The First Battle of Heligoland Bight I

British light cruiser HMS Arethusa, Commodore Tyrwhitt’s flagship in the Battle of Heligoland Bight on 28th August 1914 in the First World War

The outbreak of the First World War occurred at a moment of extreme good fortune for the Royal Navy. Instead of the normal summer manoeuvres in 1914, there was held a test mobilisation of the Third Fleet – the reserve units that would be brought to operational readiness in case of war. This began on July 15, 20,000 reservists having been called up, and on July 17-18 a grand review of the entire fleet took place at Spithead. On the days following, the fleet put to sea for tactical exercises; after this, on July 23, the units of the Third Fleet began to return to their home ports. On July 26, with the diplomatic situation having sharply deteriorated, Battenberg, as First Sea Lord, suspended the demobilisation. It thus came about that the First Fleet, soon to be called the Grand Fleet, was effectively on a war footing and on the night of July 29/30 it sailed through the Dover Straits en route for its battle stations at Scapa Flow, Cromarty and Rosyth.

The Grand Fleet, at the outbreak of war, consisted of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battle Squadrons and the 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron, a total of twenty one dreadnoughts, four battle cruisers and eight predreadnoughts. In addition there were the 2nd and 3rd Cruiser Squadrons, comprising eight armoured cruisers; and the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron of four ships, with nine other cruisers and forty two destroyers. It left behind the Channel Fleet, based on Portland, consisting of the 5th, 7th and 8th Battle Squadrons, with a total of nineteen predreadnoughts. At Harwich, under Commodore Tyrwhitt, who reported to Jellicoe, was a force of light cruisers and destroyers, together with a force of the newer submarines under Commodore Keyes. In addition, there were a series of Patrol Flotillas based on Dover, the Humber, the Tyne and the Forth. The 12th Cruiser Squadron patrolled the western end of the Channel.

The bases to which it was steaming were not, however, by any means in an ideal state. The navy’s traditional bases at Portsmouth and Plymouth were too far from the North Sea to be useful and Chatham, on the east coast, was also too far to the south. It had been resolved, therefore, as early as 1903 to establish a first class base at Rosyth, on the Firth of Forth, where the excellent anchorage was roughly equidistant from Heligoland and the Skagerrak. The extensive works required, however, were frequently postponed for economic reasons; in addition, as Professor Marder observed, the Firth of Forth did have a number of disadvantages, which contributed to the delay, such as its exposure to danger from minelaying, the limited area of deep water above the line of defence, and the tidal stream above what Fisher, who disliked Rosyth, called ‘that beastly bridge’.3 Since Rosyth would not be fully ready until 1915, it was resolved to look about for what were termed ‘advanced bases of a temporary and auxiliary character’, and these were found at Cromarty Firth and Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.

Scapa Flow and its strategic significance was succinctly described by one of its historians:

A large area of water, some 120 square miles of it, almost totally enclosed by a ring of islands, the South Isles of Orkney, and this whole mosaic of land and sea, poised strategically just off the north coast of Scotland, divides the long grey surges of the Atlantic Ocean from the equally inhospitable waters of the North Sea. It is this combination of geographical location and natural formation which has given Scapa Flow its unique character and its potential as a naval base; a potential it has held throughout the centuries, for whoever controls it commands the North Sea with easy access to either side of the British Isles and the wide oceans of the world beyond.

Originally there were nine major entrances to Scapa Flow, but four of these were later blocked during the Second World War by massive causeways. The principal entrance used by the larger units of the fleet was Hoxa Sound, between the islands of Flotta and South Ronaldsay; smaller vessels such as destroyers tended to used Switha Sound, between Flotta and Switha. The actual appearance of Scapa Flow was lyrically described by the Orkney author Eric Linklater, who wrote:

On calm days the islands floated on a deep-blue sea in a charm of shadowed cliffs and reddish moors, the harvest was ripe, and the fields were bearded with bright gold or gay in a lovely green. The forehead of the hills rose in smooth lines against a lucent sky, and rippled lakes provoked a passion for mere water.

Thus Scapa Flow in the golden days of summer; but during less clement weather it was a grim place to be. Linklater also wrote of the experience of a south easterly gale as enduring ‘such a hurly burly, so rude and ponderous a buffeting, that one could hardly deny a sense of outrage, a suspicion that the wind’s violence was a personal enmity.’

In the Napoleonic wars a battery was built, to defend Longhope Bay together with two Martello towers; but during the following century little more was done to make Scapa Flow a secure naval base, and it was virtually defenceless when the Grand Fleet arrived. Nonetheless, it had its advocates, most prominent of whom was Fisher who, after the war, wrote in characteristically boastful terms, to The Times, to claim to have discovered it:

Once looking at a chart in my secluded room at the Admiralty, in 1905, I saw a large landlocked sheet of water unsurveyed and nameless. It was Scapa Flow. One hour after this an Admiralty survey ship was en route there. Secretly she went for none but myself and my most excellent friend the Hydrographer knew.

It was to Fisher that Jellicoe wrote as late as January 1915 to express his concern at the complete defencelessness of Scapa Flow as a base for the Grand Fleet:

If you would only just compare the orders for the protection of the High Seas Fleet … with the arrangements here you would be horrified. I wonder if I ever slept at all. Thank goodness the Germans imagine we have proper defences. At least so I imagine – otherwise there would be no Grand Fleet left now.

Churchill was particularly concerned about the seriousness of the submarine threat to Scapa Flow. Prompted by a letter from Beatty complaining that ‘we are gradually being pushed out of the North Sea and off our own particular perch,’ he demanded action, addressing a note to the First Sea Lord, the Third Sea Lord, the Fourth Sea Lord and the Naval Secretary on October 24:

Every nerve must be strained to reconcile the fleet to Scapa. Successive lines of submarine defences should be prepared, reinforced by electric-contact mines as proposed by the Commander-in-Chief. Nothing should stand in the way of the equipment of this anchorage with every possible means of security. The First Lord and the First Sea Lord will receive a report of progress every third day until the work is completed and the Commander-in- Chief satisfied.

Nevertheless, in the years before the war, in spite of Fisher’s enthusiasm for Scapa Flow, he and Churchill had supported the Admiralty’s view in 1912 that Cromarty Firth would be a better choice as the advanced base for the main fleet. The conclusive reason for this appears to have been the Admiralty’s finding that the sea could run so high inside Scapa Flow as to make the use of a floating dock and repairing facilities at times impracticable. The recommendation went on to note that Cromarty was connected to the rail network of the UK. In addition:

Apart from its primary value as a second class naval base Cromarty has a secondary and slightly less important value as a War Anchorage. Under the protection of the defences provided for the security of the floating repairing facilities, vessels containing fuel and stores of all kinds may be accumulated for the use of the fleet, forming a source of supply alternative and supplementary to Rosyth. Owing to the vast size of modern fleets, which makes their accommodation at a single anchorage almost impossible, the provision of supplementary war anchorage is a matter of great importance.

Cromarty, the Admiralty recommended, should be heavily fortified, whilst Scapa Flow should not be provided with fixed defences. This, it appears, was due solely to the cost involved. Cromarty, unlike Scapa Flow, could easily be made impregnable to attack from submarines; the multitude of entrances to Scapa Flow made the cost greater than, it was thought, justifiable. Thus it was that the Grand Fleet’s principal base at the outbreak of war was undefended. By comparison, the defences of the bases of the High Seas Fleet were, as Professor Marder put it, ‘simply terrific.’

The High Seas Fleet, which had been cruising off the Norwegian coast, was not immediately recalled because it was feared that this step would escalate the diplomatic crisis. By July 26, however, William was prepared to wait no longer and ordered the recall of the fleet. It returned to its bases to prepare to execute the War Orders issued to it. These were summarised by Scheer:

The order underlying this plan of campaign was this: The Fleet must strike when circumstances are favourable; it must therefore seek battle with the English Fleet only when a state of equality has been achieved by the methods of guerrilla warfare. It thus left the Commander-in-Chief of the High Seas Fleet freedom of action to exploit any favourable opportunity and put no obstacles in his way, but it required of him that he should not risk the whole Fleet in battle until there was a probability of victory. Moreover, it started from the assumption that opportunities would arise of doing the enemy damage when, as was to be expected, he initiated a blockade of the German Bight which was in accordance with the rules of International Law.

This assumption, that the British would penetrate at once into the Heligoland Bight, underpinned German thinking to the point that if it simply did not happen, Germany might in the words of Ivo Nicolai Lambi, be in the position of approaching the war ‘with no definite plans for naval operations against Britain and the Triple Entente.’ This assumption was held, as has been pointed out, after a series of war games to test the likely outcome of a British imposition of a blockade. In readiness for the imminent attack, the High Seas Fleet began on July 31 to move through the Kiel Canal to its bases on the North Sea. By the outbreak of war on August 4 the two dreadnought squadrons of the battle fleet, the I and II, were respectively stationed at the mouth of the Jade River and behind the Jade Bar, while Scheer’s II Squadron of eight predreadnoughts was assigned to the mouth of the Elbe between Cuxhaven and Brunsbüttel. Hipper’s I Scouting Group of four battle cruisers was at the mouth of the Jade. The other Scouting Groups, consisting of light cruisers and destroyers, were deployed around the entrances to the Jade, Elbe and Weser rivers.

On both sides, the taut expectation of immediate action was disappointed, and within two weeks this was already being strongly felt. Tyrwhitt wrote from Harwich on August 15 that he was starting to feel ‘rather bored at looking for nothing’ and that he was ‘beginning to give up hope of getting at the Germans for some time.’ Beatty was similarly disillusioned, writing to his wife on August 24:

We are still wandering about the face of the ocean and apparently get no nearer to the end. In fact we have not begun yet. This waiting is the deuce and, as far as we can see, has no limit. We are entirely in the hands of our friends the Germans as to when he [sic] will come out and be whacked.

The Germans shared the British feeling of surprise, but for Scheer the postponement of any immediate confrontation was all to the good:

The fact that an English offensive did not materialise in the first weeks of the war gave cause for reflection, for with every day’s grace the enemy gave us he was abandoning some of the advantage of his earlier mobilisation, while our coast defences were improved. The sweep of light cruisers and destroyers which, starting out star-wise from Heligoland, had scoured the seas over a circumference of about 100 sea miles had produced nothing.

Roger Keyes, as commodore commanding the submarines, based at Harwich, was even more discontented than his friend Tyrwhitt, especially following an incident in the southern part of the North Sea on August 18. That day, two German light cruisers, Stralsund and Strassburg, covered by a screen of submarines, came out in search of British patrols. They met the light cruiser Fearless, commanded by Captain Wilfred Blunt, which was leading sixteen destroyers of the Harwich 1st Flotilla. Fearless was a 3,440 ton cruiser of the Active class, armed with 10 – 4 inch guns; Stralsund and Strassburg were both 4,550 tons of the Breslau class, carrying 12 – 4.1inch guns. Blunt, however, after having gone in pursuit of Stralsund, wrongly identified her as the armoured cruiser Yorck, of 9,350 tons, mounting 4 – 8.2 inch guns and 10 5.9 inch guns. Fearing that the armoured cruiser’s guns would outrange those of his force, Blunt turned away and called for support from Tyrwhitt. Had Stralsund continued steaming southwest in pursuit of Fearless, she would have sailed into a trap; but her captain being warned of this, she turned away.

This prompted an anguished letter from Keyes to Leveson, the Director of Operations of the Naval War Staff, on August 21:

When are we going to make war and make the Germans realise that wherever they come out – destroyers, cruisers, battleships or all three – they will be fallen on and attacked? I feel sick and sore … a light cruiser equal in offensive power to the Fearless, has put 16 destroyers and the Fearless to flight. However one glosses it over, those are the facts. Don’t think I am blaming Blunt or his captains . But it is not by such incidents we will get the right atmosphere.

Burning to take the offensive, Tyrwhitt and Keyes conceived a plan for a raid into the Heligoland Bight. Strictly speaking, both of them were under the command of Rear Admiral Christian, the overall commander of the Southern Force, but they were resolved themselves to take the initiative. The plan was based on information gathered by Keyes’s submarines about the German patrols in the Bight. It was noted that their practice was for light cruisers to lead out a flotilla of destroyers each evening; the destroyers then fanned out during the night, returning the following morning to rejoin the light cruisers 20 miles NW of Heligoland. Keyes ‘was of opinion that a well organised drive, commencing inshore before dawn, should inflict considerable loss on the returning night patrols’. The plan was revised to provide that the advance was not to be made until 8.00am, so that the target would now be the enemy’s daytime destroyer patrols. Two lines of submarines were to be posted to attack any German cruisers that came out to support their destroyers. The strike force was to be Tyrwhitt’s new flagship, the light cruiser Arethusa, and Fearless, leading the 1st and 3rd Flotillas respectively. Support would be provided by the battlecruisers Invincible and New Zealand, based in the Humber.

Keyes, who at first had received little attention from the Naval War Staff when he first took his plan to the Admiralty on August 23, obtained an interview with Churchill who was immediately taken with the scheme. Next day a meeting with the First and Second Sea Lords was convened, to which Keyes and Tyrwhitt were invited, and the plan was approved with some variations. These in part were due to the fact that the operation was intended as a cover for the proposal to land three Royal Marine battalions to hold Ostend.

The intention was for Keyes to sail on August 26 and the remaining forces next day, so that the sweep could begin on August 28. Extraordinarily, the Naval War Staff did not tell Jellicoe of what was planned until two days after the meeting, and then he was only informed that a sweep by the 1st and 3rd Flotillas was planned for August 28 from east to west, commencing between Horns Reef and Heligoland with battlecruisers in support. Two hours later, at 4.35pm, Jellicoe replied that he proposed to cooperate in the operation and asking for full details of the plan; he would leave at 6.00am on August 27. He got no immediate reply, and his next signal, at 5.54pm illustrated his perplexity:

Until I know the plan of operations I am unable to suggest the best method of cooperation, but the breadth of sweep appears to be very great for two flotillas. I could send a third flotilla, holding a fourth in reserve, and can support by light cruisers. What officers will be in command of operations, and in what ships, so that I can communicate with them? What is the direction of the sweep and [the] northern limits, and what ships take part?

Sturdee’s indifference to Jellicoe’s concern may be judged by the tone of his eventual reply, sent just after midnight on August 27: ‘Cooperation by battle fleet not required. Battlecruisers can support if convenient.’20 Jellicoe ordered Beatty and Goodenough to sail at 5.00am on August 27, and himself put to sea with the 2nd and 4th Battle Squadrons at 5.45 pm that day; the 1st and 3rd Battle Squadrons were already at sea. Beatty aimed to rendezvous with Moore’s two battlecruisers 90 miles NW of Heligoland. As Goldrick remarks, Jellicoe’s ‘sane measures had restored some chance of success to what had become a dubious venture indeed.’ Meanwhile nobody told Tyrwhitt and Keyes of the support they were to receive. When the Admiralty finally sent a message to Harwich for them they were by then out of range for a wireless message from the port.

Deficient though the Admiralty’s management of the operation was, the German dispositions in the Bight were such as to give the British plan every chance of success. Responsibility for the patrols belonged to Hipper as commander of the scouting forces, but Ingenohl, characteristically, issued instructions as to how the patrols should operate. Erich Raeder, Hipper’s Chief of Staff, was extremely critical in his memoirs:

According to these instructions, the light forces, during daylight, were stationed in patrol sectors centred on the outermost Elbe lightship and covering the entire Bight. Upon approach of darkness they would steam to sea to form an advanced picket line against any approach, and then return to their inshore stations at daylight. Naturally, as the patrolling ships ranged farther and farther from Heligoland, the circles widened and the gaps between the respective patrol craft increased. Consequently the ships had to patrol singly, instead of in pairs or groups as prudence would have dictated in the presence of a strong enemy… using the light cruisers for routine picket line work not only exposed them to enemy submarine attacks, but likewise took them, as it also did the torpedo boat squadrons, away from their correct tactical employment – which was to conduct long range night reconnaissance.

The consequence of these fundamentally defective dispositions was soon to be dramatically demonstrated.

Keyes, with the destroyer leader Lurcher and Firedrake, and eight submarines, put to sea at midnight on August 26. He was followed five hours later by Tyrwhitt with the Harwich Force, while at the same time Moore sortied from the Humber, his two battlecruisers accompanied by four destroyers. Finally the five elderly armoured cruisers that constituted Cruiser Force C, under the overall command of Rear Admiral Christian, sailed on the night of August 27 to patrol off Terschelling. What followed was an extremely confused affair indeed.

At about 3.30 am Tyrwhitt’s lookouts sighted dark shapes approaching from astern, which to his great surprise turned out to be Goodenough’s squadron. Tyrwhitt, puzzled by this, signalled: ‘Are you taking part in the operation?’ To this Goodenough replied: ‘Yes, I know your course and will support you. Beatty is behind us.’ It was as well that Tyrwhitt now knew the true position; the silhouette of Goodenough’s light cruisers, having two masts and four funnels, would have led them to be taken to be enemy ships. Keyes, still in ignorance of Goodenough’s arrival, was soon to do just that.