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Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War
Chapter 10c - The Battle of the Skagerrak

It may be that the leader did not grasp the situation, and was afraid to come any nearer for fear of torpedo attacks. Neither did any of the other officers on the enemy side think of holding firmly to our line, which would have greatly impeded our movements and rendered a fresh attack on the enemy line extremely difficult.

Immediately after the line was turned the enemy fire ceased temporarily, partly because the artificial smoke sent out by the torpedo-boats to protect the line—the battle-cruisers in particular— greatly impeded the enemy's view, but chiefly no doubt on account of the severe losses the enemy had suffered.

Losses that were observed for certain as sunk were: a ship of the "Queen Elizabeth " class (name unknown), a battle-cruiser (Invincible), two armoured cruisers (Black Prince and Defence), the light cruiser Shark, and one marked " O 24." Heavily damaged and partially set on fire were: One cruiser (Warrior, sunk later), three light cruisers, three destroyers (of which the Acasta was one).

On our side "V48" was the only destroyer sunk, the Wiesbaden was rendered incapable, and the Lützow so badly damaged that the Chief of Reconnaissance was subsequently compelled at 9 P.M. to leave the ship under the enemy's fire, and transfer to the Moltke. The leadership of Scouting Division I was thus made over to the Derfflinger (Captain Hartog) until II P.M. The other battle-cruisers and the leading ships of Squadron III had also suffered, but kept their place in the line. No one reported inability to do so; I was, therefore, able to reckon on their being fully prepared to fight. After the enemy was forced to cease firing on our line steering S.W., he flung himself on the already heavily damaged Wiesbaden. The ship put up a gallant fight against the overwhelmingly superior forces, which was clearly to be seen as she had emerged from out of the clouds of smoke and was distinctly visible.

It was still too early for a nocturnal move. If the enemy followed us our action in retaining the direction taken after turning the line would partake of the nature of a retreat, and in the event of any damage to our ships in the rear the Fleet would be compelled to sacrifice them or else to decide on a line of action enforced by enemy pressure, and not adopted voluntarily, and would therefore be detrimental to us from the very outset. Still less was it feasible to strive at detaching oneself from the enemy, leaving it to him to decide when he would elect to meet us the next morning. There was but one way of averting this—to force the enemy into a second battle by another determined advance, and forcibly compel his torpedo-boats to attack. The success of the turning of the line while fighting encouraged me to make the attempt, and decided me to make still further use of the facility of movement. The manœuvre would be bound to surprise the enemy, to upset his plans for the rest of the day, and if the blow fell heavily it would facilitate the breaking loose at night. The fight of the Wiesbaden helped also to strengthen my resolve to make an effort to render assistance to her and at least save the crew.

Accordingly, after we had been on the new course about a quarter of an hour, the line was again swung rounds to starboard on an easterly course at 8.55 P.M. The battle-cruisers were ordered to operate with full strength on the enemy's leading point, all the torpedo-boat flotillas had orders to attack, and the First Leader of the torpedo-boats, Commodore Michelsen, was instructed to send his boats to rescue the Wiesbaden's crew. The boats told off for this purpose were compelled to relinquish the attempt. The Wiesbaden and the boats making for her were in the midst of such heavy fire that the leader of the torpedo-boats thought it useless to sacrifice his boats. In turning to go back "V73 " and "G 88 " together fired off four torpedoes at the " Queen Elizabeths."

The battle that developed after the second change of course and led to the intended result very soon brought a full resumption of the firing at the van which, as was inevitable, became the same running fight as the previous one, in order to bring the whole of the guns into action. This time, however, in spite of "crossing the T," the acknowledged purpose was to deal a blow at the centre of the enemy line. The fire directed on our line by the enemy concentrated chiefly on the battle-cruisers and the Fifth Division. The ships suffered all the more as they could see but little of the enemy beyond the flash of fire at each round, while they themselves apparently offered a good target for the enemy guns. The behaviour of the battle-cruisers is specially deserving of the highest praise; crippled in the use of their guns by their numerous casualties, some of them badly damaged, obeying the given signal, " At the enemy," they dashed recklessly to the attack.

The conduct of Squadron II (Rear-Admiral Behncke) and the action of the ships of the Fifth Division are equally worthy of recognition. They, together with the battle-cruisers, bore the brunt of the fight, and thus rendered it possible for the torpedo-boat flotillas to take so effective a share in the proceedings. The systematic procedure of our ships in the line was a great help to the flotillas on their starboard side in opening the attack. The first to attack were those ahead with the cruisers, the boats of Flotillas VI and IX. Next came Flotillas III and V from the Main Fleet. Flotilla II was kept back by the Second Leader of torpedo-boats, for fear it might be left unprotected behind VI and IX. This action was justified by the course of events. The 1st Torpedo Half-Flotilla and a few boats from Flotillas VI and IX were occupied in covering the damaged Lützow. There was no longer any opportunity for an attack by Flotilla VII which had been in the rear of our fighting line. As they advanced Flotillas VI and IX were met by the heavy enemy fire that until then had been directed against the battle-cruisers; they carried the attack to within 70 hm. against the centre of a line comprising more than twenty large battleships steering in a circle E.S.E. to S., and opened fire under favourable conditions. In the attack "S 35 " was hit midships and sank at once. All the other boats returned, and in doing so sent out dense clouds of smoke between the enemy and our own Main Fleet. The enemy must have turned aside on the attack of Flotillas VI and IX. Flotillas III and V that came after found nothing but light craft, and had no opportunity of attacking the battleships. The action of the torpedo-boat flotillas had achieved its purpose.

At 9.17 P.M., therefore, the line was again for the third time swung round on to a westerly course, and this was carried out at the moment when the flagship Friedrich der Grosse was taking a southerly course close by the turning point. Although the signal to swing round hung on the starboard side and was being carried out by the neighbouring ships, I made the Chief of the Friedrich der Grosse carry out the turn to larboard [port].

This might have led the ships following behind to think that there was a mistake in the signalling. But my intention to get through and save the ships in front of the Friedrich der Grosse from a difficult situation in carrying out the manœuvre was rightly understood by Vice-Admiral Ehrhardt Schmidt in the Ostfriesland, the Leader of Squadron I. He did not wait, therefore, for the carrying out of the movement from the rear—which is the general rule to avoid all danger of collision—but himself gave the lead in the turning of his squadron by starting the turn to starboard with the Ostfriesland and thus forced his ships round. This action was a very satisfactory proof of the capable handling of the ships and the leaders' intelligent grasp of the situation.

After the change to a westerly course the Fleet was brought round to a south-westerly, southerly, and finally to a south-easterly course to meet the enemy's encircling movement and keep open a way for our return, The enemy fire ceased very soon after we had swung round and we lost sight of our adversary. The enemy's casualties at this stage of the fighting cannot be given.

Excepting the effects of direct hits which we were able to confirm from the flames of explosions, the enemy has only admitted the damage to the Marlborough by torpedoes.³ On our side all the ships were in a condition to keep up the speed requisite for night work (16 knots) and thus keep their place in the line.



Twilight was now far advanced, and it was only by personal observation that I could assure myself of the presence and external condition of those ships that chiefly had been under fire, and especially that the Lützow was able to keep with the unit. At 9.30 the battle-cruiser was seen to larboard [port] of the flagship, and had reported that she could do 15 knots. The report made by the torpedo-boat flotilla as to the enemy's strength and the extension of his firing line made it quite certain that we had been in battle with the entire English Fleet. It might safely be expected that in the twilight the enemy would endeavour by attacking with strong forces, and during the night with destroyers, to force us over to the west in order to open battle with us when it was light. He was strong enough to do it. If we could succeed in warding off the enemy's encircling movement, and could be the first to reach Horns Reef, then the liberty of decision for the next morning was assured to us. In order to make this possible all flotillas were ordered: to be ready to attack at night, even though there was a danger when day broke of their not being able to take part in the new battle that was expected. The Main Fleet in close formation was to make for -Horns Reef by the shortest route, and, defying all enemy attacks, keep on that course. In accordance with this, preparations for the night were made.

The Leaders of the torpedo-boats were instructed to arrange night attacks for the flotillas. At 9.20 a southerly course was ordered. In changing to this course Squadron II had fallen out on the starboard side as the leading ship of Squadron I fell into the new course, not being able to fix the position of Squadron II. Owing to the latter's inferior speed it fell behind the ships of Squadrons III and I in the last part of the day's battle. Squadron II now attempted, at full speed and manœuvring to larboard [port], to resume its place in front of Squadron I, which was its rightful position, after the Fleet had been turned. It came, therefore, just in time to help our battle-cruisers that were engaged in a short but sharp encounter with the enemy shortly before it was quite dark. While Scouting Divisions I and II were trying to place themselves at the head of our line they were met at 10.20 by heavy fire coming from a southeasterly direction. Nothing could be seen of the enemy beyond the flash of the guns at each round. The ships, already heavily damaged, were hit again without being able to return the fire to any purpose. They turned back, therefore, and passed in between Squadrons II and I to leeward of the firing.

The head of Squadron I followed the movements of the cruisers, while Squadron II (Rear-Admiral Mauve) stood by and took the enemy's fire. When Squadron II became aware that the failing light made any return fire useless it withdrew, thinking to attract the enemy to closer quarters with Squadron I. The enemy did not follow, but ceased firing.

Almost at the same time the Leader of Scouting Division IV. Commodore von Reuter, under similar conditions, had been engaged in a short encounter with four of five cruisers, some of them ships of the 'Hampshire " class.

Following on this attack, we took a south-easterly course which The Situation at 10.30 P.M, was at once seen to be necessary and adopted by Squadron I, bringing Squadron II again on the starboard side of the Fleet. In view of the fact that the leading ships of the Main Fleet would chiefly have to ward off the attacks of the enemy, and in order that at daybreak there should be powerful vessels at the head, Squadron II was placed in the rear. At 11 P.M. the head of the line stood at 36" 37' North latitude, and 5" 30' East longitude. At 11.6 P.M. the order for the night was "Course S.S.E. 1/4 E, speed 16 knots."

Out of consideration for their damaged condition, Scouting Division I was told off to cover the rear, Division II to the vanguard, and the IVth to cover the starboard side. The Leaders of the torpedo-boat forces placed the flotillas in an E.N.E. to S.S.W. direction, which was where the enemy Main Fleet could be expected. A great many of the boats had fired off all their torpedoes during the battle. Some were left behind for the protection of the badly damaged Lützow; others were retained by the flotilla leaders in case of emergency. The rescue of the crews of the Elbing and Rostock was due to that decision.

The Second, Fifth and Seventh, and part of the Sixth and Ninth were the only Flotillas that proceeded to the attack; the boats had various nocturnal fights with enemy light forces. They never sighted the Main Fleet. At 5 A.M. on June 1 "L 24" sighted a portion of the Main Fleet in Jammer Bay. It was as we surmised —after the battle the enemy had gone north. Flotilla II, which had been stationed at the most northerly part of the sector, was forced back by cruisers and destroyers, and went round by Skagen; at 4 o'clock when day broke the other flotillas collected near the Main Fleet.

The battleship squadrons proceeded during the night in the following order: Squadron I, Flagship of the Fleet, Squadron III and Squadron II. Squadrons I and II were now in reversed positions; that is to say, the ships previously in the rear were now at the van.

Other attempts to bring the admirals ahead were abandoned owing to the darkness and lack of time. The conduct of the line was entrusted to Captain Redlich on the Westfalen. The enemy attacked from the east with both light and heavy forces during the night almost without ceasing. Scouting Divisions I and II and the ships in Squadron I in particular were to ward off the attacks. The result was excellent. To meet these attacks in time, bring the enemy under fire and by suitable manœuvring evade his torpedoes, demanded the most careful observation on board the vessels. Consequently the line was in constant movement, and it required great skill on the part of the commanders to get into position again, and necessitated a perpetual look-out for those manœuvring just in front of them. Very little use was made of the searchlights. It had been proved that the fire from the attacking boats was aimed chiefly at these illuminated targets. As our light guns and the navigation control on the ships were close to the searchlights, and because of the better view to be obtained the officers and men on duty there would not take cover, several unfortunate casualties occurred. On board the Oldenburg the commander, Captain Höpfner, was severely wounded by a shell, and several officers and many of the crew were killed.

Utterly mistaking the situation, a large enemy cruiser with four funnels came up at 2 A.M. (apparently one of the "Cressy" class), and was soon within 1, 500 metres of Squadron I's battleships, the Thüringen and Ostfriesland. In a few seconds she was on fire, and sank with a terrible explosion four minutes after opening fire. The destruction of this vessel, which was so near that the crew could be seen rushing backwards and forwards on the burning deck while the searchlights disclosed the flight of the heavy projectiles till they fell and exploded, was a grand but terrible sight. Squadron I reported during the night that after carrying out an evading manœuvre the Nassau had not returned in her place, and as she did not answer a call it was feared she had been torpedoed. Towards morning, however, there was a faint wireless from her reporting that she was standing by the Vyl Lightship at Horns Reef, and during the night had rammed and cut through a destroyer. After this exploit the commander preferred not to return to our darkened line but made for the morning's rendezvous.

A careful estimation showed that during the night one battlecruiser, one light cruiser and seven destroyers were sunk on the enemy's side, and several battle-cruisers and destroyers badly damaged. The 2nd Division of Squadron I at the head of the line were specially successful in the defence they put up against torpedo attacks, as they themselves accounted for six destroyers. On our side the old light cruiser Frauenlob, the battleship Pommern and "V 4 " were sunk; Rostock and Elbing were abandoned and blown up. At 12.45 A.M. the Frauenlob (Captain Georg Hoffmann), during a fight between Scouting Division IV and four cruisers of the "Town " class, was hit by a torpedo and, according to the accounts of the few survivors, went down fighting to the last.

The Pommern (Captain Bölken) was torpedoed at 4.20 A.M. and went down with a violent explosion. Unfortunately none of the crew could be saved, as the wreckage drifted away so quickly that nothing was seen on the water by a ship following at 500 m. distance.

At 4.50 A.M. "V4" struck an enemy mine; the crew was not saved. At 1.30 A.M. the Rostock and Elbing to the larboard [port] of the head of Squadron I were engaged in a fight with destroyers, but had finally to withdraw from the enemy's torpedoes and break through Squadron I's line, so as not to impede the firing from the ships of the line. While doing this the Rostock was hit by a torpedo, and the Elbing and Posen collided. Both cruisers were put out of action. The Rostock kept afloat till 5.45 A.M., but as enemy cruisers were then sighted she was blown up, the entire crew and the wounded having previously been taken off by the boats of Flotilla III. The crew of the Elbing was also taken over by a boat belonging to Flotilla III. The Commander, Captain Madlung, the First Officer, the Torpedo Officer and a cutter's crew remained on board to keep the ship afloat as long as possible. When, however, enemy forces were sighted at 4 A.M. the Elbing was also blown up. The remainder of the crew got away in the cutter and were subsequently picked up by a Dutch fishing-smack and returned home via Holland.

The Lützow was kept above water until 3.45 A.M. The König, the rear ship of the Fleet, lost sight of her at 11.15 P.M. The vessel was at last steered from the stern. All efforts to stop the water pouring in were fruitless; the fore part of the ship had been too badly damaged, and she had at last 7,000 tons of water in her. The screws revolved out of the water, and she had to be given up. The crew with all the wounded were taken off by the torpedo-boats "G40," "G37," "G38" and "V45," and the Lützow was sunk by a torpedo. Altogether the four boats had 1,250 men from the Lützow on board. Twice they encountered enemy cruisers and destroyers, but on each occasion, led by the senior officer, Commander Beitzen (Richard), they attacked and successfully made their way into the German Bight. In the last engagement "G40" had her engines hit and had to be towed.

When this report reached the Main Fleet the Second Leader of Torpedo-Boats on the Regensburg turned at once, regardless as to whether he might meet with superior English forces or not, and took over the towing party. "S 32,' Leader of Flotilla I (Captain Fröhlich), was hit in her boiler at 1 A.M. and rendered temporarily useless. By feeding the boiler with sea water the captain succeeded, however, in taking the boat into Danish waters. From thence she was towed through the Nordmann Deep by torpedo-boats dispatched to her assistance.

These events prove that the English Naval forces made no effort to occupy the waters between the scene of battle and Horns Reef.

It was only during the night that there was opportunity for the ships to report on the number of prisoners they had on board and to gather from them some idea of the enemy's losses. Then I learned that the Warspite, which we had observed to be badly damaged in the battle, was sunk. Among other vessels reported sunk were the battle-cruisers Queen Mary, Indefatigable, and Invincible. This was all news to me, and convinced me that the English losses were far more considerable than our own.

On arriving at Horns Reef at 5 A.M. I decided to remain there and await the Lützow. I had not then heard of her fate. From 11.30 P.M. on, the vessel had been able to do 13 knots. The last report from her was at 1.55 A.M.—transmitted by convoy-boat " G 40 "—stating that she was making very slow way, that the means of navigation were limited, that the gun power was reduced to a fifth, course south, station E 16. At 5.30 A.M. came a message that the Lützow had been abandoned at 4 A.M.

After that I had no difficulty in drawing my own conclusions. As the enemy did not come down from the North, even with light forces, it was evident that he was retiring, especially as nothing more could be seen of him notwithstanding that his torpedo-boats were about until dawn.


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