Germany's High Seas Fleet in the World War/Chapter 16
Chapter 16 - The Conquest of the Baltic Islands and the Capture of HelsingforsEdit
IN September, 1917, after the taking of Riga, the Supreme Army Command asked for the co-operation of the Fleet to conquer the Baltic Islands. This offered a welcome diversion from the monotony of the war in the North Sea. The Navy's task was to take a landing corps, consisting of a reinforced infantry division, under the orders of the General Officer of the 23rd Regimental Command, to Oesel, and to land them there.
The right flank of the landing troops had to be protected from the sea by quickly sending ships to the Gulf of Riga; and the attack on the bridgehead of Orissa on the Island of Oesel, to make it possible to cross to the Island of Moon, had to be supported with all the means at our disposal. So long as the Straits of Irben were commanded by the heavy enemy guns at Zerch, the bays of the Island of Oesel in the Gulf of Riga were useless for landing. Consequently, the Bay of Tagga was chosen for the troops' disembarkation. This is the only bay in the north or west of Oesel that can hold a large number of transports and offer them protection From the west winds which prevail there in the autumn.
After the warning example of the landing of the Franco-British army in Gallipoli in the spring of 1915, the attempt to carry the war on land overseas by the help of the Fleet had to be made with the greatest care, and such strong defensive measures were taken that a reverse appeared to be out of the question. We had to prepare ships for the transport of 23,000 men, 5,000 horses, and much material.
The warships had to clear the approaches of mines, so that none of the transports with the troops on board might be lost, also to send flying-men to find out the position of the enemy beforehand, so as to ascertain the most favourable circumstances for the landing, which had to be a surprise. The Russians had recognised the danger which threatened them, and had tried to ward it off by placing batteries on Cape Handsort and Ninnast, at the two entrances to Tagga Bay. Heavy batteries had been strongly built on the peninsula of Sworbe, in the south of Oesel, some time previously.
The warships set aside for this undertaking were placed under the orders of Vice-Admiral Ehrhardt Schmidt, the Commander of Squadron I . He had a special Staff for the occasion, made up of officers of the Fleet and Admiralty Staffs. Captain von Levetzow was nominated Chief of the Staff; the battle-cruiser Moltke was the flagship.
Under the orders of Admiral Schmidt were: Squadron III - Vice-Admiral Behncke: Battleships König, Bayem, Grosser Kurfürst, Kronprinz and Markgraf; Squadron IV - Vice-Admiral Souchon: Battleships Friedrick der Grosse, König Albert, Kaiserin, Prinzregent Luitpold and Kaiser; Scouting Division II, under Rear-Admiral von Reuter: Second and third class cruisers Königsburg, Karlsruhe, Numberg, Frankfurt, Danzig and the light cruisers of the Baltic Fleet, Kolberg, Strassburg and Augsberg, under Vice-Admiral Hopman. Commodore Heinrich was in command of the following torpedo-boats, he himself being on board the second-class cruiser Emden: Torpedo-Boat Flotilla II (Commander Heinecke) with 10 boats; Torpedo-Boat Flotilla VI (Commander Tillesen) with a half-flotilla; Torpedo-Boat Flotilla VIII (Commander Nieden), with u boats; further, the 7th Torpedo-Boat Half-Flotilla; the 13th Torpedo-Boat Half-Flotilla; Torpedo-Boat Flotilla IX (Commander Hundertmark) the latter with 1 1 boats; besides these 6 U-boats of the Kurland U Flotilla (Lieut.-Commander Heinrich Schott); Mine-Sweeper Flotilla II (Lieut-Commander Doflein); the Mine-Sweeper Division IV, and a half-flotilla of mine-seekers that numbered a little more than 60 motor-boats. In addition to these there was Captain von Rosenberg's flotilla, who had at his disposal 72 boats - trawlers, and other craft of similar size. Nineteen steamers were requisitioned as troop-transports, the tonnage of which amounted to 153,664 tons.
The enterprise was first mooted on September 12. On October 9 the troops embarked; on October 11 the transport fleet put to sea under the protection of the battleships and small cruisers. The preparatory work of mine-sweeping had been delayed by the bad weather during the end of September and beginning of October, so that those in command waited with impatience for operations to start.
This delay was an advantage for the transports, as it enabled us to drill the troops in embarkation and disembarkation, which materially facilitated the landing afterwards. The number of steamers was not sufficient to transport the troops and all the baggage in one journey; two echelons had to be formed. This circumstance also made it advisable not to start the expedition until the mine-sweeping operations in the Irben Straits were nearing their close, so that the second echelon might be transported in safety to Arensburg without running risks from submarines.
The manifold preparations for the embarkation of the troops and for carrying out the operations on land in conjunction with the Fleet had been completed, and there had been the most exemplary harmony between the leaders of the Army and those of the Navy. Thanks to them, the conquest of the islands of Oesel, Moon and Dago was carried out according to plan, with the most perfect success.
On October 10 everything was in trim; the fleet of transports lay ready in the naval port of Libau to proceed to sea; the Moltke, with Squadrons III and IV, lay in the Bay of Danzig, behind the peninsula of Hela; the small cruisers and torpedo-boats were at Libau.
The battleships were to silence the batteries at the entrance to the Bay of Tagga before the landing was effected, as well as to force the passage of the fortified straits between the islands of Dago and Oesel, and of Soelo Sound, which leads into the Kassar Wick. It was necesssary to command the Kassar Wick, which owing to the depth of the water can only be used by torpedo-boats, so as to secure the passage to Moon from the north, and to prevent Russian warships from leaving the Gulf of Riga and making for the north.
The batteries of the Bay of Tagga were attacked by Squadron III and the Moltke; Squadron IV was to destroy the batteries on Sworbe. It was important to land an advance guard in Tagga Bay as soon as possible after the silencing of the batteries in the north, so as to occupy the coast-line and thereby ensure the safe passage of the main transport fleet. The warships and the transports left harbour on the morning of October n. The night journey through the mine-field passed without incident. The lightships placed by the Rosenberg Flotilla marked the track that the search flotilla had reported clear of mines. It was not until towards midnight that a check in the advance occurred, which threatened to be critical; the leading squadron had approached so closely to the mine-sweeping flotilla that speed had to be slackened. At first the delay was accepted, but finally it was realised that by slackening speed the punctual landing of the advance guard would be jeopardised and at the same time the element of surprise, which underlay the whole undertaking, threatened to be lost. Consequently Admiral Schmidt gave orders to the mine-sweepers to remove their gear and make room for the Fleet; he preferred taking the risk of negotiating the rest of the passage without the security afforded by the mine-sweepers to endangering the success of the whole enterprise. Fortune favoured this decision, for the Fleet succeeded without accident in reaching the positions from which the bombardment was to take place. They passed through a gap in the belt of mines right in front of the Bay of Tagga, the existence of which was only definitely ascertained later on. While taking up their positions to bombard the batteries on the Sound of Soelo, the Bayern and the Grosser Kurfürst struck mines, which, however, did not hinder them from completing their task.
At 5.30 a.m. the landing was begun. It was a complete surprise to the enemy, and met with little opposition, which was quickly overcome by the fire of the torpedo-boats, supported by the troops. The disembarkation of the advance troops which were on board the ships of Squadron III, was carried out by the motor launches of the ships and three small steamers, one of which was the Corsica. The leader of the Torpedo-Boat Flotilla steamed ahead with his boats. The batteries at Hundsfort and Ninnast were quickly silenced and at 8 a.m. in the hands of our troops. The Toffri battery on the southern point of Dago was destroyed by the Bayern and the Emden, Commodore Heinrich's flagship. At 6.45 A.M. the transports received orders to enter the bay, and the disembarkation was proceeding apace at 10 a.m. On entering the bay, the steamer Corsica struck a mine. She was run aground and her crew taken on board by torpedo-boats and landed. This incident showed us that the main part of the Fleet must have passed in safety through a gap in the belt of mines.
The second part of the Fleet's activities consisted in quickly penetrating into the Kassar Wick, and invading the Gulf of Riga. On the very day of the landing, Captain von Rosenberg, with his flotilla, had pushed through the Sound of Soelo, and so proved that it was navigable for torpedo-boats. Under the command of Commodore Heinrich the boats of Flotilla II and of the 12th and 13th Half-Flotillas then drove the enemy back into the Moon Sound. In this they were supported and covered by the fire of the Kaiser and the Emden, which lay before Soelo Sound. On this occasion, October 14, the destroyer Grom was captured and a gunboat was Sunk. We suffered no losses in battle, but three boats were damaged and.one was sunk by mines. In many cases boats ran aground in these badly surveyed waters, and in so doing injured the blades of their propellers.
The boats of the Rosenberg Flotilla established communication with the bridgehead at Orissa, and this was maintained until the troops had crossed. The flotilla brought bread and munitions to the pioneers, and later on undertook their transport across to Moon.
It was impossible for our light craft to push on into Moon Sound from the Kassar Wick, on account of the heavy guns of the Russian battleship Slava, which bombarded them from the south; consequently Moon Sound had to be taken from the south. For this purpose we had first to destroy the fortifications of Zerel. This task was assigned, on October 14, to the officer commanding Squadron IV, with the battleships Friedrich der Grosse, König Albert, and Kaiserin. The Russian batteries opened fire on them, and our ships returned it until darkness fell. The next morning the Russians had abandoned the position and destroyed the batteries. The landing troops had meanwhile continued their march towards Sworbe and Onesa. It was imperative that our ships should quickly penetrate into the Gulf of Riga, so as to hold the Russians on the Island of Oesel and prevent them from crossing to Moon. The mine-sweeping operations in the Straits of Irben, conducted by Vice-Admiral Hopman, had made good progress by October 13, although they were under the fire of the batteries at Zerel, and came upon belt after belt of mines. But when there was danger that the Russians might retire too soon to Moon and thence to the mainland, the passage to Arensburg had to be forced. Vice-Admiral Behncke, commanding Squadron III, received orders to support Admiral Hopman's light craft in this undertaking. Thanks to the energy of the officers, he carried these orders out with a celerity that surpassed all expectations. When Sworbe fell on the morning of the 16th, our warships lay before Arensburg, and on the evening of the same day before the southern extremity of Moon Sound. In this way our warships had completely surrounded the Island of Oesel, and made it impossible for the enemy, who had been driven by our troops to the south-east of the island, to escape by water.
On the morning of October 17 Moon Sound was reached; the batteries there were destroyed, the Russian ships driven off to the north, and the Russian battleship Slava sunk. This success deserves the highest appreciation; it was gained under difficult conditions, in waters bristling with mines. The officer commanding Squadron III particularly commended the conduct of the mine-sweepers, who worked admirably under heavy fire.
While the commanding officer of Squadron III forced Moon Sound from the east, Admiral Hopman, with the Kolberg and the Strassburg, penetrated the Little Sound, ready to render the Army the assistance it required for crossing. In the night of October 17-18 our troops crossed to Moon, and this island, too, was surrounded by our ships on the east, south, and north-west. It was no longer possible for the enemy to escape to the mainland.
As the operations had been so successful, we proceeded to take Dago, which had not been included in the original plan. The Rosenberg Flotilla landed 300 men on the southern point of Dago, and occupied a bridgehead there for the subsequent landing of an infantry regiment. It maintained its position against attack until the troops arrived. For the conquest of Dago 3,700 men, 500 horses, 140 wagons, and a field battery with munitions were landed, and the landing party from the flotilla was withdrawn.
After Tagga Bay had been cleared of mines, an essentially necessary proceeding, the Fleet still had to perform the task of cutting off the Russian retreat from the north part of Moon Sound. Up till then this had been left to the U-boats. They received orders when Squadron III invaded the Gulf of Riga, to assemble before Moon Sound and to attack any Russians who should attempt to get out. "U-C 58" torpedoed the armoured cruiser Bogatyr, and "U-C 60" sank a transport steamer. It was not till October 18 that the torpedo-boats could be withdrawn from the Kassar Wick, and the necessary mine-sweepers liberated, both being needful for the protection of big ships.
On October 17 Squadron IV, with Scouting Division II, two torpedo-boat half-flotillas, and the necessary mine-sweepers, was to push forward to the northern exit of Moon Sound. But the weather made mine-sweeping impossible. Consequently the advance through the mine-fields north of Dago could not be earned out. Five boats had simultaneously reported that the enemy was retiring to the north, so it followed that the whole of Moon Sound must be clear of hostile craft; the enterprise was therefore abandoned. The damage that the large ships would probably have sustained from mines was out of proportion to anything that might have been gained by pushing on farther.
This completed the operations of the Fleet. The conquest of the islands attained by this co-operation of the Army and Navy represents a military achievement which was as unique as it was successful. The Navy is especially proud of it, as it gave them an opportunity of lending valuable aid to the Army.
The departure so far east of such a large portion of the Fleet, and its sojourn there for several weeks, was bound to give us a definite idea as to whether the English Fleet would feel called upon to interfere in this enterprise, or to take advantage of the absence of the ships to make a strong advance in the North Sea. In the latter case we should have had to take the risk of our remaining warships in the North Sea being able to ward off an attack that would probably aim at destroying the U-boat base at Wilhelmshaven, or the airship sheds on the coast. On the other hand, if the English Fleet had decided to make a demonstration on a large scale against the Baltic, we should have been forced either to abandon the enterprise in the east, or to oppose the English with very small forces in the west of the Baltic. But the English Fleet did not deem it desirable to pursue either course to divert us from the conquest of the Islands.
The fact that our Main Fleet was thus occupied presented a favourable opportunity for us to make an advance with light craft into the northern waters of the North Sea, since under the circumstances the enemy would least expect it. We, therefore, dispatched the light cruisers Brummer and Bremse to harry the merchant ships plying between Norway and England, or, should none be met with there, to extend the expedition to the west coast of the British Isles. This enterprise will be described later.
The Capture of HelsingforsEdit
Once again our Fleet had occasion to support our Army in the east, when, after the Peace of Brest-Litovsk, urgent cries for help against the Russian Red Guards were raised by the Finnish Government. A special division was formed under the command of Rear-Admiral Meurer, which consisted of the battleships Westfalen and Rheinland (to which the Posen was added later), a number of light cruisers, mine-sweepers, as well as barrier-breakers, ice-breakers, and outpost ships. They were to convoy seventeen steamers to the Finnish coast, and to establish a base for them on the Aaland Islands. The chief difficulty of the undertaking lay in the fact that there was so much ice.
On February 28 the voyage to the north was begun, and on March 5 the ships anchored off Eckero on the Aaland Islands. One ice-breaker was lost owing to a mine explosion.
It turned out that the ice made it impossible for ships to approach the Finnish coast from the Aaland Islands at that time of the year, and the advance had to be made in a direct line from the south.
On April 3 our ships appeared before Russaro, the strongly-fortified island before the harbour of Hango on the south-west coast of Finland. The Russians declined to oppose us, so that it was unnecessary to fight and demolish the fortifications; the landing of the Baltic Division could proceed without difficulty. From this point they set out on their march to Helsingfors. The warships were to penetrate into the harbour of Helsingfors from the sea; it had been a strongly fortified base of the Russian Fleet.
On April 12 the ships entered Helsingfors, and landed their troops under cover of their guns; there was heavy street fighting with the Red Guards in the town. At the threat of a bombardment, the latter ceased their resistance and capitulated, so that about 2,000 prisoners fell into the hands of the Navy. The taking of the city brought timely relief to an advance guard of troops which had penetrated into the town and was very hard pressed.
When the Baltic Division itself arrived, the Navy had to safeguard the lines of communication between Helsingfors and Reval. According to the treaty stipulations, the Russian Fleet retired into the inner Gulf of Finland to Kronstadt, and thus there was no longer any necessity for the presence of our battleships, as our Baltic light craft seemed to suffice for the assistance of the Baltic Division in their task of liberating Finland.
On April u the battleship Rheinland, which had remained near the Aaland Islands, ran on the rocks in a fog, when she was going to Danzig to coal; her situation at first seemed very grave, but the bad leak she had sprung was successfully stopped, and the ship was got off and taken into Kiel Harbour. The repairs were so extensive that the Rheinland was of no further use for war purposes.
As help to the Finns in their need could only be taken by sea, and as such help must be immediate if if was not to be too late to be of any avail, the liberation of Finland was only possible if we could succeed in overcoming the difficulties presented by the ice, which made operations by sea impossible. A further hindrance was that the battleships had to make a way for themselves, and that no previous sweeping of mines could take place. Admiral Meurer's energy succeeded in overcoming all the hindrances which were due in part to the ice conditions and in part to the difficulties of navigation in these rock-infested waters. The Navy regarded it as a particularly beautiful and elevating task to render timely help to the seafaring nation of the Finns.