British-German Naval Surface Warfare

“Although German industry depended on imported raw materials and German agriculture on imported fodder, the (German) Navy made no attempt to protect the flow of supplies… Chained up by the fleet-in-being theory and by German belief in an early victory on land, (the German Navy) was not allowed to risk itself…keeping the sea lanes open to the commerce of its country.[1] Tirpitz was furious about the stupidity of foregoing the immediate use of his superb Navy , because as he said, “Our best opportunity for a successful battle was in the first two or three weeks after the declaration of war.” After the war, Admiral Jellicoe confirmed: ‘The enemy had by far his best opportunity in the early months of the War, as he was then much nearer equality of strength than at any later period.” In 1930, in his conversations with the Gross- admiral’s son Wolf, Churchill confirmed Jellicoe’s opinion with greater detail.

There were actually only two surface sea battles between Britain and Germany: the Battle of Helgoland (or of the Bight) of August 28, 1814 – unplanned and ill-matched -, and the Battle of Jutland or Skagerrak at the end of May 1916 – still the largest sea battle of all times.

The Batte of Helgoland, The Mainz  and Wolf Tirpitz

Initially, the German light cruiser Mainz encountered several British destroyers. Eleven destroyers fired torpedoes, all of which missed, whereas the Mainz had better aim. But when Goodenough’s light cruisers came south at full speed and opened fire at 6,000 yards the Mainz ‘wisely fled like a stag.’ Even in the act of turning,. Mainz was hit in the battery and the waist.’ It was an unequal contest: Mainz was under fire from fifteen 6-inch guns to which she could reply only with her two after 4.1-inch guns. The German light cruiser, hit at least twice, disappeared into the mist, hoping to escape. She did not. Fleeing south at 25 knots with Goodenough in pursuit, Mainz suddenly found herself running directly across the bows of Arethusa and the Harwich destroyers. Tyrwhitt… ordered twenty British destroyers to attack the Mainz with torpedoes…Mainz fought desperately and her fire was remarkably accurate…Mainz was receiving as well as dealing blows: the Laurel was hit three times and crippled; the next destroyer Liberty was hit on the bridge and her captain was killed…Laertes, the fourth destroyer in line was struck by all four shells of a single German salvo and came to a standstill. Thirty-three British torpedoes had been fired…Mainz’s rudder was jammed to starboard, she was on fire, her port engine was dead, and she was slowly turning in the direction of Goodenough’s arriving cruisers. Worse was to come. Suddenly a torpedo from the British destroyer Lydiard hit her… The emergency lights went out. (The Mainz) was a mass of yellow flame and smoke…One of her guns still fired spasmodically, but within ten minutes she lay a blazing wreck, sinking by the bow. ‘Mainz was incredibly brave, immensely gallant – wrote a British officer – her whole midship a fuming inferno. She had one gun forward and one aft still spitting forth fury and defiance like a wild cat mad with wounds.’ A surviving German seaman added grim details:’…The upper deck was a chaos of ruin, flame, scorching heat and corpses, and everything was streaked with green and yellow residue of the explosives which produces suffocating gases.’ At 12:20, the captain ordered, ‘Sink the ship. All hands (put on) life jackets Then he stepped outside the conning tower and was immediately killed by a shell burst. At 12:25p.m. Goodenough signaled, ‘Cease fire,’ and at 12:50 he ordered the light cruiser Liverpool to lower boats and pick up the men swimming in the water. At this point Commodore Keyes with Lurcher and Firedrake arrived. Seeing Mainz’s smoking decks littered with men wounded and unable to move, he took Lurcher alongside, the steel plates of the two ships grinding with the movement of the sea. By this action, Keyes was able to evacuate and save 220 men. One man refused. ‘ A young German officer ‘who had been very active in directing the transport of the wounded’ now stood motionless on the deck of his doomed ship. Keyes,…shouted to him that ‘he had done splendidly, we must clear out, he must come at once, there was nothing more he could do, and I held out my hand to help him jump on board.’ But, ‘Hew drew himself up stiffly, saluted and said, ‘Thank you. No.’ A few minutes later the Mainz rolled over, lay on her side for ten minutes, then turned bottom up and sank. Happily, the young officer, who had refused Keyes’s offer was found in the water and rescued”.

That officer was Wolf Tirpitz, the son of the Grand-Admiral His behaviour and adventure on the Mainz deserves an explanation, which he gave me in the sixties. He was fighting with arthritis then, but was as fascinating as ever with his tall stature and brilliant navy-blue eyes. He said he had refused to abandon ship, because he wanted to respect a tradition of German officers to go down with their ship. His determination actually led some junior officers still alive, who had tried unsuccessfully to convince him to jump ship before it went down, to stay on board with him.  They all died except my granduncle Wolf, because an air bubble let off from the sinking ship’s hold caught him. As he could keep breathing normally at zero atmosphere, and the air bubble was moving up, Wolf thought he must have died and felt like in a dream touching himself to check whether he was still feeling his body until the bubble burst as it reached the sea’s surface and Wolf got uncomfortably wet. British sailors fished him out of the water and transferred him onto one of their ships where he was treated well. Rear Admiral David Beatty was apparently observing the whole scene of bravery. When he found out that Wolf was the son of the  Gross-admiral, he informed Churchill, who soon asked to meet Wolf and sent a cable to his father telling him his son was well and would be returned after the war. This was a gentlemanly gesture. It was the start of a bond with various visits of Wolf to Chartwell, the Churchills’ country residence.

Massie continues: “If Beatty and Goodenough had not been sent from Scapa Flow south by Jellicoe’s intuition or had not arrived in time, two British light cruisers and thirty-one British destroyers might have been massacred by the eight German light cruisers…British destroyers scored only a single hit, on the cruiser Mainz…Against battle cruisers, though, light cruisers had no hope….(But) German gunnery had been rapid and accurate…Had the two sides been evenly matched…the Germans should have prevailed…German ships displayed physical proof of Tirpitz’s long-prescribed adage that a warship’s primary responsibility is to remain afloat…After the Battle of the Bight, no British sailor ever belittled German bravery.”[2]

The Kaiser’s subsequent decision to hold back the fleet to avoid risking losses appalled Tirpitz, and fed a struggle between the Grand Admiral and the Monarch.

The Battle of Jutland or Skagerrak

At the end of May 1916, the main elements of the German and British surface fleets, some 250 warships on both sides, met in the North Sea in the so-called Battle of Jutland or Battle of Skagerrak (as the Germans call it from the arm of the North Sea at North Jutland). It still is the largest sea battle of all times. The Royal Navy involved 28 battle ships with one million tons displacement as against Germany’s High Fleet with 22 battle ships and liners with a total weight of 600,000 tons. Their crews counted 60,000 and 45,000 men respectively. When the battle ended eleven hours later, 8.648 were dead.

“After the battle of Jutland/Skagerrak, an American officer writer commented that ‘The double triumph of the Germans is an outright proof of the correctness of Tirpitz’s theory to give priority to defensive as compared to offensive power.’ The leader of the English cruiser squadron commented more concisely and drastically: ‘Today there is something wrong with our bloody ships.’…And admitted that the sinking of the English cruisers was due to ‘faulty design’. Lord Jellicoe, Leader of the English fleet in the Jutland battle shared his view. …Tirpitz’s building concept – (invisible) stability before (more visible) fire power – seemed to contradict common sense…But in 1995 an Englishman commenting on Admiral Lord Fisher’s belief concluded that ‘speed is armour’ was ‘devastatingly foolish.”[3]

Once the war ended, the victorious allies, led by the British, demanded the surrender of the Hochseeflotte. Rather than relinquish their ships to the British according to the provisions of the Versailles Treaty, German crews scuttled ten battleships, five battle cruisers and fifty smaller warships on 20 June 1919 while the Royal Navy was firing upon the German life boats killing several marines.

“Although Tirpitz was relieved to hear that his ships had not fallen in enemy hands, the scuttling meant the failure of his life’s endeavours.  “Tirpitz had built a fleet that was meant to deter the enemy and improve alliance capacity, but it had not allowed the Reich to find any allies, nor prevented the World War. Tirpitz had wanted to mobilize it against the enemy, but the Kaiser and Chancellor had decided against it. Tirpitz had wanted to start the first U-Boat war differently, later and in steps, but his advice was rejected…Admiral Hipper the last head of the High Seas Fleet, leader of the battle cruiser in the Skagerrak/Jutland battle, was the first who spoke of the ‘immense tragedy that lies over the life and action of our unquestionably most outstanding statesman.’…Perhaps there was a tragedy of Tirpitz. But above all it was a tragedy of the German people, however one wants to seek the origins of the catastrophes from 1914 to 1918.”[4]


[1]  Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, p.379
[2] RM, op.cit. pp. 116-119
[3] FUW, op.cit. p. 188 and preceding pages
[4] FUW, op.cit. p. 412&ff.