The War at Sea in 1918
Defeat of the German High Seas Fleet
author Paul Boșcu, August 2018
By 1918 the Entente convoy system was very well established and German submarines were hunted down with great efficiency. On the surface few engagements to place, the most notably being the British raid at Zeebrugge. The war ended with the German fleet being disbanded after the sailors mutinied at Kiel.
By 1918, the rate of Entente tonnage sunk per German submarine lost had fallen. Nevertheless, the Germans continued to inflict damage on Entente supply lines. The hard work of convoying under continual threat of submarine attack continued until the end of the war. German surface ships had far less impact, other than in diverting enemy resources.

The arrival in France of American troops and matériel made the strategic irrelevance of the German navy in 1918 abundantly clear, although it always remained a fleet-in-being fixing the Grand Fleet. Moreover, American entry into the war made any idea of a decisive German naval sortie less credible, while also leading to the buildup of American troops in France, which further limited German options.

In the face of the clear Entente superiority, a decisive German naval sortie was less credible. The German surface fleet languished, while its men became seriously discontented, leading to their mutiny at the end of the war.

A bold but over-optimistic operation was planned by Commodore Sir Roger Keyes to block the exits from German submarine pens in occupied Belgium. The main effort was focused on Zeebrugge. The plan was to scuttle three blockships loaded with concrete in the mouth of the Bruges Canal which linked the U-boat pens to the sea. The approach to the canal was protected by batteries on Zeebrugge mole, a stone breakwater. These were to be disabled by a party of seamen and Marines landed on the mole by the cruiser Vindictive and two modified ferries.

The attack at Zeebrugge went badly from the start. Vindictive was battered by gunfire and ran against the mole in the wrong place. The landing party could not take the batteries, making it hard for the blockships to reach the canal entrance. With heroic effort two of them were scuttled as planned, but one sank short of its target. The raid was immensely popular in Britain. Keyes was knighted and 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded. But it cost 214 lives and failed to significantly inhibit U-boat operations.

By 1918, the Americans were firmly welded into the Grand Fleet which would move south to Rosyth, in the Firth of Forth, at Admiral David Beatty’s instigation in April 1918. The Americans contributed the five fast dreadnoughts of the 6th Battle Squadron, under the command of Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman, which were soon integrated into the fleet.

Rodman showed a refreshing willingness to conform to British methods of tactics, gunnery and signals, recognizing the value of the long years of war experience possessed by the Royal Navy. This stood in sharp contrast to the attitude adopted by General John Pershing and the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, who ignored the advice of British and French commanders at every turn.

In the war against U-boats, the convoy system was now in full swing and operating with ever-increasing effectiveness. Submarines were hunted down with great efficiency. The net and mine barrage was also being steadily extended to try to prevent U-boats from gaining access to the open seas.

For the U-boat crews it could be a terrible ordeal, as Captain Lieutenant Johannes Speiss, in command of the U-19, experienced off the Scottish island of Oversay on 15 April: ‘At 8.25 pm, I cautiously ran out the periscope in order to make a general survey, since the Foxglove must have been passed according to my calculations. To my astonishment I saw him dead ahead of us about 1,000 metres distant and apparently stopped. “Periscope in!” ”‘Submerge to 20 metres!” At the same moment BRUMMMS … As a result of the shock I almost fell into the central station. The depth charge landed right near the conning tower, everything was shaking. “Submerge deeper!” “Full speed!” BRUMMMS … Damn, that was some explosion, the lighting globes broke. “Cut in emergency lighting system! Noiseless speed, course west!” The storage batteries are almost discharged. Twenty minutes pass and everything is quiet. Apparently the listening devices have lost us and there is no oil streak or propeller wash on the surface to betray the boat. I wanted to renew the attack and at first came up towards the surface very cautiously. Suddenly BRUMMMS … right on top of us! BRUMMMS … somewhat further away. He has lost us again. Deeper with the boat. “All hands forward!” BRUMMMS … BRUMMMS … these damned charges. BRUMMMS … another shock, everything was knocked – we had touched bottom. “Stop the engines! Flood all tanks, stay on the bottom!” The depth indicator shows 50 metres. The boat has negative buoyancy and remains motionless on the bottom. BRUMMMS … another depth charge, probably dropped on the water eddies we stirred up, the water must be very clear for him to see so plainly. BRUMMMS … another one. “Stop everything, in the boat, so that he cannot hear us!” The situation was more than critical. Quite overcome by the severe explosions we sat, small and angry, on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean where fortunately the water was somewhat shallow.’ In the end Speiss and his men were very lucky as the escort vessel moved off. Had it not done so, with his electrical batteries almost totally expended, Speiss would have had no choice but to blow the U-19’s tanks, surface and accept his fate.

One incident among hundreds of clashes between submarines and escort vessels occurred on 31 May 1918 when a convoy of some thirty merchantmen was being escorted past Flamborough Head on the east coast of Yorkshire by a conglomeration of armed whalers and trawlers led by Lieutenant Geoffrey Barnish aboard the destroyer Fairy. Suddenly, not far off Bridlington, Barnish heard a loud thump from the convoy and rushed to the bridge to find that the steamer Blaydonian had collided with a submarine. At first Barnish was in a quandary: ‘In the past we had all had one or two scares over our own submarines suddenly appearing on the surface after their patrol in the Bight, and wanting the bearing and distance of Middlesbrough or the Tyne. I couldn’t understand a German submarine being in this position, so you can well imagine my extreme anxiety. We made challenge after challenge, while all the time we were rapidly approaching our friend or foe. Then I decided we must cripple her, so that, if she did turn out to be British, our own unfortunate fellows would have a chance to save their lives. With that object in view, I ordered the torpedo coxswain (William James Spinner) to steer for her stern, or what I thought to be her stern. We were very close to her by now, and I cannot express to you my relief when I heard a voice from her conning-tower calling, “Kamerad! Kamerad!” I knew exactly what to do now, and quickly ordered the coxswain to port the helm in order to hit her in a more vital spot. But we were too close for the helm to have any effect, and quickly passed over the stern of our enemy. I don’t remember feeling any considerable force of impact at this time, and we probably damaged ourselves more than we did him. However, on passing over him, I determined to renew the attack by ram, and, sending the gunner aft to open fire with our after gun, proceeded to turn the Fairy round. The submarine fired her gun but we shelled her from point blank range with the after 6-pounder. In all, forty direct hits were made. The Germans on the submarine’s bridge now jumped into the water as we came on again with our ram. I always remember wondering how far back our bows would be pushed in, and with these feelings I backed to the wheel and kept my hand on the coxswain, probably deriving a feeling of comfort, as well as knowing that the coxswain would do what I wanted him to do with my hand directing. The destroyer’s bows struck the U-boat close beside the gun. We on the bridge found ourselves all mixed up on the deck. How far we pushed our stem in I don’t really know, for the next thing I realised was that our fore-deck was under water and the submarine had disappeared, leaving two Germans calmly standing on our submerged forecastle with their hands held up. We picked up three more later.’ The Fairy was one of the very first destroyers, built back in 1897, and the damage she suffered was such that she too would soon join her erstwhile adversary beneath the waves.

Much work was carried out on the barrage across the Dover Straits while a far more ambitious project created a new Northern Barrage stretching 240 miles from the Orkneys across to the Norwegian coast. This was never really effective due to practical problems with the mines, which were not only laid too deep to affect submarines on the surface but also had an disquieting tendency to self-detonate in chains of spectacular explosions. Yet the Northern Barrage, for all its faults, was still a stern test for the nerves of U-boat crews, who were forced to pass over or through it twice on every voyage.

The ships of the 10th Cruiser Squadron continued their low-key but important role in enforcing the naval blockade on Germany. The blockade had been steadily tightened by more patrolling cruisers augmented by the ever-useful armed trawlers. The careful monitoring and control of the passage of neutral cargoes by direct inspection, coupled with the merciless application of economic power vouchsafed through British control of steamer coal supplies, gradually brought the neutral countries to heel and they ceased to attempt blockade running.

As the war went on it had also become clear that neutral shipping companies could make far more money trading legitimately without recourse to blockade running and risking the wrath of the British. Finally, the combination of the entry of the United States into the war, coupled with an effective convoy system, removed the need for the northern patrol. Its armed merchant cruisers would gradually be reassigned to convoy escorts. The patrol endured only in skeleton form with the trawlers and drifters that tended to the net and mine barrage across the North Sea.

One adventurous operation sanctioned by the Admiralty against the submarine menace was the Zeebrugge Raid. There had long been a variety of plans to try and block the Zeebrugge and Ostend entrances via canals to the Bruges lair of the Flanders U-boats. The final version of the plan was overseen by Vice Admiral Sir Roger Keyes. An aged – and hence expendable – cruiser, the Vindictive, was to lie alongside the long Zeebrugge harbour mole and launch an attack by a 900-strong landing party who were to overwhelm the German gun batteries covering the entrance to the harbor. In the event, the Germans were merely inconvenienced in their navigation by the block ships before a new channel was dredged just three weeks later.

The Vindictive and the block ships were all crewed by volunteers. When Able Seaman Wilfred Wainwright first went aboard the Vindictive he was greatly impressed by the measures that had been taken to fit her out for her special –and extremely dangerous – role alongside the Zeebrugge Mole: ‘She had been stripped bare of everything bar the essential parts, her mainmast having gone and her foremast cut short above the fighting top. Along her portside ran an immense wooden chafing band reinforced with huge hazelwood fenders and on the port quarter a part of the main mast had been cemented to the deck to enable her to lay alongside any wall without swinging out, head on stern. Covering her port battery ran a false deck lined with sandbags, and towering above this deck was an array of improvised gangways, sixteen in all, flanked by two huge metal huts housing the foremost and aftermost flame throwers. At the break of the fo’c’sle and the quarter deck were two grapnels fitted to wire pennants and leading respectively to the foremost and after capstans. Here fore and after guns had been replaced by 7.5 howitzers and midships abaft the after funnel was an 11-inch howitzer, the port battery had been replaced with 2-pound pom-poms, with the exception of the foremost and after 6-inch gun, whilst two pom-poms adorned the fighting top. There is no denying it she was ugly, as she lay there, a veritable floating fortress, a deathtrap fitted with all the ingenious contrivances of war that the human brain could think of, but we took unholy pride and a fiendish delight in her.’

To prevent reinforcements intervening, the C1 and C2 submarines had each taken on board some five tons of high explosives to destroy the viaduct linking the mole with the shore. During the chaos created by these actions and amidst a smokescreen, three more old cruisers, the Thetis, the Intrepid and the Iphigenia, would be scuttled across the entrance to the Bruges Canal.

Just after midnight the Vindictive had crashed alongside the mole some 300 yards further away from the German fortified area and gun batteries than had been intended. This added to the already intense difficulties facing the landing parties forced to clamber ashore under heavy fire: ‘Already a gaping hole had been torn in the side of our ship by a shell. As we swarmed down the landing boards we hurriedly bade our nearest comrade “goodbye” and “good luck”. Each section had its appointed task. Shells were raking backwards and forwards, terrific explosions followed, and groans and cries and shouts filled the air. Star shells shed their light on the scene, and all the time our lads were creeping steadily forwards in the darkness, pelting away at the black masses of the enemy, which loomed ahead.’ (Able Seaman Cyril Widdison, HMS Vindictive)

The atmosphere was extremely tense aboard the ships as they sailed across the North Sea. The men could not but be aware of the terrible risks they were taking. The success of the raid demanded that almost everything went off perfectly. There was no margin for error. But for the most part they were young and ready for anything. As they approached the mole, despite the smokescreen, they were soon detected and exposed to close-range fire from the German batteries: ‘Night had turned into day by searchlights and star shells, and all the venom and hatred of the shore batteries seemed concentrated on us, salvo after salvo struck the ship, doing indescribable damage in the packed starboard battery where all the storming party were awaiting to land; then foremost howitzer’s crew were wiped out with the exception of the voice pipeman, who was a couple of yards away. The strangest part of this was that the trench mortar battery, not more than 4 feet away, did not receive injury at that time. Within the space of a few seconds the leading seaman in charge of our battery had been hit in the back of the head, whilst half a dozen of our battery had received superficial scratches. We were now alongside the Mole and sheltered a little from the murderous hail of shell from the forts, which continued to keep up a burst of shrapnel around our funnels, which showed up and made excellent targets. Every gun in the Vindictive that could bear had now given tongue and the night was made hideous by the nerve-racking shatter of the pom-poms, the deep bell-like boom of the howitzers and trench mortars, and all-pervading rattle of musketry and machine-gun fire; it was hell with a vengeance and it seemed well-nigh miraculous that human beings could live in such an inferno.’ (Ordinary Seaman Wilfred Wainwright, HMS Vindictive)

It proved impossible to reach the batteries so the British infantry did what damage they could. Private William Gough was encumbered with a flamethrower intended for use against the occupants of sheds located on the inner side of the mole: ‘The flamethrower was a heavy, unwieldy cylinder containing a mixture of fuel oil and petrol, squirted from a nozzle, and ignited by a electrically fired flare in front of the nozzle. The jet of flame extended for about 30 yards. Because of the awkwardness of this weapon, I lost much time reaching the sheds, having to negotiate several obstacles including a 15–20 foot wall, using ropes and ladders to scramble down it. As a result I lost touch with my little party of marines. On reaching my objective, and entering the shed, I realised I was not needed there. The building had been blown up leaving four wrecked walls, shattered rifles and two dead Germans. Pressing on, I found myself up against an iron handrail at the water’s edge, and in front of me a German destroyer, with her guns firing and most of her crew on deck. I turned my flammenwerfer on them, sweeping the deck with flames. I must have killed a whole lot of them. I tried to reach the bridge, from which someone was potting at me with a revolver, but the range was too great, and my flamethrower ran out of fuel. As the bullets from a machine-gun further up the mole got too close for comfort, I left my now useless weapon and took cover behind a low wall.’

From the Vindictive, Captain Alfred Carpenter watched the block ships make their way into the harbor, sadly still under heavy fire from the mole batteries. They had all been filled to the gills with concrete in readiness for the detonation of explosive charges placed aboard their hulls to facilitate rapid scuttling: ‘We saw Thetis come steaming into the harbour in grand style. She made straight for the opening to the Canal, and you can imagine that she was a blaze of light and a target for every big thing they could bring to bear. She was going toppingly, all the same, when she had the rotten luck to catch her propeller in the defence nets. Even then, however, she did fine work. She signalled instructions to the Intrepid and Iphigenia, and so they managed to avoid the nets. It was a gorgeous piece of co-operation! In went Intrepid, and in after her went Iphigenia. They weren’t content, you know, to sink themselves at the mouth of the Canal. That was not the idea at all. They had to go right in, with guns firing point-blank at them from both banks, sink their ships, and get back as best they could. And they did it. They blocked that Canal as neatly and effectively as we could have wished in our most optimistic moments, and then, thanks to the little motor-launches, which were handled with the finest skill and pluck, the commanders and men got back to safety. As soon as we saw that the block ships were sunk we knew that our job was done.’

As they withdrew it was time for the British to count the cost: they had lost a destroyer and two motor launches and suffered 170 dead, 400 wounded and 45 missing. But had Captain Carpenter been right? Had they really managed to block the Zeebrugge entrance to the Bruges Canal? Certainly, the simultaneous raid on Ostend had been an abject failure, but at least at first there seemed good reason to celebrate success at Zeebrugge, and eight Victoria Crosses were awarded. However, in truth all that the British had achieved was a short-lived propaganda coup which had no effect on the submarine war.

The High Seas Fleet had made a sortie into the North Sea to try and intercept one of the regular Scandinavian convoys. These large convoys were often escorted by heavy ships and posed a tempting – and isolated – target. This time the Germans concealed their intentions from the British by maintaining strict wireless silence, and a great success looked likely. Yet, for all the planning, Admiral Reinhard Scheer had omitted to check with the German embassy in Norway as to the sailing dates of the convoys. In fact, none was scheduled for 24 April. This would be the last outing for the German fleet.

The problems mounted when the battlecruiser Moltke suffered a catastrophic engine breakdown which ultimately required her to be taken in tow. The wireless signals exchanged during this incident were intercepted by Room 40 with the result that Beatty and the Grand Fleet sailed from Rosyth, steaming across the North Sea on an intercepting course. In the end, they were too late and Scheer escaped back to harbor. Both sides had failed, but the British still held the ring around Germany.

In August, Scheer was appointed Chief of the German Admiralty Staff, with Franz von Hipper succeeding him as Commander in Chief of the High Seas Fleet. The British were well aware of evidence of unrest in the German fleet. Crews, cooped up in harbor for too long, had been increasingly influenced by socialist propaganda. In the event Hipper did plan one last great operation in the North Sea, but it was stillborn when the German crews mutinied on being ordered to leave Wilhelmshaven. The High Seas Fleet was finished as a combative force. Hipper called off the operation and dispersed his fleet to try and dispel the mutiny.

The mutiny of the sailors in the German High Seas Fleet proved a key precipitant for rebellion across the country, as well as thwarting the German naval command’s plan for a final sortie that was designed to justify postwar political support for the navy. The fleet had also been sent to sea in 1917 to campaign in the eastern Baltic against Russia, in part in order to quell unrest among the sailors. In 1918, the idea of a glorious last sortie proved unpopular.

In the event, the fleet sailed forth only to surrender, nine battleships and five battlecruisers entering the Firth of Forth to do so on November 21, 1918, escorted by the Grand Fleet in an impressive display of British naval power. In addition, 176 German submarines were handed over after the war. German naval power had been totally destroyed.

Seaman Richard Stumpf watched events from the pre-dreadnought Lothringen: ‘We all knew within our hearts – today is the last time we shall ever see many of our ships. My mind contemplated what would happen if we engaged and destroyed the enemy fleet. I toyed with the most grotesque possibilities. In the final analysis this might still result in our victory. Soon, however, an impregnable veil of fog descended upon the sea. The weather made any thought of sailing out impossible. In the sea of fog and fine rain one could no longer make out the stem of the vessel from amidship. Soon thereafter we heard that the stokers on three battlecruisers had deliberately allowed the fires to die down and had even extinguished them. At this time about a hundred men from Von der Tann were running loose about town; Seydlitz and Derfflinger were missing men. Thus the fleet could not have sailed even if there had been no fog. It is sad, tragic that it could go so far as this. But somehow even with the best of intentions I cannot suppress a certain sense of Schadenfreude. What has happened to the almighty power of the proud captains and staff engineers? Now at last, after many years, the suppressed stokers and sailors realize that nothing, no, nothing, can be accomplished without them. On the Thüringen, the former model ship of the fleet, the mutiny was at its worst. The crew simply locked up the petty officers and refused to weigh anchor. The men told the Captain that they would only fight against the English if their fleet appeared in German waters. They no longer wanted to risk their lives uselessly.’

A subsequent investigation carried out by Hipper’s Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Adolf von Trotha, ranged wide and in its findings echoed earlier pre-war fears as to Germany’s ability to withstand a prolonged conflict against the Triple Entente: ‘There appears to be ample proof that our armed forces were unable to withstand such a long war, as soon as the moral boost of success was missing and particularly when want and deprivation were presenting the Home Front with such a prodigious struggle. The unceasing depletion in the front line ranks, of youthful enthusiasm and ability in officers and men; their replacement by older age groups already burdened by home worries, or by the very young and inexperienced age-groups, already influenced by the eroding effects of the struggle on the Home Front – this endless and inevitable trend created an unsound foundation and provided the essential ingredients for discontent. In spite of its much lighter losses, this process wormed its way into the Navy, too.’

The global dimensions of the struggle deserve attention. The war very much indicated the value of maritime links. For example, the British effort to resist the German and Turkish presence in Iran was mounted by sea, whereas German and Turkish forces moved overland. The Russian presence in northern Iran was supported by ships operating across the Caspian Sea.

These global dimensions related not only to the major states, but also to others. Some gained experience in coalition warfare that looked toward a later pattern of multilateral global naval operations. Expertise was spread. Argentina sent a naval mission to the United States in 1917 to obtain training in naval aviation and submarines, training at Pensacola and Newport respectively. The Argentinian navy pilots then flew combat missions in Europe during the First World War, while the submarine officers remained in the United States as instructors at the submarine school.

Naval power played a key role in the conflict, and with far fewer casualties than in the war on land. However, many of the bolder hopes of such power on the attacking side were not fulfilled. This was not only the case with the absence of a decisive battle. The navalist emphasis on ship-to-ship engagement overshadowed amphibious operations, but these also proved a disappointment.

Winning dominance of the sea had to come before its use for force projection, but this led to a neglect of planning for the latter. This relative neglect was accentuated by the greater prominence of commerce raiding and protection that arose from the development of the submarine, and from the relative unimportance of amphibious operations in the 1890s and in the first four decades of the twentieth century.

The course of the First World War did not really bear out the claim in Charles Callwell’s Military Operations and Maritime Preponderance: Their Relations and Interdependence (1905) that there was a close connection between command of the sea and control of the shore. Already, prior to the war, the British had concluded that amphibious operations against Germany were not practical. Plans for coordinated operations in Flanders were impaired by the strength of the German resistance. There were fewer amphibious operations than in the Second World War.

As far as the First World War was concerned, the submarine appeared much more relevant than aircraft. The submarine was future potential turned into present reality. The submarine created a very distinctive and troubling image of naval conflict, one that answered to a different analysis of modernization and potential than that of the battleship.

At one level, the war had served primarily to show that battle fleets were of defensive value, with Britain and France successfully defending their control of the oceans, rather than being a successful offensive tool that had the capability to deliver victory. At the same time, this defensive value was a key aspect of the durability of an alliance that was able to mobilize and deploy its forces for victory.

The German Navy had been defeated. Worse still, it had never really been put to the test in full-scale battle. No one would ever know what might have been had they sought out battle in 1914 when the Royal Navy was at its most stretched. The High Seas Fleet was a ‘risk fleet’ that in the end the Kaiser lacked the nerve to use. The Royal Navy was left frustrated not to have secured the destruction of the High Seas Fleet in battle; that indeed would rankle as long as the memoirs were written. Yet it had carried out its main duties in the Great War successfully.

The safe passage of the British Army to the Western Front had been secured and guaranteed; the sea ways across the globe had been defended, even against the U-boat threat; and throughout the war Germany had been partially starved of raw materials by the blockade. These were the valuable rewards of the exercise of pure naval power.

In the end, the High Seas Fleet created by Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz at such expense, the fleet that had guaranteed British enmity towards Germany, had not achieved much more than the harbor-locked Prussian fleet during the Franco-Prussian War back in 1870. It had all been for nothing.