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Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War
Chapter 17a - Our Light Craft in Action, and Advance of our Fleet to the Norwegian Coast


To obtain information as to British mines and nets outside the belt of mines on the line Horns Reef-Terschelling, so-called test-trips were devised. The object of these test-trips was to ascertain the whereabouts of these barriers, and having done so to find means of circumventing them. Having, as a result of these test-trips, gained a clear idea of the situation of the various barriers (consisting of belts of mines), the next thing was to determine which of them should be cleared away. Every test-trip group comprised mineseekers and sweepers with their tackle for finding mines, behind them went torpedo-boats with U-boat "kites," with which to locate nets; these were followed by barrier-breakers, and light cruisers with seaplanes for scouting. Heavy warships protected the test-trip groups on routes that were known to be free of mines.

Such a test-trip had been decided upon for November 17, 1917. Led by Rear-Admiral von Reuter, the 6th Mine-Sweeper Half-Flotilla, 2nd and 6th Auxiliary Mine-Sweeper Half-Flotillas, the 12th and 14th Torpedo-boat Half-Flotillas, Barrier-Breaking Division IV and the cruisers of Scouting Division II were to search from about the centre of the line Horns Reef-Terschelling in the direction north by west. Ships of Squadron IV, which was on outpost duty, were to be sent to cover the group. Squadron Commander Vice Admiral Souchon chose for this task the Kaiserin and Kaiser, with the commander of the Kaiserin, Captain Grasshoff, in charge.

Rear-Admiral von Reuter ordered his group to assemble at 7 A.M. at a pre-arranged meeting point. The commander of the Kaiserin reported that at 7 A.M. he would lie west of Heligoland. Airship scouting was impossible, and the cruisers had been unable to take the seaplanes on board in good time because of the thick weather. Of the seaplane stations on land only Borkum was at first able to send out scouts. Towards 8 A.M. the test-trip was assembled at the point of departure, excepting the 2nd and 6th Auxiliary Mine-Sweeping Half-Flotillas.

As the latter could only be a few thousand metres behind, the leader of Scouting Division II determined to fetch them up with his flagship Königsberg. He had just left his division when it was attacked from the N.W. by guns of large and medium calibre. The western horizon was very misty; the type of attacking ship was very hard to make out at first. In the east it was clearer; probably therefore our own ships showed up distinctly. The wind blew with a force 2-3 from the W.N.W.; the sea was slightly rough. The leader of Scouting Division II on board the Königsberg arrived. Scouting Division II, under the command of the senior officer, Captain Hildebrand in the Nurnberg, advanced against the enemy on a N.W. course, so as to protect the minesweepers. The torpedo-boats struck out N. and N.W. and put a smoke screen between the enemy and the mine-sweepers. "V45," Lieutenant-Commander Lossman, making use of her favourable position, attacked the enemy at a distance of 40-60 hm. The minesweepers let go their tackle and steamed away to the east developing smoke-clouds.

With this the most urgent part of their work achieved, the cruisers and torpedo-boats under heavy enemy fire-range about 130 hm.-started on a south-easterly course, developing smoke and steam-clouds which made the screen between the enemy and the mine-sweepers denser. The enemy, with the exception of a few torpedo-boats, turned aside from the mine-sweepers in their way eastward and followed the more valuable cruisers. Owing to the smoke and steam-clouds developed by the latter, he was obliged to steer towards the southern wing, that is to the windward, of our cruisers, so as to get a better chance of observation for his guns. These movements which, according to irreproachable observations and bearings, were carried out by hostile cruisers of the "Concord" class with a speed Of 33 knots, increased the distance between them and the mine-sweepers. Visibility astern was, of course, very much reduced for our cruisers. The large enemy ships did not go beyond the windward edge of the smoke screen, as owing to the danger from mines they tried to keep within the limits of the waters through which we had passed. They were, therefore, only visible for a few seconds at a time; it was impossible to get absolutely reliable observations of their composition and strength. No doubt light craft were in advance on the windward side of the large enemy ships, apparently also on the lee side.

All took part in the firing. Our cruisers lay in the midst of well-aimed salvos, of medium and heavy calibre. With great skill they avoided being hit by steering a zigzag course without damaging the effect of their own gun-fire. Our batteries replied energetically and with good results.

At 9.24 A.M. explosions resulting from our gun-fire occurred on two of the hostile battle-cruisers. One of them thereupon sheered off. About the same time our light cruiser Pillau forced an enemy destroyer that she had hit to retire from the fight. The leader of Scouting Squadron II hoped by going at full speed to separate the enemy light craft from the big ships, and so to get a chance to attack the former, but this hope was not fulfilled; the large ships were able to keep pace.

The U-boats of the Auxiliary Mine-Sweeping Flotilla had meanwhile steamed on in the direction E.S.E. At 8.50 A.M. they had a fight with the northern group of enemy destroyers at a range of 90 hm. After three hits had been observed on the destroyers, the enemy sheered off. Our U-boats again came under fire from 9.5 A.M. to 9.30 a.m., apparently from a leading torpedo-boat; after that they were no longer molested and returned to port. Several U-boats noticed that an English destroyer came to a standstill and that another drew alongside of it. This observation was confirmed later on by a seaplane which reported that it had seen one destroyer being towed by another.

The 6th Mine-Sweeping Half-Flotilla had steamed off to the east. It also came into conflict with the northern group of enemy destroyers at a range of 70 to 75 hm.; an advance Of 3 destroyers brought the latter to within 10 hm. The English destroyers scored no hits; ours claimed one for certain. At 9.40 A.M. the enemy destroyers retired. Mine-Sweeping Flotilla VI then returned to port without any further molestation from the enemy. It is not clear why the enemy destroyers did not make better use of their superior armament and speed to destroy our weak mine-sweepers completely.

The fight of the cruisers, in loose echelon formation on a southeasterly course, brought them into the neighbourhood of the trawlers and the 2nd and 6th Mine-Sweeping Half-Flotilla, which at the beginning of the conflict had made off to the south-east at full speed.

The cruisers nearest to them, the Nurnberg and the Pillau, threw smoke bombs to protect them, and the 14th Torpedo-Boat HalfFlotilla also helped to envelop the mine-sweepers in smoke. The enemy destroyers, which had already come pretty near, sheered off from the smoke. The mine-sweepers steamed off in an E.S.E. direction and were not molested by the enemy. It is possible that the latter suspected poison gas in the smoke.

At 9.50 A.M. destroyers approached Scouting Division II to make a torpedo attack. Judging by bearings and distances, the attack was doomed to failure from the first. The enemy scored no hits. At the same time Admiral von Reuter ordered our torpedo-boats to attack. The boats advanced to the attack in a running fight, scattered as they were. It was not possible to collect for a closed attack owing to the speed at which the fight moved on. Altogether six torpedoes were fired; no hits were recorded with absolute certainty. At any rate the enemy cruisers turned off sharply for the time being, and in so doing unavoidably afforded our light cruisers a welcome alleviation. The Königsberg and the Frankfurt also fired torpedoes; no result was observed.

At 10.30 A.M. the battleships Kaiserin and Kaiser hove in sight. Admiral von Reuter tried by holding an easterly course to draw the enemy after him through the belts of English and German mines, so as to get him between our battleships and our cruisers. He would then only have been able to get away to the north and the north-west through the belt of mines. If he chose this route in preference to a retreat to the west he was pretty certain to suffer losses by striking mines. The battleships, which owing to the smoke and steam could not overlook the situation clearly, and did not rightly interpret the signals made by the Königsberg, steered on a N.W. course towards the approaching ships in action, unable at first to distinguish friend from foe. Scouting Division II then determined to try to join up with the battleships. The latter meanwhile had opened fire on the light cruisers of the "Concord" class. The Kaiserin quickly got the range, and a hit was observed on the leading cruiser. Thereupon the hostile ships sheered off. When Admiral von Reuter went to turn with the Königsberg and pursue the enemy along a northwest course, he was still under fire, and a shell hit the Königsberg, causing a serious bunker fire.

With this shot the firing suddenly ceased. The action was over. The enemy ran away at full speed to the N.W. In the meantime the Hindenburg and the Moltke, which on receipt of the news that an engagement was in progress had followed the other two battleships, had reached the scene of action; probably their appearance induced the enemy to break off the engagement. Our boats which started in pursuit did not succeed in getting into touch with the enemy again. An advance with Torpedo-Boat Flotilla VII, undertaken the same night, met with no result either. Torpedo-Boat Flotilla II, which had advanced to the Hoofden the night before and was just returning thence to the Bight, could not be sent in chase owing to lack of fuel.

So far as could be ascertained at such a distance and with the smoke that was developed, the following ships were engaged on the enemy side : 4 battle-cruisers (2 "Lion " and 2 "Courageous"), and 6 to 8 light cruisers of the "Concord," "Caroline" and " Arethusa " classes, as well as 16 to 18 destroyers. According to seaplane observations, confirmed by other reports, behind these cruisers and outside the Horns Reef-Terschelling line there were other heavy fighting ships-at least one battleship squadron which, however, did not dare to enter the belt of mines, while the enemy cruisers kept in a straight line where our ships had passed and thus obtained some security from that danger.

The following hits were observed from our ships: five on the enemy battle-cruisers, six on the light cruisers, and seven on the destroyers. Our cruisers were hit by two heavy shells, one of which was a 38 cm., and by three 15 cm. It was remarkable what little damage the 38 cm. shell caused in the Königsberg. It passed through all three funnels of the ship, went through the upper deck into a coal bunker-the inner wall of which it burst; there it exploded and caused a fire. The fragments of this shell were picked up and its calibre determined. This proved to us that the English had built a new class of cruiser armed with a 38 cm. gun. The great speed of the ships was extraordinary. So far as the somewhat doubtful observations of our cruisers went, they had only two turrets, one fore and the other aft. The fact that a battle-cruiser felt obliged to sheer off on being hit by one of our light cruisers seems to indicate that its armour cannot have been very strong; probably weakened to allow of the high speed that was aimed at.

The losses on our side were : 21 killed, 10 seriously wounded, and 30 slightly wounded. The only ship that fell a victim to the enemy was the outpost steamer Kedingen which was stationed as a mark-ship at the point of departure of the test-trip. The English ,directed the fire of their 38 cm. guns on this little boat, so that the crew had to go overboard. She was captured undamaged by the English and carried off.

Our light cruisers amply fulfilled their duty of shielding the mine-sweeping groups and drawing fire upon themselves. Their relative strength, when compared with the enemy, unfortunately made it impossible for them to achieve a greater success, especially as the two battleships came to their support so late. This induced us in subsequent similar undertakings to make the support groups stronger and to send them forward, as far as the mine-fields would permit of such a course. The demands thus made upon the battleships of our outpost section increased considerably. The field of operation of the mine-sweepers extended 180 sea miles to the north and 140 miles to the west of the jade. Work at such distant points was impossible without strong fighting support.

As a rule one-half of these support ships were placed immediately behind the mine-sweepers, and the remainder about 50 sea miles farther back. On days when air-scouting was possible, only half of the outpost-ships were required, but when air-scouting was limited all the outpost forces took part in the operations. In the neighbourhood of the Amrum Bank an anchorage was made secure from submarine attack and surrounded by nets. Here the support ships for the operations in the north could anchor, and thus avoid the long return journey to the jade or the necessity of cruising about at night and burning unnecessary fuel. But this anchorage was not ready for use until the summer of 1918.


While the Fleet was busy with the conquest of the Baltic Islands the light cruisers Brummer and Bremse received orders to make a raid on the traffic route between Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands, and Bergen, the object being to inflict damage on English trade by surface craft as well as by U-boats. In the event of their encountering nothing there they were to push on at their own discretion to the west of the British Isles into the Atlantic, as far as their fuel supply would allow. These two cruisers had joined the Fleet in 1916 and had originally been constructed in German shipyards as mine-layers for the Russian Government; they were distinguished for high speed. Their engines were adapted for coal or oil fuel. They carried a 15-cm. gun. The mine-laying apparatus, with the exception of the dropping-gear, had been removed so as not to hinder the ships on their cruises. While our other light cruisers could accommodate but 120 mines on deck, when they carried them for a special expedition, the Brummer and the Bremse were capable of taking thrice that number. The addition of these two cruisers was a very welcome reinforcement, and made it possible to form two scouting groups of light cruisers (II and IV) with modern ships of approximately the same speed, after the alterations of the other light cruisers had been completed and they had received a 15-cm. gun instead of their 105-cm. guns, which were too weak.

It was known that neutral merchant vessels assembled in convoys to travel under the protection of English warships, and therefore they might be regarded as enemy vessels, since they openly claimed English protection so as to benefit the enemy and consequently to injure us. Interruption of this traffic was intended to heighten the effect of the U-boat campaign. Apart from depriving the enemy of the supplies he awaited, it would place him under the necessity of affording better protection to the neutral shipping placed at his service, for which more warships would be required; these, again, would have to be taken from among those occupied in the war on U-boats. We might also anticipate that the success of such attacks would have a terrorising influence.

On putting out to sea the cruisers were delayed for a day, because the mine-sweepers who accompanied them found mines in their path, but at dawn on October 17, 1917, they lay in the middle of the fairway Lerwick-Bergen, and before day broke they encountered a convoy of ten steamers under the protection of two or three warships. At the head of the formation, which was in a double row, was the destroyer Strongbow, and when she recognised our cruisers as enemy ships she advanced smartly to the attack and was sunk after a few shots had been exchanged.

The steamers had stopped when they realised the position they were in, and began to lower boats in which the crews might find safety. A second British destroyer, the Mary Rose, had first made off to the north when the fight began, but changed her mind and returned, after about 20 minutes, to the ships under her protection. She also attacked our cruisers and was sunk after a short fight. The steamers were then sunk as they passed at a short distance, which enabled the shots to be placed on the water line. As two of the steamers had been able to get away in time on noticing the attack, the care of the crews in the boats could be left to them, for our cruisers had to consider their own safety on the long return journey. A further extension of the cruise offered no prospect of success after this incident.

It was to be foreseen that this action would occasion a great outcry among those that had suffered, if only to divert attention from the humiliating fact that German cruisers had appeared in the Northern waters supposed to be completely under English control. If in this starvation war, introduced by the English, the neutrals worked against the German nation and so openly assisted the enemy as to place themselves under the protection of his warships, they must take the consequences of their action. To what an extent they regarded themselves as being on the side of the enemy is shown by the fact that some of these neutral steamers carried guns on the forecastle which they did not hesitate to use.

If England wanted to demand the right to enjoy undisturbed supplies, thanks to the complaisance of the neutrals, or to the pressure brought to bear on them, no one could expect us to look on with folded hands until English sea power had completed its work of destroying our nation by starvation. The counter-measures which this necessitated must recoil upon England as the originator of this form of warfare.

The effect of such action had to be heightened by a speedy repetition of a similar attack. The next time Torpedo-Boat Flotilla II was chosen, which comprised our biggest and fastest torpedo-boats. A half-flotilla was to attack the convoy traffic near the English coast in the so-called "war channel," while at the same time the other half-flotilla was to go to the Bergen-Lerwick route. Flotilla II (Commander Heinecke), accompanied by the light cruiser Emden (the ship substituted for the one of the same name that Captain von Miller had commanded), left early in the morning of December 11, at a speed of 19 knots. The weather was clear, sea smooth. At 4 P.M. the half-flotillas parted at the north-east end of the Dogger Bank, and the Emden remained behind.

The 3rd Half-Flotilla went north, the 4th steered for a point on the English coast 25 sea miles north of Newcastle. At 6 P.M. a wireless message was received that a convoy with destroyers would leave the Firth of Forth for the south between 8 and 11 P.M. On account of this message the leader determined to go up the "war channel " to the north, about as far as Berwick, so as to meet the enemy on this part of the route between 3 A.M. and 6 A.M. According to other English wireless messages received, there were in the Firth of Forth 8 British cruisers, in the Tyne some destroyers, and in the Humber 2 destroyers with various guard-boats. This, however, did not hinder the leader of the flotilla from pursuing his purpose. Towards 2.30 P.M. on December 12, 1917, before the flotilla had turned into the "war channel," a steamer of about 3,000 tons was sighted coming at a distance of about 25 nautical miles from the coast it was sunk by a torpedo. The crew of the steamer took to their boats. As the flotilla approached closer to the coast the beacon they expected to see were not visible, so that they could not find their way between the Farne Islands and the land. To have gone out to sea and so round the islands would have meant missing the convoy, so the half-flotilla turned southwards in the direction of the mouth of the Tyne. Although the course ran only 3 to 4 nautical miles from the coast, nothing was to be seen of the land or any towns. It was very misty near the coast. At 4.45 A.M. a steamer with very great draught came into sight on the port bow; her size was estimated at 5,000 tons. This ship was steering on a southerly course down the "war channel," and was sunk by a torpedo; the crew took to the boats. A quarter of an hour later four small steamers came in sight; obviously they were the convoy boats which had already indicated their presence by wireless messages, and were now on the point of entering Tynemouth. Two of them were destroyed by gunfire, the other two escaped because our torpedo-boats were looking around for larger steamers or destroyers that might be in the neighbourhood. As nothing further was found, the boats started on their return journey at 6 A.M. At 5.15 P.M. they rejoined the Emden, which had waited at sea for the flotilla.

The half-flotilla under Lieutenant-Commander Hans Holbe had continued on a northerly course after separating from the others on the previous day. The farther north they went the worse the weather became. Towards 10 P.M. there was a heavy swell and a strong freshening wind from the south. The next morning, at 4 o'clock, speed had to be reduced first to 15 and then to 12 knots, because heavy seas came up from the north-west. It was impossible to fire a gun or a torpedo. The leader of the half-flotilla had to give up his plan and steered towards Udsire on the Norwegian coast, so as to be able to fix his position and then to try and catch a convoy announced from Drammen. At 7 A.M. he sighted Udsire. As the barometer fell no lower and the seas seemed to be decreasing, he once more turned upon a northerly course, which, however, had to be abandoned again at 11 A.M., because in the sea then running he could only make a speed of 9 knots. The boats, therefore, once more turned south, intending to stay out of sight of land by day and to approach the coast by night, expecting to meet some merchantmen there. In the course of the morning one boat developed a leakage in the condenser. But the commander of the half-flotilla decided to keep the boat with him and reduce the speed of all his boats to 25 knots, preferring this to sending the boat back home alone from such a great distance.


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