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World War 1 at Sea


NAVAL OPERATIONS, Volume 5, April 1917 to November 1918 (Part 2 of 4)

by Henry Newbolt

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HMS Hyderabad, first RN Q-ship build, here as SNO Ship, Dvina River, North Russia  (George Smith, click to enlarge)

on to Naval Operations, Vol 5, Part 3 of 4, Appendices
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(Part 2 of 4)


V. The End of the Year 1917 in Home Waters ... 178

      1. The Dover Barrage, November‑December 1917 ... 178

      2. The Second Attack on the Scandinavian Convoy, December 11‑12, 1917 ... 184

      3. The Submarine Campaign, December 1917 ... 194


VI. The Beginning of the Year 1918 in Home Waters ... 205

      1. The defence of the Straits of Dover, January and February 1918 ... 209

      2. The Raid on the Left Flank of the Allied Armies, March 20‑21 ... 223

      3. The Last German Fleet Sortie, April 22‑25, 1918 ... 280


VII. The Blocking of Zeebrugge, April 22-28, 1918 ... 241

      1. The Blocking of Ostend, May 10, 1918 ... 266

      2. The Submarine Campaign, May 1918 ... 277


VIII. The Mediterranean. April to September 1918 ... 285


IX. Russia ... 301


X. After Zeebrugge ‑ The Mining Operations in the North Sea and the U‑Boat Operations on the American Coast ... 334


XI. The End of Hostilities in the Mediterranean ... 351


XII. The Evacuation of Flanders and the Armistice ... 361

      The Enforcement of the Naval Armistice ... 377


 Index (not included – you can use Search)










(See Map 9.)




The Dover Barrage. November‑December 1917


It was in September that the German submarine captains began to abandon the outer approaches to the British Isles and to operate closer in, but this tendency did not become a settled policy until November. There was a lull in the enemy's submarine operations during the first half of the month; but between the 13th and the 18th nine submarines were located in the approach routes. Their principal zones of operation were the St. George's and the English Channels; and it was quite clear that the focusing points of the German attack would henceforth be the localities where the convoys dispersed. These operations might, indeed, be the preliminary moves in the general campaign against the convoy system, which Admiral Sims had foreseen in September. The U‑boats which were now concentrating on the Channel and the approaches to Liverpool appeared, moreover, to be passing almost entirely through the Dover Straits; as far as we could tell, the north‑about route was temporarily abandoned. It was natural, in these circumstances, that the Admiralty should give special thought to the defence of the Dover Straits and the Pas de Calais. On November 17 they appointed Rear‑Admiral Roger Keyes, the Director of the Plans Division, to be Chairman of a "Channel Barrage Committee."


(Its other members were Captain F. C. Learmonth, RN; Captain Cyril Fuller, RN; Captain F. S. Litchfield‑Speer, RN; Colonel Alexander Gibb, R.E.; Mr. W. MeLellan.


The committee's terms of reference were as follows:


The committee is appointed for the purpose of investigating and reporting on the possible measures for constructing a barrage across the Channel between England and France.


The committee is particularly charged with the following duties: to consider in what respects the barrage already attempted has not been successful and why.


To consider in detail the practicability from all points of view and probable efficiency of any scheme or schemes which can be put forward, showing clearly every detailed requirement which is involved in the construction, equipment, maintenance and defence of the barrage in the matter of personnel, plant, materials and equipment ‑ the latter, of course, including all vessels and guns employed in its defence.)


The committee was instructed to investigate the whole question of barring the Dover Straits to enemy submarines, and in particular to inquire whether the barrage which was being maintained between the South Calliper and the Flanders coast did actually obstruct German submarines or not.


The committee's inquiries had thus to cover both the existing barrage and the plans for enlarging it that Admiral Bacon had recently put forward. Early in July he had proposed to the Admiralty that the barrage should be supplemented by a deep minefield between Cape Gris Nez and the Varne Shoal, and the Admiralty had approved. The first lines of mines in this field were about to be laid when the committee assembled. Their first report to the Board was highly critical of the existing barrage. They had no difficulty in proving that throughout the year German submarines had passed through the Dover Straits without difficulty; it was even probable that they actually used the large light buoys along the barrage as navigational marks. As an obstruction to surface craft the barrage appeared to the committee to be almost equally useless. During a visit to the Straits, the committee had put to sea in the Swift, and had passed over the upper jackstay of the barrage from which the explosive nets were suspended. Admiral Bacon, it is true, intended to double the numbers of the supporting buoys, and so bring the jackstay nearer to the upper surface; but the committee doubted whether this would greatly alter matters. During their investigations they had also visited the Swin, where an experimental barrage had been laid; by accident the Swift had been taken across it. The net was certainly found to be damaged, but not the Swift, which was drawing fourteen feet at the time.


In view of this, and of a great deal of similar evidence, the committee concluded that the existing barrage was no obstacle either to surface vessels or submarines. They were, indeed, inclined to believe that the enemy would regret the loss of the barrage if it were ever removed; and drew attention to stratagems by which the Germans were encouraging us in a false confidence in the efficacy of the obstruction. Their positive proposals, however, differed only slightly from Admiral Bacon's; they urged, as he did, that a deep minefield should be laid between Gris Nez and the Varne, and that, when completed, it should be extended towards Folkestone; and they too urged that the deep minefields should be swept by searchlights. The committee were, however, at issue with Admiral Bacon on this general question of lighting. Knowing, as they did, that submarines always dived deeply when caught in a searchlight beam, they considered it essential that the whole surface of the minefield should be strongly illuminated, and that lightships and intermittent flares from trawlers should supplement the searchlights. They were convinced that unless submarine commanders were repeatedly detected in these zones of light they would get into the habit of clearing the deep minefield on the surface. As soon as they did so, it would be useless. Admiral Bacon was, however, only prepared to sanction a modified lighting scheme ‑ he strongly deprecated the use of lightships ‑ and on this point his disagreement with the committee's findings was a disagreement on a question of principle.


In conclusion the committee recommended that every possible assistance and encouragement should be given to those who were experimenting upon certain new and promising devices; when brought to perfection, these new devices were to be used in a new barrage laid further to the eastward. This requires a brief explanation. Professor Bragg was at the time experimenting with an extremely delicate device for detecting submarines, known as "indicator loops"; and the Mining Division at the Admiralty were engaged in perfecting designs for mines which would be automatically detonated by the sound waves, or by the magnetic lines of force, generated when an iron ship passed over them. The second barrage, which the committee recommended, was to consist of four whole lines of these new mines, laid between the South Calliper and the Dyek shoal; an elaborate system of indicator loops was to traverse the Channel between the two obstructions.


There were thus considerable differences of opinion between the Admiralty Committee and Admiral Bacon. A channel would have to be left free for ordinary traffic, at each end of the deep minefield, and it was an open question, upon which the Admiralty and Admiral Bacon were not agreed, whether these channels ought to be mined or strongly patrolled; the best method of maintaining a searchlight patrol over the minefield was also doubtful. In ordinary circumstances these differences would either have been composed, or the Admiralty would have allowed the local commander


Nov. 1917



discretion to act as he thought best; but the circumstances were far from ordinary, for the German submarines were passing through the Straits of Dover in an unbroken procession.


On November 29, when the committee's report was presented to the Board, there were eight German submarines in the English and St. George's Channels. U.96 was off the Smalls; U.101 was off the north coast of CornwalL, U.57, UB.80, UB.62, UB.35 and a UC‑boat whose number could not be identified were in the Channel itself; a week later, there were eleven boats out, distributed roughly in the same areas, and nearly all their reliefs were now passing through the Straits of Dover. For months past, papers taken from German submarines had made it fairly clear that the Dover barrage was no real obstacle to them, and the latest captures made this more certain. Two officers and three seamen had been saved from UC.65 when she was torpedoed by the British submarine C.15; and from them it was learned that although submarine commanders generally passed the barrage at night high water, and waited on the bottom if they reached the Straits before high tide, they never had any difficulty in crossing the barrage jackstay.


The prisoners captured from U.48, which was sunk on November 24, told the same story. Indeed, it appeared from a chance remark by the captain that all German submarines, large and small, would henceforth use the Dover Straits route. The prospect was alarming. When submarines used the long north‑about route, seven, and sometimes eight, days separated the date on which the U‑boat left her base from the date on which she sank the first merchantman of the cruise. The same number of days generally separated the dates of the last sinking and the return to harbour. A U‑boat generally remained at sea for twenty‑five to thirty days, so that if the Dover barrage, by its mere existence, had achieved the great success claimed for it, it would have kept the U‑boats to the north‑about route, and compelled them to spend one‑half of each voyage in unproductive cruising. (The Straits were navigated 334 times during 1917, and only three submarines were sunk.) If German U‑boat commanders still felt at liberty to use the shorter Dover Straits route, and found by experience that they could do so with impunity, they would reach their cruising grounds off Ushant and the Scillies in about sixty‑five hours, and productive waters in about twenty‑four.


Nor was this all: there was now always one, and sometimes there were two homeward‑bound convoys in the English or the St. George's Channel. This German concentration against the terminal points of our most important convoys was in itself ominous, and the threat was the stronger in that the concentration was taking place almost without opposition from our side. If this was the beginning of that general attack upon the convoy system which Admiral Sims had foreseen in September, it was highly important that it should be met and resisted. On December 14, therefore, the Admiralty, after long discussion, ordered Admiral Bacon to concentrate his patrol craft upon the deep minefield which now ran continuously from near the French shore to the Varne: he was, if necessary, to withdraw them from the barrages on the Flanders coast and across the Channel. He was further directed to assemble a strong force of destroyers to protect the new concentration against raids from Zeebrugge.


This order involved such large changes in his system of defence that Admiral Bacon sent the Admiralty a long and considered reply. He had at once carried out the Admiralty's wishes by reinforcing the minefield patrol; but he felt obliged to represent that the sudden and drastic alteration in his general plan of defence could only be carried out at a grave risk. As an obstruction to submarines the Belgian barrage might not have given the results expected of it; but if it were maintained, Admiral Bacon was confident that German destroyers raiding the Straits would be compelled to pass down the channel near West Kapelle. So long as the enemy was thus held to a single entrance and exit route, a group of our destroyers at Dunkirk could occupy the German line of retirement after the alarm was given, and would always be a danger, and consequently a deterrent, to any force of German destroyers raiding the Straits.


On the other hand, any redistribution of Admiral Bacon's forces which removed or weakened the Dunkirk detachment would correspondingly expose the drifters and patrol craft on the minefield to a shattering attack. Moreover, a reduction in the number of patrol craft allotted to the Belgian barrage would give the same result through another chain of cause and effect. When the patrol was reduced, the Belgian barrage would fall into disrepair, and the German destroyers and submarines would be free to use whatever entrance and exit routes they chose.


On receiving this letter, the Admiralty at once summoned Admiral Bacon to a conference at Whitehall; it took place on December 18, and only served to emphasise the existing differences of opinion between Admiral Bacon and certain sections of the Admiralty Staff. The actual subjects discussed were severely technical: how the drifters should be


Dec. 1917



distributed, whether destroyers on patrol should enter beams of searchlight, and whether destroyers working in the Straits by night would be unduly exposed to attacks by coastal motor‑boats; but the discussion of these professional questions provoked a sharp difference of opinion upon points of strategical principle. Admiral Bacon was determined to distribute his forces so that they secured the important points in his command; those points were numerous and scattered, and he consequently felt compelled to divide and allocate his forces in order to give effect to his general plan. To some sections of the Admiralty Staff this seemed a mere waste of opportunity; in their opinion every available vessel in the command should be concentrated on or near the deep minefield, and the whole system of defence should resolve itself into a system for compelling German submarines to dive on to the mines. These differences were no longer differences between a local commander and the High Command; they divided the Admiralty itself, where several officers could not be persuaded to admit any serious alteration in the defence of the Dover Straits. The events of the next twenty‑four hours very much strengthened the position of those officers who supported the committee's recommendations. Admiral Bacon left London in the afternoon, after giving an undertaking that he would station a flare and searchlight patrol on the minefield when he returned to Dover. He actually did so on the night of the 19th, and on that same night UB.56 was driven into the mines and destroyed.


The barrage committee presented their second report on December 21. It was little but an elaboration of the previous proposals for using new types of mines and new detecting devices when they became available, and was therefore rather a plan of technical policy than a project of reform. But this second report gave additional force to the opinions of those who were urging the correlative policy of concentrating patrols upon danger areas; for they argued that all these devices and obstructions would never be effective unless the patrols drove the German submarines into them; the existing dispositions would not suffice for this, and nothing but the most drastic redistribution of patrol and surface forces would serve.


But although these arguments were powerful, they did not persuade those members of the Board who were opposed to a revision of the existing system of defence in the Straits. Meanwhile, however, the Admiralty were investigating the causes of a disaster which had occurred a few days previously.




The Second Attack on the Scandinavian Convoy, December 11‑12, 1917

(See Maps 10, 11.)


We have seen that the discussions which followed the October raid upon the Scandinavian convoy had ended in a proposal to lengthen the intervals between any two successive sailings. The Admiralty could not, however, decide definitely in favour of this proposal until they had examined the state of the Scandinavian trade and assured themselves that the projected change would not disturb its normal processes. The question was complicated by a recent agreement between the British and Norwegian Governments, whereby Great Britain had promised to send 250,000 tons of coal to Norway every month. The deliveries for November were less than half the promised quota; and the Admiralty naturally hesitated to sanction proposals which could only cause further delays in the sailings and deliveries of Scandinavian trade.


After very careful inquiries, it was decided that if the Scandinavian traffic was to be expedited, its passage must be shortened. This, however, could not be arranged without consultation between the Admiralty and the local authorities; so, on December 10, Captain Henderson, representing the Naval Staff at Whitehall, arrived at Longhope for a general conference with the officers in charge of the Scandinavian convoy. His main proposal, that the convoys should start from Methil instead of Lerwick, was agreed to without any dissent from the local authorities. With this starting point, the voyage would be much shortened; Methil was, moreover, a more natural point of departure for vessels engaged in the Danish and Swedish trade, besides being in itself a better-equipped harbour than Lerwick.


The Commander‑in‑Chief agreed with the findings of the conference, but felt obliged to warn the Admiralty that, though the new plan would increase the carrying power of vessels engaged in Scandinavian trade, it would at the same time make the convoys more vulnerable to surface attack, as the new route would be appreciably nearer the German bases. The only remedy, in his opinion, would be to assimilate the Scandinavian to the Atlantic convoy system, and so put the convoys between Scotland and Norway under the protection of the cruisers engaged in oceanic escort work. A few


Dec. 1917



hours before the Commander‑in‑Chief sent off this warning, Admiral Scheer had completed his last preparations for a second attack on the Scandinavian trade.


His new plan was more embracing than the last, in that not one but two points on the convoy route were selected for attack. A half‑flotilla of destroyers was to attack the convoy in the war channel along the East coast, another half‑flotilla was to operate at the eastern end of the Bergen‑Lerwick line. These two half‑flotillas, the 3rd and 4th, together made up the 2nd Flotilla, a formation composed of the newest and fastest German boats. They left harbour on the 11th, escorted by the light cruiser Emden, and at three o'clock in the afternoon were off the north‑eastern corner of the Dogger Bank. There they divided, the 3rd Half‑Flotilla, under the command of Hans Kolbe, held on to the north; the 4th steered west‑south‑westwards towards the British coast near Newcastle.


At two o'clock on the afternoon of the 10th, the destroyers Ouse and Garry had left Lerwick with the south‑bound coastal convoy. The Scandinavian convoy left harbour every day as usual; and on the 11th the destroyers Pellew and Partridge, with four armed trawlers, the Livingstone, Tokio, Commander Fullerton and Lord Alverstone, took the east‑bound convoy of six vessels out of Lerwick. They were due to arrive in the Marsten leads early in the afternoon of the following day, and were to pass through two rendezvous; the first fifteen miles south of Lerwick, the second twenty‑five miles south‑west of the entrance to Bjorne Fiord.


During the afternoon and evening of the same day two cruiser squadrons put to sea. The 3rd Light Cruiser Squadron (Chatham, Yarmouth and Birkenhead) left Rosyth with four destroyers at a quarter‑past five. They were under orders to be thirty miles west‑south‑west of Jaederen at half‑past eight on the following morning (December 12), to sweep across the mouth of the Skagerrak towards Bovbierg, and to return home after dark. "This force," said Admiral O. de B. Brock in an inquiry which took place later, "was sent out in accordance with the general policy of making periodical sweeps to cover the approach of vessels on the Bergen‑Lerwick route; and, in addition, of giving early information of enemy forces coming out of the Bight." At ten o'clock in the evening of December 11 the Shannon and Minotaur (2nd Cruiser Squadron) with four destroyers, left Scapa to patrol the convoy route between Lerwick and Norway. They were known as the covering force, and Captain V. B. Molteno of the Shannon was in charge of it. His orders were to make contact with the west‑bound convoy on the morning after he left harbour; to move eastwards across the convoy route and cover the east‑bound convoy, which would be crossing during the day.


Whilst these forces were leaving harbour the 3rd Half-Flotilla was approaching the British coast. At above five o'clock the German commander of the half‑flotilla intercepted a group of British wireless messages which very greatly influenced his plan of operations. These messages, as read in the German flotilla, seemed to show that a force of British destroyers would leave the Firth of Forth that evening in charge of a south‑bound coastal convoy, that there was a group of eight British cruisers at Rosyth, a force of destroyers at the Tyne, and two destroyers at Immingham. This information was incorrect in every particular, but it was especially misleading with regard to the convoy which was supposed to be leaving the Firth of Forth. No mercantile convoy was either entering or leaving the Forth: the only convoys off the coast were the south coming convoy escorted by the Ouse and Garry, and the convoy for the east coast ports escorted by the Rother and Moy; both had left Lerwick during the 10th. It is quite true that escort forces had been mentioned in signals made from local stations during the day; these, however, were not escort forces in the sense that the German commander gave to the words, but groups of destroyers, torpedo boats and auxiliary patrol craft detailed to patrol the war channel and control the coastal traffic.


None the less, the German commander's search for a phantom convoy was likely to bring him very near to a real and substantial one. His course was converging fast with that of the Ouse and Garry, and the six merchantmen that they were escorting. At noon (11th) they were roughly in the latitude of Aberdeen, at four o'clock, an hour before the German commander read the intercepted signal from Inchkeith, they were about forty‑five miles east of Fifeness. At half‑past nine they sighted the Longstone Light, and they passed it just before eleven o'clock, without suspecting that a powerful enemy force was lurking in the darkness to the east of them. After nightfall the weather became thick and rainy, and two Scandinavian vessels, the Peter Willemoes (Danish) and the Nike (Swedish), did not keep their station; but the destroyer officers, thinking that they had fallen out deliberately in order to make for Blyth direct, did not attempt to rally them. It was probably this that saved the rest of the convoy; for the German half‑flotilla was, by now, close at hand.


About half an hour after midnight the German destroyers


Dec. 1917



fell in with the Danish steamer Peter Willemoes, some twenty-five miles to the cast of the war channel, and sank her with torpedoes. The Danish captain, who was under the impression that he was about six miles east of the Farn Islands, had thus come very far out of his reckoning.


The German half‑flotilla commander now steamed in towards the coast, expecting to make the Longstone Light; but was quite baffled to find that it was not burning. As very little shipping moved along the war channel during the dark hours, the Admiralty had long before made arrangements with the Trinity House that certain coastal lights should be lit up only at certain specified times, and extinguished when no longer required. On this particular night the commanding officer of the escort that was bringing the convoy south had asked that the Longstone Light should be shown between half‑past nine and half‑past eleven. The result was that the light was extinguished when the German half‑flotilla approached the land, and its commander, finding that the whole coast was in utter darkness, was compelled to round the Farne Islands at a safe distance. He fell in with nothing on his northerly course, and so, thinking that the convoy he believed to have left the Firth of Forth that evening had slipped past him, he soon turned south again.


When the Peter Willemoes was torpedoed, the Ouse and Garry were abreast of Coquet Island, only thirty miles to the southward. The Germans, therefore, still had time to overtake the convoy and destroy it before dawn; and if they had taken the Danish seamen from the Peter Willemoes on board, they would doubtless have realised this, and would not have wasted time by steaming northwards along the war channel before they finally turned south. It was a singular piece of good fortune for the convoy just to the south of them that the German commander never once used his opportunities for checking and verifying the inaccurate information with which he had been supplied.


At four o'clock in the morning the German destroyers picked up the Swedish steamer Nike off Blyth. She had not straggled so far as the Peter Willemoes, and when they overhauled her the convoy was not more than twenty miles ahead. Again the Germans lost an admirable chance; for they torpedoed the Nike as they had torpedoed the Peter Willemoes, and made no attempt to take prisoners or to ascertain the real position: indeed, they did their work so hastily that they left the Nike under the impression that they had sunk her, whereas she was still afloat, though in great difficulties. As the German destroyers steamed away they sighted four small steamships; these inoffensive vessels were assumed to belong to the convoy for which the Germans were seeking, and a murderous fire was opened upon them. One was sunk, the others escaped; and the German commander, after making a rapid search for other signs of the convoy and finding nothing, turned for home. It was about five o'clock when the Germans set a course for the Bight, so that the half‑flotilla was well out of sight of land by dawn.


On our side it was not realised for several hours that the traffic in the war channel had been attacked by surface craft. Just after four o'clock the look‑out station at Blyth reported heavy gunfire to the north‑east; about a quarter of an hour later the Hartlepool station confirmed this by another report of gunfire from the same direction; later on the naval depot at North Shields sent a message to the Admiralty that the Ouse and Garry were probably responsible for the firing. The Senior Naval Officer at the Tyne asked the escort commander whether he had heard the firing, and received an immediate reply: "Yes; but it seems a long way off." This was reassuring, in that it proved that the convoy was in no danger. (The convoy arrived at the Humber between three and four in the afternoon of the 12th. Neither of the destroyer captains had the slightest suspicion that the stragglers from the convoy had been attacked by surface craft during the night.)


The matter would probably have been cleared up earlier had it not been that the two trawlers which escaped the German destroyers during the night reported that they had been attacked by a submarine. This seemed to explain the mysterious firing that had been heard during the night, and the Admiralty made no further inquiry. At noon on the 12th, therefore, the authorities at Whitehall were still unaware that enemy warships had been operating in the war channel during the dark hours; but even if they had known of it earlier, it is hardly likely that they would have been able to parry or avoid the second blow, which was then about to fall.


A quarter of an hour before noon (12th) the Pellew's convoy was approaching the second rendezvous, to the south‑west of the Bjorne Fiord. The Partridge was astern of her; and behind the Partridge was the convoy of six ships with an armed trawler leading, and armed trawlers on each flank. There was a stiff north‑westerly breeze blowing, and the swell was extremely heavy; if the destroyers tried to increase their speed, they were at once washed down. The look‑out men in both destroyers sighted strange ships on the northern side of the convoy at practically the same instant. The Partridge


Dec. 1917



attempted to challenge; but the searchlight was then found to be out of order, and ten whole minutes went by before the challenge was actually made, and a warning sent to the Pellew that it had been wrongly answered. During those ten minutes the strange vessels steadily approached the convoy, and they were only five miles away when the alarm gongs were sounded in the British destroyers, and the Pellew ordered the convoy to scatter. The commanding officers of the two destroyers now prepared to defend their convoy as best they could. The Pellew steamed across the convoy's bows to get on to their exposed flank; the Partridge followed her, and, just before the action began, sent off a signal to the Commander‑in‑Chief, informing him that the convoy escort was in contact with an enemy whose number and composition were unknown. Neither of the destroyer captains had been told that there was a covering force of cruisers at sea, so that they could only send their warning to the Commander-in‑Chief.


Lieutenant‑Commander J. R. C. Cavendish of the Pellew hoped that he would be able to gain time for the convoy by engaging the enemy closely and hotly; but the Germans were in sufficient strength to thwart his manoeuvre. Three of their destroyers steered a parallel course to that of the Pellew and Partridge, and engaged them fiercely; the fourth was detached to deal with the convoy.


The British destroyers were no match for their opponents, and they were, moreover, in the leeward position. The north‑west wind swept a blinding storm of spray into the faces of their gunners, and when the Partridge and Pellew were in the trough of the waves, nothing was to be seen of the enemy except their masts, and the tops of their funnels. The Germans made admirable use of their advantage; and, as usual, their fire was extremely accurate and rapid. Although the terrible precision of the enemy's shooting meant death to most of those who saw it, the officers and men in the British destroyers watched the fall of the German salvoes with a sort of bitter admiration. From the very beginning matters went badly with the British destroyers, and both began to suffer. The Partridge, indeed, was a doomed ship. After a few moments of firing, a shell struck her at the forward end of the engine‑room, and severed the main steampipe. In an instant the engine‑room was filled with scalding steam, and the ship came to a standstill. Everybody working at the engines was scalded to death, and, though Engineer-Commander P. L. Butt and a chief engine‑room artificer attempted repeatedly to enter the engine‑room and give assistance, they were always driven out by the boiling steam. A few minutes later another shell struck the after gun, and put it out of action; almost simultaneously a torpedo struck the ship forward, and she began to settle down. The Partridge had now as little power of manoeuvre or resistance as an ordinary practice target, and Lieutenant‑Commander R. H. Ransome, the commanding officer, gave orders that the ship was to be abandoned; at the same time he directed the engine‑room staff to do everything in their power to see to it that the ship sank rapidly.


As the crew were attempting to clear away the boats, the enemy's destroyers came inside the firing arc of the Partridge's torpedo tubes; but in order to cause no delay in the escape of any possible survivors, Lieutenant A. A. D. Grey and Lieutenant L. J. B. Walters determined to fight the torpedo tubes by themselves. They manned the after tube, and fired a torpedo which struck one of the enemy's destroyers without exploding; they then went forward, but found that the deck beneath the other tubes was so buckled that the training gear was immovable. Soon afterwards Lieutenant Grey was wounded in the thigh; he was put, with the first lieutenant, into a boat which capsized, and threw both of them into the water: Lieutenant Grey now mustered his strength for a great effort. He saw that the first lieutenant was getting very exhausted, and helped him to swim to the nearest raft. When they reached it Lieutenant Grey found that it would carry only one more person; he refused to take the vacant place himself, but put the first lieutenant on to it, and swam away towards the nearest German destroyer. The water was intensely cold, and he was swimming in it for nearly half an hour with the blood flowing from his wound all the time; but he reached the German destroyer at last, and the German seamen hauled him on board; just before he fell down unconscious, he saw a terrific explosion in the Partridge, as she sank, struck by a third torpedo.


(These details were supplied, later, by Engineer‑Commander Butt, on whose recommendation Lieutenant Grey was awarded the Silver Medal and Certificate of the Royal Humane Society. Equally meritorious was the action of Engineer‑Commander Butt, who was awarded the D.S.O. He tried, three times, to get into the engine‑room after the main steam‑pipe had been severed. He finally succeeded when the ship was sinking: it was still full of steam, and pitch dark, as the dynamos had long since ceased to work; but he groped his way through the steam and darkness, and rising water, and opened the door of the starboard condenser, in order to make the ship sink more rapidly.)


Meanwhile the Pellew escaped by a miracle. After her gunners had fired a few salvoes she was struck in the engineroom,


Dec. 1917



and her speed fell rapidly. Lieutenant‑Commander Cavendish turned his ship away, and ordered the officers at the torpedo tubes to open fire. Only one torpedo could be fired, as the electric leads to the after tube had been pierced; and if the enemy had detached even one destroyer to deal with the Pellew she could hardly have survived. But by good fortune a blinding rain squall covered the Pellew as she yawed out of the fight, and the enemy did not follow her closely. As she sagged away they turned back and steamed into the convoy, to complete the destruction that the detached destroyer had already begun. No ship or armed trawler escaped: within an hour of the enemy's first appearance nothing was left of the convoy or its escort but the Pellew, steaming towards Norway with her port engine‑room full of water, and a few ship's cutters, with a handful of survivors on board lying wounded and half conscious below the thwarts, or splashing listlessly at the oars as the boats laboured and drifted in the heavy seaway.


The Shannon was the first ship to get news of the disaster. At noon her wireless‑room staff intercepted the Partridge's message to the Commander‑in‑Chief; and Captain Molteno at once ordered his cruisers to work up to twenty knots. At a quarter‑past twelve another intercepted message was reported to him. The call signs of the emitting ship had been made completely unrecognisable by interference from Telefunken; but the message itself ran thus: "Enemy destroyers at T rendezvous." (This was the convoy's eastern rendezvous, twenty‑five miles south‑west of the entrance to Bjorne Fiord.) When Captain Molteno received this second confirmatory warning of disaster his detachment of cruisers and destroyers was about sixty miles to the westward of the enemy's position. He immediately ordered his destroyers to steam ahead, and followed on himself at twenty knots.


The Partridge's message was handed to the Commanderin‑Chief at five and twenty minutes past twelve. It gave no indication of the enemy's strength or composition, and Admiral Beatty had in consequence to make provision for meeting what might prove to be a large movement by the High Seas Fleet. He at once ordered the 5th Battle Squadron, the 2nd and 4th Light Cruiser Squadrons, and the Battle Cruiser Force, to raise steam. A few minutes later, however, he received, from the Shannon, the second report that enemy destroyers were at the convoy's eastern rendezvous. This cleared up the position considerably, and he ordered the 3rd Light Cruiser Squadron to sweep towards the position where the enemy were reported (1.03 p.m.).


The Admiralty got news of the attack upon the northern convoy route and of the enemy's operation off the East coast at nearly the same time. The Commander‑in‑Chief's message reached them just before two o'clock, and about seven minutes earlier, the Senior Naval Officer at the Tyne telephoned to Whitehall to say that enemy destroyers had been off the Northumbrian coast during the night. As the two incidents were obviously connected, and might be mere diversionary moves preliminary to a large concerted operation, the Admiralty ordered the Grand Fleet and the Harwich Force to raise steam and be at an hour and a half's notice.


Meanwhile Lieutenant‑Commander Cavendish of the Pellew had brought his damaged vessel to the safety of the Norwegian coast at the entrance to Selbjorn's Fiord. As he approached the Island of Slotteroe he was met by the Norwegian torpedo boat Hvas, whose commanding officer, Lieutenant Hans Solheim, treated him with great courtesy and consideration and towed him to a safe anchorage. Just after three o'clock Captain Molteno, in the Shannon, received a signal from Lieutenant‑Commander Cavendish, to say that the Pellew had reached Slotteroe, and was unable to steam.


The Shannon's destroyers, which had steamed ahead when the first news of the disaster came through, reached the boats and rafts at about two o'clock, and spent the next hour picking up survivors. The German half‑flotilla thus had about two and a half hours' start of the first British forces. There was still a chance, however, that they would be intercepted and brought to action. The 3rd Light Cruiser Squadron was patrolling between the south‑western coast of Norway and Bovbierg, and was thus right upon the line of the German retirement.


It so happened, moreover, that Captain L. C. S. Woollcombe, the senior officer of the squadron, was given timely warning of the disaster. He had reached the northern end of his patrol line at the appointed time, and spread his cruisers over a front of about ten miles. At noon on the 12th the three cruisers were about one hundred and fifty miles to the south of the convoys eastern rendezvous, steering south-south‑east towards Bovbierg. The Birkenhead was on the Chatham's port beam and the Yarmouth to starboard of her. The Rival, the destroyer acting as a submarine screen to the Birkenhead, was the first ship in the squadron to get news of the attack on the convoy. Just after noon, she, like the Shannon, took in the Partridge's first report, and at once


Dec. 1917



signalled it to the Birkenhead: at five and twenty minutes past twelve it was in Captain Woollcombe's hands. He at once turned his squadron sixteen points, and made for the position where the, enemy was reported. By the time he received the Commander‑in‑Chief's order he had advanced over twenty miles towards the convoy's eastern rendezvous. All the afternoon Captain Woollcombe and his colleagues swept northwards; and, if the enemy had returned to the Heligoland Bight by the way they had left it, their half-flotilla could hardly have failed to have come within sight of Captain Woollcombe and his cruisers during the afternoon. An extraordinary chance saved them. During their run northward the German destroyers had fallen in with very bad weather, and when the work of destroying the convoy was completed, the German commander of the half‑flotilla determined to make for the Skagerrak and return by the Baltic, where he would get into more sheltered water. Their homeward course thus ran fairly near the Norwegian coast.


All the afternoon Captain Woollcombe and his colleagues swept northwards, watching closely for any sign of the enemy: they saw nothing; the Germans most probably passed astern of them at about five o'clock. They cannot have been very far off, yet none of the look‑out men in the light cruisers or the screening destroyers sighted anything, and at four o'clock, when dusk began to fall, the Yarmouth and the Birkenhead closed the Chatham, and the whole squadron was formed in single line ahead. By nightfall the last chance of bringing the Germans to action was gone; and the forces which put to sea from Rosyth that night served only to cover the Pellew on her return from Norway. (1st Battle cruiser Squadron, 1st Light Cruiser Squadron, and six destroyers.) The damaged destroyer ‑ the only ship that had survived the disaster ‑ reached Scapa with the Shannon, Minotaur and four destroyers during the morning of December 15.


Three days after the convoy had been attacked a conference of officers assembled at the Admiralty to consider the decisions that had already been taken by the previous conference at Rosyth. What had happened did not shake the conviction that Methil, not Lerwick, ought to be the port of departure of the Scandinavian convoy; and the conference considered all the implications of this change in the organisation, and submitted a detailed plan to the Admiralty. It was approved, and early in the new year the new system was put into operation; the convoys between the Humber and Methil were run daily; those from Methil to Scandinavia and back every three days. The management of the convoys themselves was left to the Admiralty; the provision of covering forces to the Commander‑in‑Chief. Although the convoys were sent northwards to the latitude of Aberdeen before they crossed to Norway, the new route across the North Sea was considerably longer, and closer to the German bases than the old route between Lerwick and the Bergen leads. The convoys, which had already been successfully attacked on two occasions, would thus be more exposed under the new system than under the old, but in order to give absolute security to a traffic which carried loads of political responsibilities in addition to the cargoes, the Commander‑in‑Chief regularly attached a battle squadron to the covering forces. This allocation of a battle squadron to the defence of trade was a great departure from the principle of rigid concentration which had dominated the organisation and employment of the Grand Fleet since the war began: it was illustrative of the extent to which the war against commerce had engaged our strength and resources.




The Submarine Campaign, December 1917

(See Map 1.)


Throughout the last month in the year the German inshore attack, begun in the middle of November, continued with unabated vigour and with considerable success. The total sinkings, which had fallen off in the previous month, showed a marked rise, and during the last week of the month losses along the coastal route were particularly severe. The increasing use of the Dover Straits by the heavy type U‑boats, which was an alarming feature in the month's campaign, has been already described elsewhere. The counter attack upon the German submarines showed a marked decline. Only five U‑boats had been destroyed in Home Waters during the course of the month; another had been lost by accident.


(UB.81, deep minefield in the Channel (Dec. 2); UC.69, rammed by U.96 off Cape Barfleur (Dec. 6); UB.75, lost in mine nets off Flamborough Head (Dec. 10); U.75, lost in minefield off Borkum (Dec. 13); UB.56, lost on mine or mine net off the Belgian coast (Dec. 19); U.87, lost in an action with convoy escorts P.56 and Buttercup in the Irish Sea (Dec. 25).)


If all the outstanding facts of the year's campaign were


Dec. 1917



reviewed they supported no positive conclusion and justified no hard and definite forecast. The most important result to the Allies was that the average daily destruction of each operating submarine had fallen steadily since the summer months. On this point the tables kept by the French Staff were instructive:




Number of operating S/Ms

Total number of days spent on active operations

Tonnage destroyed in Atlantic

Tonnage destroyed in Channel


Ships per day

Tons per day






















































































This steady decline in the daily yield of each submarine was proof that the efficacy of our counter measures, taken as a whole, had risen. The concentrated attack against the inshore routes and the terminal points had not, however, increased the dangers to which the operating submarines were exposed in any marked degree. They were now acting in zones which were patrolled by flotillas fitted with the detecting apparatus from which so much had been hoped at the beginning of the year. Although these hunting flotillas were establishing contact with submarines in the Channel and the Irish Sea almost every day, they were quite unable to maintain contact for any length of time, or to keep on the track of a single submarine for long enough to hamper its operations seriously. The failure of the hydrophone flotillas was particularly noticeable in the Irish Sea, a zone in which enemy submarines had been operating for the last three months of the yeax. The Admiral at Milford, Vice‑Admiral C. H. Dare, had realised the weakness of the system that he was administering as soon as the Germans began to operate seriously in the Irish Sea. In the middle of October he sent in a reasoned report on the position. "It is fatal," he wrote, "to send out ships on the assumption that local patrols can protect them. The situation resolves itself, in my opinion, as follows: Is it advisable to allow ships to pass through Home Waters unescorted? The only solution which suggests itself to me is:


(a) to escort convoys to their port of destination;


(b) for coastal vessels to be formed into convoys and escorted along the coast by drifters, or other small auxiliary patrol vessels.


If sufficient escorting vessels cannot be found to carry out this duty, it is suggested that vessels, if the requirements of the country permit, should be retained in port until escorts are available. In short, this would mean that all vessels should be escorted, and would entail the withdrawal of all local patrols, in order to supply the necessary escorts. This method would have at least one great advantage, in that a submarine would be compelled to attack within reach of a vessel capable of active retaliation. With the present system of patrols this is not the case: the enemy can, with the greatest ease, evade them, and only attack a merchant ship when they are absent. The hydrophone flotillas might still be retained at work on their present patrols, but I am of opinion that, with the present instruments, and the incessant bad weather .... these vessels are a waste of useful ships."


Events showed that Admiral Dare's appreciation was sound and accurate. The Irish Sea, with its narrow entrances, should have been an exceptionally suitable theatre for the operations of the hydrophone flotillas; for U‑boats entering by the southern entrance ought to have been detected and followed by the line of hydrophone drifters, which Admiral Dare maintained between the Welsh shore and the south‑west coast of Ireland. At least five and possibly more U‑boats passed the line during November, and were never once detected by the hydrophone flotillas. Throughout the month Admiral Dare was compelled to send as many ships as he could assemble to the place where the German submarine was last reported. On December 1 he instituted the first local convoy in his command, and put three ships under escort between Barry Roads and Milford. Being convinced that this was the only method of giving better protection to merchant traffic in the Irish Sea, he decided to take vessels away from their patrolling duties, and to use them for local escorts. He was well justified by results; during December his local forces escorted twelve convoys ‑ seventy‑four ships in all ‑ between Milford, Holyhead, Kingstown, and the south


Dec. 1917



of Ireland. Not one of the escorted ships was lost or damaged.



Diagram Showing Organisation of Local Patrols Falmouth And Devonport


Admiral Dare's local convoys were, however, a particular measure in a particular zone. Their success was an incident in the greater and more comprehensive successes of the convoy system. The actual state of submarine warfare at the end of 1917 ‑ that is, the counterpoise of the attack and the defence ‑ can best be understood by examining a few typical incidents in the Channel, the zone where the attack against trade was being prosecuted with the greatest vigour.


The coastal route between Hartland Point and Lyme Bay was divided into nine sections called A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H and J. Of these A and B were allotted to the Penzance command, D, E and F to the Rear‑Admiral at Falmouth, and the remainder to the Commander‑in‑Chief at Plymouth. The whole coast was watched by a string of war signal stations, connected by land wires to the general telegraphic system of the country; the stations at the Scillies, Land's End, Falmouth, Plymouth and Portland Bill were fitted with wireless.


Although considerable forces of Auxiliary Patrol vessels were allocated to the French coal‑trade convoys, there was still a sufficient residue for escorting traffic along the coastal routes, and patrolling its various sections. It was only in quite exceptional circumstances that the patrolling forces in any given section numbered less than two vessels. A flotilla of hydrophone vessels ‑ motor launches or trawlers ‑ had been allotted to each local command. These were the "hunting flotillas" which held so important a position in the plan that the Admiralty had drawn up at the beginning of the year. (The hydrophone flotillas were actualy stationed at Newlyn, Falmouth and Devonport.)


On December 18 no submarine had been reported between Land's End and Lyme Bay for three days, and traffic was moving normally. The weather was stormy, and though the patrol vessels were on their stations, the hydrophone flotillas were sheltering in harbour. At 11.0 a.m. the out‑bound convoy of seventeen sailed from Falmouth, and the trawlers in sections "F" and "G" were temporarily moved from their patrol stations to form a screen off the Eddystone. The convoy sailed out of the Channel without incident; but at half‑past one in the afternoon the s.s. Riversdale was torpedoed off Prawle Point. The trawlers detached from the section which lay opposite to Prawle Point had not then returned to their station, and the Devonport hydrophone flotilla was sheltering in Tor Bay. There was, thus, no hope that the submarine could be chased; so the Commander-in‑Chief at Devonport ordered all traffic between Plymouth and Portland to be held up. An hour later he received a report that the s.s. Vinovia had been torpedoed eight miles south of the Wolf Rock. This position was well outside section "C" of the Falmouth command, so that, again, there was no chance of starting a chase. All that could be done was to send assistance to the survivors.


These two casualties, occurring as they did within a period of two hours, showed that two submarines were at work within the Falmouth and Devonport commands. As there had been no sinkings for three days previously, it was reasonable to suppose that these submarines had only just arrived, and would remain in the zone for several days to come. There was thus a chance that the hunting flotillas would detect them and run them down.


During the night the Rame Head wireless station reported red lights to the southward of the Eddystone Lighthouse; and the Commander‑in‑Chief at Devonport ordered the trawlers on section "F" to investigate. Two trawlers - the Mewslade and the Coulard Hill ‑ went to the spot, and one of them set a hydrophone watch. Neither saw nor heard anything, so that at daybreak on the 19th the hunting flotillas could only guess where the operating submarines were from the positions of casualties that had occurred some fifteen hours before.


Early in the morning of the 19th the Falmouth hunting flotilla moved to Cadgwith Bay near the Lizard, and the Newlyn hydrophone motor launches took station off Land's End. The Devonport Flotilla was still held weather‑bound in Tor Bay ‑ they could not put to sea, as the wind was strong in the north‑east and east. During the forenoon the commanding officers at Falmouth and Devonport received a message, which explained the report about the red lights that had been seen to the south of the Eddystone by the Rame Head wireless station. Airship C.23, patrolling on the coastal route, reported that a steamer was lying abandoned to the south of the Eddystone, and that there was a submarine near by. It was the French steamer St. AndrŽ, on a voyage from Havre to Oran; she had been torpedoed some time after midnight, and the crew had abandoned her. It was impossible to order a special search for the submarine that had done the work; but she was evidently operating near sections "F", "G" and "H" of the coastal route, and these sections were being patrolled by six trawlers.


Dec. 1917



There was thus a reasonable chance that she would be located shortly.


One of the operating submarines was located during the morning. The sailing vessel Mitchell, sailing with a disguised armament under Lieutenant John Lawrie, R.N.R., was then cruising off the north Devon coast. The breeze was off the land, and Lieutenant Lawrie's ship was running free to the south‑westward. At ten minutes past ten, when the ship was about six miles to the west‑north‑west of Trevose Head, a submarine came to the surface at about 800 yards on the starboard beam. Lieutenant Lawrie opened fire a few minutes later, and there was a sharp exchange of shots; it seemed as though some of the Mitchell's shells hit the submarine, but she was evidently not much damaged, for she dived soon after and was not seen again. The trawler Sardius, which was patrolling section "A" of the coastal route and was about a mile away, closed the Mitchell at full speed, but by the time she arrived the submarine had disappeared and there was nothing more to be done.


At five and twenty minutes past ten, the war signal station at Trevose Head reported an action between a sailing vessel and a submarine six miles west‑north‑westward of the point. The message was sent to Penzance, Falmouth, Swansea, Newlyn, Land's End and Whitehall; but it was not until considerably later that the motor launches off Land's End were ordered to change their station.


There were more submarines in the western channel than the authorities imagined. At four o'clock in the afternoon the Belgian steamer Prince Charles de Belgique was attacked by a submerged submarine, eight miles west of the Lizard, whilst on her way from Cardiff to Havre. The torpedo missed her by a few feet; and a seaplane from the Newlyn air station, which was patrolling at an altitude of five hundred feet, sighted the submarine and dropped bombs on her. (This could not have been the submarine that had been located earlier in the day, and it was certainly not the submarine which was located further out by the Take Care.) The incident was not at once reported either to the Rear‑Admiral at Falmouth, or to the Falmouth hunting flotilla, which were then watching off Black Head, to the north‑east of the Lizard; and whilst this new submarine was attacking the Belgian steamer, the submarine which had sunk the St. AndrŽ during the night was located off the south coast of Devon.


At four o'clock in the afternoon the trawler Take Care, which was acting as an armed guard for the Brixham fishing fleet, sighted a submarine off Berry Head. The skipper engaged her and she made off; but the incident was not reported either to headquarters at Devonport or to the commander of the hunting flotilla in Tor Bay.


Later in the afternoon the hydrophone flotilla off Land's End received orders to track the submarine that had been reported earlier in the day off Trevose Head, in action with the Mitchell. They were ordered to go to Padstow and search, and at a quarter‑past five, as they drew near to Trevose Head, they received further news. A steamer had been sunk off the headland, and the trawler Lysander, patrolling in section "A," had the survivors on board. The casualty was the Norwegian steamer Ingrid II, on her way to Cardiff for repairs. She was torpedoed and sunk within a very short distance of the Lysander, which was then patrolling in section "A."


The hydrophone flotilla took station to the west of Trevose Head, and at once picked up sounds of a submarine in the north‑east. They followed the sound until it was "lost on account of traffic," and then went into St. Ives, at about ten o'clock at night. Two hours previously the Commander-in‑Chief at Devonport ordered all traffic to be resumed. He was still unaware that the trawler with the Brixham fleet had located a submarine off Prawle Point a few hours previously. The orders sent out in consequence of the unsuccessful attack on the Prince Charles de Belgique only reached the Falmouth flotilla near Black Head at 9.20 p.m., five and a half hours after the attack had been delivered. The commander of the flotilla left one of his trawlers behind, and set a hydrophone patrol with the remainder about six miles to the south of Mounts Bay. They kept watch all night, and heard nothing; but the night did not pass so quietly in other sections of the patrol.


Three Devonport trawlers were watching section "H" of the coastal route, and just before midnight the skipper of the Rinaldo ‑ which was one of them ‑ heard and saw an explosion towards Start Point. He steamed towards the spot; but found nothing, for the time being. What he had actually seen was the sinking of the Alice Marie ‑ the submarine located by Take Care at four o'clock was again at work, and the traffic released by the Commander‑in‑Chief's order was steaming across Lyme Bay towards her. Two more disasters occurred before daybreak. At twenty minutes past one the skippers of the trawlers Rinaldo and Ulysses saw another explosion to the north‑eastward. It was the steamship Warsaw; but for several hours nothing could be found


Dec. 1917



of her or of her crew, except a ship's boat drifting about in the bay with two dead men lying beneath the thwarts. Even now the night's disasters were not over; for at four o'clock the steamer Eveline was torpedoed near the Start. The war signal station at Dartmouth reported the first and the last of these casualties very rapidly, and at a quarter‑past five the Commander‑in‑Chief at Devonport held up all traffic between Portland and Plymouth.


The day passed quietly, there were no more casualties and no more reports. In the morning the Penzance motor launches took station north‑east of St. Ives; later they moved to the south and eastward of the Wolf Rock, and later again they moved in to the Runnelstone; they heard nothing throughout the day. Towards evening the Devonport hunting flotilla left harbour to search the coastal route across Lyme Bay. Commander Adrian Keyes, who was in charge of the hunting flotillas, collected three destroyers ‑ Spitfire, Roebuck and Opossum ‑ five motor launches, four drifters, and two fishing trawlers for the operation. He hoped that if his ships were well spread, one or more of them would pick up sounds of the submarine charging its engines, and that, after it had been thus located, the flotilla would be able to bring it to action as it approached the traffic route on the following morning. They heard nothing, naturally, for the submarine they were hunting had now shifted its ground to the eastern part of the Channel.


There is no need to continue the narrative in detail: there were no more sinkings in the zone until the 22nd, when the steamer Mabel Baird was sunk off the Lizard, by a submarine which was not detected, either previously or subsequently, by the hunting flotillas; after this there was a lull of three days, and then the succession of fruitless hunts began again.


If these operations, which are typical of those which were being carried on at almost every part of the coast, and on every day of the year, be compared with those described in Volume IV, it will be seen that the methods of submarine hunting had been considerably changed during the interval. In September 1916, the date of our last example, submarines were hunted by destroyers detached for the purpose from the principal destroyer bases; and their operations were directed largely by the Admiralty, who moved them from one area to another, and decided on the zones that were to be searched. At the end of 1917 all submarine hunting was done locally; the Commander‑in‑Chief or the Senior Naval Officer of the area was practically acting independently of Whitehall, and the hunting flotillas received their orders and their intelligence of the enemy's movements from the local commanders. It can be seen at a glance that this decentralisation of control was in itself good. It had much reduced the interval which elapsed between the time at which a submarine was reported and the time at which the hunting flotillas were on the spot where it had last been located.


Whereas under the old system forty‑eight hours or even more went by before the forces detached for submarine hunting could reach their zone of operations, the corresponding interval under the new system was between six and eight hours. It is obvious, however, that although the interval had been reduced, it was still too long; submarines were still operating, without danger to themselves, within a few miles of our hunting flotillas, and the acoustic apparatus, upon which so much material and so much labour had been expended, was not making the problem of hunting for submarines any simpler. Such advance as had been made was an advance in methods and organisation.


It was, however, consoling that whilst every other measure of war undertaken during the year had given results which were doubtful and liable to setbacks, the achievements of the convoy system seemed to be both secure and cumulative. The system had now been in operation for five whole months, and the necessary readjustments in its mechanism had been made without difficulty. Milford was shortly to be substituted for Queenstown as the port of assembly for outgoing convoys, and arrangements had been made for bringing home the Argentine grain harvest in a service of convoys which were to be assembled at Rio. The American Government had allotted heavy cruisers to those Halifax convoys which were carrying American troops and drafts, in order to protect them adequately against surface raiders. The great disadvantage of the system ‑ the loss of carrying power due to delays in harbour ‑ had been practically overcome. Captain Henderson had been in close consultation with the Liverpool shipping owners during November; and, as a result, a strong and representative convoy committee had been set up under the chairmanship of Mr. T. Harrison Hughes. This committee drew up a plan for obtaining the greatest possible economic and commercial return from the convoy system, and its recommendations were agreed to by the Admiralty. As a defence of ocean traffic, the system still seemed unassailable. The German submarine cruisers were still operating in the Azores‑Madeira zone, where shipping losses continued. But the enemy's occupation of this


Dec. 1917



important nodal point in the Atlantic trade routes had only once endangered the convoys that were continually passing through it. During the month of December six convoys from Dakar and Sierra Leone had passed safely through the area in which Gansser and Valentiner were operating. They had apparently not been located; they had certainly not been attacked. In all those areas through which convoys passed the decline in sinkings was even sharper than it had been during the previous month.


It was, indeed, the very effectiveness of the convoy system which had compelled the German submarine commanders to operate closer in, to seek for convoys where the chances of establishing contact were greater, and where ships dispersing from convoy, or on their way to a port of assembly, were exposed to attack. Here the enemy had been successful: the number of ships sunk at a distance of ten miles or less from the land had risen steadily during the last quarter of the year.


This new and dangerous attack could not be combated either by extending the scope or by perfecting the workings of the convoy system. It raised questions of high naval policy which were urgently calling for a solution when the year drew to its close: What was the best method of impeding the passage of enemy submarines through the Straits of Dover; whether destroyers should or should not be detached from the fleet in large numbers to conduct operations against submarines in the North Sea; how the northern barrage should be laid and how patrolled. Each of these questions had provoked divergencies of opinion ‑ the first in particular had sharply divided the High Command.


At this moment, too, a decision was called for upon a matter of the first importance, which had for some time been under anxious consideration. Admiral Jellicoe, as Commander‑in‑Chief of the Grand Fleet, and afterwards as First Sea Lord, had borne for nearly three and a half years the burden of the naval war. It was a burden in itself great beyond all experience, and since the contest and the hazard were on a Titanic scale, the anxieties of these high offices were even more exhausting than the incessant labour. Great as were Sir John Jellicoe's powers, and admirable as were his devotion and endurance, there was among those who met him frequently at the council table no doubt that the strain was bearing hard upon him, and could not be further prolonged with justice to him or advantage to the Service. During the last days of the year, therefore, he was released from office, and was succeeded as First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff by Admiral Wemyss. The Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Oliver, left the Admiralty at the same time, and was relieved by Admiral Fremantle: at Dover Admiral Bacon was replaced by Admiral Keyes. The Board as re‑constituted was:


(First Lord. ‑ The Right Hon. Sir Erie Geddes. First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff ‑ Admiral Sir Rosslyn E. Wemyss. Second Sea Lord‑Vice ‑ Admiral Sir Herbert L. Heath. Third Sea Lord. ‑ Rear‑Admiral Lionel Halsey. Fourth Sea Lord ‑ Rear‑Admiral Hugh H. D. Tothill. Deputy Chief of Naval Staff ‑ Rear‑Admiral Sydney R. Fremantle. Assistant Chief of Naval Staff ‑ Vice‑Admiral Sir Alexander L. Dull. Deputy First Sea Lord. ‑ Rear‑Admiral George P. W. Hope.)










(See Map 14.)


ON the second day of the new year the Commander‑in-Chief arrived in London to attend a naval conference in Whitehall. After discussing the impending attack against the Flanders bases ‑ for which preparations had already begun and for an intensive air attack against the enemy's naval bases, the conference passed on to the principal item upon its agenda: the general situation in the North Sea. The discussion that followed showed the extraordinary changes which a year of unrestricted submarine warfare had caused in our higher strategy. The submarine campaign had certainly been held; the curve of shipping losses was still falling and there was a reasonable hope that, at some time in the spring, replacements would exceed losses. When this occurred, the submarine onslaught against the Allied communications would be finally and absolutely defeated; the great attack upon our seaborne supplies would cease, from then onwards, to be a major strategical operation and would revert to the position which centuries of naval history have assigned to sporadic attacks upon trade. This position was almost in sight; but the success of the British campaign at sea had been gained at great cost, and that cost had been the dispersion of our principal naval forces. (See Appendix A.) It was true that the battle fleet was still based at Scapa and Rosyth (Reinforced on Dec. 7, 1917, by a United States Squadron (6th B. Sq.), Rear‑Admiral H. Rodman, Flag, Wyoming.), and the auxiliary destroyer forces at Harwich, and that the numerical strength of our North Sea forces was very great. This numerical strength was, however, deceptive.


In the North Sea the campaign against the German U‑boats now consisted in mining expeditions, in special operations carried out largely by destroyers and light forces, and in escorting vessels engaged in the Dutch and Scandinavian trades. These duties had ceased to be spasmodic and had become continuous, and they were practically all performed by the first line striking forces of Great Britain; for the minelaying expeditions were often covered and protected by detachments of the battle fleet, which in their turn were protected against submarine attack by large detachments of destroyers. Special operations, on the model of those conducted in October 1917, might and indeed generally did require about fifty destroyers and auxiliaries for their execution. The escort of the Dutch and Scandinavian trades absorbed detachments of first‑class ships from the battle fleet, and about thirty destroyer units. Just as we had found, in the early stages of the campaign, that a submarine, operating in a given area, would immobilise great numbers of watching and hunting forces, so, in its later phases, when the whole submarine fleet of the Central Powers was striving to obtain a decision at sea, we found ourselves obliged to take countermeasures, which, in their total consequences, were equivalent to a strategical division of the fleet.


As a result the Commander‑in‑Chief informed the conference that it was, in his opinion, no longer desirable to provoke a fleet action, even if the opportunity should occur. Such large contingents of our naval forces were now absorbed in the regular duties of the anti‑submarine campaign, that he could no longer be certain of meeting the German fleet even on terms of equality. At the request of the Admiralty, the Commanderin‑Chief expressed these views in a long and forceful letter which was subsequently laid before the War Cabinet. "So long as he [the enemy] remains in his harbours," wrote Admiral Beatty, "he is in a position to operate on interior lines, and with such forces as he may choose against our vitally important mercantile traffic with the Scandinavian countries. His interior position, and the presence of his agents in neutral ports from which convoys sail, facilitate the execution of surprise attacks with forces stronger than our covering forces. To take an extreme case, it is obviously impossible to have the whole Grand Fleet covering the convoy, whereas it is possible for the whole High Seas Fleet to effect a surprise attack with reasonable prospect of escape to their bases ... The forces detached to cover the convoys must be treated as permanent deductions from the striking strength of the Grand Fleet, as they could not be part of a sudden concentration. This dissipation of force might not, in itself, reduce the Grand Fleet's numerical superiority below the figure considered necessary for safety, but it had to be considered in conjunction with other sources of weakness. In the Commander‑in‑Chief's opinion, the German battle cruiser fleet was now definitely more formidable than ours. We believed it to be composed of six units ‑ the Mackensen (The war came to an end before the Mackensen was completed.), Seydlitz, Moltke, Derfflinger,


Jan. 1918



Hindenburg and Von der Tann; and of our nine battle cruisers, only three ‑ the Lion, Princess Royal and Tiger ‑ would be fit to fight in the battle cruiser line. The "Renowns" were insufficiently armoured, the "New Zealands" and the "Inflexibles" were deficient in speed, protection and armament. In addition to this, the absorption of our destroyer forces in the submarine campaign made it virtually certain that the German flotillas would be more numerous than ours in a fleet action. Finally, the new type of shell, decided upon after Jutland, had not yet been supplied to the fleet. Until the summer, the bulk of our battle squadrons would go into action with projectiles that were admittedly of poor design. Was it wise, in these circumstances, to adhere rigidly to the old policy of forcing a fleet action whenever an opportunity occurred? The Commander-in‑Chief considered that it was not. "The foregoing review," he concluded, "represents the situation as I see it. If correct, as I believe it to be, and accepting the principle that trade must be protected, the deduction to be drawn is that the correct strategy of the Grand Fleet is no longer to endeavour to bring the enemy to action at any cost, but rather to contain him in his bases until the general situation becomes more favourable to us."


The Admirafty endorsed the Commander‑in‑Chief's letter by a unanimous expression of approval, and, as a corollary to this decision, determined to continue minelaying in the Bight with all the means at their disposal. The enormous quadrant of mines laid across the Heligoland Bight had not, in January 1918, produced any appreciable effect upon the operations of the German U‑boats. It had compelled the Germans to create a vast auxiliary service of sweepers and auxiliaries, and it had, indirectly, been the cause of an action between German and British cruiser forces in the late autumn of the previous year; but it had caused the enemy no serious losses, and had, as yet, not closed the Bight to outgoing or incoming submarines. In this sense our minelaying operations had been disappointing, and a strong case could have been made out for abandoning the whole policy, and using the ships released for laying the barrage which the British and American navies were to place across the northern exit to the North Sea.


But our minelaying in the Bight, if continued, might be a powerful auxiliary to the general policy to which we were now committed. The mine barrage, constantly renewed and supplemented at the outer ends of the German swept channels, created a formidable obstacle to the free movement of the High Seas Fleet. No sortie from the German rivers could be undertaken without long preparation; and it was hoped that these special preparations would be reported, and that we should in consequence have time to assemble the forces necessary for countering the movement.


It seemed, moreover, that the chances of carrying out this policy without interruption were extremely good. Early in the month we knew of a move of German squadrons into the Baltic; and rumours of further disciplinary trouble in the German battle squadrons came through to Whitehall at about the same time. If the rumours were true, the move to the Baltic had probably been undertaken in order to give the commanding officers a chance of restoring order. The German squadrons might therefore be kept in the Baltic for several weeks to come.


The waiting policy to which the main fleets of both sides were now committed had no effect upon the activities of the forces in southern waters, where the game of attack and riposte went on without interruption. At the beginning of the year the naval authorities in the southern area brought forward proposals for giving better protection to the Dutch traffic in order to disguise the convoy routes more effectively, all vessels were henceforward to be assembled in the Black Deep, and the routes to be followed were only to be communicated after the trip had begun. At the same time Admiral Tyrwhitt made arrangements for the vessels in the Dutch convoy to be preceded by minesweepers on that part of the voyage which was outside the areas covered by the local sweepers and patrol craft.


No sooner were these new arrangements working than a force of German destroyers made a flying raid against Yarmouth on January 14. They began shelling the town at about a quarter‑past eleven. It was only an hour and a half later that Admiral Tyrwhitt put to sea to intercept them, and by then the German destroyers had retired. The intercepting forces saw nothing of the enemy and returned to harbour at noon on the 15th. In the southern half of the Flanders Bight there was the same restless activity: the Erebus bombarded Ostend on January 19; four days later the outpost forces on the Belgian coast came into collision with the Zeebrugge Flotilla. The force supporting the drifters consisted of the monitors Erebus, M.26 and destroyers; this force was at the time carrying out tactical exercises near the Thornton Ridge. To the south‑eastward of them, Lieutenant D. L. Webster, R.N.R., was examining the nets from the drifter flagship Clover Bank. Just before eleven o'clock he sighted a number of enemy destroyers which opened fire on him and nearly cut him off. He retired on the


Jan.‑Feb. 1918



supporting division, which eventually extricated him. This succession of minor engagements culminated, a few weeks later, in an action of more importance.




The Defence of the Straits of Dover. January and February 1918

(See Map 15.)


When Admiral Keyes took command at Dover, the Channel minefield ran right across the Dover Straits and the Pas de Calais, and his first concern was to concentrate the patrols upon it. A 12‑inch or 15‑inch monitor, four thirty-knot destroyers, torpedo boats or "P" boats, fourteen trawlers, sixty drifters, four motor launches and two paddle minesweepers were allocated to the patrol. As the German U‑boats generally passed the Straits of Dover after dark, the forces concentrated on the minefield by night were very numerous. The drifters were distributed over the minefield in divisions, a cordon of trawlers was placed round it, and the monitor was kept permanently near the north‑eastern end of the Varne Shoal to support this mass of small craft if they were attacked. The trawlers, which all carried flares, were responsible for the illumination of the minefield; "special areas" in which a submarine was reported were to be swept by the destroyers' searchlights. By day the organisation was more simple, and the watching forces were reduced to the number necessary for keeping the minefield under observation.


It was not until the end of the month that these measures met with any success. All through January German submarines operated actively in the Channel and the Irish Sea; four U‑boats of the larger size passed through the Dover Straits on their way out and in, and four other large U‑boats - which had gone to the Irish Sea by the long north‑about route - returned to Germany through the Straits. In addition to these boats of the larger type, fifteen UB‑ and UC‑boats passed through the Dover Straits on their outward and inward journeys. The, patrols only located a submarine on three occasions, so that the Germans made between thirty‑five and forty unmolested passages through the minefields during the course of the month.


Although this was in a certain degree disappointing, the actual results were better than any obtained under the old system. Four German submarines were lost in the Dover Straits between January 26 and February 8, which, added to the submarine destroyed on December 19, made a total of five since the new patrol system had been instituted. During the previous two years only two enemy U‑boats had been accounted for in the Dover area. The contrast was therefore striking; and it certainly impressed the enemy, for during the second week in February the Intelligence Division noticed that the U‑boats on the long north‑about route were again increasing in numbers. The German submarine commanders had, in fact, reported that the Dover Straits were becoming exceedingly difficult to pass, and a special flotilla (The second, under the command of Captain Heinecke. See Scheer, pp. 314‑18.) of large destroyers, stationed in Germany, was under orders to attack the barrage forces.


The German flotillas had not raided the Dover Straits since April 1917, and Admiral Keyes felt certain that his command would not enjoy this immunity from attack much longer. He was not mistaken, and towards the end of January, when the nights were still long and dark, the enemy began to show signs of activity. On January 23, when the drifter Clover Bank was attacked by a detachment of destroyers near the Thornton Bank, Admiral Keyes took the incident to mean that something more was impending; but as a matter of fact the enemy were not then ready, and three weeks went by before they delivered the expected attack.


Admiral Keyes had not altered the destroyer dispositions of his predecessor in any important particular. He still maintained a force at Dunkirk to protect the roadstead, and to cover the left flank of the Allied armies, and another force in the Downs anchorage to protect shipping. Every available destroyer at Dover was employed at night; the resting division was sent to the Downs, where the vessels remained at anchor, under short notice, ready to protect shipping or to reinforce the other division in the Straits.


This second division, which was composed of the available flotilla leaders and 4‑inch gun destroyers was distributed over what were known as the East and West Barrage Patrols. Each detachment was under orders to patrol to the south of the old net barrage, which was not then being maintained, on two lines, drawn roughly parallel to the axis of the Straits. The western line ran north‑east from a point four miles south of the South Goodwin light vessel; the eastern from No. 9 buoy; each line was about five miles long.


The trawlers and drifters were concentrated upon the deep minefields between Folkestone and Cape Gris Nez. On the night of February 14 the light cruiser Attentive, and the destroyers Murray, Nugent and Crusader were in the Downs; the


Feb. 1918



Swift and Marksman were on the West Barrage Patrol, the Termagant, Melpomene, Zubian and Amazon on the East Barrage Patrol. The deep minefield to the southward was patrolled by nine divisions of drifters ‑ fifty‑eight boats in all. This drifter patrol was maintained on a line joining the southeastern lightship of the Folkestone Gate to a buoy some three miles north‑westward of Cape Gris Nez. To each drifter division was allotted a particular section of the line. Six trawlers were stationed to the north‑eastward of the drifter line, and four more on the other side (S.W.) of it. Another group was stationed off Gris Nez. The duty of these trawlers was to burn flares at irregular intervals. Two paddle minesweepers, Lingfield and Newbury, were patrolling between the south‑eastern gate and the Varne lightship; and four motor launches kept watch between the gate and the shore. This mass of auxiliaries was supported by monitor M.26, (It was usual to have a 12‑inch or a 15‑inch monitor commanded by a post‑captain on this station. Unfortunately none was available on this night.) stationed near the north‑east Varne buoy, by the destroyer Racehorse, stationed between the Varne lightship and the Colbart, and by "P" boat No. 50, stationed between lightbuoys Nos. 30 and 31. The French also maintained two torpedo boats in the area between light‑buoy No. 31 and Cape Gris Nez.


The area between Folkestone and the Gate was swept all night by the Folkestone searchlight; and the destroyers and "P" boats supporting the patrol were under orders, if a submarine should be reported by the drifters, to switch on searchlights and sweep slowly from north‑west to south‑east. These dispositions had one principal object in view: to make the passage of the Dover Straits as difficult as possible to submarines. But Admiral Keyes had also foreseen that the destroyers on the East and West Barrage Patrols might be unable to stop a surface raid against the drifters and trawlers on the minefield, and had ordered that if enemy surface craft were reported, one‑half of the drifter patrol was to scatter and make for the British coast, and the other half was to make towards the French shore. The presence of the enemy was to be signalled by a green Very light, which was to be fired by whoever sighted them.


It was hazy and extremely dark on the night of February 14, and the vessels on patrol could not see far; at some time between 11.30 and midnight, however, Lieutenant W. Denson, R.N.R., the skipper of the drifter Shipmates, sighted a submarine about two miles west‑south‑west from No. 12 buoy. She was going eastwards towards the minefield; Skipper Denson went after her and sent up red and white Very lights ‑

the signal for a submarine ‑ but in a few minutes the submarine disappeared in the darkness. The minesweeper Lingfield and two motor launches at the north‑western end of the minefield detected Skipper Denson's signal. The Shipmates then went back to her station, and the vessels that had seen her signal returned to theirs.


At about half‑past twelve the sweeper Newbury reached the Gate lightship and turned to east‑south‑east towards the Varne buoy. No signal or warning for special vigilance had been received, and the commanding officer was in his cabin. A few minutes after the ship had been turned, two destroyers steamed up out of the darkness, on a course parallel to hers, and riddled her with shells. Every part of the ship suffered equally: the steam‑pipes were severed and sent out sheets of steam, the wood‑work caught fire and blazed furiously; the men on deck were shot down. The destroyers passed on rapidly. Lieutenant A. D. Thomson, R.N.R., allowed his battered ship to drift to the north‑eastward until she was out of the minefield and then dropped anchor. He was unable to signal: the Newbury had only just returned from a refit in the London docks, and her stores had not yet been catalogued and arranged. There may have been green Very lights on board, but Lieutenant Thomson did not know where they were; and in any case he could not have entered the storerooms of his shattered and burning ship. (He stated at the Court of Inquiry that he lit flares of "anything he could find": this must have been much later.)


Unfortunately, it happened that although nearly every vessel in the Straits heard the German destroyers firing on the Newbury, about half of them were mistaken about the direction from which the sound came. Commander M. R. Bernard, the senior officer of the Termagant's division, heard distant firing and thought that it came from the Flanders battle front; the skipper of the drifter Chrysanthemum II heard firing, from the north‑east, he thought, whereas it must obviously have come from the north‑west. Neither of these officers suspected that enemy destroyers were in the Straits. The war signal station at Dover reported firing to the west-south‑west, and a minute later received a confirmatory message from Folkestone; but both stations had already received the Shipmates' report of the submarine near No. 12 buoy, so that neither they, nor the Vice‑Admiral at Dover, to whom the firing was reported, had reason to suppose that the firing was occasioned by anything but a submarine attack.


There was, however, one officer, near the Newbury, who


Feb. 1917



grasped that the firing which he heard and saw came from enemy destroyers. Skipper Denson of the Shipmates saw the gun flashes and realised at once that a destroyer attack had begun; but before he could report that the enemy were in the Straits, he was himself in the beams of the German searchlights and his entire division was being swept by a heavy fire. He threw his confidential books overboard and steamed away in accordance with his orders: by about one o'clock he had shaken off the Germans; but he was induced by an unfortunate chain of circumstances to keep his knowledge of this attack to himself. It was not disobedience to orders, but blind fidelity to them, which hampered his judgment at the critical moment. As he cleared the German destroyers, he saw two or three rocket lights go up in the south‑east. He knew that this was the signal for enemy surface craft, and he had good enough reason to know that the enemy were not far off; but he could find no mention of any order to repeat the signal if it had already been made. He therefore sent up no rockets and determined to collect his division. He could indeed have reported the incident by wireless; but he had thrown his confidential books away, so that he could not send his message in code or cipher, and he knew that there was an order against sending messages en clair. Not even in this desperate emergency would he disregard it; he therefore returned stoutly to his patrol station and reported nothing.


A number of vessels heard the outburst of fire that accompanied this second attack; but here again the commanding officers failed to realise what was happening. The skipper of the minesweeper Lingfield closed No. 12 buoy, and, as he approached it, actually saw two ships with their searchlights burning and their guns firing. He concluded that the monitor near the Varne and a destroyer were engaging a submarine, and steamed on until the shells began to whistle over his own bridge; then he turned back. (It is doubtful whether what he saw was the attack on the Newbury or the attack on the Cosmos division: it seems probable that it was the latter, as he turned north from the Varne lightship at 12.45, just after the attack on the Newbury had begun, and only sighted destroyers some moments later.) Lieutenant D. V. S. Watson, R.N.R., of the drifter Begonia II, between buoys Nos. 13 and 14, heard firing to the north‑west and north‑east, but formed no opinion as to the cause of it; the commanding officer of the destroyer Racehorse, patrolling between the Varne and the north‑east Colbart, also heard firing and explosions to the north‑eastward: he supposed that Dover was being raided by aircraft. But the most remarkable misapprehension of all was that of the commanding officer of motor launch No. 12.


He was patrolling near the south‑east gate lightship and heard the firing, which had gone on ever since the Newbury had been attacked; moreover, he saw that a ship to the south‑westward of him was blazing. Just before, or just after, the attack on the Shipmates, he sighted two destroyers approaching from the north‑east; they opened fire on him, and smothered him with shell; but he escaped into the darkness, firmly convinced that he had been attacked by British destroyers of the Dover command, whose officers had mistaken his motor launch for a submarine. (As he made off the commanding officer spoke the captain of the flare, trawler Goeland II. The trawler skipper thought that the destroyers must have been Germans.)


Meanwhile the war signal station at Dover was telephoning to the Vice‑Admiral that the firing in the Straits was now continuous. Admiral Keyes made several inquiries of the officer in command at the station, but no green lights had been seen from Dover, and there was so far nothing to suggest that enemy destroyers were in the Straits. It still seemed both to the Admiral and his Staff that the drifters were engaged in a prolonged fight with a submarine.


Whilst Skipper Denson was collecting his division, and the captain of motor launch No. 12 was extricating himself from what he believed to be gunfire of his friends and colleagues, the Germans were delivering another attack at the other end of the minefield. They appear to have been operating in two detachments against this section of the patrol. Just before one o'clock two French torpedo-boats, patrolling near the Quenocs, had sighted the trawler James Pond burning a flare: lit up by the light of the flare, and to the left of the trawler were three strange destroyers steering to the south‑westward. In two or three minutes the destroyers had passed out of the zone of light and were lost in the darkness. Some ten minutes later the Germans attacked the James Pond, and the two southern drifter divisions under the Cosmos and the Clover Bank. The James Pond came first under the enemy's fire: as the shells struck her they ignited all her flares and in a few seconds she was blazing. The Clover Bank was overwhelmed and sunk in a few minutes, and the Cosmos and Silver Queen fared no better; the evidence given afterwards by the few men who escaped amounted only to broken, disjointed stories, of the sudden outburst of fire, the hurricane of shells, the havoc in their ships, and the small number of survivors who had got off in the boats and rowed away from the blazing wreckage. Some of the skippers in the escaping drifters did, however, send up green Very lights; and it was those lights


Feb. 1918



that the skipper of the Shipmates saw as he steamed away from the first encounter.


The green lights fired from the southern end of the patrol had not been seen from the war signal station; but Commander A. A. Mellin, in the monitor M.26, had sighted them, but although he realised that something serious was occurring he sent no report to the Vice‑Admiral. The rockets and the firing seemed to come from a direction about south by west, and he at once steamed towards them to investigate the disturbance. Before his ship had steamed a mile from her station, the Germans had delivered two more blows against the drifter divisions. The Jeannie Murray's division was first attacked, and suffered severely. The Jeannie Murray herself was lost with all hands, the Violet May and the Treasure were riddled and set alight. In the Violet May only four men were left alive after the second salvo; two of them were so badly wounded that they had to be lifted into the boat, yet these two men afterwards returned to their ship, put out the fires, and stood by her till help arrived, nearly six hours later.


Almost simultaneously (about 1.20) the Tessie's division was attacked near No. 12 buoy; and the Begonia's division near No. 14. Again there was the same outburst of firing and the same immediate havoc among our ships and crews. Commander Mellin, who was only a few miles from the Begonia's patrol station, failed to realise what was occurring; indeed, such information as he was able to obtain only served to deceive him. After keeping to his southerly course for nearly three‑quarters of an hour he sighted a drifter and ordered her to close. The drifter skipper admitted that he had seen green lights, and had heard gunfire, which appeared to come from the shore. Commander Mellin then heard an outburst of firing to the north and north‑north‑west, and turned back towards his station near the Varne. He had actually heard the Germans firing the last rounds of the raid against the Tessie's division.


Meanwhile, the Vice‑Admiral was becoming thoroughly anxious. At ten minutes past one the port war signal station had reported red rockets to the south‑south‑east; this seemed to confirm his belief that a submarine engagement was in progress, as the signal for a submarine was a red and a white Very light. None the less the continuous heavy gunfire, and the strange silence of all the ships on the patrol, were disturbing and ominous; and at 1.28 he had ordered Commander Mellin to report what was occasioning the gunfire. Ten minutes later he ordered the Downs Division to get under way and assemble at the South Sand Head, and instructed the captain in charge of the destroyers at Dover to put to sea in the Moorsom. The Germans had by then struck their last blow and were steaming homewards.


The gunfire had ceased, and the only report that came in from the Straits was an acknowledgment from Commander Mellin of the last order sent him. He also stated that he was on his way to investigate; and the Vice‑Admiral then ordered the Downs Division to return to their anchorage, and cancelled his orders to the Captain "D." A few minutes later he took in a message which strongly suggested that his anxiety had been after all unfounded. The skipper of the Goeland II, a flare trawler on the north‑western end of the minefield, was reporting to the captain of the patrol that it was a fine clear night with a light east wind. It could hardly have been guessed from this that the stout‑hearted but not very active-minded man, who sent in this report, had been seeing and hearing gunfire for the last hour and a half, had spoken the motor launch which had been under fire, and was quite convinced that German destroyers were about.


It was, indeed, truly remarkable that the real facts should have been so long unreported, for many vessels in the Straits were, by now, aware of what had happened. The Straits were actually lit up and beaconed by blazing trawlers, and several ships were moving to assist them. Notwithstanding all this the Germans, assisted by a final stroke of good fortune, succeeded in passing the forces which lay along their track at the north‑eastern end of the Straits.


At 2.25 am the Termagant's division had reached the north‑eastern end of their patrol line, and were on the turn. The Termagant was leading, and was followed by the Melpomene, the Zubian and the Amazon. Lieutenant Adam Ferguson, the commanding officer of the Amazon, was on the bridge of his ship at the time; the gunner was on watch. Lieutenant Ferguson was the first person on deck to sight destroyers on the port quarter of his ship. He at once ordered the signalman to challenge; the signalman did so, three times; no reply was made, and in three minutes the destroyers had disappeared. Lieutenant Ferguson and the officer of the watch had not the slightest doubt that the destroyers were British, and he reported to the Termagant, at the head of the line, that three British destroyers had passed under his stern steering east. Commander Bernard of the Termagant asked Lieutenant Ferguson why he thought the vessels were friendly, but time and darkness were against him ‑ each signal had to be passed along the line of destroyers before it reached its


Feb. 1918



recipient, and it would then have been useless to pursue destroyers on a bare suspicion and in a direction that could only be guessed at.


The result was that it was nearly three o'clock before the Vice‑Admiral was sure that the enemy had raided the Straits. Even then the reports were baffling and uncertain. At half-past two he had received a message from Commander Mellin in the M.26, which was now back at the north‑east Varne buoy, that a drifter near buoy No. 30 had sighted a green Very light. This was certainly the signal for a surface raid, but the message continued reassuringly, "all is now quiet." At three o'clock the commanding officer of the destroyer Syren reported that he had seen the drifter Cosmos abandoned and sinking in flames, near buoy No. 10, about three‑quarters of an hour before. It was, by then, far too late to take action; and it was not until dawn came up that the full extent of the damage was realised. Seven drifters and one trawler had been sunk, five other drifters, one trawler and a paddle minesweeper had been severely damaged; eighty‑nine officers and men were killed or missing.


When the German destroyers made off in the darkness they had raided the Dover Straits for the last time in the war. Their destroyer attacks upon the Straits are indeed a brilliant episode in German naval operations. Seven times in all the German destroyers burst into the Straits and inflicted loss and damage on our watching forces; on one occasion only had they themselves suffered. But although the enemy's raiding was well conducted it was never more serious than mere raiding. The shortest interval between any two successive attacks was about a month: the longest nearly nine. The German commander in Flanders was never able to shake our hold on the Straits by continuous attacks, with the consequence that the damage done by any one raid had been made good by the time the next raid was started.


The last raid, the most destructive, perhaps also the best executed of them all, laid singular emphasis upon the difficulties of interception. Authentic news that the enemy's destroyers were in the Straits had always been transmitted slowly and hesitatingly for two very natural reasons: commanding officers in the Straits could not be certain that enemy destroyers were about merely because they saw gunfire at no very great distance away; those who were the targets of the enemy's attack generally suffered from it so severely and so rapidly that they had no means of reporting what had happened. As a result, misunderstandings, uncertainties and misleading reports had always accompanied this wild night fighting. But although the commander at Dover had more than once been puzzled by confusing messages whilst a raid was taking place, he had never been called upon to deal with so difficult a situation as that which confronted Admiral Keyes on the night of February 14.


From his headquarters near the harbour he could hear continuous gunfire from seaward; its severity convinced him that something serious was occurring, yet all the enlightenment he received was a series of messages from commanding officers in the Straits, telling him that the gunfire was as audible to them as it was to him and the cause of it just as mysterious. It was natural, therefore, that the court of officers which Admiral Keyes convened to inquire into the disaster should have been much concerned at the most flagrant failures to discover and report what was occurring. The miscarriages to which the court drew attention were not, however, the only explanation of the enemy's success. As far as can be judged by experience, it was inevitable that the drifters and trawlers in the Straits should suffer loss if the Germans managed to pass the barrage patrols without being sighted. The trawlers burning flares were exceptionally vulnerable; and it is most doubtful whether any system of reporting, or any distribution of forces could have prevented the Germans from entering or leaving the Straits if they determined to do so. Admiral Keyes admitted this at the Court of Inquiry, and said that all he could do in the circumstances was to station his available destroyers on the barrage and hope that they would get news of an attack upon the minefield patrol and intercept the enemy upon their return.


Experience showed, however, that although this might be the best that could be attempted, the chances of executing it successfully were not good. On five previous occasions, night actions in the Dover Straits had been little but a few outbursts of rapid fire, at close range, at targets which loomed up out of the darkness for a few moments and disappeared into it again. And such experience as we had gained elsewhere seemed to show that nothing more satisfactory than this could ever be expected if the enemy's destroyers were brought to action after dark. More than a year previously the Harwich Force had been attacked, in overwhelming strength, across the track of a German flotilla on its way to Zeebrugge. The outcome was that the enemy was brought to action, that each side suffered damage and that the enemy's flotilla passed through our dispositions and reached harbour. The action fought by the Broke and Swift on April 20, 1917, was certainly a notable exception, but it stood alone, and it is never safe to draw conclusions from a


Feb. 1918



single case. If the chances of defeating the enemy decisively by intercepting him during a night raid were slight, the chance of bringing him to action at all was slighter still. It is true that if the green lights which announced that enemy destroyers were about were sent up, seen in other parts of the Straits and reported at once to all ships in harbour and on patrol, then, admittedly, considerable forces would have been on the track of the enemy raiders soon after they began their operations. But if, through unforeseen circumstances, this system broke down, if the vessels attacked had no time to make the signals, or if those who saw the signals did not report them, then the alarm had to be given by the ViceAdmiral on the strength of such information as he had obtained and such inferences as he could draw from them. This was a longer process for it always took at least forty minutes to send a message from the Vice‑Admiral to the Straits and to receive a reply.


If, therefore, the attack on the drifters had been at once reported by the skipper of the Shipmates, the destroyers on the barrage could hardly have received the Vice‑Admiral's orders before 1.40 ‑ probably they would have received them later ‑ and some time would have elapsed after that before the destroyers could have moved to their intercepting stations. Now the German raid was over, or nearly over, by 1.40, and the German destroyers were crossing the barrage at twenty minutes past two. All that can be said, therefore, is that if the raid had been reported to Dover at the earliest possible moment, the destroyers of the striking force might have had a better chance of bringing the enemy to action near the barrage; and that if they had done so, the action would probably have been an inconclusive affair; a few outbursts of rapid fire in which blind chance determined the incidence of damage.


The raid showed that our system of defence was exceptionally vulnerable; but other facts which became known during the week following also showed that the new system of patrols and minefields was causing the enemy submarine commanders considerable anxiety, and that this anxiety was possibly the real cause of the enemy's desire to shake and damage our watching forces. The efficacy of the Dover Straits defence was generally tested, not in situ, but at the opposite end of the British Isles. If submarines were found to be traversing the Fair Island channel in large numbers, it was assumed that the Dover Straits were, for the moment, thought exceptionally dangerous. An unusually large number of U‑boats were reported on the north‑about route during the week of the raid; and it was hoped that the deep minefields in the Dover Straits were acting as a strong deterrent. This obstacle, however, only mitigated submarine devastations in the Channel.


A large number of the U‑boats using the north‑about route were now operating in the Irish Sea and the Bristol Channel, where the losses were severe; and the convoys brought in by the Buncrana flotillas were particularly menaced by this new concentration. Early in the month, the Tuscania, carrying Canadian and American troops, had been torpedoed whilst in convoy, and on February 25 the Tiberia was sunk whilst passing through the boom at the entrance to Belfast Lough. It was clear that a barrier across any one passage would only cause the Germans to change their zones of concentration. If the submarine campaign was to be checked by the deep minelaying which was now the principal item in our war plan, then there would be no perceptible check until both ends of the North Sea were blocked. The order to begin work on the Northern barrage was actually given towards the end of the month, and on the following day Admiral Fremantle, the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, visited the Queen Elizabeth to confer with Admiral Beatty.


Admiral Beatty in particular was anxious that the duties which were dividing.the Grand Fleet into separate detachments should not be increased in scope or in number. Soon after the January conference, divisions from the battle fleet or the battle cruiser fleet had begun to act as covering forces for the Scandinavian trade; and large forces from the Grand Fleet had been sent to sea on January 3 to cover a minelaying operation near Terschelling. Nor was this all; four vessels of the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron were now fitted as minelayers; three of them had been engaged on January 3, and the entire squadron, with the exception of the Caledon, had been employed more or less regularly on minelaying duties for the rest of the month. As a result the Grand Fleet had been weakened by the withdrawal of an entire squadron; for, if the fleet had been ordered to sea at any time during the previous month, it would have been impossible for the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron to take up its allotted place in the reconnaissance line of the battle cruiser fleet. The discussion between Admiral Fremantle and the Commander‑in‑Chief naturally moved round the practical implications of the existing policy: it was obvious that some limit must be set to the attrition which these additional duties were causing; was it possible to lay down some clearly defined boundary line? Admiral Fremantle was able to give the Commander‑in‑Chief a definite promise that the light cruisers would be freed for their ordinary duties; but on all other points he could give him little satisfaction. It


Feb. 1918



was now intended to form a special minelaying squadron in the Humber (Abdiel, Legion, Ferret, Ariel and three V‑class destroyers.); and the three fast destroyers which would be the nucleus of the new force would have to be provided from the Grand Fleet. This, however, would not be the most serious call upon the Grand Fleet's forces. Minelaying upon the northern barrage was about to begin; and Admiral Fremantle informed the Commander‑in‑Chief that he would have to provide the destroyer escorts for the minelaying expeditions which would be going on continuously until the end of the year. The Commander‑in‑Chief could only point out that though this new drain upon his forces was inevitable, it might, none the less, create a situation of great danger.


The Admiralty seem to have been anxious to repeat the large anti‑submarine operations which had been carried out during the previous year, principally by the Grand Fleet destroyers; but the Commander‑in‑Chief was very doubtful whether they were sound undertakings. They had given very indifferent results and could only be carried out by forces that were numerically very strong. If added to other attritional processes, the outcome of these operations might well be that the Grand Fleet would be held in harbour for lack of destroyer escort.


Towards the end of the conference the Commander‑in-Chief spoke at great length about the existing system of protecting the Scandinavian trade. As the weather improved, the convoys would be sailing at absolutely regular intervals. This would make the date and time of each convoy's departure so easy to calculate that the enemy would surely take advantage of it, and as they probably knew already that battleships and detachments from the Grand Fleet were acting as supporting forces, the Commander‑in‑Chief might shortly be compelled to detach not a division but an entire squadron of battleships. If the enemy ever decided to undertake a large operation against the Scandinavian convoys and their supports, could the Admiralty be certain that they would get some kind of warning of their preparations?


The question was left unsettled, and a few weeks later the Commander‑in‑Chief raised it again, when Captain K. G. B. Dewar, Assistant Director of Plans, visited his flagship. With a foresight that was remarkably emphasised by later events, Admiral Beatty again argued that the existing arrangements for protecting the Scandinavian trade were a dangerous strategical experiment. Unless the Admiralty could be absolutely certain that they would get timely warning of an impending raid, we were risking disaster to a division of first‑class battleships every time a convoy sailed; for however powerful the covering and supporting forces might be, the Germans could always send out a stronger force unless the Grand Fleet itself put to sea whenever a convoy left harbour. The Admiralty had not been able to give sufficient warning of the last two raids against the Scandinavian convoy; would they be better informed in the future? If not, was the risk that we were taking really justifiable? Captain Dewar could only answer that the existing dispositions had been based on the assumption that the defence of the Scandinavian trade was the really important matter; he doubted whether the decision to protect trade with a detachment of battleships and battle cruisers would have been taken if the naval staff had examined the whole question. Again the question was left undecided; for Admiral Beatty was given no undertaking that warning would be given, nor was he authorised to alter the existing arrangements. A few weeks later, both Admiral Fremantle and Captain Dewar had reason to remember the Commander-in‑Chief's warning.


For the moment, however, the general feeling, by land and sea, was expectation: the defection of Russia, the disaster to the Italians in the autumn of the previous year had ruled out all thought of a renewed offensive on the Western Front. It was common knowledge that all through the winter the Germans had been moving their armies from east to west as fast as their deteriorated rolling stock permitted.


The British naval authorities were likewise making great exertions to expedite the transport of troops and supplies. Although the American armies were not yet ready, it was felt that the assembling of the American forces on French soil was the most important operation of the moment. The convoy division of the Ministry of Shipping had, for weeks past, been planning an important change in the existing system. There were now, in the Atlantic, some thirty-five ships capable of steaming 12 1/2 knots and upwards, which were assembled regularly at Halifax, for the HX convoys. These vessels were large cargo carriers; but they were also transporting large numbers of American troops. During the last five months of the previous year 48,000 American soldiers had been carried to Liverpool in the fast Halifax convoys.


In order to make the utmost use of the fast ships, the Ministry wished to divide them into five squadrons or divisions of about seven ships each, and to base these squadrons upon New York. Slower cargo steamers would be used as substitutes for the services to other ports. The change was, however, an important one; as the fast convoys would henceforward be


Feb-March 1918



run from New York instead of Halifax, and a convoy committee to supervise the turn‑round of vessels on the American side would have to be established in New York itself. The advantage was that all fast ships would be sailed from the port where the greatest number of troops were embarked, that the carrying capacity of each ship would be raised, that more men would be transported weekly and monthly to the theatre of the struggle. The plan was approved by all concerned and the necessary steps were taken. On March 9 the Admiralty issued the executive order.


Meanwhile all England was waiting for the impending onslaught. Whether it would be accompanied by any special operations in the North Sea was a matter of doubt; but the flag officers in the southern area felt it necessary to take special precautions against a renewal of the raiding policy which had recently scored such an unpalatable success. Early in March, at all events, Admiral Tyrwhitt issued orders for keeping a special striking force of two light cruisers and five destroyers patrolling near a rendezous in the centre of the Flanders Bight. Fourteen days later the Germans opened their great offensive and broke the British line near St. Quentin. Their attack was not immediately accompanied by any particular activity at sea. The enemy's submarine commanders made no exceptional effort in support of the army's movement, and adhered to the plan of operating close to the coast, which they had adopted late in the previous year. There was a slight intensification of the inshore attack during the first fortnight of the German offensive; for between March 17 and the end of the month four to five boats were located in the English Channel. The intention of the U‑boat commanders was, presumably, to make the transport routes as insecure as possible, for a concentration of boats at the eastern end of the Channel was noticed during the first week of the offensive. In addition to this, one or more boats hovered off Land's End, probably in the hope of attacking the French coal trade near one of its terminal points. A few days later, however, the German naval forces in Flanders carried out an operation which, as far as could be judged, was correlative to the great German offensive on land.




The raid on the Left flank of the Allied Armies, March 20‑21

(See Map 16.)


The protection and security of the sea flank of the Allied armies had been a serious naval responsibility from an early period of the war. The chief danger against which the Commodore at Dunkirk had to provide was a rapid landing on the low shelving foreshore behind the Allied front at Nieuport; but there was also a danger that the Germans without actually landing would raid the line of communications between Dunkirk and Nieuport by a carefully planned naval bombardment.


The railway to Nieuport leaves Dunkirk from the southern side of the town and then turns northeastward towards the sea. At the railway halt of Rosendael the line is less than a mile from the coast, and it is only about six miles further along, near le Coin, that it begins to recede from it; Adinkerke, the station before Furnes, is two miles from the foreshore at la Panne Bains. It was obviously easy for ships in the narrow channels opposite the coast to range their guns upon this exposed line of railway. The German staff, at all events, considered that the line was vulnerable and that it could be bombarded and damaged before the forces at Dunkirk could drive off the raiders. On March 18 the Commodore of the Flanders Flotilla issued an operation order for an attack against the Dunkirk‑Bray Dunes line. The raiding force was to be divided into three groups. The first - composed of six torpedo boats ‑ was to take station at the north‑east point of Nieuport Bank, and to bombard the traffic going eastward from Dunkirk; the second, whose composition was not stated in the orders, was to occupy a position on the north‑east point of the Smal Bank and to bombard the Bray Dunes sector of the line. The third group, under the direction of the Commodore, was to bombard la Panne and Adinkerke.


In the early morning of March 19, a motor launch on patrol located a group of four enemy destroyers near the light‑buoy at the northern end of the Zuidcoote Pass. They were probably carrying out a preliminary reconnaissance to enable the commanding officers to familiarise themselves with the shore lights and sea marks upon which they would have to depend upon the night of the bombardment. The following night, at all events, was selected for the operation, which appears to have been complementary to the great offensive against the Allied armies on the Somme. (The offensive on the Somme began on March 21.) Torpedo boats A.4 and A.9 were sent out after dark to mark the bombarding position at the northeast end of Nieuport Bank; A.19 and A.7 were sent to the second bombarding position at the north‑east end of the Smal Bank. On the night of March 20, our Commodore at Dunkirk had sent the Swift, Matchless, North Star and Myngs to the East Barrage Patrol in the Dover Straits. In Dunkirk


March 1918



Roads the Botha and the Morris, with the French destroyers Capitaine Mehl, Magon and Bouclier, were "at the ready."


The beaches to the eastward and westward of la Panne were considered the places at which the Germans would most probably attempt a landing, and a special force was always stationed in the anchorage opposite to the beaches. On the night of the impending attack the monitors M.25 and Terror and the French destroyer Oriflamme were anchored in the Potje, which is the name of the anchorage that lies opposite the beaches. The monitor General Craufurd was in Dunkirk roadstead, where there were also a number of motor boats and auxiliaries.


(Botha (flotilla leader), 1,742 tons, 31 knots, 6‑4 inch guns; Morris (t.b.d.), 1,010 tons, 34 knots, 3‑4 inch guns; Capitaine Mehl (t.b.d.), 755 tons, 2‑3.9 inch guns; Bouclier (t.b.d.), 777 tons, 31 knots, 2‑3.9‑inch guns; M.26 (monitor), 540 tons, 1‑6 inch gun; Terror (monitor), 8,000 tons, 2‑15 inch guns; Oriflamme (t.b.d.), 414 tons, 28 knots, 1‑ 9 pounder gun, 6‑3 pounder guns; General Craufurd (monitor), 5,900 tons, 2‑12‑inch guns.)


At half‑past one in the middle watch (March 21), Captain C. W. Bruton of the Terror was told by the officer of the watch that three or four small vessels appeared to be hovering about to the northward of Traepegeer No. 1 buoy. Being uncertain whether the Commodore at Dunkirk had stationed a special motor boat patrol in West Deep, Captain Bruton sent a signal to Dunkirk. The Commodore answered that he had not ordered any motor boats to patrol the West Deep, and that he was sending three motor boats to the Potje, which Captain Bruton was to send out towards the Traepegeer to investigate. The next two hours passed quietly; and the motor boats were just approaching the Terror, when the officers at Dunkirk sighted and heard heavy firing from seaward (3.45 a.m.). Commander R. L'E. M. Rede of the Botha ordered star‑shells to be fired to the north‑east and north‑west, whence the gunfire appeared to come; but nothing could be seen. Captain Bruton was more successful. He sighted and heard firing a few minutes after it had been heard from Dunkirk and located the direction from which it came. His first star‑shells, fired towards the Outer Ratel Bank, lit up three or four large destroyers.


The Botha and her division slipped their cables and steamed towards the Zuidcoote Pass, just as the Terror opened fire upon the destroyers to the north of her (3.55 a.m.). As far as Captain Bruton could tell, the bombarding ships appeared to be moving to the east. Shortly after he opened fire, the bombardment ceased, and when it began again (4.05), Captain Bruton was informed that the Botha and her division were under way, making for the Zuidcoote Pass. By then Commander Rede had just entered the southern end of the Pass and sighted gun flashes to the north‑eastward. When the division had reached the Traepegeer buoy, the firing ceased, and Commander Rede could only steer up the West Deep, firing star‑shells as he went. At Dunkirk, the Commodore ordered Lieutenant Willett to go towards Ostend with the coastal motor boat No. 20, and attack the Germans as they returned to harbour.


Commander Rede took his division across the north‑eastern end of the Smal Bank, and at 4.35 he sighted the enemy. The force he sighted was one of the bombarding divisions of five destroyers, followed by the two small torpedo boats which had been anchored on the Bank as mark boats. These two boats had got hastily under way when they saw from the Botha's star shells that a division of British ships was approaching. The British and French ships at once opened fire, which the Germans returned. The German destroyers passed ahead of the Botha, but the two torpedo boats could not close up; indeed the leading division does not seem to have made any attempt to extricate them. After ten minutes of firing, the Botha was hit in No 2 stokehold and her speed began to fall off. Commander Rede, seeing that the enemy were drawing ahead, turned to port to attack them with torpedoes. Having fired two he closed the enemy's line still further, and rammed A.19, which was hurrying after the division of destroyers with A.7 astern of her. The Botha struck the German torpedo boat amidships and cut her in two pieces; but almost as she did so, a smoke screen from the German destroyers ahead covered a large part of the division. Commander Rede could only see A.7 coming up astern of A.19, which he had just rammed, so he again put his helm over. He missed her, and passed ahead, but raked her almost at point‑blank range with his after guns. At this moment he was still being followed by most of his division; but the smoke screen was now so thick that they could no longer keep in touch. The Botha continued to turn slowly to port; the French destroyers, anxious to engage A.7 as closely as possible, turned very sharply to port in order to put themselves on a course parallel to the enemy; the Morris turned away sharply in the opposite direction. The Botha's fighting lights were now no longer burning, as the electric circuit had been severed during the engagement. A few minutes later Captain de Parseval of the Capitaine Mehl saw what looked like a large destroyer on an opposite course to starboard of him. He thought it was the Botha, but the officer on the torpedo tube could only think that a


March 1918



destroyer, approaching without fighting lights, was one of the enemy's division. He at once fired a torpedo and it hit the Botha in the after boiler‑room: she slowed down and then stopped dead. The French destroyers now sank A.7 with their guns, and later formed a screen astern of the Botha, which was taken in tow by the Morris.


The German division, which had passed ahead of the Botha, did not return to its base unmolested. Lieutenant Willett, in coastal motor boat No. 20, went up the West Deep at full speed, towards the gunfire to the north‑east. Just after five o'clock, as he was approaching the Stroom Bank light‑buoy off Ostend, he sighted five destroyers ahead of him, sharply outlined against the dawn, which was just breaking. They turned away as he approached them; but he pressed on to the very short range of 600 yards before he fired a torpedo. Both Lieutenant Willett and those on deck thought that the torpedo hit the fourth destroyer in the line. He turned away after firing and put up a smoke screen; he needed all the protection he could get; for he was in a perfect hurricane of fire, but managed to escape and made fast to No. 6 buoy.


As far as the Admiralty could judge, this short and fruitless raid against the Flanders coast was the only attempt that the enemy forces in the southern area made to second their great offensive on land. In the Irish Sea and the Bristol Channel, however, the U‑boat concentration was unrelaxed and it began to cause alarm, seeing that our countermeasures were quite unavailing. It was, moreover, a concentration more likely to disturb the workings of the convoy system than any previously attempted; for although every attempt by the enemy to make a methodical attack upon the convoys in the western approaches had failed, the narrow channel which the escorted ships traversed between the Scottish and Irish coasts was a zone in which convoys were far easier to locate and attack. The losses of the previous month, which were followed by the loss of the Calgarian, (Armed Merchant Cruiser, sunk by submarine on March 1.) at all events determined the convoy division to divert the northabout convoys to the southern route, and so evade the enemy's concentration.


Six convoys in all were affected; but not all were diverted. The first three (HS.31, HX.25 and HN.52) were escorted right through to Liverpool, and the destroyers accompanying them transferred, temporarily, to Admiral Bayly's command. With these reinforcements he was able to provide escort for the additional convoys (HH.46, HX.26 arrived at the rendezvous March 24. HN.54 arrived at the rendezvous March 26.) which were diverted to the southern rendezvous and brought in through the western approaches. The additional destroyers were also used to escort outgoing convoys from Liverpool, which were specially formed during the critical period. These changes were carried out with the greatest precision, and as soon as the full‑moon period was over the destroyers returned to their ordinary command and the system to its regular working. The diversion was only temporary; but it was a remarkable operation, which illustrated the extent of the control which was now exercised over merchant shipping and the elasticity of the system. By a mere executive order the Admiralty and the Ministry of Shipping were now able to move thousands of tons of shipping from one route to another, and to supervise the execution of their orders in the minutest detail.


At sea, the month during which the Germans opened their offensive in France was, therefore, fairly quiet, and it was during this month that the Admiralty began to lay the immense minefield, at the northern exit of the North Sea, which the Allied Admirals, when they assembled in conference in the autumn of the previous year, had considered to be the operation of war most likely to give decisive results. Its chances of success or failure were well balanced.


The average rate of U-boat destruction was between five and six boats a month; the Northern barrage, which was an addition to every other agency of submarine destruction, might, therefore, raise this average monthly figure appreciably. The barrage in the Dover Straits was not strictly comparable to the minefields that were about to be laid in the North Sea; distances, depths, currents, weather and the geographical configuration of the land and sea all differed. But the two systems were comparable in that both were devised in order to subject passing submarines to an identical form of danger: that of navigating through a zone of water fitted with mines that had been set to varying depths. In so far as the nature of the danger would be identical, it might, therefore, be hoped that the degree of risk to passing submarines might be roughly the same in the northern barrage and the Straits of Dover, and consequently that about the same number of U‑boats might be destroyed in each zone during the course of a month. Five boats had been lost in the Dover Straits during the first three months of the year 1918, so that, if this rough calculation of chances and probabilities proved correct, between one and two submarines would be lost in the mines of the Northern barrage every month. This would raise the total monthly destruction from about five to six or seven, which would not by any means be decisive.


The Admiralty, however, seem to have hoped for more than


March 1918



this, though the Commander‑in‑Chief was extremely sceptical. During the discussions about the patrol forces that should be allotted to the barrage, he stated that the Admiralty seemed to him to be undertaking too much; they were seeking for a complete antidote, and he, for one, did not think they were likely to find it. In his opinion it would be far better to lay smaller minefields in the Kattegat, the Fair Island Channel, and the northern and southern entrances to the Irish Sea.


But the Admiralty were, by now, committed to the scheme and the operation was well in hand. After long preliminary discussions, it had been decided that the minefields should be laid between the Orkneys and the Bergen leads and that it should be patrolled by a special force of sloops, P‑boats and trawlers based at Lerwick and Kirkwall, and placed under the orders of a flag officer. The obstruction was to be divided into three sections. (See Map 17.) The mines in the central section were to be laid by the American navy, and were to be in successive lines which would make the area dangerous from the surface to a depth of 200 feet. This area was to be declared dangerous by a notice to mariners issued by the Hydrographer of the Navy. The mines in the eastern and western sections were to be laid by the British navy, and were to constitute a complex of deep minefields patrolled by surface forces. This immense project could only be undertaken after a considerable amount of preliminary work had been carried out. Mine bases had to be established at Dalmore and Inverness, and special facilities made at Corpach and Loch Alsh for receiving and transporting the material shipped from America. Early in the new year the preparations were so far advanced that a start could be made, and on March 3 the minelayer Paris laid the first field in the western section of the barrage.


It was an essential part of the plan that the barrage should be watched by patrol forces sufficiently numerous and powerful to compel submarines to dive into the minefields. Admiral Tupper, who had earned such distinction as the commander of the 10th Cruiser Squadron, was appointed to command the Northern barrage patrol vessels. The vessels of his command had not yet been assembled, and he was for the moment engaged at Whitehall in discussing plans and making arrangements for basing and supplying his forces. As a beginning, however, Captain Bruce, who, in Admiral Tupper's absence, was in charge of the small force which was to be expanded later, stationed his trawlers in the Fair Island Channel to the north of the new minefield.


Minelaying continued throughout the month; but on March 22 the sloop Gaillardia blew up whilst buoying the new minefield. The disaster caused the gravest misgivings about the mines that were being used. They had been adjusted to a depth of sixty‑five feet below the surface; the loss of a vessel which drew only twelve feet, and was at the time a considerable distance from the line of buoys, suggested that the new mine was not satisfactory. All work upon the barrage was stopped until the cause of the disaster could be ascertained by experiment.


After very searching inquiries, the Admiralty decided, on April 20, to go on with the project. Just as the decision was taken the German High Seas Fleet was committed to what was perhaps the boldest operation undertaken by the German Naval Staff since the war began; an operation, in fact, which carried the German battle squadrons right up to the northern entrance of the North Sea, into the very waters that we proposed to mine and patrol.




The Last German Fleet Sortie. April 22‑25, 1918

(See Map 18.)


Whenever the Commander‑in‑Chief had been in conference with representatives from the Admiralty, he had insisted that the giving of protection to the Scandinavian trade by detaching divisions of battleships and battle cruisers involved grave strategical risks, unless the Admiralty could be sure of obtaining early information of an impending move by the High Seas Fleet. He could not believe that the German Staff would remain in ignorance of our dispositions, nor could he believe that they would make no move when they learned that forces detached from the battle fleet were moving across the North Sea unsupported. On both points Admiral Beatty was correct. During the early spring of 1918 the German Intelligence Staff had been busy collecting information upon the effects of the submarine campaign, and of their recent attacks upon the Scandinavian convoy. According to Admiral Scheer they had learned through their agents, and from a careful observation of British wireless signals, that considerable forces had been moved south for escort duty, and that the Grand Fleet crews had been weakened to strengthen the personnel of the anti‑submarine forces in the Channel. The German Staff also learned from their U‑boat commanders that battleships, cruisers and destroyers were now protecting the Norwegian convoy. The reports of the German U‑boat commanders were more accurate than the inferences drawn by the German


April 1918



deciphering staff at Neumunster. The 3rd Battle Squadron had, it is true, been put out of commission in March to supply trained crews for the anti‑submarine forces; but the 3rd Battle Squadron was not part of the Grand Fleet; its dispersal in no way affected the strength of the Grand Fleet crews. Secondly, no forces from the Grand Fleet were absorbed in anti‑submarine warfare. None the less, this information, though inaccurate in detail, contained a substance of truth: the drain on our destroyer forces, which had been continuous since the war began, was as great as ever. If a sudden alarm were given, the Commander‑in‑Chief might find that he had no more than forty boats available for immediate operations; if the alarm were made at a more favourable moment when the call for destroyers was not so severe, from seventy to eighty boats out of his total complement of one hundred and twenty, might be ready for immediate service. In a general sense, therefore, the German intelligence was correct; in one important respect the Grand Fleet was always below strength, and the Commander‑in‑Chief was always hampered as a consequence. What the U‑boat commanders had reported was strictly accurate: battleship and cruiser forces were actually supporting the Scandinavian convoy. But the supplementary information upon the time at which convoys left and arrived was not so correct.


"According to these sources of information," writes Admiral Scheer, "the convoy movement appeared to take place chiefly at the beginning or in the middle of a week." This was incorrect and very misleading, for the Scandinavian convoy was run at perfectly regular intervals, and if the date of one sailing or arrival could be obtained, the dates of all subsequent ones should have been calculable. In one important respect, therefore, Admiral Beatty had over‑estimated the enemy's ability to collect accurate and detailed information, for he had always assumed that the Germans would discover the exact dates and times when our convoys were sailing. It was indeed reasonable to assume it; for this was the least difficult part of the enemy's preparations.


The exaggerations in the German intelligence reports seem to have influenced the plan of operations to which Admiral Scheer committed the High Seas Fleet in April 1918; but it is only fair to add that if his information had been rigidly accurate, his project would still have been sound and feasible. He was indeed preparing to act exactly as Admiral Beatty had feared, and was about to execute a plan which the Commander-in‑Chief had always considered possible for the enemy and highly dangerous to ourselves. Admiral Scheer's project bore the impress of his previous plans ‑ it was designed for isolating and overwhelming some part of the British battle fleet. The convoy had twice been successfully attacked in the eastern section of its route: would it not, therefore, be possible to move the High Seas Fleet into this zone ‑ which the British found so difficult to protect ‑ and there overwhelm the convoy and its powerful supporting forces? Admiral Scheer does not say whether he was aware of a very important change that had recently been made in our dispositions for covering the North Sea. On April 12 the Grand Fleet had been moved to Rosyth; and only the 2nd Cruiser Squadron and some destroyers had been left at Scapa. This move south to a new base at least affected Admiral Scheer's plans indirectly. The zone in which he desired to operate was, it is true, rather further from Rosyth than from Scapa; but it was well to the north of the new base, and eighteen hours' steaming, or even less, would always carry the bulk of our battle fleet to an intercepting position between Stavanger and the Horn Reefs channel. This, if he knew it, must have weighed heavily with Admiral Scheer; but he probably relied upon his wireless intelligence to give him timely warning.


The success of the German plan was, of course, contingent upon the secrecy with which it could be covered, and the problem of secrecy was not easy of solution. The High Seas Fleet had never been able to put to sea without giving some indications of movement; but recently these indications had been very much reduced. Small detachments had entered the North Sea almost undetected, and had so disguised their movements and intentions that all our dispositions for countering and intercepting them had been based on inference and guess‑work. If, therefore, the methods for preserving secrecy which had worked so well during recent operations could be made sufficiently embracing to cover a sortie of the High Seas Fleet, there was no reason why Admiral Scheer's plan should not end in a resounding success. For to take the High Seas Fleet to the coast of Norway to sink another convoy and its escorting cruisers under the eyes of the neutral skippers; to overwhelm a battle squadron almost within sight of the Norwegian coastguard stations and lighthouse keepers, and to do all this whilst the British armies in Flanders were reeling under the German onslaught, would be a success of the first order.


Admiral Scheer knew well that secrecy depended upon the suppression of wireless signals during the preliminary period of the operation. But as wireless signals cannot be dispensed with when large forces put to sea, and concentrate in the free patches and cleared channels of a mine‑strewn area, he had to


April 1918



devise some method of concentrating the fleet, and at the same time of disguising the purposes of the concentration. His stratagem was well conceived; "all available ships were assembled in the Heligoland Bight on the evening of the 22nd under the pretext of carrying out battle practices and evolutions. The commanders of divisions and squadrons were then given their orders and informed of our intentions for the first time." (Scheer, p. 320, Eng. Ed.) The greatest possible restriction of wireless signalling during the operation ‑ which was to be spread across the Skagerrak to the Norwegian coast ‑ was imposed upon all squadron commanders. The day fixed for the attack was April 24, and the first part of Admiral Scheer's concentration was carried out without a hitch.


It so happened that Admiral Scheer's first concentration in the Bight was taking place whilst Admiral Keyes was delivering his attack upon Zeebrugge. Admiral Tyrwhitt was patrolling with his force in a covering position between the Brown Ridge and the Texel; and the Admiralty were watching with exceptional anxiety for any signs of movement by the High Seas Fleet. The Commander‑in‑Chief was always given information about any movement that had been detected; but as absolutely no reports of the High Seas Fleet sortie were received during the day, the Commander‑in‑Chief was informed that the Bight seemed quiet. In the north the convoy movements continued regularly. At a quarter‑past one in the afternoon of the 22nd, the home‑bound convoy of thirty‑four ships left Selbjorns Fiord under the escort of the Duke of Cornwall, the Lark and the Llewellyn. They were covered by the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron and the 7th Light Cruiser Squadron, which met them outside and steamed across the North Sea to the south of them. When daylight came up on the 23rd the convoy was about one hundred and forty miles to the east of the Orkneys, and Admiral Scheer, with his movement still undetected, was beginning to move his squadrons northwards through the swept channels in the Bight.


Almost as soon as they were under way, a dense fog came down and covered the entire North Sea. In the north, the convoy and the covering forces ran into it soon after eight: in the south, Admiral Scheer went cautiously onwards until he reached the inner edge of the British minefields, when he anchored. His preparations for disguising the movement were so well thought out, and emergencies had been so carefully provided against, that this set‑back did not prejudice the secrecy of the Plan. Indeed his original plan of concentrating the fleet for simulated exercises worked admirably. During the day, our directional wireless stations detected no unusual movements in the Bight. At half‑past eight in the evening, therefore, the Commander‑in‑Chief was again informed that the Bight was quiet. Just as the Admiralty sent away the telegram, Admiral Scheer's squadrons were sighted and located for the first time.


After the German fleet had been at anchor for half an hour, the fog cleared slightly, and Admiral Scheer again got underway. But the weather was still very thick and the passage through the minefield was slow; it was only towards evening that the fleet cleared the outer limits and that the minesweepers and barrier breakers were ordered back. The German Fleet was now entering the zones watched by our submarines. Four British submarines were patrolling the approaches to the Bight at the time. They were stationed along a rough quadrant between the Texel and Lyngvig. At the western extreme of the quadrant ‑ near the Texel ‑ was V.4 (Harwich); further north, on the south‑eastern side of the Dogger Bank, was E.42 (Harwich); on the north‑eastern side of the line was J.4 (Blyth); on the northern, towards Horn Reefs, was J.6 (Blyth). (E.45 was approaching Heligoland on a minelaying expedition.) As Admiral Scheer's squadrons debouched into the Bight they crossed the area that was being watched by J.6; and Lieutenant‑Commander G. Warburton, the commanding officer, soon sighted them. His submarine had been in the fog all the morning, but in the afternoon it had cleared away, and at eight o'clock in the evening he sighted a group of destroyers and light cruisers. The weather was thick and hazy, and he thought they were British ships, supporting or covering one of the minelaying operations that were incessantly going on at the exit from the Bight. He had been warned, in his sailing orders, that British cruisers might be operating inside the zone that he was watching. Half an hour later he saw five battle cruisers and destroyers steering to the north‑north‑east; and at a quarter‑past twelve he saw heavy ships, which must have been the first echelon of Admiral Scheer's advancing battle squadrons. This procession of vessels, on a northerly course, at the very entrance to the Bight did not rouse his suspicions. He remained convinced that they were British vessels, engaged upon some operation, and sent in no report of any kind to the Commander‑in‑Chief.


Admiral Scheer thus slipped out into the North Sea unreported; but the quarry that he was hunting was fast slipping away from him. By dark on the 23rd, the convoy and its covering force had reached the latitude of Buchan Ness. They had struggled through the fog all day, and towards nightfall it


April 1918



had settled down, thicker than ever. None the less the escort reached the western rendezvous at about the scheduled time, and there was no reason to doubt that the convoy would be brought into Methil on the following morning. No other convoy was due to leave until the 24th, so that Admiral Scheer and his battle squadrons were steaming into a no‑man's sea, abandoned alike by merchantmen and men‑of‑war.


In the early hours of the 24th the Admiralty at last began to suspect that something unusual was afoot, and in order to make early provision against a raid on the south‑east coast, the Harwich Force was ordered to raise steam. (The Harwich Force had returned to harbour from their covering Patrol during the operation at Zeebrugge between 3.0 and 4.0 p.m. on the 23rd.) The homeward‑bound convoy was then approaching the Firth of Forth; and the outward‑bound ships were preparing to sail under the escort of the Ursula and the Landrail. The Admiralty did not consider that the vague reports in their hands would justify them in suspending the convoy service. The commanding officers continued to make their preparations, though the fog was still very thick, and the convoy got under way at half‑past six. As they steamed out of harbour, however, the Admiralty warned the Commander‑in‑Chief that the enemy was taking special precautions in the Bight, and that some operation was about to be undertaken.


But this large operation, as it proved to be, was then far advanced towards failure. Early in the morning a serious accident occurred in the Moltke's engine‑rooms: she was steaming ahead of the fleet with Hipper's reconnaissance and was at the time about forty miles west‑south‑west of Stavanger. Admiral von Hipper was most unwilling to abandon the operation; so he ordered the Moltke to retire on Admiral Scheer. Later, hearing that the Moltke had come to a complete standstill, he turned back with his whole force. This, however, was not the most serious consequence of the accident: the damage to the Moltke, and the change of plan, had to be reported to Admiral Scheer, and this broke the wireless silence that the Germans had maintained so long and so successfully. Our directional stations at once picked up the signals that were being exchanged between Admiral von Hipper and the Commander‑in‑Chief. As a consequence the Admiralty became aware that a detachment of enemy ships was off the south‑western coast of Norway, and that a large operation was in progress. The reports from our directional stations continued to come in freely, and at a quarter to eleven the Grand Fleet was ordered to put to sea and concentrate east of the Long Forties. (The Commander‑in‑Chief had put the fleet at 2 1/2 hours for steam in the early morning.) Just before the order went out the homeward convoy and its covering forces came into Methil; the Commander‑in‑Chief was thus free to act against any enemy forces that might be reported, and to leave the convoy out of consideration in making his dispositions.


Meanwhile Admiral Scheer had got into touch with Hipper and the Moltke. He ordered the battleship Oldenburg to take the damaged ship in tow, and turned back for the Heligoland Bight just as Admiral Beatty received his orders to put to sea. Admiral Scheer was, however, unwilling that the operation against the convoy should be abandoned altogether; and so ordered Admiral von Hipper to press on northwards to intercept it. But when Admiral von Hipper turned his cruisers towards Slotteroe, the convoy and its covering forces were already safe in Methil.


In the meantime provision had to be made for supporting the 2nd Cruiser Squadron, which was isolated from the rest of the fleet and was in the Orkneys, and for the battleship Agincourt, which was still at Scapa. At a quarter past twelve, therefore, the Commander‑in‑Chief warned the Admiral Commanding the Orkneys and Shetlands that enemy forces were at sea, and that they might be contemplating an attack upon the islands. He also told him that the St Vincent and the Hercules ‑ then at Invergordon ‑ had been ordered north to strengthen the 2nd Cruiser Squadron.


Both the Admiralty and the Commander‑in‑Chief had now to consider whether the independent movements of detached forces should be continued or not. There were two of these movements to be considered: the outward-bound convoy from Methil, and a minelaying expedition from the Humber. The outward‑bound convoy was now past the Firth of Tay. The 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron was under orders to act as a covering force; and it was an open question whether the convoy and its protecting forces should be recalled or not. The Admiralty told the Commander‑in-Chief to hold back the convoy if he wished to keep the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron under his orders; but Admiral Beatty decided to allow both the convoy and its covering forces to carry on. He also ordered the 2nd Cruiser Squadron and the two battleships Hercules and Agincourt to leave Scapa and strengthen the covering force. (The St Vincent was under repairs and could not leave Invergordon, as ordered earlier in the day.).


April 1918



In the early afternoon the Grand Fleet put to sea from Rosyth; and by midnight effect had been given to the dispositions ordered during the day. The force that sailed was: 31 battleships, 4 battle cruisers, 2 cruisers, 24 light cruisers, 85 destroyers:


Queen Elizabeth:

Flagship, Grand fleet

1st Battle Squadron

9 ships








4 (U.S.A.) R.‑Ad. H. Rodman.

1st Battle Cruiser Squadron

4 battle cruisers

1st Cruiser Squadron

2 cruisers

1st Light Cruiser Squadron

5 light cruisers







Attached to Fleet


11th Destroyer Flotilla

20 destroyers (including leaders)










The Fleet flagship was then ninety miles east of May Island; the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron, which had been held back by the fog, was getting under way; the 2nd Cruiser Squadron and the Agincourt were shortening in at Scapa, and the Hercules was steaming northwards to join them. The convoy had just reached the latitude of Buchan Ness.


Also E.42 was ordered to steam at full speed to one of the principal channels into the Bight. The exact point that E.42 was to occupy was about forty miles from the north entrance to the channel, and a few miles north of an important junction point in the complex of swept passages through the Bight.


By that time our squadrons were moving out against a combination which had failed. When Admiral von Hipper reached the convoy route he found nothing. As he did not know of the convoy which sailed from Methil, he turned back when he reached his intercepting position. Admiral Scheer's battle squadrons had moved south all day, and by nightfall were past the Grand Fleet's line of advance.


Submarine J.6, under Lieutenant‑Commander Warburton, was still on her station near Horn Reefs, and at four o'clock in the morning, whilst the minelayers and the Harwich Force were running out of the Bight, he sighted a group of light cruisers and destroyers to the northward, steering south: he dived, and an hour and a half later he saw a larger force which he took for battle cruisers, followed by light cruisers. He watched these ships pass southwards until a quarter‑past seven, when he lost sight of them, and reported by wireless to the Commander‑in‑Chief. He had evidently seen the first echelon of the German fleet approaching the swept channel.


Meanwhile E.42, under Lieutenant C. H. Allen, was pressing on towards her intercepting position in the German swept channel. She reached it just before noon, and, as the German fleet made very slow progress through the minefield, she was ahead of it. All that day Admiral Scheer ‑ with all his squadrons now united ‑ worked down the swept channels, and some time after five o'clock the Moltke was allowed to go in under her own steam. The fleet was then abreast of the Lister Deep. At about the time that the Moltke was cast off, Lieutenant Allen sighted "three small tufts of smoke" about six miles to the north‑east. He made off at full speed to the south‑east to get ahead of them, and at about halfpast five he was in position. He fired four times at the procession of ships that was filing past him, and heard a distant explosion after the last torpedo had run its course. He had hit the damaged Moltke; but he did not know it until long after. A few minutes later, however, he had good reason to know that the enemy had located him. His ship was the focusing point of a succession of underwater explosions; he counted twenty‑five in all, and was not clear of his pursuers for a whole hour. By this time (1.41 p.m.) the Admiralty had learned that the High Seas Fleet was returning to harbour, and had told the Commander‑in‑Chief to return to his base when he thought fit.


This was the last sortie carried out by the German fleet during the war. It had been planned and executed with great skill; from first to last we were completely baffled, and if Admiral Scheer's intelligence had been more accurate, he would have had an excellent chance of doing enormous damage. Supposing that he had taken his fleet north twenty-four hours sooner or twenty‑four hours later, with the same secrecy, he would then have fallen in with the convoy that left Slotteroe on the 22nd, or the convoy which left Methil on the 24th; and our first warning of his presence off the Norwegian coast would have been news that a convoy had been destroyed and its covering forces overwhelmed. Admiral Scheer failed because, in spite of all his careful preparation, he had not prepared enough. He did not know when the convoys sailed and arrived, and was content to compute the dates by rough guess‑work. Yet he must have had


April 1918



means of collecting the data for a more accurate calculation. Between January 20, when the new system of convoys was started, and April 22, when Admiral Scheer took the High Seas Fleet out of harbour, twenty‑five convoys had arrived in Norway, and twenty‑six had left Norway for Methil. There had been delays and irregularities in the sailings during the earlier part of the year; but the outward sailings for March and April had been very steady, and a German consul's clerk could easily have informed the German naval authorities that the scheduled interval between two British convoys was four days.


A. Convoys sailed from Methil:

January 20, 24, 27, 30.

February 2, 6, 9, 14, 18, 22, 25.

March 1, 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 28, 31.

April 4, 8, 12, 16, 20.

B. Convoys sailed from Norway:

January 19, 22, 26, 29.

February 1, 3, 8, 11, 19, 21, 24, 27.

March 3, 6, 11, 14, 18, 22, 26, 30.

April 2, 6, 10, 14, 19, 22.


Even though they might have been uncertain of the exact date upon which the next convoy was due, the German consular agents could easily have ascertained that Admiral Scheer's information about convoy arrangements was quite wrong. For they must surely have known that the dates of departure were separated by intervals made as regular as the weather would allow, and that the actual days of the week had nothing to do with the dates of sailings or arrivals. It is curious, and possibly explanatory of his failure, that Admiral Scheer does not mention the German consuls in Norway amongst his sources of information. Indeed, as he states particularly, it was from the U‑boat captains that he learned about the convoy movements and the composition of its covering forces. If the U‑boat commanders were his only sources of information, it is truly extraordinary that he or his staff should not have amplified their reports by inquiries from civilian officials. His submarine commanders were competent to ascertain the routes that the convoys followed, their numbers, steaming formations, and the character of the forces defending the merchantmen; but they could not conceivably be relied upon to locate every convoy that sailed ‑ many indeed must have passed the watching U‑boats by night ‑ and they were, in consequence, quite incapable of drawing up a calendar of convoy movements. It is, of course, mere guess‑work to explain Admiral Scheer's failure by assuming that he and his staff relied solely upon U‑boat reports for their knowledge of our convoy movements. On the other hand, it is difficult to find any other explanation for his failure to obtain accurate information on a matter which was essential to his success, and upon which accurate information was easy to obtain, if the request to supply it had been addressed to the proper quarter.










Whilst the High Seas Fleet was searching for the Scandinavian convoy, and whilst the Grand Fleet was sweeping the North Sea in search of the High Seas Fleet, a specially constituted naval force hurled itself at the defences of the Belgian coast in a desperate endeavour to block the submarine bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge.


This attack on the Belgian bases was the last survivor of a distinguished family of adventurous projects. The plans which had already been considered must be briefly reviewed, if the genesis and execution of the final project are to be understood. Late in 1916, Admiral Bayly at Queenstown had advocated a combined operation against Borkum, Ostend and Zeebrugge; but neither the Admiralty nor the General Staff considered that the plan was feasible. Even though troops could have been landed and could have entrenched themselves, the difficulty of supplying them would have been enormous. A flow of traffic would have had to be maintained across a submarine‑infested area to an open anchorage on the enemy's coast; the bulky, heavy material necessary to an army in the field would have had to be landed across an open beach or along a few extemporised pontoons and piers; and this mass of transports and their covering forces would have collected off the enemy's coast, within striking distance of their fleet bases. Military objections were equally strong; it was now an axiom of military strategy that troops should only be landed on a coast if they can advance from their landing‑place in sufficient force to engage the enemy's armies. To maintain isolated bodies of troops at two or more selected points on a hostile coastline was almost impossible, and if possible not worth while; in a few days they would be besieged from the land, perhaps from the sea as well.


Subsequently a large number of plans were submitted: Heligoland, Sylt, Schellig roads, and Borkum were all recommended as points of attack, but the objections to Admiral Bayly's plan were applicable to those that succeeded it.


Towards the end of 1915, Admiral Bacon and the High Naval authorities discussed together a detailed plan for attacking the lock gates at Zeebrugge under cover of a smoke screen. The Admiralty's objections were strong, and although Admiral Bacon had been sufficiently interested in the project to bring it to the notice of the authorities in Whitehall, he agreed with them that the risks were too great.


A year later Commodore Tyrwhitt urged the Admiralty to sanction a blocking attack upon Zeebrugge. When he found that this project was not favourably received he submitted another, more comprehensive one, for capturing the mole and the town beyond, which, he suggested, should then be made a starting‑point for a military expedition against Antwerp.


Admiral Bacon was asked to give his opinion on this plan; and he stated that it seemed to him to have all the weaknesses of the project which he had discussed at the Admiralty eighteen months before. He did not believe that the parties landed on the mole and elsewhere could penetrate as far as the locks, far less carry the town. The objection to a military expedition against Antwerp was that, as far as he knew, the military authorities would neither approve of it nor undertake it. The Admiralty appear to have endorsed Admiral Bacon's opinion.


When Admiral Keyes became Director of the Plans Division, the First Sea Lord handed him a dossier containing a large number of projects for coastal and blocking expeditions, and ordered him to report. On December 3, two months after he had taken up his appointment, he submitted a new plan to the Board. In this project Zeebrugge and Ostend were to be blocked simultaneously by old cruisers under cover of darkness, between March 14 and 17; if the operation was to be carried out at morning twilight, March 18 and 19 were the most suitable dates; but the method and time of attack must be settled by the officer commanding. In order to meet the kind of criticism which had been levelled at so many previous plans, Admiral Keyes reminded the Board that the operation he recommended was not more risky to the men engaged than any massed attack on the Western Front.


This plan was submitted to Admiral Bacon, who visited the Admiralty on December 18 with an alternative project. Admiral Bacon's plan differed materially from the one just prepared, in that an assault on the mole, similar to that proposed by Commodore Tyrwhitt, was added to the blocking operation. The monitor, Sir John Moore, was to go up to the mole bows on, and land about 1,000 storming troops across an enormous brow twelve feet wide and forty‑eight


Jan. 1918



feet long. As the troops were put on the mole, the monitor General Craufurd was to go alongside the mole and bombard the lock gates and the forts. The twelve‑inch shells used in this bombardment were to be fired by specially reduced charges, suitable for the short range. The block‑ships were to be run into the harbour under cover of the monitor attack. After some discussion of the plans before them the Admiralty decided that an attack should be made upon Zeebrugge and that Admiral Bacon should be in charge of it. As soon as approval was given, Admiral Keyes visited the Grand Fleet to raise the necessary officers, seamen and stokers. Admiral Beatty at once promised that the officers and men required should be provided. Later on those who were approached were merely asked whether they were ready to perform a hazardous service. There were no refusals.


The names of the ships which subsequently became so famous first appear in the records of this great operation in a minute prepared by Admiral Keyes after his return from the Grand Fleet. In this paper he informed the Board that six blocking cruisers would be required, and urged that they should be selected from the Sirius, Thetis, Brilliant, Vindictive, Intrepid, Hermione, Sappho and Iphigenia (December 27).


A few days after Admiral Keyes returned to London, he was ordered to succeed Admiral Bacon at Dover. He arrived at his new command on New Year's Day, but before he left London the new Board confirmed the decision that an attack should be delivered against the Belgian bases, and left Admiral Keyes free to plan and execute it as he thought best. After long consideration, Admiral Keves decided that he must modify his predecessor's plan considerably. Knowing, as he did, that the lock gates were run back into great concrete shelters on the first sign of danger, Admiral Keyes did not consider that their bombardment would serve any useful purpose. Nor could he believe that a monitor with her speed reduced to four knots by false bows and a paraphernalia of special fittings, could ever be brought bows on to the mole, and kept there in a three‑knot current. To land the storming troops across one large brow which might be put out of action by a single shell was to place the success or failure of the whole expedition at the mercy of one lucky shot from the enemy's batteries. Admiral Keyes did, however, endorse one point in his predecessor's project, in that he decided to assist the block‑ship attack by a diversionary assault upon the mole, which had not been part of his first proposal. His main object was to capture the guns at the end of the mole which menaced the blockships' approach towards the canal.


To assist the attack, preparations were subsequently made for causing as much damage as possible to the material on the mole and destroying the viaduct which connected it to the shore. He at once took steps to obtain a marine battalion which was to assist the bluejackets to carry the mole. This special marine force was formed on January 8, 1918.


Admiral Keyes's preparations were of three kinds


(i) selecting and fitting out the storm‑ships and block‑ships,

(ii) collecting and training the officers and men, and

(iii) devising every detail of the final plan.


He had at first intended to use a fast handy merchantman with a high free‑board as a storm‑ship, but after long consideration he selected the old armoured cruiser Vindictive. She was fitted with an 11‑inch howitzer on the quarter‑deck and two 7‑5‑inch howitzers for engaging the shore batteries at the shore end of the mole and firing, on the locks and seaplane base, and two large fixed flarnmenwerfers; in the foretop there were two pom‑poms and six Lewis guns for firing over the parapet of the mole to facilitate the assault. In addition, the Vindictive retained two 6‑inch guns on each side of the upper deck; three pom‑poms, ten Lewis guns, and four batteries, each of four Stokes mortars, were placed on the port side. Her mainmast was removed; a large portion of it was, however, mounted horizontally across the quarter‑deck, so that the part which extended for several feet beyond the port side should act as a bumpkin and protect the propeller. Special fenders were fitted along the port side to prevent damage whilst the ship was against the mole, and an enormous fender was fitted to the port side of the forecastle to take the first bump when going alongside.


A false flush deck was built on the skid beams, from the forecastle to the quarter‑deck on the port side, and three wide ramps were built leading from the upper deck to the starboard side of the false deck, to facilitate the rapid movement of the storming force when landing. Fourteen narrow brows were fitted, hinging on the false deck, to bridge the gap between it and the parapet of the mole. These were to be lowered on to the mole by rope tackles.


Only the first wave of the assaulting force could be carried in the cruiser, and two Mersey ferryboats were selected to carry the remainder. These ships ‑ called the Iris and the Daffodil ‑ were double‑hulled, double‑bottomed boats, and were thus practically unsinkable. They were, moreover, very easy to steer and could each carry 1,500 men; they drew very little water, and could, if necessary, steam over minefields with comparatively small risk. On the other hand,


Jan.-April 1918



they could not go far under their own power, and would, in consequence, have to be towed across the Flanders Bight to Zeebrugge. Also their decks were low, so that scaling ladders had to be fitted to them in order to enable the troops to reach the parapet of the mole which was nearly thirty feet above high water. All three storming ships were provided with large grappling irons, which were suspended from derricks, so that they could be lowered over the parapet and the wires then hauled taut for securing the vessels alongside.


Five unarmoured cruisers were selected as block‑ships, the Thetis, Intrepid and Iphigenia for Zeebrugge and the Sirius and Brilliant for Ostend. Enough guns were left in the ships to enable the guns' crews to engage the shore batteries during the approach, but torpedoes were removed. They were each fitted with an additional steering and conning position; their masts were taken out to make them less conspicuous, and cement blocks and bags of dry cement were placed in the position considered best to prevent the cutting away and removal of the block‑ships when sunk. Charges were fitted for blowing out portions of the ships' bottoms for sinking them, and firing keys for blowing the charges were fitted both forward and aft.


For the destruction of the viaduct which connected the mole to the shore, two submarines, C.1 and C.3, were selected, and several tons of explosive, with a suitable detonating mechanism, were stowed in their fore compartments.


Admiral Keyes had always realised that the success of the expedition would depend in large measure upon the density of the smoke screen which was to be laid across the enemy's batteries and observation posts; and he found on his arrival at Dover that the existing appliances, though simple, had grave defects. The method in use was that of putting phosphorus into an iron pot and igniting it. This certainly made dense smoke, but the flames from the blazing phosphorus were simply beacon marks at night. Admiral Keyes decided to abandon the use of phosphorus and asked Wing‑Commander F. A. Brock to find a substitute. The new smoke screens were produced from a chemical known as chlor‑sulphonic acid. This substance gives out dense smoke when certain gases are applied to it; the exhaust fumes of an internal combustion engine or of a destroyer are equally effective.


It is perhaps only when concrete examples are given that an ordinary reader can appreciate the degree to which forces in the field absorb the production of an industrial state.


Admiral Keyes required eighty‑two tons of chlor‑sulphonic acid; only one firm in England manufactured the substance, and the managers of the firm stated that this quantity could only be produced if the manufacture of saxin were temporarily stopped. Saxin, as everybody knows, is a synthetic substitute for sugar, and is much used by diabetic patients. The War Cabinet eventually gave orders that the production of saxin should be suspended, and it was only when this was done and when every tea‑drinker in England who used a sugar substitute had been compelled to drink unsweetened tea, that Admiral Keyes could be confident that enough smoke-producing substance would be delivered.


The actual operation can only be explained by first describing the defences which these ships were to penetrate. The Germans had mounted fifty‑six heavy, medium and antiaircraft batteries along the Belgian coast. (About 225 guns, of which 136 were from 6‑inch to 15‑inch calibre.) The armament of the Ostend and Zeebrugge sub‑sections was, however, the principal concern of the attacking forces; for it was the guns of these sub‑sections which would cover their approach routes and points of attack. (See Map 19.)


At the western end of the Ostend sub‑section were the Aachen (four 5.9‑inch), Antwerpen (four 4.1‑inch), the Beseler (four 5.9‑inch) and the Cecilie (four 5.9‑inch), all emplaced along the sea front; a mile back from the coast at Mariakerke Bains was the heavy Tirpitz battery (four 11‑inch). On the eastern side of the harbour and canal were the Friedrich (four 3.5‑inch and one star‑shell howitzer) and the heavy Hindenburg (four 11‑inch) batteries. The Irene (three 5.9‑inch and one 4.1‑inch) was at the eastern end of the Ostend sub‑section. Just inside the limits of the next sub‑section ‑ (Breedene) - was the Preussen (four 11‑inch) battery, which, though it was controlled from another command, could support the barrage fire on the Ostend approach. About half a mile back from the coast was the Jacobynessen (four 15‑inch) battery, which also could be trained on to the approach route to Ostend. (The correct name of this battery was the Deutschland. It was, however, uniformly referred to as the Jacobynessen in all operation orders and reports of proceedings. It will be referred to by this incorrect, but, to British officers familiar name in this chapter.)


The Zeebrugge sub‑section was even stronger. At its western end were the coastal batteries COEsar (anti‑aircraft), Kaiserin (four 5.9‑inch) and the Groden (four 11‑inch); well back from the coast near Donkerklok Farm was the Hessen (four 11‑inch); to the west of the Zeebrugge mole was the Wurttemberg (four 4.1‑inch and an anti‑aircraft battery). East of the canal was the Friedrichsort (four 6.7‑inch) and





the Kanal (four 3.5‑inch); near Heyst were the Freya (four 8.2‑inch) and the Augusta (three 5.9‑inch). All these batteries were connected to an elaborate complex of watching, command and signalling stations; and it was this powerful system that our forces had to penetrate.





The Zeebrugge mole deserves special description. It was a seaward outpost of the tremendous coastal system that has just been described. The mole itself is in three parts; a railway viaduct, on iron framework girders, runs from the shore to the solid masonry of the mole; it is about 580 yards long and is just wide enough to carry the railway line which went from the shore to the mole. The mole proper, which continues the viaduct, is a magnificent mass of masonry, built on a segment of a circle that curves to the north‑east. It is 1,850 yards long and about 80 yards broad. Its western face is built up to a parapet, the top of which is about sixteen feet above the upper surface of the mole. Projecting from the main mass of the mole is a narrow mole extension ‑ also in masonry ‑ 260 yards long, with a lighthouse at its extremity.


The Germans had turned this mole into a minor fortress. On the mole extension, and commanding the approach routes with an unimpeded are of fire there were three 4.1‑inch and two 3.5‑inch guns. (At the time there was doubt as to the mole defences. Admiral Keyes believed them to consist of three 4.1‑inch guns on the mole head and six 3.5‑inch guns on the mole‑head extension. The strength of the batteries commanding the mole was also doubtful: the Lubeck (two 5.9.inch guns) was built after the operation and in consequence of it.) At 150 yards from the end of the mole was a wired‑in position containing two anti‑aircraft guns, and a shelter trench running across the mole. The guns' crews and the garrison of the mole were housed in large sheds of reinforced concrete; on its south‑western end was a seaplane base with its own garrison and concrete sheds.


According to the plan conceived by Admiral Keyes, the attack on this fortified mole‑head was to be no mere diversion; for the marines and seamen were to storm the position and hold it until the blockships had passed through. The difficulty of escalading so strong a position as the mole‑head was, in itself, formidable; and it was preceded by other difficulties which made an impressive list of obstacles or impediments that could only be overcome by skill and daring. The ships of the attacking force would have to pass through the barrage from the batteries in the Zeebrugge sub‑section. Having done so they would have to endure continuous fire from the medium-calibre guns of the mole, and from as many more guns in the coast defences as could be ranged on them; and they would have to suffer this concentration of fire for as long as the attack lasted. The storming parties would have to be placed on the top of the high narrow parapet on the western face of the wall; here they would have to place scaling ladders to the surface of the mole some sixteen feet below them; and they would have to establish a bridge‑head under fire from the machine gun nests at the entrance to the harbour, and from the destroyer or destroyers alongside the mole. At Ostend the block‑ships would have to pass through a barrage of from seven to eight batteries, and manoeuvre themselves into a blocking position under a concentrated fire from two or three. This fire would be quite uninterrupted, as the Ostend block‑ships could not be assisted by diversionary attack.


It can easily be understood that these immense obstacles could only be overcome by speed and secrecy of movement, and that the selection of the very best place for landing the storming parties at Zeebrugge was, as it were, the base or starting-point of the whole plan. The first condition of success was that the party that stormed the mole should do their work without set‑backs and with the greatest possible precision. After studying aerial photographs and plans of the mole provided by two Belgian engineers who had constructed the harbour, Admiral Keyes decided that the Vindictive ought to be laid alongside the mole at a point just to the westward of the mole‑head battery. If all went well, and the storming parties were put ashore rapidly, all the guns would probably be captured in a few minutes.


The next point to be settled was the best position for the block‑ships. It was known that both lock gates were run back into great concrete shelters during bombardments, if the tide permitted, and as the attack was to be delivered at or near high water, Admiral Keyes assumed that the lock gates would be run in on the first alarm. For this reason, he first intended that the block‑ships should be run right into the lock, or, if that proved impossible, that they should ram the lock gate and dislocate it. Later on, however, Admiral Keyes abandoned this plan. The Belgian engineers who were consulted were quite positive that, if the block‑ships were sunk in the deep water of the lock or just outside it, their superstructures could be cut away at low water and that destroyers and submarines would easily pass over what remained of them when the tide was high. Apart from this the Belgians were certain that if the block‑ships were sunk in the entrance to the channel where silt collected, then the channel would be definitely obstructed. This was confirmed by two escaped Belgians who had actually worked in the dredger at Zeebrugge


Jan.‑April 1918



during the German occupation. For these reasons Admiral Keyes decided that the leading block‑ships only should make for the lock gates, and that the other two should be placed where the experts suggested.


The remainder of Admiral Keyes's plan was simple and natural. The attack on the mole was to be preceded by an aerial bombardment, and this was to be followed by an hour's bombardment of the coastal batteries near Ostend and Zeebrugge by the monitors. Similar bombardments supplemented by attacks by coastal motor boats were to be delivered during the weeks preceding the operation, whenever the weather permitted, so that the enemy would imagine that the bombardment which started the operation and the motor boat attacks which preceded the assault on the mole were no more than incidents in an established routine. During this last bombardment the storming and blocking forces were to approach the harbour. The smoke screen flotillas were to steam ahead of the attacking forces and put up an unbroken curtain of smoke across the objectives (see Plan). Thus far the plans for the two expeditions were identical. At Ostend the blocking expedition had to press into the entrance from the other side of the screen; at Zeebrugge the block‑ships would only make for the entrance after the mole had been stormed. One hundred and sixty‑five vessels of all classes, 82 officers, and 1,698 seamen and marines were allotted to the operation. The distribution of the forces and the duties of the various units were:


1. In the Swin, an anchorage in the Thames estuary off the Essex coast about 8 miles south of Clacton and out of sight of inhabited land.


for the attack on Zeebrugge mole - Vindictive, Iris II and Daffodil.

block‑ships Zeebrugge - Thetis, Intrepid, Iphigenia:

block‑ships Ostend - Sirius, Brilliant


2. At Dover.



Warwick (flag of Vice‑Admiral).

Phoebe, North Star: patrol unit Zeebrugge.

Trident, Mansfield: patrol unit Zeebrugge.

Whirlwind, Myngs: patrol unit Zeebrugge.

Velox, Morris, Moorsom, Melpomene: patrol unit Zeebrugge.

Tempest, Tetrarch: patrol unit Ostend.

Attentive, Scott, Ulleswater, Teazer, Stork: outer patrol Zeebrugge.



Erebus. Terror: for long‑range bombardment at Zeebrugge batteries.



Termagant, Truculent, Manly: attending on Erebus and Terror.



C.1, C.3: for destroying a portion of the viaduct, Zeebrugge.

Picket Boat: to rescue crews of C.1 and C.3.



Lingfield: attached to Zeebrugge expedition for escorting motor launches with surplus steaming parties back to Dover.


5 motor launches: for removing surplus steaming parties from block‑ships.

18 coastal motor boats.

28 motor launches: for smoke‑screening Zeebrugge expedition, picking up survivors from block‑ships.


3. At Dunkirk.


Marshall Soult, Lord Clive, Prince Eugene, General Craufurd, M.24, M.26, M.21: for bombarding Ostend batteries.


Destroyers: Faulknor, Mastiff, Afridi, Swift, Matchless: patrol off Ostend.

Mentor, Lightfoot, Zubian: accompanying Ostend monitors.


French torpedo boats:

Lestin, Roux, Bouclier: accompanying Ostend monitors.

6 British motor launches: for attending on big monitors.

18 British motor launches.

6 British coastal motor boats: for smoke‑screening the Ostend expedition, and rescue work.

4 French torpedo boats.

4 French motor launches: attending on small monitors, M.24, M.26, M.21.


4. At Harwich (under Rear‑Admiral Tyrwhitt).

7 Light Cruisers.

2 Flotilla Leaders and 14 Destroyers: to cover the operation and prevent interference from the northward.


Although ships of medium draft can enter Zeebrugge at all states of the tide, the attack could only be delivered at some time near high water. At low water the top of the parapet was about forty feet above the sea, and the entrance' channel was extremely narrow. The assault was only possible if the storming parties could reach the parapet rapidly ‑ which they would never be able to do if it were nearly thirty feet above the level of the Vindictive's deck; and if the block‑ships had water to manoeuvre themselves right athwart the entrance channel. This condition alone made adequate preparation extremely difficult; for if it is added to the other conditions necessary to success, it will be seen that the expeditions had to reach their objectives at or near a night high water, and that the time of high water had to be such that the expedition arrived and left during the hours of darkness. These conditions were fulfilled on about five days in each lunar month; so that the times of arrival and departure


April 1918



of each unit had to be worked out independently for each of these five days; nor must it be forgotten that these governing conditions were themselves governed by the wind. Unless the enormous smoke screen which was to cover the whole expedition was blown into the German defences, the expedition had little chance of success. To ensure the safe navigation of the force, the greater part of the area was very carefully surveyed and special navigational buoys laid out at various points of the track to be followed. This work was successfully carried out by the two Hydrographic officers on the Vice‑Admiral's staff. (Captain H. P. Douglas and Lieutenant‑Commander F. E. B. Haselfoot.) To prevent the removal of these buoys by the enemy it was essential that they should be laid at the last possible moment, and if the operation had to be postponed they would have to be withdrawn and relaid for the next attempt. The last fifteen miles, however, had to be navigated by dead reckoning with a tidal stream running across the line of advance, and through smoke screens which would blacken the natural darkness of the night. It was, therefore, doubtful whether the Vindictive could be brought alongside the mole at all, and more doubtful still whether the blockships and submarines would reach their destinations; if all did so, it would be a great achievement.


Early in April the ships allotted to the expedition were ready and the storming parties were embarked in the Swin detachment. The need for secrecy was now over, and the nature and purpose of the expedition was explained to the men in a lecture at which a plaster model of Zeebrugge mole was exhibited.


A week later ‑ April 11 ‑ the expedition sailed, and the attacking ships, seventy‑four in all, joined Admiral Keyes's flag off the Goodwin Sands. Whilst the force was moving across the Flanders Bight the 65th Wing of the Royal Air Force left Dunkirk and carried out the preliminary bombardment. At 12.45 a.m. the force stopped to disembark the men no longer required in the block‑ships: the expedition was now only 16 miles from Zeebrugge mole. Before the ships re‑started the wind died away, and then began to blow lightly from the south ‑ the wrong direction for the smoke screens. The moment was a terribly difficult one for Admiral Keyes. Everything still favoured the enterprise except the wind. In a few minutes the crews would have left the block‑ships and the expedition would again be under way. Should he allow it to go on, or ought he to turn it back? Very quickly, but very reluctantly, he decided that he could not lead so large a force of unprotected ships against a strongly fortified position unless their approach was covered by a smoke screen. As this was now impossible, he ordered the whole force back.


When the expedition returned to its anchorage, one coastal motor boat ‑ No. 33 ‑ was found to be missing. No explanation of the casualty could be given, nor has it ever been since discovered exactly why or how the boat fell into the enemy's hands. The loss was more serious than anybody knew at the time, for on board the captured motor boat the Germans discovered papers and diagrams which showed them that a blocking expedition had been planned against Ostend, and gave them a good deal of knowledge about the practical details of its execution.


Three days later the force again set out, and again Admiral Keyes ordered it back, owing to a rising wind and sea, in which the small craft could not have operated. These two false starts were extremely trying to officers and men.


Between April 22 and April 28, the night high water at Zeebrugge occurred at suitable times. The morning of April 22 was fine; towards noon the wind turned into the north‑east, and according to the latest forecast it was likely to blow from the same quadrant for the rest of the day. The conditions were, therefore, as good as they were ever likely to be. It was four days before full moon, and there was a good chance that the night would be cloudy. There was some uncertainty about the position of the enemy's destroyer flotilla; the last positive news we had received about the Flanders Force was that it had returned to Germany in the middle of February, leaving only a group of small torpedo boats behind. Whether they had returned to Zeebrugge was uncertain. This, however, in no way affected the plans, and Admiral Keyes decided that the moment for launching the expedition had at last arrived, and sent out the necessary signals.


All through the afternoon the ships were getting under way and sailing. (See Maps 20 and 21.) Captain C. S. Wills of the Erebus was the first to leave, with the monitors intended for the bombardment of the Zeebrugge batteries (1.10 p.m.). It was, at the time, a clear spring day, rather cold, with a blue sky half covered with grey clouds. But the cloud banks thickened during the next hour, and by the time Admiral Keyes was weighing in the Warwick (4.0 p.m.) the sun was hidden and the sky was overcast. By five o'clock the Warwick had taken up her position as leader of the main force, and Commodore the Hon. A. D. E. H. Boyle, with the Attentive and four


April 1918



destroyers, was well on his way towards the gap in the Belgian barrage, through which the expedition had to pass. At half‑past seven Sir Reginald Tyrwhitt left Harwich, with twenty‑three vessels, to patrol the approaches to the Flanders Bight as an outer guard. The monitors for the Ostend bombardment left Dunkirk at 8.35 p.m. under the command of Commodore H. Lynes in the Faulknor.


The entire concentration and the first moves in the operation had thus been made in daylight, a necessary but very serious risk. As far as Admiral Keyes could tell, however, the expedition had started unobserved, and at eight o'clock, just before darkness set in, he made the signal "St. George for England" ‑ a stirring reminder that the fighting would begin on St. George's Day.


Nearly an hour later, the Warwick was twenty‑eight miles from Zeebrugge mole. A fine drizzling rain was now falling, but the night was quiet and the wind still blew towards the land from the north and east. Admiral Keyes now signalled to all the detached ships that the operation would be carried out.


Just after ten the force reached the gap in the barrage where Commodore Boyle and his destroyers were on patrol. Here the ships stopped for a quarter of an hour, and the superfluous men in the block‑ships were taken off by five motor boats. At the same time all the coastal motor boats in tow of destroyers slipped their tows. When the force was again on its course, the Warwick and the Whirlwind, followed by the destroyers of their respective columns, drew ahead to drive off any outpost vessels that might be met with. Simultaneously, the Ostend block‑ships parted company and steered for the Stroom Bank buoy. The leading ships were now only fifteen miles from the mole.


Meanwhile the Erebus and Terror had reached their bombarding positions off West Kapelle. Almost at the same time the monitors from Dunkirk reached their firing positions. They were in two divisions: the Marshall Soult and the General Craufurd (21st), the Prince Eugene and Lord Clive (20th).


The organisation of the Dunkirk force was as follows:


20th Division.

Big Monitors: Prince Eugene (S.O.), Lord Clive.

Destroyers: Lestin (leader), Roux, Bouclier.

M.L.s: 2 British detailed for each big monitor.

Aiming light attached group: M.26; 2 French T.B.s, 2 French M.L.s. M.21 standing by with an aiming light.


21st Division.

Big Monitors: Marshall Soult (S.O.), General Craufurd.

Destroyers: Mentor, Meteor, Zubian.

M.L.; 2 British detailed for each big monitor.

Aiming light attached group: M.24, 2 French T.B.s, 2 French M.L.s.


22nd Division.

23rd Sub.: Faulknor, Lightfoot, Mastiff, Afridi.

24th Sub.: Swift, Matchless, (Tempest and Tetrarch from Swin).


M.L. Division: 18 (Max. No.) British M.L.s (float and smoke).

C.M.B. Division: 6 C.M.B.s.


The Marshall Soult, which had been detailed to bombard the Jacobynessen, Beseler and Cecilie batteries, anchored at the southern end of the Middle Bank; the General Craufurd took up a position about four and three‑quarter miles to the north‑north‑west. Her targets were the Hindenburg, Aachen and Antwerpen batteries. The Prince Eugene and the Lord Clive, whose targets were the Tirpitz and Aachen batteries, anchored at the eastern end of the West Deep, near Nieuport. At ten minutes past eleven these ships opened fire simultaneously. The Zeebrugge monitors began their bombardment about twenty minutes later.


The fine steady drizzle of rain was still falling on land and sea, and for this reason the bombardment by the monitors was not preceded by a bombardment from the air. This, though inevitable, was a great disappointment to Admiral Keyes, who had hoped that the bombing would drive the German guns' crews into their dugouts and so leave the guns more or less unattended when the expedition reached the coast.


Just before half‑past eleven the coastal motor boats moved off at high speed and laid a preliminary smoke screen across the entire line of advance. Under cover of this the slower motor launches moved to their stations and laid the screens which were to blind the enemy during the last approach. The smoke went up in clumps of murky cumulus from a line that ran roughly parallel to the coast for rather more than eight miles. As it drifted down towards the German batteries and look‑out posts, two groups of coastal motor boats opened the battle. It had been arranged that motor boats Nos. 25BD, 26B and 21B should pass along the western side of the mole and spray it with fire from their Stokes guns, and that Nos. 5 and 7, which were small, forty-foot boats, should go inside the harbour and sink any German destroyers that might be alongside the mole. This attack on the western end of the mole was to distract the enemy's attention whilst the Vindictive approached. The attack entrusted to coastal motor boats Nos. 5 and 7 was more critical; its object was to secure a safe passage for the block‑ships. Enemy destroyers lying alongside the mole might easily torpedo the block‑ships and bring them to a


April 1918



standstill before they reached the harbour entrance; and it was of the first importance that any destroyer capable of impeding the passage should be put out of action before the block‑ships passed the lighthouse.


At the time laid down, these two groups left the main force and steamed towards the mole at high speed; their commanding officers may justly claim to have made the first thrust, and to have delivered the first blow in the operation. The smoke screen had already been laid when they approached the mole head; but they passed through it and carried out their orders: motor boats Nos. 25BD, 26B and 21B, kept the western mole under fire; Sub‑Lieutenant C. R. L. Outhwaite, R.N.V.R., in No. 5 fired at what he believed to be a destroyer off the mole, and Sub‑Lieutenant L. R. Blake fired a torpedo at a destroyer lying alongside, and was under the impression that she was hit near the fore bridge. These attacks were, however, less successful than the officers imagined and the enemy paid little attention to them; they heard the first group in the smoke off the mole, but were quite unaware that they were attempting to keep the mole under fire; the detonations of Sub‑Lieutenant Blake's torpedoes were mistaken for shells from the monitors. Sub‑Lieutenant Blake was, nevertheless, under very heavy machine gun fire when he made off to seaward. When he cleared the mole the Vindictive had nearly reached her destination. The Phoebe and the North Star were patrolling off the mole, ready to beat off enemy destroyers. The Vice‑Admiral had taken the Warwick to a position from which he hoped to watch the attack on the mole, and see the block‑ships enter the harbour. The enemy seemed to be taking no special precautions: the two torpedo craft alongside the mole had not got steam up, and no vessels had been ordered to patrol the approaches to the harbour. The entire expedition had reached its destination unreported and unobserved.


In fact the enemy were only roused at the very last moment, and then they sent up volleys of star shells from the mole and the batteries behind. The Vindictive and the force approached the mole in a light which seemed to Captain A. F. B. Carpenter to be about as strong as that of early morning twilight. By extraordinary misfortune, the wind changed a few minutes later. It swung round completely, and blew almost straight off shore. The immense clouds of smoke that were being made by the motor units were thus blown right across the approach routes; they severed communication between destroyers on patrol and ships approaching the harbour; each commanding officer was now left to act as he thought best in a blinding pall of smoke which obscured the fo'c'sle of his own ship; whilst the German gunners watched our vessels emerging one by one from the vast curtain of smoke to seaward, into the flare of their star shells.


Just before midnight the Vindictive came through the last smoke screen, and Captain Carpenter saw the mole for the first time. The lighthouse was plainly visible and the Vindictive was heading for the middle of the mole extension. Captain Carpenter at once put the helm hard over and increased to full speed. As the ship moved across the narrow strip of water which now separated her from the mole, the German battery opened upon her. The officers in charge of the Vindictive's armament immediately replied with a concentrated fire against the guns on the mole. The German gunners were firing at a target that could hardly be missed, but was moving fairly rapidly across the battery's are of fire. The enemy had little time, but they used it well. Two minutes after the Vindictive had passed through the last smoke screen, Captain H. C. Halahan, in charge of the seamen's landing parties, Lieutenant‑Colonel B. H. Elliot, the commanding officer of the Marines storming parties, and Major A. A. Cordner, his second in command, were all dead; and Commander P. H. Edwards, R.N.V.R., was severely wounded; and Lieutenant‑Commander A. L. Harrison was struck down unconscious.


The casualties to the crew and the material damage were equally serious; the crews of the 7.5‑inch howitzers were nearly all killed and the guns themselves put out of action; the flammenwerfers were destroyed, and, worst and most serious of all, a large number of the movable gangways ‑ across which the men were to swarm on to the parapet ‑ were shot away. By wonderful good fortune the ship was only damaged in her upper works and was still seaworthy. None the less the loss of the howitzers deprived the Vindictive of half her power of retaliation: the damage to the gangways kept the storming parties massed and huddled at the foot of two gangways which were too narrow to carry them. Captain Carpenter conned the Vindictive through this hurricane of fire from a shelter on the port side called the flammenwerfer hut. It had been planned that he should lay the Vindictive right alongside the battery, so that the storming parties should rush the guns and the entire mole head position as soon as the gangways were lowered. The ship was actually placed alongside about three ships' lengths beyond this assigned position; (About 300 yards.) as she came to a standstill, the port anchor was let go within a yard of the mole.


April 1918




Organisation of seamen storming parties:

In Vindictive

Groups A and B.

In Iris

Group C.

In Daffodil

Group D


8 officers and 200 men.

Organisation of R.M. storming battalion:

In Vindictive

Battalion H.Q.


Portsmouth (B) Company.


Plymouth (C) Company.


Lewis gun parties from M.G. Section of battalion.

In Iris:

Chatham (A) Company.


2 Vickers gun sections.


2 Stokes mortar crews.

Organisation of demolition parties:

The whole demolition party was called "C" Company and was divided into three parties (Nos. 1, 2 and 3); Party No. 1 was subdivided into two sections, Parties Nos. 2 and 3 into four sections.

In Vindictive:

Demolition Party No. 2 (Sections G, O, R and S).

In Daffodil

Demolition Party No. 1 (Sections A and B).


No. 3 (Sections W, X, Y, Z).


The extraordinary difficulty of getting a foothold on the breakwater was now patent. The east‑going tidal stream, pressing against the mole, made a sort of cushion of troubled water which forced the ship back from the face of the masonry. "With the helm to starboard her bows came in at once, but the brows would not then reach the parapet. With the helm to port she surged away from the mole." Lieutenant H. G. Campbell, the commanding officer of the Daffodil, brought help in these trying moments. As the Vindictive approached the mole he had steered his ship out on to her starboard beam, and now, as the Vindictive was labouring in the troubled water off the mole face, he approached her bows on, and pushed her in to the mole. These were his orders; but only a fine seaman could have manoeuvred a ferry boat with such wonderful precision at a moment of such confusion. A few minutes later, Commander V. Gibbs brought the Iris II alongside the mole ahead of the Vindictive, and let go the starboard anchor.


As soon as the Daffodil pressed the Vindictive alongside the mole, Lieutenant‑Commander B. F. Adams led the first of the seamen storming parties up the narrow swaying gangways. They were followed by the Marine storming platoons under Lieutenants T. F. V. Cooke, C. D. R. Lamplough and H. A. P. de Berry. When these groups of men reached the mole they realised that there could be no thought of rushing the mole head battery as had been intended. The Vindictive had gone past the position assigned to her, and the machine-gun positions and barbed wire were now between the storming parties and the gun positions they had to carry. But as a diversion the attack on the mole might still succeed if the Vindictive and the storming parties could hold their ground notwithstanding that they would be a focusing point for the fire of every German gun that could be brought to bear upon them. The leading Marine platoons therefore formed "a strong post at the shoreward end of No. 3 shed"; platoons Nos. 5, 7, and 8 which had followed close at their heels under Captain E. Bamford, were formed in a regular tactical order.


On reaching the parapet, Lieutenant‑Commander Adams endeavoured to place the Vindictive's parapet anchors which Lieutenant‑Commander R. R. Rosoman was working from the ship. He found, however, that the anchor derricks were too short and at once moved off towards the mole head battery with his men. Wing‑Commander Brock was with him. After the party had moved some way they were brought to a standstill at a trench which the enemy was defending with machine guns. Lieutenant‑Commander Harrison now reached the mole, notwithstanding his injuries, and took charge of the seamen storming parties while Lieutenant‑Commander Adams went back to ask Major B. G. Weller for reinforcements. Wing‑Commander Brock fell a few minutes earlier. He was shot down whilst seeking for an enemy range‑finder, which he desired to examine.


Meanwhile the remainder of the marines and the seamen demolition parties were getting on to the mole; but it was evident that it could only be held by an extraordinary feat of courage and discipline; for the German gunners in the destroyer alongside the mole were now sweeping the bridgehead that the marines were holding.


Although the officers in the shore batteries refrained from firing at the mole while their own men still held it, the Vindictive's upper works were being pounded into scrap‑iron by the battery on the mole, and a fruitless endeavour was being made to place the parapet anchors from the Iris. Lieutenant C. E.V. Hawkings contrived to place a scaling ladder as soon as the ship came alongside and scrambled up it. But as he reached the top, the ship surged away and he was left alone. He was last seen defending himself with his revolver. Lieutenant‑Commander G. N. Bradford now performed an act of desperate courage. Seeing that the parapet anchor could not be made