On 30 May 1966, two British destroyers sailed from Scapa Flow while a pair of German frigates sortied from Wilhelmshaven. The next afternoon—the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Jutland—they rendezvoused in the North Sea at the exact point the British Grand Fleet and German High Seas Fleet encountered each other a half-century earlier. The warships then commemorated the anniversary of the famous World War I fight by following the battle tracks of the opposing fleets. There have been few similar observances, and, sadly, the historiography of the Great War at sea is similar to its memorial record.
The High Seas Fleet was the embodiment of Kaiser Wilhelm II's desire for Germany to be all powerful on the world's oceans, as well as the European continent. The country's rapid naval expansion in the prewar years, however, had come at great financial cost and precipitated an arms race with Britain. Once the fighting began, the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet still had an advantage over the German fleet in capital ships.
The conventional story is that the High Seas Fleet's leaders were indecisive from the start. Wavering between demands for surface operations versus an unrestricted submarine campaign against Great Britain, the German Imperial Navy (Kaiserliche Marine, or KLM) carried out a series of inconclusive fleet sorties culminating at Jutland—or Skagerrak, as the battle is known in Germany. The results there so frightened High Seas Fleet commanders that Germany swiftly turned to submarine warfare, and its surface navy sat out the rest of the war. The crews grew so frustrated they mutinied in 1918, robbing the High Seas Fleet of its value as a weapon of war.
This history is accurate to a point, but it obscures what the German surface fleet did do after Jutland. Partly this results from the success of German proponents of unrestricted submarine warfare and the actual depredations of the U-boats, which did get closer than the surface navy to achieving decisive results. After the war, the giants of the German Navy, figures like Alfred von Tirpitz and Reinhard Scheer, portrayed this trajectory of events, though Scheer was more charitable to the surface sailors. The fact is the High Seas Fleet was more active than this view suggests.
Recent writing by Americans and Britons, spearheaded by scholars like Jon T. Sumida and Richard Lambert, nevertheless has focused much more on the Royal Navy than the Kaiserliche Marine. There has been relatively little analysis of the German side during the war, which still centers primarily on the Tirpitz era (1914-16) and the U-boat decisions. With a genuflection to Michael B. Barrett, who has begun to mine the post-1916 lode, what follows is a brief account of High Seas Fleet operations after Jutland.
Aftermath of Battle
From 1500 on 1 June 1916—when the flagship Friedrich der Grosse anchored at her homeport of Wilhelmshaven, Germany, immediately after Jutland—the High Seas Fleet balanced on the horns of a dilemma. Its commander, Vice Admiral Scheer, needed to repair his battered vessels and decide on future operations. Whatever the KLM's view of the actual strategic impact of Jutland, for propaganda purposes the battle was played up in Germany as a victory. Under threatening skies on 5 June, Kaiser Wilhelm visited the naval base, showering decorations on officers, promoting Scheer to fleet admiral, and delivering a rousing address to the flagship's crew. "The spell of Trafalgar has been broken," the kaiser intoned. More than ever that attitude required the High Seas Fleet to assume an active operational stance.
The naval command did not take that point, however, and Jutland became one more marker in the lengthy political-strategic debate on U-boat warfare. In 1915 the KLM had attempted an unrestricted submarine campaign in the waters around the British Isles before halting it several months after a U-boat torpedo sank the Lusitania. Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Henning von Holtzendorf now argued that the damage sustained by the surface fleet at Jutland, which would keep vessels in the repair yards for weeks or even months, necessitated renewed emphasis on U-boats. Grand Admiral Tirpitz, recently retired but still a power in the KLM, had long advocated unrestricted use of submarines. In his Jutland after-action report Scheer himself argued that "If . . . we are not finally to be bled to death, full use must be made of the U-boat as a means of war."
German political leaders, who feared the reactions of neutral nations (particularly the United States) to a resumption of unrestricted submarine attacks, opposed the naval command on the issue. Admiral Georg von Mueller, chief of the kaiser's naval cabinet, had doubts about an unfettered U-boat offensive, but his opposition was weakening. Though as yet unwilling to countenance an unrestricted U-boat war, Wilhelm ordered a stepped-up submarine campaign.
As a practical matter, however, the High Seas Fleet could not remain inactive after claiming victory, and Scheer felt considerable pressure to operate in the North Sea. Kaiserliche Marine zeppelins, mainly used for fleet reconnaissance, began bombing England at about this time. The Germans also reviewed and revised their plans for using U-boats in conjunction with fleet sorties—which had notably failed at Jutland.
Frustrations and Costly Successes
Admiral Scheer furthermore planned a fresh sortie to take advantage of the new arrangement, during which he would lure the British out by means of a bombardment of Sunderland, England. Some lessons of Jutland were taken to heart. The fleet would leave the predreadnoughts of its 2nd Battle Squadron behind, improving overall speed and maneuverability. Rear Admiral Franz Hipper's 1st Scouting Group, the German battlecruiser force, was still short of the badly damaged Derfflinger and Seydlitz and would be reinforced with three dreadnoughts including the new Bayern, the fleet's first 15-inch-gun battleship. The trio was to furnish heavy firepower in case Hipper found the Grand Fleet battlecruisers in company with the similarly armed dreadnoughts of the Grand Fleet's Queen Elizabeth class, as had happened at Jutland. Also, the fleet's sailing disposition was altered to put Hipper's scouting force closer to the main body.
The High Seas Fleet set out the night of 18 August, but British code-breakers alerted the Royal Navy that it had sortied even before Scheer left Wilhelmshaven. Early the next morning the British submarine E-23 torpedoed a German dreadnought, the SMS Westfalen. While a zeppelin sighted some British fleet light forces, a U-boat reported a battleship sighting, and German radio intelligence concluded from traffic volume that the Grand Fleet was at sea. Additional enemy warship sightings by zeppelins followed. They led Scheer to alter course to intercept ships identified in a report that had mistaken a British light unit for the Grand Fleet. Finding nothing, Scheer turned for port. All there was to show for the expedition were two light cruisers sunk by U-boats and the damage to the Westfalen. Admiral Scheer planned a similar sortie in September but cancelled it on account of bad weather.
Beginning in October, when the U-boats were drawn away for the anticommerce campaign, the German surface fleet acted even more cautiously. Scheer was determined to restrict the zone of engagement to the central or eastern sectors of the North Sea, optimizing light conditions and position with respect to his bases. A sortie on 10 October proved fruitless, and another on the 19th merely resulted in a British submarine torpedoing a German cruiser. Because of changed British policy, on that occasion the Grand Fleet, though aware of the German operation, did not even put to sea.
The fact that in the months after Jutland the High Seas Fleet faced a considerable submarine threat whenever it operated in the North Sea—one independent of its ability, or lack thereof, to engage British surface forces—was firmly driven home in early November. Scheer had sent a detachment of his fleet to rescue a pair of U-boats stranded off the Jutland coast when, on the 3rd, torpedoes fired by the J-1 damaged the battleships Grosser Kurfurst and Kronprinz.
The tension between German surface and undersea warfare strategies was not simply a matter of whether U-boats would be available to support the fleet. The question could run the other way.
Long alerted to the U-boat threat by previous start-and-stop German anticommerce campaigns, the British had begun in September to construct a cross-Channel barrage—an intricate system of moored mine nets and deep mines across the Strait of Dover. Vessels of the Royal Navy's Dover Patrol guarded and maintained the antisubmarine barrier. In late October, German forces were assigned to assist the passage of KLM submarines to the Atlantic by attacking the guardships. Based forward along the Belgian coast at Zeebrugge, the High Seas Fleet's 3rd and 9th Destroyer Flotillas made their first raid on the night of 26-27 October. During the operation they sank a British destroyer, damaged another, and dispatched six drifters.
Such night raids became standing missions for the flotillas, but they resulted in virtual attrition for the High Seas Fleet. Even before Jutland the German Navy had suffered from the thinness of its light forces. The use of these same units for U-boat support had the consequence of further reducing the screening units available to operate with the fleet. As much as damage to its heavy ships, the dearth of escorts conspired to cripple the blue-water capability of the fleet.
The Fateful Decision is Made
During the same period, the dispute over the KLM's adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare came to a head. The Foreign Office and German politicians remained at odds with the navy, while Admiral Holtzendorf, chief of the naval staff, wavered depending on the last person to whom he had spoken. Scheer and his chief of staff, Captain Luthar von Trotha, adopted the practice of trying to sandbag Holtzendorf, sending him proposed plans only when too late to stop them. This time Scheer realized the key lay in the German Army's preferences.
According to Trotha, Scheer sent him to meet privately with the famous command duo of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and First Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff. The army had just committed its last reserves on the Somme. Scheer reported that Ludendorff and Trotha agreed that "ruthless U-boat warfare" was necessary to bring the war to a satisfactory end, and it should commence as soon as possible. The fleet commander, who believed in the necessity of beginning an unrestricted submarine campaign by 1 February 1917, presented his views personally to the kaiser and separately to Hindenburg and Ludendorff at Army General Headquarters on 22 November. A couple of days earlier, Ludendorff had advocated a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare to Holtzendorf.
Actually, Admiral Holtzendorf was not so hard to convince. On 22 December he submitted a fateful memorandum to Hindenburg in which the naval staff estimated British shipping throughput and capacity, argued for an "energetic blow delivered with all force," articulated the need for a decision in the war by the autumn of 1917, and observed that unrestricted submarine warfare would be the best instrument to achieve that end. Holtzendorf could not guarantee that England would be forced to her knees within a few months, but he maintained that failure to use the submarine weapon would be "irresponsible."
The final decision was made at a conference on 9 January 1917 during which key government figures and generals listened as Holtzendorf restated demands for the U-boat campaign. After German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg declared he could no longer oppose the decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, Kaiser Wilhelm approved. The U-boats would go on the rampage, and their unfettered campaign would have precisely the result the German political officials feared: America soon entered the conflict.
The Navy's Second Front
The naval war in the Baltic Sea, meanwhile, had long remained a sideshow, mostly a matter of patrol forces and minefields. Commanded by Admiral Prince Henry of Prussia, the KLM's Baltic forces featured predreadnought battleships and armored cruisers, so vulnerable in both German and Allied fleets that they were unsuitable for the battle line. The 1914 losses of the cruiser Magdeburg—from which, unbeknownst to KLM fleet commanders, the Allies recovered German naval codes—and the armored cruiser Friedrich Karl had already discouraged surface operations in the Baltic.
In the summer of 1915, however, elements of the High Seas Fleet transited the Kaiser Wilhelm, or Kiel, Canal and joined the Baltic fleet's 4th Battle Squadron in a first attempt to enter the Gulf of Riga. The Germans lost a number of light ships to Russian mines; the sole major vessel casualty, the battlecruiser Moltke, was torpedoed. Meanwhile the British began assisting the Russians by running submarines into the Baltic. A notable success came when the E-8 sank the German armored cruiser Prinz Adalbert in November. In April 1916 the KLM began to escort merchant convoys from Sweden and Norway, activities British submarines and Russian Navy ships and subs periodically targeted. But the German Navy endured ultimate humiliation that November when a destroyer flotilla seeking out the Russian marauders blundered into a minefield; seven ships were lost in a single night. Annoyed by these Baltic developments, the KLM began to think more in terms of real offensive action.
Meanwhile, in November and December 1916 the Kaiserliche Marine for the first time articulated war aims. On 24 December, two days after his much-better-known paper on unrestricted U-boat warfare, Holtzendorf proposed territorial acquisitions in behalf of the navy. In addition to annexation of the Flemish coast, increasingly seen as critical to the U-boat effort, the KLM wanted to control the rest of the Courland coast, in present-day Latvia, plus the islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Riga.
German seaplane, airship, and U-boat attacks aimed at impeding use of the advanced Russian naval base at Riga had resumed in the spring of 1916. The admiral commanding Baltic scouting forces even recommended a full-scale operation to capture the gulf islands. In September German light cruisers covered the laying of fresh minefields off the Baltic coast, but not much was accomplished before winter temperatures froze the Russian fleet in port, ending the campaigning season. Before the ice cleared in 1917 the Russian February Revolution had swept away the tsarist government, replacing it with the unstable social-democratic Provisional Government, soon led by Alexander Kerensky. By the summer, the German Army was on the march in the east and moving against Riga by land. Using new storm assault tactics, German troops cut through entrenched Russian defenders and captured the city on 3 September.
Clearing the gulf of Russian forces in order to use Riga as a supply base became a high priority for the German Navy. Planning for this operation—which would center on capturing the island of Osel (present-day Saaremaa Island), where batteries on the Sworbe Peninsula commanded the Irben Strait—had begun as early as May. There were reasons for involving the High Seas Fleet, in addition to Baltic naval forces. The Baltic squadrons were thin. The KLM had long since retired the predreadnoughts of the 4th Battle Squadron, previously the backbone of its Baltic fleet. (After Jutland, the German Navy, driven by the need to crew U-boats for unrestricted warfare, did the same with the High Seas Fleet's 2nd Battle Squadron, diverting some vessels to guardships or training, and others to use as mere barracks.) Therefore, the High Seas Fleet was the only available source of heavy forces.
In addition, the sailors at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven had become restive. The ennui of inaction—almost a year had passed since the last major surface operation—endless drills, increasingly poor food, and an influx of inexperienced young officers replacing those sent off to the U-boats all combined to diminish morale. As the army advanced against Riga, petition campaigns or hunger strikes afflicted more than a half-dozen major warships, including the former fleet flagship. Five sailors were executed (the way the men were railroaded through the naval justice system caused even more bitterness, turning them into martyrs and helping lay the basis for fleet mutinies in 1918). Sending the fleet into battle might help its morale. Under these circumstances, in the fall of 1917 the option of capturing the islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Riga, a project christened Operation Albion, became a major strategic imperative.
Victory in the East
Albion would be the largest German amphibious endeavor of the war as well as the biggest fleet operation in the Baltic. The battlecruiser Moltke plus two of the High Seas Fleet's battle squadrons—a total of 10 dreadnoughts—gathered at Libau, 100 miles south of the gulf, along with 5 light cruisers, 47 destroyers, 6 U-boats and other craft. The battleships included the 15-inch-gunned Bayern and all but one of the vessels disrupted by morale problems. Vice Admiral Ehrhard Schmidt, a squadron commander in the High Seas Fleet, led the force from the Moltke. The Baltic fleet provided 3 light cruisers, 9 torpedo boats, many of the 60 minesweepers, and most of the 72 trawlers or assorted craft used for antisubmarine screens or troop landings. In support were 6 zeppelins and more than a hundred aircraft. Transports would carry a reinforced infantry division—more than 24,000 troops.
Bad weather forced one postponement, which turned out to be propitious; a landing rehearsal on 29 September exposed a multiplicity of faults in the arrangements. Much would need to be improvised during the invasion, but the defenders were geographically scattered and Russian command and morale weakened by the military committee, or soviet, system introduced under the Provisional Government.
The British Admiralty, meanwhile, had been worried about the Baltic for months. In the spring of 1917, First Sea Lord John Jellicoe had asked his successor as Grand Fleet commander, Admiral David Beatty, to send detachments into the North Sea on cruises designed to dissuade the Germans from employing the High Seas Fleet in the Baltic. The Admiralty staff also studied dispatching a British fleet into the Baltic to relieve pressure on the Russians. In the autumn Jellicoe asked that the studies be renewed; however, planners rejected such a transfer, arguing it would uncover Britain's North Sea defenses.
And so, after an extensive mine-clearing operation and with no British interference, the main German landings took place on northern Osel early on 12 October. By the 20th, Albion had succeeded, the Germans having overrun the Sworbe Peninsula in the south as well as pushing eastward and capturing Moon Island. High Seas Fleet dreadnoughts pushed through the Irben Strait into the Gulf of Riga on the 16th. The next day their 12-inch shells heavily damaged the battleship Slava, which was scuttled as most of the Russian fleet's other vessels escaped northward. During the brief campaign, the KLM lost several minor vessels, some destroyers and other ships were damaged, and the battleships Grosser Kurfurst and Bayern were mined. In all the operation proved a considerable German success. In combination with the Russian Revolution's detrimental impact on that nation's navy, the Albion campaign left Germany dominant in the Baltic.
North Sea Minefield Tests and Convoy Raids
While the Royal Navy did not send surface ships to Russia's aid, throughout 1917 it concentrated on extending its minefields from the Helgoland Bight, off Germany's North Sea coast, toward Norway, with the simultaneous effects of helping protect British convoys from that country, blocking German egress from the Baltic, and further constricting the U-boats. Though British officers disputed the effectiveness of the barriers, the KLM lost some 28 destroyers, 70 minesweepers, and at least 4 U-boats to minefields off the Bight in 1917-18. The Germans countered with "test trips" to feel out the minefields and clear them where possible. Many of the German losses occurred during these activities, which became a major focus of German surface operations.
The High Seas Fleet also mounted a series of cruiser and destroyer surface raids against British convoys to and from Norway. Like the minefield tests, these German actions had the collateral effect of signaling determination to seal off the Baltic, in this case from British entry. During October, at the height of the Gulf of Riga campaign, the new light cruisers Brummer and Bremse smashed one of these British convoys some 60 miles east of the Shetland Islands. The British countered in November with a strike against one of the German test trips. As a result Grand Fleet cruisers, including the "light" battlecruisers Courageous and Glorious (in the only action they would ever fight as surface gunnery ships), had a shot at the High Seas Fleet's Scouting Group 2 (four light cruisers) and other German warships, mainly minesweepers. The chase amid the minefields led to action with the Germans' supporting dreadnoughts, the Kaiser and Kaiserin, but the British retired under the protection of much heavier units—a battlecruiser squadron and one of battleships of the Grand Fleet.
The KLM again hit at the Norway-Britain convoys early on 12 December, when destroyers of the 2nd Flotilla sank more than seven vessels, including the Royal Navy destroyer Partridge. In February 1918, the 2nd Flotilla was temporarily transferred south for a surprise strike against the cross-Channel barrage and Dover Patrol during which it sank a trawler and seven drifters. Two months later Hipper led the battlecruisers, a light cruiser group, and a destroyer flotilla of the High Seas Fleet on a mission against the Norwegian convoys. The main body of the fleet was to his rear, in support. On this occasion, however, the Germans were unable to locate their prey and the Moltke suffered a serious propulsion malfunction and had to be taken in tow. While homeward bound the battlecruiser was torpedoed by the British submarine E-42. This failed April 1918 sortie proved to be the High Seas Fleet's last major operation.
In October, with German armies in extremis on the Continent, the naval staff and commanders proposed one more throw of the dice, a fleet sortie under Hipper, by then the senior commander afloat, that would have amounted to a death ride. Admiral Scheer, who had succeeded Holtzendorf as chief of the naval staff, approved. He apparently did so without reference to the government, which was looking to sign an armistice. On 27 October, as Admiral Hipper began to concentrate his forces for the operation, the crews of most of the battlecruisers and some lighter craft began refusing their orders. By the 29th the mutiny had spread to the 3rd Battle Squadron. Hipper attempted to isolate the rebellion by sending the squadron to Kiel, but that merely widened it. Within a few days the admiral felt himself treading on a volcano. When the High Seas Fleet finally left port again it was to intern itself at Scapa Flow under provisions of the Armistice of 11 November 1918.
Passing Judgment on the Fleet
The kaiser's "luxury fleet" had come to a sad end. During the years of naval-arms racing before the war, the High Seas Fleet had been regarded as posing an obstacle to British naval power, affording Berlin an additional token for a peace negotiation if and when such a move was necessary. That nascent threat had heightened pre-1914 tensions and contributed to the outbreak of the war, making it doubly perplexing that the fleet had such sketchy war plans and even lacked formal war aims until 1917.
The lack of planning, in turn, contributed to the inactivity of the fleet, especially after Jutland. Articulated goals would have provided the German Navy with operational purposes on which to fall back. The High Seas Fleet's contributions in the Baltic, most notably during Operation Albion, were significant and helped defeat Russia. But ultimately they pale next to the strategic impact of the United States' entry into the conflict, which the KLM's leaders—including the High Seas Fleet's commander—had precipitated by insisting on a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare.
Indeed, it can be argued that the fleet's inactivity helped shorten World War I by leaving the British a virtually free hand to turn the North Sea into a massive U-boat pen and by creating a morale problem that helped undermine the German war government. If so, the High Seas Fleet was a luxury the kaiser could have done without. Trading the High Seas Fleet for a couple of extra corps on the Marne in 1914, in contrast, might actually have decided the outcome of the Great War.
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