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.