Tag Archives: First World War

U-boats, the Zimmermann Telegram and the US Entry into the War

On 22 December 1916 Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, the Chief of the Admiralty Staff of the Imperial German Navy, sent Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the Chief of the General Staff, the last of a series of memos advocating that Germany adopt unrestricted submarine warfare.[1] Unrestricted submarine warfare meant sinking merchant ships without warning. German U-boats were then surfacing in order to check the nationality of merchant ships before opening fire. This was done largely to avoid the problems that would ensue if US citizens were killed.[2]

Holtzendorff argued that Germany had to win the war by autumn 1917 or else it would finish with the exhaustion of all the belligerents, which would mean disaster for Germany. The Italian and French economies had been so weakened by the war that they were able to continue to fight only with British support. The Germans had to break the British economy in order to win the war, and the way to do this was to attack the British merchant fleet. Extra demands were being placed on it because Britain imported much of its food and the 1916 global grain harvest had been poor. This meant that Britain would have to replace imports from Canada and the USA with grain from Argentina, India and especially Australia.[3]

Holtzendorff thought that a destruction of 600,000 tons of merchant shipping per month would reduce British trade ‘by 39% within five months. This would not be bearable’.[4] He admitted that he could not ‘guarantee that a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare’ would force a British surrender within five months.[5] However, acting in accordance with cruiser rules would mean sinking only 400,000 tons per month, reducing British trade by only 18%, which was not enough. Holtzendorff claimed that this was the actual rate achieved over the two previous weeks.[6] The actual losses, shown in the table below, were a little lower.

The British, however, were concerned even at the level of losses of late 1916. In October, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, who replaced Admiral Sir Henry Jackson as First Sea Lord, the professional head of the Royal Navy, in late November, warned the Admiralty that the losses of British and neutral merchant ships might by the summer of 1917 reduce imports of food and other necessities to a level that would force the Allies to accept worse peace terms than were justified by the European military situation. Admiral Sir David Beatty, who succeeded Jellicoe as C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet, said that the danger was ‘jeopardising the fate of the nation and seriously interfering with the successful prosecution of the war.’[7]

Holtzendorff  wanted to avoid war with the USA if possible but argued that the risk of it happening should not stop Germany ‘from making use at the decisive moment of a weapon that promises victory.’[8] He thought that the USA would not be able to replace the lost merchant shipping and that there would be insufficient transports to take US troops to Europe. He expected that the USA would make peace when Britain as it would not be able to do as much damage to Germany as U-boats did to its commerce and would want an early return to economic prosperity.[9]

The decision to launch unrestricted submarine warfare from 1 February 1917 was made at a meeting held on 9 January. Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg, who had until then opposed unrestricted submarine warfare, finally agreed to it, commenting it that it was ‘the last card.’[10]

On 1 February 1917 the Germans had 105 U-boats available, with new construction taking their strength to 129 by 1 June. They had at least 120 for the remainder of 1917 and 124 at the end of the year. [11]

The U-boat campaign was a military success, as shown by the following table:

British tonnage sunk (excludes fishing vessels) World tonnage sunk (includes British and foreign fishing vessels
October 1916 176,248 353,660
November 1916 168,809 311,508
December 1916 182,292 355,139
January  1917 153,666 368,521
February 1917 313,486 540,006
March 1917 353,478 593,841
April 1917 545,282 881,027

Source: C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1920), vol. iii, p. 465.

However, it resulted in US President Woodrow Wilson breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany on 3 February.[12] He, Congress and the US public were not yet ready to enter the war.

On 16 January Arthur Zimmermann, the German Foreign Minister, sent a telegram to Count Bernstorff, the German ambassador in Washington that he was to forward to Heinrich von Eckhardt, the German minister in Mexico City. Von Eckhardt was to offer the Mexican government an alliance if war broke out between Germany and the USA. The Germans would provide financial aid to Mexico, which would regain the territory that it had lost to the USA in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 after a victorious war. The Mexicans were also to attempt to persuade Japan to change sides.[13]

The British had destroyed the German cable communications with the rest of the world early in the war. The Germans, however, had access to two neutral cables to the USA: a Swedish one that they had been allowed to use since early in the war; and a US one that Wilson had allowed them to use when he was attempting to mediate between them and the Allies. Both passed through Britain, which could therefore intercept them. The simplicity of American codes and cyphers enabled the British code breakers of Room 40 to break them. They also had a copy of the German diplomatic code book that was captured when Wilhelm Wassmuss, a German agent in Persia, was forced to flee without his baggage.[14] The British and Russians had captured German naval code books in 1914.

On the morning of 17 January Captain Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall, the Director of Naval Intelligence, was handed a partial translation of the intercepted cable.[15] The code was in a variant of the one captured from Wassmuss and the parts that could not be decoded included details of the terms offered by Germany to Mexico. Showing it to the Americans risked revealing to them that the British were intercepting neutral diplomatic traffic and to the Germans that their diplomatic codes had been broken. Hall, perhaps hoping that the USA might enter the war anyway, sat on the telegram until 5 February, when he showed it to the Foreign Office.

By 10 February British agents had obtained a copy of it from the Mexico City telegraph office. The German legation there used a simpler code than the one used between Berlin and Washington, and the British were able to fully decode it. It could now be passed to the Americans without them realising that the British were intercepting Swedish and US diplomatic cables. The telegram, available online at the Great War Primary Document Archive, read:

Berlin, January 19, 1917

On the first of February we intend to begin submarine warfare unrestricted. In spite of this, it is our intention to endeavor to keep neutral the United States of America.

If this attempt is not successful, we propose an alliance on the following basis with Mexico: That we shall make war together and together make peace. We shall give general financial support, and it is understood that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. The details are left to you for settlement….

You are instructed to inform the President of Mexico of the above in the greatest confidence as soon as it is certain that there will be an outbreak of war with the United States and suggest that the President of Mexico, on his own initiative, should communicate with Japan suggesting adherence at once to this plan; at the same time, offer to mediate between Germany and Japan.

Please call to the attention of the President of Mexico that the employment of ruthless submarine warfare now promises to compel England to make peace in a few months.

(Secretary of State)

Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, handed it to Walter Page, the US ambassador to London on 23 February. It was published in the USA on 1 March. A minority of Americans argued that it was a forgery. Hall took steps to prove to that it was genuine, but these proved unnecessary when Zimmermann admitted on 3 March that he had sent it.[16]

Wilson had already decided to ask Congress for permission to arm US merchant ships, which would have almost certainly have resulted in an incident that led to war. The measure was passed overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives but was filibustered out of the Senate. Wilson decided to go ahead anyway. On 20 March, after a number of US merchant ships were sunk by U-boats, he obtained the unanimous consent of his cabinet for a declaration of war. [17] On 2 April the House of Representatives voted 373 to 50 in favour of war, with the formal declaration coming on 6 April.[18]

The Germans thought that they would have starved Britain into surrender before the USA, which in April 1917 had an army of 213,557 men and 55 aircraft, 51 of them obsolete, could make a decisive difference. However, by the end of the war 1.97 million US troops had been sent to the Western Front, with no troopships being sunk on the way from the USA to Europe. By the summer of 1918 the USA was sending 536,000 tons of supplies per month to France, with a troop or cargo ship leaving every five hours. The USN committed 68 destroyers and 121 submarine chasers to the battle against the U-boats.[19]

This link, to a new exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery marking the 100th anniversary of American involvement in World War I, was kindly pointed out to me by G.P. Cox, writer of the excellent Pacific Paratrooper blog.


[1] D. Steffen, ‘The Holtzendorff Memorandum of 22 December 1916 and Germany’s Declaration of Unrestricted U-Boat Warfare’, Journal of Military History 68, no. 1 (2004), pp. 215-16.

[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). vol. iv, p. 51.

[3] Steffen, ‘Holtzendorff’, pp. 219-20.

[4] Ibid., p. 221. This and subsequent quotations are from Holtzendorff’s memo, which is reproduced in Steffen’s paper.

[5] Ibid., pp. 220-21.

[6] Ibid., p. 222.

[7] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iv, pp. 324-25.

[8] Steffen, ‘Holtzendorff’, p. 222.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Marder, From. vol. iv, p. 51.

[11] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 338-39.

[12] Ibid., p. 340.

[13] D. Stevenson, 1914-1918: The History of the First World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004), p. 313.

[14] C. M. Andrew, Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (London: Heinemann, 1985), pp. 107-8.

[15] Hall was promoted Rear Admiral on 27 April 1917. His nickname resulted from a chronic facial twitch.

[16] Andrew, Secret, pp. 110-13.

[17] Stevenson, 1914-1918, p. 317.

[18] H. H. Herwig, The First World War : Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918 (London: Arnold, 1997), p. 320.

[19] Ibid.


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Archibald Smith VC and the SS Otaki’s fight with SMS Möwe

At 2:30 pm on 10 March 1917 the 9,575 ton British merchant ship SS Otaki encountered the German raider SMS Möwe about 350 miles east of St Miguel in the Azores. Otaki was heading from London to New York in ballast. She carried a crew of 71 and was armed with a single 4.7 inch gun on her stern.[1]

Möwe was a 4,790 ton merchant ship, designed to carry bananas from the Cameroons to Germany and originally called Pungo. She was converted into an armed raider and captained by Korvettenkapitän Graf Nikolaus zu Dohna-Schloden.[2]

Early in the war the Germans used large passenger liners such as the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, Cap Trafalgar, Kronprinz Wilhelm and Prinz Eitel Friedrich. They were hampered by their heavy coal consumption, which made it difficult for them to operate effectively in distant waters. Leutnant Theodor Wolff therefore came up with the idea of using a cargo steamer that had a low coal consumption and a large cargo capacity as an armed raider. The Möwe displaced about 5,000 tons, had a top speed of 14 knots and was armed with four 5.9 inch gins, one 4.1 inch and two 19.7 inch torpedo tubes. She also carried 500 mines, the laying of which was to be her first and main task.[3]

During her first cruise, which lasted from 29 December 1915 to 5 March 1916, she captured 57,776 tons of shipping. She also laid a mine that sank the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS King Edward VII in early January 1916. Her second cruise began on 22 November 1916.[4]

The two ships had similar top speeds and there was a heavy swell, but great exertions by her stokers enabled the Möwe to close the range to a mile and a half two hours after first sighting the Otaki. When she raised her naval ensign and fired a warning shot the British captain, 38 year old Aberdonian Archibald Bisset Smith, ordered his gun, which was manned by Royal Navy seamen, to fire back. His ship was heavily outgunned, although only two of the German’s four 5.9 inch guns could bear.[5]

The Möwe fired 35 5.9 inch and 34 4.1 inch shells plus three torpedoes, quickly wrecking the Otaki and forcing Smith to order his crew to abandon ship. The British ship, however, managed to score three hits, flooding a compartment and starting a fire in the coal bunkers. These were divided from the ammunition magazine by a wooden partition and it took great efforts by the Germans to put the fire out. Other German raiders had attacked armed merchant ships, but only the Otaki managed to damage her opponent. This action was fought at very close range: armed merchant ships lacked the rangefinders to score hits at more usual gunnery ranges.[6]

Four men were killed and nine wounded aboard the Otaki and another man drowned when abandoning ship. Chief Officer Ronald McNish, the carpenter and Captain Smith remained on board for half an hour after the rest of the crew abandoned ship. McNish and the carpenter were then forced to abandon the sinking ship. They assumed that Smith would follow them, but he went down with his ship. The Möwe, which had five men killed and 10 wounded in the action, picked up the British survivors.

The Möwe was on her way home at the time of this action, although she made two more captures on the way home.[7] She reached Germany on 22 March 1917, having sunk or captured 124,713 tons of shipping during her second cruise. Her total of 182,489 tons of shipping captured was easily the highest of any German surface raider of the First World War. The most successful warship, SMS Emden, accounted for 82,938 tons and the highest score by any of the passenger liners used as raiders was 60,522 tons by SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm.[8]

Captain Smith was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. As with Captain Frederick Parslow of the Anglo-Californian he had to first be given a posthumous commission as a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve as members of the merchant navy were civilians, so ineligible for the VC. McNish was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and two of the naval gunners, Leading Seaman Alfred Fulwood Worth and Able Seaman Ellis Jackson the Distinguished Service Medal. The carpenter and two apprentices, W. E. Martin and Basil Kilner, who were both killed, were mentioned in despatches.

Smith’s VC citation, from Naval-History.net, is copied below.

Lieutenant Archibald Bisset Smith, R.N.R.

For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of the S.S. “Otaki,” on the 10th March, 1917.

At about 2 30 p m on 10th March, 1917 the S.S. “Otaki,” whose armament consisted of one 4.7 in gun for defensive purposes, sighted the disguised German raider “Moewe,” which was armed with four 5.9 inch, one 4.1 inch and two 22 pdr guns, and two torpedo tubes. The “Moewe” kept the “Otaki” under observation for some time and finally called upon her to stop. This Lieutenant Smith refused to do, and a duel ensued at ranges of 1900-2000 yards, and lasted for about 20 minutes.

During this action, the “Otaki” scored several hits on the “Moewe,” causing considerable damage, and starting a fire, which lasted for three days. She sustained several casualties and received much damage herself, and was heavilv on fire. Lieutenant Smith, therefore, gave orders for the boats to be lowered to allow the crew to be rescued. He remained on the ship himself and went down with her when she sank with the British colours still flying, after what was described in an enemy account as “a duel as gallant as naval history can relate.”

[1] A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, pp. 412-13

[2] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), p. 152.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xxv, ‘Review of German Cruiser Warfare 1914-1918’, pp. 13-14.

[4] Ibid., p. 14.

[5] Bridgland, Sea Killers, p. 198.

[6] Naval Staff vol. xxv, p. 16.

[7] Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, pp. 414-15

[8] Naval Staff vol. xxv, p. 1.


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Britain, Mosul and Oil

My book on Britain’s Quest for Oil: World War I during the WWI and at the subsequent peace conferences will soon be published by Helion. The link below is to a post I wrote for Helion’s blog about Mosul. Great Powers wanted to control it and its oil even then.  WWI was not a war for oil. but it showed the vital need for secure supplies of oil. Mosul was the obvious place to obtain them as it was up for grabs after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and there was little doubt that it contained large oil reserves, though they were not formally discovered until 1927.


Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History

The Execution of Captain Fryatt 27 July 1916

In July 1916 Charles Fryatt, a 43 year old father of six girls and a boy, was employed by the Great Eastern Railway Company as a captain of steamers on the Harwich to Rotterdam route. When the Germans began unrestricted submarine warfare on 18 February 1915 this route became very dangerous because it passed within 35 miles of the German U-boat base at Zeebrugge. War on commerce can be almost as successful by delaying or discouraging merchant ships from sailing as by sinking them. Many neutral vessels were reluctant to sail on this route, putting communications between the United Kingdom and the Netherlands at risk, but the GER steamers kept it open.[1]

On 3 March 1915 Fryatt was captaining the SS Wrexham when she encountered a U-boat. By using deck hands as stokers the Wrexham managed to make 16 knots, 2 knots higher than her official top speed, during a 40 mile chase and evaded the submarine. Fryatt was presented with a watch by the GER as recognition of his efforts.

The British Admiralty issued orders to the masters of merchant ships that they should head straight towards surfaced U-boats. This would force the U-boat to dive, which would enable the merchantman to escape because of the slow speed of submerged submarines.[2]

Fryatt was in command of the SS Brussels on 28 March when she encountered SM U33, captained by Kapitänleutnant Konrad Gansser. He went on to be a successful U-boat captain, sinking over 140,000 tons of shipping, but was yet to score his first kill.

U33 signalled the Brussels to stop. Fryatt, realising that he could not turn and escape, changed course in order to pass U33’s stern. U33 then manoeuvred so as to put herself in a position to torpedo the Brussels. As U33 crossed the Brussels‘ bow, Fryatt made a sharp turn and headed for the U-boat, which dived. Brussels passed 50 yards from U33’s stern with the U-boat 25 feet underwater.[3]

Gansser’s version of events was that ‘the steamer put her helm over, and came at U33 with the manifest intention of ramming us…it was not possible for me  to make sure of striking her with a torpedo…the steamer passed us at a distance of from twenty to thirty metres.’[4] There can be little difference between trying to force a submarine to dive and trying to ram her from the point of view of the submariners.

The Brussels escaped and Fryatt was presented with another commemorative watch, this time by the Admiralty. He continued to command her, escaping several other attacks.

On 22 June 1916 the Brussels left Rotterdam, with orders to collect mail, some of it diplomatic, at the Hook of Holland, before heading for Tilbury. It became obvious that her departure was watched and that she was followed by a steamer without lights. She was then surrounded by German destroyers, boarded and taken into Zeebrugge. Fryatt, who had had the diplomatic mail destroyed, and his first officer Mr Hartnell were held briefly in an internment camp for Allied civilians at Ruhleben in Germany before being sent to Bruges, where Fryatt was interrogated for three weeks. He was allowed occasionally to speak to Hartnell but was not allowed any legal advice.[5]

On 24 July Fryatt was told that he would be tried by court martial. The US Ambassador at Berlin had on 20 July, at the request of the British Foreign Office, approached the German Foreign Office regarding the appointment of a defence counsel for Fryatt. No reply was received until 26 July, when the Ambassador was told that Fryatt would be tried the next day.[6]

The trial consisted of a lawyer, Dr Zäpfel, as President, five officers and a secretary. Its sentence could be appealed against. Fryatt was defended Archibald Hurd’s official history of The Merchant Navy, otherwise very critical of the Germans in this case, says ‘that he strove conscientiously to do his duty.’[7]

The German military strongly objected to resistance from irregular forces, which it termed franc-tireurs (the French for free shooters). These had fought the German in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and the Germans were keen to prevent a repetition. They therefore shot several thousand Belgian and French civilians during the period of mobile warfare. Very few of them had resisted the invader: incidents of friendly fire and resistance from isolated Allied soldiers caused panic amongst soldiers who expected to encounter franc-tireurs.[8]

Fryatt declined to state in his defence that he was acting under Admiralty instructions. He probably would have been acquitted had he done so, since the German objection was to resistance by civilians not operating under military orders. He would not do so because the orders  were given to him confidentially.[9]

After a trial lasting an afternoon Fryatt was found guilty despite Naumann’s protests that the evidence of the two eye witnesses from U33 was contradictory. Gansser submitted a written statement but could not be cross examined because he was serving in the Mediterranean.[10]

Fryatt was told that he would be shot the next day, but the execution was then brought forward to that evening. Hurd suggests that Admiral Ludwig von Schröder, who had ordered the trial, wanted Fryatt dead as quickly as possible in case the German Foreign Office succumbed to US pressure for ‘a fair trial.’[11]

The execution of Fryatt was a propaganda disaster for the Germans: The New York Times called it ‘a deliberate murder’; the Dutch Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant said it would ‘disgust neutrals and arouse fresh hatred and bitterness in Britain’; and Danish and Norwegian reaction was similar.[12]

In April 1919 a German Committee of Inquiry re-examined the case, concluding that only the speed with which Fryatt was executed could be criticised.[13]

The German contention appears to be that they were entitled to sink merchant ships but that merchant ships were not entitled to defend themselves against attack. Even from their own point of view, it is difficult to understand the logic of launching a military operation to capture a man who had caused them some inconvenience over a year before so that they could arraign him before a show trial and execute him.

Fryatt’s family were well treated. His widow’s £250 p.a. pension from the GER was augmented by £100 by the government and a £300 insurance payment was made immediately, without the usual formalities. The Royal Merchant Seaman’s Orphanage offered to educate two of his children. Fryatt’s body was brought home after the war and reburied in All Saint’s Chuch, Upper Dovercourt near Harwich after a ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral. His body was transported in the same railway wagon that brought home the bodies of Edith Cavell, the British nurse executed by the Germans in Belgium, and the British Unknown Warrior. It has recently been restored.

The Germans went to some trouble to kill a brave man with little cause for no result other than a propaganda disaster.



[1] A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, pp. 307-8.

[2] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 36.

[3] Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, pp. 308-9,

[4] Ibid. footnote 1, pp. 310-11.

[5] Ibid., pp. 310-14.

[6] Ibid., p. 314.

[7] Ibid., p. 315.

[8] See J. N. Horne, A. Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 2001). for the full story.

[9] Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, p. 317.

[10] Ibid., pp. 316-19.

[11] Ibid., p. 319.

[12] Ibid., p. 322.

[13] Ibid., pp. 322-23.

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Jutland VCs: Harvey, Bingham, Cornwall and Jones

A previous post dealt with the Battle of Jutland. Four men were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest British gallantry award, for their courage during it, three of them posthumously. Unless otherwise noted, the information below is taken from the biographies on them on the Imperial War Museum’s website, which are linked to the first mention of each man.

The first of these acts of gallantry took place during the early action between the two battlecruiser forces. It was carried out by Major Francis Harvey, who was serving in HMS Lion, flagship of Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Fleet. Marines normally manned one of the gun turrets on British battleships. Harvey was 43 years old and married with one son. Several of his ancestors, including his father, were army or navy officers.

At around 4 pm on 31 May 1916 Lion’s Q turret was struck by an 11 inch shell fired by the German battlecruiser SMS Derfflinger at a range of about 16,500 yards. It caused heavy casualties, tore off most of the turret’s roof and started a fire that spread to the cordite store.[1]

Harvey, badly wounded, ordered that the magazine doors be closed and the magazine flooded. He then sent a marine sergeant, who was wounded but the only man in the turret still able to walk, to the bridge to report on the situation.[2]

On the bridge the ‘bloodstained…hatless…and somewhat dazed’ sergeant first encountered Lieutenant W. S. Chalmers, later the author of an authorised biography of Beatty. He told Chalmers that ‘Q turret has gone sir. All the crew are killed, and we have flooded the magazines.’ Chalmers then looked to see that the turret was wrecked, with ‘thick yellow smoke’ coming from it. Nobody on the bridge had heard the explosion.[3]

The citation for Harvey’s VC was announced in Jellicoe’s despatch dated 23 August 1916 and published in the London Gazette on 15 September 1916: see Naval-History.net. The citation, published in the London Gazette on 15 September 1916, stated that:

Major Francis John William Harvey, R.M.L.I. Recommended for posthumous Victoria Cross. Whilst mortally wounded and almost the only survivor after the explosion of an enemy shell in “Q” gunhouse, with great presence of mind and devotion to duty ordered the magazine to be flooded, thereby saving the ship. He died shortly afterwards.

There is some doubt about who gave the order to flood the magazine, with John Campbell’s detailed analysis of the battle stating that Captain Ernle Chatfield, Lion’s captain, gave the order.[4] Arthur Marder argues that Harvey gave the order first.[5]

It was necessary both to close the magazine door and to flood the magazine to save the ship and her crew from the catastrophic explosions that destroyed three other British battlecruisers at Jutland with few survivors. By Chalmers’s account, those on the bridge did not know what had happened until the marine sergeant, whose name is not recorded in any account consulted for this post, reported to them. Harvey’s courage and presence of mind when mortally wounded saved his ship.

It is a myth that Harvey had both legs blown off . This seems to have started with Sir Julian Corbett’s account in Naval Operations, the British Official History.[6] Marder, however, quotes Lieutenant Colonel F. R. Jones, a marine officer who helped to carried Harvey’s body out of the turret as writing that he ‘was very badly burnt…[but] not dismembered in any way.’[7]

The next VC was awarded to Commander Barry Bingham, the 34 year old son of Lord Clanmorris. He had taken command of the new destroyer HMS Nestor on 30 April, bringing most of the crew of his previous command HMS Hornet with him. Whilst commanding Hornet he was praised for the skilful way in which he helped rescue the crew of the armoured cruiser HMS Argyll, which ran aground on the Bell Rock off Forfarshire in October 1915. Prior to commanding her he had served on the battlecruiser HMS Invincible at the Battles of Helgoland Bight and the Falkland Islands.

At Jutland Bingham commanded the 2nd Division of the 13th Destroyer Flotilla, consisting of his own ship and her sisters HMS Nicator and Nomad.  He was ordered to lead an attack by 12 British destroyers on the German battlecruisers. The five leading ships had moved ahead of the battlecruisers by 4:20. Soon afterwards German torpedo boats appeared, heading towards the British battlecruisers. Their gun armaments were weaker than those of the British destroyers (11 with three 3.45 inch and 4 with four 4.1 inch guns versus 12 with three 4 inch), but there were more of them and they were led by the light cruiser SMS Regensburg (twelve 4.1 inch guns).[8]

Two of the British destroyers did not fire their guns and the supporting British light cruisers played little part in the action. SMS V27 was immobilised by British gunfire and SMS V29 was torpedoed and sunk by HMS Petard. SMS V26 picked up the survivors and sank V27 by gunfire after first firing a torpedo that ran in circles.[9]

The Germans fired 10 torpedoes at the British battlecruisers. They scored no hits but the German Official History says that ‘the enemy’s fire against the German battlecruisers became irregular and at time ceased altogether.’[10]

Bingham’s Nestor and Nicator both fired two torpedoes at the German battlecruisers at a range of 5-6,000 yards: 7,000 yards according to SMS Lützow. The Germans turned and avoided the torpedoes.[11]

Bingham’s two remaining destroyers (Nomad had been immobilised by a boiler hit)  continued to advance, under fire from the battlecruisers’ secondary guns, Regensburg and four destroyers. They launched more torpedoes from a range of 3,500 yards, which missed and Bingham withdrew. Petard offered to tow Nestor, which was hardly able to move, but Bingham refused on the grounds that this would just mean the loss of Petard as well.[12]

Nestor and Nomad both sank with casualties of 6 dead and 80 captured and 8 dead and 72 captured respectively.[13] Bingham was amongst those captured and remained a prisoner of war for the rest of the war. He retired from the RN in 1932 with the rank of Rear Admiral and died in 1939.

Bingham’s  recommendation for the VC was announced in the same Despatch  as Harvey’s.

Commander the Hon. Edward Barry Stewart Bingham, R.N. (prisoner of war). Recommended for Victoria Cross. For the extremely gallant way in which he led his division in their attack, first on enemy destroyers and then on their battlecruisers. He finally sighted the enemy battle-fleet, and, followed by the one remaining destroyer of his division (“Nicator”), with dauntless courage he closed to within 3,000 yards of the enemy in order to attain a favourable position for firing the torpedoes. While making this attack, “Nestor” and “Nicator” were under concentrated fire of the secondary batteries of the High Sea Fleet. “Nestor” was subsequently sunk.

The other two VCs were both earned when Rear Admiral Sir Horace Hood’s 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron came to the aid of Beatty, who was then leading the entire German High Seas Fleet towards the British Grand Fleet 25 miles away. Hood had his two light cruisers five miles ahead of his three battlecruisers and his four destroyers deployed as an anti-submarine screen.[14]

The closest ship to the enemy was the light cruiser HMS Chester. Around 5:30 pm she was investigating gun flashes that could be seen through the mist when four German light cruisers appeared. She was hit 17 times in 20 minutes, with three of her 10 5.5 inch guns being put out of action. She escaped thanks to the skilful manoeuvres of her captain, Captain Robert Lawson, and the appearance of the battlecruisers, which wrecked SMS Wiesbaden and damaged SMS Pillau and Frankfurt.

Chester’s casualties were 35 killed and 42 wounded. One of the dead was 16 year old Boy (1st Class) Jack Cornwall. Many teenagers lied about their ages in order to join the British Army in 1914 and 1915, but the RN allowed 16 year olds to serve at sea. Cornwall had tried to enlist before the war but was then too young. He joined the RN in July 1915 and was posted to the newly commissioned Chester on 1 May 1916 after completing his training.

Cornwall was assigned to Chester’s forward 5.5 inch gun as its sight setter, a role that needed intense concentration and meant that he stood outside the protection offered by the gun’s shield. Chester’s main armament was not housed in enclosed gun turrets but had shields like those on land based artillery.

All the other members of Cornwall’s gun crew were killed early in the action. He was badly injured in the stomach and legs by flying metal shards but stayed at his post. He was still alive when the ship reached the Humber but died in Grimsby Hospital on 2 June 1916.

The citation for Cornwall’s VC, from Naval-History.net, stated that: 

29752 – 15 SEPTEMBER 1916


NAVAL DESPATCH dated 15 September 1916

Admiralty, 15th September, 1916.

The KING (is) pleased to approve the grant of the Victoria Cross to Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell, O.N. J.42563 (died 2nd June, 1916), for the conspicuous act of bravery specified below. Mortally wounded early in the action, Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders, until the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all round him. His age was under sixteen and a half years.

Only two men younger than Cornwall have been awarded the VC:  Drummer Thomas Flinn at Cawnpore in 1857 and Hospital Apprentice Andrew Fitzgibbon at the Taku Forts in 1860. Both were 15 years and 3 months old but Flinn’s exact date of birth is unknown. As both were Irish soldiers, Cornwall is the youngest sailor, the youngest Englishman and the youngest in the twentieth century to receive the VC.

The final Jutland VC was awarded to Commander Loftus Jones, captain of the destroyer HMS Shark. Jones, married with a daughter, was another from a family of naval officers. He had previously commanded the destroyer HMS Linnet, which participated in the sinking of the German minelayer Konign Luise, the first British action of the war, and the Battle of Helgoland Bight. He then took over Shark and was commended for his performance during the German raid on Scarborough.

Jones led the four destroyers in pursuit of the German light cruisers, which were fleeing from Hood’s battlecruisers. They encountered German destroyers that were heading towards the battlecruisers but instead attacked the British destroyers. Shark fired a torpedo at the German cruisers, which missed. She was then badly damaged and left dead in the water. HMS Acasta offered to tow her but, like Bingham, declined as this would have risked the loss of a second destroyer. Shark was left alone for a while after HMS Canterbury appeared and chased away the Germans.[15]

A further attack by German destroyers overwhelmed Shark. Her white ensign was shot away, but Jones ordered it to be raised again. He encouraged his men to keep firing their last gun even after his right leg had been blown off above the knee. When Shark finally sank he was helped onto a life raft, but was too badly wounded to survive. A Danish steamer bound for Hull picked up seven of Shark’s crew, but one died before she reached Hull. The other six were the only survivors. Jones’s body was washed up on the Swedish coast, and he was buried in the churchyard of the village of Fiskebäckskil on 24 June.

Initially Jones was Mentioned in Despatches, but this was upgraded to a Victoria Cross after his widow Margaret sent the Admiralty a report on Shark’s last action that she had compiled after interviewing the six survivors, who were all awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

The citation, from Naval-History.net, stated that:

29972 – 6 MARCH 1917

Battle of Jutland

…… Commander Loftus William Jones, R.N. (killed in action in the course of the Battle of Jutland and posthumously awarded Victoria Cross). On the afternoon of the 31st May, 1916, during the action, Commander Jones in H.M.S. “Shark,” Torpedo Boat Destroyer, led a division of Destroyers to attack the enemy Battle Cruiser Squadron. In the course of this attack a shell hit the “Shark’s” bridge, putting the steering gear out of order, and very shortly afterwards another shell disabled the main engines, leaving the vessel helpless. The Commanding Officer of another Destroyer, seeing the “Shark’s” plight, came between her and the enemy and offered assistance, but was warned by Commander Jones not to run the risk of being almost certainly sunk in trying to help him. Commander Jones, though wounded in the leg, went aft to help connect and man the after wheel. Meanwhile the forecastle gun with its crew had been blown away, and the same fate soon afterwards befell the after gun and crew. Commander Jones then went to the midship and only remaining gun, and personally assisted in keeping it in action. All this, time the “Shark” was subjected to very heavy fire from enemy light cruisers and destroyers at short range. The gun’s crew of the midship gun was reduced to three, of whom an Able Seaman was soon badly wounded in the leg. A few minutes later Commander Jones was hit by a shell, which took off his leg above the knee, but he continued to give orders to his gun’s crew, while a Chief Stoker improvised a tourniquet round his thigh. Noticing that the Ensign was not properly hoisted, he gave orders for another to be hoisted. Soon afterwards, seeing that the ship could not survive much longer, and as a German Destroyer was closing, he gave orders for the surviving members of the crew to put on lifebelts. Almost immediately after this order had been given, the “Shark” was struck by a torpedo and sank. Commander Jones was unfortunately not amongst the few survivors from the “Shark,” who were picked up by a neutral vessel in the night.

The following awards have also been made to the survivors of H.M.S. “Shark” for their services during the action:

To receive the Distinguished Service Medal:

Sto. P.O. Charles Filleul, O.N.292779 (Po.).

A.B. Charles Cleeberg Hope, O.N.238376 (Po.).

A.B. Charles Herbert Smith, O.N.J.13416 (Po.).

A.B. Joseph Owen Glendower Howell, O.N.230192 (Po.).

Sto., 1st Cl., Thomas Wilton Swan, O.N.K.26567 (Po.).

P.O. William Charles Richard Griffin, O.N. 201404 (Po.).

(The award to Petty Officer Griffin has already been gazetted.)

All four Jutland VCs are currently on public display: Bingham’s is in the North Down Museum in his hometown of Bangor; Northern Island; Harvey’s in the Royal Marines Museum in Portsmouth; and Cornwall’s and Jones’s in the Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum; the former is owned by the IWM and the latter by Lord Ashcroft, who possesses world’s largest collection of VCs.


[1] N. J. M. Campbell, Jutland: An Analysis of the Fighting (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1986), pp. 64-65.

[2] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), pp. 592-93.

[3] W. S. Chalmers, ed. The Life and Letters of David, Earl Beatty (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1951), pp. 231-32.

[4] Campbell, Jutland, p. 66.

[5] 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. iii, p. 66.

[6] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 336, note 1.

[7] Marder, From. vol. iii, p. 66, note 41.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 338; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 76-79, 161, 168-70.

[9] Campbell, Jutland, p. 50.

[10] Quoted in V. E. Tarrant, Jutland: The German Perspective: A New View of the Great Battle, 31 May 1916 (London: Arms and Armour, 1995), p. 93.

[11] Campbell, Jutland, p. 51.

[12] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, pp. 339-40.

[13] Ibid. Appendix F, p. 438,

[14] Ibid., p. 352.

[15] Ibid., pp. 354-55.

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The Battle of Jutland 31 May – 2 June 1916


On 25 April 1916, whilst returning from the Lowestoft Raid, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, Commander-in-Chief of the German High Seas Fleet (HSF), learnt that U-boats were to conduct commerce warfare in line with prize law regulations until further notice. This decision was made after the USA threatened to cut off diplomatic relations with Germany following the sinking of the SS Sussex with the loss of 50 civilian lives, some of them American. This severely reduced the effectiveness  of U-boats against merchant ships, Scheer decided that it would be better to employ his long range U-boats in co-operation with his surface fleet against enemy warships.[1]

A raid by battlecruisers on Sunderland in the north east of England, supported by battleships. was planned for 17 May but had to be postponed for six days because some battleships developed condenser problems. It was expected that Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet (GF) would respond, so U-boats were positioned to ambush them. Ten U-boats were to patrol the North Sea from 17 to 22 May. On 23 May two would position themselves off the Pentland Firth, on the Grand Fleet’s route from its base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands into the North Sea, and eight off the Firth of Forth to intercept Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Fleet (BCF) as it left Rosyth. Another U-boat would force her way into the Firth of Forth, close to Rosyth, one would reconnoitre Sunderland and two would watch the Humber, where a neutral merchantman had told the Germans, wrongly, that a large British force, including battleships, was located. Three more boats would lay mines in the Firth of Forth, the Moray Firth and west of the Orkneys.[2]

The operation had to be postponed because repairs to the battlecruiser SMS Seydlitz, damaged by a mine in the Lowestoft Raid, took longer than expected. Technical problems with two U-boats meant that there were only eight off the Firth of Forth and the plan to send another into the Firth had to be abandoned. A coded message was sent to the U-boats on 30 May, two days before they were due to return home, informing them that the HSF was about to put to sea.[3]

The initial plan to attack Sunderland was abandoned on 30 May because high winds made airship reconnaissance, which Scheer needed to guard his northern flank, impossible. It was replaced by a sweep in the Skagerrak, the water between southern Norway and northern Denmark, apparently aimed at the British cruisers and merchant ships that were frequently seen there. Cruisers and torpedo boats could guard the exposed flank since the HSF would not be going so far from its bases.[4]

The Fleets

The GF was far bigger than the HSF.  The British had 28 dreadnoughts, nine battlecruisers, eight armoured cruisers, 26 light cruisers, 78 destroyers, a minelayer and a seaplane carrier against 16 dreadnoughts, five battlecruisers, six pre-dreadnoughts, 11 light cruisers and 61 torpedo boats (equivalent to British destroyers). The full order of battle is listed in Wikipedia, with links to details of ships and biographies of senior officers.

Jellicoe thought that the odds were not as strongly in his favour as was the case. The British always assumed that the Germans  would come out when at full strength, whilst some British ships would always be under refit or repair. The newly commissioned dreadnought HMS Royal Sovereign was still working up and the dreadnoughts HMS Queen Elizabeth and Emperor of India, the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, two cruisers and 17 destroyers were in the dockyard. However, the dreadnought SMS König was also in the dockyard and the new dreadnought SMS Baden, the first German ship with 15 inch guns, was still working up.[5]

The British thought that these ships and the incomplete battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg were with the HSF, whilst Jellicoe feared, wrongly, that the Germans had completed the Greek battleship Salamis, building in a German yard at the outbreak of war, for themselves.[6]

The six German pre-dreadnoughts were old and poorly armed ships that slowed the HSF to 18 knots, 3 knots slower than the GF.[7] Overall, the British had a big advantage in firepower:

British German
Battleships Battlecruisers Total Battleships Battlecruisers Total
15″ guns 48 48
14″ guns 10 10
13.5″ guns 110 32 142 128 128
12″ guns 104 40 144 72 16 88
11″ guns 28 28
Total heavy guns 272 72 344 200 44 244
Broadside (lbs) 332,360 68,900 401,260 134,216 33,104 167,320
21″ torpedoes 382
19.7″ torpedoes 362
18″ torpedoes 75
17.7″ torpedoes 107
Total torpedoes 457 469

Source: Marder, A. J., From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919. 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70), vol. ii, p. 438.

The number of guns is the total carried, but the broadsides exclude guns that could not bear on both sides: British 12  12 inch and German 16 12 inch and 16 11 inch.[8]

These numbers do not tell the full story. A warship is a trade off between speed, firepower and protection. The British put protection bottom of the list, the Germans top, as the following figures show.

The first number in the second column is the number built and the second the number at Jutland. As well as those listed above as unavailable, SMS Goeben of the Moltke class had been transferred to the Ottoman Navy, HMS Dreadnought was no longer assigned to the GF, HMS Audacious of the King George V class was sunk by a mine in 1914 and a Bayern and two Royal Sovereigns were still building. the last three British battleships listed were vessels under construction for foreign navies in British yards at the start of the war that were requisitioned for the RN.


Class Number Displacement Speed (kts) Belt (in) Main armament


1/0 17,900 21 11 10 x 12 inch
Bellorophon 3/3 18,800 21 10 10 x 12 inch
St Vincent 3/3 19,560 21 10 10 x 12 inch
Neptune 1/1 19,680 21 10 10 x 12 inch
Colossus 2/2 20,225 21 11 10 x 12 inch
Orion 4/4 22,200 21 12 10 x 13.5 inch
King George V 4/3 23,200 21 12 10 x 13.5 inch
Iron Duke 4/4 25,820 21 12 10 x 13.5 inch
Queen Elizabeth 5/4 27,500 25 13 8 x 15 inch
Royal Sovereign 5/2 25,750 21 13 8 x 15 inch
Canada 1/1 28,600 23 9 10 x 14 inch
Agincourt 1/1 27,500 22 9 14 x 12 inch
Erin 1/1 22,780 21 12 10 x 13.5 inch


4/4 18,569 20 11.75 12 x 11 inch
Helgoland 4/4 22,437 21 11.75 12 x 12 inch
Kaiser 5/4 24,333 21 13.75 10 x 12 inch
Konig 4/4 25,391 21 13.75 10 x 12 inch
Bayern 2/0 28,061 22 13.75 8 x 15 inch


Class Number Displacement Speed (kts) Belt (in) Main armament


3/3 17,250 25 6 8 x 12 inch
Indefatigable 3/2 18,500 25 6 8 x 12 inch
Lion 3/3 26270-27,300 27-28 9 8 x 13.5 inch
Tiger 1/1 26,270 28 9 8 x 13.5 inch

Von der Tann

1/1 19,064 25 10 8 x 11 inch
Moltke 2/1 22,616 26 10.5 10 x 11 inch
Seydlitz 1/1 23,707 26 11.75 8 x 12 inch
Derfflinger 3/2 26,180-26,513 26 11.75 8 x 12 inch

Source: Tarrant, V. E., Jutland: The German Perspective (London: Arms & Armour Press, 1995), pp. 255-57.

HMS Queen Mary of the Lion class and SMS Lützow and the incomplete SMS Hindenburg of the Derfflinger class were a little bigger and a knot faster than their sisters.

The speed of a fleet is that of the slowest vessel, so the GF was capable of 21 knots versus 18 for the HSF because of its slow pre-dreadnoughts. The British BCF and the battlecruisers of the 1 German Scouting Group (1SG) could both make 25 knots. The British had a gunnery advantage in both cases but the Germans, especially their battlecruisers were better armoured.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The British speed advantage may have been even greater than the official speeds of the ships. Welsh steam coal was superior to German coal as a fuel for ships and poor coal sometimes restricted the speed of German warships.[9]

The German ships advantage in protection was more than the tables above suggest because their ships were divided into a much larger number of water tight compartments with strong bulkheads than British ones, allowing them to take far more punishment before foundering. This meant that German sailors had more cramped living conditions than British ones, which was considered acceptable because their ships were designed for shorter range operations.[10] It is, however, a myth that the sailors lived ashore in barracks when their ships were in port. Some U-boat and destroyer crews based in Flanders did so but not the men of the HSF based in Germany.[11]

The British firepower advantage was negated to a large extent by the inferiority of their armour piercing (AP) shells. The long range at which Jutland was mostly fought meant that shells struck their target’s side armour at an oblique angle. British fuses burst their shells on impact if it was at an oblique angle. Even when British AP shells did not hit at an oblique angle, the over sensitivity of the lyddite with which they were filled caused them to explode on impact instead of penetrating the enemy’s armour. British shell design and production was the responsibility of the Board of Ordnance, which was part of the War Office, not the Admiralty. Jellicoe had requested realistic trials when he was Third Sea Lord, but the issue was allowed to drop when he returned to sea in December 1910. The superior German AP shells were filled with trotyl (TNT).[12]

The German rangefinders were superior to British ones. Their ladder method of finding the range enabled them to score hits more quickly than the British bracket system. The British waited to see if a salvo had hit before correcting the next one. The Germans fired three quick salvos several hundred yards apart in order to find where the enemy was within the ladder. All British gunnery officers at Jutland thought that the German gunnery was better than the British early in the battle but then deteriorated. This may be because the visibility favoured the Germans early on and the British later. The German stereoscopic rangefinders were excellent but hard to use. Their operators had to have eyesight that was not only excellent but identical in both eyes, whereas anybody could be trained to use a British rangefinder. One theory is that the concentration needed to use a German rangefinder might result in the operator’s performance declining under the stress and strain of battle. The Germans had better searchlights and binoculars, which gave them an advantage at night.[13]

The British, particularly the BCF, had poor flash protection and ammunition handing procedures. An emphasis on rate of fire led to magazine doors  being left open and to many charges being removed from their magazine cases. A shell bursting in a turret could then cause a flash that would travel down the hoist to the magazine. This was exacerbated by the violent way in which British charges would catch fire.[14]

SMS Seydlitz was saved from a magazine explosion at the Battle of Dogger Bank when her executive officer ordered two magazines to be flooded. A German seaman captured in 1918, who had been on Seydlitz at Dogger Bank, told his British interrogators that extra doors had been added to her hoists and the number of charges taken out of the magazine reduced after Dogger Bank.[15]

John Campbell argues in his detailed analysis of Jutland that Seydlitz would have blown up at Dogger Bank had she had British charges.[16]

The British had had a warning about their poor anti-flash protection at the Battle of the Falklands in 1914. The armoured cruiser HMS Kent would probably have blown up had Sergeant Charles Mayes RMLI not put out a fire that threatened a magazine. The Admiralty gave him the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal but did not change the RN’s ammunition handing procedures.

Ironically, the one battlecruiser on which ammunition handling procedures were improved was Beatty’s flagship HMS Lion. Alexander Grant, her newly appointed Chief Gunner wrote in his unpublished memoirs, Through the Hawse Pipe, that the Gunnery Officer and Captain accepted his suggestion of:

‘drastic alterations in the supply of cordite. These were (1) One magazine to be in use only during action. (2) Not more than one full charge to be in handling room. (3) during any lull in the demand for charges the magazine door to be closed and watertight clips put on. (4) On no account should the magazines be flooded except on receipt of an order from a responsible officer.’

Click here for the full extract. A Chief Gunner was a warrant officer promoted from the ranks. Through the hawse pipe is an old RN phrase referring to an officer who had started his career in the lower deck.

Another potential British weakness was Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet Battle Tactics. They discouraged the use of initiative by the commanders of battleship divisions: the GF was divided into five battle squadrons, the first four of which each consisted of two divisions of four battleships, with the fifth containing the five fast battleship of the Queen Elizabeth class.

Pre-Battle Manoeuvres

The first German ships left port at 1:00 am on 31 May. The GF had sailed from Scapa Flow at 10:30 pm the night before as the British were aware that the Germans were planning a major operation.[17]

On the morning of 31 May the Admiralty’s Director of the Operations Division, Rear Admiral Thomas Jackson, visited its code-breakers in Room 40. He was told that it was in Wilhelmshaven, where it always was. It was used by Scheer when his flagship was in port, but he used another call sign when at sea, with DK then being transferred to a shore station in Wilhelmshaven. Jackson did not inquire further, but at 12:30 pm sent a signal to Jellicoe informing him that Scheer was at Wilhelmshaven. The GF consequently headed for the rendezvous with the BCF at a slower speed in order to conserve fuel.[18]

The Battlecruiser Action 1: The Run to the South

At 2:20 pm HMS Galatea, one of the BCF’s light cruisers, hoisted the signal ‘Enemy in sight.’ Both the BCF and the SG had sent ships to investigate a Dutch merchant ship.[19]

The BCF normally consisted of three squadrons each of three battlecruisers. However, the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron had been transferred to Rosyth, where there was more room to conduct gunnery practice, and replaced by the Rear Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas’s 5th Battle Squadron. With the battlecruiser HMAS Australia and the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth unavailable, Beatty had five battlecruisers and four battleships against Admiral Franz Hipper’s five battlecruisers. Both also had light cruisers and destroyers with them.

Beatty headed towards the enemy, which he at first thought comprised only light cruisers, but the 5th Battle Squadron did not immediately follow. The problem appears to have been that Beatty led the BCF on a follow me basis, which was more appropriate for his force than for the GF. Evan-Thomas, who had not been given a copy of the orders under which the BCF operated, was used to Jellicoe’s more regimented process and did not initially react to Beatty’s move.[20]

The BCF included a seaplane carrier, HMS Engadine, but she launched only one of her four seaplanes, crewed by pilot Flight Lieutenant F. J. Rutland and observer Paymaster G. S. Trewin. Low clouds restricted their visibility to only one to four miles.[21]

The GF also included a seaplane carrier, HMS Campania, but signalling errors resulted in her being left in harbour. She could have caught up but Jellicoe, who thought that her maximum speed was 19 knots rather than the actual 21.5 knots and was worried that she would be vulnerable to U-boats, ordered her to stay in port.[22]

The SG opened fire at about 15,000 yards range at 3:48 pm, with the BCF replying seconds later. Beatty thought that the range was 18,000 yards, 500 less than the maximum of his two 12 inch armed ships. The 13.5 inch guns on the others had a range of 23-24,000 yards.[23]

The SG now attempted to lead the BCF onto the HSF, with a high speed chase to the south developing. At 4:00 a hit on Lion’s Q turret might have caused her to blow up had it not been for the measures introduced by Chief Gunner Grant and the orders given by mortally wounded Royal Marine Major Francis Harvey to close the magazine doors and flood the magazines. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.[24] A later post in this series will cover the Jutland VCs.

Three minutes later HMS Indefatigable blew up, with the loss of 1,017 men killed. The two survivors were picked up by the Germans. Just after this SMS Moltke launched four torpedoes, which was followed by false sightings of U-boats by the British.[25]

The 5th Battle Squadron, after firing on German light cruisers, spotted the enemy battlecruisers at 4:05. They had just ceased fire because of the range. Evan-Thomas turned south to conform to Beatty’s course before opening fire at 19,000 yards. His squadron’s fire was more accurate than that of the British battlecruisers, but at such a long range the shells were the enemy at an oblique angle, causing the over sensitive lyddite in them to explode on contact rather than to penetrate. The visibility was now obscured by haze and smoke.[26]

At 4:10 both Beatty and Hipper altered course to close the range and the Germans reopened fire at 4:17. HMS Queen Mary came under fire from both Derfflinger and Seydlitz. The Germans praised her shooting, but at 4:26 she blew up. Only 20 of her men were rescued, 18 by the British, one of whom later died, and two by the Germans. The other 1,266 men on board went down with her.[27]

The next stage of the action was a destroyer action that resulted in the sinking of HMS Nestor and Nomad and SMS V27 and V29. One torpedo hit Seydlitz, but did not do much damage.[28] Nestor’s captain, Commander Edward Bingham was awarded the VC. He was rescued by the Germans, the only one of the four Jutland VC winners to survive the battle.

About 4:30 Commodore William Goodenough’s light cruiser HMS Southampton spotted the HSF. He signalled Beatty by searchlight at 4:33 and Jellicoe and Beatty by wireless at 4:38 that enemy battleships were in sight. At 4:40 Beatty ordered his force to rejoin the GF. His mission was now to lead the enemy to Jellicoe.[29]

The Battlecruiser Action 2: The Run to the North

The 5th Battle Squadron suffered heavy damage during the next phase of the battle, but also scored hits on the Germans. The visibility now favoured the British, with the sun appearing through the mist, behind them and low in the sky .[30] The firing died away by 5:30, when Jellicoe and his battleships were 23 miles away, with battlecruiser and cruiser ahead of them.[31]

At 5:35 the light cruiser HMS Chester, attached to Rear Admiral Sir Horace Hood’s 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron, was badly damaged by the light cruisers of the German 2nd Scouting Group. Hood took his three battlecruisers to her aid, leaving the light cruiser Wiesbaden wrecked and two other light cruisers badly damaged. Hood’s four destroyers then attacked the Germans. HMS Shark was sunk in a successful attempt to prevent a German torpedo attack on Hood’s battlecruisers.[32]

Commander Loftus Jones, Shark’s captain, and 16 year old Boy Seaman Jack Cornwall of Chester were both later awarded posthumous VCs. Cornwall, the third youngest ever winner of the VC and the youngest since 1860, stayed at his post despite being severely wounded.

Rear Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot’s 1st Cruiser Squadron of four obsolete armoured cruisers now appeared. Arbuthnot was a fitness fanatic who was once attacked by three of his seamen at night. Two of his assailants ended up in hospital.[33]

Arbuthnot took his ships towards the crippled Wiesbaden, engaging her at close range and forcing Lion to change course. The German battleships and battlecruisers then appeared and opened fire, sinking Arbuthnot’s flagship HMS Defence at 6:20 with the loss of all 903 men on board and damaging her sister HMS Warrior so badly that she later sank. Theories on Arbuthnot’s  motivation include sacrificing his squadron with a torpedo attack to cover the GF’s deployment, supporting Beatty, reconnaissance in poor visibility, an offensive spirit and a berserk rush.[34]

Warrior was saved from immediate destruction by HMS Warspite, which made two complete circles after a shell hit and jammed her helm, drawing enemy fire away from Warrior.[35]

The Battle Fleet Action

At 6:14 Jellicoe was informed Beatty that the HSF was in sight, leaving him with a vital decision to make. On which flank should he deploy as he moved his battleships from their cruising formation into their battle line? The starboard flank was closest to the enemy, but his ships would have to turn under heavy fire and probably attacks by torpedo boats. His problem was that the lack of reports from his scouting forces meant that he had to make the decision when the enemy was closer than he would have liked. He chose to deploy to port.[36]

A few have criticised Jellicoe’s decision, notably the Dewar brothers, two RN officers who wrote a controversial internal Admiralty study of Jutland highly critical of Jellicoe, Winston Churchill, whose account of the battle is largely based on the Dewar’s work and Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee, victor of the Battle of the Falklands and commanding the 4th Battle Squadron at Jutland. Most, however, agree that Jellicoe was correct: they include all the GF admirals except Sturdee; the British and German Official Histories; the historian Arthur Marder; Scheer’s Chief of Staff Vize Admiral Alfred von Trotha; Admiral  John Godfrey, later a Staff college lecturer; Vice Admiral John Harper, author of another Admiralty study of the battle; Admiral Sir Reginald Drax, who was on Lion at Jutland; Sir Bertram Ramsay, who commanded the naval forces at the evacuation of Dunkirk and the invasion of Normandy; and Viscount Cunningham who commanded the Mediterranean Fleet in the first half of WWII, including winning the Battle of Matapan and then became First Sea Lord.[37]

The port deployment meant that the GF crossed the T of the HSF, allowing it to fire full broadsides whilst the Germans could reply with only their forward firing guns. There was a delay, but this benefitted the GF as it gave it longer to stretch its line and complete the crossing of the T. It put the GF on the HSF’s line of retreat and gave the GF the advantage of the light. Deploying to starboard lost all these advantages in return only for getting into action quickly. the Dewars and Churchill suggested instead a deployment on the centre, but this would have been a complex manoeuvre that had never been practiced.[38]

Hood’s three battlecruisers had now joined the BCF. Invincible scored a series of hits on Lützow, but about 6:30 the mist that had been obscuring the British ships cleared. The Germans opened fire and Invincible became the fourth British ship to blow up. There were 1,032 dead and only six survivors.[39]

Some reports claim that more men got into the water from the sunk ships but that they were later run down by the advancing British fleet, which had no time or room to stop or alter course. However, Commander Hubert Dannreuther, Invincible’s gunnery officer and the senior survivor of the four ships that blew up, believed that the many kitbags and hammocks in the water could have been mistaken for men from the height of a battleship.[40]

The appearance of the GF was a massive shock to Scheer. At 6:33 he ordered his battleships to carry out a battle about turn, i.e. to together turn 16 points (180 degrees) so that they were heading in the opposite direction. This was  not difficult in practice and good visibility, but was a big risk of collisions when carrying it out in poor visibility, under fire and with several ships damaged. It was, however, completed successfully.[41]

The HSF was now out of Jellicoe’s sight. At 6:44 he turned south east, altering course to south at 6:55 in order to put the GF on the HSF’s route home. Just before this the battleship HMS Marlborough was hit by a torpedo.[42]

Also at 6:55 Scheer ordered a second battle about turn, this time to the east. His reasoning for this risky manoeuvre was that he had to do something to gain the initiative and prevent the GF blocking the HSF’s route home and attacking it as it retreated. He also sent torpedo boats to help the stricken Wiesbaden, which the British mistook for an attack on the GF.[43]

By 7:12 the HSF was under heavy fire but could see nothing of the enemy except for the flashes of its guns. Scheer therefore issued three orders: at 6:13 he ordered the battlecruisers, less the badly damaged Lützow, which had been detached, to charge the enemy; at 6:15 he ordered his torpedo boats to attack and to lay a smokescreen; and at 6:16 he ordered his battleships to perform another battle about turn in order to escape. This time they were under even heavier fire, but the manoeuvre was again successful.[44]

The German battlecruisers suffered heavy punishment, to which they could offer little response because of the poor visibility, but succeeded in covering the battleship’s withdrawal.[45] The torpedo boat V48 was crippled when retiring after the torpedo attack.[46]

SMS Derfflinger had two of her turrets destroyed by hits from 15 inch shells. According to her gunnery officer, Korvettenkapitän Georg von Hase, her cartridge cases caught fire but ‘only blazed, they did not explode as had been the case in the enemy battlecruisers. This saved the ship, but the result of the fire was catastrophic.’[47]

The German torpedo attack persuaded Jellicoe to turn away from the torpedoes at 7:22, which cost several minutes and put him 3,000 yards further away from the HSF. No British battleships were hit by torpedoes. In the Second World War the preferred tactic was to turn towards the torpedoes and comb them, thus maintaining contact with the enemy, which in this case was beaten and in retreat. Jellicoe missed an opportunity to cause further damage and perhaps turn a retreat into a rout.[48] However, navies then had little experience of massed torpedo attacks and Jellicoe was conscious that heavy losses of British battleships might enable the Germans to lift the Allied blockade and win the war.

The sun set at 8:19 but there would be enough light for the British to continue firing until about 9:00. Jellicoe, having lost touch with the enemy, decided to set a course to intercept Scheer on his route home. He received no information about their location until Beatty reported by searchlight at 7:40 and wireless at 7:48. These signals, however, did not give Jellicoe enough information to set a course to intercept Scheer.[49]

There were a series of actions firstly between light cruisers, then battlecruisers and finally British battlecruisers and German pre-dreadnoughts from 8:18 to 9:40. the British battlecruisers had both a numerical advantage and better gunnery. At 8:45 Vice Admiral Sir Martyn Jerram’s 2nd Battle Squadron sighted three German battleships at 10,000 yards range but Jerram, convinced that they were British battlecruisers, held his fire.[50]

The Night Action

Jellicoe did not want to fight with his battleships because British searchlights were poor and he thought that long range torpedoes made a  night action with big ships too risky. This meant that he had to position the GF so as to intercept the HSF at dawn on 1 June.[51]

The British had laid a minefield off the German coast. The Germans kept three channels through it clear: the first, starting from the Horns Reef, gave Scheer a 105 mile journey home from his 9:00 position; the second, starting 15 miles south west of the Horns Reef, was 110 miles long; and the third, 180 miles long, ran along the coast from the River Jade to the River Ems. The second was not known to the British, who had left a channel through the minefield, which was a 135 mile journey but was unknown to the Germans. Jellicoe thought that the Ems route was the most likely because of the last report that he had received of the HSF’s course and because the British maintained a submarine patrol on the Horns Reef route. Scheer, however, was heading for the Horns Reef.[52]

At one point during the night the two battle fleets were sailing on converging courses, like a V. However, a number of chance factors (the British were making 17 knots, the Germans 16, the HSF were delayed because Sheer sent what had been his leading ships to the rear of his line) meant that they just missed each other.[53]

On more than one occasion British battleships declined chances to fire on enemy ones: HMS Thunderer let SMS Moltke go because her captain did not want to reveal the position of the GF ‘unless obvious attack was intended.’[54] SMS Seydlitz was sighted by HMS Agincourt, whose captain did not want to reveal his division, and by HMS Marlborough, whose captain refused to allow his gunnery officer to fire as he thought that she was British.[55]

HMS Malaya’s gunnery officer was not permitted by his captain to fire on SMS Westfalen on the grounds that Evan-Thomas, two ships ahead, must also have seen the German ship. Evan-Thomas was also informed of a sighting of two German battleships, misidentified as cruisers, by HMS Valiant, but did not pass it on to Jellicoe.[56]

A series of actions took place during the night, mostly involving cruisers and destroyers, but also the battlecruisers. These saw the sinkings of the pre-dreadnought battleship Pommern with all 844 crew, the armoured cruiser HMS Black Prince with all 857 crew, the light cruisers SMS Frauenlob, Elbing and Rostock, the flotilla leader HMS Tipperary, the destroyers HMS Sparrowhawk, Turbulent and Ardent and the torpedo boats SMS S35 and V4. The crippled Wiesbaden and V48 both sank during the night, whilst Lützow was so badly damaged that the Germans scuttled her.[57]

The night actions took place that showed that the German torpedo boats were better trained for night operations than the British destroyers.[58] The Germans had obtained the British two letter challenge signal, probably by observing it, whilst their one was a display of multi-coloured lights that were shown briefly and were impossible to copy.[59]

Sunrise on 1 June was at 3:09 am. Scheer had broken through the British destroyers and light cruisers to reach Horns Reef by 3:00. His fleet was in no fit state to fight but he had evaded Jellicoe.[60]

Jellicoe had got Scheer’s route wrong, but there was time for him to have corrected his mistake and headed for the Horns Reef if he had learnt the truth.

A signal sent by the Admiralty at 9:58 pm on 31 May and handed to Jellicoe at 10:45 gave a position for the HSF that was obviously wrong that. It had been accurately decoded and it was the original German signal that was wrong, but this, coupled with the earlier signal that erroneously said that the HSF was still in port when it was at sea, led Jellicoe to mistrust Admiralty signals. He therefore ignored a message sent at 10:41 and decoded and in his hands between 11:15 and 11:30 that gave accurate information on the HSF’s course.

At 11:30 a searchlight message from the light cruiser HMS Birmingham reported that a number of German battlecruisers were heading on a parallel course to the GF. In fact they were battleships that had temporarily changed course in order to avoid a torpedo attack. This and other reports from his ships convinced him that Scheer was taking the Ems route.

The Admiralty, however, failed to pass on a series of German signals that gave Scheer’s position at 10:43, 11:00, 11:37, 11:43, 00:30 am and 1:00 am that Room 40 decoded between 11:15 pm and 00:25 am.[61]

The worst mistake was not passing on a signal of 9:06 pm from Scheer requesting airship reconnaissance at Horns Reef that was in the hands of the Admiralty by 10:10. Jellicoe later wrote that ‘[t]his was practically a certain indication of his route but was not passed to me.’[62]

The HSF passed over the British submarines at about 4:00 am without being attacked.[63] Its ships reached the Rivers Jade and Elbe between noon and 1:45 pm.[64] The GF was inside Scapa Flow by 11 am on 2 June and ready for sea at four hours’ notice by 9:45 am that day. U-boats attacked HMS Marlborough and Warspite on their way home but neither was hit.[65]


For once in the war at sea, the Germans won the propaganda war, getting their claim of victory out well ahead of any British statement. In terms of losses they were correct. The British lost 14 ships of 115,025 tons with 6,097 men killed, 510 wounded and 177 captured out of 60,000. German losses were 11 ships of 61,180 tons with 2,551 men killed and 507 wounded out of 45,000; no Germans were captured. The ratio is altered a little when badly damaged ships are considered: five German battleships and four battlecruisers required dockyard repair compared with four British battleships and three battlecruisers; the last German ship left dry dock on 15 October, the last British one on 13 September. Seydlitz would probably have sunk had she faced as long a journey home as the British ships and Derfflinger suffered more damage than any British ship.[66]

The Germans sank more ships than they lost, but the margin was not enough to cover Britain’s greater construction rate. Both navies had a battleship working up at the time of Jutland. Britain had completed a battleship and two battlecruisers by the end of 1916 and another battleship in 1917. Germany added a battleship and a battlecruiser in 1917. Neither side completed any capital ships in 1918, though both had some under construction when the war ended.[67]

Scheer sailed into a trap, which he would have avoided had the weather permitted airship reconnaissance. He then extracted his fleet from it skilfully, taking risks that paid off.

Jellicoe had three big decisions to take. He got the first and most important, his initial deployment, correct. With the benefit of the future lessons of the Second World War, he was wrong about the second, when he turned away from rather than headed towards the torpedo attack. However, the detriment to Britain of a heavy defeat that would have enabled the Germans to lift the blockade was far greater than the benefit of a decisive victory that would have allowed it to be enforced more closely. His decision is therefore justifiable on the basis of the information available to him at the time. He was also wrong about the third, when he had to guess Scheer’s route home. He had, however, enough time to correct this mistake if the Admiralty had passed him all the intelligence that it possessed. He should take some of the blame for the lack of initiative displayed by his subordinates because of his highly detailed Grand Fleet Battle Orders.

Winston Churchill wrote that ‘Jellicoe was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.’ Jellicoe took no unnecessary risks and ensured that the RN maintained its control of the seas.[68]

Beatty famously said, just after Queen Mary exploded, that t]here seems to be something wrong with our bloody shops today.’[69] He was wrong: the problems were with safety procedures and shells, not ships. Admiral Sir Frederic Dreyer, a RN gunnery expert, believed that the British would have sunk at least six German capital ships at Jutland had they had the armour piercing shells that they had in 1918.[70]

Hipper, the only senior commander on either side to escape criticism, was awarded The Military Order of Max Josef by the King of Bavaria, which meant that he was henceforth von Hipper. He and Scheer both received Germany’s highest award, the Ordre pour le Merite.[71] Scheer also received the Military Order of Max Josef, but this did not entitle him to call himself von Scheer because he was not a Bavarian.

After Jutland the Allied Blockade continued to prevent Germany getting the supplies of food and other crucial items that it needed to import. The Germans, realising that they could not win a major fleet action, resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare, which brought the USA into the war against them. Jutland was the last clash of dreadnoughts in the war, but it was not the last time that the HSF came out.

The best summing up of Jutland remains that made by a New York newspaper just after the battle:

‘The German Fleet has assaulted its jailor, but it is still in jail.’[72]


For more on Jutland and the RN see naval-history.net, which has links to Naval Operations, the British Official History, Jellicoe and Scheer’s memoirs and Jellicoe’s Official Despatch, plus lists of British casualties and medal citations.

[1] V. E. Tarrant, Jutland: The German Perspective: A New View of the Great Battle, 31 May 1916 (London: Arms and Armour, 1995), p. 49.

[2] Ibid., pp. 49-51.

[3] Ibid., pp. 52-53.

[4] Ibid., p. 54.

[5] 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. ii, p. 437.

[6] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 95, footnote 1.

[7] Tarrant, Jutland, p. 55.

[8] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 438, note 1.

[9] N. J. M. Campbell, Jutland: An Analysis of the Fighting (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1986), p. 184.

[10] Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 200-1

[11] Ibid. vol. v, p. 311, note 1.

[12] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 203-6.

[13] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 196-98 and footnotes 1 and 2 on p. 196.

[14] Campbell, Jutland, pp. 173-74.

[15] The National Archives, Kew, CAB 45/283, ‘German Navy and Sources of Material: Dogger Bank Action, 1915: Miscellaneous Reports from German Sources’. BATTLE CRUISER “SEYDLITZ”

[16] Campbell, Jutland, p. 374.

[17] Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 40-41. Timings are in GMT. German time was an hour ahead.

[18] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 45-48

[19] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 59.

[20] See G. A. H. Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996), pp. 81-101. for a lengthy analysis of this issue

[21] Marder, From. vol. iii, p. 63.

[22] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 48-49.

[23] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 64.

[24] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 65-66

[25] Tarrant, Jutland, pp. 84-86. Timings given in this book are mostly to German time and have been adjusted to GMT.

[26] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, pp. 336-37 and note 1 on p. 337.

[27] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 337 and notes 2 and 3.

[28] Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 68-69.

[29] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 69-70.

[30] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 85-87.

[31] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, pp. 345.

[32] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 352-54.

[33] Gordon, Rules, pp. 392-93.

[34] Ibid., pp. 444-45; Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 112-14 and note 24 on p. 114.

[35] Tarrant, Jutland, p. 129.

[36] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, pp. 361-62.

[37] Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 104-5.

[38] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 106.

[39] Gordon, Rules, pp. 450-51.

[40] Marder, From. vol. iii, p. 115 and note 27 on pp. 115-16.

[41] Tarrant, Jutland, pp. 136-41.

[42] Ibid., p. 149.

[43] Ibid., pp. 149-54.

[44] Ibid., pp. 157-61.

[45] Ibid., pp. 161-65.

[46] Ibid., p. 143.

[47] Quoted in Ibid., p. 161. Original source G. von Hase, Kiel and Jutland (London: Skiffington, 1921).

[48] Ibid., pp. 167-68.

[49] Ibid., pp. 169-73.

[50] Ibid., pp. 173-80.

[51] Ibid., p. 182.

[52] Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 155-60

[53] Tarrant, Jutland, p. 195.

[54] Campbell, Jutland, pp. 273-302.

[55] Tarrant, Jutland, pp. 195-96.

[56] Ibid., p. 207.

[57] See Corbett, Newbolt, Naval.vol. iii, 391-409

[58] Tarrant, Jutland, pp. 213-15.

[59] Gordon, Rules, p. 481. and note 22 on p. 680.

[60] Marder, From. vol. iii, p.p. 186-87.

[61] This and the last three paragraphs are based on Tarrant, Jutland, pp. 207-10.

[62] Quoted in Ibid., p. 210.

[63] Ibid., p. 234.

[64] Ibid., p. 237.

[65] Ibid., pp. 242-45.

[66] Ibid., pp. 246-49.

[67] See R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 35-36, 38-39, 149-50, 154-55.

[68] W. S. Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, 5 vols. (London: Odhams Press, 1939). vol. iii, Kindle edition, Chapter V, location 1466 of 8981

[69] Quoted in Marder, From. vol. iii, p. 67.

[70] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 205.

[71] Tarrant, Jutland, p. 247.

[72] Quoted in Ibid., p. 250.


Filed under War History

The Lowestoft Raid 25 April 1916

Shortly after taking command of the German High Seas Fleet Admiral Reinhard Scheer laid down the strategy that it should follow. It could not currently win a decisive battle against the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet (GF), so should avoid having one forced on it. It should instead exert pressure to force the British to send out forces that could be attacked on terms favourable to the Germans. This should be achieved by submarine and mine warfare, attacks on British trade with Scandinavia and sorties by the High Seas Fleet.

The Russians had asked the British to carry out a demonstration in the North Sea to keep the High Seas Fleet there whilst they replaced their minefields in the Gulf of Finland, where the ice was melting. A sweep by destroyers, with close support from the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron backed by the 2nd Battle and 2nd Battle Cruiser squadrons, in the Skagerrak was therefore planned for 22 April. Submarines were positioned to attack any German ships that came north. Three days before the operation was to take place it was decided to add the 1st Battle Cruiser and 3rd Battle Squadrons.

On the afternoon of 21 April intelligence reached the Admiralty that the High Seas Fleet (HSF) was about to put to sea. The planned sweep was therefore replaced by a sortie by the entire GF. The German operation was then cancelled after the light cruiser SMS Graudenz struck a mine and other German ships reported spotting submarines.[1]

On the night of 22-23 April the British encountered heavy fog, during which the battle cruisers HMAS Australia and HMS New Zealand collided, as did three destroyers whilst a neutral merchantmen rammed the battleship HMS Neptune. There was no sign of the enemy, so the fleet returned to base on the morning of 23 April.[2]

At mid-day on 24 April the High Seas Fleet put to sea. The battle cruisers were led by Rear Admiral Friedrich Bödicker because Franz Hipper, their normal commander, was indisposed. His force was reduced to four ships after SMS Seydlitz struck a mine.[3]

The British were able to intercept and decode German wireless signal and realised that they were at sea when the German fleet flagship took over wireless control from a shore station. The damage to Seydlitz also created a lot of signals. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the Commander-in-Chief of the GF was ordered at 3:50 pm to hold the GF at two hours sailing notice once it was refuelled. Ten minutes later he was informed that Irish rebels had seized the General Post Office in Dublin.[4]

On 21 April Sir Roger Casement, an Irish Nationalist and a former British diplomat, had been arrested soon after being landed in Ireland by a U-boat. The same day the German auxiliary Libau, disguised as the Norwegian Aud, had been intercepted with a load of arms for the rebels. She scuttled herself the next day.[5]

Scheer’s memoirs makes no mention of events in Ireland when discussing this operation, but the British Official History argues that they influenced at least its timing. Scheer says that the objective was to force British ships out of port by naval bombardment of Lowestoft and Yarmouth and airship raids on Harwich, Ipswich, Lincoln and Norwich.[6]

At 4:28 pm on 24 April a signal from Scheer ordering that the German operation continue despite the damage to Seydlitz was intercepted. At 5:53 pm Jellicoe was told that the German battle cruisers were heading north west and that the Admiralty thought that the main German fleet was also out. British local defence flotillas, submarines and aircraft on the East coast were put on alert.[7]

Jellicoe ordered the ships at Scapa to raise steam at 7:00 pm, anticipating an order for the whole Grand Fleet to do so that arrived shortly afterwards from the Admiralty. It was clear that the Germans intended to attack somewhere, but it could be somewhere on the East coast or possibly Flanders, where German positions had been bombarded by the RN that morning.[8]

The 5th Battle Squadron, comprising the newest and fastest dreadnoughts, the Queen Elizabeth class, and the 4th Light Cruiser Squadron left Scapa at 9:10 pm. The 1st Battle Squadron departed from Invergordon at 10:000 pm, the Battle Cruiser Fleet (BCF) sailed from Rosyth at 10:50 pm and the rest of the GF left Scapa between 10:00 and 11:00 pm. A mutilated signal intercepted at 8:14 pm indicated that the German battle cruisers were heading towards Yarmouth, although it was possible that this was a feint, with the rest of the HSF heading to Flanders.[9]

At 3:50 am on 25 April, soon after daybreak, the three light cruisers and 18 destroyers of Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt’s Harwich Force encountered six German light cruisers and a number of destroyers. A few minutes later four battle cruisers became visible. Tyrwhitt turned south in the hope of drawing them over two British submarines. The Germans, however, continued northwards and by 4:13 am were bombarding Lowestoft.[10]

Tyrwhitt turned his force north and at 4:30 pm opened fire on the German light cruisers at 14,000 yards range in poor light. The Germans replied at 4:37 am. No damage was done by either side by 4:49  when the German battle cruisers joined in. The light cruiser HMS Conquest was hit by four or five 12 inch shells from SMS Derfflinger and/or Lützow. She suffered no vital damage, but 25 of her crew were killed and 13 wounded. The only other ship damaged was the destroyer HMS Laertes, which had a boiler put out of action by shell fragments. The Germans turned eastwards at 4:56 am and were soon out of sight. At 5:40 am Tyrwhitt turned north-eastwards in an attempt to regain contact with the Germans.[11]

The GF and BCF were still well to the north when the HSF withdrew. Both sides had submarines in position, but the only ones to be successful were SM UB18 which sank the submarine HMS E22 and UB29 which damaged the light cruiser HMS Penelope. Two German submarines were lost: UB13 struck a mine on 24 April and UC5 ran aground on 27 April; click on the names of the U-boats for more details from Uboat.net.

The raid on Lowestoft destroyed two 6 inch gun batteries and 200 houses. Three civilians were killed and 12 wounded. The attack on Yarmouth was curtailed by poor visibility and the appearance of the Harwich Force.[12] The accompanying raid by six airships was hampered by bad weather and most of the bombs dropped were ineffective. L16 injured one man, destroyed five houses and damaged 100 at Newmarket. A woman died of shock at Dilham, but the only other damage was to sheds and windows. L13 was slightly damaged by anti-aircraft fire.[13]

The operation boosted the prestige of the HSF in Germany.[14] It, however, In Britain there was anger with the RN’s failure to protect the British coast.[15]

This led to a realignment of British naval forces. The 3rd Battle Squadron of HMS Dreadnought and the seven remaining pre-dreadnoughts of the King Edward VII class (the name ship had been sunk by a mine on 6 January 1915) and the three Devonshire class armoured cruisers of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron were to be transferred from the GF to the south east of England. Rosyth on the Firth of Forth was to be developed into a base capable of accommodating the full GF. The work was completed in 1917 , but Rosyth did not become the GF’s main base in April 1918.[16] This did not really weaken the GF since only Dreadnought of the ships moved was modern enough to stand in the line of battle against dreadnoughts.


[1] The above is based on Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1927 vol. xvi, Lowestoft Raid 24th-25th April 1916. pp. pp. 6-10.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, pp. 298-99.

[3] 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. ii, pp. 424-25.

[4] Naval Staff vol. Xvi. p. 11.

[5] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 300.

[6] Ibid., pp. vol iii, pp. 303-4; R. Scheer, Germany’s High Sea Fleet in the World War (London: Cassell and Company, 1920), pp. 123-30.

[7] Naval Staff vol. Xvi. p. 11.

[8] Ibid., pp. pp. 12-13.

[9] Ibid., p. 14.

[10] Ibid., p. 22.

[11] Ibid., pp. 22-23.

[12] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 559.

[13] 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. iii, pp. 203-5.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 311

[15] Marder, From. vol. ii, pp. 433-34.

[16] Ibid., pp. 434-35.

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