Under cover of darkness, and hidden in the midst of the English fleet, the fireships were prepared. Stripped of most of their equipment, they were then filled with combustible material of all kinds, including sails, spars, timber, and sacking, all smothered in pitch, tar and oil. More pitch and oil were applied to their masts and rigging. The guns were in many cases double-shotted, so that their explosions would add to enemy alarm. Manned by skeleton crews, equipped to light the network of slow match that covered each craft, every vessel towing a boat on which the men would escape, the fireships began to slip quietly towards the Armada.
The attackers were assisted by the freshening wind and a high spring tide, but the alarm was raised at about midnight, when two of the ships were apparently fired prematurely. ‘Two fires were seen kindled in the English fleet, which increased to eight; and suddenly eight ships with all sail set and fair wind and tide, came straight toward our capitana and the rest of the fleet, all burning fiercely.’ They would reach the Spaniards in about fifteen to twenty minutes.
Medina Sidonia’s pinnaces and other small craft went into action, and managed to grapple and pull ashore two of the attackers. But, aided by the wind and tide, the remainder continued to bear down on the Armada, their doubleshotted guns exploding as they did so. Logically, they might have been expected to fail. Calais Roads were wide, giving plenty of space for manoeuvre and evasion, and it would soon have become apparent that the fireships were not in fact the dreaded ‘hell-burners’, were too few in number, and contained no explosives. However, against the odds, they succeeded.
According to one angry Spaniard:
‘Fortune so favoured the English, that there grew from this piece of industry just what they counted on, for they dislodged us with eight vessels, an exploit which with 130 they had not been able nor dared to attempt. When the morning came they had gained the weather-gauge of us, for we found ourselves scattered in every direction.’
It is usually claimed the spectacle of the approaching flames caused panic among the ships of the Armada, but the English seem to have exaggerated their effects. Though one Spanish eyewitness hints at the alarm that had seized some of the crews of the Armada:
‘The eight ships, filled with artificial fire and ordnance, advanced in line at a distance of a couple of pike’s lengths between them. But by God’s grace, before they arrived, while they were yet between the two fleets, one of them flared up with such fierceness and great noise as were frightful, and at this the ships of the Armada cut their cables at once, leaving their anchors, spreading their sails, and running out to sea; and the whole eight fireships went drifting between the fleet and the shore with the most terrible flames that may be imagined.’
Most of the Spanish crews seem to have managed, despite the darkness and confusion, the difficult feat of setting sail and cutting their cables, the only apparent casualty being the San Lorenzo, flagship of the galleasses, which in the confusion collided with another galleass, the Girona, then with de Leiva’s Rata Encoronada, damaging her rudder.
With the fireships now burning themselves out harmlessly on the shore, Medina Sidonia’s plan had been for the Armada to re-form, recover its anchors and resume its previous moorings. That this did not happen was the result of several factors. The darkness, the wind, the strong currents, and the spring tide carrying them towards the North Sea made it virtually impossible for the Armada to return as planned. It also seems highly likely that some of those commanders who had all along been opposed to the halt at Calais made little effort to obey the duke’s orders.
The outcome was a major – and perhaps unexpected – English success. Unable, owing to the strong spring tide, to return to their original anchorage and pick up what were in most cases their best anchors, the Spanish ships found that their remaining ones were unable to grip in a seabed that provided poor holding, and they drifted north-east, in the direction of Gravelines and the Banks of Flanders. The Armada had not only lost the tight formation it had maintained for most of the past week, but it had now irretrievably lost any chance of linking up with Parma and the Army of Flanders. As dawn would reveal, Medina Sidonia’s situation was increasingly desperate.
And yet Medina Sidonia was still recovering from the panic caused by the appearance of fireships. His subsequent report reveals a fear of ‘fire machines’ and exploding mines:
‘At midnight two fires were perceived on the English fleet, and these two gradually increased to eight. They were eight vessels with sails set, which were drifting with the current directly towards our flagship and the rest of the Armada, all of them burning with great fury. When the duke saw them approaching, and that our men had not diverted them, he, fearing that they might contain fire machines or mines, ordered the flagship to let go the cables, the rest of the Armada receiving similar orders, with an intimation that when the fires had passed they were to return to the same positions again. The leading galleass, in trying to avoid a ship, ran foul of the San Juan de Sicilia, and became so crippled that she was obliged to drift ashore. The current was so strong that although the flagship, and some of the vessels near her, came to anchor and fired off a signal gun, the other ships of the Armada did not perceive it, and were carried by the current towards Dunkirk.’
Meanwhile, from the deck of his ship, Vanguard, Vice Admiral Sir William Wynter, their original proposer, keenly watched the effects of the fireships:
‘about twelve of the clock that night six ships were brought and prepared with a saker shot, and going in a front, having the wind and tide with them, and their ordnance being charged, were fired; and the men that were the executers, so soon as the fire was made, they did abandon the ships, and entered into five boats that were appointed for the saving of them. This matter did put such terror among the Spanish army that they were fain to let slip their cables and anchors; and did work, as it did appear, great mischief among them by reason of the suddenness of it. We might perceive that there were two great fires more than ours, and far greater and huger than any of our vessels that we fired could make.’
But not all of the English were unreservedly delighted at the success of the fireships. Captain Henry Whyte, whose ship the Bark Talbot, was one of those employed, was rather more concerned about compensation:
‘There [at Calais] it was resolved to put them from their anchor, and ships were allotted to the fire to perform the enterprise; among the rest, the ship I had in charge, the Bark Talbot, was one; so that now I rest like one that had his house burnt, and one of these days I must come to your honour for permission to go a-begging.’
This history of the fireship explains how the device became increasingly sophisticated, with purpose-built fireworks becoming their weapon of choice. From the earliest days until their decline in the early nineteenth century. Illustrated. ; 256 pages
Dresden, flying a white flag, moments prior to her scuttling.
Before the war, Germany had devoted considerable study to the damaging blows which could be made against Britain through attacking the vital trade routes. It was, however, fully appreciated that the task of getting through to the Atlantic, and so to the other highways, would always be difficult when once hostilities had begun.
There were but two methods practicable. If one of her regular naval cruisers attempted to burst through the blockade by force, she would be handicapped from the first: she would be too blatant, too obvious. For, whilst a merchantman can become a disguised warship, it is not always possible to change the appearance of a man-of-war in order to make her resemble a passenger or cargo vessel. (It is true that during the war two or three of the British naval sloops were altered to suggest traders, but they were not a great success and did not always deceive the enemy.) When a cruiser has four, or even three funnels, war-like bow, low freeboard, and conspicuous guns, but a forebridge without any of the high decks of a liner, no amount of paint can fool a seafarer into believing her innocence. Therefore the chances of genuine cruisers running the blockade were rightly considered remote. We have seen that Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse and Berlin succeeded because the blockade patrols were not yet of sufficient strength, and these two raiders went hundreds of miles out of their way. But they were also dressed to conceal their true character, prepared to pretend and bluff; and this second method quite definitely was accepted by the German Admiralty as the only means of sending surface cruisers forth when the other genuine cruisers had ceased to exist.
It remains an interesting fact that not one of the latter throughout the whole four years made the slightest effort, either independently or in company, to rush the Dover Straits or get westward of Scotland. At the time when the Canadian convoy was coming over the Atlantic there certainly were both anxiety and a half-expectation at the British Admiralty that German battle-cruisers might break through and do their direst. It would have been a gamble, but certainly a justifiable risk. Transports full of soldiers are always most attractive targets in their helplessness; and it would have been of direct assistance to the German Army if some thousands of British troops could have been shelled or drowned. Whether all the battle-cruisers would have got back to Germany again is quite another consideration.
It may be stated at once that after Berlin’s meteoric career concluded at Trondhjem, not even a merchant cruiser got out from Germany to the ocean routes again until January 1916. No blockade line between Scotland and Iceland, or Scotland and Norway, can ever be absolutely impenetrable having regard to long dark nights and days of fog. The very few raiders which did pierce this steel ring certainly deserved some reward. Only when these attempts were made by exceptionally brave and determined commanding officers, who had the patience and endurance to go near the Arctic Circle, the care to make the best of nocturnal and meteorological conditions, and the luck of not being discovered lower down the North Sea, was attainment possible.
During the first months of hostilities, then, Germany’s units for waging war along the commercial sea-routes consisted of (a) those of her regular cruisers which happened to be on the China or West Indies stations, and (b) any of her ocean liners which happened to be in foreign waters. It will now be our interesting inquiry to follow one of the most amazing voyages in all records of the sea. Let us open the map at the West Indies, which are so richly endowed with colourful background and memories of maritime rovers. It will help us to vitalise the story if we try to visualise the small German cruiser Dresden, which was a sister-ship of that famous raider Emden. At the beginning of the war Dresden was six years old, and still capable of about 24 knots. Armed with ten 4.1-inch guns, she had three tall thin funnels, two tall masts (with searchlight platforms), and displaced 3544 tons. Her maximum coal capacity was 850 tons, a factor which was to have an important influence on her adventures; and her engines were turbines. Captain E. Köhler was her commanding officer.
Steaming across from Germany to the Caribbean came the cruiser Karlsruhe, a bigger vessel, of 4820 tons, with a speed of over 27 knots. She was armed with twelve 4 1-inch guns, had been built only that same year, and was under the command of Captain Lüdecke. A lean, four-funnelled, low-lying ship with a modern bow, and every line of her suggesting speed, this two-master was coming out to relieve Dresden, but the two captains were to change over. Dresden was then to return home and have a much-needed refit. This is a second factor which will presently gain greater significance. It was at Port-au-Prince, Haiti, that the two cruisers met and on July 25 the respective captains took over from each other. Our immediate concern being Captain Lüdecke’s cruise in Dresden, we must postpone the career of Karlsruhe till a later chapter.
It was on July 28 that Dresden left Port-au-Prince and went on to the Danish Island of St. Thomas in order to coal her bunkers before starting for Germany. This little hilly islet of only 33 square miles, with poor soil, occupies considerable strategical importance which has become even more marked since the Panama Canal was opened. Nature has made it one of those key-positions of the sea where four important routes converge. It is the centre whence radiate the tracks to New York and Boston, the Mexican Gulf, the eastern ports of South America, and Colon for the Panama Canal. When aerial travel becomes more firmly established it will doubtless increase the value of St. Thomas still further. But in 1914 it was, as we have noticed, one of the German supply centres, and here indeed the Hamburg-Amerika Line had its offices. If it was little more than a port of call, yet its harbour is one of the finest of all the West Indies, excellently placed for raiders to come in, coal quickly, and then on putting out to sea find themselves already on the highway of commerce.
By July 30 European political affairs were advancing towards a crisis, but on the next day Dresden steamed out of St. Thomas north-eastwards for the Azores and English Channel. She had not been gone more than three hours when she picked up a wireless message from Porto Rico ordering her not to return home but carry on cruiser warfare in the Atlantic: that is to say, she was to destroy enemy commerce. She was ideally placed with the choice of routes, and no raider could wish for a better beginning. Here she was, already at sea, beyond territorial waters, bunkers full, too far from land to be spied on, but supposed to be making for mid-North Atlantic.
As a matter of fact she turned south and wisely began cruising down the track of shipping bound up from South American ports. Not many days had she to wait. It was erroneously reported that she was off New York, though in truth on August 6 she had passed the mouth of the Amazon and off Para stopped her first ship. This was the British S.S. Drumcliffe, 4072 tons, from Buenos Aires in ballast on her way to Trinidad for fuel. A boarding-party was sent to her, but Drumcliffe’s master had with him both wife and child, who would be an inconvenience aboard the cruiser if the merchantman were now destroyed; and it would be useless to take the steamer along, seeing that she was in need of coal. After the steamer’s wireless had been destroyed, and a declaration signed pledging officers and crew not to take part in hostilities against Germany, Drumcliffe was dismissed.
Just over an hour later appeared the British S.S. Lynton Grange, 4252 tons, bound for Barbados, and the same experience happened to her. But in the meantime arrived the British S.S. Hostilius, 3325 tons, bound for Barbados also, and then the extraordinary situation occurred of captain, officers, and crew all refusing to sign the German declaration, yet Captain Lüdecke at 7.40 p.m. released her because he did not think her destruction worth while. Dresden then proceeded still on her south-east course towards Rocas Reef, which lies singularly isolated, about 130 miles off Cape San Roque, and just off the position where the north-west track for Barbados and St. Thomas separates itself from that to the Cape Verdes and Canaries. It is worth while calling attention to it at this stage, as Rocas was one of the secret rendezvous for German raiders and likely to become of the greatest convenience.
After cruising about the crossways for a few days, she must needs coal, and such was the good organisation of the Supply Officer that she was now able to enter the little-known, rarely frequented harbour of Jericoacoara, a Brazilian inlet which lies just west of the 40th meridian, between Cape San Roque and Para. There she led the S.S. Corrientes, from which she took 570 tons of coal. This supply ship had been waiting in Maranham, a port which is a little further westward, but had been summoned by Dresden’s wireless and got under way at 6 a.m., August 8, meeting Dresden the same afternoon. The operation of coaling occupied August 9-10, after which the two ships in company went to the north of Rocas Reef and Fernando Noronha, having thus intentionally crossed both the north-west and north-east trade routes, but so far with no reward.
Fernando Noronha is another Atlantic island which gives picturesque background to the raiders’ story. Lying about 80 miles east of the Rocas Reef, it is only 7 miles long by 1½ wide. We can picture this volcanic settlement as a collection of gaunt rugged rocks, over which the hot tropical rains and against which the smashing thunderous seas beat. Ashore there is nothing lovely in the stunted trees, the 700 convicts of assassins and others who long to escape. But the island boasts of cable and wireless station, and in recent years since the war aeroplane flights between Europe and South America have halted here. Liners do not call, but give a wide berth to these bare rocks and shark-infested blue waters.
Now, on the day before she met Corrientes, Dresden was still further being provided for. The Hamburg-Amerika collier Baden on August 7 with 12,000 tons of coal had reached Pernambuco, which, of course, is only a few hours’ steaming from Cape San Roque and therefore excellently situated in regard to the two sea-tracks. So, having spent some more unprofitable days hovering about, Dresden sent Baden an order to rendezvous near Rocas Reef. This signal was wirelessed through Olinda, the telegraph station which is close to Pernambuco, and out came the supply ship. The perpetual anxiety of every raider’s captain was the frequent necessity of having to meet, without fail, some undefended slow-steaming ship at a rendezvous that might become compromised suddenly. There was the further inconvenience, and even danger, of having to take in supplies without adequate protection from heavy swell.
During August 13 Dresden and Baden were lashed alongside each other under the lee of Rocas Reef: but the Atlantic movement is no respecter of ships or nationalities. The two steel ships rose and fell, rolled inwards and outwards, crashing and banging severely in spite of all the fenders. Hawsers were snapped, and some actual ship damage inevitably occurred. Nor can we ignore these as negligible items. The psychological effect on officers and crew of having overwrought nerves still further strained by this monstrous jarring every few days was bound to be cumulative. Coaling ship is at all times an unpleasant evolution, and when it has to be done hurriedly under a tropical sky, with look-outs posted to report any possible enemy cruiser, and the ocean surge every moment endangering the men at work amid black dust and the din of donkey-engines, the operation each time intensifies the men’s annoyance with life.
Dresden did manage, however, to take in 254 tons, but the lighthouse-keeper at the island wanted to know who she was. The German fobbed him off with the lie that this was the Swedish ship Fylgia doing some repairs to defective engines. She sent Corrientes into Pernambuco, and presently there came two more supply ships, Prussia and Persia. We thus see that so efficiently planned was the German organisation that, notwithstanding the sudden incidence of war, there were at hand and with full cargoes, colliers perfectly placed to render necessary service. At the opening of hostilities there were 54 German and Austrian vessels in American Atlantic ports, New York alone containing nine large German liners such as the Vaterland, George Washington, Friedrich der Grosse, Grosse Kurfurst, and Kaiser Wilhelm II. On August 21 the North German Lloyd liner Brandenburg, with 9000 tons of coal and having taken in a large quantity of provisions two days previously, was permitted by the United States authorities to leave Philadelphia, under the declaration that she was bound for Bergen. Actually this Brandenburg, whose speed was only 12½ knots, was despatched by the New York German Supply Centre to a rendezvous near Newfoundland, and her presence would have been appreciated by any unit raiding the New York to England route. But Brandenburg never met a ship, held on across the Atlantic, reached Trondhjem on the last day of August and was interned by the Norwegian authorities, as we have already seen.
From Rocas Reef Dresden went south, and resumed her search for victims, being accompanied by Baden and Prussia. She got well across the north-east trade route and on August 15 captured the British S.S. Hyades, 3352 tons, Pernambuco for Las Palmas. The latter carried a cargo of grain, and was consequently sunk after the officers and crew had been taken aboard Prussia, the position of this first prize being some 180 miles to the north-east of Pernambuco. On the next day Dresden molested but released the British S.S. Siamese Prince, 4847 tons, and presently parted company with Prussia who steamed into port and landed her prisoners, but not at Pernambuco, Bahia, or any other adjacent harbour. That would never have done; not enough days would have elapsed. Prussia therefore entered Rio Janeiro, and in the meantime Dresden, after steering a false course so as to prevent the Hyades officers from providing accurate intelligence, went off towards the land-crab Island of Trinidada.
Here once more we note the Teutonic organisation and arrangements for concentration working out with extraordinary success. The only German warship in South African waters, just immediately before the war, was the little gunboat Eber. She was eleven years old, carried only two 4 1-inch guns, her displacement being 977 tons, and her speed 13 ½ knots. She was of negligible fighting value and likely to be sunk by any of the British cruisers of the Cape station. Eber wisely left Capetown on July 30, whilst the going was good, and went across the South Atlantic. Thither likewise proceeded the German S.S. Steiermark from Luderitz Bay (German South-West Africa). Now, during the night of August 18-19 Dresden was in wireless touch with Steiermark, and on arrival at Trinidada with Baden there was the assemblage of several supply ships which provided coal, stores and food. For, additional to Dresden, Eber, Baden and Steiermark, there had come the Santa Isabel which sailed from Buenos Aires on August 9, pretending she was bound for Togoland. Actually she brought out forty bullocks, oil, besides shovels and coal-bags, and a week later was met by another German steamer Sevilla which transferred to her both a wireless set and operator. It may be said at once that the useless Eber was about to hand over her guns to a crack German liner and enable the latter to go raiding. But this must be read in another chapter, since it led up to a most interesting series of events.
Dresden was now replenished with food and fuel, so that after two days she was able to go south-west and reach the trade route coming up from the River Plate. Thus she met the British S.S. Holmwood, 4223 tons on the 26th, when about 170 miles S ½ W of Cape Santa Marta Grande. The steamer was bound from Newport with Welsh coal for Bahia Blanca, and, after her crew had been placed aboard Baden, she was sunk by bombs. Already, then, the Dresden had reached as far south as the southern boundary of Brazil. But at this hour steamed up the British S.S. Katharine Park, 4854 tons, bound from Buenos Aires for New York with cargo for United States owners. She was therefore not sunk, but to her were transferred Holmwood’s crew, and she was dismissed on the understanding that officers as well as crew were not to engage in hostilities against Germany. On August 30 the Katharine Park reached Rio Janeiro, though by this time Dresden had carried on still further south till on the last day of August she reached Gill Bay (Gulf of St. George), which is some 800 miles from the River Plate.
She was under way again on September 2 and ready to resume her attacks, though the number of likely victims must necessarily be restricted to only those ships using the Magellan Straits or doubling the Horn. Captain Lüdecke was getting into cold latitudes, so sent on Santa Isabel in order to procure warm clothing, as well as materials for repairing his engines that had not been allowed their intended refit. This supply ship entered Magellan Straits and reached Punta Arenas on September 4, whence she was able to telegraph the Supply Centres of Buenos Aires and Valparaiso. She also sent a cable through to the German Admiralty at Berlin, and three days later came a reply ordering Dresden to operate with the cruiser Leipzig which was then at Guaymas (Gulf of California).
From now begins the second phase of Dresden’s voyage in which she was to pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The former was becoming not too healthy now that British cruisers were steaming up and down sweeping the Brazilian coast; though in truth a raider with adequate fuel could play hide-and-seek in the wide Atlantic for months, unless she were remarkably unlucky. After Gill Bay, Dresden chose not to enter Magellan Straits: she had kept her whereabouts shrouded in mystery and used her supply ship as a link between self and civilisation, thus giving a further instance of the reliance which the German Navy had placed on their auxiliary mercantile craft.
The beginning of September saw this cruiser butting into the wild seas off Cape Horn and encountering the chilly, depressing weather, grey skies, biting blasts, of a most inhospitable area. Making a wide sweep, she put into Orange Bay, Hoste Island, whence the turbulent ocean stretches direct to the frozen Antarctic. So rarely do vessels of any sort whatsoever use this forlorn anchorage, that it has long been a custom amongst mariners to “leave their card” by writing on a board the name of their ship with date. So when liberty men from Dresden were at last allowed ashore to stretch their legs after being at sea for several weeks, they discovered ship names and wrote on a board the word Dresden with the date, September 11, 1914. It was a natural, unthinking, but imprudent action; and the record was partially yet not entirely obliterated. There remained sufficient evidence, however, for her visit to be proved later on beyond all doubt.
Dresden’s war against commerce in the Atlantic had been neither particularly brilliant nor as ruthless as were the assaults by some other raiders. She had steamed from the West Indies to Cape Horn, burnt many hundred tons of coal, cruised thousands of miles, and the net gains were two not large cargo ships. These were the last she was ever to sink in that ocean.
But the few days in Orange Bay, where she could be fairly sure of seclusion away from the world, were welcomed as an opportunity for such overhaul as was possible without dockyard assistance. And now she must so regulate her programme as to join hands with Admiral von Spee who was coming east across the Pacific, and to this end she left her anchorage on September 16. Two days later, taking Baden with her, she sighted the Pacific Steam Navigation Company’s 8075-ton steamer Ortega in the Pacific bound to England from Valparaiso. The cruiser gave chase, but Captain D. R. Kinneir escaped by entering the uncharted Nelson’s Strait, and through the splendid efforts of his engine-room staff who got 18 knots out of a 14-knot ship. The sequel was that Dresden gave up the pursuit, while Ortega felt her way cautiously but riskily into Smyth’s Channel and out into the Atlantic. It is worth noting that the cruiser kept shelling this passenger liner, but that no hits were made, and there is other evidence that Dresden’s gunnery was not very good.
Still proceeding up the Pacific, the latter went into St. Quentin Bay (Gulf of Peñas) where she coaled from Baden, coasted further yet but found no more shipping, and then made a tack out away from the land to that lonely island of Mas-a-fuera. No one can say that the German Navy failed to use every geographical convenience to the extreme limit. Having entered the war without the advantage of a chain of coaling stations, she regarded all isolated rocks, islands, lonely bays, as her privilege for supplies, refits, or rendezvous. The question of infringing the rights of neutral nations was ignored: necessity was the dominating factor, and absence of that force which imposes obedience to law prevented interference.
The principle was unprincipled, the policy impolitic; for the cumulative effect of using other nations’ property without permission was to arouse indignation, which in turn was to create a hostile reaction. But for the present all was well, and the Chilean Government were five hundred miles away — too far for any immediate protest; and it was whilst at Mas-a-fuera that Dresden’s wireless gained touch with the approaching Admiral von Spee on October 3. Spee’s immediate object was to obtain a concentration of cruisers and for this purpose he selected another remote spot still further away from the American continent. Easter Island was discovered by the Dutch Admiral Roggeveen on Easter Day, 1722, but now belongs to Chile from which it is distant fifteen hundred miles. It has neither timber nor brushwood, and hither in 1774 came Captain Cook.
In 1897 Mr. Merlet of Valparaiso leased part of the island, and subsequently formed a company to exploit it. Scientifically Easter Island demands interest because of hundreds of strange colossal stone idols, some of which are 30 feet high. There is no regular connection with South America, except for a small sailing vessel which is owned by the company using the island as a ranch. Sometimes this vessel comes once a year; sometimes not so frequently, and then tarries only long enough to take aboard the wool crop. Of triangular shape, measuring only 13 miles along its base, one can think of this volcanic miniature kingdom rising suddenly out of the ocean with high cliffs and jagged rocks, against which the unfettered Pacific perpetually dashes itself into white spray. Quiet, beyond all the traffic routes, quite untouched by the world’s progress, it would have seemed the last bit of territory that could be associated with modern war.
In October 1914 its total population consisted of Mr. Edmunds (the English manager of the ranch) and a German tobacco planter in addition to 250 natives, who are Polynesians. But it so happened that in 1913 there had sailed from England the schooner yacht Mana (91 gross tons), which had brought to the island in March 1914 Mr. and Mrs. Scoresby Routledge on a scientific expedition to investigate the mysterious idols. It chanced that in October the yacht had fortunately already been sent away temporarily to South America, leaving Mrs. Routledge and one of the crew on the island. The last visit of strangers had been in June 1913, when a crew of shipwrecked mariners from the schooner El Dorado, trading between Oregon and Chile with a deck-load of timber, had sprung a leak and compelled her crew to take to the ship’s boat.
In the normal course of Easter Island chronology it might have taken about a year before news of the World War reached its inhabitants. Neither Mrs. Routledge nor Mr. Edmunds had the faintest idea that Germany was at enmity; that Britain, France, and Russia were plunged in a great struggle; but on Monday morning, October 12, 1914, the islanders were surprised to find a squadron of German vessels had anchored off the shore. They consisted of the cruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Nurnberg, and Dresden. The latter had been towed here by Baden, in order to economise coal, and with the arrival of Leipzig the concentration of von Spee’s force was now complete. Besides these fighting units the islanders were able to gaze down upon colliers and storeships.
What was the meaning of this sudden irruption? The Germans said nothing about a war: they mentioned that they were cruising from the China station to Valparaiso. So unsuspecting were the handful of Easter Island white people that Mrs. Routledge entrusted the Germans with letters to post, of which incidentally all but one at length reached its destination. As for Mr. Edmunds, he innocently sold the Germans £1000 worth of meat. The visitors offered to make payment in gold, but the manager (perhaps remembering than an exploiter had once been murdered here) considered it wiser to ask and accept an order instead!
But there was an indefinable mysteriousness about this squadron, and it seemed curious that no one came ashore except very rarely. The natives became annoyed that so few presents were made. Had these Europeans no information to impart? Why were they so secretive? The Germans insisted that they had no newspapers, but at night they steamed out with no lights showing. Strange rumours began to develop, and one day an officer was foolish enough to make the remark that “in two months Germany will be at the top of the tree”. The crew had been told to keep their tongues quiet, but when the German tobacco-planter went aboard they gave him the momentous news that the Great War had begun. And that was how the tidings came to Easter Island.
Leading his squadron to sea after dusk on Sunday, October 18, with his flag in Scharnhorst, von Spee finally quitted Easter Island.1 During a whole week he had knowingly and deliberately delayed, where he had been entitled to rest only a few hours. He had flouted Chilean neutrality by using in the most leisured manner this island as his base: yet who was there of Chile to say him nay? To a belligerent who likes to defy international law, the seas afford many a free station whereon authority sits lightly if it exists at all. Will the spread of wireless stations and the extension of aviation make such proceedings nowadays impossible?
The squadron never came back, though the raider Prinz Eitel Friedrich descended on the anchorage just before Christmas. Of her cruise we shall investigate the stages in a later chapter. Whilst the sheep-shearing at Easter Island went on, the German squadron with their auxiliaries steamed south-east for Mas-a-fuera where they anchored on October 26, coaled, left the next day, and approached the vicinity of Valparaiso two days later. Now during this same month Admiral Cradock had been into Orange Bay and found the inscription proving that Dresden had called. On November 1 his inferior squadron met and was defeated by Admiral von Spee at the Battle of Coronel.
On November 6 the concentration again began to be made at Mas-a-fuera, yet once more defying neutrality, and now supplies fairly poured in. For two sailing vessels had been captured, one French with 3500 tons of coal, the other Norwegian with 2634 tons; whilst the German supply ship Sacramento had arrived from San Francisco with coal and food. Not till November 15 did von Spee sail, though Dresden and Leipzig left four days earlier and on November 13 called at Valparaiso, embarked stores, but left the next day. It was on the 16th that the British S.S. North Wales with coal was captured by Dresden and sunk, and next day the crew were transferred to the latter’s supply ship Rhakotis, who a month later landed them at Callao.
At St.Quentin Bay von Spee once more concentrated his squadron; this time the rendezvous was to see a veritable squadron also of supply ships. It was now November 21 and five days later von Spee set out for the fate that awaited him, the force consisting of his five cruisers, but also he took with him only the three supply ships Baden, Santa Isabel, and Seydlitz. Dipping their bows into the heavy seas, avoiding the Magellan Straits, and going outside the Horn the wanderers halted: for, coming towards them on December 2 was the British-owned Drummuir, 1844 tons, one of the few survivors of the sailing ships. Through four hundred years “Cape Stiff” had been the sailing ship’s deadliest enemy, the graveyard of many a sailor, the nightmare of every sailing-ship master. Drake, Anson, and a host of others had spent anxious times battering round this tempestuous corner of the globe, and now the age of sail was completing its last few voyages. As if to hurry its departure by the dominance of steam, Leipzig played her rôle by capturing Drummuir, which was taken to the back of Picton Island; next, after the sailing vessel’s cargo of coal had been transferred to the supply ships, followed the sad passing. Drummuir, representative of a fine race which revealed the Old World to the New, was towed into deep water and sent to the bottom.
That was on December 6, and in the evening von Spee’s squadron got under way for the Falklands; but then on December 8 followed the historic battle with his overwhelming defeat. Had it been a victory, the Falklands would have been transformed into a German base, the Atlantic would have been terrorised for a long time by cruiser raids, and the trade routes would have been death-traps. Finally, the squadron would have been able to essay a return to the North Sea and a conjunction with the outcoming High Sea Fleet might have led to a full-dress engagement with the Grand Fleet. But, as it was, von Spee lost to Admiral Sturdee four out of five cruisers, and two out of three remaining supply ships, so that there remained at the end of December 8 only the Dresden cruiser, and the Seydlitz. The latter had come all the way from Australia, and was one of the North German liners: she escaped, landed the Drummuir crew twelve days later, but finally was interned in February at Bahia Blanca.
We are now at liberty to devote ourselves exclusively once more to the adventures of Dresden and to observe the incredible situations, the narrow escapes, and terrible moments of suspense which were to last for weeks and weeks. She was destined to play a lonely game in the loneliest and most cheerless portion of the globe. The desperate condition in which she found herself was not merely that her admiral and sister-ships had perished, but that the whole of the German supply system had received a series of disintegrating shocks. Inasmuch as the very life of a raider depended on coal and stores, she could not do much if neither reached her. And owners were preferring to keep their ships in port just now rather than expose them to disaster, so the chances of helping herself to fuel and food in the Patagonian area were not promising. Hitherto life for these cruisers had been rather that of a speculative criminal. They had trespassed flagrantly, their supply ships had by lies and deceit used harbours of South American Republics as the sources for coal, provisions, stores of all sorts, and communication with Berlin. Such insults to the self-pride of neutral nations could not be endured for ever.
Brazil and Argentina were now beginning to tighten up regulations: in future colliers would not be allowed to leave port if there was the slightest suspicion that they were about to serve German cruisers. The Governments of Uruguay and Chile were likewise becoming less patient than before, with the result that German Supply Officers in South America were finding their task impossible. Only across the Atlantic at Canary Islands, Las Palmas, Tenerife were there always several thousand tons of German-owned coal always ready. Captain Lüdecke was compelled to do some serious thinking for the future, and the great lesson to be learned from his subsequent movements is one of moral courage. He refused to bow his head to discouragement and, on the contrary, utilised every conceivable means for outwitting fate.
Dresden was able to survive the Battle of the Falk-lands because she got away in the thick weather of the afternoon. At first Captain Lüdecke intended making for Picton Island, where von Spee was to have rendezvoused. But Lüdecke’s wireless calls could get no reply from a supply ship. Dresden needed coal, and must have it: yet how? Whence? Punta Arenas — inside the Magellan Straits — that was the only possible place. But surely British cruisers would be hovering off the eastern entrance to the Straits? Most likely they would. Then what to do? The answer was found in choosing the tricky Cockburn Channel which he entered on December 10 and came to anchor at 4 p.m. in Sholl Bay, some sixty miles south of Punta Arenas. So desperate had become the fuel problem that Captain Lüdecke had to send his men ashore to cut down trees, and they also brought off water. Forests abound in the Magellan neighbourhood, and when Darwin was thereabouts in the Beagle during 1834 he recorded: “So thick was the wood, that it was necessary to have constant recourse to the compass; for every landmark, though in a mountainous country, was completely shut out.”
Only 160 tons of the cruiser’s maximum 850 tons of coal remained, so Dresden could not have carried on much longer. That night the Chilean torpedo-gunboat Almirante Condell visited Dresden. She was a quarter of a century old and lightly armed, but she represented the law and informed Lüdecke he must not prolong his stay beyond twenty-four hours. At 10 a.m. on December 12 Dresden weighed anchor and reached that quite unpretentious little town of Punta Arenas so famous for its driving storms. He knew that the United, States collier Minnesotan, specially chartered by the German Government, was there lying; but this vessel’s master now refused to let him have a shovelful. He was not going to supply a man-of-war.
This was awkward, time was precious, and the British cruisers could not be far away. But the German Roland Line Turpin had been lying there since war began, so from her Dresden managed to obtain 750 tons of briquettes aboard by the evening of December 13, and at 10 p.m. steamed away south down the Straits. Five hours later the British cruiser H.M.S. Bristol arrived! It had been a narrow shave.
From now onwards Dresden was to live a hand-to-mouth existence in a grand game of hide-and-seek, with the most impressive scenery for background. She was hunted and searched for incessantly; false clues, all sorts of rumours, were followed up and still the German could not be located. She was like some culprit wanted by the police, and unable to show herself in public. In order to picture the strange environment we have to remember that these Magellan Straits are a bewildering labyrinth of channels and islands that even in this twentieth century still remain inadequately surveyed, and such charts as exist date back chiefly from Darwin and the Beagle epoch. Imagine a kind of Norway with valleys, gorges, snow-clad mountains, precipices, and peaks, and all nature in a savage primitive isolation. Here are channels, sometimes 4000 feet deep, running between mountains rising to 5000 feet. Anchorages are few and even thirty miles apart. To navigate except by daylight is impossible, and dangerous at that if the more unfrequented passages are attempted; for rocks are waiting to hole the ship’s bottom. Certainly there is smooth water, but the tides are strong, the light is not generally good, the atmosphere never warm, and out of the twenty-four hours it rains for eleven. Its cold and wet, its damp fogs, are comparable only with an English winter.
The deep ravines, the incessant gales of wind, and what Darwin once called “the death-like scene of desolation”; the gloomy woods inhabited by only few birds; the dark ragged clouds that drive furiously over the cones of snow and blue glaciers, overawe the mind of man. Not even the abundant firewood and many waterfalls make up for the misty sunless weather, the grey seas outside, the heartlessness of the fjords themselves. These are cliffs covered with fern and brilliant moss, and there is something majestic in the crags as well as the ravines. But down come the squally “williwaws” lashing the smooth water into foaming crests and liable to lay any sailing craft flat down. Altogether this stern, forbidding, barren region of South America’s extremity was an ideal, if strange, asylum for a turbine cruiser hiding after the most complete naval victory of modern times.
Iran has been demanding South Korea release frozen assets and the seizure also comes amid a flurry of Iranian threats aimed at the United States.
The South Korea’s government says it has dispatched military forces into the strategic Strait of Hormuz after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, seized a South Korean-flagged tanker ship earlier today. Officials in Seoul are also demanding the immediate release of the vessel, which Iranian authorities say they detained over alleged maritime pollution.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry issued the statement regarding the chemical tanker MT Hankuk Chemi on Jan. 4, 2021. The vessel, which Iran says is carrying 7,200 tons of “oil-based chemicals,” had been traveling from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates when the IRGC took control of it at around 10:00 AM local time. Official pictures of the operation show multiple small Iranian boats swarming the commercial ship, which is now anchored near the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. The entire crew, 20 individuals in total, including 5 Korean nationals, 11 sailors from Myanmar, two Indonesians, and two Vietnamese, has also reportedly been arrested.
The IRGC said that it had seized the ship, which has a gross tonnage of 9,797 tons, after receiving a request from the country’s Ports and Maritime Organization, which was acting on a warrant issued by the coastal Hormozgan province’s prosecutor’s office. Hormozgan is situated along the Strait of Hormuz.
The incident was further confirmed by the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) body, which monitors maritime security in the region. “As a consequence of this interaction, the vessel made an alteration of course north and proceeded into Iranian territorial waters,” it said in a statement.
The Hankuk Chemi’s South Korean-based operator, DM Shipping, has denied the ship violated any environmental protocols.
It’s unclear what forces South Korea has now sent the area and what actions they may be authorized to take. In January 2020, South Korean officials announced that they would expand their Cheonghae military unit, which has previously been focused on anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden in cooperation with the U.S. Navy-led Combined Task Force 151, to also cover operations in and around the Strait of Hormuz. South Korean Navy destroyers make rotational deployments in support of the Cheonghae unit, and form the core of that force, but it is unclear which of the country’s warships is in the region now.
The South Korean military is not technically part of the U.S.-led International Maritime Security Construct, which was established in 2019 specifically to patrol in and around the Strait of Hormuz and elsewhere in the Middle East and monitor Iranian activities.
This is certainly not the first time the Iranians have seized a foreign-flagged tanker in the region. In July 2019, the IRGC notably took control of the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero, officially over allegedly breaking maritime rules. On the same day, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards also briefly detailed the Liberian-flagged tanker Mesdar, which is owned by a British company. Iranian officials later claimed they had only stopped that ship to inform the crew of environmental and other maritime regulations.
The seizure of the Stena Impero was seen as direct retaliation for British authorities in Gibraltar detaining an Iranian tanker, then named Grace 1, earlier in that year. The U.K. government released Grace 1 in August 2019 and Iran let Stena Impero go the following month.
This latest incident comes as Iran and South Korea are currently at loggerheads over the status of Iranian funds worth $7 billion that are frozen in South Korean banks due to sanctions imposed by the United States. South Korea’s deputy foreign minister was reportedly planning to visit Tehran soon to discuss Iranian demand for the release of the funds.
It’s also worth noting that South Korea, one of the world’s top 10 oil importers, had been a major customer of Iran’s before agreeing to halt those purchases in May 2020 under pressure from the U.S. government. The IRGC detaining the Hankuk Chemi could offer a way to put pressure on both countries simultaneously, or even seek to drive something of a wedge between them, especially over the issue of sanctions.
The incident comes amid a surge in geopolitical friction between Iran and the United States. On Jan. 3, the Pentagon announced that the supercarrier USS Nimitz would return to Middle Eastern waters in response to threats from Iranian officials, including some directed specifically at President Donald Turmp, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the U.S. military’s killing of IRGC General Qassem Soleimani. An American drone strike killed Soleimani, then-head of the Quds Force, the IRGC’s external operations arm, in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2020.
Trump himself reportedly directed Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller to order the carrier back to the Middle East. Just days earlier, Miller had announced that the Nimitz, which had been sailing in the Indian Ocean in support of the withdrawal of American troops from Somalia, would be heading home after a particularly lengthy deployment. That move was also said to be aimed to be a de-escalatory move after weeks of signaling to the regime in Tehran in the form of multiple long-range B-52 bomber sorties and the extremely rare public transit of the Ohio class guided-missile submarine USS Georgia through the Strait of Hormuz.
The U.S. intelligence community has reportedly seen a recent increase in the alert posture among Iranian military units, including air defense and maritime elements. However, it is unclear whether or not this in preparation to respond to any American retaliation to an attack from Iran or its regional proxies or if this is a reaction to threats from the U.S. government, real or otherwise.
Iranian-backed militant groups throughout the Middle East have issued their own calls for justice and revenge while commemorating the anniversary of Soleimani’s death. In Iraq, in particular, militias that Tehran supports have stepped up rocket and other attacks aimed at U.S. interests in that country in recent weeks.
There is also the matter of Iran resuming enriching uranium at up to 20% purity, reducing the time it would take for the regime in Tehran to produce weapons-grade level material for use in a weapon, should it choose to do so. The enrichment work is being carried out at Fordo, in a site buried within a mountain, which provides significant protection from aerial attack.
This is in clear violation of the controversial international deal that Iran made with the United States, as well as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China, in 2015. In May 2018, Trump announced that the U.S government would pull out of that agreement and the U.S. government subsequently reimposed sanctions against Tehran.
Iran informed the United Nations about the uranium enrichment last week, after a parliamentary decision in response to the killing of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. The details of this assassination, which Iran has blamed on Israel and claimed involved a gun in either a remote-controlled or entirely automated mount on a pickup truck, is something The War Zone has discussed in detail in the past.
Iran actions with regards to its nuclear program, as well as other activities, such as the seizure of the Hankuk Chemi, could be part of an effort to prepare the ground for the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has indicated that it would be willing to rejoin the nuclear deal. The Biden offering has been billed as a “compliance for compliance” deal, which would see economic sanctions on Tehran lifted if the country accepted the restrictions outlined in the original deal, including uranium enrichment.
No matter what the IRGC’s exact reasons for seizing the Hankuk Chemi may have been, and how it might be intertwined with the large geopolitical picture, this incident, as well as South Korea’s immediate response to move military forces into the area, underscores just how complex and potentially dangerous the situation in the region is at present.
UPDATE: 6:15 PM EST
The U.S. State Department, in a statement to South Korean news outlet Yonhap, has now also called for the immediate release of the Hankuk Chemi.
“The United States is tracking reports that the Iranian regime has detained a Republic of Korea-flagged tanker,” a State Department spokesperson said, using South Korea’s official name. “The regime continues to threaten navigational rights and freedoms in the Persian Gulf as part of a clear attempt to extort the international community into relieving the pressure of sanctions. We join the Republic of Korea’s call for Iran to immediately release the tanker.”
U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) also told ABC News that it was monitoring the situation.
HMS Argus in November 1918, while preparing for the planned attack on the German High Sea Fleet in its harbours, with Sopwith T.1 torpedo-bombers on the flight deck. The ‘splinter’ paint scheme was designed to confuse enemy range-finders, but had the negative effect of making the ship more obvious.
HMS Argus’s hangar, looking aft from a point just aft of the forward lift. The aircraft are Sopwith T.1 torpedo-bombers, and the one to the left is on the after lift platform. By later standards the hangar looks high but narrow and cramped.
A Sopwith T.1 instructional airframe with a torpedo in place, showing why an axle fitted with hooks could not be inserted between the wheels. The T.1 was heavy enough not to need retaining gear when it came to rest on landing.
In the last few months of the war, aviation had become a weapon to be taken seriously, rather than the annoyance it had been at the beginning. We have already seen how both land planes and flying boats were extensively used in the antisubmarine campaign. The British had also steadily increased the number of aircraft with the Grand Fleet by fitting platforms to turrets from which aircraft could be flown off, but not recovered. By the close of the war, the Grand Fleet when it put to sea could actually put up an air umbrella—on a one time basis—of approximately 110 aircraft. These were used for scouting and defensive missions. But what of actually carrying war to the enemy? Beatty, influenced by air-minded officers in the Grand Fleet such as Captain Richmond, had this in mind in August 1917 when he proposed at a conference with the First Sea Lord in the Queen Elizabeth that a dawn attack by Sopwith T.1 Cuckoo torpedo planes be used to strike the High Sea Fleet in its German bases. There would be 121 torpedo planes, flown in flights of forty, which would be transported to within range by carriers. The torpedo planes might be accompanied by long-range H.12 (“Large America”) flying boats, operating independently from the carriers from their bases in England.117 In the absence of suitable carriers, Beatty suggested using eight merchant vessels fitted with flying-off platforms. Unfortunately the material to execute a plan like this was not available in 1917. The Admiralty also claimed the torpedo-carrying aircraft, the Sopwith Cuckoo, would not be available in quantity until the following summer—in fact only a little more than ninety had been delivered by the time of the armistice—the torpedo it could carry too small, and the tactics for torpedo attacks on warships still unpracticed to justify diverting badly needed merchant ships and dockyard facilities for conversion work. The dawn attack by torpedo aircraft would have to wait until the technical means were available.
There had been air raids with seaplanes launched by seaplane carriers earlier in the war in both the North Sea and the Black Sea. The results had been meager; the weight and drag of floats imposed performance penalties on seaplanes and the process of launching and recovering them in the open sea was difficult, particularly in North Sea conditions. The British worked doggedly at launching land aircraft from ships and the much more difficult task of recovering them. There is no space to describe this fascinating story here, but by the summer of 1918 they were close to introducing true aircraft carriers. The battle cruiser Furious had originally been designed as one of Fisher’s light battle cruisers for the Baltic project. She had been something of a freak with a primary armament of only two 18-inch guns. The design was altered and Furious joined the fleet as a fast seaplane carrier in the summer of 1917 with the forward 18-inch turret replaced by a flight platform. She originally embarked five Sopwith Pups and three Short 184 seaplanes. On 2 August 1917 a Sopwith Pup flown by Squadron Commander E. H. Dunning landed on board, the first time an aircraft had landed onto a moving ship. Dunning succeeded with a second attempt, but on the third trial on 7 August, his engine stalled, the aircraft was blown over the side, and he was killed. Between November and March, the Furious went through another conversion, and the after turret was also replaced by a flight deck and hangar with fore and aft elevators for aircraft. Unfortunately, the experiments at landing aircraft proved to be a failure because of eddies and air currents caused by the midships superstructure and funnels. After the war the Furious was reconstructed as a true aircraft carrier with a long flight deck, but in the summer of 1918 she could launch her complement of approximately sixteen aircraft but not recover them. Land aircraft still had to ditch when they rejoined the carrier after an operation.
The Vindictive was another carrier under construction. She was actually a converted light cruiser, originally named the Cavendish but renamed in honor of the cruiser expended in the Zeebrugge-Ostend raids. The Vindictive was fitted with a hangar, flying-off deck forward, and flying-on deck aft. She was designed to carry six reconnaissance aircraft and has been described as a miniature Furious, but did not join the fleet until the closing days of the war.
The Argus was the most interesting and potentially the most useful of the carriers under construction in the summer of 1918. She was originally laid down in June 1914 as the Lloyd Sabaudo liner Conte Rosso, but construction halted after the beginning of the war. The ship was acquired by the Admiralty in 1916 for conversion into a seaplane carrier. The work went slowly, hampered by repeated design changes in what was still a very experimental field. The Argus was eventually completed with a flush deck unobstructed by superstructure or funnels as well as a pilothouse charthouse that could be lowered during flying operations. She did not commission until September 1918, but soon completed a series of successful takeoffs and landings with Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutters. She was capable of carrying 20–21 aircraft. In October she embarked a squadron of Sopwith T.1 Cuckoo torpedo planes that were to be used to attack the High Sea Fleet in Wilhelmshaven. The squadron pilots were still gaining experience in carrier operations when the war ended a few weeks later.
The carrier operations actually carried out in the summer of 1918 were far more modest than Beatty had wanted, although they are not without interest. The Furious played a prominent role. The carrier would proceed to the edge of the Helgoland Bight minefields and launch reconnaissance aircraft. The British hoped to trap a Zeppelin, and on one occasion, 17 June, she was bombed twice by German seaplanes. The Furious launched two Sopwith Camels, but they failed to catch the first attackers and had to ditch. The Furious launched another pair of Camels to counter a second German attack, and a German seaplane was forced down. The British decided to attack the Zeppelins in their base at Tondern, and at dawn on 19 July, after earlier attacks had been aborted because of weather, the Furious launched two flights of Sopwith Camels—seven aircraft—each carrying two 50-pound bombs. The Furious was screened by the First Light Cruiser Squadron, with a division of the First Battle Squadron and the Seventh Light Cruiser Squadron out in support. She was approximately 80 miles northwest of the German base. The British succeeded in destroying one of the sheds, along with Zeppelins L.54 and L.60. One Camel had been forced down by engine trouble before reaching the target, three had to land in Denmark, one pilot was drowned, and two made it back to their ships to be picked up by a destroyer after ditching. The raid was the first conducted by land planes flown off a carrier and was the most successful carrier launched operation of the war.
The Grand Fleet and Harwich Force carried aircraft for defensive purposes, particularly against Zeppelins, which shadowed British squadrons on their sweeps. Naturally the pilots would have to ditch after each operation. In the North Sea on 21 August 1917 the light cruiser Yarmouth launched a Sopwith Pup flown by Lieutenant B. A. Smart, who shot down Zeppelin L.23. This success led to a number of light cruisers being fitted with flying-off platforms on their turrets. There was another variation: destroyers towed lighters carrying flying boats and then experimented with land planes. On 11 August 1918, a Sopwith Camel took off from a lighter towed by the destroyer Redoubt of the Harwich Force, and the pilot, Lieutenant S. D. Culley, succeeded in shooting down Zeppelin L.53 off Terschelling.
Culley’s victory occurred shortly after a stunning success by German seaplanes during the same operation. Tyrwhitt with four light cruisers and thirteen destroyers of the Harwich Force was on a reconnaissance sweep of the southwestern exits of the Helgoland Bight minefields. Three of the destroyers towed lighters carrying flying boats, and two towed lighters with aircraft, one of them Culley’s. When the British reached a point approximately 25 miles northwest of the island of Vlieland, six shallow-draft coastal motorboats armed with torpedoes were detached to cross the minefields and proceed to the mouth of the Ems with orders to attack any German minesweepers or their supporting forces they encountered. The CMBs should have had air cover, but there was no wind that morning, and the flying boats were unable to take off.
The CMBs kept about a mile outside of Dutch territorial waters and had just passed Terschelling when they were attacked by six, later increased to eight (German sources say nine), German aircraft of the Kampstaffel V and Kampstaffel I from the Borkum naval air station. A running battle developed as the flotilla closed up to concentrate the fire of their Lewis guns and continued eastward at 30 knots for about half an hour, the airplanes dropping a few bombs but relying mostly on their machine guns. The Germans gained the advantage when the CMBs turned to the west to rejoin the Harwich Force when they were abeam of Ameland lighthouse. The German aircraft now had the sun behind them. Four (German sources say five) more German aircraft from Kampfstaffel Norderney joined the fight, and the CMBs were riddled as they ran out of ammunition or their guns jammed. The German aircraft were all seaplanes, either the older Friedrichshafen FF.49C or the more modern Brandenburg W.12 and W.29. The CMBs managed to shoot down one of the Brandenburg W.29s, but eventually all but CMB.41 were dead in the water. Three CMBs were sunk, CMB.41 managed to reach the Dutch shore, and two others, crippled, drifted into Dutch territorial waters and were towed to port by a Dutch torpedo boat.
An entire naval force had been eliminated by aircraft the same morning that a reconnaissance Zeppelin had been destroyed by a plane launched by a naval force. The actions on 11 August gave a striking demonstration of the new dimension in naval warfare. At the same time, the Argus was nearing completion and there were plans for an air attack on the German fleet. The carrier-launched attack never took place before the war ended, but the development of the Argus along with the events of 11 August pointed the way toward the future course of naval warfare to those who paid attention.
In November 1917 it was the turn of the Grand Fleet to launch a major operation. This was to be a large scale attack on the German minesweeping operations in the North Sea. For some time these had been escorted by light cruisers and destroyers; more recently it had been observed that they were increasingly being supported by an entire battle squadron from the High Seas Fleet. The possibility of being able to engage this meant that a very substantial force must be committed to the operation. Madden, as commander of the 1st Battle Squadron, was to take overall charge of the attack, designated as ‘Operation FR.’
The vessels to be employed would be divided into three groups. Force A, under Vice Admiral Sir Trevelyan Napier, comprised his 1st Cruiser Squadron (Courageous, his flagship, with Glorious and four screening destroyers); 1st Light Cruiser Squadron (Cowan) (four light cruisers and two destroyers); and 6th Light Cruiser Squadron (Alexander-Sinclair) (four light cruisers and four destroyers). Force B, commanded by Pakenham, consisted of his 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron of four battle cruisers, reinforced by New Zealand, and the light cruiser Champion with nine destroyers. Force C was Madden’s 1st Battle Squadron, with eleven destroyers, which was to play a supporting role. Forces A and B, together under Pakenham’s command, were to sail from Rosyth and arrive at a point ‘about half way across the outer edge of the quadrant of mines in the Helgoland Bight. They were to approach this point from the western and southern sides of the large German minefield in the central part of the North Sea.’ Thereafter, they were to sweep NNW at high speed. They were to be in position by 8.00 am on November 17. Force C was to take up its supporting position at the same time. Madden’s written orders, issued on November 16, had originally prescribed 10.00 am for the cruisers’ rendezvous, but this was brought forward. Two submarines were patrolling to give intelligence of enemy movements.
The plan was, however, marred by a remarkably bad piece of staff work, the significance of which was explained in detail by Newbolt:
As the squadron commanders were instructed to strike at a force of enemy ships on or near the outer edge of the mine barrier, it followed that if it found them, the British squadrons might be obliged to press on into the mined area in pursuit. If they were so compelled their movements would obviously be restricted by those minefields which they believed to lie within the zone of their operations.
The Admiralty, in the person of the Hydrographer of the Navy, issued a monthly chart showing the British and German minefields in the Heligoland Bight. A copy went to the Commander- in-Chief, but it was not circulated to the fleet. Pakenham had either been given a copy or at any rate had seen one; but it was not shown to the admirals commanding cruiser squadrons. They, and their captains kept their own charts, updated by the ‘mine memoranda’ issued from time to time by the C-in-C. Unlike the monthly chart which he had, these memoranda did not locate the lines of mines laid, but merely indicated dangerous areas. The chart which Pakenham possessed or had seen showed a zone of clear water to the southeast of the general rendezvous. Pakenham therefore knew that his squadrons could safely go into the mined areas for some thirty miles, but Napier was quite unaware of this. What he did know was that Beatty had banned operations beyond a line just south of the rendezvous unless the ships involved had full information as to the minefields.
Napier’s chart differed from those in the possession of Alexander-Sinclair and Cowan, in that it marked as a danger area a 1915 minefield in the centre of the Heligoland Bight, which had been strengthened in July 1916. This large danger area was, Napier considered, an absolute barrier to further advance; on the other hand, the light cruiser squadron commanders knew nothing of it.
In addition there existed a chart showing the approximate positions of the German swept channels. Beatty had a copy, but he showed it to none of the admirals taking part in Operation FR. Madden’s orders of November 16 stated, under the heading of ‘enemy intelligence,’ that ‘enemy submarines on passage are following the route from Muckle Flugga to the Doggerbank Nord light vessel.’ He gave no information as to the likely enemy movements or lines of retirement. Taken overall, these lapses in efficient preparation for a major operation were inexcusable.
There was no doubt a good deal of discussion between the commanders while the operation was at the planning stage, at which the objective would have been thoroughly explored. All the same, Madden’s order of November 16 was laconic in the extreme, and cannot have helped Napier much with the decisions which he would have to make once the operation was under way.
At all events the British forces intended to take part in the operation duly assembled at Rosyth, and all of them left harbour at 4.30 pm on November 16. By 7.00 next day the cruiser groups were approaching the barrier. Napier, with the 1st Cruiser Squadron, was leading the way, with Alexander-Sinclair’s 6th Light Cruiser Squadron on his port beam and Cowan’s 1st Light Cruiser Squadron some three miles astern. Pakenham, with the battle cruisers, was steaming ten and a half miles on the port quarter of Courageous. Apart from some indications of wireless traffic which had been picked up during the morning watch, there was nothing to indicate that German forces were at sea in the vicinity. Visibility was about seven and a half miles; the sea was smooth and light, and the westerly wind was force two.
As it happened, the Germans had planned a large minesweeping operation for October 17 in the very sector to which Pakenham’s forces had been directed. This involved three minesweeping half-flotillas, and two destroyer half flotillas, reinforced by two additional destroyers, making eight in all, and a barrier breaking group, consisting of mine explosion resistant trawlers. The covering force was the Second Scouting Group under von Reuter, consisting of the light cruisers Königsberg, Nürnberg, Pillau and Frankfurt. There were two battleships, Kaiserin and Kaiser, in support near Heligoland.
The objective of the German operation was to obtain accurate information as to the whereabouts of British minefields, and to devise ways of circumventing them. Once the location of all of these had been identified, it would next be necessary to determine which should be cleared away. The operation on November 17 was aimed at searching from about the centre of the line Horns Reef – Terschelling in the direction N by W. Reuter ordered his group to assemble at 7.0 am; Captain Grasshoff, of Kaiserin, reported that at that time the two battleships would be in position west of Heligoland. Airship reconnaissance was impossible due to the thick weather, which also prevented Reuter shipping any seaplanes on his light cruisers; sea planes were, however able to fly from Borkum.
Aboard his flagship Königsberg, Reuter saw that two of the minesweeping half flotillas had not by 7.30 am, yet reached the rendezvous, and since they could not be far behind, he turned away from the rest of his squadron to bring them up. As he did so he suddenly came under fire from the NW; Napier’s flagship Courageous and her consort Glorious had sighted Königsberg on their starboard bow, and at 7.37 opened fire with their 15-inch guns. They were aided by the fact that whereas the western horizon was misty, obscuring the German’s ability to discern them, the eastern horizon was bright; the German vessels showed up distinctly. The surprise was complete; but the German destroyers and minesweepers at once made smoke screens, and by 7.51 the German ships were lost to sight. Reuter ordered the German cruisers, which had advanced to cover the retreat of the minesweepers, at 7.53 to turn southeast through the British minefields, falling back towards the support of the two battleships. One armed trawler, Kehdingen, had been serving as a mark boat for the sweeping forces; anchored in her position, she was hit almost at once by a shell, and thereafter lay immobile.
Although Napier had achieved a surprise of the enemy, he was far from clear about what he had encountered. Soon after opening fire he reported to Madden that he had an unknown number of light cruisers in sight, bearing east. Pakenham picked up the signal, and almost at once heard the sounds of gunfire, but was uncertain as to the enemy’s strength. A report from Cowan at 7.45 that the enemy bore ESE was accompanied by a warning that he could not tell how many enemy ships were present, so Pakenham was still none the wiser.
Nor was Napier, whose first report to Pakenham after the action was extremely inaccurate:
Soon after 0730 the enemy were sighted ahead consisting of five to eight submarines escorted by two or more destroyers, some minesweepers to port of them, and four light cruisers gradually coming into view to starboard of them. Four of the submarines appeared to be of unusually large size, either with funnels or with two conning towers and no masts. The light cruisers were probably Stralsund, Pillau, Regensburg and one other.
He went on to describe how these entirely fictitious submarines began to submerge and, more accurately, how the minesweepers disappeared NE while the destroyers made smoke:
The smoke screen was skilfully managed by the enemy, and soon reduced the shooting greatly to a matter of chance, crippling the range finding and spotting, and the point of aim was often only flashes.
When, at 8.00 am, Napier reached the smoke screen he turned sharply to the south. Once clear of the smoke, at 8.07 he sighted Reuter’s cruisers to the southeast of him, apparently heading ENE. Four minutes later he could see that they had turned southeast, and he reported these sightings to Madden. Pakenham, picking up these messages, ordered Rear Admiral Phillimore, in Repulse, to steer to the support of Cowan’s light cruisers, and turned his remaining battle cruisers to port to follow Napier. In his report to Beatty, Napier described how the action had now ‘settled down into a chase at ranges of 15,000 to 10,000 yards, the enemy still making heavy smoke, and steering down what was probably a swept channel as a pillar buoy was passed presumably marking an outer end.’
Although Reuter, having turned to the southeast, had completed his concentration, and his auxiliary forces were safely retreating to the north east undisturbed, his position was still hazardous. He had drawn all Napier’s forces after him, and could now only head for the support of Kaiserin and Kaiser as fast as he could. Newbolt points out the danger that he faced from the heavy guns of the light battle cruisers:
He was being followed by a force of overwhelming strength; and although he had gained a forward position against which the British broadsides could not be brought to bear, the forces against him were so numerous and powerful that a single mischance might bring disaster on his squadron. One 15 inch from the Courageous or Glorious, falling in the after part of any of his ships, might at any instant reduce her speed by a few knots: if it did he would have to abandon her as Hipper had abandoned the Blücher nearly three years before.
By 8.20 Reuter was under very heavy fire from all three British squadrons. Early in the engagement Ursa, one of Napier’s destroyers, had launched one torpedo unsuccessfully; now Vanquisher and Valentine, two of Alexander-Sinclair’s destroyers, attempted a torpedo attack but were driven off under heavy fire. Reuter now put up another smoke screen, and the two forces steamed on, with the British steadily reducing the range. Fifteen minutes later, as the smoke had cleared, Reuter again put up a particularly dense smoke screen, behind which his forces entirely disappeared. This gave Napier a problem. All the time he could directly follow Reuter he could safely assume that he would pass through waters that had been cleared of mines; now, this huge smoke screen might be intended to conceal a crucial change of course. Napier was approaching a line marked on his own chart, labelled ‘Line B,’ which he had drawn to show the point twelve miles beyond the rendezvous which, as he later wrote to Beatty, was ‘the limit I had in mind of, at any rate, British minefields, and to which I could go if necessity arose.’
To continue on his present course was obviously dangerous, and at 8.40 Napier turned his squadron eight points to port, to a north easterly course; Cowan and Alexander-Sinclair followed suit. At this point Courageous was about two and a quarter miles north of the two light cruiser squadron; Cowan was just then crossing the stern of Alexander-Sinclair at a very short distance while Repulse, which had not yet come into action, was six miles on the port quarter of Courageous. Napier reported to Madden that he had lost sight of the enemy, but that the light cruisers were in pursuit.
Twelve minutes later the smoke screen began to clear, and Napier could see that Reuter had, in fact, continued on his course; he altered course eight points to starboard and resumed the chase, having lost five precious miles by his original turn. By now the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron was in the lead, having had to make the smallest turn, and it was upon the ships of Alexander-Sinclair that Reuter’s vessels concentrated their fire. Cardiff sustained three hits, one on her forecastle, which started two fires, one on her superstructure above the after control position, and one in her torpedo department.
At 9.00 Phillimore, in Repulse, had finally caught up. He had been warned by Pakenham not to take her into the minefields, which the British were fast approaching and which obviously presented serious hazards. Pakenham had taken in Napier’s report that he had lost sight of the enemy, and was extremely anxious about the risks that were being run:
Although he possessed better and more detailed information with regard to the minefields than any of the other Admirals in the operating squadrons, Admiral Pakenham was very doubtful whether any good purpose would be served by pursuing the enemy through the intricate and twisting passages through the fields … now, on receiving Admiral Napier’s signal, he decided that our pursuit of the enemy ought to cease. The signal read as though contact with the enemy had been completely lost, and gave him no inkling that the enemy had temporarily disappeared behind a smoke screen; he therefore ordered all squadrons to join him at the general rendezvous.
Napier got this recall at about 9.00 am, by which time all the British ships, now including Repulse, were again in action. He was reluctant to comply, having just decided to advance further into the minefields. He thought, incorrectly, that Reuter had been reinforced, and that Alexander-Sinclair and Cowan would continue to need the support of his 15 inch guns; accordingly, in two messages to Pakenham he said that he had sighted the smoke of six ships ‘in addition to those reported at 7.30,’ and that he was still engaging the enemy. Accordingly, he did not act upon Pakenham’s signal of recall, and pressed on. This was in spite of the fact that following the turn to port Courageous and Glorious had fallen back so far that at 8.07 they were obliged to cease fire. In addition, the 4 inch guns of the Galatea class cruisers (Galatea, Royalist and Inconstant) were also out of range, only their two 6 inch guns being effective.
Just now, Reuter decided to launch a torpedo attack to slow down the British pursuit, under cover of a fresh smoke screen at about 9.15. For the next ten minutes torpedo tracks were repeatedly sighted by all three squadrons. Scheer records that six torpedoes were fired by the German destroyers, and that Königsberg and Frankfurt also fired torpedoes; but none hit.
It was not at all clear what hits had been scored on the enemy, although British fire control officers believed that one light cruiser had been damaged. At 9.30 Reuter again made smoke, preparatory to launching a fresh torpedo attack; again, no hits were recorded. By now, however, Napier had reached a point which he had marked on his map as ‘Line C,’ representing a ‘dangerous area;’ it was in fact a British minefield laid in 1915, and it was, for Napier, the absolute limit of his advance. At 9.32 he ordered his own squadron to turn sharply to starboard. Eight minutes later he signalled Pakenham and his own light cruiser squadrons: ‘Battle cruisers and cruisers should not go further through the minefield. Light Cruisers use discretion and report movements.’ At 9.49, he signalled Repulse: ‘Heavy draft ships should not go further into minefields.’ Since neither Alexander-Sinclair nor Cowan had the danger zone marked on their maps, they carried on the chase, trusting to their quarry to lead them through safe waters. Repulse appears to have continued to follow them, and all concerned had high hopes of achieving a decisive victory.
Reuter, too, now felt able to hope of achieving a success, as he wrote in his battle despatch:
Up to this point the action had been fought with a calm that may well be called exemplary. Everyone manned his post, carrying out the duties assigned to him as in manoeuvres. In spite of the tremendous impression caused by the mixed salvoes and the ensuing effects of the enemy’s fire… we were animated only by the fervent desire, filled only with the one thought: to destroy the enemy. This moment had arrived; calm yielded to a certain feverish expectation. It could only be a matter of minutes until the fate of the enemy was sealed.
His optimism was justified; with the British light cruisers in hot pursuit of him, there was every chance that he would be able to deliver them to Kaiserin and Kaiser. If they tried to escape by turning north or northwest, they would be heading straight into the minefields, where they might suffer heavy losses.
SMS KaiserKaiser and Kaiserin were assigned to security duty in the Bight on 17 November; they were tasked with providing support to II Scouting Group (II SG) and several minesweepers. Two British light cruisers, Calypso and Caledon, attacked the minesweepers and II SG in the Second Battle of Helgoland Bight. Kaiser and her sister intervened and hit one of the light cruisers. The two ships briefly engaged the battlecruiser Repulse, but neither side scored any hits and the German commander failed to press the attack.
In the ongoing exchanges of gunfire between the respective light cruisers, Calypso suffered serious damage when a shell hit the conning tower, destroying the bridge, and killing all those on the lower bridge and wounding her navigating officer and mortally wounding her captain. The other light cruisers pressed on until at about 9.50 am they found themselves under fire from Kaiserin and Kaiser. Alexander-Sinclair at once ordered his own ships, and Cowan’s squadron to turn sixteen points and make their way at high speed out of the trap into which they had nearly stumbled. Kaiserin got a shot home on Caledon, which caused no damage; as Königsberg turned to pursue the retreating British, she was hit by a shell from Repulse, which caused a fire in a coal bunker. No further pursuit was undertaken.
While this had been going on, Napier had been hovering outside the danger zone awaiting reports. At 10.00 Galatea signalled: ‘Enemy battleships, battle cruisers and light cruisers bearing southeast, steering east.’ Napier’s subsequent report to Pakenham spoke of the arrival of four enemy battleships. Any momentary alarm which this may have caused, however, was dispelled by later messages that the light cruisers had successfully extricated themselves, and were no longer being pursued. By 1.00 pm these had rejoined Napier, and all the British forces at sea made their way back across the North Sea without further incident. Meanwhile Hindenburg and Moltke, which had set off towards the scene of action when the first contact with the enemy was reported, had now joined Kaiserin and Kaiser, too late, however, to take any part.
Both sides claimed considerably more hits than was in fact the case. The Germans scored seven hits on the British light cruisers, while being hit themselves five times. They had been surprised by the appearance in battle for the first time of Courageous and Glorious, noting correctly that so far as they could see they had only two turrets; they were also struck by their high speed. The fact that Königsberg had suffered so little from a direct hit by a 15 inch shell was considered remarkable:
It passed through all three funnels of the ship, went through the upper deck into a coal bunker – the inner wall of which it burst; there it exploded and caused a fire. The fragments of this shell were picked up and its calibre determined. This proved to us that the English had built a new class of cruiser armed with a 38 cm gun.
In fact, of course, it was not one of the light battle cruisers that had fired the shell, but Repulse, which was also making its maiden appearance in a North Sea engagement. Considering the high speed of the British ships, Scheer correctly concluded that they must be lightly armoured. The lesson which he learned from the engagement was in future to bring the support groups further forward, so far as the minefields allowed:
The demands thus made upon the battleships of our outpost section increased considerably. The field of operation of the minesweepers extended 180 sea miles to the north and 140 miles to the west of the Jade. Work at such distant points was impossible without strong fighting support.
Half of the supporting vessels were located immediately behind the minesweepers, with the rest about 50 miles further back. In 1918 an anchorage in the Amrum Bank area was made secure from submarine attack, surrounded by nets, where the support ships could anchor in safety, thus avoiding the need to make the long journey back to the Jade.
The British performance in the engagement had not been very distinguished; Marder calls it a ‘fiasco,’ and this is not an overstatement. Beatty was extremely disappointed. He was displeased not only with Napier, but also with Pakenham. In his formal report to Beatty of November 26 Pakenham had done his best to talk up the operation as being in some way a success. He found it creditable that in spite of the difficulties created by the German smoke screens ‘all singled out the most important military force present as the object for collective attack.’ He noted the caution with which the Germans treated the minefield, concluding that ‘in dashing into it our forces performed a feat of a high order.’ Finally, he noted the value and loyalty of Phillimore’s support, but observed that Repulse was too valuable to be hazarded in minefield other than in extreme circumstances: ‘Success entitles the venture to rank as an achievement.’
This did not go down well with Beatty. In his first report to the Admiralty of December 1, which stimulated a considerable exchange of correspondence and the expression of a large number of opinions, he said that he did not agree with Pakenham as to the risks run by Phillimore:
The information given to the latter officer as to the position of minefields was incomplete and showed clear water after passing mined area W6. I consider that under the circumstances Rear Admiral Phillimore… was justified in the steps he took to carry out the orders given to him to support the light cruisers. Having regard also to the fact that he had the enemy light cruisers as a guide down a channel which had obviously been swept and marked with buoys, I consider his determined support was most effective and valuable in assisting the light cruisers to retire before the enemy battleship supports. His action undoubtedly served as a deterrent to those supports, which otherwise might have inflicted considerable damage on our light cruisers.
Phillimore was always something of a favourite of Beatty.
It was for Napier that Beatty reserved most of his wrath. He was displeased that no arrangements had been made to deal with the German minesweepers when sighted, ‘ the destruction of which was one of the objects of the operation.’ He observed that Napier did not place his squadron between the enemy and his base: ‘a determined effort to do this at the beginning of the engagement might have met with success and cut the enemy’s line of retreat.’ He found it regrettable that when the action had developed into a chase, ‘the high speed of the squadron was not utilised to close the range.’ His most serious discontent was with Napier’s most crucial decision:
It is unfortunate also that the 1st Cruiser Squadron turned eight points away and gave up the chase at 0840, subsequently turning again at 0852 and following at a distance which had now been increased by five miles.
He also, not unreasonably, picked up Napier’s first report of large submarines in the German force, which had subsequently been reported by Glorious to be minesweepers and other small craft. He wanted this information checked, ‘which is important in view of the tendency to too readily assume that every low lying craft sighted is a submarine.’ Prisoners from the outpost boat Kehdingen confirmed that no submarines were present on November 17.
Beatty’s report duly made the rounds of the senior officers at the Admiralty, working its way up from an initial critique of December 7 by Hope, as Director of Operations. He noted the lack of any operational signals by Napier, and that his movements indicated ‘an absence of decision as to tactics to be employed.’ He was also struck by the fact that ‘no attempt was made by anyone to follow up the minesweepers, all attention being devoted to the light cruisers.’ For the future, he considered that the Admiralty should issue definite instructions on the use of heavy ships in the minefields:
The question as to whether the heavy ships should have entered the area of minefields is a difficult one. The orders issued for the operation contained no instructions on this point So long as our ships could remain on the track taken by the Germans they were comparatively safe, but if they were manoeuvred off this line they might easily have got into an unswept area. If a ship was mined and her speed reduced, she must have been lost, owing to the presence of strong German supports, as it would have been impossible for our supports to extricate her.
Hope was perfectly right to point out the unfairness of leaving it to an admiral to take such a decision in the heat of battle. Nonetheless, it does seem surprising that neither Pakenham nor Napier raised the issue beforehand. Oliver concurred with Hope’s comments, adding his regret that Napier did not close the enemy at full speed as soon as they were sighted. He also observed that the Commander-in-Chief had known that there would be enemy battleships in support, but that there was nothing to show that the squadrons engaged knew this.
Wemyss, too, felt that Napier should have at once altered course and increased to full speed when he sighted Reuter’s ships. He did not think much of Pakenham’s recall signal, which he regarded as ambiguous. When the papers reached Jellicoe, he had a number of serious criticisms to make. Napier’s failure to close the enemy he found inexplicable; he should be asked for an explanation. He proposed to ask Beatty whose fault it was that no provision was made to deal with the minesweepers. He could see no reason why Repulse should not have followed the light cruisers, and wanted to know what was known about the minefields, and by whom. As for the enemy battleships, he wanted to know whether Beatty warned Madden or Pakenham of the possibility that these might be met. Finally, when all this got to the desk of the First Lord, Geddes minuted that a telegram should be sent to Beatty expressing the view that Napier’s failure to close was inexplicable. The telegram when sent caused understandable confusion, since Jellicoe inadvertently referred to VABCF (Pakenham) when he meant VALCF.
On December 16 Napier produced his explanation, enclosing a tracing showing what he knew about the minefields and the conclusions he drew from that information, particularly as to his first turn away, and his subsequent decision to go on further, to the limit of the ‘dangerous area.’ As to Beatty’s complaint that he had not put himself between Reuter and the latter’s base, he pointed out that he did not have information about the swept channels, ‘so could not act in the way in which in open water would no doubt have been sound.’ What he did not do was to offer any reasons for not increasing his speed from 25 knots, other than a plaintive reminder that what looked so clear afterwards when all information was known was ‘anything but clear at the time when surrounded by smoke in all directions; and also that the loss of heavy or comparatively heavy ships by mines would have converted an action with somewhat negative results into a disaster.’ As the editor of Jellicoe’s papers points out, the resemblance of this paragraph to the case for Jellicoe at Jutland against his critics is noteworthy.
At all events, it did not impress Oliver, who wanted to know more about the minefield charts, or Jellicoe, who still wanted to hear why speed was not increased. Napier was required to submit a further lengthy explanation, which on December 22 he did. Having increased to 25 knots it appeared that the enemy was then on a course opposite to his own, so a further increase would not have enabled him to close. His chief consideration, he wrote, had been to get through the smoke screen and determine what the situation really was. This was hardly a complete explanation, and it did not satisfy Oliver, who minuted that it did not appear to explain why no increase of speed was made between 0859, when fire was reopened, until course was altered on Line C and the action abandoned.’ Courageous and Glorious were certainly capable of something of the order of 32 knots, and working up to this speed might well have made a difference, even if it meant going on ahead of the light cruisers. The German Official History offers Napier no comfort:
Minesweeping forces, closely supported only by light cruisers, encountered heavy enemy forces and found themselves in a situation which should have ended in the destruction of both minesweeper and light cruisers; if the enemy had acted with vigour, the Kaiserin and Kaiser, well to the rear, would have arrived too late to prevent it… Correct tactical behaviour on the part of the German units, together with the weak and hesitant attack by far superior British forces, provided the essentials for this unexpected outcome … Only the conduct of the 1st and 6th Light Cruiser Squadrons left nothing to be desired; they were least concerned with worries about mines, since their mine charts were the most incomplete and, unlike the charts of Admirals Pakenham and Napier, theirs did not show the extensive mined area to the west of List. But the decision of the day lay less with the leaders of the light cruisers than with those of the capital ships.
Napier wrote privately to Tyrwhitt on December 8 to express his chagrin at the way things had turned out for him:
Have you ever experienced the chill down your back when – after an exciting and tiring day’s shooting, you return well pleased with yourself – and the house party immediately asks what is in the bag. With a sudden revulsion you are obliged to admit it is only several pheasants and hares wounded and dying in their holes! This is somewhat our feelings on returning to harbour on 19th Nov. – and incidentally is much what we felt after that rotten entertainment called the Battle of Jutland. It seems that we are expected to sink them all, but we found that they were difficult to sink, especially when enveloped in smoke, with nothing showing except gun flashes.
Geddes, who had been dismayed by the fiasco, had picked up on a visit to the Grand Fleet the extent of Beatty’s disapproval of Napier’s actions, and wished to make the latter a scapegoat for the failure. He was impatient at the delay in receiving Beatty’s report, announcing that in his opinion the Commander-in-Chief was trying to shield Napier, as Jellicoe recorded:
This was having the effect on him (Geddes) to make him all the more determined to make a scapegoat of Napier. I said this was unjust and wrong and that he must await the receipt of the report. This happened more than once and as I thought showed a want of justice on the part of Geddes.
Candour of this kind on Jellicoe’s part was unlikely to have gone down well with the First Lord.
Cowan wrote to Keyes on November 23 with a brief account of the action from a somewhat different perspective:
So far as A-S’s and my outfits were concerned it was a good hard straight for’d chase and shoot, bothered to death by smoke screens, far too busy and interested to think of torpedoes and mines of which there were plenty and at the latter end rather anxious about ammunition, my bow gun shot away all its outfit (200) and 20 as well, we’d 50 rounds a gun left. We really had great hopes towards the end as the 2nd ship was nicely on fire and the rear one slowly coming back to us, but then up hove those battleships and it was no good going on was it to let them score off us.
As the extent of the criticisms being heaped on him became apparent, Napier’s reaction was to suggest to Beatty that he should be relieved. Beatty, however, had had enough of the inquest, and told Napier that he still had confidence in him, and wanted him to stay. This may have been, as Marder suggests, due to his ‘characteristic magnanimity;’ or it may have been because the inefficiency at various levels reflected on him as well. In order to bring the matter to a close, he wrote to the Admiralty on December 24 to express his view that Napier had made an error of judgment and that he had pointed this out and explained the consequences. He thought that the experience would be of the greatest value in the future to Napier, who had ‘hitherto shown skill and judgment in command of light cruiser work and notwithstanding the disappointing results which attended the recent operation in the Heligoland Bight,’ he would be very loath to part with his services. He suggested that the matter would be sufficiently met by an expression of their Lordships ‘displeasure’.
This, on January 31, was the course taken by the Board of Admiralty, which formally concurred with Beatty in the conclusion which he had reached, and so informed Napier. Their Lordships went on to receive a report that arrangements had been made for full information as to the location of British minefields to be given to the flag officers of all the Grand Fleet squadrons to prevent the problem recurring. It was agreed to leave the item on the agenda in the future so that the question of whether there had been bad staff work on Pakenham’s part might be considered. This does not, however, appear to have been pursued further. Beatty certainly considered Pakenham to blame for an omission that went a considerable way to excusing Napier for his failure; and it had been immediately apparent to Madden that it was essential that the light cruisers should have comprehensive charts of the minefields if they were to be expected to pursue the enemy in mined areas, as he told Beatty. The affair, which had demonstrated failings that might not have been expected after all the Grand Fleet’s experiences, had ended in humiliation, as the prolonged investigations into the reasons for its outcome starkly demonstrated.
“I-25 Shells Fort Stevens”. On the night of June 21, 1942, the Japanese submarine I-25 fired 17 rounds at Fort Stevens, Oregon located at the mouth of the Columbia River. It was the second attack on a military base in the continental U.S. during WWII [Painted by Richard L. Stark]
Japanese type B-1 submarine cutaway, ca-1944
The 1920s and 1930s had seen much submarine construction notwithstanding efforts to outlaw or curtail submarine operations by international law. Britain, in spite of its determination to abolish the submarine as more a threat than an asset to its maritime security, had continued to build submarines and to experiment in their design. The United States maintained a growing number of submersibles, though until the mid-1930s these were mostly smaller boats for coastal defense. Lesser naval powers saw the submarine as a means of compensating for the modest size of their battle fleets. France remained the foremost advocate of the submarine, seeing it as a fleet equalizer, and had embarked upon a considerable submarine construction program, which included the construction of the huge Surcouf. Germany had begun secret preparations to rebuild its submarine fleet in the 1920s, an effort so successful that in 1935, less than a week after signing an accord with Britain that generally freed it from restrictions on construction in this category, German launched its first submersible. Japan had led the way in the construction of oceangoing submarines, predicating its submarine policy on the strategic principles set forth by Admiral Suetsugu.
If the pace of submarine construction quickened in the 1930s, at the end of the treaty era, naval strategists worldwide held no consistent views about the most advantageous use for submarine fleets. Certainly, none of the submarine strategies of the former maritime Allies of World War I was shaped by the evidence of the awesome destructiveness of the submarine as a commerce raider. Officially, the United States, up to the outbreak of the Pacific War, continued to view the submarine primarily as an element of fleet operations, though influential submariners in the U.S. Navy appear to have privately advocated a policy of aggressive commerce raiding in the event of war with Japan. Though Britain was determined to stay abreast of the latest developments in submarine design and technology, it failed to develop a coherent submarine strategy, partly because of financial stringency and partly because of the Royal Navy’s continuing priority on the battle fleet. In the Pacific, this left Britain with a submarine force inadequate in numbers and range to carry offensive war to Japan. The submarine force was thus relegated to the defense of the base at Singapore, though World War I offered little evidence that submarines were effective in a defensive role. Given the political and military realities of the time, particularly the near-at-hand Italian threat in the western Mediterranean, French thinking behind the construction of Surcouf seemed, by the late 1930s, quite misconceived. Among the Western maritime powers, only the small but resurgent German navy began to assemble a submarine force whose principal objective was the destruction of enemy commerce. Against the convoy system, which had finally turned back the German U-boat offensive in World War I, Comdr. Karl Donitz now devised new wolf-pack tactics that called for the massing of submarines at night and on the surface.
In part, the coordination of such tactics was made possible by greatly improved communications between submarines and shore command. High-frequency radio transmitters ashore now made it possible to send messages to submarines at great distance from the land, and extremely powerful, very low frequency (10-20 kilohertz) signals could be received even by submerged submarines. Though the vessels had to surface to transmit, these new developments in radio communication not only enhanced the value of the submarine for reconnaissance, but allowed more effective control of submarine fleets. Of course, radio direction finding, perfected during the late 1930s, enabled an enemy to detect the location of a submarine transmitting messages, which was a key element in the development of antisubmarine warfare (ASW) in World War II.
In the mid-1920s, Adm. Suetsugu Nobumasa had given the Japanese submarine force several missions that transformed it, in theory, into a long-range offensive system. The missions assigned to this system were the extended surveillance of the enemy battle fleet in harbor, the pursuit and shadowing of that fleet when it sortied from its base, and the ambushing of the enemy by pursuing submarines that would destroy a number of his capital ships and thus reduce his battle line just before the decisive surface encounter with the Japanese battle fleet.
By 1930, this strategy, embodying the principles of extended, long-range surveillance, pursuit, ambush, and attrition of the enemy, had become, like the 70 percent ratio in the 1920s, an article of faith in Navy General Staff planning for war with the U.S. Navy. Yet, surprisingly, for reasons not entirely clear, the strategy had never been subjected to the trial of its various tactical elements. This failure stands in marked contrast to the navy’s rigorous testing of other tactical matters. At all events, late in the decade, with the acquisition of large submarines with high surface speed, starting with the J3 type, the navy finally began frequent and intensive training in the tactics of surveillance, pursuit, shadowing, and ambushing of enemy fleet units.
Such training began in 1938 with a series of exercises designed to test the efficiency of submarines and crews for intense periods of patrol near the enemy. The next year, the navy began serious practice in submarine attack doctrine, beginning with close surveillance of tightly guarded heavy surface units, both those in harbor and those under way. The results were disconcerting, to say the least. Trying to get near to fleet targets, some submarines taking part in the exercises strayed within waters patrolled by destroyers and were judged to have been sunk; others apparently gave away their positions through radio transmissions. Still others, which had remained undetected while submerged during the periods of most intense antisubmarine activity by destroyers and aircraft, nevertheless missed important radioed instructions.
From these exercises the navy drew several conclusions that eventually were translated into standard operating procedures during the Pacific War. Unhappily for the Japanese submarine force, none made for effective submarine strategy, and some were downright disastrous. The great stress on concealment during extended surveillance operations in enemy waters seems commonsensical, but during the war it contributed to the extreme caution of Japanese submarine commanders off American shores. It also explains the Japanese wartime practice of using submarine- borne aircraft, particularly during moonlight nights, to reconnoiter enemy harbors and bases in place of submarines themselves. (While this technique was used during the war for reconnaissance over several Allied bases, it failed to produce any significant operational results.) Undoubtedly, however, the most significant lesson to come out of the 1938 exercises was the extreme difficulty in maintaining close submarine surveillance of a distant and carefully guarded enemy base. This was the first of many revelations pointing to the clear unworkability of accepted Japanese submarine doctrine.
The key to the success of the actual interception operations was the proper deployment of submarines for the best possible torpedo shots against an advancing enemy fleet. Experience had shown that the best position for a torpedo shot was a 50- to 60-degree angle off the bow of the target at a distance of about 1,500 meters (1,650 yards). Even if the submarine commander was slightly off in his estimates of target course and speed, and even if the target changed course, the likelihood of a hit was greatest with this position. For a submarine to arrive at this optimum point, it needed maximum freedom of movement, so as to locate itself across the enemy’s intended course. Where the enemy’s course was known, interception operations called for pursuing submarines to race ahead of the enemy fleet to a spot where they could lie in wait and maneuver themselves into an ideal firing position. Where the enemy’s actual course was unknown, a picket or ambush line was to be thrown across the track that the enemy seemed most likely to follow.
In 1939 and 1940, as part of a series of maneuvers held in the western Pacific from Honshū to Micronesia, Japanese submarines began to practice these tactical requirements for long-distance interception operations. In these exercises an “A Force” was usually designated to defend Micronesia from an invading “B Force” coming down from Japan. Once B Force had sortied from its home base, A Force was supposed to “acquire” it, pursue it, maintain contact with it, and then destroy it in ambush. To their dismay, the A Force submarine commanders discovered that despite their surface speed, they could just barely maintain contact with the advancing B Force. It proved difficult to race ahead of the enemy and then lie in wait in an ideal firing position, particularly since they were obliged to fire while submerged and, once underwater, they were practically stationary. The surface targets all too often raced by unscathed. Firing on the surface seemed out of the question, since the submarines were easily spotted not only by patrolling destroyers but by carrier-borne aircraft used in an ASW role.
These maneuvers also supplied the navy with one irrelevant “lesson” and another a good deal more ominous. Because of the activity of submarines as well as land-based bombers and flying boats in the defense of Japanese-held atolls in Micronesia, the navy became convinced of the value of both submarines and aircraft in the defense of Japanese island bases in the western Pacific. In fact, submarines were little use in island defense in the Pacific War, except as supply ships for stranded garrisons, and of Japanese aircraft there were never enough, once the American amphibious wave crashed into Micronesia late in 1943. More to the point, the maneuvers demonstrated to individual submarine captains the near impossibility of the pursuit-contact-annihilation elements of the interception strategy, as well as the hazards of these tactics, so long the mainstays of Japanese submarine strategy.
Because the Japanese navy never did assemble its projected long-range attack groups, it is impossible to know what sort of tactics and command structure might have developed out such a combat organization. What is clear from the maneuvers of 1939-40 is that although the navy held exercises bringing together groups of submarines, it never developed the idea of concerted attack. Specifically, the German (and American) “wolf pack” concept—whereby an embarked commander directed multiple attacks on common targets by submarines under his command—apparently never occurred to those directing the Japanese submarine forces. The Japanese approach to submarine operations, practiced in prewar maneuvers and carried out during the Pacific War, was to retain control of submarine forces from a shore command. The navy’s failure to produce more than three type A1 command submarines meant that the at-sea command concept built around Ōyodo-class cruisers never materialized. An ambush or picket line of submarines might be established across an anticipated course of enemy advance, for example, and submarines assigned stations along it, but once on station, a submarine was generally moved only by orders from ashore. This failure of the Japanese submarine forces to develop either the concept of concerted attack or the skills and command structure to make it work is another reason for the meager results of Japanese submarine operations during the war.
The doctrine of concerted attack was developed by the German and U.S. navies for commerce raiding, not for attacks on major fleet units. Moreover, from Suetsugu’s day forward, Japanese submarine doctrine clearly focused on the enemy’s battle fleet, not primarily his sea communications and commerce. The Japanese navy, however, was not entirely unaware of the possibilities of commerce raiding. In maneuvers in October 1940, the Japanese navy actually deployed several submarines to patrol vital maritime corridors in the home islands—Tsushima Strait, between Honshū and Korea; Bungo Strait, between Shikoku and Kyūshū; and Uraga Strait, the entrance to Tokyo Bay. The submarines simulated attack on Japanese commercial vessels to determine how vulnerable the commercial fleet was to submarine raids. Because of inadequate Japanese antisubmarine capabilities and lack of attention to convoy escort, in only five days, 133 Japanese merchantmen were “sunk” by the submarines involved in these simulation exercises. Considering that four years later, these same waters were the scene of actual havoc and slaughter by American submarines, one can only wonder why the lessons of this exercise were not more salutary. Unfortunately for the Japanese, the principal conclusion drawn by those in command related not to the offensive potential of attacking submarines, but to their vulnerability to detection by radio direction finding.
Not surprisingly, the Japanese navy’s neglect of the extreme vulnerability of the Japanese home islands to submarine blockade was matched by its general disinclination to give priority to a submarine campaign against American coastal and trans-Pacific shipping. While the high command did acknowledge that threatening the enemy’s sea lanes was an important part of naval warfare and that submarines should take part in such operations, it held that they should do so only as long as such operations did not greatly interfere with their primary mission of destroying enemy fleet units in battle.
As discussed, a certain incoherence in Japanese submarine strategy was shown by the multiple submarine designs developed before the Pacific War. A further fragmentation of that strategy occurred in 1940-41, now reinforced by the difference in submarine types. It began with the reorganization of the submarine forces late in 1940. The navy created a separate submarine fleet, the Sixth, composed of the first three of the navy’s seven submarine flotillas. The other flotillas were distributed to the Combined, Third, and Fourth Fleets. Each submarine flotilla began operational training according to the mission or missions it had been assigned. As each flotilla was usually composed entirely of submarines of one type, that type differing from flotilla to flotilla, missions had to be shaped by the capabilities and limitations of the particular type. This tactical reality was demonstrated in exercises held in May 1941 that were designed to test different types of submarines in different operational situations. The cruiser submarines proved themselves sluggish but reliable and capable of great endurance. They were therefore confirmed as suitable for long-distance operations—attacks on enemy bases, disruption of enemy transport routes, and ambush operations—but were judged not likely to be effective in fast-moving fleet attacks. On the other hand, the Kaidai submarines, with their slightly greater speed, would be used to pursue, shadow, and attack a westward-moving American fleet or could be deployed in the vanguard of a counterattacking Japanese surface force once the enemy reached Japanese waters.
Exercises undertaken by the Sixth Fleet’s Second Submarine Flotilla from February to April 1941 in the waters between Honshū and Micronesia revealed further difficulties in the pursuit, contact-keeping, and attack formula so long the accepted submarine doctrine in the navy. The postexercise report of the flotilla’s staff pointed out some major problems in the approved strategy. Chief among them were insufficient numbers in surveillance operations, the risk of discovery by antisubmarine forces, and inadequate submarine speed. The current strength of advanced submarine forces was simply insufficient to monitor effectively an enemy fleet in a distant harbor. Moreover, the report argued, submarines assigned this mission had to be positioned at sufficient distance to avoid antisubmarine patrols. Consequently, the enemy fleet often sortied from base undetected by the patrolling submarines. Once at sea, submarines in pursuit continued to have difficulty in maintaining contact with the enemy and even greater difficulty in getting into firing position to attack him. As in previous years, problems were encountered in setting up an ambush or picket line; once again, with submarines stationed along the line at extended intervals, the enemy too often slipped by. To deal with these various problems, the staff of the Second Submarine Flotilla recommended that in gathering information on fleet departures from enemy harbors, the navy should depend as much upon Japanese intelligence organizations as it did on submarine surveillance. To monitor the progress of a westward-moving American fleet, the navy should deploy lines of fishing boats across the enemy’s anticipated track, backed up wherever possible by large flying boats, based, most likely, in Micronesia. These recommendations are a dismal commentary on the general failure of the interception concept by 1941. Certainly, the staff of the Second Submarine Flotilla no longer believed that submarines by themselves could significantly reduce an American battle fleet not yet within the range of Japanese naval and air bases.
Further testing of equipment and training of crews in 1941 extended the scope of problems relating to the use of submarines in the decisive fleet encounter. In March and July, submarines of the Sixth Fleet and Fourth and Fifth Submarine Flotillas practiced close-in attacks on well-guarded fleet units. Again, however, such operations all too often caused the attacking submarines to be discovered because their periscopes were sighted. Some submarine officers suggested that because of the difficulties in carrying out such attacks, it would be better to carry out long-distance firing than to have the attacking submarines discovered and have the enemy turn away to avoid Japanese torpedoes. Though long-distance firing had been conceived in the 1920s, remarkably, its effectiveness had never really been tested. In any event, the concept of long-distance firing cut across the grain of the navy’s traditional nikuhaku-hitchii spirit of close-in attack. This problem lay unresolved by the time the war broke out in December 1941.
Accounts of the Japanese submarine exercises of 1939-41 clearly show that Japanese navy training attempted to be comprehensive, rigorous, and innovative in the development of the submarine as a weapon to attack regular fleet units. Tactical training was carried out at night as well as during daylight. Long- and short-distance operations were practiced. Coordination was attempted between submarines and aircraft. New weapons, like the type 95 torpedo, were tested, and novel techniques, such as “submerged firing,” were practiced.
Japanese submarine commanders developed zembotsu hassha (submerged firing) because, although their boats had proper range finders and devices for ascertaining exact bearing, they could only be used on the surface. Preferring to stay submerged when attacking fleet units screened by destroyers, submarine commanders would submerge, expose the periscope for a final optical reading of bearing and range, keep the periscope down for the final closure to the firing point, and then fire on sound bearings. This technique was hardly unique to the Japanese navy; American submarine commanders practiced something very much like it (“sound shots”) before the war, but having little luck, dropped them.
Despite the navy’s intensive training and development of new tactics, by the eve of the Pacific War, the navy had apparently not resolved the central problem of submarine tactics: the opposing requirements of self-preservation and aggressiveness. The essence of the submarine—and its preservation—is stealth. To be combat-effective, however, it must reveal itself at the moment of attack. “The trade-off between preservation and combat effectiveness,” Norman Friedman has written, “is central to submarine tactics and submarine design.” Right up to the Pacific War, Japanese submarine forces held to the navy’s traditional aggressive “close-in-sure-shot” torpedo tactics rather than switch to long-distance firing (and thus was a notable exception to the navywide obsession with outranging the enemy). At the same time, however, Japanese submarine commanders favored the contradictory and passive emphasis on concealment, which meant staying submerged for as long as possible, lying in wait for heavy enemy fleet units to come steaming by and present themselves as targets. By the time the war began, the concern for concealment proved stronger than the necessity for aggressive action, which, in the prewar exercises, appeared to lead all too often to discovery by antisubmarine surface and air forces. The result was a submarine force hobbled by conservative doctrine and aimed primarily at the destruction of naval targets. After the war, American naval interrogators were astounded at evidence of the timidity of Japanese submarine commanders on patrol. “It was frankly impossible to believe that [Japanese] submarines could spend weeks on the U.S. west coast ‘without contacts,”’ one analysis recorded caustically, “or spend more than forty days among the Solomons during the Guadalcanal campaign ‘without seeing any targets.’”
In fairness, it should be pointed out that before the war, U.S. submarine tactics showed a similar passivity. Submariners came to almost identical conclusions regarding the vulnerability of submarines attacking battle formations based on fleet exercises before the war. They believed, for example, that exposing the periscope in a fleet action was suicide, and they practiced firing on tracks based on bearings acquired by sound detection. The poor performance of U.S. submarines at the beginning of the war is partly attributable to these ingrained tactical lessons, and only the shock of American losses in the Pacific led to rapid adjustments in submarine doctrine.
For the Japanese submarine forces, in any event, this excess caution undoubtedly stemmed from lessons of the exercises of 1939-41, which revealed the extreme difficulties of carrying out their longstanding missions. These difficulties arose in part from the design of the vessels themselves, but even more from the impracticability of the prescribed tactics for the various missions. In the view of one former submarine commander, the fundamental reason for the failure of the Japanese submarine forces in the Pacific War was that those who made the basic decisions on submarine tactics—staff officers in the Combined Fleet and on the Navy General Staff—were ignorant of both the capabilities and the limitations of submarines. Typifying this lack of practical submarine knowledge was Admiral Suetsugu, who can be thought of as the father of Japanese submarine strategy. Because Suetsugu was a gunnery specialist, not a submariner, the essential strategies and tactics that he had devised for Japanese submarines were, in practice, unworkable. Individual Japanese submarine commanders knew that the tactics were impractical by the opening of the war, but being loyal and courageous officers, they did their job as best they could. During the war, this gap between staff ideas and combat realities grew even greater, and by war’s end, despite enormous losses, the Japanese submarine force had substantially failed to affect the course of the war.