The Global Naval War

The Royal Navy’s most famous action of March 1915 was its unsuccessful attempt to force the Dardanelles. Its most successful one was the sinking of the German light cruiser SMS Dresden on 14 March. However, in March 1915, as with every month of the war, it was involved in many other activities across the world.

The Ottoman Empire’s largest Mediterranean port, Smyrna (now Izmir), was bombarded on 5 March in an operation similar to the attack on the Dardanelles. The intention was to prevent it being used as a submarine base. The attacking force consisted of the battleships HMS Swiftsure and Triumph, detached from the Dardanelles, the cruiser HMS Euryalus (Vice Admiral Sir Richard Peirse’s flagship),  the Russian cruiser Askold, the seaplane carrier Aenne Rickmers and minesweepers.

Smyrna was defended by a battery of seven 9.4 inch guns and another of four 6 inch guns, plus minefields that were protected by light guns and searchlights. The action began on 5 March and soon became a smaller version of the Dardanelles. The minefields prevented the big ships from getting close enough to destroy the guns which stopped the minesweepers from clearing the minefields.

An attempt was made to persuade the local ruler, the Vali of Smyrna, to come to terms. He appeared to agree, but it was unclear whether or not the military would obey him, especially after British ships flying flags of truce were fired on.[1]

The attack was called off on 15 March because the battleships were recalled to the Dardanelles. Ironically, Smyrna could not be used as a submarine base because the Ottomans blocked it by scuttling five ships in order to defend it against the attack.[2]

In Africa the RN was engaged on both coasts. The United Kingdom’s main interest in the Cameroons was in capturing the wireless station and port of Duala, which might have been used to support cruiser operations. The French were more interested in obtaining territory. Duala was taken by a river based operation on 27 September 1914, during which the gunboat HMS Dwarf sank the German cutter Nachtigal. However, the Germans had not retreated far, meaning that a further advance was needed in order to make it secure.[3]

In March 1915 the naval force operating off the Cameroons and along its rivers consisted of the cruiser HMS Challenger, HMS Dwarf, the French cruiser Pothau and about 20 smaller craft. In late April Challenger was relieved by the cruiser HMS Astraea and the force strengthened by the cruiser HMS Sirius and the sloop HMS Rinaldo.[4]

Until the British victory at the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914 RN forces in South Africa had to be kept concentrated. South African troops were convoyed by sea to the British enclave at Walvis Bay on 25 December.

By March the most important task for the RN’s South African station was the blockade of German East Africa (now Tanzania). The light cruiser SMS Königsberg was by then trapped in the Rufiji River.

The only German commerce raider at liberty in March was the armed merchant cruiser SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm, which would intern herself in Newport News on 8 April. However, the British did not learn until around 19 March the light cruiser SMS Karlsruhe had been destroyed by an accidental explosion on 4 November 1914.[5]

By March 1915 the main German threat to Allied commerce was from U-boats. Germany had declared that it would conduct unrestricted submarine warfare from 18 February. In February German U-boats sank nine Allied merchant ships with a total tonnage of 22,784 tons, including two of 4,286 tons on 15 February. Two (11,228 tons) were damaged. In March 30 ships (79,369 tons) were sunk or captured by German U-boats, with six (22,300 tons) being damaged. One of the ships in March sunk was the 5,948 tom armed merchant cruiser HMS Bayano.

These losses, although higher than previously inflicted by U-boats, were not huge because of the relatively small number of U-boats that Germany then possessed. It had 23 operational on 22 February, plus seven newly completed boats that were under sea trials. The need to refit, repair and resupply boats meant that there was an average of 5.6 and a maximum of 12 boats at sea on any one day between March and May 1915.[6]

The RN, like all navies lacked effective anti-submarine countermeasures in March 1915. Three U-boats were lost that month: U8 was trapped in nets and scuttled whilst under gunfire from the destroyers HMS Gurkha and Maori on 4 March; U12 was rammed by the destroyer HMS Ariel on 10 March; and U29 was being rammed by the battleship HMS Dreadnought on 18 March.

U29 remains the only submarine to have ever been sunk by a battleship. She was lost with all hands, including her captain, Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen. He had previously captained U9 when she sank three British cruisers on 22 September 1914 and another on 15 October.

The Admiralty issued orders that merchant ships that sighted a surfaced U-boat should head towards it in order to force it to dive. On 28 March Captain Charles Fryatt of the Great Eastern Railway packet Brussels escaped from U33 by this tactic.

The Brussels was captured by German destroyers on the night of 22-23 June 1916 and taken into Zeebrugge. Fryatt was tried as a franc-tireur on the basis that he was a civilian who had attempted to attack the German armed forces. He was executed on 27 July 1916, yet another German action that handed the Allies a propaganda victory for little or no military advantage. It was heavily criticised by the neutral Press: The New York Times called it ‘a deliberate murder.’[7]

British naval operations continued throughout the world, including blockading Germany, supplying the Western Front, patrolling and minesweeping.

On 24 March aircraft of the Royal Naval Air Service attempted to bomb the dockyards at Antwerp, where small U-boats of the UB coastal type were being assembled. Some aircraft had to abort because of technical problems and weather, but two, piloted by Squadron Commander I.T. Courtney and Flight-Lieutenant H. Rosher, bombed the target.[8]

This link names all British Empire sailors and marines who died in March 1915, whether from enemy action, illness or accident. The largest number were killed in the Dardanelles, followed by the crew of HMS Bayano. Most others died in the UK or home waters, but some died in Australia and Canada. Twelve were lost when the trawler Lord Airedale, taken into service as a minesweeper, foundered in a storm off the east coast of England on 18 March. The sea was dangerous, even when not undertaking dangerous war work such as minesweeping.

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 195-200.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 114.

[3] H. Strachan, The First World War: Vol. 1, to Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 519-23.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 281-84.

[5] Ibid. footnote 1, p. 240.

[6] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), p. 7.

[7] Halpern, Naval, p. 296.

[8] 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). vol. ii, pp. 343-44.

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