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British Submarines in the Baltic

On 11 October 1914 the British E class submarines HMS E1 (Lieutenant Commander Noel Laurence), E9 (Lieutenant Commander Max Horton) and E11 (Lieutenant Commander Martin Nasmith) were ordered to enter the Baltic. Their mission was to attack the German High Seas Fleet when it exercised in the Baltic, before heading for the Russian port of Libau (now Liepāja in Latvia) and operate from there. The journey into the Baltic was to be made at night in order to avoid German patrol ships.

E1 made the passage safely on the night of 17 October. She fired two torpedoes at the cruiser SMS Victoria Louise the next morning, but both missed. She then tracked another cruiser for six hours, but was unsuccessful in trying to attack her. On 20 October she encountered three cruisers in Danzig Bay, but could not get at them, so headed for Libau. A Russian pilot guided her into the port, which had been dismantled and abandoned. E1 had passed through a German minefield without knowing it.

E9, which had had become the first British submarine to sink a ship when she sunk SMS Hela on 13 September, also made the passage on the night of 17 October, but had to spend all the next day on the bottom as she was unable to complete the journey before daybreak. She had several close encounters with destroyers, but passed the patrol line on 18 October. She also passed through the German minefield without realising it and arrived at Libau on 22 October.

E11’s journey was delayed until 18 October by technical faults. She failed to get through and retired. The next day she fired a torpedo at a submarine. It missed, which was fortunate as the boat was Danish. She was herself attacked unsuccessfully later that day. On 20 October a German seaplane found her re-charging her batteries on the surface. She was attacked all night by destroyers and returned to the United Kingdom on 22 October after another unsuccessful attempt to get through. She later operated very successfully in the Dardanelles.

E1 and E9 waited for E11 until ordered to head to Lapvik in the Gulf of Finland and put themselves under the orders of Admiral Nikolai von Essen, the C-in-C of the Russian Baltic Fleet. They arrived on 30 October. having tried unsuccessfully to attack a destroyer and a cruiser on the way.[1]

During the winter of 1914-15 the two boats were kept busy. They did no direct damage, but their presence persuaded the Germans to attack Libau, which they wrongly assumed was the British submarine base. The Germans successfully blocked the harbour entrance, but the armoured cruiser SMS Friedrich Carl struck two mines in the early hours of 26 November 1914. She was abandoned and left to sink.[2]

In late April 1915 Germans launched an offensive towards Libau. Attempts by the British submarines to attack German naval forces supporting this operation were initially unsuccessful. Libau was captured on 7 May, and three days later E9 was ordered to operate against ships supplying it from Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland) and Memel (now Klaipėda in Lithuania). She attacked a convoy of three transports and three cruiser escorted by destroyers, sinking one of the transports.

On 1 June E1 was forced to undergo repairs because of an engine problem. Von Essen,  described by the British Official History as an ‘energetic and devoted officer’, had died of illness on 20 May, but the submarine operations continued.[3] On 4 June E9 attacked two destroyers that were re-coaling from a collier, with two more destroyers and a light cruiser in attendance. E9 fired a torpedo at the cruiser, which missed, and two at the collier, which sank both her and one of the destroyers.

By 2 July the Germans were threatening Riga, ‘an important munitions centre [that] was vital to the security of the capital [St Petersburg].’[4] In the early hours of that day the Battle of Aland Islands saw a Russian squadron of the armoured cruisers Admiral Makarov and Bayan and the smaller cruisers Bogatyr and Oleg engaged the German armoured cruiser SMS Roon, the light cruisers SMS Augsburg and Lübeck and the minelayer SMS Albatross in fog. The Albatross was forced aground on Swedish territory and interned, whilst Augsburg was badly damaged. The Russians lost contact with the enemy in the fog and headed home. They were then attacked by the Roon, Lübeck and four destroyers. The Germans were forced to withdraw after the Russian armoured cruiser Rurik joined the action, damaging the Roon. German reinforcements appeared, but E9 torpedoed and damaged the armoured cruiser SMS Prinz Adalbert.

On 30 July E1, which had been repaired, sank the German auxiliary ship Aachen, The efforts of the submarines could not, however, prevent the Germans from winning the land campaign.[5]

The Russians, whose armies were under severe pressure and trading space for time, requested on 15 August that the British send more submarines. The Germans intended to turn the Russian right flank, which rested on the Gulf of Riga. This required a combined operation by their army and navy, including the entry of their battlecruisers into the Gulf. The Admiralty, acting on requests from British personnel on the spot, had the day before ordered E8 (Lieutenant-Commander Francis Goodhart) and E13 (Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Layton) to head to the Baltic. E8 arrived safely but E13 ran aground in Danish waters and was then attacked and sunk by German destroyers.[6] This was one of a number of alleged atrocities at sea that took place in mid 1915: see this previous entry for further details.

On 19 August E1 got into a position to attack four German battlecruisers that were sailing in line abreast. She fired a torpedo that hit the closest ship, SMS Moltke, but was then forced to dive by a destroyer. The fog and the destroyer escort prevented E1 from making any more attacks. Eight of Moltke’s crew were killed and she was forced to return to Hamburg for repairs that took about a month. The Germans abandoned their attempt to turn the Riga flank the next day. The British Official History suggests that:

‘it is not…impossible that the presence of our submarines in the Baltic was as disconcerting to the Germans as the arrival of theirs at the Dardanelles had been to us.’[7]

E8 captured and then sank the steamer Margritte off Königsberg on 8 October. She was on station outside Libau on 23 October when she observed SMS Prinz Adalbert leaving the port with a destroyer on each bow.. Goodhart positioned his boat to ambush the German ships. He let the destroyer on E8’s side pass and four minutes later fired a bow tube at the cruiser at a range of 1,300 yards. The torpedo hit her forward magazine, causing a large explosion. Goodhart dived his boat, returning to periscope depth eight minutes later.  The cruiser had sunk, the destroyers probably did not know if the damage had been caused by a mine or a submarine and E8 escaped.

Two more British submarine had by then arrived in the Baltic: E18 (Lieutenant Commander R. C. Halahan) and E19 (Lieutenant Commander Francis Cromie). On 11 October E19 stopped a series of ships carrying iron or magnetic ore from Sweden. Those heading for the UK or neutral ports were allowed to continue but those bound for Germany, the Walter Leonhardt, Gutrune, Direktor Rippenhagen and Nicomedia, were sunk. Their crews were put on Swedish ships, except for that of the Nicomedia, who were sent ashore on boats. The Germania ran aground whilst trying to escape E19, with her crew abandoning ship.

On 12 October E19 stopped the Nike, carrying iron ore from Stockholm to Stettin (now Szczecin in Poland. Her captain was Swedish, and Cromie sent her to the Russian port of Reval, now Tallinn in Estonia, with a prize crew. The normal British practice was that a Prize Court would condemn her as a lawful prize, and the British did not want to set a precedent by doing things differently this time. The Russians, however, wanted to return her to the Swedes in order to avoid offending them. Since she was in a Russian port, the British gave her to the Russians who handed her back to the Swedes. Nike’s captain said that there were then 15 ore ships awaiting escort from Lulea in Sweden to Germany.

German losses to British submarines in the Baltic continued, however. On 18 and 19 October E9 sank the Soderham, Pernambuco, Johannes-Russ and Dal Alfoen, all carrying iron ore to Germany.

The British also continued to have success against German warships. On the morning of 7 November E19 spotted a light cruiser and two destroyers, but was unable to get into a position to fire. Three hours later, at 1:20 pm, she encountered the light cruiser SMS Undine and one destroyer. At 1:45 pm Cromie fired a torpedo at Undine at a range of 1,100 yard, scoring a hit that stopped her. E19 avoided the destroyer and fired a second torpedo from 1,200 yards that hit Undine’s magazine, causing her to blow up. The destroyer fired on E19’s periscope, so she withdrew to a safe distance in order to observe the Germans picking up survivors.

The British submarine campaign in the Baltic ended for the winter when E18 returned to Reval on 17 November after an unsuccessful three week cruise. The weather made further submarine operations impossible until the spring.[8]

The British Official History argued that ‘after E9’s success the control of the Baltic seemed to have passed for a time out of German Hands.’[9]

Three of the Baltic submarine captains were awarded the Distinguished Service Order and various Russian decorations in 1916: Laurence on 24 February and Goodhart and Cromie on 30 May. Horton had already received the DSO. Lieutenant George Sharp was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on 30 May ‘In recognition of his services in a British submarine operating in the Baltic Sea’; the citation, from naval-history.net, does not say which boat he was serving in.

Three of them did not survive the war: Halahan was lost along with E18 in May 1916; Goodhart died when HMS K13 sank accidentally on 31 January 1917; and Cromie was killed by Bolsheviks on 31 August 1918 whilst acting as British naval attaché to Russia. The other four, Horton, Laurence, Layton and Nasmith, all reached the rank of Admiral.

[1] The above is based on J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol i, pp. 236-38.

[2] Ibid. vol. ii, pp. 285-86

[3] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 60.

[4] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 62.

[5] The last four paragraphs are based on Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 61-63.

[6] Ibid. vol. iii. pp. 135-36.

[7] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 137.

[8] The last seven paragraphs are based on Ibid. vol. iv, pp. 95-98.

[9] Ibid. vol. iv, p. 98.


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