And so the day had ended without anything happening. In the view of British critics, the main reason for the enemy ‘slipping through our hands’ was Jellicoe’s cautious strategy (‘careful and evasive attitude’ was the post-battle German evaluation), which was conditioned, they say, by the mistrust of his matériel resulting from his Jutland experiences and the as yet uncorrected defects in ship construction and shell. This is supposed to be proved by the fact that the Grand Fleet steered its southerly course ‘too close’ to the coast (no more than 70 miles from it), whereas, as a British naval officer, writing in 1962, puts it,
Had Jutland not then been fought it seems reasonable to suppose that the advance of the fleet this day would have been laid further east, that is to say, with a greater chance of cutting off the enemy if he approached the coast of England. A concentration to the east instead of the west of the Dogger Bank would have given the British commander more room for manæuvre and more time to effect an interception whether the enemy persisted in his advance or whether, if he got news of the British approach, he, at some period of the day, decided to withdraw.
The validity of the criticism is questionable on two counts. In the first place, if Jellicoe had taken the course suggested, he could not have prevented an East Coast bombardment, the likely enemy objective, or even caught the assailants red-handed. As he must have been aware, neither the Government nor public opinion would have stood for that. But even on the supposition that he had decided to sacrifice the East Coast in the hope that he would annihilate the High Seas Fleet, in all likelihood nothing would have happened.
Scheer was satisfied with the results of his outing. ‘Although on this occasion the expected naval action with the enemy did not take place, and we had to content ourselves with the modest success of two small cruisers destroyed and one battleship damaged [he was under the mistaken impression that a U-boat had torpedoed the battle cruiser Inflexible at 7.50 p.m.], while on our side the Westfalen received injuries, yet we had conclusively shown the enemy that he must be on the watch for attacks by our Fleet.’ He was particularly pleased with the performance of his submarines, which had ‘accomplished good service’ in their reconnaissance duty. The record shows that of the twenty-four U-boats involved in the operation, five (all in the Blyth and Flamborough Head lines) had sighted the British fleet and sent in eleven reports (seven from U-53); they fired sixteen torpedoes, obtaining seven hits on two light cruisers, both of which were sunk. In contrast, Scheer did not regard the air reconnaissance, on which he had relied so greatly, as wholly satisfactory. Only three of the ten airships sighted the British fleet, sending seven reports, four of which were misleading. In Scheer’s opinion, the number of airships and the large area they had to cover worked against the realiability of their reports. And he seems to have thought there had been too much patrolling in a given position and too little searching and shadowing. ‘Scouting by airships is, in any case, somewhat negative in character, since the fleet is only informed by them that the main hostile fleet is not within their field of vision, whereas the important thing is to know where it actually is.’ Despite Scheer’s critical remarks on the air reconnaissance, he had saved his skin in part because of one misleading enemy report!
It was the last time the German Fleet pushed so far into the North Sea. Although Scheer saw interesting possibilities in further sorties with a perfected reconnaissance machinery of submarines together with airships, 19 August strengthened the opinion of the Naval Staff that, while such bold sorties might damage the British Fleet, they would not produce an important, let alone a decisive, result. After 19 August 1916, therefore, the doings of the High Seas Fleet begin to fade out, and the activities of the U-boats, divorced from the fleet, become more pronounced. Especially was this the case from 6 October, the day that the Naval Staff ordered a resumption of submarine warfare in accordance with prize rules (that is, under conditions of visit and search). The order explicitly stated that ‘the employment of the submarines on purely naval duties in combined operations with the High Seas Forces or in independent action against enemy naval forces, is to be subordinated until further orders to the campaign against commerce in accordance with the Prize Regulations.’ This precluded the further use of submarines in fleet operations and knocked the bottom out of Scheer’s hopes of striking an effectual blow against the Grand Fleet. We shall see below that the influence of 19 August was equally far-reaching on the British side. Here it was a shortage of destroyers that contributed to the stalemate in the North Sea.
On the whole, British public opinion reacted favourably to the official statement on the encounter. (It was, naturally, full of gaps.) Thus, H. C. Ferraby, Naval Correspondent of the Daily Express, deemed the loss of the two ships ‘a small price to pay for bolting the door in the face of the second largest fleet in the world’. But to the Admiralty and the C.-in-C., 19 August was a day of disappointment and even of shock.
What Jellicoe had long feared had come to pass: the enemy’s Zeppelins, to say nothing of their submarines, had served them well as look-outs. ‘There is no doubt of the use the Germans find for their Zeppelins, apart from raids. They hampered us terribly last week and greatly helped their S.M.s. One Zeppelin is worth a good many light cruisers on a suitable day.’ The C.-in-C. shot this query to the Admiralty on 24 August: How many airships were available on the East Coast, and did they have orders to co-operate with the fleet, should it be within the radius of their action? British scouting airships might have been of considerable assistance to the Grand Fleet on the afternoon of the 19th in locating the enemy’s U-boats and possibly also their battle fleet. The Admiralty replied (6 September) that there were available on the East Coast ten coastal airships, with three more to be ready shortly. This type, intended for coast reconnaissance, had a very limited radius within which they could operate with the fleet: 150 miles in fine weather. More suitable for fleet work was the improved North Sea type (four of which would be completed by the end of 1916 and two more early in 1917) with a radius of 400 miles in good weather. The Admiralty, however, were willing that Jellicoe should arrange for some of the coastal airships to participate in a test exercise with the fleet to ascertain whether their position when out of sight of land could be determined with sufficient accuracy to render reports received from them of value. The situation as regards seaplane carriers was less encouraging. The Fleet was still without efficient carriers. The Third Sea Lord informed the C.-in-C. at a conference in the Iron Duke (12 October) that the Italian steamer Conte Rosso was being converted into a seaplane carrier, but that she would not be available for a year. When he suggested that the flying boats would replace seaplanes and carriers, Jellicoe pointed out that their radius of action was insufficient to enable them to work with the fleet and that the difficulties of refuelling them at sea, even if they could safely make the rendezvous ordered, were great. Practically speaking, therefore, the Campania and Engadine remained the only means of aerial scouting that the Grand Fleet could expect, apart from kite balloons inflated on shore and towed by battleships.
It was the destroyer shortage that claimed most of the C.-in-C.’s attention. He (the First Sea Lord as well) believed that the German plan on 19 August had combined a projected evening bombardment of the East Coast and a submarine trap for the Grand Fleet. The submarines actually sighted and the loss of the two light cruisers proved the U-boat menace to the fleet was a real one. The C.-in-C. lost no time in making strong representations to the Admiralty on the subject of destroyers for screening. He was positive that unless all vessels, including light cruisers (which the destroyer shortage had made impossible to screen hitherto), were screened by destroyers, they must expect very heavy losses when the fleet was in a submarine-infested area. The C.-in-C. put his minimum destroyer requirements at 87, on the scale of twelve destroyers to eight heavy ships (one battle squadron), two per cruiser, and one to each light cruiser. Nominally, Jellicoe had 86 destroyers (31 at Rosyth and 55 at Scapa Flow), but deducting those refitting or away on other duties, only 70 were ordinarily available. The question of the destroyer shortage ‘is one of the greatest gravity and calls for urgent pressure on the firms who are building destroyers, as until we get more, I cannot guarantee us from further heavy losses in cruisers, if not in Battleships, from submarine attack, and with no corresponding loss to the enemy’.
For two weeks Jellicoe harped on this theme, until their Lordships simply refused to reply to his last communication on the subject (13 September). As Oliver commented, with a touch of asperity, ‘Keeping up an argument will not provide any more destroyers.’ The Admiralty’s position was that the rate of destroyer-building (14.7 months was the average time since the outbreak of the war, compared with 20-24 in pre-war days) could not be improved on appreciably, and they could not disregard their responsibilities in other directions: ‘British Light Cruisers in the Adriatic are as much in need of Destroyer protection as Light Cruisers in the North Sea. 100 Drifters blocking Otranto Straits with mine nets have only intermittent and inadequate protection, which the Admiralty have been unable to provide.’ The supplies and reinforcements to the armies in Egypt, Salonika, and Mesopotamia had to be protected, the troopships from the Dominions required escort, and so forth and so on. The best that the Admiralty could do for Jellicoe (as they informed him on 9 September) was to continue, under the scheme promulgated in August 1915, the allocation of new destroyers to the Grand Fleet until the total complement reached 100. The destroyer situation directly influenced North Sea strategy.
The Grand Fleet had invariably moved upon receiving intelligence, through intercepted enemy signals, of a High Seas Fleet sortie. This policy had broken down. It ‘needed drastic revision’, Jellicoe asserted, unless he got more destroyers for screening purposes. He could not guarantee the East Coast ports against ‘tip and run’ bombardments, or interfere with the early stages of a landing, since it would be unwise to take the fleet far into southern waters until he had an adequate number of destroyers for his light cruisers as well as his capital ships. He did make an important qualification. ‘If the circumstances were exceptional and the need very pressing, it would be necessary to accept the risk. There was general agreement on this point between the Flag officers of the Fleet and the Admiralty’. The issues raised were thrashed out at one of the most important naval conferences in the war, held in the Iron Duke on 13 September. Present were Jellicoe, his Chief of Staff, Madden, and the Chief of the Admiralty War Staff, Oliver.
The questions for decision were, in effect: (1) Was the Government prepared to face the fact that the fleet could not prevent bombardments of East Coast towns or interfere with the early stages of a landing? (2) Should the fleet disregard risks of submarines and mines, and seek the enemy whenever he was known to be at sea? (3) Or should the fleet avoid localities where the enemy could easily lay traps with submarines or mines and confine its operations to northern waters, say, north of Lat. 55° 30′ N. (approximately the latitude of Horns Reef and the Farne Islands)? The C.-in-C. held the strong opinion that the main fleet should not go south of this latitude in longitudes east of 4° E., ‘unless under exceptional circumstances, the reason being that waters so far to the eastward cannot be watched by our cruisers or our submarines, and they, therefore, offer to the enemy facilities for preparing a trap of mines or submarines on a large scale’. In waters to the west of Long. 4° E., they could afford to take the risks of mines ‘if a really good opportunity offered of bringing the High Sea Fleet to action in daylight’. (This was because the submarine patrols could very probably report whether minefields might be expected.) But in no case should the fleet go south of the Dogger Bank, on account of the submarine menace, unless it had an ample destroyer screen ‘for all ships’. Jellicoe made it clear that his proposals were independent of where the fleet was based —Scapa or Rosyth. Oliver summed up the points raised at the conference: ‘Both the C.-in-C. and the V.A., B.C.F.
[whom Oliver visited on 14 September]
hold very definite views as to the Fleet not coming far south on every occasion of the German Fleet approaching the East Coast of England, but only when there is a really good chance of engaging it in daylight. . . . The V.A. was if anything more emphatic on this point than the C.-in-C.’ Indeed he was:
I am very firmly of the opinion that the War has reached a stage when it behoves us [in] the Navy to move very circumspectly. The old proverb that ‘When you are winning risk nothing’ might well be applied now. And I think the North Sea South of Lat. 55-30 N is a very unhealthy place for Capital Ships and shd be left entirely to SM’s who might be able to deny the use of it to the Enemy except at very grave risk. If they are willing to take that risk it wd. surely be for an objective of great importance and not merely a parade. What objective could they possibly have. However [I] admit that there might be one, in which case we ought to be able to guess it and counter it. The Enemy’s Fleet is no use to them unless they can perform some such duty as breaking up the Blockade which is really now having a strangling effect and in that case they have to fight us. And in waters of our selection and not of theirs.
In a word, Beatty, no less than Jellicoe, preached caution in taking heavy ships south of latitude 55° 30′ after the events of 19 August. His letter is further proof that their strategic views after Jutland were very similar to those they held before.
On 23 September the Admiralty ‘approved generally’ the conclusions reached at the conference on the 13th, definitely adopting the view that minefields and submarines had fundamentally altered naval strategy in the North Sea.
If the Grand Fleet proceeds south of the Forth whenever the German Fleet is suspected of being about to approach the East Coast, it is certain that it will incur great and increasing risks of losses from submarine attack and from mines, while the chance of bringing the enemy to action is very small [because in weather when Zeppelins could operate ‘it seems almost impossible for our ships to close the enemy without being reported in amply sufficient time to enable him to avoid action and escape’], unless he is unduly delayed near our coast by damage to some of his ships by the local forces.
Accordingly, the heavy ships of the Grand Fleet, barring ‘exceptional circumstances’, were to keep northward of the parallel of Horns Reef. ‘Exceptional circumstances’ were defined as ‘an attempt at invasion, or that a really good opportunity is foreseen of bringing the German fleet to action in daylight in an area which is not greatly to the disadvantage of the Grand Fleet. A suitable opportunity might be afforded if the German Fleet attacked the Thames or Dover Strait defences.’ ‘Exceptional circumstances’ did not cover an enemy raid on the East Coast, like the Scarborough or Lowestoft raids, since ‘it is impossible for our capital ships from the Northern bases to bring the enemy to action for some 16 to 30 hours after his ships have been reported off our coast, the time lengthening according to the distance south to the point of attack.’ ‘Periodical exercise cruises, however, to keep the fleet efficient are necessary, and some risks must be accepted to carry them out; but taking large risks with the capital ships of the Grand Fleet from mines and submarines in dangerous areas on occasions when there is only a very slender chance of bringing the German fleet to action in daylight is not sound strategy.’
Besides the decision to keep the capital ships to the north of the parallel of Horns Reef, the firmness of the control over the movements and sailings of the Grand Fleet exercised by the Admiralty is shown by the statement in the same memorandum that, in ordering the C.-in-C. to raise steam, they would state the degree of urgency. Orders would then be given to proceed to sea and concentrate east of the Long Forties, and the C.-in-C. would arrange the rendezvous. In rough weather the fleet would not be ordered south of that rendezvous. The decisions embodied in the Admiralty memorandum ‘governed the subsequent conduct of the Grand Fleet and rank as one of the most important enunciations of naval policy issued during the war. They were the direct outcome of August 19.’ At the same time they were the culmination of a discussion on the role of the Grand Fleet that had been going on for six months.
There had been some irritation at the Admiralty after 19 August that the Grand Fleet was remaining on the defensive. The First Sea Lord had given vent to his feelings in a sharp rebuke that was not sent to Jellicoe:
It cannot be overlooked that the Commander-in-Chief lays great stress on the injury the enemy can inflict on our forces in the North Sea, but offers no suggestion as to the employment of his forces to inflict similar losses on the enemy. It is also to be noted that practically all large movements of the Fleet have to be initiated by the Admiralty. I suggest the Commander-in-Chief might again be informed that we should welcome any suggestions from him as to the employment of any of the vessels under his command with the object of inflicting similar injury to the enemy.
A month later, in their memorandum of 23 September for the C.-in-C, the Admiralty had reluctantly to admit, ‘In fact, unless the enemy desires to fight and seeks action, the chances of bringing him to action are now lessened and seem problematical.’
By this date it was clear that a stalemate in the North Sea had set in. The restrictions imposed on the Grand Fleet’s area of operations, together with Scheer’s wariness about venturing any distance from his base without submarine outposts which were no longer available, made a future meeting of the two fleets extremely unlikely.
It may be said that Admiral Scheer could not sally out without submarines and Admiral Jellicoe could not drive him back without destroyers. On the one side the apparatus of reconnaissance, on the other side the apparatus of screening, broke down. August 19 was thus at once a finale and a prologue. The first part of the great drama was over. The curtain rang down on the excursions of the German Fleet, just as they were beginning to offer a promise of success. It was to rise again, not on serried fleets seeking one another in the North Sea, but on submarines toiling night and day in tireless search for prey, while behind them a host of relentless pursuers followed hard. It is in the light of these far-reaching decisions that August 19 ranks with Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank and Jutland as one of the red-letter days in the calendar of the North Sea.
Events in the autumn illustrated and confirmed this state of affairs.
Scheer planned a sortie for September on the same lines as 19 August. Unfavourable weather forced a cancellation. Before he could plan another, orders had gone out for the resumption of submarine warfare on trade. ‘Lacking U-boats’, Scheer writes, ‘I was forced to adopt quite a different scheme; instead of making for the English coast and luring the enemy on to our line of U-boats before the actual battle took place, I had to make a widespread advance with torpedo-boats to take stock of the merchant traffic in the North Sea and capture prizes. The Fleet was to serve as a support to the light craft that were sent out.’ Apparently, he expected the sortie would lead to an action with British naval forces, on which the German Official History remarks, ‘If the Commander-in-Chief hoped to clash with enemy surface forces, the chances were slight due to the limited extent of the advance.’ The Official History also notes that ‘if circumstances permitted’, his plan included the launching of a night torpedo attack.
The High Seas Fleet put to sea around midnight of 18-19 October, steering west for a point east of the Dogger Bank. Though Scheer had no submarines, he still had his airships, ten of which were spread ahead of the fleet in a wide semicircle across the Bight. (Breakdowns forced two of them back early.) A widely spread destroyer screen covered his flanks.
The Admiralty received Scheer’s signal of 5.30 p.m., 18 October, stating his intention to carry out an operation. At 7.46 p.m. they ordered the Grand Fleet to be at short notice for steam (‘The German Fleet shows signs of moving’). Other intercepted signals confirmed an impending enemy sortie, and at 11.30 p.m. orders went out to the local defence commanders—Tyrwhitt, the Rear-Admiral, East Coast (at Immingham), and the Vice-Admiral, 3rd Battle Squadron (in the Thames)—alerting them to a naval raid south. In line with the policy laid down on 23 September, the Grand Fleet did not put to sea. German intentions were not known. Jellicoe suggested to the Admiralty that Scheer might try to draw the fleet to the south and west, so as to leave a path clear for surface raiders to break loose. As a precaution, he sent a cruiser force out to look for raiders at the northern end of the North Sea.
When Scheer put to sea, there were four Harwich submarines patrolling off Ameland on the Dutch coast, and three Blyth submarines off Horns Reef. One of the former, E-38 (Lieutenant-Commander J. de B. Jessop), sighted the German fleet, and at 8.43 a.m. (19 October) fired two torpedoes into the light cruiser München at 1,300 yards. She managed to get home safely, in tow of the light cruiser Berlin. (Jellicoe was unhappy over the failure to sink the München. ‘They are very difficult to sink, or else our torpedoes don’t hit hard enough.’) Scheer sighted no enemy forces, and when he reached a position east of the Dogger Bank, shortly after 11 a.m., he altered course to E.N.E. with the intention of proceeding back through the channel south of Horns Reef. At 2 p.m. he ordered his airships to return home and definitely turned back himself. The only reason given in the German Official History is that at 2 p.m. he decided that the bright night would not be favourable for a torpedo attack. (He seems to have had some notion of running into the Harwich Force at night, if he had held his course.) E-38’s torpedoes, in conjunction with the heavy sea, which prevented his destroyers from keeping up, and the knowledge (via a report from the Neumünster radio station at 11.35 a.m.) that his enterprise had become known to the enemy, are sufficient to explain Scheer’s decision to return to harbour.
And so ended the sortie. It was the last movement of the High Seas Fleet as a whole until April 1918. Without submarines for reconnaissance, Scheer would take no chances, particularly after burning his fingers on 3 November. On this date the submarines U-20 and U-30 were stranded in a fog off Bovbjerg on the west coast of north Jutland (Denmark). Assuming that a British squadron might be at sea off the Skagerrak, Scheer sent the battle cruiser Moltke, four dreadnoughts, and a half flotilla of destroyers to render assistance. They managed to bring in U-30, but could not save U-20, as her back was broken. On the return home, 5 November, two of the battleships were successfully torpedoed by a British submarine, J-1 (Commander Noel Laurence), in ‘thick and dirty weather’, with the track of the torpedoes obscured by the heavy seas. The damage in both cases was not very serious. The Emperor sharply criticized Scheer for ‘risking a squadron, and by so doing nearly losing two armoured ships in order to save two U-boats’.
Although it was not immediately apparent to the British, in fact battle-fleet strategy was in abeyance until the need to protect the Scandinavian convoys, brought about by unrestricted trade attack, opened a new and quite different phase for the Grand Fleet in the latter part of 1917. Meanwhile, in the autumn of 1916, it was time for another wave of public distrust of the Admiralty, and one of the criticisms levelled at it was the absence of offensive naval action in the North Sea.