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Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War
Chapter 6b - Bombardment of Scarborough and Hartlepool, and the Battle of the Dogger Bank.

On the morning of January 19, an aeroplane having sighted 60 miles north-west of Heligoland numerous English ships bound on an easterly course, among them several battle-cruisers and close upon 100 small craft, we made sure that their plan was to be put into execution. It is quite possible that the aeroplane was mistaken as to the number and type of the ships, although the report was confirmed from another source—two U-boats that returned from sea. However, the torpedo-boats which were sent out to reconnoitre and to attack at night if necessary saw nothing of the enemy forces, so they probably had withdrawn early. At any rate we considered the danger of a blockade to be at an end.

On January 21 Squadron III sailed for the Elbe. During the passage there was a violent snowstorm which made it very difficult to locate the mouth of the river. Owing to the rapidly falling depth of water as shown by the soundings taken, we were forced to anchor, a manœuvre carried out in exemplary fashion by the big ships, in spite of the current and the mist. It showed very clearly the difference between the navigation of a squadron of such large vessels and that of Squadron II where the ships had not half the displacement. The next morning the weather was calm and clear, and the passage through the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal was accomplished without accident. It took us only 10 hours to cover the long stretch of 100 kilometres from the lock gates at Brunnsbüttel to the entrance into the lock at Holtenau in Kiel Harbour.

While the training of Squadron III was proceeding in the Baltic, the first regular cruiser action took place in the North Sea.


After a long period of inaction, the weather being apparently favourable, the commander of the scouting ships was ordered on January 23 to reconnoitre off the Dogger Bank with the cruisers of the 1st and 2nd Scouting Divisions, the First Leader of the Torpedo-boat Forces, and the Second Flotilla, and there to destroy any of the enemy's light forces to be met with. They were to set out in the evening, when darkness fell, and were expected back the following evening when it was again dark.

The speed of the advance was to be such that the cruisers, at daybreak on the 24th, would have reached the south-east edge of the Dogger Bank. It was not intended to push farther on towards the Bank while it was still dark, otherwise enemy forces might make their way unobserved in between Heligoland and the cruisers. On the way there no trade or fishing steamers were to be examined, if it could be avoided, so as not to be forced to leave any of our torpedo boats behind; but the plan of action for the homeward run included the examination and, where necessary, seizure of all the fishing steamers encountered.

The big cruiser Von der Tann was missing from our cruiser squadron, being in dock for urgently needed repairs, as was also the light cruiser Strassburg. The fighting force, therefore, comprised the cruisers Seydlitz—the flagship of Rear-Admiral Hipper— Derfflinger, Moltke and Blücher, the light cruisers Graudenz, Stralsund, Kolberg and Rostock, Torpedo-Boat Flotilla V, and the 2nd and 18th Half-Flotillas. The Graudenz and Stralsund formed the vanguard, the flanks were supported by the Rostock on the starboard and by the Kolberg on the larboard side. A half flotilla was attached to each light cruiser.

At 8.15 A.M. on the 24th the Kolberg encountered an enemy light cruiser and destroyers. The enemy's signal of recognition was answered by the Kolberg turning on the searchlight and shortly afterwards opening fire, which was returned a few minutes later. The Kolberg was hit twice and had two men killed. At the same time she sighted thick clouds of smoke in a west-southwesterly direction, and the Stralsund also reported to the same effect to the north-earth-west.

The conclusion thus to be drawn was that other and more numerous forces were lying off the Dogger Bank.

After Admiral Hipper had picked up the Kolberg he assembled his group on a south-easterly course, as it was still not sufficiently light to make out the number and type of the enemy forces. While the ships were assembling, £our cruisers of the "Town " class, three cruisers of the " Arethusa " class, and a large number of destroyers were sighted on a parallel course north of our cruisers, but out of gun range. The Blücher was able to count more than twenty destroyers. Further clouds of smoke could be seen in their rear, and the Stralsund reported that at least eight large ships were observable in a north-north-westerly direction.

Admiral Hipper was bound therefore to assume that at the rear of these numerous light forces there must be other and stronger groups of ships, and, as he could not count on any support from our own Main Fleet, he decided to push on full speed ahead in a south-easterly direction. The torpedo-boats were sent on ahead. The Blücher, being the rear ship, was permitted at discretion to open fire, as some of the destroyers to the north approached very near, while the light cruisers with them stood off farther to the north.

At 9.35 A.M., however, five thick clouds of smoke were observed from starboard in a west to west-north-west direction, which were soon made out to be from the 1st English Battle-Cruiser Squadron. They came up at full speed and opened fire at a great distance, about 200 hm., and, at first at any rate, without reaching our cruisers.

The naval command at Wilhelmshaven received the first news of the encounter of our cruisers with the enemy at 8.50 A.M., when the Seydlitz reported herself as being at 54° 53' N. Lat. and 3° 30' E. Long., course S.E., speed 20 knots, and had sighted eight large ships, one light cruiser and twelve destroyers. The command at once issued orders for special preparation on board all ships and torpedo-boat flotillas and assembled them in the Schillig Roads. As the way to the Bight was open to our cruisers, and they were in touch with the enemy forces in the rear, it was assumed that so far our ships were not in any danger. Towards 10.30 A.M. the squadrons were all assembled in the Schillig Roads, and ran out to sea at 11.10, as a wireless message had come from the Admiral at II o'clock, saying he was in urgent need of support. He was then at 54° 30' N. Lat. and 4° 35' E. Long.

These forces were, however, not called upon to take any active part in the battle, as the further development of the fighting at that time showed it to be unnecessary.

Meanwhile the situation of the cruisers had developed as follows: At 10 A.M. our large cruisers were lying on a south-easterly course, so that all the ships could open fire from the starboard on the English large cruisers. Our light cruisers and both the flotillas were ahead of our large cruisers, slightly on the starboard side.

The enemy battle-cruisers came up very rapidly, and must have made a speed of at least 26 knots.¹

Our 1st Scouting Division was not favourably situated, owing to the prevailing east-north-east wind. There was nothing for it, however, but to keep to the south-east course, leading to the Bight, as the main direction for the fighting. The chances of support from our own forces were greater there, and the farther we could succeed in drawing the enemy into the Bight the greater prospect there would be of setting torpedo-boats on him during the ensuing night. Any other course leading farther south or still farther west would not greatly have improved the smoke conditions, but would from the first have placed the enemy battle-cruisers in a frontal position. On the other hand, a north-easterly course, so as to have the wind ahead, would have carried our forces straight up against the enemy destroyers, and thus offered them a good opportunity for attack. Soon after 10 o'clock our large cruisers opened fire at 180 hm.; the enemy manœuvred so as to avoid our fire. At the same time our cruisers also turned about between E.S.E. and S.E. to a S. course. The range for the leading ship, the Seydlitz, varied between 180 to 145 hm. The enemy had separated and formed two groups, the leading one having three, and the other two ships.²

They were trying to keep at the farthest firing distance. Soon after the fighting began the Seydlitz was badly hit and both her after turrets, with their two 28-cm. guns, were put out of action, while fires were caused in them by the exploding ammunition. The gunners in both turrets were killed, and the turrets themselves jammed and put out of action. Owing to the fire, which took a long time to extinguish, the munition chamber had to be flooded.

Meanwhile some of the light cruisers and destroyers were steaming up on the larboard [port] side, so that the near ships could fire on them occasionally. In doing so Blücher, the last ship, hit and heavily damaged a destroyer. At 11.30 the enemy appeared to be drawing nearer; at the same time the Blücher reported engine trouble and dropped slowly to the rear.

The order "Flotilla clear for attack " was then sent to the torpedo-boat leader. At 11.45 the leading enemy ship, with a heavy list on, turned off and drew out of the line. The ship following after her passed the leader, so as to keep up the running fight. The other enemy battle-cruisers followed at irregular distances. At 12 o'clock our cruisers turned towards the enemy, and the torpedo-boats were ordered to attack. The enemy battlecruisers then turned at once to a northerly course to evade the torpedo-boats and to turn on the Blücher, which had been left behind. In view of this manœuvre the torpedo-boats were recalled from the attack.

Our cruisers now took up a southerly course, intending to open an encircling fight with the enemy, and if possible render help to the Blücher. But both turrets on board the Seydlitz, with two-fifths of the heavy guns, were definitely out of action, and the ship's stern was full of water which had spread to the other parts from the flooding of the munition chamber, so the Admiral of the cruisers therefore decided to profit by the increased distance caused by the enemy's manœuvre to turn again to S.E. and break off the fight. At 1.45 the enemy was lost to view, the Seydlitz being then '5 nautical miles north of the mouth of the Elbe.

At 3.30 P.M. the forces that had run out from the Jade joined the returning cruisers and together entered the rivers.

Besides the explosion and the list on the leading enemy ship, many other hits and a big fire on the second ship were observed. Several officers asserted positively that they had seen one of the large cruisers sink, which gave rise to the report that it was the battle-cruiser Tiger. Contradictory reports from an English source appeared later in the Press and confirmed the opinion that the English wished to conceal the fact. The airship "L 5," which was hovering over the spot, reported that only four large ships were seen to withdraw. The torpedo-boat "V 5," Lieut.-Commander von Eichhorn, which, after being recalled from the attack, had dropped out from between the two fighting lines, fired two torpedoes at 70 hm., and thereupon observed the withdrawal of a battle-cruiser. There seems no obvious reason why the English cruisers should so soon have stopped fighting after their leader fell out and when the number of our cruisers had already dwindled to three, unless it was because our guns had severely handled them.

On our side we deplored the loss of the Blücher. Very soon after her engines were damaged another shot caused an explosion and a fire amidships, apparently in the big ammunition chamber, situate in that part of the vessel. It was observed how to the very last the ship's guns on both sides fired on the battle-cruisers which concentrated their fire on that one ship, as did also the numerous enemy light cruisers and destroyers, for whom the wrecked ship was a welcome target, until at 1.7 P.M. she turned over and sank. The survivors of the crew were picked up by English destroyers and other ships that were at hand, among them being the gallant commander, Captain Erdmann, who unfortunately died afterwards while a prisoner in England of pneumonia, the result of the immersion in the cold sea after his ship had gone down. The Derfflinger and Kolberg were slightly damaged; the Seydlitz was badly hit a second time on her armoured belt, the plate being pressed into the ship's side and causing a leakage. The first shell that hit her had a terrible effect. It pierced right through the upper deck in the ship's stern and through the barbette-armour of the near turret, where it exploded. All parts of the stern, the officers' quarters, mess, etc., that were near where the explosion took place were totally wrecked. In the reloading chamber, where the shell penetrated, part of the charge in readiness for loading was set on fire. The flames rose high up into the turret and down into the munition chamber, and thence through a connecting door usually kept shut, by which the men from the munition chamber tried to escape into the fore turret. The flames thus made their way through to the other munition chamber, and thence again up to the second turret, and from this cause the entire gun crews of both turrets perished almost instantly. The flames rose as high as a house above the turrets.

Up to 12 noon there had been no prospect of the torpedo-boat flotillas making a successful attack; the distances were too great. The torpedo-boats would have been obliged to get within 100 hm. of the enemy to secure an opportunity of firing. When the distances were reduced and there was an opening for attack the enemy turned away and gave up the fight. At that time Admiral Beatty, leader of the English battle-cruisers, was not in command. From information received later, it appeared he had stayed behind on the Lion, and had then boarded a torpedo-boat to hurry after his ships, but did not reach them till they were returning.³

The spot where the Blücher was sunk is at 54° 25' N. Lat., 5° 25' E. Long. When Admiral Hipper decided to break off the fight he, according to his report, was guided by the conviction that it would be of no avail to send help to the already sinking Blücher, and in view Of the enemy's superior strength would only involve us in further losses. The fighting had lasted more than three hours, and the Seydlitz had only 200 rounds of ammunition for the guns. The Naval Command fully recognised that no objection could be raised to the conduct of the forces in the battle, or to the tactical measures adopted, and also approved of the decision, hard though it was, to abandon the Blücher to her fate.

If our battle-cruisers, by turning round and risking the three remaining cruisers, had approached the Blücher, then unnavigable, they would have entangled themselves in the most unfavourable tactical position imaginable, as their own torpedo-boats would have been astern of them, while the enemy would have had his light cruisers and destroyers directly ahead, and could have used them for a torpedo attack. The result was, therefore, more than doubtful; there would probably have been heavy casualties without corresponding loss on the other side, and the Blücher could not possibly have been saved.

The enemy's behaviour obviously shows that it was his intention, relying on the heavier calibre of his guns, to carry on the fighting at the greatest distance, to knock out the central guns (15-cm.) of our ships, and above all to keep themselves beyond the range of our torpedoes. It would have been easy for him to draw nearer, as was proved when he steamed up so quickly. His superior speed enabled him to select the range at his own pleasure. In spite of superior guns and the more favourable position of the English line, their firing in the protracted running fight was not very successful when we take into consideration that three of their ships each had eight 34-cm. guns and the two others each eight 30.5-cm. guns. Opposed to them on our side were two ships each with ten 28-cm. guns, the Blücher with twelve 21 cm., and the Derfflinger with eight 30.5-cm. It is not surprising that the Blücher was destroyed by gun-fire; her armour plating was not very thick, and, being the last ship of our line, most of the enemy's fire was concentrated on her.

However regrettable was the great loss of life on board the Seydlitz through the fire spreading to the munition chamber of each turret, a valuable lesson had been learned for the future in dealing with reserve ammunition, and it was applied in subsequent actions.

The unexpected presence of the English ships on the morning of the 24th leads to the conclusion that the encounter was not a matter of chance,, but that our plan in some way or other had got to the knowledge of the English. The leader of our cruisers, seeing so many ships assembled, must have considered it extremely probable that still more forces were behind. Whether there was any other reason for such a concentration cannot be maintained with certainty. It may possibly be that it was connected with the conduct of the English on the 19th, or with preparations for a new action.

As we know from the English accounts, the Lion was not able to reach harbour under her own steam but was taken in tow by the Indomitable during the afternoon, and towed to the Firth of Forth. The question as to whether our flotillas that stood by the cruisers could have kept in touch with the enemy so as to attack at night must be negatived, as they would not have had sufficient fuel. As regards the flotillas assembled in the Jade, when the news of the encounter reached them the enemy was already so far ahead as to exclude the prospect of a successful night attack.

This first serious fight with large ships which the Fleet had had the opportunity of participating in proved that the fighting preparedness of the ships as regards the training of all on board was on a very high level, that the ships were handled in a correct and reliable manner, and that the serving of the guns, the signalling, and the transmission of orders from ship to ship during the fight, as well as the measures necessitated by leakages, had all worked admirably. Everywhere the behaviour of the crews was exemplary. The case of the Seydlitz (Captain von Egidy), from which ship, in spite of the fierce fire raging on board, the command of the whole unit was calmly maintained, deserves special emphasis.

¹ The English commander, Admiral Beatty, boasted in his report that his ships had achieved a speed of 28.5 knots.

²According to an English account, the Lion, Tiger, Princess Royal, New Zealand and Indomitable.

³Admiral Beatty says in his report: "I followed the squadron with the utmost speed on the destroyer Attack, and met them at noon as they withdrew to the north-north-west. I went on board the Princess Royal and hoisted my flag at 12.20 P.M., when Captain Brock informed me of what had happened after theLion fell out, how the Blücher was sunk, and the enemy battle-cruisers very much damaged had continued their eastward course." His report does not mention any reason for their not having pursued the damaged German cruisers.


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