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Battleships & the Great War

In the summer months of 1914, Prime Minister Lloyd George appointed Winston Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty. One of Churchill's most startling decisions was made shortly before war was declared. On his own initiative, Churchill called up full mobilization of the Navy, risking a veto by the Cabinet and not waiting for a signature from King George V. The entire reserve strength went on active duty; the ranks of naval aviation broadened with other units of the fleet. It was one of the few times in history that a defending nation's navy was adequately prepared upon the declaration of war.

Events moved swiftly. On 28 June 1914, the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by Serbian students at Sarajevo. On 17 July Churchill concentrated the fleet at Spithead for review and maneuvers. On 28 July 1914 Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia sided with the Serbs and Germany mobilized. On 04 August 1914, England declared war on Germany, and Germany declared war on Belgium.

Except for submarine activities - which proved deadly in the early years of the war - the German Navy seemed tenaciously timid. The Kaiser adamantly refused to permit the High Seas Fleet to engage the British Grand Fleet, so it hung reluctantly to safe ports. There were, therefore, few demonstrations of German belligerence by surface ships at sea.

To open a war with England by surprise naval attack may have been an element in German plans; but in 1914 this was negatived by the forewarning of events on the Continent, by Germany's persistent delusion that England would stay neutral, and by the timely mobilization of the British fleet. This had been announced the winter before as a practical exercise, was carried out according to schedule from July 16 to July 23 (the date of Austria's ultimatum to Serbia), and was then extended until July 29, at which date the Grand Fleet sailed for Scapa Flow. The British Home Fleet - sixty vessels of war, against thirty in the German High Seas Fleet - guarded the exit of the Kiel Canal.

On August 28, 1914, the "certain liveliness" announced by the British Admiralty culminated in a pretty little engagement off the north of Heligoland. A battle-squadron of cruisers and destroyers, under command of Rear-Admiral Sir David Beatty, found and attacked a German cruiser-squadron off Heligoland. A raid or reconnaissance in force was intended, whereby enemy light cruisers and destroyers scouting in the neighbourhood of Heligoland might be cut off from their base and destroyed. If supported by heavier vessels speeding to their rescue, Sir David Beatty's battle-cruisers were prepared to deal with them. The British losses were described as "negligible." A confused series of combats ended with the arrival of the great vessels, the Lion, the Invincible, the New Zealand, and the Queen Mary. In an eight-hour action, two of the German cruisers, the Mainz and the Ariadne, were sunk, a third was set on fire, and two destroyers were sent to the bottom.

Swift German cruisers on the ocean routes constituted indisputably the gravest danger to the trading- and passenger-vessels of the Alliance. The difficulties of coaling, which increased with every week, drove Admiral von Spee to the Falkland Islands, to establish there an easily defended German base. The battle cruisers Invincible and Inflexible under Admiral Sturdee sailed on 11 November 1914 for the Falklands. The superior speed of the battle cruisers enabled Admiral Sturdee to choose his distance, and his proper concern was to demolish the enemy with his own ships unscathed. On December 8, 1914 Von Spee's powerful squadron of cruisers ran into Sturdee at the Falklands, and that day's fighting disposed of the Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau, the Nurnberg, and the Leipzig. After the Falklands battle the guerre de course collapsed, and before five months were over Germany's zone of naval warfare was restricted to the Baltic and the North Sea, except for the operation of submarines.

The strategic value of the battle cruiser, as a means of throwing strength quickly into distant fields, was brought out in the campaign against von Spee. As an outcome of German raids on the east coast of England, its tactical qualities, against units of equal strength, were soon put to a sharper trial. Aside from mere Schrecklichkeit-a desire to carry the terrors of war to English soil-these raids had the legitimate military objects of helping distant cruisers by holding British ships in home waters, of delaying troop movements to France, and of creating a popular clamor that might force a dislocation or division of the Grand Fleet.

The Dogger Bank action on 24 January 1915 was the first encounter between battle cruisers, and one of only two capital ship actions of the war. On January 24, 1915, Admiral Beatty's patrolling squadron sighted a German fleet of four battle-cruisers, accompanied by a number of light cruisers and destroyers, making for the English coast and distant from it about thirty miles. Without hesitation the Germans turned and fled at their best pace for home. A grim chase and a running fight ensued. The conditions of flight and pursuit obtaining at the Dogger Bank emphasized the importance of speed and long range fire.

Battleships fought their first and only major action of World War I in the Battle of Jutland in May 1916. Adm. Reinhard Scheer, commander of the German High Seas Fleet, ordered a squadron of German battle-cruisers under Adm. Franz von Hipper to Norwegian shores for a show of force. Advised in advance of the German move, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet, ordered Adm. Sir David Beatty, leading a similar but larger British squadron, to intercept. Briefly, on 31 May 1916, the High Seas Fleet met with the Grand Fleet. At battle's end, each fleet had lost several ships, but the British suffered more heavily in tonnage - by almost double. In post-battle retrospect, the Battle of Jutland could easily have ended in a triumphant victory for the Allies, had Jellicoe had the advantage of airplanes to report movements of Scheer's ships.

Although the British fleet won the day and forced the Germans to retire to the safety of their ports, the German design and construction of battleships was shown to be superior. After the Battle of Jutland, the Germans never again risked their battleships in open conflict with His Majesty's fleet. But Jutland did not resemble Trafalgar. Maritime operations from 1914-18 did not provide the long-expected clash of battlefleets. Jutland had been a disappointment on that account, and many shared the British First Sea Lord's 'feeling of incompleteness' that the war had ended without the opportunity to win a decisive surface engagement.

The Germans turned instead to unrestricted submarine warfare. U-boats demonstrated that an assault on maritime commerce had more potential than Mahan thought, and that conventional command of the sea could do little to stop it.

At the entry of the United States into the war on 06 April 1917 there was a cry for the retention of the fleet on American coasts. Newspapers - usually of a type which had manifested a certain sympathy for Germany - rang the changes upon alarmist forebodings of a German raid on coastwise cities, and demanded that the fleet be kept close at home to avert any such peril. At first the major portion of the American fleet was retained in home waters for the protection of American coasts and ports, a policy which aroused the stinging criticism of Admiral Sims.

The German "Operations Plan III" posited a trans-Atlantic strike by the German High Seas Fleet to capture Puerto Rico as a base in the first phase of the war. This would be followed by an attack on the American mainland if the United States refused to negotiate. This second wave would attack a major US port, probably New York but possibly Savannah. The German command planned to tow shorter-ranged ships across the Atlantic, a possibility American planners never considered.

First presented to Wilhelm II in 1900, Operations Plan III envisaged an all-out offensive against the East Coast of the United States. Vice Admiral Wilhelm Buchsel formulated the basic German war plan against the United States, Operations Plan III, which was finalized in 1903. Prepared between 1903 and 1906, Operations Plan III called for the German navy to escort an occupation force of 12000 to 15000 men to Ponce, Puerto Rico.

The US Navy's "Plan Black" accurately anticipated these notions. The best-known version of Black was conceived as a contingency plan during World War I in case France fell and the Germans attempted to seize French possessions in the Caribbean, or launch an attack on the eastern seaboard. In addition, War Plan Black called for the Navy to mine and patrol with submarines the sites that Germany might likely seize for a foothold in the Caribbean.

Plan Black (War with Germany) was revised in 1916 to concentrate the main US battle fleet in New England. From there, the fleet would sortie to repel an invasion attempt by the German Imperial Navy. This plan completely ignored the fact that the Royal Navy had the German Navy bottled up in the North Sea. This war plan also ignored the fact that the Germans' main naval effort in the Atlantic would be submarine warfare.

By the spring of 1917 Great Britain had lost, not the control of the seas by her navy, for the Grand Fleet still maintained a superiority vindicated at Jutland, but the use of the waters she dominated. Actually the British Isles were blockaded, and daily the harvest of submarine sinkings marched inexorably toward that point at which shipping would be so reduced that starvation would compel surrender. Such was the condition which confronted the Allies during all the period when their military efforts were failing and the collapse of Russia in January 1917 and the Russian Revolution in March completed the German victories in eastern Europe. This resulted in the transfer to the western front of German and Austrian divisions sufficient to check Allied attacks in 1917 and compel British, French, and Italian armies to resign the initiative and await the attacks of victorious German armies. All the while German submarines cut their lines of communication, interrupted their supplies, destroyed the cargoes of foodstuffs and raw material essential alike for the maintenance of the armies and the civil population, and for the manufacture of munitions and guns.

It was only in June 1917 that the British Government at last, had recourse to the system of convoys, and even this ultimate expedient would have been impossible had it not been for the transfer to European waters of the Destroyer Fleet of the United States. all through the summer and autumn back-stairs negotiations between the Allies and the Germans went forward in one fashion or another. It was the element of actual deprivation and proximate famine that gave secret strength to those successive peace offensives which so nearly gained the German his victory. It was only in November 1917 that at last the convoy system produced results which assured the Allies that Germany could not win the war by submarines alone.

By October 1917, when conquest by the submarine arm alone had become impossible, German military prospects had so improved that there was still reason to believe that the submarine, plus the victorious armies now summoned from the Russian front, would gain the decision the forthcoming spring. The German victories in March and April of 1918 induced a crisis when the necessity for the transfer of two millions of American troops to Europe suddenly removed an enormous tonnage from the service of supplies; in 1918, even more than in 1917, the British public suffered from a lack of food.

The battle fleet, despite the clamor of those who would have doomed it to ignoble inactivity on American coasts, was eventually by the side of the British on the cold, gray reaches of the North Sea. At the time the United States retained a total of 25 pre-Dreadnought battleships in commission, though none of these were deployed to Europe, remaining in American home waters, available for coastal defense. Of the fourteen available Dreadnoughts and Super-Dreadnoughts, nine were deployed and five stayed home, available for coastal defense under War Plan Black. Of the eight available Single Caliber Battleship / All-Big Gun Battleship / Dreadnoughts, the two oldest ships of this type, those of the BB-26 South Carolina Class, and one of the BB-28 Delaware Class ships BB-29 North Dakota, remained in home waters. Of the six available Super-Dreadnoughts, only the two units of the recently commissioned BB-38 Pennsylvania Class remained in home waters.

On 25 November 1917 [that is, nearly eight months after America's entry into the War, and, as it turned out, less than a year before the end of the War] a squadron was dispatched to Europe under command of Admiral Hugh Rodman. New York sailed as flagship with Battleship Division 9 commanded by Rodman to strengthen the British Grand Fleet in the North Sea, arriving Scapa Flow 07 December 1917. In the fleet were : the BB-28 Delaware Class ship Delaware, Captain A. H. Scales ; the BB-30 Florida Class ship Florida, Captain Thomas Washington, afterward Captain M. M. Taylor ; the BB-32 Wyoming Class ships Wyoming, Captain H. A. Wiley, afterward Captain H. H. Christy; the Arkansas, Captain W. H. G. Bullard, afterward Captain R. L. de Steiguer; the BB-34 New York Class ships New York, Captain C. F. Hughes, afterward Captain E. L. Beach; and the Texas, Captain Victor Blue. This first American battle squadron was sent to become a division of the British Grand Fleet and placed under the command of its admiral, Sir David Beatty. Within the Grand Fleet the Americans were assigned to one of the two places of honor and importance in the battle line. They were known and designated as the Sixth Battle Squadron, and, as one of the two fast wings, would take station at the van or rear of the whole battleship force, dependent upon conditions.

A second squadron was sent over later for the especial purpose of being at hand to guard American troopships in the event a single enemy armed ship should manage to slip out to sea. This squadron, in order to be nearer the route of the troopships, was kept at Berehaven, Ireland, on Bantry Bay. It was composed of three of powerful dreadnoughts: the BB-30 Florida Class BB-31 Utah, Captain F. B. Bassett; and the two units of the BB-36 Nevada Class : the Nevada, Captain A. T. Long, afterward Captain W. C. Cole; and the Oklahoma, Captain M. L. Bristol, afterward Captain C. B. McVay. The squadron was under the general command of Rear-Admiral Thomas S. Rodgers. The incessant vigilance imposed upon them made shore leave infrequent. There was no overnight leave. Shore liberty was restricted to four hours, and those enjoying it were not permitted to go out of communication with their ships.

Between 30 June and 2 July 1918, Wyoming operated with the 6th Battle Squadron and a division of British destroyers, guarding Allied minelayers as they planted the North Sea Mine Barrage. The mine layers were exposed to possible attack from the air by enemy aircraft, or from the sea by submarines. To guard against this they were accompanied by destroyers and battle cruisers from the Grand Fleet. One of the great pieces of work performed by the US fleet in the North Sea was the laying of the mine barrage which was designed still further to curb the activities of the enemy submarines. Though performed in co-operation with the British navy this enterprise was undertaken at the suggestion of an American officer, Rear-Admiral Ralph Earle, and the form of mine was of American origin. In all, 70,100 mines were laid, of which 56,570 were American. The barrage stretched across the North Sea, from the Orkneys to the coast of Norway, a distance of 230 miles. Within this area no ship, either surface or submarine, could navigate without imminent danger. The course of the safety lanes which traversed the field of death were known only to the Allies, who put trusted pilots on neutral ships to take them through in safety. But for any enemy vessel it was certain destruction to brave the explosive seas.



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