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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]

Naval-History.net 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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The Ostend Raid 9-10 May 1918

The British raid on Zeebrugge and Ostend on 23 April 1918 was intended to block the entrances to the canals linking the German destroyer and U-boat base at Bruges to the sea. The failure at Ostend led Vice Admiral Roger Keyes, commander of the Dover Patrol, to plan another attack on Ostend. He planned to use the old cruiser HMS Vindictive, which had carried assault marines and sailors to Zeebrugge, as a blockship. She was captained by Commander Alfred E. Godal, who had captained the blockship HMS Brilliant during the previous attempt to block Ostend. She was ready to go on 27 April, but the weather was too bad to proceed.[1]

The night was dark enough in the first fortnight of May from 9:30 pm to 3:00 am. The attacking force would take two and a half hours to sail from Dunkirk to Ostend and would have to withdraw by 2:00 am in order to be clear of shore batteries by daybreak. It was decided, with advice from captains of Dover to Ostend steam packets, that the tides would be ideal on 10-13 May and almost so on 9 May. 14 May was a possible date but more doubtful. The delay allowed another old cruiser, HMS Sappho, to also be used as a blockship.[2]

The two blockships were accompanied by 18 motor launches and 10 coastal motor boats (CMBs, an early form of MTB/PT Boat). Fire support would come from seven monitors escorted by eight destroyers, five of them French, two motor launches and two French motor boats. The Allies did not know if the German destroyers of the Flanders Flotilla, which had returned to Germany in mid February, had returned to Zeebrugge, so another 12 British destroyers were deployed in three groups of 4 to cover against a German attack on the raiding force. Keyes commanded the northern group from HMS Warwick but Commodore Hubert Lynes commanded the expedition, known as Operation V.S., from HMS Faulknor.[3]

On the afternoon of 9 May Keyes and Lynes were lunch guests of the King of the Belgians at La Panne [De Panne in Flemish] in the unoccupied part of Belgium. Keyes noticed a change in the wind so left early, giving the king a hint why. He and Lynes hurried to Dunkirk to start Operation V.S.. Aerial reconnaissance revealed that the Germans had removed all the buoys in the approaches to Ostend. The British had allowed for this and HMS Faulknor carried an illuminated buoy to be positioned at the point where the attacking ships had to turn. To obtain surprise, the main bombardment from shore based guns, naval monitors and Handley-Page bombers would not start until the last moment.[4]

Vindictive and Sappho arrived at Dunkirk at 10:45 pm. The expedition sailed 45 minutes later but a boiler problem forced Sappho to drop out just before midnight. Lynes decided to go ahead with only Vindictive since she had been the only blockship available when V.S. was first planned.[5]

Faulknor dropped her buoy at 01:25 am on 10 May, with Vindictive passing it 12 minutes later. The British ships were covered by a smoke screen, and the only sign of enemy action until then was a single searchlight. At 01:43 am the British bombardment began. Five minutes later a mist descended, reducing visibility to a few yards and dividing the attacking force into a number of small, uncoordinated units. Vindictive was then about 12 minutes from her target. The destroyers outside the harbour and mist started firing star shells in order to illuminate the canal mouth.[6]

CMB 24 (Lieutenant A. Dayrell-Reed) and CMB 30 (Lieutenant A. L. Poland) fired torpedoes at the eastern pier head, damaging it. However, it is doubtful whether these brave attacks succeeded in reducing the German fire.[7]

Vindictive was finding it difficult to find the harbour mouth because of the mist. Godsal turned his ship in the hope of finding it. CMB 26 (Lieutenant C. F. B. Bowlby) did manage to identify the eastern pier head and fire a torpedo at it, but it hit the bottom and exploded so close to CMB 26 that she was badly damaged. Godsal was forced to order CMB 23 (Lieutenant the Hon. C. E. R. Spencer) to light a powerful flare in order to illuminate the harbour mouth. This showed Godsal the target but also showed his ship to the Germans. CMB 25 (Lieutenant R. H. MacBean) fired two torpedoes at the pier heads, which hit them but did not stop the fire that was raining down on Vindictive.[8]

Vindictive had to steer a course towards the western bank and then manoeuvre across the channel with the help of the east flowing tide in order to block the channel. As she began this manoeuvre, Godsal stepped out of the conning tower for a better view. A shell then hit it, killing him and knocking the navigator, Lieutenant Sir John Alleyne, unconscious. Vindictive remained on her existing course and had run aground by the time that Lieutenant Victor Crutchley was able to take command. He tried unsuccessfully to move Vindictive before ordering her crew to abandon ship and setting the sinking charges. She was lying at an oblique angle and did not block the channel.[9]

The survivors of Vindictive were picked up by motor launches 254 (Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Drummond), which took off two officers and 38 men and 276 (Lieutenant Rowland Bourke), which rescued Alleyne and two ratings from the water. Both launches were badly damaged, and Crutchley had to take command of 254 after Drummond was wounded and Lieutenant Gordon Ross killed.

Three men were found alive on board Vindictive by the Germans, despite Crutchley searching her before leaving.[10] Odsal, another officer and a petty officer were amongst the 16 British sailors killed in Operation V.S.: all are listed on Naval-History.net.

Shortly after Crutchley informed Keyes onboard HMS Warwick that the mission had failed she struck a mine. The enemy destroyers were absent and the mist was now protecting the British from German shore batteries. She was towed back to port.[11]

Keyes wanted to make a third attempt, which was in initially approved. By the end of May, however, the situation had changed with the result that the potential benefits would not justify the risks involved.[12]

The Dover Straits Barrage meant that U-boats could no longer travel through the English Channel to the Atlantic, reducing the effectiveness of boats based in Flanders. The Flanders torpedo boats and destroyers were by this stage of the war restricted to a defensive role.[13]

On 14-15 February 1918 German destroyers had sailed directly from the Helgoland Bight attack to successfully attack the Dover Barrage. This operation showed that destroyers did not need to be based in Flanders to threaten the Dover Barrage, but it was never repeated.

Crutchley, Drummond and Bourke were all awarded the Victoria Cross and a large number of other men were also decorated. See Naval-History.net for the VC citations and a list of the other men awarded medals.

[1] B. Pitt, Zeebrugge: Eleven VCs before Breakfast (London: Cassell Military, 2003), pp. 177-80.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, p. 266-67.

[3] Ibid. pp. 267-69, footnote 1 on pp. 268-69.

[4] Pitt, Zeebrugge, pp. 180-84.

[5] Ibid., pp. 184-85.

[6] Ibid., pp. 185-87.

[7] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, vol. v, p. 270.

[8] Ibid., p. 271.

[9] Ibid., pp. 271-72.

[10] Ibid. footnote 2, p. 272.

[11] Ibid., p. 273.

[12] Pitt, Zeebrugge, pp. 203-4.

[13] M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front: The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2003), pp. 207-8.

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German Attack on the Dover Straits 14-15 February 1918

The last German attack on the British anti-submarine barrage across the Dover Straits came on the night of 14-15 February 1918. The previous one on 20-21 April 1917 had resulted in the loss of two German torpedo boats and a clear British victory. The Germans then changed strategy, launching a number of attacks on shipping between the Netherlands and the UK, the largest of which took place on 10 May.

The Germans then sat on the defensive because they feared that the British Passchendaele offensive might include an amphibious assault. The British planned such an operation, but the land offensive did not go well enough for it to be carried out. By the end of 1917 too many vessels had been transferred away from Flanders, mainly to take part in Operation Albion, an amphibious assault in the Baltic Sea, for them to carry out offensive operations.[1]

The attack in mid February was carried out by Korvettenkapitän Heinecke’s 2nd Flotilla of the High Seas Fleet, which sailed from Heligoland Bight without stopping in Flanders in order to achieved surprise. Its eight torpedo boats were meant to sail on 13 February but were delayed a day by bad weather and then reduced to seven when one of them suffered condenser problems.[2]

Heinecke’s plan was to divide his force into two groups. He would lead one, which would attack patrols south of Dungeness and then the patrol line from Folkestone to the Varne Bank. The other, led by Kapitänleutnant Kolbe, would attack the patrols on the south side of the Channel.[3]

Weather conditions on the night of 14-15 February were ideal for a raid. The weather was fine but overcast, the sea was unusually calm for the time of year and visibility was variable, with patches of haze. The minefield was illuminated by flares and searchlights in order to detect surfaced U-boats, but this blinded the vessels burning them, produced smoke and potentially obscured warning lights and gun flashes.[4]

The British had a light cruiser and three destroyers in the Downs, two destroyers on the West Barrage Patrol, four destroyers on the East Barrage Patrol and two paddle minesweepers, a monitor, a destroyer, a Patrol boat, two French torpedo boats and 10 trawlers supporting the 58 drifters patrolling the deep minefield. There should have been a monitor with 12 or 15 inch guns on duty but none was available so the 7.5 inch gunned HMS M26 was on duty.[5]

Between 11:30 and midnight on 14 February the drifter Shipmates (Lieutenant W. Denson RNR) spotted a submarine and fired the appropriate warning signal of red and white lights. The submarine soon disappeared. Around 00:30 am two German destroyers fired on the paddle minesweeper HMS Newbury. She was set alight and was unable to fire the green warning signal for surface raiders. British ships that heard the gunfire assumed that it was British ships attacking the U-boat.[6]

Denson of the Shipmates saw the gun flashes and realised that a German destroyer attack was underway. Before he could report it, his drifter was caught in German searchlights and his division was under fire. Presumably fearing that his vessel might be captured, he threw his confidential books overboard. The Shipmates managed to escape but did not fire a warning signal as Denson had seen two or three signal rockets. He could not send a coded radio message as he no longer had any codebooks and he had been ordered not to send uncoded messages.[7]

The British failed to realise what was happening, assuming that gunfire was aimed at the U-boat spotted by the Shipmates and that any destroyers that they spotted were friendly. Even the captain of a British motor launch fired at by German destroyers assumed that they were British and had mistaken his vessel for a U-boat. The Germans sank seven drifters and a trawler and severely damaged five drifters, a trawler and a paddle minesweeper; 89 British officers and men were dead or missing. Vice Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, C.-in-C. Dover Command, was not certain of what had happened until nearly 3:00 am, by when the Germans were on the way home.[8]

The British held a Court of Inquiry, which highlighted the faults in the processes for challenging, reporting and signalling in the Dover Straits. Lieutenant Adam Ferguson, captain of the destroyer HMS Amazon, challenged an unknown ship three times, which he said was the normal procedure. He was then supposed to open fire but the ship was by then out of sight. Ferguson was Court-Martialed and severely reprimanded. He and his immediate superior, Commander Bernard of the destroyer HMS Termagant, were both relieved of their commands.[9]

Keyes subsequently issued new orders stating that ‘Suspicious vessels are to be regarded as enemy, unnecessary challenges are to be avoided.’ Offensive action should be taken against ships that did not immediately reply to challenges.[10]

This was the seventh and last German attack on the Dover Barrage. Six of them had been successful with only the raid of 20-21 April being a British victory. However, the attacks came at least a month and as much as nine months apart, with the result that the losses from one raid had always been replaced by the time of the next one. The Dover Straits Barrage therefore continued to keep U-boats out of the busy shipping lane of the English Channel, and to force them to sail round the British Isles on their  way to the Atlantic, reducing their time on station. It is unclear why the Germans stopped attacking the Dover Barrage, especially when their last effort was so successful.[11]

 

[1] M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front: The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918, pp. 161-65.

[2] Ibid., p. 176.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vi, The Dover Patrol i. p. 104.

[5] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. v, pp. 210-11.

[6] Ibid., p. 212.

[7] Ibid., pp. 212-13.

[8] Ibid., p. 217.

[9] Ibid., p. 216; A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. vol. v, p. 44.

[10] Marder, From, p. 45.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 217; Karau, Naval, p. 179.

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The Battle of Texel Island 17 October 1914

On 17 October, the 1st Division of the Royal Navy’s 3rd Flotilla was sent to relieve a routine patrol in the Broad Fourteens. It consisted of the new light cruiser HMS Undaunted (Captain Cecil Fox), the flotilla leader, and the Laforey class destroyers HMS Lance, Lennox, Legion and Loyal.

At about 1:40 pm, when about 50 miles south west of Texel Island,  Undaunted spotted the smoke of four ships about eight miles away and approaching. Ten minutes later, they were identified as German torpedo boats in line abreast. The British closed and the Germans turned away both at full speed.

However, the British destroyers were new vessels capable of 29 knots and Undaunted 28.5 knots. The German ships, S115, S117, S118 and S119 of the 7th Half Flotilla, were of the 1898 type and completed in 1903. They had been designed for 26 or 27 knots, but a Naval Staff Monograph, written post war for internal RN use, quotes the German Official Naval History as saying that they were capable of only 19 knots.[1]

The Germans were heavily outgunned, so stood little chance unless they got inside torpedo range: two 50 mm (1.97 inch) guns and three 45 cm (17.7 inch) torpedo tubes versus three 4 inch guns and four 21 inch torpedo tubes in the British destroyers and Undaunted’s two 6 inch and six 4 inch guns and four 21 inch torpedo tubes.

Undaunted opened fire at 8,000 yards range at 2:05 pm, but soon ceased fire as the Germans were zigzagging, making it hard to hit at that range. The Germans had been on a mine laying mission, and started to throw their mines overboard. The Naval Staff Monograph suggests that the British mistook the splashes for the launch of torpedoes.[2]

A general action began once the range was done to 2,500 yards. Legion and Loyal concentrated on the western most German, S117, which sank at 3:17 pm according to Fox’s report (3:14 according to his ship’s signal log).[3] Lance and Lennox concentrated on the eastern most German ship, S115, which was out of action by 4 pm, but did not sink for another half hour.

S118 struggled to keep up with the other German ships because of a leaking condenser. She therefore turned towards Undaunted. Korvettenkapitän Georg Thiele, the Half Flotilla commander, realising that his force had no chance of escaping, took S119 after her in the hope of torpedoing Undaunted.

Several German torpedoes were launched, but Fox kept his ship out of their range. All four German ships were sunk, although their skilful manoeuvring meant that the British used a lot of ammunition.

Fox’s report indicates that the second German ship sank at 3:30 pm and the third at 3:55 pm. Only 35 Germans survived, of whom 33 were picked up by the British and two by a neutral fishing boat the next day. 223 Germans were killed including one who died of wounds after being rescued by the British. British casualties were five wounded and their ships suffered little damage.

This was a one sided action, but it boosted British morale after the sinking of HMS Hawke by U9 two days before. More importantly, on 30 November a British fishing vessel trawled up a chest that had been thrown overboard by Thiele’s S119. It contained code books, including one used by admirals and the commanders of squadrons and flotillas.

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xi, Home Waters part ii, September and October 1914. p. 118. This document and others in the same series can be freely downloaded from this link to the Royal Australian Navy’s website.

[2] Ibid., p. 119.

[3] This account is largely based on Ibid. pp. 118-19, which in turn is based on Fox’s report and the logs of his ships.

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