Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The loss of SMS Ariadne at Heligoland Bight

The battle of Heligoland Bight on the 28th August was an outstanding victory of British Naval daring with the Kaiserliche marine attacked on its home ground. One of the victims of the raid was the Gazelle class cruiser SMS Ariadne.

The Gazelle-class light cruiser was part of the evolution from the Bussard class through the individual vessels Gefion and Hela and was the first German modern class of cruiser not to have sail rigging and would be the basis for the development of future German light cruisers especially their immediate successor, the Bremen class of which SMS Leipzig was a member.
SMS Ariadne in action at Heligoland Bight

The Gazelle class was designed for speed with a top rate of 21.5 knots a 2 knot advantage on Gefion and 6 knots on the older Bussard class. They also sported ten 4.1" S/K L/40 guns which could pack quite a punch against lightly armoured or unprotected warships like the Bussards as well as two torpedo tubes. Speed was bought at a cost to armour though and the Gazelles only had 20-25mm deck armour, 50mm sloping Krupp steel sides, the gun shields were 50mm whilst the conning tower was 80mm with a 20mm roof protecting the ship's officers.

With Germany's growing colonial interests and territories in the Pacific Ocean the Gazelle class was envisioned as perfect for patrolling the vast reaches and getting to trouble spots quickly or scouting ahead of the High seas fleet. Their combat value against contemporary British Pelorus class cruiser had twice the deck armour though eight QF 4" guns, eight 3 lb quick firing guns and two torpedo tubes with a comparible speed of 20 knots. The succeeding Highflyer class sported eleven 6" QF guns , 9 12lb guns and six 3 pounder quick firing guns, a speed of 20 knots and double the armour of the Gazelles.

The Ariadne was completed in 1901 and assigned to the High Seas fleet reconnaissance force and the in 1905 she was moved to the Cruiser division. By the outbreak of the First World War it was realised that the combat value of the Gazelle class was limited and Ariadne was detached as a patrol and guard vessel off the Heligoland Bight. The patrol of the Bight was carried out at night by fast moving Destroyers and Torpedo boats who were escorted onto their stations by light cruisers like Ariadne and her sister Frauenlob with Rear Admiral Maass commanding the destroyers from his Light cruiser Cöln. On the 28th August the Ariadne had been rotated out of patrol duties and lay at anchor in the Jade river with the crew carrying out routine maintenance and duties when at 9:00 gun fire was heard followed shortly by a wireless transmission from the cruiser Stettin - the British were attacking a Cruiser support was needed immediately. 

Damage done to Frauenlob during the battle
The British plan was simple. The Harwich force commanders; Commodores Keyes (Officer commanding submarines) and Tyrwhitt (Officer commanding Destroyer flotilla) devised a cunning plan to disrupt the orderly German Destroyer patrols with a night time raid using three submarines as decoys and then cutting off the German response with thirty-one of their own destroyers whilst a line of submarines would watch the Jade and Wesser estuaries in case larger German surface units were to move out and assist.

There were some alterations made by the Admiralty including moving the time of attack to 0800 and catching the morning patrol. The request for the Grand Fleet to be within reaction range and six light cruisers under Commodore Goodenough was also turned down by Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Sturdee. It was felt that Cruiser force C, the old Cressey class cruisers 100 miles away and Force K’s two Battlecruisers New Zealand and Invincible 40 miles away would be more than adequate.

Admiral Jellicoe, the Commander of the Grand fleet was not even informed of the request by London and only found on on the 26th August, two days before the operation. Hoping to catch the German fleet unawares he requested that his warships were in attendance. London only allowed for Battlecruisers and Vice Admiral Beatty brought HMS Lion, Queen Mary and Princess Royal with Goodenough’s 1st Light Cruiser Squadron in support. Jellicoe sent Tyrwhitt an urgent dispatch to inform him of the changes but it was never passed from Harwich to Arethusa, Tyrwhitt’s flagship.

Visibility on the 28th August was atrocious with mists restricting views to 3 miles. At 7:00 the German Destroyer G-194 spotted a vessel steaming towards them with a flotilla of destroyers emerging through the mist. It was Arethusa. G-194 turned to flee whilst being chased by several Royal Navy destroyers. The German Captain, Korvettenkapitan Buss called for assistance and the remaining vessels of the 5th Flotilla turned south for home and immediately came under fire with several taking damage and G-9 called for the coastal artillery batteries to bring down suppressing fire. The coastal batteries, which should have given the Germans superiority were unable to return fire as they could not tell friend or foe due to the proximity of the vessels and the mists.

Vice Admiral Scheer heard the wireless transmissions that called for Stettin and Frauenlob to come to the 5th Flotilla’s assistance as well as two flotilla of U-boats to come to station. By 7:58 Tyrwhitt was forced to withdraw from his chase because they had got to close to Helgoland and with the arrival of Stettin and Frauenlob with their superior firepower and armour it was too dangerous for the destroyers.

Stettin seeing the British withdrawal and that their own destroyers were now safe turned for home but Frauenlob, another Gazelle became entangled in a furious duel with the brand new Arethusa. It was a battle that the German should have lost but Arethusa was suffering from teething issues including two of her 4” guns jamming and another being taken out by Frauenlob’s gunners. The battle came to an abrupt end with Frauenlob withdrawing after a 6” shell destroyed the bridge killing many including her Captain.

Surprise had been lost and Tyrwhitt decided the best course of action was to make use of the mists and return to the original plan and sweep east to west and roll up any enemy vessels they came across. It was a move that quickly saw dividends with six German destroyers chased. V-187 had originally responded to G-194 but by 8:20 was reporting the position of two unknown vessels to the light cruiser Köln who ordered her and all other destroyers to return to Helgoland. As V-187 turned she was set upon by four British destroyers. The commander hoped to make it to the Jade estuary and they ran solidly for 28-9 miles firing their aft 3.3" gun when she spotted two of Goodenough’s light cruisers; Nottingham and Lowestoft who began firing accurate salvos. The Germans tried a daring manoeuvre that would catch the British by surprise by turning straight towards the pursuing destroyers but were quickly surrounded and sunk.

There was a growing confusion of British vessels who kept encountering each other in the mists and with Goodenough's presence unknown to Keyes and Tyrwhitt the farcical situation of British destroyers fleeing British cruisers and leading them on to British Battlecruisers began to unfold and even saw Goodenough hunting two of his own cruisers Nottingham and Lowestoft and Southampton trying to ram a British submarine which was attempting to fire torpedoes at it!

The German heavy units in the Jade river were uable to leave their moorings as the tide was out and they would be unable to clear the sand bar at the mouth of the estuary and the Flag officers presumed that none of the other heavy units outside of the Jade would be available and did not request them. Instead Konteradmiral Maass probed into the mist with his light cruisers Köln, Ariadne and Strassburg spread out searching for British ships and the Mainz approaching from the south hoping to cut off the British retreat.

Mainz had recieved the order to move from the Ems estuary at 10:00. Kapitan Pasche had ordered his vessel to raise steam and prepare to get underway as soon as he had heard the first wireless messages concerning the British attack but dutifully awaited the orders from above before leaving his position with the aid of a reconnaissance aircraft stationed at Borkum who was ordered to spot enemy vessels. After a short flight it returned to base having sighted nothing. Through the mists Arethusa and eight destroyers were spotted at about 11:30 heading west and Mainz turned to give them a starboard broadside hitting one of the destroyer's bridge. The German vessel turned North and encountered four Birmingham class cruisers who opened fire. Mainz reported taking fire at 11:55 and turned south towards the Ems estuary under constant fire from Goodenough's cruisers which eventually caused damage to the stearing mechanism.and Mainz drifted back into the path of Arethusa and her escorting destroyers.

"At the same moment the report reahed the bridge that three guns, with their crews, had been completely put out of action. In the stage of the action that followed, in which Mainz, with her helm jammed and going round in a circle to starboard, faced four cruisers of the Birmingham class and about twenty destroyers, our own fire was directed exclusively at the enemy destroyers. Against these only was a success worth mentioning possible. As several of the destroyers came quite close, it was possible to observe several hits upon them." -- Mainz's first officer Kapitanleutnant Tholens

By 12:20 the guns were all silent and the decks were shot to pieces with compartments below flooding with smoke and gas.
SMS Mainz sinking
Pasche gave the order to abandon ship and clear the conning tower but the order did not reach the whole vessel's company and another officer presumed Pasche dead and ordered any available gun to resume fire

Below decks the engineering crew were blissfully unaware of the state of the deck and calls to the bridge were left unanswered mainly because the tubes had been ruptured. In the main compartment it became clear the level of damaged sustained when water began running down the speaking tubes signifying water had penetrated the armoured decks.

The crew scurried through the wreckage over what remained of watertight doors and lockers, through she'll holes and onto the charnel house decks.

Commodore Keyes saw a signal from Mainz and brought his light cruiser, Lurcher alongside to save as many lives as possible and the wounded that could be helped. At 12:20 Mainz lurched and disappeared beneath the waves.

Köln and Strassburg came out of the mists firing their guns hoping they were forcing the British away unknowing what was awaiting them.

Vice Admiral Beatty had been listening to the wireless chatter and watching the clock knowing that as soon as the tides were right the might of the German High seas fleet could descend upon the destroyers and turn the day into a massacre. It was time to intervene to extricate the smaller units and his battlecruisers descended on Maass ripping Köln apart whilst Strassberg turned and fled saved only by her silhouette which looked too much like a British light cruiser. The only thing that saved Köln was the arrival of the unsuspecting Ariadne. Kapitän Seebohm later reported;

"Shortly afterwards gunfire was heard on our port bow, and we made straight in that direction. Shortly before 2 PM there emerged from the mist two ships, one of which, on our starboard bow, did not reply to our signal. It was recognised as an armoured cruiser so we immediately turned about. The second ship was Köln, which was being chased and would doubtless have got away if Ariadne had not appeared. The enemy immediately shifted his fire from Köln to Ariadne. Ariadne soon received a hit forward which started a fire in the coal, so that the stoke hold had to be abandoned on account of the danger from smoke. Five boilers were thus put out of action and Ariadne's speed was reduced to fifteen knots. Behind the enemy, which, judging by its silhouette, was the English Flagship Lion, a second English armoured cruiser soon appeared and joined in the action, firing at Ariadne for about half an hour at a range of from 45 to 60 hm., at times even from 33 hm. This last distance is only an estimate, as by now all the recording instruments were out of action. Ariadne received many hits from heavy guns, among them a whole series aft, which was soon enveloped in flames. Such of the personnel there as made good their escape owed it entirely to luck. The fore part of the ship also received a number of serious hits, one of which penetrated the armoured deck and put the torpedo chamber out of action, while another destroyed the sick-bay and killed its personnel. Amidships and the bridge, strange to say, were almost entirely spared. It is perfectly impossible to say how many hits in all the ship received. Apparently many shells passed through the rigging and were thereby detonated."

Fire soon engulfed the living quarters and decks burning uncontrollably with the extinguishers disabled. As the British disengaged possibly because the vessel was clearly doomed or because the smoke from the fires obstructed the range finder's view the surviving guns on Ariadne continued to fire independently at their attackers to no avail.

Seebohm praised his crew in his report;

In spite of the enemy's annihilating fire the ship's company worked with the greatest calm, as if on manoeuvres. The wounded were carried down by the stretcher-bearers. All ratings tried to carry out such repairs as were possible by themselves. The First Officer was carried away by a shell while between decks with the repairing section

Arrived to late; SMS Von der Tann
The forward magazine was thankfully flooded which meant the vessel wouldn't explode but the forward hatches were buckled from shell fire trapping crew below decks. Damage control reported the engines, boilers and rudder were in working order despite the telegraph having been cut. The wounded were gathered on the forecastle whilst the crew tried to fight the fires. The fumes and smoke was getting unbearable whilst the heat began igniting the ready ammunition on the deck showering the crew with shell splinters.

Seebohm ordered attempts to dave the ship to be abandoned and the crew assembled with the wounded on the forecastle where they cheered the Kaiser, sang the Deutschlandlied and the hymn for the flag. At 15:00, German time, the Bremen class SMS Danzig closed to the burning hulk and sent lifeboats.

The crew withdrew from the rapidly inhospitable forecastle to the midships where the wounded were lowered in boats. On a signal from the officers the rest of the crew jumped overboard and swam for Danzig's boats and the cruiser herself. The Stralsund also arrived and added her boats to the rescue operation lifting the Ariadne's non swimmers from the water and their rafts.

As Seebohm watched his former vessel he noted that the fires had finally died down and that the explosions had also calmed. He reasoned that his vessel and any men trapped below deck could be saved and immediately took himself to Stralsund with the intention of getting Kapitän Harder to take his vessel in tow.

However before any action could be taken Ariadne capsized suddenly and remained semi-submerged. The Gazelle had suffered 59 dead and 45 wounded from a crew of 257.

Meanwhile Köln was in a bad way. Maass was dead, the vessel burning, her hull holes from now to aft and her crew dead, dying, trapped or wounded. As a warship her time was over but as a hulk she had perhaps a little longer and the engineers managed to turn her South East and aim her roughly towards home but sadly she soon crossed Beatty's squadron again. Another two salvoes ended all hope that the ship could be saved scuttling charges were placed and the surviving 250 crewmen abandoned ship hoping for rescue from the British or their own ships.

Beatty was more concerned with getting his forces away before Hipper's dreadnoughts arrived. Arethusa was taken in tow and a withdrawal effected quickly and efficiently. Total British losses for the whole action were 35 dead and 55 wounded and no ships lost.
At 15:00 the Seydlitz and Blücher left port and joined the battlecruisers Moltke and Von der Tann who had not been in an estuary. They patrolled the area but by then the battle was over and the British long gone.

Admiral Scheer was to lament that;

If it was already known that the Heligoland Bight was insufficiently protected, because our scouting did not extend far enough, this day brought us the knowledge that a determined raid of the enemy against our weak forward patrol must inflict loss upon us every time. By the repetition of such surprises it might gradually be worn away altogether, while the Fleet got very little value out of its patrolling operations.Three days after the battle a German patrol fished leading stoker Neumann from the cold North Sea, he was the sole survivor of the 367 man crew of Köln.

Germany lost three light cruisers and a destroyer with some 1000 casualties including an Admiral. The Frauenlob was soon repaired and took her place in the Grand fleet scouting force. She would meet HMS Southampton again at the battle of Jutland in 1916 with deadly consequences.

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