The Second Battle of Heligoland Bight Part II

Rear-admiral Ludwig Von Reuter

While this had been going on, Napier had been hovering outside the danger zone awaiting reports. At 10.00 Galatea signalled: ‘Enemy battleships, battle cruisers and light cruisers bearing southeast, steering east.’ Napier’s subsequent report to Pakenham spoke of the arrival of four enemy battleships. Any momentary alarm which this may have caused, however, was dispelled by later messages that the light cruisers had successfully extricated themselves, and were no longer being pursued. By 1.00 pm these had rejoined Napier, and all the British forces at sea made their way back across the North Sea without further incident. Meanwhile Hindenburg and Moltke, which had set off towards the scene of action when the first contact with the enemy was reported, had now joined Kaiserin and Kaiser, too late, however, to take any part.

Both sides claimed considerably more hits than was in fact the case. The Germans scored seven hits on the British light cruisers, while being hit themselves five times. They had been surprised by the appearance in battle for the first time of Courageous and Glorious, noting correctly that so far as they could see they had only two turrets; they were also struck by their high speed. The fact that Königsberg had suffered so little from a direct hit by a 15 inch shell was considered remarkable:

It passed through all three funnels of the ship, went through the upper deck into a coal bunker – the inner wall of which it burst; there it exploded and caused a fire. The fragments of this shell were picked up and its calibre determined. This proved to us that the English had built a new class of cruiser armed with a 38 cm gun.

In fact, of course, it was not one of the light battle cruisers that had fired the shell, but Repulse, which was also making its maiden appearance in a North Sea engagement. Considering the high speed of the British ships, Scheer correctly concluded that they must be lightly armoured. The lesson which he learned from the engagement was in future to bring the support groups further forward, so far as the minefields allowed:

The demands thus made upon the battleships of our outpost section increased considerably. The field of operation of the minesweepers extended 180 sea miles to the north and 140 miles to the west of the Jade. Work at such distant points was impossible without strong fighting support.

Half of the supporting vessels were located immediately behind the minesweepers, with the rest about 50 miles further back. In 1918 an anchorage in the Amrum Bank area was made secure from submarine attack, surrounded by nets, where the support ships could anchor in safety, thus avoiding the need to make the long journey back to the Jade.

The British performance in the engagement had not been very distinguished; Marder calls it a ‘fiasco,’ and this is not an overstatement. Beatty was extremely disappointed. He was displeased not only with Napier, but also with Pakenham. In his formal report to Beatty of November 26 Pakenham had done his best to talk up the operation as being in some way a success. He found it creditable that in spite of the difficulties created by the German smoke screens ‘all singled out the most important military force present as the object for collective attack.’ He noted the caution with which the Germans treated the minefield, concluding that ‘in dashing into it our forces performed a feat of a high order.’ Finally, he noted the value and loyalty of Phillimore’s support, but observed that Repulse was too valuable to be hazarded in minefield other than in extreme circumstances: ‘Success entitles the venture to rank as an achievement.’

This did not go down well with Beatty. In his first report to the Admiralty of December 1, which stimulated a considerable exchange of correspondence and the expression of a large number of opinions, he said that he did not agree with Pakenham as to the risks run by Phillimore:

The information given to the latter officer as to the position of minefields was incomplete and showed clear water after passing mined area W6. I consider that under the circumstances Rear Admiral Phillimore… was justified in the steps he took to carry out the orders given to him to support the light cruisers. Having regard also to the fact that he had the enemy light cruisers as a guide down a channel which had obviously been swept and marked with buoys, I consider his determined support was most effective and valuable in assisting the light cruisers to retire before the enemy battleship supports. His action undoubtedly served as a deterrent to those supports, which otherwise might have inflicted considerable damage on our light cruisers.

Phillimore was always something of a favourite of Beatty.

It was for Napier that Beatty reserved most of his wrath. He was displeased that no arrangements had been made to deal with the German minesweepers when sighted, ‘ the destruction of which was one of the objects of the operation.’ He observed that Napier did not place his squadron between the enemy and his base: ‘a determined effort to do this at the beginning of the engagement might have met with success and cut the enemy’s line of retreat.’ He found it regrettable that when the action had developed into a chase, ‘the high speed of the squadron was not utilised to close the range.’ His most serious discontent was with Napier’s most crucial decision:

It is unfortunate also that the 1st Cruiser Squadron turned eight points away and gave up the chase at 0840, subsequently turning again at 0852 and following at a distance which had now been increased by five miles.

He also, not unreasonably, picked up Napier’s first report of large submarines in the German force, which had subsequently been reported by Glorious to be minesweepers and other small craft. He wanted this information checked, ‘which is important in view of the tendency to too readily assume that every low lying craft sighted is a submarine.’ Prisoners from the outpost boat Kehdingen confirmed that no submarines were present on November 17.

Beatty’s report duly made the rounds of the senior officers at the Admiralty, working its way up from an initial critique of December 7 by Hope, as Director of Operations. He noted the lack of any operational signals by Napier, and that his movements indicated ‘an absence of decision as to tactics to be employed.’ He was also struck by the fact that ‘no attempt was made by anyone to follow up the minesweepers, all attention being devoted to the light cruisers.’ For the future, he considered that the Admiralty should issue definite instructions on the use of heavy ships in the minefields:

The question as to whether the heavy ships should have entered the area of minefields is a difficult one. The orders issued for the operation contained no instructions on this point So long as our ships could remain on the track taken by the Germans they were comparatively safe, but if they were manoeuvred off this line they might easily have got into an unswept area. If a ship was mined and her speed reduced, she must have been lost, owing to the presence of strong German supports, as it would have been impossible for our supports to extricate her.

Hope was perfectly right to point out the unfairness of leaving it to an admiral to take such a decision in the heat of battle. Nonetheless, it does seem surprising that neither Pakenham nor Napier raised the issue beforehand. Oliver concurred with Hope’s comments, adding his regret that Napier did not close the enemy at full speed as soon as they were sighted. He also observed that the Commander-in-Chief had known that there would be enemy battleships in support, but that there was nothing to show that the squadrons engaged knew this.

Wemyss, too, felt that Napier should have at once altered course and increased to full speed when he sighted Reuter’s ships. He did not think much of Pakenham’s recall signal, which he regarded as ambiguous. When the papers reached Jellicoe, he had a number of serious criticisms to make. Napier’s failure to close the enemy he found inexplicable; he should be asked for an explanation. He proposed to ask Beatty whose fault it was that no provision was made to deal with the minesweepers. He could see no reason why Repulse should not have followed the light cruisers, and wanted to know what was known about the minefields, and by whom. As for the enemy battleships, he wanted to know whether Beatty warned Madden or Pakenham of the possibility that these might be met. Finally, when all this got to the desk of the First Lord, Geddes minuted that a telegram should be sent to Beatty expressing the view that Napier’s failure to close was inexplicable. The telegram when sent caused understandable confusion, since Jellicoe inadvertently referred to VABCF (Pakenham) when he meant VALCF.

On December 16 Napier produced his explanation, enclosing a tracing showing what he knew about the minefields and the conclusions he drew from that information, particularly as to his first turn away, and his subsequent decision to go on further, to the limit of the ‘dangerous area.’ As to Beatty’s complaint that he had not put himself between Reuter and the latter’s base, he pointed out that he did not have information about the swept channels, ‘so could not act in the way in which in open water would no doubt have been sound.’ What he did not do was to offer any reasons for not increasing his speed from 25 knots, other than a plaintive reminder that what looked so clear afterwards when all information was known was ‘anything but clear at the time when surrounded by smoke in all directions; and also that the loss of heavy or comparatively heavy ships by mines would have converted an action with somewhat negative results into a disaster.’ As the editor of Jellicoe’s papers points out, the resemblance of this paragraph to the case for Jellicoe at Jutland against his critics is noteworthy.

At all events, it did not impress Oliver, who wanted to know more about the minefield charts, or Jellicoe, who still wanted to hear why speed was not increased. Napier was required to submit a further lengthy explanation, which on December 22 he did. Having increased to 25 knots it appeared that the enemy was then on a course opposite to his own, so a further increase would not have enabled him to close. His chief consideration, he wrote, had been to get through the smoke screen and determine what the situation really was. This was hardly a complete explanation, and it did not satisfy Oliver, who minuted that it did not appear to explain why no increase of speed was made between 0859, when fire was reopened, until course was altered on Line C and the action abandoned.’ Courageous and Glorious were certainly capable of something of the order of 32 knots, and working up to this speed might well have made a difference, even if it meant going on ahead of the light cruisers. The German Official History offers Napier no comfort:

Minesweeping forces, closely supported only by light cruisers, encountered heavy enemy forces and found themselves in a situation which should have ended in the destruction of both minesweeper and light cruisers; if the enemy had acted with vigour, the Kaiserin and Kaiser, well to the rear, would have arrived too late to prevent it… Correct tactical behaviour on the part of the German units, together with the weak and hesitant attack by far superior British forces, provided the essentials for this unexpected outcome … Only the conduct of the 1st and 6th Light Cruiser Squadrons left nothing to be desired; they were least concerned with worries about mines, since their mine charts were the most incomplete and, unlike the charts of Admirals Pakenham and Napier, theirs did not show the extensive mined area to the west of List. But the decision of the day lay less with the leaders of the light cruisers than with those of the capital ships.

Napier wrote privately to Tyrwhitt on December 8 to express his chagrin at the way things had turned out for him:

Have you ever experienced the chill down your back when – after an exciting and tiring day’s shooting, you return well pleased with yourself – and the house party immediately asks what is in the bag. With a sudden revulsion you are obliged to admit it is only several pheasants and hares wounded and dying in their holes! This is somewhat our feelings on returning to harbour on 19th Nov. – and incidentally is much what we felt after that rotten entertainment called the Battle of Jutland. It seems that we are expected to sink them all, but we found that they were difficult to sink, especially when enveloped in smoke, with nothing showing except gun flashes.

Geddes, who had been dismayed by the fiasco, had picked up on a visit to the Grand Fleet the extent of Beatty’s disapproval of Napier’s actions, and wished to make the latter a scapegoat for the failure. He was impatient at the delay in receiving Beatty’s report, announcing that in his opinion the Commander-in-Chief was trying to shield Napier, as Jellicoe recorded:

This was having the effect on him (Geddes) to make him all the more determined to make a scapegoat of Napier. I said this was unjust and wrong and that he must await the receipt of the report. This happened more than once and as I thought showed a want of justice on the part of Geddes.

Candour of this kind on Jellicoe’s part was unlikely to have gone down well with the First Lord.

Cowan wrote to Keyes on November 23 with a brief account of the action from a somewhat different perspective:

So far as A-S’s and my outfits were concerned it was a good hard straight for’d chase and shoot, bothered to death by smoke screens, far too busy and interested to think of torpedoes and mines of which there were plenty and at the latter end rather anxious about ammunition, my bow gun shot away all its outfit (200) and 20 as well, we’d 50 rounds a gun left. We really had great hopes towards the end as the 2nd ship was nicely on fire and the rear one slowly coming back to us, but then up hove those battleships and it was no good going on was it to let them score off us.

As the extent of the criticisms being heaped on him became apparent, Napier’s reaction was to suggest to Beatty that he should be relieved. Beatty, however, had had enough of the inquest, and told Napier that he still had confidence in him, and wanted him to stay. This may have been, as Marder suggests, due to his ‘characteristic magnanimity;’ or it may have been because the inefficiency at various levels reflected on him as well. In order to bring the matter to a close, he wrote to the Admiralty on December 24 to express his view that Napier had made an error of judgment and that he had pointed this out and explained the consequences. He thought that the experience would be of the greatest value in the future to Napier, who had ‘hitherto shown skill and judgment in command of light cruiser work and notwithstanding the disappointing results which attended the recent operation in the Heligoland Bight,’ he would be very loath to part with his services. He suggested that the matter would be sufficiently met by an expression of their Lordships ‘displeasure’.

This, on January 31, was the course taken by the Board of Admiralty, which formally concurred with Beatty in the conclusion which he had reached, and so informed Napier. Their Lordships went on to receive a report that arrangements had been made for full information as to the location of British minefields to be given to the flag officers of all the Grand Fleet squadrons to prevent the problem recurring. It was agreed to leave the item on the agenda in the future so that the question of whether there had been bad staff work on Pakenham’s part might be considered. This does not, however, appear to have been pursued further. Beatty certainly considered Pakenham to blame for an omission that went a considerable way to excusing Napier for his failure; and it had been immediately apparent to Madden that it was essential that the light cruisers should have comprehensive charts of the minefields if they were to be expected to pursue the enemy in mined areas, as he told Beatty. The affair, which had demonstrated failings that might not have been expected after all the Grand Fleet’s experiences, had ended in humiliation, as the prolonged investigations into the reasons for its outcome starkly demonstrated.