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HMS Legion



17th October 1914 Battle of Texel  The Battle off Texel on the 17 October 1914 was a naval battle off the coast of the Dutch island of Texel during the First World War. A British squadron consisting of one light cruiser and four destroyers encountered the remnants of the German 7th Half Flotilla of torpedo boats. They were en route to the British coast on a mission to lay minefields. The British forces attacked and sank the entire German flotilla of four torpedo boats. Heavily outgunned, the German force attempted to flee and then fought a desperate action against the British force. The battle resulted in the loss of an entire German torpedo boat squadron and prevented the mining of heavily trafficked shipping lanes at the mouth of the Thames River. The British in exchange took only light casualties and little damage to their vessels. The outcome of the battle greatly influenced the tactics of the remaining German torpedo boat flotillas in the North Sea area. The loss greatly shook the faith of the commanders in the effectiveness of the force.

After the opening naval Battle of Heligoland Bight the German High Seas Fleet was ordered to avoid confrontations with larger opposing forces in an effort to avoid costly and demoralizing reverses. Thus outside of occasional German raids, the North Sea became dominated by the Royal Navy which regularly patrolled the area. Despite the lack of action by German capital ships, light forces still operated regularly in North Sea. At 1350 on 17 October 1914 the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla Harwich Force consisting of the light cruiser HMS Undaunted under Captain Cecil Fox and four Laforey-class destroyers, HMS Lennox, Lance, Loyal, and Legion, was cruising off the coast of the island of Texel. They encountered a German squadron of torpedo boats of the 7th Half Flotilla under Georg Thiele (SMS S115, S117, S118, and S119). S119 was the lead ship of the torpedo boat flotilla and was commanded by Korvettenkapitän Thiele himself. The German ships made no attempt to challenge or threaten the approaching British ships nor did they at first attempt to flee the scene. It was assumed by the British that they were waiting for more German vessels to arrive and had mistaken the British ships for friendly vessels. In reality, the German flotilla had been sent out of Ems on a mission to mine the southern coast of Britain including the mouth of the Thames. It had been intercepted before reaching its targeted area of operations. The British squadron heavily outgunned the German 7th Half Flotilla. The British Commander, Captain Cecil Fox's vessel Undaunted, an Arethusa-class light cruiser, was armed with two 6 inch naval guns and seven QF 4 inch naval guns, all in single mounts and nearly all without gun shields. Undaunted at the time of the engagement was also experimentally armed with an additional pair of 2-pounder anti-aircraft guns, something most of her class lacked. In addition to her guns, the cruiser was also armed with eight torpedo tubes and at best speed could make 28.5 knots. The four British Laforey-class destroyers were much less powerful vessels in comparison to the cruiser being only armed with two torpedo tubes, three 4-inch guns and a singe 2-pounder gun. The destroyers were slightly faster than the cruiser and could make about 29 knots at full power. The German vessels were entirely inferior to the British. The four boats were of the aging Großes Torpedoboot 1898 class and had been completed in 1904. In terms of speed, the German boats were nearly equal to the British at 28 knots. Each of the German vessels was armed with three 50 mm guns, significantly fewer than the British destroyers. These weapons were also of shorter range and throwing weight than the British guns. The biggest danger to the British squadron was the torpedo tubes carried by the German boats, as each boat carried three 450 mm torpedo tubes with five torpedoes per boat.

Battle

Upon closer approach, the German vessels realized the approaching vessels were British and began to scatter and flee. Undaunted, closer to the Germans than the destroyers, opened fire on the nearest torpedo boat. This German vessel managed to dodge the incoming fire from Undaunted by changing course but by doing so lost speed and the British force caught up with them. In an attempt to protect Undaunted from torpedo attack and to destroy the Germans as quickly as possible, the squadron commander Captain Fox. gave orders for the squadron to split into two divisions. Lance and Lennox proceeded to chase S115 and S119 while Legion and Loyal went after S117 and S118. Combined fire from Legion, Loyal, and Undaunted damaged S118 with her entire bridge being blown off sinking her at 1517. Meanwhile HMS Lance and Lennox engaged S115 disabling her steering gear and causing the German vessel to circle. Lennox's fire was so effective at this point that, as had occurred with S118, the bridge of S115 was completely destroyed. Despite the damage the German torpedo-boat still did not strike her colours and vainly continued the action. The two centre-most boats in the German flotilla — S117 and the flotilla leader S119 — then made an attempt at engaging Undaunted with torpedoes. Despite the torpedo attack, Undaunted was able to outmaneuver the German boats and remained unscathed. Legion and Loyal who had been finishing off S118 came to Undaunted's aid and engaged Undaunted's two attackers. Legion assaulted S117, but the torpedo boat fired her last three torpedoes at the destroyer and afterword continued to resist with her guns. This vain attempt failed, and Legion pulverized S117 damaging her steering mechanism which forced her to circle before she was finally sunk at 1530. At the same time Legion was battling S117, Lance and Lennox had damaged S115 to the point where only one of the destroyers was still needed to counter the vessel. Lance soon left the battle with S115 to join Loyal in pummeling S119 with lyddite shells. S119 managed to get off a successful torpedo run against Lance, hitting the destroyer amidships, but the torpedo failed to detonate. S119 was then sunk at 1535 by combined gunfire from Lance and Loyal, taking the German flotilla commander down with it. The last remaining torpedo boat S115 continued to stay afloat despite constant attacks from Lennox. The British destroyer eventually boarded the vessel finding her a complete wreck with only one German onboard who happily surrendered. Thirty other Germans were eventually plucked from the sea and captured by the British vessels. The action finally ended at 1630 with gunfire from Undaunted finishing off the abandoned hulk of S115 with heavy gunfire.

Aftermath

The German Seventh Half Flotilla was completely annihilated by Harwich force, with all four of its remaining vessels sunk and over two hundred sailors killed including the commanding officer. Despite the odds no German vessel struck her colours and the entire Flotilla went down fighting to the end. The British casualties were extremely light in comparison with only four men wounded and superficial damage to three of the destroyers. Legion took one 4 lb shell hit and had one man wounded by machine gun fire. Loyal took two shell hits and had three or four men wounded as a result. Lance took some superficial machine gun damage and the other two vessels were unscathed. Thirty-one surviving German sailors were taken out of the water and off the sinking hulks and made prisoners, but one captured officer soon after died of the wounds he had received during the action. Two other German sailors were later plucked from the water by a neutral vessel. The battle was seen as a great boost of morale for the British at the time, as two days previous to the action off Texel they had suffered the loss of the cruiser HMS Hawke due to a U-boat attack. The effect on British morale the battle had is reflected in its fictionalized and nationalistic inclusion in the 1915 dime novel The Boy Allies Under Two Flags, by Robert L. Drake. Some controversy arose in Germany from the battle because the German hospital ship Ophelia, which had been sent out to rescue survivors from the sunken boats, was seized by the British for violating the Hague Convention's rules on the use of hospital ships. Although the boats of the sunken flotilla were older and some casualties were expected, the loss of an entire squadron of torpedo boats changed the tactics of the German forces displaced in the English Channel and along the coast of Flanders drastically. As a direct result, there were very few further sorties into the Channel and the torpedo boat force was delegated to coastal patrol and rescuing downed pilots for fear of similar losses. An unexpected boon for the British came as a result of the action, when on 30 November a British fishing trawler working the area pulled up a sealed chest that had been thrown off S119 by Captain Thiele during the action so as to avoid its capture. The chest contained a German codebook used by the German light forces stationed on the coast, allowing the British to decipher intercepted German communications long after the action had ended.

John Doran


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