Monthly Archives: October 2018

The Second Battle of Heligoland Bight 16-17 November 1917

During the First World War, the British laid large numbers of mines in the Helgoland Bight in an attempt to prevent U-boats travelling to the Atlantic via the North Sea. The Germans sent  minesweepers up to 100 miles from Heligoland almost every day in an attempt to clear them. They were normally escorted by light cruisers and torpedo boats, with battleships sometimes covering them. By mid November 1917 the British Admiralty had enough intelligence on German operations to plan an attack on the minesweepers and their escorts.[1]

The British striking force that sailed from Rosyth on the Firth of Forth at 4:30 pm on 16 November comprised: 1st Cruiser Squadron (Vice Admiral Trevelyan Napier) of two light battle cruisers and four destroyers; 6th Light Cruiser Squadron (Rear Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair) of four C class light cruisers and four destroyers; 1st Light Cruiser Squadron (Commodore Walter Cowan) of one C and 3 Arethusa class light cruisers and two destroyers; and 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron (Vice Admiral William Pakenham (five battlecruisers, a light cruiser and eight destroyers.

Pakenham was in overall command of the operation, but Napier commanded the two light cruiser squadrons as well as his own cruiser squadron.

The 1st Battle Squadron of six battleships and 11 Destroyers was in a supporting position several hours steaming away.

The Germans had the VI Minesweeping Group, II and VI Support Groups and IV Barrier Breaker Group, totalling 16 auxiliaries and a similar number of trawlers, escorted by eight destroyers of the 7th Torpedo Boat Flotilla and the four light cruisers of the II Scouting Group (Konteradmiral Ludwig von Reuter). Two German battleships were in support near Heligoland.[2]

The light battlecruisers, HMS Courageous and Glorious, were fast (32 knot), lightly armoured ships armed with four 15 inch, 18 4 inch and two 3 inch guns plus two 21 inch torpedo tubes. They had very shallow drafts and had been intended to take part in operations in the Baltic, which were cancelled when Admiral Lord Fisher ceased to be First Sea Lord. Fisher called them large light cruisers in order to evade a government order forbidding the construction of more capital ships.[3]

The British spotted German ships at 7:30 am on 17 November, opening fire seven minutes later. The Germans destroyers and light cruisers turned towards the British and covered the minesweepers with a smokescreen. All withdrew except the armed trawler Kehdingen, which had been hit and immobilised. The other German ships were in the smoke before the British could ascertain their strength.[4]

The German ships became visible briefly and were fired on but the situation remained unclear until 8:07, when Napier’s flagship Courageous cleared the smoke, allowing him to see three German light cruisers to the south east, steering east north east. Four minutes later they changed course to the south east.[5]

The German auxiliaries were now to the north east and were not being pursued. Reuter could therefore draw the British through the minefields towards the German battleships.  The British could fire only their forward guns at his light cruisers but a single hit by a 15 inch shell on one of them could slow her by a few knots, meaning that he would have to abandon her, as Admiral Franz von Hipper had had to do with SMS Blücher at the First Battle of Heligoland Bight in 1915.[6]

Courageous and Glorious opened fire at 8:10, but it was another 10 minutes until all the British ships were in range of the Germans. They then laid another smokescreen and 15 minutes later disappeared into dense smoke. Napier was now at the edge of the British minefields and turned to port, considering that the situation was too uncertain to risk continuing. The light cruisers followed just after 8:40. The 6th Light Cruiser Squadron made the smallest turn and HMS Cardiff was hit and damaged at 8:50. The smokescreen was now clearing, revealing that the Germans had not changed course. [7]

Napier’s squadron had lost five miles and was now at extreme range, although the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron and HMS Caledon of the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron were closer.[8]

The British opened fire again at 8:52. Napier decided to follow the Germans for 12 more miles, which would take his force to the edge of an area that the Admiralty had in 1915 labelled as being dangerous because of mines. His force had now been reinforced by the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, which had been ordered by Pakenham not to enter the minefields.[9]

At 8:58 Pakenham  ordered the British to withdraw. He had received a signal from Napier at 8:52 that implied that contact with the Germans had been lost permanently but actually meant that they had temporarily disappeared behind a smokescreen. All British ships were in action by the time that Pakenham’s withdrawal order was received, and it was disregarded.[10]

Firing was intermittent, but the British believed that they had damaged at least one German cruiser. The Germans launched an unsuccessful torpedo attack around 9:30. At 9:32 Napier took Courageous and Glorious out of the action because they had reached his danger line, but the light cruisers, whose commanders  did not have the chart Napier had based his decision on, continued. At 9:40 HMS Calypso was damaged, but the British appeared to have the advantage until 9:50, when shells from two German battleships started to land amongst them. The light cruisers withdrew, covered by Repulse. The Germans did not pursue them and a thick fog descended at 10:40.[11]

The British thought that some of the eight or 10 torpedoes fired at them came from a U-boat but none were present.[12]

The Germans repeatedly straddled the British ships but scored only seven hits, all on the light cruisers. The British managed only  five hits, with SMS Königsberg being the only German ship seriously damaged.  A shell from Repulse penetrated her three funnels and exploded over one of the boiler rooms. Her repairs were completed on 15 December.[13] lists 22 British sailors killed at the Second Bight of Heligoland Bight, all of them on light cruisers. None of the sources consulted give German casualties.  One of the British dead, Ordinary Seaman John Carless of HMS Caledon, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Carless, who had joined the Royal Navy in September 1915 after being rejected by the army four times because of a weak heart, remained at his post and continued to load his gun despite being severely wounded.  The citation for his VC, quoted on Wikipedia, stated that:

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. Although mortally wounded in the abdomen, he still went on serving the gun at which he was acting as rammer, lifting a projectile and helping to clear away the other casualties. He collapsed once, but got up, tried again, and cheered on the new gun’s crew. He then fell and died. He not only set a very inspiring and memorable example, but he also, whilst mortally wounded, continued to do effective work against the King’s enemies.

— The London Gazette, No. 30687, 17 May 1918

The British failure to pursue more effectively was partly due to the light cruiser admirals not having all the information about minefields available to the Admiralty and to Napier. Additionally, Napier pursued at 25 knots when Courageous and Glorious were capable of at least 30 knots and were superior to the German light cruisers that they were chasing.[14]

The only vessel sunk in the battle was the German Kehdingen but losing only one trawler when so heavily outnumbered was a success for the Germans in an action where the British might have sunk a large number of minesweepers, destroyers and cruisers.




[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, pp. 165-66.

[2] M. Faulkner, A. D. Lambert, The Great War at Sea: A Naval Atlas 1914-1919 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2015), pp. 138-39; 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. iv, pp. 300-1,

[3] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 39-40.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 169-70.

[5] Ibid., pp. 170-71.

[6] Ibid., p. 171.

[7] Ibid., p. 172.

[8] Marder, From. vol. iv, p. 302.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 172-73.

[10] Ibid., p. 173.

[11] Ibid., pp. 175-76.

[12] Marder, From. vol iv, p. 305.

[13] Ibid., p. 304.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 177; Marder, From. vol. iv, p. 305


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Victory over the U-boats

On 21 October 1918 Admiral Reinhard Scheer, the German Chief of the Admiralty Staff, ordered all U-boats to return to base. This ended the German campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare, which meant sinking merchant ships without warning, that had begun on 1 February.[1]

Scheer’s orders were obeyed by almost all U-boat captains. UC 74 (Oberleutnant Hans Schüler) sank the 85 ton Greek sailing ship Aghios Gerasimos by gunfire in the Eastern Mediterranean on 23 October and a number of merchant ships were sunk by mines laid by UC 74 after 21 October off the Suez Canal. Other ships were sunk after 21 October by mines laid earlier.[2]

Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, Scheer’s predecessor, had argued that the Germans had to break the British economy in order to win the war and this could be achieved by destroying 600,000 tons of merchant shipping per month for five months, which would cut British trade by 39% within five months. The Germans were aware that this might bring the USA into the war against them but thought that it would not be able to replace the lost merchant shipping and that there would be insufficient transports to take US troops to Europe.[3]

The U-boats’ best month before February 1917 was October 1916, when they sank 341,363 tons of merchant shipping according to German records. There are some differences between British and German figures but they are not large. German ones are slightly higher over the whole war but are lower in some months. V. E. Tarrant argues that the German numbers are the more accurate and they are quoted here.[4]

As shown in the table below, the Germans achieved their target of sinking 600,000 tons of shipping in only three months: April, May and June 1917. However, the 860,334 tons sunk in April meant that the average for the first seven months of unrestricted submarine warfare was 612,310 per month. Von Holtzendorff’s belief that this level of loss for five months would break the British economy was proved to be wrong.

These figures are for ships from all countries, not just Britain sunk by U-boats, including by mines laid by U-boats, but excluding ships sunk by surface raiders and aircraft.

Month Gross tons
Oct-14 866
Nov-14 2,084
1914 Total 2,950
Jan-15 17,577
Feb-15 22,785
Mar-15 89,517
Apr-15 41,488
May-15 126,895
Jun-15 115,291
Jul-15 98,005
Aug-15 182,772
Sep-15 136,048
Oct-15 86,064
Nov-15 167,523
Dec-15 107,739
1915 Total 1,191,704
Jan-16 49,610
Feb-16 95,090
Mar-16 160,536
Apr-16 187,307
May-16 119,381
Jun-16 93,193
Jul-16 110,728
Aug-16 163,145
Sep-16 231,573
Oct-16 341,363
Nov-16 326,689
Dec-16 307,847
1916 Total 2,186,462
Jan-17 328,391
Feb-17 520,412
Mar-17 564,497
Apr-17 860,334
May-17 616,316
Jun-17 696,725
Jul-17 555,514
Aug-17 472,372
Sep-17 353,602
Oct-17 466,542
Nov-17 302,599
Dec-17 411,766
1917 Total 6,149,070
Jan-18 295,630
Feb-18 335,202
Mar-18 368,746
Apr-18 300,069
May-18 296,558
Jun-18 268,505
Jul-18 280,820
Aug-18 310,180
Sep-18 171,972
Oct-18 116,237
Nov-18 10,233
1918 Total 2,754,152
Grand Total 12,284,338

Source: Tarrant, V. E., The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945, (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), pp. 152-53. Originally from Der Krieg zur See, 1914-15, vol v: Der Handelskreig mit U-booten.

The losses were stemmed by the adoption of various counter-measures of which the introduction of convoys was the most important. Convoys had been used in previous wars and for troopships in this one. The Admiralty opposed them for a number of reasons:

Code breaking and radio direction finding could enable it to track U-boats. This had worked against surface raiders but was ineffective against U-boats because they could not be detected once submerged except by spotting their periscopes or torpedo tracks

An armed merchantman could avoid torpedo attack by zigzagging and fight off a gun attack by a surfaced U-boat.

Merchantmen would not be able to keep station, especially at night. In fact convoys were in areas where U-boat attack was unlikely for most of their journeys, giving them time to practice formation sailing.

Ships would be delayed in sailing. This was false as ships were already delayed by reports of U-boats near their ports.

Convoys would give U-boats an attractive target as they assembled in open seas. The US entry into the war meant that they could assemble in US ports. They could in any case have done so at Bermuda or Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Convoys would concentrate targets together, so would require to be escorted by as many as one destroyer per merchant ship. Allocating this number of destroyers to convoy escort would mean that the Grand Fleet would have to stay in port. Only eight to 10 escorts were actually needed for a 20 ship convoy and smaller ships than destroyers proved to be adequate convoy escorts.[5]

It was actually almost as hard for a U-boat to spot a convoy as it was for it to find an independent ship. According to Vice Admiral Sir Arthur Hezlet, a British WWII submarine captain, a ship could be spotted from 10 miles away. A 20 ship convoy would be two miles wide so could be seen from 11 miles away. Convoys therefore meant that U-boats would find fewer targets, not more. Even if a U-boat spotted a convoy, it would probably have time to  torpedo only one, at most two of its ships and would be counter attacked by the escorts. The British also used radio direction finding to avoid U-boats.[6]

This was confirmed by Karl Dönitz, commander of Germany’s U-boats in WWII and a U-boat captain in WWI. He wrote that ‘[t]he oceans at once became bare and empty…for long periods…the U-boats…would see nothing at all.’ When a convoy did appear, the ‘U-boat might well sink one or two of the ships, or even several; but that was but a poor percentage of the whole.’[7] It would also be vulnerable to counter-attack by the convoy’s escort.

The British had been using convoys in the war. As well as troopships, ships sailing between England and the Netherlands had been convoyed since July 1916 because of the risk of destroyer attack. Ships carrying coal from Britain to France were convoyed from February 1917 at the request of the French. The Admiralty insisted on calling the convoys controlled sailings.[8]

The French coal convoys had been organised by Commander Reginald Henderson.[9] He obtained figures from the Ministry of Shipping that showed that the number of ocean going ships sailing to and from the UK was much lower than realised.

The Admiralty had included short voyages made by small, coastal ships in its reports of the number of ships calling at British ports in order to make the Germans think that the sea traffic to the UK was too great for the U-boats to destroy. The 2,500 voyages each way per week claimed was too many to convoy but the true number of ocean going ships arriving and leaving was 120 to 140 per week.[10]

On 25 April 1917 the War Cabinet decided that the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, should visit the Admiralty in order to find out what it was doing about U-boats. Lloyd George and his colleagues were in favour of convoys but the Admirals had resisted them. However, the next day Vice Admiral Alexander Duff, head of the Admiralty’s Anti-Submarine Division, who now had Henderson’s figures, submitted a paper to the Admiralty stating that ‘[i]t seems to me evident that the time has arrived when we must be ready to introduce a comprehensive scheme of convoy at any moment.’[11]

Convoys would need 70 escorts. Only 30 destroyers were currently available but more would be built by the time that convoys could be fully organised and USN ships would soon be available.[12]

The introduction of convoys did not eliminate shipping losses but it reduced them sharply, from 5% of sailings in the UK in April 1917 to 0.5% by the end of the war. Some ships continued to sail independently and suffered heavy losses.[13]

A large number of aircraft were allocated to anti-submarine warfare in home waters: an average of 189 aeroplanes, 300 seaplanes and 75 airships in the last six months of the war, with an average of 310 being available each day. Their bombs were too small to sink U-boats but they had a significant deterrent effect. In 1918 U-boats attacked only six convoys with air escorts, sinking only three ships. Over the whole war only five ships were sunk in convoys with both air and surface escort.[14]

The Americans and British were also able to build new ships more quickly than the Germans had forecast. The US entered the war with a relatively small shipbuilding industry but rapidly built one, including constructing accommodation for workers and public transport to take them to work. The British made the Admiralty responsible for both naval and merchant shipbuilding, so that it could make the necessary trade-offs. These including suspending construction of three of the four Hood class battlecruisers in order to build more merchantmen. Sir Eric Geddes, a businessman who had solved railway supply problems behind the Western Front was made Controller of the Admiralty, putting him in charge of the materiel side of the navy. This job was normally done by the Third Sea Lord, an admiral. Ships were built to standardised design.[15]

Merchant shipping construction (tons)

1915 1916 1917 1918
UK          1,000,000         600,000          1,800,000   2,400,000
USA             250,000  n/a          1,500,000   4,500,000

Source: Friedman N., Fighting the Great War at Sea: Strategy, Tactics and Technology (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2014), pp. 284-86.

About 1,700,000 tons of Austrian and German merchant shipping interned in US ports were requisitioned by the US government. They included a number of liners, which transported US troops to France. Amongst them was the giant Vaterland, renamed the Leviathan in US service.[16]

The U-boats failed to stop over 2,000,000 US soldiers sailing to Europe, 10% of them on board the Leviathan. Two eastbound troop transports were sunk by U-boats and another accidentally by collision. Three returning to the USA to collect more troops were also sunk. The total of US soldiers killed by U-boats was less than the 700 who died as a result of influenza caught on the voyage.[17]

German U-boat construction in 1918 was only able to keep pace with losses. They had 224 [Sondhaus] or 226 [Gibson and Prendergast] under construction at the end of the war and completed 13 in October 1918. The hoped to complete 30 a month in 1919. However, they were struggling to man their new boats. U-boats needed experienced captains and fully trained crew: the six most successful U-boat captains in terms of tonnage sunk and 14 of the leading 18 survived the war. Consequently, the Germans refused to cut the training programme given to men before they were assigned to an active U-boat. About two dozen of those under construction at the end of the war could have been commissioned had trained personnel been available.[18]

The U-boats inflicted severe damage to Allied shipping but their attempt to blockade the UK failed and brought the USA into the war against Germany.


[1] L. Sondhaus, German Submarine Warfare in World War I: The Onset of Total War at Sea (Boulder MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). Kindle edition, location 4855.

[2] Ibid. Kindle locations 4861-68.

[3] D. Steffen, ‘The Holtzendorff Memorandum of 22 December 1916 and Germany’s Declaration of Unrestricted U-Boat Warfare’, Journal of Military History 68, no. 1 (2004).

[4] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), pp. 152-53.

[5] N. Friedman, Fighting the Great War at Sea: Strategy, Tactics and Technology (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2014), pp. 274-78.

[6] Original source A. R. Hezlet, The Submarine and Sea Power (London,: 1967), pp. 94-95; Quoted in 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 v, pp. 88-89.

[7] Original source K. Doenitz, Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days (London,: 1959), p. 4;  Quoted in Marder, From. vol. v, p. 89.

[8] Friedman, Fighting, pp. 276-77.

[9] C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. iii, p. 100.

[10] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938), p. vo. v. p. 18.

[11] Ibid. vol. v, p. 19.

[12] Ibid. vol. v, pp. 18-19.

[13] Marder, From. vol. v, p. 87.

[14] Ibid. vol. v, pp. 91-93.

[15] Friedman, Fighting, pp. 284-86.

[16] Ibid., p. 286.

[17] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 437.

[18] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 363; Sondhaus, German. Kindle locations 4497-4513.


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