The Great War at Sea 1914 - 1918
By John Slaughter
This article was published in the April & August 2015 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
At the 2014 Annual Gathering John Slaughter gave a talk on the Great War at Sea. An edited version is reproduced here
Outbreak of War
At the outbreak of war and for many years previously Britain had been acknowledged as the dominant Naval Power and its navy held a superiority over the German Navy. Also Britain could effectively block both ends of the North Sea thus preventing German trade with the outside world. British naval planning leading up to the war had been formulated on this basis. It was recognised that the northern end of the blockade would be the most vulnerable to a German attack and resources were mainly centred at Scapa Flow.
As a consequence the German fleet remained largely in harbour behind a screen of mines, though it occasionally attempted to lure the British fleet into battle in the hopes of weakening them enough to break the blockade or allow attacks on British shipping and trade.
The first naval battle, the First Battle of Heligoland Bight, took place on 28th August 1914. The British plan was to ambush German destroyers on their daily patrols. The result was a British victory. Three German light cruisers, two torpedo boats and one destroyer were sunk with the loss of many lives. British losses were much smaller with heavy damage to one light cruiser only. The effect on the German government and in particular the Kaiser was to restrict still further the freedom of action of the German fleet.
Though outgunned and outfought with surface ships the German Navy harassed British shipping by means of U boats. In August 1914, a flotilla of ten U-boats sailed from their base in Heligoland to attack Royal Navy warships in the North Sea. Their aim was to sink capital ships of the British Fleet, and so reduce British superiority. The first sortie was not a success. Only one attack was carried out, a torpedo that missed its target but with the loss of two of the ten U-boats. Later in a the month, the U-boats achieved success, when the cruiser HMS Pathfinder was sunk. On 22nd September, three armoured cruisers (Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy) were lost in a single action. On board the Hogue that day was Petty Officer Reuben John Sewell and on board the Cressy was Stoker Henry Sewell. Others of our names to lose their lives in this initial U boat campaign was Private Thomas Sewell on HMS Hawke and Seaman Robert Samuel Saul on HMS Formidable. By the end of the initial campaign the U-boats had sunk nine warships while losing five of their own number.
The British navy had at that time a considerable stranglehold on the North Sea but the situation was less clear cut in other parts of the world. In the seas around South America British and German naval forces met in November 1914 at the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile. German forces led by Vice-Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee defeated a Royal Navy squadron. Spee had an easy victory, destroying two enemy armoured cruisers for just three men injured. Amongst those that lost their lives that day were Leading Seaman Charles Thomas Saul and Stoker 1st Class Alfred John George Solley. British losses amounted to 1,570 men killed.
Shock at the scale of these losses resulted in an immediate response and the sending of more ships which in turn destroyed Spee and the majority of his squadron at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914. Spee attempted to raid the British supply base at Stanley in the Falkland Islands, notwithstanding that a large British squadron had arrived in the port only the day before, clearly a failure of German Intelligence. The advance cruisers of the German squadron had been detected early on by the British. It was not long before the British battle cruisers and cruisers were in hot pursuit and all the German vessels, except two, were hunted down and sunk. German losses greatly exceeded British loses.
Another skirmish took place in the North Sea between British and German forces on 24th January 1915, near the Dogger Bank. The British had advance intelligence that a German raiding squadron was heading for Dogger Bank, so dispatched their own naval forces to intercept it. They found the Germans at the expected time and place; surprised, the smaller and slower German squadron fled for home. During the chase lasting several hours, the British slowly caught up with the Germans and engaged them with long-range gunfire. The Germans lost one armoured cruiser and had one battlecruiser heavily damaged but the remainder made it back to port.
By the end of 1914 start of 1915 the War had reached somewhat of a stalemate not just on land but also on the seas where Britain held the upper hand confining the German Navy largely to port. There was a feeling for a ‘grand gesture’, something to give momentum, another Trafalgar. The idea was developed for a Naval attack on the Dardanelles. The military justification for the attack was that, if successful, it would open up a supply route for Russia, Britain’s ally, and relieve the pressure on Russia from the Ottoman Empire. It was also hoped that it would encourage Bulgaria and Romania to join the allied side. The Dardanelles had been closed to Allied shipping in October 1914, a decision it appears that was taken by German military advisers without reference to the Ottoman government. The Dardanelles were defended by a system of fortified and mobile artillery and by a series of ten minefields laid across the straits containing a total of 370 mines. Several attacks on the defences were made by the Allies with little success. The decisive battle was to take place on 18th March 1915 when the British plan was to knock out the defences guarding the first five minefields which would be cleared overnight with similar events taking place on the following day. The main reason for the failure of the plan was a line of about 20 to 26 mines that had been laid just inside the entrance to the Straits some ten days previously and which had failed to be spotted by either reconnaissance planes or ships. On the day of the attack civilian trawlers sweeping for mines discovered and destroyed three mines in an area thought to be clear but this information was not passed on. As a consequence Bouvet, a French battleship , struck a mine, capsized and sunk within a couple of minutes killing 639 crewmen. Not realising she had hit a mine the British pressed on with the attack. Around 4pm HMS Inflexible struck a mine near where the Bouvet went down killing 30 crewmen and had to be beached on the island of Tenedos. Other casualties of the mines were HMS Irresistible and Ocean. In this conflict the Ottoman Empire had far fewer casualties than the British and French.
The failure of the naval assault lead to the idea that land forces could advance around the backs of the Dardanelles forts and capture Constantinople. On 25th April 1915 the army launched the Gallipoli Campaign, significant naval forces being devoted to this operation. The Gallipoli landings were the largest amphibious operation of the War. As we know the land campaign also proved to be a failure and was abandoned. The only area where the Allies had any significant success was with submarines and forced the Ottomans to abandon the Dardanelles as a transport route.
One of the features of the War at Sea was to try and blockade the enemy and deny them imports of food and raw materials to supply their war industry. As we had seen Britain was quite effectively able to do this with their dominance in the North Sea with surface based warships. Germany's attempt at blockade was by using U-Boats. On 4 February 1915 the Commander of the German High Seas Fleet published a warning in the Imperial German Gazette. It read.
The waters around Great Britain and Ireland, including the whole of the English Channel, are hereby declared to be a War Zone. From February 18 onwards every enemy merchant vessel encountered in this zone will be destroyed, nor will it always be possible to avert the danger thereby threatened to the crew and passengers.
Neutral vessels also will run a risk in the War Zone, because in view of the hazards of sea warfare and the British authorization of January 31 of the misuse of neutral flags, it may not always be possible to prevent attacks on enemy ships from harming neutral ships.
Following the declaration of ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ the tonnage of shipping sunk by U-Boats steadily increased throughout 1915. The most noteworthy casualty occurred on 7 May 1915 when the liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed 32 miles off the coast of Ireland sinking in just 18 minutes. Of the 1,959 people of board, 1,198 were killed, 128 of them US citizens. The resulting outrage in America nearly led the US to enter the War at that stage. US President Woodrow Wilson sent three separate notes to the German Government in May, June and July 1915 making the US position clear. In the third note he issued an ultimatum to the effect that the US would regard any subsequent sinkings as being ‘deliberately unfriendly’. The American public and leadership were not ready for war at that time, but the sinking of the Lusitania had started the US on the path to war.
Allied countermeasures to the U-Boat threat had mixed success. At the start of the War surface ships had no means to detect submarines and no means to attack even if they could do so. The development of the Depth Charge had first been mooted in 1910 and went into preliminary production in 1914. However it was not until January 1916 that an effective Depth Charge became available, the first successful sinking of a U-Boat took place off the coast of Ireland on 22 March 1916. However during the whole of 1916 only 5 U-Boats were sunk by Depth Charges.
The next major event to occur was the so called Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916.
The Battle of Jutland was fought between the British Grand Fleet (supplemented by ships and personnel from the Australian and Canadian Navies) against the German High Seas Fleet. The battle was fought on 31 May and 1 June 1916 in the North Sea near Jutland, Denmark. It was the largest naval battle and the only full-scale clash of battleships in the war.
The Grand Fleet was commanded by British Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, and the High Seas Fleet by German Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer. The High Seas Fleet's intention was to lure out, trap and destroy a portion of the Grand Fleet, as the German naval force was insufficient to successfully engage the entire British fleet. This formed part of a larger strategy to break the British blockade of Germany and to allow German mercantile shipping to operate. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy pursued a strategy to engage and destroy the High Seas Fleet, or keep the German force contained and away from Britain's own shipping lanes.
The German plan was to use fast scouting group of five modern battle cruisers to lure a British battle cruiser squadron into the path of the main German fleet. Submarines were stationed in advance across the likely routes of the British ships. However, the British learned from signal intercepts that a major fleet operation was likely, so on 30 May Jellicoe sailed with the Grand Fleet to rendezvous with Beatty, passing over the locations of the German submarine picket lines while they were unprepared. The German plan had been delayed, causing further problems for their submarines which had reached the limit of their endurance at sea.
On the afternoon of 31 May, Beatty encountered the German battle cruiser force long before the Germans had expected. In a running battle, the German battleships successfully drew the British vanguard into the path of the High Seas Fleet. The British were silhouetted against the western horizon, smoke obscured the German ships and British gunnery was dreadful – so the Germans inflicted early blows. A shell penetrated a gun turret aboard HMS Lion, Beatty’s flagship, causing a fire in the magazine below, which could have destroyed the ship had the compartment not been flooded, drowning all inside.
Moments later, a shell sliced into HMS Indefatigable’s forward turret. No-one had closed the magazine doors and the ship blew up in a catastrophic explosion, killing all but two of 1,019 men aboard. Shortly afterwards, HMS Queen Mary exploded, taking with her nearly 1,300 men and prompting Beatty to say “there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”.
As Beatty pursued Hipper south, the German battle cruisers came under heavy fire from Beatty’s four 15 inch gunned “super dreadnoughts”, until at 4.33pm the British spotted Scheer’s High Seas Fleet. Beatty turned away, hoping to lure the Germans back north to Jellicoe, who was steaming towards him, “wishing someone would tell me who is firing and what they are firing at”. The confusion was deepened by Rear-Admiral Horace Hood, who led his three battle cruisers and their escorting ships towards the enemy.
As Hood pushed forward, the light cruiser HMS Chester was repeatedly hit and Jack Cornwall (aged 16) was horrifically wounded. He died after the battle and became the youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross.
Finally, at 6.14pm Jellicoe received a signal from Beatty and ordered his ships into a battle line as the mist cleared, exposing Hood’s battleships to overwhelming German fire. A shell hit one of HMS Invincible’s turrets. Again the flash raced into the magazines and she vanished in a huge explosion.
Fourteen British and eleven German ships were sunk, with great loss of life. Amongst these were Able Seaman Frederick William Solly on HMS Invincible and Gunner Herbert Sewell on HMS Indefatigable. After sunset, and throughout the night, Jellicoe manoeuvred to cut the Germans off from their base, hoping to continue the battle the next morning, but under the cover of darkness Scheer broke through the British light forces forming the rearguard of the Grand Fleet and returned to port.
Both sides claimed victory. The British lost more ships and twice as many sailors, and the British press criticised the Grand Fleet's failure to force a decisive outcome, but Scheer's plan of destroying a substantial portion of the British fleet also failed. The Germans' continued to pose a threat, requiring the British to keep their battleships concentrated in the North Sea, but the battle confirmed the German policy of avoiding all fleet-to-fleet contact. At the end of the year, after further unsuccessful attempts to reduce the Royal Navy's numerical advantage, the German Navy turned its efforts and resources to unrestricted submarine warfare and the destruction of Allied and neutral shipping.
Death of Kitchener
Just a few days after the Battle of Jutland HMS Hampshire, which had a very minor role in the Battle, was sailing to Russia, carrying the Secretary of State for War, Field Marshall Lord Kitchener, when it is believed that she stuck a mine laid by a German U-Boat, and sank with heavy loss of life, including Kitchener and his staff. He was succeeded in that post by David Lloyd George.
Unrestricted Submarine Warfare
On 1 February 1917 Germany resumed its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. The British Naval blockade was causing a food scarcity in Germany and deaths were occurring from malnutrition. The war on the Western Front was in a stalemate and military advisers persuaded the Kaiser that a German victory could only be achieved by a blockade of British shipping. The policy initially achieved success, nearly 500,000 tons of shipping was sunk in both February and March, and 860,000 tons in April, when Britain's supplies of wheat shrank to 6 weeks worth. Germany knew that one of the dangers of unrestricted submarine warfare was that the sinking of American shipping could result in the US entering the war. This duly happened when on 6 April 1917 the US Congress declared war on Germany.
The Allied response to the U-Boat threat was the establishing of convoys. In May and June a regular system of transatlantic convoys was established, and after July the monthly losses never exceeded 500,000 tons, although they remained above 300,000 tons for the remainder of 1917. Convoying was an immediate success; on whichever routes it was introduced it resulted in a drop in shipping losses, with the U-boats seeking out easier prey. It also brought warships escorting the convoys in contact with attacking U-boats, leading to an increase in U-boats destroyed. German submarine losses were between 5 and 10 each month, and they soon realized the need to increase production, even at the expense of building surface warships. However, production was delayed by labour and material shortages.
The Belgian port of Zeebrugge had for some years been seen as a potential target for a British attack as it was used by the German Navy as a base for U-Boats and light shipping, which had been a threat to Allied shipping, especially in the English Channel. Several attempts to close the port by bombardment had failed. A plan was devised to block the port by sinking obsolete ships in the canal entrance, to prevent German vessels being able to leave port. The first attempt was made on 2nd April 1918 but was cancelled at the last moment, after the wind direction changed and made it impossible to lay a smoke-screen. A second attempt was made on 23rd April. The plan involved sinking three old cruisers and with two old submarines, filled with explosives, to blow up the viaduct which connected the mole to the shore. It was also intended to land a small force of 200 Royal Marines at the entrance to the Canal to destroy German gun positions. The latter plan failed as the HMS Vindictive, carrying the mariners, became visible after a wind change blew away the smoke-screen it came under heavy fire, suffered many casualties and was forced to land in the wrong location. One of the submariners however did find its target and and destroyed the viaduct. As regards the three old cruisers two were sunk in the narrowest point of the canal but the third hit an obstruction prematurely and had to be scuttled. None of the blocking ships were in the planned positions and it took the Germans only a few days to dredge a channel around the ships and allow U-Boats to pass out of the port.
Despite this failure however the Raid was hailed by Allied propaganda as a British victory and eight Victoria Crosses were awarded. It is said that 1700 men took part in the Raid of which 227 died and 356 were wounded. The Germans lost 8 dead and 16 wounded.
End of War
The many years of the Naval Blockade had by now reached a critical point for the German nation. With the arrival of a large number of American troops and equipment, the Allies were likely to have an overwhelming advantage. In a desperate attempt to win the War quickly the Germans launched a massive land attack on the Somme in March 1918. Although the advance met with considerable early success it ultimately failed because their supply lines got over stretched. The Allied counter attack overwhelmed the German army and lead to the Armistice. The terms of the Armistice included the internment of the German Fleet and the surrender of all German submarines. There was some disagrement between the Allies as to how the internment of the German surface fleet was to be achieved. The Americans suggested that the fleet be interned in a neutral country but both the countries approached, Norway and Spain, refused. Instead it was decided to intern at Scapa Flow, with a skeleton German crew, guarded by the Grand Fleet. The surrender of the German Fleet and those of its Allies took place on 21st November 1918 and amounted to 370 ships.
Negotiations over the fate of the ships were under way at the Paris Peace Conference. The French and Italians each wanted a quarter of the ships. The British wanted them destroyed, since they knew that any redistribution would be detrimental to the proportional advantage in numbers they had compared to other navies. Under Article 31 of the Armistice the Germans were not permitted to destroy their ships. Both Admirals Beatty and Madden had approved plans to seize the German ships in case scuttling was attempted; Their concern was not without justification, for as early as January 1919, von Reuter mentioned the possibility of scuttling the fleet to his chief of staff.
The signing of the Treaty of Versailles was scheduled for noon on 21st June 1919. Around 10:00 a.m. on that day von Reuter sent a flag signal ordering the fleet to stand by for the signal to scuttle. At about 11:20 the signal was sent. Scuttling began immediately: sea cocks and flood valves were opened and internal water pipes smashed. Portholes had already been loosened, watertight doors and condenser covers left open, and in some ships holes had been bored through bulkheads, all to facilitate the spread of water once scuttling began. Of the 74 German ships in Scapa Flow, 15 of the 16 capital ships, 5 of the 8 cruisers, and 32 of the 50 destroyers were sunk. The remainder either remained afloat, or were towed to shallower waters and beached. The beached ships were later dispersed to the allied navies, but most of the sunken ships were initially left at the bottom of Scapa Flow, the cost of salvaging them being deemed to be not worth the potential returns, owing to the glut of scrap metal left after the end of the war, with plenty of obsolete warships having been broken up. Today just seven wrecks remain and are scheduled. Divers are allowed to visit them but need a permit to do so.
I hope you have found this interesting.