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The Final Sortie of the High Seas Fleet

The final sortie of the German High Seas Fleet during the First World War took place between 22 and 25 April 1918. This was its first mission into the North Sea since August 1916, but it had not been inactive in the intervening period. From 10 to 20 October 1917 it had conducted Operation Albion, a major amphibious operation that resulted in the Germans capturing the Baltic islands of Ösel, Dago and Moon from the Russians.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer, C.-in-C. of the High Seas Fleet, learnt from U-boats that convoys between Norway and Great Britain had been escorted by battleships and battle cruisers since two German cruisers successfully attacked one on 17 October 1917. Scheer later wrote that:

‘A successful attack on such a convoy would not only result in the sinking of much tonnage, but would be a great military success, and would bring welcome relief to the U-boats operating in the Channel and round England, for it would force the English to send more warships to the northern waters.’[1]

Vizeadmiral Franz von Hipper’s battle cruisers (1st Scouting Group), the light cruisers of the 2nd Scouting Group and a destroyer flotilla would attack the convoy. All other available ships of the High Seas Fleet would cover the operations: the flagship, three battle squadrons less SMS Markgraf, the light cruisers of the 4th Scouting Group less SMS Stralsund and four destroyer flotillas.[2]

The Germans sailed at 5:00 am on 23 April but encountered fog at 10:30 am, when they were about to pass through the British minefields in the Helgoland Bight. It lifted after half an hour and they were able to proceed safely.[3]

The British then had four submarines patrolling the entrances to the Bight. HMS J6 spotted the German destroyers and light cruisers at 8:00 pm on 23 April, battle cruisers and destroyers at 8:30 pm and heavy ships at 00:15 am on 24 April. However, her captain had been told that British cruisers might be operating inside the area that he was patrolling, so assumed that they were British and did not report them.[4]

The Germans believed that the convoys travelled mainly at the start and middle of the week, so set the operation for Wednesday 24 April. In fact they sailed every four days, weather permitting. The limited range of most of the German destroyers and some of the light cruisers meant that they could stay in the operational area for only one day.[5]

A British convoy of 34 merchant ships had left Selbjorns Fjord at 1:15 pm on 22 April. Its close escort was only an armed boarding steamer and two destroyers, but it was being covered by the 2nd Battle cruiser Squadron and the 7th Light Cruiser Squadron to the south. It encountered heavy fog but reached Methil in the Firth of Forth on schedule on the morning of 24 April. The convoy to Norway was due to depart Methil the same day, with the result that the Germans would not have encountered any convoys even if their operation went to plan.[6]

The German operation did not go to plan. Early on 24 April the battle cruiser SMS Moltke suffered an engine breakdown, which reduced her speed to 13 knots. At 5:00 am Hipper ordered her to retire to the main German force. At 7:00 am Moltke was forced to break radio silence to report to Scheer that she was now capable of only 4 knots. Hipper at first turned back to help her but was then ordered by Scheer to resume his original course. Moltke was taken in tow by the battleship SMS Oldenburg at 10:45 am. Hipper did not spot any convoys and the main force set out back to base at 10 knots. Scheer had a choice of two routes and decided to take the quicker and more direct one. This increased the risk of encountering the British Grand Fleet but the other route, through the Kattegat was harder for Moltke and Oldenburg. It also risked offending the Danes and provoking the British into mining it, which would be bad for the U-boats.[7]

The British radio direction finding stations picked up the German signals and located them. At 11:45 am the Grand Fleet, which had been based at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth since 12 April, was ordered to put to sea. By the early afternoon 31 battleships, four of them American, four battle cruisers, two armoured cruisers, 24 light cruisers and 85 destroyers were at sea. Admiral Sir David Beatty, C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet, was given the option of holding back the Methil to Norway convoy and adding the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron to his force but chose not to. Two battleships and the 2nd Cruiser Squadron were sent to join the force covering the convoy.[8]

At 4:00 am on 25 April J6 saw German light cruisers and destroyers and 90 minutes later spotted battlecruisers. They had passed by 7:15 am and she then reported them. Another British submarine, E42, had been sent to intercept the Germans and got into position early because they were moving slowly. At about 5:30 pm her captain Lieutenant C. H. Allen fired four torpedoes at a line of ships that was passing him. He then dived his boat and took an hour to lose the enemy, during which time he counted 25 explosions nearby.[9]

E42 had hit the port engine room of Moltke, but she made port. At 1:41 pm the Admiralty authorised Beatty to return to port if he wished.[10]

The German operation was well planned but failed because of faulty intelligence. Had the High Seas Fleet set off a day earlier or a day later it would have encountered a convoy and presumably overwhelmed it and its escort. Scheer seems to have relied upon U-boat commanders for intelligence. It is unclear if he asked German Consuls in neutral Norway for details of convoy movements. It is also uncertain if he knew whether or not the Grand Fleet was now based at Rosyth.[11]

Scheer went further north than ever before at a time when the enemy was further south. In the event the High Seas Fleet was able to avoid the Grand Fleet, but this might not have happened if J6 had reported the High Seas Fleet after spotting it several hours before it was detected by radio direction finding. Both sides could therefore point to missed opportunities.

 

[1] R. Scheer, Germany’s High Sea Fleet in the World War (London: Cassell and Company, 1920), p. 318.

[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), p. 149.

[3] Scheer, Germany’s, pp. 320-21. Times from this source have been adjusted for consistency with British sources, which quote times one hour behind German time.

[4] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, p. 284.

[5] Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 148-49.

[6] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 233-35.

[7] Scheer, Germany’s, pp. 321-22.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 232, 235-36.

[9] Ibid., p. 238.

[10] Marder, From. vol. v, p.154.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, ppp. 232, 238-39.

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The High Seas Fleet Sorties After Jutland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid., p. 104.

[9] Ibid., p. 106.

[10] Scheer, Germany’s, p. 182.

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

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

[13] Scheer, Germany’s, p. 182.

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

[15] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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The Naval Blockades: (1) The United Kingdom

 

During the First World War both the United Kingdom and Germany attempted to carry out naval blockades of the other.

Blockades had been a part of British strategy in its wars with European enemies for many years. In the early 18th century they were mainly strategic, with the intention of giving warning if enemy fleets came out of port. By the end of that century, they also aimed at damaging enemy trade.

The UK had paid little attention to the rights of neutrals during its 18th and early 19th century wars: this was one of the causes of the War of 1812 with the United States of America. In 1856, however, it signed the Declaration of Paris, which stated that belligerents should not interfere with neutral trade. including enemy cargoes carried in neutral ships and neutral cargoes carried in enemy ships.

However, the protection offered to neutral trade did not extend to contraband, which was divided into two categories. Absolute contraband was items useful only to the military. Conditional contraband meant goods with both peaceful and military uses that were clearly destined for the enemy’s armed forces.

Conditional contraband was not defined by the Declaration of Paris. The UK insisted that it did not include food, but other countries disagreed. France, supported by Germany, declared it to be contraband during its 1885 war with China, as did Russia in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War.

The UK was the world’s largest shipping carrier, a net importer of food and an exporter of manufactured goods. It had to consider the issue from three viewpoints: as a neutral in other people’s wars; the defensive one of defending its own trade; and the offensive one of blockading the enemy. Defensively, in a war with another country, it could continue to import from the USA in US ships. However, other European countries were less vulnerable to blockade than they had been before the development of railways, provided that they neighboured neutral countries.

In 1909 the Declaration of London attempted to define contraband. Absolute contraband was confined to a small number of purely military items, whilst the list of supplies defined as conditional contraband included food provided that it was for military, not civilian consumption.

The British delegates agreed the terms of the Declaration of London, but the UK never ratified it. There were protests from the public, which focussed mainly on the neutral and defensive angles, and a petition signed by 138 retired admirals.

Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, and the Foreign Office accepted the Declaration. They were concerned mainly with the neutral and defensive issues of protecting Britain’s merchant fleet and its wartime food supply.[1]

The Admiralty was planning to conduct economic warfare in the event of a war with Germany, which makes the agreement of its delegates to the London Conference more puzzling. Avner Offer suggests that it may have been ‘partly a matter of muddle and neglect’, but also offer a ‘more Machiavellian interpretation’; Admiral Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, may have wanted the UK to have legal protection when a neutral, but expected it to act in its self interests in wartime.[2]

Some contemporary writers, such as Thomas Gibson Bowles, feared that the 1909 Declaration of London would prevent the Royal Navy from exerting the same pressure on a future enemy that they claimed had won past wars. However, Archibald Bell, the Official Historian of the British blockade, argues that Bowles’s claim that past blockades had been decisive was wrong. Bell contends that British leaders of the past ‘had never hoped that a continental enemy could be brought to terms by stopping its commerce.’[3]

Fisher’s immediate successor as First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, was sceptical about the merits of blockade, but he had retired by 1914. By then British strategy was to blockade Germany in wartime. The UK was allied to France and Russia, so the fears that a naval blockade would be circumvented by trade with neighbouring countries no longer applied. Germany was surrounded and her trade with the rest of the world could be stopped if Antwerp and Rotterdam were blockaded.[4]

Just before the start of the war the British decided that the traditional policy of a close blockade of enemy ports was no longer viable because of the threat of attack from torpedo armed enemy vessels on the blockading force. Instead, a distant blockade would be carried out. The Channel Fleet would block the English Channel, whilst a line of cruisers from the Shetland Islands to Norway would close the northern entrance to the North Sea.

There were, however, some difficulties in implementing the blockade when war came. One was the doctrine of continuous voyage. Absolute contraband intended for Germany could be stopped even if it was to be first unloaded in a neutral port such as Rotterdam and then transported by land to Germany. However, the Declaration of London stated that conditional contraband could only be stopped if it was heading directly to an enemy port.

The UK was reluctant to abandon entirely the Declaration of London, partly because Grey did not want to give up his support for neutral rights and international law and partly because it did not want to offend the USA.

However, the Germans laid unanchored, floating mines in the North Sea early in the war. International law said that such mines had to become inoperable after an hour. It was not feasible to do so, but this gave the UK an opportunity to argue that it was Germany that had first broken international law. The UK then announced that it would apply continuous voyage to conditional as well as to absolute contraband.

The UK also decided the treat food as contraband after it received reports that all food distribution in Germany was to be taken over by the government. The reports were actually an exaggeration of a plan to control food prices, but the British went ahead. However, the early British efforts at blockade did not have the desired effect. There was a reluctance to take measures that would offend neutrals who also supplied the UK.[5]

The naval force carrying out the blockade was also weak. Eric Osborne describes Rear Admiral Dudley De Chair as ‘an excellent choice for the job’ of commanding the 10th Cruiser Squadron, responsible for closing the northern approaches to the North Sea.[6] However, he initially had only six Edgar and two Royal Arthur class cruisers, launched in 1890-92. They were too slow to catch blockade runners and struggled in the harsh weather of their patrol area. they also had to take part in sweeps of the North Sea by the Grand Fleet. On 15 October one of them, HMS Hawke, was sunk by U9.

On 5 November the Admiralty announced that the whole of the North Sea was a war zone, warning that ships entering from the north would do so at their own risk. The official reason for this was the German minefields, but the real one was to force neutral ships heading into the North Sea to go through the English Channel, making it easier to search them for contraband. A number of Scandinavian shipping companies agreed that their ships would call at Kirkwall for inspection in return for being allowed to use the northern route.

The blockade was also strengthened in December by the replacement of the 10th Cruiser Squadron’s old ships with 23 armed merchant cruisers, merchant liners requisitioned by the navy and armed. They were both more numerous and more suitable for their role than the old warships initially assigned to it.[7]

The British blockade was not as successful in 1914 as its planners had hoped. It later tightened because the UK signed agreements with neutral countries, but only one of these, with the Netherlands on 23 November, was concluded in 1914. The UK had to move slowly because it could not afford to offend neutrals, especially the USA.[8]

The greatest British success in destroying German trade in 1914 was in sweeping the German merchant fleet from the seas, causing major economic problems for Germany. In November there were 221 German merchant ships were laid up in German ports and 1,059 in neutral ports, with another 245 having been interned in Allied ports.[9]

Osborne argues that:

‘The official reports on Germany’s economic conditions for November and December revealed hardship, but not sufficient to cripple the German war effort…The greatest achievement of British negotiations in 1914 was not the practical results achieved but the establishment of a foundation for future tightening of the blockade…The deadlock on the Western Front meant that economic pressure was vital to the success of the Allied cause and measures to date were not satisfactory.’[10]

The development of the British blockade was an example of the way in which a breach of international law by one side would be used by the other to justify a further breach, leading towards total war. The next escalation would be made by the Germans, when they used the British declaration that the North Sea was a war zone to justify the implementation of unrestricted submarine warfare.

 

[1] A. Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), pp. 271-77.

[2] Ibid., pp. 278-79.

[3] A. C. Bell, A History of the Blockade of Germany and of the Countries Associated with Her in the Great War – Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, 1914-1918 (London: HMSO, 1961), p. 18.

[4] Offer, First, pp. 285-99.

[5] E. W. Osborne, Britain’s Economic Blockade of Germany, 1914-1919 (London: Frank Cass, 2004), pp. 58-65.

[6] Ibid., p. 59.

[7] Ibid., pp. 72-73.

[8] Ibid., pp. 76-78.

[9] Ibid., p. 61.

[10] Ibid., p. 79.

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