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Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War
Chapter 7 - The Year of the War 1915

ENTERPRISES at sea are doubtless in a greater measure dependent on chance than those on land, owing largely to the lack of reliable information of the enemy's movements and the rapidity with which a situation changes. Therefore absolute liberty of action is essential to the officer in command of the operation within the prescribed limit of the objective. The general aim of our Fleet may be summarised as follows: not to seek decisive battle with the entire English Fleet, but to test its strength against separate divisions.

If, however, the burden of responsibility of the officer in command is to be complicated by suggestions and instructions restricting the operation of his plans, the possibility of a successful result will be greatly lessened. The lack of tangible results from the various enterprises by the Fleet may be attributed to that cause, and no blame can be attached to the leader, whose whole character was a guarantee that, trusting implicitly to the powers of those under him, he would make a determined use of them.

When a change was made in the chief command early in, February, l915, the entire Fleet was unanimous in its regrets that the departing chief, Admiral von Ingenohl, who was highly esteemed and respected by all his officers, had not been able to obtain any great results.

The command was given to Admiral von Pohl, the former Chief of the Naval Staff. Whilst acting in the latter capacity, Admiral von Pohl had brought about the U-boat trade-war on England, which on February 4th was notified under the form of a declaration that the waters round England were to be included in the war zone. The use of the U-boat in this connection opened up a new field for the conduct of naval warfare and might prove of the greatest importance on the issue of the war. The necessity of resorting to it arose from the nature of the English method of conducting naval warfare, and will be discussed in detail in a later section.

The action of the Fleet under Pohl's leadership coincided with the views held by him when Chief of the Naval Staff—that the maintenance of the Fleet intact at that stage of the war was a necessity. His plan was by frequent and constant advances of the entire High Sea Fleet to induce the enemy to operate in the North Sea, thus either assuring incidental results or leading to a decisive battle under favourable conditions to ourselves, that is to say, so close to our own waters that, even if the actual battle were undecided, the enemy's total losses, owing to the longer route home with his damaged ships, would be much greater than ours.

He therefore determined to make such advances with the strongest possible forces at every possible opportunity. There was to be no lack of important units, such as torpedo-boats or indispensable fighting vessels, whether battleships or battlecruisers. The advances were not to be pushed farther forward than was compatible with the plan of fighting closer to our own than to the enemy waters; therefore, they did not extend a greater distance than could be covered in a night or a day. Owing to our shortage of cruisers, our scouting was inadequate and had to be supplemented by aerial means. Before any encounter with the enemy, and during an advance, every precaution had to be taken to prevent our being exposed to any damage from submarines; moreover, a careful search for mines, the driving away of enemy submarines from our coastal waters, precautions to be observed by torpedo-boats against submarine attacks, and the highest possible speed while under way, were all matters of the greatest importance. Besides the preparedness of the Fleet, fine weather was a primary necessity to the fulfilment of all plans of this kind, and thus it was not always possible to make a forward movement.

During the months of February and March, therefore, only two advances were made, while in the more favourable period of April and May there were four. But in none of these enterprises was there any encounter with the enemy. They were carried out in a westerly to north-westerly direction from Heligoland at a distance of about 100 to 120 nautical miles, thus presenting a considerably wider area for our airships, but they failed to locate the enemy. On May 18, during one of these advances, the light cruiser Danzig, when forty-five nautical miles from Heligoland, ran into a minefield, but was able to reach dock under her own steam.

Whenever the news of our putting to sea reached the enemy, as we gathered from his wireless messages and certain other means, he began to make a move, but he never left the northern part of the North Sea. The enemy thus left to us that area of the sea in which our movements took place, and we observed a similar method of procedure with regard to him, so that a meeting between the two Fleets seemed very improbable. If it was the enemy's object to entice us nearer to his coasts, he failed to achieve it; we did not favour him by adapting our course of action to suit his pleasure. Admiral von Pohl considered that a big surplus of forces was necessary for an offensive of that kind, and if it was available for the enemy it certainly was not for us.

Although there seemed little prospect of an advance for our Fleet, the Commander-in-Chief, in spite of the danger from submarines that it involved, never ceased in his reconnoitring efforts, for only by such means could efficiency in the navigation of the ships be secured and familiarity gained with the dangers of the submarines and mines.

The Commander-in-Chief was of opinion that the enemy would suffer most from the U-boat and mine-warfare; but after the U-boat trade-war was started, very few of those boats could be told off to seek out the English Grand Fleet. An advance of mine-laying steamers to the English bases in the north could only lead to needless sacrifice of the boats.

The auxiliary cruiser Meteor, under the command of Captain von Knorr, certainly made two successful trips, but the ship was lost on the second. At her christening she had received the name of the gunboat commanded by that officer's father, Admiral von Knorr, of many years' service, which in 1870 had distinguished herself in a fight with the French cruiser Bouvet, off Havana. On May 30 this new Meteor had gone to the White Sea, returning thence to Kiel on June 20, bringing in several prizes. In August a fresh expedition was made to the Moray Firth with the object of laying mines off this English naval station. Just as she had completed the greater part of this task, the Meteor was seen by an English guardship, the Ramsay, which was at once torpedoed and sunk. Captain von Knorr rescued four officers and thirty-nine of the crew, and then started to return. The sinking ship had managed to call up help, so that in the course of the next day the Meteor found herself encircled by English cruisers. The captain, with his crew and his prisoners, transferred just in time to a Swedish sailing-vessel and sank his ship. The enemy, on arriving, took no notice of the Swedish ship, and when a Norwegian vessel came along Knorr handed over the prisoners to her, as it would have been impossible for so many to remain on board the Swede for any length of time. The crew from the Meteor were taken on board a ship sent to meet them off Sylt.

The different advances made during the summer months did not impress the Fleet with the idea that any serious effort was contemplated of getting at closer quarters with the enemy and challenging him to action, although the addition made to the forces of the now complete Squadron III rendered us more than ever capable of chancing it. Even among the Naval Staff under Admiral Bachmann the opinion prevailed that the policy of holding back the Fleet was being carried too far. But no one there would issue an order that would involve greater risk than the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet, guided by his acquired convictions, was himself inclined to run.

The restrictions enforced by the previous Command, not to expose the Fleet to serious losses in the gaining of a prescribed objective, had meanwhile been swept away. The Fleet Command had merely been notified that the necessary caution, by means of reconnaissance, must be observed in all enterprises, and that action should be broken off if unfavourable conditions arose.

So far as the Fleet was concerned, the general situation of the war had altered very much to our advantage through the successes achieved by the Army on the Eastern Front.- For the Fleet the only object in the war lay now in fighting English power at sea, for there was no longer any question of a Russian landing on our Baltic coast.

The situation, indeed, had veered round directly opposite, and the question was whether we should threaten the Russians with a landing. Our squadron IV was therefore detached and sent to the Baltic at the beginning of June. It was composed of the ships of the "Wittelsbach" class, under the command of Vice-Admiral Schmidt. Scouting Division IV and Torpedo-Boat Flotilla VIII were also detached from the Fleet for the Baltic, and placed at the disposal of the Commander-in-Chief there. Any important naval action with a view to defeating Russia was, as already pointed out, quite purposeless. On account of the enormous area of that Empire, the cutting off of imports by sea could not inflict any mortal injury. Any maritime enterprises would be in the nature of support to the operations of the army, by ensuring safety in the use of the more suitable sea route for the transport of troops and war material to the Gulf of Riga, or when the town itself was taken by the army, then to protect it against attacks from the sea.

The Russians, who had always shown great skill in their use of mines, had laid down masses of them in the Gulf of Riga. The removal of such a minefield to enable a division of our ships to enter the Gulf was a difficult undertaking. Meanwhile the occupation of Libau afforded a very desirable point of support. The actual forcing of the Gulf of Riga began early in August.

An opportunity was thus provided of proving whether England was willing to attempt an entry into the Baltic in order to assist her Allies. In that case we would be compelled to move our forces stationed in the east to the west portion of the Baltic. In anticipation of the necessity of quickly transferring large divisions of the Fleet to the Baltic, Squadron III was moved to the Elbe, whither the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet, on board the Friedrich der Grosse, had also betaken himself so as to be ready if required to assume command in the Baltic.

But the English had no intention of altering their line of action; they continued to rely on the effectiveness of their barriers. They had withdrawn the line of guard hips at the north entrance to the North Sea in the direction of the Faroe Islands, as a permanent patrol of the line from the Shetland Isles to the Norwegian coast was considered too dangerous owing to our U-boats. The loss of the cruiser Hawke and the attack on the Theseus, carried out by "U 29," under command of Lieut.-Commander Weddigen—afterwards killed—induced them to change their guard system and to depend chiefly on auxiliary cruisers. They had also succeeded in forcing neutral shipping to submit to examination at their naval base in the Orkney Islands.

The U-boat trade-war, which was thought to be our most effective counter-measure against the blockade, had started bravely, but owing to America's protests soon took on a very modest form. The obligation imposed on the U-boats, first to make sure whether they were dealing with neutral steamers or not, was bound inevitably to lead to many casualties on account of the misuse of flags by the English.

In the middle of July two more valuable boats, "U 23 " and "U 36," were lost. The only survivor from the latter was a petty officer of the name of Lamm; he had been entrusted with the task of bringing in as prize to the Elbe the American ship Pass of Balmaha, bound for Archangel with cotton, which had been captured when going round Scotland. He succeeded in achieving this purpose, although on arriving at Cuxhaven we discovered, to our great surprise, that an English officer and four men were on board. They had been kept secure during the voyage by this one German petty officer, and were then handed over as prisoners.

Although in this instance the prize was brought in successfully, there was no general possibility of the U-boats being able to spare any of their crew to bring larger ships into a home port. On the west coast of the British Isles the U-boat trade-war entirely ceased from the middle of September.

In August our torpedo-boats notified a success during a night attack. On August 18, Flotilla II, Captain Schuur, returning from a reconnaissance trip, encountered north of Horns Reef an English flotilla consisting of one light cruiser and eight destroyers. The visibility conditions on our side were so excellent that, apparently unobserved, our craft approached the enemy to within 3,000 metres. Three torpedoes fired from the leading boat hit and sank the English cruiser and the destroyer next to her. The other destroyers made off, probably thinking they had got into a minefield.

A raid on London carried out the same night by the new airships "L " 10, 11 and 14, and the favourable news received from the Baltic theatre of war of the successful bombardment of the Slava in the Gulf of Riga and the destruction of several gunboats and torpedo-boats, added greatly to the day's success.

The Fleet's Baltic enterprise was broken off at the end of August, as at that time the Army had no troops available to support the entrance of the Fleet into the Gulf of Riga, and no importance was attached then to the possession of the town. Besides the desired opportunity of confronting the enemy with the Fleet, the investigation of conditions to be reckoned with in the conduct of the war, in relation to the conquest two years later of the Baltic Islands, was of importance. Apart from the loss of some of our lighter craft while engaged in searching for mines, the battlecruiser Moltke was the only vessel to be damaged. She was hit in her bow by a torpedo. About 450 tons of water poured into the vessel, which, however, was able to pass through the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal and make for a repairing dock at Hamburg, where the damage was made good in a few weeks' time.

Owing to a difference of opinion between the heads of the Navy and the Government concerning the conduct of the U-boat warfare, a change in the post of Chief of the Naval Staff was effected early in September. Admiral Bachmann returned to his former post as Chief of the station at Kiel, and was replaced by Admiral von Holtzendorff.

The latter, in January, 1913, resigned the command of the Fleet, which he had held during the previous three years. A brilliant officer, of a very active mind, and possessed of great eloquence and personal charm, he was a splendid seaman, who, by virtue of the varied positions he had held, could look back upon an unusually long spell of foreign service. He was a chivalrous and amiable personality in whose character courtesy was a prevailing quality. It was a known fact, however, that he was not on friendly terms with the State Secretary, Grand-Admiral von Tirpitz. Strained relations between the two persons who were called upon to control the Navy in time of war could not serve to further the cause, in spite of the best intentions of both parties, which one was bound to assume. The association, however, involved no change in the fundamental views respecting the Fleet's duties in the war.

In September the Fleet again advanced in the direction of the Hoofden, and at the same time mines were laid by the light cruisers. Fresh minefields were discovered which in part were noticeable from having mines attached near the surface¹. These new mines lay in the centre of the arc from Horns Reef to Borkum. Taken in connexion with previously discovered minefields closer inland off the North and East Frisian Islands, the conclusion was arrived at that the English purpose was to encircle that part of the Bight with mines. According to reports from steamers, a number of English ships, five large ones among them, had been met with the day before in that district.

The opening of the great Anglo-French autumn offensive on the Western Front, together with the news that the English Fleet was also taking part, kept our Fleet in a perpetual state of tension, although no opportunity was offered for any action, as the report proved to be untrue.

In September our airships " L " 1, 11, 13, 14, 15 and 16 were able to carry out a very effective raid, when all the airships reached London and returned safely in spite of very strong counter-action.

Greater activity on the part of the Fleet during the autumn months was prevented owing to the ships of Squadron III being forced to remain for a long time in dock in order to be fitted with rangefinders and because, on most of the ships, the bearings of the screw shafts had to be renewed. Owing to the ships lying so constantly in the sandy waters of the Jade basin they had suffered far more than was the case in peace time, when they were either out in the open sea or were lying in the clear and calm waters of the harbour.

In October the Fleet attempted an advance in the usual way and in a northerly direction, but did not get beyond the latitude of Horns Reef, where the wind rose so high as to make aerial reconnaissance and the use of torpedo-boats doubtful, and the enterprise was broken off.

During the months of November and December the separate units in turn were given opportunity for gun practice in the Baltic. This break in the monotonous outpost duty on the Jade was a very welcome one for the crews, although it by no means signified a lessening of daily duty, as the time at their disposal had to be used to the utmost advantage so as not to prolong unnecessarily their absence from the North Sea. Whilst at Christmas a short frost set in, opening a prospect of carrying out the Commander-in-Chief's plan of an enterprise into the North Sea, the weather soon changed again, and lasting well into January there ensued a period of bad weather that prevented expeditions of any kind, even searches for mines.

On January 8, 1916, Admiral von Pohl was taken seriously ill and transferred to a hospital ship, whence he was later conveyed to Berlin for an operation. He never recovered and died on February 23. In him the Navy lost an officer of quite exceptional steadfastness and devotion to duty; one who exacted much from himself and who was entirely wrapped up in his calling. As commander and squadron chief he distinguished himself by seamanlike assurance in manœuvres and a correct grasp of the tactical situation, so that under his leadership in battle the best results might have been expected. His highest ambition was to live to see it, but it was not to be granted to him.

Thanks to the confidence in me of the All-Highest War-Lord, I was appointed to deputise for Admiral von Pohl, and represented him until my formal appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the High Sea forces was issued on January 18.

In the first place I procured information respecting enterprises that were proceeding and those in prospect. The bad weather prevented their being carried out, with the exception that one steamer bound for East Africa undertook, without any escort, to set out on the voyage, hoping to get through best under those conditions.

The auxiliary cruiser Moewe, commanded by Count zu Dohna, had shortly before, with U-boat escort, safely reached the North Atlantic, but we had had no further news of her.

I begged to have Captain von Trotha, commander of the battleship Kaiser, as my Chief of Staff, and Captain von Levetzow, commander of the large cruiser Moltke, as Chief of the Operating Division. I had previously served for a long time with both those officers, and they both declared themselves ready to take over their new duties. It appeared to me an important matter to make a change in these posts and thus show the Fleet my complete independence in that and all matters. All other members of the Fleet Staff retained their positions. They comprised: Captain Hans Quaet-Faslem, Captain Dietrich Meyer, Lieut.-Commander Heuinger von Waldegg as Admiral's Staff Officer of the "Operating Division; Captain Paul Reymann, Admiral's Staff Officer for torpedo" and U-boats; Captain Walther Franz, Admiral's Staff Officer for Artillery; Captain Wilke, Fleet Navigation Officer; Captain Bindseil, Flag-Lieutenant for Wireless Telegraphy; Lieut. Commander Weizsacker, Flag-Lieutenant; Chief Naval Engineer Schutzler, Fleet Engineer; Chief Naval Surgeon Dr. Cudden, Fleet Surgeon; Chief Naval Chaplin Klein, Catholic Priest to the Navy; Stollhof, Chief Councillor to the Navy; Cöster, Staff Paymaster to the Navy; Paul Wulff, Secretary to the Fleet. I feel deeply indebted to all these gentlemen for the devoted and untiring assistance they rendered to the Fleet and to myself in their respective posts..

My very special gratitude is due to Rear-Admiral von Trotha, my Chief of Staff, on whose prudent and circumspect judgment I invariably relied. He supplemented in the happiest manner the keen and eager leader of the Operating Division, Captain von Levetzow. They were both upright men with independent views based on much learning, who stood by their opinions, were closely linked in faithful comradeship, and formed a circle to which I look back with pride and gratitude.

¹ - These are mines which through some error in reckoning the depth of the water, instead of reaching the desired depth below the surface, have coated up again sufficiently to be seen, and are therefore the more easily avoided.


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