Go to WTJ Information Page Go to WTJ Portal Go to WTJ War Series Go to WTJ Archives Go to WTJ Articles Go to WTJ Gaming Go to WTJ Store Go to WTJ Home Page

Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War
Chapter 11c - After the Battle

After our sortie on October 19, two torpedo-boat flotillas were sent to Flanders, and from that base they were to attack the guardboats at the entrance to the Channel, so as to make it easier for our U-boats to get through. The First Leader of the Torpedo - Boats, Commodore Michelsen, was sent to Flanders for the same purpose, and to gather information about the local conditions there. On October 23, 1916, the Flotillas III and IV started for Zeebrugge, which they reached without incident before dawn on October 24. The carrying out of these voyages to and from Heligoland and Zeebrugge marks the change in the development of conditions between that time and October, 1914, when the seven half-flotillas were sent out from Ems and utterly destroyed. From now on, there was frequent traffic between these points, as the flotillas were changed and new boats were sent to Flanders. As a rule the movements took place without incident, so that they came to be looked upon more and more as ordinary trips and not as risky enterprises.

On the night of October 26-27, the two flotillas, reinforced by the half-flotilla attached to the Naval Corps, carried out an attack on the ships guarding the entrance to the Channel and on the transports west of this line. According to previous observations, the boats on guard consisted of a few destroyers, but chiefly of small craft and trawlers, some of which had nets. These were always a very great hindrance to our U-boats when they wanted to get through, for they were forced to go under water and thus run the risk of getting entangled in the nets. An advance farther west beyond this line was an enterprise in which strong opposition was always to be expected. Even if our boats succeeded in reaching the line of guard-ships unnoticed, from the moment the Admiral in command at Dover heard of our approach, we had to reckon that in a short time strong forces would be assembled in the Straits between Dover and Calais.

A glance at the map will show that vessels which penetrated farther west could be cut off from their base at Zeebrugge both from Dover and Dunkirk; so they could, if they went to the southern end of the Downs to attack the mouth of the Thames. For this reason the half-flotilla in Flanders was not strong enough to carry out such expeditions unaided.

The following orders were issued relative to any ships that might be met with:

Ships without lights crossing the Channel were to be regarded as military transports and torpedoed without warning; ships with prescribed lights were to be treated according to prize law, unless they were convoyed by warships or became involved in a fight by their own fault.

Torpedo-Boat Flotillas III and IX and the Flanders HalfFlotilla set out at 6.30 P.M. from Zeebrugge; Commodore Michelsen was on board the leading boat of the Fifth Half-Flotilla. It was a clear starlit night, with a new moon. The surprise of the enemy was complete. The results we achieved were: eleven hostile guard and outpost ships sunk, and some other guard-ships badly damaged, from one of which ten men were taken prisoners. Besides this two enemy destroyers were sent to the bottom, and an English steamer, the Queen, was sunk, eight miles south of Folkestone. This steamer, according to English information, was a transport, but she declared herself to be a packet-boat. She could make 25 knots. On our side we sustained no loss. The only damage done was to a torpedo-boat with which a rudderless and burning guard-ship collided while her engines were still running.

As usual this surprise resulted in greater watchfulness on the part of the enemy. Commercial traffic eastward bound from the Channel was stopped, and aeroplane reconnaisance to observe movements in Zeebrugge harbour were considerably increased. When therefore in the afternoon of November 1 our boats intended to repeat the enterprise, everything pointed to the fact that the enemy was informed of our intentions, so that it was probable the blow would either miscarry or be turned into a reverse. Consequently when the flotillas had been at sea for some hours, and flash signals had shown that the enemy was on the watch, they were recalled. In these circumstances it was not desirable to keep the two flotillas any longer at Zeebrugge, especially as the nights were getting lighter and on that account unsuitable for such enterprises. Flotilla III was, therefore, sent back to Wilhelmshaven. Nevertheless, we decided to keep similar raids in mind, since the sudden appearance at considerable intervals of torpedo-boat flotillas in the Channel and near the south-eastern coast of England might bring about favourable results.

One difficulty connected with the sending out of large numbers of torpedo-boats from Zeebrugge was, that in order not to expose them to aerial bombardment, they were not allowed to lie by the Mole, but sent up to Bruges. This entailed very considerable delay, on account of the lock, for it took 2 ½ hours to get four torpedoboats through.

As soon as they left Bruges harbour it was not possible, as a rule, to conceal the movements of the boats from the enemy.

The behaviour of the enemy after the battle of the Skagerrak showed clearly that he intended to rely entirely on economic pressure to secure our defeat and would continue to keep his fleet in the northern waters of the British Isles. Nothing but serious damage to his own economic life could force this opponent to yield, and it was from him that the chief power of resistance of the hostile coalition emanated. As English economic life depended! on sea trade, the only means of getting at it was to overcome the Fleet, or get past it. The former meant the destruction of the Fleet, which, in view of our relative strength, was not possible. But so long as the Fleet was not destroyed, we could not wage cruiser warfare—which alone could have badly damaged British trade—on a large scale. The U-boats, however, could get past the Fleet. Free passage to the open sea had been gained for these in the naval action on May 31, for the English Fleet stayed far North and did not dare to attack our coast and stamp out the U-boat danger at its source.

The recognition of this necessity to attack British trade as the only means of overcoming England, made it very clear how intimate was the connection between the conduct of the war by land and by sea.

The belief that we could defeat England by land had proved erroneous. We had to make up our minds to U-boat warfare as the only means we could employ that promised a measure of success. The ultimate decision was left to the Supreme Army Command, which was taken over on August 30, 1916, by Field-Marshal von Hindenburg. After the discussions with Roumania, however, it did not seem advisable to the Supreme Command to begin an unrestricted U-boat campaign at once, in view of the fact that no additional troops were available in the event of neutral nations, such as Holland and Denmark, joining the enemy.

On October 7 the Fleet Commanders received the order to resume cruiser warfare with U-boats in British waters, and also to send four U-boats to the Mediterranean, where submarine warfare had been carried on during the summer months with quite good results In September the Chief of the Naval Staff had been of opinion that the general situation would permit of the full development of the U-boat campaign at latest by the middle of October. I had counted on the co-operation of the U-boats with the Fleet up to that date.

When, however, orders came through that the economic war against England was to be resumed in a modified form, although it was known that I considered the scheme to be useless, there was no chance of my opposition having the least effect in the face of this definite order, and in view of the fact that the Supreme Army Command considered it as a matter of principle. Unfortunately, I could adduce no great successes achieved by the Fleet in conjunction with the U-boats, and I could hardly take the responsibility of prolonging the immunity which British trade had enjoyed since the end of April.

The support to be given by the Fleet to this form of warfare became a question of increasing importance, as the enemy recognised the danger of the U-boats, and strained every nerve to get the better of it. A curious incident early in November emphasised the necessity for the co-operation of the Fleet in this phase of the war. On November 3 at 8 A.M. "U 30," then on her way home and about 25 miles north-west of Udsire (an island off the southwest coast of Norway), reported that both her oil engines were not working. The question for the Fleet was, how to get help to this boat so as to enable it to reach the Norwegian coast ? A few hours later there was a report from "U 20," commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Schwieger, who was returning from a three weeks' long distance trip off the west coast of England, that he had hastened to the assistance of U 30." The two boats then continued their journey in company, first to the latitude of Lindesnaes and then on November 3, at 10 P.M., they made for Bovsbjerg, on the coast of Jutland, where " U 30 " could be met by tugs. The charts of both boats, compared at frequent intervals, indicated that the next day at 10 P.M., they should be about 15 miles from Bovsbjerg. Towards 7 P.M. on November 4 a fog came up, and at 8.20 P.M. both boats ran aground. As appeared later, they lay 5 sea miles north of Bovsbjerg; they had steered considerably more to the east than, according to their observations, they thought they were doing, and in the fog they had not been able to see the land properly. After two hours "U 30" succeeded in getting clear by reducing her load by about 30 tons, but she was no longer able to submerge freely, and could not be steered under water. Her commander remained in the neighbourhood of "U 20." This boat, owing to the prevailing swell, had got on the farther side of a sandbank, and in spite of efforts continued throughout the night, was unable to get off. The Fleet received the news of their stranding soon after 10 P.M. Hostile patrols of cruisers and destroyers had repeatedly been reported in the neighbourhood of Bovsbjerg, so it seemed desirable to send a considerable protecting force with the light craft which were despatched thither. The Danes would certainly notice the stranded boats at dawn, and we might assume that the news would quickly find its way to England, and that in consequence enemy ships which happened to be near by would hasten to the spot. It was not to be supposed that the whole English Fleet would just happen to be at sea, but single groups might well be cruising in the neighbourhood. Assistance must, therefore, be as swift and as well protected as possible. The officer in command of the scouting craft received the order to send the Fourth Half-Flotilla of Torpedo-boats ahead immediately, and to cover them with the Moltke and Squadron III. If we did not succeed in getting "U 20" off quickly, it was to feared that the Danish Government would intervene and intern her. At 7.20 A.M. On November 4 Commander Dithmar arrived on the scene of the accident with the Fourth Half-Flotilla. The leading vessel anchored 500 metres from "U 20." A strong swell was running from the south-west, which increased greatly in the course of the morning, and caused a ground swell on the sandbank. Three times attempts were made to tug the U-boat off, and each time the ropes and chains broke. "U 20, ' in spite of all efforts and favourable conditions—it was high tide at 11A.M.—did not budge. She lay too high on the shore. As further efforts seemed hopeless she was blown up, her crew taken on board and the return journey was begun.

The cruisers and Squadron III, in the meantime, had followed to the spot and patrolled near by until the attempts at rescue were abandoned. At 1.5 P.M. the Grosser Kurfurst, and immediately afterwards the Kronprinz, were each hit by a torpedo just as the squadron was executing a turning movement. Both torpedoes must have been fired by a submarine. The submarine itself was not sighted, owing to the waves; the course of the torpedoes was not observed until it was too late to avoid them. The Grosser Kurfurst was hit in the steering gear and the helm on the port side rendered useless. The Kronprinz was hit under the bridge and sustained only slight damage in her bunkers and gangway. The Grosser Kurfurst, which at first had to fall out because of her difficulty in steering, was able to follow the squadron later at 19 knots, and the Kronprinz was able to keep her place in the line, steaming at 17 knots.

Upon receipt of the news of this incident, His Majesty the Emperor expressed the opinion that to risk a squadron for the sake of one U-boat, and in so doing almost lose two battleships, showed a lack of sense of proportion and must not occur again. Now this dictum might easily have imposed too great a restraint upon the Fleet merely for fear of submarines. We should have lost the confidence in our power to defend the Bight which we had gained as a result of the sea fight, and which became manifest when we sent these scouts 120 nautical miles from Heligoland, a distance which had hitherto been regarded as the ultimate limit to which our Fleet could advance.

On November 22 I received a summons to General Headquarters at Pless, and had the opportunity to submit my view of the case to His Majesty, to which he gave his concurrence. It was as follows:

"In view of the uncertainty of naval warfare, it is not possible to determine beforehand whether the stakes risked are out of proportion or not. England, threatened anew by the U-boat campaign, as the increase in shipping losses in October clearly proved, is very anxious to allay popular anxiety on the score of this new danger. No better means to achieve this can be imagined than the news that they had succeeded in destroying a German U-boat close to the German coast. If, in addition to this, the number of the U-boat were ascertained—in this instance ' U 20.' which had sunk the Lusitania—this would indeed be glad tidings for the British Government. On the other hand, the dangers that threaten our U-boats On these expeditions are so great that they are justified in demanding the utmost possible support that our Fleet can give them in case of need. On no account must the feeling be engendered amongst the crews that they will be left to their fate if they get into difficulties. That would diminish their ardour for these enterprises on which alone the success of the U-boat campaign depends. Moreover, English torpedoes have never yet proved fatal to our big ships, a statement which was again confirmed in this case.

" The temporary loss of the services of two ships while under repair is certainly a hindrance, since, for the time being, the Fleet cannot undertake any considerable expedition. But, on the other hand, incidents such as occurred on the occasion of the stranding of these boats afford the junior officers an opportunity to develop their independence. There is no doubt that in this case a few torpedoboats would have sufficed to drag the stranded U-boats free and tow them home. But if they had been surprised by a larger force of English boats that happened to be passing, or had been notified of their whereabouts, then further losses were possible, and the expedition would have failed in its aim. You can only make each expedition as strong as the means at your disposal at the moment per nit. Fear of loss or damage must not lead us to curb the initiative in naval warfare, which so far has lain mainly in our hands.

" The bombardment of the enemy coast, airship attacks, the U-boat campaign, as well as the sea-fight itself, have shown that our Fleet has hitherto taken the offensive to a far greater extent than the English Fleet, which has had to content itself entirely with defensive action. Apart from a few unsuccessful aeroplane raids—the last was on October 21 of this year and made no impression—the English Fleet cannot boast of its achievements. The whole organisation for holding the Fleet in readiness is directed towards affording every enterprise the greatest possible security, and towards leaving out of account those ships which have come to port for necessary rest. It is of great value to uphold this principle, because in the course of the U-boat campaign, upon which, in my opinion, our entire naval strategy will sooner or later have to be concentrated, the Fleet will have to devote itself to one task—to get the U-boats safely out to sea and bring them safely home again. Such activities would be on precisely the same lines as the expedition to salve 'U 20. To us every U-boat is of such importance, that it is worth risking the whole available Fleet to afford it assistance and support."

While at Pless I took the opportunity of making myself known to Field-Marshal von Hindenburg, and also to have an interview with General Ludendorff. I discussed the U-boat campaign with both officers, and it was agreed that if the war should drag on for so long, February 1, 1917, was the latest date at which to start the unrestricted U-boat campaign, that is to say before England could revictual.

The Field-Marshal, however, added that now that matters had taken such a favourable turn in Roumania, he could not for the moment face the possible complications that the declaration of unrestricted U-boat warfare might entail, although, at the same time, he was convinced that it was the right step to take. He went on to say that he had charged our ambassador at the Hague, Herr von Kühlmann, on his honour, to give his candid opinion as to Holland's attitude, and had received a definite assurance that an aggravated form of the U-boat campaign would force Holland to come in against us.


  Copyright © 1996-2003 by The War Times Journal at www.wtj.com. All rights reserved.