Tag Archives: Hipper

The Battle of Dogger Bank 24 January 1915

On 23 January 1915 the British Grand Fleet under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe had 18 dreadnoughts ready at Scapa Flow and eight King Edward VII class pre-dreadnoughts and five battlecruisers at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth. The battlecruisers had been moved there from Cromarty after the German raid on the north east coast on 16 December 1914 so that they could respond more quickly to future attacks.

Jellicoe thought that his margin over the German High Seas Fleet was too narrow. It had 17 dreadnoughts, 22 pre-dreadnoughts and four battlecruisers. There were other British pre-dreadnoughts on the Channel Fleet, but these were not under his command.[1]

Jellicoe always counted the number of ships that he had actually available, excluding those under repair or refit or newly built ones that we not fully worked up. He assumed that the Germans would not come out unless they were at full strength, which proved not to be the case.

The British battlecruisers, commanded by Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, had recently carried out a sweep into the Helgoland Bight, but had not encountered the enemy. They returned to base on 20 January 1915.

The Germans planned an operation of their own for 23 January. The battlecruisers of Admiral Franz Hipper’s 1st Scouting Group of three battlecruisers and the armoured cruiser SMS Blücher, the four light cruisers of the 2nd Scouting Group and two flotillas with a total of 18 torpedo boats would carry out a reconnaissance towards Dogger Bank. The Germans called their destroyers as torpedo boats.

Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, commander of the High Seas Fleet, wrote in an after action report that:

‘The intention was to make an extended destroyer advance with cruiser support, in order to clear the course to the Dogger Bank of trawlers employed in enemy service, and, if fortune were favourable, to surprise light forces on patrol.’[2]

He was reluctant to carry out such an operation at a time when the rest of the High Seas Fleet was not in a state of preparedness to support it. However, he agreed because he assumed that the Grand Fleet would be in port coaling, as it had carried out a sweep of the North Sea on 19 January.

The Germans had begun to realise that the British had accurate intelligence on their movements, but did not suspect that it came from reading coded German signals. They believed instead that trawlers or possibly dockyard spies were responsible.[3] A 1922 German analysis of the battle states that it the war it had then ‘only recently transpired’ that the Russians had recovered the code books of the German light cruiser Magdeburg in August 1914 and shared them with their allies.[4]

The British intelligence slightly over estimated the strength of Hipper’s force at four battlecruisers, six light cruisers and 22 torpedo boats.[5] Jellicoe’s assumption that the Germans would come out only when all their ships were available was wrong, since the battlecruiser SMS Von der Tann was in dry dock. This was for a routine overhaul, and the story that she was being repaired after colliding with another warship during the Cuxhaven Raid is wrong: it came from prisoners taken at Dogger Bank who either lied to mislead the enemy or else repeated false gossip.[6]

Beatty had the five battlecruisers of the 1st and 2nd Battle Cruiser squadrons and the four ships of the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron under his command: a sixth battlecruiser, HMS Queen Mary, was undergoing maintenance. He was ordered to rendezvous with the three light cruisers and 35 destroyers of Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt’s Harwich Force at 7:00 am on 24 January near Dogger Bank.

The King Edwards of the 3rd Battle Squadron and the armoured cruisers of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron were positioned about 45 miles northwest of the rendezvous point in case the Germans were driven north. Four submarines were sent to intercept the Germans on their way home, but received the signal too late to do so if they got back to port before dusk on 24 January.[7]

Jellicoe and the rest of the Grand Fleet were ordered to sea, but too late to make the action. He later complained that his ships could have been at Beatty and Tyrwhitt’s rendezvous point by 9:30 am on 24 January had he been told to raise steam as soon as the Admiralty learnt that of the German operation. In the event, his ships were 140 miles away from the battle.[8]

The light cruiser HMS Aurora of the Harwich Force came into contact with the Germans just before sunrise. Beatty headed South South East at full speed in the hope of getting to the south of the Germans and cutting them off from their bases. Even if a chase developed, the wind would be blowing the smoke of the coal fired ships towards the Germans, giving the British an advantage on visibility, The Germans were in sight at 8:00 am and the British fired their first ranging shots at 20,000 yards at 8:52 am.[9]

The British ships were sailing in the order Lion (Beatty’s flagship), Tiger, Princess Royal (these three all had eight 13.5 inch guns), New Zealand (Rear Admiral Sir Archibald Moore, commanding 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron’s flagship) and Indomitable (the last two both had eight 12 inch). The German order was Seydlitz (Hipper’s flagship with 10 11 inch), Derfflinger (eight 12 inch), Moltke (10 11 inch) and Blücher (12 8.2 inch).  Blücher was outclassed, but the smaller guns of the German ships were otherwise counter-balanced by superior armour.

Beatty’s despatch claimed that Lion achieved a speed of 28.5 knots, although the highest given in her log was 27 knots. Indomitable could make only 25 knots. so fell behind. New Zealand claimed to have managed 27 knots, a knot faster than in her trials two years before. At 9:52 am Beatty had to slow down to 24 knots so that his squadron could keep close enough together to support each another.

The German claimed maximum speeds of about 28 knots for their three battlecruisers, but they were held back by Blücher, which managed only just over 22 knots, below her designed speed. The German squadron stayed together until 9:30 am, when the battlecruisers increased speed to 23 knots, pulling away from Blücher.

By 09:05 am all three 13.5 inch gun ships were firing on Blücher. The two 12 inch armed ones were still out of range. At 09:24 am Lion switched her fire to Derfflinger. The three German battlecruisers were all firing on Lion. At 09:35 am Beatty ordered his ships to fire on their opposite number in the enemy line.

This should have meant Lion at Seydlitz, Tiger at Moltke, Princess Royal at Derfflinger and New Zealand at Blücher; Indomitable was out of range. However, Tiger, not realising that one British ship was not able to fire, targeted Seydlitz, meaning Moltke was not being fired at and creating spotting problems for Lion and Tiger.

At 09:43 am Lion hit Seydlitz’s aft turret, creating a cordite fire that put the two aft turrets out of action and required the flooding of the magazine. However, Lion was suffering heavy damage and started to lose speed from 10:45 am. Blücher, which by then was on fire, turned north in an attempt to escape at about the same time.

At 10:54 Lion thought that she had spotted a periscope, almost certainly wrongly as the German Official History later stated that there were no U-boats in the area.[10] Beatty therefore ordered a turn to port, taking the course to North North East . Hipper ordered a torpedo boat attack on the battlecruisers at 11:00 am, but it was cancelled at 11:07 am because of their change of course.

Lion had been hit 15 times, her port engine was stopped, all her lights were out, her speed was down to 15 knots, she was listing 10 degrees to port, her searchlights and wireless were out of action and she had only two signal halliards.

The rest of the squadron had to immediately resume the chase in order to take advantage of an opportunity to destroy the German squadron, but it was lost because of signalling errors. Beatty ordered two signals to be raised: ‘Course N.E’ and ‘Attack the rear of the enemy.’ They were then followed by ‘Keep nearer the enemy – repeat the signal Admiral is now making.’

Beatty’s intention was that the squadron should head north east, taking it clear of any mines that he wrongly feared the German torpedo boats might have dropped, and cutting Blücher off from the German battlecruisers. However, Blücher was north east of the British squadron and Moore, who was now in command since Lion could not keep up, did not know why Beatty had ordered the earlier turn.

Beatty’s first two signals were interpreted as a single one: ‘Attack the rear of the enemy bearing north east.’ The British battlecruisers therefore pounded the stricken Blücher to destruction, whilst the rest of the German squadron escaped. They fired on Tiger for a while, hitting her seven times and putting one turret out of action, before moving out of range to the south east.

Blücher was now under attack from four battlecruisers and several light cruisers and destroyers. She was still putting up a fight and badly damaged the destroyer HMS Meteor, but stopped firing at 11:38 am after the light cruiser HMS Arethusa put two torpedoes into her.

At 11:40 am the battlecruisers headed south east in pursuit of the Germans. Five minutes later Tyrwhitt reported that Blücher had struck her colours. The British then began to rescue survivors, observed by a Zeppelin that had been fired on by the light cruiser HMS Southamption around 10:30 am. A German seaplane appeared at 12:30 pm and dropped bombs. The rescue effort was called off at 12:40 pm, by when most of the men in the sea had been either rescued or killed by the bombs. Presumably the seaplane crew assumed that the sinking ship was British. She was then the only large German ship with a tripod mast, but all British dreadnoughts and battlecruisers had tripod masts.[11]

Beatty had meanwhile called for the destroyers to come alongside Lion. At 11:25 am he transferred his flag to the destroyer  HMS Attack, which took him to HMS Princes Royal. He was onboard her by 12:20 pm, but it was now too late for the British to catch the Germans.

Dogger Bank was a clear British victory, with a German armoured cruiser and no British ships sunk. It could have been a greater victor had the British battlecruisers pursued the retreating Germans. It is possible that the a pursuit might have turned victory into defeat, given the way in which three British battlecruisers would blow up at Jutland in 1916.

However, Seydlitz was already badly damaged, and her near loss shows that the in 1915 the Germans were also making the mistakes in ammunition handling and flash protection that cost the British three battlecruisers a year later. A German U-boat crewman who was captured in 1918 had been a gunlayer on Seydlitz at Dogger Bank. The British report on his interrogation said that:

‘Great damage was done by a shell which hit her aftermost turret and exploded the ready ammunition (6 rounds per gun) stowed there. A flame rose mast high and also went down the ammunition hold, causing the magazine to be flooded hurriedly to save the ship. The entire turret’s crew, including the men in the magazine perished. Informant could not remember if a fire was actually started.

In consequence of this, precautionary measures were taken which had a very considerable influence on the Battle of Jutland. These were:-

1. At the top and bottom of all cartridge hoists double flap doors were fitted through which every cartridge has to pass.

2. Similar doors were fitted to the projectile hoists in the turrets and working chambers, but not in the shell rooms.

3. The ready supply of six rounds in the turret was abandoned.

4. The hatchways to magazines and shell rooms were ordered to be kept closed while at sea, and the only exits from these compartments is then by way of an escape through the central hoist into the turret.

5. The manhole in the well under the slide of each gun was ordered to be kept permanently closed.’[12]

The British had also had a chance to learn from their mistakes when HMS Kent was saved from blowing up at the Falkland Islands by the courage and quick thinking of Royal Marine Sergeant Charles Mayes, but did nothing other than awarding Mayes the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

Naval-History.net lists lost 14 British killed and 29 wounded: 17 wounded on Lion, 10 killed and 11 wounded on Tiger and 4 killed and one wounded on Meteor. Lion had to be towed back to port by Indomitable, and took four months to be repaired.[13]

German casualties were 959 killed, 90 returned to port wounded and 234 captured, 45 of them wounded: 792 killed and all the captured on Blücher, 159 killed and 88 wounded on Seydlitz and 8 killed and two wounded on the light cruiser SMS Kolberg. Seydlitz was ready for sea on 1 April and Derfflinger on 17 February.[14]

The battle resulted in von Ingenohl being replaced as commander of the High Seas Fleet by Admiral Hugo von Pohl on 2 February. Moore, who was deemed to lack the initiative required to command a battlecruiser squadron, was transferred to command a cruiser squadron in the Canaries.

Admiral Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, wanted to dismiss Captain Henry Pelly of Tiger, who had fired on the wrong target and then should, according to Fisher, have disobeyed Moore’s orders and continued the chase. Fisher, looking back to Lord Nelson, said that ‘In war the first principle is to disobey orders. Any fool can obey orders!’[15] Tiger’s gunnery was also poor, but Pelly kept his job.

Another who retained his position was Lieutenant Ralph Seymour, Beatty’s Flag Lieutenant. He had made a crucial signalling error during the pursuit of Hipper’s squadron after the North East Raid and was clearly not good enough at signalling to do the job. He had other duties, such as being the admiral’s social secretary when ashore, but signalling was by far the most important task. Beatty, who was loyal to his immediate subordinates, liked him. However, if he did not want to fire Seymour he could have arranged to promote him away to a destroyer command, but he kept him on to make more mistakes at Jutland.[16]

Dogger Bank was a British victory, but it was one that glossed over many problems, such as poor gunnery, dangerous ammunition handling procedures and signalling errors. Derfflinger was hit once, which set her on fire. Seydlitz was hit only twice, but the almost catastrophic nature of one of the hits caused the Germans to correct mistakes in their anti-flash procedures, which the British did not do.[17]

 

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, p. 82.

[2] The National Archives (TNA), Kew, CAB 45/284, ‘German Navy and Sources of Material: Dogger Bank Action, 1915: Translation of German Account, by Commander Groos’  Quoted in ‘The Action of the Dogger Bank 24th January, 1915’ by Commander Groos, ‘Marine Rundeschau’, March 1922, p. 22.

[3] K. Yates, Flawed Victory: Jutland, 1916 (London: Chatham, 2000), pp. 79-80.

[4] CAB 45/284, p. 4. Footnote.

[5] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 84.

[6] R. D. Layman, The Cuxhaven Raid: The World’s First Carrier Air Strike (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 118-20.

[7] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. iii. p. 211.

[8] 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. 157-58.

[9] Except where otherwise stated, the description of the battle is based on Naval Staff vol. iii. pp. 212-17. Note that there are a number of alterations to the text, some hand written, some printed and attached to the original text, in the copy consulted.

[10] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 97. Footnote 1.

[11] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 407.

[12] TNA, CAB 45/283, ‘German Navy and Sources of Material: Dogger Bank Action, 1915: Miscellaneous Reports from German Sources’. BATTLE CRUISER “SEYDLITZ”

[13] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 166.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 102.

[15] Quoted in Marder, From. vol. ii. p. 169. Italics in Marder.

[16] G. A. H. Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996), pp. 93-97.

[17] Marder, From. vol. ii, pp. 164-65.

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The German Raid on North East England 16 December 1914

On 16 December 1914 German battlecruisers raided Scarborough and Hartlepool; they were commanded by Rear Admiral Franz Hipper ( he did not become von Hipper until after the Battle of Jutland in 1916). This was the second raid by the German battlecruisers on the east coast of Britain. On 3 November a German force under Hipper had bombarded Yarmouth.

Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, the Commander-in-Chief of the German High Seas Fleet, did not want to take the offensive in the North Sea. However, he was keen to carry out minelaying operations and coastal raids in order to maintain morale. The naval staff’s orders to him were that:

‘The Fleet must…be held back and avoid actions which might lead to heavy losses. This does not, however, prevent favourable opportunities being made use of to damage the enemy…There is nothing to be said against an attempt of the big cruisers in the North Sea to damage the enemy.’[1]

The odds then were in fact the best that they were going to be the Germans to have challenged the British Grand Fleet. The loss of the King George V class dreadnought HMS Audacious to a mine on 27 October and refits and technical problems briefly reduced British advantage in dreadnoughts to 17 to 15 German.[2]

In battlecruisers both sides for a period had four in the North Sea, excluding SMS Blücher, which was deployed as a battlecruiser but was really the ultimate armoured cruiser. The British had two in the Mediterranean, watching SMS Goeben, which the Germans had transferred to the Ottomans. HMAS Australia was still in the Pacific and after the German victory at Coronel on 1 November two British battlecruisers had been sent to the south Atlantic and one to the Caribbean . They did not return until after the British victory at the Falklands on 8 December.

The British had more ships under construction, meaning that the odds later moved heavily against the Germans.

The attack on Lowestoft was to be carried out by Hipper’s three battlecruisers, Seydlitz (flag), Moltke and Von der Tann, plus SMS Blücher, , and four light cruisers. Hipper’s squadron sailed at 4:30 pm on 2 November, followed 90 minutes later by two battle squadrons, which were to operate in support.[3]

The plan was, according to the post war British Naval Staff Monograph, to lay mines and bombard certain coast works which the imaginative German spies had reported as in place at Great Yarmouth.’[4] Hipper’s squadron narrowly missed a force of British light cruisers and destroyers that had been sent out to look for submarines and mines.

Just after 7:00 am HMS Halcyon, an elderly gunboat converted into a minesweeper, encountered the Germans. She escaped serious damage thanks to the destroyer HMS Lively, which laid a smoke screen, the first to be used in the war.[5] The destroyer HMS Leopard also came under fire, but the only Halcyon suffered casualties: the Naval Staff Monograph says one man was ‘severely wounded’ and Naval Operations ‘three men wounded’, but naval-history.net names one man as dying of wounds.[6]

There were three British submarines at Yarmouth, D3, D5 and E10. They left port when firing was heard, but D5 struck a mine, probably a British one that was adrift as it was a long way from the course that the Germans had been taking. Only five men survived, with 21 dying.

The Germans had been delayed by navigational problems resulting from the removal of the buoys that marked shoals off the Norfolk coast in peacetime and poor visibility making it difficult to take bearings. They were therefore behind schedule and Hipper decided to withdraw. The Naval Staff Monograph argues that the ‘boldness of the Halcyon and Lively…saved…Yarmouth from such damage as a well-directed bombardment would have inflicted.’[7]

The British were unable to intercept the retreating German force, but the armoured cruiser SMS Yorck, which had been part of the covering force, struck two German mines on her way back into port. The other German ships had anchored outside Wilhelmshaven because of thick fog, but Yorck, needing urgent dockyard repairs, was given permission to go into port.

Hipper suggested that breaking out into the Caribbean or South Atlantic to conduct commerce raiding would be a better use of his battlecruisers than coastal raiding or trying to lure the British into a trap. However, his plan, which ‘was vague on the inevitable question of coaling’, was rejected.[8] Ingenohl preferred to launch another raid on the east coast of England.

As a result of this raid, the Admiralty moved the Grand Fleet back to Scapa Flow from Lough Swilly. The 3rd Battle Squadron, consisting of the eight King Edward VII class battleships, the penultimate British pre-dreadnought class, was moved from Portland to Rosyth, arriving on 20 November. They were joined there by the four Devonshire class armoured cruisers of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron. The battlecruisers remained at Cromarty.

The German plan was to bombard Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool on 16 December. The British discovered this by intercepting German signals that were decoded by Room 40, the Admiralty’s code-breaking centre. This was so secret that it was not mentioned in the post war Naval Staff Monograph, a Confidential document intended for Royal Navy officers only.[9]

Hipper’s force, augmented by the recently completed battlecruiser SMS Derfflinger, sailed on 15 December. It was to be intercepted at Dogger Bank on its return home by a British force consisting of Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty’s four battlecruisers, HMS Lion (flag), Tiger, Queen Mary and New Zealand, Vice Admiral Sir George Warrender’s 2nd Battle Squadron, the 3rd Cruiser Squadron, the five ships of the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron and seven ships from the 4th Destroyer Squadron. The 2nd Battle Squadron consisted of the three surviving dreadnoughts of the King George V class and three dreadnought of the Orion class: HMS Thunderer was unavailable because of a refit.

A line of eight submarines was placed along the German route. As the Germans were expected to have more destroyers, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, requested the support of the Harwich force of light cruisers and destroyers. However, its four light cruisers and 23 destroyers was ordered only to be off Yarmouth at daylight, leaving it 100 miles in a straight line and 115 by swept channels from the rendezvous point. Two more destroyers were detached on a scouting mission.[10]

This force was more than adequate to deal with Hipper’s four battlecruisers, one armoured cruiser, four light cruisers and two destroyer flotillas. However, the British were unaware that he was being supported by 14 dreadnoughts and eight pre-dreadnoughts of the High Seas Fleet.  The Admiralty had refused to allow Jellicoe to take his full fleet to sea, thus giving the Germans an opportunity to reduce or even eliminate the RN’s numerical advantage by engaging a detachment of the Grand Fleet. [11]

At 5:15 am the destroyers HMS Lynx and SMS V155 encountered each other. A confused action followed in which Lynx and HMS Hardy were damaged. Two of Hardy’s crew were killed and 15 wounded. The British sighted a light cruiser at 7:10 and then three light cruisers when the visibility improved 40 minutes later. They then retired at full speed, losing sight of the enemy at 8:35 am.

If Ingenohl had continued on his planned course, he would have been 30-40 miles north west of Warrender’s squadron by 7:30 am. However, he changed course to south east at 5:30 am and headed home, wanting to avoid an attack by torpedo craft in the dark. He also feared that the destroyers might be the screen of the full Grand Fleet. His orders from the Kaiser were to not risk major losses and to avoid action outside the German Bight.[12]

Hipper had divided his force into two. SMS Derfflinger and Von der Tann bombarded Scarborough for half an hour, starting from 8 am, whilst the light cruiser Kolberg laid mines. The battlecruisers then moved to Whitby, firing about 50 rounds from 9 am.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer claimed that the Germans believed that there was a gun battery at Scarborough.[13] However, both were undefended ports and thus not legitimate targets.[14] This website lists the 18 people in Scarborough and three in Whitby who were killed. All were civilians except one coastguard.

The Germans were on stronger legal ground in their attack on Hartlepool, which was defended by three 6 inch guns and a flotilla of the scout cruiser HMS Patrol, four destroyers and a submarine. Patrol and the destroyer HMS Doon were damaged, with casualties were four dead and four wounded and two dead and 10 wounded respectively: see naval-history.net. Naval Operations gives casualties on land as being 86 civilians and nine soldiers killed and 424 civilians and 12 soldiers wounded.[15]

However, the Germans had to face return fire at Hartlepool. Moltke and Blücher were both damaged by the shore battery, with one hit on Blücher killing nine men and wounding three.

The German battlecruisers were now 150 miles from the British, who ought to have been able to intercept them. However, a combination of luck, weather, poor signalling and other mistakes mean that the Germans escaped.

The fact that the Germans had attacked Britain and escaped caused great anger in Britain. However, the civilian casualties gave the British a propaganda victory, which was used in Army recruitment posters, some of which are reproduced on the BBC website, along with some then and now pictures and quotes from survivors. Another BBC page describes the 100th anniversary commemoration of the Hartlepool raid.

In naval terms, both sides missed an opportunity to inflict significant losses on the enemy. For the Germans, this was their best such chance of the war. The east coast raids inflicted little military damage on Britain, apart from the loss of D5 to a friendly mine, which was more than cancelled out by the loss of Yorck to the same cause.

 

 

[1] R. Scheer, Germany’s High Sea Fleet in the World War (London: Cassell and Company, 1920), p. 68. Scheer says on p. 67 that the orders ran ‘somewhat as follows’ so this is his summary of them rather than a direct quote from them.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 38.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xii, Home Waters part iii, November 1914 to the end of January 1915. p. 6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 9.

[6] Ibid; J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 251

[7] Naval Staff vol. Xii. p. 10.

[8] Halpern, Naval, p. 40.

[9] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. iii. Monograph 8 – Naval Operations connected with the Raid on the North-East Coast, December16th, 1914, pp. 167-208.

[10] Ibid., pp. 177-79.

[11] Halpern, Naval, p. 41.

[12] Naval Staff vol. iii. pp. 179-81.

[13] Scheer, Germany’s, p. 70.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 31-32.

[15] Ibid., p. 85.

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The Battle of Helgoland Bight 28 August 1914

The first month of the First World War saw little naval action in the North Sea. Kaiser Wilhelm II was unwilling the risk the German fleet in action. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of the German fleet thought that ‘it was simply nonsense to pack the fleet in cotton wool’, but his job was largely administrative and gave him little input into strategy.[1]

Wilhelm and his Chancellor Theobald von Bethman Hollweg wanted to preserve the fleet as a post war bargaining counter. The German generals saw the navy’s role as protecting the army’s flank and stopping amphibious assaults by the British on Germany’s North Sea coast or the Russians in the Baltic.

The German navy had expected the British to carry out a close blockade of the Helgoland Bight, which would allow the Germans to whittle down the Royal Navy (RN). However, the RN instead conducted a distant blockade of the North Sea.

The RN had assumed that the Germans would come out and challenge it at the start of the war. Admiral Sir William James, a Commander in 1914 who served in Naval Intelligence and the Room 40 code-breaking centre later in the war, told the naval historian Arthur Marder that ‘[r]epeated [German] excursions might have seriously weakened us.’ Marder notes that the Germans failed to use the major advantage that the use of Zeppelins for reconnaissance would have given them.[2]

By 19 August the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been transported to the Continent. The RN closed the English Channel to raiders and the Grand Fleet was positioned to prevent the German High Seas Fleet from interfering with the transports.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer, then commanding the German Second Battle Squadron, described the idea that the Germans might have attacked the British supply lines as a ‘totally impossible demand’ that would have led to heavy German losses.[3]

Some of the more aggressive British officers wanted to take action. These included Commodores Roger Keyes and Reginald Tyrwhitt, commanding respectively the submarines and destroyers at Harwich, and Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, commanding the Grand Fleet’s battlecruisers.

Keyes’s submarines gathered useful intelligence about the organisation of German patrols. He put forward his plan, supported by Tyrwhitt, on 23 August. Three surfaced submarines would be placed 40 miles off Helgoland in order to draw out the German destroyers. They would then be attacked by Tyrwhitt’s 1st and 3rd destroyers flotillas, each led by a light cruiser.

Three more submarines would lie submerged closer in to the coast in order to attack any German cruisers that came out to support their destroyers and two more would be placed at the mouth of the River Ems. The battlecruisers HMS Invincible and New Zealand, which had recently moved to the Humber under the command of Rear Admiral Archibald Gordon  Moore, would give support. Five old Cressy class armoured cruisers would be held in reserve under the command of Rear Admiral Arthur Christian.

On 24 August it was decided to carry out Keyes’s plan four days later. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the commander of the Grand Fleet, was not informed until 26 August. He suggested bringing the Grand Fleet south in support; he was told that this was unnecessary, but that his battlecruisers could ‘support if convenient.’[4] On the morning of 27 August he sent Beatty’s three battlecruisers and Commodore William Goodenough’s six light cruisers south.

The signal informing the local commanders that Beatty and Goodenough’s ships were supporting them reached Christian but not Keyes or Tyrwhitt. This nearly led to Goodenough’s light cruisers being fired upon by other British ships.

The Battle of Helgoland Bight is described by Paul Halpern as being ‘a most confusing encounter.’[5] Fog and haze restricted visibility and restricted the involvement of the German shore batteries.

The tides meant that German capital ships could not cross the Jade Bar and put to sea in the morning. Marder wonders if this ‘may have been lucky for the attackers (or was it foresight in planning?).’[6] Most other writers, including Sir Julian Corbett, the official historian, mention this fact without giving any indication whether it was due to luck or judgement.[7] However, Robert Massie notes that Beatty had a set of the German coastal tide tables.[8]

Tyrwhitt had the Third Flotilla of 16 modern L class destroyers and his flagship the brand new light cruiser HMS Arethusa (2 6 inch, 6 4 inch guns, 4 21 inch torpedo tubes) along with the First Flotilla of the light cruiser HMS Fearless (10 4 inch guns, 2 18 inch torpedo tubes) and 15 older  destroyers. The First Flotilla’s other four destroyers were with the Humber battlecruisers. Keyes flew his flag in the destroyer HMS Lurcher, which was accompanied by the destroyer HMS Firedrake.

Tyrwhitt’s force first sighted a German destroyer at 7 am and was soon engaged with ten enemy destroyers. Two German light cruisers, SMS Stettin and Frauenlob (both 10 4.1 inch guns, 2 17.7 inch torpedo tubes) appeared about 8 am. They easily outgunned the British destroyers and were similarly armed to Fearless. Arethusa was theoretically more powerful, but was new and not fully worked up. However, Goodenough’s Town class light cruisers had 6 inch guns, making them far more powerful than the German cruisers.

The British destroyers fell back on Arethusa and Fearless. Stettin withdrew after covering the withdrawal of the German destroyers. Arethusa was reduced to 10 knots and one 6 inch gun because of damage inflicted by Frauenlob and gun jams, but was able to damage Frauenlob so badly that she retired. The only German ship sunk in this part of the battle was the destroyer V187.

The action was very confused because of the poor visibility and poor co-ordination by both sides. Keyes had not been informed that Goodenough’s squadron was in the area, so assumed that HMS Nottingham and Lowestoft were German when he first saw them. The submarine E6 fired a torpedo at HMS Southampton, which then tried to ram E6. Neither vessel was damaged.

By 10:40 am Arethusa had restored her speed to 20 knots and brought all four of her 4 inch guns back into action. Eight more German light cruisers had by then left harbour, but Rear Admiral Leberecht Maass, their commander, committed them piecemeal. By 11 am Tyrwhitt’s flotillas were engaged with four German light cruisers; SMS Stettin, Strassburg and Ariadne and Köln: some sources call the last named ship Cöln, but I have used the current spelling of the city’s name. A fifth, Mainz, was on the way. All were armed with 4.1 guns, but the British wrongly identified Köln as a much more powerful armoured cruiser.

Beatty ordered Goodenough to send two of his cruisers to support Tyrwhitt, but Tyrwhitt took all his squadron. Beatty was concerned that the British light forces might be overwhelmed, but also of the risk to his battlecruisers from mines, U-boats, enemy capital ships and even mis-identification by British submarines.

Beatty said to his Flag Captain Ernle Chatfield that ‘if I lose of these valuable ships the country will not forgive me.’ Chatfield replied that ‘surely we must go’, which convinced Beatty to order all five battlecruisers to head for the action at full speed at 11:35 am.[9] They arrived at 12:37 pm and withdrew at 1:10 pm. By then Köln, Mainz and Ariadne were sunk or sinking.

The first two German battlecruisers SMS Moltke and Von der Tann did not cross the Jade Bar until 2:10 pm. They were ordered by Rear Admiral Franz Hipper, commanding the German battlecruisers, not to engage the enemy until he joined them with his flagship SMS Seydlitz, which was an hour behind. He did not want to repeat Maas’s error of feeding in his ships piecemeal.

Helgoland Bight was a clear British victory: three German light cruisers and a destroyer were sunk and three light cruisers damaged, with 1,242 Germans were killed, capture or wounded. Maas was amongst the dead. Only one member of Köln’s crew survived. Others abandoned ship but the Germans did not search the area for three days, by when all the rest were dead. The British had one light cruiser and three destroyers damaged but lost no ships. 35 British sailors were killed and 40 wounded.[10]

Despite this, the British made a number of mistakes. There was little co-ordination between the different squadrons and flotillas and communications were poor. As well as the failure to tell Keyes and Tyrwhitt that they were being supported by Beatty and Goodenough, Keyes and Tyrwhitt did not give the speeds and courses of their ships when requesting support.

The Germans concluded that their system of patrol lines was a mistake and replaced them with minefields. In future there would always be at least four capital ships outside the Jade Bar, with all at two hours’ notice for steaming. The Kaiser became even more determined not to risk his ships. He ordered that the commander in chief of the High Seas Fleet should ask his permission before taking part in a fleet action.

The main impact of the battle was moral, both positive on the British and negative on the Germans. The New Statesman said that it was of ‘immense moral, if slight material, importance in its effect upon the two fleets.’[11]

[1] 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). i, p. 43.

[2] Ibid. i, pp. 45-46.

[3] Quoted in P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 29.

[4] Quoted in Marder, From. i, p. 51

[5] Halpern, Naval, p. 31.

[6] Marder, From. i, p. 52.

[7] G. Bennett, Naval Battles of the First World War (London: Pan, 1983), p. 133; J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). i, p. 119; Halpern, Naval, p. 31; R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 107.

[8] Massie, Castles, p. 108.

[9] Quoted in Marder, From. i, p. 52.

[10] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. i, p. 119 and footnote 1.

[11] 5 September 1914 edition, quoted in Marder, From. i, p. 54

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