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

However, the sacrifice it had involved had not keen incurred in vain. It was not merely that it had cost the enemy a new cruiser. Far more important was the impression that this proof of a bold spirit of enterprise must have made on friend and foe alike. The situation at the outset thus appeared in such a light that in view of these aggressive operations the enemy thought that he could best protect himself by withdrawing to northern waters, and did not take the other alternative of closing our sally ports himself. Throughout the whole war not a single mine was sown in our estuaries, notwithstanding the thousands upon thousands which were employed in the open waters of the North Sea.

As the next few days passed without incident, and aeroplanes and airships had made no discoveries, while incoming steamers reported that English battleships were only to be seen at a great distance (by Aberdeen) from the German Bight, our business was now to discover the whereabouts of the enemy and get to close quarters with him if we were to bring about an equalisation of strength. For this purpose we had at our disposal the destroyers and submarines which could be spared from the defensive organisation of the Heligoland Bight.

Commander Bauer, in command of the U-boats, was convinced that the defensive employment of submarines in a narrow circle round Heligoland was useless, as there was only a slight probability that the enemy would approach so close, and even if he did it was doubtful whether the boats would get a chance to shoot. The necessity of perpetually coming in and going out of the harbour of Heligoland, a difficult process in view of the methods employed in the defensive system, led to a useless strain on the material and injury to the boats. He therefore represented to the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet that only the offensive use of U-boats could bring about a change. The number of boats employed must certainly be larger, but the prospects of success would be greater still.

The justice of this argument was recognised, and a decision was taken which was extremely important for the further course of the war. Nor was there much hesitation in carrying it into execution, for the U-boats received orders to proceed on August 6 against English battleships, the presence of which was suspected in the North Sea. These ships were supposed to be about zoo nautical miles from Heligoland and charged with the duty of intercepting some of our battleships which ought to be on their way from Kiel round Skagen into the North Sea because the passage of the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal presented too great difficulties Ten U-boats were assigned to this enterprise, and six days were allowed for it.

This cruise was to carry the ships across the entire North Sea and as far north as the Orkneys. The boats were left to their own devices, as the cruisers Hamburg and Stettin, parent ships of the U-boat flotilla, could, of course, not accompany it the whole! way. They were only to cover the first run of the boats, a hundred miles or so, and endeavour to draw off any enemy light craft from the U-boats in the direction of Heligoland. The submarines themselves were not to pay any attention to such ships, as their goal was the enemy battleships. It was only for the return journey that the boats were left a free hand to do the enemy all the damage they could. The weather being thick and rainy, and the visibility poor, was not favourable for the enterprise, and indications pointed to its becoming worse. As the latter eventuality did not materialise, however, the commander gave the order to put to sea.

In so great an area, and taking into account the rapid changes which experience shows may be expected, it is very difficult to forecast the weather in the North Sea. The decision was, therefore, a brilliant tribute to the fiery enthusiasm of the new weapon, which had never been faced with a task of such magnitude in peace. The course was to be taken in such a way that the submarines, in line ahead with seven-mile intervals between them, first negotiated a stretch of 300 nautical miles in a north-westerly direction, then turned and went back to a line directly between Scapa Flow and Stavanger, which they were to reach about severity-two hours after putting to sea. They were to remain on this line until 6 o'clock in the evening of the next day—in all about thirty-nine hours—and then return to Heligoland. One boat had to return when 225 nautical miles from Heligoland, on account of trouble in her Diesel engines. Two others, commanded by Lieutenant-Commanders Count Schweinitz and Pohle, were lost. All the rest carried out their allotted task and were back by August T I.

Nothing was seen of the enemy, with the exception of a four funnelled cruiser which emerged out of the mist for a short time. All that was known of the lost boats was that one of them was still in wireless communication early on August 8. On the 9th the region in which the U-boats were lying was shrouded in mist, and the wind was blowing with force 6. It was only on August 15 that we learnt that a large part of the English Fleet had been in the same area and had there destroyed six German herring boats after taking their crews on board. Fog and the amount of sea that wind of a force 6 means are the most unfavourable conditions conceivable for a submarine, in view of the fact that the conning-tower is so low down in the water. It is to be assumed that the missing boats had been surprised by English cruisers in weather of this kind and rammed before they had time to dive.

It was certainly regrettable that at the very moment of meeting the English Fleet-was protected by mist, that two of our boats had fallen victims, and that this first enterprise, so smartly carried out, had not been crowned by the success it deserved. The loss of two boats had no depressing effect whatever on the crews. It rather increased their determination to do even better.

The course of this six-day cruise cleared the way for the further exploitation of the U-boat weapon, the great importance of which lay in its power of endurance and its independence, two characteristics which appeared at their true value for the first time in this cruise under war conditions. In these two respects the U-boats were superior to all surface vessels in the Fleet. The destroyers, in particular, were not to be compared with them for their ability to remain at sea. Their fuel capacity was too small for that purpose, and when going at high speed the consumption of coal increased out of all proportion. Further, as the big ships needed the co-operation of the smaller as submarine-screens and minesweepers, these, too, were dependent on their smaller consorts for the length of time they could remain at sea, especially when they were in areas in which regard had to be paid to the submarine danger.

Our naval operations took a decisive turn as a result of this cruise, and though the change was gradually introduced, it dates from this enterprise. For that reason it has been described in rather more detail than would be justified, seeing that a tangible success was not achieved. The first proof of the ability of the submarine to remain at sea for a long time had been given, and progress was made along the lines I have mentioned, thanks to the greatest perseverance, so that the submarine, from being merely a coastal defence machine, as was originally planned, became the most effective long-range weapon.

The other splendid quality of the submarine is its independence, by which I mean that it is not dependent on the support and cooperation of ships or craft of other types. Whilst a force of surface ships comprises various classes, according to the presumed strength of the enemy, the submarine needs no help to attack, and in defence is not so dependent on speed as the surface ships, as it has a sure protection in its ability to dive. This again increases its radius of action, for whereas a surface ship, meeting a superior enemy, has no other resource but to make use of its speed—and that means a large consumption of fuel—diving means a very great economy in engine-power. In the submarine there is no question of driving the engines too hard in such a situation, as the boat can escape from the enemy by diving. The engines need not therefore be constructed to stand perpetual changes of speed.

It is not surprising that the special importance of these technical advantages was not recognised until the war came, for they first came to light thanks to the energy of the personnel, who seemed to despise all difficulties, although going to sea in these small craft involves incredible personal discomforts of all kinds. The advantages of the submarine service first became of practical value through the fact that human strength of will brought men voluntarily to display such endurance as was shown in our boats. Patriotism was the motive-power of the ships' companies.

The fact that an English offensive did not materialise in the first weeks of the war gave cause for reflection, for with every day's grace the enemy gave us he was abandoning some of the advantage of his earlier mobilisation, while our coast defences were improved. The sweep of light-cruisers and destroyers which, starting out star-wise from Heligoland, had scoured the seas over a circumference of about 100 sea miles had produced nothing. Yet while the U-boats were on that cruise to the north which has already been discussed, four other U-boats went on a patrol about 200 miles west, until they were on a level with the Thames estuary. They discovered several lines of destroyers patrolling on about Lat. 52°, but of larger ships nothing was seen. The impression must have been forced on the Commander-in-Chief, as indeed all of us, that the English Fleet was following a strategic plan other than that with which we were inclined to credit it. It appeared probable that the 2nd and 3rd Fleets were concentrated to protect the transport of troops in the English Channel.

The bulk of the 1st English Fleet must be supposed to be in the northern part of the North Sea, to which our light forces had not yet penetrated. Further, we had not yet heard anything from the ten U-boats sent out in that direction, so apparently they too had seen nothing. Should we now attempt to bring the English 1st Fleet to action ? We had at our disposal 13 " Dreadnoughts," 8 older battleships, 4 battle-cruisers (counting in Blücher), a few light cruisers, and 7 destroyer flotillas. With these the Commander-in-Chief intended to give battle, with full confidence in victory. What held him back was the reflection that the whereabouts of the 1st English Fleet was absolutely unknown, and it was therefore questionable whether it could be found in the time at our disposal— which could not be more than two days and nights on account of the fuel capacity of the destroyers. In the meantime, the German Bight would be without any protection against minelaying and other enterprises, and there would be no flank protection on the west. On the other hand, our ships might suffer losses from the operations of enemy submarines, for which there would be no compensation in the way of victory if the English Fleet were not found. We knew from various sources that we had to reckon with English submarines. Such an attempt was therefore abandoned, and in its place a series of patrolling and minelaying operations were set on foot which carried the war right to the English coast in the following weeks.

With this decision began the trying period of waiting for the battleship squadrons, and a start was made with the operations intended to equalise the opposing forces, operations which, apart from mine successes, rested on the anticipation that our destroyers would find opportunities for attack in their nocturnal raids. The lack of scouts—for the new battle-cruisers Seydlitz, Moltke, and Von der Tann could not be put to such uses if they were to be held ready for battle—made it essential that U-boats should be employed on reconnaissance duties.

As early as August 14 new tasks were assigned to the U-boats which had returned from their cruise to the West on the 11th; and, indeed, the boats under the command of Lieutenant-Commanders Gayer and Hersing were to cross the North Sea from the Norwegian Coast (by Egersund) in the direction of Peterhead, while a third U-boat (Hoppe) observed the English forces patrolling before the Humber with a view to securing data for minelaying. They brought valuable information about the enemy's defensive measures, but they had not seen any large ships. The length of time they had spent under water was remarkable. For instance, Gayer's ship had been compelled by destroyers to remain under water six and a quarter hours on August 16, eleven and three-quarters on the 17th, and eleven and a quarter on the 18th.

Let us now cast a glance at the chances for attack which presented themselves to the enemy. It could not possibly be unknown to him that the German Fleet was concentrated in the North Sea. The reports of spies from Holland and Denmark could not have left any doubt about that. If the English Fleet made a demonstration against Sylt or the East Frisian I lands it would have compelled our Fleet to come out of the estuaries unless we were prepared to allow them a bombardment without retaliation, and they would thus have an opportunity of using their submarines which were patrolling at the mouths of the Jade and Elbe. A success for their submarines would be satisfaction enough for them if we did not follow them out to sea. They could arrange their approach in such a way that they took up a favourable position in the early morning hours to offer battle to our fleet as it came up, or if they appeared with only part of their forces they could promptly retire before a superior German force and limit themselves to the operations of their submarines. The only danger in such an attack lay in the possibility of a nocturnal meeting with our destroyers. This danger was not to be overestimated, as the English could plan their entrance into the German Bight in such a way that our destroyers, which were dependent on darkness, would be already on their way back to the Bight at the time the enemy was approaching. Further, no very serious danger was to be anticipated from our U-boats, as most of them were away on distant enterprises.

The English High Command, however, must have had a much higher estimate of the damage our destroyers and U-boats could do than was actually the case. It appears also that their confidence in the achievements of their own submarines, which were the foundation for the execution of any such plan, was not very great. At the outset, therefore, considerations prevailed on both sides which led the Commands to hold back their fleets from battle. The overestimate of the submarine danger played a most important rôle.

The German Commander-in-Chief, Admiral von Ingenohl, gave expression to his view of the general situation on August 14 in the following Order of the Day:—

" All the information we have received about the English naval forces points to the fact that the English Battle Fleet avoids the North Sea entirely and keeps far beyond range of our own forces. The sweep of our brave U-boats beyond the Lat. 60° in the north and as far as the entrance to the English Channel in the south, as well as the raids of our destroyers and aeroplanes, have confirmed this information. Only between the Norwegian and Scottish coasts and off the entrance to the English Channel are English forces patrolling. Otherwise in the rest of the North Sea not a single English ship has been found hitherto.
"This behaviour on the part of our enemy forces us to the conclusion that he himself intends to avoid the losses he fears he may suffer at our hands and to compel us to come with our battleships to his coast and there fall a victim to his mines and submarines.
" We are not going to oblige our enemy thus. But they must, and will, come to us some day or other. And then will be the day of reckoning. On that day of reckoning we must be there with all our battleships.
"Our immediate task is therefore to cause our enemy losses by all the methods of guerilla warfare and at every point where we can find him, so that we can thus compel him to join battle with us.
"This task will fall primarily to our light forces (U-boats, destroyers, mine-layers and cruisers) whose prospects of success increase the darker and longer the nights become.
"The bold action of our mine-layer Konigin Luise, which did the enemy material damage before she came to her glorious end, and the audacious cruises of our U-boats have already made a beginning. Further enterprises will follow.
" The duty of those of us in the battleships of the Fleet is to keep this, our main weapon, sharp and bright for the decisive battle which we shall have to fight. To that end we must work with unflinching devotion to get our ships perfectly ready in every respect, to think out and practice everything that can be of the slightest help and prepare for the day on which the High Sea Fleet will be permitted to engage a numerically superior enemy in battle for our beloved Emperor who has created this proud Fleet as a shield for our dear Fatherland, in full confidence in the efficiency which we have acquired by unflagging work in time of peace.
"The test of our patience, which the conduct of the enemy imposes upon is, is hard, having regard to the martial spirit which animates all our ships' companies as it animates our army also, a spirit which impels us to instant action.
"The moment the enemy comes within our range he shall find us waiting for him. Yet we must not let him prescribe the time and place for us but ourselves choose what is favourable for a complete victory.
"It is therefore our duty not to lose patience but to hold ourselves ready at all times to profit by the favourable moment."


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