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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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The End of the Last of the Early German Commerce Raiders: SMS Konigsberg

At the outbreak of the First World War eight German cruisers were outside home waters or the Mediterranean. The five ships of Vize Admiral Maximilian Spee’s East Asia Squadron sank the British armoured cruisers HMS Good Hope and Monmouth at the Battle of Coronel on 1 November 1914, but four of them were then sunk at the Falklands on 8 December. The other, SMS Dresden, was destroyed on 14 March 1915. These ships sank or captured a total of 29,826 tons of Allied merchant shipping, 12,927 of it by Dresden and 15,299 by SMS Leipizig.[1]

The two most successful German commerce raiders in the early stages of the war were SMS Emden, which accounted for 82,938 tons of merchant shipping, the Russian cruiser Zhemchug and the French destroyer Mousquet and SMS Karlsruhe, which sank or captured 76,909 tons of merchant shipping. Both were destroyed in early November 1914, Karlsruhe by an accidental internal explosion on the 4th and Emden by HMAS Sydney five days later.

By late November the light cruiser SMS Königsberg was the only one of the eight cruisers still afloat. She had sunk the old light cruiser HMS Pegasus at Zanzibar on 20 September 1914, and had previously sunk the 6,600 ton merchantman City of Winchester. The British then lost trace of her until the light cruiser HMS Chatham captured the German liner Präsident on 25 October. Papers found on board her indicated that Königsberg was in the Rufiji Delta in German East Africa, now Tanzania. [2]

Chatham spotted her masts on 30 October, but locals reported that the creek in that she was in could be mined and was defended by shore batteries and trenches. The waters were shallow, had no navigation marks and a major warship could pass them for only a few hours a day. Consequently, Königsberg was fairly safe from attack but was also trapped, since she could not hope to evade her blockaders.[3]

On 2 November the light cruisers HMS Dartmouth and Weymouth arrived. They tried to fire on Königsberg, her supply ship Somali and the shore positions, but observation was difficult, especially as the German cruiser had removed her top masts and camouflaged herself with foliage. An attack on the Somali by a steam launch carrying two torpedoes on 7 November failed, but Chatham was able to set the Somali on fire, destroying many of the Königsberg’s stores. Three days later the British blocked what was believed to be the only navigable channel out of the Rufiji by scuttling the collier Newbridge in it. The British lost two men killed and nine wounded in this operation.[4]

A seaplane was sent to the Rufiji, locating Königsberg on 22 November; she was out of range of any ships outside the delta. It was damaged, but returned after being repaired with a new hull that allowed it to carry an observer and bombs. A reconnaissance flight on 4 December revealed that there were two other channels that Königsberg might use, as well as the one that had been blocked. Six days later the seaplane was lost after a forced landing. [5]

Dar-es-Salaam was attacked on 28 November in order to destroy merchant vessels that might have supplied Königsberg. Commander Henry Ritchie was awarded the RN’s first Victoria Cross of the war for courage during it.

On 6 February the armed tug Adjutant was lost whilst investigating the entrance to the delta. The British Official History says that she was captured by the Germans and later used on Lake Tanganyika, but the Naval Staff Monograph, an internal Admiralty document, states that it was a different ship of the same name that was captured.[6]

Two Sopwith seaplanes with 100 hp engines and capable of carrying 100 pound bombs were sent out from the UK, but they were not powerful enough for the climactic conditions, one of them crashing on 24 February. Combined operations using marines were considered but rejected.[7]

The Admiralty commenced a formal blockade of the Rufiji on 1 March, meaning that neutral ships should leave, although none were present. The need for refits and redeployments of modern ships meant that the squadron off the Rufiji consisted of HMS Weymouth, the older light cruisers HMS Hyacinth and Pyramus and HMAS Pioneer, the armed merchant cruiser HMS Kinfauns Castle, the armed steamer Dupleix, the armed tug Helmuth and the armed whalers Fly, Pickle, Echo and Childers.[8]

On 6 March Vice Admiral Herbert King-Hall. C.-in-C. of the Cape Station arrived at the Rufiji in the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Goliath to take command. On 24 March Pyramus was sent for a refit. The next day Goliath was ordered to the Dardanelles, where she was later sunk. King-Hall transferred his flag to Hyacinth.[9]

Three more Short seaplanes with 160 hp engines arrived on the armed merchant cruiser HMS Laconia on 20 April. They carried out reconnaissance flights on 25 and 27 April, taking photos of Königsberg and fixing her position. She was, however, too well camouflaged to see whether or not she had landed any of her guns. The seaplanes came under heavy fire at their maximum height in this climate of 800-1,000 feet, so King-Hall decided not to carry out further flights for now. He suggested attacking Königsberg with a torpedo armed launch, but the Admiralty had come up with an alternative plan.[10]

On 28 April the monitors HMS Mersey and Severn left Malta for East Africa, accompanied by the fleet messenger Trent, four tugs and a collier. The monitors were shallow draft vessels designed for river operations and armed with two 6 inch guns. They struggled to make the journey, since they were not designed for the open seas or for the heat of the Red Sea, but they arrived on 3 June after a ‘voyage…as arduous as any in the war.’[11]

King-Hall’s squadron attacked Königsberg on 6 July. Pyramus had by then rejoined and Kinfauns Castle had been replaced by the armed merchant cruiser HMS Laurentic. The cruiser HMS Challenger arrived two days later. An onshore aerodrome had now been set up.[12]

The monitors headed up river at 4:15 am, stopping 10,800 yards from Königsberg at 6:20 am They easily dealt with machine gun and rifle fire and an attempt to launch a torpedo from the shore. They opened fire at 6:48 am, firing alternate salvos with an aeroplane spotting for them, but problems were encountered in receiving the corrections. Königsberg opened fire at 7:00 am, quickly straddling the monitors. Mersey’s captain decided to change her position after she was slightly damaged at 7:30 am, but one of her 6 inch guns was then knocked out. Six of her crew were killed and two wounded. She withdrew a short distance at 7:40 am. In the meantime, the light cruisers were bombarding suspected German positions at the entrances to the delta.[13]

The seaplane found it easier to spot for only one monitor, and Severn began to hit Königsberg from 7:51 am onwards. Mersey returned at 8:10 am, but both monitors then started to miss the target. Severn changed position at 9:15 am, reopening fire at 9:50 am, but the aeroplane had now left because of technical problems. Around this time, Königsberg’s fire became ineffective after an onshore German observation post was found and destroyed. Another aeroplane arrived in the afternoon, but little further damage was done before the British withdrew at 3:30 pm.[14]

The attack was resumed on 11 July, as soon as the monitors and aircraft had been repaired. This time, Mersey would move to the same position as before and open fire with the sole intention of covering Severn’s move to a different position 10,000 yards from Königsberg. The aeroplane would spot only for Severn. If she had not put Königsberg out of action in an hour, Mersey would move to 7,000 yards from the German ship and take over. If this did not work, Severn would advance to 6,000 yards range. Only one monitor would be firing at any one time to ease spotting for the aeroplane.[15]

The monitors were in the entrance by 11:45 am. Mersey’s attempt to distract Königsberg failed, and Severn came under heavy fire. She opened fire from 9,500 yards at 12:31 pm, closing to 8,800 yards after the first five salvos had missed. At 12:42 pm, the eighth salvo hit and hits continued to be scored until 12:49 pm, when shrapnel damage forced the aeroplane to ditch near Severn. Its last signal informed the monitor that all her hits had been in the forward part of the German cruiser. Severn corrected her fire and at 12:52 pm scored a hit that produced a large explosion and dense smoke. The Germans then stopped firing.[16]

Severn continued firing until 1:46 pm, when Mersey was ordered to close to 7,000 yards. As she advanced, Königsberg suffered a number of explosions, presumably an attempt to scuttle her since she was not then under fire. Mersey opened fire at 2:15 pm, with another seaplane spotting. She could not get closer than 8,000 yards and could bring only one gun to bear, but after 15 minutes Königsberg was on fire, listing heavily and had lost a funnel, so the British ceased fire and withdrew. Their only casualties were two men slightly wounded on Mersey.[17]

Königsberg inflicted little damage on Allied shipping, but she was able to tie up a large number of British warships, both in blockading her and in escorting troop convoys before she was found. The survivors of her crew joined the German force under Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck that was successfully conducting guerrilla warfare in East Africa.

The Germans also armed five merchant liners as commerce raiders in 1914. Two were quickly sunk: SMS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse (10,400 tons sunk) by the protected cruiser HMS Highflyer on 26 August 1914 and SMS Cap Trafalgar (no ships sunk) was sunk by the armed merchant cruiser HMS Carmania on 14 September 1914. SMS Cormoran (no ships sunk), short of coal, interned herself at Guam on 14 December 1914. The other two, SMS Prince Eitel Friedrich (33,423 tons sunk) and Kronprinz Wilhelm (60,522 tons sunk), conducted successful cruises before interning themselves in Newport News on 10 March and 11 April 1914 respectively. Both ships urgently needed repairs, Prince Eitel Friedrich was almost out of coal and some of Kronprinz Wilhelm ‘s crew were suffering from beri-beri.[18]

The sinking of Königsberg meant that there were no German commerce raiders at large. The eight warships and five converted merchant liners had sunk a total of 300,318 tons of Allied merchant shipping and five warships. Even adding in ships sunk by submarines and mines and ones interned in enemy ports, the UK lost less than 2.3 per cent of its total merchant shipping and less than 2.6 per cent of steamers of over 1,000 tons from the outbreak of war to 31 January 1915. The Allies sank, captured or interned nearly 15 per cent of the Central Powers’ steam tonnage over the same period.[19]

The main effect of the commerce raiders was that a large number of Allied warships were used to search for them and to escort troop convoys. The main problem for the raiders was coal supply. Their threat would have been greatly reduced if Allied cruisers had been used to convoy trade, especially colliers, instead of hunting for the raiders.[20] A second round of German surface commerce raiding began in early 1916. It used smaller and innocuous looking merchant ships that needed less coal.

 

[1] Shipping losses are from Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) vol. xxv, ‘Review of German Cruiser Warfare 1914-1918’. p. 1.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 338.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1921 vol. ii, ‘East Africa to July 1916, Cameroons 1914’. ‘Monograph 10 East Africa to July 1916’, pp. 54-55.

[4] Ibid., pp. 56-60.

[5] Ibid., pp. 61-68.

[6] Ibid. p. 75, footnote 1; Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 288, footnote 2.

[7] Naval Staff vol. ii. pp. 74-75. footnote 2, p. 75.

[8] Ibid., pp. 77-78.

[9] Ibid., pp. 79-82.

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

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 64.

[12] Ibid. p. 64, footnote 2.

[13] Naval Staff vol. ii. pp. 96-97.

[14] Ibid., pp. 97-99.

[15] Ibid., pp. 99-100.

[16] Ibid., pp. 100-101.

[17] Ibid., p. 101.

[18] Naval Staff vol. Xxv. pp. 12-13.

[19] C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. i, pp. 384-86.

[20] Naval Staff vol. Xxv. p. 3.

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The Sinking of SMS Dresden 14 March 1915

The light cruiser SMS Dresden was the only German ship of Vizeadmiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s East Asia Squadron to escape the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914. The British force that hunted for her initially comprised two battlecruisers and 10 cruisers, but was reduced to four cruisers and an armed merchant cruiser after about a fortnight.

Dresden managed to evade the British ships for three months, hiding in the many inlets and bays of Tierra del Fuego. She kept in touch with Puntas Arenas by motor boat. Mr Milward, the British consul there, wrote an accurate report about Dresden’s whereabouts. However, Rear Admiral Archibald Stoddart, commanding the Royal Navy’s South Atlantic and Pacific Stations, thought that Milward had been misled by a German plan to trick British ships into a remote area in order to permit Dresden to escape.[1]

The Naval Staff Monograph vol. xxv, a British Admiralty publication written post war for internal use, attributes the failure to find her as being because ‘the intelligence organisation, centred in London and Montevideo…proved defective.’[2]

The Admiralty was convinced that she was hiding on the almost inaccessible Last Hope Inlet, a notion that seems to have resulted from German disinformation. The light cruisers HMS Bristol and Glasgow were sent there to await the arrival of the armoured cruiser HMS Kent. This allowed Dresden to enter the Pacific on 14 February 1915.

Glasgow, Bristol and the armed merchant cruiser HMS Orama were ordered back to Last Hope Inlet on 3 March after a report that there had been a light cruiser there, although Captain John Luce of Glasgow realised that this was a sighting of his own ship on her previous visit.[3]

An intercepted signal then revealed the location of a rendezvous between the German collier Gotha and Dresden. Kent was ordered there on 7 March and spotted Dresden. She saw nothing that day, but waited. The next morning was foggy, but the fog lifted in the afternoon to reveal Dresden 12 miles away, Kent pursued her, but was still eight miles from her when night fell. Kent was too short of coal to continue the chase.[4]

Luce, whose ship was coaling at Coronel, had decided to search the island of Más a Fuera in the Juan Fernandez Islands with Glasgow and Orama. Bristol was under repair after damaging her rudder at Last Hope Inlet. An intercepted signal then revealed that Dresden was at Más a Tierra, the main island of the group. Kent was then ordered to join Glasgow and Orama there on 14 March.[5]

The British ships found Dresden in Cumberland Bay. She was under steam, showing that she was not interned but intended to flee. The British opened fire at 8,400 yards and Dresden appeared to lower her colours after three minutes, although Fritz Lüdecke, her captain, claimed that they had been shot away and were re-hoisted. The British ceased fire and the Germans sent a boat carrying a flag of truce. The officer in charge of it, Leutnant Wilhelm Canaris, claimed that Dresden had been interned, which Luce rejected.

Another boat then approached Glasgow. It was carrying the local marine governor, who was also the lighthouse keeper. He protested the British action, but admitted that he had no means of forcing Dresden to leave Chilean waters. Luce offered compensation for the damage done to Chilean property by the British fire. In the meantime, Lüdecke had scuttled his ship by blowing up her forward magazine.[6] Nine Germans were killed and fifteen wounded.[7]

The survivors were interned, but Canaris managed to get back to Germany. He captained a U-boat and later rose to the rank of Admiral, becoming head of the Abwehr, German military intelligence. He was executed near the end of World War II because he had conspired against Adolf Hitler.

Another survivor of Dresden was a pig: warships then sometimes carried animals in order to provide fresh meat. He was rescued from the sea by HMS Glasgow, whose crew adopted him as a mascot and named him Tirpitz after the German admiral. He later transferred to the Naval Gunnery School at Whale Island, Portsmouth, before being auctioned to raise money for the Red Cross. His head was mounted after his death and presented to the Imperial War Museum.

Both sides had breached Chilean neutrality, the Germans by staying for five days rather than 24 hours and the British by opening fire.[8] The Chileans protested to both. The British apologised quickly, but noted that Dresden was hiding in an area where Chile had no means of enforcing its neutrality. The Germans took six months to reply. The British Official History argues that this meant that the action ‘rather increased the sympathy of the Chileans for the Allied cause as against that of the Central Powers.’[9]

Dresden captured a total of 12,927 tons of Allied merchant shipping during her cruise. Her destruction meant that the only German surface raider still at sea was the armed merchant cruisers Kronprinz Wilhelm, which would be interned at Newport News in the USA on 11 April 1915. The armed merchant cruiser Prinz Eitel Friedrich had been interned in the same port on 10 March 1915.

However, the Allies did not yet know that the light cruiser SMS Karlsruhe had been destroyed by an accidental explosion on 4 November 1915. The light cruiser SMS Königsberg was blockaded in the Rufiji River in German East Africa, now Tanzania.

 

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol ii, pp. 243-44.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xxv, ‘Review of German Cruiser Warfare 1914-1918’. p. 6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 248-49.

[5] Naval Staff vol. xxv. p. 6; Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 249

[6] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 249-51 and footnote on p. 250.

[7] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 285.

[8] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 100.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 251.

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The Naval Blockades: (2) Germany

During the First World War both the United Kingdom and Germany attempted to carry out naval blockades of the other. Each country used actions by the other to justify escalations by the other. The Germans laid unanchored, floating mines in the North Sea early in the war. International law said that such mines had to become inoperable after an hour. It was not feasible to do so, but this gave the UK an opportunity to argue that it was Germany that had first broken international law.

The UK then tightened its blockade beyond what was permitted by the 1909 Declaration of London. On 5 November the Admiralty announced that the whole of the North Sea was a war zone, warning that ships entering from the north would do so at their own risk. The official reason for this was the German minefields, but the real one was to force neutral ships heading into the North Sea to go through the English Channel, making it easier to search them for contraband.

On 4 February 1915 Germany announced that the waters round the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland would be a war zone from 18 February. It justified this by reference to the British declaration of 5 November. All hostile merchant ships in this area would be destroyed without warning. The safety of neutral ships could not be guaranteed because British ships had been flying neutral colours. U-boat captains were ordered that their first duty was the safety of their boat, so they should not take risks to find out if a ship was really neutral.[1]

In 1914 the most important successes of German U-boats had been against warships. This continued in 1915, with U24 sinking the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Formidable in the early hours of the year.

It was extremely difficult for submarines to comply with the rules of cruiser warfare, which required raiders to stop and search enemy merchant ships. Merchant ships could be sunk or captured only if their cargoes contained either war materials (absolute contraband) or items such as food or fuel that had peaceful uses but were intended for the enemy’s military (conditional contraband).

The safety of the crews of merchant ships that were sunk had to be ensured. Submarines had no space for prisoners and no spare men to act as prize crews for captured ships, so could comply with this only if the sinking occurred close to land.

One man had predicted before the war that submarines would sink merchant ships without warning. This was the British Admiral Lord Fisher, who by February 1915 was in his second spell as First Sea Lord. In late 1913 he had written a paper arguing that the invention of the submarine meant that the main threat to the UK was having its food and oil supplies cut off by submarine attacks on its merchant shipping

Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and Admiral Prince Louis Battenberg, then the First Sea Lord, both refused to believe that any country would use its submarines in such a way. They thought that Fisher’s view that it would be done weakened his arguments about the risk of submarine attack on the UK’s food and oil supplies.[2]

Only four British merchant vessels had been sunk by U-boats before 30 January. In each case the Germans had given the crew time to abandon ship and no lives were lost.[3]

The most controversial incident had come on 26 October when Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schneider’s U24 torpedoed but did not sink the 4,590 ton French steamer Amiral Ganteaume. She was carrying 2,500 Belgian refugees, 40 of whom were killed. However, Schneider may have thought that she was a troop ship. Whether he did or not, the incident showed the potential political and diplomatic implications of submarine warfare against merchant shipping.[4]

In the Irish Sea on 30 January U21, which had sunk the cruiser HMS Pathfinder in September, the first moving warship ever to be sunk by a submarine, stopped, searched and sank three British merchantmen after allowing their crews time to take to their boats. On the same day, however,  U20 torpedoed and sank three British merchant ships off Le Havre without warning. The crews of the Tokomaru and Ikaria all survived, but all that was found of the 21 man crew of the Oriole was two lifebuoys discovered near Rye on 6 February.[5]

Before the war Kapitänleutnant Ulrich Blum of the Kaiserliche Marine, the German navy, had estimated that 222 U-boats would be needed to successfully carry out a war against British commerce under international law, far more than Germany possessed in early 1915.[6]

The KM began the war with 24 operational U-boats, plus four older ones that were used for training and 16 under construction. By 22 February 13 more had been completed, but one of the new boats and six of the pre-war ones had been lost. Seven newly completed boats were under sea trials, leaving the KM theoretically with 23 to attack British trade. The need to refit, repair and resupply meant that there was an average of 5.6 and a maximum of 12 boats at sea on any one day between March and May 1915.

After the German capture of the Belgian coast gave them bases much closer to the UK, they had begun to build smaller UB and UC coastal submarines. The latter were minelayers, which initially were armed only with mines, although later ones also had torpedo tubes and guns. They were supposed to take four months to build compared with 18 for an ocean going boat, but UB1 was constructed in 75 days. By mid July 1915 17 UBs and 15 UCs had been completed, but the first six UBs were not operational until the latter part of April and UC1 not until early June. [7]

The U-boat war against British trade would eventually cause great problems for the UK, but Germany had too few submarines when it first launched its offensive. However, British counter-measures were also inadequate at first.

The Germans had lost a high proportion of their submarines so far in the war, but two had been rammed by warships whilst on the surface, four had struck mines and the seventh had been sunk by another U-boat on the surface after failing to respond to a challenge. The method that British warships possessed of sinking submerged submarines was the towing of explosive sweeps.

The British had laid a minefield across the Dover Straits in an attempt to stop U-boats entering the English Channel, but 4,000 out of just over 7,000 mines laid between 2 October 1914 and 16 February 1915 drifted or sank to the bottom because the weights holding them in position were too light.[8] The British also laid nets and organised patrols of small, armed ships, but the U-boats were able to pass through the Dover Straits.

The orders issued to U-boat captains on 18 February were that they should attack all hostile ships except hospital ships, unless clearly acting as troopships, and Belgian Relief ships. Neutrals should be spared. However, they were told that ‘if, in spite of the exercise of great care , mistakes should be made, the commanding officers will not be held responsible.’[9]

However, the first ship to be attacked in the new campaign was the Norwegian Belridge, which was carrying a cargo of oil from New Orleans to Amsterdam for the Dutch government. She was torpedoed on 19 February, but managed to make a British port. The Germans apologised and paid compensation.[10]

 

[1] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 293-94.

[2] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 24.

[3] C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. i, pp.358, 365-66.

[4] Halpern, Naval, p. 292.

[5] Fayle, Seaborne. vol. i, pp. 366-68.

[6] Halpern, Naval, p. 291.

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

[8] Ibid., p. 17.

[9] Gibson, Prendergast, German, p. 31.

[10] Fayle, Seaborne. vol. ii, p. 12

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