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The Battle of Texel Island 17 October 1914

On 17 October, the 1st Division of the Royal Navy’s 3rd Flotilla was sent to relieve a routine patrol in the Broad Fourteens. It consisted of the new light cruiser HMS Undaunted (Captain Cecil Fox), the flotilla leader, and the Laforey class destroyers HMS Lance, Lennox, Legion and Loyal.

At about 1:40 pm, when about 50 miles south west of Texel Island,  Undaunted spotted the smoke of four ships about eight miles away and approaching. Ten minutes later, they were identified as German torpedo boats in line abreast. The British closed and the Germans turned away both at full speed.

However, the British destroyers were new vessels capable of 29 knots and Undaunted 28.5 knots. The German ships, S115, S117, S118 and S119 of the 7th Half Flotilla, were of the 1898 type and completed in 1903. They had been designed for 26 or 27 knots, but a Naval Staff Monograph, written post war for internal RN use, quotes the German Official Naval History as saying that they were capable of only 19 knots.[1]

The Germans were heavily outgunned, so stood little chance unless they got inside torpedo range: two 50 mm (1.97 inch) guns and three 45 cm (17.7 inch) torpedo tubes versus three 4 inch guns and four 21 inch torpedo tubes in the British destroyers and Undaunted’s two 6 inch and six 4 inch guns and four 21 inch torpedo tubes.

Undaunted opened fire at 8,000 yards range at 2:05 pm, but soon ceased fire as the Germans were zigzagging, making it hard to hit at that range. The Germans had been on a mine laying mission, and started to throw their mines overboard. The Naval Staff Monograph suggests that the British mistook the splashes for the launch of torpedoes.[2]

A general action began once the range was done to 2,500 yards. Legion and Loyal concentrated on the western most German, S117, which sank at 3:17 pm according to Fox’s report (3:14 according to his ship’s signal log).[3] Lance and Lennox concentrated on the eastern most German ship, S115, which was out of action by 4 pm, but did not sink for another half hour.

S118 struggled to keep up with the other German ships because of a leaking condenser. She therefore turned towards Undaunted. Korvettenkapitän Georg Thiele, the Half Flotilla commander, realising that his force had no chance of escaping, took S119 after her in the hope of torpedoing Undaunted.

Several German torpedoes were launched, but Fox kept his ship out of their range. All four German ships were sunk, although their skilful manoeuvring meant that the British used a lot of ammunition.

Fox’s report indicates that the second German ship sank at 3:30 pm and the third at 3:55 pm. Only 35 Germans survived, of whom 33 were picked up by the British and two by a neutral fishing boat the next day. 223 Germans were killed including one who died of wounds after being rescued by the British. British casualties were five wounded and their ships suffered little damage.

This was a one sided action, but it boosted British morale after the sinking of HMS Hawke by U9 two days before. More importantly, on 30 November a British fishing vessel trawled up a chest that had been thrown overboard by Thiele’s S119. It contained code books, including one used by admirals and the commanders of squadrons and flotillas.

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xi, Home Waters part ii, September and October 1914. p. 118. This document and others in the same series can be freely downloaded from this link to the Royal Australian Navy’s website.

[2] Ibid., p. 119.

[3] This account is largely based on Ibid. pp. 118-19, which in turn is based on Fox’s report and the logs of his ships.

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U9 Sinks HMS Hawke 15 October 1914

On 13 October the German Navy, after receiving intelligence that the British Grand Fleet was at least partly operating from Scapa Flow, sent two U-boats to patrol off the Orkneys. The U9, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen, which had already sunk three British cruisers in a single engagement, was to patrol to the east of the Orkneys. The U18 was ordered to patrol to the west, but had to return to base almost immediately because of a hot bearing. She was replaced with the U17. The U-boats were to stay 60-100 miles off the Orkneys.

U9 was an early German submarine, carrying only four 17.7 inch torpedo tubes and just six torpedoes. She was capable of only 8 knots submerged. On the surface her Körting paraffin engines gave off a lot of smoke and sparks and a speed of only 14 knots. She could make 8 knots submerged. U17 and U18 were newer, larger and faster: 15 knots on the surface and 9 submerged. However, they had the same armament as U9 and also had paraffin engines.

Other U-boats had been operating in the North Sea; U16 fired two torpedoes at the cruiser HMS Antrim on 9 October, but they missed thanks to orders given quickly by Commander John Webster, Antrim’s navigating officer. He was promoted to Captain for his action.

The Grand Fleet had been patrolling the North Sea in early October because of the risk that German battlecruisers would try and break out in order to attack a convoy that had left Canada on 2 October carrying over 30,000 men and their equipment to Europe. Click here for more details.

It was escorted by four old cruisers, two pre-dreadnought battleships and one of the Royal Navy’s newest battlecruisers, HMS Princess Royal. Other cruisers covered ports on the east coast of the USA in case German liners that had been trapped there by the outbreak of war had been secretly armed and tried to break out to attack the convoy.

So secret was the assignment of Princess Royal to the escort that neither the Canadian government nor the escort commander, Rear Admiral Wester Wemyss, knew about it until she met the convoy in the Atlantic. This level of secrecy was justified by the need to minimise ‘the risk entailed in weakening the 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron.’[1] The convoy reached the UK without being attacked, although the presence of U-boats in the channel forced it to dock at Devonport rather than Southampton, as originally planned.

On 15 October five Edgar class cruisers were on patrol off Peterhead on the north east coast of Scotland, sailing in line abreast 10 miles apart. Rear Admiral Dudley de Chair’s flagship HMS Crescent had returned to Cromarty to take on coal, ‘but he had left definite instructions for the method of cruising so as to minimise the risk of submarine attack.’[2]

The squadron did not repeat the errors of U9‘s earlier victims, which had kept to a steady course, formation and speed. Instead, the Edgars ‘kept well apart; they continually altered course; they varied their speed.’[3]

However at 9:30 am HMS Hawke and Endymion ‘incredibly’ stopped so that Hawke could send a boat to her sister ship in order to collect mail.[4] Endymion returned to her station once the boat had left. Hawke was stationary for 15 minutes until she had recovered her boat before moving off at 12-13 knots. By then the rest of the squadron was out of sight.

Weddigen had been tracking the squadron since daybreak, but had been unable to get into a position to fire. He dived after almost being run down by a cruiser and came up to periscope depth expecting to have a shot at the cruiser with one of his stern tubes. However, she was in front of U9, so he fired a bow tube. Hawke was hit amidships at 10:30 am and sank within 10 minutes. Only two boats could be launched in the time available.

The rest of the squadron did not know what had happened until 1:20 pm, when U17 fired a torpedo at HMS Theseus. The squadron was obeying de Chair’s instructions regarding anti-submarine measures, and the torpedo missed. The squadron was ordered to head north west at full speed, but Hawke did not reply.

One of Hawke’s boats, with 49 survivors, was found by the Norwegian merchantman Modesta, but there was no sign of the other one, which was probably crushed by Hawke as she capsized. Another 22 men on a raft were rescued by the fast flotilla leader HMS Swift. U17 fired a torpedo at her as she headed to Scapa, but it missed thanks to Swift’s high speed. One of the men rescued died the next day, making a total of 70 saved and 524 lost. They are listed on the website Naval-History.net.

At 1:15 pm on 16 October, the Acorn class destroyers HMS Lyra, Nymphe, Nemesis and Alarm, were making 13 knots on patrol off the eastern entrance to Scapa Flow. Nymphe had just increased speed to 15 knots and followed a change of course signalled by Lyra when her officer of the watch spotted a periscope.

It belonged to U9, which was manoeuvring with the intention of getting between Lyra and Nymphe so that it could torpedo them simultaneously using a stern and a bow tube respectively. It fired a bow torpedo that missed Nymphe by two feet, Nemesis by 200 yards and Alarm by 10 yards after she went hard a port to stop the torpedo hitting her stern. Nymphe tried to ram U9, but Weddigen managed to dive his boat in time. The destroyers stayed in the area until dark, but had no means of attacking a submerged submarine.

There had been a number of false sightings of alleged German U-boats in British harbours. One on 1 September led to the First Battle of Scapa Flow, with British ships firing on phantom periscopes. The first ‘periscope’ sighted was probably a seal. [5]

The Grand Fleet went to sea after this, with all but the 3rd Battle Squadron then being based at Loch Ewe from 5 to 24 September. This base was thought to be far enough from German bases to be safe from U-boats, but it was also too far from the English Channel for the Grand Fleet to have arrived in time had German High Seas Fleet entered the English Channel to attack the British Army’s supply ships.

In October a mistaken sighting of a periscope as the battle cruisers entered the Cromarty Firth led to the Battle of Jemimaville in which a 4 inch shell damaged the roof and chimney of a house in the village of Jemimaville. A baby was slightly injured, but the parents were ‘soothed’ with the news that two U-boats had been sunk.[6]

At 4 pm on the afternoon of 16 October, it was reported wrongly that there was a U-boat in Scapa Flow. Loch Ewe had been abandoned as a base after a U-boat had been reported in the harbour on 6 October. There was another reporting of a submarine in Scapa Flow on 17 October. The next day the Grand Fleet’s commander Admiral Sir John Jellicoe started to move it to Lough Swilly on the north coast of Ireland and Loch na Keal, south of Loch Ewe. These harbours had narrow and easily defensible entrances and Lough Swilly was shallow, making it hard for a submerged submarine to safely enter.

The Grand Fleet returned to Scapa Flow on 9 November. A fortnight later the trawler Dorothy Gray rammed U-18 inside the anchorage. The submarine was so badly damaged that her captain, Kapitänleutnant Heinrich von Henning, had to scuttle her. One man was lost, and the rest of her crew captured. Had she escaped, the Germans would have learnt about the weakness of Scapa Flow’s defences, but her loss made them assume that it was well defended.

There were few more submarine alerts until later in the war. However, it was the middle of 1915 before Scapa Flow had been made secure by the use of sunken merchant ships and booms to block some channels, defensive minefields, seaplanes, gun batteries and searchlights. Hydrophones were later added to the defences.

 

 

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1924 xi, Home Waters part ii, September and October 1914. p. 103.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). i, p. 207

[3] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 12.

[4] J. Goldrick, The King’s Ships Were at Sea: The War in the North Sea, August 1914-February 1915 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), p. 138.

[5] 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). ii, p. 66.

[6] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 155.

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U9 Sinks Three British Cruisers 22 September 1914

In the first month and a half of WWI British and German submarines both sank an enemy light cruiser. Some British admirals, such as Sir John Jellicoe, the commander of the Grand Fleet, realised the threat that submarines posed to surface ships and acted accordingly. Others failed to recognise it.

At the start of the war, the Royal Navy’s Southern Force under Rear Admiral Arthur Christian was ordered ‘to keep the area south of the 54th parallel [which runs a little south of the Dogger Bank and Helgoland] clear of enemy torpedo craft and minelayers.’[1]

Christian flew his flag in the armoured cruiser HMS Euryalus and had under his command the light cruiser HMS Amethyst, the armoured cruisers HMS Bacchante, Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue of Rear Admiral Henry Campbell’s 7th Cruiser Squadron, the 8th Submarine Flotilla and the 1st and 3rd Destroyer Flotillas. The armoured cruisers were all old ships of the Bacchante class: some sources call them the Cressy class, but contemporary RN papers refer to them as the Bacchantes. They were unreliable, with no more than three of the five usually being available.

The Southern Force, operating from Harwich, conducted patrols in two areas. The force off Dogger Bank, covering the southern approaches to the North Sea, was generally stronger than the one in the Broad Fourteens, watching the eastern entrance to the English Channel. However, the latter was sometimes increased according to circumstances, such when the British Expeditionary Force crossed the Channel.

Commodore Roger Keyes, commanding the Harwich submarines, told the Admiralty on 12 August that the Bacchantes should be withdrawn. He feared that they were vulnerable to an attack by ‘two or three well-trained German cruisers…Why give the Germans the smallest chance of a cheap victory and an improved morale[?]‘[2] However, even the Commodore for Submarines worried about an attack by surface ships, not U-boats.

On 17 September Keyes, supported by Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt, commander of the Harwich destroyers, had the opportunity to put his views to Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiral. He pointed out to Churchill that the Grand Fleet nicknamed the 7th Cruiser Squadron ‘the live bait squadron.’[3]

Churchill sent a memo to Prince Louis Battenberg, the First Sea Lord, on 18 September strongly recommending that the old armoured cruisers should be withdrawn from this patrol:

‘The risk to such ships is not justified by any services they can render. The narrow seas, being the nearest point to the enemy, should be kept by a small number of good modern ships.’[4]

Battenberg, who had not liked the idea of the Bacchantes patrolling up and down the North Sea, agreed. However, Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee, the Vice Chief of the Naval Staff told Keyes that ‘[w]e’ve always maintained a squadron on the Broad Fourteens.’[5]

Sturdee was also concerned by the possibility of a German attack on the cross-Channel supply line. He admitted that the Bacchantes were not really suitable for their role, but argued that they were better than nothing until the new Arethusa class light cruisers were ready. HMS Arethusa was under repair after being damaged at the Battle of Helgoland Bight and her seven sisters had not yet been completed.

On 19 September Sturdee persuaded Battenberg to authorise a telegram concentrating the Bacchantes in the South: ‘The Dogger Bank patrol need not be continued. Weather too bad for destroyers to go to sea. Arrange for cruisers to watch Broad Fourteens.’[6] Churchill later said that he did not see it.

There were then four of the armoured cruisers on patrol, Campbell’s flagship Bacchante being in dock for repairs. Euryalus, Christian’s flagship, was added to the Cruiser Squadron in order to keep its numbers up, but Christian’s command responsibilities were wider, and Campbell should have transferred his flag to one of his other cruisers. James Goldrick comments that Christian ‘should not have allowed Campbell, nor should the latter have been willing, to remain in harbour.’[7]

At 6:00 am on 20 September Euryalus had to return to port for coaling and because her wireless aerials had been damaged by the bad weather. Christian would normally have transferred by boat to one of the other cruisers, but the high seas made this impossible. In Campbell’s absence command of the squadron fell to Captain John Drummond of Aboukir.

Christian sent Drummond an ambiguous signal, which did not make it clear that it was Drummond who was responsible for summoning the destroyers when the weather improved. By midnight on 21 September the wind had died down on the Broad Fourteens, but it was still strong in Harwich, so the destroyers were not sent out until 5:00 am on 22 September.

The Bacchantes‘ coal consumption was very high if they made 13 or more knots. Consequently they were sailing at barely 10 knots and not zigzagging on the morning of 22 September. They were in line abreast, two miles apart.

Richard Hough says that one reason for not zigzagging was that their captains thought ‘that seas a destroyer could not endure were equally impossible for a submarine.’[8] If true, this was a bad mistake, as the seas had been rough when U21 sank HMS Pathfinder and when E9 sank SMS Hela. At least one of the captains should have understood submarine operations; Captain Robert Johnson of HMS Cressy, although not a submariner, had commanded a submarine flotilla for three years before the war.[9]

Just before 6:30 am on 22 September Aboukir suffered a major explosion. Drummond assumed that she had hit a mine and signalled so to the rest of the squadron. In fact, she had been struck by a single torpedo fired by U9, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen.

U9 was an early German submarine, carrying only four 17.7 inch torpedo tubes and just six torpedoes. She was capable of only 8 knots submerged. On the surface her Körting paraffin engines gave off a lot of smoke and sparks and gave her a speed of only 14 knots. She could make 8 knots submerged.

Drummond soon realised that his ship had been torpedoed by a U-boat and ordered the other two cruisers away. However, Captain Wilmot Nicholson of Hogue thought that his ship would be safe if she kept to the side of Aboukir that had not been hit. Hogue stopped about a mile from Aboukir in order to launch her boats.

However, Weddigen had re-positioned his boat. At 6:55, as Aboukir sank, he fired two torpedoes into Hogue from only 300 yards away. U9’s bows rose out of the water, and Hogue fired on her, without scoring any hits. The cruiser sank within 10 minutes.

Cressy was also stationary, launching her boats. A periscope was spotted and Johnson ordered his ship to make full speed in order to ram the U-boat. At 7:20 Weddigen fired his two stern torpedoes at her; one missed and the other hit, but did not cause serious damage. He then closed to 500 yards and at 7:30 fired his last torpedo into Cressy, which sank 15 minutes later.

The first rescue ship to arrive was the Dutch steamer Flora, which picked up 286 men, many badly wounded and took them to Ymuiden. Another Dutch ship, the Titan, which rescued 147 men, and two British trawlers, the Coriander and J. G. C., were still picking up survivors when Tyrwhitt’s force of the light cruiser HMS Lowestoft and eight destroyers arrived between 10:30 and 10:45. The civilian ships could not have been sure whether or not they were in a minefield.

A total of 60 officers and 777 men were saved and 62 officers and 1,397 died. The Dutch repatriated to Britain the survivors taken initially to the Netherlands. Casualties on Cressy were particularly high because her boats were full of survivors from the other two cruisers when she was sunk. Many of the crews were middle-aged reservists recalled at the start of the war. Each cruiser also had nine cadets from the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth on board, most of them under the age of 15.

The website Naval-History.net lists the casualties and survivors for all three cruisers. The men listed as being either RFR (Royal Fleet Reserve) or RNR (Royal Naval Reserve) were reservists. Men who were rescued but later died of wounds are listed as having died on the dates of their deaths rather than the date of the sinkings. Captain Johnson of Cressy was amongst the dead, but Drummond and Nicholson both survived.

The Admiralty issued orders that armoured ship should zigzag, make at least 13 knots and not stop in waters where enemy submarines might be present. It said:

 ‘that if one ship is torpedoed by submarine or strikes mine. disabled ship must be left to her fate and other large ships clear out of dangerous area calling up minor vessels to render assistance.’[10]

The Court of Inquiry said that Drummond ‘should have zigzagged his course as much as possible. Johnson and Nicholson were guilty of ‘an error of judgment’ in stopping their ships. However, Battenberg thought that they ‘were placed in a cruel position, once they found themselves in waters swarming with drowning men.’[11]

Christian told Jellicoe that ‘certainly Cressy need not have been sacrificed and probably not Hogue if they had only dashed up within say a mile to windward, out all boats and away again.’[12]

Campbell, Christian and Drummond were all placed on half pay, but the two admirals were later given new employment. The Court of Inquiry’s criticism was mainly directed at the Admiralty, meaning Battenberg and Sturdee. Later, when they had left the Admiralty, the Third and Fourth Sea Lords, who had little involvement in operational matters, agreed with this, as did Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Wilson, a former First Sea Lord.

Much of the public criticism fell on Churchill, who was prone to interfere in operational decisions. In fact, on this occasion he had recommended that the Bacchantes should be withdrawn from this patrol, but had not interfered in order to make sure that this was done.

Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, who in WWII organised the naval parts of the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 and the invasion of Normandy in 1944, was a Lieutenant in 1914. He wrote in his diary that it ‘just shows how utterly without imagination the majority of our senior officers are.’[13]

The action showed the potency of submarines to both sides, although some in Britain thought that more than one U-boat must have taken part. The Times wrote on 25 September that:

‘It is well-known that German submarines operate in flotillas of six boats. If it is true that only one, U9, returned to harbour, we may assume that the others are lost.’[14]

The Kaiser awarded Weddigen the Iron Cross First Class and every other member of U9’s crew the Iron Cross Second Class. The action cancelled out the moral advantage that the RN had gained from its victory at Helgoland Bight on 28 August 1914. U9 and the light cruiser SMS Emden were the only German ships to be awarded the Iron Cross during the war.

[1] Quoted in J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 171.

[2] Quoted in R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 129.

[3] Quoted in Ibid.

[4] Quoted in 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. 56

[5] Ibid. vol. ii, p. 57, footnote 27. Marder’s source was Admiral Sir William James, who was told the story by Keyes.

[6] Ibid.

[7] J. Goldrick, The King’s Ships Were at Sea: The War in the North Sea, August 1914-February 1915 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), p. 127.

[8] R. A. Hough, The Great War at Sea, 1914-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 62.

[9] Goldrick, The King’s Ships, p. 126.

[10] Quoted in Ibid., p. 133.

[11] Quotes in this paragraph from Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 55.

[12] Quoted in Goldrick, The King’s Ships, p. 133.

[13] Quoted in G. A. H. Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996), p. 390.

[14] Quoted in Massie, Castles, p. 137.

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SMS Königsberg Sinks HMS Pegasus 20 September 1914

At the outbreak of WWI the German light cruiser SMS Königsberg was based at Dar-es-Salaam in German East Africa, now Tanzania. She was armed with 10 105mm(4.1 inch) guns and was designed for 24 knots, making her significantly faster than the three old cruisers on the British Cape Station; HMS Astraea (20 knots, two 6 inch and eight 4.7 inch guns), Hyacinth (19 knots, 11 6 inch guns) and Pegasus (21 knots, eight 4 inch guns).

On 31 July Fregattenkapitän Max Loof took Königsberg to sea in compliance with his orders to attack enemy shipping at the entrance to the Red Sea. Pegasus saw her leaving port, but could not keep up with her. Neither could Hyacinth, which encountered her in the dark two hours later.

HMS Astraea bombarded Dar-es-Salaam on 8 August in order to destroy its wireless station. The Germans, fearing invasion, scuttled a floating dock across the harbour entrance, trapping the liner Tabora and the collier König inside, and preventing Königsberg from entering.

Königsberg was bedevilled throughout her career by difficulties in obtaining coal. The Hague Convention entitled warships  to refuel at neutral ports.  A ship could visit each port only once every three months, but could take on enough fuel to return to the nearest port in her home country. This meant that a German ship could entirely replenish her coal supplies on each visit.

However, the British bought all the coal supplies in Portuguese East Africa, the only neutral source available to Königsberg. This left her having to coal from small German colliers or from captured ships. However, she managed to take only one merchant ship, the liner City of Winchester, which she captured on 6 August and sank a week later.

The British Official History says that she ‘must have had a narrow escape from the Dartmouth‘, a modern light cruiser armed with eight 6 inch guns and capable of 25 knots, around the time that she captured the City of Winchester.[1]  She then overhauled her engines in the secluded Rufiji Delta, and the British heard nothing about her until 20 September.

Pegasus was then at Zanzibar, repairing problems with her machinery. At 5:25 am the armed tug Helmuth, a captured German vessel that was guarding the entrance to the harbour, challenged a ship that was heading for an entrance forbidden to merchant ships. The ship, which was Königsberg, raised the German ensign and increased speed. Helmuth failed to warn Pegasus.

Königsberg opened fire at 9,000 yards, immediately straddling Pegasus. The British ship fired back, but her shots fell short. After eight minutes all the guns of her broadside facing Königsberg were out of action. The German ship ceased fire for about five minutes, but then began firing again, before leaving half an hour after opening fire. She sank Helmuth on her way out

Pegasus was then still afloat, but capsized after an unsuccessful attempt to beach her. Naval-History.net lists 34 men killed and 58 wounded, four of whom later died. Königsberg also destroyed what turned out to be a dummy wireless station. However, she made no attempt to sink or capture the collier Banffshire, which carried several thousand tons of coal, or to damage the lighthouse or cable.

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 155.

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The Capture of German New Guinea 15 September 1914

The Commonwealth of Australia was formed on 1 January 1901 by a Federation of the six self governing British colonies of Australia. Five of them had maintained naval forces, which were amalgamated into the Commonwealth Naval Forces on 1 March 1901. It was granted the title of Royal Australian Navy on 10 July 1911.

In August 1914 the RAN consisted of the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, the light cruisers HMAS Pioneer, Encounter, Melbourne and Sydney, the destroyers HMAS Parramatta, Warrego and Yarra and the submarines HMAS AE1 and AE2. All were modern ships built for the RAN in British yards to British designs, except for Encounter and Pioneer, old light cruisers transferred from the Royal Navy in 1912.

Warrego was built in Britain but then dismantled and the parts sent to Australia so that Australian shipyard workers could reassemble her and obtain expertise in warship construction. In August 1914 a light cruiser, HMAS Brisbane, and three destroyers, HMAS Huon, Swan and Torrens, were under construction in Australia.

Another old British cruiser, HMS Psyche, was in New Zealand waters. The battlecruiser HMS New Zealand was paid for by New Zealand taxpayers, but was part of the RN and was based in the UK in 1914.

At the outbreak of war the RAN was put under the control of the British Admiralty. Its initial missions were to capture German South Pacific colonies and to protect shipping against the German East Asia Squadron. The higher positions were held by British officers, as it would take time until Australians were ready to hold them. Rear Admiral Sir George Patey RN commanded the Australian Fleet.

The first British Empire shot of the First World War was fired by an Australian coastal defence battery. At 12:45 pm on 5 August 1914, Sergeant John Purdue of the Royal Australian Garrison Artillery fired a warning shot across the bows of SS Pfalz, a German merchant ship attempting to leave Melbourne harbour.

A significant Australian contribution to the war at sea came on 11 August when the German merchant ship SS Hobart was boarded and her code books seized, although they did not reach the Admiralty in London until October.

On 6 August the British Government sent the Australian Government the following telegram:

If your Ministers desire and feel themselves able to seize German wireless stations at Yap in Marshall Islands, Nauru, Pleasant Island and New Guinea, we should feel that this was a great and urgent Imperial service. You will, however, realise that any territory now occupied must be at the disposal of the Imperial Government for purposes of an ultimate settlement at conclusion of the war. Other Dominions are acting in similar way on the same understanding, in particular, suggestion is being made to New Zealand in regard to Samoa.[1]

Arthur Jose writes in the Official History of the RAN in WWI that many Australians were puzzled to be told to use their navy not to defeat the enemy fleet, but to capture territory, ‘exactly the purpose against which all their previous advisers had warned them.’[2]

The main threat came from the German East Asia Squadron of the armoured cruisers SMS Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and three light cruisers. The armoured cruisers were greatly inferior to HMAS Australia but superior to any other Australian warship. Their location was unknown.

An initial plan to seize German wireless stations expanded into one to take territory. This would deny the German cruisers possible bases. However, Jose suggests that this plan was devised in London, where some, expecting a short war, wanted to ‘have in hand some German territory for bargaining purposes, possibly to exchange for Belgium.’[3] On the other hand, Hew Strachan notes that ‘[b]oth Australia and New Zealand harboured their own imperialist ambitions’ and accuses Jose of ‘glossing over [the] sub-imperialist thrust’ of their actions.[4]

The RAN covered the move of a New Zealand force to Samoa, which was taken without a fight on 30 August.

It then, accompanied by the French cruiser Montcalm, escorted the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force, comprising 1,000 Australian  infantry and 500 Australian and British naval reservists and commanded by Colonel William Holmes, to capture German colonies in New Guinea. Melbourne was despatched to destroy the German wireless station at Nauru.

The main force reached Rabaul on 11 September. Sydney put a 25 man naval landing party ashore at Herbertshöhe, now Kokopo, and Warrego and Yarra landed a similar force at Kabakaul They were ordered to find the wireless stations. Patey thought that there were two, one, inland from each landing point.  In fact, both were at Bita Paka. The Herbertshöhe party was therefore unable to find its objective. The Kabakaul one was fired on as it advanced.

Two companies of naval reservists and two machine gun sections were landed from HMAS Berrima, an armed transport. They encountered a force of about 150 local police commanded by German officers and were reinforced by four companies of infantry from Berrima. Progress in the Battle of Bita Paka was slow, but the Germans retreated after the destroying the radio mast. The attackers removed the rest of the radio equipment.

Australian casualties were two officers and four men killed and an officer and three men wounded. Able Seaman W. G. V. Williams became the first Australian to be killed in action during the war.

The Official British Naval History says that ‘[f]or the Germans further resistance was now hopeless, but the Governor…[was] bent on making negotiations as dilatory as possible.[5] On the morning of 14 September Encounter bombarded a German fortified position on a ridge. Australian troops advancing towards it in the afternoon were met by a flag of truce. The German governor surrendered German New Guinea on 15 September.

On 14 September AE1 disappeared on patrol off Rabaul with the loss of all 35 men on board, a mixture of RAN and RN personnel. She probably struck a reef or other submerged object and was the first RAN warship to be lost and the first British Empire submarine to be lost in the war. Her wreck has not been found but efforts to do so continue.

[1] Quoted in A. W. Jose, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, vol. ix, the Royal Australian Navy, 1914-1918, Ninth ed. (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1941), p. 47.

[2] Ibid., p. 48.

[3] Ibid., p. 52.

[4] H. Strachan, The First World War: Vol. 1, to Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). p. 464 and footnote 44 on p. 465.

[5] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 285.

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HMS Carmania Sinks SMS Cap Trafalgar 14 September 1914

The Cap Trafalgar was a new, large and luxurious liner that in April 1914 was brought into service by the Hamburg-Sud Amerika Line for service between Germany and the River Plate.

At the outbreak of war she was at Buenos Aires, where the German navy requisitioned her as an auxiliary cruiser. After coaling at Montevideo she sailed for the remote Brazilian island of Trinidade, 500 miles off the mainland. There, she met the old gunboat SMS Eber, which transferred her armament of two 105mm (4.1 inch) guns and six one pounders, their ammunition and some of her crew to Cap Trafalgar, which was to raid merchant shipping under the command of Korvettenkapitän Wirth.

Cap Trafalgar’s first commerce raiding cruise was a failure. According the British Official Histories, the quantity of wireless signals from British cruisers had discouraged her from approaching the main trade routes.[1] On 13 September she returned to Trinidade in order to coal from two colliers.

The next day, HMS Carmania, a Cunard liner that had been armed for trade protection duties, visited Trinidade, which the British suspected might be used by German commerce raiders to coal. Carmania and Cap Trafalgar were of similar size, about 19,000 tons, but the British ship had a much bigger armament: eight 4.7 inch guns. Both were designed for 18 knots, but Robert Massie says that the British ship could make only 16 knots.[2]

The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich in London owns a painting of the action, which is reproduced on its website. The caption says that Cap Trafalgar had been modified and painted to resemble Carmania.

The German ships set sail once they saw Carmania approaching. They seemed initially to be fleeing, but Cap Trafalgar then turned towards the enemy. Julian Corbett speculates in the Royal Navy’s Official History that Wirth may have realised that his opponent was another armed liner rather than a warship.[3]

Neither ship had the fire control systems or ammunition hoists of a modern warship, so the action was fought in the style of Nelson’s day, with ammunition being brought to the guns by hand and the guns firing as the target bore.

Carmania’s captain, Noel Grant, ordered a warning shot to be fired at 12:10 pm at 8,500 yards range. Carmania began to fire her port guns at 7,500 yards, with Cap Trafalgar replying. At 4,500 yards the British switched to firing salvoes, the second and third of which hit the German ship on her waterline. The Germans scored a significant number of hits, but most of them were high, hitting Carmania’s masts, funnels, ventilators and bridge.

At 3,500 yards the German one pounders were in range and the barrels of the elderly British guns were red hot. Grant turned his ship in order the fire with the starboard guns.

Both ships were now on fire and Cap Trafalgar was listing. Wirth tried to use his ship’s superior speed to escape and succeeded in getting outside Carmania’s 9,000 yard gun range by 1:30. However, Cap Trafalgar was too badly damaged to escape, and she sank with colours flying at 1:45. Wirth went down with her.

Carmania had been hit 79 times. Many were high but five holes were on the waterline, and she was one fire, leaving her in no position to rescue Cap Trafalgar’s survivors. Nine of her crew had been killed and 26 wounded. Grant also feared that smoke that could be seen to the north might come from a German cruiser that Cap Trafalgar had been radioing. In fact it was from one of her colliers, the Eleonore Woermann, which picked up the German survivors.

The only source consulted to give German casualties is Wikipedia, which says that 279 Germans were rescued and between 16 and 51 were killed. Conway’s says that Cap Trafalgar’s crew was 319, implying a number at the top of that range.[4]

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 307; C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. i, p. 223.

[2] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 206.

[3] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p. 307.

[4] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 184.

 

 

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E9 Sinks SMS Hela 13 September 1914

On 5 September 1914 the German U-boat U21 sank the British cruiser HMS Pathfinder. Eight days later the British submarine E9 sank the German light cruiser SMS Hela.

Britain’s submarines were commanded by the aggressive Commodore Roger Keyes. His main striking force consisted of the eight D class and 10 E class boats of the Eighth Submarine Flotilla. The older A, B and C class submarines were small and short ranged, so were suitable only for coastal defence.

Keyes’s submarines made repeated patrols into German waters, where they saw few potential targets. He wrote in his memoirs that the conditions for the crews were very tough:

‘the notoriously short, steep seas which accompany westerly gales in the Helgoland Bight…make it difficult to open the conning tower hatches and vision is limited to about 200 yards. There was no rest to be obtained on the bottom…even when cruising at a depth of sixty feet, the submarines were rolling and moving vertically twenty feet.’[1]

At dawn on 6 September E9, captained by Lieutenant-Commander Max Horton, surfaced after spending the previous night on the bottom of the sea 120 feet below the surface, six miles south-south-west of Helgoland.

E-9 immediately spotted the old German light cruiser SMS Hela less than two miles away and manoeuvred to attack. She fired two torpedoes and heard one explosion as she dived. Horton brought his boat back up and saw that Hela had stopped and was listing to starboard, but was then forced to dive again by gunfire. An hour later E9 surfaced and found only four or five trawlers where the cruiser had been. Most of Hela’s crew had been rescued.

Horton was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for this and the sinking of the destroyer SMS S116 off the River Ems on 6 October. He rose to the rank of Admiral and was Commander-in-Chief of the Western Approaches in the Second World War, where he proved to be as skilful at fighting submarines as he had been at commanding one.

[1] Quoted in R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 125.

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