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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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German Attack on Dover Straits, 26-27 October 1916

The English Channel, especially the Dover Straits at its eastern end, was one of the main Allied shipping routes during the First World War. It saw a variety of different types of traffic: supplies and troop movements for the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders; shipping heading for London, Britain’s biggest port; coastal shipping sailing between British ports; and coal shipments from Britain to France to replace supplies from French coalfields now occupied by the Germans. About 80-100 merchant ships passed through the Dover Straits each day.

German U-boat minelayers of the UC type were very active in minelaying in this area. The British employed trawlers as minesweepers. In the second half of 1916 an average of just under six merchant ships  per month were sunk or damaged by mines in British waters. This rose to 10 in the first half of 1917 but then fell back to four in the second half of 1917. On average 178 mines a month were swept in 1916, rising to 355 in 1917.[1]

An anti-submarine net barrage was also laid across the Straits, which was maintained by drifters, but in practice tides and current made the task of such small craft difficult even in good weather. They were at best armed with a 6 pounder gun and sometimes with just a machine gun, requiring them to be protected by destroyers and armed auxiliary steamers.[2]

On 24 October 1916 Vice Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, commanding the Dover Patrol, was warned that the German naval forces in Flanders had been reinforced by a flotilla of destroyers. He thought it unlikely that the Germans would attack the Straits because no troops were transported at night but that an attack on shipping in the Downs, an area off the north east coast of Kent, was likely.

He had defending Dunkirk the flotilla leader HMS Swift (2,170 tons, four 4 inch guns, two 18 inch torpedo tubes, 35 knots), four modern L class destroyers (966-1010 tons, three 4 inch guns, one .303 inch MG, four 21 inch torpedo tubes, 29 knots) on loan from the Harwich Force and four old destroyers, called 30 knotters because of their design speed (310-70 tons, one 12 pounder (76mm) and five 12 pounder (57mm) guns, two 18 inch torpedo tubes, 30 knots).

Four more L class destroyers were at Deal, defending the Downs.

Six Tribal class destroyers (855-1090 tons, two 4 inch or five 12 pounder (76mm) guns, two 18 torpedo tubes, 33 knots), two 30 knotters, two old torpedo boats (specifications varied but would have been small than the 30 knotters) and a P boat (613 tons, one 4 inch and one 2 pounder (40mm) AA guns, one 14 inch torpedo tubes, 20 knots) were at Dover.

The Tribals were assigned to the Dover Patrol because of their poor endurance. The P or Patrol boats were a wartime design with a low freeboard, a sharp turning circle and a deliberate resemblance to submarines, which it was hoped would allow them to close on U-boats and sink them by gunfire or ramming.

The wide range of displacements was a consequence of a British policy of giving different shipyards some discretion over ship design, provided that various criteria for speed, range, protection, armament etc were met.[3]

That night 24 German destroyers put to sea, commanded by Kapitän Andreas Michelsen, commodore of the High Seas Fleet’s flotillas.  They were divided into two flotillas, each split into two half flotillas. The 3rd Flotilla consisted of the 5th (seven ships) and 6th Half Flotillas (six ships), all armed with three 105mm (4.1 inch) guns and. The 9th Flotilla was made up of the 17th (six ships) and the 18th Half Flotillas (5 ships), armed with either three 105mm guns or three 88mm (3.45 inch) guns. All had six 50 cm (19.7 inch) torpedo tubes. They displaced 800-960 tons and were capable of 33.5-34 knots. The Germans called them High Seas Torpedo Boats but they are referred to as destroyers here as they were comparable to British destroyers.[4]

The 9th Flotilla was to attack the transport line between Dover and Calais and the 3rd the drifters and the barrage. Each Half Flotilla would have its own area of operation. The 30 knotter HMS Flirt, supporting the drifters, saw but did not identify German destroyers at 2135. The Germans opened fire on the drifters just after 2200. They sank six out of 28 drifters, a trawler and HMS Flirt. The other drifters were able to escape into the darkness, though three were badly damaged.[5]

The six Tribals at Dover were ordered to put to sea at 2250. Five minutes later the four L class destroyers at Dunkirk received the same instruction. The L class ships in the Downs were supposed to remain where they were but instead headed for Dunkirk because of two signalling errors. Fortunately for the British the Germans did not attack the Downs. The Germans attacked the transport line between 2300 and 2330 but sank only one of the 57 ships crossing the Channel, the transport Queen, whose crew were first allowed to board her lifeboats.[6]

The Tribals failed to concentrate but came into contact with the 9th Flotilla as it withdrew from its attack on the transport line. HMS Nubian came under heavy fire at close range. She attempted to ram the last German torpedo boat but was instead torpedoed in the bow. She was put out of action and had to be towed back to port.

HMS Amazon, which had become detached from the other Tribals, encountered some destroyers that he captain assumed were L class ships. They were Germans., who opened fire, putting her after gun and two boilers out of action. They also damaged a trawler.

HMS Viking, Mohawk and Tartar engaged the Germans but a shell hit Mohawk and jammed her helm. Tartar followed her and Viking had to change course to avoid a collision, with the result that contact was lost. The Dunkirk destroyers saw gun flashes but were too far away to get into action. This action showed that the barrage had limited effect, as 14 British destroyers had crossed it without being damaged.[7]

Nubian was too badly damaged to be repaired. On 8 November her sister ship HMS Zulu had her stern blown off by a mine. The two ships were put together by Chatham Dockyard and the combined ship was commissioned as HMS Zubian on 7 June 1917. She was credited with sinking the U-boat UC50 on 7 January 1918.[8]

The Germans sunk six drifters, a trawler, an empty transport ship and a torpedo boat and damaged two destroyers and several auxiliaries, suffering only minor damage to SMS 91 in return. British human losses were 45 dead, four wounded and 10 captured. The dead included all the crew of Flirt, except for a boat party that had been lowered just before she was sunk to pick up survivors from the drifters. The German success was helped by their previous inactivity, which made the British complacent.[9]

 

[1] M. Faulkner, A. D. Lambert, The Great War at Sea: A Naval Atlas 1914-1919, p. 105.

[2] L. Sondhaus, German Submarine Warfare in World War I: The Onset of Total War at Sea. Kindle Edition, locations 1902-50.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vi, The Dover Patrol i. pp. 69-70; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, pp. 71-72, 76, 96.

[4] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. iv, p. 52 and footnote 2; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 168-69.

[5] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, pp. 55-57; Faulkner, Lambert, Great, p. 113; M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front : The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918, p. 77.

[6] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, pp. 58-62; Faulkner, Lambert, Great, p. 113.

[7] Naval Staff vol. vi. p. 82.

[8] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 72.

[9] Karau, Naval, pp. 77, 79.

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