Tag Archives: World War 1

The End of the German High Seas Fleet

By late September 1918, the German military High Command (OHL), headed by General Erich Ludendorff, had accepted that the Germans could no longer hold the Western Front. Ludendorff hoped that forming a parliamentary government might enable Germany to obtain better terms.

On 1 October, Prince Max of Baden, a liberal, became Chancellor of Germany at the head of a coalition of the Social Democrats, the Catholic Centre Party and the Liberals. On the night of 4-5 October the new government asked US President Woodrow Wilson for an armistice based on his 14 Points. This enabled Ludendorff and other generals to blame the new government for ending the war rather than admitting that the German army had been beaten in the field.[1]

Wilson insisted on 14 October that the Germans must end unrestricted submarine warfare before armistice negotiations began. Admiral Reinhard Scheer, Chief of the German Admiralty Staff, opposed this, arguing that the U-boat campaign against merchant shipping should not be ended until armistice negotiations had begun. On 20 October, however, Prince Max ordered that it should end. This released the U-boats to support operations by the High Seas Fleet, which had been inactive since April.[2]

Scheer ordered Admiral Franz von Hipper, C.-in-C. of the High Seas Fleet to conduct an operation in the North Sea. Hipper’s Plan 19 was to:

  1. Leave the Helgoland Bight during the day, remaining out of sight of the Dutch coast.
  2. Destroyers and light cruisers should attack warships in the North Sea and merchant shipping off the Flanders coast and in the Thames Estuary. The High Seas Fleet’s 18 Battleships would cover the operation off Flanders and its five battlecruisers the attack on the Thames.
  3. This was intended to provoke the British Grand Fleet to leave port and head south. It was by this time based at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth.
  4. Cruisers and destroyers would lay mines and U-boats wait in ambush in order to reduce the Grand Fleet’s strength as it headed south. About 25 U-boats were to take part and their orders were to take all opportunities to fire on battleships and battlecruisers.
  5. Hipper planed to engage the Grand Fleet on the night of the second or third day of the operation. If no battle had taken place by then, German destroyers would conduct a sweep towards the Firth of Forth.

Scheer approved the plan on 27 October and it was to be launched on 30 October. The British had a good idea that something major was about to happen because they had detected the movements of U-boats by radio direction finding. The Grand Fleet was reinforced by more destroyers.[3]

The operation did not take place. The High Seas Fleet was ordered to put to sea from Wilhelmshaven on the afternoon of 29 October. A large number of men from the battlecruisers Derfflinger and Von der Tann, mostly stokers, did not return from shore leave that day. There was mutiny and insubordination in other ships as the sailors feared that they were going to be sacrificed in a pointless battle intended only to save the navy’s honour. Hipper called off the operation the next day and dispersed the fleet, which only carried the mutiny to other ports.[4]

Saving the navy’s honour was certainly part of the motivation for the operation. Konteradmiral Adolf von Trotha, Hipper’s Chief of Staff, wrote in a memorandum that:

‘As to a battle for the honour of the fleet in this war, even if it were a death battle, it would be the foundation for a new German fleet of the future if our people were not altogether defeated; such a fleet would be out of the question in the event of a dishonourable peace.’[5]

There were, however, other motivations. In 1667, towards the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch successfully attacked the Medway, which enable them to get better peace terms than had seemed likely until then.[6]

The Germans would have been outnumbered even more heavily than they had been at Jutland, where their 16 dreadnought battleships and five battlecruisers had faced 28 British dreadnoughts and nine battlecruisers

Wikipedia lists the ships that were likely have taken part in any action. The Grand Fleet had 35 battleships, including five from the USN, and 11 battlecruisers, including two that had only four 15 inch guns and very weak armour, to 18 battleships and 5 battlecruisers. Ten British battleships and five battlecruisers had 15 inch guns and many other Allied ships 14 or 13.5 inch guns, with only the oldest ones having 12 inch guns. Only two German battleships had 15 inch guns, with the others and two of the battlecruisers having 12 inch guns and the three oldest battlecruisers 11 inch guns.

The Germans would be using Zeppelins for aerial reconnaissance, whilst the British had a Flying Squadron of three aircraft carriers and three seaplane carriers. Two of the aircraft carriers. HMS Furious and Vindictive, retained their funnels and superstructures with separate flying off and landing decks. This system created turbulence that made landing difficult. The third, HMS Argus, was the first carrier with a single flight deck running her full length.

At Jutland, the British suffered from lax flash protection and ammunition handling procedures, lack of armour, poor armour piercing shells and an inadequate system for passing intelligence on from the Admiralty to the Grand Fleet’s C.-C. They believed that these problems had been tackled, although Admiral Sir David Beatty, C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet, thought that the armour protecting magazines was still inadequate.[7]

The British reforms were untested, the U-boats and mines might have inflicted losses as the Grand Fleet advanced and the battle was to be fought near the German bases. The Germans might have repeated their performance at Jutland, when they claimed a tactical victory after sinking more ships than they lost before withdrawing. However, they might also have been annihilated by a fleet that had an even greater numerical and firepower advantage than in 1916 and had corrected many of its faults.

All that can be said for certain about Plan 19 is that if it had led to a battle, American, Australian (the battlecruiser HMAS Australia was then part of the Grand Fleet) , British and German sailors would have died at the end of a war that Germany had already lost.

The fate of the High Seas Fleet was a major concern for the British at the Armistice negotiations, at which the British delegate was the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Wester Wemyss. The British wanted to eliminate any future naval threat from Germany. They planned to intern the entire U-boat fleet but feared that the Germans could rebuild it. However, without a German battle fleet the British could have cleared German minefields, carried out a close blockade and destroyed the U-boats close to their bases.

Wemyss therefore wanted the Germans to surrender 10 dreadnoughts, six battlecruisers, eight light cruisers, fifty destroyers and 160 U-boats. The number of dreadnoughts and battlecruisers was intended to leave the Germans with eight or nine, the number that Beatty thought that the Grand Fleet would have lost in a decisive battle that destroyed the High Seas Fleet. [8]

Some generals and politicians, including Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, C.-in-C. of the BEF, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the French delegate to the Armistice negotiations, and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, feared that these terms were too harsh and that the Germans might reject them and fight on. Eventually a proposal by Admiral William Benson, the US Chief of Naval Operations, that the German surface ships be interned in a neutral country was accepted. He feared that the British would get the bulk of them if they were surrendered, whilst the British admirals worried that the Germans might get them back if they were interned in a neutral port.[9]

The Germans claimed that they had fewer than 160 U-boats, so Wemyss asked for all their submarines, which was what he really wanted. They had only five battlecruisers as SMS Mackensen was incomplete. The terms signed on 11 November therefore stated that 10 battleships, five battlecruisers, eight light cruisers, 50 destroyers should be interned in a neutral port and all U-boats surrendered. No neutral country was interested in taking the German ships so they were interned in British ports. [10]

The first group of 20 U-boats left Wilhelmshaven on 18 November. They were met by the Harwich Force of cruisers and destroyers, which them boarded and escorted them into Harwich. Their crews were then transferred to a transport ship, which took them back to Germany. Eventually 176 U-boats were surrendered, including 18 that had been completed in order to make the passage. Seven more sank on the way to Britain.[11]

On 21 November Operation ZZ took place. The Grand Fleet put to sea in order to escort the German surface ships into internment. An Allied force of 370 ships, mainly British but including the American and Australian ships of the Grand Fleet and three French ships, met nine German battleships, five battlecruisers, seven light cruisers and 49 destroyers: a battleship and a light cruiser were in dock and did not come until December and a destroyer struck a mine on the way and sank.[12]

The two forces met at 9:30 am. The Germans the sailed into the Firth of Forth in a single line between two lines each of over 30 battleships, battlecruisers and cruisers. The Allied ships were all at action stations but there was no last minute gesture of defiance by the Germans. The Firth was full of all sorts of vessels carrying civilian spectators. At 11 am Beatty signalled that the German flags should be hauled down at sunset and should not be raised again without permission. This was done at the exact time: 3:57 pm. The German ships were escorted to Scapa Flow on 24 November.[13]

The Germans later scuttled their ships on learning the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty. This will be described in a later post.

Film of the German surrender from YouTube. You may have to watch an add at the start. The submarines flying British White Ensigns are surrendered U-boats.



[1] D. Stevenson, 1914-1918: The History of the First World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004), pp. 466-71.

[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). vol. v, pp. 170-71.

[3] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 445-46; Marder, From. vol. v, p. 171

[4] Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 172-74.

[5] Quoted in Halpern, Naval, p. 445.

[6] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, p. 369.

[7] Marder, From. vol. ii. pp. 260-70.

[8] Ibid. vol. v, pp. 177-78.

[9] Ibid. vol. v, pp. 177-81,

[10] Ibid. vol. v, pp. 183-89.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 380; R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 364.

[12] Marder, From. vol. v, p. 190.

[13] Ibid. vol. v, pp. 190-92.



Filed under War History

The Royal Navy and Townshend’s Regatta

British troops landed near Basra on 6 November, the day after hostilities began with the Ottoman Empire with the objective of securing British interests in the region, notably but not only the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s refinery at Abadan and the pipeline from it to APOC’s Persian oilfields. These had been achieved by 9 December when they took Qurna.

In early 1915 Ottoman forces attacked from Amara on the Tigris towards the oil pipe-line and from Nasiriyah on the Euphrates towards Basra. The pipeline was cut around Ahwaz. By then General Sir John Nixon was in command of the Mesopotamian Corps of two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade. He did not, however, have all the equipment, especially transport and medical services, of a corps.

On 12 April the Ottoman attack towards Basra was defeated at Barjisiya. Nixon then launched offensives towards Ahwaz and Amara to protect the pipeline and Nasiriyah to protect Basra. The politicians in London, Lord Crewe, Secretary of State for India until the Liberal/Conservative Coalition was formed in May 1915, and his successor Austen Chamberlain, both urged caution in Mesopotamia once the oil facilities and Basra were safe. They were, however, ignored by the government and army command of British India, which had more ambitious plans.[1]

The lack of a railway and the poor quality of the roads meant that the rivers were vital for communications. The attack on Amara, carried out by Major-General Charles Townshend’s 6th (Poona) Division, was made at a time of unusually high floods, meaning that the land was flooded for miles around the Tigris. The flood water was often shallow, but with ditches, cuts and canals that made it impossible to wade. The Naval Staff Monograph said that ‘there was too much water for the Army, but generally too little for the Navy.’[2]

Infantry were carried were carried on armoured bellums (local boats holding about eight people and propelled by paddles or poles). Other bellums were loaded with supplies, including ammunition. Artillery was loaded on barges, rafts, tugs and paddlers, with machine guns on rafts. Rafts were also used as ambulances, with roofed mahelas (large river sailing boats) used as hospitals. Townshend and some of his staff travelled on the sloop HMS Espiègle, along with the Senior Naval Officer Captain Wilfrid Nunn. The rest of his staff were split between the sloops HMS Clio and Odin. The flotilla also included the Indian Marine ship Lawrence, the armed tugs Comet and Miner, the armed launches Bahrein, Lewis Pelly, Shaitan and Sumana and the stern wheelers Shushan and Muzaffri. The troops called the force ‘Townshend’s Regatta.’[3]

Townshend’s attack began at 5:00 am on 31 May and by noon had succeeded in taking its first objective, a series of Ottoman outposts. Aerial reconnaissance showed that the enemy was in full retreat: the two British aircraft had to fly from Basra as there was no closer ground dry enough for them to land on. Townshend, his staff and a dozen other soldiers boarded the flotilla and headed off in pursuit. A captured Ottoman officer, who was put in one of the launches being used as minesweepers, pointed out the enemy mines on the river.[4]

The next Ottoman position, at Bahran, was bombarded at 5:30 am on 1 June, but had been evacuated. Four lighters had been sunk in an attempt to block the river, but it was possible to pass, although navigation was difficult because the ships had only rough maps of the river, which bent and twisted and whose channel was hard to identify because of the floods.[5]

At 5:50 pm Shaitan, the leading vessel, opened fire on the Ottoman gunboat Marmariss, which was towing some mahelas. The sloops joined in, also firing on the steamers Mosul and Bulbul By 8:05 pm, when the British ships anchored to wait for the moon to rise, the Bulbul had been sunk. The Marmariss escaped by abandoning the craft that she was towing. The British resumed the pursuit at 2:00 am on 2 June. At daybreak they found the Marmariss, abandoned, aground and on fire. The Mosul was found aground nearby, full of troops and stores.[6] As well as the Marmariss and Mosul, two steel lighters, seven mahelas, two field guns, a large quantity of rifles and ammunition, 140 prisoners and over £1,000 worth of treasure were captured.[7]

Townshend decided to press on to Amara with the lighter draught vessels: the sloops could not go any further. He set off at 11:00 am on 2 June with the Shaitan, Sumana, Lewis Polly, three horse-boats, each armed with a 4.7 inch gun, and Sir Percy Cox, the Principal Political Officer, in his steam launch L2. No opposition was met and white flags were being flown. Shaitan entered Amara at 2:00 pm on 3 June. She was surrounded, but was not fired upon. Townshend then arrived and took the surrender of 30-40 Ottoman officers and 700 men. The British were heavily outnumbered, although sources differ on the number involved: the Naval Staff Monograph says ‘Townshend and his 22 men’, whilst Naval Operations, one of the British Official Histories, says 100 ‘besides Lascar stokers.’[8] Possibly the smaller is the number who actually took the surrender and the larger includes all the crews of the vessels involved. The 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment arrived in the morning to secure Amara.

Townshend’s reputation was later destroyed by his defeat in the Siege of Kut-Al-Amara and his behaviour during his subsequent captivity, when he lived in comfort in Istanbul and made no attempt to find out about the appalling conditions in which his men were being held as prisoners. In this action, however, he led from the front, belying the clichéd image of the First World War general miles behind the lines. He wrote that ‘I owe the whole of the success firstly to the Royal Navy.’[9]

From 31 May to 4 June Townshend’s force captured 139 officers, 1,634 men, 12 field guns and five naval guns and captured or sank the Marmariss, five steamers and several barges and small craft. British casualties from 31 May to 4 June were one officer and three men killed and three officers and 18 men wounded.[10] The Ottomans suffered 120 killed or wounded as well as those captured.[11]

The next stage of the Mesopotamian Campaign was to take Nasiriyah in order to protect Basra. It was too difficult to move on it across the desert at that time of year, so the advance had to be made by river. This meant bringing the ships and river craft back from Amara to Qurna and then along a waterway that went through the very shallow and 10 mile broad Hammar Lake to the Euphrates. Some ships had been sent away: Clio to Bombay for a refit, Lawrence to Bushire and others to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to allow their crews to recover from the heat at a hill station.[12]

Nunn’s force was augmented by another stern wheeler, the, but was weaker than at Amara. Espiègle, Odin and Miner could not cross the Hammar Lake. The remaining force consisted of Sumana, the stern wheelers Shushan (armed with a 12 pounder, a 3 pounder and a maxim), Muzaffri (a maxim) and Messoudieh (a 3 pounder and a maxim), two horse-boats, each armed with a 4.7 inch gun, three transports full of troops, each with two 18 pounder guns on her foredeck and four tugs towing mahelas or lighters full of ammunition and supplies. The stern wheelers were given some armour plate, but the amount was restricted because the shallow water meant their draughts could not increase much. There were also mountain guns mounted on bellums. Nunn was onboard Shushan. The troops were from the 30th Brigade of Major-General George Gorringe’s 12th Indian Division, reinforced with additional artillery and engineers.[13]

The force began to cross the Hammar Lake at 4:00 pm on 27 June. Navigating the narrow, shallow and almost unmarked channels was difficult, even without being under fire. Open water was not reached until 4:00 am on 4 July. An Ottoman position at Gurma-Safha, defended by 2,300 troops, later reinforced to 3,000, was attacked and taken the next day. The British had 114 men killed or wounded, but captured 132 men and two guns.[14]

The next resistance was encountered at the Majinina Creek, about six miles from Nasiriyah, where the Ottomans had established a strong defensive position.[15] It was initially defended by about 2,000 Turks, six guns, two launches and ‘large numbers of hostile Arabs.’[16]

Both sides were receiving reinforcements and had about 5,000 men each by 24 July. The British, however, had more artillery and the advantage of an aircraft for reconnaissance.[17] Their attack began with an artillery bombardment at 4:30 am that day, with the infantry assault starting 30 minutes later. Sumana, under heavy fire, positioned a barge to allow the troops to cross the creek with fire support from the stern wheelers. The Ottomans offered stiff resistance but were forced back. [18]

Nunn took Shushan towards Nasiriyah, where white flags were flying, but she was forced to retreat after coming under fire. The Ottomans, however, evacuated the town overnight. On 25 July the leading Arab citizens invited the British to enter the town. Two days later Nunn took Shushan a further 71 miles up the Euphrates to Samawa, a telegraph station whose small garrison had fled after hearing of the fall of Nasiriyah. The Euphrates operation cost the British over 500 dead and wounded, including five sailors wounded. They took 15 guns at Nasiriyah.[19]

The Basra vilayet (province) was now secure and the British should have halted. Townshend and his 6th Division were, however, ordered to advance on Kut-al-Amara, with the intention of taking Baghdad. He argued in his memoirs that this operation should not have taken place. Basra vilayet and the oilfields should have been defended by a force based at Basra, with outposts at Qurna, Nasiriyah and Ahwaz.[20] He was right, but the campaign continued for a number of reasons: the need for a victory somewhere after defeats elsewhere; over confidence by local commanders; and momentum created by a series of easy victories early in the campaign.



[1] This is a summary of the relevant part of my PhD thesis. M. W. Gibson, ‘British Strategy and Oil 1914-1923.’ (University of Glasgow, 2012), pp. 48-55.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1921 vol. iv, Naval Operations in Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf. p. 52.

[3] Ibid.

[4] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, pp. 18-19.

[5] Naval Staff vol. iv. pp. 54-55.

[6] Ibid., pp. 55-56.

[7] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 20, footnote 1.

[8] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 56; Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 22

[9] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 57.

[10] Ibid., pp. 56-57.

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

[12] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 183.

[13] Naval Staff vol. iv. pp. 59-60.

[14] Ibid., pp. 61-62.

[15] A. J. Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign (New York, NY: Enigma, 2009), p. 69.

[16] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 63.

[17] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 70.

[18] Naval Staff vol. iv. pp. 64-65.

[19] Ibid., p. 65.

[20] C. V. F. Townshend, My Campaign in Mesopotamia (London: T. Butterworth Ltd, 1920), pp. 35-36.


Filed under War History

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.


Filed under War History

The Naval Attack on the Dardanelles 1915 (2) The Attack

The previous entry in this series described the reasons why the British decided to launch a naval attack on the Dardanelles in February 1915.

The attack was to be led by Vice Admiral Sir Sackville Carden, who was then commanding RN forces in the Mediterranean. His force included the RN’s newest dreadnought, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which was the first battleship in the world to be fuelled entirely by oil and the first dreadnought to be armed with 15 inch guns. An accident reduced her speed to 15 knots, so the battlecruiser HMS Inflexible, which was originally intended to return to the Grand Fleet, stayed in order to give Carden a ship fast enough to bring SMS Goeben, the German battlecruiser now in Ottoman service, to action.

The other 12 British battleships in Carden’s force were all pre-dreadnoughts; some had been released from overseas stations after the British victory at the Falkland Islands and others were transferred from the Channel Fleet. They included HMS Agamemnon and Lord Nelson, which had been completed after HMS Dreadnought because the 12 inch gun turrets originally intended for them were fitted to Dreadnought in order to expedite her construction. The others were of the older Majestic, CanopusFormidableDuncan and Swiftsure classes. Carden also had four French pre-dreadnoughts, giving him a total of 18 capital ships, and the six seaplanes of the carrier HMS Ark Royal.

Carden had devised a seven stage plan:

  1. Destroy the forts at the entrance to the straits.
  2. Sweep the minefields and reduce the defences up to the Narrows.
  3. Destroy the forts defending the Narrows.
  4. Sweep the principal minefield at Kephez.
  5. Destroy the forts above the Narrows
  6. Enter the Sea of Marmara.
  7. Operate in the Sea of Marmara and patrol the Dardanelles.

Each attack on the forts would comprise three stages: a direct or indirect long range bombardment out of either range or bearing of the forts; a medium range bombardment by direct fire, including secondary armaments; and then a final bombardment at a range of 3-4,000 yards. Ships were to withdraw to long range if they came under fire: the largest Ottoman guns were thought to have a maximum range of 12,000 yards.[1]

Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, was urged by some staff officers to send the Royal Naval Division, an infantry force under the Admiralty’s control, to Carden. It had been formed at the start of the war from marines, naval reservists who were not needed at sea ships and wartime volunteers, and had fought in Belgium in 1914. At this stage of the war it lacked the supporting forces of an army infantry division. However, Churchill was willing to send only two battalions of Royal Marines to act as landing parties to destroy Ottoman guns.[2]

On 16 February it was decided to send the 29th Infantry Division, consisting mostly of regulars recalled from colonial garrisons, from the UK and the two divisions of the  Australian and New Zealand Army Corps from Egypt to Lemnos, the naval base of operations. However, Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, decided three days later that the 29th might be needed in France.[3]

This was the start of the military operation, but at this stage it was still expected that the fleet would force the Dardanelles. The troops were intended to demolish forts, destroy concealed howitzers, take the Gallipoli peninsula once the Ottomans had withdrawn and occupy Istanbul  if the expected revolution occurred.[4]

The naval attack began on 19 February. It showed that direct hits were required in order to knock out a heavy gun in a modern emplacement; indirect fire was not accurate enough to achieve such hits.[5]

Source: "Dardanelles defences 1915" by Gsl - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dardanelles_defences_1915.png#/media/File:Dardanelles_defences_1915.png

Source: “Dardanelles defences 1915” by Gsl – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dardanelles_defences_1915.png#/media/File:Dardanelles_defences_1915.png

The attack resumed on 25 February after a period of bad weather. The forts on either side of the entrance were silenced. Attempts by marine landing parties on 26 February and 1 and 4 March to complete the destruction of the forts were only partly successful because the Ottomans had re-occupied them once the naval fire lifted.[6]

Lieutenant Commander Eric Robinson of HMS Triumph was awarded the Victoria Cross for his courage whilst leading one of the landing parties on 26 February.

Carden’s first stage of silencing the forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles had now been achieved. There were no minefields in the first half of the 14 miles to the Narrows, but the battleships could not proceed through the minefields in the second seven miles. The trawlers that were employed as minesweepers had a speed of only four to six knots when sweeping, which was halved because they were going against the current. The remaining Ottoman guns were unable to do serious damage to battleships, although some were hit, but their howitzers were deadly against the minesweepers. Carden decided to use the minesweepers at night, but the Ottomans had anticipated this and installed searchlights.[7]

The battleships were unable to find the concealed howitzers. Air reconnaissance failed because the seaplanes were vulnerable to ground fire if they flew low and could not see the guns if they stayed high enough to be safe. Carden also employed a slow approach in which he used only a few of his battleships each day.[8]

On 11 March the Admiralty sent Carden a telegram saying that:

‘Caution and deliberate methods were emphasised in your original instructions…If, however, success cannot be obtained without loss of ships and men, results to be gained are important enough to justify such a loss.’[9]

Carden replied two days later that he intended a last attempt at night sweeping that night, which failed. It was now realised that the searchlights made night sweeping impossible. The only remaining option was a daylight operation in which the battleships suppressed the guns in order to allow the minesweepers to operate safely. A plan using all 18 battleships for an attack on 18 March was produced on 15 March.

The next day Carden’s health gave way. Command was given to Rear Admiral John de Robeck, his second in command. The RN’s rules of seniority meant that it ought strictly have gone to Rear Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, commanding the base at Mudros, but he agreed to work under the man on the spot.[10]

The fleet was divided into three divisions: the First of the four newest ships; the Second of eight British pre-dreadnoughts; and the Third of the four French battleships and two British ones. Observation would come from the air. Aerial reconnaissance and other sources indicated that the main forts were armed with 42 guns of 8 inches or more, including six 14 inch guns.

First Division (Acting Vice Admiral John De Robeck):

HMS Queen Elizabeth, Inflexible, Agamemnon and Lord Nelson.

Second Division (Commodore Arthur Hayes-Sadler)

HMS Ocean, Irresistible, Albion, Vengeance, Swiftsure, Majestic, Canopus and Cornwallis.

Third Division (Contre-amiral Émile Guépratte):

Suffren, Bouvet, Gaulois, Charlemagne, HMS Triumph and Prince George.

The First was to bombard the main forts from 14,000 yards. The two British ships of the Third would engage the mobile howitzers and field guns. The French ships would attack the principal forts from 8,000 yards, which was the closest that had been swept of mines, once the British ships had dominated them. Six ships of the Second would relieve the French after four hours; the other two would support the minesweepers at night.

The fleet entered the Straits at 10:30 am. It came under fire by 11:00 am, but was at the firing position by 11:30 am. Soon after noon enough damage had been done to allow the French ships to move in to begin firing from closer range. Agamemnon, Inflexible, Suffren and Gaulois were all damaged, but by 1:45 pm the Ottoman fire was tailing off. De Robeck called up the minesweepers and ordered the Third Division to relieve the French. Around 2:00 pm the Bouvet suffered two explosions, the second apparently from a magazine blowing up, and sank rapidly. Only 48 men were saved, with about 600 going down with her.

The action continued. The forts stopped firing periodically, but this was because the gunners had to clean their guns of dust thrown up by shells landing in front of their emplacements. Between 3:30 and 4:00 pm the battleships began to encounter mines, which they assumed were unmoored, floating ones.

About 4:05 pm Inflexible struck a mine. She was badly damaged, and it seemed for a while that she might sink. Around 10 minutes later Irresistible hit a moored mine. Most of her crew were taken off by the destroyer HMS Wear, with ten men staying on board to try and get a wire to Ocean, which was ordered to tow the disabled battleship. However, it was impossible to do so because of Irresistible’s list. Ocean was coming under heavy fire, and was ordered to abandon the attempt at 5:50 pm.

The attack was then abandoned, and the fleet ordered to withdraw. At 6:05 pm Ocean struck a mine. Her crew was taken off by destroyers. Destroyers were sent at night to try and tow the two battleships, but both had sunk.[11]

As well as the three battleships sunk, Inflexible, Suffren and Gaulois all required dockyard repair. British human losses on 18 March were not high considering the number of ships lost and damaged: naval-history.net lists 13 killed on Irresistible, 35 on Invincible, one on Ocean and one on Majestic, including five men who later died of wounds received that day, but excluding one who died that day of wounds received earlier; including him, 71 British marines and sailors had been killed earlier in the attack. Robert Massie says that 639 men were killed on the Bouvet and 61 in the rest of the fleet. Ottomans and Germans were killed and wounded.[12]

The mines that caused the losses had been laid on the night of 8 March by a small Ottoman ship called the Nusret. The minesweepers had swept the central area, finding no mines; they had then assumed that the sides must also be clear. The seaplanes had failed to spot them.[13]

It was intended at this stage to resume the attack. The pre-dreadnoughts HMS Queen and Implacable were already on their way and HMS Prince of Wales and London and the French Henri IV were sent to replace the ships lost on 18 March.[14]

Bad weather from 19 to 24 March prevented operations. De Robeck originally intended to continue with the naval attack but on the 22 March he told a conference of generals and admirals that the fleet could not get through without the support of the army. The army would not be ready until 14 April. Destroyers were being fitted as minesweepers, but would not be ready until about 2 or 3 April.[15]

Churchill asserted that the Ottomans were almost out of ammunition when the attack was called off, a claim repeated by some others, including the early 60s BBC documentary series The Great War. However, Naval Operations, the British Official History, says that the Ottomans had about 70 rounds per heavy gun, 130 per 6 inch gun and 150 for each of those defending the minefields. Forts had been damaged but few guns knocked out. Research by Tim Travers in the Turkish archives shows that the howitzers and other field guns also had plenty of ammunition.[16]

The defences of the minefields had suffered little damage, and Naval Operations argues that the chances of a battleship getting through all 350 mines undamaged was 15 to 1 against, meaning that the Allies could expect only one battleship to reach the Sea of Marmara if the minefields were not cleared. It believes that the confidence of the Ottoman General Staff that they could not be cleared ‘was probably justified.’[17]

The army landed at Cape Helles on 25 April. From then on, the Gallipoli Campaign was primarily a land one, with the navy confined to landing troops, transporting supplies and wounded, providing supporting fire and ultimately evacuating the army. It could not attempt to break through the Dardanelles until the army had taken the high ground, which it never managed to do.[18]



[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 140-44.

[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). vol. ii, p. 232.

[3] T. Travers, Gallipoli, 1915 (Stroud: Tempus, 2001).

[4] Marder, From. vol. ii,. p. 233.

[5] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 149.

[6] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 234.

[7] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), pp. 449-51.

[8] Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 26-27.

[9] Quoted in Marder, From. vol. ii, p.243

[10] Ibid., pp. 243-45.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 213-28.

[12] Massie, Castles, pp. 463-4.

[13] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 247.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 227.

[15] Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 38-40.

[16] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 223-24; Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 36-37.

[17] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 224.

[18] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 258.


Filed under War History

The Naval Attack on the Dardanelles 1915 (1) Planning

From late 1914 onwards there was a dispute over British military strategy. The ‘Westerners’, including most generals, saw the Western Front as the decisive theatre. However, the ‘Easterners’, mostly politicians or admirals, thought that stalemate on the Western Front could not be broken, so wanted to launch an offensive elsewhere, probably the Near East, where they hoped to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war and persuade Italy and neutral Balkan countries to join the Allies.[1]

Admiral Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord proposed a number of schemes, including attacks on Zeebrugge. Borkum, Cuxhaven and the Baltic.[2] On 3 January 1915 he gave Winston Churchill, the First Lord and thus his political superior, a plan that he and Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the War Council, had devised for a major offensive against the Ottoman Empire. It involved attacks on Gallipoli and Istanbul: although then referred to as Constantinople in English, it has officially been called Istanbul since the Turks captured it in 1453.

It looked good on paper, but was impractical. It needed far more British troops than would have been released from France and assumed that Bulgaria and Greece, strong rivals and both neutral, would enter the war on the Allied side and co-operate.[3]

The day before, Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia had requested that the British carry out a ‘demonstration’ in order to distract the Ottomans who were attacking in the Caucasus; Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, told Churchill that the only place where such an action might succeed was the Dardanelles, but there were no troops available.[4]

By 4 January the Russians had forced the Ottomans to retreat from Sarikamish, but the British, apparently unaware of this, continued to look for ways to help their ally against the Ottomans.

Churchill was attracted by part of Fisher’s plan, which was for an attack by old battleships on the Dardanelles. He ignored Fisher’s requirement for the warships to be accompanied by troops, who would take the high ground along the Gallipoli side of the Dardanelles.[5]

The Royal Navy had always argued that warships could rarely attack forts successfully without support from land forces. Lord Nelson had argued that ‘any sailor who attacked a fort was a fool,’ and the former First Sea Lord Sir Arthur Wilson was the only senior officer of the early twentieth century who disagreed.[6]

On 3 November 1914 and Anglo-French squadron had bombarded the outer forts of the Dardanelles from 13,000 yards, damaging one of them. This led some to think that it might be possible to destroy them from a range at which they could not reply. However, it also alerted the Ottomans to the fact that they might be attacked. After the war, this was described as an ‘unforgivable error’ by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe and ‘an act of sheer lunacy’ by Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon.[7]

Hankey told Arthur Balfour, the former Conservative Prime Minister who would soon succeed Churchill as First Lord in a Coalition government, that:

‘from Lord Fisher downwards every naval officer in the Admiralty who is in the secret believes that the Navy cannot take the Dardanelles position without troops. The First Lord still professes to believe that they can do it with ships, but I have warned the Prime Minister that we cannot trust in this.’[8]

Balfour was one of the few that favoured an attack by only ships.[9] Churchill later admitted that he would not have gone ahead with a naval only attack had he known that 80-100,000 troops would be available by May. However, in January Kitchener had said that 150,000 men would be needed and few could be spared.[10]

Arthur Marder argues that in the end the ‘famed Churchillian impetuosity, eloquence and doggedness carried the day.’[11] Churchill argued, on the basis of the performance of German artillery against Belgian forts in 1914, that the Ottoman forts would not be able to resist the fire from 12 and 15 inch battleship guns. However, the Germans had forward observers to correct their fire, whilst the Allied ships would be firing on concealed positions from several miles away with no observers on shore. The Germans were also using howitzers with a higher angle of fire than battleship guns.

It had been hoped that seaplanes could act as spotters, but they found it difficult to take off unless the sea was very calm and could not fly high enough to safely and successfully spot the fire. The sea also affected the stability of the ships as gun platforms, another disadvantage compared with shore guns.

The risk from minefield was also ignored or under-estimated. The Ottoman shore batteries only needed to sink or force away the minesweepers, which were trawlers manned by peacetime fishermen who were members of the Royal Naval Reserve, to prevent the battleships from continuing.

Even if the battle fleet did manage to get past all the gun batteries, it was not clear what it was then supposed to do. It was apparently assumed that its appearance at Istanbul would cause a revolution, even though it would not have been accompanied by any land forces to occupy the city and its communications would be open to attack by any remaining forts.

Jellicoe later wrote in the margin of his copy of volume ii of Churchill’s The World Crisis:

‘Has anyone who wants to push battleships through the Dardanelles said what they propose they should do when through and how their communications are to be maintained and from what base are they to work?’[12]

Churchill assumed that the old battleships were of little value in the North Sea, so could be risked in this operation. However, before the Battle of Jutland, most British admirals thought that a major fleet action might cause such heavy losses amongst the dreadnoughts of both sides that the RN’s vast superiority in pre-dreadnought battleships would then become decisive.[13]

The next entry in this series will describe the actual attack.


[1] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, p. 202.

[2] T. Travers, Gallipoli, 1915 (Stroud: Tempus, 2001), p. 20.

[3] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 204.

[4] Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 19-20.

[5] Marder, From. vol. ii, pp. 204-5.

[6] Quoted in Ibid., p. 200.

[7] Quoted in Ibid., p. 201.

[8] Quoted in R. A. Hough, The Great War at Sea, 1914-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 153.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Marder, From, p. 212.

[11] Ibid., p. 213.

[12] Quoted in Hough, Great, p. 152.

[13] Marder, From, pp. 214-19.


Filed under War History

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


Filed under War History

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.


Filed under War History