The “Breitspurbahn” of the Third Reich

No one can accuse Hitler, or his inner circle of associates, of planning the future of Germany or Europe in a small scale – nearly every project undertaken in the Third Reich was massive in scope and cost. Usually, financial considerations were of secondary consideration. As but one example, Hitler wanted the best road-network system in the world (to serve his military goals), and the resulting effort was the construction of the basic elements of the Autobahn grid in Germany. Hitler also wanted the biggest and best battleships and tanks (and many other social, political and technological “bests”). Certainly, the super class battle ships projects of the KM, and the late war “Tiger” family of tanks can count among the “biggest” ever worked on. Germany also made a bid for the Olympic games, and Germany got them (winter and summer). No expenses were spared to use the Olympic games of 1936 to show off the new Germany.

That said, Hitler also wanted the biggest trains in the world to serve the German Reich. The origins of the “Breitspurbahn” dream can be traced back to at least 1936. It was during that summer that Hitler ordered a young 36-year old Prof. Dipl.Ing. Albert Speer to begin working on Berlin’s new central railroad station. This building was to be the most grandiose railway station the world had ever seen. A key goal of this project was to unite Berlin’s north and south railway stations via a “Reprдsentationsstrasse” (a representative street), a street, which was 120 meters/384 feet wide and five kilometers/three miles long. In 1937, Speer and “Betriebs und Bauleitungs” Chief, Dr. Ing. Max Leibbrandt, were ordered by Hitler to have the necessary building and railway infrastructure constructions completed by the spring of 1950. The “Sьdbahnhof” of Berlin was to be encased in a glass shell. It was to be larger in size than New York’s Grand Central Station. Berlin’s “Nordbahnhof” was to be only slightly smaller in scale. Munich and other cities around Germany would also receive new railway stations, fitting the image of a new Germany. Now, the only thing that remained was to work on developing “bigger” trains to service these “bigger” train stations!

In October of 1941, in the middle of the war, Hitler advised Fritz Todt of his plans to create a “Breitspurbahn” (a wide gauge railway), which would connect all of Germany’s major urban centers together. Later, other European cities, including Istanbul and the industrial regions of the Donetsk in the east, would be added to the base railway grid. Fritz Todt took his cue and immediately discussed with Hitler the need to construct a six-lane Autobahn (three lanes in each direction) to the seized industrial regions of southern Ukraine and southern Russia. In addition, a special “Breitspurbahn” should be constructed between the mineral rich regions of the east and the industrial regions of Silesia. Both agreed on scope and principle. Orders were quickly cut to start making the dream a reality.

In the railway terminology, track widths of approximately 500 to 1.000 millimeters are normally classified as being narrow gauge (Schmalspur in German). A typical setting for these types of trains might be in mountainous regions or mining areas, the fortress railways in Estonia and Latvia, etc., where constructing standard gauge tracks would be less than ideal. Normally, the distances involved with narrow gauge lines would not be too great either. German military “Feldeisenbahnen”, temporary supply trains constructed between a forward supply head and the front lines, were also normally in narrow gauge (typically 600, 750 or 800 millimeters). In Western Europe and in most of North America, the prevailing gauge for train tracks was/is in the standard gauge (Normalspur). This measures 1.435 millimeters/4 feet 8.5 inches in width (whereby it need be noted that the Ѕ inch was added later to account for flaring and other railroad engineering peculiarities).

As a quick side-bar, the measurement of 1.432mm was first used by railroad pioneer George Stephenson of the United Kingdom in 1825 and it has been an agreed railroad engineering standard ever since in most western nations. Some historians argue that Stevenson’s standard has its origins in the axel width specifications of the chariots and the rut ways those chariots created in the cobblestones of the roads of the Roman Empire. The ancient Greeks appeared to be a bit more pragmatic in this regard. Why build a road that is 10 feet wide when you can lay two rows of stones and carve a groove in them for the wagon wheels to track – as long as the two rows of stone tracks are set equidistant – 4 feet 8 inches apart – and you’re in business!). Imperial Russia, then the Soviet Union as its successor state, used/uses a wider width track, 1.524 millimeters/5 feet. Spain’s was even wider – 5 feet 6 inches. It need be noted that back in the mid 1800’s, the Russians were advised by American railroad experts (and British as well as via Mr. Braithwaite) that if Russia’s rail gauge were to be wider than that of Germany’s, the potential future enemy, it would slow down the German armies, as they would then have to spend extra efforts in converting gauges. During the Second World War, having a wider gauge track did not really slow down the Germans much at all. They were able to convert gauges with few difficulties encountered.

5 feet, 5 feet 6 inches wide gauge, etc., Hitler’s “Breitspurbahn” (wide gauge trains) dwarfed them all. His dream called for the construction of specially built and designed, high-speed trains running on track that measured 3.000 to 4.000 millimeters (3 to 4 meters; 9.6 to 12.8 feet) in width, whereby it must be noted that a final width factor was never formalized. “Breitspur” passenger trains were to travel at speeds of up to 250 km/h (150 mp/h) and freight trains at speeds in excess of 100 km/h (62 mp/h). These were to be the super-sized, high speed bullet trains of their times. Diesel locomotives weighed in at 350 to 400 tons (16.000 kW) and pulled numerous 1.000-ton wagons. Electric locomotives (29.000 kW) were also planned for.

Passenger coaches were to measure 41 meters/131 feet in length and have a height of nearly seven meters/22.4 feet, which allowed for two floors to be installed in each coach. The interiors of the coaches were to be lavishly furnished. Dining cars were to accommodate three long columns of tables, each row having three islands of tables, each island accommodating four people per table.

To maximize on and off-loading intricacies, “Breitspur” freight wagons were designed with standardized “container” principles in mind. Of note is that after the war, many nations in fact embraced the container concepts used by the Deutsche Reichsbahn (DR) before and during the war (the first Deutsche Reichsbahn “Schenker Containers” were used to expedite on and off-loading of German merchantmen in 1931; the term “Schenker Container” was derived from the Schenker company, which was a pioneering user of containerized cargo in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Schenker was bought out by the DR in 1931, but the company still exists today as a world-wide leader in freight forwarding). To maximize resources, “Breitspur” freight wagons had to be able to fit onto existing standrad gauge flatwagons, when they were lifted off of their bogies. The roofs of the freight wagons had to be hinged, so that cranes and other unloading machinery could have fast access to the containers or storage spaces. To aid in the design process, an enthusiatic Hitler provided the various design and planning committees with a number of his conceptual renderings of locomotives, coaches, interior settings, etc.

Concurrent to the “Breitspur” efforts, additional rail line construction concepts were also worked on. Such as, for example, using two standard gauge tracks side-by-side on one bed so that both “Breitspur” and standard gauge trains could use the tracks. This probably would have been a designer’s challenge (nightmare), especially when considering cantilever power (Oberleitung) requirements (50 kV at 50 Hz), switching stations, etc. “Breitspur” beds were to be laid in tandem; one “Breitspur” track was to be dedicated for passenger service and one track dedicated for freight.

The Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH Friedrichshafen Company also became involved with the “Breitspurbahn” project sometime in 1942. In the early 1930’s, the Zeppelin Company had experimented with propeller driven “Zeppelin” railway engines with the Deutsche Reichsbahn. At the same time, they had also developed contingency plans for building railway lines up to 6.000 millimeters/19.2 feet in width using their “Zeppelin” and propeller-driven rail-wagon technology capable of transporting 600-900 passengers. Their exploratory work was now shared with the members of the “Breitspurbahn” committee.

There were critics of this undertaking as well. Most of them were railroading professionals who did not believe that Germany could afford to develop such a “global” undertaking, given that the war effort was far from favorable from the German point of view. But, since Hitler’s views on everything were essentially the prevailing ones, the critics were silenced very quickly.

Despite the given military situation, during the first few months of 1942, orders were given to the Reichsbahn-Zentralamt in Munich, as well as to the private companies of BBC, Borsig, Henschel, Krupp and Schwartzkopf, to develop basic working models and plans for full project realization. On 18 July 1942, theoretical discussions and preliminary plans were tabled calling for the construction of the “Breitspurbahn” all the way to from Berlin to Vladivostok as wellto India in Asia, Gibraltar and Rome. In November of 1942, Dr. Ing. Gьnther Wiens, of the Reichsverkehrsministerium’s Ministerialrat in Vienna, completed an initial report detailing the new standards of brake specifications, signaling systems, HVAC (Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning) specifications, engine construction parameters, etc., for the new “Breitspurbahn”.

On 05 April 1943, Hitler declared the “Breitspurbahn” to be of national and military priority. While military needs were certainly a strong factor in the overall designs of this project, greater weighting was given to the need of shuttling German administrative and political personnel between the Reich and the “outer territories” as well as exploiting the economic resources of the newly acquired regions of Russia and the Ukraine. One economic projection cited that the entire Ukrainian summer wheat harvest could be shipped back to Germany within a matter of weeks if a “Breitspur” system were in place. With regards to actually building this system, Hitler too was persuaded by the necessities of war. He therefore decreed that as soon as Germany had won the war, construction efforts on the “Breitspur” project would commence. For the moment, the “Breitspurbahn” would not go past Rostov. Estimated yearly project maintenance costs exceeded 1.2 billion RM – thus making the “Breitspur” project one of the most expensive undertakings of the Third Reich. Although a large number of people worked on the project, no formal construction efforts were ever undertaken.

During the summer of 1943, the following “Breitspur” track lines were on the drawing boards:

East-West1: Rostov-Stalino-Poltava-Kiev-Lemberg-Cracow-Kattowitz-Breslau-Cottbus-Berlin-Hannover-Bielefeld-the Ruhr-Aachen-Liege-St. Quentin-Paris

East-West 2: Munich-Augsburg-Stuttgart-Karlsruhe-Metz-Reims-Paris

North-South 1: Hamburg-Berlin-Leipzig-Gotha-Bamberg-Nьrnberg-Munich-Simbach-Linz-Vienna-Pressburg-Budapest-Belgrad-Istanbul (a branch line went from Budapest to Varna)

North-South 2: Berlin-Dresden-Aussig-Prague-Iglau-Znamin-Vienna

Die Breitspureisenbahn


SEMPACH, 9 July 1386

1889 painting by Karl Jauslin

Swiss pike square in the battle near Sempach on the 9th of July, 1386. Painting by Hans Ulrich Wegmann (1638/41) from the Battle Chapel at Sempach.

Illustration of the battle of Sempach in the chronicle of Diebold Schilling.

The Battle of Sempach, 1386. (a) Phase I: Marching north-east from Sempach (1), Duke Leopold’s Austrian army is unaware of the approach of a Swiss force moving towards him on the same road (2). The Swiss vanguard and the Austrians’ first division spot each other and begin to deploy (3). (b) Phase II: Recognizing the threat from the Swiss phalanx, Leopold orders his lead division to dismount (1) and deploys light infantry crossbowmen (2) to fire into the Swiss battle square to begin chipping away at the formation (3). (c) Phase III: The Swiss battle square begins to lose cohesion (1) and Leopold orders his dismounted knights into the fight (2). The Austrians inflict heavy losses on the Swiss, and Leopold readies his mounted knights for a charge (3) to finish off the disintegrating phalanx, but before the duke can order his horsemen forward, the Swiss main body appears over the rise towards Hildisrieden (4) and heads down the slope towards the action. (d) Phase IV: The Swiss quickly deploy from column into battle square (1) and smash into the flank and rear of the dismounted first division (2). Fatigued after an hour of fighting and faced with a seemingly unstoppable mass of fresh halberd-wielding infantry, the Austrians begin to rout (3). Leopold leaps from his horse and orders his division forward against this new menace (4). (e) Phase V: Before Leopold can launch his counter-attack, the Swiss wheel their square in a devastating assault on the Austrian flank (1). Though the Austrian knights fight bravely, they are gradually overcome by the Swiss halberdiers (2). The count of Hohenzollern, commanding the Austrian reserve, panics and orders a precipitate retreat (3), causing the squires and pages tending to the second division’s horses to look to their own safety and flee as well, abandoning their masters, including Duke Leopold, to certain death at the hands of the Swiss infantry (4).

Date: 9 July 1386.

Location. On the shores of Lake Sempach 10 miles north-west of Lucerne, near Road 2. 186.

War and campaign: The War of Independence of the Eight Swiss Cantons.

Object of the action: The Austrian Hapsburgs were trying to crush the rebellions of Confederate cantons.

Opposing sides: (a) Cantonal commanders leading the forces of four cantons, (b) Duke Leopold III commanding an Austrian army. Forces engaged: (a) Swiss: all infantry. Total: 1,600. (b) Austrians: including a large contingent of cavalry. Total: 4,000.

Casualties: The Austrian dead totalled 676 men including Leopold, a margrave, 3 counts, 5 barons, 7 bannerets, and 28 Austrian and 35 Tyrolean knights. The Swiss lost some 120-200 men, more than half of them Lucernese.

Result: The Swiss victory had wide repercussions owing to the death of Leopold and the flower of the Hapsburg nobility. It established the Swiss military reputation. As a result of this battle (from which the military reputation of the Swiss in part dates) the imperial towns were able to negotiate a truce which lasted until February 1388.

The battle of Sempach represents one of the most significant encounters in Swiss history-if not for the decisive way in which it was won, then certainly for the w a y in which the halberd became the primary Swiss weapon.

During the last quarter of the fourteenth century waves of political and social unrest swept over all western Europe. In Germany, in order to combat the encroachment of the Princes and lesser nobility, the towns made a supreme effort at co-operation and created a union in 1381. To this, in February 1385, Zurich, Berne, Solathurn and Zug adhered. The Forest Cantons however refused to join and Lucerne offered only indirect support. Despite this Lucerne considered the moment favourable for an attempt to throw off the last vestiges of Hapsburg overlordship, and in December 1385 war was started by her seizure of the Hapsburg administrative centre of Rothenburg while the town of Sempach, discontented with Austrian rule, was given co-burghership. All the confederates except Berne joined in.

After the death of the Emperor Charles, the Habsburg dynasty was divided up and the western approaches to Austria were handed over to the precocious young Duke Leopold III. Leopold, anxious to reassert the claims of his house on Swiss territory, soon incurred the wrath of the Confederation, which by a succession of alliances now had five new member cantons: Lucerne (1332), Zurich (1351), Zug and Glarus (1352), and Berne (1353). After hostilities between Lucerne and the Austrian fortress at Rothenburg in December 1385, war was declared; and by the middle of 1386 Leopold had mustered a formidable army of 4,000 knights and mercenaries, and carefully prepared his campaign.

However, the Confederates were well aware of his troop movements and swiftly marshalled some 1,600 troops from Lucerne and the three Forest Cantons. The two armies met to the northeast of Sempach by the hamlet of Hildesrieden. Here the two main Austrian columns were confronted by the Swiss van speedily advancing to gain their needed advantage of terrain. As it was, neither army had time to deploy effectively.

The Swiss, however, had achieved their aim, for Leopold had ordered his young knights in his ‘vaward battle’ to dismount-not only on account of the terrain, but also because the Duke wished to prove the effectiveness of the dismounted lance against the halberd. The Swiss for their part hastily formed a wedge with the wider right wing forming the point.

Shortly before mid-day the two armies crashed together in combat. With the first wave the dismounted Austrian vaward battle inflicted considerable losses in the front ranks of the Lucerne contingent, including the Hauptmann, Petermann von Gundoldingen. Soon the weight and superiority of the Austrian ‘pike’ began to show. Their crossbowmen gave the Swiss considerable trouble. Realizing the ineffectiveness of the frontal onslaught, the Swiss commanders ordered a sudden change in formation in which the rear left flank of the wedge widened to counter the Austrians from the flank. The arrival of fresh Swiss contingents from Uri gave new impetus to the ploy. Almost at once the Confederates succeeded in gaining a lodgement in the Austrian front. It is said that this was achieved by the brave feat of a certain soldier known as Winkelried, who threw his body at the Austrian ‘pike’, thus taking out a number of their points and snapping the shafts in the process. Once this decisive breakthrough had been achieved the Swiss halberdiers poured through, swinging their weapons above their heads and causing tremendous damage to the Austrians. On seeing this, Leopold ordered his second column to counter, but it advanced in considerable disorder and the momentum of the Swiss was too great for it to have any effect. Seeing the Austrian front fold, the rearguard panicked, and the train was the first to flee, taking the horses and leaving many of the dismounted knights stranded. Within two hours the battle had been turned and won. and 1,800 Austrians lay dead on the battlefield among 200 Swiss. Sempach illustrated the ability of the halberdier to hold his own against the knight, although the inappropriate nature of the terrain made it necessary for the Austrian horse to fight the battle on foot.

Battle of Wenzenbach 1504

Battle of Wenzenbach

Behamisch facht (Böhmisches Gefecht) aus dem Weißkunig, Holzschnitt 175. The Bohemians are positioned on top of a hill at the center; tree-covered hills recede into the background at the right. The Bohemian troops’ shields form a protective barrier while they point their spears outward against the cavalry approaching from the right and the foot soldiers from the left. A mass of spears pointing inward from both sides of the composition leads the eye to the doomed soldiers in the middle. On the left behind the advancing forces, Schönberg Castle burns, blasting billows of smoke upward into the sky.

Triumphzug Kaiser Maximilians I. (die Böhmenschlacht und der böhmische Trophäenwagen) von Albrecht Altdorfer (Regensburg um 1512–1515). In this work, begun around 1512, a section of the frieze attributed to Altdorfer himself shows two battles from the War of Succession displayed on banners, one helpfully inscribed `Der Bayrisch krieg’ (showing the Siege of Kufstein) and the other, `Die Behemisch slacht’ (Fig. 13.2). Altdorfer’s miniature faithfully follows Treitzsaurwein’s instructions, as behind the scene of the `Bayrisch krieg’, three men parade on horseback holding banners with the coats-of-arms of the three territories Maximilian claimed for himself at the Kölner Spruch.

Battle of Wenzenbach in Codex Germanicus. Note Emperor Maximillian I’s fall left foreground.

The `Bohemian battle’, also variously referred to as the `Battle of Wenzenbach’ and the `Battle of Schönberg’, took place on September 12, 1504 and was an important battle in the Landshut War of Succession, a conflict that marked the culmination of over a hundred years of territorial squabbling among the four Wittelsbach lines of Bavarian dukes. By the middle of the fifteenth century, the deaths of two dukes without male issue had consolidated the four duchies into two: Bavaria-Landshut and Bavaria-Munich. Lacking an heir, Duke Georg `the Rich’ of Bavaria-Landshut named the Palatine branch of the Wittelsbachs as his beneficiaries in his 1496 will, hoping to keep his territories out of the hands of the Munich line. However, these dynastic machinations were not legally valid, as they expressly went against the stipulations worked out by previous Wittelsbach rulers in their divisional agreement of 1392 (and its subsequent renewal in 1450) that when one line died out the territories would go to the other Bavarian Wittelsbach lines. Georg’s own advisors counseled him that the will could not be upheld. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I agreed and sustained the provision that should Georg die without male issue, the surviving Wittelsbach duke of Bavarian territories-Albrecht IV of Bavaria-Munich- would succeed him. In December 1503, Georg died without having rescinded his will of 1496, and the Landshut War of Succession broke out the next year between the Palatine supporters and the Munich faction with Habsburg and imperial backing. The Battle of Wenzenbach proved to be the largest and bloodiest meeting of troops during the war. Ludwig’s father, Albrecht IV, and his maternal uncle, Maximilian I, achieved a resounding victory over the Palatine forces, which included a huge number of Bohemian mercenaries (hence the battle’s nickname). The battle was not all smooth sailing, however. Maximilian’s horse stumbled and the emperor fell; he was almost trampled to death before being pulled free and helped back into the saddle by Duke Ernst of Braunschweig-Lüneberg. As a result of the Battle of Wenzenbach, the war subsequently fizzled to its eventual conclusion. At the Reichstag in July 1505, the Emperor brought an end to the conflict with the Kölner Spruch (verdict at Cologne), in which he gave rulership of the duchy of Bavaria-Landshut to his brother-in-law, Albrecht, and claimed for himself the three most profitable Bavaria-Landshut territories located in the Alps, in effect a commission for resolving the conflict. The Battle of Wenzenbach proved to have been a critical factor in the war’s eventual outcome.

Georg von Frundsberg

Georg von Frundsberg fought for the Habsburg emperor Maximilian I against the Swiss Confederacy in the Swabian War of 1499, where he had to realize that the era of the heavy armoured knights was well and truly over. In the same year he was among the Imperial troops sent to the aid of Ludovico Sforza, who had been deposed as Duke of Milan by King Louis XII of France. When Maximilian appointed him Tyrolean military captain, he recruited a powerful army of pike square infantry formations following the Swiss example.

Still serving Maximilian, he took part in the 1504 War of the Succession of Landshut, fighting against Count Ruprecht of the Palatinate and his father Elector Palatine Philip. Frundsberg distinguished himself leading a Landsknecht regiment into the decisive Battle of Wenzenbach, whereafter Maximilian I personally bestowed knighthood on him: armed with muskets and culverines, the Frundsberg regiment broke a breach into the wagon-wall of the Bohemian mercenaries (composed 300+ wagons), which were then routed. Convinced of the necessity of a native body of trained infantry, Frundsberg assisted Maximilian in the organization of the Landsknecht troops. One year later, he became the commander of the Landsknechts in the Habsburg Netherlands.

A detailed description of this battle can be found in Friedrich Dörnhöffer, `Ein Cyclus von Federzeichnungen mit Darstellungen von Kriegen und Jagden Maximilians I’, Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses, 18 (1897): 45-46.

The Wolfpack Attack

Convoy SC 7 –’s account on the battle. Note that info for each ship lost or damaged in this convoy can be found by entering the names in the Allied ships hit by U-boats search section.

By mid-October 1940 even Hitler had come to accept that the time for a successful invasion of the British Isles was past. To a visiting Italian Minister he said: ‘If I cannot invade them, at least I can destroy the whole of their industry’. He was referring to the continuing raids on British cities by bombers of the Luftwaffe, which on the night of 15 October reached a ferocious crescendo with an attack on London lasting nine hours. In this, the most intense bombing raid of the war thus far, thousands of high-explosive and incendiary bombs rained down, laying waste a vast area of the densely populated city. More than 400 Londoners died in the raid, bringing the total killed in Britain by German bombs, in that one week alone, to 1,567. There was no evident crumbling of morale in the cities, but it was felt that, if the raids continued to exact such a fearful toll, cracks would soon begin to appear. To some extent the RAF was returning the bombs, but always striving to hit only specified military targets. If bad weather or other causes made it impossible to bomb accurately, pilots were ordered to jettison their bombs over the sea. After the October raids on London the RAF was given leave to use its bombs with less discrimination, targeting cities rather than specific installations. The war in the air was moving into a new and more barbaric phase.

At sea it had been that way for some time. Although the threat of invasion had receded, releasing more destroyers for convoy escort duty, there seemed to be no answer to the savage assaults of Dönitz’s ‘wolf packs’. The German admiral’s stated ambition that not one day should pass without the sinking somewhere or other of a ship by one of the boats at sea’ had been more than realised. On average, 55 Allied merchant ships, totalling nearly 280,000 tons gross, were being sunk by the U-boats every month, the majority of them in the Atlantic. But every achievement has its price. In the case of the U-boat men it was a high one, up to three boats being lost each month out of the 27 or so that were operational. As the Allied convoys became better organised and the expertise of the growing number of escort vessels improved, these losses would inevitably mount.

When Karl Dönitz took command of the U-boat arm, Hitler promised that the German shipyards would turn out about twenty new boats every month, but his promise was not being kept. Demands on Germany’s resources by the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe, on which Hitler now based his hopes for victory, were so great that new U-boats were being launched at the rate of only six a month; barely enough to keep pace with the rising losses. While the lost submarines could be replaced, their highly-trained and experienced crews could not. It was rare for any survivors of a sunken boat to return to Germany. This led Dönitz to push his men to their utmost limits, curtailing desperately needed rest periods and slashing the time that boats spent in port after each patrol. Inevitably, this resulted in a discernable lowering of morale in the service.

There is a long-held superstition among seamen, probably associated with the Crucifixion, that to leave port on a Friday is to tempt providence. To sail on Friday the 13th is an open invitation to disaster. So reasoned the crew of U99 when she was ordered to leave Lorient on her fourth Atlantic patrol on Friday 13 October 1940. Although U99 was a new boat, less than a year old, she developed a mysterious engine fault that held her in port until after midnight that night. She finally sailed at 0130 on the 14th. In command was Kapitänleutnant Otto Kretschmer, at 28 years old already one of Dönitz’s top aces, with 23 ships of almost 100,000 tons to his credit.

The first 48 hours of U99’s outward passage across the Western Approaches to the British Isles were uneventful, except for two occasions when patrolling enemy aircraft forced her to dive. Then, on the afternoon of the 16th, when she was 320 miles west of Ireland, a signal was picked up from U93 (Kapitänleutnant Klaus Korth), reporting the sighting of a large Allied convoy. Anticipating orders, Kretschmer altered course to intercept the convoy and increased to full speed.

In Lorient, Admiral Dönitz acted on the signalled sighting immediately, ordering Korth to continue shadowing and report at regular intervals while a wolf pack was assembled. Within reasonable range of the convoy were U100 (Kapitänleutnant Joachim Schepke), U123 (Kapitänleutnant Karl-Heinz Moehle), U101 (Kapitänleutnant Fritz Frauenheim), U46 (Kapitänleutnant Engelbert Endrass), U48 (Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Bleichrodt) and Kretschmer’s U99. As Kretschmer had foreseen, Dönitz’s radioed instructions to these vessels were for them to close on the Allied convoy at all speed. As the day wore on, the reports from U93 became less frequent and finally ceased altogether, indicating to Dönitz that she had lost contact with the enemy. He then ordered the gathering pack to set up a line of ambush ahead of, and across the track of the convoy, all boats to be in position by 2000 on the 18th. Kretschmer called for more speed, for he feared U99 might arrive too late to join in the attack.

Convoy SC 7, consisting of 35 ships, fourteen British, six Norwegian, four Greek, three Canadian, three Swedish, two Dutch, one French, one Panamanian and one Danish, left the Canadian port of Sydney, Cape Breton, at noon on 5 October. It was a slow convoy with a designated speed of 8 knots, and would break no records on its Atlantic crossing. In fact, many of the old and sometimes pitifully small ships had never achieved such a speed. Certainly the two Cardiff tramps Beatus and Fiscus, sister ships staggering under great loads of timber and steel, would be hard pushed to keep up. The same could be said for the two Greek vessels Niritos and Aenos, built in 1907 and 1910 respectively, whose ancient engines functioned only by faith and a great deal of innovation. As for the tiny Great Lakes steamers Eaglescliffe Hall, Winona and Trevisa, also of a great age, it seemed to be the height of folly that they should challenge this turbulent Western Ocean at all. But perhaps the most revealing indication of the pressing needs of Britain in these dark days was the inclusion in SC 7 of the Norwegian steamer Snefield. At 1,643 tons gross, this 39-year-old ship, her decks piled so high with timber that only her masts and funnels were visible, presented a ludicrous sight as she struggled valiantly to keep pace with her larger sisters.

Recalled from retirement and charged with the unenviable task of holding this ragged fleet of merchantmen together for the 2,500-mile transatlantic voyage was Vice-Admiral Lachlan Mackinnon, RN. Mackinnon was a man of great experience in the fighting ships, but he had only a limited understanding of the shortcomings and eccentricities of the run-of-the-mill ocean tramp. His talents were to be sorely tested over the coming weeks.

The ship in which Mackinnon flew his flag, as commodore of the convoy, was the 2,962-ton, twin-screw steamer Assyrian, owned by the Ellerman & Papayanni Line of Liverpool and commanded by 35-year-old Captain R. S. Kearon. Launched at the beginning of the First World War, the Assyrian was a long way from her habitual cruising waters. In the balmy days between the wars she carried general cargoes from Liverpool, Glasgow and south Wales to Spain, Portugal and Mediterranean ports, returning with the produce of these sun-kissed shores. She had accommodation for twelve passengers, and at £1 a day for the 40-day round voyage, the Assyrian had been a popular ship with those seeking a long, lazy holiday.

On her current voyage the Assyrian’s adequate but not luxurious passenger cabins were occupied by Vice-Admiral Mackinnon, his staff of five signallers and three civilian passengers, making, with her crew of 39, a total complement on board of 48. In her holds were 3,700 tons of food and war supplies loaded in the USA for Liverpool. Her armament consisted of one ancient 4in gun, mounted on her poop deck and manned by a crew drawn from the ship’s company, untrained, but nonetheless determined.

The weather was fine and clear, and the sea unusually calm when, ship by ship, Convoy SC 7 cleared Sydney harbour and felt the lift of the long Atlantic swell. An hour of somewhat untidy manoeuvring followed, but finally the ships were formed up in nine columns abreast and set off to cross the ocean, the Assyrian leading at the head of column five. Mackinnon had wisely adjusted the convoy speed to 7 knots; even so it was obvious from the amount of black smoke issuing from some funnels that there were those who would be hard pressed to keep up. The Winona, in fact, turned back on the first night, when a fault developed in her generator.

The defence of SC 7, apart from the few ill-manned, stern-mounted guns of the merchantmen, was in the hands of the sloop HMS Scarborough and the Canadian armed yacht Elk. The 1,050-ton Scarborough (Commander N. V. Dickinson) was an ex-survey vessel converted for escort duties, armed with two 4in guns and having a top speed of only 14 knots. HMCS Elk, as would be expected of a commandeered yacht, was of even lighter calibre. If SC 7 was to reach British waters intact, it would need more than good luck on its side.

Mackinnon was authorised to vary the convoy’s course according to prevailing circumstances, but the Admiralty had advised him to steer to the north-east until about 250 miles south of Iceland, before altering down for the North Channel. It was hoped that this northerly route would keep the convoy away from patrolling U-boats until the ocean escort was reinforced by ships of Western Approaches Command. Unknown to Mackinnon and the Admiralty, this was a forlorn hope. Admiral Dönitz, through the B-Dienst, the German naval intelligence service, was already aware of the movements of SC 7.

On 28 June 1940 the 7,506-ton British cargo liner City of Baghdad, under the command of Captain Armstrong White, sailed from Lourenço Marques, Mozambique, bound for Penang, Malaya. German agents in the Portuguese port notified Berlin of her sailing. Thirteen days later, when City of Baghdad was 450 miles off the western coast of Sumatra and nearing the equator, she fell in with the German armed merchant cruiser Atlantis, commanded by Kapitän-zur-See Bernhard Rogge. The British ship attempted to escape, but was pounded to a standstill by Rogge’s guns. Two of City of Baghdad’s crew already lay dead and another was seriously injured, and to avoid further casualties Captain White surrendered. Unfortunately, White omitted to dump his lead-weighted code books overboard before handing over his ship. Within a week or two the entire contents of the Broadcasting for Allied Merchant Ships (BAMS) code was in the hands of the B-Dienst. The Admiralty remained ignorant of this catastrophic loss for many months. Meanwhile, B-Dienst was busy reading its signals to the convoys and passing them on to Dönitz within a day or so of transmission.

So Dönitz, alerted by radio intelligence, was aware of the sailing of SC 7 from Cape Breton; he also knew the convoy’s projected course and speed. This did not bode well for the ships under Vice-Admiral Mackinnon’s command, but, ignorant of their betrayal, they sailed on.

Some 48 hours out of Sydney, when clear of Newfoundland, HMCS Elk reached the limit of her fuel tanks and, signalling her goodbyes by lamp, turned back for home. With its lone escort, the 1,000-ton sloop Scarborough, putting on a brave face as she scouted ahead, SC 7 carried on into the open Atlantic. The weather held fine and clear, which was a mixed blessing, for the billows of black smoke pouring from the tall funnels of the labouring tramps climbed high in the sky, and must have been visible for many miles.

But the ocean would not remain quiescent for much longer. Off Cape Hatteras warm air was rising to form an area of low pressure which would expand and deepen as it tracked north-eastwards around the perimeter of the Azores High. By the morning of the 11th, when SC 7 was 300 miles south of Greenland’s Cape Farewell, a full gale was blowing from the north-west. Steaming beam-on to a heavy swell and rough, breaking seas, many of the smaller ships were soon in difficulty. The two remaining Great Lakes steamers, Trevisa and Eaglescliffe Hall, neither of which had ever experienced such unbridled wrath from the elements, gave up the struggle early on and dropped astern, soon to be lost to sight. Bigger ships began to go as the day wore on and the weather worsened. Two Greeks, the 3,554-ton Aenos and the 5,875-ton Thalia, their old and poorly maintained engines strained beyond all endurance by the violent rolling and pitching, suffered breakdowns and fell back, wallowing helplessly in the swell. There was no spare escort vessel to stand by these stragglers, and from then on they would have to see to their own defence.

For the next four days the gale blew without let-up, but SC 7, its ranks thinned and ragged, continued to fight its way north-eastwards, the gallant little Scarborough zig-zagging ahead in a welter of foam as she rolled her bulwark rails under. Then, on the afternoon of the 15th, the barometer began to rise and the wind eased, allowing the battered ships to re-form and, where possible, repair the damage meted out by the storm. SC 7 was now less than 24 hours, steaming from the rendezvous point at which she would expect to meet her local escort heading out from the North Channel. It was too early to say the race had been won, but an unmistakeable mood of optimism hovered over the convoy.

Then, just before 0100 in the dark of the morning of 16 October, Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Schulz, patrolling in U124, sighted the Trevisa straggling some 20 miles astern of SC 7. Wireless operators on watch in the convoy listened helplessly to the pitiful distress calls of the little Canadian steamer as she went down. The wolves were at hand.

There followed a harrowing twelve hours, with every ship in the convoy on full alert, with guns manned and extra lookouts posted. A great weight was lifted from Commander Dickinson’s shoulders when at last, just before dusk, Scarborough was joined by the sloop HMS Fowey and the corvette HMS Bluebell, the first ships of the local escort to arrive. Between them, the three small warships, however comforting their presence was to the merchantmen, were only a token show of force. None of them had worked together before, ship-to-ship radio communication was poor, and they had no preconceived plan of action in case of attack. However, Dickinson, now Senior Officer Escort (SOE), disposed his forces as best he could, with Scarborough on the port bow, Fowey on the starboard bow and Bluebell astern of the convoy.

As SC 7 braced itself to meet the dangers of the night, the atmosphere on the bridge of the Commodore’s ship, Assyrian, was electric. Vice-Admiral Mackinnon and Captain Kearon stood side by side, both acutely aware that, if an attack was to be made on the convoy, it must come soon. Many times during the crossing they had roundly cursed the foul Atlantic weather; now, with the wind only a gentle breeze, the sea calm, and a bright moon breaking through the clouds from time to time, they fervently wished they could turn back the clock. For the U-boats conditions could not have been better.

The net Dönitz had strung across the path of SC 7 served its purpose well, and just before midnight on the 16/17th, Heinrich Bleichrodt in U48 sighted the convoy 250 miles south of Iceland. He reported his find to Lorient, and then, with U48 trimmed down, took up station astern of the convoy. Admiral Dönitz’s orders were not open to interpretation; Bleichrodt’s duty was to shadow and report, attacking only when joined by the rest of the pack.

The sight of this great fleet of heavily-laden and highly vulnerable ships crawling eastwards across the moonlit sea would have taxed the resolve of the most resolute U-boat man. For Bleichrodt the temptation to attack was overwhelming. Following his limited success against HX 72, he had then been involved in an attack on HX 77, sinking another three ships and bringing his score for the current patrol to eleven ships, totalling over 58,000 tons. Now just four torpedoes remained and, when they were gone, the probability was that U48 would be free to go home. Bleichrodt curbed his impatience for almost three hours, then, with dawn less than an hour away with no sign of the other boats, he decided to act alone. Keeping a wary eye on the enemy corvette zig-zagging in the wake of the rear ships of the convoy, he moved in, penetrating the ranks of the merchantmen with ease.

The 9,512-ton French tanker Languedoc, sailing under the Red Ensign and her distinctive silhouette clear in the light of the moon, exploded in a sheet of flame when Bleichrodt’s torpedo struck. Seconds later the North-East Coast tramp Scoresby, SC 7’s Vice-Commodore ship, staggered as she was hit amidships, and began to sink. Bleichrodt’s third torpedo hit the 4,678-ton Haspendon, which developed a heavy list but remained afloat.

The simultaneous attack on three ships at once appeared to leave the convoy stunned, and several minutes elapsed before the first rocket soared into the sky. This was followed by a flurry of other rockets and flares fired by the startled merchantmen. The escorts joined in the illuminations with starshell fired at random, and night was turned into day, but no one really knew from which quarter the attack had come, for U48 had already dived. In the midst of the ensuing panic, Vice-Admiral Mackinnon ordered a 45° emergency turn to starboard, which caused further confusion and allowed Bleichrodt to slip clear of the convoy. But he was not to get clean away. The corvette Bluebell was fully occupied, having dropped back to pick up survivors from the torpedoed ships, but Scarborough came racing back with her asdics pinging.

Bleichrodt twisted and turned to avoid the probing asdic beam, then came back to the surface and made off into the dark at full speed, and at 17½ knots she soon shook off the 14 knots British sloop. Now should have been the time for Scarborough to return to the convoy, but Commander Dickinson stubbornly persisted in his search for the U-boat, ranging so far afield that the sloop lost all contact with the convoy and would never rejoin. For a while, SC 7 was defended only by HMS Fowey, Bluebell being still engaged in the search for survivors.

When daylight came, U48 was out of sight of the convoy, and had altered course to make contact again, when a Sunderland of RAF Coastal Command came roaring out of the sun. Bleichrodt made a record-breaking crash dive, but the Sunderland’s depth charges exploded all around the boat as she went down. The lights failed, gauge glasses shattered, and water spurted through strained hatch seals. Bleichrodt went deep and stayed there until the danger from the air was past. Although U48 was unable to regain contact with SC 7, 24 hours later Bleichrodt put his last remaining torpedo to good use, sinking the 3,612-ton British steamer Sandsend, a straggler from a west-bound convoy.

By sunrise on the 17th Mackinnon had succeeded in restoring order within the depleted ranks of SC 7, and was delighted when, at 0700, the sloop HMS Leith hove in sight, closely followed by the corvette Heartsease. Commander Roland Allen in Leith then took over as SOE. The appearance of Sunderlands overhead became more frequent, and the odds on SC 7 surviving appeared to be shortening. Then the unseen enemy struck again. From 60 miles ahead was heard the frantic SOS calls of the Aenos, torpedoed by U38 (Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Liebe). Having fallen out of the convoy on the 11th, the Greek ship had made a lone dash for the UK, only to run into the arms of Liebe, who was patrolling to the north of Rockall.

Throughout the day the weather continued to improve and the convoy made good speed. During the afternoon, being ahead of the schedule advised to the Admiralty, Mackinnon ordered an alteration of course to the northward to lose some time. As no U-boat was then shadowing the convoy, this was a diversion which, but for a cruel twist of fate, might have saved SC 7.

When darkness fell there remained just 220 miles to cover to the shelter of the North Channel, but with only scattered cloud and the moon near full, the slow-moving ships were dangerously exposed. Allen had placed his meagre force, two sloops and two corvettes, to best advantage, ahead, astern and on the wings of the convoy. Asdics pinged monotonously and lookouts scanned the horizon; it promised to be a long night.

On receipt of the report of the sinking of the Aenos by U38, Dönitz, who by now was concerned at the lack of reports from Bleichrodt, ordered Liebe to search westwards. Basing his calculations on the position and course of Aenos, Liebe reversed his own course and proceeded cautiously with extra lookouts posted. His patience was rewarded when he sighted SC 7 late that night. The convoy was on course to pass well to the north of the ambush set up by Lorient.

Shortly after 0100 on the 18th, Liebe slipped easily past the thin defensive screen of SC 7 and torpedoed the 3,670-ton Glasgow ship Carsbreck. The attack was not fully successful, for the Carsbreck did not sink, but retaliation was swift and Liebe was forced to retire before inflicting more damage. However, his attack succeeded in weakening SC 7’s escort even further. The corvette Bluebell, already carrying more than 100 survivors from other ships, was ordered by Allen to stand by the Carsbreck, and so once again ceased to play a significant part in the protection of SC 7.

When he received Liebe’s sighting report, Dönitz at once realised that his boats were too far to the south and radioed them to regroup, forming a line across the convoy’s track by 0700 on the 18th. His signal was answered by U100, U28, U123, U101, U46 and U99. U99 was then some 100 miles to the south-west of the new patrol line position. Kretschmer put on all speed, but was not in position until 1030. There he established contact with U46 and U101; other boats were nearby.

Half an hour later Liebe reported in again. From the position he gave it was obvious that the convoy had once more altered course, and would pass even further to the north. At 1430 Dönitz abandoned his ambush line and ordered all boats to home in on U38, attacking independently when in contact.

With just over an hour to go to sunset, Kretschmer again sighted U101 and exchanged signals with Fritz Frauenheim by lamp. A few minutes later Frauenheim signalled ‘Enemy in sight to port’. Kretschmer swept the horizon with his binoculars and sighted a lone warship on an easterly course. Minutes later the masts and funnels of a large convoy were seen. He altered course to intercept after dark.

Dusk was closing in when SC 7, then 25 miles north-east of the tiny island of Rockall, received orders from the Admiralty to head directly for the North Channel. Mackinnon brought the ships round on to a course of 130°, commencing the final leg of the long ocean passage. The weather remained dangerously fair, with a gentle breeze from the south-east, a slight sea and broken cloud. The moon would soon be up. The sloop Fowey (Lieutenant-Commander Robert Aubrey) was ordered to take up station five miles astern of the convoy to search for shadowing U-boats. No doubt Commander Allen’s intentions were in the best interests of SC 7, but in detaching Fowey he seriously weakened his arm.

Kretschmer was now shadowing a ship which for some reason was romping ahead of the convoy. She was the 5,458-ton British steamer Shekatika, loaded with timber. At 1828 Kretschmer submerged to attack, and in doing so allowed the ship to draw ahead. He resurfaced and gave chase, only to find that Moehle’s U123 was already attacking. Her torpedo caught the unsuspecting Shekatika squarely amidships but, buoyed up by her timber cargo, she did not sink.

The attack on the Shekatika was the signal for the wolves to close in, and a few minutes later Engelbert Endrass, in U46, fired a spread of three. The first torpedo missed, but the second and third sank the British ship Beatus and the 1,996-ton Swede Convallaria, the first and second ships in the port outer column. This sudden onslaught sent Leith, Bluebell and Heartsease racing in all directions, hurling depth charges and illuminating the already moonlit night with starshell, but to no good effect. Not surprisingly, Allen had no clear idea of the whereabouts of the enemy, but he felt obliged to take some action, however ineffectual. The presence of the other sloop would have been of some help, but Fowey was still five miles astern. As soon as he saw the starshell bursting, Lieutenant-Commander Aubrey attempted to make radio contact with Leith, but failed. He then called for full speed, but at 14 knots Fowey would take a full hour to rejoin SC 7. It is said that one man’s misfortune is another man’s gain, and so it was on this night. As she strained to overtake the convoy, Fowey found herself assuming the role of rescue ship, picking up survivors from the Convallaria and Shekatika. This delayed her even further.

Meanwhile, Frauenheim had torpedoed and sunk the 3,971-ton Creekirk, and Kretschmer, while manoeuvring to attack, had been surprised by one of the escorts and obliged to run to the south. It would take U99 nearly two hours to regain contact. She was back in time to join the rest of the pack in a concerted attack, but whereas the other six boats were content to fire their torpedoes from a distance, Kretschmer slipped through the escort screen and approached the starboard outer column of SC 7. As he did so the moon broke through the clouds, bathing the massed ranks of the merchantmen in a brilliant yellow light. All the ships were zig-zagging independently, but the leading ship of the outer column loomed large in Kretschmer’s sights. Using the director to aim off, he fired one bow torpedo, and to his amazement missed. He swung the boat round and fired the stern tube. There was a flash, and the 6,055-ton Empire Miniver reared up like a frightened horse. The 22-year-old ship seemed to fall apart before Kretschmer’s eyes, and in twenty seconds she was gone. Kretschmer took U99 deeper into the convoy.

On the bridge of Assyrian Captain Kearon witnessed the sudden end of the Empire Miniver and immediately put his ship through a series of violent emergency turns before coming back on course and increasing speed. The night had gone quiet again when he sighted a long, low shadow on the water 200 yards on the port bow. As the moon broke through the clouds again, the shadow hardened into the silhouette of a Type VIIC U-boat – Kretschmer’s U99. Kearon’s nerves were bar tight, and without thinking of the consequences he rang for emergency full speed and turned to ram. But Kretschmer took fast evasive action, running ahead of the Assyrian and then diving. Kearon gave chase, for he could plainly see the wake of the U-boat’s periscope.

The Assyrian’s engines were 26 years old, but they gave of their best, working up to 10 knots, and she began to gain on the periscope. Then, after about seven minutes, the U-boat resurfaced, now only 400 yards off, and Kearon caught the waft of exhaust fumes as her diesels roared into life. From then on there was no contest, the U-boat drawing rapidly away, altering course to starboard as she went. Kearon followed her round, breaking radio silence to warn the escorts. Pursuer and pursued, now heading to the west, raced down the starboard side of the convoy until Kearon, realising the futility of his action (he had no gun forward) abandoned the chase. He swung the Assyrian round under full helm, with her stern to the enemy, and fired one shot from the poop 4in, more as a pointer to the escorts than in the hope of hitting the U-boat. Kretschmer had escaped again.

Over the next hour, with Fowey still occupied astern picking up the evergrowing number of survivors, the rest of the wolf pack moved in to savage SC 7. Endrass sank the small Swedish steamer Gunborg, Frauenheim and Schepke each put two torpedoes into the Glasgow timber carrier Blairspey but she stayed stubbornly afloat, and Schepke again torpedoed the abandoned Shekatika.

Kretschmer, who had regained contact with the convoy, joined in the fray. An extract from his war diary best illustrates the heat of the action:

2330 [2130 Convoy Time]: Fire bow torpedo at large freighter. As the ship turns towards us the torpedo passes ahead of her and hits an even larger ship after a run of 1,740m. This ship [Niritos, 3,854 tons] of some 7,000 tons, is hit abreast the foremast and the bow quickly sinks below the surface as two holds are apparently flooded.

2355 [2155]: Fire a bow torpedo at a large freighter of some 6,000 tons [Fiscus, 4,815 tons], at a range of 750m. Hit abreast foremast. Immediately after the torpedo explosion there is another explosion with a high column of flame from the bow to the bridge. The smoke rises to some 200m. Bow apparently shattered. Ship continues to burn with a green flame.

19 October:

0015 [2215]: Three destroyers approach the ship and search the area in line abreast. I make off at full speed to the south-west and again make contact with the convoy. Torpedoes from the other boats are constantly heard exploding. The destroyers do not know how to help and occupy themselves by constantly firing starshells, which are of little effect in the bright moonlight. I now start to attack the convoy from astern.

0138 [2338]: Fire bow torpedoes at large heavily laden freighter of about 6,000 tons [Empire Brigade, 5,154 tons], range 945m. Hit abreast foremast. The explosion sinks the ship. This ship broke in two and both halves sank in a little more than a minute.

0155 [2355]: Fire bow torpedo at the next large vessel of some 7,000 tons [Thalia, 5,875 tons]. Range 975m. Hit abreast foremast. Ship sinks within 40 seconds.

0240 [0040]: Miss through aiming error with torpedo fired at one of the largest vessels in the convoy, a ship of the Glenapp class 9,500 tons.

0255 [0055]: Again miss the same target from a range of about 800m. No explanation as the fire control data were absolutely correct. Presume it to be a gyro failure, as we hear an explosion on the other side of the convoy some seven minutes later.

0302 [0102]: Third attempt at same target from range of 720m. Hit forward of the bridge [Snefield, 1,643 tons]. Bow sinks rapidly level with the water.

0356 [0156]: Fire and miss at a rather small unladen ship which had lost contact with the convoy. We had fired just as the ship turned towards us.

0358 [0158]: Turn off and fire a stern torpedo from a range of 690m. Hit aft of amidships. Ship drops astern, somewhat lower in the water. As torpedoes have been expended I wait to see if she will sink further before I settle her by gunfire.

0504 [0304]: Ship is sunk by another vessel by gunfire. I suppose it to be a British destroyer, but it later transpires it was U123. Some of her shells land very close, so I have to leave the area quickly. The ship was Clintonia, 3,106 tons.

Captain Kearon of the Assyrian saw the massacre from the wrong end of the torpedo tube:

There was a period of about an hour when we were free from attack and I had worked up to a position with the Empire Brigade on my port side. She had moved up and was ahead of her position. There were some other ships on my starboard quarter. The next thing I saw was a torpedo crossing my bow and I remarked “There goes my next door neighbour”, which proved to be correct as the Empire Brigade was struck. A few seconds later, at 2323 on 18 October, in position 57° 12’N, 10° 43’W, 170 miles from land, I saw another torpedo coming towards us which hit us in the stokehold on the starboard side, 166ft from the bow. There was only one explosion, which was a dull report, the ship was lifted but no water was thrown up as far as I know; the Chief Engineer said the water came up through his cabin floor, his room being over the after end of the engine room, 40-50ft further aft than where we were hit. There was no flame or smell, but a good deal of smoke. The top sides of the ship on the starboard side were opened up right to the boat deck, there was quite a large hole, and the decks were broken so that we could not use the starboard side of the deck at all. We were actually hit a quarter of a minute before the Empire Brigade although I saw the track of the torpedo which struck her before ours.

Up to this time, including the ones I have already mentioned, I had had four torpedoes fired at me, three missed their mark. Altogether I saw the tracks of six torpedoes, ours being the sixth; one hit the Empire Miniver and one the Empire Brigade. Of the six torpedoes I think four came from the port side and two from starboard. In my opinion there must have been not less than two submarines operating at that time and I think they were definitely picking their marks. After we were struck a Dutch ship blew up and I believe another ship ahead of us, and later, when I was in the water, another three ships, also ahead of me, were torpedoed. I believe seventeen ships were torpedoed that night, and 21 altogether out of the whole convoy.

When the final reckoning was made, it was found that SC 7 had lost a total of twenty ships of 79,646 tons, while two other ships were damaged but reached port. Of these, Otto Kretschmer sank seven ships of 30,502 tons, and Heinrich Bleichrodt, Karl-Heinz Moehle, Fritz Frauenheim and Engelbert Endrass all added another three ships to their scores. The night of 18/19 October 1940 was aptly named by the U-boat men ‘The Night of the Long Knives’.

Kretschmer, Frauenheim and Moehle, their torpedoes expended, returned to the Biscay ports and heroes’ welcomes, but Endrass in U46, Bleichrodt in U48, Schepke in U100 and Liebe in U38 remained on station. They were joined by Günter Kuhnke in U28, and late on the 19th the fast convoy HX 79, which sailed from Nova Scotia a few days after SC 7, sailed straight into their arms. HX 79 was comparatively well escorted, having with it two destroyers, four corvettes, three trawlers and a minesweeper, but, as was only too common in those early days, the warships lacked experienced crews and had no co-ordinated plan of defence. The result was another massacre to match that of SC7. In the space of nine hours on the night of 19/20 October, HX 79 lost twelve ships totalling another 75,069 tons.

The virtual annihilation by the U-boats of two major convoys in four days, resulting in the loss of 32 merchant ships of 154,715 tons without loss to the attackers, was unprecedented in sea warfare. For Admiral Karl Dönitz it was a complete vindication of his decision to use the U-boats in packs; for Britain and her allies it was another staggering defeat in the long catalogue of defeats that was to become known as the Battle of the Atlantic.

Blind Man’s Buff, 19 August I916 – Jutland Redux I

The Germans did their own stock-taking after Jutland. Although the High Seas Fleet could feel that it had performed very creditably indeed, there was even less desire than there was before 31 May for a stand-up fight with the Grand Fleet. Scheer was prepared to carry on with his defensive fleet strategy, incorporating into his plans the lessons of Jutland. He detached from the main fleet the old, slow 2nd Squadron (the pre-dreadnought ‘Deutschlands’), which had been a hindrance at Jutland. There being only two battle cruisers available in the 1st Scouting Group, the Moltke and Von der Tann (the Derffiinger and Seydlitz were still under repair), he attached three of the dreadnoughts to it, including the newly commissioned Bayern. The most important lesson of Jutland to Scheer was the need for extensive and efficient reconnaissance, if he were to achieve his ideal of defeating the British Fleet in detail, meaning, above all, the Battle Cruiser Fleet.

If at some future date we should still encounter the enemy fast forces separated from their main fleet, we must make every endeavour to drive them into an unexpected clash with our own main fleet. . .. The first essential for this tactic is to be as secure as possible against surprise from the unexpected approach of superior enemy forces. The reconnaissance necessary to ensure this can no longer be undertaken by our surface forces, once our battle cruisers are in contact with the fast-advanced forces of the British. This must therefore be the task of the airships. For this reason, provision in principle is to be made for reconnaissance by airships for more distant operations. And this all the more so in the future, since we must expect that the British will now operate their main fleet in closer contact with the fast force, and will therefore intervene much sooner than on 31st May.

In other words, the High Seas Fleet must not again suddenly find itself up against the full might of the Grand Fleet!

Scheer’s plan for an operation on 19 August was, essentially, the original Jutland plan. It called for the 1st Scouting Group to bombard Sunderland, with the battle fleet operating in close support. Scheer’s operations order stated his intentions: ‘The enemy is to be brought to action under conditions favourable to ourselves. To this end the entire High Seas Fleet (without II Squadron) is to advance behind extensive airship reconnaissance in the direction of Sunderland, and in the event the enemy is not encountered earlier, or does not depart from his main bases early enough to cut off our retreat with superior forces, Sunderland is to be heavily bombarded, in order to force him to come out and in order to parade before the eyes of England and the world the unbroken might of the German Fleet.’ That is, the sortie was partly intended to restore the morale of the Fleet after its recent shattering experience. To protect himself from a surprise appearance of the British battle fleet, Scheer would have his front and flanks guarded by airships and submarines. The High Seas Fleet U-boats were disposed in two lines, of five submarines each, close to the English coast—one line off Blyth, the other off Flam-borough Head. In addition, nine boats of the Flanders Flotilla were disposed in two lines in the Hoofden (the southern part of the North Sea), west-north-west of Terschelling. Finally, there was to be a line off the Dogger Bank to cover Scheer’s withdrawal, although it was not ordered to be in place until the morning of the 20th. In all, 24 submarines were to participate in the operation. Whether the battle fleet pushed on, or had to retire if the Grand Fleet threatened to cut it off, Scheer hoped that the submarines on either side of his line of advance would have opportunities not only for reconnaissance, but for attack on the British forces which would certainly be drawn towards the German fleet when they heard of the bombardment. There was also the ever-present hope that he might catch a part of the British main fleet. Scheer and the German Naval Staff were still obsessed with the notion that a U-boat concentration off British naval bases would provide a good chance of reducing the British preponderance in capital ships. For long-distance reconnaissance Scheer would depend on Zeppelins, four of which were to operate on a line between Scotland and Norway, with four others to be spread between the latitude of the Firth of Forth and the North Hinder lightship. That is, one airship detachment was to operate to the north and the other was to be spread ahead of him to cover his line of advance while he was moving across the North Sea.

The High Seas Fleet (18 dreadnoughts, 2 battle cruisers, and light forces) sailed at 9 p.m. on 18 August, steaming boldly towards the East Coast, the battle fleet preceded by the 1st and 2nd Scouting Groups, which were 20 miles ahead. The last thing Scheer had reckoned on was a swift response to his movements. But, sighs the German Official History, the Grand Fleet was at sea ‘unpleasantly soon as usual’. Through a German signal intercepted at 9.19 a.m. on the 18th, Room 40 had quickly divined that the High Seas Fleet, less the 2nd Squadron, would leave harbour at 9 p.m. that night. No objective was indicated. The British machine reacted promptly. At 10.56 a.m. the Admiralty ordered the C.-in-C. (Burney, pro tem.) to put to sea and concentrate in the Long Forties, east of Aberdeen. The main fleet was away from Scapa by 4 p.m. and on its way south—a few hours before the High Seas Fleet was at sea! The Battle Cruiser Fleet left the Forth at 6.20 p.m.4 The combined Grand Fleet included twenty-nine dreadnoughts (1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th B.S.) and six battle cruisers (1st, 2nd B.C.S,). The seaplane carrier Engadine was with the battle cruisers, but, as at Jutland, the Campania did not go out, her machinery being under repair. All that the former accomplished in the way of air work was an unsuccessful attempt in the high sea to get a seaplane up (2 p.m., 19th) to attack a Zeppelin. Campania’s kite balloon, which had been transferred to the battleship Hercules, was too far back to be useful for reconnaissance. Beatty afterwards recommended that ‘the balloon should be flown from a ship in the advanced cruiser screen in order to increase the range of vision ahead of the Fleet. Had the kite balloon been well forward during operations, I am of opinion that the enemy might possibly have been sighted.’

Jellicoe had been in the south of Scotland since 7 August, taking a sorely needed rest. He was ‘quite played out’, owing to ‘the incessant strain’, as he informed the First Sea Lord (31 July). At about 9 p.m. on the 18th he was able to board the Iron Duke (it had proceeded independently from Scapa) at sea from the light cruiser Royalist, which had been lying off Dundee for just such an emergency. Burney, who was in command until then, had ordered the fleet to rendezvous at 5 a.m. on the 19th about 100 miles east of the River Tay. The entire force would then turn southward and enter ‘L’ swept channel, which ran south-eastward from the approaches to the Forth towards the southern shore of Heligoland Bight, passing the Tyne about 60 miles to seaward. (This, and another 20-mile-wide swept channel, ‘M’, lay between the German Dogger Bank and Humber minefields.)

At 11.37 a.m. on the 18th the Admiralty ordered the Harwich Force (5 light cruisers, 19 destroyers, and a flotilla leader) to assemble by early dawn on the 19th off Brown Ridge, in the Hoofden, about 50 miles east of Yarmouth. It sailed at 10.30 p.m. In addition, twenty-five submarines were involved in the dispositions: three were patrolling off Terschelling, watching the southern exits of the Bight, and two more were ordered to the Heligoland area at midday on the 18th; five were in the Hoofden; eight were off Yarmouth and six off the Tyne for coast defence; and one was on patrol off Shouwen Bank, near the Dutch coast. E-23, northernmost of the three boats off Terschelling, was the only one that got within range of the High Seas Fleet. The British submarines were for the first time equipped with long-range wireless. (This was a by-product of the Admiralty conference of 25 June, at which the C.-in-C. had stressed the great disadvantage under which the British Fleet laboured owing to the inefficiency of the wireless arrangements in the submarines. He had pointed out that, whereas the German submarines were able to communicate at a distance of 400 miles, the range of the wireless of the British boats scarcely exceeded 60 miles.)

At 5 a.m., 19 August, the battle fleet passed through its rendezvous. With the lessons of Jutland fresh in mind, the battle cruisers were in station only 30 miles ahead, in touch with the battle fleet through linking cruisers, so that Jellicoe and Beatty could exchange messages by visual signals. The 5th Battle Squadron was under the C.-in-C.’s direct control. Eight miles ahead of the battle cruisers were the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Light Cruiser Squadrons. The whole fleet was, by 5.40, moving south at 18 knots. At 5.57 a.m. the Nottingham (2nd L.C.S.), while zigzagging at 20 knots off Holy Island, was shaken by two violent explosions, the result of two simultaneous torpedo hits. They had been fired by U-52, one of the boats of the northern submarine line. A half-hour later the U-boat registered a third hit on the Nottingham. She sank at 7.10. There being no trace of the periscope or tracks of a U-boat, the first signal from the Senior Officer, 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron (Goodenough), to Beatty, which the latter passed on to the C.-in-C., suggested that she had been ‘struck by mine or has been hit by a torpedo’. The C.-in-C. did not receive this information until about 6.50. Ten minutes later he took in an important Admiralty signal of 6.15 which placed the German fleet at 5.25 a.m. about 200 miles to the south-eastward of him, or some 170 miles eastward of the Humber. No course was given. On the basis of these two pieces of information, the first in particular, Jellicoe decided to turn 16 points (i.e., to northward) ‘till situation re Nottingham is clear’, that is, whether she had been mined or torpedoed. The battle fleet altered course at 7.03, and Beatty followed at 7.30.

What Jellicoe feared was steering the Grand Fleet into a minefield trap, ‘and, until it was clear that a mine-field did not exist, it was prudent for the Fleet to avoid this locality . . .’ His defenders say that it would have been ‘foolhardy’ (Altham) or ‘lunacy’ (Dreyer) to have led the fleet into a minefield. Churchill has contended that, even on the assumption that a mine had sunk the Nottingham, ‘a comparatively slight alteration of course would have carried the Grand Fleet many miles clear of the area of the suspected minefields, and the possibility of getting between the German Fleet and home presented itself.’ Perhaps the C.-in-C. felt, on the basis of the Admiralty message, that he had plenty of time in hand and should await more information before committing the fleet to a course of action. Anyhow, it is a fact that four hours were lost, since it was not until after 9 a.m. (Beatty, at 9.30) that the C.-in-C. resumed his advance to the southward. We should not exaggerate the consequences of Jellicoe’s movement to the northward, for, as Newbolt says,

Had it never been made, that is, had Admiral Jellicoe pressed on to the southward, his advanced forces might have come in contact with Hipper’s squadron between twelve and one ; but only on the supposition that the British advance was not held up by the submarines of U-boat line No. 1 [the Blyth line], and that Admiral Scheer held on for Sunderland, in ignorance of the tremendous force which was steadily approaching his communications with [i.e., his line of retreat to] Germany. But it is in the last degree improbable that the German Commander-in-Chief would have known nothing of our Grand Fleet until it was close upon him. . . . It is certain that never, if he could possibly have avoided it, would he have joined battle with the Grand Fleet to the eastward of him, and with the prospect of an eight-hours’ daylight battle before night could bring him a chance of breaking away.

As matters developed, when Jellicoe again turned towards the enemy, he still had time to bring them to action, despite the lost hours.

At 9.08 a.m., having definitely learned that the Nottingham had been sunk by torpedoes, the C.-in-C. turned south again, shaping course S.S.E., steering for a position about 25 miles to the eastward of where the Nottingham had been torpedoed. His original intention had been to proceed down ‘L’ Channel, but in view of the possible presence of U-boats there (submarines had been found in the upper part of the channel, and he suspected that they would also be found in the lower part), he elected to cross the centre of this channel and then move to the eastward down the safer ‘M’ Channel. Clearly, this was a course which gave the Grand Fleet less chance of interposing itself between the High Seas Fleet and its base. Had he adhered to his original plan, he would have been about 20 miles farther to the eastward and might have made contact with the enemy late in the afternoon, perhaps too late for anything more than an indecisive action. The explanation for the change in plan lies in Jellicoe’s suspicion of a trap— that Scheer was using his battle fleet as a bait to draw the Grand Fleet south into his submarines and/or newly-laid mines. At 10.21 the Iron Duke received E-23’s report of 9.16 on the torpedoing of the Westfalen (see below). Although the message was mutilated in transmission and did not fit in with the information of the enemy’s position in two signals received from the Admiralty at 7 and 8 a.m., it did confirm the C.-in-C. in his belief that the High Seas Fleet was making for the English coast.

With the information available after the war, which could not of course have been known to Jellicoe on 19 August, it is possible that a course down ‘L’ Channel would have carried the fleet away from the sphere of the U-boats. At 12.34 Jellicoe altered course for ‘M’ Channel, steering south towards the centre of the channel. An important Admiralty signal of 1.15 p.m., received in the Iron Duke at 1.27 but not seen by Jellicoe until about 2 o’clock, placed the German flagship (from directionals) at 12.33 p.m. in Lat. 54° 32′ N., Long. 1° 42′ E. This was at the time when, as we shall see in a moment, Scheer was about to turn. This was not known to the Admiralty or the C.-in-C. The message indicated that there were about 60 miles between Beatty and the High Seas Fleet at the time of observation, or no more than 40 miles at 2 p.m., if the Germans had stood on. The two fleets were apparently converging at right angles on each other, with early contact inevitable. At once Jellicoe increased speed from 17 to 19 knots and turned the fleet directly towards the (presumably) oncoming enemy. At 2 p.m. the Iron Duke made the flag signal: ‘Raise steam for full speed. . .. Assume immediate readiness for action in every respect.’ And towards 2.15: ‘Prepare for immediate action. High Sea Fleet may be sighted at any moment.’ At 2.15 there followed the Nelson-like signal: ‘High Sea Fleet may be sighted at any moment. I look with entire confidence on the result.’ The weather was clear. There was ample daylight. The odds greatly favoured the Grand Fleet— and this time Beatty was within visual touch of the battle fleet. Everything was ready. But unknown to Jellicoe, fate had yet again intervened to dash the great expectations of the Grand Fleet.

We must turn to Scheer’s movements. He had steamed across the North Sea without incident until 5.05 a.m., when E-23 (Lieutenant-Commander R. R. Turner), patrolling in the Bight 60 miles north of Terschelling, torpedoed the battleship Westfalen, last ship in the German line, at 1,200 yards. At 6.30 Scheer sent the struggling, though not seriously damaged, ship back to harbour under destroyer escort. (It was the Westfalen’s wireless signal reporting the hit and the damage, in violation of Scheer’s orders, that had given Jellicoe important information, via the Admiralty message received at 8 a.m., on the position of the High Seas Fleet.) As the morning wore on, Scheer found himself mystified by the reports he was receiving from his reconnaissance forces. The Zeppelin L-13, in the Hoofden, at 6.30 reported two enemy destroyer flotillas, and behind them two cruiser squadrons (really one), about 120 miles to the southward steering south-west. It was the Harwich Force. (Tyrwhitt had reached the rendezvous off Brown Ridge by 4.02 a.m. and continued to cruise in the vicinity. At 10 a.m., on the basis of E-23’s signal, which had been made at 9.16 to all ships, he turned north to get in touch with the enemy.) At 7 o’clock and at 8.10, U-53, on the eastern end of the northern submarine line, made reports, the first of battle cruisers, the second of battleships, all steering north. At 9.50 the Zeppelin L-31 sent in the inaccurate report that at 9.50 (a mistake for 8.50) the main British fleet was steering north-east. Scheer later reported that this intelligence failed to give him ‘a unified picture of the enemy’s counter-measures’, as all the enemy forces appeared to be moving away from him, instead of converging on his line of advance! Unruffled, and probably concluding that the Harwich Force was merely patrolling, while a concentration of the main British forces was taking place well to the northward, he stood on for Sunderland. At noon he was 82 miles east of Whitby.

Then came the crucial moment. At 12.03 Scheer received a report from L-13 (whose pilot, incidentally, was a reserve officer not well trained in reconnaissance work), which had been shadowing the Harwich Force, that ‘a strong enemy force of about 30 units’, including five heavy ships, 60 miles east of Cromer, was coming up from the southward at 11.30 a.m. (This was about 60 miles south of Scheer’s position at 11.30.) A second report from L-13, received at 12.22, reported this enemy force as consisting of ‘about 16 destroyers, small and large cruisers, and battleships’. (A third report, received at 12.50, located this force at 12.30, 75 miles E.N.E. of Cromer on a N.E. course. This report assured Scheer that he had made the correct decision.) A thunderstorm caused L-13 to lose contact with the British force at 1.30. But for these airship reports, especially the second, Scheer might well have pressed on towards Sunderland—another hour and Jellicoe would have been between him and his base. Instead, believing he had part of the British battle fleet within reach, he abandoned his original plan of bombarding Sunderland. At 12.15 he ordered the fleet to turn around. The battle fleet had to mark time while the 1st Scouting Group got into position ahead on the new course, and then, at one o’clock, the whole fleet shaped course to the south-eastward to engage the reported force—away from the Grand Fleet, coming down from the north. Scheer’s dream since becoming C.-in-C., of destroying a detached, weaker force, seemed on the point of realization! Alas for his hopes, L-13’s reports were mistaken ones, and Scheer was chasing a phantom battleship squadron—actually, the Harwich Force, which, of course, had no battleships with it. Moreover, not having sighted the German fleet, it had turned south at 12.45 to return to its station in the Hoofden, and was, unknowingly, steaming away from the High Seas Fleet.

At 2.35 Scheer abandoned the chase and turned to E.S.E. He gives these as the reasons. ‘The bulk of the fleet continued to advance until stopped by the minefields in the south. [He was within 25 miles of the Humber field.] . . . There was no further prospect of coming up with the enemy in the south, and it had grown too late to bombard Sunderland.’ The dominating factor in his decision must have been U-53’s report at 1.15 (received by him at 2.13) that the British main fleet was approaching, steering south, in a position some 65 miles to the north of the High Seas Fleet. This, the first precise report of the British battle fleet, must have shocked the German C.-in-C.

The German Official History rather severely criticizes L-13 for her blunder, and Scheer claims that ‘there was a possibility that we might have joined battle with the enemy fleet at 4 p.m. [2 p.m., G.M.T.], if the report of “L 13” had not induced me to turn south with a view to attacking the ships sighted in that direction.’ The Chief of the Operations Section on Scheer’s staff remarked after the war that if the C.-in-C. had only continued on towards Sunderland for another hour, instead of turning against the reported force, they would have scored ‘a substantial success. The fate of the war turned on this battle, which was the last chance to end the war by a naval success.’ To the disinterested historian

[and wargamer]

it seems that L-13’s error was in reality a blessing in disguise for the High Seas Fleet, which might otherwise have run into the vastly superior Grand Fleet—and probable disaster.

The Grand Fleet was meanwhile pressing on in an expectant mood. At about 2.30 Jellicoe received an Admiralty message of 1.36 that the High Seas Fleet was turning to starboard at 12.30. By 3 o’clock he knew that the prospect of a meeting was virtually dead. He now advanced into the centre of ‘M’ Channel. At 3.46 he learned from an Admiralty signal of 3.22 that Scheer was well on his way home. At 3.53 Jellicoe ordered the fleet to turn north, and so began the retirement.

The return passage, up ‘M’ Channel, was something of a nightmare until darkness set in, as U-boats of the Flamborough Head line, and then the Blyth line, repeatedly attacked. ‘The signal “submarine in sight” was flying almost continuously at the yard-arm of one or the other of the British ships.’ There was only one hit. The light cruiser Falmouth, on the battle cruisers’ screen, was zigzagging at 23 knots when struck by two torpedoes fired by U-66 at 4.52. She was hit twice more by U-63 at about noon, 20 August, as she was proceeding towards the Humber in tow, and finally sank the next morning when only miles from Flamborough Head.

After several abortive sweeps from its station on Brown Ridge, the Harwich Force finally made contact with the High Seas Fleet at about 6 p.m. and reported it. The fleet at that time was distant at least 20 miles, as only the control tops of a few heavy ships could be seen above the horizon, but its presence was confirmed by a heavy cloud of smoke and the Zeppelins overhead. Tyrwhitt at once started to close the enemy, but at 6.32 p.m. received a signal from the C.-in-C. saying he was too far off to support him. In fact, he had actually abandoned the pursuit and was making for home. That signal gave full discretion to attack or withdraw, but Tyrwhitt did not hesitate to take the risk of attacking a powerful and strongly escorted fleet in its own waters, without any hope of support and at least 150 miles from his base. His only chance of a successful attack was to get well ahead of the enemy and to come down to the attack at high speed, and, accordingly, with this object, he increased to full speed. Unfortunately, after an hour’s steaming it became clear that he could not reach the desired position before the moon rose, which would have made any attempt disastrous; and he therefore withdrew, reporting to the C.-in-C. at 7.32 p.m., ‘Have abandoned pursuit. Night attack conditions unfavourable.’

Commander Frost (U.S.N.) is highly critical of Tyrwhitt’s decision. ‘To be in plain sight of 20 capital ships at dark is a wonderful opportunity for any destroyer commander. Any situation, except possibly a full moon, would be favorable for a night attack. . .. That the British deliberately refused the opportunity for a night attack and that Scheer was perfectly willing to risk it disproved the claim that the British had gained a moral ascendancy over the Germans as a result of Jutland.’ The German Official History is just as unflattering. ‘The reasons which caused him and Admiral Jellicoe not to attack the heavy German forces. . . and to leave them entirely unmolested stand in basic opposition to the German conception of the use and independent attack of torpedo-boat forces.’ We cannot leave the incident there. Tyrwhitt, who was anything but a faint-hearted commander, had a good reason for not closing, one with more validity than Frost admits: he expected that the moon would make an attack both useless and too hazardous. His Navigation Officer writes,

I am sure that the risk of being able to attack only after the moon had risen made us feel quite happy about having to abandon the pursuit. The moon did not rise till about midnight, but the H.S.F. was probably retiring at high speed, and we could only have caught them up and got ahead for the attack after the moon had risen, which with our small force would have been suicidal and useless against a powerful and well-protected fleet which had not been brought to action. When the moon did rise, when on our way back, this was confirmed without a doubt, as it was as bright as day.

There never was, nor could there be, the slightest official criticism of Tyrwhitt’s action on this occasion.

Results Of 19 August – Jutland Redux II

And so the day had ended without anything happening. In the view of British critics, the main reason for the enemy ‘slipping through our hands’ was Jellicoe’s cautious strategy (‘careful and evasive attitude’ was the post-battle German evaluation), which was conditioned, they say, by the mistrust of his matériel resulting from his Jutland experiences and the as yet uncorrected defects in ship construction and shell. This is supposed to be proved by the fact that the Grand Fleet steered its southerly course ‘too close’ to the coast (no more than 70 miles from it), whereas, as a British naval officer, writing in 1962, puts it,

Had Jutland not then been fought it seems reasonable to suppose that the advance of the fleet this day would have been laid further east, that is to say, with a greater chance of cutting off the enemy if he approached the coast of England. A concentration to the east instead of the west of the Dogger Bank would have given the British commander more room for manæuvre and more time to effect an interception whether the enemy persisted in his advance or whether, if he got news of the British approach, he, at some period of the day, decided to withdraw.

The validity of the criticism is questionable on two counts. In the first place, if Jellicoe had taken the course suggested, he could not have prevented an East Coast bombardment, the likely enemy objective, or even caught the assailants red-handed. As he must have been aware, neither the Government nor public opinion would have stood for that. But even on the supposition that he had decided to sacrifice the East Coast in the hope that he would annihilate the High Seas Fleet, in all likelihood nothing would have happened.

Scheer was satisfied with the results of his outing. ‘Although on this occasion the expected naval action with the enemy did not take place, and we had to content ourselves with the modest success of two small cruisers destroyed and one battleship damaged [he was under the mistaken impression that a U-boat had torpedoed the battle cruiser Inflexible at 7.50 p.m.], while on our side the Westfalen received injuries, yet we had conclusively shown the enemy that he must be on the watch for attacks by our Fleet.’ He was particularly pleased with the performance of his submarines, which had ‘accomplished good service’ in their reconnaissance duty. The record shows that of the twenty-four U-boats involved in the operation, five (all in the Blyth and Flamborough Head lines) had sighted the British fleet and sent in eleven reports (seven from U-53); they fired sixteen torpedoes, obtaining seven hits on two light cruisers, both of which were sunk. In contrast, Scheer did not regard the air reconnaissance, on which he had relied so greatly, as wholly satisfactory. Only three of the ten airships sighted the British fleet, sending seven reports, four of which were misleading. In Scheer’s opinion, the number of airships and the large area they had to cover worked against the realiability of their reports. And he seems to have thought there had been too much patrolling in a given position and too little searching and shadowing. ‘Scouting by airships is, in any case, somewhat negative in character, since the fleet is only informed by them that the main hostile fleet is not within their field of vision, whereas the important thing is to know where it actually is.’ Despite Scheer’s critical remarks on the air reconnaissance, he had saved his skin in part because of one misleading enemy report!

It was the last time the German Fleet pushed so far into the North Sea. Although Scheer saw interesting possibilities in further sorties with a perfected reconnaissance machinery of submarines together with airships, 19 August strengthened the opinion of the Naval Staff that, while such bold sorties might damage the British Fleet, they would not produce an important, let alone a decisive, result. After 19 August 1916, therefore, the doings of the High Seas Fleet begin to fade out, and the activities of the U-boats, divorced from the fleet, become more pronounced. Especially was this the case from 6 October, the day that the Naval Staff ordered a resumption of submarine warfare in accordance with prize rules (that is, under conditions of visit and search). The order explicitly stated that ‘the employment of the submarines on purely naval duties in combined operations with the High Seas Forces or in independent action against enemy naval forces, is to be subordinated until further orders to the campaign against commerce in accordance with the Prize Regulations.’ This precluded the further use of submarines in fleet operations and knocked the bottom out of Scheer’s hopes of striking an effectual blow against the Grand Fleet. We shall see below that the influence of 19 August was equally far-reaching on the British side. Here it was a shortage of destroyers that contributed to the stalemate in the North Sea.

On the whole, British public opinion reacted favourably to the official statement on the encounter. (It was, naturally, full of gaps.) Thus, H. C. Ferraby, Naval Correspondent of the Daily Express, deemed the loss of the two ships ‘a small price to pay for bolting the door in the face of the second largest fleet in the world’. But to the Admiralty and the C.-in-C., 19 August was a day of disappointment and even of shock.

What Jellicoe had long feared had come to pass: the enemy’s Zeppelins, to say nothing of their submarines, had served them well as look-outs. ‘There is no doubt of the use the Germans find for their Zeppelins, apart from raids. They hampered us terribly last week and greatly helped their S.M.s. One Zeppelin is worth a good many light cruisers on a suitable day.’ The C.-in-C. shot this query to the Admiralty on 24 August: How many airships were available on the East Coast, and did they have orders to co-operate with the fleet, should it be within the radius of their action? British scouting airships might have been of considerable assistance to the Grand Fleet on the afternoon of the 19th in locating the enemy’s U-boats and possibly also their battle fleet. The Admiralty replied (6 September) that there were available on the East Coast ten coastal airships, with three more to be ready shortly. This type, intended for coast reconnaissance, had a very limited radius within which they could operate with the fleet: 150 miles in fine weather. More suitable for fleet work was the improved North Sea type (four of which would be completed by the end of 1916 and two more early in 1917) with a radius of 400 miles in good weather. The Admiralty, however, were willing that Jellicoe should arrange for some of the coastal airships to participate in a test exercise with the fleet to ascertain whether their position when out of sight of land could be determined with sufficient accuracy to render reports received from them of value. The situation as regards seaplane carriers was less encouraging. The Fleet was still without efficient carriers. The Third Sea Lord informed the C.-in-C. at a conference in the Iron Duke (12 October) that the Italian steamer Conte Rosso was being converted into a seaplane carrier, but that she would not be available for a year. When he suggested that the flying boats would replace seaplanes and carriers, Jellicoe pointed out that their radius of action was insufficient to enable them to work with the fleet and that the difficulties of refuelling them at sea, even if they could safely make the rendezvous ordered, were great. Practically speaking, therefore, the Campania and Engadine remained the only means of aerial scouting that the Grand Fleet could expect, apart from kite balloons inflated on shore and towed by battleships.

It was the destroyer shortage that claimed most of the C.-in-C.’s attention. He (the First Sea Lord as well) believed that the German plan on 19 August had combined a projected evening bombardment of the East Coast and a submarine trap for the Grand Fleet. The submarines actually sighted and the loss of the two light cruisers proved the U-boat menace to the fleet was a real one. The C.-in-C. lost no time in making strong representations to the Admiralty on the subject of destroyers for screening. He was positive that unless all vessels, including light cruisers (which the destroyer shortage had made impossible to screen hitherto), were screened by destroyers, they must expect very heavy losses when the fleet was in a submarine-infested area. The C.-in-C. put his minimum destroyer requirements at 87, on the scale of twelve destroyers to eight heavy ships (one battle squadron), two per cruiser, and one to each light cruiser. Nominally, Jellicoe had 86 destroyers (31 at Rosyth and 55 at Scapa Flow), but deducting those refitting or away on other duties, only 70 were ordinarily available. The question of the destroyer shortage ‘is one of the greatest gravity and calls for urgent pressure on the firms who are building destroyers, as until we get more, I cannot guarantee us from further heavy losses in cruisers, if not in Battleships, from submarine attack, and with no corresponding loss to the enemy’.

For two weeks Jellicoe harped on this theme, until their Lordships simply refused to reply to his last communication on the subject (13 September). As Oliver commented, with a touch of asperity, ‘Keeping up an argument will not provide any more destroyers.’ The Admiralty’s position was that the rate of destroyer-building (14.7 months was the average time since the outbreak of the war, compared with 20-24 in pre-war days) could not be improved on appreciably, and they could not disregard their responsibilities in other directions: ‘British Light Cruisers in the Adriatic are as much in need of Destroyer protection as Light Cruisers in the North Sea. 100 Drifters blocking Otranto Straits with mine nets have only intermittent and inadequate protection, which the Admiralty have been unable to provide.’ The supplies and reinforcements to the armies in Egypt, Salonika, and Mesopotamia had to be protected, the troopships from the Dominions required escort, and so forth and so on. The best that the Admiralty could do for Jellicoe (as they informed him on 9 September) was to continue, under the scheme promulgated in August 1915, the allocation of new destroyers to the Grand Fleet until the total complement reached 100. The destroyer situation directly influenced North Sea strategy.

The Grand Fleet had invariably moved upon receiving intelligence, through intercepted enemy signals, of a High Seas Fleet sortie. This policy had broken down. It ‘needed drastic revision’, Jellicoe asserted, unless he got more destroyers for screening purposes. He could not guarantee the East Coast ports against ‘tip and run’ bombardments, or interfere with the early stages of a landing, since it would be unwise to take the fleet far into southern waters until he had an adequate number of destroyers for his light cruisers as well as his capital ships. He did make an important qualification. ‘If the circumstances were exceptional and the need very pressing, it would be necessary to accept the risk. There was general agreement on this point between the Flag officers of the Fleet and the Admiralty’. The issues raised were thrashed out at one of the most important naval conferences in the war, held in the Iron Duke on 13 September. Present were Jellicoe, his Chief of Staff, Madden, and the Chief of the Admiralty War Staff, Oliver.

The questions for decision were, in effect: (1) Was the Government prepared to face the fact that the fleet could not prevent bombardments of East Coast towns or interfere with the early stages of a landing? (2) Should the fleet disregard risks of submarines and mines, and seek the enemy whenever he was known to be at sea? (3) Or should the fleet avoid localities where the enemy could easily lay traps with submarines or mines and confine its operations to northern waters, say, north of Lat. 55° 30′ N. (approximately the latitude of Horns Reef and the Farne Islands)? The C.-in-C. held the strong opinion that the main fleet should not go south of this latitude in longitudes east of 4° E., ‘unless under exceptional circumstances, the reason being that waters so far to the eastward cannot be watched by our cruisers or our submarines, and they, therefore, offer to the enemy facilities for preparing a trap of mines or submarines on a large scale’. In waters to the west of Long. 4° E., they could afford to take the risks of mines ‘if a really good opportunity offered of bringing the High Sea Fleet to action in daylight’. (This was because the submarine patrols could very probably report whether minefields might be expected.) But in no case should the fleet go south of the Dogger Bank, on account of the submarine menace, unless it had an ample destroyer screen ‘for all ships’. Jellicoe made it clear that his proposals were independent of where the fleet was based —Scapa or Rosyth. Oliver summed up the points raised at the conference: ‘Both the C.-in-C. and the V.A., B.C.F.

[whom Oliver visited on 14 September]

hold very definite views as to the Fleet not coming far south on every occasion of the German Fleet approaching the East Coast of England, but only when there is a really good chance of engaging it in daylight. . . . The V.A. was if anything more emphatic on this point than the C.-in-C.’ Indeed he was:

I am very firmly of the opinion that the War has reached a stage when it behoves us [in] the Navy to move very circumspectly. The old proverb that ‘When you are winning risk nothing’ might well be applied now. And I think the North Sea South of Lat. 55-30 N is a very unhealthy place for Capital Ships and shd be left entirely to SM’s who might be able to deny the use of it to the Enemy except at very grave risk. If they are willing to take that risk it wd. surely be for an objective of great importance and not merely a parade. What objective could they possibly have. However [I] admit that there might be one, in which case we ought to be able to guess it and counter it. The Enemy’s Fleet is no use to them unless they can perform some such duty as breaking up the Blockade which is really now having a strangling effect and in that case they have to fight us. And in waters of our selection and not of theirs.

In a word, Beatty, no less than Jellicoe, preached caution in taking heavy ships south of latitude 55° 30′ after the events of 19 August. His letter is further proof that their strategic views after Jutland were very similar to those they held before.

On 23 September the Admiralty ‘approved generally’ the conclusions reached at the conference on the 13th, definitely adopting the view that minefields and submarines had fundamentally altered naval strategy in the North Sea.

If the Grand Fleet proceeds south of the Forth whenever the German Fleet is suspected of being about to approach the East Coast, it is certain that it will incur great and increasing risks of losses from submarine attack and from mines, while the chance of bringing the enemy to action is very small [because in weather when Zeppelins could operate ‘it seems almost impossible for our ships to close the enemy without being reported in amply sufficient time to enable him to avoid action and escape’], unless he is unduly delayed near our coast by damage to some of his ships by the local forces.

Accordingly, the heavy ships of the Grand Fleet, barring ‘exceptional circumstances’, were to keep northward of the parallel of Horns Reef. ‘Exceptional circumstances’ were defined as ‘an attempt at invasion, or that a really good opportunity is foreseen of bringing the German fleet to action in daylight in an area which is not greatly to the disadvantage of the Grand Fleet. A suitable opportunity might be afforded if the German Fleet attacked the Thames or Dover Strait defences.’ ‘Exceptional circumstances’ did not cover an enemy raid on the East Coast, like the Scarborough or Lowestoft raids, since ‘it is impossible for our capital ships from the Northern bases to bring the enemy to action for some 16 to 30 hours after his ships have been reported off our coast, the time lengthening according to the distance south to the point of attack.’ ‘Periodical exercise cruises, however, to keep the fleet efficient are necessary, and some risks must be accepted to carry them out; but taking large risks with the capital ships of the Grand Fleet from mines and submarines in dangerous areas on occasions when there is only a very slender chance of bringing the German fleet to action in daylight is not sound strategy.’

Besides the decision to keep the capital ships to the north of the parallel of Horns Reef, the firmness of the control over the movements and sailings of the Grand Fleet exercised by the Admiralty is shown by the statement in the same memorandum that, in ordering the C.-in-C. to raise steam, they would state the degree of urgency. Orders would then be given to proceed to sea and concentrate east of the Long Forties, and the C.-in-C. would arrange the rendezvous. In rough weather the fleet would not be ordered south of that rendezvous. The decisions embodied in the Admiralty memorandum ‘governed the subsequent conduct of the Grand Fleet and rank as one of the most important enunciations of naval policy issued during the war. They were the direct outcome of August 19.’ At the same time they were the culmination of a discussion on the role of the Grand Fleet that had been going on for six months.

There had been some irritation at the Admiralty after 19 August that the Grand Fleet was remaining on the defensive. The First Sea Lord had given vent to his feelings in a sharp rebuke that was not sent to Jellicoe:

It cannot be overlooked that the Commander-in-Chief lays great stress on the injury the enemy can inflict on our forces in the North Sea, but offers no suggestion as to the employment of his forces to inflict similar losses on the enemy. It is also to be noted that practically all large movements of the Fleet have to be initiated by the Admiralty. I suggest the Commander-in-Chief might again be informed that we should welcome any suggestions from him as to the employment of any of the vessels under his command with the object of inflicting similar injury to the enemy.

A month later, in their memorandum of 23 September for the C.-in-C, the Admiralty had reluctantly to admit, ‘In fact, unless the enemy desires to fight and seeks action, the chances of bringing him to action are now lessened and seem problematical.’

By this date it was clear that a stalemate in the North Sea had set in. The restrictions imposed on the Grand Fleet’s area of operations, together with Scheer’s wariness about venturing any distance from his base without submarine outposts which were no longer available, made a future meeting of the two fleets extremely unlikely.

It may be said that Admiral Scheer could not sally out without submarines and Admiral Jellicoe could not drive him back without destroyers. On the one side the apparatus of reconnaissance, on the other side the apparatus of screening, broke down. August 19 was thus at once a finale and a prologue. The first part of the great drama was over. The curtain rang down on the excursions of the German Fleet, just as they were beginning to offer a promise of success. It was to rise again, not on serried fleets seeking one another in the North Sea, but on submarines toiling night and day in tireless search for prey, while behind them a host of relentless pursuers followed hard. It is in the light of these far-reaching decisions that August 19 ranks with Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank and Jutland as one of the red-letter days in the calendar of the North Sea.

Events in the autumn illustrated and confirmed this state of affairs.

Scheer planned a sortie for September on the same lines as 19 August. Unfavourable weather forced a cancellation. Before he could plan another, orders had gone out for the resumption of submarine warfare on trade. ‘Lacking U-boats’, Scheer writes, ‘I was forced to adopt quite a different scheme; instead of making for the English coast and luring the enemy on to our line of U-boats before the actual battle took place, I had to make a widespread advance with torpedo-boats to take stock of the merchant traffic in the North Sea and capture prizes. The Fleet was to serve as a support to the light craft that were sent out.’ Apparently, he expected the sortie would lead to an action with British naval forces, on which the German Official History remarks, ‘If the Commander-in-Chief hoped to clash with enemy surface forces, the chances were slight due to the limited extent of the advance.’ The Official History also notes that ‘if circumstances permitted’, his plan included the launching of a night torpedo attack.

The High Seas Fleet put to sea around midnight of 18-19 October, steering west for a point east of the Dogger Bank. Though Scheer had no submarines, he still had his airships, ten of which were spread ahead of the fleet in a wide semicircle across the Bight. (Breakdowns forced two of them back early.) A widely spread destroyer screen covered his flanks.

The Admiralty received Scheer’s signal of 5.30 p.m., 18 October, stating his intention to carry out an operation. At 7.46 p.m. they ordered the Grand Fleet to be at short notice for steam (‘The German Fleet shows signs of moving’). Other intercepted signals confirmed an impending enemy sortie, and at 11.30 p.m. orders went out to the local defence commanders—Tyrwhitt, the Rear-Admiral, East Coast (at Immingham), and the Vice-Admiral, 3rd Battle Squadron (in the Thames)—alerting them to a naval raid south. In line with the policy laid down on 23 September, the Grand Fleet did not put to sea. German intentions were not known. Jellicoe suggested to the Admiralty that Scheer might try to draw the fleet to the south and west, so as to leave a path clear for surface raiders to break loose. As a precaution, he sent a cruiser force out to look for raiders at the northern end of the North Sea.

When Scheer put to sea, there were four Harwich submarines patrolling off Ameland on the Dutch coast, and three Blyth submarines off Horns Reef. One of the former, E-38 (Lieutenant-Commander J. de B. Jessop), sighted the German fleet, and at 8.43 a.m. (19 October) fired two torpedoes into the light cruiser München at 1,300 yards. She managed to get home safely, in tow of the light cruiser Berlin. (Jellicoe was unhappy over the failure to sink the München. ‘They are very difficult to sink, or else our torpedoes don’t hit hard enough.’) Scheer sighted no enemy forces, and when he reached a position east of the Dogger Bank, shortly after 11 a.m., he altered course to E.N.E. with the intention of proceeding back through the channel south of Horns Reef. At 2 p.m. he ordered his airships to return home and definitely turned back himself. The only reason given in the German Official History is that at 2 p.m. he decided that the bright night would not be favourable for a torpedo attack. (He seems to have had some notion of running into the Harwich Force at night, if he had held his course.) E-38’s torpedoes, in conjunction with the heavy sea, which prevented his destroyers from keeping up, and the knowledge (via a report from the Neumünster radio station at 11.35 a.m.) that his enterprise had become known to the enemy, are sufficient to explain Scheer’s decision to return to harbour.

And so ended the sortie. It was the last movement of the High Seas Fleet as a whole until April 1918. Without submarines for reconnaissance, Scheer would take no chances, particularly after burning his fingers on 3 November. On this date the submarines U-20 and U-30 were stranded in a fog off Bovbjerg on the west coast of north Jutland (Denmark). Assuming that a British squadron might be at sea off the Skagerrak, Scheer sent the battle cruiser Moltke, four dreadnoughts, and a half flotilla of destroyers to render assistance. They managed to bring in U-30, but could not save U-20, as her back was broken. On the return home, 5 November, two of the battleships were successfully torpedoed by a British submarine, J-1 (Commander Noel Laurence), in ‘thick and dirty weather’, with the track of the torpedoes obscured by the heavy seas. The damage in both cases was not very serious. The Emperor sharply criticized Scheer for ‘risking a squadron, and by so doing nearly losing two armoured ships in order to save two U-boats’.

Although it was not immediately apparent to the British, in fact battle-fleet strategy was in abeyance until the need to protect the Scandinavian convoys, brought about by unrestricted trade attack, opened a new and quite different phase for the Grand Fleet in the latter part of 1917. Meanwhile, in the autumn of 1916, it was time for another wave of public distrust of the Admiralty, and one of the criticisms levelled at it was the absence of offensive naval action in the North Sea.

Marcomannic Wars

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius [Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus; 26 April 121 – 17 March 180] believed that the barbarian groups beyond the Rhine and the Danube had been allowed too much freedom of action while three of the regional legions had been fighting in the east. Indeed, both archaeological evidence and the scant literary sources suggest that the balance of tribal power beyond the middle Danube and in Bohemia had changed dramatically around this time, though for reasons that remain obscure. Relative imperial neglect probably played a part, allowing unexpected and undesirable violence to break out. Authorised warfare between tribal clients was a healthy part of Roman policy as it created a managed instability that prevented any one group from becoming too powerful and channelled the excess energy of martial societies away from Rome and towards one another. But unauthorised warfare beyond the northern frontier was something different: without sufficient Roman oversight or surveillance, it might rapidly flare up into something more threatening. Defeated war bands, occasionally whole tribes, might try to seek refuge in the empire, and while that was often a desirable way of bringing new farmers and soldiers into the empire, it only worked when such population movements could be controlled.

Nowadays Rome’s European frontiers, with their ‘Germanic’ barbarians, loom disproportionately large in the historical imagination, both popular and scholarly: the frontier is often imagined as a breakwater against which barbarian tides lapped endlessly across centuries until the dam burst and the empire fell. In fact, the political dynamics on the Rhine and Danube frontiers were similar to those in Africa, Arabia, Britain and wherever the socially more complex and technologically more sophisticated empire confronted tribal groups whose power structures rarely stayed stable for long. For those neighbours, the empire was a juggernaut towering on the horizon. Roman actions, and fear of Roman actions, shaped the decisions of barbarian elites everywhere, even those at three or four removes from the frontier itself. The churning landscape just beyond the European and African frontiers was as much a product of Rome as the barbarians: even the smallest Roman expedition could wipe out whole sections of a population, lay waste to years’ worth of seed grain and stockpiled wealth and render a group’s homeland uninhabitable. When the empire was distracted, it presented an opportunity. Not to correct the immeasurable disparity in power, that could never happen; rather to seize momentarily a small piece of Roman prosperity, accessible along well-built roads leading deep into the imperial provinces. To do so was worth the inevitable and often devastating response. We have no idea what was happening beyond the Danube frontier when some of its garrison legions were detached to the Parthian War. But the return of the legions either directly provoked a violent response or triggered an outbreak of intertribal violence that drove a medium-sized barbarian army into Pannonia.

Marcus’s response was determinedly punitive. Iallius Bassus, who had been with Lucius on the eastern campaigns, was made governor of Pannonia Superior, traditionally the most senior command on the Rhine–Danube frontier. At the same time, a man named Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus first enters the historical record as the governor of Pannonia Inferior. Pompeianus is a remarkable example of the way in which the oligarchic elite that dominated imperial government could open itself to conspicuous talent. Pompeianus was the son of a minor equestrian official from Antioch in Syria, a part of the Hellenistic east that had as yet launched very few of its native sons into the international elite of equestrian, let alone senatorial, government. On his personal merits alone, however, Pompeianus would go on to enter the senate, becoming a special friend of Marcus, marrying into the imperial family and remaining a central figure in Roman politics for the rest of the century.

Pannonia Inferior was Pompeianus’s first significant command, and both he and Bassus would experience very heavy fighting. Late in 166 or early in 167, several thousand Langobardi and Obii invaded Pannonia Superior. They had come from a region well beyond the immediate frontier zone, which was settled with Marcomanni opposite Pannonia in the modern Czech Republic, Quadi opposite the Danube bend, and the Sarmatian Iazyges in the land between the Danube and the Carpathians. These distant invaders were rapidly annihilated by Bassus, but the prospect of reprisals frightened the client kings closer by. Eleven of the middle Danubian tribes chose as their spokesman the Marcomannic king Ballomarius and he sued for peace before Bassus. Ballomarius protested his own and his fellow clients’ loyalty to the emperor and dismissed the actions of the Langobardi and Obii as a freak aberration. The plague had detained Marcus at Rome, so Bassus concluded a provisional peace and waited until his emperor was ready.

In spring 168, Marcus began a personal inspection of the Danube frontier. No one doubted that this was a preamble to war. Lucius would accompany the expedition as well, in part because the troops knew him from the Parthian War, and the project’s scale can be judged by the number of important men involved. Furius Victorinus, the experienced guard prefect who had accompanied Lucius to the east, now went north with both emperors, but he and many of his guardsmen would die, probably of plague, en route to the frontier. He was replaced by M. Bassaeus Rufus, previously prefect of the vigiles (the urban security force of Rome) and briefly prefect of Egypt. The other guard prefect, M. Macrinius Vindex, came, too, which suggests that Rome was left ungarrisoned in the emperors’ absence. Marcus’s other trusted generals – Aufidius Victorinus, Dasumius Tullius Tuscus, Pontius Laelianus, the last two of whom had both served stints on the Danube frontier – were with him, not with specific portfolios but as comites Augusti, companions of the emperor.

Our sources are confused and two centuries of modern scholarship have yet to produce a fully satisfactory chronology of what we call the Marcomannic Wars and what Marcus referred to as his expeditio Germanica. The frontier of Pannonia Superior had not been settled by the treaty of Ballomarius and Bassus, and by 168 a Marcomannic king (perhaps, but not necessarily, Ballomarius) had been killed in battle there. The tribal leaders asked Roman permission to choose his successor and Lucius argued that this was success enough: why not call off the whole campaign and spare themselves the expense and the danger? Marcus demurred, planning to spend winter outside Rome for the first time since becoming emperor, choosing instead the Adriatic hub of Aquileia which was equidistant from the capital and the frontier. In the end, sickness in the ranks proved so bad that Marcus acceded to Lucius’s wishes and agreed to return to Rome. But having got his way, Lucius proved unlucky: just days after leaving Aquileia, he had a stroke and died at Altinum. Marcus returned to Rome with his adoptive brother’s body. He was now sole emperor, as Antoninus Pius had always intended.

There was little time for grief, but Marcus had his brother deified as duty required. Lucius’s death left Marcus’s 19-year-old daughter Lucilla the widow of a divus. She may already have begun to show the ambition and ruthlessness that would define her later career, or Marcus may have felt that a marriageable princess was too tempting a target for court intrigue. Regardless, he scandalised senatorial opinion by marrying Lucilla off again before the mourning period for Lucius was over. Worse still, she was given not to a senatorial grandee, but to the equestrian marshal Ti. Claudius Pompeianus. Marcus had good reasons for this decision. Only one of his daughters was ever given an aristocratic husband, lest it lead to a dynastic challenge to the heir apparent, Lucius Commodus (he became the emperor’s only surviving son after the youngest, Annius Verus, died in summer 169). Pompeianus proved a loyal supporter of the dynasty, as well as an important patron for other equestrians. Most significant of these was Helvius Pertinax, the equestrian son of a freedman, who was adlected into the senate without ever having set foot in the senate house, or serving in the qualifying posts of quaestor, aedile or praetor. That he would eventually become emperor, even if only briefly, illustrates some of the social change that was overtaking Roman society, not least under the combined pressure of plague and war and the indiscriminate death toll they took on the traditional elites.

The marriage of Lucilla to Pompeianus – which both she and her mother Faustina had vigorously opposed – was not the only scandal of 169. New legions had to be raised for the Marcommanic campaigns and, in order to finance them, Marcus auctioned off property from the imperial household. The event was proverbial in antiquity, and has become a handy shorthand for imperial crisis in the modern scholarship, but it was a gesture of neither ostentatious self-sacrifice nor personal frugality. It was, rather, the only way to generate fresh revenue without raising taxes at a time when a badly depleted population might not be able to pay them. Fresh soldiers were in such short supply that Marcus authorised the recruitment of gladiators into the legions, an unprecedented action which drove up the price of public games across the empire and fell so heavily on local magistrates that Marcus soon enacted price-capping measures.

These varied financial expedients were ultimately successful and by late 169 Marcus was ready to return to Pannonia. Faustina stayed in Rome with the young and sickly heir to the throne, Lucius Commodus. Pompeianus came with Marcus as his chief counsellor, which meant that Lucilla did, too, as did many veteran commanders of the eastern wars: Pontius Laelianus, Dasumius Tullius Tuscus, Claudius Fronto. Where they over-wintered is unclear, perhaps at either Singidunum or Sirmium (respectively Belgrade and Sremska Mitrovica in modern Serbia), both now coming to prominence as major imperial cities. Indeed, Marcus’s Danubian wars mark a transition in the history of the Balkan provinces, previously cultural backwaters but thereafter increasingly urbanised and studded with wealthy farms and villas that would make the region central to imperial history in the coming centuries: as our story continues, a much longer list of Balkan towns – Mursa, Naissus, Poetovio, Serdica, Viminacium, Nicopolis ad Istrum – will join Sirmium and Singidunum in these pages.

Marcus himself led the major offensive of 170, pushing deep into Marcomannic territory. It was a fiasco: imperial propaganda was capable of turning a trivial skirmish into a towering victory, but now there is not so much as a whiff of success in the sources. Instead, the campaign triggered a massive barbarian invasion of Italy. Aquileia was besieged and the North Italian plain penetrated. This was an early harbinger of later history – Italy had to be defended at the Alps or, better still, just beyond them. If Alpine defences failed, the peninsula was effectively ungarrisoned and helpless. In 170, the Balkans also experienced heavy damage. The Costoboci, a tribe whose name is otherwise barely known, made it all the way to the province of Achaea, indeed as far as Attica, where they violated the shrine of the Eleusinian mysteries. The invaders’ numbers, their divisions, their routes, all are unrecoverable, but they did more than ravage crops and kidnap farmers, which the government usually tolerated as an acceptable loss. Instead, there was a lot of hard fighting against Roman forces, with conspicuous and high-level deaths: in 170, the governor of Moesia Superior, whose name is not preserved, was either killed or cashiered for incompetence. His command was given to the governor of Dacia, the experienced Claudius Fronto, who himself fell in battle before the year was out. The emperor’s own army got cut off beyond the Danube, and a special fleet command, under Valerius Maximianus, was needed to carry supplies to Marcus and his troops.

Meanwhile, Claudius Pompeianus, with Helvius Pertinax as his chief lieutenant, began to clear northern Italy of its unwanted guests. Fighting at the frontier continued in 171, when Marcus was headquartered at Carnuntum near modern Vienna. A barbarian army that Pompeianus had chased out of Italy was now trapped at the Danube crossing and destroyed. Marcus divided the plunder he retrieved among the provincials, and these victories, though small, contained the damage well enough to allow a return to the traditional policy of setting one group of barbarians against another. That seemed to work. As the end of the campaigning season approached in autumn 171, Marcus received various embassies at Carnuntum. The Quadi made peace, offering to supply the Roman army and agreeing to prevent the passage of either the Marcomanni or the Iazyges (their western and eastern neighbours, respectively) through their territory. Other defeated barbarians were allowed into imperial territory and settled deep in the interior provinces. It was all starting to look like a return to frontier business as usual, welcome because there was now trouble elsewhere: the Mauri who had caused trouble under Antoninus Pius were again raiding across the straits of Gibraltar into Spain, which required an emergency arrangement combining the imperial province of Hispania Tarraconensis with the ungarrisoned senatorial province of Baetica under a single military commander.

In the next year, 172, the value of Marcus’s Quadic treaty became clear. With the middle Danube bend and the Dacian fronts calm, Marcus was able to launch a second invasion beyond the river, focused solely on the Marcomanni in what is now Bohemia. It was another arduous campaign, during which one of the praetorian prefects, Macrinius Vindex, was killed in battle. But Marcus had gained the confidence of his troops and they began to attribute to him a supernatural ability to call down aid from the gods. In one case, he was said to have summoned a thunderbolt to destroy a barbarian war engine, an event duly commemorated on coins; in another, he (or rather his favourite, the Egyptian magician Arnouphis) had apparently summoned a rainstorm to revive his parched and exhausted troops: they proceeded to win a victory against all odds. Both miracles are depicted on Marcus’s column in the Piazza Colonna at Rome, and coins seem to credit Mercury for the miraculous victory. The scale of actual military achievement may not have been equal to the propaganda triumphs, though both Marcus and the caesar Commodus had taken the victory title Germanicus before the start of 173. Commodus may have been at the front with his father, which would mean that most of the imperial family, including Faustina, Lucilla and her husband Pompeianus, were at Carnuntum late in 172. In the following year, Faustina was hailed as mater castrorum, mother of the camps, a sign that the soldiers regarded her as a protecting patron. Not long afterwards, the rest of the family also joined Marcus and Faustina on the Danube: Fadilla, now married to Lucius Verus’s nephew Plautius Quintillus; and Cornificia, married to Petronius Sura Mamertinus, grandson of Pius’s praetorian prefect Mamertinus. And then bad news came from the east.

In 172, while Marcus was proclaiming success on the Danube front, there was either a fully fledged uprising or an outbreak of intensive banditry in the Egyptian delta. At the same time, the Parthians attempted to bring Armenia back under the tutelage of Ctesiphon, no doubt emboldened by the detachment of some imperial troops from Cappadocia to the Danube. But the scale of the Danubian war meant Marcus could not give the east the attention it needed, and there was no longer a Lucius Verus available to serve as the face of the imperial dynasty. Avidius Cassius, the long-serving governor of Syria and a native Syrian himself, was granted extraordinary imperium in the east, of the kind that no one outside the imperial family had possessed since the days of Augustus’s trusted lieutenant Agrippa a century and a half before. In practical terms, Cassius had become Marcus’s plenipotentiary east of the Bosporus and the suppression of Lower Egypt was his first task.

Meanwhile, Marcus passed most of the campaigning season of 173 beyond the Danube, possibly reaching as far as the headwaters of the Vistula. The Quadi were certainly one target, perhaps because they had broken their oath not to help the Marcomanni. In the following year, he turned against the Iazyges beyond the Danube bend, in the Great Hungarian plain between the river and the Carpathians, or, in Roman terms, between Pannonia and Dacia. He did well enough to refuse the Iazyges the peace terms they sought, preferring to continue the fighting in 175. That year brought something far worse than another round of frontier warfare: Avidius Cassius, perhaps the most reliable man Marcus had, revolted and claimed the imperial title.


Marcus still expected to die soon, and he was unsettled by what he saw on the frontiers. The Mauri in Tingitania remained uncontrollable: a group had again crossed into Baetica to raid and had even laid siege to the town of Singilia Barba (modern Antequera in Málaga province). Meanwhile, the Danube was again calling and, though Marcus would take personal charge of the campaign, he wanted Commodus to gain the experience of real war. To shore up the dynasty before they set out, he married Commodus to Bruttia Crispina, the descendant of a leading Hadrianic aristocrat; her father, Bruttius Praesens, already a prominent man when he was made consul in 153, was designated as consul for the second time for 180. In August 178, the emperors left for the Danube front. Old Pompeianus went with them as always, and now Commodus’s father-in-law Bruttius did, too. Both guard prefects, Tarruttienus Paternus and Tigidius Perennis, accompanied the expedition and both would keep their posts into the next reign. Helvius Pertinax was made governor of Dacia, to support the flank of the main army, and Paternus was put in charge of the field army; the campaign proper was launched in 179 into Quadic territory at the Danube bend. Modern scholars are divided over whether Marcus intended to conquer and hold a new province of Marcomannia beyond the Danube, but the sources, written and archaeological, reveal dozens of Roman forts throughout what is now Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and it is certainly possible to discern in them a prelude to occupation and provincialisation.

At the start of the next year’s campaigning season, however, Marcus fell gravely ill yet again. It may be that he had finally succumbed to the plague, but he had never been particularly robust, so we cannot be sure. Nor are we sure quite where he was when this final sickness overtook him – perhaps near Sirmium. He summoned Commodus, commended him to the counsel of his own senior advisers and begged him to continue the war effort whether or not he was personally inclined to do so. The old emperor then proceeded to starve himself, perhaps hoping that this would cure his illness, perhaps trying to hasten death. After seven days, on 17 March 180, he knew he was dying. When the duty tribune asked him for the day’s watchword, which it was the emperor’s task to set, Marcus sent the man to Commodus: ‘Go to the rising sun,’ he said, ‘for I am now setting.’

Commodus’s first decision as sole emperor, so far as we can tell, was to conclude a treaty with the Marcomanni and the Quadi. This left intact the old line of the Danube frontier, scotching any plans Marcus might have had for imperial expansion, and it brought to the region a peace that endured for half a century. The terms were very much in Rome’s favour. The defeated tribes were required to supply the empire with an annual tribute of grain and to collectively contribute more than 20,000 soldiers to the Roman army. They would be posted to distant auxiliary units and kept away from their homeland to break down any lingering sense of tribal identity they might have. Back home, both the Marcomanni and the Quadi were partially disarmed and forbidden to attack their neighbours – the Iazyges, the Buri and the Vandals – without Roman permission. They were also forbidden to make use of the Danube islands and even of a strip of land on their own, left bank of the river. Large-scale political meetings could take place only when a Roman centurion was present to supervise.

In many ways, Commodus’s decision to end his father’s war was wise. It restored the old imperial preference for client kingships in regions not worth the effort of conquest and it made sure those clients would be dependent upon Rome for their hold on internal power. An unintended, but ultimately more lasting, consequence was the efflorescence of civilian life and Roman civil society in the Danubian provinces, which had developed very quickly thanks to two decades of wartime investment in the region’s infrastructure. Thus it is not true, as many have argued, that Marcus’s worthless son threw away the chance to create a great trans-Danubian province as his father had planned. There is no definitive evidence that Marcus was planning to extend the frontiers into central Europe, and the return to the pre-war status quo was both strategically sound and tactically sensible. What is more, however much Marcus’s trusted old adviser Claudius Pompeianus, brother-in-law to the new emperor, might argue against the return to Rome, Commodus would have to present himself to the people to be acclaimed by them and the senate. Delay would breed their resentment, while the military’s dynasticism would keep the frontiers quiet for a time. As soon as the treaty was concluded, Commodus presented himself at Rome as the son of the deified Marcus and the bringer of peace through conquest. He celebrated a formal triumph on 22 October 180.

Marcomannic Wars