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The Second Battle of Heligoland Bight 16-17 November 1917

During the First World War, the British laid large numbers of mines in the Helgoland Bight in an attempt to prevent U-boats travelling to the Atlantic via the North Sea. The Germans sent  minesweepers up to 100 miles from Heligoland almost every day in an attempt to clear them. They were normally escorted by light cruisers and torpedo boats, with battleships sometimes covering them. By mid November 1917 the British Admiralty had enough intelligence on German operations to plan an attack on the minesweepers and their escorts.[1]

The British striking force that sailed from Rosyth on the Firth of Forth at 4:30 pm on 16 November comprised: 1st Cruiser Squadron (Vice Admiral Trevelyan Napier) of two light battle cruisers and four destroyers; 6th Light Cruiser Squadron (Rear Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair) of four C class light cruisers and four destroyers; 1st Light Cruiser Squadron (Commodore Walter Cowan) of one C and 3 Arethusa class light cruisers and two destroyers; and 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron (Vice Admiral William Pakenham (five battlecruisers, a light cruiser and eight destroyers.

Pakenham was in overall command of the operation, but Napier commanded the two light cruiser squadrons as well as his own cruiser squadron.

The 1st Battle Squadron of six battleships and 11 Destroyers was in a supporting position several hours steaming away.

The Germans had the VI Minesweeping Group, II and VI Support Groups and IV Barrier Breaker Group, totalling 16 auxiliaries and a similar number of trawlers, escorted by eight destroyers of the 7th Torpedo Boat Flotilla and the four light cruisers of the II Scouting Group (Konteradmiral Ludwig von Reuter). Two German battleships were in support near Heligoland.[2]

The light battlecruisers, HMS Courageous and Glorious, were fast (32 knot), lightly armoured ships armed with four 15 inch, 18 4 inch and two 3 inch guns plus two 21 inch torpedo tubes. They had very shallow drafts and had been intended to take part in operations in the Baltic, which were cancelled when Admiral Lord Fisher ceased to be First Sea Lord. Fisher called them large light cruisers in order to evade a government order forbidding the construction of more capital ships.[3]

The British spotted German ships at 7:30 am on 17 November, opening fire seven minutes later. The Germans destroyers and light cruisers turned towards the British and covered the minesweepers with a smokescreen. All withdrew except the armed trawler Kehdingen, which had been hit and immobilised. The other German ships were in the smoke before the British could ascertain their strength.[4]

The German ships became visible briefly and were fired on but the situation remained unclear until 8:07, when Napier’s flagship Courageous cleared the smoke, allowing him to see three German light cruisers to the south east, steering east north east. Four minutes later they changed course to the south east.[5]

The German auxiliaries were now to the north east and were not being pursued. Reuter could therefore draw the British through the minefields towards the German battleships.  The British could fire only their forward guns at his light cruisers but a single hit by a 15 inch shell on one of them could slow her by a few knots, meaning that he would have to abandon her, as Admiral Franz von Hipper had had to do with SMS Blücher at the First Battle of Heligoland Bight in 1915.[6]

Courageous and Glorious opened fire at 8:10, but it was another 10 minutes until all the British ships were in range of the Germans. They then laid another smokescreen and 15 minutes later disappeared into dense smoke. Napier was now at the edge of the British minefields and turned to port, considering that the situation was too uncertain to risk continuing. The light cruisers followed just after 8:40. The 6th Light Cruiser Squadron made the smallest turn and HMS Cardiff was hit and damaged at 8:50. The smokescreen was now clearing, revealing that the Germans had not changed course. [7]

Napier’s squadron had lost five miles and was now at extreme range, although the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron and HMS Caledon of the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron were closer.[8]

The British opened fire again at 8:52. Napier decided to follow the Germans for 12 more miles, which would take his force to the edge of an area that the Admiralty had in 1915 labelled as being dangerous because of mines. His force had now been reinforced by the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, which had been ordered by Pakenham not to enter the minefields.[9]

At 8:58 Pakenham  ordered the British to withdraw. He had received a signal from Napier at 8:52 that implied that contact with the Germans had been lost permanently but actually meant that they had temporarily disappeared behind a smokescreen. All British ships were in action by the time that Pakenham’s withdrawal order was received, and it was disregarded.[10]

Firing was intermittent, but the British believed that they had damaged at least one German cruiser. The Germans launched an unsuccessful torpedo attack around 9:30. At 9:32 Napier took Courageous and Glorious out of the action because they had reached his danger line, but the light cruisers, whose commanders  did not have the chart Napier had based his decision on, continued. At 9:40 HMS Calypso was damaged, but the British appeared to have the advantage until 9:50, when shells from two German battleships started to land amongst them. The light cruisers withdrew, covered by Repulse. The Germans did not pursue them and a thick fog descended at 10:40.[11]

The British thought that some of the eight or 10 torpedoes fired at them came from a U-boat but none were present.[12]

The Germans repeatedly straddled the British ships but scored only seven hits, all on the light cruisers. The British managed only  five hits, with SMS Königsberg being the only German ship seriously damaged.  A shell from Repulse penetrated her three funnels and exploded over one of the boiler rooms. Her repairs were completed on 15 December.[13]

Naval-History.net lists 22 British sailors killed at the Second Bight of Heligoland Bight, all of them on light cruisers. None of the sources consulted give German casualties.  One of the British dead, Ordinary Seaman John Carless of HMS Caledon, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Carless, who had joined the Royal Navy in September 1915 after being rejected by the army four times because of a weak heart, remained at his post and continued to load his gun despite being severely wounded.  The citation for his VC, quoted on Wikipedia, stated that:

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. Although mortally wounded in the abdomen, he still went on serving the gun at which he was acting as rammer, lifting a projectile and helping to clear away the other casualties. He collapsed once, but got up, tried again, and cheered on the new gun’s crew. He then fell and died. He not only set a very inspiring and memorable example, but he also, whilst mortally wounded, continued to do effective work against the King’s enemies.

— The London Gazette, No. 30687, 17 May 1918

The British failure to pursue more effectively was partly due to the light cruiser admirals not having all the information about minefields available to the Admiralty and to Napier. Additionally, Napier pursued at 25 knots when Courageous and Glorious were capable of at least 30 knots and were superior to the German light cruisers that they were chasing.[14]

The only vessel sunk in the battle was the German Kehdingen but losing only one trawler when so heavily outnumbered was a success for the Germans in an action where the British might have sunk a large number of minesweepers, destroyers and cruisers.

 

 

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, pp. 165-66.

[2] M. Faulkner, A. D. Lambert, The Great War at Sea: A Naval Atlas 1914-1919 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2015), pp. 138-39; A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. iv, pp. 300-1,

[3] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 39-40.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 169-70.

[5] Ibid., pp. 170-71.

[6] Ibid., p. 171.

[7] Ibid., p. 172.

[8] Marder, From. vol. iv, p. 302.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 172-73.

[10] Ibid., p. 173.

[11] Ibid., pp. 175-76.

[12] Marder, From. vol iv, p. 305.

[13] Ibid., p. 304.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 177; Marder, From. vol. iv, p. 305

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The Battle of New Orleans 8 January 1815

Negotiations between the United Kingdom and the United States to end the War of 1812 began in Ghent in late August 1814. A peace treaty was signed on 24 December and ratified by the British government three days later. However, the slow speed of communications in those days meant that it took some time until the news reached the USA. Fighting therefore continued for nearly two months.

In December 1814 10,000 British troops landed near New Orleans. They were commanded by Sir Edward Pakenham, like most of his men a veteran of the Peninsular War. The advance guard under Major General John Keane camped nine miles from New Orleans at noon on 23 December. By the early evening his initial 1,900 men had been joined by another 400.[1]

Andrew Jackson, who had been in command of the defences for only three weeks, decided to strike the first blow. He attacked Keane with a force of just over 2,000 after dark on 23 December. The British troops were more experienced as well as more numerous. They could possibly claim a tactical victory as they held their ground, albeit at the expense of nearly 300 casualties versus over 200 American. The latter withdrew three miles.

However, the action was a strategic success for the Americans, who halted the British advance for long enough to erect a series of breastworks, defended by 3,000 men, with their flank protected by the corvette USS Louisiana in the Mississippi.

Pakenham advanced to the breastwork on Christmas Day. He then halted for three days, before launching a series of probing assaults. Heavy British guns were brought up, with the intention of attacking on 1 January. However, the Americans had the better of the pre-attack artillery duel, so Pakenham cancelled the assault.

The next attack was to take place on 8 January. A canal would be dug to take 1,500 men under Colonel William Thornton to the Mississippi in ship’s boats. They would then cross the river and assault a redoubt that had been established on the west bank with three 24 pounders and six 12 pounders, which could fire into the flank of the attack by the other 8,500 men on the east bank.

The official US returns stated that there were initially 4,698 men on the east bank and 546 on the west. Another 500 men were ordered by Jackson the reinforce the latter, but 100 did not arrive in time and only 250 of the others were armed. This gives a total of 5,494 Americans at the battle, but Theodore Roosevelt notes that there may be a double counting of the 500 sent to the west bank, reducing Jackson’s force to about 5,000.[2]

The sounds of the British preparation alerted Jackson the impending assault, so his men were on the alert before dawn. The British attackers on the east bank were initially protected by a fog, but it lifted when they were 400 yards from the American defences.

The sides of the canal that was intended to take Thornton’s force to the river caved in, with the result that it was late in setting off and only 700 men crossed. They landed in the wrong place, but were able to take their objective. Jackson organised a counter attack, but the British withdrew before it went in as Colonel Alexander Dickson, the British artillery commander, estimated that 2,000 men would be needed to hold the position.

By then, the main British attack had been repulsed with heavy casualties. Pakenham, his second in command Major General Sir Samuel Gibbs being killed. Keane was wounded, leaving Major General Sir John Lambert, the only uninjured British general present, in command. Gibbs, Keane and Lambert had all been knighted on 2 January. Wikipedia gives British casualties as being 2,042: 291 killed, 1,267 wounded and 484 captured or missing. American ones were 71: 13 dead, 39 wounded and 19 missing.

The two armies then faced each other for 10 days. The position was too strong for the British to take, especially as Jackson was receiving reinforcements. However, he was unwilling to attack, since the British troops were more experienced than the Americans, so would have an advantage fighting in the open.

Lambert retreated his force on 18 January. It re-embarked on its transport ships and headed for Mobile. On 8 February 1,500 men were landed at Fort Boyer, which surrendered with the honours of wars on 12 February, a few hours before the news of the end of the war arrived. Casualties were 11 Americans and 31 British.

New Orleans was a major US victory that saved the city and Louisiana from being devastated. As Americans learnt of it before they heard about the end of the war, it was natural for them to assume that it won them the war. However, this was not the case as peace terms had already been agreed. Jackson, the architect of the victory, was rightly regarded as the best American general of the war and later became President.

 

 

[1] Troop numbers and casualties are from T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. ii, pp. 211-68

[2] Ibid., p. 238. Note 2.

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