The Sinking of HMS Audacious 27 October 1914

In mid October 1914 the Germans decided to take advantage of a period of dark nights to mine the Grand Fleet’s bases. The minelayer SMS Nautilius, accompanied by the light cruiser SMS Kolberg, left port on 16 October, followed the next day by SMS Berlin, a 17,000 ton Norddeutscher Lloyd line converted into a minelayer. She was commanded by Kapitän Hans Pfundheller.

Nautilus and Kolberg headed for the Firth of Forth, but picked up wireless traffic and observed smoke when about 100 miles from May Island. Assuming wrongly that they had been discovered, they turned for home.

Berlin’s orders were to head for the Firth of Clyde. If possible, she was mine the approaches to Glasgow between Garroch Head and Fairland Head in the Firth. If this was not feasible, she should mine the entrance to the Firth between Pladda and Fairland Head.

The Germans expected that Berlin would have to pass through the British blockade patrols, but in fact they ‘could not have chosen a more favourable moment for the attempt to send a minelayer through the blockade line.’[1]

The threat from U-boats had led to the withdrawal of the Grand Fleet from the North Sea and its cruiser squadrons were to the north west of the Shetlands when she headed northward between the Shetlands and Norway. She then passed between Iceland and the Faeroes, where there were gaps in the blockade line because of a shortage of ships.

Once in the Irish Sea, Berlin picked up wireless traffic that indicated that she was near two British forces. Pfundheller had been told before his ship sailed that the entrance to the Irish Sea was not closely patrolled, but this was clearly wrong. He therefore decided that he could not enter the Firth of Clyde. Instead, he decided to lay his 200 mines north of Tory Island.

Berlin began to lay her mines at 11:35 pm on 22 October, finishing at 00:10 am the next day. She was only 30 miles away from the Grand Fleet at Lough Swilly, but its anti-submarine destroyers patrolled only inside the Lough. She then headed into the North Atlantic before passing between Greenland and Iceland on 30 October.

Pfundheller had been ordered to raid the Iceland fishing fleets, but the weather was too bad for them to be at sea, so he headed north to carry out his third task, the raiding of trade between Archangel and Britain. However, bad weather made commerce raiding impossible because boats could not be lowered in order to inspect merchant ships.

By 15 November, Berlin was short of coal, her boilers were defective and a bright moon made it likely that the British would find her. Pfundheller’s orders permitted him to allow his ship to be interned in a neutral port if there was no other practicable option open to him. At 9 am on 15 November, Berlin entered Trondheim in Norway. She was interned 24 hours later.

Despite this inauspicious end, Berlin’s cruise proved to be very successful. At 2:15 pm on 26 October, the merchantman Manchester Commerce struck one of her mines and sunk. The 30 survivors of her 44 man crew were picked up by the trawler City of London at 2:30 am on 27 October.

The trawler then made for Carnlough on the north east coast of Ireland to report the sinking. Her time of arrival is unknown, but was probably just after 10 am, since she was capable of 8 knots and had a 60 mile journey. The news was transmitted by the local police at 10:46 am to a coastguard war signal station and reached the Admiralty at 11:35 am. However, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the commander of the Grand Fleet, did not receive it until 2 pm.[2]

At 5 pm on 26 October the eight Orion and King George V class dreadnoughts of the 5th Battle Squadron, commanded by Vice Admiral Sir George Warrender, left Lough Swilly to carry out practice firing. At 8:50 am HMS Audacious struck a mine, about a mile from where the Manchester Commerce had been sunk. It was at first assumed that she had been torpedoed by a U-boat, so the other battleships followed the orders issued after U9 had sunk three British cruisers in the Broad Fourteens and moved away. At 11:09 am, the dreadnought HMS Monarch reported that she had sighted a U-boat, although none were in the area. The light cruiser HMS Liverpool stayed with Audacious.

Audacious had struck one of Berlin’s mines, which had flooded her port engine room, causing the port engine to stop, though she was able to make about 9 knots for Lough Swilly using the starboard one. However, the very rough sea meant she was at risk of capsizing. Berlin’s mines had been set deep, meaning that they would not be hit by small ships, but would strike a battleship where its underwater protection was weakest.

Jellicoe sent all available destroyers and tugs, the collier Thornhill, the supply ship Assistance and the fleet messenger Cambria to give assistance. Vice Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly was on Cambria to direct operations. Jellicoe could not risk a larger ship whilst it was believed that Audacious had been torpedoed. However, the White Star liner Olympic, captained by Commodore Herbert Haddock RNR arrived in response to the distress signal.

All but 250 of Audacious’ crew were taken off, although the bad sea, exacerbated by the rolling of Audacious, made boat work very difficult.

At 2 pm, the destroyer HMS Fury, captained by Lieutenant-Commander Charles Sumner, managed to take a low line from Olympic to Audacious. However, it was impossible to steer the dreadnought and the line parted. Fury tried to pass tow lines from Liverpool and Thornhill, but was unsuccessful.

By 5 pm it was getting dark, and Audacious was rolling heavily. Her crew was reduced to a small party of volunteers, but at 6 pm it was decided to abandon her for the night because the risk of her capsizing was so high. By then, Jellicoe had learnt of the fate of the Manchester Commerce, so realised that Audacious had been mined, not torpedoed. He sent the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Exmouth to take her in tow. However, Audacious had been abandoned by the time that Exmouth arrived.

At 9 pm, Audacious capsized and blew up. The only casualty was Petty Officer William Burgess of HMS Liverpool, who was killed by a large amour plate that was thrown 800 yards to his ship.

The British decided not to announce the loss of Audacious, something described by the Official History as being ‘so contrary to all British tradition and sentiment, that the Admiralty would not decide without reference to the Cabinet.’[3]

Jellicoe requested that the loss be kept quiet because of the poor military situation. Operations on the Belgian coast were at a crisis point, and it was possible that the German fleet might attack British warships supporting land forces. The Cabinet was more concerned with the impact on the Ottoman Empire, which the Allies still hoped to keep neutral.

It was accepted that the news could be kept quiet for only a week to 10 days. American passengers on board the Olympic had seen Audacious in severe difficulties and heard her explode. Some had taken photos of her listing and low in the water. Her departure was delayed for three days, but US newspapers reported the loss of Audacious In the event, the Germans did not learn the news until 19 November.

Britain did not acknowledge the loss of Audacious until after the war, even though all neutral countries realised that she had been sunk. She was even kept in official lists of ships’ movements and activities. This led many neutrals to distrust British government statements, which would ‘have disastrous repercussions after the Battle of Jutland in 1916.’[4]

Audacious was the first dreadnought to be sunk and the only British dreadnought battleship to be sunk by enemy action in WWI, although one was later lost to an accidental explosion and three British battlecruisers were sunk at Jutland in 1916.

 

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xi, Home Waters part ii, September and October 1914. p. 126.

[2] Ibid. pp. 129-31 and notes 1-7 on p. 130.

[3] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 241.

[4] J. Goldrick, The King’s Ships Were at Sea: The War in the North Sea, August 1914-February 1915 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), p. 142.

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2 responses to “The Sinking of HMS Audacious 27 October 1914

  1. Pingback: The German Raid on North East England 16 December 1914 | War and Security

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

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