The Battle of Heligoland Bight 1914

German destroyer V187 sinking during the Battle of Heligoland Bight on 28th August 1914 in the First World War.

British light cruiser HMS Arethusa, Commodore Tyrwhitt’s flagship in the Battle of Heligoland Bight on 28th August 1914 in the First World War.

During the first hour of 26 August 1914 the German cruiser Magdeburg ran aground in fog 500 yards off the Odensholm lighthouse in the Baltic. All efforts to refloat the vessel failed and her forecastle was blown off to prevent her falling into enemy hands. Some of the crew were taken off by an accompanying destroyer, but the captain and 56 of his men were taken prisoner when two Russian cruisers arrived on the scene and opened fire, causing the destroyer to beat a hasty retreat. To the Russians’ astonishment and delight, the Magdeburg’s signal code book, cipher tables and a marked grid chart of the North Sea were recovered from the body of a drowned signalman. They were promptly passed to the British Admiralty which set up a radio intercept intelligence branch known as Room 40. By mid-December the code breakers were able to listen to the Imperial Navy’s radio traffic to their hearts’ content.

As if this was not bad enough, on 28 August a strong raiding force commanded by Commodore Roger Keyes penetrated the Heligoland Bight. The raiders were not merely on Germany’s doorstep – they were halfway through her front door. In the lead were two destroyer flotillas commanded by Commodore R.Y. Tyrwhitt, followed by the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron under Commodore W.R. Goodenough and Rear Admiral A.H. Christian’s 7th Cruiser Squadron. Standing off and ready to intervene or administer the decisive coup de grace was Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty’s 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron, consisting of the battle cruisers Lion, Princess Royal, Queen Mary, New Zealand and Invincible with their escorting destroyers. A flotilla of submarines was also attached to the force with the task of alarming the enemy and confusing his response.

The subsequent engagement took place in a flat calm but was a confused affair in which visibility was limited to two or three miles, effectively denying the German coastal defence batteries on Heligoland Island the chance to join in. The British destroyers fought a fast-moving action, sinking one of their opposite numbers, V-187. However, at about 08:00, Tyrwhitt’s flagship, the light cruiser Arethusa, was engaged with a German cruiser, the Stettin. Unfortunately, the Arethusa had only been commissioned two days previously, so her crew had neither the benefits of a shakedown cruise nor gunnery practice – and, like the ship herself, her guns were also brand new and still prone to jamming. A second enemy cruiser, the Frauenlob, joined in the fight and Arethusa began to take a battering. Before long all her guns except for the forecastle 6-inch were out of action for various reasons, an ammunition fire had broken out and casualties were rising. Luckily, at this point the light cruiser Fearless, the leader of the 1st Destroyer Flotilla, arrived and drew off Stettin’s fire. At 08:25 one of Arethusa’s shells exploded on Frauenlob’s forebridge, killing everyone in the bridge party, including her captain. She sheered away out of the battle in the direction of Heligoland, covered by Stettin. The first phase of the battle was over.

The High Seas Fleet command, believing that the only enemy ships in the area were Arethusa, Fearless and the destroyers, now began directing more of its own cruisers into the Bight. Fighting was renewed at about 10:00, by which time Arethusa had recovered the use of all but two of her guns although her maximum speed had been reduced to ten knots. Having seen Frauenlob safely out of the action, Stettin returned to the fray, followed by Stralsund, which immediately became involved in a duel with Arethusa. Four more German cruisers, Koln, Kolberg, Strassburg and Ariadne, entered the fight shortly after so that by 11:00 Tyrwhitt found himself in the midst of a thoroughly disturbed hornet’s nest. He sent a radio signal to Beatty, still some distance away to the north-west, requesting urgent assistance. Beatty despatched Commodore Goodenough’s light cruiser squadron immediately and followed with his battle cruisers at about 11:30.

For those British cruisers and destroyers already engaged with the enemy, there was the constant fear that the German battle cruisers would emerge from their anchorage in the Jade River and send them to the bottom before help could arrive. They need not have worried, for in the present state of the tide the enemy’s heavy warships drew too much water for them to be able to cross the sandbar at the river’s mouth, a situation that would not change until the afternoon. In the meantime, senior German commanders could only fume with rage and frustration while the battle took its course.

Goodenough’s light cruisers arrived at about noon. When, at 12:15, the battle cruisers, led by Beatty in Lion, burst out of the northern mist, there could no longer be any doubt as to the battle’s outcome.

Three of the enemy’s light cruisers, Mainz, Koln and Ariadne, were sunk after fighting to the bitter end, and the rest escaped in a damaged condition. In addition, the battle cost Germany 1,200 officers and men killed or captured. Among those killed aboard the Koln was Rear Admiral Leberecht Maas, commander of the German light forces in the Bight. The British destroyer Lurcher rescued many survivors from the Mainz, including Lieutenant von Tirpitz, son of the German Minister of Marine. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, chivalrously arranged for the International Red Cross to advise the Admiral that the young officer had survived the battle. British casualties amounted to 35 killed and some 40 wounded. Most of the damage sustained was repaired in a week.

The outcome of the battle created a tremendous sense of shock throughout Germany. The Kaiser sent for his Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Hugo von Pohl. He was horrified by the loss that had been incurred during a comparatively minor engagement and impressed upon Pohl that the fleet should refrain from fighting ‘actions that can lead to greater losses.’ Pohl promptly telegraphed Ingenohl to the effect that ‘In his anxiety to preserve the fleet His Majesty requires you to wire for his consent before entering a decisive action.’ In other words, before involving the High Seas Fleet in any sort of large scale action, Ingenohl, a professional naval officer of many years standing, should seek the advice of that old sea dog, Wilhelm Hohenzollern.

The battle and its aftermath marked the beginning of the end of Tirpitz’s career. The admiral had produced a fleet of fine ships that were in some respects better than those of the Royal Navy. They were, for example, compartmentalised to a greater extent, enabling them to withstand considerable punishment, and they were equipped with fine optical gun-sights. Understandably, he did not wish to see his creation destroyed in a fleet action, but neither did he want to see it tied up at its moorings for the duration of the war. In his memoirs, written in 1919, he expressed outrage at Wilhelm’s diktat:

Order issued by the Emperor following an audience with Pohl – to which I was not summoned – restricted the initiative of the Commander-in-Chief North Sea Fleet. The loss of ships was to be avoided, while fleet sallies and any greater undertakings must be approved by His Majesty in advance. I took the first opportunity to explain to the Emperor the fundamental error of such a muzzling policy.

This argument met with no success; on the contrary, there sprang up from that day forth an estrangement between the Emperor and myself which steadily increased.

Today, Pohl’s name means nothing to most people, even in Germany, yet there were two remarkable things about him. First, in 1913 he had been honoured in Great Britain by an appointment as a Companion of the Order of the Bath, a surprising adornment for one of the most senior officers in a rival navy. Secondly, he was quick to realise that the Imperial Navy’s U-boat arm was capable of inflicting far greater damage on the enemy than the surface fleet. Although the German light cruiser Hela was torpedoed and sunk by the British submarine E-9 (commanded by the then Lieutenant Max Horton, who became Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches during World War Two) the months of September and October 1914 belonged to the U-boats, which fully justified Pohl’s opinion of their potential. On 5 September the light cruiser Pathfinder was torpedoed off the Scottish coast and sank with heavy loss of life. On 22 September Lieutenant Otto Weddigen’s U-9 sank, in turn, the elderly cruiser Aboukir, then her sister ship Hogue as she was picking up survivors, then a third sister, Cressey, which opened an ineffective fire against the submarine’s periscope. Of the 1,459 officers and men manning the three cruisers, many of them elderly reservists, only 779 were rescued by nearby trawlers. Weddigen’s remarkable feat earned him Imperial Germany’s most coveted award, the Pour le Merite. On 15 October U-9 claimed a further victim in the North Sea, the ancient protected cruiser Hawke which, having been launched in 1893, had really reached the end of her useful life. The same month saw the seaplane carrier Hermes torpedoed and sunk by U-27. In addition, U-boats had sunk a modest tonnage of Allied merchant shipping, although this would rise to horrific levels as the war progressed. To end a very depressing month, the dreadnought battleship Audacious struck a mine laid by the armed merchant cruiser Berlin off the north coast of Ireland and sank as the result of an internal explosion.