Tuesday, 15 May 2018

The Battle of Otranto Barrage May 1917

Since the outbreak of the First World War the surface units of the Austro-Hungarian fleet had seen little action beyond coastal bombardment of the Italian coast and although the force lacked battle cruisers and only had four dreadnoughts it was sizable enough to cause concern. Should the vessels breakout into the Mediterranean they could do damage to trade and troop transports and force a fleet action. The Austro-Hungarian ports at Pola and Cattaro were also home to a small U-boat flotilla that had begun preying on warships and trade vessels alike with the Royal Navy losing several larger vessels including the pre-dreadnoughts HMS Cornwallis and HMS Triumph as well as the hospital ship HMHS Britannic, the Titanic’s sister.  

The Etente powers established a blockade of drifters and trawlers across the mouth of the Adriatic Sea over the forty five miles of the Otranto strait between Brindisi and Corfu. The drifters were armed with 6 pounder guns, depth charges and anti-submarine nets and were supported by torpedo boats, destroyers and a cruiser force based at Brindisi with the aim of interdicting any enemy submarines that should try and break out.
Trawlers leaving Taranto for Barrage duties (IWM  Q 63041)

The Barrage was somewhat ineffective at stopping German and Austro-Hungarian U-boats who were passing through with ease and harassing Allied shipping but things were changing with the U-6 being caught and sunk by HMT Calistoga and the Dulcie Doris with Linenschiffsleutnant von Falkhausen and his crew being taken prisoner.

   Following the loss of U-6 and a further seven intercepted by Motor launces and aircraft patrols Admiral Njegovan decided serious steps had to be taken but that his vessels needed to operate in a manner that would see their safe return. The surface vessels had already begun gently probing with a French submarine reporting a force of four Austrian destroyers observing the drifters at night on the 11 March with a further sortie on the 21 April which saw an Italian steamer sunk outsider Valona. Further sorties were carried out on the 25 April and 5 May.

Mikos Horthy commanded the Austro-Hungarian cruisers
   Njegovan had to plan exceptionally carefully so as to preserve his vessels and escape the superior Allied numbers before they could respond. To this end a two pronged assault designed to confuse and draw off the Allies was implemented. At 8 p.m. on 14 May the Tatra class destroyers SMS Csepel and SMS Balaton under the command of Prinz Johann of Liechtenstein left Cattaro harbour and slipped down the Albanian coast passing Valona just after midnight without being seen by any of the searchlights. The destroyers began searching for a convoy or merchant ship to attack at the allotted hour when the second force would be in position.

   The second force consisted of three light Cruisers of the modified Spauna class, SMS Helgoland under the command of Captain Neyesler, SMS Saida commanded by Captain Pinschka and the SMS Novara acting as Linienschiffeleutnant Nikos Horthy's flag ship. The three cruisers were amongst Austria's newest and most modern ships with a top speed of 27 knots but with a relatively weak battery of nine 3.1" guns. The three cruisers struck out of Cattaro at 10 p.m. and headed south. Admiral Njegovan had also dispatched several U-boats out into the Adriatic to sew confusion and watch for Allied response with the U-4 watching Valona harbour, the UC-35 to mine the main naval base at Brindisi whilst the U-27 patrolled between Brindisi and Cattaro with aerial reconnaissance flights prepared for the morning and a taskforce of torpedo boats led by the armoured Cruiser SMS Sankt Georg to act as support.
 Admiral Alfredo Acton, the Italian Naval Commander of the area had either received specific information or was deeply suspicious that the Austrian fleet may try another raid and had deployed a force of French and Italian destroyers led by the light cruiser Mirabello on a patrol with orders to sail south-east until midnight when they should cross the strait before turning north towards Cape Boni and then on to Valona. Orders were also given to ready the dispatch of the cruisers in Brindisi with HMS Bristol and HMS Dartmouth brought to readiness.

   Acton was hit by the dilemma of where the Austrian attack would fall and if he were to deploy his vessels to defend the barrage then he would be leaving Brindisi and the vital rail hub or the Italian coastline undefended. He would have to play a reactionary role.

   At 3:30 a.m. a telegram from Fano arrived: The Austrians had been positively sighted in the strait and orders were issued immediately for the Bristol to be brought to half an hour's readiness, the Dartmouth to three hours and HMS Liverpool to six hours. Acton moved his flag to Dartmouth bringing her to half an hour's readiness at 5 a.m. HMS Bristol steamed out of harbour with two destroyers half an hour later with Dartmouth following with another two destroyers five minutes later with the Italian cruiser Aquilla bringing up the rear but Acton was already reacting to the Austrian's first attack.

   The Italian destroyer Borea and it's charge of three vessels had left Gallipoli at 10 a.m. on the 14 May for Valona and had had such an uneventful journey that they had arrived in good time at the Strade Bianche at 3 a.m. with the destroyer at the head of the formation. It was a calm still night with little wind. The moon hung over the mountains in their starboard quarter but the landward side remained very dark and shadowy. One of the Borea's lookouts reported a lot of smoke off to starboard and Commander Franceschi ordered a challenge flashed to the vessel. The pitch blackness suddenly drowned out by the bright illumination of floodlights from SMS Csepel and SMS Balatan moments before they opened fire.

SMS Csepel
   The action was swift and brutal with the Borea turning to starboard to get between the convoy and the Austrian destroyers but to no avail as the Csepel's first salvo had ruptured her main steam pipe leaving her unable to complete her manoeuvre and at the mercy of the enemy. As the Borea sank beneath the waves the Austrians concentrated on the helpless convoy with the munitions ship, SS Caraccio, exploding spectacularly under their barrage and a second vessel was left sinking whilst the third was badly damaged. Having done enough to distract the Allies the two destroyers put the convoy to their rudder and headed for Cattaro leaving the remnants of the convoy to limp or be towed to port. Both the SS Verita and the Bersaliere  made it into port.

   At the Eastern most point of the Barrage the crews of the drifters heard the gunfire and explosions but continued as if nothing was different casting their anti-submarine nets and maintaining a visual in case any action came close but Acton had not alerted them of any threat so whatever was going on was not their concern. At 3:30 a.m. Horthy's vessels arrived at the Barrage and divided with the Novarro heading east, the Helgoland heading west and the Saida concentrating on the centre. On the receipt of a message from the Csepel that the convoy had been disrupted the operation began. Each Austrian cruiser would approach one of the drifters and signal them to surrender and abandon ship before sinking the vessel and taking the crew prisoner.

   SMS Helgoland approached the trawler Gowan Lea at a thousand yards and signalled her to surrender but Kapitän Neyesler was most surprised when his opposite number, Captain Joseph Watt a Scottish veteran of the action the previous December, ordered his small trawler to engage the cruiser at full speed. The crew quickly manned the tiny 6 pounder guns and fired on their larger opponent which encouraged other trawlers in the area to follow suit. The Austrian Commander now caught in an unexpected action dealt with the situation calmly bringing his guns to bear with the first salvo damaging the Gowan Lea's gun and as the crew struggled to unjam it the Helgoland turned its attention upon the other vessels quickly decimating their attack leaving several vessels sinking and the Gowan Lea heavily damaged. Watt ordered his vessel to pick up any British sailor in the water they could and from the sinking trawlers.

Admiral Mark Kerr, the British Commander of the Adriatic force wrote in his dispatch that:

Undoubtedly the Austro-Hungarian cruisers behaved most chivalrously. Whenever a drifter put up a fight and refused to surrender, it was noticeable the most of the guns of the broadside were directed not to hit the fishing-boat, and the shots went wide and they left their plucky little adversary afloat and passed on. It was keeping up the ancient tradition of chivalry at sea. (1)

   With the Drifter line successfully decimated and distress flares and wireless messages being sent by the tiny vessels Horthy gave the order for his cruisers to withdraw to home waters before they attracted too much Allied attention. In their wake they left fourteen drifters sinking.

   Acton soon received reports of what had been happening at the Barrage and a wireless message from the French destroyer Commandant Bory reported sing the Austrians at 4:30 a.m. but had been unable to shadow or transmit until 5:30 a.m. as she was chasing the U-4. Now his forces had to intercept two separate forces.

   At 6:45 a.m. the Mirabello and her four destroyers (Boutefou, Commandant Rivière, Cimeterre and Bisson) positively sighted Horthy’s cruisers and at 7:00 a.m. at a range of 9300 yards they opened fire with their first salvo but the returning heavy fire from the Austrian ships proved too much for the smaller Allied ships and they fell back into a shadowing position in an action that took no more than seven minutes.

   Acton’s force was sailing at 24 knots towards the gulf of Drin and were approximately 245 miles north west of the Csepel and the Belaton and 46 miles North-north west of Horthy’s retreating vessels. Unsure of the Austrian’s exact position Acton detached the Aquilla and Balston
to reconnoitre towards Cape Mendes heading off at 35 knots. By 8 a.m. the Italian vessels engaged the two Austrian destroyers at 12,500 yards but within half an hour the Aquilla had been disabled with her boilers hit by Csepel. With the enemy disabled the two Austro-Hungarian vessels moved into the relative safety of home waters under the guns of the shore batteries around Cattaro.

   Acton sent a request to Brindisi for assistance from HMS Liverpool the Marsela and Bacchiawhilst he took position around the damaged Aquilla

   In Brindisi harbour Captain G. H. Vivian of HMS Liverpool, the senior British Naval Officer was losing his patients behind a cool exterior. The Liverpool had raised steam and been ready for action for an hour but Admiral Bollo, Commander of the Pisa division informed him it was “not necessary” and on his second petition at 9 a.m. the freshly arrived Admiral Revel refused to allow the Liverpool beyond the harbour’s outer walls.
   Vivian had been receiving regular updates of the fleet action and was well aware of the situation faced by Acton’s vessels.

I had then in my mind the probability of our cruisers getting fairly close to Cattaro, being crippled or damaged after a running fight, and then being attacked by heavy ships from Cattaro. I therefore asked if the ‘Pisa’ Division or any of them were going out. Admiral Revel, who had arrived signalled to Admiral Acton at sea to ask if he wanted ‘Pisa’ Division, but by this time the action was practically finished and the reply was “no”. (2)

   Vivian felt this was a mistake that the three Armoured cruisers ( the Pisa, San Giorgio and the San Marco) under Contrammiraglio Bollo could not only assist in sinking the already damaged light cruisers or provide covering fire against the perceived threat of the SMS Sankt Georg or a Hapsburg class pre-dreadnought which would be moving to cover Horthy’s withdrawal. At 10:38 a signal was received from the Dartmouth calling for vessels to “Rendezvous on Dartmouth” and Vivian argued this was a call for assistance and once more implored Admiral Revel that the Pisa Division, who stood ready to leave port, should leave and that the Dartmouth must be in difficulties but again, to no avail, A fear of submarines waiting for a relief force outside of Brindisis harbour concerned Vivian and his Italian counterparts and with only a few destroyers available to escort and screen the larger vessels even Vivian admitted in his report that it may have been for the best that they did not leave especially in light of what was to come.

   The lookouts on HMS Bristol spotted the smoke of Horthy’s vessels at 9:00 a.m. arriving from the south and at 9:30 fire was exchanged at 13,000 yards with the Dartmouth leading the Allied forces into a parallel course. Acton’s forces were superior to Horthy’s in speed and firepower with the Dartmouth sporting eight 6” gns and the Bristol two 6” and ten 4” guns whilst Horthy’s three cruisers had nine 3.9” guns. In a straight fight the Allied ships would easily be victorious.

   Horthy claims in his memoirs that his position was not as bad as it seemed on paper. As the Allies approached he was already a step a head of them. Prinz Liechtenstein had already sent a message outlining his combat with the Mirabello group and Horthy had made the conscious decision to draw the Allies away from the smaller destroyers. He had also received a message from Cattaro offering support from the warships present which Horthy saw as a great opportunity to catch the Allies out but he needed to play for time.
   As the first British shells landed in the Novara’s course Horthy ordered a smoke screen deployed to envelope his vessels from sight in the hope the Allies would get closer and fall within the range of his guns and torpedoes. As the smoke cleared the Austrians headed north firing on the Allied destroyers that had got close and also the Mirabello which had arrived on their port side.

HMS Dartmouth

   The ensuing gun battle at between 5000 and 8400 yards was intense with the Bristol and the Dartmouth
firing accurately at SMS Novara’s chartroom was destroyed, a gun put out of action and fires started on deck. Horthy was struck by shrapnel that shredded his hat, singed his uniform down to his flesh and embedded five chunks into his leg. He was brought back to consciousness by a blast of cold water thrown over him to extinguish his burning clothes and moved to a stretcher on the foredeck to watch proceedings. He was lucky as the ship’s First Officer, Lieutenant Szuborits, was killed and so control of the ship passed to Gunnery Lieutenant Witkowski who commanded from exposed upper bridge directing the vessels guns personally.

   The Allies were not faring well either with the Commandant Rivière  halted by condenser issues and the Mirabello with water in her oil. Both vessels were guarded by the destroyers Cimeterre and the Bisson in case of U-boat attack. HMS Dartmouth was carrying the battle on her own as the Bristol’s filthy bottom slowed her down leaving her unable to keep up but it was a task that the Dartmouth was able to do with ease. With the Novara  disabled by a direct hit on the turbine chamber destroying the condenser pipe line meaning the boilers had to be extinguished the cruiser began to slow and the Dartmouth was free to attack the Saida but soon turned to meet the Italian protected cruiser  Marsale as she approached to assist.

   As the fighting subsided the Saida came along side her wounded sister to take her in tow whilst the Helgoland stood guard over the vulnerable cruisers. Acton ordered the Allied vessels to withdraw at the sight of smoke from Cattaro as the Sankt Georg under Admiral von Nensa supported by the coastal defence ship SMS Budapest. The Austro-Hungarian fleet had escaped.

   The battle was far from over however as one Italian destroyer, Acerbi, attempting a torpedo run only to be dissuaded by the Austro-Hungarian fire. Acton, realising too late that he had missed a golden opportunity, withdrew for Brindisi with his damaged vessels in tow.

   All was not plain sailing however as the force cruised through the Adriatic Kapitänleutnant

KptLt Johannes Feldkirchner
Johannes Feldkirchner’s mine laying SM U-125 fired a torpedo into HMS Dartmouth’s port side. The damage was quite extensive and whilst damage control crews battled to control the flooding two destroyers chased off the predatory U-boat as the other warships moved towards Brindisi.

Following receiving news that the action was over from HMS Dartmouth at midday Vivian would have begun to calm down with the emergency passed although the language of his reports to the Admiralty show that his frustration was not far from the surface. At 2 p.m. news came to Brindisi from HMS Bristol that the Dartmouth had been torpedoed.

Vivian's first reaction was to get to the Dartmouth as quickly as possible and to the British vessel as well as save British lives but again he was refused permission to leave port. The French destroyer Boutefeu had been forced to return to Brindisi earlier that morning due to a condenser issue but was now ready to depart. Vivian went to petition his Italian counterparts for permission to accompany the French only to see the destroyer leave port. Vivian's growing frustration must have been tempered by horror and a certain amount of relief as a large explosion filled the air as the Boutefeu struck one of Feldkirchner's mines just beyond the boon defence. The destroyer quickly sank in a matter of seconds.
With the situation worsening on the Dartmouth, her captain, Addison, ordered the crew aboard the escorting destroyers but remained with a volunteer party who tried to save the ship. With their attempts successful and with the aid of a tug the cruiser limped into harbour by 3:00 a.m. the following morning. The fore of the cruiser was completely wrecked and only her armoured deck had kept the vessel together and it was sometime before she was operational again costing the Allies one of their more powerful cruisers.
Following the battle of Otranto barrage the Allies took stock of the situation and of the losses that had occurred. A very British response came from Admiral Mark Kerr, the Royal Navy's C-in-C of the Adriatic fleet based on HMS Queen in Taranto harbour;
It is quite certain that until some British destroyers are attached to the barrage for purposes of defence and 'E' type submarines for purposes of offence; that the Barrage can be raided by the Austrians same manner as here to fore. (3)
He went on to criticise the Allied naval forces.
The temperament of our Allies, who at present supply the destroyers and submarines for the barrage, is not suited for patrol work. Even their fast cruisers take some time as a rule to get to sea when the alarm is raised. A proper British force under a British Admiral would put n end to these raids (4)
Kerr's report acknowledged the bravery of the trawler forces but noted that the Austrian raid was the biggest they had seen so far. Steps were taken to only deploy the drifters by day for their protection and increase the standing patrols but these measures meant the Central Powers were free to move their U-boats and surface ships by night.
Another observation came from the frustrated Captain Vivian who pointed out that the Italian Navy had neglected to share codes with their Allies. This in itself was not an issue and to be expected if they did not want their Allies to understand certain aspects but on a shared frequency it is some what problematic. As Vivian stated in his report to Kerr, he head the following Communique:-
UX to FU "Ships in sight Otranto strait." - I had no idea who "UX" was nor "FU" was.

One other inconsistency that could easily be rectified was that some of the vessels were using local time an others, like the Liverpool, followed Admiralty directives and set their chronometers to Central European time.

A further complication was the use of maps and radio usage with the Mirabello's square map being numbered poorly or her radio signals poorly coded which led to confusion as to her actual position and when the Aquilla reported that she as disabled and in need of a tow they did not give a position so only Acton on the Dartmouth knew what was going on.
For the Austro-Hungarians it was a well received victory having suffered no losses and sweeping away enough trawlers to open the barrage at night as well as sinking two destroyers and damaging the Allies' cruisers. The whole operation proved the Austro-Hungarian navy was still a force that needed to be dealt with in the strategic situation in the Mediterranean.

End Notes:

1 – Horthy, M. “Memoirs”, Hutchinson & Co, London, 1956 p. 85)
2 -  The Navy Record society, "The War in the Mediterranean1915-1918", Temple Smith, Aldershot, 1987  p.251
3 -  Ibid p.257

4 -  Ibid p.258
5-  Ibid p. 256

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Last stand of HMS Strongbow

Day broke on the 17 October 1917 and HMS Strongbow, an M-class destroyer escorting a convoy consisting of two British, one Belgian and nine neutral Scandinavian vessels from Lerwick to Bergen with the armed trawlers Elise and P. Fannon. Strongbow was at the rear of the convoy whilst her sister HMS Mary Rose under Lt Commander Fox led the convoy from the front, when the crew spotted two cruisers at 06:05 approaching through the early morning haze at two points after beam. Visibility was only 4000 yards and the two vessels were closing at speed. The Duty officer Acting Lieutenant James believed them to be British light cruisers of the Cleopatra class and signalled them for identification using a Morse spot lamps.
There was no response.

The second signal met with no response.

The third was met with a poorly morsed letters that made no sense when translated. Something was not right and James immediately sent for the Captain Lt-Commander Brooke and Strongbow turned to meet the two unknown vessels and increased speed.
HMS Strongbow moves to engage SMS Bremse and Brummer

SMS Bremse and Brummer had been dispatched by Admiral Scheer to seek convoys on the Lerwick to Bergen route and if none were to be found to proceed to the West coast of Britain and range into the Atlantic at their discretion and depending on their fuel supplies.

The Germans reasoned that whilst the rest of their fleet was known to be engaged in the Baltic and capturing Helsingfors that the British would not expect an attack. A successful attack would also cause problems for the enemy and ultimately aid the U-boat campaign as the Royal Navy would need to bleed off vessels searching for U-boats to protect these neutral convoys from surface raiders. The mine-laying cruisers Bremse and Brummer were specifically chosen for their appearance which was similar to British cruisers and that they had a top speed of 34 knots and could use either oil or coal. With their decks cleared of all their mine laying equipment, save for the lowering mechanism, and the births for 450 mines the cruisers left Wilhelmshaven and proceeded into the North sea after a day's delay whilst minesweepers cleared a path for them.

Scheer legitimised attacking neutral ships in his memoirs;

It was known that neutral merchant vessels assembled in convoys to travel under the protection of English warships, and therefore they might be regarded as enemy vessels, since they openly claimed English protection as to benefit the enemy and consequently to injure us.

Room 40, the Admiralty's code breakers, had intercepted Bremse and Brummer reporting their position as north of the Sylt at Lister Tief. This information was passed on to Operations to evaluate as Room 40 had no knowledge of British vessel's dispositions.

The Admiralty Operations room did not believe that two mine laying cruisers would be a threat to anything and that they were probably adding to the formidable minefields already in existence. There had been a belief that the Germans would attempt a raid of some sort and a force of tree cruisers, twenty seven light cruisers and fifty-four destroyers spread itself from the mid North Sea to the coast of Norway looking for a mine layer and force of destroyers.

The Brummer and Bremse had slipped by at night using their high top speed and now were closing on Strongbow and at 3000 yards fired with their first salvo falling short. The second hit the main steam pipe causing the destroyer to stop and the Wireless room removing her ability to call for help. The time was 06:15.

With Mary Rose some way ahead the defenceless merchant ships slowed to a stop and began abandoning ship in the hope that they're crews could be afforded safety in the lifeboats. The two German cruisers closed and began sinking the merchant ships with expertly aimed shots at the waterline and would eventually claim all nine of the neutral Danes, Swedish and Norwegian vessels whilst the Belgian and British vessels fled the scene.

At 06:20 the Mary Rose reappeared reacting to the gunfire and sighting four merchant vessels already sinking and bravely charged the German warships whilst trying to send an SOS transmission. Although acknowledged by a shore station and asked for confirmation SMS Brummer managed to block any further communication. Mary Rose began firing straight away at a range of 6-7000 yards and closed with the enemy at top speed but at 2000 yards Fox ordered the helm hard over and the two German cruisers hit their mark sending all but eight of the crew to their deaths.

With the escorting destroyers dealt with the German cruisers returned to the task of shelling the defenceless merchant vessels. 

The fight was not over as the plucky Elise defied orders and returned to the scene at first trying to rescue survivors from Strongbow and then firing upon the two German vessels and trying to draw them away. When this failed the trawler could do no more than move to a safe distance and wait.

With their work completed Bremse and Brummer withdrew to the South-East without picking up a single survivor. Scheer would later legitimise this by stating that;

As two (actually three) of the steamers had been able to get away in time on noticing the attack, the care of the crews in the boats could be left to them, for our cruisers had to consider their own safety on the long return journey.

The Elise did return and pick up survivors from Strongbow whilst others were picked up by lifeboats
SMS Brummer 
from the lost merchants. Strongbow finally disappeared beneath the waves at 09:30 having been scuttled by her crew following the destruction of all code books. All in all 250 men died in those few hours or from exposure and a further 50 were wounded. The Germans suffered no casualties.

News of the disaster did not reach the British authorities until 15:50 when HMS Marmion, on the return Bergen - Lerwick track, found the ELISE at 13:30 and steamed to send the message to Admiral Brock, officer commanding Shetland and Orkneys. Beatty was told within an hour and hurriedly deployed his cruisers on the off chance of catching the two Germans that night but to no avail.

The Admiralty were criticised for their failings by the Conservative press and questions were asked in Parliament but the only defence offered was that the sea is a large place and occasionally the enemy, using night and fog may slip through the defences and hit a convoy. It was also pointed out that some 4500 vessels had got through safely in the last six months on the same route.

Beatty was livid that he had not been informed the German ships were Bremse and Brummer as he would have changed his whole deployment knowing their capability. Changes to the convoy system were brought in immediately with larger convoys on a less frequent basis with Destroyer commanders ordered to be at constant standby, suspect all unknown vessels as enemy until absolutely certain to the contrary, scatter the convoy when attacked, avoid engaging "Superior forces" and use W/T to call for help "IMMEDIATELY"

Criticism was brought against Fox and Brooke for their "ill advised" actions that day. Although their bravery in engaging the enemy was hailed it was the various enquiries and court-martials opinion that they're first duty was to summon assistance from the cruiser forces. It was later acknowledged that the Strongbow simply did not have the opportunity to contact anyone as her W/T set was knocked out within minutes. Post war it was revealed by the Germans that Mary Rose had also attempted to do the same .

Indeed the German official account post war acknowledge the bravery of the British crews:

The heroic fight put up by the two British destroyers had been in the highest British tradition, but it achieved nothing.

It was a defeat for the Allies but it was learnt from quickly. Beatty took steps to rectify the situation with his fresh orders and the number of vessels in convoy were increased whilst their frequency decreased so that they would be better protected.

For the Germans it was a victory and was celebrated by the Kaiser with the opening of champagne. Two cruisers had caused embarrassment to the Royal Navy for no loss at a time when good news in Germany was distinctly lacking but strategically it achieved nothing.

There were accusations of war crimes post war with the German crews accused of shelling survivors in the water. Newbolt wrote that;

Throughout the attack the Germans displayed a severity which is hard to distinguish from downright cruelty. They gave the neutral masters and crews no chance to lower their boats and get away, but poured their broadsides into them without warning as though they had been armed enemies... In the case of the destroyers the enemy's conduct was even worse; for to their everlasting discredit fire was opened and maintained upon the Strongbow's survivors.

This would later be refuted by the Germans in Krieg in der Nordsee;

Some of Strongbow's crew, who had taken to the lifeboat , and others who had leapt into the water, became additional victims of gunfire, possibly from shots falling short; it stands to reason that there was no intention whatsoever of firing on them. The statement of the British Official history, that defenceless survivors form the Strongbow were deliberately fired on, cannot be refuted strongly enough.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Battle of Texel

On the 17 October 1914 the 7th Half-Flotilla's four S-90 class torpedo ships shipped out of the Ems estuary to carryout mining operations on the Downs or even as far as the Thames Estuary which would cause major disruption to British shipping.

The torpedo boat SMS S-119
   The force was selected for their good speed of 27 knots and that beyond coastal patrol duties they were of little use with only torpedo launchers and three 2" L/40 guns. The design was almost twenty years old and  much lighter in armour and armament than the Royal Navy's destroyers and indeed there were some within the Admiralstab who had written them off as expendable and the crews were all volunteers for this dangerous journey.

   "Expendable" was a thought many miles from the mind of Korvettenkapitän Georg Thiele as the thirty three year old stood on the bridge of his flagship SMS S-119 as it proceeded south along the Dutch coast off Texel. Thiele had been forced to keep close to land by British mines that lay between Lat 51 15'N and 51 41' against Long 1 35' E and 3 0'E.

   The 7th Half-Flotilla had already lost on of her number in the relative safety of the Ems estuary. The S-116 had been torpedoed by Lieutenant-Commander Horton's HMS E9 as it reconnoitered German naval build up on the 6 October killing nine men and her commander Kapitanleutnant Kurt Freiherr von Ziegesar. It was an inauspicious start to the operation but for Thiele, submarines were no longer his concern as a signalman reported smoke on the horizon aft.

   Acting on a report from HMS E8 the British Admiralty had dispatched a small force to reconnoiter the Dutch coast. They were disconcerted by the activity in the German estuary fearing that the Kaiser's warships were going to sweep down the coast and threaten the port of Zeebrugge which the British were using to resupply the British and Belgian armies. At the same time the German army was sweeping westward with all of its might and should a force of German Cruisers attack and destroy or even damage the port facilities at Zeebrugge it would see the German army to continue straight through the Belgians.

   To combat this a several patrols were sent to meet any German vessels with the light Cruiser HMS Undaunted leading the destroyers HMS Loyal, HMS Lance, HMS Legion and HMS Lennox from the First Division of Third Destroyer flotilla arrived off the Dutch coast. Captain Cecil Fox on the Undaunted began to proceed north with the destroyers at 16 knots when at 1:50 p.m. they sighted their quarry. At first the German formation made no move to avoid their British counterparts until they were in visual range when they began to scatter.

   For Fox this small force of German ships had to be dealt with quickly as they may be screening a larger force heading for Zeebrugge. The Undaunted was ahead of her destroyers and orders were rapidly dispatched with each destroyer to attack their opposite number with the Undaunted assisting with the order "General Chase" signaling the start of the battle and a further signal to the Admiralty "Am pursuing four German Destroyers.

   As the Undaunted reached eight thousand yards she opened fire on the S-118 causing the German vessel to take avoiding action which saved her from damage but allowed the Undaunted to get closer. The British Cruiser resumed fire at 5000 yards with the destroyers going in to support.

   HMS Lance and the Lennox tunred to chase the easternmost German ships, the S-115 and S-119 whilst the Legion and the Loyal went for the S-118 and the S-117 with the Undaunted took direct action on the unfortunate S-118 at a range of 2500 yards with the Legion and the Loyal. One of HMS Loyal's lyditte shells struck the German's conning tower blowing in and Kapitänleutnant Erich Bickert away whilst another 6" shell from the Undaunted caused an explosion by her foremost funnel. The German Torpedo boat was reduced to a "sinking condition" with the Legion and the Loyal firing freely and the vessel disappeared at 3:17 p.m.

   Korvettenkapitän Thiele ordered the S-119 and the S-117 to turn back to attack the Undaunted by either launching a torpedo attack or to draw fire from the beleaguered SMS S-118 but as they reached the furthest limits of torpedo range the Undaunted turned sixteen points away with Fox ordering the Legion and the Loyal advance to attack the advancing Germans. Fox had watched the Germans approach with a growing temptation to let them approach and decimate them with his gunfire but he later commented that “common sense prevailed” which might have been tinged with the memory of the loss of the Amphion still fresh in his mind and not willing to risk another of His Majesty’s warships. Thiele appeared to be unwilling to risk his vessels and countered by seemingly abandoning the attack with the S-117 turning sixteen points north whilst Thiele’s flagship turned east with both vessels coming under direct fire from HMS Loyal, HMS Legion and the Undaunted.

   The Legion pursued the fleeing SMS S-117 and entered a duel which saw the German vessel turn to fire off three torpedoes at her pursuer. Lieutenant-Commander Claud Allsup ordered avoiding action with the first torpedo passing a few yards past her bow and the second a few yards astern but the third torpedo sailed below the destroyer amidships just below her funnel. Thankfully for Allsup and his crew it failed to go off. With her torpedoes spent the S-117 resumed her escape attempt and fired her guns continually at her pursuer as well as trying to rake the decks of the Legion with machine gun fire but to no avail. The British Lyditte shells were much more effective and knocked out the German’s steering gear forcing her to likewise turn in a circle and leaving her deck covered in twisted metal with steam escaping from her many holes. Kapitänleutnant Sohnke’s men fought on until the last gun fell silent and then abandoned ship taking their chances in the cold North Sea than on the sinking wreck which finally slipped below the waves at 3:30 p.m.

   HMS Loyal gave chase to Thiele’s flagship with the excitement clearly getting to Lieutenant-Commander Burgess Watson’s men who began firing wildly at 3,500 yards before steadying their fire with five well executed salvoes that were thought to have calmed the men and “disturbed the quarry”.
   Thiele and the S-119’s Captain, Oberleutnant zur See Windel executed another daring move to try and put off their pursuers by turning eight points towards the Loyal so as to pass astern of her and to put a few shells into her. Watson refused to change course and later reported that;
I decided to steer a steady course and give the after gun a chance of knocker her out; however the spotting was very and. Shot after shot was going over. I sent a Sub-lieutenant aft to with a more or less curt message that they must get a shot short. The Sub-lieutenant soon returned looking rather startled with the information that the First Lieutenant and two men were knocked out. (Naval review p.141) 

   One of the wounded men was Lieutenant Commander G. L. Davidson who remained at his post after his left foot was shot off encouraging his gun crew to continue their efforts and giving orders whilst spotting for the gunners and reporting where the shot fell, a feat that earned him the DSC.
 SMS S-119 soon became a target for both the Loyal, who had altered course to bring her other guns to bear but also the Lance who had left the Lennox to deal with the S-115 alone. The Lance put three shots into the German vessel in quick succession but was struck amidships by the S-119’s last torpedo but it failed to explode. Thiele, Windel and S-119 slipped beneath the waves at 3:35 p.m. but not before a metal case that had been chained shut was jettisoned overboard containing the naval code books.

  In the meantime HMS Lennox had begun firing her forward turret at SMS S-115 at 2:25 p.m. but was inaccurate for some thirty five minutes and it wasn't until 3:10 p.m. that any damage was registered when two Lyditte shells disabled the steering gear forcing the German vessel to turn sixteen points to port. It was at this point that the Lance departed to assist in combatting the S-119. Starting at 2500 yards the Lennox began to demolish the stricken German vessel destroying the bridge at 1,200 yards. It was not until the destroyer reached 700 yards that fire was ceased believing the Germans would strike their colours and surrender but the crew continued to fire prompting the Lennox to resume her devastation until all signs of resistance ceased and a boarding party was dispatched with the officer later reporting that;

   On conclusion of the action I was sent away in a boat to S-115 to take off the only man left alive on board. He was standing on the propeller guard waving his shirt as a signal of distress and on my coming alongside he jumped into the boat and shook me warmly by the hand, pouring down blessings on my head in guttural Hun language.
He continued his report on the damage caused by the Lennox's fire;
I had been ordered to waste no time in taking off the German, so really was not able to make a thorough inspection of her; perhaps I was also thinking a little of our own safety, in that at any moment she might have been expected to blow up, as she was burning fiercely between decks.
   Her hull was riddled with shot holes all along the water-line the starboard side; and aft, she had two large gaping holes either side of the stern post. Nothing could be seen inside these latter but twisted lumps of metal and burning woodwork.
   The funnels, although rather badly knocked about, were still standing, but were more in the shape of a bashed in top-hat than anything else.
   The foremost torpedo tube and the foremost starboard gun had completely disappeared, only gaping holes showing the havoc wrought by our Lyditte.
   Both masts had also gone over the side, this, unfortunately, frustrating any chance there might have been of securing her ensign as a much to be valued trophy.
   The ‘midship torpedo tube was practically untouched, only the lip being a little bent and the torpedo was still in the tube. The after gun also remained standing, but a shell had evidently struck the muzzle, as about half the barrel had been blown away. The after torpedo tube hadn’t been fired and was very little damaged.
   It seemed evident that the officers and crew had jumped overboard soon after the ship had really began to get knocked about; but I should think that they must have nearly exhausted their ammunition first. I am sure that had there been anything left in the magazines the ship would have blown up, considering the heavy fire that was raging fore and aft.
   Owing to the short time I was alongside, I was unable to see what damage had been done to the engines and boilers, or to the foremost port gun; but as regards the former, they were probably reduced to scrap iron, judging from what I could see through holes in the ship’s side.
   Having collected a few empty 4-pounder cartridge cases as “souvenirs,” I pulled back to the ship with our one prisoner. We picked up four other survivors later from the water, one of whom died on the way home from the effects of a bad leg wound
. (Naval review p142-3)

   SMS-115 was finally sunk by the Undaunted signalling the end of the German squadron in an action which had claimed some two hundred sailors killed including all four vessel's captains and the flotilla leader with only thirty one men pulled from the water as prisoners and a further two sailors being pulled from the water by neutral shipping. During the engagement Alfred Fright, who was serving on the bridge of the Undaunted witnessed one of the German vessels hoist a white flag before firing upon lifeboats that were lowered by one of the destroyers. The First Officer, Lt-Commander Wood asked if he should lower the boats to which Fox retorted that "If you do I'll shoot you." It was rumoured that Fox had sworn that he would kill an equal amount of the enemy as had perished under him aboard the Amphion. Needless to say the Undaunted picked up no survivors.  

For the Admiralstab it was a stinging but expected defeat and the loss of the four older vessels only cemented their belief that the Royal Navy destroyers had superiority of numbers and ability over their German counterparts and further such missions were abandoned.

   The Royal Navy could not afford to be self-congratulatory though as despite the easy victory and only five wounded casualties the accuracy of the gunnery was exceptionally questionable with a total of 1031 shells being fired by the five vessels and HMS Lance firing 262 alone. Fox attributed the high amount of shells to the action taking place at high speed and long range and in an article written for the Naval review he made several observations which would have been dutifully brought forward to the Admiralty's attention including noting that independent fire at a range of over 2000 yards with officers spotting was wasteful and inaccurate preferring controlled fire using salvoes with bursts of rapid fire would be the best method until range finders could be employed.
   The Germans on the other hand had also failed to score any significant hits whether due to poor accuracy or just not being able to get rounds in the air due to the enemy fire. The damage was minimal with the Legion being struck in the starboard condenser, the Loyal took two shells including the one that struck the aft gun with the second causing a small fire in the steering compartment and had to undergo minor repair on return to Harwich and her wounded were taken off. The Lance  was raked with Maxim machine gun fire but the damage was superficial and the Lennox and the Undaunted suffered no damage at all.

   With concern that U-boats may be in the area Fox decided to leave the area as quickly as possible and with a brief signal to the Admiralty enforming them that the German force had been sunk his ships turned for home.

   The silence left by Thiele's force passing led to the Admiralstab accepting the worse and a hospital ship was dispatched to look for survivors. The SS Ophelia  was a 1153 ton liner formerly owned by the Hamburg-London line which had been pressed into service as a hospital ship. All was not as it seemed and the Ophelia's behaviour attracted the attention of the Royal Navy as she communicated with the German Naval Wireless station at Norddeich and then she broke the Hague convention by communicating in coded wireless messages. The Admiralty consulted their list of hospital ships which they had exchanged with the German government on the commencement of the war and found the Ophelia was not on the list. HMS D8 was sent to follow the liner but when the submarine was spotted the German ship fled at speed adding to the belief that she was being used as a thinly veiled scout and the decision was taken to board and inspect the vessel which was allowed by the convention.

   HMS Meteor intercepted the vessel and began an inspection. At first all seemed to be in order but there was a curious amount of Verey lights discovered onboard including 600 green, 480 red and 140 white compared to the British who carried no more than twelve of each. The actions of her Captain, Dr Pfeiffer condemned the vessel further as he was spotted throwing code books and documents overboard. The Ophelia was seized as the destruction of her Wireless set and code books officially cast doubt on her status and the decision was upheld in the Prize Courts the following year. The Germans accused the British of piracy with Scheer writing post war that;

SMS Ophelia
The English captured her and made her prize, charging us with having sent her out for scouting purposes, although she was obviously fitted up as a hospital ship and bore all the requisite markings.  (Scheer, R.  Germany's High Sea's Fleet in the World War, Kindle, loc 1101)

  The final chapter of the Texel episode came almost two months after the battle on 30 November when a British trawler snagged and retrieved a lead lined box on the sea bottom. On inspection it was found to be the chest jettisoned from SMS S-119 which contained the Naval Verkehrsbuch codes which were for cable communications between Naval attaches, foreign based ships and Admirals at sea adding to the books already taken from the Magdeburg and the Hobart handing Room 40 a massive advantage in deciphering German naval codes and anticipating their moves.