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The Final Sortie of the High Seas Fleet

The final sortie of the German High Seas Fleet during the First World War took place between 22 and 25 April 1918. This was its first mission into the North Sea since August 1916, but it had not been inactive in the intervening period. From 10 to 20 October 1917 it had conducted Operation Albion, a major amphibious operation that resulted in the Germans capturing the Baltic islands of Ösel, Dago and Moon from the Russians.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer, C.-in-C. of the High Seas Fleet, learnt from U-boats that convoys between Norway and Great Britain had been escorted by battleships and battle cruisers since two German cruisers successfully attacked one on 17 October 1917. Scheer later wrote that:

‘A successful attack on such a convoy would not only result in the sinking of much tonnage, but would be a great military success, and would bring welcome relief to the U-boats operating in the Channel and round England, for it would force the English to send more warships to the northern waters.’[1]

Vizeadmiral Franz von Hipper’s battle cruisers (1st Scouting Group), the light cruisers of the 2nd Scouting Group and a destroyer flotilla would attack the convoy. All other available ships of the High Seas Fleet would cover the operations: the flagship, three battle squadrons less SMS Markgraf, the light cruisers of the 4th Scouting Group less SMS Stralsund and four destroyer flotillas.[2]

The Germans sailed at 5:00 am on 23 April but encountered fog at 10:30 am, when they were about to pass through the British minefields in the Helgoland Bight. It lifted after half an hour and they were able to proceed safely.[3]

The British then had four submarines patrolling the entrances to the Bight. HMS J6 spotted the German destroyers and light cruisers at 8:00 pm on 23 April, battle cruisers and destroyers at 8:30 pm and heavy ships at 00:15 am on 24 April. However, her captain had been told that British cruisers might be operating inside the area that he was patrolling, so assumed that they were British and did not report them.[4]

The Germans believed that the convoys travelled mainly at the start and middle of the week, so set the operation for Wednesday 24 April. In fact they sailed every four days, weather permitting. The limited range of most of the German destroyers and some of the light cruisers meant that they could stay in the operational area for only one day.[5]

A British convoy of 34 merchant ships had left Selbjorns Fjord at 1:15 pm on 22 April. Its close escort was only an armed boarding steamer and two destroyers, but it was being covered by the 2nd Battle cruiser Squadron and the 7th Light Cruiser Squadron to the south. It encountered heavy fog but reached Methil in the Firth of Forth on schedule on the morning of 24 April. The convoy to Norway was due to depart Methil the same day, with the result that the Germans would not have encountered any convoys even if their operation went to plan.[6]

The German operation did not go to plan. Early on 24 April the battle cruiser SMS Moltke suffered an engine breakdown, which reduced her speed to 13 knots. At 5:00 am Hipper ordered her to retire to the main German force. At 7:00 am Moltke was forced to break radio silence to report to Scheer that she was now capable of only 4 knots. Hipper at first turned back to help her but was then ordered by Scheer to resume his original course. Moltke was taken in tow by the battleship SMS Oldenburg at 10:45 am. Hipper did not spot any convoys and the main force set out back to base at 10 knots. Scheer had a choice of two routes and decided to take the quicker and more direct one. This increased the risk of encountering the British Grand Fleet but the other route, through the Kattegat was harder for Moltke and Oldenburg. It also risked offending the Danes and provoking the British into mining it, which would be bad for the U-boats.[7]

The British radio direction finding stations picked up the German signals and located them. At 11:45 am the Grand Fleet, which had been based at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth since 12 April, was ordered to put to sea. By the early afternoon 31 battleships, four of them American, four battle cruisers, two armoured cruisers, 24 light cruisers and 85 destroyers were at sea. Admiral Sir David Beatty, C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet, was given the option of holding back the Methil to Norway convoy and adding the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron to his force but chose not to. Two battleships and the 2nd Cruiser Squadron were sent to join the force covering the convoy.[8]

At 4:00 am on 25 April J6 saw German light cruisers and destroyers and 90 minutes later spotted battlecruisers. They had passed by 7:15 am and she then reported them. Another British submarine, E42, had been sent to intercept the Germans and got into position early because they were moving slowly. At about 5:30 pm her captain Lieutenant C. H. Allen fired four torpedoes at a line of ships that was passing him. He then dived his boat and took an hour to lose the enemy, during which time he counted 25 explosions nearby.[9]

E42 had hit the port engine room of Moltke, but she made port. At 1:41 pm the Admiralty authorised Beatty to return to port if he wished.[10]

The German operation was well planned but failed because of faulty intelligence. Had the High Seas Fleet set off a day earlier or a day later it would have encountered a convoy and presumably overwhelmed it and its escort. Scheer seems to have relied upon U-boat commanders for intelligence. It is unclear if he asked German Consuls in neutral Norway for details of convoy movements. It is also uncertain if he knew whether or not the Grand Fleet was now based at Rosyth.[11]

Scheer went further north than ever before at a time when the enemy was further south. In the event the High Seas Fleet was able to avoid the Grand Fleet, but this might not have happened if J6 had reported the High Seas Fleet after spotting it several hours before it was detected by radio direction finding. Both sides could therefore point to missed opportunities.

 

[1] R. Scheer, Germany’s High Sea Fleet in the World War (London: Cassell and Company, 1920), p. 318.

[2] 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), p. 149.

[3] Scheer, Germany’s, pp. 320-21. Times from this source have been adjusted for consistency with British sources, which quote times one hour behind German time.

[4] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, p. 284.

[5] Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 148-49.

[6] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 233-35.

[7] Scheer, Germany’s, pp. 321-22.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 232, 235-36.

[9] Ibid., p. 238.

[10] Marder, From. vol. v, p.154.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, ppp. 232, 238-39.

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