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The Global Naval War

The Royal Navy’s most famous action of March 1915 was its unsuccessful attempt to force the Dardanelles. Its most successful one was the sinking of the German light cruiser SMS Dresden on 14 March. However, in March 1915, as with every month of the war, it was involved in many other activities across the world.

The Ottoman Empire’s largest Mediterranean port, Smyrna (now Izmir), was bombarded on 5 March in an operation similar to the attack on the Dardanelles. The intention was to prevent it being used as a submarine base. The attacking force consisted of the battleships HMS Swiftsure and Triumph, detached from the Dardanelles, the cruiser HMS Euryalus (Vice Admiral Sir Richard Peirse’s flagship),  the Russian cruiser Askold, the seaplane carrier Aenne Rickmers and minesweepers.

Smyrna was defended by a battery of seven 9.4 inch guns and another of four 6 inch guns, plus minefields that were protected by light guns and searchlights. The action began on 5 March and soon became a smaller version of the Dardanelles. The minefields prevented the big ships from getting close enough to destroy the guns which stopped the minesweepers from clearing the minefields.

An attempt was made to persuade the local ruler, the Vali of Smyrna, to come to terms. He appeared to agree, but it was unclear whether or not the military would obey him, especially after British ships flying flags of truce were fired on.[1]

The attack was called off on 15 March because the battleships were recalled to the Dardanelles. Ironically, Smyrna could not be used as a submarine base because the Ottomans blocked it by scuttling five ships in order to defend it against the attack.[2]

In Africa the RN was engaged on both coasts. The United Kingdom’s main interest in the Cameroons was in capturing the wireless station and port of Duala, which might have been used to support cruiser operations. The French were more interested in obtaining territory. Duala was taken by a river based operation on 27 September 1914, during which the gunboat HMS Dwarf sank the German cutter Nachtigal. However, the Germans had not retreated far, meaning that a further advance was needed in order to make it secure.[3]

In March 1915 the naval force operating off the Cameroons and along its rivers consisted of the cruiser HMS Challenger, HMS Dwarf, the French cruiser Pothau and about 20 smaller craft. In late April Challenger was relieved by the cruiser HMS Astraea and the force strengthened by the cruiser HMS Sirius and the sloop HMS Rinaldo.[4]

Until the British victory at the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914 RN forces in South Africa had to be kept concentrated. South African troops were convoyed by sea to the British enclave at Walvis Bay on 25 December.

By March the most important task for the RN’s South African station was the blockade of German East Africa (now Tanzania). The light cruiser SMS Königsberg was by then trapped in the Rufiji River.

The only German commerce raider at liberty in March was the armed merchant cruiser SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm, which would intern herself in Newport News on 8 April. However, the British did not learn until around 19 March the light cruiser SMS Karlsruhe had been destroyed by an accidental explosion on 4 November 1914.[5]

By March 1915 the main German threat to Allied commerce was from U-boats. Germany had declared that it would conduct unrestricted submarine warfare from 18 February. In February German U-boats sank nine Allied merchant ships with a total tonnage of 22,784 tons, including two of 4,286 tons on 15 February. Two (11,228 tons) were damaged. In March 30 ships (79,369 tons) were sunk or captured by German U-boats, with six (22,300 tons) being damaged. One of the ships in March sunk was the 5,948 tom armed merchant cruiser HMS Bayano.

These losses, although higher than previously inflicted by U-boats, were not huge because of the relatively small number of U-boats that Germany then possessed. It had 23 operational on 22 February, plus seven newly completed boats that were under sea trials. The need to refit, repair and resupply boats meant that there was an average of 5.6 and a maximum of 12 boats at sea on any one day between March and May 1915.[6]

The RN, like all navies lacked effective anti-submarine countermeasures in March 1915. Three U-boats were lost that month: U8 was trapped in nets and scuttled whilst under gunfire from the destroyers HMS Gurkha and Maori on 4 March; U12 was rammed by the destroyer HMS Ariel on 10 March; and U29 was being rammed by the battleship HMS Dreadnought on 18 March.

U29 remains the only submarine to have ever been sunk by a battleship. She was lost with all hands, including her captain, Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen. He had previously captained U9 when she sank three British cruisers on 22 September 1914 and another on 15 October.

The Admiralty issued orders that merchant ships that sighted a surfaced U-boat should head towards it in order to force it to dive. On 28 March Captain Charles Fryatt of the Great Eastern Railway packet Brussels escaped from U33 by this tactic.

The Brussels was captured by German destroyers on the night of 22-23 June 1916 and taken into Zeebrugge. Fryatt was tried as a franc-tireur on the basis that he was a civilian who had attempted to attack the German armed forces. He was executed on 27 July 1916, yet another German action that handed the Allies a propaganda victory for little or no military advantage. It was heavily criticised by the neutral Press: The New York Times called it ‘a deliberate murder.’[7]

British naval operations continued throughout the world, including blockading Germany, supplying the Western Front, patrolling and minesweeping.

On 24 March aircraft of the Royal Naval Air Service attempted to bomb the dockyards at Antwerp, where small U-boats of the UB coastal type were being assembled. Some aircraft had to abort because of technical problems and weather, but two, piloted by Squadron Commander I.T. Courtney and Flight-Lieutenant H. Rosher, bombed the target.[8]

This link names all British Empire sailors and marines who died in March 1915, whether from enemy action, illness or accident. The largest number were killed in the Dardanelles, followed by the crew of HMS Bayano. Most others died in the UK or home waters, but some died in Australia and Canada. Twelve were lost when the trawler Lord Airedale, taken into service as a minesweeper, foundered in a storm off the east coast of England on 18 March. The sea was dangerous, even when not undertaking dangerous war work such as minesweeping.

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 195-200.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 114.

[3] H. Strachan, The First World War: Vol. 1, to Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 519-23.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 281-84.

[5] Ibid. footnote 1, p. 240.

[6] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), p. 7.

[7] Halpern, Naval, p. 296.

[8] 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. ii, pp. 343-44.

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The Sinking of HMS Audacious 27 October 1914

In mid October 1914 the Germans decided to take advantage of a period of dark nights to mine the Grand Fleet’s bases. The minelayer SMS Nautilius, accompanied by the light cruiser SMS Kolberg, left port on 16 October, followed the next day by SMS Berlin, a 17,000 ton Norddeutscher Lloyd line converted into a minelayer. She was commanded by Kapitän Hans Pfundheller.

Nautilus and Kolberg headed for the Firth of Forth, but picked up wireless traffic and observed smoke when about 100 miles from May Island. Assuming wrongly that they had been discovered, they turned for home.

Berlin’s orders were to head for the Firth of Clyde. If possible, she was mine the approaches to Glasgow between Garroch Head and Fairland Head in the Firth. If this was not feasible, she should mine the entrance to the Firth between Pladda and Fairland Head.

The Germans expected that Berlin would have to pass through the British blockade patrols, but in fact they ‘could not have chosen a more favourable moment for the attempt to send a minelayer through the blockade line.’[1]

The threat from U-boats had led to the withdrawal of the Grand Fleet from the North Sea and its cruiser squadrons were to the north west of the Shetlands when she headed northward between the Shetlands and Norway. She then passed between Iceland and the Faeroes, where there were gaps in the blockade line because of a shortage of ships.

Once in the Irish Sea, Berlin picked up wireless traffic that indicated that she was near two British forces. Pfundheller had been told before his ship sailed that the entrance to the Irish Sea was not closely patrolled, but this was clearly wrong. He therefore decided that he could not enter the Firth of Clyde. Instead, he decided to lay his 200 mines north of Tory Island.

Berlin began to lay her mines at 11:35 pm on 22 October, finishing at 00:10 am the next day. She was only 30 miles away from the Grand Fleet at Lough Swilly, but its anti-submarine destroyers patrolled only inside the Lough. She then headed into the North Atlantic before passing between Greenland and Iceland on 30 October.

Pfundheller had been ordered to raid the Iceland fishing fleets, but the weather was too bad for them to be at sea, so he headed north to carry out his third task, the raiding of trade between Archangel and Britain. However, bad weather made commerce raiding impossible because boats could not be lowered in order to inspect merchant ships.

By 15 November, Berlin was short of coal, her boilers were defective and a bright moon made it likely that the British would find her. Pfundheller’s orders permitted him to allow his ship to be interned in a neutral port if there was no other practicable option open to him. At 9 am on 15 November, Berlin entered Trondheim in Norway. She was interned 24 hours later.

Despite this inauspicious end, Berlin’s cruise proved to be very successful. At 2:15 pm on 26 October, the merchantman Manchester Commerce struck one of her mines and sunk. The 30 survivors of her 44 man crew were picked up by the trawler City of London at 2:30 am on 27 October.

The trawler then made for Carnlough on the north east coast of Ireland to report the sinking. Her time of arrival is unknown, but was probably just after 10 am, since she was capable of 8 knots and had a 60 mile journey. The news was transmitted by the local police at 10:46 am to a coastguard war signal station and reached the Admiralty at 11:35 am. However, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the commander of the Grand Fleet, did not receive it until 2 pm.[2]

At 5 pm on 26 October the eight Orion and King George V class dreadnoughts of the 5th Battle Squadron, commanded by Vice Admiral Sir George Warrender, left Lough Swilly to carry out practice firing. At 8:50 am HMS Audacious struck a mine, about a mile from where the Manchester Commerce had been sunk. It was at first assumed that she had been torpedoed by a U-boat, so the other battleships followed the orders issued after U9 had sunk three British cruisers in the Broad Fourteens and moved away. At 11:09 am, the dreadnought HMS Monarch reported that she had sighted a U-boat, although none were in the area. The light cruiser HMS Liverpool stayed with Audacious.

Audacious had struck one of Berlin’s mines, which had flooded her port engine room, causing the port engine to stop, though she was able to make about 9 knots for Lough Swilly using the starboard one. However, the very rough sea meant she was at risk of capsizing. Berlin’s mines had been set deep, meaning that they would not be hit by small ships, but would strike a battleship where its underwater protection was weakest.

Jellicoe sent all available destroyers and tugs, the collier Thornhill, the supply ship Assistance and the fleet messenger Cambria to give assistance. Vice Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly was on Cambria to direct operations. Jellicoe could not risk a larger ship whilst it was believed that Audacious had been torpedoed. However, the White Star liner Olympic, captained by Commodore Herbert Haddock RNR arrived in response to the distress signal.

All but 250 of Audacious’ crew were taken off, although the bad sea, exacerbated by the rolling of Audacious, made boat work very difficult.

At 2 pm, the destroyer HMS Fury, captained by Lieutenant-Commander Charles Sumner, managed to take a low line from Olympic to Audacious. However, it was impossible to steer the dreadnought and the line parted. Fury tried to pass tow lines from Liverpool and Thornhill, but was unsuccessful.

By 5 pm it was getting dark, and Audacious was rolling heavily. Her crew was reduced to a small party of volunteers, but at 6 pm it was decided to abandon her for the night because the risk of her capsizing was so high. By then, Jellicoe had learnt of the fate of the Manchester Commerce, so realised that Audacious had been mined, not torpedoed. He sent the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Exmouth to take her in tow. However, Audacious had been abandoned by the time that Exmouth arrived.

At 9 pm, Audacious capsized and blew up. The only casualty was Petty Officer William Burgess of HMS Liverpool, who was killed by a large amour plate that was thrown 800 yards to his ship.

The British decided not to announce the loss of Audacious, something described by the Official History as being ‘so contrary to all British tradition and sentiment, that the Admiralty would not decide without reference to the Cabinet.’[3]

Jellicoe requested that the loss be kept quiet because of the poor military situation. Operations on the Belgian coast were at a crisis point, and it was possible that the German fleet might attack British warships supporting land forces. The Cabinet was more concerned with the impact on the Ottoman Empire, which the Allies still hoped to keep neutral.

It was accepted that the news could be kept quiet for only a week to 10 days. American passengers on board the Olympic had seen Audacious in severe difficulties and heard her explode. Some had taken photos of her listing and low in the water. Her departure was delayed for three days, but US newspapers reported the loss of Audacious In the event, the Germans did not learn the news until 19 November.

Britain did not acknowledge the loss of Audacious until after the war, even though all neutral countries realised that she had been sunk. She was even kept in official lists of ships’ movements and activities. This led many neutrals to distrust British government statements, which would ‘have disastrous repercussions after the Battle of Jutland in 1916.’[4]

Audacious was the first dreadnought to be sunk and the only British dreadnought battleship to be sunk by enemy action in WWI, although one was later lost to an accidental explosion and three British battlecruisers were sunk at Jutland in 1916.

 

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xi, Home Waters part ii, September and October 1914. p. 126.

[2] Ibid. pp. 129-31 and notes 1-7 on p. 130.

[3] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 241.

[4] J. Goldrick, The King’s Ships Were at Sea: The War in the North Sea, August 1914-February 1915 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), p. 142.

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