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The High Seas Fleet Sorties After Jutland

The Battle of Jutland was not the last time that Admiral Reinhard Scheer’s German High Seas Fleet (HSF) challenged the British Grand Fleet (GF) in the North Sea. On the evening of 18 August it put to sea with the intention of bombarding Sunderland. The dispositions of U-boats used ahead of Jutland had failed: if they closed on estuaries they got in each other’s way; but if they stood out to sea the gaps between them were big enough for the British to slip through unseen.

They were therefore deployed in three lines, with orders to move to other positions after either a certain period of time or receipt of a signal. The commander of U-boats was on board a battleship in order to facilitate co-operation between the surface fleet and the submarines. Eight airships were used to provide early warning of the advance of British ships Vize-Admiral Franz von Hipper’s Scouting Group (SG) was to remain 20  miles ahead of the rest of the HSF.[1]

The HSF had only two battlecruisers available, since one had been sunk at Jutland and two were under repair. Hipper was therefore reinforced by three of the HSF’s 17 dreadnoughts, including SMS Bayern, the first German ship armed with 15 inch guns. The pre-dreadnoughts of the II Battle Squadron, which had been shown at Jutland to be too slow and weak for a modern battle, were left behind.[2]

The British intercepted a signal at 9:19 am on 18 August that that the HSF was putting to sea at 9:00 pm that evening but not where it was going. The Grand Fleet was ordered at 10:56 am to put to sea. Submarines were stationed off Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Harwich. Three were already watching the approaches to the Bight and two more were sent to the north of Helgoland. By midnight on 18 August 26 British submarines were in the North Sea.[3]

Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the C.-in-C. of the GF, was on leave in Forfarshire. The cruiser HMS Royalist was sent to Dundee to collect him and take him to his flagship HMS Iron Duke. The transfer was delayed until 9:00 pm by a U-boat attack on HMS Onslaught, one of Iron Duke’s destroyer screen.

Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Force (BCF) reached its rendezvous with the GF at 5:00 am, when it was 30 miles ahead of the GF. At 5:57 am one of his light cruisers, HMS Nottingham, was struck by two torpedoes fired by U52. A third hit her at 6:25 am. She was abandoned by 7:00 am and sank 10 minutes later.[4] Naval-history.net lists the 39 of her crew who were killed.

Jellicoe was not told that Nottingham had been damaged until 6:50 am. He then took control of the GF, at 7:00 am ordering it to head north as he did not know if Nottingham had been mined or torpedoed. At 9:00 am he was told that the British submarine E23 had torpedoed a German battleship. He then turned south towards the HSF, about 170 miles away.[5]

E23, captained by Lieutenant-Commander R. R. Turner, had fired first at a battlecruiser and then at an unidentified German ship, missing both. At 5:00 am E23 torpedoed the battleship SMS Westfalen.  She was damaged but was able to return to Wilhelmshaven. Turner tracked her for two and a half hours, but her destroyers allowed him to fire only two more torpedoes, which missed.[6]

At 9:19 am HMS Canterbury of Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt’s Harwich Force of light cruisers and destroyers picked up a signal sent by E23 at 9:16 am giving the position of the HSF. The message was incomplete, with the crucial information that it gave the position at 4:00 am being lost. It was passed to Jellicoe by 10:18 am. Admiralty direction finding equipment, however, provided a ‘valuable check’ on this information.[7]

At 2:00 pm the Admiralty informed Jellicoe that the HSF had been 60 miles away at 12:33 pm. At 2:15 pm he told the GF that ‘[t]he High Sea Fleet may be met at any moment. I look with entire confidence to the result.  The GF was prepared for imminent action and the Harwich Force was ordered to a position where it could launch a night torpedo attack as the HSF retreated.[8]

Scheer had received a number of reports of British warships from U-boats and airships.[9] They did not enable him to form a ‘coherent view’ of the British positions, but he could be sure that they were at sea and the visibility from the fleet justified the assumption that the German ‘airships commanded a clear view over the entire sea area.’[10]

Scheer assumed that the British were concentrating about 110 miles north west of the HSF, with patrols to the south. At 12:23 pm the HSF was 82 miles off Whitby, heading north to Sunderland, when the airship L13 reported that at 11:30 am a British force was 65 miles south of the HSF and heading north. At 12:30 pm L13 signalled that the British force consisted of 16 destroyers, large and small cruisers and battleships. She then lost touch with it because of a thundercloud. Scheer believed that this was his chance to destroy a detached British battle squadron and turned south towards it.[11]

L13, whose pilot was a reserve officer and not well trained in reconnaissance work, had actually spotted the Harwich Force. At 12:45 pm it changed course, so the HSF did not encounter it.[12] Scheer called off the chase at 2:35 pm, citing the proximity of minefields.[13] He had also received a report from U53 informing him that the GF was 65 miles to the north and heading south.

The BCF would have been in contact with the HSF by 3:00 pm had it not turned away. At 3:05 Jellioce ordered Beatty to turn north if he had not encountered the enemy by 4:00 pm. A number of submarines, alerted by U53’s signal, were sighted, but the only smoke spotted belonged to a trawler, so Beatty ordered the BCF north at 4:03 pm.[14]

At 4:52 pm U66 fired two torpedoes at the light cruiser HMS Falmouth. Two struck her, causing severe damage but leaving her afloat with her engines working. U66 fired two more torpedoes, which both missed, and was then damaged by a depth charge dropped by the destroyer HMS Pelican. All crew other than those needed to work the ship were taken off Falmouth and tugs were sent to tow her , since attempts by destroyers to tow her had failed. The tugs were small and able to tow her at only two to three knots.

At noon on 20 August U63 penetrated her screen of nine destroyers and fired two torpedoes, which both hit Falmouth. HMS Porpoise tried to ram the U-boat but only grazed her, and U63 escaped. Falmouth was abandoned and sank just before 8:00 am on 21 August. The British Naval Staff Monograph gives her casualties as three dead, 8 missing and 13 wounded, but naval-history.net lists 12 dead and 13 wounded. All the dead and seven of the wounded were stokers, who would have been deep inside the ship. Other U-boats harassed the GF and BCF but no further torpedo hits were scored.[15]

The Harwich Force spotted the HSF at 6:00 pm. It made full speed in order to get ahead of it and launch a torpedo attack. After an hour, however, Tyrwhitt realised that his ships would not be in a position to attack before the moon rose, which would have made an attack suicidal.[16] The operation therefore ended with no action between surface ships and two British light cruisers sunk and a German battleship damaged by submarines.

The British destroyer HMS Trident suffered damage to her stern in a collision with the destroyer HMS Ambuscade. Her speed was unaffected.[17]

Both navies changed their strategies as a result of the events of 19 August. Jellicoe believed that he needed 87 destroyers: 12 for each eight battleships or battlecruisers; two per cruiser; and one per light cruisers. He had 86 on paper, but typically only 70 were available because of refits and detachments to other duties.

On 23 September the Admiralty issued new instructions. The GF was vital to the Allies, but the HSF was not so important to the Central Powers. The risk to the GF from submarines and minefields meant that it should stay north of the Horns Reefs ‘except in exceptional circumstances… an attempt at invasion or a really good opportunity of bringing the German Fleet to action in daylight, in an appropriate area.’[18]

Scheer believed that the mistaken reports from L13 denied him a chance of a victory. Given that the GF was out in force, the odds in its favour were greater than at Jutland and the two fleets would have come into contact earlier than on 31 May, it is more likely that L13’s error saved him from disaster. He had received 11 reports from five of the 24 U-boats involved, seven of them from U53. Three of the 10 airships sighted the British, sending seven reports, four of them misleading.

19 August made the German Naval Staff believe more strongly that only U-boats could give decisive results at sea, not the HSF. U-boats were ordered to resume the war on commerce on 6 October, albeit using under prize rules that meant that they had to stop and search merchant ships rather than sinking them without warning.[19]

The 19 August was not the HSF’s last sortie into the North Sea, but it would in the future have to depend solely on airships for reconnaissance. This, couple with the more cautious British strategy, meant that it was the last sortie that came close to resulting in a major battle.

 

 

[1] R. Scheer, Germany’s High Sea Fleet in the World War (London: Cassell and Company, 1920), pp. 180-81.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1927 vol. xvii, Home Waters part vii June 1916 to November 1916, pp. 94-95.

[3] Ibid., pp. 95-98.

[4] Ibid., pp. 99-100.

[5] Ibid., pp. 101-2.

[6] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iv, p. 37.

[7] Naval Staff vol. Xvii, p. 102.

[8] Ibid., p. 104.

[9] Ibid., p. 106.

[10] Scheer, Germany’s, p. 182.

[11] Naval Staff vol. Xvii, pp. 106-7.

[12] 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. iii, p. 293.

[13] Scheer, Germany’s, p. 182.

[14] Naval Staff vol. Xvii, p. 108.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 295-96.

[17] Naval Staff vol. Xvii, p. 112.

[18] Ibid., pp. 130-31.

[19] Marder, From. vol. iii, p.298.

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Warneford VC and the Destruction of Two Zeppelins on 7 June 1915

The first raid on the United Kingdom by German airships took place on 19 January 1915. In February Kaiser Wilhelm II relaxed his previous ban on raids on London: military targets east of the Tower of London could now be bombed. L8 had to abandon an attempt to bomb London on 26 February because of high winds. She tried again on 4 March, but was hit by gunfire and wrecked on landing in Belgium. A number of attacks were made on other targets on the East Coast of England and in France, including Paris, in March and April.[1]

In April the German army received LZ38, the first of the new P class Zeppelins. They had a maximum speed of 60 mph, a cruising speed of 40 mph, a crew of up to 19, a defensive armament of 7 or 8 machine guns and a bomb load of over two tons.[2]

The first raid on London was made by LZ38, captained by Hauptmann Erich Linnarz, on 31 May. She dropped over a ton of bombs, killing five people and injuring 35; damage worth £18,596 was done to property.[3]

Attempts by the Royal Naval Air Service to destroy airships, both by intercepting their raids and attacking their bases, had by then resulted in the destruction of only Z9. She was bombed in her shed by Flight Lieutenant Reginald Marix, flying a Sopwith Tabloid, on 8 October 1914. Squadron Commander Spenser Gray was unable to find the airship sheds, so bombed Cologne railway station.[4] Both were awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The Cuxhaven Raid on Christmas Day 1914 failed to find the German navy Zeppelin base.

On 3:15 am on 17 May the army Zeppelin LZ39 was spotted off Dunkirk. Seven RNAS aircraft took off from Dunkirk to join two other that were already on patrol. Grey and Flight Sub Lieutenant Reginald Warneford attacked the airship from below, but she climbed away from them and headed towards Ostend. Flight Commander Arthur Bigsworth, flying an Avro, managed to get 200 feet above her as she flew 10,000 feet above Ostend. He dropped four 20 pound bombs on the airship, which emitted some smoke from her tail, but continued on her way. She landed roughly but safely. One of her officers was killed and several men wounded, five gasbags damaged and one propeller lost.[5]

LZ37, LZ38, LZ39 and the navy Zeppelin L9 set out to bomb London on 6 June, but encountered strong winds and fog. Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Mathy’s L9 diverted to her alternative target, the Humber, using flares to find the docks.. She dropped 13 explosive and 39 incendiary bombs on Hull according to the British Official History: the German one says nine and 50 respectively. Around 40 shops and houses were damaged, a sawmill burnt down, 24 people killed and 40 hurt. Rioters sacked shops owned or allegedly owned by Germans. Hull had no anti-aircraft guns, so the only defensive fire came from HMS Adventure, under repair in the port. Mathy dropped seven more incendiaries on Grimsby, causing little damage, before heading home. Guns at Immingham and Waltham fired at L9 without hitting her.[6]

The fog also prevented British aircraft from taking off from Killingholme. The light cruisers HMS Aurora and Penelope, each carrying a seaplane, left Harwich in pursuit of L9, but she escaped.[7]

LZ39 suffered problems and had to turn back to her base at Evere. The other two army airships encountered fog, ad were unable to reach England, so also headed back home.[8]

In the early hours of 7 June, the RNAS airfield at Dunkirk sent four aircraft to bomb the airship bases at Evere and Berchem St Agathe. Two Henri-Farman biplanes, flown by Flight Lieutenant John Wilson and Flight Sub-Lieutenant John Mills, headed for Evere. Wilson took off at 12:40 am and arrived at 2:05 am. He replied to a series of long flashes from a searchlight with a series of short flashes, which kept the anti-aircraft guns quiet whilst he circled until there was enough light to attack. At 2:20 am he could just see the airship shed, so dropped his three 65 pound bombs from 2,000 feet. One hit the centre of the shed, sending up dense smoke but no flames. Mills turned up at 2:30 am, but was forced by anti-aircraft fire to turn away and gain height. He came back at 5,000 feet, dropped his four 20 pound bombs, setting LZ38 alight and destroying her. Both pilots had problems with fog, but got home safely, although Mills had to land on the beach between Calais and Dunkirk and Wilson in a field near Montreuil.[9]

One of the aircraft sent to attack Berchem St Agathe suffered technical problems, got lost and had to land in a field near Cassel. Warneford, flying the other, a Morane, spotted an airship just after 1:00 am. At 1:50 am he caught the Zeppelin, which was LZ37, over Bruges. Its machine guns fired on his Morane, forcing him to retire and climb. The airship turned after him and continued to fire for a period. Once Warneford had reached 11,000 feet, he headed back towards LZ37, switched off his engine, dived and dropped his six 20 pound bombs as he flew along the airship 150 feet above her. The Zeppelin exploded, throwing Warneford’s Morane upside down. He managed to regain control as it dived. One of LZ37’s crew fell through the roof of a nunnery and somehow survived, although the wreckage that fell with him killed two nuns.[10]

The explosion had damaged a petrol pipe in Warneford’s aircraft, forcing him to land behind enemy lines. He initially intended to destroy his aircraft, but then realised that he had not been seen, so set about repairing it. After 35 minutes on the ground behind enemy lines he was able to take off and landed safely, although at Cape Gris-Nez rather than Dunkirk because of the fog.

Warneford, the first pilot to destroy an airship in the air, was awarded the VC. The citation, available on naval-history.net, said that:

 29189 – 11 JUNE 1915

Admiralty, 10th June, 1915.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Flight Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Alexander John Warneford, Royal Naval Air Service, for the conspicuous act of bravery specified below:

For most conspicuous bravery on the 7th June, 1915, when he attacked and, singlehanded, completely destroyed a Zeppelin in mid-air. This brilliant achievement was accomplished after chasing the Zeppelin from the coast of Flanders to Ghent, where he succeeded in dropping his bombs on to it from a height of only one or two hundred feet. One of these bombs caused a terrific explosion which set the Zeppelin on fire from end to end, but at the same time overturned his Aeroplane and stopped the engine. In spite of this he succeeded in landing safely in hostile country, and after 15 minutes started his engine and returned to his base without damage.

 

He was killed on 17 June when an aircraft that he was testing crashed.

Wilson and Mills received the DSC:

 29201 – 22 JUNE 19….. award of the Distinguished Service Cross to:

Flight Lieutenant John Philip Wilson, R.N., and Flight Sub-Lieutenant John Stanley Mills, R.N., for their services on the 7th June, 1915, when, after a long flight in the darkness over hostile territory they threw bombs on the Zeppelin shed at St. Evere, near Brussels, and destroyed a Zeppelin, which was inside. The two Officers were exposed to heavy fire from anti-aircraft guns during the attack.

The bulk of the German army’s airships were transferred to the Eastern Front soon afterwards, where they bombed railway lines in support of the German offensive in Poland. However, two of them bombed London in July.[11]

 

 

[1] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. iii, pp. 93-97.

[2] J. H. Morrow, The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921 (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), p. 108.

[3] Raleigh, Jones, War in the Air. vol. iii, pp. 97-98.

[4] Ibid. vol. i, pp. 389-90.

[5] Ibid. vol. ii, p. 350.

[6] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 103.

[7] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1925 vol. xiii, Home Waters part iv, February 1915 to July 1915. p. 237.

[8] Raleigh, Jones, War in the Air. vol. iii, pp. 104-5.

[9] Ibid. vol. ii, pp. 351-52.

[10] Ibid. vol. ii, pp. 352-53.

[11] Morrow, Air, p. 109.

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