The Battle of Helgoland Bight 28 August 1914

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). i, p. 43.

[2] Ibid. i, 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. i, p. 51

[5] Halpern, Naval, p. 31.

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

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

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

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3 responses to “The Battle of Helgoland Bight 28 August 1914

  1. Pingback: U9 Sinks Three British Cruisers 22 September 1914 | War and Security

  2. Pingback: The Sinking of HMS Goliath 13 May 1915 | War and Security

  3. Pingback: Jutland VCs: Harvey, Bingham, Cornwall and Jones | War and Security

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