17 October 1917: Battle in Moon Sound I

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The battle in Moon Sound, 17 October. Russian shells fall near Kronprinz, whilst König is further ahead. At first the German battleships were unable to reply because the 12- inch guns of Slava outranged their own 30.5cm pieces.

As the range closes, Kronprinz fires a salvo.

The Battle in Moon Sound.

The night passed quietly for Gruppe Behncke. The main concern for the German admiral was the Russian minefields at the southern exit of Moon Sound. The northernmost was rectangular in shape, measuring about 4 miles wide and 1 mile deep, whilst the southernmost was trapezoidal in shape and measured about 5 miles by 1 mile. The German U-boat mine barriers lay to the west of these fields. From the captured Russian pilotage book and the charts of Grom, the location of the Russian mine fields had become known but several mistakes had been made in relaying their positions to Vizeadmiral Behncke by wireless. The original German plan called for the unit to push forward to the west of the trapezoidal field then manoeuvre east between the two fields and give battle to the Russians. This route went uncomfortably close to the U-boat barriers, but the route to the east would take them very close to the 10 metre line and allow little sea room for manoeuvring. The cruisers of the BdAdO would follow and then strike northwest into the Kleinen Sound.

However, just before 0430hrs, an erroneous wireless message arrived, giving details of a narrow mine barrier running north-south between the two larger fields. Although the message was in error, as far as Vizeadmiral Behncke was concerned the situation had changed and now the minesweeper chiefs, Kapitänleutnant Doflein and Kapitänleutnant Weidgen, were called aboard König and given new instructions. The 3rd Minesweeper Half Flotilla would now sweep to the south of the trapezoidal field and then take course to the north from Larina Bank, followed by the battleships, whilst the 8th Minesweeper Half Flotilla and III Mine Sweeper Division would sweep west of the mine fields to clear a path for the cruisers. Valuable time was lost revising these arrangements and it was not until 0600hrs that the advance began in a freshening south-southwesterly wind.

About 0700hrs, the 3 MSHF took course east, sweeping a broad channel south of the trapezoidal mine field, whilst the 8 MSHF continued to the north. Shortly after, both groups slipped their gear, but whilst the 3 MSHF was able to continue eastwards without interruption, 8 MSHF had found mines and had actually pushed onto the southwest corner of the trapezoidal field. At about the same time, König sighted two Russian torpedoboats to the northeast, close under the Estonian coast. It was Deyatel’Nyi and Del’Nyi of XI Division Torpedoboat-Destroyers. However, the Russian torpedoboat-destroyers had sighted the German unit first.

At about 0600hrs Deyatel’Nyi had been patrolling near Larina Bank and had reported ‘twenty-eight smoke columns in the southwest’, and soon afterwards ‘enemy force advances towards Kuiwast’. Upon receipt of this report Vice Admiral Bakhirev ordered Graschdanin and Slava to come south to Kuiwast Roads, where they arrived at 0700hrs. The cruiser Diana, which had arrived from the Finnish Gulf the previous day, was ordered to the north Moon Sound. The torpedoboat-destroyers and transports were ordered to weigh anchor and move to the north of Kuiwast Roads. Some steamers and tugs with civilian crews were released from service, whilst Kontre Admiral Stark boarded Novik where he was ordered to guard the Kassar Wiek and the deep dredged channel, and to prepare the steamers Glagol and Pokoj for scuttling in the channel should it be necessary to retire to the northern Moon Sound. Vice Admiral Bakhirev continued in his report: ‘At 7 o’clock [9 o’clock Russian time], after the latest dispositions were given from ashore by telephone, I arrived on Bayan, and had at my disposal Captain 1st Rank Muromtsev and Flag Officer Leitenant Sokolov. The flag was raised and the order was given to weigh anchor’.

The commander of Bayan, Captain 1st Rank S N Timirev, reported that the battleships were reluctant to move. He wrote:

A few agonizing minutes passed after the release of the signal. Slava and Graschdanin raised their anchors and raised their spheres to ‘medium speed’, but …did not move. Not the slightest breaker was appreciable under their bows. Was it again the ‘morale element?’… Bakhirev approached me and spoke through his teeth: ‘They do not wish to go! What shall we do?’

Captain 1st Rank Timirev had an idea and the signal ‘follow the admiral’ was raised. Thereon the battleships followed Bayan down the Moon Sound to the firing position.

Meanwhile at around 0730hrs German seaplanes carried out a raid on Kuiwast roadstead. The seaplanes dropped a total of fifteen bombs, four of which fell in the roads, eight on the pier and command post, and three near the battery. Neither the command post nor any vessels were directly hit, but the effect of the bombs was impressive. Captain 1st Rank Timirev wrote:

The picture was graphic: all the water around our units literally boiled from exploding bombs, the high water columns mixed with rich black smoke, and the noise and crashing from the detonations was deafening, with splinters whistling in all directions – all this made for an impression of hell. This impression, however, was not related to the results. No damage was caused, short of several hits by fine splinters.

The decision by Admiral Bakhirev to accept battle in the Moon Sound was extremely courageous, but also calculated and aggressive. There was an overwhelming disparity between the opposing forces. The two Russian pre-dreadnought battleships could field eight 12-inch and twenty-four 6-inch pieces, against the two German dreadnought battleships armed with twenty 30.5cm and twenty-eight 15cm pieces. The dreadnoughts were much larger, almost twice the displacement, and carried much thicker armour. However, the sea room was strictly limited in the confined, shallow and narrow channels, and therefore there was no advantage in having superior speed. The mine barriers and shore batteries at Woi and Werder were also an asset to the Russians. Vice Admiral Bakhirev knew that the defence of the southern Moon Sound was the last chance to save the campaign and keep the Germans from the gates of St Petersburg. A stubborn resistance and repulse, or even delay, of the German attack would allow reinforcements to be ferried to Moon and enable further submarine attacks and minelaying to occur. Thus the German lines of communication would be stretched and the force in the Riga Gulf could only be supported for a few days. Then there could be some relief. On the other hand, surrender of the southern Moon Sound and Kuiwast would mean the certain loss of the islands and the enforced evacuation of the Sea Forces of the Riga Gulf. For an officer of the character and experience of Vice Admiral Bakhirev there could be only one decision: continue the defence with all means available, despite the odds.

After sighting the two Russian torpedoboats, the battleship SMS König opened fire on them with her heavy guns. The Russian torpedoboats quickly made off to the north. Soon after, the Germans could make out the Russian heavy units coming south from Kuiwast Roads.

Between 0722hrs and 0730hrs the 10-inch battery on Moon opened fire on the 8 MSHF, III Minesweeper Division and the sperrbrecher vessels. The barrier breakers were immediately ordered to the rear of the German line as, despite their relative immunity to mine damage, they were quite vulnerable to artillery fire. The 8th Minesweeper Half Flotilla was thereon ordered to leave the mine-clearing work to the III Minesweeper Division and to push into the Kleinen Sound.

After a short time the Woi battery ceased fire. As Bayan reached abeam Cape Paternoster she reduced speed and stopped, whilst the battleships continued a little further to the south to their firing positions. The three Russian ships stretched in a line running north – south and prepared to open fire. The guns of Slava could range to 116 cable-lengths (21,400 metres) and those of Graschdanin 88 cables (16,300 metres). The range of Slava would come as a particular surprise to the Germans.

At 0805hrs Graschdanin opened fire on the approaching German minesweepers of the 8 MSHF, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Erich Koellner. Slava and the Woi battery also opened fire. The shells landed all around the sweeper formation, with the Germans reporting the fire of the Woi battery as being particularly well laid. The minesweeper boats were bound by their sweeper gear and had to maintain a steady course without being able to return the fire. Nevertheless, none of the boats was hit, nor suffered splinter damage. When from time to time their gear slipped owing to the shallow water, the minesweepers covered themselves with a smoke screen and in this they were supported by two torpedoboats which Vizeadmiral Behncke had dispatched forward to them.

Meanwhile, the III Minesweeper Division also lay under continuous fire and they worked laboriously at clearing the located mines. Because of an error in relaying the position of the trapezoidal minefield to the III Battle Squadron chief, the Germans remained unaware that they had entered its southwest corner.

At 0800hrs Vizeadmiral Behncke ordered the cruisers to cease their advance so that they would not lay unnecessarily in the fire of the Russian battleships and coastal artillery. König and Kronprinz turned onto an eastwards course, into the channel swept by 3 MSHF under Kapitänleutnant von der Marwitz, south of the trapezoidal field. Meanwhile, Slava had slowly advanced to the south so that she lay between Cape Paternoster and Werder; at 0812hrs she shifted fire from the minesweepers to the eastward-steering German battleships. The German battleships replied with their heavy artillery at a range of 20,400 meters but, much to their chagrin, their shells fell short. The first salvoes were of three projectiles, but then subsequently of five shells. On the other hand, the fire of Slava, directed by her experienced gunnery officer, Starchi Leitenant Rybaltovski, was good, with some shells impacting just 50 metres distant from König. The Germans now found themselves at a severe tactical disadvantage – the 12-inch pieces of Slava outranged the 30.5cm guns on the German dreadnoughts and, moreover, the German ships were restricted to the narrow swept channel and were unable to manoeuvre. Under these circumstances Vizeadmiral Behncke was forced to reverse his course to a westerly heading and withdraw from Slava’s accurate fire.

Graschdanin meanwhile continued firing on the minesweepers with her 12-inch cannon and, when the range allowed, also opened fire with her 6-inch battery. The Russians were confined in a narrow channel with strong currents and they had to utilize their engines to hold position. At 0830hrs, as the Germans had retired, Vice Admiral Bakhirev ordered the battleships to maintain fire on the nearest enemy, the minesweepers. During this time the 3 MSHF continued its advance and at 0840hrs the minesweepers reached Larina Bank and turned north. With that König and Kronprinz resumed an easterly course at 0840hrs, following at low speed. Slava, meanwhile, repositioned a little more to the north, whilst to the west Kontreadmiral Hopman, on observing the squadron chief’s movements, resumed his advance towards the Kleinen Sound. The Russians had resumed fire on the 3 MSHF at 0830hrs and held them under continuous heavy fire since. The shore batteries at Woi and Werder joined in the practice and it became obvious to the Germans that the Russians intended to stop the minesweepers, therefore stalling the entire attack. The minesweepers continued obstinately, M77 and M67 being slightly damaged by shell splinters in the process. Kapitänleutnant Doflein described the experience thus:

the enemy fire began from the right and from far ahead. We were covered by a crossfire from Slava and Tsarevitch [Graschdanin’s former name], Bayan and the shore batteries at Werder. House-high water spouts climbed amongst the half flotilla so that shrapnel and water rained on the boats. It was a wonder that with this hail of shot the half flotilla remained without heavy damage. My brave 3rd Half Flotilla was indeed courageous.

At about 0940hrs, the III Minesweeper Division was brought over to the eastern side of the Russian minefield to assist the 3 MSHF as they advanced to the north, whilst König and Kronprinz waited between Larina and Awanasewa Banks. It was Vizeadmiral Behncke’s intension to allow the 3 MSHF to push north past the large rectangular field and then he would suddenly advance with his battleships and attempt to come to grips with the Russians.

Just before the cessation of fire the bow turret of Slava suffered multiple breakdowns. A double bronze gear wheel and pinion gave out, the shaft was bent and the gear wheel could not be moved. Both guns were therefore rendered unserviceable after the right gun had fired four shots and the left had fired seven shots. Both guns had been supplied to the ship in November 1916 and had fired a total of thirty-four practice rounds and forty-five battle shots. According to the opinion of specialists aboard Slava, the fault lay with the factory for manufacturing the gear wheel from defective material. Nothing could be done to remove or rectify the damage. There were now twenty 30.5cm cannon ranged against the two remaining 12-inch guns of Slava, the four shorter-ranged 12-inch guns of Graschdanin and the two combat-ready 10-inch guns of the Moon Island battery at Woi, which had a slow rate of fire.

There was now a pause in the battle and Vice Admiral Bakhirev signalled that the crews could go to lunch (Russian time being two hours ahead of German time, which is used here). The Russian units moved a little off to the north, where Bayan and Graschdanin anchored, and Slava held using her engines. The torpedoboat-destroyers Ukraina, Voiskovoi, Donskoi Kazak, Turkmenets-Stravropolski, Sil’Nyi and Storozhevoi, together with Del’Nyi and Deyatel’Nyi, guarded against U-boats.

Meanwhile, the German minesweepers continued their work to the east of the Russian minefields. Slava began to manoeuvre closer to them by going astern, though she could not utilize her 6-inch battery as the guns were loaded with anti-submarine plunging projectiles, even though the chance of a U-boat attack was remote.

At 0950hrs Graschdanin weighed anchor, followed soon after by Bayan and Vice Admiral Bakhirev ordered: ‘If the enemy moves nearer, open fire’.

At 1004hrs Graschdanin opened fire on the eastern group of minesweepers. Then Slava also opened fire using her stern turret. Soon afterwards Bayan also opened fire and then Turkmenets-Stravropski and Donskoi Kazak also joined the target practice on the minesweepers at a range of 65 to 70 cables (11,800 to 12,800 metres). The minesweepers responded quickly and developed a smoke screen.

By 1000hrs the German minesweepers were abeam the northern edge of the rectangular minefield and Vizeadmiral Behncke gave the signal ‘utmost power’. Now König and Kronprinz dashed forward, slightly en echelon, so that the latter could bring her guns to bear. At 1013hrs König opened fire on Slava to the right and at 1017hrs Kronprinz opened fire on Graschdanin to the left.1 Further to the left was the armoured cruiser Bayan which remained untargeted by enemy fire until the conclusion of the battle, when König took her briefly under fire. The fire of König, under the direction of I Artillery Offizier, Kapitänleutnant Ernst Meusel, was rapid and well laid and three shells from the third salvo struck Slava below the waterline.

The first pair of projectiles struck the bow 10 to 12 feet below the waterline. The first hit the bow dynamo engine room and exploded either against the hull, or in a ventilation shaft, and produced a huge hole in the interior hull about 3.6 metres in diameter. The electrical power to the bow immediately failed. The crew in the dynamo room were quick witted but barely managed to escape through an emergency exit as the water flooded into all the compartments up to the battery deck. The hatch was torn to pieces, as was the door to the lower compartment of the bow 12-inch turret, and water flooded the bow 12-inch magazine. The other projectile of this pair made an underwater hole in the compartment of the wet stores and capstan flat, which were flooded. The bow immediately took on a total of 1130 tonnes of water.

As a result of these damaging hits the ship immediately took a list of 4 to 5°, which after several minutes increased to 8°. The chief engineer, Mazurenko, ordered counterflooding on the starboard side which reduced the list to 4°. He then went to report the extent of the damage to the commander, Captain 1st Rank Antonov. The bows sank 5 feet deeper, with an average increase of 2 feet, so that the draught at the bow was 31 – 32 feet, and aft was 29 – 30 feet. The bulkheads held nicely, with only a slight leakage through electrical connections.

The third shell from König’s salvo struck the port side of the hull underwater, against the port engine room armour. Luckily however, the armour held and the explosive effect barely damaged the hull, so that the slight leakage could be controlled with the pumps available.

A short time later, at 1024hrs, another two projectiles struck Slava together. One struck on the port side near the forward funnel in the chapel flat, which was being used as a first aid station, and the other struck the battery deck. The first shell disrupted lockers, firefighting equipment (which caused flooding), ladders, a 6-inch magazine and the forward stokehold. A fire started on the upper deck. The forward dressing station was wrecked and there were dead and wounded sailors there. The executive officer, Starchi Leitenant Galler, arrived from the Central Battle Post and took charge of the firefighting. Despite difficulties locating the seat of the blaze because of the thick gas and smoke, the fire was extinguished after ten to fifteen minutes.

Flames, gas and smoke spread across the funnel and emergency exit to the conning tower. Gases from the exploding projectile also penetrated the bunker of the forward boiler room and the handling room of the left bow 6-inch turret. The stokers remained at their stations, but the 6-inch magazine was flooded as a precaution.

Finally at 1039hrs Slava received another two underwater hits. One projectile struck near the boiler room, the other on the armour outside the wireless-telegraphy cabin. In the boiler room compartment three men were killed, including one who was decapitated. The hit on the armour holed it and wrecked the bulkhead of a coal bunker.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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