This is another in my continuing series marking the 100th anniversary of the The First World War. I’m tracking events through Hew Strachan‘s authoritative book of the that name. Strachan did not treat the story of the war chronologically. It would have been pointless to do so, and I’m not going to either. There are a number of salient themes that catch the nature of this world conflict, and I am posting on each one at an appropriate anniversary.
A significant turning point in the war came in May of 1916, and it came not on the battlefields of France and Belgium, but in the North Sea off the coast of Denmark. It’s the Battle of Jutland, named after the peninsula occupied by the country of Denmark, and it came about this way.
Look at a map of Europe. Germany (and Austria-Hungary) are fighting England, France and Russia. England and France are to the west and southwest, Russia is to the east. Italy to the south is no friend. At the start Germany (and most others) figured on a short war. These things never lasted for more than a few months. When the battlefronts bogged down in the autumn of 1914, and the war dragged on all through 1915 it was obvious to all that Germany was in trouble.
Germany was prepared to supply its war effort for a matter of months. Beyond that it would require resupply. And that was the problem. Germany touches the world’s oceans only in the Baltic Sea and along a short stretch of coast between The Netherlands and Denmark. England, the dominant sea power at that time had a choke on Germany’s sea outlets. Resupply by sea could come to Germany through the English Channel—out of the question—or north over the top of Scotland. England’s navy early concentrated on blocking this route. Take special note that the Orkney Islands north of Scotland are the home of Scapa Flow, both during this war and in the one that was to follow a few years later, a major anchorage of Britain’s battle fleet.
Germany’s naval losses early in the war have already been noted. By 1916 they had not yet built up their full U-boat strength, and their remaining surface raiders were bottled up in the Baltic ports. German naval commanders were stymied. An enormous armed conflict was raging beneath their noses, and they could only sit on their hands. They had to do something to get into the war and claim some of the glory at the end. In the end they sealed Germany’s fate.
British and German signaling at the time represented opposite poles in strategy. In the previous 15 years radio technology had provided the means for reliable communication across great distances. Both belligerent powers made good use of it, especially the Germans in organizing their military assets, both naval and ground, at widely separated points on the globe. Close in, the Germans made great use of radio to coordinate efforts by their fleet in the Baltic and in ventures into the North Sea. The British took an opposite course. They had set up ranging stations along their coast and used these to pinpoint the location of German ships. And there was more.
Within four months of the war’s outbreak the British were in possession of all three German naval codes. The Australians laid their hands on the code book for merchant shipping; the imperial naval code book was taken by the Russians from a cruiser which went aground in the Baltic; and the traffic signals book from a sunk destroyer was picked up in the nets of a British trawler.
Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 3248-3251). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
The Brits read German radio signals to great advantage throughout the war. Possibly because of their own two-pronged approach to signal intelligence, the Brits refrained from using radio in tactical operations. Ships communicating with each other used signal flags, a well developed naval art, but fraught with difficulties if conditions were not right.
Germany’s plan, beginning in late 1914, was to settle matters with the British Navy. They would draw capital British ships into combat and send them to the bottom in a direct confrontation. The Germans initiated this scheme by strikes on the British east coast.
German attacks on the British coast, as opposed to British attacks on the German coast, might sting the British into a response and so enable the German navy to take on fractions of the Royal Navy and gradually whittle away its strength.
At 8 a.m. on 16 December German battle cruisers of Franz von Hipper’s Scouting Squadron bombarded Hartlepool and Scarborough, killing over a hundred civilians.
Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 3229-3232). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
Britain’s immediate response to this raid was a propaganda campaign that emphasized the uncivilized conduct of their enemy.
Hipper’s fleet tried again on 23 January 1915. “Beatty” is Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty.
At 7.05 a.m. one of Beatty’s destroyers reported contact with the enemy. At 8.34 Beatty ordered his battle cruisers to raise their speed to 27 knots, four knots faster than the maximum speed Hipper could maintain. Twenty-six minutes later his flagship, HMS Lion, opened fire at a range in excess of 20,000 yards. The wind was north-easterly, with the result, according to her captain, that ‘the smoke of the enemy coming almost straight towards us, combined with the gloom, made spotting very difficult. Flashes of the enemy’s guns were extraordinarily vivid, so that it could not be seen whether we were hitting the enemy or not.’ They were: the leading German ship , Seydlitz, caught fire.
However, she was saved by the deliberate flooding of her magazines . Ultimately, of four German ships, only the weakest and oldest, the Blücher, a so-called ‘five-minute’ ship in reference to her likely survival time in battle, was sunk. The restrictions of flag signals created ambiguity in Beatty’s orders. Greater use of wireless would not only have ensured the more effective distribution of his ships’ firepower, but also have prevented him breaking off the action prematurely. At 10.54, Beatty persuaded himself that he saw the wash of a periscope. Fearing that Hipper might be luring his battle cruisers over a submarine screen, he turned away rather than risk being torpedoed.
Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 3271-3281). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
At issue here and also in the subsequent Battle of Jutland was the British needed to keep the Germans from discovering their codes had been compromised. Although British signal intelligence, under the name “Room 40,” often had excellent information about German plans and movements, this information was withheld from the fleet, otherwise the German commanders would figure out the British were reading their codes.”
An early development was to have crucial, and fatal, consequences in the coming Battle of Jutland. In the Battle of the Falkland Islands and again in the Dogger Bank battle (just described) the British came to realize they were getting very few shells on target at long range. Their response, which was to prove catastrophic, was to increase their rate of fire. What made this fatal was that it was accomplished by sacrificing safety. Extra shells and bags of propellant were stocked near the guns, and channels between the ship’s magazines and the gun mounts, channels that should have been protected by safety locks, were kept open to allow the speedy flow of ammunition.
In early 1916 the Germans prepared their crucial action to defeat the British fleet.
Reinhard Scheer, who succeeded to the command of the High Seas Fleet in February 1916, was a decisive, even impetuous, man, in stark contrast to his predecessors. He won the Kaiser over to a more aggressive use of the fleet, its guiding principle being that, as before, Hipper’s Scouting Squadron should lure Beatty’s battle cruisers out to sea. This time, however, both submarines and the battleships of the High Seas Fleet would be waiting.
Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 3310-3313). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
By then Sir John Jellicoe commanded Britain’s Grand Fleet. He was a cautious man, mindful that the fate of British naval superiority hung on his every decision. A big concern of his was the German U-boat threat.
To avoid that danger Jellicoe proposed to refuse action in waters of the Germans’ own choosing, however ‘repugnant to the feelings of all British Naval Officers and men’. On 17 May 1916 Scheer ordered nineteen U-boats to positions off the Firth of Forth. He planned to raid Sunderland, hoping that the Battle Cruiser Fleet would put to sea from Rosyth and using airships to warn him if the Grand Fleet left Scapa Flow. But bad weather prevented the airships from taking any part in the action, and he therefore concluded it would be too risky to approach the British coast. Instead, he ordered a sortie to the north, to the Skagerrak, the waters between Norway and northern Denmark, off the Jutland peninsula. Here his line of retreat would be more secure, but now the principal submarine danger, in contradistinction to Jellicoe’s fears, would be mines, not U-boats.
Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 3325-3331). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
One of the signals intercepted and decrypted by Room 40 in the course of the night of 31 May-1 June 1916, but not passed on to Jellicoe at sea. The order to open the barrier suggested the German fleet was breaking off the action to return to harbour
Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 3373-3374). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
On 28 May Room 40 signaled Jellicoe of the German commander’s intentions, and on the night of 30 May the British fleet began to make its move. Day came, and poor communications began to unravel the British plan.
The result was that the Grand Fleet advanced slowly, so conserving fuel but losing daylight . At 2.20 Beatty signalled that Hipper’s Scouting Squadron was in sight. He manoeuvred on a south-south-easterly course in order to cut the Germans off from their base, while Hipper also turned south, aiming to draw Beatty on to the approaching guns of the High Seas Fleet.
Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 3335-3338). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
Now poor British gunnery and lack of consideration for safety began to tell.
At about 4.00 they still had not opened fire, when a midshipman on one of them, Malaya, suddenly said to Sub-Lieutenant Caslon, “‘ Look at that!”’ Caslon ‘thought for an instant that the last ship in the line had fired all her guns at once, as there was a much bigger flame, but the flame grew and grew till it was about three hundred feet high, and the whole ship was hidden in a dense cloud of yellow brown smoke. This cloud hung in the air for some minutes, and when it finally dispersed there was no sign of the ship.’
The battle cruiser Indefatigable had blown up within thirty seconds of being hit . All but two of her complement of 1,019 were killed.
Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 3342-3348). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
This was to be repeated two more times during the battle. The sea battle was to be one of attrition. It was also to be famous for Jellicoe’s employment of a practiced tactical maneuver.
By 18:30, the main battlefleet action was joined for the first time, with Jellicoe effectively “crossing Scheer’s T”. The officers on the lead German battleships, and Scheer himself, were taken completely by surprise when they emerged from drifting clouds of smoky mist to suddenly find themselves facing the massed firepower of the entire Grand Fleet main battle line, which they did not know was even at sea. Jellicoe’s flagship Iron Duke quickly scored seven hits on the lead German dreadnought, SMS König, but in this brief exchange, which lasted only minutes, as few as 10 of the Grand Fleet’s 24 dreadnoughts actually opened fire. The Germans were hampered by poor visibility, in addition to being in an unfavourable tactical position, just as Jellicoe had intended. Realizing he was heading into a death trap, Scheer ordered his fleet to turn and flee at 18:33. Under a pall of smoke and mist, Scheer’s forces succeeded in disengaging by an expertly executed 180° turn in unison (“battle about turn to starboard”), which was a well-practiced emergency manoeuvre of the High Seas Fleet.
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The total of the battle was destructive to the British fleet but ruinous to Germany’s naval ambitions for the remainder of the war.
The High Seas Fleet claimed that the battle of the Skagerrak was a German victory. At first the British press tended to agree. At Scapa Flow the mood was despondent, a mixture of combat exhaustion and disappointed expectation. The battle of Jutland (as the British called it) engaged 100,000 men in 250 ships over 72 hours. It dwarfed Trafalgar in scale but not – it seemed – in outcome. The Royal Navy had lost fourteen ships, including three battle cruisers, and had sustained 6,784 casualties. The Germans had lost eleven ships, including one battleship and one battle cruiser, and had suffered 3,058 casualties. But ten of Scheer’s ships had suffered heavy damage, and only ten were ready for sea on 2 June. Jellicoe, with eight ships undergoing repairs, could have put twenty-four capital ships to sea. On 4 July 1916 Scheer renounced fleet action as an option. Jutland left the Royal Navy’s supremacy unimpaired and Britain’s strategy intact. ‘It is absolutely necessary’, Captain Herbert Richmond reminded himself, ‘to look at the war as a whole; to avoid keeping our eyes only on the German Fleet. What we have to do is to starve and cripple Germany.’
Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 3392-3401). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
This marked the beginning of committed economic warfare against the Central Powers, a campaign that was to be a major deciding factor. Hew Strachan’s book deals extensively with this economic war, and I will cover that in a future post.