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William Sanders VC

On 22 June 1917 Lieutenant-Commander William Sanders was awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation, available on Naval-History.net, said merely that Sanders ‘had been decorated because of his conspicuous gallantry, consummate coolness, and skill in command of one of H.M. ships in action.’ The reason for the vagueness was that Sanders was one of a number of sailors awarded the VC in 1917 for actions involving Q-ships, apparently innocuous merchant ships that were manned by the RN and given heavy but concealed armaments. First World War submarines carried relatively few torpedoes (12 in the newest German boats and six or eight in older ones), so often surfaced to sink smaller targets with gunfire.[1]

William Sanders was a thirty-four year old New Zealander who has been a merchant seaman before the war. He had already been awarded a Distinguished Service Order for unspecified reasons whilst serving in a Q-ship. In early 1917 he was given command of HMS Prize, a Q-ship that had originally been a German ship called Else and was the first enemy ship to be captured by the British in the war.[2]

Prize, a 227 ton schooner, was  armed with two 12 pounder guns [76.2mm} and a Lewis machine gun. At 8:35 pm on 30 April 1917 she spotted a surfaced submarine two miles away. She was U93 (Kapitänleutnant Edgar Freiherr von Spiegel von und zu Peckelsheim) and was on her maiden voyage.[3]

Speigel had previously commanded U32 and wrote a book called Kriegstagebuch U 202 based on his experiences: there was no U202 in WWI. It was translated into English after the war under the title War Diary of U202.

By 28 April U93 had sunk three sailing ships and a steamer, totalling 5189 tons. One  of the sailing ship was Danish and the other two plus the steamer Norwegian. The largest sailing ship was torpedoed after being stopped, with the others being sunk by gunfire. That day she damaged the 207 ton Danish sailing ship Diana, which was towed into Queenstown: see U-Boat.net.[4]

On the evening of 29 April U93 torpedoed the defensively armed steamer Comedian (4,889 tons) and then the Ikbal (5,434 tons), both British and carrying ammunition. Both were first torpedoed and then finished off by gunfire. In the early hours of 30 April U93 torpedoed and sank the defensively armed British steamer Horsa (2,949 tons). She picked up survivors from both Ikbal and Horsa, who reported that their treatment ‘left nothing to be desired.’[5]

At 6:30 am U93 was in sight of the Russian sailing ship Borrowdale (1,268 tons) and two defensively armed steamers: the Italian Ascaro (3,245 tons) and the British Huntsmoor (4,957 tons). She torpedoed and sank the Ascaro at 7:05 am. Five minutes later the Huntsmoor opened fire. She then sighted U21 and HMS Begonia (Q10) headed to her. Begonia was a fleet minesweeping sloop that had been modified to look like a merchantman rather than a secretly armed merchantman.

At 09:00 am U21 sank the Borrowdale by gunfire. U93 surfaced and transferred her prisoners to the Borrowdale’s boats. At 09:40 am U93 opened fire on Begonia, which replied, forcing U21 to dive. U93 remained on the surface until Begonia had reduced the range to 1.5 miles, when she dived and escaped. At 5:30 pm the same day U93 torpedoed and sank without warning the Greek steamer Parthenon (2,934 tons): see U-boat.net for a list of the ships sunk by U93.[6] 

U93 by now had only two torpedoes left.[7] Three hours after sinking the Parthenon, she encountered what appeared to him to be an innocuous sailing ship but was actually HMS Prize. Following his normal tactics of surfacing to attack small ships with gunfire and torpedoing large ones whilst submerged, Spiegel opened gunfire on the sailing ship at 08:45 pm. Some of its crew apparently panicked and abandoned ship.

U93 scored several hits on her, wrecking her radio room and one of her two engines, and had closed to 80 yards range by 9:05 pm when Sanders raised the white ensign and ordered his concealed guns to open fire. Spiegel tried to ram but U93 was too close to Prize to do so. The British quickly hit the U93′s conning tower and forward gun. Spiegel and two other Germans ended up in the water. U93 withdrew to 600 yards range. Prize could not close the range because her second engine had given out, but U93 disappeared and appeared to have sunk.

Prize picked up Speigel, Warrant Officer Wilhelm Knappe and Petty Officer Walter Deppe. She was very badly damaged but managed to reach Kinsale on 2 May. Three of her crew were wounded. Sanders was awarded the VC and promoted to Lieutenant-Commander. Lieutenant W. D. Beaton received the DSO.[8]

U93 had not sunk. After her forward gun was put out action her executive officer Oberleutnant Wilhelm Ziegner ordered her to zigzag. Hits to her fuel and diving tanks meant that she was listing 14 degrees to starboard, but she was able to get out of range. As well as the three men who went overboard, several were wounded and one died during the night.

U93 had been hit at least nine times, her guns, periscope and wireless masts were out of action and there was damage to he fuel and diving tanks and several valves and compressed air tanks. A hole in the pressure hull meant that she could not dive, although it was above the waterline when surfaced. She had only just enough oil to get home, with no reserve for high speed dashes if she met Allied warships.

Ziegner managed to get her round Shetland, narrowly avoiding British patrols. U93 met a German trawler near Sylt Island and was towed into Wilhelmshaven after running out of fuel. She was cheered by all the ships she passed and Admiral Reinhard Scheer, C.-in-C. of the High Seas Fleet went on board to congratulate her crew.[9]

Prize was lost with all hands, including Sanders, on 14 August. She encountered UB48 whilst operating with the British submarine D6. The idea was that Prize would attract a U-boat and then signal its position to D6 which would torpedo the German vessel. Sanders, however, opened fire on UB48, which dived and escaped. Now knowing that Prize was a Q-ship, UB48 returned and torpedoed her without surfacing.[10]

Spiegel wrote more books after the war and served in the German diplomatic service in WWII: see Wikipedia. He died in 1965. Ziegner captained UC87 in 1918 but died in December 1919: see U-boat.net.

 

 

[1] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 175-78.

[2] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), p. 83.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1933 vol. xviii, Home Waters part viii, December 1916 to April 1917, pp. 424-26.

[4] Ibid. pp. 424-5 says Diana was sunk.

[5] Ibid., p. 425.

[6] Ibid., pp. 425-26.

[7] Friedrich Ruge, The Submarine War: a U-Boat commanders view in B. Fitzsimons, Warships & Sea Battles of World War I (London: Phoebus, 1973), p. 140.

[8] Naval Staff vol. Xviii, pp. 426-27.

[9] Ruge in Fitzsimons, Warships, p. 141.

[10] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 117-18; R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 170.

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Scandinavian Convoy Action 17 October 1917

By late 1917 the British had organised merchant ships into convoys as a defence against U-boats [more to follow on this subject]. Convoys to Scandinavia ran additional risks to those encountered by convoys in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. They sailed through waters where they risked attack by enemy surface ships and were in the danger zone for most of their voyage. Secrecy was harder to maintain as they consisted mostly of neutral ships and assembled at a neutral port for their homeward journey.[1]

On 15 October 1917 the destroyers HMS Mary Rose (Lieutenant-Commander Charles Fox) and HMS Strongbow (Lieutenant-Commander Edward Brooke) and the armed trawlers Elise and P. Fannon left Lerwick with an eastbound convoy.[2]

In the late morning of 16 October Mary Rose sailed ahead of the convoy to collect the westbound one. She appears to have got ahead of it during the afternoon and the two destroyers were unable to contact each other when Strongbow joined the convoy after dark. At 6:00 am on 17 October the convoy, escorted by Strongbow was about 70 miles east of Lerwick. Mary Rose was six to eight miles ahead of it.

Neither Fox nor Brooke had been informed that British cruiser forces had spent the last two days searching the North Sea for a German force that was believed to be at sea. A total of three large cruisers, 27 light cruisers and 53 destroyers were hunting for what was thought to be a minelayer and some destroyers.[3]

Two German minelayers, SMS Bremse and Brummer, were at sea, but their mission was to attack the Scandinavian convoy, not to lay mines. They were chosen because of their high speed, good sea keeping qualities, radius of action and similar appearance to British light cruisers: they were rigged to resemble British C class cruisers.[4]

The German ships were both armed with four 5.9 inch guns, two 3.5 AA guns and two 19.7 inch torpedo tubes versus three 4 inch guns, three 2 pounders and four 21 inch torpedo tubes on the British destroyers. The Germans had a maximum speed of 34 knots, the same as Mary Rose and 2 knots less than Strongbow.[5]

Strongbow spotted the Germans just after 6:00 am. She made three challenges, none of which were answered satisfactorily. Brooke then prepared to open fire, but the opening German salvo severed Strongbow’s steam pipe, leaving her unable to manoeuvre. Brooke, who was badly wounded in the leg, refused to allow anybody to abandon ship until all confidential books and papers had been destroyed. He then ordered that Strongbow should be scuttled. She had been abandoned by 7:30 am. Brooke was carried off his ship and put onto a Carley raft.[6]

Mary Rose headed for the sound of the guns, but Fox initially assumed that the convoy was being attacked by a U-boat. His ship was ill prepared to fight against heavy odds. The British Official History says that ‘[u]nder the existing organisation it was almost impossible to fight the guns and the torpedo tubes simultaneously…and…the range and deflection transmitters were not working.’[7]

Mary Rose opened fire from 6-7,000 yards range at about 6:20 pm. For a little while it seemed that she might draw the enemy, whose fire was initially inaccurate, away from the convoy. However, the Germans began to hit her at a range of 2,000 yards. By 7:00 am she had to be abandoned. Fox was last seen swimming and did not survive. Only 3 steamers and the two trawlers managed to escape. Nine merchantmen with a total tonnage of 10,248 tons, all neutral, were sunk. The other three steamers, two British and one Belgian, and the two trawlers survived. Only four officers and 41 men out of  Strongbow’s  crew of 82 and two officers and eight men out of 80 on Mary Rose survived. [8]

The casualties are listed on Naval-History.net. Brooke survived the action but died on 10 February 1919 from pneumonia as a result of the action. Wikipedia says that about 250 Allies and Scandinavians were killed, meaning that about 150 neutral Scandinavians died.

Neither destroyer was able to send any signals about the attack. Strongbow was attacked and hit too quickly to get a message off. Mary Rose tried but her signal was jammed by Brummer. By the time that the Admiralty realised what had happened and ordered cruisers to intercept the Germans on their way home it was too late.[9]

The Courts Martial into the loss of the two ships (the Court of Inquiry into the loss of an RN ship takes the form of a Court Martial of her captain) praised both Brooke and Fox for their courage. However, they argued that Brooke would have been better to have tried to draw the Germans away from the convoy and that Fox should have stayed out of range and called for help. It was not known until the publication of the German Official History after the war that he had tried to do so but that Mary Rose’s signal had been jammed. These criticisms were not considered to be offences under the Naval Discipline Act.[10]

The British Official History claims that the Germans gave the neutral crews no time to abandoned ship and fired on Strongbow’s survivors in the water. The German Official History denies the latter charge, claiming that any hits on them came from shots targeted elsewhere that fell short.[11]

As the British Official History says, despite its ‘brilliantly successful execution, the raid must have been somewhat disappointing to the German Staff…as…it hardly caused a disturbance in the timetable of Scandinavian trade.’[12]

[1] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. iv, pp. 293-94.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, p. 152

[3] Ibid., pp. 150-53.

[4] Ibid., p. 158; Marder, From, pp. 294-95.

[5] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 76, 79, 81, 162.

[6] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 154.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., pp. 154-55; Marder, From, p. 294.

[9] Marder, From. pp. 296-97 and footnote 6.

[10] Ibid. Footnotes 5-6 on pp. 296-97.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. p. 155 and footnote 1.

[12] Ibid., pp. 157-58.

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The Royal Navy and Passchendaele

The Third Battle of Ypres began on 31 July 1917. The Battle of Passchendaele was strictly speaking its final stage, but is now frequently used to refer to the whole battle. The First Battle of Passchendaele took place on 12 October and the Second officially lasted from 26 October to 10 November, although fighting in the area continued into December.[1]

D. Lloyd George, War Memoirs of David Lloyd George, 2 vols (London: Odhams, 1938). vol. ii, p. 1273.

 

According to Sir Douglas Haig, C.-in-C. of the British Expeditionary Force, the Allied plan was to wear down the enemy by a series of attacks, before the principal blow was struck by the British. The attack at Ypres was intended to capture the Belgian coast as far as the frontier with the Netherlands. It would involve a series of steps: first take the Passchendaele-Staden-Clerken ridge; then advance to a line from Roulers to Thourout in order to take the enemy coastal defences in the rear; and finally land from the sea along with an attack from Nieuport.[2]

The battle with U-boats that had intensified when the Germans began unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February was a factor in the plans. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the First Sea Lord, wrote to Admiral Sir David Beatty, C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet on 10 July about a plan to attack Ostend and Zeebrugge. He noted that David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, was against the military operation because it would lead to heavy casualties and every man was needed for the next year’s campaign. Jellicoe, however, thought that if the Allies waited until 1918, they might ‘never get the chance.. [and that they] must [his emphasis] get the north coast of Belgium before the winter sets in.’ Beatty wrote a question mark against the last comment.[3]

Haig told the War Cabinet that he was confident that the operation would take the Passchendaele Ridge and clear the Belgian coast. Jellicoe said that lack of shipping would mean that the war could not continue in 1918. Lloyd George challenged this claim, which he found ‘startling and reckless’, but Jellicoe stuck to it.[4] Haig wrote in his diary that nobody present agreed with Jellicoe, whose words were: ‘There is no good discussing plans for next spring. We cannot go on.’[5]

Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, commanding the Dover Patrol, was concerned that the Germans could wipe out the British naval forces in the Channel by an attack from destroyers based at Ostend and Bruges. These harbours were too well protected by shore batteries to be attacked by the sea and were supplied by railway rather than sea. As the Germans could choose their time, the British needed to have almost three times as many ships in the area as the enemy in order to be able to always have a force at sea equal to the attacking force. Control of north Belgium allowed the Germans to launch air raids against Britain.

Bacon worried that the Germans would keep the Belgian coast if they held it when the war ended, creating a future threat to Britain. He attributed the Germans failure to attack so far to their lack of ‘any real sea instincts’ but feared an attack soon as ‘they have improved vastly in sea initiative.’[6]

Bacon had suggested an amphibious landing to Haig in December 1915. The next month Haig asked him to produce a detailed plan, which would take place once British troops attacking from Ypres were near Roulers. Haig appointed General Aylmer Hunter-Weston to work with Bacon. Hunter-Weston thought that Bacon’s plan was land at Ostend was too risky, and Bacon changed his plans when the defences there were strengthened.[7]

Tim Travers describes Hunter-Weston’s leadership at Gallipoli as having been ‘poor.’[8] According to Michael LoCicero he was thorough in carrying out inspections, albeit with much attention to minor details, and was willing to lead from the front in mobile operations but tended to emphasise ‘planning and staff work…[in] trench warfare.[9] Although a poorly regarded commander, he may therefore have been better at reviewing plans than implementing them.

The German attack on the French at Verdun then forced the Allies to change their plans. The British became the leading force in the attack on the Somme rather than playing a supporting role to the French, which meant that Haig had to abandon his preferred plan to attack at Ypres.[10]

The amphibious landing on the coast was therefore abandoned until the attack at Ypres was revived in 1917. Bacon’s plan was to land to the west of Ostend. The problem with landing to the east was that sea communications with the invasion force until the shore batteries were taken or the land force advancing from Nieuport arrived. An assault to the west, however, meant scaling a 30 foot scale sea wall that sloped at 30 degrees and had an overhanging buttress three feet high. The solution to this was to have two monitors push 550 foot long landing piers carrying the invasion force to the sea wall.[11]

Monitors were slow, shallow draught ships armed with a single heavy gun turret and intended to be used for shore bombardment. They looked like the USS Monitor of American Civil War fame, hence their name. The ones assigned to the invasion were HMS General Wolfe, General Craufurd, Lord Clive, Sir John Moore, Prince Eugène and Prince Rupert.[12] They each displaced 6,150 tons, had a crew of 194, a maximum speed of 6.5 knots and an armament of a twin 12 inch gun turret and 2 quick firing three pounders.[13]

Exact details tides, water depths and the courses to be steered were required. The necessary information was obtained by submarine and aerial reconnaissance. A method used to ensure by telegraph cable laying ships was to be used to keep the monitors to the exact course needed.[14]

The invasion force was to include tanks. A replica of the sea wall was built in order to test how the tanks could scale it, which they were able to do once a special ramp had been built for them.[15]

The landing force consisted of 13,750 men of the 1st Division of General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s 4th Army. There would be three columns, each consisting of an infantry brigade reinforced with supporting troops including three tanks, four 13 pounder guns and two small howitzers, over 200 bicycles and three motor bikes. The two flanking columns would also include a motor machine gun battery and ammunition transport.[16]

The land attacks moved far more slowly than planned. The amphibious operation was called off on 15 October as, although the land offensive continued, the seas were by then to rough for a seaborne landing.[17]

Jellicoe told Admiral William Sims USN after the war that the planned amphibious assault ‘was a splendidly conceived and organised operation…[that he] firmly believe[d] would have succeeded..[had] the atrocious weather…[not] prevented the Army…getting far enough forward for the landing to take place.’[18]

It is difficult to say what would have happened had the amphibious assault taken place. WWI operations rarely went to plan and the only precedent is at Gallipoli, where the landings went badly. It was, however, carefully planned and, unlike Gallipoli, made use of specialised equipment. The Germans would have had to have been badly beaten elsewhere for it to have taken place. It was certainly imaginative.

British sailors were, however, involved in the Third Battle of Ypres. The Royal Naval Division was formed at the outbreak of war from naval reservists who were not needed at sea and Royal Marines plus some men who volunteered specifically for it. It had the infantry manpower of an army division but lacked supporting units such as artillery and medical services.

It was sent initially to Antwerp. A number of its men were unable to withdraw to Britain when Antwerp fell and were interned in the Netherlands. It was then sent to Egypt and then to Gallipoli. After the Gallipoli campaign it was transferred to the War Office and renamed the 63rd (Royal Naval Division). Thereafter it was fully equipped and operated under army control, serving on the Western Front from May 1916 until the end of the war. It fought in the Second Battle of Passchendaele (26 October to 10 November 1917).

Fighters of No. 4 (Naval) Wing and bombers of No. 5 (Naval) Wing of the Royal Naval Air Service, based at Dunkirk, flew in support of the land offensive.[19]

By the end of the Third Battle of Ypres the British Empire forces had not taken even all of the Passchendaele-Staden-Clerken ridge, never mind advanced to the Roulers to Thourout line.

Casualties are disputed, but were high on both sides. Andrew Wiest gives a ranges of 245,000 to 400,000 British Empire and 260,000 to 300,000 German troops killed, missing, captured or wounded. Gary Sheffield accepts Richard Holmes’s figure of about 260,000.[20]

All that can be said with certainty is that the British failed to take their objectives and that the battle cost both sides heavy casualties. The Germans, fighting both the British and French Empires with United States soldiers soon to arrive, could afford this level of losses even less than the Allies.

[1] M. LoCicero, A Moonlight Massacre: The Night Operation on the Passchendaele Ridge, 2 December 1917 (Solihull: Helion & Company, 2014). vol. ii, p. 1279.

[2] G. Sheffield, J. M. Bourne, eds, Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (London: BCA by arrangement with Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005). Thursday 14 June, pp. 299-300.

[3] A. T. Patterson, ed. The Jellicoe Papers: Selections from the Private and Official Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Jellicoe of Scapa, 2 vols (London: Naval Records Society, 1966-68). Jellicoe to Beatty, 10 July 1917, vol. ii, pp. 202-3.

[4] D. Lloyd George, War Memoirs of David Lloyd George, 2 vols (London: Odhams, 1938). vol. ii, p. 1279.

[5] Sheffield, Bourne, eds, Haig Diaries. Wednesday 20 June, p. 301.

[6] .’R. H. S. Bacon, The Dover Patrol, 1915-1917, 2 vols (London,: 1919). vol. i, p. 266-67.

[7] A. Wiest, ‘Haig’s Abortive Amphibious Assault on Belgium, 1917’, The Historian 54, no. 4 (1992), pp. 671-73.

[8] T. Travers, Gallipoli, 1915 (Stroud: Tempus, 2001), p. 14.

[9] LoCicero, Moonlight, pp. 81-82.

[10] G. Sheffield, Forgotten Victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities (London: Review, 2002), p. 162.

[11] Bacon, Dover. vol. 1, pp. 271-73.

[12] Ibid., p. 286.

[13] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 45.

[14] Bacon, Dover, pp. 275-80. vol. i, pp. 275-80.

[15] Ibid., pp. 282-84.

[16] Wiest, ‘Haig’s’, p. 676.

[17] Ibid., p. 680.

[18] Patterson, ed. Jellicoe. Letters from Jellicoe t0 Sims, 6 October 1919, p. 396

[19] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vo. iv, pp. 92-98.

[20] Sheffield, Forgotten, p. 216; Wiest, ‘Haig’s’, p. 669.

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The Loss of HMS Vanguard 9 July 2017

At about 23:20 on 9 July 1917 the dreadnought battleship HMS Vanguard blew up and sank at Scapa Flow. A flame was observed, followed by an explosion, more flames and smoke and a second explosion. The smoke completely obscured the ship, which had sunk by the time it cleared.

Only three of the 845 men on board were picked up. One of those, Lieutenant Commander Alan Duke, died in hospital two days later. The dead included Commander Ito, a Japanese observer with the Grand Fleet, and two defaulters from HMAS Sydney, who were being held in Vanguard’s cells. Some of Vanguard’s crew survived because they were attending

Previous posts in this series have dealt with the losses by accidental explosions of the old battleship HMS Bulwark on 26 November 1914 and the armoured cruiser HMS Natal on 30 December 1915. HMS Princess Irene, a minelayer converted from a liner, was also lost to an accidental explosion on 27 May 1915.

Several warships of other countries were also lost to internal explosions whilst in harbour during the First World War: the Italian pre-dreadnought battleship Benedetto Brin on 27 September 1915 and dreadnought Leonardo da Vinci on 2 August 1916; the Japanese battle cruiser Tsukuba on 14 January 1917 and dreadnought Kawachi on 12 July 1918; and the Russian dreadnought Imperatritza Maria on 20 October 1916. The two Italian ships were probably sabotaged by the Austrians, the Japanese and Russian ones lost to accidental explosions.[1] The old Chilean battleship Capitan Prat was damaged but not lost by an internal explosion.

A dockyard worker called John Harston had been working on Vanguard shortly before her loss. William Schleihauf says that he had also been on board Natal before she exploded, whilst a thread on the Great War Forum says that he had also worked on Bulwark and Princess Irene. The Court of Inquiry into Vanguard’s loss took evidence from Harston and his assistant Robert Williams, concluding that there was no reason to suspect them. Harston continued to work for the Admiralty, eventually retiring with a full pension.

Schleihauf points out that Vanguard, although less than 10 years old was obsolescent because of the rapid advance in naval technology. She had 12 inch guns, whilst the latest British dreadnoughts had 15 inch guns and were larger and faster. The other British ships lost to explosions in port were obsolete. Saboteurs could have found more valuable targets that were no better guarded.

The Court of Inquiry concluded that Vanguard was lost because of a magazine explosion resulting from the ignition of cordite which could have been caused by a number of reasons: an avoidable cause; abnormal deterioration in a charge because it had been abnormally treated; sabotage by the enemy; or the cordite becoming unstable. It made 13 recommendations for improvements in handling processes and storage.

Admiral Sir David Beatty, C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet, concluded that the loss Vanguard was ‘probably due to defective cordite.’[2] The men killed when she exploded are listed on naval-history.net.

Vanguard is now an official war grave. Her White Ensign is regularly changed by RN divers. Ceremonies were held to mark the 100th anniversary of her sinking at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney, over her wreck in Scapa Flow and at the nearby Lyness Naval Cemetery, where the 41 men whose bodies were recovered are buried.

In addition to the footnoted sources, this post is based on the following websites, all accessed on 11 July 2017:

BBC News, ‘Orkney service marks HMS Vanguard sinking centenary’

 

The World War I Document Archive, ‘Explosions in Warships During the War’

 

The Great War Forum, ‘Sabotage what a coincidence’

 

William Schleihauf, ‘Disaster in Harbour: The Loss of HMS Vanguard’

 

[1] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 229, 233, 256, 259, 303.

[2] Quoted in A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. iv, p. 42.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin, January 19, 1917

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

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

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

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

Zimmerman
(Secretary of State)

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. iv, p. 51.

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

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

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

[6] Ibid., p. 222.

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

[8] Steffen, ‘Holtzendorff’, p. 222.

[9] Ibid.

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

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

[12] Ibid., p. 340.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[19] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lieutenant Archibald Bisset Smith, R.N.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Ibid., p. 14.

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

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

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

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

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Britain, Mosul and Oil

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

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