Category Archives: Naval Warfare

27 OCTOBER, 1916: Net Loss

There were many wars within the War taking place in 1916, and during the night of 26–27 October a relatively minor naval engagement took place, known as the Battle of Dover Strait, that shone a light on one of them – the four-year struggle for control of the English Channel.  To be more precise, this was Britain’s struggle to maintain the overwhelming dominance of its southern coastal waters that enabled it to protect the English shoreline, supply the Western Front and prevent passage of German warships, in particular submarines, to and from the Atlantic.

The Royal Navy had begun the job of blocking the Channel to enemy shipping on the outbreak of war in August 1914. It transferred a dozen fairly modern destroyers to reinforce the elderly destroyers normally stationed at Dover, and they formed the heart of what was known as the Dover Patrol. The Patrol remained in position throughout the War, its strength steadily mounting with the addition of old cruisers, monitors (floating gun platforms), minesweepers, aircraft, airships, torpedo boats, other motor boats and various armed yachts, but it began the War by laying substantial minefields across the Channel’s narrowest point, between Dover and the Belgian coast.

In February 1915, the minefields were augmented with ‘indicator nets’ – light steel nets dropped from small fishing boats (drifters), which remained on watch for anything that became entangled – and with Dover Patrol ships assigned as support the whole operation became known as the ‘Dover Barrage’.

Unlike its big brother in the Adriatic, the Otranto Barrage, the Dover version appeared to succeed at first, largely because it was almost immediately responsible for sinking the submarine U-8, which went down after getting tangled in the nets on 4 March. The German Navy reacted by restricting its submarines to the northern route round Britain for Atlantic operations, the British began building and installing bigger nets, and for the next year or so both British and German authorities were inclined ascribe any unexplained losses to the Barrage.

In fact the Barrage was far from impenetrable.  British mines were hopelessly unreliable (and would stay that way until late 1917), even the bigger nets installed by October 1916 left large gaps, and insufficient support craft were deployed to monitor them.  Its weakness eventually became clear to the German Navy, which reinstated the Channel route for small U-boats from Ostend and Zeebrugge in April 1916, and by the autumn submarines were passing through at will, usually travelling on the surface at night.

Submarines aside, the Dover Patrol’s various craft had been fighting a continuous ‘mosquito’ war against raids by torpedo boats from the German Flanders Flotilla, which made regular attempts to slip past the Barrage at night for attacks on Allied merchant and supply shipping.  The Flanders Flotilla had been quiet throughout the summer of 1916, but in October it was reinforced with torpedo boats from the High Seas Fleet, and on the night of 26 October all 23 of its active boats attacked the Dover Barrage in five separate groups.

The British were expecting a night raid but had done little to prepare for it. The drifters watching the Barrage, each armed with precisely one rifle for defence purposes, were protected only by the elderly destroyer HMS Flirt, a naval trawler and an armed yacht.  Taken completely by surprise when the German boats attacked in five groups, the British lost six drifters during the night, and three more were damaged, while the naval trawler suffered heavy damage, an empty transport vessel was sunk in passing, and the Flirt went to the bottom after its captain failed to recognise the Flotilla’s boats as enemy craft and blundered into their torpedoes.

Six of the modern, Tribal Class destroyers from Dover were called up to track down the raiders, but the first on the scene of the Flirt‘s sinking, HMS Nubian, also failed to recognise the German boats as enemies and was left dead in the water after a torpedo took off its bow.  The rest of the British destroyer force caught up with some of the raiding groups, but came off worse, failing to sink any German boats while HMS Amazon and HMS Mohawk both suffered significant damage.  By the time further Royal Navy reinforcements arrived from Dunkirk, the Flanders Flotilla had escaped for home.

HMS Nubian after the battle – spot the damage
HMS Nubian after the battle – spot the damage

At the end of a shambolic night for the Royal Navy the British had lost eight ships sunk, seven more damaged, 45 dead, four wounded and ten prisoners, while the German Navy suffered no casualties and only minor damage to a single torpedo boat.

Small craft in the English Channel were constantly engaged in this kind of skirmish, as they were in the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, the Baltic, the Black Sea and every other tightly contested naval theatre, but the first Battle of Dover Strait (a smaller action would be named as the second in 1917) was both bigger and more strategically significant than most.  Their undoubted victory encouraged German planners to dismiss the Dover Barrage as useless, so the Flanders Flotilla’s reinforcements were transferred back to the High Seas Fleet in November and large U-boats given permission to pass through the Channel in December, a decision that facilitated the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic and as such helped draw the USA into the War.

The failure of October 1916, and the subsequent inability of the Barrage to stop big, commerce-raiding U-boats, also acted as a wake-up call for the British.  In late 1917 the Barrage was moved onto a line between Folkestone and Cap Gris Nez, and by the end of the year it had been equipped with new, more efficient mines. Minefields and numbers of support craft were steadily expanded, a new Barrage Committee established a system of night patrols using flares and searchlights, and by 1918 the Barrage was performing effectively enough to sink at least 12 U-boats before they stopped trying to breach it in August.

A good map of the evolving Dover Barrage, this, so credit to its maker
A good, uncomplicated map of the evolving Dover Barrage, this, so credit to its maker…

This was just a glimpse of yet another busy battlefront that was deadly by any standards less gruesome than those of the First World War, strategically important to both the Western and Atlantic Fronts, continuously in action for more than four years, and destined to be almost completely ignored by the modern heritage industry.   I mention it here by way of commemoration.

4 OCTOBER, 1916: Sun, Sea and Subs

I’ve mentioned before that European warfare’s big offensive actions had traditionally, and for good reasons, been concentrated on the spring and the early autumn (15 March 1915: Spring Fever).  Broadly speaking, this pattern had been retained through 1915, and it had characterised planning for the spring of 1916 until the early opening of Germany’s Verdun offensive altered the timing of Allied attacks on both main fronts.

Come the autumn of 1916, Verdun, the Somme and the Brusilov Offensive were all still in progress, albeit grinding towards exhausted termination.  With plenty of demands on their stretched resources from secondary fronts in Italy, central Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Caucasus (to name only the headliners), the protagonists on the Eastern and Western Fronts were in no position to plan big new offensives.

So while you could hardly call the beginning of October 1916 a quiet time, it wasn’t infused with the grand schemes and rampant optimism that came with a new set of plans designed to end the War. Granted, the ongoing battle for Romania was generating plenty of excitement, and the Italian high command was keeping things lively with repeated, failed attacks around the River Isonzo (the seventh Isonzo Offensive had graced three days in mid-September, the eighth would begin in a week), but broadly speaking the War entered its third autumn in business as usual mode.

That makes this is a good moment to talk about one of those theatres of war that went about its bad business without ever quite generating a narrative for posterity.  The First World War entailed a fair few of those, partly thanks to posterity’s tunnel vision, but on this occasion I’m referring to the Mediterranean Sea.  On 4 October 1916, German submarines sank two large, Allied ships in the Mediterranean, so I’ll use their fates as a starting point.

The RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Franconia was a modern Cunard liner, operated on the North Atlantic run since 1911 and converted as a troop ship in early 1915.  She was some 300km east of Malta on 4 October, en route for Salonika, when sunk by a torpedo from the German submarine UB-47 (UB was the designation given to Germany’s small, coastal attack submarines).  No troops were aboard, but twelve of her 314-strong crew were killed.

franconia_ss_1911
The Franconia…

The SS Gallia was a new French liner, built in 1913, and had worked the South Atlantic crossing before her conversion as a troop ship. Also on her way to Salonika (from Toulon) on 4 October, she was packed with 2,000 troops and 350 crewmen  when, halfway between Sardinia and Tunisia, a torpedo from the U-35 sent her to the bottom.  Hundreds drowned before help reached the wreck, though no precise casualty figures were ever compiled.

… and the doomed but splendid Gallia.

These losses make a small point about the roles played by big passenger ships, which performed auxiliary naval tasks all over the world throughout the War, but also sum up the general pattern of Mediterranean warfare. The Allies dominated the theatre, and needed to because use of the Mediterranean was absolutely vital to their war efforts, while the Central Powers did their best to disrupt the constant flow of Allied troops and supplies, both to battlefronts all across the region and to home fronts.  A quick look at regional geopolitics should explain why.

The Central Powers didn’t have much going on in the Med.  The Ottoman Empire’s relatively ramshackle and elderly navy operated in the east, bolstered by the addition of two modern German ships in August 1914 (10 August, 1914: Playing Battleships), but was also heavily committed to operations against Russian forces in the Black Sea (28 March, 1916: Infested Waters).  The Austro-Hungarian Navy, smaller but equipped with modern dreadnoughts, destroyers and cruisers, meanwhile operated out of its only major port, Pola (now Pula, in Croatia), in the northern Adriatic.  Its ships couldn’t reach the wider Mediterranean without a long trip down the coast of Italy, and were essentially trapped from the moment Italy failed to go to war alongside its original diplomatic partners, the Central Powers, in 1914.

On the Allied side, the large, modern, well-equipped French Navy had been able to concentrate almost all its resources on the Mediterranean since reaching agreements with the British in 1912, and the Italian Navy had been through a rapid expansion, building fast, modern warships as part of a naval arms race with Austria-Hungary.  Both forces were deployed to keep the Austro-Hungarian Navy bottled up in the Adriatic, to protect vital trade through their many Mediterranean ports, and to maintain links with North African colonies.  Though the British Royal Navy had restricted its Mediterranean commitments since 1912, to concentrate on protecting home waters from the German Navy, it still maintained substantial (albeit largely second-line) forces in various bases throughout the theatre, and their first duty was to protect trade flowing to Britain through the Suez Canal.

This isn’t the place to roll out yards of figures detailing the relative strengths of the Mediterranean navies, but we’re talking a massive advantage for the Allies.  Understandably enough, with the Ottoman fleet out of reach beyond the Dardanelles, it was widely assumed that the Allied fleets would at some point combine to knock the Austrian Navy out of the War – but at a time when major warships were seen by their commanders as too valuable to be risked in any kind of bold action, the anticipated battleship confrontation never came.

The Austrians stayed put behind the optimistically named Otranto Barrage, a permanent patrol of Allied (largely Italian) warships theoretically blockading the Straits of Otranto, while the Italian Navy’s big ships remained on watch in case they changed their minds. The French Navy’s dreadnoughts did the same, once they had protected initial troop movements from North Africa to Europe and taken part in 1915’s attempt to force the Dardanelles Straits.  The Royal Navy kept more busy – enduring the lion’s share of the Dardanelles shambles and otherwise protecting or facilitating mass troop transfers around campaigns in Gallipoli, the Middle East and Salonika – but also did its best to keep major warships out of potential trouble.

In place of full-scale battles, a four-year war of raid and ambush by smaller surface craft took place wherever opposing powers existed in close proximity.  Italians fought Austrians in the Adriatic, British and Ottoman forces competed in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, and these ‘mosquito’ battles extended to wherever Allied warships were engaged in troop support duties.  But for all the coastal fighting in support of ground troops, for all the sporadic dash and derring-do of minelayers, torpedo boats, destroyers and sometimes even cruisers, and for all their occasional victories over major fleet units, commerce war was the big, strategic story of the Mediterranean’s First World War – and that only got fully underway once German submarines began arriving in the theatre.

The first long-range U-boats reached Austrian service in February 1915, and were soon followed by smaller, coastal craft.  Based at the relatively small Adriatic port of Cattaro, and flying the Austro-Hungarian flag until Italy and Germany were officially at war in August 1916, they inflicted enormous damage on busy Allied trade routes.  They were helped by the Mediterranean’s shallow, generally calm waters, which made life much easier for relatively primitive submarines, and by the long-term inefficiency of Allied anti-submarine measures.

The Allied Mediterranean fleets, generally under the (nominal) overall command of a French admiral, divided responsibility for protection of shipping into national spheres of influence.  They deployed their own submarines (which had precious little non-military traffic to attack) for the needle-in-a-haystack task of hunting U-boats, sent merchant and troop ships out individually or in small groups, and only assigned warships to protect particularly important cargoes.  This system, which left most Allied shipping with no protection at all, was a miserable failure.  That it was still failing in October 1916 is evidenced by the fact that the Gallia‘s precious cargo of troops didn’t merit warship escort.

The Mediterranean commerce war was in some ways more intense and more dangerous than its better-known Atlantic counterpart. Although loss of life was generally lower in the relatively hospitable Mediterranean, Allied merchant shipping was much more likely to be attacked on Mediterranean routes.

These survivors were lucky – most life rafts aboard the SS Gallia capsized when she went down.
These survivors were lucky – most life rafts aboard the SS Gallia capsized when she went down.

Mediterranean U-boats also came much closer to achieving strategic success with their trade campaign (though without the same fatal effects on American opinion), and would come close to completely paralysing the Italian economy by the time the Allies finally adopted the protection used against surface riders in Napoleonic times, the convoy system, in the spring of 1918.

This has rambled, it’s been short on detail and it’s left a bunch of interesting subplots for another day, but I hope it’s provided some perspective on a sprawling, highly active and strategically significant theatre of naval warfare that heritage tends to treat as a mere adjunct to the many land campaigns it serviced or otherwise affected.

24 AUGUST, 1916: Deep Thinking

I’ve been giving first world trade war plenty of post space lately, mostly because economic warfare was of enormous, long-term importance and the commemorative industry isn’t talking about it much.  The same applies to the principal strategic weapons used to curtail enemy trade during the First World War:  the long-established practice of naval blockade; and the offensive deployment of submarines.

With hindsight, we know that the British-led blockade of the Central Powers made a major, if slow-burning contribution to the final Allied victory, an outcome that would have not surprised contemporary observers well schooled in the theory and practice of economic warfare. We also know that submarines would never fulfil their potential to cripple the seagoing trade of an enemy – but in 1916 (or for that matter in 1941) nobody could be sure about the limitations of submarine warfare.

Submarines were still virtually untried weapons.  A technological wonder of the age, they were already part (along with mines and torpedo boats) of a revolution in naval warfare that was bringing down the curtain on centuries of battleship supremacy, and they were in the process of rapid wartime development by 1916. They were obviously a menace to surface shipping, capable of seriously disrupting merchant traffic, but what they might become, and whether they were capable of winning wars on their own, were still matters of urgent professional and public debate.

As I’ve mentioned before (14 November, 1915: Low Profile), submarines prompted the same kind of apocalyptic speculation that surrounded the contemporary development of aircraft, and successful submariners were subject to the same kind of hero-worship that surrounded flying aces.  Both weapons were exciting – in a devilish, deadly and dashing way – and fearful fascination is one reason why the first voyage of the German submarine Deutschland, which ended on 24 August 1916 with a triumphant return to the port of Bremerhaven, created headlines all over the world.

There were other reasons.  For a start, the Deutschland was a new kind of submarine.  It was huge by the standards of the day, not much longer than a conventional U-boat but far broader across the beam, displacing more than twice the weight and capable of a relatively fast 12.5 knots when travelling on the surface.  As such it was a symbol of the advances in submarine technology since 1914, and it attracted global attention accordingly.

Secondly, the Deutschland was an unarmed merchant ship. The first of seven cargo submarines built in Bremen, privately funded and operated by the North German Lloyd Line, it represented an alternative, potentially blockade-proof future for seagoing trade. This was an intriguing possibility, enough to guarantee the interest of any state involved in trade (pretty much every sovereign state in 1916), and more than enough to seriously alarm the British.

The third sensational aspect of the Deutschland‘s maiden cruise was its destination.  After leaving Bremen on 23 June, the submarine arrived in the US port of Baltimore on 10 July, a demonstration of blockade busting that chimed with mounting anti-British sentiment on the American East Coast and generated enormous levels of publicity.

Crowds flocked to witness the boat’s arrival, and the American press turned merchant captain Paul König, his three officers and 25 crewmen into celebrities, lapping up König’s insouciant claim that the voyage had been a breeze, untroubled by the British blockade. As the Black List crisis triggered a surge of anti-British sentiment in the US (28 July, 1916: Special Relationship?), the press seized every opportunity to rub the Royal Navy’s nose in it, highlighting the value of the Deutschland‘s cargo and its relatively rapid crossing, which involved less than 200km of submerged travel and took only a little longer than standard surface voyage.

Big in the States, big in Britain...
Big in the States, big in Britain…

Having sold on its load – 625 tons of medicinal products and 125 tons of immensely valuable, patented coal-dyes – the Deutschland left Baltimore on 2 August, carrying almost 800 tons of nickel, tin and rubber, a cargo the press on both sides of the Atlantic was quick to value at $17.5 million.  The Royal Navy tried to intercept the return journey but failed –predictably enough given the chances of finding a single submarine in the North Atlantic in an age before radar or long-range flight – and all London could manage by way of retaliation was a note of protest to Washington.

Characteristically high-handed, the note demanded that the US (and other neutral countries) expel submarines from their harbours on the shaky grounds that all submarines, whatever their apparent purpose, were inherently warlike.  The note also included a veiled threat to sink merchant submarines, and needless to say it went down like a lead balloon in Washington. The Wilson administration eventually replied with a note of its own on 31 August, asserting in no uncertain terms that international law applied to submarines in exactly the same way as it did to surface ships, and making clear that Britain would be held responsible for any ‘accidental’ sinkings.

In propaganda and diplomatic terms, the Deutschland cruise had been a ringing success, and the boat went on to undertake a second trip across the Atlantic , visiting New London, Connecticut, in November with a cargo of gems and medicinal products, before again returning safely.  In strategic terms, on the other hand, giant cargo submarines turned out to be a pretty small flash in the pan, partly because replacing surface traffic with submarines was a slow and hugely expensive process, partly because submarines still carried much smaller loads than surface ships, partly because some bulky or volatile cargoes could only be carried by surface freighters – and partly because the War quickly outpaced development in the field.

A third Deutschland cruise planned for January 1917 was cancelled because the issue of military submarines had dragged relations between Germany and the USA to an all-time low.  On 10 February, when Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare consigned transatlantic diplomacy to the dustbin, the experiment was abandoned.  The Deutschland was converted for military use as a ‘submarine cruiser’, served out the rest of the War as the U-155 and had sunk 36 ships when it was surrendered to the Allies.

Apart from the Bremen, which disappeared at the start of her first cruise in September 1916, and was probably sunk by a mine off the Orkneys, the rest of the boats ordered as freighters entered service in militarised form (numbered between U-151 and U-157).  Though the U-154 was sunk in the Atlantic by a British torpedo in May 1918, and the U-156 fell victim to a North Sea mine in September 1918, they performed adequately as long-range attack boats, offering greater range (and much more comfortable conditions for the 76-man crew) than a conventional U-boat.  Then again, they proved desperately clumsy in the water, tending to roll out of control, wallow in mid-manoeuvre and get stuck on the surface when attempting to dive, so the class as a whole was never considered worth long-term development as a weapon.

The Deutschland‘s first homecoming in August 1916 signalled a small but significant false dawn, a moment when giant submarines might have been the future of modern warfare.  For me, the real significance of the moment lies in the fact that it passed before the military world proceeded too far along the blind alley, that pragmatism overrode optimism as soon as operational results proved disappointing.  Perhaps that was because the strategies and tactics around naval warfare were so well known and understood by professionals in the field, an argument that may shed light on why so many enthusiasts for the completely new field of aerial warfare persisted for decades with the other false dawn rising in 1916 – the altogether more dangerous idea that wars could be won by massed bombing of civilian targets.

31 MAY, 1916: Swansong

You may not need me to tell you that the Battle of Jutland began a century ago today, because it’s one of very few wartime events outside the Western Front deemed worthy of the full treatment by the British heritage industry.  Unfortunately, a high heritage profile comes with a requirement for drama and significance, so the BBC (to pick on the best of them) is coming at you with shows entitled ‘The Navy’s Bloodiest Day’ and ‘The Battle That Won The War’.   You get the message?   Well, it’s nonsense.  Jutland was a miserable non-event, significant only in what it failed to achieve, best viewed as a clear signal that the age of the battleship was well and truly over, and had ended with a whimper.  That said, I’ll try and describe it.

Jutland was the only full-scale wartime confrontation between the two most powerful battle fleets in the world, the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet, stationed either side of the North Sea.

The High Seas Fleet was the fruit of rapid German naval expansion during the previous two decades, which was in turn a product of Kaiser Wilhelm’s ego.  Built around 27 modern battleships and battlecruisers (like battleships, but with most of the armour sacrificed for speed), it was not regarded as powerful enough to beat the British in a full-scale battle, but was designed to keep the Royal Navy’s biggest guns away from duties elsewhere, particularly the blockade of German ports, and to whittle away the Grand Fleet’s strength in advance of any possible confrontation.

Based at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, the Grand Fleet was the Royal Navy’s principle strike force, an enormous armada built around 35–40 modern battleships and battlecruisers, designed to respond to any threat, anywhere in the world, but primarily concerned with nullifying the threat of invasion and preventing attempts to interfere with the blockade.  Its ultimate task was seen as the destruction of the High Seas Fleet, and for that purpose the British Admiralty was careful to maintain a significant numerical advantage in the North Sea.

According to contemporary naval orthodoxy – established since the advent of armoured, coal- or oil-powered warships – battle fleets required not just modern battleships (costing the equivalent of about half a billion pounds each in modern terms), but also cruisers, destroyers, submarines and hundreds of smaller support craft to provide protection and reconnaissance for the bigger ships.  In short, fleets cost a fortune.

Understandably enough, admirals, politicians, press and public expected value for money from battle fleets in the event of war, and at the same time regarded the loss of wildly expensive major units as nothing short of a national catastrophe.  This required naval strategists to take risks while being risk averse, a tricky enough problem at the best of times, made almost insoluble by 1914 because the leviathans of the sea had become dangerously vulnerable to spectacularly cheap mines and torpedoes.

I’ve devoted plenty of space in the past to the paralysis produced by this situation, and a glance through the blog’s naval warfare category might be helpful if you’re interested in arguments and examples.  In North Sea terms, it meant neither side dared risk a major battle unless they were quite sure of winning, so the High Seas Fleet didn’t want to be caught in a battle at all, and the Grand Fleet’s attempts to engineer one were so timid they were hardly perceptible.

By 1916 both fleets had spent most of two years being pilloried by political, press and public opinion for their perceived inactivity, and both needed to prove themselves.  The British could only maintain their numerical supremacy and effective dominance of the theatre, avoiding trouble and hoping an open goal would present itself.   With the German high command in the process of prioritising submarine warfare at the expense of the High Seas Fleet, its new commander, Admiral Scheer, was under more immediate pressure to act.  In the late spring of 1916 he planned an expanded version of the nuisance raids on the British coast that had boosted the Fleet’s reputation in 1914.

Scheer’s plan was to send Admiral Hipper’s fast battlecruisers to raid the northeast English port of Sunderland, and to entice the British battlecruiser squadron, based at Rosyth, out onto the guns of the main fleet, following behind.  In addition, thirteen U-boats were positioned for ambush off British North Sea ports, with orders to stay there until 1 June.  Scheer was only prepared to take this risk if aerial reconnaissance confirmed that the Grand Fleet was still in Scapa Flow, but poor weather prevented deployment of the only machines able to do the job, Zeppelins, throughout late May.  Rather than do without his U-boats, Scheer switched to a slightly less bold demonstration of the High Seas Fleet’s powers, sending his battlecruisers as bait ahead of an otherwise pointless sortie up the Danish coast.

The German ships moved out of the Jade Bight, off Wilhelmshaven, at one in the morning on 31 May, unaware that the Grand Fleet had put to sea from Scapa Flow two hours earlier.  Because the Royal Navy’s Room 40 had broken German naval codes, Grand Fleet c-in-c Admiral Jellicoe had been informed of their impending departure on 30 May, but not of their destination, and had decided to undertake his own sweep of the Danish coast, planned for 2 June.

The two fleets, led by their battlecruiser squadrons, were on course for a head-on collision during the morning of 31 May, but didn’t know it.  In an age before radar and in the absence of aircraft (a seaplane aboard the converted ferry HMS Engadine was the only plane available to either fleet), the only way they were going to find out was by direct visual contact through the fast, modern cruisers both sides used for scouting.  British and German cruisers spotted each other in mid-afternoon, as both sides moved to investigate a stationary Danish merchant ship, and after a brief exchange of fire both sides hurried off to inform their battlecruisers that the enemy had blundered into their trap.

Admiral Beatty, in command of the British battlecruisers, manoeuvred to the south of Hipper’s ships, which turned to face the enemy, leaving both sets of battlecruisers in the path of the other’s main fleet.  Unknown to Hipper, four modern, Queen Elizabeth Class battleships were also attached to Beatty’s squadron, and were coming up fast when, at 3.45 in the afternoon, the battlecruisers opened fire, 13km apart and closing.  Beatty turned south to cut off what he assumed was a German retreat, and after Hipper followed suit the squadrons spent forty-five minutes exchanging broadsides.

2-WEB-Duckworth-3.30pm-Coloureed
This is how a battle looked on a dark day in the North Sea… battlecruisers going broadside.

The action went badly for the British.  While escorting destroyers fought a secondary battle, with each side losing two ships, three British battlecruisers had been damaged and two, Indefatigable and Queen Mary, had exploded by the time the Queen Elizabeths joined the fray (from 17km) at four-thirty.  Hipper’s success had something to do with the position of the sun, which helped German gunners on a hazy day polluted by gunsmoke, but also highlighted British operational weaknesses that would be evident throughout the battle: the inherent vulnerability of British ships to internal explosion; a spate of poor signalling; and the unexpected weakness of the Navy’s heavy shells, which tended to disintegrate on contact.

The arrival of four battleships to join the four British battlecruisers still in the fight shifted the odds against Hipper – but not for long.  At four-forty Beatty’s scouting cruisers reported that the entire High Seas Fleet was coming into range.  Wrongly informed that morning that Scheer was still in port, Beatty turned and ran north for Jellicoe and the Grand Fleet.  The British battleships missed the turn and barely escaped the High Seas Fleet (with damage inflicted by both sides) before joining Beatty’s faster ships and quickly pulling away. Hipper’s squadron – battered, short on ammunition and with their gunners now facing a dipping sun – followed to prevent what he assumed was an attempt at escape.

Shortly before five-thirty Beatty turned east to a prearranged rendezvous with Jellicoe, crossing Hipper’s path to cut off any scouting ships that might report the trap, and drawing an attack from German cruisers and destroyers.  Three more British battlecruisers, commanded by Admiral Hood, then arrived on the scene from the east, severely damaging three of the German light cruisers and launching a destroyer attack of their own – and that was enough to convince Hipper he’d run into the entire Grand Fleet.

The actual Grand Fleet stumbled upon Beatty’s squadron just after six, when scouts sighted HMS Lion firing its guns at opponents out of visual range.  Jellicoe, who had thought he was still 20km northwest of Beatty, immediately formed the fleet in a line to port (turning east, in other words).  The manoeuvre was complete by six-thirty, just in time to put the Grand Fleet in perfect position to ‘cross the T’ of the High Seas Fleet.  Meanwhile Scheer, coming up from the south, found British warships to his north and northwest, and so turned east, heading straight for Jellicoe.

During this phase, one of the Queen Elizabeths, Warspite, survived 13 hits when a jammed rudder forced it to circle twice under the High Seas Fleet’s guns, and two British cruisers were sunk when they ran into the German fleet by accident.   The British also lost a third battlecruiser, when Admiral Hood’s flagship, Invincible, was illuminated by a random patch of clear air, attracted concentrated fire and exploded after a shell penetrated a turret.

The explosion tool place at 18.33, and the Grand Fleet opened fire at once.  Two minutes later Scheer ran away, and the High Seas Fleet did a brilliant job of it, executing a ‘battle turn away’ (Gefechtskehrtwendung, effectively a massed u-turn) and leaving Jellicoe chasing its taillights, all for the loss of one cruiser to British gunfire.  Jellicoe more than matched Scheer’s caution, refusing to chase his prey into what he thought might just be a submarine trap. Instead he ordered the Grand Fleet to turn southeast and then south, hoping to intercept Scheer’s homeward journey before nightfall.

It shouldn’t have worked, but Jellicoe got lucky.  Scheer turned his fleet north and then back on itself, aiming to get behind the British, but he overestimated the Grand Fleet’s speed and instead steamed back into its guns, which opened up at ten past seven.  This time Scheer sent Hipper’s squadron (backed by destroyers) to charge at the Grand Fleet, guns blazing, while the rest of the German force pulled off another u-turn.  A destroyer was sunk, and the battlecruisers took another pounding (but didn’t explode) before turning away, but within a few minutes the High Seas Fleet was disappearing to the west.

Still confident that he could intercept Scheer’s presumed route home, Jellicoe turned the Grand Fleet southeast.  At eight-fifteen Beatty’s battlecruisers, some 10km ahead of the main fleet, sighted Hipper’s ships sailing south, and a few minutes later opened fire, damaging two battlecruisers and sinking the Lützow.  Scheer responded by sending six vulnerable pre-dreadnought battleships into a holding action, and after keeping Beatty’s guns busy for a few minutes they rejoined the German fleet escaping to the west.

Scheer then turned south for home, and although the two fleets were less than 10km apart and converging when night fell, at about nine, they never met again.  Scouting forces on both sides battled on through the night in a series of costly and often confused actions, costing the German fleet one pre-dreadnought battleship, three cruisers and a destroyer, the British a cruiser and six destroyers.

Partly thanks to effective radio jamming by German crews, no reports of the night actions reached Jellicoe, who let anxiety govern his next move.  Worried about night actions against an enemy with superior searchlights, and about Admiralty reports suggesting Scheer was behind him, he kept on steaming south, enabling the High Seas Fleet to escape around the rear of the Grand Fleet and reach the relative safety of Horn’s Reef by about three in the morning of 1 June.  Jellicoe turned his fleet for home half an hour later.

The two fleets got home without interference from submarines stationed in wait, and the last casualty of Jutland was the German dreadnought Ostfriesland, badly damaged by a British mine in the Jade Bight.

800px-Map_of_the_Battle_of_Jutland,_1916.svg
There’s your map. Thanks, Wikipedia…

Both sides claimed victory.  Both were right and both were wrong. The German Navy won on numbers, and could justifiably claim that both its ships and crews had performed better on the day.  The Royal Navy took a lot of criticism for its operational failures, and the Grand Fleet’s commanders took their fair share for behaving cautiously, but British claims to victory are based on the many months it took the High Seas Fleet to get back into operational shape (the Grand Fleet was pronounced ready for action on 2 June), and on the fact that it never again ventured out in force.  The latter claim is perfectly true, but was hardly a product of the battle, and that brings me back to ‘The Navy’s Bloodiest Day’, ‘The Battle That Won The War’ and the heritage hype.

Jutland involved 274 warships and about 70,000 seamen.  The Royal Navy lost 14 ships, 6,097 men killed and 510 wounded; the German Navy 11 ships, 2,551 killed and 507 wounded.  So yes, Jutland was the Royal Navy’s most costly day out in terms of casualties, but this was hardly surprising when so many men took part in the nearest thing to a major sea battle since the dawn of the mechanised age.

As for Jutland winning the War, that’s rubbish.  The High Seas Fleet was already slated for effective mothballing by the German High Command, and only a huge success at Jutland (or Skagerrak, as it’s known in Germany) could have altered that.  You might say that Jellicoe’s caution spared the Royal Navy any risk of losing control in the North Sea, but otherwise Jutland is a story of errors, failures and accidents, a  series of chaotic skirmishes that very nearly turned into a battle.  Does that really constitute a victory when its only effect was to leave  everything about the naval war unchanged?

28 MARCH, 1916: Infested Waters

A few weeks back, while chatting about a Russian offensive on the Caucasian Front (16 February, 1916: The Walrus in Winter), I mentioned operations along the Black Sea coast.  It occurred to me then that I hadn’t been giving the Black Sea the attention it deserved, given that it was a war zone from the autumn of 1914 until after Russia’s October Revolution in 1917 – so I’ve been looking for an excuse to get back there, and here it is.

On 28 March 1916, Russian torpedo boats in the Black Sea destroyed a Turkish munitions depot and ten merchant ships (most of them sailing craft).  Though this was a bumper haul and received some publicity in the Allied press, it had no great significance for either the Black Sea or the War in general, but it does sum up the first 18 months of the campaign quite nicely.  I’ll try and do the same.

I’ll start with why the Black Sea was a war zone, and a map (stolen, and used before) makes it fairly obvious.

Ottoman-Empires-rail-system-1914-1024x890The Russian and Ottoman Empires had been competing for decades to control the Caucasus region, and Russia’s ultimate territorial fantasy had long been to break into the Mediterranean by seizing the Dardanelles Straits, so the Black Sea was a natural area of contest and both sides had plans for a naval campaign before 1914.

They were modest plans. The Turkish Navy had been undergoing rapid expansion, but was still desperately short of modern warships and could barely cover its commitments in the Mediterranean, while the bigger, more modern Russian Navy was primarily concerned with defending St. Petersburg from German warships in the Baltic. Both sides therefore envisaged an essentially defensive campaign in the secondary theatre of the Black Sea, focused on disrupting the other’s supply routes, and the Russians expected – with some justification – to dominate proceedings.

Russian prospects looked even better when, on the outbreak of war in August 1914, the British government decided to hold on to the two modern dreadnoughts it was building for Turkey – but a few days later the Turkish Navy suddenly acquired two modern German warships, the battlecruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau.  They weren’t as big, powerful or deterrent as dreadnoughts, but once renamed (as the Yaviz Sultan Selim and the Midilli) and deployed in the Black Sea they were the fastest ships in the theatre, and only Russia’s five slow, pre-dreadnought battleships could match the Goeben‘s firepower.

The captain of the Goeben, Wilhelm Souchon, was nominally under Turkish command but – like ‘military advisers’ as we know them today – was actually working for Berlin and committed to pursuing German strategic interests.  In control of what was, for now, the region’s ultimate deterrent, its big guns an obvious threat to Constantinople, he enjoyed considerable autonomy and exerted an understandably powerful influence on Ottoman naval policy.  Once Turkey was committed to joining the Central Powers, at the end of October 1914, Souchon’s priority was distraction of Russian forces from other fronts, and he secured navy minister Djemal Pasha’s agreement to announce Turkey’s belligerent status by leading a surprise raid on the Russian naval bases at Odessa and Sevastopol.

The attack failed to do any lasting damage to ships or facilities, but it did convince the Russians to deploy their old battleships as a defensive unit.  During the next few months they operated only as a group and, apart from an inconclusive, 14-minute skirmish in November, the threat of their combined guns was enough to keep Goeben at bay.   Major warships on the both sides undertook occasional sorties as coastal raiders or escorts, but avoided each other, and the campaign quickly developed a pattern similar to that emerging in the Baltic.  Largely fought by small craft, it centred on disruption of enemy supply lines with minefields, backed by nuisance attacks on enemy coastal installations or harbours.

With more ships, better ships and better crews (their training much improved since a lousy performance against Japan in 1904–05), the Russians held the advantage from the start.  They had already laid more than 4,000 mines in the Black Sea by Boxing Day 1914, when the Goeben hit two of them and suffered serious damage.  The Ottoman Empire didn’t have a shipyard big enough to handle the Goeben, so repairs took months rather than weeks.  Although able to limp out for brief escort missions in February and March, by way of keeping the Russian fleet cautious, the battlecruiser was not fully operational until May 1915, and by then nothing an increasingly frustrated Souchon could do was going to shake Russian dominance.

Most Russian minelaying and commerce raiding – by destroyers, submarines and torpedo boats – was concentrated on the port of Zonguldak, some 200km east of the Bosphorus and the sole entry point for vital Turkish coal imports.  By the middle of the year the Turks had lost dozens of colliers, and before its end coal supplies had been effectively throttled, creating fuel shortages all across an Ottoman war effort heavily distracted by the demands on land and sea of the Gallipoli campaign.

While Russian strength was steadily reinforced by new destroyers and submarines, and Russian raids on the Turkish coast were a regular occurrence throughout 1915, the Turkish Navy lost a cruiser during its only coastal raid of the year, in April, and lost the Breslau for seven months after it hit a mine off Constantinople in July.   The first of Russia’s new dreadnoughts, the Imperatrica Maria, reached the Black Sea at about the same time, and in theory its arrival cemented Russian dominance of the theatre – but in practice it made little difference at first.

Like its counterparts all over the world, the Russian Navy didn’t like taking risks with dreadnoughts, or for that matter with any other big, expensive ships.   Although Berlin ignored most of Souchon’s incessant calls for reinforcements in the Black Sea, two German U-boats had been sent there in the early summer, and the threat was enough to prompt a Russian ban on all offensive operations by major units from June.   With more U-boats expected (six had arrived by March 1916) the ban stayed in force until October, and when Russian offensive patrols resumed they took few risks.

The arrival of the second Russian dreadnought, Imperatrica Ekaterina II, in December didn’t immediately change anything.  With the blockade of Turkish coal supplies running smoothly, and the Ottoman Navy less and less of an offensive threat,  the campaign was still dominated by the ‘mosquito’ warfare of smaller craft into early 1916 – but by March the Russian Black Sea fleet was in the process of finding a new role.  On 4 March, Russian fleet units supported troop landings on the Black Sea coast at Atna, and in April they would perform the same task on a larger scale as General Yudenich took the major port city of Trabzon.

In a theatre complicated by Bulgaria’s alliance with Central Powers in late 1915 and Romania’s in mid-1916, the minelaying and raiding of commerce war would  continue and intensify, but from now on the Russian fleet would also perform an important army support role, transporting and landing thousands of troops during the next two years.  The turkey shoot enjoyed by Russian torpedo boats in late March was just a small propaganda event at the time, but with hindsight it was the firework display that marked the end of the campaign’s first phase.

I’ll finish with a tease of a ‘what if’.  In May 1915, just before fear of U-boats triggered a burst of caution, the Russian high command toyed with sending the Black Sea fleet into the Bosphorus to support the Anglo-French attack on the Dardanelles. The idea was soon dropped (as unlikely to make much difference to the disaster brewing on Gallipoli), but if imagining where we’d be with a different history floats your boat, have fun picturing the twentieth century with Russian warships all over the Mediterranean.

15 JANUARY, 1916: Beneath The Surface

It’s the middle of January, and a hundred years ago the British were talking about the weather.  Fair enough, given that the War in Europe was quiet and the only British actions of note were taking place in Mesopotamia, where propaganda was still masking the failure of attempts to relieve the siege of Kut – and fair enough given the state of the weather.

After the coldest November in British history, and the fourth wettest December ever seen in England and Wales, January 1916 was on the way to becoming the mildest on record.  These records stand today, but in 1916 the end of the world meant global warfare rather than global warming, and they were generally seen as evidence of divine critique rather than climate change.

I mention the weird warmth of Western Europe for atmosphere, so to speak, and apropos of nothing in particular, because its effects on the War were largely confined to fuel savings and logistic benefits. The kind of military opportunism that might have exploited it with a surprise initiative wasn’t on anybody’s agenda, and not just because the major European powers needed to take stock and restock before the inevitable, heavyweight confrontations of the spring.

The technologies of contemporary ground warfare were too vast and cumbersome to do anything spontaneous on a large scale; aircraft technology was only just approaching the capacity to inflict more than strategic fleabites; and, as I’ve mentioned in detail before, naval warfare’s strategic weapons, the most modern surface fleets, were far too expensive and prestigious to be risked in acts of daring. That brings me, in undeniably tortuous fashion, to today’s centenary, because on 15 January 1916 Admiral Reinhardt Scheer succeeded Admiral Pohl as c-in-c of the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet.

The High Seas Fleet was the product of Kaiser Wilhelm’s recklessly expensive attempt to rival British sea power, and had been very big news in the years before 1914.  Its construction had triggered a naval arms race with Britain, and as it grew into a formidable force of modern warships it became both a symbol of German geopolitical ambition and a source of mounting British paranoia, seen as a clear and deliberate threat to national security.  Its very existence, operating out of North Sea bases at Wilhelmshaven and Cuxhaven, compelled the Royal Navy to protect the North Sea with the Grand Fleet, a superior force on paper and centred on Scapa Flow.  Come the outbreak of war, facing each other across the Kaiser’s chosen battlefield, these naval juggernauts, the most powerful ever seen, stood ready to… wait for the other to make the first move.

And so it went.  Both fleets wanted victory, not least as justification for their enormous cost to both economies, but neither wanted risk, and by the end of 1915 what had looked like being modern warfare’s showpiece campaign amounted to a few raids and one or two largely accidental skirmishes.  This put both fleets under popular and political pressure to do better.  In politically stable Britain, respectful criticism of the Royal Navy reflected its enormous contribution to centuries of Empire.  On the other hand politically volatile Germany had no naval traditions, and at the modern equivalent of between £60 and £120 million a shot, critics of the German Navy could think of more useful things to buy than idle warships.  In short, the High Seas Fleet needed to justify itself, hence the appointment of Scheer, one of very few senior Fleet officers to have emerged from the North Sea’s phoney war with a reputation for aggression.

Approaching his mid-fifties, Scheer had been in command of the Fleet’s Second Battleship Squadron in August 1914, and transferred to lead the Third Squadron that December.  He hadn’t done much with his battleships by the time he took overall command of the Fleet – such action as took place had been carried out by Admiral Hipper’s fast, hit-and-run battlecruisers – but he had talked a good fight, and did prove a more aggressive leader than the infinitely cautious Pohl.  In May, Scheer’s willingness to take a risk would be the catalyst for the only major wartime action between the two fleets, the near miss that was Jutland, but the real significance of his tenure lay elsewhere.

Jutland confirmed Scheer’s opinion that large surface warships were redundant in the North Sea and the Baltic.  A torpedo specialist as a junior officer, he now threw his considerable weight behind increased use of submarines, both as fleet weapons against enemy warships and as purveyors of Handelskrieg, or trade warfare.

Scheer sponsored a rapid increase in U-boat construction, and made no secret of his complete support for ‘unrestricted’ submarine warfare against enemy trade.  He lobbied successfully for the restricted campaign against British merchant ships that opened in March 1916, and protested by recalling all his U-boats from the Atlantic to the North Sea when the Kaiser changed his mind in April. Scheer’s death or glory approach to submarine warfare, more concerned with victory than with keeping the USA out of the War, found full support in the autumn, when the Kaiser fell under the effective control of a new supreme command led by Ludendorff and Hindenburg.

Restricted attacks against British trade recommenced in October 1916, and U-boats destroyed about 300,000 tons of British shipping per month for the rest of the year.  British leaders were worried, but kept it from the pubic, while a triumphant German command ensured maximum publicity for the idea that Britain could be starved to defeat in six months.

Could U-boats win the War for Germany? Looks a good bet here…

As Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s opposition to the Navy’s new approach crumbled with the failure of peace overtures to the Allies, the German press, public opinion and most of the Reichstag were strident in their support for the campaign.  On 7 January 1917, less than a year after Scheer’s appointment, the Kaiser bowed to pressure from all sides and signed the order to prosecute unrestricted submarine warfare from 1 February.  Death or glory had won the argument over the German Navy’s wartime role, and within a few weeks the victory had provided justification for US entry into the War.

Scheer would go on to preside over an increasingly desperate search for victory through Handelskrieg until almost the end.  Appointed head of a new Naval Supreme Command in August 1918, when he knew the War was lost, he signed off his military career in the style he personified, planning a ‘heroic’ final attack on the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet.  It was prevented by the sailors’ Kiel Mutiny on 30 October, and as Germany crumpled into revolution Scheer was finally dismissed by the Kaiser a day before the Armistice.

So, during a quiet week in January 1916, what seemed a simple change of command designed to bring vigour to the North Sea’s gigantic fleet face-off, turned out to be a catalyst that helped to redefine naval warfare in the context of total war, and to bring the United States into the business of world policing.  Thanks for that, Reinhardt.

7 JANUARY, 1916: The Food Chain

Out in Mesopotamia, at Sheikh Sa’ad, on the Tigris just southeast of Kut, the first British attempt to relieve General Townshend’s besieged force was in the process of failing, suffering some 4,000 casualties and gaining a single line of trenches before Turkish defenders withdrew. In Gallipoli, the Anglo-French evacuation was finally drawing to an end, and the Russian Army in Galicia was spending its Christmas Day in a hopeless struggle against Austro-Hungarian artillery. But that’s enough fighting and dying, let’s talk about Arthur Henderson’s trip to the Netherlands.

Henderson was a British politician. At the time he was President of the Board of Education, a member of the cabinet and leader of the Labour Party, one of only three Labour politicians to serve in the coalition government. A hundred years ago he was in The Hague, charged with talking Dutch workers, business leaders and politicians into shaping their national economy according to British war aims. The visit was a watershed moment in a long saga that reflected the changing geopolitics of the age, and that began in August 1914.

For the Netherlands, a small nation dependent on seagoing trade, next door to Germany and across the water from Britain, the outbreak of war was a diplomatic disaster. With no dog in the fight, nothing to gain and everything to lose by declaring war on bigger powers, the Dutch could only remain neutral, but that didn’t spare them pressure from both sides as the conflict got underway.

Assured by Germany on 2 August that its territorial integrity would be respected, the government in The Hague turned down a British offer of alliance and instead closed the Scheldt to all warships, a technically neutral move but one that favoured Germany by protecting the flank of its advancing armies from the Royal Navy. This was hardly a choice for the Dutch, given that any other response might trigger a German invasion, but of course it annoyed the British, who announced that they would respect Dutch neutrality – unless it became ‘one-sided’.

In fact the British, certain that naval blockade was the key to undermining Germany’s war effort, treated the Netherlands (and other neutral countries with strong trading links to Germany) as if they were economic enemies from the start. By the end of August 1914, the Royal Navy had stopped more than fifty Dutch ships and seized three loads of American grain bound for the Netherlands, while the UK government had stated its intention to prevent food, as well as war materials, from reaching Germany via neutral ports. As the year went on the British blockade tightened, wreaking havoc on the flow of trade from America that was fundamental to Dutch economic stability.

Compelled to appease the British, the Dutch government managed to reduce ‘stop and search’ delays to transatlantic trade by forming the country’s leading banks and businesses into a consortium, the Netherlands Oversea Trust (NOT). As a private company, and so able to liaise with the British without compromising Dutch neutrality, the NOT acted as a clearing-house for imported goods and guaranteed that contraband (as defined by the British) wouldn’t be sold on to Germany. The British, happy to be handed effective control over Dutch transatlantic imports, generously agreed a temporary relaxation of blockade against goods from the Dutch East Indies. For a year or so relations between the two countries were relatively smooth, as was Dutch passage across the Atlantic, and the British went on to use the NOT as a blueprint for addressing the contraband issue in other neutral states.

Generally speaking, having witnessed at close hand the effects of occupation on Belgium, Dutch politicians, businessmen and civilians were sympathetic to the Allies throughout the War – but the NOT agreement put the neutrality boot on the other foot, and now the Dutch could only appease Germany. Germany needed food and raw materials, and so 1915 saw a boom in the trade of home-produced Dutch goods across the frontier. Dutch exports to Germany in 1915 ran at almost four times pre-War levels, with agricultural produce dominating the market, and were still rising at the end of the year.

So of course the British spent 1915 lobbying the Dutch to stop ‘feeding the enemy’, but diplomatic efforts didn’t cut much ice against the threat of occupation, and by late summer the Royal Navy was again stopping, searching and seizing Dutch transatlantic merchant traffic. In September, recognising the impossibility of a complete ban on exports from the Netherlands to Germany, the British accepted an agreement ‘rationing’ Dutch import levels of staple foods and oil to pre-War levels, a measure that would at least reduce the surplus available for export. Unfortunately for the Dutch, this essentially reasonable compromise didn’t last the autumn.

I’ve already mentioned that the military disappointments of the year, and of the autumn in particular, had left British war leadership at a crossroads, short on ideas but bent on change and looking for scapegoats (19 December, 1915: The Empire’s New Clothes). By the end of the year political and military opinion in Britain had decided one key to shortening the War was a tighter naval blockade of Germany, and so Henderson was sent to The Hague to finalise the rationing agreement and bully the Dutch into further concessions.

Henderson got nowhere, but his failure did trigger political reform of the British blockade system. In February, the various departments in various ministries concerned with blockade were merged under a new Minister of Blockade, Sir Robert Cecil.  Cecil renewed pressure on The Hague during the spring, forcing an agreement that required Dutch farmers to sell half their exports to Britain. The farmers refused to cooperate, unsurprisingly when the British paid far less than the Germans, and the so-called Agricultural Agreement soon collapsed, so that by the summer of 1916 the Royal Navy was back at work making life miserable for Dutch merchantmen and, by way of sending a message, doing the same to the Dutch fishing fleet.

Once again caught between a rock and a hard navy, facing immediate shortages and unsustainable economic disruption, the Dutch could only accept an invitation to renegotiate the Agricultural Agreement. When a final version of the Agreement was signed on 1 November 1916, the British finally got what they wanted, genuine (or at least general) cooperation in the enforcement of quotas on Dutch exports to Germany.

The wartime battle for the Dutch economy was over. Food and other exports to Germany from the Netherlands were significantly reduced after 1916, and the British retained effective control over Dutch trading patterns for the rest of the War. But it had been a struggle and, apart from pointing out that Britain treated its good neighbours in the Netherlands as ciphers to be ruthlessly exploited in 1916, that’s the small point of today’s ramble.

In the century of relative peace before 1914, the British Empire had become accustomed to flexing its gigantic economic muscles and dictating policy to small European countries, comfortable in the knowledge that it was far and away the toughest bully in the playground. Britain still wielded the world’s biggest stick during the First World War, but with resources stretched and in the face of serious competition it had to be sharpened and used with greater precision. This was the lesson learned during the shadow war for Dutch cooperation, a clear signpost to an impoverished British Empire’s more modest position in the post-War world.

14 NOVEMBER, 1915: Low Profile

I’ve talked about submarine warfare before. Submarines were important, or at least widely used, in the First World War, and their story has been largely lost to a public mind hooked on iconic Second World War images. It was a good story: a tale of extraordinary bravery and endurance by submariners in machines that were unwieldy, unreliable, uncomfortable and distinctly unsafe; and a strategic saga of fearsome potential never quite realised that would be mirrored by its Second World War sequel.

In both wars, a U-boat campaign against Allied shipping in the Atlantic formed the centrepiece of the submarine story, and the First World War version tends to hog what little modern limelight is available to its submariners. In 1915, on the other hand, the exploits of submarines anywhere were headline news, sensational stuff featuring one of the wonders of the age – and a hundred years ago today, a dismayed British public opened its newspapers to discover that the Royal Navy submarine E20 had been sent to the bottom of the Sea of Marmora.  So this seems a good moment to look beyond the U-boats and doff a hat to the wartime exploits of the British submarine service.

The E20, one of the newest British boats, had met its fate on the afternoon of 6 November, and had been a victim of bad luck. The French Navy submarine Turquoise had run aground in the Dardanelles on 30 October, right under the barrels of Turkish shore batteries, and been captured with its orders and codes intact, including details of a planned rendezvous with the E20. The British boat kept the appointment, but was met by the German U-boat UB14 and sunk by a direct hit from a single torpedo. Of the submarine’s crew of thirty, 21 were killed, the rest rescued and taken prisoner.

The British press was predictably scandalised by the sinking, one of seven British submarine losses during the Dardanelles/Gallipoli campaign, and quick to point the finger at the Admiralty for poor operating practices. Then again, like other British authorities at a time of mounting popular disillusion, the Admiralty couldn’t really win with the press. For much of the previous six months the same papers had been praising the submarines as a success story and panning the Navy for not sending more of them to the theatre.

Despite the losses ­– only six boats survived the campaign – British submarines were a success in the Dardanelles. Four boats were lost attempting to pass through the Straits, a difficult and dangerous feat given the technical limitations of contemporary submarines, but between them the other nine sank two battleships, a destroyer, 5 gunboats, 9 transports, 35, steamers, 7 supply ships and 188 smaller vessels, causing persistent disruption to Turkish supply lines at the front. After a succession of failures to impress the British public, these excellent results came at a very good time for the Royal Navy, and by late 1915 the submarine service had become something of a public relations star turn.

It was about time, given that the British began the War with the best submarine fleet in the world. It wasn’t the biggest fleet in the world, but the Royal Navy’s 40 old boats for coastal defensive work and 17 modern, longer-range D- and E-Type boats outnumbered the German Navy’s ten long-range and 18 coastal craft in 1914, and the much larger French fleet possessed few boats fit for any kind of active service. I’m resisting the temptation to get technical, so take my word for it that the E-Type boat, in service since 1913 and destined to be the mainstay of British wartime production, was the safest, most efficient submarine available to any navy, and comprehensively outperformed contemporary U-boat designs.

From a PR point of view, all these advantages had counted for little during the first months of the War. British submarines were held in a defensive posture, quiet on the margins of public perception as they clustered around home ports for fear of a German naval breakout. All that changed when a handful of E-Types sent to the Baltic began registering successes against German merchant ships in the spring of 1915, and the performance of the Dardanelles flotilla during the rest of the year cemented the position of British submariners, and particularly submarine commanders, as popular heroes in the same mould as flying aces.

Once the Gallipoli campaign had ended, so did the turkey shoot provided by Ottoman shipping around in the Dardanelles. British submariners never again had it so good, but the service expanded steadily and performed with relative success for the rest of the War. Coastal defence and commerce warfare remained their core duties, but British submarines were also occasionally adapted as minelayers and quite frequently deployed in anti-submarine operations.  The latter bring this tiny tour d’horizon full circle.

Wartime British submarines sank a total of seventeen U-boats, and most were trapped using the same subterfuge that did for the E20:  waiting in ambush at a prearranged enemy rendezvous point and dishing out a torpedo at close range. British boats could perform the trick so often because, beginning in December 1914, the Admiralty’s secret Room 40 had been deciphering German Navy radio traffic, a vital advantage that was yet another harbinger of the next war, and is another story I plan to mention one day.

16 AUGUST, 1915: Sea Change

Today in 1915, the German Navy launched the main thrust of a major operation against the Russian (now Latvian) port of Riga, one of the Russian Navy’s most important bases in the Baltic Sea.

The attack involved about half the German High Seas Fleet, which had so far been dedicated to giving the British something to worry about in the North Sea. It was intended to neutralise the much smaller Russian force stationed in the port, and so provide support for advances taking place on the Eastern Front. In practical terms, the German plan was to clear the minefields that had protected Riga since the autumn, bombard the city and destroy its principle warships, chief among them the pre-dreadnought battleship Slava, and then block the port with German mines. It didn’t work, and for the usual reasons.

While two old battleships kept the Slava busy and the rest of the German fleet waited offshore to discourage Russian naval reinforcement, minesweepers went to work on 8 August, but were unable to clear a passage before darkness fell and the attempt was suspended. Various German fleet units were then dispatched to bombard Russian positions on small islands in the vicinity, inflicting only minor damage, before a second, more ambitious attempt to clear a passage through the Gulf of Riga opened on 16 August.

Two dreadnoughts, three cruisers and 31 minesweepers had fought their way past Russian defences by the next day, damaging the Slava in the process. By 19 August Russian minefields had been cleared, and the German force entered the Gulf. So far, so good for the High Seas Fleet, but just as the big warships were poised to complete the kind of victory that might restore their damaged fighting reputation, they fell victim to caution.

Failure to make full use of dreadnoughts and battlecruisers was bad, but losing one or more of the hugely expensive things was much, much worse, so unconfirmed reports of British and Russian submarines in the area were enough to prompt a rapid withdrawal of the entire German force on the following day. Minor damage aside, the operation had cost the German Navy two destroyers and the Russians a single gunboat.  Riga would remain an operational Russian base until September 1917.

Apart from highlighting the switch in German emphasis to the Eastern Front in 1915, and once again demonstrating the Catch-22 that hobbled the great warships of the First World War, this ultimately insignificant naval battle also gives me a chance to mention another of the conflict’s forgotten fronts, the Baltic Sea.

The Baltic was the main theatre of operations for the Russian Navy, which fought a continuous battle against German units in the southern and eastern Baltic from August 1914. Russia’s main aim was to prevent German penetration of the Gulf of Finland, which led to Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was now known), but the navy was also charged with disrupting German trade to and from Scandinavia. Although redeployments from the North Sea occasionally gave German forces an advantage, they were generally outnumbered in the theatre, never had any intention of approaching Petrograd, and were primarily concerned with protecting their trade routes.

At the start of the War neither side felt confident of dominating the Baltic. The Russian fleet simply holed up in the Gulf of Finland behind a field of 4,000 mines and dared the Germans to come after them, while the Germans opted for a defensive approach and laid their own minefields. In September, having taken the measure of German naval weakness in the theatre, the Russians moved west, re-establishing bases in the Gulf of Riga and protecting them with more minefields.

This set a pattern. Major operations like that of August 1915 were the exceptions in a campaign that revolved around minelaying for the next three years. By the end of 1915, the Russians had laid about 4,000 more mines in the Baltic, including fields off the German coast, while a smaller number of German minelayers never stopped working, and both sides soon built up substantial minesweeping fleets. The main targets for mines were cargo vessels, with Russian fields in particular taking a steady toll of merchant shipping throughout the conflict.

Submarine warfare was another, albeit marginal feature of the Baltic campaign. German and Russian boats enjoyed almost no success in the theatre, but were used to some effect as minelayers. British submarines (five of them were in the Baltic by October 1915) fared better, inflicting sufficient damage on German merchantmen to prompt the transfer of several big ships from the North Sea to protect trade routes.

The unceasing battle between minelayers and minesweepers in the Baltic, with major warships watching from safe harbours, was as marginal to the War’s outcome as it was intense. It was eventually ended in late 1917 by the collapse of the Russian war effort, at which point the Russian Navy was ahead on points. Having sunk three times as much shipping as it had lost, it had escaped the eventual capture of Riga by German land forces and arrived without serious damage in the Gulf of Finland, where it lay idle when the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ended hostilities between Russia and Germany.

Like the ‘mosquito’ war fought in the northern Adriatic, the Baltic campaign evolved into an example of modern naval war, and as such was another slap in face for pre-War naval planners wedded to the nineteenth-century doctrine of fleet warfare… and now you know it happened.

7 JULY, 1915: Elephants and Mosquitoes

A hundred years ago today, the Italian Navy suffered its first significant wartime loss, when the large ‘armoured’ cruiser Amalfi went down in the northern Adriatic, killing about 150 of its 400-strong crew.

I mention this anniversary for two reasons. First of all, as I never tire of pointing out, big warships were the ultimate deterrent weapons of their day, and their failure to punch their weight was one of the great shocks to wartime military orthodoxy. It shouldn’t have been. Torpedoes and mines had been around for decades and were obviously a cheap, effective way of destroying even the most heavily armoured big ships – but as with (for instance) nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s, there came a point at which so much money, prestige and propaganda had been invested in battleships and big cruisers that it was easier for those at the top to bury their heads in the sand than admit such a colossal mistake.

All the world’s big navies were riddled with internal disputes about how to protect big ships, how to deploy them and whether it was worth deploying them at all, and the Italian Navy was no exception. Its main components were five modern dreadnoughts completed since 1912, eight pre-Dreadnought battleships, three modern light cruisers and 18 older ‘armoured’ cruisers, of which the Amalfi and her Pisa-class sisters were among the best. When Italian Navy chief of staff Admiral Revel ordered four Pisa-class cruisers to Venice, close to the main Austrian Navy base at Pola (modern Pula), he overrode opposition from those who thought the move too risky, including battlefleet commander Admiral Abruzzi. Admiral Cagni, commanding the cruisers, evidently shared Revel’s head-in-the-sand approach, because he took his ships on patrol with only minimal protection from small ships capable of hunting submarines or deterring torpedo boats.

Only two Italian torpedo boats were screening the Amalfi when she was sunk by single torpedo from a German U-boat sent to the Adriatic in pieces and rebuilt as the Austrian U-26, and an outraged Italian press was quick to blame both Cagni and Revel for the disaster. Revel learned his lesson. The three surviving cruisers remained virtually inactive in Venice until April 1916, when they scampered back to the relative safety of the southern Adriatic, reduced, like so many of their counterparts in other European navies, to a role defined by self-protection.

The Amalfi sinking also gives me a chance to mention a naval theatre of war that was small, deadly, essentially trivial and destined to be largely forgotten by the Anglophone heritage industry.

The Mediterranean as a whole was a crowded hotchpotch of competing navies in 1915, overlain and dominated by the large Royal Navy presence in the region – but the Adriatic was a straight fight between Italy and Austria-Hungary. Since the early years of the twentieth century both sides had been building up their naval strength without knowing if they would be enemies or allies. If Italy stuck with its Triple Alliance partners, the two fleets could combine to threaten Anglo-French dominance of the Mediterranean, and if Italy sided with the Entente they would be needed to fight each other.

Italy duly declared the War against Austria-Hungary in May 1915, and from that point the Austrian Navy was effectively bottled up in the Adriatic. Its only big base was at Pola, pretty much opposite the biggest Italian base in the northern Adriatic, at Venice, and its secondary bases along the eastern Adriatic coast were equally vulnerable to Italian attack. The Italians meanwhile kept most of their modern warships at Taranto, at the Adriatic’s southern tip, and stationed just enough vessels across what was known as the Otranto Barrage to dissuade the Austrians from a breakout that might influence other Mediterranean theatres. Here’s a map, borrowed and removable on request:

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Both sides opted for caution. The Austrians never attempted a breakout, despite German and Turkish requests for help in the Dardanelles and the Black Sea, and the Italians never attempted a major attack on any Austrian bases. Minefields prevented either side from committing major ships to direct support of troops on the Italian Front, and once the Amalfi‘s fate had illustrated the folly of boldness war in the northern Adriatic became a private affair between light naval forces.

Fought by light cruisers, destroyers, torpedo boats, minecraft, naval aircraft and submarines, including German U-boats operating under the Austrian flag out of Cattano (now the Montenegrin port of Kuta) because Italy and Germany were not officially at war, it was a ‘mosquito’ war of coastal raids and attacks on Entente supply lines to Serbia.  It would rage uninterrupted until late 1918, generating dash, derring-do and the destruction of several more big ships, providing both sides with plenty of colourful propaganda and making no strategic contribution to anything, except the parlous state of both wartime economies.  But it was still a war in what we now consider a relatively local holiday region, and it cost a lot of lives, so why ignore it?