WORLD WAR 1 1914-1918
The blockade of Germany was not to be hazarded by attrition by U-boat attack, even when the destruction of the dreadnought Vanguard in Scapa Flow by the explosion of unstable cordite, on 9 July 1917, was more than compensated by a squadron of American dreadnoughts. But he made one significant innovation: he began to run the Scandinavian trade, for whose protection the Grand Fleet was responsible, in convoys with an antisubmarine escort of destroyers and armed trawlers. He realised that this made the trade an attractive target for a tip-and-run raid by surface craft, but believed the risk to be acceptable; and when six months elapsed without untoward incident it seemed he was justified. In truth, Scheer was otherwise occupied. The High Seas Fleet was convulsed by mutinies that summer, the consequence of inactivity, short rations, the callous attitude of its officers towards their men, and subversive propaganda by the supporters of the Social Democrats in the Reichstag who were clamouring for peace. The Allies might be powerless to break the German Army’s stranglehold on Flanders, but at home the British Navy’s blockade was sapping the German people’s will for war. By shooting two ringleaders and by other stern measures, Scheer suppressed this revolt as effectively as the French dealt with similar trouble in their Army in the same year. But it was October before he could sail the newly completed light cruiser Brummer, under Captain Leonhardi, and her sister-ship the Bremse, under Captain Westerkamp, for a foray against the LerwickBergen convoy route.
Evading detection by Beatty’s North Sea patrols, these new 28-knot, 5.9-inch-gunned ships reached a position 60 miles to the east of Shetland at dawn on the 17th, and almost at once sighted a homeward-bound convoy. The Brummer’s second salvo disabled the escorting destroyer Strongbow which sank with her flag flying, her after gun still firing. With as much gallantry against overwhelming odds, the Mary Rose followed her to the bottom. The Brummer and Bremse then sank nine out of 12 merchant ships, before retiring at high speed to avoid the British forces they expected to hurry to the scene. But since neither the convoy nor its escort radioed an enemy report, Beatty knew nothing of the attack until the surviving ships reached Lerwick many hours later, by which time the raiders were well on their way back to Germany.
This undoubted success encouraged the Admiralstab to consider similar raids further afield, including the possibility of increasing the fuel capacity of the Brummer and Bremse so that they might operate in the Atlantic. But neither Scheer nor von Hipper would agree to risk their cruisers or battlecruisers in this way, now that the British must have been alerted to the danger. On the other hand, Commodore Heinrich was satisfied that the Scandinavian convoys were still being run with no more than a small anti-submarine escort. So, early on 11 December, he sailed his 2nd TBF, of which four boats under Captain Heinecke turned west at 1700, leaving the other four, under Lieutenant Commander H. Kolbe, to continue to the north. That night Heinecke found two stragglers from a southbound convoy off Berwick and sank them. He then attacked a group of trawlers, sinking one, before turning SE for home at 0700, unaware that he was only 20 miles from the convoy itself, and leaving the Admiralty to suppose that his previous victims had been torpedoed by a U-boat. Kolbe’s northbound force was slowed by bad weather to nine knots, so that his four boats did not reach the latitude of Bergen until 1800 on 12 December. But five-and-a-half hours later they sighted a convoy of six merchant ships, escorted by HMS Partridge and Pellew and four trawlers. These two British destroyers turned to engage them as the convoy scattered and the trawlers made their escape. Ten minutes after opening fire, Lieutenant-Commander R. H. Ransome’s Partridge was disabled and sunk, but not before she had cleared an enemy report, and fired a torpedo which hit V100 but unfortunately failed to explode. The Pellew, with her port engine disabled, could do nothing to prevent the enemy sinking all six vessels in the convoy, although Kolbe allowed her to gain the safety of Norwegian territorial waters rather than risk meeting the British 3rd LCS as it hurried to the scene in response to the Partridge’s report.
The German Navy’s justifiable pride in these two raids was pricked only a week after the second by a humiliating reminder of the omniscient strength of the Grand Fleet. Though Beatty adopted Jellicoe’s cautious strategy, he was always watching for a favourable opportunity to strike at the enemy. In addition to using his seaplane-carriers for raids on Scheer’s zeppelin sheds, he noted that the British minefields which had been laid in the Heligoland Bight as an anti-U-boat measure required the German C-in-C to send his minesweepers as far as 150 miles to seaward of the Jade. And after Tyrwhitt’s light cruisers and destroyers had decimated their torpedoboat escort, he was not surprised to learn that Scheer intended to support further minesweeping operations with a covering force of battleships. Since Beatty’s Battle Fleet had been strengthened by Rear-Admiral Hugh Rodman’s 6th BS, appropriately headed by the New York, and his Battlecruiser Force (as it was now more properly named, because it was a part of the Grand Fleet) had been augmented by the Repulse and Renown, each with six 15-inch guns, and the Courageous and Glorious, with four 15-inch guns apiece, he could afford the risk of gaming a rich prize by a surprise attack on such a German force.
On 16 November, Scheer sent his minesweepers out escorted by two flotillas of torpedoboats, supported by Rear-Admiral von Reuter’s 2nd SG (a new Königsberg (flag), the Frankfurt, Pillau and a new Nürnberg), and covered by the dreadnoughts Kaiserin, Captain Grasshoff, and Kaiser. Forewarned by Room 40, Beatty sailed his Battlecruiser Force, now commanded by Pakenham, accompanied by Vice-Admiral Charles Madden’s 1st BS. Shortly after 0800 next day the German minesweepers were surprised by Commodore Walter Cowan’s 1st LCS and Alexander-Sinclair’s 6th LCS. Slipping their gear, the sweepers fled SE as von Reuter hurried to their rescue-until he came under fire from the Courageous, Rear-Admiral Trevylyan Napier, and the Repulse, Rear-Admiral Richard Phillimore. The 2nd SG then reversed course and, under cover of a smoke screen, headed for the protective wing of Grasshoff’s battleships. There followed a running fight lasting more than an hour, in which the gunnery conditions were too difficult for either side to score more than an occasional hit, until 0930, when Napier judged the risk too great for the larger British ships to advance any further. But when he hoisted their recall, Phillimore remembered Nelson’s example and ignored it. As the Courageous turned back, the Repulse and Cowan’s squadron pressed on, to be rewarded by sighting the Kaiser and Kaiserin, which had been delayed coming to von Reuter’s support by Grasshoff’s inexplicable decision to steer SE, away from the hard-pressed 2nd SG, for a time after receiving their first enemy report, instead of towards them.
On coming under fire from the German battleships, Phillimore and Cowan swung their ships away to the NW, hoping to lead their more powerful opponents to where Pakenham and Madden’s squadrons were waiting. Indeed, von Reuter would have gone in pursuit, but he was unable to persuade Grasshoff to leave the safety of the German minefields, even though the battlecruisers Hindenburg and Moltke were hurrying north to his support. So the action came to an inconclusive end with no losses on either side, apart from a handful of German minesweepers. Nor was there appreciable damage, except to Cowan’s flagship, the Caledon, which `got such a punch in the ribs from a 12-inch shell, that I thought she was going to drop in halves’; and to the Königsberg where two 15-inch hits reduced her speed to 17 knots-but too late in the battle for the British ships to catch her and complete her destruction.
This offensive move by Beatty was nonetheless worth while: by sending heavy ships into waters that the Germans regarded as their own, he disrupted their morale. And Scheer was sufficiently angered by Grasshoff’s inept handling of his battleships to relieve him of his command. However, Beatty did not attempt any further similar operation. In January 1918, the War Cabinet concluded that the failure of the previous autumn’s offensive in Flanders was of such serious consequence that the Grand Fleet should do nothing to provoke a fleet action, even though it had 43 dreadnoughts and battlecruisers to Scheer’s 24. Subject to maintaining the blockade, the Navy’s overriding task must be to defeat the U-boats. The rest of the nation’s effort must be devoted to enabling their Army, which had suffered appalling casualties, to hold back the Germans, who were now being reinforced from their Eastern Front following Russia’s collapse, until the full weight of the American Army could be put into the line in 1919.
A fleet action was, nonetheless, still possible. The two Scandinavian convoy débacles had obliged Beatty to cover the Lerwick-Bergen trade with a division of dreadnoughts, and these might prove sufficient bait to draw the High Seas Fleet. But whilst the British C-in-C welcomed such a chance to avenge the ships he had lost at Jutland, he feared that the Admiralty might fail to give him enough warning for the Grand Fleet to reach the scene before the covering force was overwhelmed. April 1918 showed that his fears were anything but groundless. Scheer had learned, at last, the need to conceal his plans by refraining from using W/T to communicate his sailing orders. Room 40 gleaned no news of the High Seas Fleet’s sortie from the Jade on 22 April, its quarry a large homeward bound convoy covered by the 2nd BCS and 7th LCS. The Admiralty and Beatty remained ignorant of the crucial fact that the German Battle Fleet was moving further afield than it had dared to do for the past four years, until it was as far north as the Norwegian coast to seaward of Stavanger. Fortunately for the convoy, Scheer’s intelligence was 24 hours in error: it had already crossed the North Sea and entered the Firth of Forth. And when he ordered von Hipper’s battlecruisers to search for it, the Moltke chanced to lose a propeller, which flooded an engine-room and brought her to a standstill. This disabling accident obliged Scheer and von Hipper to break W/T silence, which was enough for the Admiralty to order Beatty to sea from Rosyth with 31 battleships, four battlecruisers, 26 cruisers and light cruisers and 85 destroyers early in the afternoon of 23 April. But the High Seas Fleet was already retiring to the south, with the Moltke in tow of the Oldenburg. By nightfall it had crossed ahead of the Grand Fleet’s line of advance, to reach the Jade next morning without incident, except for the near-loss of the Moltke to a torpedo fired by LieutenantCommander C. Allen’s submarine E42, which was patrolling near the northern edge of the minefields guarding the Heligoland Bight.