Monthly Archives: December 2015

Happy New Year!

Happy new year and thanks for reading, commenting on and liking my blog in 2015.

I will probably be posting a bit less in the next few months as I have signed a contract to write a book based on my PhD thesis on British Strategy and Oil 1914-1923, so will be prioritising that, but will keep the blog going.




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The Loss of HMS Natal 30 December 1915

At 3:25 pm on 30 December 1915 the armoured cruiser HMS Natal, then moored in the Cromarty Firth signalled that she was on fire. Other ships were ordered to give assistance, but at 3:30 pm she turned over and had sunk by 3:45 pm: timings are from the website

There is some doubt about the number of dead and survivors. Wikipedia says that some of her crew were not on board at the time of the sinking as they had been given shore leave to either play in or watch a football match. It gives a range of 390-421 for the number of dead. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website says that there were seven wives of officers, three children, a civilian and some nurses from the Hospital Ship Drina on board, attending a Christmas film show. It says that over 420 people died, including 414 naval personnel. states that 421 died. Its list of the dead includes 423 names, but at least one person is double counted, with Commander John Hutchings’s wife Mabel being included under both her married name and her maiden name of Cuningham. The list also includes Mrs Violet Back and Mrs Bennett, the wives of Captain Eric Back and Engineer Lieutenant Frank Bennett respectively. All three husbands also died. Mr Dodd, the Factor of the nearby Novar Estate, his wife and their three children were also amongst the dead, as were Nursing Sisters Caroline Edwards, Eliza Millicent and Olive Rowlett of Queen Alexandria’s Royal Naval Nursing Service.

The total dead would therefore appear to be 422: eight civilians, including four women and three children, and 414 naval personnel, including three nurses.

It was originally thought that Natal had been sunk by a U-boat, but it was later realised that her loss resulted from an accidental explosion of her ammunition. She was the second British armoured cruiser to be lost accidentally in nine weeks: HMS Argyll ran aground in heavy seas on the Bell Rock, near Dundee, on 28 October. All her crew were saved, but she was totally wrecked.

On 8 December a collision between the new Queen Elizabeth class super dreadnoughts HMS Barham and Warspite left both requiring dockyard repairs, reducing the British margin of superiority in the North Sea.[1] The British thought that they needed a big margin over the Germans because they assumed that the German High Seas Fleet would only come out when at full strength, whereas their Grand Fleet would be reduced by repairs and refits. In fact, the German battlecruiser SMS Von der Tann missed the Battle of Dogger Bank because she was in dry dock and the Germans were not at full strength at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

Part of Natal’s wreck remained visible and was saluted by RN ships entering or leaving the Cromarty Firth. Plans to salvage in the 1920s and 1930s did not come to fruition. In the  1970s the wreck was reduced in size to prevent  it being a danger to shipping: see the website of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland. The development of North Sea oil would by then have increased civilian shipping traffic in the area.

Natal was not the first British warship to be lost to an accidental explosion whilst moored, suggesting that RN ammunition handling procedures were lax. The pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Bulwark blew up on 26 November 1914 and HMS Princess Irene, a passenger line converted into an auxiliary minelayer, exploded on 27 May 1915. The dreadnought HMS Vanguard and the monitor HMS Glatton both blew up later in the war.



[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 261


Filed under War History

U-boats in Late 1915

Germany’s decision, under pressure from the USA, to end unrestricted submarine warfare in September 1915 did not end Allied shipping losses to U-boats. In the final three months of the war they sank 140 ships of 361,326 tons.[1]

Most of the losses in waters around the British Isles were from mines. The small coastal minelaying U-boats UC1, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9 , operating from Zeebrugge, laid mines in 16 locations. Seventeen vessels struck mines around Dover and the Nore alone.[2] Mines were laid off Portsmouth in an attempt to disrupt transports to France, one of which sank the destroyer HMS Velox on 25 October.[3]

The minelayers did not escape unscathed. UC6 was damaged in early October: the Germans claimed that this was the result of her being rammed by a destroyer but no British destroyer reported such an incident that month.[4] UC9 left port on 20 October and never returned. Her fate is unknown.[5] UC8 ran aground in Dutch waters on 4 November and was interned.[6]

Mines were laid in 13 different places in November.[7] Their victims included the hospital ship Anglia, which was sunk on 17 November with the loss of about 80 staff and wounded soldiers.[8] Mines closed Boulogne to shipping on 10, 12-14 and 29 November. Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, was due to travel home from France on the last of those dates and had to go from Dunkirk instead of the more usual Boulogne to Folkestone route.[9]

One raid was carried out by a U-boat in the North Sea in December 1914, with the objective of keeping British escorts that might otherwise have been sent to the Mediterranean in home waters. U24 sank one Belgian and three British steamers during it.[10]

A number of U-boats were transferred to the Mediterranean. U21 arrived at the Austro-Hungarian port of Cattaro, now Kotor, on 5 May. As described here, she sank the British battleships HMS Majestic and Triumph off Gallipoli in late May. The coastal boats UB1, 3, 7, 8, 14 and 15 and the coastal minelayers UC12, 13, 14 and 15 were sent partially assembled by rail and completed at Pola.[11]

In early August U34 and 35 sailed to the Mediterranean, followed by U33 and 39 at the end of the month and later by U38: these boats were all of the U31 class. U21, UB7 and 8 and UC14 and 15 were based at Istanbul, with the others operating from Austro-Hungarian ports. During 1915 U-boats sank 54 British and 38 Allied and neutral ships in the Mediterranean. As well as merchant ships, they sank a number of troopship, starting with the British Royal Edward, torpedoed by UB14 (Oberleutnant Heino von Heimburg) on 13 August whilst bound from Alexandria to Mudros with the loss of 866 lives. UB14 also ambushed and sank the British submarine E20 in the Sea of Marmara as a result of information obtained when the French submarine Turquoise was captured by the Ottomans. Other warship losses to U-boats in the Mediterranean included the Italian submarine Medusa on 10 June and armoured cruiser Amalfi on 7 July, both sunk by UB15, then captained by von Heimburg.  The Italian armoured cruiser Guiseppe Garibaldi was sunk by the Austro-Hungarian U-IV on 18 July  and the submarine Nereide by the Austro-Hungarian U-V on 5 August.[12]

The Austro-Hungarian navy had begun the war with seven small submarines,  named by Roman numerals here to differentiate them from German boats. Their early actions were confined to attacks on French warships. U-IV fired at but missed the armoured cruiser Waldeck-Rousseau on 17 October 1914. On 21 December 1914 U-XII torpedoed and damaged the dreadnought Jean Bart, which was sailing at 9 knots with no destroyer screen despite it being three months since U9 had sunk three British armoured cruisers in a single action. As late as 26 April 1915 the armoured cruiser Leon Gambetta was making only 6.5 knots and had no destroyer screen when she was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 650 men by U-V, captained by Linenschiffleutnant Georg Ritter von Trapp, whose family were the subject of The Sound of Music. During the war the Austro-Hungarians added only the captured French Curie and a number of German UB boats to their fleet.

One reason to switch U-boats to the Mediterranean was to prevent them damaging German relations with the United States of America by killing Americans. On 7 November, however, the German U38 (Kapitänleutnant Max Valentiner), flying Austro-Hungarian colours because Germany and Italy were not yet at war, sank the Italian liner Ancona, killing over 200 people, including about 20 Americans. The US protested to Austria-Hungary, which promised to pay an indemnity and to punish the boat’s captain, who was not named.[13]

The Germans, who did not want further incidents with the USA, ordered their U-boat captains to observe prize laws in the Mediterranean, meaning that they had to allow the passengers and crew time to evacuate a merchant ship before sinking her. This was mostly complied with until 1917. Valentiner’s U38, however, sank five British and several Allied merchant steamers between 27 December  1915 and 4 January 1916 with the loss of over 500 lives, 334 of them on the liner Persia, sunk on 30 December 1915.[14]



[1] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945, pp. 152-53.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xv, Home Waters part vi, October 1915 to May 1916. p. 15.

[3] Ibid., p. 19.

[4] Ibid., p. 21. and note 2.

[5] Ibid., p. 22.

[6] Ibid., p. 24.

[7] Ibid., p. 23.

[8] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918., p. 61.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 24.

[10] Gibson, Prendergast, German, p. 61.

[11] Ibid., p. 71.

[12] Ibid., pp. 73-79.

[13] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, p. 385.

[14] Gibson, Prendergast, German, pp. 78-79.


Filed under War History

Richard Bell Davies VC

Richard Bell Davies, a career naval officer, learnt to fly at his own expense in 1913 at the age of  27. He then transferred to the naval wing of the Royal Flying Corps, which was taken under the control of the Admiralty as the Royal Naval Air Service on 1 July 1914.

On 27 August he was one of the 10 pilots of the Eastchurch Squadron of the RNAS, commanded by Wing Commander Charles Samson, who flew their aircraft to Ostend. After three days they were ordered to return to England via Dunkirk. One of the aircraft crashed on landing at Dunkirk. This delayed the flight home and on 1 September they were ordered to remain at Dunkirk in order to operate against enemy airships and aircraft and to carry reconnaissance missions. As well as aircraft, they were equipped with armed motor cars that raided the enemy’s flanks.[1]

During the First Battle of Ypres, lasting from 19 October to 22 November 1914, the RNAS aircraft carried out reconnaissance missions for the army. Davies attacked German aircraft in the air on three separate occasions, but all managed to land behind their own lines.[2]

Davies and Flight Lieutenant Richard Peirse carried out a number of bombing raids on the German U-boat bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge. Both were awarded the Distinguished Service Order for an attack on Zeebrugge on 23 January 1915. Their citations, from, stated that:

Squadron Commander Richard Bell Davies

Flight Lieutenant Richard Edmund Charles Peirse

These Officers have repeatedly attacked the German submarine station at Ostend and Zeebrugge, being subjected on each occasion to heavy and accurate fire, their machines being frequently hit. In particular, on 23rd January, they each discharged eight bombs in an attack upon submarines alongside the mole at Zeebrugge, flying down to close range. At the outset of this flight Lieutenant Davies was severely wounded by a bullet in. the thigh, but nevertheless he accomplished his task, handling his machine for an hour with great skill in spite of pain and loss of blood.

Davies held the rank of Lieutenant in the RN and the appointment of Squadron Commander in the RNAS.

Davies was later sent to the Dardanelles. In October 1915 Bulgaria joined the Central Powers opening up a railway supply line from Germany to the Ottoman Empire. RNAS aircraft and seaplanes made several bombing raids on a rail bridge over the river Maritza south of Kulelli and a rail junction at Ferrijik. During an attack on the latter on 19 November Flight Sub-Lieutenant Gilbert Smylie’s Henri Farman was forced to land by rifle fire. Davies landed his aircraft and rescued Smylie in perhaps the first ever combat search and rescue mission. The citation for his Victoria Cross and Smylie’s Distinguished Service Cross, again from, stated that:

29423 – 31 DECEMBER 1915

Admiralty, 1st January, 1916.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Squadron-Commander Richard Bell Davies, D.S.O., R.N., and of the Distinguished Service Cross to Flight Sub-Lieutenant Gilbert Formby Smylie, R.N., in recognition of their behaviour in the following circumstances:

On the 19th November these two officers carried out an air attack on Ferrijik Junction. Flight Sub-Lieutenant Smylie’s machine was received by very heavy fire and brought down. The pilot planed down over the station, releasing all his bombs except one, which failed to drop, simultaneously at the station from a very low altitude. Thence he continued his descent into the marsh. On alighting he saw the one unexploded bomb, and set fire to his machine, knowing that the bomb would ensure its destruction. He then proceeded towards Turkish territory.

At this moment he perceived Squadron-Commander Davies descending, and fearing that he would come down near the burning machine and thus risk destruction from the bomb, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Smylie ran back and from a short distance exploded the bomb by means of a pistol bullet. Squadron-Commander Davies descended at a safe distance from the burning machine, took up Sub-Lieutenant Smylie, in spite of the near approach of a party of the enemy, and returned to the aerodrome, a feat of airmanship that can seldom have been equalled for skill and gallantry.

Davies was flying a Nieuport 10, a two seater reconnaissance aircraft that had been converted into a single seater fighter by covering the front cockpit. Smylie managed to squeeze past the controls into the front cockpit.

Davies was later awarded Air Force Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. He joined the Royal Air Force when it was formed by a merger of the RFC and the RNAS on 1 April 1918, but was one of the few former members of the RNAS to return to the RN after the war. He served in a mixture of staff appointments connected with aviation and sea going post between the wars. When the RN regained control of the Fleet Air Arm in 1939 Davies was appointed Rear Admiral, Naval Stations, commanding its shore bases.

He retired with the rank of Vice Admiral in May 1941, but then joined the Royal Naval Reserve with the rank of Commander, serving as a Convoy Commodore. They were senior Merchant Navy officers or retired admirals and commanded the merchant ships but not the escorts of a convoy. He later captained two escort carriers, HMS Dasher during her commissioning period and the trials carrier HMS Pretoria Castle. He died in 1966.


[1] 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. i, pp. 371-76.

[2] Ibid. vol. i, pp. 392-93


Filed under War History

British Submarines in the Baltic

On 11 October 1914 the British E class submarines HMS E1 (Lieutenant Commander Noel Laurence), E9 (Lieutenant Commander Max Horton) and E11 (Lieutenant Commander Martin Nasmith) were ordered to enter the Baltic. Their mission was to attack the German High Seas Fleet when it exercised in the Baltic, before heading for the Russian port of Libau (now Liepāja in Latvia) and operate from there. The journey into the Baltic was to be made at night in order to avoid German patrol ships.

E1 made the passage safely on the night of 17 October. She fired two torpedoes at the cruiser SMS Victoria Louise the next morning, but both missed. She then tracked another cruiser for six hours, but was unsuccessful in trying to attack her. On 20 October she encountered three cruisers in Danzig Bay, but could not get at them, so headed for Libau. A Russian pilot guided her into the port, which had been dismantled and abandoned. E1 had passed through a German minefield without knowing it.

E9, which had had become the first British submarine to sink a ship when she sunk SMS Hela on 13 September, also made the passage on the night of 17 October, but had to spend all the next day on the bottom as she was unable to complete the journey before daybreak. She had several close encounters with destroyers, but passed the patrol line on 18 October. She also passed through the German minefield without realising it and arrived at Libau on 22 October.

E11’s journey was delayed until 18 October by technical faults. She failed to get through and retired. The next day she fired a torpedo at a submarine. It missed, which was fortunate as the boat was Danish. She was herself attacked unsuccessfully later that day. On 20 October a German seaplane found her re-charging her batteries on the surface. She was attacked all night by destroyers and returned to the United Kingdom on 22 October after another unsuccessful attempt to get through. She later operated very successfully in the Dardanelles.

E1 and E9 waited for E11 until ordered to head to Lapvik in the Gulf of Finland and put themselves under the orders of Admiral Nikolai von Essen, the C-in-C of the Russian Baltic Fleet. They arrived on 30 October. having tried unsuccessfully to attack a destroyer and a cruiser on the way.[1]

During the winter of 1914-15 the two boats were kept busy. They did no direct damage, but their presence persuaded the Germans to attack Libau, which they wrongly assumed was the British submarine base. The Germans successfully blocked the harbour entrance, but the armoured cruiser SMS Friedrich Carl struck two mines in the early hours of 26 November 1914. She was abandoned and left to sink.[2]

In late April 1915 Germans launched an offensive towards Libau. Attempts by the British submarines to attack German naval forces supporting this operation were initially unsuccessful. Libau was captured on 7 May, and three days later E9 was ordered to operate against ships supplying it from Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland) and Memel (now Klaipėda in Lithuania). She attacked a convoy of three transports and three cruiser escorted by destroyers, sinking one of the transports.

On 1 June E1 was forced to undergo repairs because of an engine problem. Von Essen,  described by the British Official History as an ‘energetic and devoted officer’, had died of illness on 20 May, but the submarine operations continued.[3] On 4 June E9 attacked two destroyers that were re-coaling from a collier, with two more destroyers and a light cruiser in attendance. E9 fired a torpedo at the cruiser, which missed, and two at the collier, which sank both her and one of the destroyers.

By 2 July the Germans were threatening Riga, ‘an important munitions centre [that] was vital to the security of the capital [St Petersburg].’[4] In the early hours of that day the Battle of Aland Islands saw a Russian squadron of the armoured cruisers Admiral Makarov and Bayan and the smaller cruisers Bogatyr and Oleg engaged the German armoured cruiser SMS Roon, the light cruisers SMS Augsburg and Lübeck and the minelayer SMS Albatross in fog. The Albatross was forced aground on Swedish territory and interned, whilst Augsburg was badly damaged. The Russians lost contact with the enemy in the fog and headed home. They were then attacked by the Roon, Lübeck and four destroyers. The Germans were forced to withdraw after the Russian armoured cruiser Rurik joined the action, damaging the Roon. German reinforcements appeared, but E9 torpedoed and damaged the armoured cruiser SMS Prinz Adalbert.

On 30 July E1, which had been repaired, sank the German auxiliary ship Aachen, The efforts of the submarines could not, however, prevent the Germans from winning the land campaign.[5]

The Russians, whose armies were under severe pressure and trading space for time, requested on 15 August that the British send more submarines. The Germans intended to turn the Russian right flank, which rested on the Gulf of Riga. This required a combined operation by their army and navy, including the entry of their battlecruisers into the Gulf. The Admiralty, acting on requests from British personnel on the spot, had the day before ordered E8 (Lieutenant-Commander Francis Goodhart) and E13 (Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Layton) to head to the Baltic. E8 arrived safely but E13 ran aground in Danish waters and was then attacked and sunk by German destroyers.[6] This was one of a number of alleged atrocities at sea that took place in mid 1915: see this previous entry for further details.

On 19 August E1 got into a position to attack four German battlecruisers that were sailing in line abreast. She fired a torpedo that hit the closest ship, SMS Moltke, but was then forced to dive by a destroyer. The fog and the destroyer escort prevented E1 from making any more attacks. Eight of Moltke’s crew were killed and she was forced to return to Hamburg for repairs that took about a month. The Germans abandoned their attempt to turn the Riga flank the next day. The British Official History suggests that:

‘it is not…impossible that the presence of our submarines in the Baltic was as disconcerting to the Germans as the arrival of theirs at the Dardanelles had been to us.’[7]

E8 captured and then sank the steamer Margritte off Königsberg on 8 October. She was on station outside Libau on 23 October when she observed SMS Prinz Adalbert leaving the port with a destroyer on each bow.. Goodhart positioned his boat to ambush the German ships. He let the destroyer on E8’s side pass and four minutes later fired a bow tube at the cruiser at a range of 1,300 yards. The torpedo hit her forward magazine, causing a large explosion. Goodhart dived his boat, returning to periscope depth eight minutes later.  The cruiser had sunk, the destroyers probably did not know if the damage had been caused by a mine or a submarine and E8 escaped.

Two more British submarine had by then arrived in the Baltic: E18 (Lieutenant Commander R. C. Halahan) and E19 (Lieutenant Commander Francis Cromie). On 11 October E19 stopped a series of ships carrying iron or magnetic ore from Sweden. Those heading for the UK or neutral ports were allowed to continue but those bound for Germany, the Walter Leonhardt, Gutrune, Direktor Rippenhagen and Nicomedia, were sunk. Their crews were put on Swedish ships, except for that of the Nicomedia, who were sent ashore on boats. The Germania ran aground whilst trying to escape E19, with her crew abandoning ship.

On 12 October E19 stopped the Nike, carrying iron ore from Stockholm to Stettin (now Szczecin in Poland. Her captain was Swedish, and Cromie sent her to the Russian port of Reval, now Tallinn in Estonia, with a prize crew. The normal British practice was that a Prize Court would condemn her as a lawful prize, and the British did not want to set a precedent by doing things differently this time. The Russians, however, wanted to return her to the Swedes in order to avoid offending them. Since she was in a Russian port, the British gave her to the Russians who handed her back to the Swedes. Nike’s captain said that there were then 15 ore ships awaiting escort from Lulea in Sweden to Germany.

German losses to British submarines in the Baltic continued, however. On 18 and 19 October E9 sank the Soderham, Pernambuco, Johannes-Russ and Dal Alfoen, all carrying iron ore to Germany.

The British also continued to have success against German warships. On the morning of 7 November E19 spotted a light cruiser and two destroyers, but was unable to get into a position to fire. Three hours later, at 1:20 pm, she encountered the light cruiser SMS Undine and one destroyer. At 1:45 pm Cromie fired a torpedo at Undine at a range of 1,100 yard, scoring a hit that stopped her. E19 avoided the destroyer and fired a second torpedo from 1,200 yards that hit Undine’s magazine, causing her to blow up. The destroyer fired on E19’s periscope, so she withdrew to a safe distance in order to observe the Germans picking up survivors.

The British submarine campaign in the Baltic ended for the winter when E18 returned to Reval on 17 November after an unsuccessful three week cruise. The weather made further submarine operations impossible until the spring.[8]

The British Official History argued that ‘after E9’s success the control of the Baltic seemed to have passed for a time out of German Hands.’[9]

Three of the Baltic submarine captains were awarded the Distinguished Service Order and various Russian decorations in 1916: Laurence on 24 February and Goodhart and Cromie on 30 May. Horton had already received the DSO. Lieutenant George Sharp was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on 30 May ‘In recognition of his services in a British submarine operating in the Baltic Sea’; the citation, from, does not say which boat he was serving in.

Three of them did not survive the war: Halahan was lost along with E18 in May 1916; Goodhart died when HMS K13 sank accidentally on 31 January 1917; and Cromie was killed by Bolsheviks on 31 August 1918 whilst acting as British naval attaché to Russia. The other four, Horton, Laurence, Layton and Nasmith, all reached the rank of Admiral.

[1] The above is based on J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol i, pp. 236-38.

[2] Ibid. vol. ii, pp. 285-86

[3] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 60.

[4] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 62.

[5] The last four paragraphs are based on Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 61-63.

[6] Ibid. vol. iii. pp. 135-36.

[7] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 137.

[8] The last seven paragraphs are based on Ibid. vol. iv, pp. 95-98.

[9] Ibid. vol. iv, p. 98.

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