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