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Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War
Chapter 17b - Our Light Craft in Action, and Advance of our Fleet to the Norwegian Coast

While he was steaming along on a southerly course, at 12.30 P.M. a convoy of six steamers came into sight which was protected by two destroyers and four trawlers. It was going from Lerwick to Norway on an easterly course.

The destroyer Partridge, which was ahead of the formation on the port side, steamed towards our half-flotilla and came under fire at 1 o'clock. The destroyer Pellew, which was on the starboard side, had steamed ahead full speed, and the Partridge joined her.

The British destroyers left the convoy and the four trawlers to their fate; probably with the idea of drawing our boats away from the latter, and of fighting them. The fire of the British destroyers was not very effective. The fight was carried on at a distance of 50 hm. till the Partridge, after a shot in her main steam-pipes, could not continue. She tried to carry on the fight with her torpedoes, but one torpedo stuck in the tube which had been damaged by gunfire; a second torpedo, fired at short range at our boat "V 100," hit, for the shock was distinctly felt in the boat, but it did not explode. While three boats of our half-flotilla took up the fight with the two destroyers, the fourth boat (which could only travel at 25 knots) was sent to destroy the convoy. The destroyer Pellew, pursued by the leader of the half-flotilla, succeeded-thanks to her superior speed-in getting out of sight in a squall of rain, and escaped to the land. Four officers and forty-eight men of the Partridge and the trawlers, which were all sunk, were taken on board as prisoners of war, as Well as 23 civilians. Our casualties were three wounded. The convoy consisted of one English, two Swedish, two Norwegian and one Danish merchant steamer. The shipwrecked men of the latter refused to come on board our boats; of the others some consented to come on board, and then the steamers were all sunk. The whole affair was over in three-quarters of an hour. Owing to the high seas, it cost a lot of trouble to get the English on board when they were floating about in the water, having taken refuge on rafts. The half-flotilla then started on its return journey round Skagen, as a weather report announced stormy weather in the North Sea, and so reached Kiel Harbour. This repeated interference with merchant traffic, which had shown the insufficiency of the protection afforded by English convoys, had the desired result, and compelled the employment of stronger forces.

Information obtained by U-boats was to the effect that American ships were pressed into service for this purpose; they were recognisable by their masts. This confirmed statements received from other quarters that the English Fleet was receiving support from the Americans in the War Zone of the North Sea. Thus there was little further prospect of our light craft being able to destroy any more convoys. Stronger forces would have to be employed for this purpose. This led to an expedition of the Fleet in April, 1918.


In February, 1918, Flotilla II was confronted with a new problem, which it solved brilliantly. The Naval Corps in Flanders had sent a request to the commanders of the Fleet begging them to destroy the English light-barrier which had just been instituted between Dover and Calais. In the last months the enemy had, with much expenditure of material, tried to make these Straits impassable for our U-boats. According to the reports of the boats, there were net barriers between Cape Grisnez and Folkestone, and farther south between Boulogne and Dungeness. The nets were guarded by a large number of vessels which, by means of searchlights and magnesium lights, formed a very effective light-barrier all night long. This made it very much more difficult for our U-boats to get through unmolested, and the Straits were actually almost impassable. The forces in Flanders alone were not able to deal a sufficiently effective blow to this Anglo-French barrier to the Channel. For this undertaking the commanders of the Fleet chose the strong boats of the Heinecke Flotilla, which was sent direct from the German Bight without first touching the coast of Flanders, so as to make sure of surprising the enemy.

On the day of the enterprise Flotilla II was to be off Haaks Lightship at 5.30 and thence proceed in close formation as far as the northern end of the Channel by the Sandettie Bank; there the two half-flotillas were to separate; one led by the Flotilla Commander was to attack the barrier west of Varne Bank, and the other was to attack cast of that point. When the attack was over they were to enter Zeebrugge Harbour, take in a fresh fuel supply, and start the return journey to the German Bight the same night.

Owing to bad weather the enterprise, originally planned for February 7, was postponed to the 13th. In the meanwhile the route the boats were to have followed had been made impracticable by new English mine-fields, and they had to go close by the Frisian Islands, thereby running the risk of being seen early in the evening from Dutch territory and their advance being reported. Consequently the misty weather on February 13 was not unwelcome. Flotilla II managed to pass along the mine-swept route at Terschelling with the help of the land, without having been able to see any landmarks; but when it arrived off Haaks Lightship it had to give up the attempt because of the fog; the boats would have had to travel at high speed to reach their goal in time, and this was impossible in the foggy weather. The flotilla anchored during the night north of Norderney. The next day, February 14, it started again in very clear weather. So as not to betray his real goal, the Flotilla Commander set out from Helder on a westerly course; when out of sight of land he steered south, and, after darkness had fallen, down the Dutch coast far as the Schouven Bank. At the Hook of Holland one of the boats had to be sent back to the German Bight owing to defects in the condenser. In the night of the 15th at 12.30 AM. the two half-flotillas separated according to plan north-east of the Sandettie Bank. The group led by Captain Heinecke was to circumvent the first and more northerly barrier near the English coast, and begin by attacking the southern barrier presumed to be off Dungeness, and then on his return tall up the northern barrier from the Varne Bank to Folkestone. The latter, being a light-barrier, could be seen from far off. On approaching it, it became clear that it consisted of a large number of craft, anchored or moored to buoys, which were placed right across the fairway, not in one line, but in echelon in a broad band. These boats lit up the fairway all the time with searchlights, and from time to time, about every quarter of an hour, they threw magnesium light overboard which, floating down the tide for minutes at a time, lit up the vicinity for a distance of two or three miles, so that it was almost as light as day. In and out among these a lot of boat moved without lights, armed trawlers, submarine chasers and motor boats, to attack any U-boat that might come. At the north-west end of the barrier a searchlight, apparently placed on land between Dover and Folkestone, threw a steady beam of light in the cross Channel direction. In these circumstances it was impossible to get round the barrier, and the Flotilla Commander determined to make a direct attack. He first made for a large boat placed about the middle of the barrier with a specially bright revolving searchlight; this he sank from a distance of 300 M. It was an old cruiser, or a special boat of the " Arabis " type. After this the group first swept round to the north-west and then went more slowly along the barrier in a more or less south-easterly direction. In a short time they sank 13 of these guardships, including a U-boat chaser with the number " 1113," a small torpedo-boat and two motor-boats, one of which had come up in order to fire a torpedo; these were all sunk at close range by gunfire.

The enemy was taken completely by surprise. Several of the boats sounded their sirens, clearly under the impression that they were being attacked in error by their own ships. No warning was given, and a considerable time elapsed after we had opened fire before all lights were put out. This may have been due to the fact that the big ship that was sunk first had been in command of the whole, or else the ships on guard may have been used to hearing gunfire owing to the frequent fights with U-boats. An attempt to take prisoners had to be abandoned, because owing to the swift tide it proved too dangerous for our ships to go alongside the sinking boats that were in part moored to buoys. The whole affair lasted from about 1.30 A.M. till about 2.30 A.M. Owing to the lateness of the hour it was out of the question to attack the other barrier supposed to lie farther south, from which, however, no lights or searchlights were seen, and so the return journey was begun.

Meanwhile the other half-flotilla had turned towards the southern end of the barrier, and first made for Cape Grisnez. Again one of the boats developed a leakage in the condenser, but the commander of the half-flotilla could not dismiss the boat and had to reduce the speed of the other boats to that of the defective one. Off Calais the group encountered the first guardship, lying close to the coast, a large, armed trawler, and, taking her by surprise, sank her by gunfire. Steering west, they met a number of other boats which were using searchlights and magnesium lights. In several cases the supply of magnesium lights on the guardships, caught fire owing to the shots. In this part of the barrier, too, it was some time before the boats realised that the enemy was among them, and retired to the west. Altogether this torpedo-boat half-flotilla sank twelve armed guardships, and two motor-boats.

At 2.40 A.M. the half-flotilla started upon the return journey. At 3.30 A.M. the stern lights of six English destroyers were sighted ahead. Owing to his unfavourable position with regard to the enemy and the reduced speed of the one boat, which left him with only two boats that were quite intact, the commander of the half-flotilla was forced to avoid a fight. He turned off and did not reply to the enemy's signal. The latter at first followed, in the wake of the half-flotilla, but after altering his course a few times was lost to view. On making for Zeebrugge the torpedo-boat " G 102 " struck a mine about 12 nautical miles from the harbour entrance; two compartments filled with water, but the boat was able to reach the harbour without assistance. Three men were killed through this mishap. These were the only casualties of the expedition.

After replenishing their supply of oil fuel in Zeebrugge the flotilla began its return journey in the evening of the same day and reached home without further incident. The damaged boat was temporarily repaired in Flanders, and followed a few days later. The flotilla's success was due to the completeness of the surprise. Besides the direct damage inflicted on the enemy by the sinking of so many boats that were of value to him, we accomplished our aim of breaking the barrier across the Calais-Dover Straits through which our U-boats were again able to pass for the time being. A scouting trip carried cut the following day by the torpedo-boats of the Naval Corps showed that the guard had been completely withdrawn.

The demands made on the skill of the officers commanding these boats were very great, as it was difficult to distinguish things clearly because of the gunfire, and particularly because of the smoke on the water from the magnesium lights. The gun-layers did excellent work in shooting down the fast motor-boats which, owing to their speed, could only be discerned at the last moment, but were always knocked out by the first shot. It was a great help to the expedition to be able to break the return journey by running into Zeebrugge, because otherwise the voyage would have had to be made by daylight, and in that case the English would probably have made an attempt to cut our boats off.


When the portion of the Fleet that had been sent cast had returned from the conquest of the Baltic Islands, some weeks elapsed before the ships and torpedo-boats had had the damage repaired that they had suffered from mines and from running aground. The winter months brought no change in the activities of the Fleet, which were directed towards supporting the U-boat campaign.

In the spring of 1918, when our army was attacking in the west, English interest was bound to centre in the Channel. Through agents, through the aeroplane service in Flanders, and through following the enemy's wireless messages, we ascertained that he had materially reinforced the warships protecting his transports, and that large ships had been sent to the Channel, and parts of the crews of the Grand Fleet had been sent to reinforce those of the light craft in the Channel. On the other hand, the enemy had carefully improved the convoy traffic between England and Norway since the successful raids of the Brummer and the Bremse, and of the boats of Torpedo-Boat Flotilla II. Our U-boats had learnt that the steamers were assembled there in large convoys, strongly protected by first-class battleships, cruisers and destroyers. A successful attack on such a convoy would not only result in the sinking of much tonnage, but would be a great military success, and would bring welcome relief to the U-boats operating in the Channel and round England, for it would force the English to send more warships to the northern waters. The convoys could not be touched by light craft. But the battle-cruisers could probably, according to information received, deal with all exigencies likely to arise if they could have the necessary support from the battleship squadrons.

So far as could be made out convoys mostly travelled at the beginning and middle of the week. Consequently Wednesday, April 24, was chosen for the attack. A necessary condition for success was that our intentions should be kept secret. It was enjoined upon the officers in command of the subordinate groups to use their wireless as sparingly as possible during the expedition, which was to extend beyond the Skagerrak up to the Norwegian coast. On the pretext of manœuvres in the Heligoland Bight all warships at our disposal were assembled on the evening of the 22nd in the Schillig Roads. Here the officers in command of the various groups were informed of our intentions and received their orders. The plan was to attack the convoy with the battle-cruisers, the light cruisers of Scouting Division II, and Torpedo-Boat Flotilla II under the leadership of the officer commanding the Scouting Divisions, Admiral von Hipper, while the remainder of the ships took up a position from which, in case of need, effective support could be given to the cruisers. All other flotillas were to remain with the main body of the Fleet. Torpedo-Boat Flotilla V could not be included, as its radius of action was too small. The commander of this flotilla, Commander von Tyszka, was entrusted with the conduct and protection of the convoy service through the mine-fields south-west and west of Horns Reef.

To ensure safety of progress through the mine-fields in preparation for this enterprise, protective barriers had been placed about 70 sea miles west of Horns Reef, running from north to south. The area between Horns Reef and this protective barrier was to be the starting-point of the expedition. The U-boats that had recently put to sea had received orders to seek opportunities for attack off the Firth of Forth and to report all warships and convoys that were sighted.

On the 23rd at 6 A.M. the various groups put to sea, Admiral von Hipper leading with the Scouting Divisions I and II, with the Second Leader of the torpedo-boats and Torpedo-Boat Flotilla II; following him came the main body of the Fleet in the following order : Scouting Division IV, Squadron Ill, the Flagship of the Fleet, the First Leader of torpedo-boats, Squadron I, Squadron IV, and with the main body Torpedo Flotillas I, VI, VII and IX. Immediately after they left the jade a heavy fog descended. As far as List the way was clear; from there it led through enemy mine-fields; to get through these it was necessary for the Fleet to be accompanied by minesweepers, and therefore a certain amount of visibility was needful at least two miles. At first we were able to proceed at 14 knots. But when, at 11.30 A.M., we reached the entrance to the mine-field and visibility was only 100 metres, we had to anchor. Half an hour later it cleared up; one could see three to four nautical miles, and the expedition could proceed. The journey through the mine-fields passed off without a hitch. When darkness fell the boundary had been reached, and the mine-sweepers could be dismissed. The poor visibility had so far favoured the enterprise. The enemy line of submarines on guard round the German Bight seems to have been broken through, if indeed it was occupied at all.

During the night it cleared up; daybreak brought fine, clear weather. At 8 A.M. the Moltke reported to the High Sea Commander: "Grave damage, speed four knots, position about 40 sea miles W.S.W. of Stavanger." All haste was made to reach the scene of the accident; the Strassburg, the foremost ship in the line of advance, was detached to the Moltke, and the battleship Oldenburg made ready to tow. At 10.40 A.M. the Moltke was sighted; soon after von Hipper appeared from the N.W. with his two Scouting Divisions. He had detached the Moltke at 6 A.M. to the main body of the Fleet. At that time she could still do 13 knots. He had not received the message that she was reduced to four knots. When towards 9 A.M. he received the news that the Moltke could not move and that the Flagship had not made out the signal-which, however, was a mistake-he decided to go to her assistance himself. He sent no report to the main body of the Fleet owing to the orders that the use of wireless messages should be reduced as much as possible. He had the more reason for this course because when he turned he was already in the northern part of the convoy route, and thanks to the clear weather he could see that for the time being nothing was in sight, and that any approaching convoys would not escape him if he made a fresh advance later. As the Moltke had now been taken charge of by the main body the Admiral received orders to advance again to the north. On this second occasion he searched the convoy track as far as the 60th degree of latitude but sighted nothing.

At about 11.45 A.M. the Moltke was taken in tow by the Oldenburg. The manoeuvre was carried out without a hitch in the shortest possible time. The main body of the Fleet with these two ships then set out on the return journey; their speed was 10 knots. There were two routes open to us; the one led through the Kattegat, the other straight into the German Bight. By choosing the former the Fleet would presumably have avoided a meeting with the English Fleet which had time to come up and oppose us, as we could only go at a slow speed in order not to leave the Moltke in the lurch. But the road through the Kattegat was very roundabout, and in addition the passage through the Belt would have been very difficult for the damaged ship, and in order to protect the tow all our ships would have had to return through the Little Belt. This was undesirable for two reasons, firstly, on account of the Danes, and secondly because it might provoke the English to lay mines in the Kattegat. This latter proceeding might be very unpleasant for our U-boats, and I decided, therefore, to return through the North Sea into the Bight in spite of the possibility of being attacked by superior forces.

Meanwhile the following condition of affairs had been discovered on board the Moltke. The inner propeller on the starboard side had been flung off (the ship had four propeller shafts); the turbine had raced, and before the machinery for stopping it could act the training wheel had flown to pieces. Fragments of the wheel had penetrated the discharge pipe of the auxiliary condenser, several steam exhaust pipes, and the deck leading to the main switch-room. The central engine-room and the main switch-room were immediately flooded owing to the damage to the auxiliary condenser, while the wing engine-room made water rapidly. Salt water penetrated into the boilers, and the engines gradually ceased to work. Through a curious chain of circumstances an accident to a propeller, slight enough in itself, had brought the ship completely to a stand, so that it was powerless to move. Two thousand tons of water had flowed into the ship before a diver succeeded at length in closing the valves which controlled the flow of water in and out of the auxiliary condenser. It was not till then that they got the water under control. In the afternoon the port engines were able to run at half speed; but for the time being there was no guarantee that they would continue to run. The ship would have to be towed right into the Bight, and the highest speed attainable by the tow was 11 knots. At this rate of progress we could not reach the belt of mines west of Horns Reef before dawn the next day.

Information received from the Naval Staff at 2 p.m. concerning the times of arrival and departure of convoys indicated that we had not been lucky in our choice of a day to attack them. Apparently the convoys from England to Norway had crossed the North Sea the 23rd.

At 6.30 P.M. we received a wireless message from a U-boat that eleven enemy cruisers were about 80 miles behind us. But probably the U-boat had mistaken the cruisers that were following us under Admiral von Hipper for those of the enemy.

At 8.50 p.m. the towing cable of the Oldenburg broke, which entailed a delay of an hour. For the night the tow was left at the end of the line. At 11 p.m. Admiral von Hipper had approached to within 30 nautical miles of the main Fleet. At dawn all the ships were together. The enemy was nowhere to be seen. The journey through the belt of mines was accomplished according to plan. Minesweepers met and convoyed the Fleet back in the same manner as on the outward journey. One mine-sweeper, " M 67," struck a mine and sank; most of the crew were saved.

Off List the Moltke was cast loose, and was able to proceed at a speed of 15 knots. About an hour after she had been cast loose, at 7.50 p.m., she was attacked by a submarine 40 nautical miles north of Heligoland and was hit amidships on the port side. She could not avoid the torpedo, but was able to turn towards its course so that it struck at a very acute angle. The injury did not prevent the ship from entering the Jade under her own steam.

Unfortunately the expedition did not meet with the success hoped for. The opportunity of joining issue with our Fleet was not made use of by the enemy, although by the wireless messages which had to be sent owing to the accident to the Moltke he must have known of the presence of our ships. The bringing in of the Moltke under such unfavourable conditions of sea and weather as arose during the night of the return journey was an eminent military achievement, especially the part played by the Oldenburg (Commander, Captain Lohlen) which towed her, and the work done in stopping the leak by the men on board the Moltke deserves great praise.

This expedition was unfortunately the last which the Fleet was able to undertake.


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