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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