnought.[6]

Although each seaplane could carry two men, only three of the nine actually did so on the raid. According to R. D. Layman’s history of the raid, eight of the pilots were given the choice of taking a mechanic along; only the three from Empress did so. Layman notes that the mechanics could add little to justify their extra weight, since the pilot aimed and dropped the bombs, adding that it is not known why some pilots took a mechanic. The ninth aircraft, piloted by Flight Commander Cecil Kilner, carried Lieutenant Erskine Childers as an observer.[7]

Childers was 44 years old had served as an artilleryman in the Boer War and then turned to Irish Nationalist politics despite being a Protestant from a privileged background. He had been smuggling German guns into Ireland earlier in 1914, but had volunteered to join the RN at the outbreak of the war. The author of The Riddle of the Sands, his importance to the Admiralty and to this mission was ‘his almost unique knowledge of German coastal waters.’[8]

The seaplane carriers were escorted by three light cruisers and eight destroyers of the Harwich Force, commanded by Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt. It would be reinforced by another light cruiser and eight more destroyers when it came to pick up the seaplanes after the raid. A line of 11 submarines was placed between the surface ships and the German coast. The Grand Fleet would move into the southern North Sea in case the raid brought out heavy enemy ships.

The Germans were expecting a British attack, but thought it would be an attempt to block German rivers. They appears to have learnt that the British were preparing blockships to defend Scapa Flow and disguising merchantmen to look like warships. An over estimate of the number of blockships led them to assume wrongly that the purpose was offensive rather than defensive.[9]

The seaplanes were to take off just after dawn on Christmas Day. They were hoisted from the carriers into the sea, the mechanics started the engines and those of them who were not flying returned to their ships. However, one aircraft developed engine problems and two men, Chief Petty Officer Ernest Wright and Air Mechanic George Kent, swam back to her in order to correct them. Both were commended for their bravery.

Malone gave the signal for the first wave to prepare to take off in five minutes at 6:54 am. The seaplanes had difficulties in taking off and only seven were in the air by 7:22 am, when Malone decided that enough time had been taken, ordering the other two to be hoisted back onto their carriers. The sea was light and calm, requiring the aircraft to take longer take off runs, thus using more fuel. The plan was that they should carry enough for a three hour flight, which should have been enough to complete the mission. However, Riviera’s captain, Robertson, decided that his aircraft should carry four hour’s fuel.[10]

The seaplanes took about an hour to reach the coast. All saw at least one Zeppelin, with some spotting two, although two mis-identified one of them as a Schütte-Lanz. The airships were L5 and L6. This meant that no airships were at Nordholz. The British did not know its exact location, but should have had no difficulty in spotting it in good weather. However, there was a thick fog over the land.

The fate of the aircraft was as follows:

HMS Engadine:

Folder no. 119, Flight Commander Robert Ross.

Dropped a bomb on what he thought, probably wrongly, was a submarine diving before landing on the water to investigate problems with fuel pressure. Took off when a trawler appeared. Returned to the carriers and aircraft recovered.

Folder no. 120, Flt Lt Arnold Miley.

Failed to find the airship base and came under fire from warships whilst reconnoitring Wilhelmshaven naval base. Unable to find the carriers but landed in the sea near the submarine HMS E11. Taken on board the submarine and seaplane sunk.

Folder no. 122, Flt Cmdr A. B. Gaskell.

Failed to take off due to engine failure.

HMS Riviera:

Type 135 no. 135, Flt Cmdr Francis Hewlett.

Came under fire from warships, failed to find the base and did not drop any bombs. Suffered engine failure, ditched in the sea, picked up by a Dutch trawler, landed in the Netherlands and made his way back to Britain.

Type 135 no. 136, Flt Cmdr Cecil Kilner/Lt Erskine Childers.

Unable to find the airship base. Damaged by fire from warships. Childers carried out a successful reconnaissance of the naval base. Kilner decided to save his bombs for the submarine base, but was then unable to find it. Returned to the carriers and aircraft recovered.

Type 74 no. 811, Flt Lt Charles Edmonds.

Was not fired on at first. Tried to find the airship base by following the railway line, but could not. Tried to bomb the light cruisers SMS Stralsund and Graudenz, but missed and was damaged by return fire. The German Official History reports only two rather than three bombs. Returned to the carriers and aircraft recovered.

HMS Empress:

Type 74 no. 812, Flt Lt Reginald Bone/Air Mechanic Waters.

Failed to take off due to engine failure.

Type 74 no. 814. Flt Sub-Lt Vivian Gaskell Blackburn, Chief Petty Officer James Bell.

Came under fire from warships and was then damaged by shore batteries. Dropped two bombs on the latter and one on the city of Wilhelmshaven, but the German Official History makes no mention of any explosions in the area. Unable to find the carriers but landed in the sea near E11. Taken on board the submarine and seaplane sunk.

Type 74 no. 815, Flt Cdr Douglas Oliver, CPO Gilbert Budds.

Damaged by fire from shore based guns. Failed to find the airship base and dropped three bombs on what Oliver thought was a seaplane base, but was probably fishermen’s sheds or warehouses. Unable to find the carriers but landed in the sea near E11. Taken on board the submarine and seaplane sunk.

The German Official History reports that two bomb was dropped at the airship base, apparently aimed at but missing its gasometer. This does not fit in with any of the British accounts; Layman suggests that it must have been either Ross or Miley dropping bombs to lighten their load ahead of the flight home, not realising that they were over their target. [11]

Two of the three aircraft from Riviera made it back to the carriers, justifying Robertson’s decision to give his aircraft extra fuel; the other had engine problems. Of the four seaplanes carrying two men, two had to ditch beside E11, one did not take off and the fourth was one of those from Riviera with extra fuel, showing that the weight of the extra man created problems. One of the two with one man and a lower fuel load made it back and the other ditched beside E11.

The carriers and their escorts had moved away from the launch point once the seaplanes were in the air. Their turn away came just in time to foil a torpedo attack by the U boat SMS U6. HMS Empress, capable of only 18 knots, 3 knots less than the other two carriers, lagged behind the other ships, but they could not wait if they were to make the rendezvous in time.

Empress was attacked by two seaplanes and L6, which dropped 13 bombs on her. All missed, with the closest landing 20 feet away. The Zeppelin also machine gunned her. The escorts fired on the enemy aircraft and airship. They withdrew, but because they had dropped all their bombs. L6‘s damage was confined to three bullet holes.

The ships reached the rendezvous point at 9:30 am. They came under attack from L5 and more seaplanes, but escaped damage. This ‘convinced [Tyrwhitt] that, given ordinary sea room, our ships had nothing to fear from either seaplanes or Zeppelins.’[12]

The Cuxhaven Raid was a failure in materiel terms. The first edition of Naval Operations claimed that the battlecruiser SMS Von der Tann missed the Battle of Dogger Bank the next month because of damage suffered when she collided with another German ship during the raid. This was not true (she missed Dogger Bank due to a routine refit) and was removed from the second edition, revised after the publication of the German Official History.[13]

The only loss suffered by the Germans was one seaplane, with a Zeppelin, a trawler and perhaps one or two seaplanes suffering minor damage. The British lost four seaplanes and had three destroyers and a submarine temporarily disabled.[14] Most seriously, the Orion class dreadnoughts HMS Conqueror and Monarch collided, leaving both requiring dockyard repair.[15]

However, another British attack on Helgoland Bight, following the surface one in August 1914 boosted the morale of the British and damaged that of the Germans.

Two of the British pilots, Edmonds and Kilner, were awarded the DSO and the two CPOs who flew in the raid, Bell and Budds, were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

The RN led the world in air-sea operations in 1914. However, it later fell behind the USN and the Imperial Japanese Navy To a large extent, this was due to the loss of expertise that it suffered when most of its aviators transferred to the RAF when it was formed by a merger of the RFC and RNAS in 1918. The RN regained control of carrier aircraft, but not shore based ones operating over the sea, just before the start of the Second World War.

Bowhill became an Air Chief Marshal, equivalent to an Admiral, in the RAF and commanded Coastal Command, operating its shore based maritime aircraft, in the early days of the Second World War. Edmonds became an Air Vice Marshal, equivalent to a Rear Admiral.

Childers remained in the RN and then the RAF for the duration of the war. He was part of the Irish delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty, but was amongst those Irishmen who opposed the terms, leading to the Irish Civil War. He was captured and executed by his opponents in 1922.

As well as those sailors involved in the Cuxhaven Raid, many others were at sea on Christmas Day 1914, including the crews of the ships enforcing the British blockade, minesweepers and German U-boats. The British minesweeping trawler HMT Night Hawk struck a mine that day, resulting in the deaths of the six men listed here.

[1] 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), pp. 273-74.

[2] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 64-65; R. D. Layman, The Cuxhaven Raid: The World’s First Carrier Air Strike (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 32-33.

[3] Layman, Cuxhaven, pp. 19-22.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xii, Home Waters part iii, November 1914 to the end of January 1915. pp. 51-59.

[5] Layman, Cuxhaven, p. 50.

[6] Ibid., p. 61.

[7] Ibid., pp. 67-68.

[8] Ibid., p. 51.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xii. pp. 133-35.

[10] Layman, Cuxhaven, pp. 62, 68-70.

[11] The description of the raid is based on Ibid., pp. 85-96.

[12] Naval Staff vol. Xii. p. 136.

[13] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii pp. 52-53, 84; Layman, Cuxhaven, pp. 118-20. and endnote 10.

[14] Layman, Cuxhaven, p. 115.

[15] Naval Staff vol. Xii. p. 143.

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