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Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War
Chapter 3a - Awaiting the Enemy's Offensive

ON August 2 the Commander-in-Chief had summoned all the commanders of the three battleship squadrons, cruisers, destroyers and submarines to the flagship, and there explained to them the task et in the War Orders and his intentions with regard to it. Instructions had just been received from the Naval Staff that on the express wish of the Foreign Office no hostile action should be taken against English warships and merchant ships, as all hope of England's neutrality had not yet been abandoned. In his desire to keep England out of the war the Imperial Chancellor had gone so far as to enter into an obligation, through our ambassador in London, not to conduct operations in the Channel or against the north coast of France if England remained neutral. In this way she would be released from her own obligation to protect the north coast of France with the English Fleet. The same day, however, we received subsequent instructions that the English cable communications with the Continent had been broken off, and that we had to anticipate hostile action on the part of England.

How universal was the conviction that the English Navy would immediately take the offensive its illustrated by the fact that after the conference with the Commander-in-Chief the Commander of Squadron I advised me very strongly to take Squadron II to the Elbe during the night, instead of waiting till next morning as had been arranged, as otherwise we might arrive too late. However, we adhered to the original decision to take up the anchorage appointed for us in the Elbe the next day (August 3), and, as the necessary precautions were taken by sending a mine-sweeping division ahead, the movement was carried out without any mishap..

To take up its anchorage in the Altenbruch Roads, between Cuxhaven and Brunsbuttel, Squadron II had to pass through the minefield which had meanwhile been laid at the mouth of the Elbe. In this river there was a dangerous congestion of vessels which were trying to get out as fast as they could. Among them were some English steamers which would not pay attention to the warnings of the pilot ship, so that there was a dangerous crush in this difficult and narrow channel. The English steamer Wilfred paid for its temerity by running on the mines and was sunk by two explosions following closely on each other. We thus had an opportunity of observing a practical demonstration of the effect of mines. After this occurrence the Commandant of the fortress of Cuxhaven, who was responsible for the security of the estuary, gave orders that all ships were to be sent back to Hamburg so that their knowledge of the position of the minefield should not be turned to the advantage of the enemy.

The next day brought us the English declaration of war. A few hours later the first English submarine was reported in the German Bight. The security of the Heligoland Bight required prompt information of the enemy's intentions so that we could meet him in strength with our naval forces without ourselves suffering from the enemy's counter-measures on our way out. This object could be attained by submarines or mine-layers of which the latter could slip out under cover of darkness and sow the exits from the estuaries with mines. We had also to expect that floating mines would be sown in the mouths of the rivers with a view to their drifting up stream with the tide and endangering our ships lying at anchor. We knew of one type of English mine which drifted with the rising tide only, sank to the bottom when the tide ebbed and then rose again and floated farther up stream. Mines of this kind would have been able to get much farther - in fact to the anchorage of our ships - instead of drifting backwards and forwards in a limited area through the action of ebb and flow, and thereby being stranded in due course.

We had also to anticipate that enemy submarines would penetrate into the rivers. Although the depth of water was not great the passage of submarines, when submerged, was by no means impossible. It was only later, when the depth charge had been evolved, that submarines needed greater depth to escape their effect. Even if the enemy shrank somewhat from such venturesome enterprises as these, it was enough for him to haunt the neighbourhood of the estuaries to operate against our big ships the moment we attempted to gain the open sea.

It is true that we had two types of protection against these dangerous possibilities; first, the initiation of technical defence measures such as mines, nets and so forth, and secondly, the sharpest lookout on the part of the ships engaged in observation duties. If the enemy tried to bring on an action in the neighbourhood of Heligoland - and we assumed he would - we suffered from the outset under a disadvantage if we had, to deploy for it out of the estuaries. The narrow exits from the Elbe and the Jade prescribed the line of deployment and compelled the ships to follow in line ahead, a formation which provides splendid opportunities for lurking submarines. For this reason prompt knowledge of the enemy's approach as well as his strength was of particular importance in enabling us to go out and meet him in the open sea with the necessary forces. In the first days of August we attained such a state of preparedness that all the big ships were kept under steam all day, ready to weigh anchor at any moment. We could not concentrate in the outer roads because the submarine obstructions had not yet been laid.

The time from the receipt of a report about the enemy to the issue of the appropriate orders, and then again from the first execution of those orders to the arrival at the appointed rendezvous at sea, was not inconsiderable. According to the state of readiness of the ships and the choice of anchorage it might take hours, during which the enemy would continue his approach unimpeded. Thus arose the necessity of getting the report as soon as possible. But the greater the distance from Heligoland of the arc which had to be covered by our reconnaissance and observation patrols, the less carefully could it be watched. The greater distance either demanded more ships or involved less reliable information when the line was held too thinly.

The use of wireless telegraphy came in extraordinarily handy for intelligence purposes. Unfortunately a large number of the older destroyers which had now been attached to the mine-sweeping division had not yet been fitted with this highly ingenious piece of equipment. The result was that in certain circumstances very valuable time might be lost.

The establishment of a protective system was entrusted to the Commander of the scouting forces, Vice-Admiral Hipper, and all the destroyer flotillas, U-boats, mine-sweeping divisions, aeroplanes and airships were placed under his orders. From these forces a protective zone was formed which by day consisted of several circles at varying distances from the lightship "Elbe I." The outermost line, 35 nautical miles (of l,852 metres) was held by destroyers. Six nautical miles behind there were submarines, and a further six miles back the inmost line was patrolled by mine-sweeping divisions. Two to four light cruisers were distributed behind the two wings of this protective zone, east and south of Heligoland. At night the U-boats and the destroyers on the outermost line were withdrawn, and only the inner one was held. The result of this was that we had all the more destroyers at hand for nocturnal enterprises.

This whole system, however, was more useful for protection than for reconnoitring. It did not extend far enough for the latter purpose. Even if the approach of serious enemy forces at a distance of fifteen miles was reported from the outermost line, these ships, by steaming at full speed, could be within range of the fortress of Heligoland in about an hour and a half. In that time only the ships lying in the outer Jade could gain the open sea. The ships lying in the Elbe at Cuxhaven or in the Wilhelmshaven Roads in the Jade needed longer. If we had depended on this system alone we should have found ourselves in the condition either of being surprised by the enemy and having to meet him in insufficient strength, or having to keep the whole Fleet in a perpetual state of readiness. The latter alternative was impossible in the long run. The duties of the destroyers and cruisers in the protective zone and the necessity of relieving them every few days (for the strain of this anxious service on the personnel at sea would otherwise have worn them out) absorbed such a large force of light units that their principal task of seeking out and attacking the enemy far away in the North Sea before he got to close quarters with us was seriously affected.

Our commanders were therefore faced with a many-sided problem which was made more difficult by the limited resources at our disposal: to avoid any chance of surprise, to prevent the safety of the Bight being endangered by mines or submarines in such a way that the Fleet would not have the necessary freedom of movement to get out of harbour, and finally to seek out the enemy himself in the North Sea and do him as much damage as possible by guerilla operations. It was, therefore, a very proper decision to entrust all these tasks to one commander who had to make his dispositions with an eye to wind and weather, breakdowns, injuries and the absences these involve, and question of coaling, as well as the multifarious duties laid upon him. In view of the relatively little bunker capacity of the smaller ships, it was continuously necessary to replenish supplies. Their ships' companies also suffered from heavy weather far more than those of the big ships, and therefore required relief sooner.

Nor was it a simple matter to regulate the system of transmission of orders and intelligence by wireless in such a way as to be certain of getting messages accurately and promptly, and avoiding confusion through the operations of other stations, especially such as were in a different sphere of command.

In our situation aeroplanes and airships played a particularly important part. Unfortunately, their number was very small at the start. Heligoland was fitted up as an aviation station, but at first disposed of only five aeroplanes. The number was subsequently increased to eight. In the early days we had only the one airship, "L 3," for distance reconnaissance. The most zealous efforts were made to cruise in all kinds of weather, and so praiseworthy was the persistence shown that these cruises often extended to within sight of the Norwegian coast.

Side by side with the organisation of the protective zone, the organisation of the defences of the North Sea islands, the most important of which was Heligoland, was completed under the direction of the Headquarters of the North Sea Naval Stations, ViceAdmiral von Krosigk, at Wilhelmshaven. It was also the duty of this authority to carry out the evacuation of the native population, who did not at all like leaving their island, and arranging their transfer to the mainland. They had been previously prepared for this eventuality, and their transport presented no special difficulties. The establishment of minefields and the substitution of buoys to mark the war channels for those of the peace-time channels was also the business of the Naval Stations Headquarters.

Another of its duties was the removal of landmarks which could be seen far out to sea, and would thus be known to the enemy and might enable him to find his bearings.

One victim of this bitter necessity was the venerable old church tower of Wangeroog, the island adjacent to the Jade channel. From time immemorial it had been an object of affectionate familiarity to seafarers. It had stood so long that the whole island had gradually slid past beneath its feet, in consequence of the movement from west to east which is peculiar to the sands of the North Sea. It was now so close to the west side of the island that its walls were washed by the waves.

Harbour flotillas were formed to watch the minefields and guard the entrances to our own rivers. These flotillas were within the sphere of action of the fortresses, and therefore were likewise under the command of the Naval Stations Headquarters. The release of the Fleet from such duties definitely proved a sound idea, and thank to the understanding and co-operation of all services, all further requirements which cropped up as time went by were generously met.

The organisation of the lightship system was of great importance. As soon as war threatened, all the lights in the lightships were extinguished, and the light-buoys removed, so that the whole coast was in darkness. It was impossible to do without lights at night altogether when cruising by the dangerous North Sea coast and navigating the strong current off the mouths of the Elbe, Weser and Ems. Further, lights that were easily recognisable had to be shown to indicate the position of the minefields and the channels through them. Yet in spite of the difficulties of navigation, darkness had the immense advantage that it enabled us to slip out unnoticed, and therefore without great risk, so that night time was preferred for such operations. Of course, the lights must not be shown a moment longer than was necessary for the purposes of navigation. Further, it must be possible for incoming ships to show their lights and be safe against any tricks on the part of the enemy. The main thing was that the light should be shown exactly at the right moment. The outer lightships at the mouths of the Jade and Elbe, which also served as observation stations and had military personnel, certainly had no easy task in the long and stormy nights of the four and a half years' war. We depended on their reliability just as much as on that of all the other posts which existed to assist the navigation of our Fleet, whether the safety of a single steamer or that of a whole squadron was at stake. Special thanks are due to the officers of the Imperial Pilot Service and its chief, Commander Krause. They were always reliable advisers to the commanders of squadrons and ships.

Our view of the whole situation and the War Orders issued to the Fleet made it imperative to get at the outset data as to the movements of the enemy. While the North Sea islands and the estuaries were being put into a state of defence, the primary requirement was security against surprise. The battleship squadron and battle-cruisers (at their anchorages) used these few days to prepare for action. With Squadron II, in the construction of whose ships less importance had been attached to the use of fireproof material than in the later ships, it was a question of removing everything that was dangerous from that point of view and could at all be dispensed with. This had a very adverse effect on the comfort of the wardrooms and cabins as well as the men's quarters, in which all the wooden beams were removed from the thin sheet-iron partitions as well as the sides of the ship.

The removal of wooden chairs, tables, curtains, tablecloths, easy chairs and such like, the scraping off of paint which was too thick, the transfer of clothes and supplies of all kinds to the space under the armoured decks where they could not easily be got at, took up a lot of time and produced a good deal of noise and discontent. However, the work of destruction was carried out with as much devotion as if it were the enemy himself who was being destroyed, and in the certain expectation that we should not have to wait long for the actual meeting.

Although in peace time everything possible had been thought of which might prove useful or necessary in the emergencies of action, there were always fresh possibilities of perfecting measures and preparing for all conceivable occurrences with things such as rafts, steel nets, anchor cables, lifebelts, and so on. As the Flag Officers of the squadron passed from ship to ship in order to supervise the work that was in progress and make further suggestions, they noted what seemed to them useful on any particular ship and handed the information on to the others.

In this work were associated the newly-joined seamen ratings, mostly reservists, who had served on the same ships not long before, and among whom I recognised many old acquaintances, for, with the exception of a break of one year, I had been with the Fleet continuously since 1907. My pleasure at meeting them again was mingled with a feeling of pride at the sight of the manly, healthy, and robust figures which had developed out of the former recruits or ordinary seamen. It went to my heart to see with what a straightforward sense of duty these men, whose resolve to stand on their own feet through industry and efficiency was plain to the eyes, had left behind them everything they loved and cherished in order to be present when the day came to meet the foe.

We spent the first days of suspense and expectation in this essential work. The opening days of the war gained a particular interest from the varying reports of home-coming steamers or our patrols, the series of false alarms about aeroplanes and submarines, firing at night, or the showing of lights in improbable directions, the explosion of mines in shallow spots in the Elbe (phenomena which subsequently found a natural explanation, though at first attributed to enemy activity), our isolation from all human intercourse - although we could see the cows grazing peacefully on the banks of the Elbe 300 yards away - and the organisation of the watches. In the further distance there was no visible sign of any change in the wonted scenes of peace, for there was still a lively movement of ships in the Elbe, and every incoming German steamer had a particularly warm welcome for having succeeded in getting safely home. But the wireless messages flashing to and fro might at any moment summon us out to meet the foe.

Preparations for the offensive were not neglected during the days in which England was making up her mind what her attitude was to be, and when at 7.47 P.M. on August 4 we received the message, "Prepare for war with England," we also heard the order to the auxiliary cruiser Kronprinz Friedrich Wilhelm to put to sea immediately. At 9.30 P.M. the auxiliary minelayerKonigin Luise also left the Ems on the way to the Thames estuary. Thus began the first essay in cruiser warfare and the introduction of guerilla operations on the English coast. In the wireless room of the Flagship we listened hopefully for further news of the progress of the first two enterprises against the enemy. Would the great ocean greyhound be forced back, or would she succeed in getting unchallenged into the ocean? She remained dumb, and that could justly be taken as a favourable sign.

The wireless message to the Konigin Luise had run: "Make for sea in Thames direction at top speed. Lay mines near as possible English coasts, not near neutral coasts, and not farther north than Lat 53°." The task assigned to the Konigin Luise gave little ground for the hope that she could escape the watchfulness of the English; but, with a supreme contempt of death, the ship, under the command of Commander Biermann, held on her way. The steamer which usually plied in summer to the watering-places of the North Sea islands was engaged about 11 A.M. next morning by enemy cruisers and destroyers, and was sunk by a torpedo.

She had had time to sow her mines, however, with the result that the cruiser Amphion (3,500 tons, launched 1911), which was pursuing her, fell a victim to them and followed the Konigin Luise to the bottom with a loss of 131 men. Thus the first day of the war (August 5) had brought losses to both sides, and the first attack on the English coast had been a success for us.


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