The Royal Navy and Passchendaele

The Third Battle of Ypres began on 31 July 1917. The Battle of Passchendaele was strictly speaking its final stage, but is now frequently used to refer to the whole battle. The First Battle of Passchendaele took place on 12 October and the Second officially lasted from 26 October to 10 November, although fighting in the area continued into December.[1]

D. Lloyd George, War Memoirs of David Lloyd George, 2 vols (London: Odhams, 1938). vol. ii, p. 1273.

 

According to Sir Douglas Haig, C.-in-C. of the British Expeditionary Force, the Allied plan was to wear down the enemy by a series of attacks, before the principal blow was struck by the British. The attack at Ypres was intended to capture the Belgian coast as far as the frontier with the Netherlands. It would involve a series of steps: first take the Passchendaele-Staden-Clerken ridge; then advance to a line from Roulers to Thourout in order to take the enemy coastal defences in the rear; and finally land from the sea along with an attack from Nieuport.[2]

The battle with U-boats that had intensified when the Germans began unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February was a factor in the plans. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the First Sea Lord, wrote to Admiral Sir David Beatty, C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet on 10 July about a plan to attack Ostend and Zeebrugge. He noted that David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, was against the military operation because it would lead to heavy casualties and every man was needed for the next year’s campaign. Jellicoe, however, thought that if the Allies waited until 1918, they might ‘never get the chance.. [and that they] must [his emphasis] get the north coast of Belgium before the winter sets in.’ Beatty wrote a question mark against the last comment.[3]

Haig told the War Cabinet that he was confident that the operation would take the Passchendaele Ridge and clear the Belgian coast. Jellicoe said that lack of shipping would mean that the war could not continue in 1918. Lloyd George challenged this claim, which he found ‘startling and reckless’, but Jellicoe stuck to it.[4] Haig wrote in his diary that nobody present agreed with Jellicoe, whose words were: ‘There is no good discussing plans for next spring. We cannot go on.’[5]

Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, commanding the Dover Patrol, was concerned that the Germans could wipe out the British naval forces in the Channel by an attack from destroyers based at Ostend and Bruges. These harbours were too well protected by shore batteries to be attacked by the sea and were supplied by railway rather than sea. As the Germans could choose their time, the British needed to have almost three times as many ships in the area as the enemy in order to be able to always have a force at sea equal to the attacking force. Control of north Belgium allowed the Germans to launch air raids against Britain.

Bacon worried that the Germans would keep the Belgian coast if they held it when the war ended, creating a future threat to Britain. He attributed the Germans failure to attack so far to their lack of ‘any real sea instincts’ but feared an attack soon as ‘they have improved vastly in sea initiative.’[6]

Bacon had suggested an amphibious landing to Haig in December 1915. The next month Haig asked him to produce a detailed plan, which would take place once British troops attacking from Ypres were near Roulers. Haig appointed General Aylmer Hunter-Weston to work with Bacon. Hunter-Weston thought that Bacon’s plan was land at Ostend was too risky, and Bacon changed his plans when the defences there were strengthened.[7]

Tim Travers describes Hunter-Weston’s leadership at Gallipoli as having been ‘poor.’[8] According to Michael LoCicero he was thorough in carrying out inspections, albeit with much attention to minor details, and was willing to lead from the front in mobile operations but tended to emphasise ‘planning and staff work…[in] trench warfare.[9] Although a poorly regarded commander, he may therefore have been better at reviewing plans than implementing them.

The German attack on the French at Verdun then forced the Allies to change their plans. The British became the leading force in the attack on the Somme rather than playing a supporting role to the French, which meant that Haig had to abandon his preferred plan to attack at Ypres.[10]

The amphibious landing on the coast was therefore abandoned until the attack at Ypres was revived in 1917. Bacon’s plan was to land to the west of Ostend. The problem with landing to the east was that sea communications with the invasion force until the shore batteries were taken or the land force advancing from Nieuport arrived. An assault to the west, however, meant scaling a 30 foot scale sea wall that sloped at 30 degrees and had an overhanging buttress three feet high. The solution to this was to have two monitors push 550 foot long landing piers carrying the invasion force to the sea wall.[11]

Monitors were slow, shallow draught ships armed with a single heavy gun turret and intended to be used for shore bombardment. They looked like the USS Monitor of American Civil War fame, hence their name. The ones assigned to the invasion were HMS General Wolfe, General Craufurd, Lord Clive, Sir John Moore, Prince Eugène and Prince Rupert.[12] They each displaced 6,150 tons, had a crew of 194, a maximum speed of 6.5 knots and an armament of a twin 12 inch gun turret and 2 quick firing three pounders.[13]

Exact details tides, water depths and the courses to be steered were required. The necessary information was obtained by submarine and aerial reconnaissance. A method used to ensure by telegraph cable laying ships was to be used to keep the monitors to the exact course needed.[14]

The invasion force was to include tanks. A replica of the sea wall was built in order to test how the tanks could scale it, which they were able to do once a special ramp had been built for them.[15]

The landing force consisted of 13,750 men of the 1st Division of General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s 4th Army. There would be three columns, each consisting of an infantry brigade reinforced with supporting troops including three tanks, four 13 pounder guns and two small howitzers, over 200 bicycles and three motor bikes. The two flanking columns would also include a motor machine gun battery and ammunition transport.[16]

The land attacks moved far more slowly than planned. The amphibious operation was called off on 15 October as, although the land offensive continued, the seas were by then to rough for a seaborne landing.[17]

Jellicoe told Admiral William Sims USN after the war that the planned amphibious assault ‘was a splendidly conceived and organised operation…[that he] firmly believe[d] would have succeeded..[had] the atrocious weather…[not] prevented the Army…getting far enough forward for the landing to take place.’[18]

It is difficult to say what would have happened had the amphibious assault taken place. WWI operations rarely went to plan and the only precedent is at Gallipoli, where the landings went badly. It was, however, carefully planned and, unlike Gallipoli, made use of specialised equipment. The Germans would have had to have been badly beaten elsewhere for it to have taken place. It was certainly imaginative.

British sailors were, however, involved in the Third Battle of Ypres. The Royal Naval Division was formed at the outbreak of war from naval reservists who were not needed at sea and Royal Marines plus some men who volunteered specifically for it. It had the infantry manpower of an army division but lacked supporting units such as artillery and medical services.

It was sent initially to Antwerp. A number of its men were unable to withdraw to Britain when Antwerp fell and were interned in the Netherlands. It was then sent to Egypt and then to Gallipoli. After the Gallipoli campaign it was transferred to the War Office and renamed the 63rd (Royal Naval Division). Thereafter it was fully equipped and operated under army control, serving on the Western Front from May 1916 until the end of the war. It fought in the Second Battle of Passchendaele (26 October to 10 November 1917).

Fighters of No. 4 (Naval) Wing and bombers of No. 5 (Naval) Wing of the Royal Naval Air Service, based at Dunkirk, flew in support of the land offensive.[19]

By the end of the Third Battle of Ypres the British Empire forces had not taken even all of the Passchendaele-Staden-Clerken ridge, never mind advanced to the Roulers to Thourout line.

Casualties are disputed, but were high on both sides. Andrew Wiest gives a ranges of 245,000 to 400,000 British Empire and 260,000 to 300,000 German troops killed, missing, captured or wounded. Gary Sheffield accepts Richard Holmes’s figure of about 260,000.[20]

All that can be said with certainty is that the British failed to take their objectives and that the battle cost both sides heavy casualties. The Germans, fighting both the British and French Empires with United States soldiers soon to arrive, could afford this level of losses even less than the Allies.

[1] M. LoCicero, A Moonlight Massacre: The Night Operation on the Passchendaele Ridge, 2 December 1917 (Solihull: Helion & Company, 2014). vol. ii, p. 1279.

[2] G. Sheffield, J. M. Bourne, eds, Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (London: BCA by arrangement with Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005). Thursday 14 June, pp. 299-300.

[3] A. T. Patterson, ed. The Jellicoe Papers: Selections from the Private and Official Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Jellicoe of Scapa, 2 vols (London: Naval Records Society, 1966-68). Jellicoe to Beatty, 10 July 1917, vol. ii, pp. 202-3.

[4] D. Lloyd George, War Memoirs of David Lloyd George, 2 vols (London: Odhams, 1938). vol. ii, p. 1279.

[5] Sheffield, Bourne, eds, Haig Diaries. Wednesday 20 June, p. 301.

[6] .’R. H. S. Bacon, The Dover Patrol, 1915-1917, 2 vols (London,: 1919). vol. i, p. 266-67.

[7] A. Wiest, ‘Haig’s Abortive Amphibious Assault on Belgium, 1917’, The Historian 54, no. 4 (1992), pp. 671-73.

[8] T. Travers, Gallipoli, 1915 (Stroud: Tempus, 2001), p. 14.

[9] LoCicero, Moonlight, pp. 81-82.

[10] G. Sheffield, Forgotten Victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities (London: Review, 2002), p. 162.

[11] Bacon, Dover. vol. 1, pp. 271-73.

[12] Ibid., p. 286.

[13] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 45.

[14] Bacon, Dover, pp. 275-80. vol. i, pp. 275-80.

[15] Ibid., pp. 282-84.

[16] Wiest, ‘Haig’s’, p. 676.

[17] Ibid., p. 680.

[18] Patterson, ed. Jellicoe. Letters from Jellicoe t0 Sims, 6 October 1919, p. 396

[19] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vo. iv, pp. 92-98.

[20] Sheffield, Forgotten, p. 216; Wiest, ‘Haig’s’, p. 669.

Leave a comment

Filed under War History

The Loss of HMS Vanguard 9 July 2017

At about 23:20 on 9 July 1917 the dreadnought battleship HMS Vanguard blew up and sank at Scapa Flow. A flame was observed, followed by an explosion, more flames and smoke and a second explosion. The smoke completely obscured the ship, which had sunk by the time it cleared.

Only three of the 845 men on board were picked up. One of those, Lieutenant Commander Alan Duke, died in hospital two days later. The dead included Commander Ito, a Japanese observer with the Grand Fleet, and two defaulters from HMAS Sydney, who were being held in Vanguard’s cells. Some of Vanguard’s crew survived because they were attending

Previous posts in this series have dealt with the losses by accidental explosions of the old battleship HMS Bulwark on 26 November 1914 and the armoured cruiser HMS Natal on 30 December 1915. HMS Princess Irene, a minelayer converted from a liner, was also lost to an accidental explosion on 27 May 1915.

Several warships of other countries were also lost to internal explosions whilst in harbour during the First World War: the Italian pre-dreadnought battleship Benedetto Brin on 27 September 1915 and dreadnought Leonardo da Vinci on 2 August 1916; the Japanese battle cruiser Tsukuba on 14 January 1917 and dreadnought Kawachi on 12 July 1918; and the Russian dreadnought Imperatritza Maria on 20 October 1916. The two Italian ships were probably sabotaged by the Austrians, the Japanese and Russian ones lost to accidental explosions.[1] The old Chilean battleship Capitan Prat was damaged but not lost by an internal explosion.

A dockyard worker called John Harston had been working on Vanguard shortly before her loss. William Schleihauf says that he had also been on board Natal before she exploded, whilst a thread on the Great War Forum says that he had also worked on Bulwark and Princess Irene. The Court of Inquiry into Vanguard’s loss took evidence from Harston and his assistant Robert Williams, concluding that there was no reason to suspect them. Harston continued to work for the Admiralty, eventually retiring with a full pension.

Schleihauf points out that Vanguard, although less than 10 years old was obsolescent because of the rapid advance in naval technology. She had 12 inch guns, whilst the latest British dreadnoughts had 15 inch guns and were larger and faster. The other British ships lost to explosions in port were obsolete. Saboteurs could have found more valuable targets that were no better guarded.

The Court of Inquiry concluded that Vanguard was lost because of a magazine explosion resulting from the ignition of cordite which could have been caused by a number of reasons: an avoidable cause; abnormal deterioration in a charge because it had been abnormally treated; sabotage by the enemy; or the cordite becoming unstable. It made 13 recommendations for improvements in handling processes and storage.

Admiral Sir David Beatty, C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet, concluded that the loss Vanguard was ‘probably due to defective cordite.’[2] The men killed when she exploded are listed on naval-history.net.

Vanguard is now an official war grave. Her White Ensign is regularly changed by RN divers. Ceremonies were held to mark the 100th anniversary of her sinking at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney, over her wreck in Scapa Flow and at the nearby Lyness Naval Cemetery, where the 41 men whose bodies were recovered are buried.

In addition to the footnoted sources, this post is based on the following websites, all accessed on 11 July 2017:

BBC News, ‘Orkney service marks HMS Vanguard sinking centenary’

 

The World War I Document Archive, ‘Explosions in Warships During the War’

 

The Great War Forum, ‘Sabotage what a coincidence’

 

William Schleihauf, ‘Disaster in Harbour: The Loss of HMS Vanguard’

 

[1] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 229, 233, 256, 259, 303.

[2] 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. iv, p. 42.

Leave a comment

Filed under War History

U-boats, the Zimmermann Telegram and the US Entry into the War

On 22 December 1916 Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, the Chief of the Admiralty Staff of the Imperial German Navy, sent Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the Chief of the General Staff, the last of a series of memos advocating that Germany adopt unrestricted submarine warfare.[1] Unrestricted submarine warfare meant sinking merchant ships without warning. German U-boats were then surfacing in order to check the nationality of merchant ships before opening fire. This was done largely to avoid the problems that would ensue if US citizens were killed.[2]

Holtzendorff argued that Germany had to win the war by autumn 1917 or else it would finish with the exhaustion of all the belligerents, which would mean disaster for Germany. The Italian and French economies had been so weakened by the war that they were able to continue to fight only with British support. The Germans had to break the British economy in order to win the war, and the way to do this was to attack the British merchant fleet. Extra demands were being placed on it because Britain imported much of its food and the 1916 global grain harvest had been poor. This meant that Britain would have to replace imports from Canada and the USA with grain from Argentina, India and especially Australia.[3]

Holtzendorff thought that a destruction of 600,000 tons of merchant shipping per month would reduce British trade ‘by 39% within five months. This would not be bearable’.[4] He admitted that he could not ‘guarantee that a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare’ would force a British surrender within five months.[5] However, acting in accordance with cruiser rules would mean sinking only 400,000 tons per month, reducing British trade by only 18%, which was not enough. Holtzendorff claimed that this was the actual rate achieved over the two previous weeks.[6] The actual losses, shown in the table below, were a little lower.

The British, however, were concerned even at the level of losses of late 1916. In October, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, who replaced Admiral Sir Henry Jackson as First Sea Lord, the professional head of the Royal Navy, in late November, warned the Admiralty that the losses of British and neutral merchant ships might by the summer of 1917 reduce imports of food and other necessities to a level that would force the Allies to accept worse peace terms than were justified by the European military situation. Admiral Sir David Beatty, who succeeded Jellicoe as C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet, said that the danger was ‘jeopardising the fate of the nation and seriously interfering with the successful prosecution of the war.’[7]

Holtzendorff  wanted to avoid war with the USA if possible but argued that the risk of it happening should not stop Germany ‘from making use at the decisive moment of a weapon that promises victory.’[8] He thought that the USA would not be able to replace the lost merchant shipping and that there would be insufficient transports to take US troops to Europe. He expected that the USA would make peace when Britain as it would not be able to do as much damage to Germany as U-boats did to its commerce and would want an early return to economic prosperity.[9]

The decision to launch unrestricted submarine warfare from 1 February 1917 was made at a meeting held on 9 January. Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg, who had until then opposed unrestricted submarine warfare, finally agreed to it, commenting it that it was ‘the last card.’[10]

On 1 February 1917 the Germans had 105 U-boats available, with new construction taking their strength to 129 by 1 June. They had at least 120 for the remainder of 1917 and 124 at the end of the year. [11]

The U-boat campaign was a military success, as shown by the following table:

British tonnage sunk (excludes fishing vessels) World tonnage sunk (includes British and foreign fishing vessels
October 1916 176,248 353,660
November 1916 168,809 311,508
December 1916 182,292 355,139
January  1917 153,666 368,521
February 1917 313,486 540,006
March 1917 353,478 593,841
April 1917 545,282 881,027

Source: C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1920), vol. iii, p. 465.

However, it resulted in US President Woodrow Wilson breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany on 3 February.[12] He, Congress and the US public were not yet ready to enter the war.

On 16 January Arthur Zimmermann, the German Foreign Minister, sent a telegram to Count Bernstorff, the German ambassador in Washington that he was to forward to Heinrich von Eckhardt, the German minister in Mexico City. Von Eckhardt was to offer the Mexican government an alliance if war broke out between Germany and the USA. The Germans would provide financial aid to Mexico, which would regain the territory that it had lost to the USA in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 after a victorious war. The Mexicans were also to attempt to persuade Japan to change sides.[13]

The British had destroyed the German cable communications with the rest of the world early in the war. The Germans, however, had access to two neutral cables to the USA: a Swedish one that they had been allowed to use since early in the war; and a US one that Wilson had allowed them to use when he was attempting to mediate between them and the Allies. Both passed through Britain, which could therefore intercept them. The simplicity of American codes and cyphers enabled the British code breakers of Room 40 to break them. They also had a copy of the German diplomatic code book that was captured when Wilhelm Wassmuss, a German agent in Persia, was forced to flee without his baggage.[14] The British and Russians had captured German naval code books in 1914.

On the morning of 17 January Captain Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall, the Director of Naval Intelligence, was handed a partial translation of the intercepted cable.[15] The code was in a variant of the one captured from Wassmuss and the parts that could not be decoded included details of the terms offered by Germany to Mexico. Showing it to the Americans risked revealing to them that the British were intercepting neutral diplomatic traffic and to the Germans that their diplomatic codes had been broken. Hall, perhaps hoping that the USA might enter the war anyway, sat on the telegram until 5 February, when he showed it to the Foreign Office.

By 10 February British agents had obtained a copy of it from the Mexico City telegraph office. The German legation there used a simpler code than the one used between Berlin and Washington, and the British were able to fully decode it. It could now be passed to the Americans without them realising that the British were intercepting Swedish and US diplomatic cables. The telegram, available online at the Great War Primary Document Archive, read:

Berlin, January 19, 1917

On the first of February we intend to begin submarine warfare unrestricted. In spite of this, it is our intention to endeavor to keep neutral the United States of America.

If this attempt is not successful, we propose an alliance on the following basis with Mexico: That we shall make war together and together make peace. We shall give general financial support, and it is understood that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. The details are left to you for settlement….

You are instructed to inform the President of Mexico of the above in the greatest confidence as soon as it is certain that there will be an outbreak of war with the United States and suggest that the President of Mexico, on his own initiative, should communicate with Japan suggesting adherence at once to this plan; at the same time, offer to mediate between Germany and Japan.

Please call to the attention of the President of Mexico that the employment of ruthless submarine warfare now promises to compel England to make peace in a few months.

Zimmerman
(Secretary of State)

Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, handed it to Walter Page, the US ambassador to London on 23 February. It was published in the USA on 1 March. A minority of Americans argued that it was a forgery. Hall took steps to prove to that it was genuine, but these proved unnecessary when Zimmermann admitted on 3 March that he had sent it.[16]

Wilson had already decided to ask Congress for permission to arm US merchant ships, which would have almost certainly have resulted in an incident that led to war. The measure was passed overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives but was filibustered out of the Senate. Wilson decided to go ahead anyway. On 20 March, after a number of US merchant ships were sunk by U-boats, he obtained the unanimous consent of his cabinet for a declaration of war. [17] On 2 April the House of Representatives voted 373 to 50 in favour of war, with the formal declaration coming on 6 April.[18]

The Germans thought that they would have starved Britain into surrender before the USA, which in April 1917 had an army of 213,557 men and 55 aircraft, 51 of them obsolete, could make a decisive difference. However, by the end of the war 1.97 million US troops had been sent to the Western Front, with no troopships being sunk on the way from the USA to Europe. By the summer of 1918 the USA was sending 536,000 tons of supplies per month to France, with a troop or cargo ship leaving every five hours. The USN committed 68 destroyers and 121 submarine chasers to the battle against the U-boats.[19]

This link, to a new exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery marking the 100th anniversary of American involvement in World War I, was kindly pointed out to me by G.P. Cox, writer of the excellent Pacific Paratrooper blog.

 

[1] 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), pp. 215-16.

[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. iv, p. 51.

[3] Steffen, ‘Holtzendorff’, pp. 219-20.

[4] Ibid., p. 221. This and subsequent quotations are from Holtzendorff’s memo, which is reproduced in Steffen’s paper.

[5] Ibid., pp. 220-21.

[6] Ibid., p. 222.

[7] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iv, pp. 324-25.

[8] Steffen, ‘Holtzendorff’, p. 222.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Marder, From. vol. iv, p. 51.

[11] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 338-39.

[12] Ibid., p. 340.

[13] D. Stevenson, 1914-1918: The History of the First World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004), p. 313.

[14] C. M. Andrew, Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (London: Heinemann, 1985), pp. 107-8.

[15] Hall was promoted Rear Admiral on 27 April 1917. His nickname resulted from a chronic facial twitch.

[16] Andrew, Secret, pp. 110-13.

[17] Stevenson, 1914-1918, p. 317.

[18] H. H. Herwig, The First World War : Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918 (London: Arnold, 1997), p. 320.

[19] Ibid.

8 Comments

Filed under Political History, War History

Archibald Smith VC and the SS Otaki’s fight with SMS Möwe

At 2:30 pm on 10 March 1917 the 9,575 ton British merchant ship SS Otaki encountered the German raider SMS Möwe about 350 miles east of St Miguel in the Azores. Otaki was heading from London to New York in ballast. She carried a crew of 71 and was armed with a single 4.7 inch gun on her stern.[1]

Möwe was a 4,790 ton merchant ship, designed to carry bananas from the Cameroons to Germany and originally called Pungo. She was converted into an armed raider and captained by Korvettenkapitän Graf Nikolaus zu Dohna-Schloden.[2]

Early in the war the Germans used large passenger liners such as the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, Cap Trafalgar, Kronprinz Wilhelm and Prinz Eitel Friedrich. They were hampered by their heavy coal consumption, which made it difficult for them to operate effectively in distant waters. Leutnant Theodor Wolff therefore came up with the idea of using a cargo steamer that had a low coal consumption and a large cargo capacity as an armed raider. The Möwe displaced about 5,000 tons, had a top speed of 14 knots and was armed with four 5.9 inch gins, one 4.1 inch and two 19.7 inch torpedo tubes. She also carried 500 mines, the laying of which was to be her first and main task.[3]

During her first cruise, which lasted from 29 December 1915 to 5 March 1916, she captured 57,776 tons of shipping. She also laid a mine that sank the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS King Edward VII in early January 1916. Her second cruise began on 22 November 1916.[4]

The two ships had similar top speeds and there was a heavy swell, but great exertions by her stokers enabled the Möwe to close the range to a mile and a half two hours after first sighting the Otaki. When she raised her naval ensign and fired a warning shot the British captain, 38 year old Aberdonian Archibald Bisset Smith, ordered his gun, which was manned by Royal Navy seamen, to fire back. His ship was heavily outgunned, although only two of the German’s four 5.9 inch guns could bear.[5]

The Möwe fired 35 5.9 inch and 34 4.1 inch shells plus three torpedoes, quickly wrecking the Otaki and forcing Smith to order his crew to abandon ship. The British ship, however, managed to score three hits, flooding a compartment and starting a fire in the coal bunkers. These were divided from the ammunition magazine by a wooden partition and it took great efforts by the Germans to put the fire out. Other German raiders had attacked armed merchant ships, but only the Otaki managed to damage her opponent. This action was fought at very close range: armed merchant ships lacked the rangefinders to score hits at more usual gunnery ranges.[6]

Four men were killed and nine wounded aboard the Otaki and another man drowned when abandoning ship. Chief Officer Ronald McNish, the carpenter and Captain Smith remained on board for half an hour after the rest of the crew abandoned ship. McNish and the carpenter were then forced to abandon the sinking ship. They assumed that Smith would follow them, but he went down with his ship. The Möwe, which had five men killed and 10 wounded in the action, picked up the British survivors.

The Möwe was on her way home at the time of this action, although she made two more captures on the way home.[7] She reached Germany on 22 March 1917, having sunk or captured 124,713 tons of shipping during her second cruise. Her total of 182,489 tons of shipping captured was easily the highest of any German surface raider of the First World War. The most successful warship, SMS Emden, accounted for 82,938 tons and the highest score by any of the passenger liners used as raiders was 60,522 tons by SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm.[8]

Captain Smith was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. As with Captain Frederick Parslow of the Anglo-Californian he had to first be given a posthumous commission as a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve as members of the merchant navy were civilians, so ineligible for the VC. McNish was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and two of the naval gunners, Leading Seaman Alfred Fulwood Worth and Able Seaman Ellis Jackson the Distinguished Service Medal. The carpenter and two apprentices, W. E. Martin and Basil Kilner, who were both killed, were mentioned in despatches.

Smith’s VC citation, from Naval-History.net, is copied below.

Lieutenant Archibald Bisset Smith, R.N.R.

For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of the S.S. “Otaki,” on the 10th March, 1917.

At about 2 30 p m on 10th March, 1917 the S.S. “Otaki,” whose armament consisted of one 4.7 in gun for defensive purposes, sighted the disguised German raider “Moewe,” which was armed with four 5.9 inch, one 4.1 inch and two 22 pdr guns, and two torpedo tubes. The “Moewe” kept the “Otaki” under observation for some time and finally called upon her to stop. This Lieutenant Smith refused to do, and a duel ensued at ranges of 1900-2000 yards, and lasted for about 20 minutes.

During this action, the “Otaki” scored several hits on the “Moewe,” causing considerable damage, and starting a fire, which lasted for three days. She sustained several casualties and received much damage herself, and was heavilv on fire. Lieutenant Smith, therefore, gave orders for the boats to be lowered to allow the crew to be rescued. He remained on the ship himself and went down with her when she sank with the British colours still flying, after what was described in an enemy account as “a duel as gallant as naval history can relate.”

[1] A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, pp. 412-13

[2] 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. 152.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xxv, ‘Review of German Cruiser Warfare 1914-1918’, pp. 13-14.

[4] Ibid., p. 14.

[5] Bridgland, Sea Killers, p. 198.

[6] Naval Staff vol. xxv, p. 16.

[7] Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, pp. 414-15

[8] Naval Staff vol. xxv, p. 1.

6 Comments

Filed under War History

Britain, Mosul and Oil

My book on Britain’s Quest for Oil: World War I during the WWI and at the subsequent peace conferences will soon be published by Helion. The link below is to a post I wrote for Helion’s blog about Mosul. Great Powers wanted to control it and its oil even then.  WWI was not a war for oil. but it showed the vital need for secure supplies of oil. Mosul was the obvious place to obtain them as it was up for grabs after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and there was little doubt that it contained large oil reserves, though they were not formally discovered until 1927.

4 Comments

Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History

The High Seas Fleet Sorties After Jutland

The Battle of Jutland was not the last time that Admiral Reinhard Scheer’s German High Seas Fleet (HSF) challenged the British Grand Fleet (GF) in the North Sea. On the evening of 18 August it put to sea with the intention of bombarding Sunderland. The dispositions of U-boats used ahead of Jutland had failed: if they closed on estuaries they got in each other’s way; but if they stood out to sea the gaps between them were big enough for the British to slip through unseen.

They were therefore deployed in three lines, with orders to move to other positions after either a certain period of time or receipt of a signal. The commander of U-boats was on board a battleship in order to facilitate co-operation between the surface fleet and the submarines. Eight airships were used to provide early warning of the advance of British ships Vize-Admiral Franz von Hipper’s Scouting Group (SG) was to remain 20  miles ahead of the rest of the HSF.[1]

The HSF had only two battlecruisers available, since one had been sunk at Jutland and two were under repair. Hipper was therefore reinforced by three of the HSF’s 17 dreadnoughts, including SMS Bayern, the first German ship armed with 15 inch guns. The pre-dreadnoughts of the II Battle Squadron, which had been shown at Jutland to be too slow and weak for a modern battle, were left behind.[2]

The British intercepted a signal at 9:19 am on 18 August that that the HSF was putting to sea at 9:00 pm that evening but not where it was going. The Grand Fleet was ordered at 10:56 am to put to sea. Submarines were stationed off Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Harwich. Three were already watching the approaches to the Bight and two more were sent to the north of Helgoland. By midnight on 18 August 26 British submarines were in the North Sea.[3]

Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the C.-in-C. of the GF, was on leave in Forfarshire. The cruiser HMS Royalist was sent to Dundee to collect him and take him to his flagship HMS Iron Duke. The transfer was delayed until 9:00 pm by a U-boat attack on HMS Onslaught, one of Iron Duke’s destroyer screen.

Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Force (BCF) reached its rendezvous with the GF at 5:00 am, when it was 30 miles ahead of the GF. At 5:57 am one of his light cruisers, HMS Nottingham, was struck by two torpedoes fired by U52. A third hit her at 6:25 am. She was abandoned by 7:00 am and sank 10 minutes later.[4] Naval-history.net lists the 39 of her crew who were killed.

Jellicoe was not told that Nottingham had been damaged until 6:50 am. He then took control of the GF, at 7:00 am ordering it to head north as he did not know if Nottingham had been mined or torpedoed. At 9:00 am he was told that the British submarine E23 had torpedoed a German battleship. He then turned south towards the HSF, about 170 miles away.[5]

E23, captained by Lieutenant-Commander R. R. Turner, had fired first at a battlecruiser and then at an unidentified German ship, missing both. At 5:00 am E23 torpedoed the battleship SMS Westfalen.  She was damaged but was able to return to Wilhelmshaven. Turner tracked her for two and a half hours, but her destroyers allowed him to fire only two more torpedoes, which missed.[6]

At 9:19 am HMS Canterbury of Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt’s Harwich Force of light cruisers and destroyers picked up a signal sent by E23 at 9:16 am giving the position of the HSF. The message was incomplete, with the crucial information that it gave the position at 4:00 am being lost. It was passed to Jellicoe by 10:18 am. Admiralty direction finding equipment, however, provided a ‘valuable check’ on this information.[7]

At 2:00 pm the Admiralty informed Jellicoe that the HSF had been 60 miles away at 12:33 pm. At 2:15 pm he told the GF that ‘[t]he High Sea Fleet may be met at any moment. I look with entire confidence to the result.  The GF was prepared for imminent action and the Harwich Force was ordered to a position where it could launch a night torpedo attack as the HSF retreated.[8]

Scheer had received a number of reports of British warships from U-boats and airships.[9] They did not enable him to form a ‘coherent view’ of the British positions, but he could be sure that they were at sea and the visibility from the fleet justified the assumption that the German ‘airships commanded a clear view over the entire sea area.’[10]

Scheer assumed that the British were concentrating about 110 miles north west of the HSF, with patrols to the south. At 12:23 pm the HSF was 82 miles off Whitby, heading north to Sunderland, when the airship L13 reported that at 11:30 am a British force was 65 miles south of the HSF and heading north. At 12:30 pm L13 signalled that the British force consisted of 16 destroyers, large and small cruisers and battleships. She then lost touch with it because of a thundercloud. Scheer believed that this was his chance to destroy a detached British battle squadron and turned south towards it.[11]

L13, whose pilot was a reserve officer and not well trained in reconnaissance work, had actually spotted the Harwich Force. At 12:45 pm it changed course, so the HSF did not encounter it.[12] Scheer called off the chase at 2:35 pm, citing the proximity of minefields.[13] He had also received a report from U53 informing him that the GF was 65 miles to the north and heading south.

The BCF would have been in contact with the HSF by 3:00 pm had it not turned away. At 3:05 Jellioce ordered Beatty to turn north if he had not encountered the enemy by 4:00 pm. A number of submarines, alerted by U53’s signal, were sighted, but the only smoke spotted belonged to a trawler, so Beatty ordered the BCF north at 4:03 pm.[14]

At 4:52 pm U66 fired two torpedoes at the light cruiser HMS Falmouth. Two struck her, causing severe damage but leaving her afloat with her engines working. U66 fired two more torpedoes, which both missed, and was then damaged by a depth charge dropped by the destroyer HMS Pelican. All crew other than those needed to work the ship were taken off Falmouth and tugs were sent to tow her , since attempts by destroyers to tow her had failed. The tugs were small and able to tow her at only two to three knots.

At noon on 20 August U63 penetrated her screen of nine destroyers and fired two torpedoes, which both hit Falmouth. HMS Porpoise tried to ram the U-boat but only grazed her, and U63 escaped. Falmouth was abandoned and sank just before 8:00 am on 21 August. The British Naval Staff Monograph gives her casualties as three dead, 8 missing and 13 wounded, but naval-history.net lists 12 dead and 13 wounded. All the dead and seven of the wounded were stokers, who would have been deep inside the ship. Other U-boats harassed the GF and BCF but no further torpedo hits were scored.[15]

The Harwich Force spotted the HSF at 6:00 pm. It made full speed in order to get ahead of it and launch a torpedo attack. After an hour, however, Tyrwhitt realised that his ships would not be in a position to attack before the moon rose, which would have made an attack suicidal.[16] The operation therefore ended with no action between surface ships and two British light cruisers sunk and a German battleship damaged by submarines.

The British destroyer HMS Trident suffered damage to her stern in a collision with the destroyer HMS Ambuscade. Her speed was unaffected.[17]

Both navies changed their strategies as a result of the events of 19 August. Jellicoe believed that he needed 87 destroyers: 12 for each eight battleships or battlecruisers; two per cruiser; and one per light cruisers. He had 86 on paper, but typically only 70 were available because of refits and detachments to other duties.

On 23 September the Admiralty issued new instructions. The GF was vital to the Allies, but the HSF was not so important to the Central Powers. The risk to the GF from submarines and minefields meant that it should stay north of the Horns Reefs ‘except in exceptional circumstances… an attempt at invasion or a really good opportunity of bringing the German Fleet to action in daylight, in an appropriate area.’[18]

Scheer believed that the mistaken reports from L13 denied him a chance of a victory. Given that the GF was out in force, the odds in its favour were greater than at Jutland and the two fleets would have come into contact earlier than on 31 May, it is more likely that L13’s error saved him from disaster. He had received 11 reports from five of the 24 U-boats involved, seven of them from U53. Three of the 10 airships sighted the British, sending seven reports, four of them misleading.

19 August made the German Naval Staff believe more strongly that only U-boats could give decisive results at sea, not the HSF. U-boats were ordered to resume the war on commerce on 6 October, albeit using under prize rules that meant that they had to stop and search merchant ships rather than sinking them without warning.[19]

The 19 August was not the HSF’s last sortie into the North Sea, but it would in the future have to depend solely on airships for reconnaissance. This, couple with the more cautious British strategy, meant that it was the last sortie that came close to resulting in a major battle.

 

 

[1] R. Scheer, Germany’s High Sea Fleet in the World War (London: Cassell and Company, 1920), pp. 180-81.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1927 vol. xvii, Home Waters part vii June 1916 to November 1916, pp. 94-95.

[3] Ibid., pp. 95-98.

[4] Ibid., pp. 99-100.

[5] Ibid., pp. 101-2.

[6] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iv, p. 37.

[7] Naval Staff vol. Xvii, p. 102.

[8] Ibid., p. 104.

[9] Ibid., p. 106.

[10] Scheer, Germany’s, p. 182.

[11] Naval Staff vol. Xvii, pp. 106-7.

[12] 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. iii, p. 293.

[13] Scheer, Germany’s, p. 182.

[14] Naval Staff vol. Xvii, p. 108.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 295-96.

[17] Naval Staff vol. Xvii, p. 112.

[18] Ibid., pp. 130-31.

[19] Marder, From. vol. iii, p.298.

2 Comments

Filed under War History

A Very British Deterrent – BBC

The BBC recently broadcast a programme called A Very British Deterrent. UK viewers can watch it until 4 October from the BBC website, which describes it as follows:

‘With Trident renewed for another generation, A Very British Deterrent tells the story of the remarkable events, eye-watering costs, power relationships and secret deals done half a century ago to secure Britain’s very first submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

In today’s turbulent world, it is a story that is more relevant than ever. At the height of the Cold War, a series of political and technical crises came close to leaving Britain without a nuclear weapon of its own. In a time of unprecedented international tension and with the world locked in a terrifying nuclear arms race, one small loch in Scotland became a crucial bargaining chip to keep Britain in the nuclear game.

Using the personal letters of prime ministers and presidents, eye-witness accounts and once-secret documents, this film explores how the British prime minister Harold Macmillan seized every opportunity to further Britain’s nuclear ambitions, was prepared to trade a Scottish base for a new American weapon, and even jeopardised the crucial Anglo-American relationship to keep Britain an independent nuclear power.’

In 1957 only the USA, USSR and UK had nuclear weapons. In October of that year the USSR launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik. This meant that it was possible to put nuclear weapons into orbit round the Earth.

Macmillan wrote in his diary that this had a similar impact on American confidence to Pearl Harbor, leading to President Dwight D. Eisenhower being for the first time attacked for not being able to defend the country. Macmillan was close to Eisenhower, having been British Minister-in-Residence at his headquarters for a period during WWII.

Three weeks after Sputnik Macmillan visited Eisenhower in the USA, obtaining what he wanted: access to US nuclear secrets. In WWII the USA and UK were full partners in the development of the atomic bomb, but after the war Congress decided that the US should nit share nuclear secrets with anybody.

The UK then developed its own nuclear weapons and by 1957 had bombers armed with hydrogen bombs. The big problem, however, was not the bomb but a delivery system that could penetrate Soviet defences. The UK developed its own missile, Blue Streak, but it took 30 minutes to get its engine ready, compared with a 4 minute warning of a Soviet attack from space. The UK was too small to conceal land based nuclear missiles or to locate them well away from population centres.

The US had a number of nuclear weapon programmes, including a navy one lead by Admiral Arleigh Burke, the Chief of Naval Operations. Burke proposed putting nuclear missiles on nuclear powered submarines rather than land: the Polaris system.

Burke’s British counterpart,  Admiral Lord Mountbatten, the First Sea Lord, saw Polaris as the solution to the UK’s problem and began a correspondence with Burke, who proposed putting a British officer in the office developing Polaris.

An alternative US project was Skybolt, an air launched nuclear missile with a range of 2,000 miles. It would be cheaper than Polaris because it could be fitted to existing bombers.

In March 1960 Eisenhower and Macmillan met at Camp David, officially to discuss future summit meetings involving themselves and other world leaders. The two, however, also had a meeting at the Eisenhower family farm at Gettysburg. According to Eisenhower’s grandson David, who witnessed their arrival, they were not accompanied by anybody else, not even security personnel.

Eisenhower offered Skybolt, but not Polaris, to the UK. In return he wanted a base for US Polaris submarines in Europe and thought that Scotland was the best location. The cancellation of Blue Streak and the acquisition of Skybolt were soon announced, but the US submarine base in Scotland was at first kept secret. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was then holding mass anti-nuclear demonstrations in the UK.

Eisenhower’s chosen site for the submarine base was not in a remote part of Scotland but at the mouth of the Clyde, 25 miles from Glasgow. Macmillan wrote to Eisenhower suggesting a more isolated location but the President wanted a site that offered better access to open seas, good shore facilities and was near an international airport.

Increased international tension meant that Eisenhower wanted to base US Polaris submarines in Scotland as soon as possible. The British felt that this would make it harder to sell to the British population.  Macmillan eventually agreed to the US base at Holy Loch on the Clyde.  He asked that a proposal that US submarines should not be allowed to fire their missiles from within British territorial waters without British consent should be extended to 100 miles. Eisenhower was prepared to offer only a weak assurance about consulting the UK and other allies in the event of a crisis.

In 1961 John F. Kennedy became US President. Despite being from a different generation and with a different world view he saw Macmillan as somebody he could turn to in a crisis, speaking to him every day during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Some of Kennedy’s inner circle argued that the US should not favour one of its European allies over the others by supplying the UK with nuclear weapons. They appeared to have an opportunity to achieve their wish when Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense, decided that Skybolt was a waste of money. In early December he unformed the British that all five Skybolt tests so far had failed. The British pointed out that they had cancelled Blue Streak and made themselves completely dependent on the US in return for allowing the US the Holy Loch base.

An Anglo-American crisis then developed. Ahead of a meeting with Macmillan at Nassau in late December Kennedy phoned Eisenhower to check what had actually been agreed. Kennedy’s view was that Skybolt and Holy Loch were separate agreements made at the same time.

The talks between the two leaders at Nassau were fully minuted. Kennedy offered the UK Skybolt, which had cost the US $450m so far, for $100m. Macmillan replied that ‘while the proposed marriage with Skybolt isn’t exactly a shotgun wedding, the virginity of the lady must now be regarded as doubtful.’ Macmillan asked for Polaris and its missiles. Kennedy said that a British Polaris fleet must be: ‘assigned to NATO.’ Macmillan asked what ‘assigned to NATO’ meant and Kennedy replied:

‘that it is in the UK’s interests to define assigned as loosely as possible. These missiles and submarines missiles should be available to the UK for national use only in case of dire emergencies.’

Macmillan thought that this meant ‘a question of absolute survival’ and was concerned that it excluded the defence of British ‘supreme national interests’, such as the British controlled oilfields in Kuwait.

On the second day of the summit Macmillan talked in such a way that made it appear that the UK desired a nuclear deterrent so that it could retain international credibility despite being in decline. He then said that unless the nuclear deterrent could ‘be used when they wish by the British government…he would rather ‘drop the whole idea [and] undertake an agonising reappraisal of our military and political priorities’, suggesting that close ties between the UK and USA might end.

On the third day agreement was reached. The British Polaris submarines would be assigned to NATO but the UK would reserve the right to use them independently, when its ‘supreme national interests’ were at stake.

Macmillan had retired by the time of the 1964 UK General Election in which his Conservatives were defeated by Labour. Harold Wilson, the new Prime Minister, ordered four Polaris submarines, each costing £600m in current money, despite having previously promised to cancel the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent. The submarines and warheads were built in the UK and the missiles bought from the USA. They were based as Faslane, close to the US base at Holy Loch. The USN left in 1992 but the British nuclear force remains at Faslane. Since they came into service in 1969 the UK has always had at least one nuclear missile submarine at sea.

A very interesting programme. Macmillan was very keen to maintain an independent British nuclear deterrent. The only major problems that this gave him with Eisenhower was the President’s insistence on having a nuclear submarine base near a large British city. Later, however, the British decided that the naval and logistic arguments for a base on the Clyde outweighed the political ones for a more remote location. Macmillan initially had more difficulties with the Kennedy Administration. In the end, however, the President put the need to maintain good relations with the USA’s closest ally ahead of the desire of many of his advisers not to favour one European ally over the others.

2 Comments

Filed under Political History, War History