German Attack on the Dover Straits 17-18 March 1917

The Germans attempted to repeat their successful attack of 26-27 October 1916 on the Dover Straits anti-submarine net barrage and shipping on 23 November 1916, but it and a raid of 25-26 February on shipping between England and the Hoof of Holland did little damage.

A new attack on the Dover Straits was planned for 17-18 March 1917. Seven destroyers (802-960 tons, three 10.5 cm (4.1 inch) guns, six 50 cm (19.7 inch) torpedo tubes, 33.5-34 knots) of the 6th Flotilla would operate in the western half of the Dover Straits, five (852-990 tons, three 105 cm guns, six 50 cm torpedo tubes, 32-33.5 knots) of the 1st Zeebrugge Half Flotilla in the eastern half and four (568 tons, two 88 mm (3.45inch) guns, four 50cm torpedo tubes, 29 knots) of the 2nd Zeebrugge Half Flotilla in the Downs off the east coast of Kent. Korvettenkapitän Tillesen of the 6th Flotilla would lead the attack. Tillesen planned the operation carefully in order to give each group of destroyers  separate lines of approach and areas of operation.[1]

The British had the K class HMS Paragon (1072 tons, three 4 inch guns, two 21 inch torpedo tubes with 4 torpedoes, 29 knots) and three L class (965-1010 tons, three 4 inch guns, one .303 inch MG, four 21 inch torpedo tubes, 29 knots) destroyers protecting the net barrage, a light cruiser, a flotilla leader, four destroyers and two monitors off Deal and a flotilla leader and five destroyers at Dover.[2]

At 2250 HMS Paragon encountered three or four destroyers. She exchanged gunfire with them and fired a torpedo that hit a German ship without exploding. Paragon then blew up and sank with the loss of all but 10 men.[3]

HMS Laforey, assuming that Paragon had struck a mine, stopped at about 2300 and switched on her searchlight in order to see and pick up survivors. About 2315 she was narrowly missed by a torpedo that damaged HMS Llewellyn. Laforey’s captain assumed that it had come from a U-boat so set off in search of a submarine. Other British ships therefore remained in port.[4]

The German destroyers attacking the Downs came across the SS Greypoint, which was anchored in an exposed position because her engines had broken down. They torpedoed and sank her, damaged a drifter and bombarded Broadstairs and Ramsgate without causing much damage, although some civilians had narrow escapes. They then withdrew, outpacing Torpedo Boat 4, the only British warship to spot them.[5]

The British casualties are listed on Naval-History.net.

 

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. iv. pp. 361-62; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, pp. 168-69; P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, p. 348.

[2] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv. pp. 361-62; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 75-76.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vi, The Dover Patrol i. p. 92.

[4] Ibid., pp. 92-93.

[5] Ibid., p. 94.

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German Attack on Dover Straits, 26-27 October 1916

The English Channel, especially the Dover Straits at its eastern end, was one of the main Allied shipping routes during the First World War. It saw a variety of different types of traffic: supplies and troop movements for the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders; shipping heading for London, Britain’s biggest port; coastal shipping sailing between British ports; and coal shipments from Britain to France to replace supplies from French coalfields now occupied by the Germans. About 80-100 merchant ships passed through the Dover Straits each day.

German U-boat minelayers of the UC type were very active in minelaying in this area. The British employed trawlers as minesweepers. In the second half of 1916 an average of just under six merchant ships  per month were sunk or damaged by mines in British waters. This rose to 10 in the first half of 1917 but then fell back to four in the second half of 1917. On average 178 mines a month were swept in 1916, rising to 355 in 1917.[1]

An anti-submarine net barrage was also laid across the Straits, which was maintained by drifters, but in practice tides and current made the task of such small craft difficult even in good weather. They were at best armed with a 6 pounder gun and sometimes with just a machine gun, requiring them to be protected by destroyers and armed auxiliary steamers.[2]

On 24 October 1916 Vice Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, commanding the Dover Patrol, was warned that the German naval forces in Flanders had been reinforced by a flotilla of destroyers. He thought it unlikely that the Germans would attack the Straits because no troops were transported at night but that an attack on shipping in the Downs, an area off the north east coast of Kent, was likely.

He had defending Dunkirk the flotilla leader HMS Swift (2,170 tons, four 4 inch guns, two 18 inch torpedo tubes, 35 knots), four modern L class destroyers (966-1010 tons, three 4 inch guns, one .303 inch MG, four 21 inch torpedo tubes, 29 knots) on loan from the Harwich Force and four old destroyers, called 30 knotters because of their design speed (310-70 tons, one 12 pounder (76mm) and five 12 pounder (57mm) guns, two 18 inch torpedo tubes, 30 knots).

Four more L class destroyers were at Deal, defending the Downs.

Six Tribal class destroyers (855-1090 tons, two 4 inch or five 12 pounder (76mm) guns, two 18 torpedo tubes, 33 knots), two 30 knotters, two old torpedo boats (specifications varied but would have been small than the 30 knotters) and a P boat (613 tons, one 4 inch and one 2 pounder (40mm) AA guns, one 14 inch torpedo tubes, 20 knots) were at Dover.

The Tribals were assigned to the Dover Patrol because of their poor endurance. The P or Patrol boats were a wartime design with a low freeboard, a sharp turning circle and a deliberate resemblance to submarines, which it was hoped would allow them to close on U-boats and sink them by gunfire or ramming.

The wide range of displacements was a consequence of a British policy of giving different shipyards some discretion over ship design, provided that various criteria for speed, range, protection, armament etc were met.[3]

That night 24 German destroyers put to sea, commanded by Kapitän Andreas Michelsen, commodore of the High Seas Fleet’s flotillas.  They were divided into two flotillas, each split into two half flotillas. The 3rd Flotilla consisted of the 5th (seven ships) and 6th Half Flotillas (six ships), all armed with three 105mm (4.1 inch) guns and. The 9th Flotilla was made up of the 17th (six ships) and the 18th Half Flotillas (5 ships), armed with either three 105mm guns or three 88mm (3.45 inch) guns. All had six 50 cm (19.7 inch) torpedo tubes. They displaced 800-960 tons and were capable of 33.5-34 knots. The Germans called them High Seas Torpedo Boats but they are referred to as destroyers here as they were comparable to British destroyers.[4]

The 9th Flotilla was to attack the transport line between Dover and Calais and the 3rd the drifters and the barrage. Each Half Flotilla would have its own area of operation. The 30 knotter HMS Flirt, supporting the drifters, saw but did not identify German destroyers at 2135. The Germans opened fire on the drifters just after 2200. They sank six out of 28 drifters, a trawler and HMS Flirt. The other drifters were able to escape into the darkness, though three were badly damaged.[5]

The six Tribals at Dover were ordered to put to sea at 2250. Five minutes later the four L class destroyers at Dunkirk received the same instruction. The L class ships in the Downs were supposed to remain where they were but instead headed for Dunkirk because of two signalling errors. Fortunately for the British the Germans did not attack the Downs. The Germans attacked the transport line between 2300 and 2330 but sank only one of the 57 ships crossing the Channel, the transport Queen, whose crew were first allowed to board her lifeboats.[6]

The Tribals failed to concentrate but came into contact with the 9th Flotilla as it withdrew from its attack on the transport line. HMS Nubian came under heavy fire at close range. She attempted to ram the last German torpedo boat but was instead torpedoed in the bow. She was put out of action and had to be towed back to port.

HMS Amazon, which had become detached from the other Tribals, encountered some destroyers that he captain assumed were L class ships. They were Germans., who opened fire, putting her after gun and two boilers out of action. They also damaged a trawler.

HMS Viking, Mohawk and Tartar engaged the Germans but a shell hit Mohawk and jammed her helm. Tartar followed her and Viking had to change course to avoid a collision, with the result that contact was lost. The Dunkirk destroyers saw gun flashes but were too far away to get into action. This action showed that the barrage had limited effect, as 14 British destroyers had crossed it without being damaged.[7]

Nubian was too badly damaged to be repaired. On 8 November her sister ship HMS Zulu had her stern blown off by a mine. The two ships were put together by Chatham Dockyard and the combined ship was commissioned as HMS Zubian on 7 June 1917. She was credited with sinking the U-boat UC50 on 7 January 1918.[8]

The Germans sunk six drifters, a trawler, an empty transport ship and a torpedo boat and damaged two destroyers and several auxiliaries, suffering only minor damage to SMS 91 in return. British human losses were 45 dead, four wounded and 10 captured. The dead included all the crew of Flirt, except for a boat party that had been lowered just before she was sunk to pick up survivors from the drifters. The German success was helped by their previous inactivity, which made the British complacent.[9]

 

[1] M. Faulkner, A. D. Lambert, The Great War at Sea: A Naval Atlas 1914-1919, p. 105.

[2] L. Sondhaus, German Submarine Warfare in World War I: The Onset of Total War at Sea. Kindle Edition, locations 1902-50.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vi, The Dover Patrol i. pp. 69-70; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, pp. 71-72, 76, 96.

[4] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. iv, p. 52 and footnote 2; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 168-69.

[5] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, pp. 55-57; Faulkner, Lambert, Great, p. 113; M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front : The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918, p. 77.

[6] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, pp. 58-62; Faulkner, Lambert, Great, p. 113.

[7] Naval Staff vol. vi. p. 82.

[8] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 72.

[9] Karau, Naval, pp. 77, 79.

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U-boats and US Troopships in WWI

When Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, the Chief of the Admiralty Staff of the Imperial German Navy, persuaded the German High Command to resume unrestricted submarine warfare from 1 February 1917 he admitted that this might bring the USA into the war. However, he argued that the U-boats would have sunk enough merchant ships to force the UK to surrender before the USA could mobilise a large army and transport it to Europe.

In fact the U-boats were unable to prevent US troops travelling to Europe. By the end of the war 2,079,880 US soldiers had reached Europe, 51 per cent in British ships, 46 per cent in US ones and most of the others in French ones, with a few travelling in Italian vessels. Most of the escorts, however, were from the USN: 83 per cent versus 14 per cent from the RN and 3 per cent from the French navy.[1]

A significant number of the US troops travelled in one of 18 German owned liners that had been interned in US ports and requisitioned. They had a total tonnage of 304,720 tons and capacity of 68,600 men. The largest of them, the Vaterland (54,282 tons), renamed Leviathan, could carry 10,680 troops. She and three large British liners, the Mauretania (31,938 tons, 5,162 troops), Aquitania (45,467 tons, 6,090 troops) and Olympic (45,324 tons, 6,148 troops) were considered to be so fast and seaworthy that escorts could not keep up with them. They consequently made most of the passage on their own, being met by destroyers near their destination ports. They carried 135,467 out of 1,037,166 Canadian and US troops transported to the UK in 1918. The other troopships travelled as part of escorted convoys.[2]

The largest loss of life of US soldiers to a U-boat came on 5 February 1918, when UB77 (Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Meyer) sank the SS Tuscania (14,348 tons) off Islay, the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides. The Tuscania, which was part of a British convoy, was carrying 2,000 US troops from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Europe. The loss of life was made worse because some lifeboats overturned as they were being lowered and because they then tried to make land rather than wait near the ship to be rescued.[3]

There is some dispute about the number killed when the Tuscania sank. Lawrence Sondhaus’s recent German Submarine Warfare in World War I and the website U-boat.net both state that 166 soldiers and crew were killed. Archibald Hurd’s The Merchant Navy, part of the British Official History of the war, says 44 crew and about 100 soldiers. R. H. Gibson and Maurice Prendergast’s older work The German Submarine War 1914-18 says 44 crew and 166 soldiers, which is repeated in Paul Halpern and Robert Massie’s histories of the war at sea.[4]

The only other US troopship sunk by a U-boat on her way to Europe was the armed merchant cruiser Moldavia, which was part of a US convoy when torpedoed in the English Channel on 23 May. Fifty-six US soldiers died. The largest loss of Europe bound US troops came on 6 October 1918 when the troopship Kashmir (8,985 tons), whose steering had jammed, accidentally rammed the troopship Otranto (12,124 tons), which ran aground off Islay with the loss of 369 soldiers and 69 crew.[5]

Three more US troopships were sunk by U-boats, but on the way home when they were less well escorted: the Antilles (6,800 tons, 67 dead) on 17 October 1917, the President Lincoln (18,162 tons, 25 dead) on 31 May 1918 and the Covington (16,339 tons, 6 dead) on 1 July 1918.[6]

 

 

[1] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 435-6.

[2] Ibid., p. 436.

[3] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 288.

[4] Ibid; Halpern, Naval, p. 436; A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. iii, p. 285; R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 762; L. Sondhaus, German Submarine Warfare in World War I: The Onset of Total War at Sea (Boulder MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). Kindle edition, loc. 3952 of 5745, Chapter 7.

[5] Halpern, Naval, p. 437.

[6] Ibid.

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The Battle of May Island 31 January 1918

On 31 January 1918, two British K class submarines were sunk and four others damaged off May Island in the Firth of Forth. These losses resulted not from enemy action but from collisions during an exercise with no enemy forces present.

The K class resulted from a faulty concept, which was for a submarine able to operate with the battle fleet with speeds of 24 knots on the surface and 9.5 knots submerged. Submarines were then powered by diesel engines on the surface and battery powered electric motors submerged. This combination allowed the highly successful E Class to make 15 knots on the surface and 9 knots submerged. Erroneous intelligence reports that some German U-boats were capable of 22 knots led to the J class, whose diesel engines were supposed to give a surface speed of 19.5 knots. Problems in heavy seas needed modifications that cut this to 17 knots.[1]

In order to achieve the require speed, the K class were powered on the surface by oil fired steam turbines. They were armed with ten 18 inch torpedo tubes, 18 torpedoes, two 4 inch guns and a 3 inch anti-aircraft gun. The use of steam meant that funnels and hatches had to be closed before they could dive. This could be done in 30 seconds, but there was a risk that one would be jammed open by a small obstruction. Eighteen were built, with another nine cancelled. K13 sank on trails in the Gareloch on 29 January 1917. She was raised and repaired but renumbered K22.[2]

The K boats were really submersible destroyers. The intention was that, like destroyers, they would operate in flotillas rather individually. Each flotilla would be led by a light cruiser until they were close enough to the enemy to fire their torpedoes, after which they would retire.[3]

Rear Admiral O. W. Phillips, at one time Chief Engineer of HMS K4, later wrote that 13 openings had to be closed before diving but that the K boats ‘were a wonderful effort and no more dangerous than any other submarine – if properly handled.’[4]

The editors of Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-21 argue that the K boats were not a poor design, but were actually a ‘remarkable technical achievement.’ Their problem was not their design but the ‘faulty conception which had led them to being built.’ They were expected to operate surfaced at high speeds in close company with surface ships, often at night without lights, but their bridge facilities were not adequate to do so safely.[5]

By January 1918 two flotillas of K boats, the 12th (K3, K4, K6 and K7 led by the light cruiser HMS Fearless) and 13th (K11, K12, K14, K17 and K22 led by the flotilla leader [a large destroyer] HMS Ithuriel) were based at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth. On the evening of 31 January they were part of a force of 40 ships, including three battleships and four battlecruisers that sailed to join the rest of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, Orkney, in an exercise codenamed EC1.The K boats were showing only a small blue stern light. All ships increased speed as they approached May Island because a U boat was reported to be in the area.

Two of the K boats changed course to avoid two minesweeping trawlers that suddenly appeared and moved across their course. Ithuriel’s helm jammed as she changed course. K14 and K22 then collided after the former’s helm jammed and the latter was later hit by the battlecruiser HMS Inflexible.

Ithuriel and the other three boats of the 13th Flotilla turned back to give assistance. They were narrowly missed by the battlecruiser HMAS Australia but the two submarine flotillas became mixed. Fearless rammed K17, which sank, K3 just avoided K4, K6 nearly hit K12 head on but then struck K4. The two submarines became locked together. K6 escaped by running full astern but K4 was almost cut in half and sank after being struck by K7.

Over 100 men died: they are listed on naval-history.net. Some of them got into the water but were run down by destroyers that did not know what had happened. There were no survivors from K4 and only eight from K17. Two submarines were lost, with four and a light cruiser damaged despite the complete absence of enemy forces.

The subsequent court of inquiry blamed the officers of the K boats involved rather than the concept behind their design or their flawed employment.[6]

Three more K boats were lost, all accidentally. K1 collided with K4 off Denmark on 18 November 1917 and was scuttled to avoid capture. K5 failed to surface after diving during exercises in the Bay of Biscay on 20 January 1921 and was lost with all hands. K15 sank at her moorings in Portsmouth on 25 June 1921, but all the crew survived thanks to prompt action by her captain. The closest that they came to sinking an enemy ship was when K7 hit a U-boat with a torpedo that failed to explode.

As well as the books footnoted and websites linked in the text, the following websites have been used as sources:

Steam Submarines: The Navy’s Dive to Disaster by John Watts on the website of the Submariners Association Barrow-in-Furness Branch. This source says that K7 passed over K4 as she sank without hitting her, but I have taken the version of events from the MoD linked below.

Battle of May Remembered, published by the Ministry of Defence on the 84th Anniversary of the disaster, when a memorial to the dead was unveiled at Anstruther, Fife.

Battle of May Island on Wikipedia.

 

[1] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 87-90.

[2] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 91.

[3] Liddle, The Sailors War, 1914-18, p. 187.

[4] Quoted in Liddle, The Sailors War, 1914-18, p. 188.

[5] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 91.

[6] Liddle, The Sailors War, 1914-18, p. 190.

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The Battle of Imbros 20 January 1918

The evacuation of Gallipoli did not end the Royal Navy’s presence in the Aegean. There was a risk that the German battlecruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau might break out of the Dardanelles. This ships had officially been transferred to the Ottoman Navy and renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim and Medilli, but the German names are used here because they remained under German command and had German crews.

Rear Admiral Sydney Fremantle, commanding the RN’s Aegean Squadron, thought that  a break out would have one of three objectives: joining the Austro-Hungarians in the Adriatic was the most likely and had the highest chance of success; a raid on Allied transport routes was possible but had too low a chance of success to justify the risks involved; and raiding Mudros, Salonika, Port Said or Alexandria was unlikely as it would be a ‘desperate venture…end[ing] in the eventual destruction of the enemy.’ In fact, the last option was the one chosen.[1]

On 12 January 1918, Fremantle was succeeded by Rear-Admiral Arthur Hayes-Sadler. His squadron included the last two British pre-dreadnought battleships, HMS Agamemnon and Lord Nelson. Their speed of only 18 knots meant that they could not intercept  Goeben (22 knots) and Breslau (designed for 27.5 knots but capable of only 20 according to Arthur Marder). However, their armament of four 12 inch and ten 9.2 inch guns each versus Goeben’s ten 11 inch and twelve 5.9 inch guns and Breslau’s twelve 4.1 inch guns meant that they could stop them returning to the Dardanelles. The British had also laid a number of minefields.[2]

The Germans had also changed their command. In September Vizeadmiral Wilhelm Souchon had returned to Germany in September to take command of the 4th Battle Squadron of the High Seas Fleet. His replacement, Vizeadmiral Hubert von Rebeur-Paschwitz, hoped that a sortie would draw Allied ships away from Palestine, where the Ottomans were under pressure; boost Ottoman morale after the loss of Jerusalem; and show that warships were meant to be used.[3]

Aerial reconnaissance had told the Germans that HMS Lord Nelson was not at Mudros. She was taking Hughes-Sadler to meetings in Salonika. He would normally have used the yacht Triad for such a journey, but she was unavailable so he chose to use his flagship rather than a destroyer.[4]

The German staff assumed, on the basis of information from minesweepers, that the mines laid across the entrance to the Dardanelles in 1916 had been washed away. They did not know that more minefields had been laid since, which they could not avoid. Just before the operation began they received a captured chart that showed that there were more minefields than they had realised. It appeared to show that there was a gap between them, but they did not realise that it was only a rough indication rather than an exact plan. The German sortie achieved surprise but at the cost of not properly reconnoitring the enemy minefields .[5]

Goeben and Breslau sailed at 4:00 pm on 19 January, accompanied by four Ottoman destroyers. They left the Dardanelles at 6:00 am the next day, when destroyers turned back. Ten minutes later Goeben struck a mine, receiving only minor damage.[6]

In Mudros harbour on Lemnos the British had HMS Agamemnon, three light cruisers, a sloop, and four destroyers, only two of which were ready for action. Another minesweeper and a monitor were under repair. As well as HMS Lord Nelson, another 23 ships were on detached duty in six squadrons, including two cruisers, four light cruisers, six destroyers and eight monitors.[7]

Freemantle’s orders to detached squadrons, which were still in effect, were that if they encountered Goeben they should lead her ‘in a direction in which support may be obtained.’ However, the general signal that was to be made if Goeben was out was to ‘take all necessary action to engage the enemy.’ RN officers were bound to interpret this as an order to attack her. At 7:40 am the Germans attacked the British ships at Kusu Bay, Pyrgos. They quickly sank the monitors Lord Raglan and M28 before heading for Mudros, pursued by the destroyers HMS Tigress and Lizard.[8]

At 8:30 am Breslau struck a mine. The Germans could now see mines in the clear, blue water. Goeben attempted to take Breslau in tow but at 8:55 struck a mine, which caused serious damage. Breslau then detonated another four mines and began to sink. The Ottoman destroyers came out in order to pick up survivors but withdrew after coming under fire from the British destroyers at 9:30. The British briefly chased them but had to give up due to the risk from shore batteries and mines. They picked up 14 officers and 148 men from the Breslau.[9] Her official crew was 354.[10]

Goeben withdrew.  She struck another mine at 9:48, causing her to list by 15 degrees. She came under air attack but by 10:30 was into the Straits. At 11:32, however, she ran aground and was stuck for six days. Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service aircraft flew 270 sorties against her, dropping 15 tons of bombs. Strong winds, low clouds and effective anti-aircraft fire meant that only two hits were scored. Even if more had been obtained, the 65 and 112 pound bombs used could have done little damage. Two seaplanes armed with 18 inch torpedoes arrived on the seaplane carrier Manxman too late to attack. Indirect fire from a monitor was also ineffective.[11]

This left submarine attack. One E-class boat, E12 was available on 21 January, but one of her engine shafts had been fractured. This restricted her surface speed and battery recharging, but not her submerged speed, so Hayes-Sadler refused to allow her to attack, although her captain, Lieutenant F. Williams-Freeman, was willing. Two more, E2 and E14 arrived on 21 January, but nothing was done until the C.-in-C. Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe, arrived on 25 January. E14, which was newer and had a more experienced captain and crew than E2, was sent in two days later, by when Goeben had been refloated and left. E14 was detected by hydrophones, forced to the surface by depth charges and destroyed by shore batteries. Her captain, Geoffrey Saxton White, was later posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation, from naval-history.net, which also lists all the British casualties, read:

31354 – 23 MAY 1919

Admiralty, S.W., 24th May, 1919.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned Officers:

Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Saxton White, R.N.

For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty as Commanding Officer of H.M. Submarine “E 14” on the 28tlh of January, 1918.

“E 14” left Mudros on the 27th of January under instructions to force the Narrows and attack the “Goeben,” which was reported aground off Nagara Point after being damaged during her sortie from the Dardanelles. The latter vessel was not found and “E 14” turned back. At about 8.45 a.m. on the 28th of January a torpedo was fired from E 14” at an enemy ship; 11 seconds after the torpedo left the tube a heavy explosion took place, caused all lights to go out, and sprang the fore hatch. Leaking badly the boat was blown to 15 feet, and at once a heavy fire came from the forts, but the hull was not hit. “E 14” then dived and proceeded on her way out.

Soon afterwards the boat became out of control, and as the air supply was nearly exhausted, Lieutenant-Commander White decided to run the risk of proceeding on the surface. Heavy fire was immediately opened from both sides, and, after running the gauntlet for half-an-hour, being steered from below, “E 14” was so badly damaged that Lieutenant-Commander White turned towards the shore in order to give the crew a chance of being saved. He remained on deck the whole time himself until he was killed by a shell.

_____

Enver Pasha, the Ottoman War Minister had warned von Rebeur-Paschwitz to be careful with his two ships because of their great value to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans thought that the Germans had taken too great a risk with them.[12]

Goeben’s damage was not fully repaired until after the war, by when she was the property of Turkey. She was not scrapped until 1971. although she had by then been out of service for many years.[13] The Allies did not realise the severity of her damage and continued to fear another sortie by her.[14] She did operate in the Black Sea later in 1918.[15]

Hayes-Sadler, who was in poor health, was replaced by Rear-Admiral Cecil F. Lambert. The main negative for the Royal Navy of the action was that it allowed the Press to again bring up the story of the blunders that had led to Goeben and Breslau getting to the Ottoman Empire in 1914.[16] The operation was a mistake by the Germans, who upset their Ottoman allies, lost a modern light cruiser and had a battlecruiser damaged in return for sinking two monitors and a submarine.

[1] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. vol. v, pp. 12-13.

[2] Ibid., p. 13.

[3] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, p. 255.

[4] Marder, From. vol. v, pp.15-16.

[5] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. v, pp. 85-86.

[6] Marder, From. vol. v, p. 15.

[7] Ibid., p. 14.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 84.

[9] Ibid., pp. 88-90.

[10] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, p. 159.

[11] Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 16-17.

[12] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 92.

[13] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 152.

[14] Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 18-19.

[15] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 294.

[16] Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 19-20.

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Gordon Campbell and the Crew that Won 5 VCs

The 11 medals, including the Victoria Cross, awarded to Vice Admiral Gordon Campbell were recently sold at auction for £840,000, a record for a set of British medals. Most VCs sold in recent years have been bought by Lord Ashcroft, part of whose collection is on display at the Imperial War Museum. Campbell’s medals, however, were bought by his great nephew Lorne Thyssen-Bornemisza. He intends to display them in a British museum. The seller, the Fellowship of St John (UK) Trust Association, intends to use the proceeds to support a number of charitable projects.

Campbell was born in Croydon, Surrey on 6 January 1886, although his family were originally from Airds, Argyll. He was educated at Dulwich College. At the outbreak of the First World War he was a Lieutenant-Commander captaining HMS Bittern, an elderly destroyer. In September 1915, bored with escort duties, he volunteered for ‘special service’ and found himself captain of an elderly collier called Loderer that was fitted as a Q-ship, one of a number of apparently innocuous merchant ship that were manned by the RN and given heavy but concealed armaments. She was renamed HMS Farnborough before going into action.

Farnborough was initially armed with a Maxim machine gun in a fake hen coop abaft the funnel, a 12 pounder gun in a fake engine housing aft and two 12 pounder amidships, one on each side, hidden behind gunwales. The gunwales and the walls of the fake hen coop and engine housing were hinged so that they could easily fall and the staff that would fly a neutral flag would fall with the fake engine housing to avoid any risk that Farnborough might open fire whilst flying neutral colours. Campbell managed to obtain two more 12 pounders, which were housed in fake extensions to cabins just forward of the funnel, and two 6 pounders, which were placed on the wings of the bridge, behind easily removable screens.

The early drafts of men for Q-ships had mostly comprised hard men with poor disciplinary records, either because such men were thought to be suited to this type of work or because they were the most expendable. In fact it required very disciplined men. Eventually highly disciplined and efficient men were recruited and trained.

Farnborough would have carried a crew of about six officers and 24 men but as a warship needed 11 officers and 56 men in order to work her armament. It would have been very suspicious if they had appeared on deck on their way to their action stations, so Campbell arranged a series of trap doors and hidden alley ways to allow them to get to their gun and lookout positions without being seen.[1]

Although most of a Q-ship’s crew would remain concealed when a U-boat was sighted, a small number would appear on deck and pretend to panic, making deliberately clumsy attempts to abandon ship. The last man off HMS Farnborough would carry a large cage containing a stuffed parrot.[2]

Farnborough was commissioned on 21 October 1915, but did not encounter any U-boats until 22 March 1916 She was off the coast of Kerry when U68 (Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Güntzel) fired a torpedo at her. Farnborough ignored the torpedo, so U68 surfaced and fired a shot across her bows. The British ship’s crew appeared to be abandoning ship, so U68 closed to 800 yards and attempted to sink her by gunfire.

Farnborough, however, raised the White Ensign, revealed her guns and opened fire. Her crew believed that they scored hits before U68 dived. Campbell took his ship over the spot at which the U-boat had dived and dropped a depth charge. U68 shot out of the water, her bow clearly damaged. Five more shots were fired into the base of her conning tower before she dived again. Farnborough dropped two more depth charges. A lot of oil and some wood fragments came to the surface. Nothing more was seen of U68 or her crew. Campbell was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, two other officers the Distinguished Service Cross and three men the Distinguished Service Medal.[3]

Farnborough’s next action came on 17 February 1917. At 9:45 am on she was flying a Norwegian flag when  U83 (Kapitänleutnant Bruno Hoppe) fired a torpedo at her. Her guns and most of her crew remained concealed whilst the panic party attempted to abandon ship.

U83 at first watched through her periscope, coming within 10 yard of Farnborough. She then surfaced about 300 yard from the Q-ship. Campbell held his fire until all his ship’s guns were bearing. Her first shot hit the conning tower and allegedly decapitated Hoppe. Farnborough fired 45 shells at U83 from point blank range.[4]

Only eight of the submariners managed to get into the oily water as their boat sank, and Farnborough’s boat could find only two of them, one of whom died after being rescued.[5]

Farnborough was badly damaged and sinking. Campbell signalled:

From Q5. To Vice-Admiral Queenstown, via Valencia. 12.00 hours, Feb 17th, Q5 slowly sinking respectfully wishes you goodbye 1110.[6]

However, the destroyer HMS Narwhal arrived before noon and took Farnborough’s crew off her. The sloops HMS Buttercup and Laburnum took her under tow. She listed badly at 3:30 am on 18 February, but managed to reach Mill Cove in County Cork, where she was beached at 9:20 pm.

Campbell, by now promoted Commander, was awarded the VC, two other officers the DSO, three the DSC, seven petty officers or ratings the DSM and another a bar to a DSM previously awarded. The other 25 members of the crew were Mentioned in Dispatches.[7]

Following the loss of HMS Farnborough, Campbell was given command of another Q-ship. She was a 3,000 ton 10 year old tramp steamer, originally called Vittoria and at first named HMS Snail. This was then changed to HMS Pargust. She was armed with a 4 inch gun aft under a dummy boat; four 12 pounders, two 14 inch torpedo tubes and an 11 inch bomb thrower. All were concealed but could be quickly brought into action, Most of Farnborough’s crew volunteered to follow Campbell to Pargust. Campbell was unable to discover what the name of his new ship meant or any previous ship of any country that had been called Pargust. Neither have I, even though unlike him I have Google.

On 8:00 am on 7 June 1917 Pargust was about 90 miles off the coast of southern Ireland when a torpedo struck her, killing Petty Officer Isaac Radford and badly injuring Engineer Sub-Lieutenant John Smith RNR. The explosion dislodged the pins that held in place the screen concealing one of the 12 pounders. Able Seaman William Williams, DSM, RNR [Royal Naval Reserve, then a reserve of professional seamen from the Merchant and fishing fleets], a 26 year old Welshman, took the weight of the screen on himself in order to keep the gun hidden, Campbell could not see any sign of the U-boat, but ordered the panic party to abandon ship. Eventually, he spotted a periscope 400 yards away.

The submarine, UC29 (Oberleutnant Ernest Rosenow), approached Pargust. U-boat captains had now learnt to be wary of apparently innocuous merchantmen, so Rosenow spent half an hour examining Pargust and her lifeboat before surfacing 50 yards away from Pargust. At first nobody came onto the U-boat’s bridge or deck, but an officer eventually appeared, shouting at the  men in the lifeboat to hand over the ship’s papers. Lieutenant F. R. Hereford, DSC, RNR, the man with the parrot and apparently the merchantman’s captain, pretended not to answer. A man with a rifle then appeared on the bridge.

Pargust now had a good angle of fire on UC29, whilst the lifeboat was out of Pargust’s arc of fire but at risk from the rifleman. At 8:36 am Campbell ordered gunners to open fire. A number of hits were scored, slowing UC29. She was listing to port and leaking oil and men appeared on her deck and conning tower with their arms raised. The U-boat, however, gained speed, washing the men on her casing overboard. Campbell ordered his guns to recommence firing. Only one 12 pounder could now bear, but UC29 exploded and sank about 300 yards away. Only two survivors were found. Pargust had fired 38 shells, plus a torpedo that missed, in four minutes. She was immobile but afloat. She was towed to Queenstown (now Cobh) by HMS Crocus, escorted by HMS Zinnia and the USS Cushing.

It was decided that one officer and one other rank from Pargust’s crew should receive the VC as recognition of the entire crew’s gallantry. The warrant establishing the VC allows for a secret ballot to be held amongst the survivors of a unit of ship’s crew to choose one or more of their number when it is impossible for the higher command to single out any individuals. The officers wanted Campbell to be the officer recipient, but he refused on the grounds that he already had a VC, which he regarded as having been awarded to the entire crew.

The ballot chose Lieutenant Ronald Stuart, RNR, a 30 year old from Liverpool, and William Williams as two men to be awarded the VC. Coincidentally, Seaman William Charles Williams had been awarded a posthumous VC at Gallipoli in 1915. He and Commander Edward Unwin used the weight of their own bodies to secure lighters that were intended to provide a bridge for troops to land from the steamer River Clyde. Campbell, now a Captain, did receive a bar to his DSO.[8]

Pargust was too badly damaged to be repaired, so Campbell was given command of another Q-ship, HMS Dunraven, a 3,117 ton collier. Her modifications incorporated various lessons learnt from previous Q-ships, including armouring the bridge and fitting a perforated pipe that would give off enough steam to make it appear that the ship had been hit in the boiler or engine room. Many British merchantmen heading for the Mediterranean carried railway trucks on their deck. Dunraven had four fake ones made of canvas, which could be collapsed in order to change her appearance.

Most of Pargust’s crew volunteered to transfer to Dunraven, but Stuart had been appointed to command the Q-ship HMS Tamarisk. He was replaced as First Lieutenant by Lieutenant Charles Bonner, RNR, Second Office of Pargust. Smith tried to join Dunraven, but Campbell insisted that he had not recovered fully from his wounds.

U-boats were now wary of solitary merchantmen that might turn out to be Q-ships. On 5 August HMS Chagford (Lieutenant Douglas Jeffrey, RNR) was torpedoed by a U-boat. Jeffrey launched the panic party and the U-boat surfaced 800 yards away. The first explosion, however, knocked down the screens hiding Chagford’s guns, so Jeffrey had to open fir at once. The U-boat dived and fired two  more torpedoes into Chagford. The Q-ship was badly damaged and sank the next day, although most of her crew were saved.

Three days after Chagford was attacked Dunraven was about 100 miles west of Ushant. Campbell had decided that his ship would act as if she was one of a number of British merchantman that by then were armed instead of as a helpless victim.

On 10:58 am Dunraven spotted UC71 (Oberleutnant Reinhold Satzwedel) but proceeded on her way as if she had not seen the submarine, which dived. Satzwedel was a leading U-boat captain who sank 111 Allied ships of a total tonange of 172,824 tons before being killed on 2 December 1917 when his new command, UB81, hit a mine. He was awarded Germany’s highest decoration, the Pour Le Mérite, nicknamed the Blue Max.

Half an hour later UC71 surfaced and opened fire. Dunraven opened fire with her single unconcealed gun, but its crew, including William Williams, deliberately fired short and acted clumsily in order to tempt UC71 closer.

Campbell and his crew gave the impression that they were panicking by making lots of smoke and sending uncoded distress signals. UC71 ceased fire, closed to 1,000 yards and reopened fire. Campbell used Dunraven’s perforated pipe to make it appear that she had been hit in the boiler or engine room and ordered the panic party to abandon ship.

A massive explosion made Campbell think that Dunraven’s magazines had been hit, so he sent a genuine distress call. A nearby battleship sent one of her escorting destroyers to help, but Campbell signalled her to stay away once he learnt that it was a depth charge that had exploded and that Dunraven’s secret was still safe.

Dunraven was, however, badly damaged. A fire on the poop deck was close to setting off the 4 inch gun’s magazine. The heat of the deck meant that the gun crew had to sit with boxes of shells and cordite on their knees, as they might otherwise explode. Campbell did not want to open fire until UC71 was in the arc of his three hidden 12 pounders. At 12:58, however, an explosion sent the gun into the air. Remarkably all the crew survived. One ended up in the water and the fall of the others was broken by the canvas fake railway trucks.

Dunraven was now revealed to be a warship and UC71 dived. At 1:20 pm she torpedoed Dunraven, which was now sinking and on fire. UC71 observed the Q-ship through her periscope for nearly an hour. Unknown to Campbell she had no torpedoes left. At 2:30 UC71 surfaced and opened fire. She was astern of Dunraven, which no longer had any guns able to bear on her. One shell hit the bridge and would have killed the four men on it had it not been armoured.

At 2:55 UC71 dived to periscope depth. Dunraven fired both her torpedoes, but one missed and the other failed to explode. The armed yacht USS Noma then appeared and fired at UC71’s periscope. The U-boat dived deeper at 4:00 and the action was over.

The destroyers HMS Attack and Christopher then arrived. The wounded were treated and Dunraven taken under tow. She sank at 3:17 am but all the crew had been taken off. However, on 19 September Seaman Alex Morrison died of wounds received in this action.

Again two VCs were awarded. The one for an officer went to Bonnar, whilst the lower deck one was awarded to Petty Officer Ernest Pitcher, DSM of the 4 inch gun crew by ballot. The other members of the 4 inch gun crew received the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. Campbell was awarded a second bar to his DSO and his crew received a DSO, three bars to DSCs, three DSCs, seven CGMs, 3 bars to DSMs, including one to William Williams, 21 DSMs and 14 Mentions in Dispatches. As well as the VC Pitcher received two French medals, the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille Militaire, to add to the DSM he was awarded after Pargust sank UC29.[9]

On 14 August the Q-ship HMS Prize was sunk with all hands by UB48: a previous post in this series told the story of how her captain William Sanders earned the VC. Q-ships did not destroy any more U-boats. A significant number of British merchantmen were now armed. U-boats would often surface to engage them but would take up a position that favoured the submarine. Dunraven’s action with UC71 showed that a Q-ship then had the choice of taking heavy damage before fighting back or revealing her guns early, in which case the U-boat would dive and escape.[10]

Campbell, who also received two French decorations, the Croix de Guerre and another French award, the Legion d’Honneur captained  the cruisers HMS Active and Patrol later in the war. His final seagoing appointment was as captain of the battlecruiser HMS Tiger in 1925-27. He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1928 but immediately retired. He was briefly an MP and returned to the RN in WWII. He died in 1953.

Pitcher retired from the RN in 1927 with the rank of Chief Petty Officer. He was then a woodwork teacher and a publican. He returned to the RN in WWII and died in 1946. Bonner became a marine salvage expert after the war and died in 1951. Williams was a founder member of his local branch of the British Legion and died in 1965. Stuart, who received the DSO, Croix de Guerre and US Navy Cross as well as the VC, returned to the Merchant Navy after the war. His final sea going command was the 42,000 ton transatlantic liner RMS Empress of Britain. In WWII she became the largest ship to be sunk by a U-boat, but he had by then moved to shore duties.

One of Stuart’s sons was awarded the DSC and the other a Mention in Dispatches in the WWII Battle of the Atlantic. Campbell’s nephew, Brigadier Lorne Campbell received the VC, DSO and Bar, OBE, four Mentions in Dispatched and the US Legion of Merit in WWII.

Because of the secrecy behind Q-ships the medals awarded to their crews were announced without any details of why they were awarded. The names of the men decorated can be found on Naval-History.net. They were announced in the London Gazette issue 29603 of 30 May 1916 for Farnborough’s first action, 30029 of 20 April 1917 for her second, 30194 of 20 July 1917 for Pargust and 30363 of 30 October 1917 for Dunraven. The VCs citations were finally published in full in issue 31021 of 19 November 1917.

 

 

[1] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), pp. 12-15.

[2] Ibid., pp. 18-19.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xv, Home Waters part vi, October 1915 to May 1916, pp. 101-2.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1933 vol. xviii, Home Waters part viii, December 1916 to April 1917, pp. 204-5.

[5] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 73-74.

[6] Quoted in Ibid., p. 74.

[7] Naval Staff vol. xviii, p. 205.

[8] This account of Pargust’s story is based on Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 90-96 and websites linked in the text; R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 181.

[9] This account of Dunraven’s story is based on Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 105-15;  J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938) vol. v, pp. 107-9 and websites linked in the text.

[10] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval vol. v, 109-111.

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