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

The restricted form of U-boat warfare against English mercantile ships, adopted in the course of 1915, was extremely unsatisfactory. The damage caused thereby to her trade could be borne by England, and, on the other hand, the only result to us was vexation and disappointment, for our Fleet could obtain no support for its own enterprises from the U-boats. Co-operation with separate units or with the entire Fleet could not be sufficiently well organised to prove dependable for certain operations. First of all, only temporary co-operation was possible in the case of enterprises by the Fleet and attacks by the U-boats when each unit had a special duty, to be mutually supplemented but without exacting any tactical union. If, for instance, there was the intention to bombard a certain coastal town, it might be assumed that English fighting forces would at once rush out from different harbours where they were lying to drive off or capture the disturbers of their peace. If U-boats had been stationed off such towns, where it was presumed there were enemy ships, they would probably have had a chance of attacking.

Tactical co-operation would have been understood to mean that on the Fleet putting out to sea with the possibility of encountering the enemy, having the fixed intention of leading up to such an encounter, numbers of U-boats would be present from the beginning in order to be able to join in the battle. Even as certain rules have been evolved for the employment of cruisers and torpedo-boats in a daylight battle to support the activity of the battleship fleet, so might an opportunity have been found for the tactical employment of the U-boats. But no preliminary work had been done in that respect, and it would have been a very risky experiment to take U-boats into a battle without a thorough trial. The two principal drawbacks are their inadequate speed and the possibility of their not distinguishing between friend and foe.

The first-mentioned method, however, offered the most varied possibilities, and consideration was given as to what would be the most desirable way to station U-boats off enemy harbours; how they could be used in the form of movable mine-barriers, as flank protection, or otherwise render assistance.

In order to gain assurance in the use of U-boats and secure a basis for the activity of the Fleet, I went, in February, to Berlin to a conference with the Chief of the Naval Staff, in which Prince Henry of Prussia, Commander-in-Chief of the Baltic forces, also took part.

The result of this conference was the decision to come to close grips with England. Our chief maritime elements were to be centred absolutely in the North Sea, and the greatest restriction put on all active measures in the Baltic. Shortly afterwards an unrestricted U-boat warfare was to be instituted and the Naval Command was to make the necessary preparations. March 1 was the date on which it was intended to begin, as General von Falkenhayn, Chief of the General Staff, recognising the importance of England's contribution to the hostile resisting forces, had given up his previous scruples concerning the unrestricted U-boat warfare.

On January 31, nine airships set out for an attack on England: "L " 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20, and 21. On this occasion Liverpool was reached for the first time, where doubtless large quantities of war material from America were stored. Several other large factory towns in central England were also bombed, which they hardly expected although they were of great importance on account of their output of munitions and war material. A cruiser on the Humber was hit and badly damaged, which, according to subsequent information, was the new light cruiser Caroline (3,810 tons). The farther such air-raids spread over the country the greater would be the efforts made to defend the most important places, involving the withdrawal from the principal scene of war of guns, airmen, gunners and munitions to protect England from danger from the air.

Although the chief objective of every air-raid was London, where the Admiralty controlled the whole Naval war, and where the docks and the mouth of the Thames represented many other important objectives, to destroy which was highly necessary for the continuation of the war, still wind and weather did not always allow of its being attained. Sometimes during the flight of the airships hey would be obliged to deviate from their plan of attack for other reasons than wind and weather. Therefore all airships that went up were given a general order to attack England in the south, centre and north. "South " signified the Thames, "centre, " the Humber, and "north," the Firth of Forth. These three estuaries were the main points of support for the English Fleet, and were amply provided with all kinds of naval and mercantile shipbuilding works. The direction of the attack, whether south, centre or north, was determined by the wind, as the airships usually had the wind against them in going, in order, on the return journey, to have it behind in case they had to cope with damage or engine trouble.

Commander Odo Lowe, "L 19, never returned from an attack made during the night of January 31—February 1, 1916. On the return journey the airship, owing to fog, found itself over Dutch territory, and was fired at, not being at a very great altitude. Owing to the damage done, when it again came over the water it was unable to rise on account of a strong northerly wind, and so was forced to come down at about 100 nautical miles from the English coast, in a line with Grimsby. It was seen there in a sinking condition by a steam trawler (King Stephen) which, although within hailing distance, allowed the helpless crew to perish in the waves. This shameful deed was publicly acclaimed by an English bishop— a strange manifestation of his Christian principles ! The behaviour of that bishop is so typical of English mentality that it is worth while adding a short comment on it. Two points are invariably and entirely lacking in English views on the war: they never admit the "necessity of war " for their opponent and never recognise the difference between unavoidable severity and deliberate brutality. The Englishman thinks it quite justifiable to establish a blockade in the North Sea which exposes his naval forces to a mere minimum of danger, and pays no heed to the rules of International Law. That the consequence of the blockade was to bring starvation on the entire German nation—the step indeed was taken with that avowed purpose—does not in the least affect his feelings for humanity. He employs the means that serve his war aims, and no objection could be raised did he allow the same to hold good for the enemy. But instead—whether in conscious or unconscious hypocrisy is an open question—he raises indignant opposition to all counter-measures. Our air-raids caused injury to civilians. It was inevitable, when institutions serving war purposes were so close to populous districts—perhaps with a view to secure protection for them. To the Englishman, it was of no moment that the airship crews exposed themselves to the greatest personal danger in thus fighting for their suffering Fatherland. Accustomed as he was to carrying on a war with hirelings, and mostly abroad, he considered any personal encroachment on his comfort as a crime against humanity and made a terrible ado to increase favour for his cause. English behaviour in the mine-war is an example of this.

At the second Peace Conference at the Hague, Satow, an English delegate, raised a violent protest against a decision authorising the laying of mines in the open sea, in view of the danger to neutral shipping. In spite of this, an extensive area at the eastern egress from the Channel was mined by the English. Success in war, in their view, stood higher than their former principles and professed consideration for the neutrals. Our mine-warfare along the English coast was cried down as a terrible crime, although it is distinctly allowed by the Hague regulations. The same hypocrisy concerning what the rights of war conceded to the one or the other belligerents is also prevalent in English professional literature. According to English ideas it is quite right and correct that the English Fleet, in spite of its double numerical superiority, does not consider it necessary to advance to the German coast. But when the weaker German Fleet refrained from committing what obviously would have been military errors, it was ascribed to lack of courage. When the English Fleet, as we see later, had in battle, in spite of twofold superiority, twice as many losses as the weaker adversary, it was still termed an English victory ! What has become of all common sense? After this digression we must resume.

One of the first enterprises on the newly-drawn-up programme of operations was an encounter during the night of February 10 - 11 with English guardships off the Dogger Bank; they were in all probability stationed there in connection with our airship raids, either to give warning of their approach or to give chase on their way back. Torpedo-Boat Flotillas II, VI and IX, led by Captain Hartog, the First Leader of torpedo-boats, while patrolling at night came across a new type of English vessel which they at first took to be a cruiser, but finally decided it was a new vessel of the " Arabis " class. After a brief exchange of shots, the vessel was sunk by a torpedo; the commander, some officers and 28 of the crew were saved and taken prisoners. A second ship was also hit by a torpedo and observed to sink. The ships had only recently been built, were of 1,600 tons, had a crew of 78, slight draught, and a speed of 16 knots.

On February 11 an order from the Chief of the Naval Staff was sent to the Fleet regarding the action to be observed toward; armed enemy merchantmen. At the same time a "Note from the Imperial German Government on the Treatment of Armed Merchantmen " was published in the Press. This Note contained uncontestable proof, gathered from instructions issued by the English Government, and various other sources, that the armed English merchantmen had official orders whenever they saw and were close to German U-boats, maliciously to attack and wage ruthless war on them. The Note concluded with the following notice:

Berlin, February 8, 1916.

" 1. Under the circumstances now prevailing, enemy merchantmen carrying guns have no longer the right to be considered as such. German naval forces will therefore, after a short respite in the interests of the neutrals, treat such ships as belligerents.

"2. The German Government notifies the neutral Powers of the conditions in order that they may warn their subjects to desist from entrusting their persons and property to armed merchantmen belonging to the Powers at war with the German Empire."

The order to the naval forces, which out of consideration for the neutrals was not to come into force until February 29, was as follows: "Enemy merchantmen carrying guns are to be considered as warships and destroyed by all possible means. The officers must bear in mind that mistaken identity will lead to a breach with the neutrals and that the destruction of a merchantman because she is armed, must only be effected when the guns are clearly distinguished."

This new announcement from the Government, in which the Chief of ,the Naval Staff evidently had a share judging from his order to the Fleet, came as a surprise to me and appeared as though it were a reversal of the policy of unrestricted U-boat warfare which on February I had been promised for certain within a month, and which it now seemed doubtful would be carried out. The order imposed upon the officers that they should "distinguish " the guns made action very difficult for the U-boat officers, and it was they who were chiefly concerned. For at the distance necessary to secure this evidence the enemy, if he vindictively opened fire, could hardly miss. But if a U-boat when submerged were in a position to attack a steamer, and could only fire a torpedo when there was no doubt that she carried guns, the opportunity would almost always be lost.

I made known my objections to the order, both verbally and in writing, when I had occasion in the course of the month to go to Berlin; a violent north-westerly storm, which set in on February 16—17 had stopped all operations in the Fleet. I was informed that the intention shortly to open the unrestricted U-boat warfare still held good. An order to that effect sanctioned by the Emperor was already drawn up; it merely remained to fill in the date of starting. This appeared to me of the greatest importance, and, as meanwhile the Emperor had announced his intention of visiting the Fleet on February 23, I took that to mean that I need no longer entertain any doubts.

On the appointed day, at 10 A.M. His Majesty went on board the flagship Friedrich der Grosse lying in dock at Wilhelmshaven ready to put to sea. Besides his own personal suite, he was accompanied by Grand Admiral Prince Henry of Prussia, the Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Department, Admiral von Tirpitz, and the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral von Holtzendorff. It was the second time during the war that the Emperor had visited the Fleet. A little more than a year before the Emperor had introduced to the Fleet my predecessor in command. I had occasion to give a long report on the situation in the North Sea and also to express my opinion on the conduct of the war, for which I took as basis the matter of the unrestricted U-boat warfare. The Emperor agreed with my statements and interpreted them to a meeting of admirals and officers, when he spoke in laudatory terms of the activities and deeds of the Navy during the previous year and gave an explanation of the orders that had caused the Fleet to be held back. His Majesty then took the opportunity to remark that he fully approved of the order of procedure submitted to him by the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet.

This announcement was of great value to me, as thereby, in the presence of all the officers, I was invested with authority which gave me liberty of action to an extent I myself had defined. The intentions of the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet were thoroughly understood in this circle, as I had discussed in detail the programme of operations and had handed it in writing to those whom it concerned. The date for beginning the unrestricted U-boat warfare was, however, still uncertain. When I put the question to him, the Emperor remarked that he could not be influenced by the military suggestions only, though he recognised that they were justified, as besides his position as Chief War Lord, he was also responsible as Head of the State. Were he now to order the unrestricted U-boat war, it would probably meet with approval in the widest circles, but he must be careful that the entry into war of America on the side of the enemy did not give rise to consequences that might outweigh the advantages of unrestricted U-boat warfare.

When convinced that this decision could not then be altered, and not knowing what the political counter reasons were, and since it was the business of the Naval Staff to come to an understanding with the Imperial Administration, I selected two U-boats to test the effect of the war under the new conditions in the war zone off the west coast of England, in order that a judgment might be formed for further plans. The commanders of the boats, "U32" (Baron von Spiegal) and " U 22 " (Hoppe), gave me a verbal report on their return on March 18. " U 22 " had sunk four steamers, with about 10,000 tons of cargo, three times as many neutral ships, but had been forced to let two passenger steamers get through. Owing to bad weather and damages " U 22 " had no success. Meanwhile other U-boats were on the way to operate with the same intent. The success of their activities had not then been reported.

A wireless message on March 3 from the auxiliary cruiser Moewe was a surprising and joyful piece of news. She reported being stationed south-west of the Norwegian coast, and asked to be enrolled in the High Sea forces. This opportunity of practically testing the newly established outpost service was most opportune. It was a point of honour for the Fleet to preserve the intrepid and successful raider from a disastrous end off a home harbour. But great was the anxiety, as the Moewe had reported clouds of smoke sighted in clear weather, and evidently, from the appearance, belonging to a group of warships, but the distance was then too great to proceed to her assistance. The enemy, however, did not turn his attention to our cruiser, which endeavoured to give off as little smoke as possible, and when night fell had not been molested. Acting on the warnings given her, she happily escaped the further danger of striking any of the numerous English mines, that were unknown to her, between Horns Reef and Amrum Bank. Such ample protection was afforded her by a dense fog that she passed our first outposts unnoticed. But the fog lifted at the right moment to allow the ships sent out to meet her to escort her in triumph into the Jade, where she received a splendid welcome. The prudent and resolute behaviour of the commander, Count zu Dohna, his firm belief in the success of his undertaking—lightly called "luck " by some, though really based on the intrepid courage of the man, which spread to the entire crew—did not fail to make a deep impression on all of us who, on the first evening after his return, listened to the vivid description of his adventures. From January 1 to February 25, 1916, the Moewe captured 15 steamers, of a total tonnage of 57,835 tons. The first news received of her activities was the arrival of the prize Appam, under Lieut. Berg, of the Naval Defence, at Norfolk (Virginia), carrying the crews of the seven steamers sunk up to then. Further news of the Moewe's activities was the announcement that the steamer Westburn, under command of Badswick, had been taken into Teneriffe. After taking his 200 prisoners into port, he sank his ship the next day before the eyes of the English armoured cruiser Sutlej that was lying in wait, so that the prize might not fall into her hands. And now the Moewe had got back to us in safety I We considered her most important success to be the sinking of the King Edward, the flagship of the 3rd English Battle Squadron, which, on January 3, struck a mine laid by the Moewe, and owing to the damage caused! sank between Cape Wrath and the west ingress to the Pentland Firth.

This encouraged our hopes that the Greif, an auxiliary cruiser sent out a few days previously under Captain Tieze, would have an equally successful trip. Unfortunately, news came to hand a few weeks later that she had been held up on the English guardship line between the Shetlands and Norway, and after a fierce fight had succumbed, but not until she had torpedoed and sunk the auxiliary cruiser Alcantara, a vessel three times her size. This first encounter, in which the Greif had already suffered severely, attracted a second auxiliary cruiser, the Andes, and the light cruiser Comus, which came up with two destroyers and joined in the fight. Faced by such superior forces, Tieze, after a fierce fight lasting two hours, left the ship, with the surviving members of the crew, and sank her. While the English at first took part in the rescue of the crew, the Comus, according to the statements of prisoners since returned home, again opened fire on the lifeboats and rafts, asserting that a U-boat had been sighted. The result was that several others were killed, the commander among the number. Commander Nevetzky, First Lieut. Weddigen, and Lieut. Tiemann, had already been killed in the battle. About two-thirds of the crew were taken prisoners by the English.


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