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William Sanders VC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid., p. 425.

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

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

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

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

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

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Allegations of War Crimes at Sea in 1915

Germany announced on 4 February 1915 that it would conduct unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters round the United Kingdom from 18 February. It justified this on the grounds that the British blockade of Germany contravened international law. This led to heavy losses in Allied shipping, most infamously the sinking of the liner Lusitania on 7 May with the loss of 1,201 lives including 128 Americans.

A number of incidents involving submarines that occurred between 18 and 21 August led to both Germany and the UK accusing the other of being guilty of atrocities.

The first of these took place in the early hours of 18 August. The submarines HMS E8 and E13 were on their way to the Baltic to join their sister boats E1 and E9 when E13 suffered problems with her magnetic compass. She went off course and ran aground in Danish waters. At 5:00 am a Danish torpedo boat arrived, informing Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Layton, E13’s captain, that he had the normal 24 hours to get his boat underway, but that no help would be given.

At 9:00 am, by when another Danish torpedo boat had arrived, two German destroyers appeared. One of them, SMS G132, fired a torpedo at E13 from a range of 300 yards and opened fire with all her guns, although the submarine was in neutral waters. She was soon in flames and her crew abandoned ship. The Germans fired on them in the water until one of the Danish torpedo boats put herself between the German ships and the swimming survivors. Fifteen men were killed and the others picked up by the Danes.[1] They were interned, but Layton escaped after three months. He rose to the rank of Admiral, holding commands in the Mediterranean and Far East during the Second World War.

The next two incidents both took place on 19 August. The website uboat.net lists seven British and one Spanish merchant ships as having been sunk that day by U24, U27 and U38, which were operating between Ushant and St George’s Channel. A Norwegian ship was also sunk by U25 in the North Sea. Two days earlier U-boats had sunk 11 merchantmen, but they were on average smaller, with a total tonnage of 15,733 tons versus 38,434 tons for the nine sunk on 19 August. The largest ship sunk on 19 August, the 15,801 ton British liner SS Arabic was bigger than all the ships sunk on 17 August combined.

Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schneider’s U24 was in the process of sinking the 4,930 ton merchant ship Dunsley by gunfire when she observed the Arabic, which was on her way to the USA, approaching. Earlier that day, U24 had survived attempts to ram her by the armed yacht Valiant II and the unarmed trawler Majestic and had been fired on by the defensively armed liner City of Exeter. Schneider was therefore wary of the Arabic and mistook her zigzag course for an attempt to ram his boat. U-boats had been ordered not to sink passenger liners without warning unless the liner was attacking them. Schneider thought that the Arabic was attacking him, so fired a single torpedo which hit her. She sank about ten minutes later.[2]

There is some doubt about the number of people on board the Arabic and the number of dead, with the three British Official Histories giving different figures: Naval Operations says 40 dead out of 428 onboard; The Merchant Navy gives 39 killed out of 429; and Seaborne Trade states that 44 died.[3] The Naval Staff Monograph, an internal Admiralty document written in 1926, says that she was carrying 429 people, 181 passengers and 248 crew, of whom 40, 18 passengers and 22 crew, were killed.[4] A document later published by the British government in response to German accusations that the British Q-ship HMS Baralong had murdered members of U27’s crew claimed 47 dead, a number that was increased to 49 in a later note.[5] Paul Halpern says that 44 died, including two or three US citizens.[6]

Baralong was one of a number of merchantmen given concealed armament and RN volunteer crews in order to act as decoy ships that could trap and destroy U-boats. She was a 4,000 ton ship, capable of carrying 3,000 tons of coal in four holds, that had been requisitioned as a supply ship by the RN. She was given three 12 pounder guns, two of which were concealed by dummy life belt lockers and the other by a sheep pen. Two of her holds were used for coal and the other two were filled with empty barrels that would help to keep her afloat if torpedoed. She was captained by Lieutenant-Commander Godfrey Herbert RN, a submariner, with Sub-Lieutenant Gordon Steele RNR as first lieutenant. Her maximum speed was 12 knots ‘on a good day.’[7]

Baralong received the Arabic’s SOS, but arrived too late to help.[8] At 3:00 pm she spotted that a steamer 9 miles away had changed her course significantly. She then received a radio message from the steamer, which was the Nicosian, saying that she was being chased by a submarine. Herbert headed for Nicosian, hoisting the signal for ‘Save life’ when 3 miles away.[9]

The Nicosian was a 6,250 ton ship of the Leyland Line, carrying a cargo of cotton, timber, steel rods and tinned meat plus mules for the British Army from New Orleans to Liverpool. She was unarmed, but carried a dummy gun on her stern. She was British but most of the 48 muleteers who tended to the mules were Americans. Baralong then flying the US flag and also had boards along her sides indicating that she was a US ship.[10] Sailing under false colours was legitimate under the rules of war, provided that the ship lowered and replaced them by her true ones before opening fire.

The submarine, which was U27, was firing on the Nicosian, whose crew had taken to her boats, from 1,000 yards. Baralong passed behind the merchantman, meaning that she was out of sight of the U-boat, dropped her neutral colours, raised the White Ensign and opened fire at 600 yards range once U27 was in sight. Several of the German deck gun crew were hit before they could fire on Baralong. She scored 34 hits with her 12 pounder guns and U27 sank, with the surviving members of her crew jumping into the sea and swimming for the Nicosian. Herbert claimed in her after action report that he was worried that they might try to scuttle or set fire to the ship in order destroying her and her cargo. He consequently ordered his crew to fire on them. Six succeeded in getting on board, so Herbert sent a party of marines across, warning them to be careful in case the Germans found the rifles that were in the Nicosian’s charthouse. According to Herbert, the six Germans who made it on board the Nicosian all ‘succumbed to the injuries they had received from lyddite shell.[11]

The German government issued a memorandum to the British government via the US government that accused ‘Captain William McBride’, a pseudonym adopted by Herbert as part of the pretence that Baralong was a merchant ship, of murder. They produced affidavits sworn by six of the American muleteers made to US public notaries. The witnesses were either on or in the process of boarding Baralong when she fired on the Germans in the water. They agreed that U27’s captain, Kapitänleutnant Bernd Wegener, was shot in the water after raising his hands in surrender. [12]

One of them, James J. Curran, claimed that Baralong had opened fire before she lowered her US colours. He also stated that Herbert said to his crew ‘Boys, we’ll shoot those poor wounded devils in the water’ and then told the men that he sent aboard the Nicosian ‘Get them all, take no prisoners.’[13] Another American muleteer, Bud Emerson Palen, said that he heard Herbert tell one of the boarding party that ‘My orders are to take no prisoners.’[14]

The testimony of a seventh American can be disregarded. Larrimore Holland had joined the RN, claiming to be a Canadian. He said that he had been a member of Baralong’s crew, but in fact never went to sea during his four months in the RN. He admitted to being American on 11 August and was discharged from the RN on 24 August.[15]

The British responded to the German demand that ‘McBride’ be charged with murder by suggesting that an impartial court of investigation, perhaps comprising United States Navy officers, should be set up to investigate the alleged incidents in four sinkings that occurred close together: E13 on 18 August, the Arabic and U27 on 19 August and the SS Ruel on 21 August.

The 4,029 ton collier Ruel was attacked by a surfaced submarine whilst returning from Gibraltar to Barry Roads in ballast. After a chase lasting an hour and half Ruel’s crew abandoned ship once the U-boat was a mile away. It then fired on her lifeboats, killing one man and wounding eight. The Ruel sank just as the armed trawler Dewsland and the drifter Campania appeared, chasing off the U-boat.[16]

The Germans said in reply to this that they had already investigated the three incidents in which accusations had been made against their navy. They claimed that that E13 was sunk in the final stage of an engagement and noted that British ships had attacked German ships in neutral waters, that Schneider thought that the Arabic was attacking U24 and that the attack on Ruel was in line with the policies that they had introduced in retaliation to the British blockade. They reiterated their demand that the British take action against ‘McBride.’[17]

The British awarded Herbert the Distinguished Service Order but did not say why, a normal security measure when decorations were given to Q-ship crews.

E13 was certainly attacked whilst helpless in neutral waters. The light cruiser SMS Dresden was sunk by the British in Chilean waters, but she had stayed there longer than allowed by international law, which E13 had not.

It is unlikely that the Arabic was trying to ram U24, but Schneider may well have genuinely believed that she was trying to do so.

The Germans may have intended to scuttle the Nicosian. However, Herbert’s claim that all the Germans who managed to swim from U27 to the Nicosian and haul themselves onboard her by ropes were so badly wounded that they soon died is impossible to believe, suggesting that he had something to hide. There are two witnesses that he told his marines to take no prisoners. Curran was an Irish-American who may have been prejudiced against the British.[18] Palen, however, was born in Canada.[19]

There was no justification for the Germans continuing to fire on the crew of the Ruel after they had abandoned ship.

The allegations made by both UK and Germany against the other would therefore appear to be justified, but there was little hope of either side admitting to this in the midst of a war in which the level of violence and ruthlessness was increasing. The first successful use of poison gas was by the Germans at Ypres on 22 April: the French had earlier made limited use of tear gas and a German attempt to use gas on the Eastern Front in January had failed because it did not work in temperatures below zero.[20] The first raid on London by an airship took place on 31 May, killing five people and injuring 35.[21]

The blockades imposed by Germany and the UK both aimed to starve the enemy. Diplomatically, the big difference was that the Germans killed Americans as well as British.

The USA sent Germany a series of strong diplomatic notes after the sinkings of the Lusitania and the Arabic. On 27 August Kaiser Wilhelm II accepted the view of his Chancellor, Theodore von Bethman-Hollweg, that passenger ships, even enemy ones, should not be sunk without warning. Three days later the order was amended to included ‘small passenger steamers’, without defining what this meant.[22]

The naval high command objected, Grosse Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office, and Admiral Hugo von Pohl, Commander-in-Chief of the High Seas Fleet, both offered their resignations, which were rejected. Pohl argued that the 30 August order meant that U-boats would have to examine ships before attacking them in case they carried passengers, making it impossible to conduct submarine warfare against commerce.[23] Tirpitz was told that he would no longer be needed at ‘consultations on naval questions connected with foreign politics.’[24]

Vize Admiral Gustav von Bachmann was removed as Chief of the Naval staff. On 18 September his replacement, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorf, announced that U-boats would be withdrawn from the west coast of the UK and the English Channel. The minelaying UC-boats based in Flanders and some U-boats continued to operate in the North Sea, but the latter were required to follow prize rules . Others were sent to the Mediterranean, where they could attack Allied commerce and communications with much less risk of sinking American ships or killing Americans. The transfer of boats to the Mediterranean and the need to repair others meant that only four would have been available for use west of the UK.[25]

On the night of 4 September the passenger liner Hesperian, bound from Liverpool to Canada, suffered an explosion 125 miles south west of Queenstown. The Germans insisted that she had struck a mine, but fragments of a torpedo were found on Hesperian before she sank. Kapitänleutnant Walter Schweiger’s U20, which had sunk the Lusitania, was in the area.[26] It is unlikely that the Germans would have mined an area in which their submarines were operating..

The last U-boat patrol to the south west of the UK was carried out by U41, which sailed on 14 September. She sank three British ships on 23 September. The next day she stopped and sank the liner Urbino. Another ship then appeared, which U41 approached and ordered to stop. She was HMS Baralong, now captained by Lieutenant-Commander A. Wilmot-Smith. She opened fire and quickly sank U41, before picking up the crew of the Urbino and the two survivors from the U-boat.[27] One of them, Oberleutnant Iwan Crompton, was later repatriated to Germany because of the severity of his wounds. He claimed that Baralong had been flying the US flag when she opened fire, which the British denied.[28]

The switch of U-boats to the Mediterranean did not prevent them killing Americans. On 7 November U38, a German boat that was flying Austro-Hungarian colours because Germany and Italy were not yet at war, sank the Italian liner Ancona off Bizerte, killing over 200 people, including about 20 Americans.[29]

From the outbreak of war to the start of unrestricted submarine warfare on 28 February 1915 U-boats sank 13 merchant ships with a total tonnage of 23,490 tons. From March to September they sank 431 ships of 677,184 tons.[30] New construction and seizure of enemy shipping meant that the British merchant fleet actually increased in size in the first year of the war. Construction, however, began to fall as shipyards switched to naval construction and repair work and shipyard workers joined the armed forces. At the same time, overseas campaigns increased the demand for shipping.[31]

Five U-boats were lost in 1914, two in January 1915 and 15 from March to September 1915.[32] New construction, meant that Germany had 46 boats at the end of September, but 15 of them were UB coastal boats and 14 were UC coastal minelayers. Only 17 were ocean going, compared with all 26 available at the start of the year. These figures exclude U25, which had been damaged too badly to return to active service, the obsolete U1-4 and U66-70, built in Germany, originally for Austria-Hungary, and then undergoing trials.[33]

The U-boats had shown that they were a potentially deadly weapon. The numbers available in 1915 could not, however, do enough damage to Allied shipping to balance the harm that they did to German relations with the USA.

[1] The last two paragraphs are based on J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, pp. 135-36.

[2] Ibid., p. 131.

[3] Ibid; C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. ii, p. 103; A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, p. 25.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. pp. 81-82.

[5] PP, Further Correspondence with the German Government Respecting the Incidents Alleged to Have Attended the Sinking of a German Submarine and Its Crew by His Majesty’s Auxillary Cruiser “Baralong” on August 19, 1915, HMSO 1916 [Cd. 8176]. p. 4; Memorandum of the German Government in Regard to Incidents Alleged to Have Attended the Destruction of a German Submarine and Its Crew by His Majesty’s Auxiliary Cruiser “Baralong” on August 19th, 1915 and Reply of His Majesty’s Government Thereto’, January 1916, HMSO 1916 [Cd. 8144]. p. 16.

[6] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 301.

[7] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), pp. 21-22.

[8] Ibid., p. 23.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. ‘Appendix N, Report from M.F.A. Baralong’, p. 229,

[10] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 24-27.

[11] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. pp. 229-30.

[12] PP, Cd. 8144. pp. 1-4.

[13] Ibid., p. 11.

[14] Ibid., p. 8.

[15] Bridgland, Sea Killers, p. 37.

[16] Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, pp. 33-34.

[17] PP, Cd. 8176.

[18] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 26, 36.

[19] PP, Cd. 8144. p. 6.

[20] H. H. Herwig, The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918 (London: Arnold, 1997), pp. 135, 168-69.

[21] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. iii, pp. 97-98.

[22] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 173.

[23] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 141

[24] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 173.

[25] Halpern, Naval, p. 302.

[26] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 175.

[27] Ibid., pp. 176-77.

[28] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 51-54.

[29] Halpern, Naval, p. 385.

[30] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), pp. 152-53.

[31] Halpern, Naval, p. 303.

[32] Tarrant, U-Boat, p. 24.

[33] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), pp. 63-64.

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The First Sinking of a U-Boat by a Q-Ship

The Royal Navy, faced with increasing losses of merchant ships to U-boats, came up with the idea of using decoy ships to trap German submarines. They were eventually known as Q-ships after Queenstown, now Cobh, in Ireland, where many of them were based.

Early war U-boats carried only around six torpedoes, so their captains preferred to surface and sink smaller merchant ships by gunfire. A Q-ship would give the impression of being an innocuous tramp steamer. Her armament would be hidden inside false deck houses or lifeboats or on swivel mountings that could appear when needed. Most of her crew, who were volunteers, would also be concealed, with hidden alleyways and special trap doors allowing them to get to their action stations without being seen. The majority of the crew of a warship are concerned with fighting rather than sailing her, so Q-Ships had far larger crews than they would have had as merchantmen. The collier Loderer had a crew of about six officers and 25 men in merchant service and 11 officers and 56 men after being converted to the Q ship HMS Farnborough.[1]

The first Q-ship to see action was HMS Prince Charles, a 373 ton collier that was given an armament of two 6 pounder guns, two 3 pounders and a number of rifles. Her civilian crew of Captain F. N. Maxwell and Chief Engineer Anderson and nine other men volunteered to remain on board. Lieutenant William Mark-Wardlaw RN was given command, with the crew being completed by Lieutenant J. G. Spencer RNR, two RN petty officers and nine RN ratings.[2]

Prince Charles was a civilian ship under charter to the RN and based at Scapa Flow. The terms of her charter allowed her to defend herself. Mark-Wardlaw’s orders of 20 July 1915 from Admiral Sir Stanley Colville included the following clauses (the earlier ones describing the area in which he was to operate have been omitted):

  1. ‘The object of the cruise is to use the Prince Charles as a decoy, so that an enemy submarine should attack her with gun fire. It is not considered probable, owing to her small size, that a torpedo would be wasted on her.

  2. In view of this, I wish to impress you to strictly observe the role of decoy. If an enemy’s submarine is sighted make every effort to escape, if she closes and fires, immediately stop your engines, and with the ship’s company (except the guns’ crews, who should most carefully be kept out of sight behind the bulwarks alongside their gun, and one engineer at the engines) commence to abandon ship. It is very important, if you can do so, to try and place your ship so th a t the enemy approaches you from the beam.

  3. Allow the submarine to come as close as possible, and then open fire by order on whistle, hoisting your colours (red ensign).

  4. It is quite possible that a submarine may be observing you through her periscope unseen by you, and therefore on no account should the guns crews on watch be standing about near their guns.

  5. If by luck you should succeed in sinking a submarine, on no account are you to allow the information to leak out of your ship, the strictest precautions are to be taken on arrival in a harbour, or meeting a ship at sea, that none of the officers or men give away the information.’[3]

Prince Charles left Scapa Flow at 8:00 pm on 21 July. In the early hours of 24 July she encountered a merchant ship stopped near a surfaced submarine 10 miles WNW of Rona. Mark-Wardlaw’s report stated that:

‘Shortly after this the submarine was observed to start her oil engine and proceed towards us at full speed. I then hoisted my ensign. At about 7.5 p.m., submarine being about 3 miles distant, 5 points on the port bow, she fired a shot which pitched about 1,000 yards over.

I then stopped engines, put ship’s head to swell from NNW, blew three blasts, and boat’s crews were ordered to get boats out.

All this time the submarine was coming very fast towards us (20 knots) and at 7.10 she fired a second shot which went between funnel and foremast and landed 50 yards over.

The submarine then turned so as to bring her broadside to us at about 600 yards, and as the submarine continued to fire and seeing that the range could not close any more, I opened fire with both port guns.

Directly I opened fire the gun’s crew of the submarine deserted their gun and entered conning tower and she apparently attempted to dive.’[4]

The submarine, which was U36, was struck by a shell as she dived. She came back up, turning. Prince Charles closed to 300 yards and continued to fire, scoring several hits. U36’s crew abandoned ship, with 15 out of 33 men, including her captain, Kapitänleutnant Ernst Graeff, being saved by the British.[5]

The steamer that had been near U36 when Prince Charles came upon them was Danish. Mark-Wardlaw suspected that she had been supplying the U-boat, so ordered her to follow him to port for inspection. The Danes turned out to be pro-British and delighted at the outcome of the action. They agreed to keep quiet about it and were released. [6]

­U36 had sunk a Norwegian sailing ship and steamer, a French steamer, a Russian steamer and nine British trawlers during her cruise. She had also fired on but missed the armed merchant cruiser HMS Columbella and captured the US sailing ship Pass of Belhama, which was sent to Cuxhaven with her cargo of cotton. She later became the German commerce raider Seeadler, like Prince Charles an apparently innocuous vessel with a concealed armament.[7]

 

[1] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), pp. 14-15.

[2] Ibid., pp. 8-9.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. Appendix J, p. 220.

[4] Ibid., p. 37.

[5] Ibid., p. 38.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., pp. 38-40.

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Trawler and Submarine Trap Sinks U-boats.

It was hard to detect or attack submerged submarines in June 1915. The only way of finding them was visual, mainly by spotting a raised periscope and/or the wake that it produced. It was also possible to see a submerged submarine that was close to the surface in the clear waters of the Mediterranean or the Dardanelles, but not in the Atlantic or North Sea.

Hydrophones, which detected submarines by sound, were introduced later in the war. Some were based onshore. Those on ships had the problem that the ship had to stop in order to prevent the sound of her engines interfering with that from the submarine: not ideal when a submarine was around.

There was also a lack of anti-submarine weapons. One not very efficient one was for ships to towing explosive sweeps. Ships fired on periscopes with their guns or tried to ram the submarine. Most submarines sunk early in the war, struck mines, suffered accident or were caught on the surface. The limited number of torpedoes carried meant that submarines preferred to surface and use guns to sink smaller ships.

One method of attacking submarines was to trick them into surfacing in order to attack with gunfire an apparently innocuous merchant ship. It would then open fire with its concealed weapons. These ships were called Q Ships and will be the subject of several later posts in this series.

A variation on this tactic was suggested by Acting Paymaster F. T. Spickernell, Secretary to Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty. It was that a trawler should tow a submerged submarine in areas were German U-boats were expected to be operating. The trawler and the British submarine would be in contact with each other via a telephone cable. A U-boat would surface to attack a trawler by gunfire rather than wasting a torpedo on a small craft. The trawler would then inform the British submarine by telephone. It would slip the tow and manoeuvre to torpedo the U-boat whilst herself remaining submerged.[1]

After a period of trials in the Forth in May, C class submarines from the Forth Local Defence were transferred to Aberdeen and Peterhead to work with the trawler Taranaki. The first patrol took began on 24 May, but no U-boats were encountered until 8 June, when Taranaki, towing C27, spotted U19 a mile and a half away, 30 miles east by north off Peterhead. She informed C27, which confirmed the situation by periscope before slipping her tow. She approached the German boat, raising her periscope again when she should have been in firing range only to see that U19 was heading towards her at 15 knots. C27 had to dive, and U19 was out of sight when she returned to periscope depth..[2]

Nothing had happened to make the Germans suspicious, but Taranaki’s appearance was changed as a precaution. She sailed from Aberdeen early on 23 June, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Harrington D. Edwards, accompanied by Lieutenant Frederick H. Taylor’s C24. At 9:30 am the next day they were at sea to the south east of Aberdeen when U40 surfaced 2,500 yards away and fired a shot across Taranaki’s bows. A problem with the telephone meant that it was three more minutes before C24 was informed. She was unable to release the cable, so Taranaki had to release it from her end. C24 was not free until 9:45 am, during when Edwards had to keep his trawler under way. [3]

A trawler not stopping when approached by a U-boat might have made the Germans suspicious, but U40‘s captain, Kapitänleutnant Gerhardt Fürbringer, saw nothing to fear, although one of his junior officers was suspicious. [4] U40 was on her first war patrol. The British hoped that a U-boat would assume that the tow line was drawing the trawler’s net.[5]

U40 stopped 1,000 yards from Taranaki, whose crew pretended to panic and abandon ship. C24 was finding it difficult to maintain her trim because she was still attached to 100 fathoms of towing rope and telephone cable. Once this problem had been overcome, she raised her periscope, found U40 1,000 yards away, closed to 500 yards, positioned herself for a beam shot and fired a torpedo at U40 at 9:55 am. It struck the U-boat, which sank immediately. Fürbringer, another officer and a petty officer were picked up by the British. The other 29 crewmen went down with U40.[6]

The success of this method, which was kept secret, meant that the scheme was considerably expanded: C26 and C27 were to work with trawlers from Scapa Flow; C14 and C16 from the Tyne; C21 and C29 from the Humber and C3 and C34 from Harwich.[7]

On 18 July Lieutenant-Commander Claude C. Dobson’s C27 and the trawler Princess Marie José, temporarily renamed Princess Louise, set out on patrol from Scapa. The trawler was captained by Lieutenant L. Morton, but Lieutenant C. Cantlie and Lieutenant A. M. Tarver were also on board in order to train the crew. Cantile, who was the only regular officer of the three, the others being peacetime merchant marine officers who were members of  the Royal Navy Reserve, took command during the subsequent operation.[8]

At 7:55 am on 20 July Cantlie telephoned Dobson to tell him that a U-boat had been spotted 2,000 yards away. The phone then broke down; Dobson waited five minutes before slipping the cable; contact had not been restored, and he could hear gunfire.

The U-boat, which was U23, had fired one warning shot before firing at the trawler. She stopped, raised the Red Ensign and dipped it as a sign of surrender, whilst her crew prepared to abandon ship in an apparent panic. This was in accordance with the plan, which was to trick the Germans and hopefully persuade them to come closer. It worked so well that U40 stopped near the trawler.[9]

The trawler’s crew did not know where C27 was, but she was only 500 yards away on U40’s starboard beam when Dobson raised her periscope. He fired a torpedo, but U40 then started her engines, and it passed under her stern. He fired another that hit and sank U40. The British rescued 10 survivors, including her captain, Oberleutnant Hans Schulthess, and two other officers. The British Naval Staff Monograph, written after the war for internal Royal Navy use only, stated that the prisoners ‘gave a good deal of information, not only of a technical character…but also on the general work of German submarines’, which it suggests may have been a result of their good treatment.[10]

The reason why the captains and a high proportion of officers of both U-boats sunk in this manner survived was that they would have been on the bridge whilst their boats were on the surface.

In both instances the more senior of the commanders of the two British vessels involved, Edwards and Dobson, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and the other one, Taylor and Cantlie, the Distinguished Service Cross. The coxswains of Taranaki and C24 were also awarded the Distinguished Service Medal after the earlier action. Dobson was later awarded the Victoria Cross.[11]

U23 was the last U-boat to be caught in this way. Her survivors managed to inform some German civilian internees who were being repatriated from the United Kingdom to Germany about her fate. Consequently no more U-boats fell into the trawler/submarine trap.[12]

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1925 vol. xiii, Home Waters part iv, February 1915 to July 1915. p. 249.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 250.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid; R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 46.

[6] Naval Staff vol. Xiii. p. 250.

[7] Ibid., pp. 250-51.

[8] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. p. 34.

[9] Ibid., p. 35.

[10] Ibid.

[11] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 48, note 1; A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, pp. 55-56.

[12] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), pp. 22-23.

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The Global Naval War

The Royal Navy’s most famous action of March 1915 was its unsuccessful attempt to force the Dardanelles. Its most successful one was the sinking of the German light cruiser SMS Dresden on 14 March. However, in March 1915, as with every month of the war, it was involved in many other activities across the world.

The Ottoman Empire’s largest Mediterranean port, Smyrna (now Izmir), was bombarded on 5 March in an operation similar to the attack on the Dardanelles. The intention was to prevent it being used as a submarine base. The attacking force consisted of the battleships HMS Swiftsure and Triumph, detached from the Dardanelles, the cruiser HMS Euryalus (Vice Admiral Sir Richard Peirse’s flagship),  the Russian cruiser Askold, the seaplane carrier Aenne Rickmers and minesweepers.

Smyrna was defended by a battery of seven 9.4 inch guns and another of four 6 inch guns, plus minefields that were protected by light guns and searchlights. The action began on 5 March and soon became a smaller version of the Dardanelles. The minefields prevented the big ships from getting close enough to destroy the guns which stopped the minesweepers from clearing the minefields.

An attempt was made to persuade the local ruler, the Vali of Smyrna, to come to terms. He appeared to agree, but it was unclear whether or not the military would obey him, especially after British ships flying flags of truce were fired on.[1]

The attack was called off on 15 March because the battleships were recalled to the Dardanelles. Ironically, Smyrna could not be used as a submarine base because the Ottomans blocked it by scuttling five ships in order to defend it against the attack.[2]

In Africa the RN was engaged on both coasts. The United Kingdom’s main interest in the Cameroons was in capturing the wireless station and port of Duala, which might have been used to support cruiser operations. The French were more interested in obtaining territory. Duala was taken by a river based operation on 27 September 1914, during which the gunboat HMS Dwarf sank the German cutter Nachtigal. However, the Germans had not retreated far, meaning that a further advance was needed in order to make it secure.[3]

In March 1915 the naval force operating off the Cameroons and along its rivers consisted of the cruiser HMS Challenger, HMS Dwarf, the French cruiser Pothau and about 20 smaller craft. In late April Challenger was relieved by the cruiser HMS Astraea and the force strengthened by the cruiser HMS Sirius and the sloop HMS Rinaldo.[4]

Until the British victory at the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914 RN forces in South Africa had to be kept concentrated. South African troops were convoyed by sea to the British enclave at Walvis Bay on 25 December.

By March the most important task for the RN’s South African station was the blockade of German East Africa (now Tanzania). The light cruiser SMS Königsberg was by then trapped in the Rufiji River.

The only German commerce raider at liberty in March was the armed merchant cruiser SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm, which would intern herself in Newport News on 8 April. However, the British did not learn until around 19 March the light cruiser SMS Karlsruhe had been destroyed by an accidental explosion on 4 November 1914.[5]

By March 1915 the main German threat to Allied commerce was from U-boats. Germany had declared that it would conduct unrestricted submarine warfare from 18 February. In February German U-boats sank nine Allied merchant ships with a total tonnage of 22,784 tons, including two of 4,286 tons on 15 February. Two (11,228 tons) were damaged. In March 30 ships (79,369 tons) were sunk or captured by German U-boats, with six (22,300 tons) being damaged. One of the ships in March sunk was the 5,948 tom armed merchant cruiser HMS Bayano.

These losses, although higher than previously inflicted by U-boats, were not huge because of the relatively small number of U-boats that Germany then possessed. It had 23 operational on 22 February, plus seven newly completed boats that were under sea trials. The need to refit, repair and resupply boats meant that there was an average of 5.6 and a maximum of 12 boats at sea on any one day between March and May 1915.[6]

The RN, like all navies lacked effective anti-submarine countermeasures in March 1915. Three U-boats were lost that month: U8 was trapped in nets and scuttled whilst under gunfire from the destroyers HMS Gurkha and Maori on 4 March; U12 was rammed by the destroyer HMS Ariel on 10 March; and U29 was being rammed by the battleship HMS Dreadnought on 18 March.

U29 remains the only submarine to have ever been sunk by a battleship. She was lost with all hands, including her captain, Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen. He had previously captained U9 when she sank three British cruisers on 22 September 1914 and another on 15 October.

The Admiralty issued orders that merchant ships that sighted a surfaced U-boat should head towards it in order to force it to dive. On 28 March Captain Charles Fryatt of the Great Eastern Railway packet Brussels escaped from U33 by this tactic.

The Brussels was captured by German destroyers on the night of 22-23 June 1916 and taken into Zeebrugge. Fryatt was tried as a franc-tireur on the basis that he was a civilian who had attempted to attack the German armed forces. He was executed on 27 July 1916, yet another German action that handed the Allies a propaganda victory for little or no military advantage. It was heavily criticised by the neutral Press: The New York Times called it ‘a deliberate murder.’[7]

British naval operations continued throughout the world, including blockading Germany, supplying the Western Front, patrolling and minesweeping.

On 24 March aircraft of the Royal Naval Air Service attempted to bomb the dockyards at Antwerp, where small U-boats of the UB coastal type were being assembled. Some aircraft had to abort because of technical problems and weather, but two, piloted by Squadron Commander I.T. Courtney and Flight-Lieutenant H. Rosher, bombed the target.[8]

This link names all British Empire sailors and marines who died in March 1915, whether from enemy action, illness or accident. The largest number were killed in the Dardanelles, followed by the crew of HMS Bayano. Most others died in the UK or home waters, but some died in Australia and Canada. Twelve were lost when the trawler Lord Airedale, taken into service as a minesweeper, foundered in a storm off the east coast of England on 18 March. The sea was dangerous, even when not undertaking dangerous war work such as minesweeping.

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 195-200.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 114.

[3] H. Strachan, The First World War: Vol. 1, to Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 519-23.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 281-84.

[5] Ibid. footnote 1, p. 240.

[6] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), p. 7.

[7] Halpern, Naval, p. 296.

[8] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. ii, pp. 343-44.

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The Naval Blockades: (2) Germany

During the First World War both the United Kingdom and Germany attempted to carry out naval blockades of the other. Each country used actions by the other to justify escalations by the other. 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 tightened its blockade beyond what was permitted by the 1909 Declaration of London. 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.

On 4 February 1915 Germany announced that the waters round the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland would be a war zone from 18 February. It justified this by reference to the British declaration of 5 November. All hostile merchant ships in this area would be destroyed without warning. The safety of neutral ships could not be guaranteed because British ships had been flying neutral colours. U-boat captains were ordered that their first duty was the safety of their boat, so they should not take risks to find out if a ship was really neutral.[1]

In 1914 the most important successes of German U-boats had been against warships. This continued in 1915, with U24 sinking the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Formidable in the early hours of the year.

It was extremely difficult for submarines to comply with the rules of cruiser warfare, which required raiders to stop and search enemy merchant ships. Merchant ships could be sunk or captured only if their cargoes contained either war materials (absolute contraband) or items such as food or fuel that had peaceful uses but were intended for the enemy’s military (conditional contraband).

The safety of the crews of merchant ships that were sunk had to be ensured. Submarines had no space for prisoners and no spare men to act as prize crews for captured ships, so could comply with this only if the sinking occurred close to land.

One man had predicted before the war that submarines would sink merchant ships without warning. This was the British Admiral Lord Fisher, who by February 1915 was in his second spell as First Sea Lord. In late 1913 he had written a paper arguing that the invention of the submarine meant that the main threat to the UK was having its food and oil supplies cut off by submarine attacks on its merchant shipping

Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and Admiral Prince Louis Battenberg, then the First Sea Lord, both refused to believe that any country would use its submarines in such a way. They thought that Fisher’s view that it would be done weakened his arguments about the risk of submarine attack on the UK’s food and oil supplies.[2]

Only four British merchant vessels had been sunk by U-boats before 30 January. In each case the Germans had given the crew time to abandon ship and no lives were lost.[3]

The most controversial incident had come on 26 October when Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schneider’s U24 torpedoed but did not sink the 4,590 ton French steamer Amiral Ganteaume. She was carrying 2,500 Belgian refugees, 40 of whom were killed. However, Schneider may have thought that she was a troop ship. Whether he did or not, the incident showed the potential political and diplomatic implications of submarine warfare against merchant shipping.[4]

In the Irish Sea on 30 January U21, which had sunk the cruiser HMS Pathfinder in September, the first moving warship ever to be sunk by a submarine, stopped, searched and sank three British merchantmen after allowing their crews time to take to their boats. On the same day, however,  U20 torpedoed and sank three British merchant ships off Le Havre without warning. The crews of the Tokomaru and Ikaria all survived, but all that was found of the 21 man crew of the Oriole was two lifebuoys discovered near Rye on 6 February.[5]

Before the war Kapitänleutnant Ulrich Blum of the Kaiserliche Marine, the German navy, had estimated that 222 U-boats would be needed to successfully carry out a war against British commerce under international law, far more than Germany possessed in early 1915.[6]

The KM began the war with 24 operational U-boats, plus four older ones that were used for training and 16 under construction. By 22 February 13 more had been completed, but one of the new boats and six of the pre-war ones had been lost. Seven newly completed boats were under sea trials, leaving the KM theoretically with 23 to attack British trade. The need to refit, repair and resupply meant that there was an average of 5.6 and a maximum of 12 boats at sea on any one day between March and May 1915.

After the German capture of the Belgian coast gave them bases much closer to the UK, they had begun to build smaller UB and UC coastal submarines. The latter were minelayers, which initially were armed only with mines, although later ones also had torpedo tubes and guns. They were supposed to take four months to build compared with 18 for an ocean going boat, but UB1 was constructed in 75 days. By mid July 1915 17 UBs and 15 UCs had been completed, but the first six UBs were not operational until the latter part of April and UC1 not until early June. [7]

The U-boat war against British trade would eventually cause great problems for the UK, but Germany had too few submarines when it first launched its offensive. However, British counter-measures were also inadequate at first.

The Germans had lost a high proportion of their submarines so far in the war, but two had been rammed by warships whilst on the surface, four had struck mines and the seventh had been sunk by another U-boat on the surface after failing to respond to a challenge. The method that British warships possessed of sinking submerged submarines was the towing of explosive sweeps.

The British had laid a minefield across the Dover Straits in an attempt to stop U-boats entering the English Channel, but 4,000 out of just over 7,000 mines laid between 2 October 1914 and 16 February 1915 drifted or sank to the bottom because the weights holding them in position were too light.[8] The British also laid nets and organised patrols of small, armed ships, but the U-boats were able to pass through the Dover Straits.

The orders issued to U-boat captains on 18 February were that they should attack all hostile ships except hospital ships, unless clearly acting as troopships, and Belgian Relief ships. Neutrals should be spared. However, they were told that ‘if, in spite of the exercise of great care , mistakes should be made, the commanding officers will not be held responsible.’[9]

However, the first ship to be attacked in the new campaign was the Norwegian Belridge, which was carrying a cargo of oil from New Orleans to Amsterdam for the Dutch government. She was torpedoed on 19 February, but managed to make a British port. The Germans apologised and paid compensation.[10]

 

[1] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 293-94.

[2] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 24.

[3] C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. i, pp.358, 365-66.

[4] Halpern, Naval, p. 292.

[5] Fayle, Seaborne. vol. i, pp. 366-68.

[6] Halpern, Naval, p. 291.

[7] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), p. 7.

[8] Ibid., p. 17.

[9] Gibson, Prendergast, German, p. 31.

[10] Fayle, Seaborne. vol. ii, p. 12

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The Sinking of HMS Formidable 1 January 1915

As in 1914, the most important success of German U-boats in January 1915 was against Allied warships. In the early hours of 1 January U24 sank the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Formidable, the largest ship yet to be sunk by a submarine.

Formidable, along with the other 7 pre-dreadnoughts of the 5th Battle Squadron of Vice Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly’s Channel Fleet, left Sheerness at 10 am on 30 December 1914 in order to carry out gunnery practice. They were escorted to Folkestone by six destroyers, but from there were accompanied by only two light cruisers, HMS Diamond and Topaze.[1] The destroyers on patrol in the Channel needed frequent maintenance because of weather damage. On the night of 28-29 December eight of the 24 based at Dover were under repair.[2]

Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schnieder’s U24 spotted the battleships at 9:50 am on 31 December. He was unable to get into a firing position, and had to abandon the attempt at 1:30 pm in order to re-charge his batteries.

At 7 pm Bayly ordered his squadron to change course in accordance with a standing order that ships sailing at less than 14 knots in areas where U-boats might be operating should change course just after dark in case they were being followed by a U-boat. The squadron was making only 10 knots.

At 10:30 pm U24 got underway, with her batteries re-charged. She spotted three large warships at 1:08 am on 1 January 1915. They were the lead ships of the 5th Battle Squadron. At 1:58 am U24 fired a torpedo at HMS Queen from 750 yards at an acute angle. It missed, but neither it nor the U-boat were spotted by any of the British ships.

The other five battleships then appeared. U24 crossed their wake and at 2:25 am fired two torpedoes at the last in the line, Formidable. One of them struck her abreast the forward funnel. She lost steam and developed a 10 degree list to starboard. Boats were launched, but more than 500 men were left on board. They brought tables and other wooden items up in order to make makeshift life rafts. A well lit liner then appeared, and Topaze, which was picking up survivors, signalled her to help. She acknowledged, but continued on her way.

By 3:10 am U24 had worked her way to Formidable’s port side. She fired another torpedo, which hit the battleship amidships. This corrected the list, but caused Formidable to settle by the bows. Captain Noel Loxley of Formidable then ordered Topaze to leave the sinking battleship because of the risk that the U-boat posed to her. The light cruiser spotted U24, but could not fire on her because of the positions of men in the water and Diamond. The U-boat then escaped.

The two light cruisers then attempted to rescue survivors, which was extremely difficult because of the wind and seas. Formidable sank at 4:39 am.[3]

547 men of Formidable’s 780 strong crew were lost, including Captain Loxley. The survivors included 2 warrant officers and 71 men who were rescued from her sinking launch in a gale by the Brixham trawler Provident, which carried only four hands:  Captain William Pillar,First Hand William Carter, Second Hand John Clarke and Apprentice Daniel Taylor, né Ferguson. All four were awarded the Sea Gallantry Medal.

The Board of the Admiralty admitted that the orders issued to Bayly regarding the movements of his squadrons could have been more precise. However, they ‘severely blamed him for faulty and careless conduct, which resulted in the disaster.’[4] He was ordered to exchange positions with Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Bethell, the commander of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. Bayly was later given command of RN forces in Ireland, distinguishing himself in the battle with U-boats in the Atlantic.

 

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, p. 57.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xii, Home Waters part iii, November 1914 to the end of January 1915. pp. 147-48.

[3] Ibid., pp. 149-52.

[4] Ibid., p. 153.

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