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German Attack on the Dover Straits 14-15 February 1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] Ibid., p. 176.

[3] Ibid.

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

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

[6] Ibid., p. 212.

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

[8] Ibid., p. 217.

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

[10] Marder, From, p. 45.

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

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German Destroyer Raid of 10 May 1917

In late 1916 and early 1917 the German carried out a number of raids on shipping in the Dover area and the anti-submarine net barrage across the Dover straits. The first that resulted in a German defeat was on 20-21 April 1917 when the destroyers SMS G42 and G85 were sunk by the British flotilla leaders HMS Broke and Swift.

The level of loss from this mission was unsustainable so the Germans changed their strategy. Future attacks would be aimed at the Netherlands to UK convoys rather than the Channel patrols and barrage. Raids on shipping at the mouth of the Thames on 26 and 30 April encountered no shipping, although Margate was bombarded on 26 April. [1]

In the early hours of 10 May the eight destroyers (822-960 tons, three 10.5cm (4.1in) guns, six 50cm (19.7in) torpedo tubes, 33.5-34 knots) of Korvettenkapitän Kahle’s 3rd Flotilla and the four destroyers of the Zeebrugge 1st Half Flotilla put to sea with orders to attack a large convoy that was due to leave the Netherlands for Great Britain that evening. Another 12 destroyers were on reconnaissance missions: four of the Zeebrugge 2nd Half Flotilla to the west and eight of the Flanders Torpedo-boat Flotilla to the south west.[2]

That night there were 12 merchant steamers heading from Great Britain to the Netherlands, with 10 travelling the other way. Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt, commanding the Harwich Force, was at sea in the C Class cruiser HMS Centaur (4,165 tons, five 6in (15.2cm), one 13 pounder (76.2mm) and two 3in AA (76mm) guns, two 21in torpedo tubes, 29 knots) accompanied by the similar but slightly older HMS Carysfort and Conquest (4,219 tons, two 6 in (15.2cm), eight 4in (10.2 cm),one 13 pounder (76.2m), two 3in AA (76mm) and four 3 pounder (47mm) guns, two 21in torpedo tubes, 28.5 knots) and four destroyers. Other British destroyers were escorting the convoys.[3]

Between 3:50 and 3:55 am the British spotted the Germans to the south west, 8 or 9 miles away. Tyrwhitt ordered his ships to head south at full speed in an attempt to cut them off from Zeebrugge. At 4:05 am the British opened fire at about 13,000 yards range. The Germans headed south, returning fire. The light was poor and visibility was made worse by a German smoke screen and the smoke from the British cruisers, but both sides managed to straddle enemy ships with their gunfire and the British believed that they scored hits.[4]

The British pursued, but their cruisers were slower than the destroyers. By 5:02 am the German destroyers were out of range of the cruisers. The British destroyers, who had taken some time to work up to full speed, continued the chase. At 5:15 am some of the Germans turned, apparently to engage HMS Stork (975 tons, three 4in (10.2cm) and one 2 pounder (40mm) guns, four 21in torpedo tubes, 29 knots), the leading British destroyer, but withdrew on spotting that more British destroyers had arrived. Tyrwhitt called off the chase at 5:33 am , by when Stork had come under fire from German shore batteries.[5]

Neither side suffered serious damage in this operation, but it was a British victory since they prevented the Germans from carrying out their mission.

[1] M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front : The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918, p. 126.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1939 vol. xix, Home Waters part ix, May to July 1917. p. 5; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, pp. 168-69; Karau, Naval, p. 126.

[3] Naval Staff vol. Xix. p. 4; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 56, 60.

[4] Naval Staff vol. Xix. p. 4.

[5] Ibid., p. 5; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 81.

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German Attack on the Dover Straits 20-21 April 1917

Following the German attack of 17-18 March 1917 on the anti-submarine net barrage in the Dover Straits, the Admiralty told Vice Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, C.-in-C. Dover, that his forces should be more concentrated on nights when enemy attack appeared to be likely. The night of 20 April appeared to be such a night, as it was there was a new moon the next day and high water was at 2230.[1]

The British had two flotilla leaders (large destroyers) on the western part of the barrage and four destroyers to the east. There was a light cruiser, a flotilla leader and three destroyers and a monitor protecting shipping in the Downs, off the east coast of Kent and six destroyers at Dover.[2]

The Germans had strengthened their destroyer force at Zeebrugge by transferring Korvettenkapitän Kahle’s 3rd Flotilla from the High Seas Fleet. The operation on 20-21 April was to be controlled by Kahle. He would not be at sea but instead would command from Bruges, where the Germans collected and deciphered intercepted British orders. According to the British Official History, two groups would again attack the net barrage, but this time there would be no raid on the Downs.[3]

The force on the Dover side of the straits consisted of six destroyers from the 3rd Flotilla (822-960 tons, three 10.5 cm (4.1 inch) guns, six 50 cm (19.7 inch) torpedo tubes, 33.5-34 knots). That on the Calais side comprised four from the Zeebrugge Flotilla and two from the 3rd (852-990 tons, three 105 cm guns, six 50 cm torpedo tubes, 32-34 knots).[4]

However, Mark Karau’s history of the German naval forces in Flanders during the First World War says, based on German archives, that the Calais force included only three destroyers, with the other three operating in the Downs.[5]

A bombardment of Calais started at 2310 and one of Dover at 2330. Little damage was done to either town but  the armed trawler Sabreur was damaged at Dover. British batteries returned fire but without hitting the enemy. However, the bombardment caused Bacon to keep his Dover destroyers in port until 2355, by when the Germans had gone.[6]

At 0038 on 21 April, the Dover raiders sighted the flotilla leaders HMS Broke (1,610 tons, six 4 inch and one 1.5 pounder (20mm) guns, two .303 inch MGs, four 21 inch torpedo tubes, 31 knots) and Swift (2,170 tons, one 6 inch and two 4 inch guns, two 18 inch torpedo tubes, 35 knots). Broke was named after Sir Philip Broke, a successful frigate captain from the War of 1812.[7]

Firing commenced at 0044. Swift, which was ahead of Broke, turned towards the German line with the intention of ramming one of the smaller German ships. She missed and was hit by several shells, but one of her torpedoes hit SMS G85. Swift then pursued the Germans as far as the barrage but then had to give up because a shell hole had caused flooding in one of her forward compartments.[8]

Broke also fired torpedoes and attempted to ram a German destroyer. She missed first time but struck SMS G42 with her second attempt. She took several minutes to extricate herself, during when she came under fire from two other German destroyers. She tried to pursue the Germans but was too badly damaged to keep up with them. She therefore returned to G42, which was sinking by the stern but fired on Broke, which replied until the German guns fell silent about 0120. Broke’s engines then broke down and she began to drift towards G42. Some other British destroyers then arrived and took Broke under tow.[9]

G42 and G85 both eventually sank. The British picked up about 100 survivors from crews of 87 and 85 respectively. British losses were 40 killed or wounded on Broke and one killed and four wounded on Swift. The British casualties are listed on Naval-History.net.[10]

The two British captains, Commander Ambrose Peck of Swift and Commander Edward Evans of Broke, were awarded the Distinguished Service Order and promoted to Captain. Evans became a national hero as ‘Evans of the Broke‘ and reached the rank of Admiral, serving in the 1940 Norwegian Campaign. He had previously been second in command of Captain Robert Scott’s ill fated 1911-13 Antarctic Expedition.

The losses from this operation caused a change in German strategy. Future attacks would be aimed at the Netherlands to UK convoys rather than the Channel patrols and barrage.[11]

 

 

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vi, The Dover Patrol i. p. 97.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. iv, , pp. 373-74..

[3] Ibid. vol. iv, p. 372,

[4] Ibid. vol. iv, p. 378; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, pp. 168-69.

[5] M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front : The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918, p. 124.

[6] Naval Staff vol. vi. p. 98; Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 375; Karau, Naval, p. 125.

[7] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 73, 77-78; Karau, Naval, p. 125.Karau gives German times that were an hour ahead of British time. All times quoted have been adjusted to British time.

[8] Naval Staff vol. vi. p. 99; Karau, Naval, p. 125.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, pp. 377-78.

[10] Ibid. vol. iv. p. 378; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 168-69.

[11] Karau, Naval, p. 126.

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German Attack on the Dover Straits 17-18 March 1917

The Germans attempted to repeat their successful attack of 26-27 October 1916 on the Dover Straits anti-submarine net barrage and shipping on 23 November 1916, but it and a raid of 25-26 February on shipping between England and the Hoof of Holland did little damage.

A new attack on the Dover Straits was planned for 17-18 March 1917. Seven destroyers (802-960 tons, three 10.5 cm (4.1 inch) guns, six 50 cm (19.7 inch) torpedo tubes, 33.5-34 knots) of the 6th Flotilla would operate in the western half of the Dover Straits, five (852-990 tons, three 105 cm guns, six 50 cm torpedo tubes, 32-33.5 knots) of the 1st Zeebrugge Half Flotilla in the eastern half and four (568 tons, two 88 mm (3.45inch) guns, four 50cm torpedo tubes, 29 knots) of the 2nd Zeebrugge Half Flotilla in the Downs off the east coast of Kent. Korvettenkapitän Tillesen of the 6th Flotilla would lead the attack. Tillesen planned the operation carefully in order to give each group of destroyers  separate lines of approach and areas of operation.[1]

The British had the K class HMS Paragon (1072 tons, three 4 inch guns, two 21 inch torpedo tubes with 4 torpedoes, 29 knots) and three L class (965-1010 tons, three 4 inch guns, one .303 inch MG, four 21 inch torpedo tubes, 29 knots) destroyers protecting the net barrage, a light cruiser, a flotilla leader, four destroyers and two monitors off Deal and a flotilla leader and five destroyers at Dover.[2]

At 2250 HMS Paragon encountered three or four destroyers. She exchanged gunfire with them and fired a torpedo that hit a German ship without exploding. Paragon then blew up and sank with the loss of all but 10 men.[3]

HMS Laforey, assuming that Paragon had struck a mine, stopped at about 2300 and switched on her searchlight in order to see and pick up survivors. About 2315 she was narrowly missed by a torpedo that damaged HMS Llewellyn. Laforey’s captain assumed that it had come from a U-boat so set off in search of a submarine. Other British ships therefore remained in port.[4]

The German destroyers attacking the Downs came across the SS Greypoint, which was anchored in an exposed position because her engines had broken down. They torpedoed and sank her, damaged a drifter and bombarded Broadstairs and Ramsgate without causing much damage, although some civilians had narrow escapes. They then withdrew, outpacing Torpedo Boat 4, the only British warship to spot them.[5]

The British casualties are listed on Naval-History.net.

 

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. iv. pp. 361-62; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, pp. 168-69; P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, p. 348.

[2] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv. pp. 361-62; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 75-76.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vi, The Dover Patrol i. p. 92.

[4] Ibid., pp. 92-93.

[5] Ibid., p. 94.

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German Attack on Dover Straits, 26-27 October 1916

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 72.

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

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The Battle of Imbros 20 January 1918

The evacuation of Gallipoli did not end the Royal Navy’s presence in the Aegean. There was a risk that the German battlecruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau might break out of the Dardanelles. This ships had officially been transferred to the Ottoman Navy and renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim and Medilli, but the German names are used here because they remained under German command and had German crews.

Rear Admiral Sydney Fremantle, commanding the RN’s Aegean Squadron, thought that  a break out would have one of three objectives: joining the Austro-Hungarians in the Adriatic was the most likely and had the highest chance of success; a raid on Allied transport routes was possible but had too low a chance of success to justify the risks involved; and raiding Mudros, Salonika, Port Said or Alexandria was unlikely as it would be a ‘desperate venture…end[ing] in the eventual destruction of the enemy.’ In fact, the last option was the one chosen.[1]

On 12 January 1918, Fremantle was succeeded by Rear-Admiral Arthur Hayes-Sadler. His squadron included the last two British pre-dreadnought battleships, HMS Agamemnon and Lord Nelson. Their speed of only 18 knots meant that they could not intercept  Goeben (22 knots) and Breslau (designed for 27.5 knots but capable of only 20 according to Arthur Marder). However, their armament of four 12 inch and ten 9.2 inch guns each versus Goeben’s ten 11 inch and twelve 5.9 inch guns and Breslau’s twelve 4.1 inch guns meant that they could stop them returning to the Dardanelles. The British had also laid a number of minefields.[2]

The Germans had also changed their command. In September Vizeadmiral Wilhelm Souchon had returned to Germany in September to take command of the 4th Battle Squadron of the High Seas Fleet. His replacement, Vizeadmiral Hubert von Rebeur-Paschwitz, hoped that a sortie would draw Allied ships away from Palestine, where the Ottomans were under pressure; boost Ottoman morale after the loss of Jerusalem; and show that warships were meant to be used.[3]

Aerial reconnaissance had told the Germans that HMS Lord Nelson was not at Mudros. She was taking Hughes-Sadler to meetings in Salonika. He would normally have used the yacht Triad for such a journey, but she was unavailable so he chose to use his flagship rather than a destroyer.[4]

The German staff assumed, on the basis of information from minesweepers, that the mines laid across the entrance to the Dardanelles in 1916 had been washed away. They did not know that more minefields had been laid since, which they could not avoid. Just before the operation began they received a captured chart that showed that there were more minefields than they had realised. It appeared to show that there was a gap between them, but they did not realise that it was only a rough indication rather than an exact plan. The German sortie achieved surprise but at the cost of not properly reconnoitring the enemy minefields .[5]

Goeben and Breslau sailed at 4:00 pm on 19 January, accompanied by four Ottoman destroyers. They left the Dardanelles at 6:00 am the next day, when destroyers turned back. Ten minutes later Goeben struck a mine, receiving only minor damage.[6]

In Mudros harbour on Lemnos the British had HMS Agamemnon, three light cruisers, a sloop, and four destroyers, only two of which were ready for action. Another minesweeper and a monitor were under repair. As well as HMS Lord Nelson, another 23 ships were on detached duty in six squadrons, including two cruisers, four light cruisers, six destroyers and eight monitors.[7]

Freemantle’s orders to detached squadrons, which were still in effect, were that if they encountered Goeben they should lead her ‘in a direction in which support may be obtained.’ However, the general signal that was to be made if Goeben was out was to ‘take all necessary action to engage the enemy.’ RN officers were bound to interpret this as an order to attack her. At 7:40 am the Germans attacked the British ships at Kusu Bay, Pyrgos. They quickly sank the monitors Lord Raglan and M28 before heading for Mudros, pursued by the destroyers HMS Tigress and Lizard.[8]

At 8:30 am Breslau struck a mine. The Germans could now see mines in the clear, blue water. Goeben attempted to take Breslau in tow but at 8:55 struck a mine, which caused serious damage. Breslau then detonated another four mines and began to sink. The Ottoman destroyers came out in order to pick up survivors but withdrew after coming under fire from the British destroyers at 9:30. The British briefly chased them but had to give up due to the risk from shore batteries and mines. They picked up 14 officers and 148 men from the Breslau.[9] Her official crew was 354.[10]

Goeben withdrew.  She struck another mine at 9:48, causing her to list by 15 degrees. She came under air attack but by 10:30 was into the Straits. At 11:32, however, she ran aground and was stuck for six days. Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service aircraft flew 270 sorties against her, dropping 15 tons of bombs. Strong winds, low clouds and effective anti-aircraft fire meant that only two hits were scored. Even if more had been obtained, the 65 and 112 pound bombs used could have done little damage. Two seaplanes armed with 18 inch torpedoes arrived on the seaplane carrier Manxman too late to attack. Indirect fire from a monitor was also ineffective.[11]

This left submarine attack. One E-class boat, E12 was available on 21 January, but one of her engine shafts had been fractured. This restricted her surface speed and battery recharging, but not her submerged speed, so Hayes-Sadler refused to allow her to attack, although her captain, Lieutenant F. Williams-Freeman, was willing. Two more, E2 and E14 arrived on 21 January, but nothing was done until the C.-in-C. Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe, arrived on 25 January. E14, which was newer and had a more experienced captain and crew than E2, was sent in two days later, by when Goeben had been refloated and left. E14 was detected by hydrophones, forced to the surface by depth charges and destroyed by shore batteries. Her captain, Geoffrey Saxton White, was later posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation, from naval-history.net, which also lists all the British casualties, read:

31354 – 23 MAY 1919

Admiralty, S.W., 24th May, 1919.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned Officers:

Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Saxton White, R.N.

For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty as Commanding Officer of H.M. Submarine “E 14” on the 28tlh of January, 1918.

“E 14” left Mudros on the 27th of January under instructions to force the Narrows and attack the “Goeben,” which was reported aground off Nagara Point after being damaged during her sortie from the Dardanelles. The latter vessel was not found and “E 14” turned back. At about 8.45 a.m. on the 28th of January a torpedo was fired from E 14” at an enemy ship; 11 seconds after the torpedo left the tube a heavy explosion took place, caused all lights to go out, and sprang the fore hatch. Leaking badly the boat was blown to 15 feet, and at once a heavy fire came from the forts, but the hull was not hit. “E 14” then dived and proceeded on her way out.

Soon afterwards the boat became out of control, and as the air supply was nearly exhausted, Lieutenant-Commander White decided to run the risk of proceeding on the surface. Heavy fire was immediately opened from both sides, and, after running the gauntlet for half-an-hour, being steered from below, “E 14” was so badly damaged that Lieutenant-Commander White turned towards the shore in order to give the crew a chance of being saved. He remained on deck the whole time himself until he was killed by a shell.

_____

Enver Pasha, the Ottoman War Minister had warned von Rebeur-Paschwitz to be careful with his two ships because of their great value to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans thought that the Germans had taken too great a risk with them.[12]

Goeben’s damage was not fully repaired until after the war, by when she was the property of Turkey. She was not scrapped until 1971. although she had by then been out of service for many years.[13] The Allies did not realise the severity of her damage and continued to fear another sortie by her.[14] She did operate in the Black Sea later in 1918.[15]

Hayes-Sadler, who was in poor health, was replaced by Rear-Admiral Cecil F. Lambert. The main negative for the Royal Navy of the action was that it allowed the Press to again bring up the story of the blunders that had led to Goeben and Breslau getting to the Ottoman Empire in 1914.[16] The operation was a mistake by the Germans, who upset their Ottoman allies, lost a modern light cruiser and had a battlecruiser damaged in return for sinking two monitors and a submarine.

[1] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. vol. v, pp. 12-13.

[2] Ibid., p. 13.

[3] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, p. 255.

[4] Marder, From. vol. v, pp.15-16.

[5] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. v, pp. 85-86.

[6] Marder, From. vol. v, p. 15.

[7] Ibid., p. 14.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 84.

[9] Ibid., pp. 88-90.

[10] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, p. 159.

[11] Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 16-17.

[12] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 92.

[13] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 152.

[14] Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 18-19.

[15] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 294.

[16] Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 19-20.

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The Battle of Jutland 31 May – 2 June 1916

Introduction

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.

Battleships

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

Dreadnought

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
German

Nassau

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

Battlecruisers

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

Invincible

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
German

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]

Conclusion

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.

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