Germany's High Seas Fleet in the World War/Chapter 2
Chapter 2 - Relative Strengths and the Strategic SituationEdit
OUR High Sea Fleet was concentrated in the North Sea. Since February, 1913, it had been under the command of Admiral von Ingenohl, who was flying his flag in the battleship Friedrich der Grosse. The High Sea Fleet was composed of three squadrons, cruisers and destroyers :
Vice-Admiral von Lans (In Command).
Rear-Admiral Gaedecke (Second in Command).
Ostfriesland. Thuringen. Helgoland. Oldenburg. Posen. Rheinland. Nassau. Westfalen.
Vice-Admiral Scheer (In Command).
Commodore Mauve (Second in Command).
Preussen. Schlesien. Hessen. Lothringen. Hannover. Schleswig-Holstein. Pommern. Deutschland.
Rear-Admiral Funke (In Command).
Kaiser. Kaiserin. König Albert. Prinz Regent Luitpold.
Rear-Admiral Hipper (In Command).
Rear-Admiral Maass (Second in Command).
Seydlitz. Moltke. Von der Tann.
Koln. Mainz. Stralsund. Kolberg. Rostock. Strassburg.
Seven Destroyer Flotillas
(In peace these were only occasionally under the orders of the High Sea Fleet.)
Hela (small cruiser of no fighting value). Pfeil. Blitz.
At this point I must say something about the organisation of the Fleet in order to present a picture of its fighting value. As is well known, our Navy Bills had provided for a total of 41 battleships, 20 battle-cruisers, 40 light cruisers, 12 destroyer flotillas and 4 submarine flotillas. This fleet was divided into the Home Fleet and the Foreign Fleet. The nucleus of the Home Fleet was the High Sea Fleet which was principally concerned with preparing itself for battle in case of war. In order to devote ourselves wholly to that purpose and be in a condition to be sent wherever required - that is, be permanently mobile - it was relieved of all other tasks and these were assigned to special ships (Training, Gunnery, and Specialist). The result of this was that a continuously high standard of preparedness in battle-practice was not to be attained under our system because every year a portion of each crew went to the Reserve and had to be replaced by recruits who for the most part came to the sea service as utter novices. The most varied efforts to tide over the period of weakness that was thus involved every autumn had hitherto led to no conclusive results. From our point of view the fact that this war broke out in summer was thus peculiarly unfavourable. The training, gunnery and specialist ships were used for the education of the rising generation of officers and embryo officers (cadets and midshipmen) and the training of gunnery, torpedo, and mine specialists, as well as coast survey and fishery protection. As a rule, these duties were assigned to older ships which were no longer fit to take their place in the first battle line. For example, the old armoured cruisers Herta, Hansa, Freya, Vineta, and Viktoria Luise were employed as training ships. It had not been found possible to avoid calling on the modern ships for the special purpose of gunnery and torpedo practice, although the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet was very reluctant to part with them because the training of these ships for war purposes was limited to a very short period of the year. Our weakness in cruisers with the High Sea Fleet - for the requirements of foreign stations had to be satisfied as well - was particularly deplorable. We had abroad a cruiser squadron in Eastern Asia and two cruisers (Goeben and Breslau) in the Mediterranean, in addition to a few old gunboats stationed permanently at various places. The cruiser squadron under Count Spee consisted of the two battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and the light cruisers Niimberg, Emden, Dresden, and Leipzig. In this connection importance was attached to sending the best that we had in the way of light cruisers to foreign seas. As regards battle-cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which were a match for any pre-Dreadnought cruiser, had to suffice, while we had only three battle-cruisers in home waters, as Goeben was in the Mediterranean, and Derfflinger and Liitzow were not yet ready. Another battle-cruiser, Bliicher, was being employed in gunnery practice. With her twelve 21-cm. guns and the speed of 25 knots, she was considerably inferior in fighting value to the first of the English battle-cruisers of the "Invincible" class, which dated from two years later and carried eight 30.5-cm. guns.
Besides the ships commissioned for training and experimental purposes there were a certain number of other ships in home waters which, as provided by the Navy Bills, were to form the Reserve Fleet. As the provisions of the Navy Bills had not yet been worked out, of these formations only a nucleus in the shape of the battleship Wittelsbach could be kept permanently in commission. Another ship of the same class, the Wettin, was used as a gunnery training school, while the rest were docked and received only as much attention as was required to keep their engines, structure, and armaments in proper condition.
On mobilisation, all training and experimental ships stopped their work and passed under the command of the High Sea Fleet. Out of the ships in reserve in dock, Squadrons IV, V and VI were formed. The battleships of the "Wittelsbach" class formed Squadron IV under the former Inspector of Gunnery, Vice-Admiral Ehrhard Schmidt ; the ships of the older "Kaiser" class made up Squadron V (Vice-Admiral Grepow); while the old coast defence cruisers of the "Siegfried" class formed Squadron VI (Rear-Admiral Eckermann).
Thanks to careful preparation, the ships were put on a war footing without the slightest hitch. Of course, it took some further time before the ships' companies of Squadrons IV, V, and VI were so advanced in training, either as individual units or in combination, that they could be used for war purposes. With a view to increasing the peace establishment, the crews of the High Sea Fleet received on mobilisation an extra quota of men, who joined the ships in the first days and were a very welcome reinforcement.
While steaming at full speed was seldom permitted in peace time, in order to economise coal and save the engines, in war a ship must be in a condition, as soon as she gets to sea, to develop the utmost capacity of her engines, and so all the boilers must be used continuously. With a crew of about a thousand men, which is normal for battleships and battle-cruisers, it is essential to make allowance for a certain percentage of sick and other casualties. Such deficiencies were made good by the mobilisation "supplement," which amounted to about 10 per cent, of the peace establishment. As the war proceeded, the system proved its usefulness by enabling us to let the men go on leave without lowering the standard of the ships' readiness for battle to a disadvantageous degree. The reinforcement was particularly important to the battle-cruisers, which, in view of their enormous consumption of coal in order to attain the very highest speed, were not in a position, with the engine-room complement allowed by establishment, to bring the coal from the. more distant bunkers to the stokehold, so that help had to be requisitioned from the sailors. As far as possible, the bunkers in the immediate vicinity of the stokehold were left untouched, in readiness for action, when not a man on board could be spared from his action station.
The system of command is a question of special importance to the organisation of a navy. The bulk of the ships in home waters were under the command of a single authority, the Commander-in-Chief of the High Sea Fleet. Of course, the ships at distant stations abroad could not be under his command, and certain ships in home waters, operating in a theatre which had no absolutely direct connection with the operations in the main theatre, had a Commander-in-Chief of their own. The number of ships combined under one command must not be so large that their commander cannot control and lead them in action, for one of the most material differences between fighting on land and at sea is that in the latter case the commander himself goes into the firing line. But command goes hand in hand with responsibility for the execution of all plans, and it was therefore a doubtful policy to establish an authority above the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet who had the most important forces under his command. In view of the peculiarities of naval warfare, the higher authority cannot be in a position to settle beforehand the details of time and method of any particular enterprise which has been decided upon, in the same way as this is both possible and essential for the command of operations on land.
However, the demands of the various theatres in which fighting took place in this war made some central authority necessary which could distribute the number of ships required for all purposes, and which could also have strong influence on the conduct of operations in the individual theatres. The authority for this purpose was the Naval Staff, in which the preliminary work on the plan of operations had already been done. The Chief of the Naval Staff had the duty of laying the proposed orders for the operations before the Supreme War Lord, to whom the Constitution gave the supreme command over all our forces on land and sea. After these orders had received the Imperial approval, the Chief of the Naval Staff had to transmit them to the Fleet.
The functions of the Naval Staff assumed particular importance in this war, in which the closest co-operation of the Fleet and Army for the common end was of quite special importance. The development of the Navy, which had grown to the status of a great war machine in the last decades, had not, however, admitted of the simultaneous satisfaction of the requirements in personnel which made themselves felt in all quarters. The working of the Naval Staff had suffered from this cause in peace time and it produced its effect in war. In peace the influence of the State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Administration was paramount, especially when that office was held by a personality like Grand Admiral von Tirpitz, who by his outstanding abilities had gained an influence which no naval officer had ever before exercised in the history of our Navy. In war, on the other hand, he had no direct influence on the conduct of operations.
The development of our Navy had not taken place without numerous differences of opinion about the best method of its construction. At the front and in the Naval Staff the principal requirement was considered to be that the existing Fleet should be so complete in all its details, and therefore so ready for war, that all differences would be made good. The Secretary of State, on the other hand, who had a great programme in mind and steadily pursued its realisation, attached more importance to having all the essential elements ready, and as regards secondary matters, trusting more or less to improvisation if war came before the final development of the Fleet had been realised. He accordingly promoted the construction of battleships and destroyers primarily, bearing in mind the root principle from which our Navy Bills had sprung, that with the Fleet we should create a weapon which should be strong enough to fight against a superior hostile fleet. The course of the war has proved the soundness of that principle.
Only in one material point were our strategical views based on an assumption which proved unfounded, the assumption that the English Fleet, which had kept ahead of ours in its construction at every stage, would seek battle in the German Bight in the North Sea, or would force its way to wherever it hoped to find the German Fleet. On that account we had attached particular importance to the greatest defensive and offensive powers, and considered we might regard speed and radius of action as secondary matters. The difference between our type of ships and that of the English shows that in both Fleets strategic ideas governed the method of construction. The English were content with less armour, but attached importance to higher speed and the largest possible calibre of gun so that they could impose on their opponent their own choice of battle area.
Side by side with the Commander-in-Chief of the High Sea Fleet a special command was introduced for the Baltic forces. The commanders of ships in foreign waters! were of course independent and received their orders through the Chief of the Naval Staff, whose co-operation in the business of procuring coal and supplies for the conduct of cruiser warfare could not be dispensed with.
Thus for the first time in German history sea power also was to play a mighty part in the great fight for existence with which our nation was faced. As regards the handling of our Fleet, we had not only to consider how we could bring about the most favourable opportunity of winning the victory, but also what tasks, within the framework of the combined operations, fell to our share. The strategical plans of the Army had a decisive influence on the functions of the Fleet. The Navy had the duty of supporting the Army in its uphill task of fighting a superior enemy on two fronts in such a way that its rear was unconditionally secured against any danger threatening from the north. So long as it was only a question of fighting the Dual Alliance the Army was relieved of all anxiety from that direction, as the Fleet was quite equal to its task. The Army had made its plans in such a way that victory could be expected from an offensive, and the full weight of that offensive would at first be directed to one spot. It followed from this that at the outset a defensive attitude would be adopted on the other front, and all preparations for defence would have to be made in that quarter.
The third front, the sea front, acquired a special importance when England joined the ranks of our opponents. But so far as can be seen from the course of the war no material change was made in the fundamental principles underlying our strategic operations on land. As I was then only holding the position of commander of a squadron, I did not know whether, in view of the increasing hostility of England, the idea was considered of adopting a fresh joint plan of operations for the Army and the Fleet, which would be based on the notion of improving our defensive prospects against England. This could have been obtained by the speediest possible acquisition of the sector of the French coast which commanded the Dover-Calais line. In this way the English cross-Channel transport service, as well as the trade routes to the Thames, would have been seriously threatened. If only we had realised from the start that the influence of England's sea power on the course of the war would be as great as it turned out to be later, to our disadvantage, a higher importance would have been attached to this question at the outset. As it happened, the course of the campaign in France forced us into a position in which we were nothing but the flank protection of the right wing of our Army which stretched to the sea and therefore brought us the Flemish coast as our starting point, though nothing like so valuable, for attacks against England. The Navy had to spring into the breach and take up the defence against English sea power. It appeared obvious that the entry of England into the ranks of our enemies would not divert the Army from its task. The Army considered it much more obvious that the Navy should support it by hindering the passage of transports across the Channel. The protection of these transports was one of the principal functions of the English Fleet. We could only interfere with it at the price of a decisive battle with the English Fleet, and even if the encounter took a favourable course there was no guarantee that we should attain our end of permanently and effectively interrupting supplies from overseas. We shall have to go into the feasibility of such plans at a later stage.
Even without the inauguration of a comprehensive and detailed plan of operations for the Army and Navy the military situation required that the movements of the Navy should be adapted to the progress of the Army's operations lest the failure of some naval undertaking should put the Army in the dilemma of having to relax its own offensive or perhaps break it off altogether.
The enemy, too, cannot have failed to realise the importance of the German Fleet for a favourable development of the war on land. If the enemy ever succeeded in securing the command of the Baltic and landing Russian troops on the coast of Pomerania our Eastern front must have collapsed altogether and brought to naught our plan of campaign, which consisted of a defensive attitude in the East and the rapid overthrow of the French Army. The command of the Baltic rested on the power of the German Fleet. If we had destroyed the Russian Fleet our danger from the Baltic would by no means have been eliminated, as a landing could have been carried out just as easily under the protection of English naval forces if the German Fleet no longer existed to hinder it. For such a purpose the English Fleet had no need to venture into the Baltic itself. They had it in their power to compel us to meet them in the North Sea immediately they made an attack upon our coast. In view of such an eventuality we must not weaken ourselves permanently, as we could not help doing if we attempted to eliminate the danger which the Russian Fleet represented for us in the Baltic.
It was all the more probable that the English Fleet would attack because the combined enemy fleets would then have a free hand against our coasts. It was improbable that England would seek battle with the German Fleet - which she was bound to regard as her primary naval objective - in the Baltic where all the advantages were on our side.
For this reason the concentration area of our Fleet mas the North Sea. It was from there that we could threaten the east coast of England and therefore tie up the English Fleet in the North Sea. We could always deal in time (by using the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal) with any attempt of the English to penetrate into the Baltic. At the outset somewhat weak observation forces had to suffice against the Russians, and these forces had to try to intimidate the Russians into the same course of action by adopting offensive methods wherever possible. Mines could do us good service in that respect. This method of intimidation, however, could only be effective so long as we could still employ a superior force against the Russians, and we should abandon that superiority out of hand if we attempted to seek battle with the English Fleet under unfavourable circumstances, because, to say the least of it, the result was doubtful. In view of the high state of preparedness and the superiority of the English Fleet probabilities pointed to a failure for us which would have a fateful effect on the final result of the war.
Apart from the fact that these considerations urged caution, at the beginning of the war we were without any certain data as to the whereabouts of the English Fleet, and could only acquire some by observation of the movements of the enemy. We had to expect an attack in the greatest possible strength because our unfavourable strategic situation, which was due to the geographical formation of the North Sea theatre, put us at a disadvantage at the outset. Our position in the North Sea suffered from the fact that for any enterprise we had only one point of exit : in that far corner which faces the mouths of the Elbe and the Weser. From it alone could the Fleet emerge for an attack, and to it must return again to seek the shelter of our bases in the estuaries of the Jade and Elbe. The route round Skagen and the Belt was closed to us, as the Danes had laid minefields in these waters. The sides of the "Wet Triangle," the apex of which can be imagined at Heligoland, ended at Sylt in the north and the mouth of the Ems in the west. The left bank of the Ems is in Dutch, and therefore neutral, territory. All movements of ships there could accordingly be observed and the observation brought to the knowledge of the enemy in the shortest time. The channel at Sylt is navigable solely for destroyers and light cruisers, and then only in favourable conditions of wind and tide.
On the other hand, the east coast of England offered a whole series of safe anchorages for large ships, indeed for the whole Fleet. As appears from the map, the English coast takes a westerly direction the farther north it gets, so that on our attacks against the northern bases our distance from home is increased, to the great advantage of the enemy.
While we could be taken in flank from the south if we attacked the English Fleet, thinking it to be in the north, and taken in the flank from the north if we made our attack in the south, the English were in the favourable position that as they approached our coast they need expect danger from only one quarter immediately ahead, the German Bight. They could send out submarines against the one base from which we should have to emerge, to do us all the damage they could on our way out and home, and need only keep that one point under observation. That relieved them of the obligation of detaching special observation forces.
THE BRITISH BATTLE FLEET 
FIRST BATTLE SQUADRON
Marlborough. St. Vincent. Colossus. Hercules. Neptune. Vanguard. Collingwood. Superb.
SECOND BATTLE SQUADRON
King George V. Orion. Ajax. Audacious. Centurion. Conqueror. Monarch. Thunderer.
THIRD BATTLE SQUADRON
King Edward VII. Hibernia. Commonwealth. Zealandia. Dominion. Africa. Britannia. Hindustan.
FOURTH BATTLE SQUADRON
Dreadnought. Temeraire. Bellerophon. Agincourt. Erin. Queen Elizabeth. War spite. Valiant. Barham.
FIRST BATTLE-CRUISER SQUADRON
Lion. Princess Royal. Queen Mary. New Zealand. Invincible. Inflexible. Indomitable. Indefatigable.
SECOND CRUISER SQUADRON.
Shannon. Achilles. Cochrane. Natal.
THIRD CRUISER SQUADRON.
Antrim. Argyll. Devonshire. Roxburgh.
FIRST LIGHT CRUISER SQUADRON.
Southampton. Birmingham. Nottingham. Lowestoft.
Destroyer Flotillas (number and composition unknown).
The above ships formed The Grand Fleet under the command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe.
THE SECOND BRITISH FLEET.
FIFTH BATTLE SQUADRON.
Prince of Wales. Agamemnon. Bulwark. Formidable. Implacable. Irresistible. London. Queen. Venerable.
SIXTH BATTLE SQUADRON
Russell. Cornwallis. Albemarle. Duncan. Exmouth. Vengeance.
FIFTH CRUISER SQUADRON
Carnarvon. Falmouth. Liverpool.
SIXTH CRUISER SQUADRON.
Drake. Good Hope. King Alfred. Leviathan.
THE THIRD BRITISH FLEET
Seventh Battle Squadron
Eighth Battle Squadron
Eight ships of the "Majestic" class.
Six ships of the "Canopus" class.
Seventh Cruiser Squadron
Ninth Cruiser Squadron
Tenth Cruiser Squadron
Eleventh Cruiser Squadron
Twelfth Cruiser Squadron
They comprised older cruisers, such as:
Cressy. Aboukir. Hogue. Hawke. Theseus. Crescent. Edgar. Endymion. Gibraltar. Grafton. Royal Arthur.
The Second and Third British Fleets were combined into the Channel Fleet under a special Commander-in-Chief.
With these enormous forces England was certainly in a position to make us feel the weight of her sea power. The most effective method of doing so would be the destruction of our Fleet. This was also the view of the English Commander-in-Chief at that time, who put it in these words:
"The above objects are achieved in the quickest and surest manner by destroying the enemy's armed naval forces, and this is therefore the first objective of our Fleet. The Fleet exists to achieve victory."
The English Fleet did not live up to these proud words, in spite of its strength and the geographical position. Yet our belief that it would act thus was thoroughly justified, and we had to decide our attitude accordingly.
In the War Orders which were issued to the Commander-in-Chief of the High Sea Fleet the task before him was framed as follows: The objective of the operations must be to damage the English Fleet by offensive raids against the naval forces engaged in watching and blockading the German Bight, as well as by mine-laying on the British coast and submarine attack, whenever possible. After an equality of strength had been realised as a result of these operations, and all our forces had been got ready and concentrated, an attempt was to be made with our Fleet to seek battle under circumstances unfavourable to the enemy. Of course, if a favourable occasion for battle presented itself before, it must be exploited. Further, operations against enemy merchant ships were to be conducted in accordance with Prize Court regulations, and the ships appointed to carry out such operations in foreign waters were to be sent out as soon as possible.
The order underlying this plan of campaign was this: The Fleet must strike when the circumstances are favourable; it must therefore seek battle with the English Fleet only when a state of equality has been achieved by the methods of guerilla warfare.
It thus left the Commander-in-Chief of the High Sea Fleet freedom of action to exploit any favourable opportunity and put no obstacles in his way, but it required of him that he should not risk the whole Fleet in battle until there was a probability of victory. Moreover, it started from the assumption that opportunities would arise of doing the enemy damage when, as was to be expected, he initiated a blockade of the German Bight which was in accordance with the rules of International Law. It is also to be emphasised that a submarine offensive was only required "whenever possible." The achievements of our U-boats absolutely exceeded all expectations, thanks to the energy with which the command faced the most difficult problem and the resolution of the commanders and crews, on their own initiative, to do more than was required of them.
As regards operations in the Baltic, the War Orders to the Commander-in-Chief of the High Sea Fleet contained no instructions, as a special Commander-in-Chief had been appointed for this area. If the English Fleet tried to carry the war into the Baltic, the condition precedent (a favourable opportunity for attack) laid down in the War Orders to the High Sea Fleet would materialise in the simplest fashion.
- The Third Battle Squadron consisted of ships of the pre-Dreadnought period, the First, Second and Fourth Battle Squadrons of "Dreadnoughts." In the Fourth Battle Squadron the ships from the Agincourt onwards were not ready for sea at the outbreak of war.
- In the book published in January, 1919, "The Grand Fleet, 1914-16," by Admiral Viscount Jellicoe of Scapa, the tasks of the British Fleet were set out as follows: (1) To ensure for British ships the unimpeded use of the seas, this being vital to the existence of an island nation, particularly one which is not self-supporting in regard to food. (2) In the event of war to bring steady economic pressure to bear on our adversary by denying to him the use of the sea, thus compelling him to accept peace. (3) Similarly, in the event of war, to cover the passage and assist any army sent overseas and to protect its communications and supplies. (4) To prevent invasion of this country and its overseas dominions by enemy forces.