Thomas Crisp VC: Father and Son against a U-boat

Thomas Crisp, born in 1876, was a Lowestoft fishing captain before the First World War. His age and the importance of his profession to the war effort meant that he continued to  be a fisherman in the early stages of the war.  U-boats, however, were sinking fishing vessels as well as larger merchant ships and Crisp was recruited serve in a force of secretly armed fishing vessels that would protect the fishing fleet.

By the summer of 1916, he had joined the Royal Naval Reserve and was captain of the  HM Armed Smack I’ll Try, formerly the G & E. Like other fisherman captaining fishing vessels requisitioned by the Royal Navy, he held the rank of Skipper. His son, also called Thomas, was a member of his crew.

I’ll Try frequently operated with another secretly armed smack, the Ethel & Millie, which sometimes went by the name Boy Alfred.  On 1 February 1917, they claimed to have sunk two U-boats. The Admiralty paid the crews a bounty for this action and awarded Crisp and the other skipper the Distinguished Service Cross. However, no U-boats were lost that day. [1]

Crisp was offered a position on a larger Q-ship, but declined as he wanted to remain close to his terminally ill wife.

On 15 August 1917, the two smacks were operating  together off the coast of East Anglia, acting as bait for U-boats.  I’ll Try had by then been renamed Nelson. Just after 2:45 pm, Skipper Crisp spotted something on the horizon, realised that it was a submarine and ordered the Nelson, which was armed with a 13 pounder  gun, to clear for action just before a shell landed 100 yards off her port bow.[2]

About the fourth shell fired by the U-boat hit the Nelson on the port bow just before the waterline. Three more then hit her, the last of which passed right through the Nelson without exploding, hitting Skipper Crisp on the way. Tom junior took over the tiller, but the smack was sinking. Skipper Crisp ordered that the following message be sent by carrier pigeon:

Nelson being attacked by submarine. Skipper killed.  Send assistance at once.’[3]

Skipper Crisp ordered that the Nelson be abandoned and her confidential books be thrown overboard but declined to be lowered into the lifeboat. He asked to be thrown overboard but was too badly wounded to be moved. He was therefore left on the deck of his sinking vessel whilst the rest of the crew rowed away in the lifeboat.[4]

The survivors rowed for the rest of the day and all the next. They saw several ships but were unable to attract their attention. On the morning of Friday 17 August, they moored to the Jim Howe Buoy and were rescued later that day by the minesweeper HMS Dryad, 41 hours after they abandoned the Nelson.

After sinking the Nelson, the U-boat turned on the Ethel & Millie, which had only a 6 pounder gun.  Her crew abandoned ship after running out of ammo and were last seen by the Nelson’s crew lined up on the U-boat’s deck.[5]

Nothing more was heard of Ethel & Millie’s crew. Tony Bridgland suggests that the U-boat may have been UC-41, which was blown up by her own mines in the Tay Estuary five days later, in which case the survivors could have been taken on board and shared the fate of the captors.[6], however, says that it was UC-63, which survived that patrol to be sunk by the British submarine E-52 on 1 November 1917. In that case, they were probably left to drown. The Germans regarded merchant seamen who fought back as being francs-tireurs or partisans and thus liable to execution: see the fate of Captain Charles Fryatt, a British merchant captain who was executed on 27 July 1916 for attempting to ram a U-boat.

Another possibility is that they were interrogated, put back into their lifeboat  and lost at sea.

None of Ethel and Millie’s crew were civilians. Two were RN sailors: Able Seamen Edwin Barrett and Alfred Preece. The others were members of the RNR: Skipper Charles Manning, 2nd Hand Spencer Gibson and Deck Hands John Lewis, Arthur Soames and Hugh Thompson: source

Skipper Crisp was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Tom Crisp junior collected it and his own Distinguished Service Medal from King George V on 19 December 1917, when Leading Seaman Percival  Ross, the Nelson’s gunner, received a bar to his DSM.[7]

The full citation for Crisp’s VC, along with all those awarded for actions on Q-ships, was not published until after the war for security reasons. It is below: source

Action of H.M. Armed Smack “Nelson,” on the 15th August, 1917.

On the 15th August, 1917, the Smack “Nelson” was engaged in fishing when she was attacked by gunfire from an enemy submarine. The gear was let go and the submarine’s fire was returned. The submarine’s fourth shot went through the port bow just below the water line, and the seventh shell struck the skipper, Thomas Crisp, partially disembowelling him, and passed through the deck and out through the side of the ship. In spite of the terrible nature of his wound Skipper Crisp retained consciousness, and his first thought was to send off a message that he was being attacked and giving his position. He continued to command his ship until the ammunition was almost exhausted and the smack was sinking. He refused to be moved into the small boat when the rest of the crew were obliged to abandon the vessel as she sank, his last request being that he might be thrown overboard.

(The posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to Skipper Thomas Crisp, D.S.C., R.N.R., 10055 D.A., was announced in London Gazette No. 30363, dated the 2nd November, 1917.)


[1] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), p. 118.

[2] A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. iii, p. 59.

[3] Ibid., p. 60.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., pp. 60-61.

[6] Bridgland, Sea Killers, p. 120.

[7] Ibid., p. 42.


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The End of the German High Seas Fleet

By late September 1918, the German military High Command (OHL), headed by General Erich Ludendorff, had accepted that the Germans could no longer hold the Western Front. Ludendorff hoped that forming a parliamentary government might enable Germany to obtain better terms.

On 1 October, Prince Max of Baden, a liberal, became Chancellor of Germany at the head of a coalition of the Social Democrats, the Catholic Centre Party and the Liberals. On the night of 4-5 October the new government asked US President Woodrow Wilson for an armistice based on his 14 Points. This enabled Ludendorff and other generals to blame the new government for ending the war rather than admitting that the German army had been beaten in the field.[1]

Wilson insisted on 14 October that the Germans must end unrestricted submarine warfare before armistice negotiations began. Admiral Reinhard Scheer, Chief of the German Admiralty Staff, opposed this, arguing that the U-boat campaign against merchant shipping should not be ended until armistice negotiations had begun. On 20 October, however, Prince Max ordered that it should end. This released the U-boats to support operations by the High Seas Fleet, which had been inactive since April.[2]

Scheer ordered Admiral Franz von Hipper, C.-in-C. of the High Seas Fleet to conduct an operation in the North Sea. Hipper’s Plan 19 was to:

  1. Leave the Helgoland Bight during the day, remaining out of sight of the Dutch coast.
  2. Destroyers and light cruisers should attack warships in the North Sea and merchant shipping off the Flanders coast and in the Thames Estuary. The High Seas Fleet’s 18 Battleships would cover the operation off Flanders and its five battlecruisers the attack on the Thames.
  3. This was intended to provoke the British Grand Fleet to leave port and head south. It was by this time based at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth.
  4. Cruisers and destroyers would lay mines and U-boats wait in ambush in order to reduce the Grand Fleet’s strength as it headed south. About 25 U-boats were to take part and their orders were to take all opportunities to fire on battleships and battlecruisers.
  5. Hipper planed to engage the Grand Fleet on the night of the second or third day of the operation. If no battle had taken place by then, German destroyers would conduct a sweep towards the Firth of Forth.

Scheer approved the plan on 27 October and it was to be launched on 30 October. The British had a good idea that something major was about to happen because they had detected the movements of U-boats by radio direction finding. The Grand Fleet was reinforced by more destroyers.[3]

The operation did not take place. The High Seas Fleet was ordered to put to sea from Wilhelmshaven on the afternoon of 29 October. A large number of men from the battlecruisers Derfflinger and Von der Tann, mostly stokers, did not return from shore leave that day. There was mutiny and insubordination in other ships as the sailors feared that they were going to be sacrificed in a pointless battle intended only to save the navy’s honour. Hipper called off the operation the next day and dispersed the fleet, which only carried the mutiny to other ports.[4]

Saving the navy’s honour was certainly part of the motivation for the operation. Konteradmiral Adolf von Trotha, Hipper’s Chief of Staff, wrote in a memorandum that:

‘As to a battle for the honour of the fleet in this war, even if it were a death battle, it would be the foundation for a new German fleet of the future if our people were not altogether defeated; such a fleet would be out of the question in the event of a dishonourable peace.’[5]

There were, however, other motivations. In 1667, towards the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch successfully attacked the Medway, which enable them to get better peace terms than had seemed likely until then.[6]

The Germans would have been outnumbered even more heavily than they had been at Jutland, where their 16 dreadnought battleships and five battlecruisers had faced 28 British dreadnoughts and nine battlecruisers

Wikipedia lists the ships that were likely have taken part in any action. The Grand Fleet had 35 battleships, including five from the USN, and 11 battlecruisers, including two that had only four 15 inch guns and very weak armour, to 18 battleships and 5 battlecruisers. Ten British battleships and five battlecruisers had 15 inch guns and many other Allied ships 14 or 13.5 inch guns, with only the oldest ones having 12 inch guns. Only two German battleships had 15 inch guns, with the others and two of the battlecruisers having 12 inch guns and the three oldest battlecruisers 11 inch guns.

The Germans would be using Zeppelins for aerial reconnaissance, whilst the British had a Flying Squadron of three aircraft carriers and three seaplane carriers. Two of the aircraft carriers. HMS Furious and Vindictive, retained their funnels and superstructures with separate flying off and landing decks. This system created turbulence that made landing difficult. The third, HMS Argus, was the first carrier with a single flight deck running her full length.

At Jutland, the British suffered from lax flash protection and ammunition handling procedures, lack of armour, poor armour piercing shells and an inadequate system for passing intelligence on from the Admiralty to the Grand Fleet’s C.-C. They believed that these problems had been tackled, although Admiral Sir David Beatty, C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet, thought that the armour protecting magazines was still inadequate.[7]

The British reforms were untested, the U-boats and mines might have inflicted losses as the Grand Fleet advanced and the battle was to be fought near the German bases. The Germans might have repeated their performance at Jutland, when they claimed a tactical victory after sinking more ships than they lost before withdrawing. However, they might also have been annihilated by a fleet that had an even greater numerical and firepower advantage than in 1916 and had corrected many of its faults.

All that can be said for certain about Plan 19 is that if it had led to a battle, American, Australian (the battlecruiser HMAS Australia was then part of the Grand Fleet) , British and German sailors would have died at the end of a war that Germany had already lost.

The fate of the High Seas Fleet was a major concern for the British at the Armistice negotiations, at which the British delegate was the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Wester Wemyss. The British wanted to eliminate any future naval threat from Germany. They planned to intern the entire U-boat fleet but feared that the Germans could rebuild it. However, without a German battle fleet the British could have cleared German minefields, carried out a close blockade and destroyed the U-boats close to their bases.

Wemyss therefore wanted the Germans to surrender 10 dreadnoughts, six battlecruisers, eight light cruisers, fifty destroyers and 160 U-boats. The number of dreadnoughts and battlecruisers was intended to leave the Germans with eight or nine, the number that Beatty thought that the Grand Fleet would have lost in a decisive battle that destroyed the High Seas Fleet. [8]

Some generals and politicians, including Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, C.-in-C. of the BEF, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the French delegate to the Armistice negotiations, and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, feared that these terms were too harsh and that the Germans might reject them and fight on. Eventually a proposal by Admiral William Benson, the US Chief of Naval Operations, that the German surface ships be interned in a neutral country was accepted. He feared that the British would get the bulk of them if they were surrendered, whilst the British admirals worried that the Germans might get them back if they were interned in a neutral port.[9]

The Germans claimed that they had fewer than 160 U-boats, so Wemyss asked for all their submarines, which was what he really wanted. They had only five battlecruisers as SMS Mackensen was incomplete. The terms signed on 11 November therefore stated that 10 battleships, five battlecruisers, eight light cruisers, 50 destroyers should be interned in a neutral port and all U-boats surrendered. No neutral country was interested in taking the German ships so they were interned in British ports. [10]

The first group of 20 U-boats left Wilhelmshaven on 18 November. They were met by the Harwich Force of cruisers and destroyers, which them boarded and escorted them into Harwich. Their crews were then transferred to a transport ship, which took them back to Germany. Eventually 176 U-boats were surrendered, including 18 that had been completed in order to make the passage. Seven more sank on the way to Britain.[11]

On 21 November Operation ZZ took place. The Grand Fleet put to sea in order to escort the German surface ships into internment. An Allied force of 370 ships, mainly British but including the American and Australian ships of the Grand Fleet and three French ships, met nine German battleships, five battlecruisers, seven light cruisers and 49 destroyers: a battleship and a light cruiser were in dock and did not come until December and a destroyer struck a mine on the way and sank.[12]

The two forces met at 9:30 am. The Germans the sailed into the Firth of Forth in a single line between two lines each of over 30 battleships, battlecruisers and cruisers. The Allied ships were all at action stations but there was no last minute gesture of defiance by the Germans. The Firth was full of all sorts of vessels carrying civilian spectators. At 11 am Beatty signalled that the German flags should be hauled down at sunset and should not be raised again without permission. This was done at the exact time: 3:57 pm. The German ships were escorted to Scapa Flow on 24 November.[13]

The Germans later scuttled their ships on learning the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty. This will be described in a later post.

Film of the German surrender from YouTube. You may have to watch an add at the start. The submarines flying British White Ensigns are surrendered U-boats.



[1] D. Stevenson, 1914-1918: The History of the First World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004), pp. 466-71.

[2] 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. v, pp. 170-71.

[3] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 445-46; Marder, From. vol. v, p. 171

[4] Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 172-74.

[5] Quoted in Halpern, Naval, p. 445.

[6] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, p. 369.

[7] Marder, From. vol. ii. pp. 260-70.

[8] Ibid. vol. v, pp. 177-78.

[9] Ibid. vol. v, pp. 177-81,

[10] Ibid. vol. v, pp. 183-89.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 380; R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 364.

[12] Marder, From. vol. v, p. 190.

[13] Ibid. vol. v, pp. 190-92.


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The Second Battle of Heligoland Bight 16-17 November 1917

During the First World War, the British laid large numbers of mines in the Helgoland Bight in an attempt to prevent U-boats travelling to the Atlantic via the North Sea. The Germans sent  minesweepers up to 100 miles from Heligoland almost every day in an attempt to clear them. They were normally escorted by light cruisers and torpedo boats, with battleships sometimes covering them. By mid November 1917 the British Admiralty had enough intelligence on German operations to plan an attack on the minesweepers and their escorts.[1]

The British striking force that sailed from Rosyth on the Firth of Forth at 4:30 pm on 16 November comprised: 1st Cruiser Squadron (Vice Admiral Trevelyan Napier) of two light battle cruisers and four destroyers; 6th Light Cruiser Squadron (Rear Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair) of four C class light cruisers and four destroyers; 1st Light Cruiser Squadron (Commodore Walter Cowan) of one C and 3 Arethusa class light cruisers and two destroyers; and 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron (Vice Admiral William Pakenham (five battlecruisers, a light cruiser and eight destroyers.

Pakenham was in overall command of the operation, but Napier commanded the two light cruiser squadrons as well as his own cruiser squadron.

The 1st Battle Squadron of six battleships and 11 Destroyers was in a supporting position several hours steaming away.

The Germans had the VI Minesweeping Group, II and VI Support Groups and IV Barrier Breaker Group, totalling 16 auxiliaries and a similar number of trawlers, escorted by eight destroyers of the 7th Torpedo Boat Flotilla and the four light cruisers of the II Scouting Group (Konteradmiral Ludwig von Reuter). Two German battleships were in support near Heligoland.[2]

The light battlecruisers, HMS Courageous and Glorious, were fast (32 knot), lightly armoured ships armed with four 15 inch, 18 4 inch and two 3 inch guns plus two 21 inch torpedo tubes. They had very shallow drafts and had been intended to take part in operations in the Baltic, which were cancelled when Admiral Lord Fisher ceased to be First Sea Lord. Fisher called them large light cruisers in order to evade a government order forbidding the construction of more capital ships.[3]

The British spotted German ships at 7:30 am on 17 November, opening fire seven minutes later. The Germans destroyers and light cruisers turned towards the British and covered the minesweepers with a smokescreen. All withdrew except the armed trawler Kehdingen, which had been hit and immobilised. The other German ships were in the smoke before the British could ascertain their strength.[4]

The German ships became visible briefly and were fired on but the situation remained unclear until 8:07, when Napier’s flagship Courageous cleared the smoke, allowing him to see three German light cruisers to the south east, steering east north east. Four minutes later they changed course to the south east.[5]

The German auxiliaries were now to the north east and were not being pursued. Reuter could therefore draw the British through the minefields towards the German battleships.  The British could fire only their forward guns at his light cruisers but a single hit by a 15 inch shell on one of them could slow her by a few knots, meaning that he would have to abandon her, as Admiral Franz von Hipper had had to do with SMS Blücher at the First Battle of Heligoland Bight in 1915.[6]

Courageous and Glorious opened fire at 8:10, but it was another 10 minutes until all the British ships were in range of the Germans. They then laid another smokescreen and 15 minutes later disappeared into dense smoke. Napier was now at the edge of the British minefields and turned to port, considering that the situation was too uncertain to risk continuing. The light cruisers followed just after 8:40. The 6th Light Cruiser Squadron made the smallest turn and HMS Cardiff was hit and damaged at 8:50. The smokescreen was now clearing, revealing that the Germans had not changed course. [7]

Napier’s squadron had lost five miles and was now at extreme range, although the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron and HMS Caledon of the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron were closer.[8]

The British opened fire again at 8:52. Napier decided to follow the Germans for 12 more miles, which would take his force to the edge of an area that the Admiralty had in 1915 labelled as being dangerous because of mines. His force had now been reinforced by the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, which had been ordered by Pakenham not to enter the minefields.[9]

At 8:58 Pakenham  ordered the British to withdraw. He had received a signal from Napier at 8:52 that implied that contact with the Germans had been lost permanently but actually meant that they had temporarily disappeared behind a smokescreen. All British ships were in action by the time that Pakenham’s withdrawal order was received, and it was disregarded.[10]

Firing was intermittent, but the British believed that they had damaged at least one German cruiser. The Germans launched an unsuccessful torpedo attack around 9:30. At 9:32 Napier took Courageous and Glorious out of the action because they had reached his danger line, but the light cruisers, whose commanders  did not have the chart Napier had based his decision on, continued. At 9:40 HMS Calypso was damaged, but the British appeared to have the advantage until 9:50, when shells from two German battleships started to land amongst them. The light cruisers withdrew, covered by Repulse. The Germans did not pursue them and a thick fog descended at 10:40.[11]

The British thought that some of the eight or 10 torpedoes fired at them came from a U-boat but none were present.[12]

The Germans repeatedly straddled the British ships but scored only seven hits, all on the light cruisers. The British managed only  five hits, with SMS Königsberg being the only German ship seriously damaged.  A shell from Repulse penetrated her three funnels and exploded over one of the boiler rooms. Her repairs were completed on 15 December.[13] lists 22 British sailors killed at the Second Bight of Heligoland Bight, all of them on light cruisers. None of the sources consulted give German casualties.  One of the British dead, Ordinary Seaman John Carless of HMS Caledon, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Carless, who had joined the Royal Navy in September 1915 after being rejected by the army four times because of a weak heart, remained at his post and continued to load his gun despite being severely wounded.  The citation for his VC, quoted on Wikipedia, stated that:

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. Although mortally wounded in the abdomen, he still went on serving the gun at which he was acting as rammer, lifting a projectile and helping to clear away the other casualties. He collapsed once, but got up, tried again, and cheered on the new gun’s crew. He then fell and died. He not only set a very inspiring and memorable example, but he also, whilst mortally wounded, continued to do effective work against the King’s enemies.

— The London Gazette, No. 30687, 17 May 1918

The British failure to pursue more effectively was partly due to the light cruiser admirals not having all the information about minefields available to the Admiralty and to Napier. Additionally, Napier pursued at 25 knots when Courageous and Glorious were capable of at least 30 knots and were superior to the German light cruisers that they were chasing.[14]

The only vessel sunk in the battle was the German Kehdingen but losing only one trawler when so heavily outnumbered was a success for the Germans in an action where the British might have sunk a large number of minesweepers, destroyers and cruisers.




[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, pp. 165-66.

[2] M. Faulkner, A. D. Lambert, The Great War at Sea: A Naval Atlas 1914-1919 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2015), pp. 138-39; 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. iv, pp. 300-1,

[3] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 39-40.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 169-70.

[5] Ibid., pp. 170-71.

[6] Ibid., p. 171.

[7] Ibid., p. 172.

[8] Marder, From. vol. iv, p. 302.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 172-73.

[10] Ibid., p. 173.

[11] Ibid., pp. 175-76.

[12] Marder, From. vol iv, p. 305.

[13] Ibid., p. 304.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 177; Marder, From. vol. iv, p. 305

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Victory over the U-boats

On 21 October 1918 Admiral Reinhard Scheer, the German Chief of the Admiralty Staff, ordered all U-boats to return to base. This ended the German campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare, which meant sinking merchant ships without warning, that had begun on 1 February.[1]

Scheer’s orders were obeyed by almost all U-boat captains. UC 74 (Oberleutnant Hans Schüler) sank the 85 ton Greek sailing ship Aghios Gerasimos by gunfire in the Eastern Mediterranean on 23 October and a number of merchant ships were sunk by mines laid by UC 74 after 21 October off the Suez Canal. Other ships were sunk after 21 October by mines laid earlier.[2]

Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, Scheer’s predecessor, had argued that the Germans had to break the British economy in order to win the war and this could be achieved by destroying 600,000 tons of merchant shipping per month for five months, which would cut British trade by 39% within five months. The Germans were aware that this might bring the USA into the war against them but thought that it would not be able to replace the lost merchant shipping and that there would be insufficient transports to take US troops to Europe.[3]

The U-boats’ best month before February 1917 was October 1916, when they sank 341,363 tons of merchant shipping according to German records. There are some differences between British and German figures but they are not large. German ones are slightly higher over the whole war but are lower in some months. V. E. Tarrant argues that the German numbers are the more accurate and they are quoted here.[4]

As shown in the table below, the Germans achieved their target of sinking 600,000 tons of shipping in only three months: April, May and June 1917. However, the 860,334 tons sunk in April meant that the average for the first seven months of unrestricted submarine warfare was 612,310 per month. Von Holtzendorff’s belief that this level of loss for five months would break the British economy was proved to be wrong.

These figures are for ships from all countries, not just Britain sunk by U-boats, including by mines laid by U-boats, but excluding ships sunk by surface raiders and aircraft.

Month Gross tons
Oct-14 866
Nov-14 2,084
1914 Total 2,950
Jan-15 17,577
Feb-15 22,785
Mar-15 89,517
Apr-15 41,488
May-15 126,895
Jun-15 115,291
Jul-15 98,005
Aug-15 182,772
Sep-15 136,048
Oct-15 86,064
Nov-15 167,523
Dec-15 107,739
1915 Total 1,191,704
Jan-16 49,610
Feb-16 95,090
Mar-16 160,536
Apr-16 187,307
May-16 119,381
Jun-16 93,193
Jul-16 110,728
Aug-16 163,145
Sep-16 231,573
Oct-16 341,363
Nov-16 326,689
Dec-16 307,847
1916 Total 2,186,462
Jan-17 328,391
Feb-17 520,412
Mar-17 564,497
Apr-17 860,334
May-17 616,316
Jun-17 696,725
Jul-17 555,514
Aug-17 472,372
Sep-17 353,602
Oct-17 466,542
Nov-17 302,599
Dec-17 411,766
1917 Total 6,149,070
Jan-18 295,630
Feb-18 335,202
Mar-18 368,746
Apr-18 300,069
May-18 296,558
Jun-18 268,505
Jul-18 280,820
Aug-18 310,180
Sep-18 171,972
Oct-18 116,237
Nov-18 10,233
1918 Total 2,754,152
Grand Total 12,284,338

Source: Tarrant, V. E., The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945, (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), pp. 152-53. Originally from Der Krieg zur See, 1914-15, vol v: Der Handelskreig mit U-booten.

The losses were stemmed by the adoption of various counter-measures of which the introduction of convoys was the most important. Convoys had been used in previous wars and for troopships in this one. The Admiralty opposed them for a number of reasons:

Code breaking and radio direction finding could enable it to track U-boats. This had worked against surface raiders but was ineffective against U-boats because they could not be detected once submerged except by spotting their periscopes or torpedo tracks

An armed merchantman could avoid torpedo attack by zigzagging and fight off a gun attack by a surfaced U-boat.

Merchantmen would not be able to keep station, especially at night. In fact convoys were in areas where U-boat attack was unlikely for most of their journeys, giving them time to practice formation sailing.

Ships would be delayed in sailing. This was false as ships were already delayed by reports of U-boats near their ports.

Convoys would give U-boats an attractive target as they assembled in open seas. The US entry into the war meant that they could assemble in US ports. They could in any case have done so at Bermuda or Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Convoys would concentrate targets together, so would require to be escorted by as many as one destroyer per merchant ship. Allocating this number of destroyers to convoy escort would mean that the Grand Fleet would have to stay in port. Only eight to 10 escorts were actually needed for a 20 ship convoy and smaller ships than destroyers proved to be adequate convoy escorts.[5]

It was actually almost as hard for a U-boat to spot a convoy as it was for it to find an independent ship. According to Vice Admiral Sir Arthur Hezlet, a British WWII submarine captain, a ship could be spotted from 10 miles away. A 20 ship convoy would be two miles wide so could be seen from 11 miles away. Convoys therefore meant that U-boats would find fewer targets, not more. Even if a U-boat spotted a convoy, it would probably have time to  torpedo only one, at most two of its ships and would be counter attacked by the escorts. The British also used radio direction finding to avoid U-boats.[6]

This was confirmed by Karl Dönitz, commander of Germany’s U-boats in WWII and a U-boat captain in WWI. He wrote that ‘[t]he oceans at once became bare and empty…for long periods…the U-boats…would see nothing at all.’ When a convoy did appear, the ‘U-boat might well sink one or two of the ships, or even several; but that was but a poor percentage of the whole.’[7] It would also be vulnerable to counter-attack by the convoy’s escort.

The British had been using convoys in the war. As well as troopships, ships sailing between England and the Netherlands had been convoyed since July 1916 because of the risk of destroyer attack. Ships carrying coal from Britain to France were convoyed from February 1917 at the request of the French. The Admiralty insisted on calling the convoys controlled sailings.[8]

The French coal convoys had been organised by Commander Reginald Henderson.[9] He obtained figures from the Ministry of Shipping that showed that the number of ocean going ships sailing to and from the UK was much lower than realised.

The Admiralty had included short voyages made by small, coastal ships in its reports of the number of ships calling at British ports in order to make the Germans think that the sea traffic to the UK was too great for the U-boats to destroy. The 2,500 voyages each way per week claimed was too many to convoy but the true number of ocean going ships arriving and leaving was 120 to 140 per week.[10]

On 25 April 1917 the War Cabinet decided that the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, should visit the Admiralty in order to find out what it was doing about U-boats. Lloyd George and his colleagues were in favour of convoys but the Admirals had resisted them. However, the next day Vice Admiral Alexander Duff, head of the Admiralty’s Anti-Submarine Division, who now had Henderson’s figures, submitted a paper to the Admiralty stating that ‘[i]t seems to me evident that the time has arrived when we must be ready to introduce a comprehensive scheme of convoy at any moment.’[11]

Convoys would need 70 escorts. Only 30 destroyers were currently available but more would be built by the time that convoys could be fully organised and USN ships would soon be available.[12]

The introduction of convoys did not eliminate shipping losses but it reduced them sharply, from 5% of sailings in the UK in April 1917 to 0.5% by the end of the war. Some ships continued to sail independently and suffered heavy losses.[13]

A large number of aircraft were allocated to anti-submarine warfare in home waters: an average of 189 aeroplanes, 300 seaplanes and 75 airships in the last six months of the war, with an average of 310 being available each day. Their bombs were too small to sink U-boats but they had a significant deterrent effect. In 1918 U-boats attacked only six convoys with air escorts, sinking only three ships. Over the whole war only five ships were sunk in convoys with both air and surface escort.[14]

The Americans and British were also able to build new ships more quickly than the Germans had forecast. The US entered the war with a relatively small shipbuilding industry but rapidly built one, including constructing accommodation for workers and public transport to take them to work. The British made the Admiralty responsible for both naval and merchant shipbuilding, so that it could make the necessary trade-offs. These including suspending construction of three of the four Hood class battlecruisers in order to build more merchantmen. Sir Eric Geddes, a businessman who had solved railway supply problems behind the Western Front was made Controller of the Admiralty, putting him in charge of the materiel side of the navy. This job was normally done by the Third Sea Lord, an admiral. Ships were built to standardised design.[15]

Merchant shipping construction (tons)

1915 1916 1917 1918
UK          1,000,000         600,000          1,800,000   2,400,000
USA             250,000  n/a          1,500,000   4,500,000

Source: Friedman N., Fighting the Great War at Sea: Strategy, Tactics and Technology (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2014), pp. 284-86.

About 1,700,000 tons of Austrian and German merchant shipping interned in US ports were requisitioned by the US government. They included a number of liners, which transported US troops to France. Amongst them was the giant Vaterland, renamed the Leviathan in US service.[16]

The U-boats failed to stop over 2,000,000 US soldiers sailing to Europe, 10% of them on board the Leviathan. Two eastbound troop transports were sunk by U-boats and another accidentally by collision. Three returning to the USA to collect more troops were also sunk. The total of US soldiers killed by U-boats was less than the 700 who died as a result of influenza caught on the voyage.[17]

German U-boat construction in 1918 was only able to keep pace with losses. They had 224 [Sondhaus] or 226 [Gibson and Prendergast] under construction at the end of the war and completed 13 in October 1918. The hoped to complete 30 a month in 1919. However, they were struggling to man their new boats. U-boats needed experienced captains and fully trained crew: the six most successful U-boat captains in terms of tonnage sunk and 14 of the leading 18 survived the war. Consequently, the Germans refused to cut the training programme given to men before they were assigned to an active U-boat. About two dozen of those under construction at the end of the war could have been commissioned had trained personnel been available.[18]

The U-boats inflicted severe damage to Allied shipping but their attempt to blockade the UK failed and brought the USA into the war against Germany.


[1] L. Sondhaus, German Submarine Warfare in World War I: The Onset of Total War at Sea (Boulder MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). Kindle edition, location 4855.

[2] Ibid. Kindle locations 4861-68.

[3] D. Steffen, ‘The Holtzendorff Memorandum of 22 December 1916 and Germany’s Declaration of Unrestricted U-Boat Warfare’, Journal of Military History 68, no. 1 (2004).

[4] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), pp. 152-53.

[5] N. Friedman, Fighting the Great War at Sea: Strategy, Tactics and Technology (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2014), pp. 274-78.

[6] Original source A. R. Hezlet, The Submarine and Sea Power (London,: 1967), pp. 94-95; 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 v, pp. 88-89.

[7] Original source K. Doenitz, Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days (London,: 1959), p. 4;  Quoted in Marder, From. vol. v, p. 89.

[8] Friedman, Fighting, pp. 276-77.

[9] C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. iii, p. 100.

[10] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938), p. vo. v. p. 18.

[11] Ibid. vol. v, p. 19.

[12] Ibid. vol. v, pp. 18-19.

[13] Marder, From. vol. v, p. 87.

[14] Ibid. vol. v, pp. 91-93.

[15] Friedman, Fighting, pp. 284-86.

[16] Ibid., p. 286.

[17] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 437.

[18] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 363; Sondhaus, German. Kindle locations 4497-4513.


Filed under War History

The Dover Straits in the First World War

Origin of the Dover Patrol

At the outbreak of war the main British naval force in home waters was the Grand Fleet, based in Scotland. There were, however, four different forces based in the south east of England: the 1st and 3rd Destroyer Flotillas under Commodore (T) and the 1st Submarine Flotilla under Commodore (S) at Harwich; Cruiser Force C at the Nore; the 6th Destroyer and 2nd and 3rd Submarine Flotillas under the Admiral of Patrols at Dover; and the Channel Fleet of 20 pre-dreadnought battleships. These forces were not under a single command.[1]

The 6th Destroyer Flotilla of two light cruisers and 20 destroyers was responsible for the defence of the Dover Straits and was named the Dover Patrol.[2] The loss to U-boats of the cruiser HMS Pathfinder off Berwickshire on 5 September 1914 and of three armoured cruisers of Force C in the southern North Sea on 22 September showed the importance of the Patrol Flotillas in anti-submarine warfare. At the same time, the work of the Admiral of Patrols was becoming more complex, including minelaying, prevention of enemy minelaying and organising the transport of British troops to France and Belgium and the evacuation of Belgian refugees. On 7 October it was decided that the Dover Patrol should become a separate command. Rear-Admiral Horace Hood took it over six days later.[3]

Hood was replaced by Vice Admiral Reginald Bacon in April 1915. Bacon later wrote a two volume history of The Dover Patrol, which is now out of copyright and available to read at or to download at The Internet Archive.

Bacon listed the achievements of the Dover Patrol: drifters, crewed by pre-war fishermen, maintained anti-submarine nets, which stretched for 45 miles in 1917; trawlers, also crewed by fishermen swept for mines across 250 miles per day; 120,000 merchant ships passed through the straits with light losses; 5,600,000 troops crossed the Channel without loss; the enemy held coast was bombarded from sea 28 times from ranges of up to 15 miles versus a maximum of 12 miles on ranges in peacetime; examination of merchant ships; and laying of minefields.[4]

The first anti-submarine drifters arrived at Dover in January 1915 and there were over 130 of them there by June. They dragged an average of 1,000 yards of nets with a mesh pattern of 10 foot squares to a depth of 120 feet. The straits were a maximum of 21 miles wide and 180 feet deep, with an average depth of 108 feet. This meant that 36 drifters could in theory block the passage, but in practice tides and current made the task of such small craft difficult even in good weather. They were at best armed with a 6 pounder gun and sometimes with just a machine gun, requiring them to be protected by destroyers and armed auxiliary steamers. German records show that U8, scuttled on 4 March 1915 after being caught in the nets, was the only U-boat lost to the Dover barrage in 1915 or 1916. It did, however, force the larger U-boats that were based in Germany to take the longer route round Scotland to the Atlantic, with the smaller UB coastal submarines and UC minelayers based in Flanders using the shorter route through the Dover Straits.[5]

Mine Warfare

The Allies used mines to combat U-boats but U-boats also laid mines. The 15 boats of the UC I class carried 12 mines but had no deck gun or torpedo tubes. The 64 UC II class boats carried 18 mines and had two bow and one stern torpedo tubes. They initially had no deck gun although some were fitted with a 105mm gun in 1918. The 16 UC III class boats that were commissioned had 14 mines, the same torpedo armament as the UC IIs and either an 88mm or a 105mm gun.

Most German mines laid in British waters were laid by U-boats. In the second half of 1916 an average of about six merchant ships were sunk per month in British waters. This increased to 10 in the first half of 1917 but fell back to four in the second half of that year. On average 178 mines were swept in each month of 1916, rising to 355 in 1917. Even the English Channel was too big an area to sweep completely and only about 10 per cent of the waters around Dover could be swept regularly.[6]

As an example of the size of the Dover Patrol, in October 1916 it comprised:

The Auxiliary Patrol of 2 yachts, 78 trawlers (56 fitted as minesweepers), 10 paddle minesweepers, 130 net drifters, 24 motor launches and 5 motor boats.

The 5th Submarine Flotilla of the light cruiser HMS Arrogant and 10 submarines.

The 6th Destroyer Flotilla of the light cruiser HMS Attentive, 33 destroyers of 400-1,000 tons, 12 monitors with 7.5 to 15 inch guns, 12 gun or patrol boats, 5 paddle minesweepers and a seaplane carrier.

In late October the light cruiser HMS Carysfort and the 8 L class destroyers were detached from Harwich.[7]

The Germans made several attacks by destroyers on the Dover Straits. Click on the links for more details of the larger attacks.

The first of these, on 26-27 October 1916, resulted in the sinking of the old destroyer HMS Flirt, called a 30 knotter after her designed speed, the transport Queen, six drifters, a trawler and serious damage to the destroyers HMS Nubian and Amazon. The Germans suffered no losses but missed opportunities to do more damage. The German success was helped by their previous inactivity, which made the British complacent. This action showed that the barrage had limited effect, as 14 British destroyers had crossed it without being damaged.

The Dover Patrol was reinforced by destroyers from the Humber and Harwich. Destroyers had then to be sent from the Grand Fleet to the Humber. This meant that the Grand Fleet might have had to leave part of the 4th Battle Squadron behind when it put to sea because of a lack of destroyers. The Germans were unable to base a large number of destroyers at Zeebrugge because of the risk of air attack, meaning that they face a lengthy canal journey from Bruges. This meant that the British normally detected their operations early, The Germans usually reinforced their Flanders Flotillas with extra destroyers from the High Seas Fleet before raids. [8]

The second, on 23 November 1916, was ineffectual. Six German destroyers approached the Downs and fired at the drifters, damaging one without causing any casualties, before turning away before the British destroyers in the area could engage them. They made no attempt to enter the Downs, where over 100 merchantmen were moored. The Germans claimed to have bombarded Ramsgate, but no shells landed on land.[9]

On 25-26 February 1917 the Germans sent destroyers to attack the traffic rout from England to the Hook of Holland, the Downs and the barrage. The only effects of this raid were that the destroyer HMS Laverock was struck by a torpedo that did not explode and that a bombardment the Thanet coast slightly damaged some houses.[10]

A German raid on 17-18 March resulted in the sinking of the destroyer HMS Paragon and the merchant ship SS Greypoint and the damaging of the destroyer HMS Llewellyn.

The next attack came on 20-21 April 1917. It was the first to end in a major German defeat. The destroyers SMS G42 and G85 were sunk by the British flotilla leaders HMS Broke and Swift.

This was a loss of almost 10 per cent of the destroyers based in Flanders and could not be replaced. The Germans therefore changed their strategy. Future attacks would be aimed at the Netherlands to UK convoys rather than the Channel patrols and barrage. Raids on shipping at the mouth of the Thames on 26 and 30 April encountered no shipping, although Margate was bombarded on 26 April. [11]

On 10 May a planned attack on Netherlands to UK convoys led to a battle between German destroyers and three British light cruisers and four destroyers., Neither side suffered any losses, but the British achieved their objective of protecting the convoy.[12]

A week later the Germans attacked a convoy in fog, sinking the merchantman SS Ciro. The British destroyer HMS Setter also sank after collided with HMS Sylph.[13]

A further raid on 23 May was unsuccessful. Three days later a raiding force encountered two monitors and two French torpedo boats, but a fifteen minute gun battle caused no losses to either side.[14]

The German surface forces in Flanders remained on the defensive for the remainder of 1917, fearing that the British might try an amphibious attack as part of their Passchendaele offensive. The British planned such an operation, but the land offensive did not go well enough for it to be carried out. The main tasks of the Flanders Flotillas in the rest of 1917 were minesweeping and coastal patrols. The British carried out a number of coastal bombardments, which were normally accompanied by major air battles, as both sides attempted to drive off the enemy’s observation aircraft. There were some naval encounters, but none resulted in losses to either side. By the end of 1917 too many vessels had been transferred away from Flanders, mainly to take part in Operation Albion, an amphibious assault in the Baltic Sea, for them to carry out offensive operations.[15]

Keyes takes Command

By late 1917 the Admiralty was concerned that up to 30 U-boats a month were evading the barrage. Rear Admiral Roger Keyes in December 1917, the Admiralty’s Director of Plans, proposed illuminating the mine and net barrage with searchlights at night in order to force U-boats to dive into the minefield. Bacon argued that this would reveal the barrage and make it vulnerable to attack. On 18 December he was ordered to institute an illuminated patrol. The next night UB56 was forced to dive and was destroyed by mines. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the First Sea Lord, was a supporter of Bacon, but he was dismissed and replaced by Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss in late December. Soon afterwards, Bacon was replaced by Keyes.

Keyes strengthened the minefields and employed a patrol of a monitor with a 12 or 15 inch gun, four 30 knot destroyers, patrol boats, 14 trawlers, 60 drifters, four motor launches and two paddle minesweepers. At night the minefield was illuminated by flares from the trawlers and the destroyers’ searchlights.[16]

The larger U-boats stopped using the Straits in February and the smaller boats based in Flanders became less active from April. They laid 404 minefields in 1917 but only 64 in 1918. A 1922 Admiralty document claims seven U-boats sunk in the Dover Straits area in the first four months of 1918 and six in the rest of the year, 12 of them being UB or UC type boats.[17] lists five boats lost to mines and one to depth charges in the Dover area in the first four months of the year, with the seventh described as missing. It gives four lost to mines in the Dover area and one off Flanders in the rest of the year, with the final boat having been rammed by the steamer Queen Alexandra off Cherbourg.

The Germans bombarded Yarmouth on the evening of 14 January 1918. They did not encounter any British warships and the only German ships damaged was the torpedo boat SMS V67, which struck a mine and had to be towed back to port. No ships on either side were sunk in minor actions on 23 January and 5 February.[18]

The last and seventh German raid on the Dover Barrage came on 14-15 February 1918. It was the most successful, sinking seven drifters and a trawler and severely damaging five drifters, a trawler and a paddle minesweeper without loss. Six of the raids had been successful, but they were at least a month and as much as nine months apart, with the result that the losses from one attack had always been replaced by the time of the next one. The Dover Straits Barrage therefore continued to keep U-boats out of the busy shipping lane of the English Channel, and to force them to sail round the British Isles on their way to the Atlantic, reducing their time on station. It is unclear why the Germans stopped attacking the Dover Barrage, especially when their last effort was so successful.[19]

The Dover Patrol took part in the attacks on Ostend and Zeebrugge on 23 April 1918, for which eight VCs were awarded, and the follow-up raid on Ostend on 9 May 1918, for which another three VCs were awarded. These raids were intended to close the canals that connected the ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend to the German naval base at Bruges. The first raid closed the Zeebrugge canal to larger destroyers until 14 May, but smaller torpedo boats and U-boats were able to use it and both raids failed to block the Ostend canal.

In 1918 the British launched a series of aerial bombing raids on the German naval bases in Flanders. From 17 February to 1 April five destroyers and torpedo boats and a U-boats were damaged by bombing. The Germans were forced to reinforce their fighter defences, but the raids became heavier from 10 May. Between then and 2 June 12 destroyers and torpedo boats and two U-boats were damaged by bombing. On the night of 28 May the Zeebrugge canal lock gate was hit by a bomb, putting it out of action for a week. On 9 June it was damaged by a coastal bombardment, closing the canal for the rest of the month to all shipping.[20]

The English Channel, a vital communications link for British troops in France and Flanders, remained open to Allied shipping throughout the war. By April 1918 it was largely closed to U-boats.

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vi, The Dover Patrol i, pp. 5-7.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 16

[3] Naval Staff vol. vi, pp. 8-9.

[4] R. H. S. Bacon, The Dover Patrol, 1915-1917, 2 vols (London,: 1919). vol. i, pp. xii-xiv.

[5] L. Sondhaus, German Submarine Warfare in World War I: The Onset of Total War at Sea (Boulder MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). Kindle Edition, locations 1902-50.

[6] M. Faulkner, A. D. Lambert, The Great War at Sea: A Naval Atlas 1914-1919 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2015).

[7] Ibid., p. 105.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol iv, pp. 66-67; P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 346-47.

[9] Naval Staff vol. vi, p. 88.

[10] Ibid., pp. 88-91.

[11] M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front: The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2003), p. 126.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1939 vol. xix, Home Waters part ix, May to July 1917, pp. 10-12.

[14] Karau, Naval, p. 126.

[15] Ibid., pp. 161-65.

[16] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 309.

[17] Naval Staff vol. vi, p. 136.

[18] Karau, Naval, pp. 174-75.

[19] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v. p. 217; Karau, Naval, p. 179.

[20] Karau, Naval, pp. 207-10.


Filed under War History

The Ostend Raid 9-10 May 1918

The British raid on Zeebrugge and Ostend on 23 April 1918 was intended to block the entrances to the canals linking the German destroyer and U-boat base at Bruges to the sea. The failure at Ostend led Vice Admiral Roger Keyes, commander of the Dover Patrol, to plan another attack on Ostend. He planned to use the old cruiser HMS Vindictive, which had carried assault marines and sailors to Zeebrugge, as a blockship. She was captained by Commander Alfred E. Godal, who had captained the blockship HMS Brilliant during the previous attempt to block Ostend. She was ready to go on 27 April, but the weather was too bad to proceed.[1]

The night was dark enough in the first fortnight of May from 9:30 pm to 3:00 am. The attacking force would take two and a half hours to sail from Dunkirk to Ostend and would have to withdraw by 2:00 am in order to be clear of shore batteries by daybreak. It was decided, with advice from captains of Dover to Ostend steam packets, that the tides would be ideal on 10-13 May and almost so on 9 May. 14 May was a possible date but more doubtful. The delay allowed another old cruiser, HMS Sappho, to also be used as a blockship.[2]

The two blockships were accompanied by 18 motor launches and 10 coastal motor boats (CMBs, an early form of MTB/PT Boat). Fire support would come from seven monitors escorted by eight destroyers, five of them French, two motor launches and two French motor boats. The Allies did not know if the German destroyers of the Flanders Flotilla, which had returned to Germany in mid February, had returned to Zeebrugge, so another 12 British destroyers were deployed in three groups of 4 to cover against a German attack on the raiding force. Keyes commanded the northern group from HMS Warwick but Commodore Hubert Lynes commanded the expedition, known as Operation V.S., from HMS Faulknor.[3]

On the afternoon of 9 May Keyes and Lynes were lunch guests of the King of the Belgians at La Panne [De Panne in Flemish] in the unoccupied part of Belgium. Keyes noticed a change in the wind so left early, giving the king a hint why. He and Lynes hurried to Dunkirk to start Operation V.S.. Aerial reconnaissance revealed that the Germans had removed all the buoys in the approaches to Ostend. The British had allowed for this and HMS Faulknor carried an illuminated buoy to be positioned at the point where the attacking ships had to turn. To obtain surprise, the main bombardment from shore based guns, naval monitors and Handley-Page bombers would not start until the last moment.[4]

Vindictive and Sappho arrived at Dunkirk at 10:45 pm. The expedition sailed 45 minutes later but a boiler problem forced Sappho to drop out just before midnight. Lynes decided to go ahead with only Vindictive since she had been the only blockship available when V.S. was first planned.[5]

Faulknor dropped her buoy at 01:25 am on 10 May, with Vindictive passing it 12 minutes later. The British ships were covered by a smoke screen, and the only sign of enemy action until then was a single searchlight. At 01:43 am the British bombardment began. Five minutes later a mist descended, reducing visibility to a few yards and dividing the attacking force into a number of small, uncoordinated units. Vindictive was then about 12 minutes from her target. The destroyers outside the harbour and mist started firing star shells in order to illuminate the canal mouth.[6]

CMB 24 (Lieutenant A. Dayrell-Reed) and CMB 30 (Lieutenant A. L. Poland) fired torpedoes at the eastern pier head, damaging it. However, it is doubtful whether these brave attacks succeeded in reducing the German fire.[7]

Vindictive was finding it difficult to find the harbour mouth because of the mist. Godsal turned his ship in the hope of finding it. CMB 26 (Lieutenant C. F. B. Bowlby) did manage to identify the eastern pier head and fire a torpedo at it, but it hit the bottom and exploded so close to CMB 26 that she was badly damaged. Godsal was forced to order CMB 23 (Lieutenant the Hon. C. E. R. Spencer) to light a powerful flare in order to illuminate the harbour mouth. This showed Godsal the target but also showed his ship to the Germans. CMB 25 (Lieutenant R. H. MacBean) fired two torpedoes at the pier heads, which hit them but did not stop the fire that was raining down on Vindictive.[8]

Vindictive had to steer a course towards the western bank and then manoeuvre across the channel with the help of the east flowing tide in order to block the channel. As she began this manoeuvre, Godsal stepped out of the conning tower for a better view. A shell then hit it, killing him and knocking the navigator, Lieutenant Sir John Alleyne, unconscious. Vindictive remained on her existing course and had run aground by the time that Lieutenant Victor Crutchley was able to take command. He tried unsuccessfully to move Vindictive before ordering her crew to abandon ship and setting the sinking charges. She was lying at an oblique angle and did not block the channel.[9]

The survivors of Vindictive were picked up by motor launches 254 (Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Drummond), which took off two officers and 38 men and 276 (Lieutenant Rowland Bourke), which rescued Alleyne and two ratings from the water. Both launches were badly damaged, and Crutchley had to take command of 254 after Drummond was wounded and Lieutenant Gordon Ross killed.

Three men were found alive on board Vindictive by the Germans, despite Crutchley searching her before leaving.[10] Odsal, another officer and a petty officer were amongst the 16 British sailors killed in Operation V.S.: all are listed on

Shortly after Crutchley informed Keyes onboard HMS Warwick that the mission had failed she struck a mine. The enemy destroyers were absent and the mist was now protecting the British from German shore batteries. She was towed back to port.[11]

Keyes wanted to make a third attempt, which was in initially approved. By the end of May, however, the situation had changed with the result that the potential benefits would not justify the risks involved.[12]

The Dover Straits Barrage meant that U-boats could no longer travel through the English Channel to the Atlantic, reducing the effectiveness of boats based in Flanders. The Flanders torpedo boats and destroyers were by this stage of the war restricted to a defensive role.[13]

On 14-15 February 1918 German destroyers had sailed directly from the Helgoland Bight attack to successfully attack the Dover Barrage. This operation showed that destroyers did not need to be based in Flanders to threaten the Dover Barrage, but it was never repeated.

Crutchley, Drummond and Bourke were all awarded the Victoria Cross and a large number of other men were also decorated. See for the VC citations and a list of the other men awarded medals.

[1] B. Pitt, Zeebrugge: Eleven VCs before Breakfast (London: Cassell Military, 2003), pp. 177-80.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, p. 266-67.

[3] Ibid. pp. 267-69, footnote 1 on pp. 268-69.

[4] Pitt, Zeebrugge, pp. 180-84.

[5] Ibid., pp. 184-85.

[6] Ibid., pp. 185-87.

[7] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, vol. v, p. 270.

[8] Ibid., p. 271.

[9] Ibid., pp. 271-72.

[10] Ibid. footnote 2, p. 272.

[11] Ibid., p. 273.

[12] Pitt, Zeebrugge, pp. 203-4.

[13] M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front: The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2003), pp. 207-8.


Filed under War History

The Final Sortie of the High Seas Fleet

The final sortie of the German High Seas Fleet during the First World War took place between 22 and 25 April 1918. This was its first mission into the North Sea since August 1916, but it had not been inactive in the intervening period. From 10 to 20 October 1917 it had conducted Operation Albion, a major amphibious operation that resulted in the Germans capturing the Baltic islands of Ösel, Dago and Moon from the Russians.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer, C.-in-C. of the High Seas Fleet, learnt from U-boats that convoys between Norway and Great Britain had been escorted by battleships and battle cruisers since two German cruisers successfully attacked one on 17 October 1917. Scheer later wrote that:

‘A successful attack on such a convoy would not only result in the sinking of much tonnage, but would be a great military success, and would bring welcome relief to the U-boats operating in the Channel and round England, for it would force the English to send more warships to the northern waters.’[1]

Vizeadmiral Franz von Hipper’s battle cruisers (1st Scouting Group), the light cruisers of the 2nd Scouting Group and a destroyer flotilla would attack the convoy. All other available ships of the High Seas Fleet would cover the operations: the flagship, three battle squadrons less SMS Markgraf, the light cruisers of the 4th Scouting Group less SMS Stralsund and four destroyer flotillas.[2]

The Germans sailed at 5:00 am on 23 April but encountered fog at 10:30 am, when they were about to pass through the British minefields in the Helgoland Bight. It lifted after half an hour and they were able to proceed safely.[3]

The British then had four submarines patrolling the entrances to the Bight. HMS J6 spotted the German destroyers and light cruisers at 8:00 pm on 23 April, battle cruisers and destroyers at 8:30 pm and heavy ships at 00:15 am on 24 April. However, her captain had been told that British cruisers might be operating inside the area that he was patrolling, so assumed that they were British and did not report them.[4]

The Germans believed that the convoys travelled mainly at the start and middle of the week, so set the operation for Wednesday 24 April. In fact they sailed every four days, weather permitting. The limited range of most of the German destroyers and some of the light cruisers meant that they could stay in the operational area for only one day.[5]

A British convoy of 34 merchant ships had left Selbjorns Fjord at 1:15 pm on 22 April. Its close escort was only an armed boarding steamer and two destroyers, but it was being covered by the 2nd Battle cruiser Squadron and the 7th Light Cruiser Squadron to the south. It encountered heavy fog but reached Methil in the Firth of Forth on schedule on the morning of 24 April. The convoy to Norway was due to depart Methil the same day, with the result that the Germans would not have encountered any convoys even if their operation went to plan.[6]

The German operation did not go to plan. Early on 24 April the battle cruiser SMS Moltke suffered an engine breakdown, which reduced her speed to 13 knots. At 5:00 am Hipper ordered her to retire to the main German force. At 7:00 am Moltke was forced to break radio silence to report to Scheer that she was now capable of only 4 knots. Hipper at first turned back to help her but was then ordered by Scheer to resume his original course. Moltke was taken in tow by the battleship SMS Oldenburg at 10:45 am. Hipper did not spot any convoys and the main force set out back to base at 10 knots. Scheer had a choice of two routes and decided to take the quicker and more direct one. This increased the risk of encountering the British Grand Fleet but the other route, through the Kattegat was harder for Moltke and Oldenburg. It also risked offending the Danes and provoking the British into mining it, which would be bad for the U-boats.[7]

The British radio direction finding stations picked up the German signals and located them. At 11:45 am the Grand Fleet, which had been based at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth since 12 April, was ordered to put to sea. By the early afternoon 31 battleships, four of them American, four battle cruisers, two armoured cruisers, 24 light cruisers and 85 destroyers were at sea. Admiral Sir David Beatty, C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet, was given the option of holding back the Methil to Norway convoy and adding the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron to his force but chose not to. Two battleships and the 2nd Cruiser Squadron were sent to join the force covering the convoy.[8]

At 4:00 am on 25 April J6 saw German light cruisers and destroyers and 90 minutes later spotted battlecruisers. They had passed by 7:15 am and she then reported them. Another British submarine, E42, had been sent to intercept the Germans and got into position early because they were moving slowly. At about 5:30 pm her captain Lieutenant C. H. Allen fired four torpedoes at a line of ships that was passing him. He then dived his boat and took an hour to lose the enemy, during which time he counted 25 explosions nearby.[9]

E42 had hit the port engine room of Moltke, but she made port. At 1:41 pm the Admiralty authorised Beatty to return to port if he wished.[10]

The German operation was well planned but failed because of faulty intelligence. Had the High Seas Fleet set off a day earlier or a day later it would have encountered a convoy and presumably overwhelmed it and its escort. Scheer seems to have relied upon U-boat commanders for intelligence. It is unclear if he asked German Consuls in neutral Norway for details of convoy movements. It is also uncertain if he knew whether or not the Grand Fleet was now based at Rosyth.[11]

Scheer went further north than ever before at a time when the enemy was further south. In the event the High Seas Fleet was able to avoid the Grand Fleet, but this might not have happened if J6 had reported the High Seas Fleet after spotting it several hours before it was detected by radio direction finding. Both sides could therefore point to missed opportunities.


[1] R. Scheer, Germany’s High Sea Fleet in the World War (London: Cassell and Company, 1920), p. 318.

[2] 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), p. 149.

[3] Scheer, Germany’s, pp. 320-21. Times from this source have been adjusted for consistency with British sources, which quote times one hour behind German time.

[4] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, p. 284.

[5] Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 148-49.

[6] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 233-35.

[7] Scheer, Germany’s, pp. 321-22.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 232, 235-36.

[9] Ibid., p. 238.

[10] Marder, From. vol. v, p.154.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, ppp. 232, 238-39.

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