SMS Seydlitz – Operational History I

SMS Seydlitz 1915

“Drauf Seydlitz!” [“At it Seydlitz!”]

In April 1913 Seydlitz was delivered to Kiel by a dockyard crew. On 22 May the cruiser was put into service and began trials. The crew of Seydlitz came for the most part from the armoured cruiser Yorck, and was augmented from elsewhere. It is recorded that at first there were some disruptive and unco-operative men, but these were weeded out by the Yorck crewmen, and soon Seydlitz was considered a ‘happy ship’.

The trials were interrupted when in June the Kaiser ordered Seydlitz to Kiel to participate in Kiel Week. On 29 June he visited the ship, and on 3 July King Victor Emmanuel III, King of Italy, also visited. After the regatta was over Seydlitz resumed trials, but on 26 July briefly grounded near Friedrichsort lighthouse in fog. Trials concluded on 17 August and on 31 August the Panzerkreuzer joined the assembled High Sea Fleet near Helgoland and immediately went on manoeuvres, which concluded on 9 September. Seydlitz participated in further training with the Unit of Reconnaissance Ships for the remainder of 1913.

Training continued in 1914 and at the end of March the spring manoeuvres took place in the North Sea, followed by fleet manoeuvres in the Baltic and North Sea in April and May. Kiel Week 1914 followed in June and on 23 June the BdA, Kontreadmiral Franz Hipper, transferred his flag from Moltke to Seydlitz. With a few brief interruptions, Seydlitz served as flagship until 26 October 1917. A letter dated 1 July 1914 names Seydlitz as one of the ships being considered to visit America for the opening of the Panama Canal, along with Derfflinger and Karlsruhe, and perhaps also Graudenz. After the opening ceremonies the squadron would visit San Francisco.

On 13 July 1914 the last peacetime exercises of the High Sea Fleet began and after the combined North Sea and Baltic forces rendezvoused in the area of Skagen the exercises took place. On 25 July Seydlitz ran into Sognefjord, Norway, where she coaled. However, the very next day, 26 July, Seydlitz departed the fjord and on 27 July rendezvoused with the fleet off Cape Skadenes before returning to her home port of Wilhelmshaven. The reason for the premature return home was the imminent danger of war.

On the evening of 1 August 1914, as Seydlitz lay in Wilhelmshaven Roads, the order came for mobilisation the following day, and the anti-torpedo nets were set and a war watch was posted. With the outbreak of war the reconnaissance forces were divided into groups, the Große Kreuzer being formed into the I AG, or I Reconnaissance Group, with Seydlitz as flagship. On 17 August the I AG put to sea for evolutions during the morning and calibre shooting in the afternoon; however, at 14.15 a submarine alarm was raised and the practice was broken off. The alarm proved false and the calibre shoot was resumed before Seydlitz and the I AG returned to the Jade.

On 18 August steam was raised in all the boilers in readiness to put to sea, should support for Straßburg and Stralsund be necessary during their sortie into the English Channel. That evening Seydlitz went into the dockyard before returning to Schillig Roads on 21 August. On the morning of 28 August 1914, as Seydlitz lay in Wilhelmshaven Roads, a wireless report arrived at 08.50 about the penetration of enemy forces into the Helgoland Bight. At 09.00 a message was sent to the BdA by the Flottenchef for the Große Kreuzer to immediately raise steam; however, because the port main condenser was being retubed, only the starboard engine was clear. At 13.15 a wireless message arrived from the small cruiser Mainz, which said: ‘Am chased by enemy battlecruisers.’ With that Seydlitz weighed anchor and steered down the Jade at a speed of 20kts. At 15.30 the port engine was again working. At 16.10 Seydlitz joined the other cruisers – Moltke, von der Tann, Stralsund, Straßburg and Danzig – and ordered an advance to the NW. Nothing was seen of athe enemy, so at 16.55 a turn was made and the cruisers ran back into the Jade. The following day Seydlitz entered the harbour.

After leaving the harbour on 1 September, Seydlitz resumed picket duty in Schillig Roads before fleet manoeuvres were conducted on 12 September. An interesting phenomenon was discovered when, on 17 September, with the torpedo nets deployed, the added resistance to the tide caused the ship to drag its anchor, so that the nets had to be recovered. On 24 September it was reported that British forces had entered ‘the Belt’ and would break into the Baltic, and so at 00.30 on 25 September the I AG was ordered into harbour to prepare for the canal trip to the Baltic. These preparations consisted of lightening ship by removing coal and water to reduce the draught. At this stage of the war the ships were required to have a draught of just 8.5m for the canal trip, and this was increased to 8.8m in November as the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal was continually being dredged. However, at 02.30 preparations for the canal trip were broken off on the orders of the Flottenchef of the High Sea Fleet and the coal stocks were reloaded.

At 08.00 on 16 October 1914 Seydlitz ran out of harbour to Wilhelmshaven Roads to resume picket duty, when some noises became apparent in the starboard low-pressure turbine, which suggested turbine blade damage. So at 11.30 anchor was weighed and Seydlitz undertook a trial trip to Schillig Roads and back during which a considerable noise was heard coming from the starboard low-pressure turbine, necessitating opening it for an inspection. At 01.00 on 18 October the cruiser made fast in the construction harbour of the imperial dockyard and opening the turbine began. By 23.00 the turbine was open and it could be seen that in one series of turbine blades seventeen were bent, but otherwise there was little damage. Repairs were carried out and on 21 October work began on closing the turbine, however it was not until 27 October that the engines were again operational.

On 30 October exercises were undertaken in Schillig Roads, followed on 2 November by execution of War Task 19, the bombardment of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. At 16.40 Seydlitz weighed anchor and steered down the Jade before taking a course north into the North Sea at 21kts on a night with poor visibility of just 1–3nm and a full moon that was partly hidden by clouds. During the night a number of trawlers were passed and at 06.12 on the morning of 3 November speed was reduced to 15kts before at 07.30 Smith’s Knoll buoy was sighted and passed. Steering between sandbanks, the German cruisers approached the coast and at 08.00 the torpedo-gunboat Halcyon came in sight to the SSW. At 08.17 Seydlitz opened fire on this ship with her medium-calibre artillery at 98–120hm range. Then three minutes later the heavy artillery opened fire on Great Yarmouth at a range of 130–150hm, before at 08.25 both heavy and medium artillery concentrated fire on Halcyon and several straddling salvos were observed. However, soon afterwards fire was ceased and Seydlitz set off away to the east at 21kts. At 09.00 the course was changed to ENE, and at 09.50 a smoke cloud was sighted, which came from a light cruiser with three funnels that made off to the east at high speed. At 10.30 Seydlitz increased speed to 23kts but at 11.30 reduced to 22kts and then at 12.40 to 20kts.

There were no further significant events, and just after midnight on 4 November the German cruisers anchored in the outer Jade, as there was fog and visibility was very poor. Only at 16.30 did the weather clear and the units could weigh anchor and steer up the Jade, Seydlitz anchoring in Schillig Roads at 17.30. Kapitän zur See Egidy commented that travelling without making smoke was impossible at more than 21kts, and for extended periods was only possible at speeds of 15kts or less.

On 6 November Seydlitz ran into Wilhelmshaven harbour and made fast to berth B7 in the construction harbour to change the left barrel of turret C, which had been damaged by a barrel explosion during the bombardment of 3 November. The barrel change was only completed on 10 November, and that afternoon Seydlitz ran out into Wilhelmshaven Roads.

On 15 November the Panzerkreuzer Derfflinger was deployed to the I AG, and so on 20 November the unit put out into the North Sea for a short advance to the NW for the reception of Derfflinger into the unit, followed by evolutions and torpedo-firing exercises, then further evolutions. At 16.15 two wireless messages arrived, one after the other, about the sighting of two enemy submarines nearby in grid squares 157 epsilon and 144 epsilon. The submarine concerned was the British E11. At 17.00 Seydlitz sighted a dark object on the horizon, which approached slowly – seemingly the conning tower of a submarine. The small cruiser Straßburg and the V TBF were ordered to push ahead and clear a path for the I AG back to the Jade River. That evening at 22.30 Seydlitz anchored in Schillig Roads without further alarm.

A period of picket duty followed, apart from an abortive advance into the German Bight on 9 December. The next major operation was the conduct of War Task 20, the bombardment of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool. At 03.00 on 15 December the I AG weighed anchor and ran down the Jade into the North Sea. The wind was from the south at force 2, there was a slight swell and visibility was just 2–3nm. The unit made a course north at 15kts and later turned to NW by N. During the day there was some mist and rain, and in the evening course was taken WSW and then W by S. By 06.00 on the morning of 16 December the wind had freshened to NW force 4–5 and the swell had increased to Swell Strength 4. At 07.00 Straßburg reported that there was a heavy swell inshore and the small cruisers could no longer maintain their course, so Straßburg, Stralsund and Graudenz, with two Flottillen, were detached back to the main body. At 07.40 the I AG divided into two groups, Seydlitz, Moltke and Blücher going north to bombard Hartlepool, and von der Tann, Derfflinger and Kolberg going south to bombard Scarborough and Whitby, with the small cruiser to lay mines. As Seydlitz steered north at 20kts the Salt Scar buoy came in sight. Along the coast was steamer traffic while to seawards some trawlers could be seen. At Hartlepool the watch station and the harbour entrance lighthouse both made a recognition signal, and then at 0905 four destroyers came into view in the N by W. Six minutes later fire was opened on them. A short time later, at 09.26, fire was opened on the Cemetery Battery. In the harbour a light cruiser could be seen but could not be taken under fire because of poor visibility. At approximately 09.45 Seydlitz was hit by three shells, one in the forecastle, one on the forward funnel and one on the forward edge of the aft ventilator and at 09.46 she ceased fire and, after the other two cruisers assembled by her, course was taken ESE at 23kts to rendezvous with von der Tann and Derfflinger. At 10.30 the rendezvous was made and the German unit shaped course back to the German Bight; however, at 12.00 Stralsund reported an enemy main body in sight and that they were being pursued. Seydlitz and the I AG steered towards the reported enemy and the order was given: ‘Clear ship for battle!’ The British forces were reported as the II and IV Battle Squadrons. At 13.30 speed had to be reduced to 21kts because Kolberg could not maintain any higher speed in the heavy swell. Then at 13.45 Stralsund reported that the enemy was out of sight and so the Panzerkreuzer took a course north, so as to avoid the enemy battle squadron.

During the night Seydlitz and the I AG steamed back across the North Sea and passed to the east of Helgoland enroute to the Jade. At 09.30 on 17 December 1914 Seydlitz anchored in Wilhelmshaven Roads. The following day she went into the dockyard.

The Battle of the Dogger Bank

Towards 18.00 on 23 January Seydlitz weighed anchor and steered down the Jade and out past War Light Vessel A on the Jade. During the night the Panzerkreuzers of the I AG steered towards the Dogger Bank and their next meeting with the enemy. There was good visibility during the night though the heavens were covered as the I AG, under the command of Kontreadmiral Franz Hipper, ran on at 13kts, their most economical speed.

As it was becoming light, on the morning of 24 January 1915, Seydlitz received a signal from Kolberg that several enemy ships were in sight, and the thunder of gunfire was heard to the west. At 08.19 the I AG turned west and increased speed, before at 08.29 resuming their previous course of WNW. Just three minutes later, at 08.29, Seydlitz swung onto course SE and went to ‘utmost power’ at a speed of 23kts, but then reduced to 15kts to allow the small cruisers to position themselves ahead of the main body. By 08.40 Seydlitz was running at 20kts, but reduced to 18kts at 08.43, then increased again to 23kts at 09.00. At 09.25 Blücher reported seven light cruisers and twenty-six destroyers in his sight aft, with further smoke clouds behind them. At 09.55 the order was given aboard Seydlitz to ‘clear ship for battle’, as astern to starboard, in the WNW, five large ships with tripod masts could be made out, although their type was not identified. The forwardmost had opened fire with slow deliberate shots. At 09.58 Blücher reported five enemy battlecruisers and at 10.08 Derfflinger was able to open fire. At 10.10 the order to open fire was given, but nevertheless only Derfflinger could comply. The British cruisers were also veiled in smoke as the Germans lay to windward and most of the time only the leading British ship was visible. Finally, at 10.19 Seydlitz was also able to join in the firing. At 10.25 she received her first hit, on the forecastle. Seydlitz continued to steer SE by E with 255 revolutions. Then suddenly, at 10.43, she received a hit with fateful consequences: a shell apparently fired from Lion struck the barbette of D turret. The 13.5in shell passed through the Batterie deck and struck the 230mm-thick D turret barbette, where it detonated. A red-hot piece of barbette armour was broken off and was thrown into the working chamber, where it set fire to main and fore charges there. No enemy shell parts were found in the working chamber. Flash flames shot upwards into the turret and downwards through the elevator shafts, setting fire to cartridges in the turret and on the handling room turntable and in the elevator room. Only the cartridge containers with their lids still on did not burn.

With the first penetration of flash flames and poisonous gases from burning cartridge cases, the crew of the handling room of D turret sought to save themselves by exiting their room and escaping into the corresponding room of C turret. To do this they had to pass through double doors, the first of which opened to aft, the second forwards. Investigation later showed that the second door was carried away, as though by the pressure of the gases. With the opening of these doors flash flames passed into the cartridge hoist room (handling room) of C turret, and the deadly events were repeated. In just a few seconds 6,000kg of powder burnt, totally burning out turrets C and D and sending flames mast-high. Sixty-two powder charges, including those in munitions chamber 29, had completely burnt.

In the two turrets a total of 165 men eventually lost their lives. The medical report read:

One part of the turrets’ crews were burned by the flash flame; for the greater part the corpses were in the position in which death had surprised them. Individual corpses were completely burned. Another part of the turret crew had succumbed to gas inhalation.

Five were wounded with burns – three from turret C and two from turret D – and could be saved. One of them, a sailor, had first- and second-degree burns to his entire body and succumbed to his injuries on the same afternoon onboard. Of the remaining four, two, a stoker and a sailor, had first- and second-degree burns to their whole bodies; the other two were a Maschinistenmaat [machinist mate], with first- and second-degree burns to both hands, and a sailor, with light burns to the face and body.

The sailor, Matrose Ernst König, was a loading number of the left barrel of turret Cäsar (turret C). He wrote:

Now we loading numbers went at it, beginning with the shell. Push – jerk! It went into the barrel under our exertions. The cartridge followed. The same! Four gasps – a jerk! Breechblock closed tight.

He continued:

Suddenly there was a crash, almost like a concussion. What was that? We looked at each other. For a fraction of a second we listened. That was no concussion; there was a hissing near us.

In the next moment a great flash flame climbed high in the middle of the turret. The turret leader and order transmitter were enveloped by the glowing flames at the same moment … Then a second, still larger flash struck up under me directly from the entry hole to the reloading chamber (working chamber) and hit me in the face. I fell backwards. The entire turret was engulfed in bright flames at the same moment. An invisible force pushed me. Luckily I was propelled to where the entry hole was … I allowed myself to fall out.

The I Artillerie Offizier, Korvettenkapitän Richard Foerster, later wrote:

On this occasion turrets C and D did not respond. It became clear that we were dealing with a powder fire in these turrets and their munition chambers, or magazines. Therefore I first gave the command to flood compartment III, which was the compartment that both these turrets and their magazines were located in, thus flooding the lower part of the ship … I looked aft towards turrets C and D. It was an electrifying sight, the aft part of the ship was enveloped in a blue-red flash flame, that reached to the height of the mast tops. The munition chambers of both turrets were therefore enveloped in flame, and it could only be seconds before the entire ship would be engulfed and explode. … It only remained for us to shoot as quickly as possible to perhaps achieve something in the last moments. So, I gave the command for rapid fire, and so either a heavy or medium salvo was discharged from the guns every ten seconds.

In the ‘leak central’, or damage-control centre, news of the catastrophic hit reached the I Offizier, Korvetten-kapitän Hagedorn. Together with Pumpenmeister Wilhelm Heidkamp and Feuerwerker Müller he went aft to compartment III where the flooding valves for the aft turret group magazines were located. Pumpenmeister Heidkamp was first to enter compartment III. The heat was intense, and the smoke and poison gases were choking, so that his uniform, hair and eyebrows were singed. The blinding gases made finding the valves almost impossible because flashlights could not penetrate the thick smoke, but Pumpenmeister Heidkamp knew their location from memory as he had been assigned to the Blohm & Voss shipyard during construction of the Panzerkreuzer. When he finally reached the valves he found that they were glowing red-hot, but selflessly he grasped the first valve’s steel operating wheel and turned it, then went to work on the second wheel before he had to be replaced by Feuerwerker Müller, who completed the task. Pumpenmeister Heidkamp suffered bad burns to his hands, right to the bone, and his lungs were injured by the hot, poisonous gases. Nevertheless, the aft magazine chambers were flooded and the ship was saved from probable destruction.

Likewise the rudder rooms filled with toxic smoke and had to be evacuated despite the use of breathing equipment.

At 11.17 Seydlitz received one further heavy-calibre hit, which struck amidships but did not penetrate the armoured belt. At 11.32 the upper rudder room was again occupied, followed at 11.50 by the lower rudder room. In the mean-time, at 11.44 the leading British ship, Lion, was observed to have turned away. At 11.51 Kontreadmiral Hipper ordered his torpedo boats to attack, but almost at the same time the British battlecruisers turned to port to the north in the direction of Blücher, and any chance of a successful torpedo attack was lost. At 12.00 the German line turned to starboard, so that there was the chance of a circular battle, but by 12.09 fire was ceased by both sides and the I AG took off to the ESE at 23kts. With that the battle was concluded and at 19.28 that evening Seydlitz entered the northern lock of the III Entrance at Wilhelmshaven. At 01.25 on 25 January 1915 Seydlitz cast off and later made fast at berth G1 of the imperial dockyard for repairs to the battle damage, remaining there until 1 April 1915.

Hit three was actually the first in chronological sequence and struck at 10.25 on the forecastle. Details of this hit are not available, but it was reported that the damage was slight.