Blind Man’s Buff, 19 August I916 – Jutland Redux I

The Germans did their own stock-taking after Jutland. Although the High Seas Fleet could feel that it had performed very creditably indeed, there was even less desire than there was before 31 May for a stand-up fight with the Grand Fleet. Scheer was prepared to carry on with his defensive fleet strategy, incorporating into his plans the lessons of Jutland. He detached from the main fleet the old, slow 2nd Squadron (the pre-dreadnought ‘Deutschlands’), which had been a hindrance at Jutland. There being only two battle cruisers available in the 1st Scouting Group, the Moltke and Von der Tann (the Derffiinger and Seydlitz were still under repair), he attached three of the dreadnoughts to it, including the newly commissioned Bayern. The most important lesson of Jutland to Scheer was the need for extensive and efficient reconnaissance, if he were to achieve his ideal of defeating the British Fleet in detail, meaning, above all, the Battle Cruiser Fleet.

If at some future date we should still encounter the enemy fast forces separated from their main fleet, we must make every endeavour to drive them into an unexpected clash with our own main fleet. . .. The first essential for this tactic is to be as secure as possible against surprise from the unexpected approach of superior enemy forces. The reconnaissance necessary to ensure this can no longer be undertaken by our surface forces, once our battle cruisers are in contact with the fast-advanced forces of the British. This must therefore be the task of the airships. For this reason, provision in principle is to be made for reconnaissance by airships for more distant operations. And this all the more so in the future, since we must expect that the British will now operate their main fleet in closer contact with the fast force, and will therefore intervene much sooner than on 31st May.

In other words, the High Seas Fleet must not again suddenly find itself up against the full might of the Grand Fleet!

Scheer’s plan for an operation on 19 August was, essentially, the original Jutland plan. It called for the 1st Scouting Group to bombard Sunderland, with the battle fleet operating in close support. Scheer’s operations order stated his intentions: ‘The enemy is to be brought to action under conditions favourable to ourselves. To this end the entire High Seas Fleet (without II Squadron) is to advance behind extensive airship reconnaissance in the direction of Sunderland, and in the event the enemy is not encountered earlier, or does not depart from his main bases early enough to cut off our retreat with superior forces, Sunderland is to be heavily bombarded, in order to force him to come out and in order to parade before the eyes of England and the world the unbroken might of the German Fleet.’ That is, the sortie was partly intended to restore the morale of the Fleet after its recent shattering experience. To protect himself from a surprise appearance of the British battle fleet, Scheer would have his front and flanks guarded by airships and submarines. The High Seas Fleet U-boats were disposed in two lines, of five submarines each, close to the English coast—one line off Blyth, the other off Flam-borough Head. In addition, nine boats of the Flanders Flotilla were disposed in two lines in the Hoofden (the southern part of the North Sea), west-north-west of Terschelling. Finally, there was to be a line off the Dogger Bank to cover Scheer’s withdrawal, although it was not ordered to be in place until the morning of the 20th. In all, 24 submarines were to participate in the operation. Whether the battle fleet pushed on, or had to retire if the Grand Fleet threatened to cut it off, Scheer hoped that the submarines on either side of his line of advance would have opportunities not only for reconnaissance, but for attack on the British forces which would certainly be drawn towards the German fleet when they heard of the bombardment. There was also the ever-present hope that he might catch a part of the British main fleet. Scheer and the German Naval Staff were still obsessed with the notion that a U-boat concentration off British naval bases would provide a good chance of reducing the British preponderance in capital ships. For long-distance reconnaissance Scheer would depend on Zeppelins, four of which were to operate on a line between Scotland and Norway, with four others to be spread between the latitude of the Firth of Forth and the North Hinder lightship. That is, one airship detachment was to operate to the north and the other was to be spread ahead of him to cover his line of advance while he was moving across the North Sea.

The High Seas Fleet (18 dreadnoughts, 2 battle cruisers, and light forces) sailed at 9 p.m. on 18 August, steaming boldly towards the East Coast, the battle fleet preceded by the 1st and 2nd Scouting Groups, which were 20 miles ahead. The last thing Scheer had reckoned on was a swift response to his movements. But, sighs the German Official History, the Grand Fleet was at sea ‘unpleasantly soon as usual’. Through a German signal intercepted at 9.19 a.m. on the 18th, Room 40 had quickly divined that the High Seas Fleet, less the 2nd Squadron, would leave harbour at 9 p.m. that night. No objective was indicated. The British machine reacted promptly. At 10.56 a.m. the Admiralty ordered the C.-in-C. (Burney, pro tem.) to put to sea and concentrate in the Long Forties, east of Aberdeen. The main fleet was away from Scapa by 4 p.m. and on its way south—a few hours before the High Seas Fleet was at sea! The Battle Cruiser Fleet left the Forth at 6.20 p.m.4 The combined Grand Fleet included twenty-nine dreadnoughts (1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th B.S.) and six battle cruisers (1st, 2nd B.C.S,). The seaplane carrier Engadine was with the battle cruisers, but, as at Jutland, the Campania did not go out, her machinery being under repair. All that the former accomplished in the way of air work was an unsuccessful attempt in the high sea to get a seaplane up (2 p.m., 19th) to attack a Zeppelin. Campania’s kite balloon, which had been transferred to the battleship Hercules, was too far back to be useful for reconnaissance. Beatty afterwards recommended that ‘the balloon should be flown from a ship in the advanced cruiser screen in order to increase the range of vision ahead of the Fleet. Had the kite balloon been well forward during operations, I am of opinion that the enemy might possibly have been sighted.’

Jellicoe had been in the south of Scotland since 7 August, taking a sorely needed rest. He was ‘quite played out’, owing to ‘the incessant strain’, as he informed the First Sea Lord (31 July). At about 9 p.m. on the 18th he was able to board the Iron Duke (it had proceeded independently from Scapa) at sea from the light cruiser Royalist, which had been lying off Dundee for just such an emergency. Burney, who was in command until then, had ordered the fleet to rendezvous at 5 a.m. on the 19th about 100 miles east of the River Tay. The entire force would then turn southward and enter ‘L’ swept channel, which ran south-eastward from the approaches to the Forth towards the southern shore of Heligoland Bight, passing the Tyne about 60 miles to seaward. (This, and another 20-mile-wide swept channel, ‘M’, lay between the German Dogger Bank and Humber minefields.)

At 11.37 a.m. on the 18th the Admiralty ordered the Harwich Force (5 light cruisers, 19 destroyers, and a flotilla leader) to assemble by early dawn on the 19th off Brown Ridge, in the Hoofden, about 50 miles east of Yarmouth. It sailed at 10.30 p.m. In addition, twenty-five submarines were involved in the dispositions: three were patrolling off Terschelling, watching the southern exits of the Bight, and two more were ordered to the Heligoland area at midday on the 18th; five were in the Hoofden; eight were off Yarmouth and six off the Tyne for coast defence; and one was on patrol off Shouwen Bank, near the Dutch coast. E-23, northernmost of the three boats off Terschelling, was the only one that got within range of the High Seas Fleet. The British submarines were for the first time equipped with long-range wireless. (This was a by-product of the Admiralty conference of 25 June, at which the C.-in-C. had stressed the great disadvantage under which the British Fleet laboured owing to the inefficiency of the wireless arrangements in the submarines. He had pointed out that, whereas the German submarines were able to communicate at a distance of 400 miles, the range of the wireless of the British boats scarcely exceeded 60 miles.)

At 5 a.m., 19 August, the battle fleet passed through its rendezvous. With the lessons of Jutland fresh in mind, the battle cruisers were in station only 30 miles ahead, in touch with the battle fleet through linking cruisers, so that Jellicoe and Beatty could exchange messages by visual signals. The 5th Battle Squadron was under the C.-in-C.’s direct control. Eight miles ahead of the battle cruisers were the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Light Cruiser Squadrons. The whole fleet was, by 5.40, moving south at 18 knots. At 5.57 a.m. the Nottingham (2nd L.C.S.), while zigzagging at 20 knots off Holy Island, was shaken by two violent explosions, the result of two simultaneous torpedo hits. They had been fired by U-52, one of the boats of the northern submarine line. A half-hour later the U-boat registered a third hit on the Nottingham. She sank at 7.10. There being no trace of the periscope or tracks of a U-boat, the first signal from the Senior Officer, 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron (Goodenough), to Beatty, which the latter passed on to the C.-in-C., suggested that she had been ‘struck by mine or has been hit by a torpedo’. The C.-in-C. did not receive this information until about 6.50. Ten minutes later he took in an important Admiralty signal of 6.15 which placed the German fleet at 5.25 a.m. about 200 miles to the south-eastward of him, or some 170 miles eastward of the Humber. No course was given. On the basis of these two pieces of information, the first in particular, Jellicoe decided to turn 16 points (i.e., to northward) ‘till situation re Nottingham is clear’, that is, whether she had been mined or torpedoed. The battle fleet altered course at 7.03, and Beatty followed at 7.30.

What Jellicoe feared was steering the Grand Fleet into a minefield trap, ‘and, until it was clear that a mine-field did not exist, it was prudent for the Fleet to avoid this locality . . .’ His defenders say that it would have been ‘foolhardy’ (Altham) or ‘lunacy’ (Dreyer) to have led the fleet into a minefield. Churchill has contended that, even on the assumption that a mine had sunk the Nottingham, ‘a comparatively slight alteration of course would have carried the Grand Fleet many miles clear of the area of the suspected minefields, and the possibility of getting between the German Fleet and home presented itself.’ Perhaps the C.-in-C. felt, on the basis of the Admiralty message, that he had plenty of time in hand and should await more information before committing the fleet to a course of action. Anyhow, it is a fact that four hours were lost, since it was not until after 9 a.m. (Beatty, at 9.30) that the C.-in-C. resumed his advance to the southward. We should not exaggerate the consequences of Jellicoe’s movement to the northward, for, as Newbolt says,

Had it never been made, that is, had Admiral Jellicoe pressed on to the southward, his advanced forces might have come in contact with Hipper’s squadron between twelve and one ; but only on the supposition that the British advance was not held up by the submarines of U-boat line No. 1 [the Blyth line], and that Admiral Scheer held on for Sunderland, in ignorance of the tremendous force which was steadily approaching his communications with [i.e., his line of retreat to] Germany. But it is in the last degree improbable that the German Commander-in-Chief would have known nothing of our Grand Fleet until it was close upon him. . . . It is certain that never, if he could possibly have avoided it, would he have joined battle with the Grand Fleet to the eastward of him, and with the prospect of an eight-hours’ daylight battle before night could bring him a chance of breaking away.

As matters developed, when Jellicoe again turned towards the enemy, he still had time to bring them to action, despite the lost hours.

At 9.08 a.m., having definitely learned that the Nottingham had been sunk by torpedoes, the C.-in-C. turned south again, shaping course S.S.E., steering for a position about 25 miles to the eastward of where the Nottingham had been torpedoed. His original intention had been to proceed down ‘L’ Channel, but in view of the possible presence of U-boats there (submarines had been found in the upper part of the channel, and he suspected that they would also be found in the lower part), he elected to cross the centre of this channel and then move to the eastward down the safer ‘M’ Channel. Clearly, this was a course which gave the Grand Fleet less chance of interposing itself between the High Seas Fleet and its base. Had he adhered to his original plan, he would have been about 20 miles farther to the eastward and might have made contact with the enemy late in the afternoon, perhaps too late for anything more than an indecisive action. The explanation for the change in plan lies in Jellicoe’s suspicion of a trap— that Scheer was using his battle fleet as a bait to draw the Grand Fleet south into his submarines and/or newly-laid mines. At 10.21 the Iron Duke received E-23’s report of 9.16 on the torpedoing of the Westfalen (see below). Although the message was mutilated in transmission and did not fit in with the information of the enemy’s position in two signals received from the Admiralty at 7 and 8 a.m., it did confirm the C.-in-C. in his belief that the High Seas Fleet was making for the English coast.

With the information available after the war, which could not of course have been known to Jellicoe on 19 August, it is possible that a course down ‘L’ Channel would have carried the fleet away from the sphere of the U-boats. At 12.34 Jellicoe altered course for ‘M’ Channel, steering south towards the centre of the channel. An important Admiralty signal of 1.15 p.m., received in the Iron Duke at 1.27 but not seen by Jellicoe until about 2 o’clock, placed the German flagship (from directionals) at 12.33 p.m. in Lat. 54° 32′ N., Long. 1° 42′ E. This was at the time when, as we shall see in a moment, Scheer was about to turn. This was not known to the Admiralty or the C.-in-C. The message indicated that there were about 60 miles between Beatty and the High Seas Fleet at the time of observation, or no more than 40 miles at 2 p.m., if the Germans had stood on. The two fleets were apparently converging at right angles on each other, with early contact inevitable. At once Jellicoe increased speed from 17 to 19 knots and turned the fleet directly towards the (presumably) oncoming enemy. At 2 p.m. the Iron Duke made the flag signal: ‘Raise steam for full speed. . .. Assume immediate readiness for action in every respect.’ And towards 2.15: ‘Prepare for immediate action. High Sea Fleet may be sighted at any moment.’ At 2.15 there followed the Nelson-like signal: ‘High Sea Fleet may be sighted at any moment. I look with entire confidence on the result.’ The weather was clear. There was ample daylight. The odds greatly favoured the Grand Fleet— and this time Beatty was within visual touch of the battle fleet. Everything was ready. But unknown to Jellicoe, fate had yet again intervened to dash the great expectations of the Grand Fleet.

We must turn to Scheer’s movements. He had steamed across the North Sea without incident until 5.05 a.m., when E-23 (Lieutenant-Commander R. R. Turner), patrolling in the Bight 60 miles north of Terschelling, torpedoed the battleship Westfalen, last ship in the German line, at 1,200 yards. At 6.30 Scheer sent the struggling, though not seriously damaged, ship back to harbour under destroyer escort. (It was the Westfalen’s wireless signal reporting the hit and the damage, in violation of Scheer’s orders, that had given Jellicoe important information, via the Admiralty message received at 8 a.m., on the position of the High Seas Fleet.) As the morning wore on, Scheer found himself mystified by the reports he was receiving from his reconnaissance forces. The Zeppelin L-13, in the Hoofden, at 6.30 reported two enemy destroyer flotillas, and behind them two cruiser squadrons (really one), about 120 miles to the southward steering south-west. It was the Harwich Force. (Tyrwhitt had reached the rendezvous off Brown Ridge by 4.02 a.m. and continued to cruise in the vicinity. At 10 a.m., on the basis of E-23’s signal, which had been made at 9.16 to all ships, he turned north to get in touch with the enemy.) At 7 o’clock and at 8.10, U-53, on the eastern end of the northern submarine line, made reports, the first of battle cruisers, the second of battleships, all steering north. At 9.50 the Zeppelin L-31 sent in the inaccurate report that at 9.50 (a mistake for 8.50) the main British fleet was steering north-east. Scheer later reported that this intelligence failed to give him ‘a unified picture of the enemy’s counter-measures’, as all the enemy forces appeared to be moving away from him, instead of converging on his line of advance! Unruffled, and probably concluding that the Harwich Force was merely patrolling, while a concentration of the main British forces was taking place well to the northward, he stood on for Sunderland. At noon he was 82 miles east of Whitby.

Then came the crucial moment. At 12.03 Scheer received a report from L-13 (whose pilot, incidentally, was a reserve officer not well trained in reconnaissance work), which had been shadowing the Harwich Force, that ‘a strong enemy force of about 30 units’, including five heavy ships, 60 miles east of Cromer, was coming up from the southward at 11.30 a.m. (This was about 60 miles south of Scheer’s position at 11.30.) A second report from L-13, received at 12.22, reported this enemy force as consisting of ‘about 16 destroyers, small and large cruisers, and battleships’. (A third report, received at 12.50, located this force at 12.30, 75 miles E.N.E. of Cromer on a N.E. course. This report assured Scheer that he had made the correct decision.) A thunderstorm caused L-13 to lose contact with the British force at 1.30. But for these airship reports, especially the second, Scheer might well have pressed on towards Sunderland—another hour and Jellicoe would have been between him and his base. Instead, believing he had part of the British battle fleet within reach, he abandoned his original plan of bombarding Sunderland. At 12.15 he ordered the fleet to turn around. The battle fleet had to mark time while the 1st Scouting Group got into position ahead on the new course, and then, at one o’clock, the whole fleet shaped course to the south-eastward to engage the reported force—away from the Grand Fleet, coming down from the north. Scheer’s dream since becoming C.-in-C., of destroying a detached, weaker force, seemed on the point of realization! Alas for his hopes, L-13’s reports were mistaken ones, and Scheer was chasing a phantom battleship squadron—actually, the Harwich Force, which, of course, had no battleships with it. Moreover, not having sighted the German fleet, it had turned south at 12.45 to return to its station in the Hoofden, and was, unknowingly, steaming away from the High Seas Fleet.

At 2.35 Scheer abandoned the chase and turned to E.S.E. He gives these as the reasons. ‘The bulk of the fleet continued to advance until stopped by the minefields in the south. [He was within 25 miles of the Humber field.] . . . There was no further prospect of coming up with the enemy in the south, and it had grown too late to bombard Sunderland.’ The dominating factor in his decision must have been U-53’s report at 1.15 (received by him at 2.13) that the British main fleet was approaching, steering south, in a position some 65 miles to the north of the High Seas Fleet. This, the first precise report of the British battle fleet, must have shocked the German C.-in-C.

The German Official History rather severely criticizes L-13 for her blunder, and Scheer claims that ‘there was a possibility that we might have joined battle with the enemy fleet at 4 p.m. [2 p.m., G.M.T.], if the report of “L 13” had not induced me to turn south with a view to attacking the ships sighted in that direction.’ The Chief of the Operations Section on Scheer’s staff remarked after the war that if the C.-in-C. had only continued on towards Sunderland for another hour, instead of turning against the reported force, they would have scored ‘a substantial success. The fate of the war turned on this battle, which was the last chance to end the war by a naval success.’ To the disinterested historian

[and wargamer]

it seems that L-13’s error was in reality a blessing in disguise for the High Seas Fleet, which might otherwise have run into the vastly superior Grand Fleet—and probable disaster.

The Grand Fleet was meanwhile pressing on in an expectant mood. At about 2.30 Jellicoe received an Admiralty message of 1.36 that the High Seas Fleet was turning to starboard at 12.30. By 3 o’clock he knew that the prospect of a meeting was virtually dead. He now advanced into the centre of ‘M’ Channel. At 3.46 he learned from an Admiralty signal of 3.22 that Scheer was well on his way home. At 3.53 Jellicoe ordered the fleet to turn north, and so began the retirement.

The return passage, up ‘M’ Channel, was something of a nightmare until darkness set in, as U-boats of the Flamborough Head line, and then the Blyth line, repeatedly attacked. ‘The signal “submarine in sight” was flying almost continuously at the yard-arm of one or the other of the British ships.’ There was only one hit. The light cruiser Falmouth, on the battle cruisers’ screen, was zigzagging at 23 knots when struck by two torpedoes fired by U-66 at 4.52. She was hit twice more by U-63 at about noon, 20 August, as she was proceeding towards the Humber in tow, and finally sank the next morning when only miles from Flamborough Head.

After several abortive sweeps from its station on Brown Ridge, the Harwich Force finally made contact with the High Seas Fleet at about 6 p.m. and reported it. The fleet at that time was distant at least 20 miles, as only the control tops of a few heavy ships could be seen above the horizon, but its presence was confirmed by a heavy cloud of smoke and the Zeppelins overhead. Tyrwhitt at once started to close the enemy, but at 6.32 p.m. received a signal from the C.-in-C. saying he was too far off to support him. In fact, he had actually abandoned the pursuit and was making for home. That signal gave full discretion to attack or withdraw, but Tyrwhitt did not hesitate to take the risk of attacking a powerful and strongly escorted fleet in its own waters, without any hope of support and at least 150 miles from his base. His only chance of a successful attack was to get well ahead of the enemy and to come down to the attack at high speed, and, accordingly, with this object, he increased to full speed. Unfortunately, after an hour’s steaming it became clear that he could not reach the desired position before the moon rose, which would have made any attempt disastrous; and he therefore withdrew, reporting to the C.-in-C. at 7.32 p.m., ‘Have abandoned pursuit. Night attack conditions unfavourable.’

Commander Frost (U.S.N.) is highly critical of Tyrwhitt’s decision. ‘To be in plain sight of 20 capital ships at dark is a wonderful opportunity for any destroyer commander. Any situation, except possibly a full moon, would be favorable for a night attack. . .. That the British deliberately refused the opportunity for a night attack and that Scheer was perfectly willing to risk it disproved the claim that the British had gained a moral ascendancy over the Germans as a result of Jutland.’ The German Official History is just as unflattering. ‘The reasons which caused him and Admiral Jellicoe not to attack the heavy German forces. . . and to leave them entirely unmolested stand in basic opposition to the German conception of the use and independent attack of torpedo-boat forces.’ We cannot leave the incident there. Tyrwhitt, who was anything but a faint-hearted commander, had a good reason for not closing, one with more validity than Frost admits: he expected that the moon would make an attack both useless and too hazardous. His Navigation Officer writes,

I am sure that the risk of being able to attack only after the moon had risen made us feel quite happy about having to abandon the pursuit. The moon did not rise till about midnight, but the H.S.F. was probably retiring at high speed, and we could only have caught them up and got ahead for the attack after the moon had risen, which with our small force would have been suicidal and useless against a powerful and well-protected fleet which had not been brought to action. When the moon did rise, when on our way back, this was confirmed without a doubt, as it was as bright as day.

There never was, nor could there be, the slightest official criticism of Tyrwhitt’s action on this occasion.

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