Missed Opportunities

High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte)

SMS Friedrich der Grosse replaced Deutschland as the fleet flagship on 2 March 1913

Britain would bottle up the German navy in the North Sea. The legacy of Trafalgar encouraged British naval officers to hope that the Germans would seek a battle to break the blockade – that the latter would be the means to an end, not an end in itself. Their expectations were reasonable in so far as Germany had to attack if it was to change the balance of power at sea. But that was not the Kaiser’s intention at the war’s outset. Tirpitz had created the fleet to be a deterrent – to support the idea of Weltpolitik, and to persuade the British that Germany was to be taken seriously, either as an ally or as a potential enemy. The logic that underpinned that view did not change during the war itself. For the Kaiser, the ultimate purpose of the fleet’s capital ships was to give Germany leverage at the peace negotiations. In August 1914 Germany had eighteen battleships and battle cruisers to Britain’s twenty-nine. If its High Seas Fleet responded to the challenge to break the blockade by taking on Britain’s Grand Fleet in a major battle, it would lose.

But doing nothing was as frustrating for German naval officers as it was for Beatty. Indeed, it might prove as prejudicial to the long-term survival of the fleet as sailing into the teeth of the British guns. As the junior service, the German navy still had to prove its value to the new nation in a way that the army did not. Tirpitz had spent the best part of two decades battling in the Reichstag for funds to ensure the fleet’s steady expansion. If those ships spent the war safely in the harbours of Wilhelmshaven and Kiel, apparently doing nothing, while the army overran much of Continental Europe, continued high spending on the fleet after the war would be hard to justify. The answer was Kleinkrieg, small operations to erode the Royal Navy’s superiority through the use of mines, coastal batteries and submarines. When the Grand Fleet had lost a few battleships, the strengths of the two sides would be more equal and the High Seas Fleet would be able to risk a battle.

The trouble with this strategy was that its weapons were those of coastal waters. It depended on the British positioning their ships off the German mainland, mounting what was called a ‘close’ blockade. As Beatty’s memorandum for Churchill made clear, the Royal Navy did not need to do this to achieve its objectives. Closing the exits from the North Sea, a ’distant’ blockade, was just as effective in denying Germany access to the world’s oceans and trading routes, and obviated the risk of losses caused by Germany’s maritime defences. Distant blockade, which Britain adopted at the outbreak of the war, closed down one German option; however, it opened up another. The Grand Fleet itself was based at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, so shutting the northern exit from the North Sea to the Atlantic. Although smaller units were stationed elsewhere, much of the east coast of England was comparatively undefended. 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. The British press made much of another instance of the Huns’ brutality, but the sufferings of non-combatants were not the prime purpose of the raid. The Germans hoped to tempt British forces into pursuing them over freshly laid minefields. Moreover, the battleships of the High Seas Fleet lay offshore to give support to the Scouting Squadron. Beatty’s own battle cruisers had been reduced in number by the despatch of Invincible and In-flexible to the South Atlantic to deal with Spee, and the decision was taken to keep the bulk of the Grand Fleet in harbour. As a result ten British capital ships set out in search of twenty-four German. The latter had succeeded better than the fleet commander, Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, realised: he had in his grasp what proved to be the only opportunity for a major naval victory vouchsafed the Germans in the entire war. But he did not know that the Grand Fleet was confined to Scapa Flow. Alarmed by the volume of British wireless traffic, he turned for home.

In this there was a double irony. First, the British were as a general rule far more observant of radio silence than the Germans, preferring to use flags for tactical communications, even when the weather or smoke obscured visibility and made the flags hard to read. Second, the fact that the encounter had taken place at all was the product of German wireless transmissions, intercepted by British signals intelligence.

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. Listening stations were set up along the east coast, so that cross-bearings could enable the position of the vessel sending the message to be fixed, and the intercepted signals were analysed in a newly created department within the Admiralty Old Building, Room 40. Staffed by academics, not professional sailors, its operational effectiveness was principally the achievement of the director of naval intelligence, Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall, so called from his constant blinking, a habit his daughter somewhat improbably attributed to the terrible food at his preparatory school. But there was much that was unlikely about Hall, a fearsome interrogator of prisoners and a devious runner of agents and spies: ’all other secret service men are amateurs by comparison‘, the American ambassador in London told President Wilson. Room 40’s work was aided by the Germans’ belief that wireless might offset their numerical inferiority: it enabled real-time communication and so facilitated the concentration of forces in space and time. The effect was that their chatter, which continued between ships even when in harbour, conferred exactly those advantages on their enemy.

Not that the British got it right all the time, as the missed opportunity of 16 December 1914 showed. British naval intelligence’s ongoing achievements were negative. It prevented the German navy from appreciating that its codes were compromised, although the captain of the Königsberg in East Africa in 1915 did realise as much, and its ability to give the fleet warning of a German sally enabled the British east coast to be defended despite the Royal Navy’s abandonment of the North Sea. What the Royal Navy found much more difficult was the integration of intelligence with operations, and doing so without compromising long-term security. Commanders at sea were told no more than the naval intelligence directorate felt they needed to know. In particular, they were refused permission to decode intercepts at sea. The evidence of their own eyes might be at odds with the incomplete and progressively obsolescent information fed them from the Admiralty. Intelligence created opportunities for the budding Nelsons of the Great War but then curbed their initiative.

On 23 January 1915 Room 40 warned Beatty and his battle cruisers that Hipper’s Scouting Squadron was once again putting to sea. But the Admiralty assumed that the Germans planned to raid the east coast as before, and therefore put the weight on the defence of the British mainland and not on cutting Hipper off from his base. In fact, Hipper was instructed to reconnoitre the Dogger Bank, with a view to attacking fishing boats and to laying mines off the Firth of Forth. Consequently the battle which ensued took the form of a pursuit rather than an envelopment. 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. There were no submarines in the vicinity, a fact known to Room 40 but not relayed to Beatty.

Beatty blamed his disappointment on the problems of communication. But by focusing attention here he prevented a more thorough discussion of the design problems of the battle cruiser itself. The First Sea Lord, Jackie Fisher, is most often remembered as the mastermind behind the Dreadnought, the all-big-gun battleship, adopted in 1905. However, Fisher’s favourite project was not the battleship but the battle cruiser. He recognised as clearly as did the Germans that Dreadnoughts were vulnerable to torpedoes, launched from destroyers or more particularly submarines, weapons which might prove especially effective in confined waters like those between Britain and mainland Europe. His belief that lighter – and cheaper – vessels might be sufficient to protect Britain from invasion did not mean that he saw the capital ship as redundant. Its role, like Britain‘s, was global, and its task to dominate the world’s oceans. The Dreadnought was an evolutionary design, a staging post to the battle cruiser, a vessel which would have the speed of the cruiser but the punch of the battleship. The first Dreadnought mounted 12-inch guns and could maintain a speed of 21 knots; in December 1914 Fisher secured approval for battle cruisers with 15-inch guns and a speed of 30 knots. The victory at the Falklands seemed to vindicate Fisher’s designs. But in the pursuit of speed he had shed armour, particularly on the deck, which was rendered vulnerable to the plunging fire that long-range gunnery encouraged. The ship’s survivability depended on her speed and on the range at which she fought, but the pursuit of both these attributes militated in turn against effective gunnery. Gunnery was the most venerated specialisation of the Royal Navy, but it was not very good at it. At the Falklands Invincible and Inflexible achieved one hit per gun every seventy-five minutes, and took five hours and 1,174 shells to sink two inferior vessels. At the Dogger Bank, when confronted with more equal opposition (if the Blücher is discounted) only six heavy shells out of 1,150 had found their targets. The response was to stress the rate of fire over its accuracy, and therefore cordite charges, ready for use, were stored in the gun turrets themselves, and doors to magazines were left open. The safety of a ship was deemed to rest more on quick firing than on her formal protection.


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