Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Battle of Helgoland Bight 28 August 1914

An improved version of this post is available  by clicking on this link to The Dreadnought Project.

It uses the Naval Staff Monographs, written between the two world wars by Royal Navy staff officers for internal RN use, which I was unaware of at the time that wrote the initial version.

The first month of the First World War saw little naval action in the North Sea. Kaiser Wilhelm II was unwilling the risk the German fleet in action. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of the German fleet thought that ‘it was simply nonsense to pack the fleet in cotton wool’, but his job was largely administrative and gave him little input into strategy.[1]

Wilhelm and his Chancellor Theobald von Bethman Hollweg wanted to preserve the fleet as a post war bargaining counter. The German generals saw the navy’s role as protecting the army’s flank and stopping amphibious assaults by the British on Germany’s North Sea coast or the Russians in the Baltic.

The German navy had expected the British to carry out a close blockade of the Helgoland Bight, which would allow the Germans to whittle down the Royal Navy (RN). However, the RN instead conducted a distant blockade of the North Sea.

The RN had assumed that the Germans would come out and challenge it at the start of the war. Admiral Sir William James, a Commander in 1914 who served in Naval Intelligence and the Room 40 code-breaking centre later in the war, told the naval historian Arthur Marder that ‘[r]epeated [German] excursions might have seriously weakened us.’ Marder notes that the Germans failed to use the major advantage that the use of Zeppelins for reconnaissance would have given them.[2]

By 19 August the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been transported to the Continent. The RN closed the English Channel to raiders and the Grand Fleet was positioned to prevent the German High Seas Fleet from interfering with the transports.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer, then commanding the German Second Battle Squadron, described the idea that the Germans might have attacked the British supply lines as a ‘totally impossible demand’ that would have led to heavy German losses.[3]

Some of the more aggressive British officers wanted to take action. These included Commodores Roger Keyes and Reginald Tyrwhitt, commanding respectively the submarines and destroyers at Harwich, and Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, commanding the Grand Fleet’s battlecruisers.

Keyes’s submarines gathered useful intelligence about the organisation of German patrols. He put forward his plan, supported by Tyrwhitt, on 23 August. Three surfaced submarines would be placed 40 miles off Helgoland in order to draw out the German destroyers. They would then be attacked by Tyrwhitt’s 1st and 3rd destroyers flotillas, each led by a light cruiser.

Three more submarines would lie submerged closer in to the coast in order to attack any German cruisers that came out to support their destroyers and two more would be placed at the mouth of the River Ems. The battlecruisers HMS Invincible and New Zealand, which had recently moved to the Humber under the command of Rear Admiral Archibald Gordon  Moore, would give support. Five old Cressy class armoured cruisers would be held in reserve under the command of Rear Admiral Arthur Christian.

On 24 August it was decided to carry out Keyes’s plan four days later. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the commander of the Grand Fleet, was not informed until 26 August. He suggested bringing the Grand Fleet south in support; he was told that this was unnecessary, but that his battlecruisers could ‘support if convenient.’[4] On the morning of 27 August he sent Beatty’s three battlecruisers and Commodore William Goodenough’s six light cruisers south.

The signal informing the local commanders that Beatty and Goodenough’s ships were supporting them reached Christian but not Keyes or Tyrwhitt. This nearly led to Goodenough’s light cruisers being fired upon by other British ships.

The Battle of Helgoland Bight is described by Paul Halpern as being ‘a most confusing encounter.’[5] Fog and haze restricted visibility and restricted the involvement of the German shore batteries.

The tides meant that German capital ships could not cross the Jade Bar and put to sea in the morning. Marder wonders if this ‘may have been lucky for the attackers (or was it foresight in planning?).’[6] Most other writers, including Sir Julian Corbett, the official historian, mention this fact without giving any indication whether it was due to luck or judgement.[7] However, Robert Massie notes that Beatty had a set of the German coastal tide tables.[8]

Tyrwhitt had the Third Flotilla of 16 modern L class destroyers and his flagship the brand new light cruiser HMS Arethusa (2 6 inch, 6 4 inch guns, 4 21 inch torpedo tubes) along with the First Flotilla of the light cruiser HMS Fearless (10 4 inch guns, 2 18 inch torpedo tubes) and 15 older  destroyers. The First Flotilla’s other four destroyers were with the Humber battlecruisers. Keyes flew his flag in the destroyer HMS Lurcher, which was accompanied by the destroyer HMS Firedrake.

Tyrwhitt’s force first sighted a German destroyer at 7 am and was soon engaged with ten enemy destroyers. Two German light cruisers, SMS Stettin and Frauenlob (both 10 4.1 inch guns, 2 17.7 inch torpedo tubes) appeared about 8 am. They easily outgunned the British destroyers and were similarly armed to Fearless. Arethusa was theoretically more powerful, but was new and not fully worked up. However, Goodenough’s Town class light cruisers had 6 inch guns, making them far more powerful than the German cruisers.

The British destroyers fell back on Arethusa and Fearless. Stettin withdrew after covering the withdrawal of the German destroyers. Arethusa was reduced to 10 knots and one 6 inch gun because of damage inflicted by Frauenlob and gun jams, but was able to damage Frauenlob so badly that she retired. The only German ship sunk in this part of the battle was the destroyer V187.

The action was very confused because of the poor visibility and poor co-ordination by both sides. Keyes had not been informed that Goodenough’s squadron was in the area, so assumed that HMS Nottingham and Lowestoft were German when he first saw them. The submarine E6 fired a torpedo at HMS Southampton, which then tried to ram E6. Neither vessel was damaged.

By 10:40 am Arethusa had restored her speed to 20 knots and brought all four of her 4 inch guns back into action. Eight more German light cruisers had by then left harbour, but Rear Admiral Leberecht Maass, their commander, committed them piecemeal. By 11 am Tyrwhitt’s flotillas were engaged with four German light cruisers; SMS Stettin, Strassburg and Ariadne and Köln: some sources call the last named ship Cöln, but I have used the current spelling of the city’s name. A fifth, Mainz, was on the way. All were armed with 4.1 guns, but the British wrongly identified Köln as a much more powerful armoured cruiser.

Beatty ordered Goodenough to send two of his cruisers to support Tyrwhitt, but Tyrwhitt took all his squadron. Beatty was concerned that the British light forces might be overwhelmed, but also of the risk to his battlecruisers from mines, U-boats, enemy capital ships and even mis-identification by British submarines.

Beatty said to his Flag Captain Ernle Chatfield that ‘if I lose of these valuable ships the country will not forgive me.’ Chatfield replied that ‘surely we must go’, which convinced Beatty to order all five battlecruisers to head for the action at full speed at 11:35 am.[9] They arrived at 12:37 pm and withdrew at 1:10 pm. By then Köln, Mainz and Ariadne were sunk or sinking.

The first two German battlecruisers SMS Moltke and Von der Tann did not cross the Jade Bar until 2:10 pm. They were ordered by Rear Admiral Franz Hipper, commanding the German battlecruisers, not to engage the enemy until he joined them with his flagship SMS Seydlitz, which was an hour behind. He did not want to repeat Maas’s error of feeding in his ships piecemeal.

Helgoland Bight was a clear British victory: three German light cruisers and a destroyer were sunk and three light cruisers damaged, with 1,242 Germans were killed, capture or wounded. Maas was amongst the dead. Only one member of Köln’s crew survived. Others abandoned ship but the Germans did not search the area for three days, by when all the rest were dead. The British had one light cruiser and three destroyers damaged but lost no ships. 35 British sailors were killed and 40 wounded.[10]

Despite this, the British made a number of mistakes. There was little co-ordination between the different squadrons and flotillas and communications were poor. As well as the failure to tell Keyes and Tyrwhitt that they were being supported by Beatty and Goodenough, Keyes and Tyrwhitt did not give the speeds and courses of their ships when requesting support.

The Germans concluded that their system of patrol lines was a mistake and replaced them with minefields. In future there would always be at least four capital ships outside the Jade Bar, with all at two hours’ notice for steaming. The Kaiser became even more determined not to risk his ships. He ordered that the commander in chief of the High Seas Fleet should ask his permission before taking part in a fleet action.

The main impact of the battle was moral, both positive on the British and negative on the Germans. The New Statesman said that it was of ‘immense moral, if slight material, importance in its effect upon the two fleets.’[11]

[1] 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). ii, p. 43.

[2] Ibid. ii, pp. 45-46.

[3] Quoted in P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 29.

[4] Quoted in Marder, From. ii, p. 51

[5] Halpern, Naval, p. 31.

[6] Marder, From. ii p. 52.

[7] G. Bennett, Naval Battles of the First World War (London: Pan, 1983), p. 133; J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). i, p. 119; Halpern, Naval, p. 31; R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 107.

[8] Massie, Castles, p. 108.

[9] Quoted in Marder, From. ii, p. 52.

[10] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. i, p. 119 and footnote 1.

[11] 5 September 1914 edition, quoted in Marder, From. ii, p. 54



Filed under War History

The Sinking of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse 26 August 1914

In 1914 both Britain and Germany armed merchantmen. British armed merchant cruisers were intended to protect trade and to enforce the blockade of Germany. The German equivalents were commerce raiders.

The only commerce raider to leave a German port and slip out past the British blockade in August 1914 was the Norddeutscher Lloyd Line’s 14,000 ton Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, commanded by Kapitän Max Reymann. The other early German merchant cruisers were abroad at the start of the war and were armed by German warships.

She was capable of 22.5 knots and on her maiden voyage in 1897 won the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic. As a merchant cruiser she was armed with six 105mm (4.1 inch) and two 37mm (1.5 inch) guns. Her main weakness was her high coal consumption.

On 7 August, three days after leaving Hamburg, the Kaiser Wilhelm captured and sank the steam trawler Tubal Cain, whose crew were taken on board the German ship.

A week later the Kaiser Wilhelm picked up a signal from the British liner Galician, which was concerned about the threat of German commerce cruisers near Tenerife. The German ship sent her a reassuring message and then intercepted her on the afternoon of 15 August.

The Galician was carrying a general cargo and nine first class and 30 second class passengers. Reymann had her wireless disabled and took off two of her passengers, Lieutenant J Deane of the First Battalion East Lancashire Regiment and Gunner C Shurmer of the Royal Garrison Artillery. At 5 am on 16 August Reymann allowed the Galician to go with the following signal: ‘I will not destroy your ship on account of the women and children on board. You are dismissed. Good-bye.’[1] Click here for a film reconstruction of the incident.

On 16 August Kaiser Wilhelm intercepted three British merchantmen. The Kaipara and Nyanga were sunk after the 101 men on board them had been transferred to the German ship. The third ship, the modern Royal Mail steamer Arlanza, had women and children amongst her passengers. Reymann allowed her to go after she threw her wireless overboard.

The Galician made Tenerife on 16 August and informed the Admiralty of the presence of the German raider. The Galician was able to rig up an emergency wireless with help of some spare parts obtained at Tenerife. The Arlanza was also able to set up a replacement wireless. Both ships used their temporary radios cautiously, listening for enemy signals rather than transmitting their own.

The Arlanza reached Las Palmas on 17 August and sent a report to the Admiralty. Just outside the port she told the armoured cruiser HMS Cornwall what had happened. This affair shows that commerce raiders were putting themselves at risk if they released enemy merchantmen and that it was hard to silence a radio equipped ship permanently.

The protected cruiser HMS Highflyer, captained by Henry Buller, was sent on 24 August to investigate a report that the Kaiser Wilhelm had been at Rio de Oro, a remote anchorage on the coast of Spanish Sahara, a week earlier. She was still there when Highflyer arrived on 26 August, re-coaling and re-provisioning from the merchant ships Arucas, Magdeburg and Bethania. A fourth merchantman, the Duala, had returned to Las Palmas.

The Kaiser Wilhelm was hopelessly outgunned by Highflyer’s 11 6 inch guns, nine 12 pounders, six 3 pounders and two 18 inch torpedo tubes. She was faster than the British ship’s 20 knots, but could not flee as she did not have steam up.

The three merchant ships fled; Reymann had transferred his prisoners to the Arucas, who were released when she reached Las Palmas on 28 August. The Bethania was heading for Charleston in the USA with 450 of Kaiser Wilhelm’s crew, but she was captured by HMS Essex on 7 September.[2]

After an hour and a half the Germans scuttled and abandoned their ship. The British Official History states that Buller left them because they took up ‘a menacing position behind the sandhill.’[3] British casualties were one man killed and five wounded. The damage to Highflyer was too minor for her to need dockyard repair. This website says that Reymann worked his passage back to Germany as a stoker on a neutral vessel.

Both sides breached Spanish neutrality in this action, the Germans by using the harbour as a base and the British by attacking them; the Spanish protested to both. The Admiralty concluded that Captain Buller was correct in attacking, since not doing so would have invited commerce raiders to use other remote anchorages in neutral countries that lacked the naval strength to enforce their neutrality. Spain accepted the British apology.

The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse’s cruise was notable mainly for Reymann’s chivalry. His ship sank only three merchant ships with a total tonnage of 10,685 tons; the ships and their cargoes were worth under £400,000.[4] Later in the war, the Germans would find that innocuous looking freighters were better commerce raiders than fast liners with a high coal consumption.

[1] C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920).  i, p. 79.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938)., i, p. 136, footnote.

[3] Ibid. i, p. 185

[4] Figures from Fayle, Seaborne. i, p. 82.


Filed under War History

Allied Capture of German Naval Code Books

In the early hours of 26 August, the German light cruiser SMS Magdeburg ran aground at Odensholm lighthouse off Estonia whilst participating in a sweep against Russian patrols in the Gulf of Finland. The destroyer SMS V26 had to abandon her attempts to free Magdeburg when the Russian armoured cruiser Pallada and the protected cruiser Bogatyr appeared.

The Germans tried to scuttle Magdeburg, but were only partially successful. One of her four copies of the Signalbuch der Kasierlichen Marine (SKM), the German navy codebook, was burnt and two thrown overboard. However, the Russians recovered the latter two from the sea and the fourth from the captain’s safe. They later scrapped Magdeburg where she lay.

The Russians retained two of the codebooks for themselves and offered the third to the British, provided that a British ship collected it. This did not happen immediately, but the Admiralty received the codebook on 13 October.

Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, later wrote that Britain ‘received from our loyal allies these sea-stained priceless documents.’[1] Christopher Andrew and Robert Massie both note that the copy of the SKM in the UK National Archives [ref ADM 137/4156] is not sea-stained.[2] The Russians kept the two copies retrieved from the sea and gave the British the one from the captain’s safe.

As well as the SKM codebook, the British obtained a set of the German squared charts of the North Sea and Heligoland Bight that used to identify the location of German and enemy forces. Arthur Marder writes that Churchill and The Naval Staff of the Admiralty, a Naval Staff Monograph, both state that they were provided by the Russians. However, he goes on to say that Lieutenant W. F. Clarke RNVR, who worked in codebreaking, says in an unpublished paper called ‘Jutland’ that they were from the safe fished up by the trawler.[3]

It took some time until the British could read German naval signals sent using the SKM. Weather reports were encoded only by it, but other ones were re-ciphered. By early November, Fleet Paymaster Charles Rotter, a Naval Intelligence Department German expert, had realised that the re-ciphering was a simple substitution table. The key was changed periodically, but later ones were broken more quickly.

The SKM was the second German naval codebook obtained by the British. The SS Hobart, a German merchant ship, had been boarded by Australians off Melbourne on 11 August. They seized a copy of the Handelsverkehrsbuch (HV), which was used principally for communications between warships and merchantmen, but was also used by naval shore bases and later by U-boats and Zeppelins.

The Australians did not initially realise the importance of their prize and it then took time to send it to Britain, so the Admiralty did not receive it until late October.

The British obtained the third German naval codebook, the Verkehrsbuch (VB), when a trawler caught a lead-lined chest on 30 November. It had been thrown overboard by a German destroyer sunk on 17 October. The VB was used for cable communications with naval attachés and warships abroad and by admirals at sea.

The ability to read German codes would become very significant later in the war, but it took time for the Admiralty to get its decryption operation, known as Room 40 after its original office, working well. At first, the civilian cryptographers did not always understand naval matters and some naval staff officers looked down on them. The Admiralty was also excessively secretive with the decrypts, meaning that it did not always make the best use of the intelligence. Paul Halpern comments that ‘Room 40 would not reach its peak of efficiency and become a true intelligence centre until much later in the war.[4]


[1] W. S. Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, 5 vols (London: Odhams Press, 1939), v, Kindle edition, location 7846 out of 9432.

[2] C. M. Andrew, Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (London: Heinemann, 1985), p. 89; R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), footnote, p. 316.

[3] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70), ii, footnote 2, p. 132. Marder says that Captain Stephen Roskill, whosse papers are now at Churchill College, Cambridge, had a copy of Clarke’s paper.

[4] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 37.


Filed under War History

The Assassination of the Archduke – Sue Woolmans

I recently attended an Edinburgh Book Festival presentation by Sue Woolmans about a book that she has written along with Greg King, The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Murder that Changed the World. The publisher describes the book as follows:

In The Assassination of the Archduke, Greg King and Sue Woolmans offer readers a vivid account of the lives – and cruel deaths – of Franz Ferdinand and his beloved Sophie. Combining royal biography, romance, and political assassination, the story unfolds against a backdrop of glittering privilege and an Imperial Court consumed with hatred, taking readers from Bohemian castles to the horrors of Nazi concentration camps in a compelling, fascinating human drama. As moving as the fabled romance of Nicholas and Alexandra, as dramatic as Mayerling, Sarajevo resonates with love and loss, triumph and tragedy in a vibrant and powerful narrative. It lays bare the lethal circumstances surrounding that fateful Sunday morning in 1914, examining not only the Serbian conspiracy that killed Franz and Sophie and sparked the First World War but also insinuations about the hidden powers in Vienna that may well have sent them to their deaths.

Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, insisted on marrying for love, His wife, Countess Sophie Chotek, although an aristocrat, was too low down the social scale to normally be allowed to marry a member of the Imperial House of Habsburg. He was permitted to marry her by Emperor Franz Josef on condition that the marriage was morganatic, meaning that she could not share her husband’s title, rank or privileges and their children could not inherit the Imperial throne.

Rather than go through the whole story, I will concentrate on what she described as  myths and misconceptions that she was keen to dispel.

Sophie was a lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Isabella, who was keen that Franz Ferdinand should marry one of her daughters. He was a frequent visitor to the household of Isabella and her husband, Archduke Friedrich, Duke of Teschen.

Woolmans said that it  is frequently asserted that Isabella assumed that Franz Ferdinand was interested in marrying one of her daughters and was furious when she discovered that it was Sophie that he wanted to marry. Woolmans argues that Isabella must have noticed Franz Ferdinand’s interest in Sophie and believes that she was so keen to have one of her daughters as Empress that she would have tolerated him taking Sophie as his mistress. However, Sophie and Franz Ferdinand, who were both very religious, would have refused to accept this on moral grounds.

Woolmans thinks that Franz Ferdinand intended to wait until he was Emperor before marrying Sophie. She would then have become Empress. However, Isabella forced his hand, in Woolmans’s opinion in the hope that he would marry one of her daughters, leading to the morganatic marriage.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were not naïve in visiting Sarajevo, being well were aware that they risked assassination by going there. Just before going there, he told Archduke Karl, the next in line to the throne, that he might be shot and where to find his plans for a United States of Austria. This was intended to give the Slavs more power in the multi-national empire. Woolmans suggests that one reason why Sophie insisted on accompanying her husband to Sarajevo was that in those days assassins sometimes hesitated if there was a risk that they might harm women or children.

The day of the assassination, 28 June, was not, as is often claimed, their wedding anniversary, but the anniversary of the  on which Franz Ferdinand signed the official papers stating that the marriage would be morganatic.

Gavrilo Princep, their assassin, was not eating a sandwich in Schiller’s Delicatessen, but standing outside it when Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s car appeared in front of him. He could not have afforded to have bought a sandwich from a café; Woolmans believes that this story was made up by a TV dramatization of the assassination.

Sophie was not pregnant at the time of her death. She was then 46 and her last pregnancy in 1908 had produced a still born child.

Killing any Austrian leader might have satisfied the assassins, but may not have led to war. In previous crises, Franz Ferdinand was the man who urged caution.

Woolmans said that a meeting between Franz Ferdinand and his friend Kaiser Wilhelm in June 1914 was mainly a social event at which Franz Ferdinand, a keen horticulturist, showed off his garden to Wilhelm. It was not a war council, although there were some political discussions.

The presentation did  not cover the claim in the publisher’s blurb that it examines ‘not only the Serbian conspiracy that killed Franz and Sophie and sparked the First World War but also insinuations about the hidden powers in Vienna that may well have sent them to their deaths.’


Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History

The Sinking of SMS Zenta 16 August 1914

France did not declare war on Austria-Hungary until 12 August 1914, with Britain following suit the next day. Vice Admiral Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère, the commander of Anglo-French naval forces in the Mediterranean was ordered to take the offensive against the Austro-Hungarians. His initial task of protecting French troops moving from North Africa to France had by then been largely completed.

The French navy’s war plans had assumed that it would be fighting both Austria-Hungary and its ally Italy, so it had no plan to fight only Austria-Hungary. An attack on the enemy’s main base at Pola, now Pula in Croatia, was thought to be too risky.

De Lapeyrère decided that a sweep into the Adriatic to relieve the Austro-Hungarians blockade of Montenegro might provoke the enemy’s main battle fleet into coming out to fight. This would give the Allies an opportunity to win a decisive victory.

The Austro-Hungarian fleet was heavily outnumbered by the Allied one, which consisted mostly of French ships, but included a few British cruisers and destroyers. The British Mediterranean Fleet’s battlecruisers were watching the Dardanelles in case the German battlecruiser SMS Goeben and light cruiser SMS Breslau came out. Other British ships had been sent to the Red Sea in case German cruisers attempted to attack troopships heading from India to Egypt.

De Lapeyrère’s plan was to take his main battle fleet, showing no lights, along the Italian coast as far as the latitude of the Austrian base at Cattaro, now Kotor in Montenegro. They would then head towards Cattaro and destroy the Austro-Hungarian blockade force, which would have been driven towards them by a force of light cruisers commanded by the British Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge.

The trap swung shut on 16 August, but caught only the small and old Austro-Hungarian light cruiser SMS Zenta. It fought gallantly but was overwhelmed and sunk in ten minutes. The action was sufficiently close to the coast that the survivors were able to make the shore. A destroyer escaped.

Unsurprisingly, the Austro-Hungarian fleet did not come out to face an enemy that heavily outnumbered it. Paul Halpern notes that ‘[a] curious feature of many prewar plans was the near total absence of what to do next if the enemy fleet did not come out to do battle.’[1]

The Austro-Hungarian naval plan was to maintain a fleet in being. The Allies were hampered by a lack of bases and the French navy’s shortage of colliers and oilers to fuel a fleet that consumed 5,000 tons of coal and 1,000 tons of oil per day.[2] De Lapeyrère was forced to rotate his ships between the Adriatic and Malta.


[1] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 59.

[2] Figures from Ibid.


Filed under War History

SMS Goeben and Breslau Escape to Constantinople August 1914

At the outbreak of war the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet was commanded by Admiral Sir Archibald Berkley Milne, a well connected officer whose career had benefitted from his service on the royal yacht. His father had commanded the RN’s North America and West Indies Station during the American Civil War and his grandfather had also been an admiral.

Milne had been told by the Admiralty on 30 July that in the event of war:

‘The attitude of Italy is, however, uncertain, and it is especially important that your squadron should not be seriously engaged with Austrian ships before we know what Italy will do. Your first task should be to aid the transportation of their African Army, and if possible, bringing to action individual fast German ships, particularly Goeben, who may interfere with that transportation…Do not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces, except in combination with the French, as part of a general battle. The speed of your squadron is sufficient to enable you to choose your moment.’[1]

The German Mediterranean squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, consisted of the battlecruiser SMS Goeben and the light cruiser SMS Breslau.

Goeben was armed with 11 inch guns compared with the 12 inch guns of the three British battlecruisers, HMS Inflexible, Indefatigable and Indomitable, in the Mediterranean. However, she had 12 of them compared with eight in the British ships and was faster and better armoured than them. Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge’s First Cruiser Squadron included four armoured cruisers, HMS Defence, Black Prince, Duke of Edinburgh and Warrior. They were armed with 9.2 inch and either 6 inch or 7.5 inch guns.

 Goeben’s broadside was 6,680 lbs, more than any individual ship, but far less than the combined totals of 15,300 lbs for the British battlecruisers and 8,680 lbs for the armoured cruisers. [2]

Breslau was faster than the four British light cruisers, but was armed with 12 4.1 inch guns compared with HMS Gloucester‘s two 6 inch and 10 4 inch and the other three British ships’ eight 6 inch guns. The British also had 16 destroyers, but they were of the relatively slow Beagle class, the last coal fired British destroyers.

The bulk of the French navy was in the Mediterranean under the command of Vice Admiral Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère. He had been Minister of Marine from 1909-11, producing a coherent plan for the expansion of the French navy after a period in which it lacked a strategy because of frequent change in the Minister of Marine.

De Lapeyrère divided the French Mediterranean fleet, the 1ère armée navale into three group. One consisted of six semi-dreadnoughts, three armoured cruisers and twelve destroyers; the second of a dreadnought, five pre-dreadnoughts, three armoured cruisers and twelve destroyers; and the last of four older pre-dreadnoughts. Its main task at the outbreak of war was to protect the transit of the French XIX Corps from Algeria to France.

Britain and France had agreed that their combined forces in the Mediterranean would be commanded by a French admiral. As Milne was senior to de Lapeyrère, this meant that the British contingent would be commanded at sea by Troubridge. The combined Anglo-French fleet comfortably outnumbered the Austro-Hungarian navy and the German Mediterranean squadron,

The two sides would have been evenly balanced had Italy entered the war on the side of its Triple Alliance, but it declared its neutrality on 2 August. Fear that the long Italian coastline was vulnerable to Anglo-French naval attacks was a factor in this decision. It was justified on the grounds that the alliance was defensive and Austria-Hungary was the aggressor in the war.

Robert Halpern describes Italian neutrality in 1914 ‘as being one of their biggest services to the British and French during the war.’[3] See this post for the naval balance in 1914.

Milne was told by the Admiralty on at 12:55 pm on 3 August that ‘the Italian Government have declared neutrality. You are to respect this neutrality rigidly and should not allow any of H.M. ships to come within 6 miles of the Italian coast.’[4]

As well as meaning that his fleet was outnumbered, Italian neutrality restricted the options open to the Austro-Hungarian fleet commander Admiral Anton Haus. He could have moved his fleet into the Mediterranean had Italy been allied to Austria-Hungary, but the location of its only major base at Pola, now Pula in Croatia, meant that it was now restricted to the Adriatic.

The Chief of the Austrian General Staff Field Marshall Franz Conrad von Hötzendorff, supported by Foreign Minister Count Leopold Berchtold, wanted the fleet to move to the Black Sea to operate against the Russians. He feared that it would soon be destroyed by the Anglo-French fleet. Haus rejected this: his fleet would lack bases, coal stocks and a fleet train in the Black Sea; the Allies might destroy it in transit; and the Austro-Hungarian Adriatic coast would be left unprotected.

Goeben was at Pola undergoing repairs to her boilers when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July. Souchon, according to Robert Massie, did not want to be ‘subordinate to an Austrian admiral not inclined to fight Britain and France.’[5] He therefore sailed the next day with the repairs incomplete. He had difficulties obtaining coal from Italian ports, but replenished his supplies from German merchant ships at Messina.

On the evening of 3 August, the day that Germany declared war on France, Goeben and Breslau fired the first shots of the naval war when they bombarded the French ports of Philippeville and Bône in Algeria.

Souchon’s subsequent options appeared to be to attempt to exit the Mediterranean via the Straits of Gibraltar or to return to Pola, possibly first attacking the French troop transports.

Unknown to the Allies, Germany and the Ottoman Empire had signed an alliance on 2 August. In the early hours of 4 August Souchon received a signal ordering him to make for Constantinople, now Istanbul. Goeben did not have enough coal to make the voyage at its normal cruising speed, so he ordered a return to Messina to refuel.

Milne, aware that the German had been at Taranto, guessed correctly that she would then make for Messina, but they had left by the time that the light cruiser HMS Chatham arrived. At 6:30 pm [times quoted are local unless otherwise stated] he was ordered that ‘two battle-cruisers must proceed to Straits of Gibraltar at high speed ready to prevent Goeben leaving Mediterranean.’[6]

At 10:46 am on 4 August Indomitable and Indefatigable reported that they had sighted Goeben and Breslau. Britain and Germany were not yet at war, but the British ships, later joined by the light cruiser HMS Dublin, tailed the German ones. The British battlecruisers could not keep up with the Germans, losing sight of them at 5 pm. Dublin stayed in touch with them until 10:25 pm.[7]

The British vessels needed their hulls to be de-fouled and their engines overhauled. They had peace rather than war complements, which meant that they were short of stokers. Coal fired ships needed more stokers in order to maintain full speed, so carried more in wartime than in peacetime.

Indomitable reported that the Germans were making 26-27 knots.[8] Arthur Marder says that Goeben ‘managed to increase her speed to 24 knots for a short period. Her mean speed from noon to 8 pm was 22.5 knot.’[9] This exaggeration of the speed of the German ships would have consequences later.

War between Britain and Germany began at 11 pm British time (midnight Central European) on 4 August, but neither Britain nor France was yet at war with Austria-Hungary.

The German ships reached Messina in the early hours of 5 August. Milne argued that his orders to stay more than six miles from the Italian coast meant that he could not follow the Germans into the straits of Messina because they were only two miles wide. He further claimed that the Germans could have escaped from any ship more than six miles from the Italian coast because of their greater speed.

Milne expected Souchon move north out of the Straits of Messina, head west and attack the French troop transports. Alternatively, he could take the south exit and head for the Adriatic.

Milne took his flagship HMS Inflexible to join Indefatigable well to the west of the Straits of Messina. Indomitable was sent to Bizerte to refill her coal bunkers. Troubridge and his armoured cruisers were near Corfu in case Souchon headed for the Adriatic. The light cruiser HMS Gloucester was the closest British warship to Messina, covering the south exit.

At 10 am on 6 August Indomitable informed Milne that ‘[t]he French Admiral reports first transport left Algerian coast and French Fleet will not probably be free until 10th August as second shipment is necessary.’[10]

Milne appeared not to realise that the troopships were now sufficiently protected since at 4:33 pm he offered the French the assistance of ‘two battle-cruisers and 1 light cruisers’ if the Germans had sailed undetected.[11]

Souchon sailed at 5:00 pm. His plan was to feint towards Pola, before turning towards Constantinople after dark. Half an hour after issuing his orders he was informed by the German Admiralty that ‘[a]rrival Constantinople not possible for political reasons’, but decided to go ahead anyway.[12]

Milne was informed of the German departure by Gloucester at 6:16 pm.[13] He then headed west, as his orders prevented him entering the Straits of Messina and the Germans might still turn west towards the transports after exiting the southern end of the Straits.

Too late, a signal from the Admiralty told him that ‘[i]f Goeben goes south from Messina, you should follow through the Straits, irrespective of territorial waters.’[14] It was sent at 7:45 pm, but not received until 10:54 pm.

Gloucester, under the command of Captain Howard Kelly, followed the Germans as Goeben tried to sail as quickly as possible. Kelly managed to keep his superiors informed of the German movements despite their attempts to jam his ship’s wireless transmissions, Souchon did not know that Gloucester was alone, so could not take the chance of turning back to sink her.

Unknown to Souchon, the risk of a major action had already passed. Troubridge, with his four armoured cruisers and eight destroyers, was positioned off Cephalonia, south of Corfu. However, his destroyers were short of coal. The light cruiser Dublin, captained by Howard Kelly’s brother John, and the destroyers HMS Beagle and Bulldog were on the way to join him. John Kelly intended to be in position to attack Goeben at 3:30 am on 7 August, but his ships failed to find the enemy.

Troubridge at first assumed that Souchon was heading for the Adriatic and that he was heading south in order to shake off Southampton. He headed north, with the intention of engaging them in narrow waters where he could choose his range.

At midnight, however, he realised that the Germans were going to the eastern Mediterranean. He could intercept them, but the action would take place in daylight. E. W. R. Lumby says that Troubridge believed that his squadron could defeat the enemy only ‘by night, in half light, or in narrow waters.’[15]

Troubridge had earlier told Milne that ‘I consider a battle-cruiser to be a superior force to a cruiser squadron, unless they can get within their range of her.’ Milne replied ‘That question won’t arise as you will have the Indomitable and Indefatigable with you’, which in the event he did not.[16]

Although he thought that to do so would break his orders not to engage a superior force, Troubridge had reluctantly decided to attack, telling his Flag Captain Fawcet Wray at 2:45 am on 7 August that ‘[t]he Mediterranean [Fleet] will stink if we don’t attack her.’ He later explained to his court martial that thought that the Fleet ought not to have allowed Goeben to escape from the Straits of Messina.

However, at 3:30 am Wray persuaded Troubridge that engaging Goeben was ‘likely to be the suicide of your squadron.’[17] Goeben was faster and had longer ranged guns, so would be able to stand off and destroy the British squadron. At 4:49 am Troubridge signalled to Milne that:

‘Being only able to meet Goeben outside the range of our guns and inside his I have abandoned the chase with my squadron request instructions for light cruisers. Goeben evidently going to Eastern Mediterranean. I had hoped to have met her before daylight.’[18]

Wray later claimed that his advice ‘was not given with the intention of dissuading [Troubridge] from continuing the chase of the Goeben’, stating that ‘I actually remonstrated with him when I realised that he had decided to abandon the chase.’[19] His objection was to the idea that the British squadron might ‘lie across Goeben’s bows and more or less go bald-headed for her.’[20]

Gloucester continued to pursue the enemy. She exchanged fire with Breslau at 1:35 pm. Goeben then joined in, forcing Gloucester to withdraw, but Souchon could not afford to waste coal engaging a light cruiser. Only Breslau was hit, but she suffered no casualties and her speed was unaffected.

Goeben was pushing her machinery and men to the limit. Massie says that leaks of boiling water from her partially repaired boiler tubes meant that ‘[f]our men were scalded to death.’[21] The chase continued until the ships reached Cape Matapan at 4:40 pm. Gloucester was almost out of coal and Kelly had been explicitly ordered by Milne to go no further.

The British still had one chance. Milne took his battlecruisers east, but slowly. On 8 August, the Admiralty erroneously signalled him that Britain was at war with Austria-Hungary. An over-zealous clerk had seen a telegram prepared in advance of the declaration of war and sent it too soon. Milne therefore abandoned the chase until he was informed of the mistake.

The Germans were delayed by Goeben’s need to coal, so Milne might have caught them without the 24 hour delay caused by the telegram error. They reached the Dardanelles on the evening on 10 August, still not knowing if they would be welcome, which they were.

The next evening the British light cruiser HMS Weymouth, sent ahead of the battlecruisers by Milne, was turned away from the Dardanelles after being informed that Goeben and Breslau were now the Ottoman ships Yavuz Sultan Selim and Midilli. They formally changed hands on 16 August, but retained their German crews, who wore fezzes on ceremonial occasions. Souchon was appointed commander of the Ottoman fleet on 23 September.

The presence of these two ships in Turks led the British keeping Indomitable, Indefatigable, Defence, Gloucester and all available destroyers in the eastern Aegean. They were nominally under de Lapeyrère’s command, but effectively the force was separate from the Allied fleet in the rest of the Mediterranean.

Of the British commanders, only Howard Kelly, who was made a Companion of the Bath, came out of this well.

Milne was cleared of any blame, but did not receive another appointment. He had previously been told his next position would be the prestigious Nore Command. This went instead to Admiral Sir George Callaghan, who had been removed from command of the Grand Fleet on the outbreak of war, five months before his term was due to expire. Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher, who had previously called Milne ‘a serpent of the lowest order’ when Milne took Admiral Lord Charles Beresford’s side in his feud with Fisher, said that he would ‘have shot Sir Berkeley Milne for the Goeben.’[22]

Milne’s best option would seem to me to have been the one that Marder proposes, namely to close the north exit of the Straits of Messina with two battlecruisers and the south one with the other one and Troubridge’s squadron.[23] Since their guns had a range of over six miles, the ships could have waited outside Italian territorial waters.

Troubridge initially remained in command of the RN forces in the Aegean, but was then called in front of a Court of Inquiry. It sent him for a Court Martial, where he was defended by a leading barrister, Leslie Scott KC MP, and acquitted. This made it hard for the Admiralty to refuse him further employment, but he was giving only shore based jobs. He was knighted and finished his career with the rank of Admiral.

Although Goeben was vastly superior to any of Troubridge’s ships, he had four armoured cruisers, two light cruisers and a number of destroyers. I would agree with Admiral Prince Louis Battenberg, the First Sea Lord, argued that ‘[s]uperior speed (which undoubtedly existed) in a single ship can be nullified by proper tactical dispositions of four units.’[24]

It is difficult to see how Goeben could have kept out of the gun range of all the armoured cruisers and the torpedo range of all the light cruisers and destroyers. Any damage that reduced her speed would have enabled the British battlecruisers to catch her and steaming at full speed during a battle would have used a lot of her coal.

Commenting on Troubridge’s acquittal, Rear Admiral Frederick Tudor, the Third Sea Lord, thought that Troubridge’s ships ‘stood a chance of being severely punished’ if they had attacked. but that it was ‘out of the question’ that Goeben had enough ammunition to destroyed all of them.[25]

One point that perhaps says a lot about the RN’s attitude to ship design is that the arguments over Troubridge’s conduct revolved around the relative speeds, firepower and gun ranges of the ships involved. Little was said about the Goeben’s superior armour.

Wray was, according to Marder, ‘virtually ostracised’ in the RN.[26] However, he received a number of commands during the rest of the war and was awarded the DSO when captaining HMS Talbot in the Dardanelles. He was promoted to Rear Admiral on retirement and later to Vice Admiral on the Retired List.

Finally, the Admiralty must take a lot of blame. It sent a series of confusing orders instead of giving the local commanders all the facts and then leaving them to make the decisions.

Its order to Milne quoted at the beginning of this post told him to avoid battle with ‘superior forces’ but to seek battle Goeben, whilst noting his squadron’s speed. Taken together these comments appear to mean that the ‘superior forces’ were the Austrian battleships, but this was not explicitly stated, resulting in Troubridge concluding that Goeben was a ‘superior force’, with which he should avoid battle.


[1] Admiralty to C.-in-C., 3:10 pm, 30 July 1914 quoted in E. W. R. Lumby, Policy and Operations in the Mediterranean, 1912-14 (London: Navy Records Society, 1970), p. 146. Orginal source National Archives ADM 137/19

[2] Figures from A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). ii, p. 21

[3] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 52.

[4] Admiralty to C.-in-C. and Admiral Superintendent, Malta, 12:55 pm 3 August 1914 quoted in Lumby, Policy, p. 157. Original Source ADM 137/19.

[5] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 27.

[6] Admiralty to C.-in-C. 6:30 pm 3 August 1914 quoted in  Lumby, Policy, p. 153. Original source ADM 137/19.

[7] Times in this paragraphs are from signals quoted in Ibid., pp. 163-64. Original sources Naval Staff Monograph No. 21, The Mediterranean 1914-15, Appendix B.

[8] Signal of 4:10 pm 3 August quoted in Ibid., p. 160. Original source ‘Naval Staff Monograph No. 21’, Appendix B.

[9] Marder, From. ii, p. 23. His source is Hermann Lorey, Der Krieg zur See, 1914-1918. Der Krieg in den turkischen Gewassern (Berlin, 1928-38, 2 vols.), vol. i, pp. 6-7.

[10] Signal of 10:00 am 6 August 1914 quoted in Lumby, Policy, p. 170. Original source ‘Naval Staff Monograph 21’, Appendix B.

[11] Signal of 4:33 pm quoted in Ibid., p. 171. Original source ‘Naval Staff Monograph 21’, Appendix B.

[12] Quoted in J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). i. p. 63.

[13] Signal of 6:16pm 6 August 1914 quoted in Lumby, Policy, p. 172. Original source ‘Naval Staff Monograph 21’, Appendix B.

[14] Signal of 7:45 pm quoted in Ibid., p. 173. Original source ADM 137/19.

[15] Ibid., p. 142.

[16] The Court of Inquiry and the Court Martial 7 September to 9 November 1914 Ibid., p. 367. Original source ADM 156/76

[17] Ibid., p. 324.

[18] Signal of 4:49 am 7 August 1914 quoted in Ibid., p. 181. Original source ‘Naval Staff Monograph 21’, Appendix B

[19] ‘Declaration of Captain Fawcet Wray, 3 August 1917’ Ibid., p. 404. Original source Roskill Paper, which are now ar Churchill Ciollege, Cambridge..

[20] Ibid., p. 406.

[21] Massie, Castles, p. 44.

[22] Quoted in Marder, From. ii. pp. 32-33.

[23] Ibid. ii, p. 24

[24] Ibid. ii, p. 33.

[25] ‘Minutes commenting upon the Court Martial Proceedings, By the Third Sea Lord, 9 December 1914’ Lumby, Policy, p. 398. Original source ADM 156/76.

[26] Marder, From. ii, p. 27, note 5.


Filed under War History

HMS Birmingham Sinks U15 on 9 August 1914

The U-boat became the German navy’s main weapon in both the World Wars of the twentieth century, but Germany was initially slow to adopt the submarine. Holger Herwig notes that Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of the German navy, favoured battleships and had little time for either cruiser warfare or submarines.[1] The first U-boat was not completed until late 1906. Rudolf Diesel was German, but the first U-boats with diesel engines were not introduced until 1910. French submarines had used diesel engines from 1904. The switch to the diesel engine meant that the U-boat was considered a potentially decisive weapon for the first time, but against the enemy battle fleet, not merchant shipping.

In 1914 Germany possessed only 24 operational boats. Another four were used for training and 16 were under construction. Only 10 of the operational boats had diesel engines; the others used Körting heavy fuel oil engines that produced a great deal of smoke and sparks. This made them very visible on the surface and required ventilation pipes; stowing these slowed diving.

On 6 August 1914 the German navy sent 10 U-boats into the North Sea, but U9 had to return home early because of engine problems. Two days later the dreadnought HMS Monarch, carrying out gunnery practice near Fair Isle, between Shetland and Orkney, was narrowly missed by a torpedo fired by a U-boat.

Paul Halpern comments that Roger Keyes, then Captain (S), the commander of the RN’s submarines, later wrote ‘that the fact that the Monarch was performing such a task within 500 miles of Helgoland was an example of the navy’s general ignorance of submarine powers and limitations.’[2] The RN had proved in 1910 that its submarines could operate more than 500 miles away from their bases, but apparently did not consider the possibility that the Germans could do the same.

About dawn on 9 August the light cruiser HMS Birmingham, part of a screen 30 miles ahead of the Grand Fleet, observed through the mist a submarine stationary on the surface. The sounds of hammering coming from the submarine, which was U15, suggested that her crew were trying to repair an engine fault.

Birmingham closed the range and opened fire. U15 moved forward slowly, but Birmingham rammed her and cut her in two. U15 sank with all hands. Robert Massie says that 23 men went down with her, although Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships 1906-1921 gives her normal crew as 29.[3]

The need for ships meant that only temporary repairs could be carried out to Birmingham at first, so she retained two scars along her bows for some months. U15’s sister boat U13 also failed to return home from the cruise, probably after hitting a mine.

This mission had cost the Germans two U-boats in return for minor, self-inflicted damage to a light cruiser and had shown that the early U-boats were mechanically unreliable. R. H. Gibson and Maurice Prendergast state in the history of the German Submarine War 1914-1918 that:

Not even the hardiest optimist could pretend that the submarine had vindicated its war value by this expedition. Yet, had the Germans known, the effect of the cruise had caused uneasiness to their opponents…it was confidently predicted by some – but not by naval officers – that all other U-boats would soon follow U15 to the bottom.[4]

As soon as the requirement to cover the crossing of the British Expeditionary Force to France was over, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe withdrew his Grand Fleet north west of Orkney. Future sweeps into the North Sea were carried out as quickly as possible.

Jellicoe was concerned that Scapa Flow was poorly defended, so ordered the preparation of a secondary base at Loch Ewe on the west coast of Scotland. Halpern notes that ‘Jellicoe actually felt safer at sea than he did in Scapa Flow.’[5]

This German cruise featured the first attack by a submarine launched torpedo on a moving warship. The Turtle, which made several unsuccessful attacks on British ships in the American War of Independence, and the CSS Hunley, which sank the USS Housatonic in the American Civil War, attacked by attaching explosive devices to the hulls of stationary ships. U15 was the first submarine to be sunk by an enemy ship in the war.

[1] H. H. Herwig, ‘Luxury’ Fleet: The Imperial German Navy, 1888-1918 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1980), p. 88.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 29.

[3] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 175; R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 79.

[4] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), pp. 3-4.

[5] Halpern, Naval, p. 29.


Filed under War History

First British Action and Casualties of WWI 6 August 1914

Most of the hits on the first page of a Google search on ‘first British casualty of wwi’ state that it was Private John Parr of the 4th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, who was killed on 21 August 1914. The Daily Mail reports that Henry Hadley, a languages teacher working in Berlin in 1914, was shot by a German soldier on 3 August after an argument on a train that was taking him out of Germany. He died at 3:15 am German time on 5 August, three and a quarter hours after Britain declared war.

Only the Great War Forum states, correctly, that the first British servicemen to by killed by enemy action in the First World War were members of the crew of HMS Amphion, which struck a mine and sank at 6:30 am on 6 August with the loss of about 150 men. The poster Crooneart says that the first dead are considered to be Stokers 1st Class Jesse Foster and Albert Martin,  Stoker 2nd Class William Dick and Leading Stoker Henry Copland, who are all given as dying at 6:30 am on 6 August. Presumably they were in the part of the ship closest to the explosion and were killed instantly.

To be fair to Wikipedia, its entry on Parr does link to its entries on Amphion and Hadley, but the other sites produced by the search appear to assume that first British casualty means first British soldier killed, ignoring naval casualties.

At dawn on 5 August, the Harwich Force of two destroyer flotillas, supported by armoured cruisers and submarines, sailed on a sweep towards the Dutch coast. Captain H. C Fox, captain of Amphion, was in command of the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla. At 10:15 am a British trawler informed the destroyer HMS Laurel that it had seen a ship ‘throwing things overboard’[1]

Correctly assuming that the ‘things’ were mines, Fox ordered his flotilla to spread out and search for the suspicious ship. The destroyers HMS Lance and Landrail sped ahead to the point at which the trawler had seen her. Around 11 am they spotted the German minelayer Königin Luise, which in peacetime ferried passengers between Hamburg and Heligoland. She was painted in the colours of  a British steamer of the Great Eastern Railway.

Lance and Landrail, supported by Amphion, gave chase and sank Königin Luise by noon. This was the first ship to be sunk in the war and the first casualties to be inflicted on the enemy by British. The shots fired were not, however, the first ones of the naval war; the German Mediterranean squadron of the battlecruiser SMS Goeben and the light cruiser SMS Breslau had bombarded the French ports of Philippeville and Bône in Algeria on the evening of 3 August.

On the way back to Harwich Amphion spotted another steamer in Great Eastern Railway colours, this one flying a German flag. The flotilla opened fire, but the steamer then raised the British Red Ensign. She was the Great Eastern Railway steamer St Petersburg and was carrying the German ambassador, his wife and staff to the neutral Netherlands on their way back to Germany. The destroyers initially ignored Fox’s orders to cease fire, and he had to place Amphion between them and the St Petersburg in order to stop them firing.

At 6:30 am on 6 August Amphion struck one of Königin Luise’s mines. The crew were ordered to abandon ship, but she hit another mine almost immediately and sank quickly. As well as about 150 of her own men, 18 survivors of Königin Luise went down with Amphion.


[1] Quoted in J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938) vol. i, p. 38.

1 Comment

Filed under War History

Britain cuts German Cable Communications 5 August 1914

In the early hours of 5 August 1914, only a few hours after war was declared, Britain carried out something that seemed to be minor, but was actually vital. A British cable ship severed five German overseas underwater cables, which passed from Emden through the English Channel to Vigo, Tenerife, the Azores and the USA

This cut direct German communications to outside Europe, most significantly to the United States. The British could now intercept German signals to their embassies. They were sent in code, but British codebreakers were eventually able to read them.

Most significantly, Britain intercepted the Zimmerman Telegram, sent to the German Ambassador to Mexico. If the USA went to war with Germany, he was to offer the Mexicans an alliance with the promise that they would receive Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Its revelation helped to push the USA into war with Germany.


Filed under War History

Pre WWI British Naval War Plans

As in previous wars, Britain intended to blockade its Continental enemies in order to prevent them from trading with the rest of the world. In 1908 Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, the First Sea Lord, decided that the traditional close blockade was no longer viable because of the threat from torpedo armed vessels. He therefore ordered that the blockade ships should withdraw 170 miles at night.

In 1911 Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, his successor, reinstated the plan for a close blockade. However, as well as being very risky, it required twice as many destroyers as the Royal Navy (RN) possessed, since one would be in port refuelling and one on the way to or from the port for each one on duty.

In mid-1912, the Admiralty considered replacing the close blockade with an observational one across the North Sea in the middle of 1912. This was rejected because it was still vulnerable to German attack and needed too many ships. Admiral Prince Louis Battenberg, who was appointed First Sea Lord in December 1912, called this idea ‘plain stupid.’[1]

A policy of distant blockade was introduced in July 1914. The Channel Fleet would block access to the English Channel. A line of cruisers from the Shetlands to Norway would prevent German trade with the rest of the world. They would be safe from the enemy because the Grand Fleet, the RN’s strongest force, including most of its dreadnoughts and battlecruisers, would frequently patrol the North Sea from its base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.

A good performance by submarines in the 1913 fleet manoeuvres led to suggestions that the close blockade might be reinstated using submarines. Nicholas Lambert notes that ‘[s]ufficient evidence has survived…to contradict widespread assertions of myopia among British naval officers with regard to the submarine.’[2] Admiral Sir John Jellicoe wrote that submarines ‘can undoubtedly carry out a blockade of the enemy’s coast in the old sense of the word.’[3]

There were not enough submarines to adopt such a policy in 1914, but it was intended to increase submarine construction in later years. The Naval Estimates had risen from £31.3 million in 1907-8 to £48.7 million in 1913-14. It could be reduced by replacing a planned battleship with a number of submarines. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote in the first draft of The World Crisis, his history of the First World War, that the margin of 60 per cent over Germany could be maintained by regarding dreadnoughts ‘not as capital ships, but as units of power which could, if desirable, be expressed in any other form.’[4]

The British switch to a distant blockade ruined German plans to whittle down the RN by attacks on British ships carrying out a close blockade. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the Secretary of State for the Imperial Navy Office, asked Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, the commander of the High Seas Fleet, Germany’s main naval force, in May 1914 ‘[w]hat will you do if they do not come [into the Heligoland Bight]’?[5] Neither appeared to have an answer to this question.

Lambert argues in a recent book, Planning Armageddon, that the Admiralty planned to conduct economic warfare against Germany in a huge scale.[6] Britain would use its effective monopolies in banking, communications and shipping to disrupt the global economy and paralyse Germany. The plan was not carried out because of fears about the impact on Britain and neutral countries, especially the USA.

In the Mediterranean Austria-Hungary and Italy, although both members of the Triple Alliance with Germany, each regarded the other as its principal naval rival. They were building against each other, but their alliance meant that the Admiralty had to allow for the possibility that they would combine against Britain and France.

After a period of neglect of its navy, France laid down its first dreadnoughts in 1910. A new naval programme was announced in 1912, with 16 dreadnoughts planned, although the need to prioritise the army during the war meant that only seven were completed, plus another that was converted to an aircraft carrier.

Britain and France had undertaken a series of naval conversations, but were not formally allied. Britain, which had to match the threat from Germany in the North Sea, reduced its Mediterranean fleet. France, which could not match Germany on its own, moved most of its fleet to the Mediterranean.

Churchill was wary that the Anglo-French naval conversations had restricted British freedom of choice. He argued that both parties would have made the same dispositions of their fleets even without the talks as they were the logical  measures to take:

‘the French…are not strong enough to face Germany alone, still less to maintain themselves in two theatres. They therefore rightly concentrate their Navy in the Mediterranean where it can be safe and superior and can assure their African communications. Neither is it true that we are relying on France to maintain our position in the Mediterranean.’[7]

The Cabinet decided that Britain would deploy a Mediterranean fleet of a one power standard excluding France in 1915 when enough ships would be available, meaning a fleet of six dreadnoughts and the two newest pre-dreadnoughts. In the interval, the Mediterranean fleet would be made up of enough battlecruisers and armoured cruisers to ensure that Anglo-French strength exceeded the combined Triple Alliance fleet, including the German Mediterranean squadron of a battlecruiser and a light cruiser.

Despite the absence of a formal alliance between Britain and France Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, told the House of Commons on 3 August, the day before Britain declared war, that the naval conversations gave Britain a moral obligation to France:

‘the Northern and Western Coasts of France are absolutely undefended…The French fleet is in the Mediterranean, and has for some years been concentrated there because of the feeling of confidence and friendship which has existed between the two countries.’[8]

RN ships in the rest of the world were mostly old, with the exception of the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, the flagship of the Royal Australian Navy. Their wartime role would be to protect trade and hunt down the German cruisers that were stationed overseas.


[1] Quoted in H. Strachan, The First World War: Vol. 1, to Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 395.

[2] N. A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), p. 290.

[3] Quoted in Ibid., p. 289.

[4] Quoted in Ibid., p. 299.

[5] Quoted in P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 23.

[6] N. A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[7] 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, p. 306

[8] Quoted in C. M. Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 544.


Filed under War History