UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


The Royal Navy in the Great War

While, from the very first, the British, with their small expeditionary force, fought manfully to aid France in stemming the German torrent, to say nothing of sending contingents to protect their Empire in distant parts of the earth, it took them years to build up a really formidable war machine. On the other hand, their sea power was able to render incalculable service from the outset, in preventing the Germans from securing a military triumph before the Allies were sufficiently equipped and organized to prevail in land fighting. In view of the crisis, the fleet, assembled in full strength for the summer maneuvers of 1915, was kept mobilized pending the outcome of the Austro-Serbian negotiations and all the tremendous issues which hung in the balance. This was a significant step in securing command of the sea, which was to prove such a decisive factor in the war. Directly hostilities opened, the greater part of the fleet vanished into the mist, concentrating at a station known to few until toward the end of the War - in Scapa Flow, a great landlocked body of water in the Orkney Islands off the bleak and rugged coast of northern Scotland. Cruising from here as a base and sending forth single ships or squadrons as they were needed, the achievements of these silent watchers were as indispensable as they were unspectacular, except for a few striking engagements.

Although no formal blockade was at first declared, the Grand Fleet kept the enemy navy bottled up in the Kiel Canal, and the enemy merchant marine was prevented from leaving home or neutral ports, wherever its ships chanced to be. Such commerce as was afloat, or tried the chance, was soon swept from the seas, and Germany was more and more crippled in her attempts to secure from neutral nations the food supplies and raw materials which, though more self-sufficing than England, she sorely needed. Moreover, 2,000,000 German subjects of military age were prevented from returning home to serve in the army, while the coasts of Britain and France, as well as the French and British colonies, were kept free from invasion.

This was accomplished mainly by bottling up the German High Seas Fleet in the Kiel Canal at the very beginning of the War, though something like a dozen raids were made on the British coast by small groups of German cruisers. not only was the German High Seas Fleet promptly sealed up in the Kiel Canal and the neighboring landlocked harbors, but, within two months, 1,000,000 tons of German shipping were captured and the rest held idle in home and neutral ports. Moreover, expeditionary forces from Australia and New Zealand had been assisted in securing all the German possessions in the Pacific south of the equator, while, during October and December, Japan, who entered the war, 23 August, gathered in those north of the equator and overcame the Germans in their Chinese stronghold at Kiao-chau. All the while, the British cruisers were relentlessly tracking down and destroying such German commerce raiders as escaped, though the Emden, perhaps the most daring and destructive of them all, fell to the Australian cruiser Sydney off Cocos Keeling, 10 November.

Perhaps the most costly blunder which can be charged to the British navy occurred at the very start, when the British patrol which was helping to guard the Mediterranean - while the French were engaged in covering the transportation of their North African contingents - allowed two German cruisers, ordered out of Messina, to escape through the Dardanelles into the Black Sea. Failure to pursue them led to serious consequences, notably to Turkey's entrance into the war and to the cutting of the southern, line of communication with Russia. The stalemate on the Western Front prompted an alternative approach to defeating Germany. The capture of Constantinople, now Istanbul, would give a direct link to the Russian ally and a successful eastern front campaign could be undertaken. A British Navy attempt to sail up the Dardanelles on 18 March 1915 failed with the loss of several ships. Despite the advanced warning that this gave the Turks, the British and French attempted a land invasion on the 25 April 1915. They went ashore at six locations but the Turkish defence held them close to the beaches. A second attempt was made on the 6th August 1915 at Suvla Bay but this also ground to a halt. The campaign was abandoned and last of the troops were withdrawn in January 1916. Churchill, who had proposed the campaign, had to resign from the Cabinet. He subsequently lost his seat in the House of Commons and had to wait until outbreak of the Second World War to return to a position of power.

By the time the Cabinet Office was created in December 1916, the great fleet battles at Dogger Bank and Jutland had passed. However, the government now had to cope with a new form of conflict - unrestricted submarine warfare.While the naval staff within the Admiralty handled the bulk of material and information regarding the war at sea, the War Cabinet provided a forum for regular political oversight of the conduct of the maritime campaign. The War Cabinet also allowed the Admiralty to share information, both good and bad, and raise interdepartmental problems.

The main concern of the war at sea was the threat posed by the German attack on Allied merchant shipping. Of all the different ways to attack trade - mines, submarine and surface raider - submarine attack was the most dangerous. At the same time, brief routine reports of shipping losses and naval actions were presented to the War Cabinet on almost a daily basis.

Between December 1916 and February 1917 U-boats and mines laid by German submarines were stopping and sinking merchant vessels under the 'Prize' or 'Cruiser' rules. The submarine menace was the main problem faced by the British in these months.

Countermeasures to deal with the submarine problem were regularly discussed, with the defensive arming of merchant vessels particularly provoking discussion at Cabinet level. Discussion focused on the impact the early winter of 1917 would have on the supply of guns to the British army.

The problem of the submarine-laid-mine also attracted interest. With the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare on 31 January 1917, the submarine menace became an even graver issue for the Cabinet. The First Sea Lord (or his representative) now gave regular briefings on the amount of merchant shipping lost to submarines.

It became clear that existing anti-submarine measures were ineffective and that mercantile losses were increasing. In order to release ships for the campaign against the U-boats, abandoning military operations in Salonika was even considered.

Also the "silent British Navy" kept open the lanes of sea communication for the transport of troops, both from the French possessions and the British dominions; indeed more than 22,000,000 Allied soldiers were, during four years, conveyed back and forth across the seas with a loss of only 4,391. Furthermore, from England, from outlying ports of the Empire, and from neutral countries, all sorts of foodstuffs, munitions and equipment were shipped, while coal and iron were supplied to France and Italy who stood so woefully in need of them. This utilization of colonial and neutral resources obviously went a great way toward counterbalancing the German grip on Belgium and the French industrial districts. The heroic work of British trawlers in mine sweeping, and the increasing effectiveness of the convoy system in the face of the growing submarine peril, are among the further manifestations of the British sea power.

Zeebrugge and Ostend

During the night and early morning of 22 and 23 April, 1918, was executed - after six months of careful planning and preparation - what was doubtless the most remarkable and heroic among the signal achievements of the British Navy during the War - the attempt to block the entrances to Zeebrugge and Ostend, two ports on the Belgian coast which the Germans used chiefly as submarine bases. Admiral Keyes was in general charge of the operation, while Captain Carpenter in the Vindictive, accompanied by two old ferry boats, launched an attack on the mole guarding the Zeebrugge Canal and landed a body of bluejackets and marines to create a diversion, while three obsolete cruisers filled with concrete were sunk in the channel leading from the mouth of the canal.

Aided by the darkness and a heavy smoke screen, the intrepid little flotilla, accompanied by a flock of small destroyers, defied star shells as well as a raking fire of machine guns and shore batteries which the surprised Germans sought to turn on them when they awakened to the situation. Two of the cruisers were successfully placed, but the third had to be blown up a hundred yards from the mouth of the channel. Also, an old submarine was run into the mole and blew up a long gap near the shore end. Motor boats detailed for the purpose took off the crews, with comparatively small casualties, before the time-fuses exploded. A shifting of the wind to the southwest made the operation at Zeebrugge very hazardous and prevented the success of theundertakingatOstend, where two destroyers were sunk some four hundred yards from their objective. The whole achievement is all the more wonderful from the fact that 120 long-range guns were concentrated along the shore from Zeebrugge to Ostend.

Some weeks later, 10 May, the Vindictive, which had figured so gloriously in the earlier expedition, was sent, on a moonless night, for a surprise attack against Ostend and sunk across the channel. Nine German cruisers, reported to be out on patrol that night, never appeared to frustrate the enterprise.

The Surrender cf the German Fleet

After the German crews refused to come out for a final desperate effort, the whole German High Seas Fleet surrendered, in pursuance of the terms of the Armistice, to Sir David Beatty - Lord Jellicoe's successor as Admiral of the Grand Fleet - on 21 November, 1918, off the Firth of Forth. Aside from submarines, 9 battleships, 5 battle cruisers, 7 light cruisers, and 50 destroyers were given up. After some discussion among the Allies, they were interned in Scapa Flow, where, by a lamentable breach of faith, most of them were scuttled by their German crews, under orders from the Admiral in charge, 21 June, a week before the Peace Treaty was signed.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:08:23 ZULU