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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.