Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Lowestoft Raid 25 April 1916

Shortly after taking command of the German High Seas Fleet Admiral Reinhard Scheer laid down the strategy that it should follow. It could not currently win a decisive battle against the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet (GF), so should avoid having one forced on it. It should instead exert pressure to force the British to send out forces that could be attacked on terms favourable to the Germans. This should be achieved by submarine and mine warfare, attacks on British trade with Scandinavia and sorties by the High Seas Fleet.

The Russians had asked the British to carry out a demonstration in the North Sea to keep the High Seas Fleet there whilst they replaced their minefields in the Gulf of Finland, where the ice was melting. A sweep by destroyers, with close support from the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron backed by the 2nd Battle and 2nd Battle Cruiser squadrons, in the Skagerrak was therefore planned for 22 April. Submarines were positioned to attack any German ships that came north. Three days before the operation was to take place it was decided to add the 1st Battle Cruiser and 3rd Battle Squadrons.

On the afternoon of 21 April intelligence reached the Admiralty that the High Seas Fleet (HSF) was about to put to sea. The planned sweep was therefore replaced by a sortie by the entire GF. The German operation was then cancelled after the light cruiser SMS Graudenz struck a mine and other German ships reported spotting submarines.[1]

On the night of 22-23 April the British encountered heavy fog, during which the battle cruisers HMAS Australia and HMS New Zealand collided, as did three destroyers whilst a neutral merchantmen rammed the battleship HMS Neptune. There was no sign of the enemy, so the fleet returned to base on the morning of 23 April.[2]

At mid-day on 24 April the High Seas Fleet put to sea. The battle cruisers were led by Rear Admiral Friedrich Bödicker because Franz Hipper, their normal commander, was indisposed. His force was reduced to four ships after SMS Seydlitz struck a mine.[3]

The British were able to intercept and decode German wireless signal and realised that they were at sea when the German fleet flagship took over wireless control from a shore station. The damage to Seydlitz also created a lot of signals. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the Commander-in-Chief of the GF was ordered at 3:50 pm to hold the GF at two hours sailing notice once it was refuelled. Ten minutes later he was informed that Irish rebels had seized the General Post Office in Dublin.[4]

On 21 April Sir Roger Casement, an Irish Nationalist and a former British diplomat, had been arrested soon after being landed in Ireland by a U-boat. The same day the German auxiliary Libau, disguised as the Norwegian Aud, had been intercepted with a load of arms for the rebels. She scuttled herself the next day.[5]

Scheer’s memoirs makes no mention of events in Ireland when discussing this operation, but the British Official History argues that they influenced at least its timing. Scheer says that the objective was to force British ships out of port by naval bombardment of Lowestoft and Yarmouth and airship raids on Harwich, Ipswich, Lincoln and Norwich.[6]

At 4:28 pm on 24 April a signal from Scheer ordering that the German operation continue despite the damage to Seydlitz was intercepted. At 5:53 pm Jellicoe was told that the German battle cruisers were heading north west and that the Admiralty thought that the main German fleet was also out. British local defence flotillas, submarines and aircraft on the East coast were put on alert.[7]

Jellicoe ordered the ships at Scapa to raise steam at 7:00 pm, anticipating an order for the whole Grand Fleet to do so that arrived shortly afterwards from the Admiralty. It was clear that the Germans intended to attack somewhere, but it could be somewhere on the East coast or possibly Flanders, where German positions had been bombarded by the RN that morning.[8]

The 5th Battle Squadron, comprising the newest and fastest dreadnoughts, the Queen Elizabeth class, and the 4th Light Cruiser Squadron left Scapa at 9:10 pm. The 1st Battle Squadron departed from Invergordon at 10:000 pm, the Battle Cruiser Fleet (BCF) sailed from Rosyth at 10:50 pm and the rest of the GF left Scapa between 10:00 and 11:00 pm. A mutilated signal intercepted at 8:14 pm indicated that the German battle cruisers were heading towards Yarmouth, although it was possible that this was a feint, with the rest of the HSF heading to Flanders.[9]

At 3:50 am on 25 April, soon after daybreak, the three light cruisers and 18 destroyers of Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt’s Harwich Force encountered six German light cruisers and a number of destroyers. A few minutes later four battle cruisers became visible. Tyrwhitt turned south in the hope of drawing them over two British submarines. The Germans, however, continued northwards and by 4:13 am were bombarding Lowestoft.[10]

Tyrwhitt turned his force north and at 4:30 pm opened fire on the German light cruisers at 14,000 yards range in poor light. The Germans replied at 4:37 am. No damage was done by either side by 4:49  when the German battle cruisers joined in. The light cruiser HMS Conquest was hit by four or five 12 inch shells from SMS Derfflinger and/or Lützow. She suffered no vital damage, but 25 of her crew were killed and 13 wounded. The only other ship damaged was the destroyer HMS Laertes, which had a boiler put out of action by shell fragments. The Germans turned eastwards at 4:56 am and were soon out of sight. At 5:40 am Tyrwhitt turned north-eastwards in an attempt to regain contact with the Germans.[11]

The GF and BCF were still well to the north when the HSF withdrew. Both sides had submarines in position, but the only ones to be successful were SM UB18 which sank the submarine HMS E22 and UB29 which damaged the light cruiser HMS Penelope. Two German submarines were lost: UB13 struck a mine on 24 April and UC5 ran aground on 27 April; click on the names of the U-boats for more details from Uboat.net.

The raid on Lowestoft destroyed two 6 inch gun batteries and 200 houses. Three civilians were killed and 12 wounded. The attack on Yarmouth was curtailed by poor visibility and the appearance of the Harwich Force.[12] The accompanying raid by six airships was hampered by bad weather and most of the bombs dropped were ineffective. L16 injured one man, destroyed five houses and damaged 100 at Newmarket. A woman died of shock at Dilham, but the only other damage was to sheds and windows. L13 was slightly damaged by anti-aircraft fire.[13]

The operation boosted the prestige of the HSF in Germany.[14] It, however, In Britain there was anger with the RN’s failure to protect the British coast.[15]

This led to a realignment of British naval forces. The 3rd Battle Squadron of HMS Dreadnought and the seven remaining pre-dreadnoughts of the King Edward VII class (the name ship had been sunk by a mine on 6 January 1915) and the three Devonshire class armoured cruisers of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron were to be transferred from the GF to the south east of England. Rosyth on the Firth of Forth was to be developed into a base capable of accommodating the full GF. The work was completed in 1917 , but Rosyth did not become the GF’s main base in April 1918.[16] This did not really weaken the GF since only Dreadnought of the ships moved was modern enough to stand in the line of battle against dreadnoughts.

 

[1] The above is based on Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1927 vol. xvi, Lowestoft Raid 24th-25th April 1916. pp. pp. 6-10.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, pp. 298-99.

[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). vol. ii, pp. 424-25.

[4] Naval Staff vol. Xvi. p. 11.

[5] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 300.

[6] Ibid., pp. vol iii, pp. 303-4; R. Scheer, Germany’s High Sea Fleet in the World War (London: Cassell and Company, 1920), pp. 123-30.

[7] Naval Staff vol. Xvi. p. 11.

[8] Ibid., pp. pp. 12-13.

[9] Ibid., p. 14.

[10] Ibid., p. 22.

[11] Ibid., pp. 22-23.

[12] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 559.

[13] 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. iii, pp. 203-5.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 311

[15] Marder, From. vol. ii, pp. 433-34.

[16] Ibid., pp. 434-35.

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Charles Cowley and Humphrey Firman VC

Major-General Charles Townshend’s 6th (Poona) Division, comprised of British and Indian troops, captured Kut-al-Amara on 28 September 1915. Townshend was then ordered to press on to Baghdad. He argued that he needed two divisions to do so but obeyed his orders when his protests were overruled.[1]

The British command structure was confused because of the way in which the British ruled India. Townshend’s immediate superior, General Sir John Nixon, answered to the Indian government, comprised of British officials, in Delhi rather than to the War Office in London. Austen Chamberlain, the London based Secretary of State for India, was concerned about the lengthening lines of communication and lack of river transport in a region with poor roads and no  railways. Townshend wrote in his diary that Nixon ‘does not seem to realise the weakness and danger of his lines of communication…the consequences of a retreat are not to be imagined.’[2]

Nixon, however, claimed that marching the troops with land transport and lightening the river boats would avoid any ‘navigation difficulties.’[3] His view was accepted and the advance continued.

On 22 November Townshend’s troops encountered the Ottomans at the ruined ancient city of Ctesiphon, 22 miles from Baghdad. He believed that the enemy had 11,000 men and 40 guns but they actually had 18,000 men and 52 guns.[4] He had 13,756 men, 30 guns and 46 machine guns, not counting those on the gunboats Firefly and Comet, the armed launches Shaitan and Sumana or the four 4.7 inch guns on horse boats towed by the armed stern wheelers Sushan and Messoudieh.[5]

Townshend was forced to break off the action on 24 November. The next day his force started to retreat towards Kut, which was reached on 3 December. The lack of transport meant that the wounded, who continued to Basra suffered greatly, first travelling on unsprung 2 wheeled ox carts and then on over-crowded boats with inadequate medical facilities.[6] A. J. Barker argues in his authoritative history of the Mesopotamian Campaign that Nixon was not ‘entirely blameless’ but the [British] Indian government must be regarded as primarily responsible’ for the dreadful medical facilities.[7]

British casualties at Ctesiphon, the retreat and a further action at Umm-at-Tubal totalled 4,970: 711 killed, 3,890 wounded and 369 missing. A Turkish account says that the Ottomans lost over 9,500 men including deserters at Ctesiphon, with another giving their casualties excluding deserters as being 6,188. Their casualties at Umm-at-Tubal were 748.[8]

The British also lost the new gunboat Firefly, which was disabled when a shell hit her boiler and the old gunboat Comet, which ran aground when trying to help her. Sumana managed to rescue their crews with Ottoman soldiers already boarding the two stranded gunboats.[9]

Townshend reported initially that his division could hold out in Kut for two months, which was ‘a somewhat conservative estimate.’[10] By seizing local food supplies, putting his men on short rations and killing his animals for meat Townshend was ultimately able to hold out for nearly five months. His initial estimate forced the relief force to move before it was ready. It is strange that an officer who had made his name in a siege, that of Chitral on the North West Frontier of India in 1895, should make such a mistake.

By 24 April the situation in Kut was so desperate that a highly risky resupply mission had to be mounted. The river steamer Julnar was stripped of all unnecessary woodwork and armoured with protective plating. Manned by an all volunteer crew of Lieutenant Humphrey Firman RN, Lieutenant-Commander Charles Cowley RNVR, Engineer Sub-Lieutenant W. L. Reed RNR and 12 ratings she was to carry 270 tons of supplies to Kut.[11]

Cowley had a great knowledge of the River Tigris, having been employed by the Euphrates and Tigris Navigation Company. He had been born in Baghdad, was regarded by the Ottomans as being an Ottoman subject, so was likely to be executed if captured.[12] He had been born in Baghdad. He acted as pilot, with Firman captaining the Julnar.

She set off at 8 pm on 24 April, a dark, overcast and moonless night. Heavy artillery and machine gun fire tried to drown out the sound of her engines, but the Ottomans knew that she was coming. She soon came under rifle fire and could make no more than six knots because of a strong current. Ten miles from Kut she came under artillery fire. Two miles later a shell hit her, killing Firman and wounding Cowley, who took command. A few minutes later she struck a cable and drifted onto the right bank of the river. She was stuck, giving Cowley no choice but to surrender.[13]

Cowley was quickly separated from the rest of the crew. The Ottomans claimed first that he was found dead when the Julnar surrendered, then that he was shot whilst trying to escape. It is most likely that he was executed. He was a British subject, but he was aware that the Ottomans would execute him if he was captured.[14]

Cowley and Firman were both awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. The citation, from naval-history.net, states that:

Admiralty, 31st January, 1917.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the posthumous grant of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned officers in recognition of their conspicuous gallantry in an attempt to re-provision the force besieged in Kut-el-Amara.:

Lieutenant Humphry Osbaldeston Brooke Firman, R.N.

Lieutenant-Commander Charles Henry Cowley, R.N.V.R.

The General Officer Commanding, Indian Expeditionary Force “D,” reported on this attempt in the following words:

“At 8 p.m. on April 24th, 1916, with a crew from the Royal Navy under Lieutenant Firman, R.N., assisted by Lieutenant-Commander Cowley, R.N.V.R., the ‘Julnar,’ carrying 270 tons of supplies, left Falahiyah in an attempt to reach Kut.

Her departure was covered by all Artillery and machine gun fire that could be brought to bear, in the hope of distracting the enemy’s attention. She was, however, discovered and shelled on her passage up the river. At 1 a.m. on the 25th General Townshend reported that she had not arrived, and that at midnight a burst of heavy firing had been heard at Magasis, some 8 1/2 miles from Kut by river, which had suddenly ceased. There could be but little doubt that the enterprise had failed, and the next day the Air Service reported the ‘ Julnar ‘ in the hands of the Turks at Magasis.

“The leaders of this brave attempt, Lieutenant H. O. B. Firman, R.N., and his assistant – Lieutenant-Commander C. H. Cowley, R.N.V.R. – the latter of whom throughout the campaign in Mesopotamia performed magnificent service in command of the ‘Mejidieh’ – have been reported by the Turks to have been killed; the remainder of the gallant crew, including five wounded, are prisoners of war.

“Knowing well the chances against them, all the gallant officers and men who manned the ‘ Julnar’ for the occasion were volunteers. I trust that.the services in this connection of Lieutenant H. O. B. Firman, R.N., and Lieutenant-Commander C. H. Cowley, R.N.V.R., his assistant, both of whom were unfortunately killed, may be recognised by the posthumous grant of some suitable honour.”

The British Official History of Naval Operations states that all ‘the crew were decorated.[15] The awards of the Distinguished Service Order and the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal to other members of the crew  were announced on 11 November 1919.

Honours for Miscellaneous Services.

To be a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order.

Eng. Sub-Lieut. William. Louis Reed, R.N.R. For gallant and distinguished services as a volunteer in H.M.S. “Julnar” on the 24th April, 1916, when that vessel attempted to reach Kut-El-Amarah with stores for the besieged garrison.

To receive the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

E.R.A., 2nd Cl., Alexander Murphy, R.N.V.R., O.N. (Mersey) Z3/182. For most conspicuous gallantry as a volunteer in H.M.S. “Julnar” on the 24th April, 1916, when that vessel attempted to reach Kut-El-Amarah with stores for the besieged garrison.

P.O., 1st Cl., William Rowbottom, O.N. J2953 (Ch.). For most conspicuous gallantry as a volunteer in H.M.S. “Julnar” on the 24th April, 1916, when that vessel attempted to reach Kut-El-Amarah with stores for the besieged garrison.

The award of the Distinguished Service Medal to a group of ten ratings, listed on Naval-History.net, was announced the same day. It is likely that they were the other members of the crew, but the citations for the award of the DSM are not available.

Honours for Miscellaneous Services.

To receive the Distinguished Service Medal.

A.B. Herbert Blanchard, O.N. J13427 (Po.).

A.B. William Bond, O.N. J8490 (Dev.).

Ldg. Sto. Herbert Cooke, O.N. K6470 (Ch.).

Sea. John Featherbe, R.N.R., O.N. 6973A.

Sto., Ist.Cl., George William Forshaw, O.N. K18513 (Dev.).

Sto., 1st Cl., Samuel Fox, O.N. S.S.110714 (Po.).

A.B. Harry Ledger, O.N. J9539 (Dev.).

Sto., 1st Cl., Charles Thirkill, O.N. S.S. 115464 (Dev.).

A.B. Alfred Loveridge Veale, O.N. 215734 (R.F.R. Dev./B5936).

A.B. Montagu Williams, O.N. J44546 (Ch.).

The failure of Julnar’s mission meant that the only supplies available to the garrison of Kut were the tiny amounts that could be dropped by the small number of low performance aircraft available. Attempts were made to negotiate an end to the siege, but the Ottomans were not interested in British offers of gold or guns or prisoner exchanges in return for allowing the garrison of Kut to return to India or the fact that they would have to care for a large number of sick prisoners if the garrison surrendered. Townshend therefore surrendered Kut on 29 April.[16]

The Ottomans treated Townshend very well, his officers reasonably and his men very badly in captivity. During the siege 1,025 men were killed, 721 died of disease, 2,446 were wounded and 72 went missing. 247 civilians were killed and 663 wounded. Nearly 12,000 men went into captivity, of whom over 4,000 died. Their treatment eventually improved after representations from the US and Dutch Ambassadors.[17] Townshend’s reputation never recovered from his failure to inquire into the fate of his men whilst he lived in luxury in Istanbul. His performance in the campaign until Ctesiphon had actually been good: see this post.

 

 

[1] A. J. Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign (New York, NY: Enigma, 2009), pp. 91-92.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., p. 89.

[3] Quoted in Ibid.

[4] Ibid., pp. 97-98.

[5] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 227; F. J. Moberly, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1914-1918, 4 vols. (London: HMSO, 1923). vol. ii, p. 71.

[6] See D. Gunn, Sailor in the Desert: The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, Dsm, Rn in the Mesopotamia Campaign, 1915 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2013). for the experiences of a Royal Navy seaman in Mesopotamia. Chapter 48 describes the battle and Chapters 49-60 his evacuation after being wounded.

[7] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 106.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 229.

[9] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 228-29.

[10] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 228.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, p. 90.

[12] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 212.

[13] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, pp. 90-91.

[14] Moberly, Mesopotamia. vol. ii, p. 435, footnote.

[15] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, p. 91, footnote 1.

[16] Moberly, Mesopotamia. vol. ii, pp. 452-57.

[17] Ibid. vol. ii, pp. 459-466.

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