Germany's High Seas Fleet in the World War/Chapter 5
Chapter 5 - The Autumn and Winter Months of 1914Edit
THE affair of August 28, 1915, could be regarded as the preliminary of some enterprise on a larger scale, an enterprise in which our Fleet would start at a disadvantage if the enemy held the initiative. He would thus be able to make full use of his superiority while we had to undertake the difficult deployment from the estuaries of our rivers. By choosing his own moment the attacker had the advantage of previously sending out his submarines in large numbers to suitable stations. As the result of their frequent visits to the Heligoland Bight, as well as their experiences in the August action, they must have acquired sufficient data to be employed effectively.
The defensive attitude imposed on our Fleet was a direct help to such a plan. To anticipate it it was therefore obvious that our High Command would desire greater freedom of movement in order to have a chance of locating parts of the enemy's forces. This could only be done if the light forces sent out ahead could count on timely intervention by the whole High Sea Fleet. On the other hand, it was not the Fleet's intention to seek battle with the English Fleet off the enemy's coasts. The relative strength (as appeared from a comparison of the two battle lines) made chances of success much too improbable. Taking, battleships only, the superiority on the English side was seven compared with our total number of battleships, thirteen, and therefore more than fifty per cent. Our older ships of .Squadron II, which dated from the pre-Dreadnought period, would be opposed to an English squadron composed of ships of the "King Edward VII" class of equal fighting value.
The Supreme Command attached more importance to the security of the sea front, which was entrusted to the Fleet, in this early period of the war than to the damage which it might possibly be able to inflict on the enemy's fleet. The restrictions imposed on the Battle Fleet were therefore adhered to.
The attempts to damage the enemy by guerilla operations were continued, and in addition cruiser raids against the English coast and the Skagerrak were planned. The U-boats carried their operations ever farther afield, and at last they had their first success on September 8, when "U 21 " (Hersing) sank the light cruiser Pathfinder at the entrance to the Firth of Forth. This was fol- lowed by the great feat of Weddigen when, with "U 9," on September 22, he made a bag of the three armoured cruisers Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue, twenty nautical miles N.W. of the Hook of Holland.
Weddigen's name was in everyone's mouth, and for the Navy in particular his achievement meant a release from the oppressive feeling of having done so little in this war in comparison with the heroic deeds of the army. But no such victory had been required to reveal completely the value of the submarine for our warlike operations, especially after it had given such unexpectedly convincing proof of its ability to remain at sea.
Favourable news came from abroad also. The Emden had begun her successful operations against English merchant ships in the Gulf of Bengal,- and in East Africa the light cruiser Konigsberg had sunk the Pegasus and so avenged the bombardment of Dar-es-Salaam.
About the middle of September the squadron of older ships which had been newly-formed at the beginning of the war had so far progressed in its training that it could be commissioned for service in the North Sea. The ships were not themselves fit to take part in a Fleet action, but they could take over part of the duties of patrolling the estuaries and keeping these open against attempts at interruption when the Fleet was at sea. However, they were never employed on this service, for they were not kept long in commission, as their ships' companies were needed urgently elsewhere later on. However, the work spent on them had not been wasted, for they gave the Fleet well-trained men for its new ships, and their presence in the Baltic in the first weeks) of the war had the effect of giving our Baltic forces much greater importance in the eyes of the Russians than was justified by the facts. This, and possibly, too, their lack of confidence in their own efficiency, may be responsible for the fact that the Russians refrained, from taking the offensive.
On the other hand, the Commander-in-Chief had immediately taken the offensive himself, although all he could promise himself for a result was the intimidation of the Russian naval forces in the Baltic. In spite of the fact that at the outset he had only two light cruisers, Augsburg and Magdeburg, a few torpedo-boats and some steamers, converted into mine-layers, at his disposal, he did not wait for the Russians to attack, but, immediately after the declaration of war, put to sea and bombarded Libau. The bombardment did not do much damage, it is true, but it compelled the Russians to take a hand in the work of demolition. Moreover, mines were laid at the entrance of the Gulf of Finland.
Our purpose was completely attained and compensated for the loss of the light cruiser Magdeburg, which ran ashore in a haze on August 27 and had to be abandoned. On October n the armoured cruiser Pallada, which had distinguished itself by shooting at the Magdeburg when she was stuck fast, fell a victim to our "U 26" (Freherr von Berckheim). This success did not fail to have a paralysing effect on Russian enterprise.
Without going further into the details of the operations in the Baltic their effect on the general situation at home can be described as extremely important. Without depriving the Fleet of important forces and thereby weakening or quite paralysing it, the modest forces employed kept the Russians in check, so that there was no bombardment of the German coast from the sea, and traffic in the Baltic, which was absolutely vital for war purposes, was not interfered with. The observation and security of the southern exit of the Belt and Sound made it possible for us to use the western basin of the Baltic for the Fleet's battle practices. Without such a training area the exercising, of the new units which had been formed at the beginning of the war would have been very difficult. In the same way it would have been very doubtful whether we could have carried out trial trips and the first gunnery tests of newly commissioned ships.
As the war proceeded the importance of the western Baltic as an aid to keeping the Fleet ready to strike became a matter of life and death. Without constant training of an appropriate kind the standard of gunnery and navigation would have sunk to a precarious level. When navigating on a raid in the North Sea the attention of the Flag Officers was fully taken up with the possibility of enemy counter-measures and more especially with defence against underwater attack. Half the ship's company were on watch at action stations and the engine-room complement were on watch down below, and as their duties required their whole attention it was no good thinking of carrying out useful exercises of the whole ship's company under the direction of the commander. We could only expect victory in battle if we succeeded in maintaining that standard of training in which we saw our sole and overwhelming chance of beating the enemy. A suitable practice area for this purpose was the Baltic, with Kiel Haven as base. Without this area at our disposal the development which our submarine weapon subsequently underwent would have been quite unthinkable.
In view of the importance of this practice area for our operations and the valuable establishments at Kiel dockyards, especially the torpedo-establishments at Friedrichsort, on the efficiency of which the whole submarine war was later to depend, it appears incredible that the enemy made no efforts to open this vital vein. At the beginning of the war the mining by the Danes of the northern and central portions of the Great Belt was in accordance with the wishes of our Naval Staff that the safety of the Baltic should) be secured. There may be some question as to whether the Danes had the right to mine these waters, for they were an international strait, but the mining, was approved by the English also, apparently because it fitted in with their plan of not penetrating into the Baltic. Our Fleet regarded these mines as a great obstacle to their freedom of movement, for they deprived it of the possibility, when large ships were sent out on a distant raid in the North Sea, of bringing them back round the Skagen into the Baltic instead of keeping them on the single line of retirement to Heligoland. For political reasons the Naval Staff regarded it as unwise to demand the opening of the Great Belt by Denmark.
Of the different mine-laying enterprises of the High Sea Fleet in the autumn months of 1914 a special mention is due to a cruise which on October 17 began at the mouth of the Ems and had the south coast of England for its goal. Four ships of the 7th Half-Flotilla (Commander Thiele) "S" 115, 116, 117, 119 were employed. These older boats had been chosen with an eye to the possibilities of casualties, because they were no longer fit for other duties. The ships' companies had all volunteered for this dangerous raid. Their task consisted of laying mines at the entrance to the Downs, the Channel leading round the S.E. corner of England from Dover to the mouth of the Thames. The English Admiralty had announced that navigation of the area between Lat. 51 15' N. and 51 41' and Long. 1° 35' E. and 3° 0' E. (that means a strip 35 nautical miles broad from the English to the Dutch coast) was dangerous on account of mines. For this reason traffic was compelled to use the open channel close to the land. It was thus under English control, and the English found their inspection service easier. By mining the channel leading into the Thames we might expect practically a stoppage of London's supplies.
England's behaviour in laying mines in the open sea, a policy made public in this announcement, released us from the necessity of observing the limits we had hitherto imposed on ourselves of restricting mine-laying solely to the enemy's coasts, an operation which was naturally attended with greater danger to the mine- layer the nearer she approached within reach of the coastal patrol forces.
The half-flotilla had left the Ems in the early hours of the morning when it was still dark. Near Haaks Lightship, 15 miles W. of the southern point of the Island of Texel, it met the English cruiser Undaunted and four destroyers of the latest type, escape from which was impossible. As this was realised our ships attacked and, after a brave defence in an action which was carried on at a range of a few hundred yards, were sunk. The English saved as many of the survivors as was possible. After we received the first wireless message that action had begun, no further news of the torpedo-boats was forthcoming, and as we had therefore to assume that they had been lost, we sent out the hospital ship Ophelia to pick up any survivors. However, the English captured her and made her prize, charging us with having sent her out for scouting purposes, although she was obviously fitted up as a hospital ship and bore all the requisite markings.
The auxiliary cruiser Berlin was sent out into the North Sea the same night. Her commission was to lay mines off the most northerly point of Scotland, as we had reason to suspect a lively movement of warships there. The cruise of the Berlin was favoured by better luck, for it was one of her mines to Which the battleship Audacious fell a victim about a week later. She was so damaged that she had to be abandoned in a sinking condition. The English succeeded in keeping secret for a considerable time the loss of this great battleship, a loss which was a substantial success for our efforts at equalisation. When the news leaked out at last its truth was definitely and decisively denied.
The following points deserve to be remembered in considering these two enterprises: (1) Mine-laying in the open seas. (2) The capture of a hospital ship which was engaged in the work of saving life from the best of motives and observing all the regulations. (3) The suppression of the news that an important ship had) been lost in the case of the Audacious.
The behaviour of the English was inspired at all points by consideration for what would serve their military purposes, and was not troubled by respect for international agreements. But this did not prevent England from raising loud cries later on when we also considered ourselves released from our obligation and with far more justification took action against hospital ships which, under cover of the Red Cross Flag, were patently used for the transport of troops. In the case of the Audacious we can but approve the English attitude of not revealing a weakness to the enemy, because accurate information about the other side's strength has a decisive effect on the decisions taken.
The complete loss of the 7th Half-Flotilla was very painful, and the Commander-in-Chief has been freely criticised for having sent it out insufficiently supported. The reply to that is that it is extremely difficult to decide what "sufficient support" is. Suppose, in relation to the case under consideration, we say in the light of after events that if we had had two more cruisers we should have had a superiority, such a method of reasoning involves a knowledge beforehand of the strength of the enemy ; otherwise you might have to bring up your whole fleet at every alarm if you wished to feel perfectly safe. Besides, risk is of the very essence of war. The idea is implied even in Moltke's phrase, "Think first." On the other hand, our failure revealed the importance to our" operations of the base on the Flemish coast, from which enterprises of this kind were much more feasible and indeed led to a permanent threat to the English trade route in the Channel.
In October the enemy submarines outside the Ems and in the Heligoland Bight were very active. There was hardly a day on which reports were not received that enemy submarines had been sighted. Although a good many of these turned out to be false alarms, their presence was frequently confirmed by the fact that torpedoes were fired. Apart from the loss of the Hela on September 13, which has already been mentioned, the torpedo-boat "G 116" was sunk by a torpedo north of Schiermonnikoog on October 6. It was possible to save most of the men. On the other hand, the torpedo-boat "G7" and an incoming auxiliary cruiser which were attacked in the neighbourhood of Amrum had better luck, as all the torpedoes fired at them missed.
The annoyance from submarines increased our determination to master them. In October, after the English "E 3" had fallen a victim to one of our U-boats, which had been lying in wait all day for this exceptionally well-handled ship, and several other English submarines had had unpleasant experiences with our mines in the neighbourhood of Heligoland, the area of the Bight inside Heligoland was given a wider berth. Beyond the island, however, we had perpetually to deal with the watchful activities of English submarines. Moreover, during the autumn storms the neighbourhood of the coasts was particularly unfavourable for navigation. Our own submarine cruises extended farther and farther afield as the commanders continued to gain experience, and by exchanging notes these operations became increasingly effective.
On October 15 "U16" passed Heligoland after a cruise of fifteen days, and on her return reported that she was still perfectly effective. This month also witnessed the first cruise round the British Islands. "U 20 " (Lieutenant-Commander Droescher), which had been sent out against transports in the English Channel, found itself compelled, by damage to the diving apparatus, to avoid the Channel, which was closely patrolled, and therefore returned round Ireland and Scotland. The cruise took eighteen days in all.
On November 1 the English cruiser Hermes was sunk off Dunkirk by the U-boats which were commissioned to hinder the transport of English troops to the French ports. Unfortunately no success in this particular direction was achieved.
To assign this task of interrupting the English troopship service to the Fleet was to make a totally impossible demand, as the losses it would inevitably involve would be out of all proportion to the advantage the army would derive from the disturbance to the transport of English troops such a Fleet action might cause. Even if the presence of our Fleet in these waters held up one or more ships, the way would be open the minute our Fleet left, and nothing could be easier than to arrange for ships to put out as soon as news was received that the enemy had gone. However important a factor in the war on land England's effort might be, the best way of neutralising it would have been the occupation of the French Channel coast.
If our Fleet went into the English Channel by the Dover-Calais Straits its tactical situation would be simply hopeless. It would have no room to manoeuvre against torpedo and mine attack. Our own destroyers would not have enough fuel, as their radius of action only just reached as far, and they would then find themselves compelled to return. The Fleet would then have had to do without them or return with them. There could be no question of the former alternative on account of the danger from submarines, defence against which was the work of the destroyers, and also because the destroyers were indispensable for battle. The Fleet was therefore dependent upon the radius of action of the destroyers. The appearance of the submarine as a defensive weapon has made it a necessity in modern times to screen the approach of a fleet with destroyers. Moreover, it is so important to increase the offensive powers of a fleet which is inferior in numbers by the employment of destroyers that these cannot possibly be dispensed with. If one compares, simply on a map, the position of a fleet which ventures into the Channel from the Heligoland Bight with that of a fleet making for the Heligoland Bight from the English coast - from the Firth of Forth, for example - the advantages and disadvantages of the prospects on either side are at once apparent. One fleet is placed as if it were corked in a bottle, while the other has freedom of movement over the whole area in its rear.
At the end of October Squadron II had visited Kiel dockyard to effect certain important improvements in armament and the comfort of the ships, which had suffered very much from the removal of everything which was likely to catch fire. This was in the interests of the health of the ships' companies during the winter. The compartments throughout the ship were insulated in the same way as those in the newer ships by the use of fireproof material. Living in ships in which every noise came as a shock from one end to the other became a severe trial to the nerves as time went by, and in view of the strenuous hours on watch, was prejudicial to the short period allowed for rest. The victims will never forget those weeks of the war in which the tapping of hammers and the scraping of chisels never ceased from first thing in the morning to last thing at night, and mountains of wood and superfluous paint vanished from the ship.
This first visit of a squadron to the Baltic was also to be employed in various exercises in which cruisers and destroyers were to participate. It appeared advisable, in view of this, to take advantage of the presence of the ships for a great enterprise against Libau which might be very unpleasant as a winter base for enemy submarines, as it was the only Russian ice-free harbour. While the orders for this enterprise were being settled with the Commander-in-Chief in the Baltic and everyone was burning for the chance of at last firing his first shot, the news reached us from the North Sea that the bombardment of English coast towns had successfully been carried out on November 3. Early that morning our battle-cruisers had appeared off Yarmouth to bombard the harbour and its fortifications while mines were being laid under their protection. The absence of Squadron II had not restrained the Commander-in-Chief from taking advantage of the favourable weather and long nights for this raid, from which we could anticipate an effect on the defensive attitude of the enemy as well as the direct influence which the damage to a hostile base would have on the enemy's operations. It was not found necessary to send the Fleet out to take up an advanced station at sea in the case of the short raid to Yarmouth, because the plan was to be based entirely on surprise under cover of darkness. After returning from this raid the old armoured cruiser Yorck ran on a mine in a mist in the Jade and was capsized by the explosion. It was found possible to save the larger part of the crew.
The raid against Libau was cancelled at the last moment as the result of an order from the Naval Staff to Squadron II, which was already on its way. The frequent reports of the activity of English submarines in the Baltic, which had come in of late, seemed to point to the wisdom of abandoning the enterprise, as the bombardment by ships of land targets would certainly offer submarines their very best chances of attack. The submarine danger was taken very seriously because we had not yet had sufficient experience and training in the defence.
On November 6 we received the news of the victory of our cruiser squadron on November 1 off Coronel on the coast of Chile. Vice-Admiral Count von Spee had defeated in fair and open fight the English cruisers Good Hope, Monmouth, Glasgow and the auxiliary cruiser Otranto with his ships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the light cruisers Leipzig and Dresden. The two hostile armoured cruisers were destroyed by a superior fire, while Glasgow and Otranto escaped under cover of falling night. Great was the enthusiasm over the fact that the brave admiral had succeeded, in spite of all obstacles, in leading his ships to a victory which dealt a severe blow to the tradition of English superiority at sea. This news filled us in the Fleet with pride and confidence, and we thought in gratitude of those who, left to their resources in distant oceans, had gained immortal laurels for the German flag. Unfortunately fate was not to permit them to see their homeland again. Those who, with their leaders, rest in the ocean depths by the Falkland Islands, gave us a shining example of heroism, of devotion to duty.