Battle of Heligoland Bight 1914 The First Battle of Heligoland Bight took place on the 28th August 1914 off the northwest German coast. The German High Seas Fleet as a general rule, stayed in safe harbours while the British Grand Fleet remained in the northern North Sea. Both sides undertook long-distance sorties with cruisers and battlecruisers while German destroyers maintained close reconnaissance of the Heligoland Bight. The British planned to ambush some of these destroyers on their regular daily patrols. A fleet of 31 destroyers and two cruisers under Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt and submarines commanded by Commodore Roger Keyes were dispatched. Backup support at longer range was provided by six light cruisers commanded by William Goodenough and five battlecruisers commanded by Vice Admiral David Beatty.Three German light cruisers and one destroyer were sunk. Three more light cruisers were damaged, 712 sailors killed, 530 injured and 336 taken prisoner. The British suffered one light cruiser and three destroyers damaged, 35 killed and 40 wounded. The battle was regarded as a great victory in Britain with the returning ships met by cheering crowds.
The effect upon the German government and in particular the Kaiser was to restrict the freedom of action of the German fleet, instructing it to remain in port and avoid any contact with superior forces.
The battle took place within a month after Britain's declaration of war against Germany on 5 August 1914. Initially, the war on land went badly for the French and her allies, with an urgent need to get all possible troops to France to resist the German advances. The government had nothing but bad news, and looked to the navy, traditionally the mainstay of British military power, to gain some success. British naval tactics typically involved a close blockade of enemy ports and taking the fight to the enemy as was expected by the nation. However, the advent of submarines armed with torpedoes and mines hidden in open seas placed capital ships near enemy ports in great danger. Powered ships needed to keep moving to avoid becoming sitting targets, continuously using fuel and needed to return to home ports every few days to refuel. The German fleet had prepared to counter British blockades by investing heavily in submarines and coastal defences. The German High Seas Fleet was smaller than the British Grand Fleet and could not expect victory in a head to head fight. Instead a strategy of waiting in defended home ports for opportunities to attack the larger British force was adopted. The British chose to adopt a strategy of patrolling the North Sea rather than waters close to Germany. German ships leaving their home ports had to pass via two routes.
Straits of Dover, 20 miles wide defended by British submarines and mines, or the North Sea between Britain and Norway - 200 miles at its narrowest with the British fleet operating from Scapa Flow.
This led to a practical standoff, with both fleets holding the other endlessly waiting. The German ships were unable to attack merchant shipping arriving on the west of Britain, which was vital for British survival.
Regular patrols with smaller ships and occasional forays by larger units of the Grand Fleet helped encourage the German fleet to stay at home. The bulk of the British Expeditionary Force was transported to France between 12 and 21 August. This operation was protected from German attack by British destroyers and submarines patrolling Heligoland Bight, which German ships would have to cross. The Grand Fleet was positioned in the centre of the North Sea ready to move south should any German attack commence, but none came. Although the German Army had anticipated a rapid transfer of the British army to aid France, German naval planning thought it would take longer for the British to organise. So they were caught by surprise when it commenced and submarines which might have been used to attack the British transports were away on patrols seeking the main British fleet.
Two British officers put forward a plan to carry the war to the German fleet. A squadron of submarines under the command of Commodore Roger Keyes regularly patrolled the Heligoland Bight and Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt commanded a destroyer patrol. Both units were operating from Harwich.
They observed that German destroyers carried out regular pattern of patrols escorted out to their positions by cruisers each evening and met to escort back to port each morning. Their idea was to send in a superior force during darkness to catch the German destroyers as they returned. Three British submarines would surface in a position to draw the destroyers back out to sea while a larger British force of 31 destroyers accompanied by nine submarines would cut them off from Germany. Other submarines would wait for any larger German ships leaving the Jade estuary to help.
Keyes impressed First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill by the daring of his plan, which was adopted with some changes. An attack at 0800 on the German daytime patrol was preferred. Keyes and Tyrwhitt requested support for their operation, both from the Grand Fleet and the squadron of six light cruisers commanded by Commodore William Goodenough. This was turned down by the Chief of Staff — Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee — who agreed to provide only lighter forces consisting of "Cruiser Force K" under Rear Admiral Gordon Moore (two battlecruisers HMS New Zealand and Invincible) 40 miles to the northwest and "Cruiser Force C" a squadron of five Cressy-class armoured cruisers ( HMS Cressy, Aboukir, Bacchante, Hogue and Euryalus ) 100 miles west. It was decided that the attack would take place on 28 August. The submarines were to leave to take up their positions on 26 August, while Keyes would travel on the destroyer Lurcher. The surface ships would depart at dawn on 27 August. Tyrwhitt — aboard the brand new light cruiser HMS Arethusa — would command the 3rd Flotilla of 16 modern L-class destroyers and his subordinate, Captain Wilfred Blunt — on board the light cruiser HMS Fearless — would command the 1st Flotilla of 16 older destroyers. Arethusa did not arrive until 26 August. Her crew were inexperienced, and it was discovered that her new 4 in (100 mm) Mk V guns jammed when fired. Although the plan had been agreed by the Admiralty, Admiral John Jellicoe commanding the Grand Fleet was not informed until 26 August. Jellicoe immediately requested permission to send reinforcements and to move the fleet closer to the action, but only received permission for the battle cruisers. He sent Vice Admiral David Beatty with the battlecruisers HMS Lion, Queen Mary and Princess Royal, also Goodenough with the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron (HMS Southampton, Birmingham, Falmouth, Liverpool, Lowestoft and Nottingham). He then sailed south from Scapa Flow with the remainder of the fleet. Jellicoe despatched a message advising Tyrwhitt that he should expect reinforcements, but this was delayed at Harwich and never received. Tyrwhitt was unaware of the additional forces until Goodenough's ships appeared out of the mist, almost leading to an attack friend on friend as he was expecting to meet only enemy vessels.
Three Groups of British submarines were deployed. E-class submarines HMS E4, E5 and E9 were positioned to attack reinforcing or retreating German vessels. HMS E6, E7 and E8 were positioned on the surface 4 miles further out attempting to entice the German destroyers out to sea. HMS D2 and D8 were stationed off mouth of the river Ems to attack reinforcements from that direction.
At around 0700, Arethusa, steaming south towards the anticipated position of the German ships, sighted a German destroyer, G-194. Accompanying Aethusa were 16 destroyers of the 3rd Flotilla with Fearless leading the 1st Flotilla of 16 destroyers 2 miles behind and Goodenough with his six cruisers a further 8 miles back. Visibility was no more than 3 miles. G-194 immediately turned towards Heligoland, radioing Rear Admiral Leberecht Maass, commander of the German destroyer squadron who in turn informed Rear Admiral Franz Hipper commanding the German battlecruiser squadron. Hipper was unaware of the scale of the attack, but ordered the light cruisers SMS Stettin and Frauenlob to defend the destroyers. Six other light cruisers were ordered to raise steam and join the action as soon as they could. SMS Mainz moored on the river Ems; SMS Strassburg, Cöln, Ariadne, Stralsund and Kolberg from the river Jade, Danzig and München from Brunsbüttelkoog on the river Elbe.
Tyrwhitt ordered four destroyers to attack G-149. The sound of firing alerted the remaining German destroyers, who turned south towards home.
However they were sighted by British destroyers who commenced firing.
The trailing destroyer V-1 was hit, followed by the destroyer-minesweepers D-8 and T-33. G-9 called for fire against the attacking ships from coastal artillery, but the mist meant the artillery were unable to distinguish friend from foe. At 0726, Tyrwhitt turned east, attempting to follow the sound of gunfire involving his four destroyers. He sighted 10 German destroyers which he chased through increasing mist for 30 minutes until the ships reached Heligoland and he was forced to turn away. At 0758, Stettin and Frauenlob arrived, reversing the situation so that the British destroyers were obliged to retreat toward their own cruisers Arethusa and Fearless. Stettin withdrew, since the German destroyers had now escaped, but Frauenlob was engaged by Arethusa. While Arethusa was theoretically the better armed ship, two of her four 4 in (100 mm) guns were jammed, while another was damaged by fire. Frauenlob — armed with ten 4 in (100 mm) guns — was able to cause considerable damage before a shell from one of Arethusa's two 6 in (150 mm) guns destroyed her bridge, killing 37 men including the captain, and forcing her to withdraw. Although badly damaged, she returned to Wilhelmshaven. At 0812, Tyrwhitt reverted to his original plan, which was an east to west sweep across the area. Six returning German destroyers were sighted but turned to flee. One of them — V187 — turned back as she had seen two cruisers, Nottingham and Lowestoft ahead of her.
She hoped to pass through the British destroyers by surprise, but was surrounded by eight destroyers and sunk. As British ships attempted to rescue survivors from the water, the German light cruiser Stettin approached and opened fire, forcing the British to abandon the rescue, leaving behind some British sailors. The British submarine E4 had observed the action and launched a torpedo at Stettin, but missed. Stettin attempted to ram the submarine, which dived to escape. When she resurfaced all the larger ships had gone and the submarine rescued the British crewmen who were still afloat in small boats together with rescued German sailors.
The Germans were left behind with a compass and given directions towards the mainland as the submarine was too small to take them.
At 0815, Keyes, with Lurcher and another destroyer, sighted two four-funneled cruisers. He was still unaware of the British reinforcements and assumed they were enemy cruisers. He signalled Invincible that he was chasing two German cruisers. Goodenough received the signal and abandoning his own search for enemy vessels to attack, steamed to assist Keyes against his own ships, Lowestoft and Nottingham. Keyes, seeing he was now being chased by four more enemy cruisers attempted to lead them towards Invincible and New Zealand, reporting them as enemy ships. Eventually, Keyes recognised Southampton, and the ships were able to join Tyrwhitt. However, the danger to Goodenough's ships was not over as the British submarines were still unaware the additional ships were present. At 0930, one of the British submarines attacked Southampton with two torpedoes. Fortunately they missed and in turn escaped when Southampton tried to ram the British submarine.
Lowestoft and Nottingham remained out of communication range and, separated from the rest of their squadron, took no further part in the action.
Tyrwhitt turned back to assist Keyes on receipt of the signal that he was being chased. He sighted Stettin, but lost her in the mist before coming upon Fearless and her destroyer squadron. Arethusa was badly damaged, so at 1017 Fearless came alongside and both cruisers were stopped for 20 minutes while repairs were made to the boilers.
The cruisers Cöln, Strassburg and Ariadne had sailed from Wilhelmshaven and Mainz was approaching from a different direction. Admiral Maass was still unsure of the nature of the attack, so he dispersed his ships in search of the enemy. Strassburg was first to find Arethusa and attacked her, but was driven off by torpedo attacks from the destroyers. As Tyrwhitt turned to the west, Cöln — with Admiral Maass — approached from the southeast and was also chased away by torpedoes. Tyrwhitt signalled Beatty requesting reinforcements and Goodenough with his remaining four cruisers came to assist. The force turned west. Beatty had been following the events by radio 40 miles to the north west. By 1135, the British ships had still not completed their mission and withdrawn. The rising tide would enable larger German ships to leave harbour and join the battle. He decided to intervene and took his five battlecruisers southeast at maximum speed to within an hour of the action. he advantage of closer proximity of his more powerful ships to rescue the others had to be weighed against the possibility of mischance by torpedo or of meeting German dreadnoughts. At 1130, Tyrwhitt's squadron came upon another German cruiser, Mainz. The ships engaged for 20 minutes, before the arrival of Goodenough caused Mainz to attempt escape.
Goodenough gave chase, but in attempting to lose him Mainz came back across the path of Arethusa and her destroyers. Her steering was damaged, causing her to turn back into the path of Goodenough's ships and she was hit by shells and torpedo. At 1220, her captain ordered the crew to abandon ship and scuttled Mainz. Keyes brought Lurcher alongside Mainz to take off the crew. Three British destroyers had been seriously damaged in the engagement. Strassburg and Cöln now attacked together, but the battle was interrupted again by the arrival of Beatty and the battlecruisers.
Strassburg managed to disengage and escape when the battlecruisers approached, but Cöln was not so fortunate. Cut off from escape she was quickly disabled by the much larger guns of the battlecruisers. She was saved from immediate sinking by the sighting of another German light cruiser, SMS Ariadne, to which Beatty gave chase and again quickly overcame. Ariadne was left to sink, which she eventually did at 1500, attended by the German ships Danzig and Stralsund who took off survivors.
At 1310, Beatty turned northwest and ordered all the British ships to withdraw since the tide had now risen sufficiently for larger German ships to pass out through the Jade estuary. Passing Cöln again, he opened fire, sinking her. Attempts to rescue the crew were interrupted by the arrival of a submarine. One survivor was rescued by a German ship two days later out of some 250 who had survived the sinking. Rear Admiral Maass perished with his ship. Four German cruisers survived the engagement, which they would not have done except for the mist. Strassburg nearly approached the battlecruisers, but saw them in time and turned away. She had four funnels, like the Town-class British cruisers, which caused sufficient confusion to allow her time to disappear into the mist. The German battlecruisers Moltke and Von der Tann left the Jade at 1410 and began a cautious search for other ships. Rear Admiral Hipper arrived with Seydlitz at 1510, but by then the battle was over.
The battle was a clear British victory. Germany had lost the three light cruisers SMS Mainz, Cöln and Ariadne and the destroyer V-187 sunk; light cruiser Frauenlob had been severely damaged. The light cruisers SMS Strassburg and Stettin had also been damaged. German casualties were 1,242 with 712 men killed, including Rear Admiral Maass, and 336 prisoners of war. The Royal Navy had lost no ships and only 35 men killed, with 40 wounded. The most significant result of the battle was the effect on the attitude of the Kaiser. To preserve his ships the Kaiser determined that the fleet should, "hold itself back and avoid actions which can lead to greater losses".
Churchill after the war observed:
"All they saw was that the British did not hesitate to hazard their greatest vessels as well as their light craft in the most daring offensive action and had escaped apparently unscathed. They felt as we should have felt had German destroyers broken into the Solent and their battle cruisers penetrated as far as the Nab. The results of this action were far-reaching. Henceforward, the weight of British Naval prestige lay heavy across all German sea enterprise ... The German Navy was indeed "muzzled". Except for furtive movements by individual submarines and minelayers, not a dog stirred from August till November."
But he also observed: "The Germans knew nothing of our defective staff work or the risks we had run."
One of the officers present on Southampton, Lieutenant Stephen King-Halllater wrote about the battle:
"As may be deduced from these extracts the staff work was almost criminally negligent and it was a near miracle that we did not sink one or more of our submarines or that one of them did not sink us. Furthermore if anyone had suggested, say in 1917, that our battle-cruisers should rush about without anti-submarine protection and hundreds of miles away from the battle fleet in a mine infested area a few miles from the German battle fleet, he would have been certified on the spot. It was precisely because on paper the presence of the battle-cruisers (unsupported) was absurd that the logical Germans were sitting in Wilhelmshafen unable to move because the tide was too low on the bar of the Jade river! I should like to be able to write that this important hydrographical circumstance was part of the plan, but it was only discovered long afterwards. Nevertheless the strategical and indeed political consequences of this affair were of great importance.
The German Navy was manned by a personnel no less courageous and at least as well trained as our own; their ships were superior type for type; their gunnery was more accurate. Yet in the mind of every German seaman was the reflection that they were challenging the might of a navy which, by and large, had dominated the seas for four centuries. The German seaman had a respect and almost traditional veneration for the British Royal Navy and entered the war with an inferiority complex in striking contrast to the superiority complex which the German Army felt towards all other armies.
It was therefore a rude shock to the German Navy ... to learn of this audacious manoeuvre and successful engagement literally within sight of the main German base."
Both sides had lessons to learn from the battle. The Germans had assumed that their cruisers, leaving port one by one, would not meet larger ships or major forces. They failed to keep their ships together so they might have better odds in any engagement. Beatty — when faced with the choice of leaving one of his ships to finish off disabled enemies — had elected to keep his squadron together and only later return in force to finish off those ships. Goodenough, on the other hand, had managed to lose track of two cruisers, which therefore played no further part in the battle.
German light cruisers armed with larger numbers of faster firing 4 in (100 mm) guns proved inferior to similar British cruisers with fewer but more powerful 6 in (150 mm) guns. However, their ships proved difficult to sink despite severe damage and impressed the British with the quality of their firing. Both British and German sources reported the determination and bravery of the defeated German ships when overwhelmed. No one reported the presence of British cruisers to Admiral Hipper until 1435. Had he known, he could have brought his own battlecruisers to sea faster and consolidated his fleet, possibly preventing the German losses and instead inflicting some on the departing British ships. The British operation had dragged out longer than anticipated so that the large German ships would have had sufficient high water to join the battle. The British side also suffered from poor communications, with ships failing to report engagement with the enemy to each other. The initial failure to include Jellicoe in planning the raid could have led to disaster had he not sent reinforcements, although the subsequent communications failures which meant British ships were unaware of the new arrivals could then have led to British ships attacking each other. There was no way to warn off British submarines which might have targeted their own ships. It had been the decision of Admiral Sturdee — Admiralty chief of staff — not to inform Jellicoe and also not to send additional larger ships which had originally been requested by Keyes.
Jellicoe in effect countermanded this decision once he knew of the raid by sending ships which were part of his command. Keyes was disappointed that the opportunity for a greater success had been lost by not including the additional cruisers properly into the plan as he had originally intended.
Jellicoe was disturbed by the Admiralty failure to discuss the raid with their commander in chief of the fleet at sea. The Germans appreciated that constant patrols by destroyers was both wasteful of time and resources of those ships, and left them open to attack. Instead, they designed defensive minefields to prevent enemy ships approaching and freed up the destroyers for duties escorting larger ships. In the future, ships were never to be sent out one by one. The British realised it was foolish to have sent Arethusa into battle with inadequate training and jammed guns. British ships were criticised for having fired considerable ammunition and torpedoes with little effect. This criticism later proved counter-productive when at the Battle of Dogger Bank, ships became overly cautious of wasting ammunition and thus missed opportunities to damage enemy vessels.