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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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German Destroyer Raid of 10 May 1917

In late 1916 and early 1917 the German carried out a number of raids on shipping in the Dover area and the anti-submarine net barrage across the Dover straits. The first that resulted in a German defeat was on 20-21 April 1917 when the destroyers SMS G42 and G85 were sunk by the British flotilla leaders HMS Broke and Swift.

The level of loss from this mission was unsustainable so the Germans changed their strategy. Future attacks would be aimed at the Netherlands to UK convoys rather than the Channel patrols and barrage. Raids on shipping at the mouth of the Thames on 26 and 30 April encountered no shipping, although Margate was bombarded on 26 April. [1]

In the early hours of 10 May the eight destroyers (822-960 tons, three 10.5cm (4.1in) guns, six 50cm (19.7in) torpedo tubes, 33.5-34 knots) of Korvettenkapitän Kahle’s 3rd Flotilla and the four destroyers of the Zeebrugge 1st Half Flotilla put to sea with orders to attack a large convoy that was due to leave the Netherlands for Great Britain that evening. Another 12 destroyers were on reconnaissance missions: four of the Zeebrugge 2nd Half Flotilla to the west and eight of the Flanders Torpedo-boat Flotilla to the south west.[2]

That night there were 12 merchant steamers heading from Great Britain to the Netherlands, with 10 travelling the other way. Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt, commanding the Harwich Force, was at sea in the C Class cruiser HMS Centaur (4,165 tons, five 6in (15.2cm), one 13 pounder (76.2mm) and two 3in AA (76mm) guns, two 21in torpedo tubes, 29 knots) accompanied by the similar but slightly older HMS Carysfort and Conquest (4,219 tons, two 6 in (15.2cm), eight 4in (10.2 cm),one 13 pounder (76.2m), two 3in AA (76mm) and four 3 pounder (47mm) guns, two 21in torpedo tubes, 28.5 knots) and four destroyers. Other British destroyers were escorting the convoys.[3]

Between 3:50 and 3:55 am the British spotted the Germans to the south west, 8 or 9 miles away. Tyrwhitt ordered his ships to head south at full speed in an attempt to cut them off from Zeebrugge. At 4:05 am the British opened fire at about 13,000 yards range. The Germans headed south, returning fire. The light was poor and visibility was made worse by a German smoke screen and the smoke from the British cruisers, but both sides managed to straddle enemy ships with their gunfire and the British believed that they scored hits.[4]

The British pursued, but their cruisers were slower than the destroyers. By 5:02 am the German destroyers were out of range of the cruisers. The British destroyers, who had taken some time to work up to full speed, continued the chase. At 5:15 am some of the Germans turned, apparently to engage HMS Stork (975 tons, three 4in (10.2cm) and one 2 pounder (40mm) guns, four 21in torpedo tubes, 29 knots), the leading British destroyer, but withdrew on spotting that more British destroyers had arrived. Tyrwhitt called off the chase at 5:33 am , by when Stork had come under fire from German shore batteries.[5]

Neither side suffered serious damage in this operation, but it was a British victory since they prevented the Germans from carrying out their mission.

[1] M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front : The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918, p. 126.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1939 vol. xix, Home Waters part ix, May to July 1917. p. 5; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, pp. 168-69; Karau, Naval, p. 126.

[3] Naval Staff vol. Xix. p. 4; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 56, 60.

[4] Naval Staff vol. Xix. p. 4.

[5] Ibid., p. 5; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 81.

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Scandinavian Convoy Action 17 October 1917

By late 1917 the British had organised merchant ships into convoys as a defence against U-boats [more to follow on this subject]. Convoys to Scandinavia ran additional risks to those encountered by convoys in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. They sailed through waters where they risked attack by enemy surface ships and were in the danger zone for most of their voyage. Secrecy was harder to maintain as they consisted mostly of neutral ships and assembled at a neutral port for their homeward journey.[1]

On 15 October 1917 the destroyers HMS Mary Rose (Lieutenant-Commander Charles Fox) and HMS Strongbow (Lieutenant-Commander Edward Brooke) and the armed trawlers Elise and P. Fannon left Lerwick with an eastbound convoy.[2]

In the late morning of 16 October Mary Rose sailed ahead of the convoy to collect the westbound one. She appears to have got ahead of it during the afternoon and the two destroyers were unable to contact each other when Strongbow joined the convoy after dark. At 6:00 am on 17 October the convoy, escorted by Strongbow was about 70 miles east of Lerwick. Mary Rose was six to eight miles ahead of it.

Neither Fox nor Brooke had been informed that British cruiser forces had spent the last two days searching the North Sea for a German force that was believed to be at sea. A total of three large cruisers, 27 light cruisers and 53 destroyers were hunting for what was thought to be a minelayer and some destroyers.[3]

Two German minelayers, SMS Bremse and Brummer, were at sea, but their mission was to attack the Scandinavian convoy, not to lay mines. They were chosen because of their high speed, good sea keeping qualities, radius of action and similar appearance to British light cruisers: they were rigged to resemble British C class cruisers.[4]

The German ships were both armed with four 5.9 inch guns, two 3.5 AA guns and two 19.7 inch torpedo tubes versus three 4 inch guns, three 2 pounders and four 21 inch torpedo tubes on the British destroyers. The Germans had a maximum speed of 34 knots, the same as Mary Rose and 2 knots less than Strongbow.[5]

Strongbow spotted the Germans just after 6:00 am. She made three challenges, none of which were answered satisfactorily. Brooke then prepared to open fire, but the opening German salvo severed Strongbow’s steam pipe, leaving her unable to manoeuvre. Brooke, who was badly wounded in the leg, refused to allow anybody to abandon ship until all confidential books and papers had been destroyed. He then ordered that Strongbow should be scuttled. She had been abandoned by 7:30 am. Brooke was carried off his ship and put onto a Carley raft.[6]

Mary Rose headed for the sound of the guns, but Fox initially assumed that the convoy was being attacked by a U-boat. His ship was ill prepared to fight against heavy odds. The British Official History says that ‘[u]nder the existing organisation it was almost impossible to fight the guns and the torpedo tubes simultaneously…and…the range and deflection transmitters were not working.’[7]

Mary Rose opened fire from 6-7,000 yards range at about 6:20 pm. For a little while it seemed that she might draw the enemy, whose fire was initially inaccurate, away from the convoy. However, the Germans began to hit her at a range of 2,000 yards. By 7:00 am she had to be abandoned. Fox was last seen swimming and did not survive. Only 3 steamers and the two trawlers managed to escape. Nine merchantmen with a total tonnage of 10,248 tons, all neutral, were sunk. The other three steamers, two British and one Belgian, and the two trawlers survived. Only four officers and 41 men out of  Strongbow’s  crew of 82 and two officers and eight men out of 80 on Mary Rose survived. [8]

The casualties are listed on Naval-History.net. Brooke survived the action but died on 10 February 1919 from pneumonia as a result of the action. Wikipedia says that about 250 Allies and Scandinavians were killed, meaning that about 150 neutral Scandinavians died.

Neither destroyer was able to send any signals about the attack. Strongbow was attacked and hit too quickly to get a message off. Mary Rose tried but her signal was jammed by Brummer. By the time that the Admiralty realised what had happened and ordered cruisers to intercept the Germans on their way home it was too late.[9]

The Courts Martial into the loss of the two ships (the Court of Inquiry into the loss of an RN ship takes the form of a Court Martial of her captain) praised both Brooke and Fox for their courage. However, they argued that Brooke would have been better to have tried to draw the Germans away from the convoy and that Fox should have stayed out of range and called for help. It was not known until the publication of the German Official History after the war that he had tried to do so but that Mary Rose’s signal had been jammed. These criticisms were not considered to be offences under the Naval Discipline Act.[10]

The British Official History claims that the Germans gave the neutral crews no time to abandoned ship and fired on Strongbow’s survivors in the water. The German Official History denies the latter charge, claiming that any hits on them came from shots targeted elsewhere that fell short.[11]

As the British Official History says, despite its ‘brilliantly successful execution, the raid must have been somewhat disappointing to the German Staff…as…it hardly caused a disturbance in the timetable of Scandinavian trade.’[12]

[1] 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. 293-94.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, p. 152

[3] Ibid., pp. 150-53.

[4] Ibid., p. 158; Marder, From, pp. 294-95.

[5] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 76, 79, 81, 162.

[6] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 154.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., pp. 154-55; Marder, From, p. 294.

[9] Marder, From. pp. 296-97 and footnote 6.

[10] Ibid. Footnotes 5-6 on pp. 296-97.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. p. 155 and footnote 1.

[12] Ibid., pp. 157-58.

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