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The Royal Navy in the Great War - Surface Actions

Lord Jellicoe's duty was to defeat the German High Sea Fleet if he could, but his work would be equally effective if he kept the German Fleet bottled up in its home waters. Winston Churchill, the member from Epping, told the Commons on 16 March 1936 "It was an extraordinary sensation to see how the placing of a superior battle fleet at Scapa Flow instantaneously and automatically dominated all the waters of the globe. German commerce vanished from the seas, while our merchant ships sailed to and fro in a security so great that an additional insurance rate of 1 per cent. covered the war risks for a long period of time. The very powerful German fleet, one of the finest features of naval discipline and efficiency ever seen, 100 remained in its harbours, content with the command of the Baltic, and never dared to do more than make occasional darts and raids of no major strategic significance. Unless the German fleet had been willing to challenge a fleet action and fight it out to the end and were successful in that action, they had no other choice. They never were willing, and I think rigs t]y, for all their valour and military qualities, to make a main trial of strength, and in consequence they were forced to submit year after year to the slow and remorseless pressure of the blockade which ultimately played a predominant part in the final result of the War."


It was a prodigious task to police the waters of the globe and to protect a merchant marine that carried three fourths of the world's commerce, and one heroic but rash attempt resulted in disaster. Late in the autumn, Admiral von Spee, the German commander in Chinese waters, made for the South American coast and concentrated five powerful cruisers off Valparaiso. At Coronel, near the Chilean Coast, the British Admiral Craddack, who was seeking to round them up, ventured to attack, 1 November, with three armored vessels of an older type and one transformed liner. In a heavy sea, exposed to the rays of the setting sun, out-gunned and out-maneuvered by the speedier squadron of the enemy, Craddock perished with 1600 men. One ship succeeded in getting away, and another, on the way to the scene of action, escaped by arriving late. This heroic sacrifice, due to the British reluctance - in view of the necessity of Home defense - to detach and scatter their heavier-armed, faster and more modern cruisers, was swiftly and gloriously revenged.

The Falkland Islands

Twenty-four hours after the news of the disaster of Coronel, Admiral Sturdee had been dispatched with a powerful squadron of seven ships on a mission of vengeance from the British Grand Fleet. Joined by the survivor of Coronel and the vessel which had failed to arrive, they reached, 7 December, a port in the Falklands for which von Spec, quite unconscious of their presence, was heading for coal. When he discovered his formidable opponent hidden behind a point of land, he made a vain effort to escape, and, hi a running fight which lasted into the evening, perished with four of his ships. One cruiser, the Dresden, together with the Eitel Friedrich - an armed liner which had joined his squadron - escaped and roved about till the spring of 1915. The Eitel Friedrich eventually interned ifl an American port, while the Dresden was finally rounded up at Juan Fernandez, where, after a show of fight, she surrendered but was so badly damaged that she sank - the last German cruiser to engage on the high seas.

Heligoland Bight

Some weeks before, the British Admiralty, 28 August, 1914, had undertaken a sea attack at Heligoland Bight, the channel between the island of Heligoland and the mouth of the Elbe. Heligoland, which the Germans since its acquisition in 1890 had thoroughly fortified at a cost of 10,000,000, guarded the western exit of the Kiel Canal and served as a wireless outpost and a base for submarines, airplanes, zeppelins, and destroyers. The British design was to cut off German light cruisers which were patrolling this area, and, if possible, to tempt heavier craft to come to their rescue. In the skirmish which ensued, while they succeeded - with some damage to their own vessels-in sinking three light cruisers and two destroyers, they learned that this heavily fortified, mine- and submarine-infested area was practically impregnable, that their best policy was to hold their fleet in readiness at Scapa Flow, constantly sending out cruising parties to defend their coast, to intercept commerce and to seek engagements with the enemy warships whenever they should come out.

German Raids

The Germans, on their part, attempted occasional raids with light swift cruisers, hoping to terrorize the English, to cheer their own people, and to keep the Grand Fleet on the defensive, while they sought to draw small patrolling forces to pursue them, scattering floating mines as they fled. The first of these raids, directed against Yarmouth, 3 November, 1914, caused little damage; the second, 16 December, along a coast of undefended towns, resulted in the slaughter of a number of civilians, women and children among them, and in serious injury to churches and dwelling houses. Instead of terror, a fury of resentment was aroused, and many, hitherto apathetic, flocked to the colors. A third raid, 24 January, 1915, was frustrated by Admiral Beatty. The invaders turned tail when he sighted them, and in the running fight, known as the Battle of Dogger Bank, one o,f the slower German cruisers, the Blacker, was sunk and two others were apparently seriously damaged before the invaders reached their mine fields. While they injured more than one of their pursuers, and while in this form of offensive - just as in attacking transports - the Germans had the advantage of choosing their own time and place, they attempted no further coast raids for more than a twelvemonth. After one German submarine, 21 September, had in half an hour sunk three cruisers of one of the older types, two of them in attempting to rescue the first, the British learned.another lesson - that the most effective patrol against these undersea pests could only be performed by small high-power craft, and that there was serious danger in slowing down for rescue.

The Battle of Jutland, 31 May, 1916

In spite of a frequently and fervently expressed wish for Der Tag, or the day when their fleet might meet that of Great Britain in a decisive struggle for the supremacy of the seas, the Germans were only willing -. and no doubt quite naturally - to fight on their own terms, off their own coast, where they could retreat and lure their opponents to chase them into shallow waters teeming with mines and submarines. " The Day" came, whether by chance or design is uncertain, in the stupendous and complicated engagement known as Battle of Jutland or Skager Rak. In the early afternoon of 31 May, 1916, Admiral Beatty, cruising with a squadron off the Danish coast on his way north to join Admiral Jellicoe, who, with the greater part of the Grand Fleet, was in the neighborhood of southern Norway, received information that the Germans were out in full force.

In the first stage of the action which followed, Admiral Beatty turned south and chased the advance guard of the enemy cruisers till they were joined by the remainder of the High Seas Fleet. In the second stage, he swung north toward Admiral Jellicoe who, in response to signals from his second in command, was hurrying south. Making a running fight against superior odds, Admiral Beatty's design was to hold the enemy until his chief could arrive and inflict a crushing blow. However, the third and final stage proved indecisive; for, when Admiral Jellicoe reached the point of engaging, it was already seven in the evening, and von Scheer, with the aid of a deepening North Sea mist and heavy smoke screens, succeeded in escaping to his base. Cautiously declining to enter the mine and submarine area which guarded the entrance to the Kiel Canal, the British hovered about the scene of action till the afternoon of the following day; but the enemy never reappeared.

At Jutland a tremendous issue was involved; for, had either side destroyed the opposing fleet, the War might have been appreciably shortened. A German victory would have broken the strangling blockade and stopped the transport of troops to the front, while a British victory would have enabled the Allies to tear up the mines, put an end to the submarine bases and open the German coast to invasion. By a hasty and premature report the Germans announced a remarkable victory, while the British Admiralty announced their own losses only, a well-meant but misleading procedure which threw their people - among whom the invincibility of the British Navy was an article of faith - into a momentary panic. The Germans later admitted that, "for strategic reasons," they minimized their losses, which, in proportion to the number of ships and men engaged, were as heavy if not heavier than the British. Indeed, for them the battle was substantially a defeat, since they had failed to shake off the grip of the blockade or even to interrupt appreciably the normal activity of the British Navy. They never sought to risk another sea battle on a large scale until the culmination, in the autumn of 1918, when their crews refused to fight.

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Page last modified: 26-05-2013 16:31:37 ZULU