Tag Archives: Grand Fleet

The High Seas Fleet Sorties After Jutland

The Battle of Jutland was not the last time that Admiral Reinhard Scheer’s German High Seas Fleet (HSF) challenged the British Grand Fleet (GF) in the North Sea. On the evening of 18 August it put to sea with the intention of bombarding Sunderland. The dispositions of U-boats used ahead of Jutland had failed: if they closed on estuaries they got in each other’s way; but if they stood out to sea the gaps between them were big enough for the British to slip through unseen.

They were therefore deployed in three lines, with orders to move to other positions after either a certain period of time or receipt of a signal. The commander of U-boats was on board a battleship in order to facilitate co-operation between the surface fleet and the submarines. Eight airships were used to provide early warning of the advance of British ships Vize-Admiral Franz von Hipper’s Scouting Group (SG) was to remain 20  miles ahead of the rest of the HSF.[1]

The HSF had only two battlecruisers available, since one had been sunk at Jutland and two were under repair. Hipper was therefore reinforced by three of the HSF’s 17 dreadnoughts, including SMS Bayern, the first German ship armed with 15 inch guns. The pre-dreadnoughts of the II Battle Squadron, which had been shown at Jutland to be too slow and weak for a modern battle, were left behind.[2]

The British intercepted a signal at 9:19 am on 18 August that that the HSF was putting to sea at 9:00 pm that evening but not where it was going. The Grand Fleet was ordered at 10:56 am to put to sea. Submarines were stationed off Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Harwich. Three were already watching the approaches to the Bight and two more were sent to the north of Helgoland. By midnight on 18 August 26 British submarines were in the North Sea.[3]

Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the C.-in-C. of the GF, was on leave in Forfarshire. The cruiser HMS Royalist was sent to Dundee to collect him and take him to his flagship HMS Iron Duke. The transfer was delayed until 9:00 pm by a U-boat attack on HMS Onslaught, one of Iron Duke’s destroyer screen.

Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Force (BCF) reached its rendezvous with the GF at 5:00 am, when it was 30 miles ahead of the GF. At 5:57 am one of his light cruisers, HMS Nottingham, was struck by two torpedoes fired by U52. A third hit her at 6:25 am. She was abandoned by 7:00 am and sank 10 minutes later.[4] Naval-history.net lists the 39 of her crew who were killed.

Jellicoe was not told that Nottingham had been damaged until 6:50 am. He then took control of the GF, at 7:00 am ordering it to head north as he did not know if Nottingham had been mined or torpedoed. At 9:00 am he was told that the British submarine E23 had torpedoed a German battleship. He then turned south towards the HSF, about 170 miles away.[5]

E23, captained by Lieutenant-Commander R. R. Turner, had fired first at a battlecruiser and then at an unidentified German ship, missing both. At 5:00 am E23 torpedoed the battleship SMS Westfalen.  She was damaged but was able to return to Wilhelmshaven. Turner tracked her for two and a half hours, but her destroyers allowed him to fire only two more torpedoes, which missed.[6]

At 9:19 am HMS Canterbury of Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt’s Harwich Force of light cruisers and destroyers picked up a signal sent by E23 at 9:16 am giving the position of the HSF. The message was incomplete, with the crucial information that it gave the position at 4:00 am being lost. It was passed to Jellicoe by 10:18 am. Admiralty direction finding equipment, however, provided a ‘valuable check’ on this information.[7]

At 2:00 pm the Admiralty informed Jellicoe that the HSF had been 60 miles away at 12:33 pm. At 2:15 pm he told the GF that ‘[t]he High Sea Fleet may be met at any moment. I look with entire confidence to the result.  The GF was prepared for imminent action and the Harwich Force was ordered to a position where it could launch a night torpedo attack as the HSF retreated.[8]

Scheer had received a number of reports of British warships from U-boats and airships.[9] They did not enable him to form a ‘coherent view’ of the British positions, but he could be sure that they were at sea and the visibility from the fleet justified the assumption that the German ‘airships commanded a clear view over the entire sea area.’[10]

Scheer assumed that the British were concentrating about 110 miles north west of the HSF, with patrols to the south. At 12:23 pm the HSF was 82 miles off Whitby, heading north to Sunderland, when the airship L13 reported that at 11:30 am a British force was 65 miles south of the HSF and heading north. At 12:30 pm L13 signalled that the British force consisted of 16 destroyers, large and small cruisers and battleships. She then lost touch with it because of a thundercloud. Scheer believed that this was his chance to destroy a detached British battle squadron and turned south towards it.[11]

L13, whose pilot was a reserve officer and not well trained in reconnaissance work, had actually spotted the Harwich Force. At 12:45 pm it changed course, so the HSF did not encounter it.[12] Scheer called off the chase at 2:35 pm, citing the proximity of minefields.[13] He had also received a report from U53 informing him that the GF was 65 miles to the north and heading south.

The BCF would have been in contact with the HSF by 3:00 pm had it not turned away. At 3:05 Jellioce ordered Beatty to turn north if he had not encountered the enemy by 4:00 pm. A number of submarines, alerted by U53’s signal, were sighted, but the only smoke spotted belonged to a trawler, so Beatty ordered the BCF north at 4:03 pm.[14]

At 4:52 pm U66 fired two torpedoes at the light cruiser HMS Falmouth. Two struck her, causing severe damage but leaving her afloat with her engines working. U66 fired two more torpedoes, which both missed, and was then damaged by a depth charge dropped by the destroyer HMS Pelican. All crew other than those needed to work the ship were taken off Falmouth and tugs were sent to tow her , since attempts by destroyers to tow her had failed. The tugs were small and able to tow her at only two to three knots.

At noon on 20 August U63 penetrated her screen of nine destroyers and fired two torpedoes, which both hit Falmouth. HMS Porpoise tried to ram the U-boat but only grazed her, and U63 escaped. Falmouth was abandoned and sank just before 8:00 am on 21 August. The British Naval Staff Monograph gives her casualties as three dead, 8 missing and 13 wounded, but naval-history.net lists 12 dead and 13 wounded. All the dead and seven of the wounded were stokers, who would have been deep inside the ship. Other U-boats harassed the GF and BCF but no further torpedo hits were scored.[15]

The Harwich Force spotted the HSF at 6:00 pm. It made full speed in order to get ahead of it and launch a torpedo attack. After an hour, however, Tyrwhitt realised that his ships would not be in a position to attack before the moon rose, which would have made an attack suicidal.[16] The operation therefore ended with no action between surface ships and two British light cruisers sunk and a German battleship damaged by submarines.

The British destroyer HMS Trident suffered damage to her stern in a collision with the destroyer HMS Ambuscade. Her speed was unaffected.[17]

Both navies changed their strategies as a result of the events of 19 August. Jellicoe believed that he needed 87 destroyers: 12 for each eight battleships or battlecruisers; two per cruiser; and one per light cruisers. He had 86 on paper, but typically only 70 were available because of refits and detachments to other duties.

On 23 September the Admiralty issued new instructions. The GF was vital to the Allies, but the HSF was not so important to the Central Powers. The risk to the GF from submarines and minefields meant that it should stay north of the Horns Reefs ‘except in exceptional circumstances… an attempt at invasion or a really good opportunity of bringing the German Fleet to action in daylight, in an appropriate area.’[18]

Scheer believed that the mistaken reports from L13 denied him a chance of a victory. Given that the GF was out in force, the odds in its favour were greater than at Jutland and the two fleets would have come into contact earlier than on 31 May, it is more likely that L13’s error saved him from disaster. He had received 11 reports from five of the 24 U-boats involved, seven of them from U53. Three of the 10 airships sighted the British, sending seven reports, four of them misleading.

19 August made the German Naval Staff believe more strongly that only U-boats could give decisive results at sea, not the HSF. U-boats were ordered to resume the war on commerce on 6 October, albeit using under prize rules that meant that they had to stop and search merchant ships rather than sinking them without warning.[19]

The 19 August was not the HSF’s last sortie into the North Sea, but it would in the future have to depend solely on airships for reconnaissance. This, couple with the more cautious British strategy, meant that it was the last sortie that came close to resulting in a major battle.



[1] R. Scheer, Germany’s High Sea Fleet in the World War (London: Cassell and Company, 1920), pp. 180-81.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1927 vol. xvii, Home Waters part vii June 1916 to November 1916, pp. 94-95.

[3] Ibid., pp. 95-98.

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

[5] Ibid., pp. 101-2.

[6] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iv, p. 37.

[7] Naval Staff vol. Xvii, p. 102.

[8] Ibid., p. 104.

[9] Ibid., p. 106.

[10] Scheer, Germany’s, p. 182.

[11] Naval Staff vol. Xvii, pp. 106-7.

[12] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. iii, p. 293.

[13] Scheer, Germany’s, p. 182.

[14] Naval Staff vol. Xvii, p. 108.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Marder, From. vol. iii, pp. 295-96.

[17] Naval Staff vol. Xvii, p. 112.

[18] Ibid., pp. 130-31.

[19] Marder, From. vol. iii, p.298.


Filed under War History

U9 Sinks HMS Hawke 15 October 1914

On 13 October the German Navy, after receiving intelligence that the British Grand Fleet was at least partly operating from Scapa Flow, sent two U-boats to patrol off the Orkneys. The U9, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen, which had already sunk three British cruisers in a single engagement, was to patrol to the east of the Orkneys. The U18 was ordered to patrol to the west, but had to return to base almost immediately because of a hot bearing. She was replaced with the U17. The U-boats were to stay 60-100 miles off the Orkneys.

U9 was an early German submarine, carrying only four 17.7 inch torpedo tubes and just six torpedoes. She was capable of only 8 knots submerged. On the surface her Körting paraffin engines gave off a lot of smoke and sparks and a speed of only 14 knots. She could make 8 knots submerged. U17 and U18 were newer, larger and faster: 15 knots on the surface and 9 submerged. However, they had the same armament as U9 and also had paraffin engines.

Other U-boats had been operating in the North Sea; U16 fired two torpedoes at the cruiser HMS Antrim on 9 October, but they missed thanks to orders given quickly by Commander John Webster, Antrim’s navigating officer. He was promoted to Captain for his action.

The Grand Fleet had been patrolling the North Sea in early October because of the risk that German battlecruisers would try and break out in order to attack a convoy that had left Canada on 2 October carrying over 30,000 men and their equipment to Europe. Click here for more details.

It was escorted by four old cruisers, two pre-dreadnought battleships and one of the Royal Navy’s newest battlecruisers, HMS Princess Royal. Other cruisers covered ports on the east coast of the USA in case German liners that had been trapped there by the outbreak of war had been secretly armed and tried to break out to attack the convoy.

So secret was the assignment of Princess Royal to the escort that neither the Canadian government nor the escort commander, Rear Admiral Wester Wemyss, knew about it until she met the convoy in the Atlantic. This level of secrecy was justified by the need to minimise ‘the risk entailed in weakening the 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron.’[1] The convoy reached the UK without being attacked, although the presence of U-boats in the channel forced it to dock at Devonport rather than Southampton, as originally planned.

On 15 October five Edgar class cruisers were on patrol off Peterhead on the north east coast of Scotland, sailing in line abreast 10 miles apart. Rear Admiral Dudley de Chair’s flagship HMS Crescent had returned to Cromarty to take on coal, ‘but he had left definite instructions for the method of cruising so as to minimise the risk of submarine attack.’[2]

The squadron did not repeat the errors of U9‘s earlier victims, which had kept to a steady course, formation and speed. Instead, the Edgars ‘kept well apart; they continually altered course; they varied their speed.’[3]

However at 9:30 am HMS Hawke and Endymion ‘incredibly’ stopped so that Hawke could send a boat to her sister ship in order to collect mail.[4] Endymion returned to her station once the boat had left. Hawke was stationary for 15 minutes until she had recovered her boat before moving off at 12-13 knots. By then the rest of the squadron was out of sight.

Weddigen had been tracking the squadron since daybreak, but had been unable to get into a position to fire. He dived after almost being run down by a cruiser and came up to periscope depth expecting to have a shot at the cruiser with one of his stern tubes. However, she was in front of U9, so he fired a bow tube. Hawke was hit amidships at 10:30 am and sank within 10 minutes. Only two boats could be launched in the time available.

The rest of the squadron did not know what had happened until 1:20 pm, when U17 fired a torpedo at HMS Theseus. The squadron was obeying de Chair’s instructions regarding anti-submarine measures, and the torpedo missed. The squadron was ordered to head north west at full speed, but Hawke did not reply.

One of Hawke’s boats, with 49 survivors, was found by the Norwegian merchantman Modesta, but there was no sign of the other one, which was probably crushed by Hawke as she capsized. Another 22 men on a raft were rescued by the fast flotilla leader HMS Swift. U17 fired a torpedo at her as she headed to Scapa, but it missed thanks to Swift’s high speed. One of the men rescued died the next day, making a total of 70 saved and 524 lost. They are listed on the website Naval-History.net.

At 1:15 pm on 16 October, the Acorn class destroyers HMS Lyra, Nymphe, Nemesis and Alarm, were making 13 knots on patrol off the eastern entrance to Scapa Flow. Nymphe had just increased speed to 15 knots and followed a change of course signalled by Lyra when her officer of the watch spotted a periscope.

It belonged to U9, which was manoeuvring with the intention of getting between Lyra and Nymphe so that it could torpedo them simultaneously using a stern and a bow tube respectively. It fired a bow torpedo that missed Nymphe by two feet, Nemesis by 200 yards and Alarm by 10 yards after she went hard a port to stop the torpedo hitting her stern. Nymphe tried to ram U9, but Weddigen managed to dive his boat in time. The destroyers stayed in the area until dark, but had no means of attacking a submerged submarine.

There had been a number of false sightings of alleged German U-boats in British harbours. One on 1 September led to the First Battle of Scapa Flow, with British ships firing on phantom periscopes. The first ‘periscope’ sighted was probably a seal. [5]

The Grand Fleet went to sea after this, with all but the 3rd Battle Squadron then being based at Loch Ewe from 5 to 24 September. This base was thought to be far enough from German bases to be safe from U-boats, but it was also too far from the English Channel for the Grand Fleet to have arrived in time had German High Seas Fleet entered the English Channel to attack the British Army’s supply ships.

In October a mistaken sighting of a periscope as the battle cruisers entered the Cromarty Firth led to the Battle of Jemimaville in which a 4 inch shell damaged the roof and chimney of a house in the village of Jemimaville. A baby was slightly injured, but the parents were ‘soothed’ with the news that two U-boats had been sunk.[6]

At 4 pm on the afternoon of 16 October, it was reported wrongly that there was a U-boat in Scapa Flow. Loch Ewe had been abandoned as a base after a U-boat had been reported in the harbour on 6 October. There was another reporting of a submarine in Scapa Flow on 17 October. The next day the Grand Fleet’s commander Admiral Sir John Jellicoe started to move it to Lough Swilly on the north coast of Ireland and Loch na Keal, south of Loch Ewe. These harbours had narrow and easily defensible entrances and Lough Swilly was shallow, making it hard for a submerged submarine to safely enter.

The Grand Fleet returned to Scapa Flow on 9 November. A fortnight later the trawler Dorothy Gray rammed U-18 inside the anchorage. The submarine was so badly damaged that her captain, Kapitänleutnant Heinrich von Henning, had to scuttle her. One man was lost, and the rest of her crew captured. Had she escaped, the Germans would have learnt about the weakness of Scapa Flow’s defences, but her loss made them assume that it was well defended.

There were few more submarine alerts until later in the war. However, it was the middle of 1915 before Scapa Flow had been made secure by the use of sunken merchant ships and booms to block some channels, defensive minefields, seaplanes, gun batteries and searchlights. Hydrophones were later added to the defences.



[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1924 xi, Home Waters part ii, September and October 1914. p. 103.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). i, p. 207

[3] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 12.

[4] J. Goldrick, The King’s Ships Were at Sea: The War in the North Sea, August 1914-February 1915 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), p. 138.

[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). ii, p. 66.

[6] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 155.


Filed under War History