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The World of Warships Facts & Details

World War One at Sea

World War One At sea

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Ready for war? The British were the winners in the pre-war naval race with Germany. At the outbreak of war, in August 1914, the British Grand Fleet had 20 big gun dreadnought and super dreadnought battleships, and four fast battle cruisers, against only 13 German dreadnoughts and three battle cruisers. Although the cautious Admiral Jellicoe, the commander of the Grand Fleet, worried about the relative strengths of the two forces, in fact the Grand Fleet remained superior to the German High Sea Fleet throughout the war.

The threat from torpedoes and mines had led the British to adopt a strategy of distant blockade, basing their major units in Scotland, notably at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. In this way they shut the Germans up in the North Sea, controlling the access of merchant shipping to Germany and preventing German surface warships from having access to the world ocean.

Neither side was willing to risk their fleets, the British because their superiority already commanded the world ocean, the Germans because they faced almost certain defeat against the whole Grand Fleet. In the background was the restraining influence of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who took a particular interest in his ships and did not want to lose any. With such caution on both sides, a new Trafalgar was unlikely.

The Battle of Heligoland Bight The Heligoland Bight is the stretch of water off Germany's major North Sea base of Wilhemshaven. The battle that bears its name was fought in a confusion of fog and haze on 28 August 1914, when a British attack led by Commodore Tyrwhitt was mounted on German coastal patrols - using the force of destroyers and submarines based at Harwich.

The raid was covered by heavier forces, including Vice Admiral Beatty's powerful 'Cruiser Force A', the First Battle Cruiser Squadron and the First Light Cruiser Squadron, but the operation was marred by poor staff work. Beatty was only sent out at the last minute, and the main attackers did not even know he was coming.

When action was joined, Tyrwhitt had gun problems with his brand new flagship, the light cruiser Arethusa, which was hit by a shell from a German cruiser. More German cruisers appeared to drive off the British destroyers. The day was saved by Beatty, reinforced by two more battle cruisers to make five in all. Three German cruisers and a destroyer were eventually sunk. No British ships were lost, but Arethusa and two damaged British destroyers had to be towed home. The British made much of their victory, but within the Navy there was frustration. A better planned operation could have done so much better.

The Battles of Coronel and the Falklands The most powerful German squadron outside the North Sea in 1914 was the East Asiatic Squadron, led by the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau under the command of Vice Admiral Graf von Spee. He tried to return home via South American waters, and was engaged on 1 November in the Pacific, off Coronel in Chile. His opponent was Rear Admiral Christopher Cradock, whose main force comprised two rather older and les well-armed armoured cruisers, Good Hope and Monmouth. Both British ships were sunk with all hands, an almost unheard of British defeat.

The battle cruisers Invincible and Inflexible were rushed south. They were taking coal on board in the Falklands when Spee walked into the trap by attacking the islands. Seeing warships in the harbour, and fired upon by the old battleship Canopus, which was defending Port Stanley, the Germans retreated with the British, led by Vice Admiral Sturdee, in pursuit.

Escape was impossible. British gunnery was not perfect, but the 12-in guns of the battle cruisers had overwhelming superiority in firepower. Scharnhorst sank with no survivors; 200 of Gneisenau's ship's company were saved when she went down. British cruisers also sank two of the three German light cruisers that were accompanying Spee's force. Only the light cruiser Dresden got away, and she was forced by British cruisers to scuttle in the following March. British honour was thus restored.

The Battle of Jutland, 1916 On 31 May, the Grand Fleet under Admiral Jellicoe, and the German High Sea Fleet under Vice Admiral Scheer, came into contact in the eastern North Sea. When Vice Admiral Beatty's battle cruisers met their counterparts under Rear Admiral Hipper, the Germans turned to draw the British ships onto the guns of their main force. In this 'run to the south', superior German gunnery and dangerous British ammunition handling arrangements led to both HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary blowing up.

As the battleships of the main body of the High Sea Fleet came into view, Beatty turned to the north to draw the Germans onto Jellicoe's guns. He succeeded in this, but, faced by the line of gun fire of Jellicoe's vastly superior battle fleet, the Germans turned away to avoid certain disaster. As the main fleets clashed, the battle cruiser Invincible, operating with Jellicoe, also blew up but not before seriously damaging Hipper's flagship Lutzow, which eventually sank.

Scheer found himself cut off by the British and tried to escape, but was again faced by the British battle line and forced to turn away. During the night, however, he was able to slip home behind Jellicoe. The British remained in command of the sea, but the Germans had escaped, succeeded in inflicting disproportionate attrition, and were not put off from coming out subsequently, for further attempts to wear down the Grand Fleet's strength.

The U-boat threat The Germans were slower than the British in adopting submarines but, as the inferior naval power on the surface, they had more scope for using them to neutralise British command of the sea by attacking both warships and merchant ships. German submarines, or U-boats (Unterseebooten), were turned against merchant ships supplying Britain in February 1915. This was after some successes against warships, and was in retaliation for the increasingly tight British blockade preventing ships carrying vital supplies from reaching Germany.

Submarines could not operate by the conventional rules of merchant raiding, and sometimes they torpedoed on sight. The U-boats' most notable victim was the liner Lusitania, sunk by U-20 on 7 May; this caused the loss of 1,201 lives, with 128 Americans among them. Subsequent American complaints led to orders not to sink liners, but on 19 August U-27 sank the Arabic, killing more Americans. Pressure from Washington now forced the Germans to give up these attacks.

In October 1916, the U-boats began another campaign against commerce. At first they operated under various restrictions, but these were withdrawn on 1 February 1917. American outrage caused the US to enter the war on 6 April. That month, Allied shipping losses were over 860,000 tons. This was unsustainable, and the Allies found they could solve the problem by putting merchant ships into defended convoys. The system was introduced slowly, and proved very successful - and although many ships still sailed independently, those in convoys were safe. Monthly losses were halved by the end of the year.

The Zeebrugge Raid, 1918 Zeebrugge was an outlet for German U-boats and destroyers based up the canal at Bruges, and the British planned to sink three old cruisers Iphegenia, Intrepid and Thetis, in the channel to block it. These would have to pass a long harbour mole (a causeway or pier), with a battery at the end, before they were scuttled. It was decided therefore to storm the mole using another old cruiser, HMS Vindictive, and two Mersey ferries, Daffodil and Iris II, modified as assault vessels. Two old submarines were to be used as explosive charges, under the viaduct connecting the mole to the shore.

The attack went in on the night of 22-23 April, under the command of Commodore Roger Keyes. Vindictive was heavily hit on the approach, and came alongside in the wrong place. Despite much bravery by the landing party, the battery remained in action. One submarine did succeed in blowing up the viaduct, but the first block ship was badly hit and forced to ground before reaching the canal entrance. Only two (Ipheginia and Intrepid) were sunk in place.

Much was made of the raid. Keyes was knighted, and 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded. The Germans, however, made a new channel round the two ships, and within two days their submarines were able to transit Zeebrugge. Destroyers were able to do so by mid-May.

Sea power and victory On 21 November 1918, under the terms of the Armistice agreement, the most powerful units of the German High Sea Fleet surrendered to Admiral Beatty, off the Firth of Forth. This was the result of Allied victory on land, but that victory had only been possible because of Allied command of the sea. Only because of the ability to use the seas had the armies that were victorious in 1918 been supplied and maintained.

The various other land campaigns around the world also depended on the use of the sea. Sea power had maintained the Allied nations in food, fuel and raw materials. Conversely it had starved the Central Powers of all kinds of supplies, in a ruthless blockade that had contributed to their final collapse.

Germany could never have been defeated at sea as Britain could have been. Germany's army was the mainstay of her power, and the only way it could be defeated was by other armies, supported by sea power. In the words of an Admiralty paper, the Navy and the mercantile marine it supported in the years 1914-18 had been 'the spearshaft of which the Allied armies have been the point'.

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