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Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War
Chapter 8a - Preparations for Increased Fleet Activity

AFTER taking over command of the Fleet my first and most important task was to draw up a plan for the future tactics of the High Sea Fleet and to work out a programme of operations. The success hitherto of the conduct of naval warfare lay in the effect produced by the existence of the Fleet, the coastal defence, the influence exercised on neutrals, and the support given to the Army. The conviction that English maritime power was a serious menace to our capability of resistance seemed to make it imperative that, if a successful issue of the war were to be expected, it must be waged far more energetically against that adversary. There was no question of England giving in unless she was made to feel the pressure of war at home much more forcibly than hitherto had been the case. After having carried out her transport of troops from overseas on a much larger scale than was anticipated, thereby imposing on the country great sacrifices both of money and men, her determination for war was bound to increase, in order to reap the benefits of those efforts and to compensate for the blunders made, such as the surrender of Antwerp and the abandonment of the Dardanelles enterprise. So far, the war, for England, was merely a question of money and men. There was no lack of either, thanks to the support from the Colonies, the systematic manner in which volunteers were pressed into Kitchener's Army, and the ruthless employment of coloured auxiliaries.

Thus England was better able to stand the war for a lengthened period than we were, if the hunger blockade were to continue to oppress the country. The English public never thought of urging the Fleet to more active warfare; its object was achieved without its being weakened or being forced to make undue sacrifices. The nation readily understood this, especially when it was made clear to them that the Fleet had succeeded in keeping open those overseas communications on which the country was so dependent. This fact was specially brought into prominence by the destruction of our cruiser squadron off the Falkland Islands.

The danger from the U-boat warfare, which at first appeared serious, was reduced to slight importance owing to the mutual interests with America. But when the danger really was recognised, England prepared to ward it off, and did splendid work in this connection. On our part, the conduct of naval warfare in 1915 was less satisfactory. Even though we succeeded in preventing the neutrals from joining our opponents, it always remained an open question to what cause it could be attributed. If the utility of our High Sea Fleet were not made more distinctly manifest, then its deeds were not sufficient to justify its existence and the vast sums exacted from the resources of our people for its maintenance. The principal task stood out clearly defined—to punish England in such a way as to deprive her speedily and thoroughly of the inclination to continue the war. That might be expected if success could be achieved either by a blow at her sea power centred in her Navy, or at her financial life—preferably both.

The continued numerical superiority of the English Fleet from the beginning of the war kept us at a disadvantage; but, from a purely tactical point of view, our Battle Fleet, by the addition of four ships of the "König " class, was very differently organised from formerly, when Squadron II had to form part of the fighting line and was confronted in battle with "Dreadnoughts " with which it could not possibly cope. From the beginning of 1915 we also had had a double squadron of "Dreadnought " ships at our disposal (Squadrons I and III) and were therefore better able to avoid bringing the ships of Squadron II into a situation in battle where they must inevitably have suffered losses. Certainly the English had added greatly to their fighting powers by ships of the "Queen Elizabeth " class which must have been ready early in 1915. They carried guns of 38-c.m. calibre, were strongly armour-plated, and had a speed of 25 knots, in all of which they were nominally the same as our battle-cruisers, whereas in the strength of their attack they appeared to be vastly superior to all our vessels.

The then prevailing conditions of strength kept us from seeking a decisive battle with the enemy. Our conduct of the naval war was rather aimed at preventing a decisive battle being forced on us by the enemy. This might perhaps occur if our tactics began to be so troublesome to him that he would try at all costs to get rid of the German Fleet. It might, for instance, become necessary, if the U-boat war succeeded again in seriously threatening English economic life. Should the English thus manœuvre for a decisive battle, they could fix the time so as to allow the full use of their vast superiority, whereas some of our ships would be either under repair or otherwise unfit for service, or absent in the Baltic for exercises, of which the enemy would be well informed.

But for us to get into touch with the English Fleet, a definite and systematic operation would have had to be carried out with the view of compelling the enemy to give up his waiting tactics and send out forces which would provide us with favourable conditions of attack. The methods previously employed had failed. Either they were undertaken with inferior forces—in the case of an advance by cruisers the Main Fleet could not intervene in time to be of use—or else, as in most of the 1915 enterprises, they had not pushed on far enough for an encounter with important units of the enemy Fleet.

If we wished to attempt an effective and far-reaching offensive, it was necessary that we should be masters in our own house. The waters of our coast must be so controlled that we could be left free to develop and have no fear of being surprised and called out against our will. With the exception of the Fleet, we had nothing that the enemy could attack, as unfortunately our maritime trade had been put down from the beginning. The enemy, however, was still vulnerable in so many places that it was surely possible to find ample opportunity to make him feel the gravity of the war!

The ways and means of effecting this were the U-boat trade war, mines, trade-war in the North and on the open seas, aerial warfare and aggressive action of the High Sea forces in the North Sea. The U-boat and aerial warfare had already started; the three other factors were to be operated in combination. The activities in the near future were laid down in a programme of operations submitted to the Naval Staff and their general sanction obtained. Above all things, every leader, as well as each commander, was to be told his part, so as to facilitate and encourage independent action in accordance with the combined plan.

The first and most important task was the safety of the German Bight. Fresh rules were laid down dealing with the action of the Fleet when in the Bight, and instructions issued concerning protection and outpost duty. Arrangements were also made as to action under an enemy attack which would save waiting for lengthy orders in an urgent emergency, and would render it possible for all subordinate officers to play the part expected of them in such an event. The aim of the organisation was to keep the Bight clear by means of aeroplanes, outpost flotillas, minesweeping formations, and barrier-breakers, and regular reconnaissance, guard, and mine-searching service was established. The outpost-boats were to form a support for the active protective craft in the North Sea, be sufficiently strong to meet a surprise hostile attack and always ready to pick up at sea any forces returning to harbour. The command of the protective services was, as hitherto, retained by the Chief of the Reconnaissance. The actual aerial reconnaissance in the vicinity was undertaken by aeroplanes and airships from the stations at List—on the island of Sylt—Heligoland, and Borkum. The North Sea Outpost Flotilla, the Coastal Defence Flotilla from the Ems, and boats of the Harbour Flotilla, were ready for guard service; their duties consisted chiefly in driving away enemy submarines. As a rule, the following positions were occupied:—

The List Group: The waters off List (to keep neutral fishing boats out of German coastal waters).

The North Group: The Amrum Bank passage.

Line I: The Heligoland Hever Line.

Line 2: The Heligoland—Outer Jade Line.

The Outer Group: The Jade—Norderney line and the barrier opening at Norderney.

Heligoland boats: North and West of the island.

Jade boats: Off the Jade.

S. Group: Three boats (chiefly intended to fight enemy submarines, or for other special duties, as, for instance, the cutting of cables).

The chief object of these outpost boats was to search the Inner German Bight for enemy submarines, for which purpose they set out every day in groups from the lines where they were stationed. The service of the outpost boats, some eighty fishing steamers, was so arranged that half were on duty for three days and then had three days off. The Ems Coastal Defence Flotilla had the guarding of the waters off East and West Ems, and westward to about 6 degrees E. Longitude. The Harbour Flotilla boats joined in when there was a chase after submarines which might have shown themselves at the mouth of the river. A torpedo-boat flotilla stationed on the Ems also did duty when required, and helped further to ensure the safety of the sea area off the Ems.

The regular mine-sweeping service consisted of two Minesweeping Divisions and one Auxiliary Flotilla. The latter was composed of vessels that had only been requisitioned for the purpose since the war, and were mostly trawlers. They were specially suitable for the North Sea, owing to their sea-going qualities, but we lost several of them because of their deep draught. When a mine-sweeping division was off duty the crews were billeted at Cuxhaven, while the men on leave from the half-flotilla of the Auxiliary Flotilla were quartered at Wilhelmshaven. For their mine-sweeping duties all those boats were armed in order that they might be prepared to fight submarines. As soon as hostile submarines were sighted within their area they had to stop their minesweeping and take part in the chase.

The barrier-breaker service consisted of three groups of barrier breakers to every four steamers, internally constructed so as to enable them to keep afloat should they strike a mine. At the outbreak of war we had no apparatus whatever for sweeping up mines and protecting the steamers. Every effort was made, however, to invent such an apparatus, which, as soon as it had been tested, was at once supplied to the barrier-breakers and the minesearching division.

Special credit is due to Captain Walter Krah, Chief of the Auxiliary Mine-Flotilla, who profited by much practical experience and was successful in his efforts to avert unnecessary losses in his flotilla. It was the duty of the barrier-breaker group to protect the navigation of certain channels, chiefly those where our minelaying divisions had been at work, and to make sure that no mines had been laid by the enemy in the interval. The activity of our minelayers could not be entirely concealed from the enemy. When they were working in the inner section of the Bight, the enemy submarines had every opportunity for their observations, and the farther the mine belt was pushed out in the North Sea the nearer it drew to the area of English observation planes. The English were in advance of us with the Curtis plane, a hydroplane which, even with a considerable sea running, was able to keep on the water and so husband its strength.

The search for, and the chasing of, hostile submarines was principally the business of the torpedo-boats. The outpost boats had, of course, to keep a look-out for submarines, and had to follow up on any occasion when there was a chance of fighting them; but they had not the speed, nor were their numbers sufficient to carry out a systematic search and pursuit. The torpedo boats of the outpost service were told off for that purpose. The same flotillas were employed when there was a question of warding off the submarines from any ships or units engaged in special enterprises. The safety of the German Bight at night—to ensure which the guardships were too far apart besides being inadequate in armament—was further ensured by torpedo-boat patrols taken from the outpost service which cruised along the line of guardships and the shores of the German Bight.

In order not to keep the entire Fleet constantly under steam and thus overtire both men and machinery and use up material to no purpose, and yet provide that they should be ready with considerable forces for any enemy enterprises, an outpost service was organised. In the Jade there lay always in readiness a squadron of battleships, two battle-cruisers, a cruiser-leader of torpedo-boats, and a torpedo-boats flotilla; a scouting division of light cruisers were in the Jade and the Weser, a torpedo-boat flotilla in Heligoland harbour, half the ships of Squadron II in the Cuxhaven Roads, at Altenbruch; and, if sufficient torpedo-boats were available, another torpedo-boat half-flotilla was stationed on the Ems or in List Deep (at Sylt)— constituting approximately half the total forces of the High Sea Fleet. The ships were kept clear to put to sea from their station three-quarters of an hour after the order reached them. The torpedo-boats flotilla at Heligoland was held ready to run out immediately, and the flotilla on the Jade three-quarters of an hour after receipt of an order.

The outpost forces were under the command of the Senior Naval Commander stationed on the Jade. In the event of a sudden enemy attack, his duty was to arrange independently for the necessary measures of defence, and to exercise the command. If the High Sea Command had any duty to assign to him, it was restricted to a suggestion or general directions, as, for instance, to station torpedo-boats at such end such a place at daybreak, leaving the rest to be carried out by the Chief of the U-boat forces.

The other ships, not belonging to the outpost service, lay, half of them in harbour (about a fourth part of the fleet), the other half remaining on the inner roads at Wilhelmshaven or Brunsbuttel. The torpedo-boats off outpost duty were always allowed to enter harbours. The ships off duty had to seize that opportunity to carry out such necessary repairs as could be done by their own men; ships that had been long in dock for refitting and repairs were regarded as being in the same category. The usual preparedness of ships lying in the inner roads and in harbour was fixed at three hours. But whenever news came which seemed to necessitate the calling out of the ships, orders were issued to hurry the preparations, the entire crew remained on board, and the ships kept ready, on receipt of further orders, to weigh anchor at once.

These far-reaching measures for the protection of the German Bight were, above all, intended to ensure that the Fleet should be able to take up a position in line if it was deemed advisable to pass out in expectation of an enemy attack. General regulations were issued for two eventualities; the one, in case information and messages were received announcing an impending hostile attack, and the other, in case the enemy came entirely unexpectedly. It was not long before there was an opportunity to test them in practice.

Finally the defence resources of the German Bight were improved by adding to the already existing minefields, partly by laying them adjacent to those laid by the enemy, which he was forced to avoid. The intention of establishing a safe area for assembling within the line Horns Reef—Terschelling, was soon carried out, as the enemy laid his minefields in still further concentric rings outside that line.

Constant navigation and firing exercises by separate units as well as by the assembled Fleet, were carried on within this zone, and they were very rarely interrupted by an alarm of submarines. The dispatch of units for practice in the Baltic was no longer so necessary, and the readiness of the Fleet for action was perceptibly improved.

Heligoland, which at the beginning of the war was our advanced outpost, had thus assumed the character of a point of support in the rear, from which radiated a free zone extending over a radius of 120 nautical miles. Unfortunately the island never had occasion to use her excellent armament on the enemy. But the newly constructed harbour was of great service to the light forces of the Fleet, besides which the possession of the island was indispensable in order that a fleet might be able to leave our estuaries.

Even though security from enemy attacks was necessary and called for immediate action, nevertheless a still more important duty was that of attacking and injuring the enemy. To this end various enterprises were started. Foremost among these were nocturnal advances by light forces in the boundary area of the German Bight in order to destroy enemy forces stationed there, the holding up of suspicious craft, and readiness to afford help to airships raiding England, which always took place at night. These advances were carried out by several flotillas led by an escorting cruiser. They were supported by a scouting division of light cruisers sent either to the Ems or to a certain quadrant in the North Sea. The battle-cruisers were told off to the Schillig Roads, or deployed in line at sea; all other outpost ships were held in strictest readiness, and all measures were taken to ensure the speedy intervention of vessels lying in the Roads. In this way, the entire Fleet was kept in a certain state of tension, and unvarying alertness in view of eventualities at sea was maintained in order to be prepared at once to take part in the proceedings.

A further system of enterprise was to prolong these nocturnal sallies till daybreak in order to patrol a more extended area, in which case the entire Fleet had to be at sea as a support. The furthest advanced flotillas received support from Scouting Divisions I and II which, reinforced by one or two flotillas, followed them at a suitable distance. The extension of such enterprises was designed to reach to the Skagerrak and the Hoofden.

Finally, other important enterprises were planned, such as the bombardment of coastal towns to exercise a still greater pressure on the enemy and induce him to take counter-measures which would afford us an opportunity to engage part or the whole of his Fleet in battle under conditions favourable to ourselves.

In all these enterprises the co-operation of the Naval Corps in Flanders was desirable by stationing their U-boats along the nearest stretch of coast and thereby supporting the Fleet. This was carried out regularly, and with the greatest readiness.

The employment of our U-boats was of fundamental importance for our warfare against England. They could be used directly against English trade or against the English naval forces. The decision in the matter influenced the operations very considerably. It was not advisable to embark on both methods simultaneously, as most probably neither would then, achieve success. Also the poor success resulting from our U-boat action on English warships in the North Sea seemed to point to a decided preference for trade war. In military circles, there was no doubt that success in trade war could only be looked for if the U-boat were empowered to act according to its own special methods; any restrictions in that respect would greatly reduce the chances of success. The decision in the matter lay in the political zone. It was therefore necessary that the political leaders should recognise what we were compelled to do to achieve our war aim. Hitherto our politicians, out of anxiety with regard to America or in order not to exasperate England to the utmost, had not been able to decide on energetic action against England in the naval war. The naval authorities, however, should have known what they had to reckon with in order to be able to beat down England's resistance. It was also their duty to protest against enterprises specially unsuited to the U-boat, which inevitably led to useless sacrifices.


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