Tag Archives: Keyes

The Royal Navy and the Gallipoli Land Campaign

Allied troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April 1915, two days later than originally planned because of bad weather.

All the troops, equipment and supplies had to be brought, and wounded evacuated, by sea. Warships provided fire support. Submarines raided Ottoman ships bringing reinforcements and supplies. The small Allied air force came from the Royal Naval Air Service. There was even a naval contribution to the land campaign: the Royal Naval Division.

In 1914 the RN found that it had more reservists than it needed to man its ships. It therefore formed the extra men and some Royal Marines into an infantry division. Some men also volunteered directly for the RND.

The RND was landed at Dunkirk on 20 September 1914 in order to help defend Antwerp. Some of its troops managed to return from Antwerp to the UK, arriving on 11 October; others were forced to flee into the Netherlands, where they were interned for the rest of the war.

The division’s infantry battalions were brought back up to strength before it was sent to Egypt in 1915. At this stage of the war it lacked the artillery and other supporting units of an army infantry division.

The invading force consisted of 30,000 Australians and New Zealanders, divided into two divisions; the 17,000 troops of the British 29th Division, made up of regulars who had been serving in remote colonial garrisons; the 10,000 men of the RND; and a 16,000 strong French division. The 29th would land at Cape Helles and the Anzacs 13 miles up the coast at a place now called Anzac Cove. The RND and the French would make diversionary landings at Bulair and Kum Kale on the Asiatic shore respectively. Preparations were slow because ships had been loaded in the wrong order for an invasion, meaning that they had to be unloaded and re-loaded at Alexandria.[1]

The fleet was commanded by Vice Admiral John de Robeck, who had taken over towards the end of the naval attack on the Dardanelles. His Chief of Staff was Commodore Roger Keyes, an aggressive officer who had previously commanded the RN’s submarines, including at the Battle of Helgoland Bight.

De Robeck’s fleet comprised one British dreadnought; 15 British and four French pre-dreadnought battleships; nine British, three French and one Russian cruisers; 24 British and five French destroyers; seven British, one Australian and four French submarines; a British seaplane carrier; and various minesweepers and other auxiliary craft. One each of the French pre-dreadnoughts and the French cruisers did not take part in the events of 25 April.[2]

Security for the operation was poor. Enemy agents in Athens learnt of preparations on the Greek Islands from the crews of Greek caiques; letters were sent by ordinary post from the United Kingdom to Egypt addressed to the ‘Constantinople Force, Egypt’; and there was open speculation in the Egyptian press.[3] Despite the large number of Allied troops in Egypt, it was officially neutral, so the British could not censor its newspapers.

Tim Travers highlights that the army and navy had different views of the invasion, which created confusion. The navy’s emphasis was on a combined attack on the Narrows, but the army believed that the navy’s role was to weaken the defences in order to permit the landing.[4]

A meeting of RN captains on 21 April decided to abandon the original concept of anchoring offshore in order to shell the beaches and approaches. Instead, the beaches would be bombarded before the landing, but the guns would then switch to the coastal ridges. Keyes rejected Captain Hughes Lockyer of the battleship HMS Implacable’s idea of firing on the beaches on the way in as he thought that the gun control system made it impossible to change the range and bearing quickly enough. The orders stated that ‘ships will cover the landings and support its advance.’[5]

This left captains with a fair degree of discretion. They were no longer required to anchor, but Lockyer said that Keyes’s comments meant that some were reluctant to move close to the shore. The casualties were heaviest at the beaches where the ships remained anchored offshore: V and W at Cape Helles. The landings at S and X at Helles and Anzac Cove benefitted from close naval support.[6]

The fifth beach at Helles, Y, was a late addition, intended to threaten any Ottoman retreat and reinforcements. The initial landing met little resistance, but the troops, lacking a clear objective, did not press on and were withdrawn the next day.[7]

W Beach was target of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers plus 50 men of the Anson Battalion of the RND. They came ashore in cutters which were first towed by steam boats before being rowed the final part of the journey, which was slow because of an unexpectedly strong current. The boats had to come back to carry the second wave. Casualties amongst both the Fusiliers and the sailors were heavy, with some boats being reduced to two rather than six rowers.[8]

The beach was taken thank to the courage of the Lancashire Fusiliers, six of whom were awarded the Victoria Cross. However, their casualties were too heavy for them to link up with V Beach. This beach was later known as Lancashire Landing.[9]

After disembarking the men intended for W Beach, Implacable bombarded X Beach, with Lockyer taking her to within 450 yards of the shore. She and the light cruiser HMS Dublin were so close in that they came under rifle fire. The small number of men defending the beach were so overwhelmed by the bombardment that the 2nd Royal Fusiliers landed without casualties. Implacable helped to repel an Ottoman attack in the evening. This beach was later known as Implacable Beach.[10]

Captain Alexander Davidson of the battleship HMS Cornwallis was concerned about the small size of the landing force at S Beach, which consisted of two companies of the 2nd South Wales Borderers and a detachment of marines. He therefore augmented it with marines and sailors from his ship and also landed himself. The beach was taken with only 63 casualties. However, Davidson was supposed to move Cornwallis to V Beach once S was captured, but stayed longer in order to evacuate wounded and provide fire support.[11]

The first wave at V Beach consisted of three companies of the Dublin Fusiliers and 50 men of the Anson Battalion in boats each crewed by a midshipman and six seaman. They were followed by the rest of the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers, half the 2nd Hampshires and 50 more men from the Anson Battalion on board the steamer River Clyde, captained by Commander Edward Unwin.[12]

The River Clyde was to be grounded. She would still be too far offshore for the men to land, so a steam hopper and three wooden lighters would provide a bridge for the troops to land from exits cut in her hull. However, problem with the steam hopper prevented the bridge being put into place.[13] The conversion of the River Clyde into a specialist landing ship was Unwin’s idea.[14]

Unwin and Able Seaman William Williams dived into the sea and managed to move two of the lighters into position with the help of Midshipman George Drewry, commanding the hopper. There was nothing that the lighters could be secured to, so Unwin and Williams used their own bodies to weigh it down. This allowed the Munsters to attempt to land, but most were killed or wounded. Some jumped into the water, but many of them, weighed down by heavy packs, drowned. Williams was also hit and Unwin had to release the line in order to stop him drowning.

Lieutenant John Morse and Midshipman Wilfred Malleson managed to restore a bridge of boats. An attempt to land smaller parties failed and the attack was halted.[15] The men would have got ashore more quickly had the hopper and lighters been able to form a bridge as planned, but casualties would still have been heavy.[16]

The few men who had made it ashore were able to shelter behind a sandbank. The naval fire support at V Beach was inadequate. The battleship HMS Albion stayed 1,400 yards offshore, too far to be useful without forward observers. Cornwallis was late arriving and also stayed too far offshore. Unwin was later very critical of Davidson, arguing that he should have been court martialled for lingering at the lightly defended S Beach.[17]

The cruiser HMS Euryalus did provide accurate fire support at V Beach, but she stayed further offshore than Implacable did at X Beach.[18]

It had not originally been intended to use French troops on 25 April, but it was decided that this was a waste, so they were landed at Kum Kale on the Asian shore. The objective was to prevent the Ottomans from bombarding the S Beach invasion force. Fire support was provided by the French battleship Henri IV, the British battleship HMS Prince George and the Russian cruiser Askold. Henri IV came close inshore to provide accurate fire support. The landing was successful, but the troops were withdrawn on 27 April as they could not advance further without reinforcements.[19]

The first part of the feint by the RND at Bulair was to begin just before dusk with men being rowed towards the shore. They would return to their ships without landing once darkness hid them from the Ottomans. A single platoon of the Hood Battalion would then land and light flares, fire rifles and give the impression that a real landing had taken place.

However, Lieutenant Commander Bernard Freyberg argued that this risked unnecessary casualties. A strong swimmer, he proposed that he should swim ashore alone and set off the flares. This was accepted. The movement of Ottoman reserves was delayed for while, but the original plan would have caused more problems.[20]

The final attack was by the Anzacs at Gaba Tepe, now called Anzac Cove. There was confusion over the intended landing spot and charts were poor. Some senior army officers claimed that the troops were landed a mile and a half to two miles too far north. Travers suggests that the choice of place was ‘quite flexible.’[21]

Peter Hart and Nigel Steel argue that the landing was no more than 500 yards away from the planned location. They note that the naval orders used 2,025 yard nautical miles rather than 1,760 yard statute miles.[22]

Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood, the Anzac commander, and others later said that change in landing beach was beneficial. It took the Ottomans by surprise and steep cliffs protected the troops. However, Travers comments that the Anzacs were confused by landing at the wrong point and that the Ottomans reacted quickly. Units became mixed up, resulting in a loss of cohesion.[23]

Naval gunfire could give little help at first because the situation was unclear, the terrain was difficult and there was no observation. Most ships stayed too far out, but the right flanks was helped by the cruiser HMS Bacchante, which came in as close as the rocks allowed. She and the battleship HMS Triumph, unlike other ships at Anzac, adjusted their fire according to heliographic signals from ashore.[24]

Although the army was now ashore, the navy continued to play a vital role in the Gallipoli campaign. Ships provided fire support to the troops; supplies and reinforcements had to be brought and wounded evacuated 50 or 60 miles to bases on the islands of Lemnos, Mudros and Tenedos. Rear Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, commanding at Mudros said that there in September there were always between 150-70 ships at Mudros, excluding small ships. The supply chain was threatened by German U-boats, which intelligence reports said correctly were on their way.[25]

Six Victoria Crosses were awarded to sailors for actions at V Beach on 25 April. Four went to Unwin, Williams, Drewry and Malleson. One went to Seaman George Samson, who worked on a lighter all day under fire, helping wounded and putting out lines, before being badly wounded by machine gun fire. The sixth was Sub Lieutenant Arthur Tisdall of the RND, who went to the aid of wounded men on the beach who were under fire. Only Williams’s award was posthumous, although Tisdall was killed on 6 May. Drewry received the Distinguished Service Order.

De Robeck’s despatch, including a list all Special Recommendation to men under his command, which did not include the RND, is listed on naval-history.net, as are all the RN recipients of gallantry awards and all RN men killed, including the RND.

[1] A. Moorehead, Gallipoli. (London: New English Library, 1963), pp. 107-11.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 310-12

[3] Moorehead, Gallipoli., p. 109.

[4] T. Travers, Gallipoli, 1915 (Stroud: Tempus, 2001), p. 56.

[5] Ibid., p. 63.

[6] Ibid., p. 64.

[7] Ibid., pp. 72-74.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 330-32.

[9] N. Steel, P. Hart, Defeat at Gallipoli (London: Papermac, 1995), pp. 86-90, 96.

[10] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 325-27.

[11] Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 61-62.

[12] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 332.

[13] Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 64-65.

[14] Steel, Hart, Defeat, p. 41.

[15] Ibid., pp. 90-96.

[16] Travers, Gallipoli, p. 65.

[17] Ibid., pp. 65-66.

[18] Ibid., pp. 71-72.

[19] Ibid., pp. 75-78.

[20] Steel, Hart, Defeat, pp. 78-80.

[21] Travers, Gallipoli, p. 85.

[22] Steel, Hart, Defeat.

[23] Travers, Gallipoli, p. 83.

[24] Ibid., pp. 89-90.

[25] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 116.

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U9 Sinks Three British Cruisers 22 September 1914

In the first month and a half of WWI British and German submarines both sank an enemy light cruiser. Some British admirals, such as Sir John Jellicoe, the commander of the Grand Fleet, realised the threat that submarines posed to surface ships and acted accordingly. Others failed to recognise it.

At the start of the war, the Royal Navy’s Southern Force under Rear Admiral Arthur Christian was ordered ‘to keep the area south of the 54th parallel [which runs a little south of the Dogger Bank and Helgoland] clear of enemy torpedo craft and minelayers.’[1]

Christian flew his flag in the armoured cruiser HMS Euryalus and had under his command the light cruiser HMS Amethyst, the armoured cruisers HMS Bacchante, Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue of Rear Admiral Henry Campbell’s 7th Cruiser Squadron, the 8th Submarine Flotilla and the 1st and 3rd Destroyer Flotillas. The armoured cruisers were all old ships of the Bacchante class: some sources call them the Cressy class, but contemporary RN papers refer to them as the Bacchantes. They were unreliable, with no more than three of the five usually being available.

The Southern Force, operating from Harwich, conducted patrols in two areas. The force off Dogger Bank, covering the southern approaches to the North Sea, was generally stronger than the one in the Broad Fourteens, watching the eastern entrance to the English Channel. However, the latter was sometimes increased according to circumstances, such when the British Expeditionary Force crossed the Channel.

Commodore Roger Keyes, commanding the Harwich submarines, told the Admiralty on 12 August that the Bacchantes should be withdrawn. He feared that they were vulnerable to an attack by ‘two or three well-trained German cruisers…Why give the Germans the smallest chance of a cheap victory and an improved morale[?]’[2] However, even the Commodore for Submarines worried about an attack by surface ships, not U-boats.

On 17 September Keyes, supported by Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt, commander of the Harwich destroyers, had the opportunity to put his views to Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiral. He pointed out to Churchill that the Grand Fleet nicknamed the 7th Cruiser Squadron ‘the live bait squadron.’[3]

Churchill sent a memo to Prince Louis Battenberg, the First Sea Lord, on 18 September strongly recommending that the old armoured cruisers should be withdrawn from this patrol:

‘The risk to such ships is not justified by any services they can render. The narrow seas, being the nearest point to the enemy, should be kept by a small number of good modern ships.’[4]

Battenberg, who had not liked the idea of the Bacchantes patrolling up and down the North Sea, agreed. However, Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee, the Vice Chief of the Naval Staff told Keyes that ‘[w]e’ve always maintained a squadron on the Broad Fourteens.’[5]

Sturdee was also concerned by the possibility of a German attack on the cross-Channel supply line. He admitted that the Bacchantes were not really suitable for their role, but argued that they were better than nothing until the new Arethusa class light cruisers were ready. HMS Arethusa was under repair after being damaged at the Battle of Helgoland Bight and her seven sisters had not yet been completed.

On 19 September Sturdee persuaded Battenberg to authorise a telegram concentrating the Bacchantes in the South: ‘The Dogger Bank patrol need not be continued. Weather too bad for destroyers to go to sea. Arrange for cruisers to watch Broad Fourteens.’[6] Churchill later said that he did not see it.

There were then four of the armoured cruisers on patrol, Campbell’s flagship Bacchante being in dock for repairs. Euryalus, Christian’s flagship, was added to the Cruiser Squadron in order to keep its numbers up, but Christian’s command responsibilities were wider, and Campbell should have transferred his flag to one of his other cruisers. James Goldrick comments that Christian ‘should not have allowed Campbell, nor should the latter have been willing, to remain in harbour.’[7]

At 6:00 am on 20 September Euryalus had to return to port for coaling and because her wireless aerials had been damaged by the bad weather. Christian would normally have transferred by boat to one of the other cruisers, but the high seas made this impossible. In Campbell’s absence command of the squadron fell to Captain John Drummond of Aboukir.

Christian sent Drummond an ambiguous signal, which did not make it clear that it was Drummond who was responsible for summoning the destroyers when the weather improved. By midnight on 21 September the wind had died down on the Broad Fourteens, but it was still strong in Harwich, so the destroyers were not sent out until 5:00 am on 22 September.

The Bacchantes‘ coal consumption was very high if they made 13 or more knots. Consequently they were sailing at barely 10 knots and not zigzagging on the morning of 22 September. They were in line abreast, two miles apart.

Richard Hough says that one reason for not zigzagging was that their captains thought ‘that seas a destroyer could not endure were equally impossible for a submarine.’[8] If true, this was a bad mistake, as the seas had been rough when U21 sank HMS Pathfinder and when E9 sank SMS Hela. At least one of the captains should have understood submarine operations; Captain Robert Johnson of HMS Cressy, although not a submariner, had commanded a submarine flotilla for three years before the war.[9]

Just before 6:30 am on 22 September Aboukir suffered a major explosion. Drummond assumed that she had hit a mine and signalled so to the rest of the squadron. In fact, she had been struck by a single torpedo fired by U9, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen.

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 gave her a speed of only 14 knots. She could make 8 knots submerged.

Drummond soon realised that his ship had been torpedoed by a U-boat and ordered the other two cruisers away. However, Captain Wilmot Nicholson of Hogue thought that his ship would be safe if she kept to the side of Aboukir that had not been hit. Hogue stopped about a mile from Aboukir in order to launch her boats.

However, Weddigen had re-positioned his boat. At 6:55, as Aboukir sank, he fired two torpedoes into Hogue from only 300 yards away. U9’s bows rose out of the water, and Hogue fired on her, without scoring any hits. The cruiser sank within 10 minutes.

Cressy was also stationary, launching her boats. A periscope was spotted and Johnson ordered his ship to make full speed in order to ram the U-boat. At 7:20 Weddigen fired his two stern torpedoes at her; one missed and the other hit, but did not cause serious damage. He then closed to 500 yards and at 7:30 fired his last torpedo into Cressy, which sank 15 minutes later.

The first rescue ship to arrive was the Dutch steamer Flora, which picked up 286 men, many badly wounded and took them to Ymuiden. Another Dutch ship, the Titan, which rescued 147 men, and two British trawlers, the Coriander and J. G. C., were still picking up survivors when Tyrwhitt’s force of the light cruiser HMS Lowestoft and eight destroyers arrived between 10:30 and 10:45. The civilian ships could not have been sure whether or not they were in a minefield.

A total of 60 officers and 777 men were saved and 62 officers and 1,397 died. The Dutch repatriated to Britain the survivors taken initially to the Netherlands. Casualties on Cressy were particularly high because her boats were full of survivors from the other two cruisers when she was sunk. Many of the crews were middle-aged reservists recalled at the start of the war. Each cruiser also had nine cadets from the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth on board, most of them under the age of 15.

The website Naval-History.net lists the casualties and survivors for all three cruisers. The men listed as being either RFR (Royal Fleet Reserve) or RNR (Royal Naval Reserve) were reservists. Men who were rescued but later died of wounds are listed as having died on the dates of their deaths rather than the date of the sinkings. Captain Johnson of Cressy was amongst the dead, but Drummond and Nicholson both survived.

The Admiralty issued orders that armoured ship should zigzag, make at least 13 knots and not stop in waters where enemy submarines might be present. It said:

 ‘that if one ship is torpedoed by submarine or strikes mine. disabled ship must be left to her fate and other large ships clear out of dangerous area calling up minor vessels to render assistance.’[10]

The Court of Inquiry said that Drummond ‘should have zigzagged his course as much as possible. Johnson and Nicholson were guilty of ‘an error of judgment’ in stopping their ships. However, Battenberg thought that they ‘were placed in a cruel position, once they found themselves in waters swarming with drowning men.’[11]

Christian told Jellicoe that ‘certainly Cressy need not have been sacrificed and probably not Hogue if they had only dashed up within say a mile to windward, out all boats and away again.’[12]

Campbell, Christian and Drummond were all placed on half pay, but the two admirals were later given new employment. The Court of Inquiry’s criticism was mainly directed at the Admiralty, meaning Battenberg and Sturdee. Later, when they had left the Admiralty, the Third and Fourth Sea Lords, who had little involvement in operational matters, agreed with this, as did Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Wilson, a former First Sea Lord.

Much of the public criticism fell on Churchill, who was prone to interfere in operational decisions. In fact, on this occasion he had recommended that the Bacchantes should be withdrawn from this patrol, but had not interfered in order to make sure that this was done.

Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, who in WWII organised the naval parts of the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 and the invasion of Normandy in 1944, was a Lieutenant in 1914. He wrote in his diary that it ‘just shows how utterly without imagination the majority of our senior officers are.’[13]

The action showed the potency of submarines to both sides, although some in Britain thought that more than one U-boat must have taken part. The Times wrote on 25 September that:

‘It is well-known that German submarines operate in flotillas of six boats. If it is true that only one, U9, returned to harbour, we may assume that the others are lost.’[14]

The Kaiser awarded Weddigen the Iron Cross First Class and every other member of U9’s crew the Iron Cross Second Class. The action cancelled out the moral advantage that the RN had gained from its victory at Helgoland Bight on 28 August 1914. U9 and the light cruiser SMS Emden were the only German ships to be awarded the Iron Cross during the war.

[1] Quoted in J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 171.

[2] Quoted in R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 129.

[3] Quoted in Ibid.

[4] 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. ii, p. 56

[5] Ibid. vol. ii, p. 57, footnote 27. Marder’s source was Admiral Sir William James, who was told the story by Keyes.

[6] Ibid.

[7] 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. 127.

[8] R. A. Hough, The Great War at Sea, 1914-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 62.

[9] Goldrick, The King’s Ships, p. 126.

[10] Quoted in Ibid., p. 133.

[11] Quotes in this paragraph from Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 55.

[12] Quoted in Goldrick, The King’s Ships, p. 133.

[13] Quoted in G. A. H. Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996), p. 390.

[14] Quoted in Massie, Castles, p. 137.

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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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