Boys' Book of Sea Fights - Chelsea Fraser
High in the sky great man birds fly,
As under the sea man fish swim by;
Great forts of steel float in between
And cripple foes who can't be seen.
Just prior to the opening scenes of the War in 1914, Germany had a wonderful vision of snatching away from Great Britain her long-sustained reputation as "mistress of the seas." Secretly the German Empire for years had been building and equipping a most elaborate armada, spending money lavishly for the day when conditions would be ripe for her to measure strength with those nations which she felt might array themselves against her when she should attempt to become master of the world.
But, as stated in a preceding chapter, when war broke out there was a little hitch in her calculations. Instead of having only France to deal with at the beginning, Great Britain jumped into the fracas so suddenly that Germany could not get her great High Seas Fleet out of Wilhelmshaven Harbor, and the consequence was these ships from which she had hoped so much were bottled up by the British Grand Fleet almost as helpless as so many flies in a trap. And all through the four years of the conflict the English ships maintained this vigil so sharply that only a few stragglers of the enemy managed to sneak out.
Of course the German men-of-war were privileged to make a sortie and try to force their way through the blockade any time they chose; in fact, the British prayed daily for just such a happening, for they were wild to get the enemy vessels out from behind their protection of mines and land batteries where they could meet them in a fair test of supremacy. But, in spite of many efforts made to bait out the German armada by drawing the British fleet well away from the harbor, only once in those four long years did the German High Seas Fleet really venture forth far enough to get into action. And then they were crafty enough to come out of their hiding place late in the day, so that if the fight went against them (as we shall presently see it did) they could escape back to the harbor under cover of darkness.
This battle—the first and only one of the main fleets of the contending nations in this war—was the greatest in modern marine history. In it practically every type of modern naval fighting craft was used. There were the great, massive, floating steel forts called super-dreadnoughts, carrying crews of over one thousand men—enough to populate a respectable small town—and equipped with mammoth fifteen-inch guns, into whose long barrels a man could crawl, and out of which barrels great steel shells could be vomited ten or eleven miles, to go through the steel plate of an enemy ship that could not be seen with the naked eye. There were the battle-cruisers—ships much like the super-dreadnaughts except that they were narrower and faster and carried guns of less power. There were the light-cruisers ships of steel still lighter, still faster; made for the chase and for closer fighting. There were the destroyers—ships so long and rangy that they rocked like a cradle when under high pressure; the fastest of all warcraft, capable of almost express-train speed, and given torpedo-tubes through which these deadly explosive missiles could be sent to sink an enemy ship five miles away.
Then, too, there were those sly, destructive men fish of the sea—the submarines; slow of speed, but with their terrible torpedoes, able to swim unseen under the water close enough to sink the largest of vessels; able also, through their huge glass eye, to spy upon the enemy unseen where surface craft would be instantly detected; able to successfully thread the tightest of blockades, to travel under water a hundred miles without once coming up, to cruise three weeks before needing new fuel; but ever subjected to the untold dangers of jagged submarine rocks, enemy mines and nets, submarine-chasers, and hydroplanes whose aviators could see far down into the waters and were always ready to drop a death-dealing bomb.
There were, indeed, these seaplanes themselves. They nestled on the broad, flat upper decks of mother-ships made especially for them. From these decks they could wing away, far up into the clouds, there to watch and photograph enemy doings, and then whir their way back again. Or they could, a little lower, drop their terrible dynamite bombs on the deck of a foe, or the top of a fortification, creating awful havoc.
On May 30th, 1916, Sir John Jellicoe, commander-in-chief of the British Grand Fleet, having determined to make another effort to coax out the German High Seas Fleet from the harbor of Wilhelmshaven, ordered his squadrons to widen the breach. In this operation his fleet swept through the North Sea in a broad circle. It was divided into two portions. That section under Sir David Beatty, consisting of the battle-cruisers and certain supporting units, turned south and made a round of the broad gulf which is bounded on the east by Denmark and on the south by the flat German coast lying behind Heligoland. Admiral Jellicoe remained to the north, and in mid-afternoon of the following day was not far from the Norwegian coast at its southernmost point.
On this same day—May 31st—Admiral Von Scheer, of the German High Seas Fleet, seemed to have swallowed the bait at last. With his fleet he left his base and started northward about the middle of the afternoon. He too had divided his ships. But instead of going in different directions, he was astute enough to follow one course, and sent before the main fleet a battle-cruiser squadron under Admiral Von Hipper. It must not be assumed that Scheer had left the harbor to look up and challenge the British vessels in the belief that the time had come for him to institute a second Trafalgar. Far from it; every circumstance indicates that he thought it a splendid opportunity when the cat was away to let his mice come out and frolic; in other words, vacate their cramped quarters in Wilhelmshaven long enough to get their long-deferred high-seas exercise.
But the Germans' exercise was to be of a different sort than they anticipated. Shortly before three o'clock, Admiral Beatty, who had completed his swing through the North Sea, turned about and was headed north to join Jellicoe. At this moment a lookout in the foretop of one of his light-cruisers, the Galatea, sighted in the far distance a pencil-line of black smoke.
Instantly Beatty had his wireless operator get in touch with the operator on board one of the squadron's seaplane mother-ships. When the blue flame had ceased hissing, all was understood. And a few minutes later the Admiral saw the huge bird rise gracefully from her nest, and under the skillful guidance of her pilot go soaring up into the heavens at an acute slant. In a very short time she was a mere speck against the gray ether—up fully two thousand feet. For awhile the seaplane hovered there, slowly circling, then down she swooped as quickly as she had gone up, and after a little maneuvering settled back in her nest.
Meantime the little blue sparks had crackled in the operator's room of Beatty's ship. Like lightning the operator's fingers had tapped the keys of a typewriter, as with receivers to ears he deciphered the message coming through the waste of ether that separated him from the seaplane. By three-thirty—long before the aircraft had come down—Admiral Beatty had received his first reports from her observer. These reports were extremely gratifying to him. They stated that the line of smoke seen to the eastward was made by a squadron of five German battle-cruisers! This turned out to be Admiral Von Hipper's. With Hipper was the usual accompaniment of light-cruisers and destroyers.
Admiral Beatty at once formed a line of battle, steering in the direction of the enemy, east-southeast, at twenty-five knots. At the same time his Fifth Battle Squadron followed off to the north west, keeping parallel with the main force.
Before the British ships had gone far, a blimp (captive balloon) on the deck of one of Von Hipper's vessels discovered them. The German squadron was seen to wheel about and make toward their High Seas Fleet. By reason of their slow speed it was rightly inferred by the British that Von Hipper hoped to lure the British squadron into good range of his main body before they could extricate themselves.
Beatty was perfectly willing to be drawn forward to the limits of safety, and under good speed took after the retreating foe. In order not to be caught in a trap with his own small complement of ships, Beatty sent two seaplanes ahead. From these he presently learned that the main fleet of the enemy was some fifty miles to the southward, whereupon he ordered more steam and increased the pressure against Von Hipper.
By three-fifty Admiral Beatty had reached a position about eighteen thousand yards in the rear of the enemy. As this was fair range for his heavy guns, he opened up. And about the same time Von Hipper did likewise. Thus six British ships whose total broadsides equaled thirty-two 13.5-inch guns and sixteen 12-inch guns were now in a duel with five German ships whose total broadsides equaled sixteen 12-inch guns and twenty-eight 11-inch guns. By degrees the British closed up till a distance of less than fourteen thousand yards separated them from the enemy.
The British gunners were shooting with very good precision, having made hits several times, but these were not vital ones. On the other hand the German fire, while not as accurate, was more fortunate, and in almost as many strikes they had sunk the Queen Mary and the Indefatigable, which had developed marked structural defects.
The loss of these two ships reduced Admiral Beatty's armored vessels to four, and his weight of metal to an approximate equality with his antagonist who was still five ships strong. Yet he showed no signs of hesitancy, but continued to fight on aggressively. Presently his other wing—the Fifth Battle Squadron—came up to within twenty thousand yards of the enemy and essayed to lend him support by using their 15-inch guns. This was a very long range in any weather, and worse now, as the heavens had clouded and the air was somewhat misty. But as they drew nearer their shots seemed to have effect, for the fire of Von Hipper began to slacken perceptibly.
At four o'clock a lookout on the battle-cruiser Invincible telephoned to the bridge that the periscope of a submarine could be seen about seven miles to the southwestward. A minute later a lookout in the foretop of the Engadine, mother-ship, reported another periscope about the same distance away, bearing more to the westward. Beatty saw that the enemy was about to precipitate a U-boat attack on him. These submarines must not be allowed to get within less than five miles, as then their deadly torpedoes could be effectively used upon some hapless member of the squadron.
Immediately he ordered forth four of his destroyers, and while these started toward the positions of the submarines, playing their guns as they went, Beatty got into communication with his cruising seaplanes which quickly came dashing out of the cloud mists to the southeast, dropped to within twelve hundred feet of the sea in the neighborhood where the U-boats were reported to have been seen, and floated slowly along, as their observers, bombs set and levers in hand, gazed intently down into the greenish waters for the dark moving shadow that would proclaim an enemy submarine. German shells burst in the air here and there about them, but the aviators coolly continued their search.
All at once an observer's arm moved; down through the air shot a pear-like object, guided unerringly by the little vanes at its tail end, and plunged into the dark sea. An instant later there was a muffled explosion, the waters churned, heaved high, and settled again in a great disc of white, troubled foam. And presently in that foam appeared bits of wooden wreckage, and long irregular ribbons and patches of bluish-purple oil.
When the flyers saw this they smiled grimly, and flew away to help their brother airmen hunt for the other U-boat. That particular submarine was an enemy no longer! But the other German undersea craft had made good its frightened escape.
Admiral Von Hipper now sent a light-cruiser back with fifteen destroyers, bent upon assailing and destroying the destroyers which Beatty had dispatched in quest of the U-boats. Bravely the British destroyers stood in their tracks and fired their guns till they were so hot they could not be touched with the bare hand. In this fight they were helped by their own vessels farther to the rear. It was the hottest engagement yet, the sea showing almost continuous spouts of water in the vicinity of both squadrons wherever the shots missed their marks.
The haze had now thickened. The enemy could only be dimly made out. At four-forty the Second Light-Cruiser Squadron of the British force, which was scouting in advance, reported that the German High Seas Fleet was approaching out of the mists to the southeastward.
Realizing that he would be overwhelmed by this huge reŽnforcement of the foe should he continue longer to chase Von Hipper, Admiral Beatty lost no time in changing his course and steaming at good speed toward the northwest. It is truly a queer turn of affairs. First we had Von Hipper running away from Beatty in an attempt to escape himself and at the same time draw the British into the net of the main German body behind. And now we have the situation exactly reversed: it is Beatty who runs, and Von Hipper who does the chasing; and Beatty hopes to draw the Germans into the clutches of Jellicoe!
This last phase of the situation is now an actuality. The enemy is quick to note the sudden lack of interest on the British admiral's part, and signaling the main fleet behind him to hurry forward and back him up, Von Hipper takes up the pursuit, his battle-cruisers stationing themselves in the van. As the turn is executed the Fifth Battle Squadron, steaming at an angle, engages the Germans in front for a few moments, then turns swiftly and falls in astern of Beatty, who now has eight ships in line.
Under a speed of about twenty-one knots, the British make just enough headway to cover ground well and at the same stroke do effective work with their guns and encourage the pursuit. The range is now about fourteen thousand yards, and it can be seen that the enemy is getting heavily hit while his own shots are largely flying wild. Soon a German destroyer is seen to burst into flames and go down. And a little after five o'clock the enemy battle-cruiser Lutzow, badly damaged with fifteen good-sized holes in her, withdraws. Ten minutes later a British submarine succeeds in projecting a torpedo into the battle-cruiser Pommern, and the big German ship vanishes amid a cloud of smoke and steam. In the next half-hour three enemy destroyers are seen to sink. This leaves only three German battle-cruisers in the lead of the first foe division. Just before six o'clock, to their consternation, Admirals Von Hipper and Von Scheer find themselves within range of Admiral Jellicoe's big fleet. Beatty has very adroitly lured them on and on, as Von Hipper had lured him on and on, till now the great rival fleets of both nations face one another.
ADMIRAL SIR DAVID BEATTY
At this, stage the positions of the contending fleets were as follows: Beatty, with four battle-cruisers of his own detachment, and four of the Fifth Squadron just astern, was now turning sharply eastward to pass across the head of the German High Seas Fleet and prevent it from edging in that direction, as it gave evidence of doing. This would bring him at right-angles to the foe—or in the relative position of the horizontal bar on a letter T, the enemy represented by the upright stem,—the most advantageous position for stopping the Germans as well as raking their craft by broadsides. North of Beatty's ships was the main British fleet, with three battle-cruisers under Hood on one wing, and four armored-cruisers under Arbuthnot on the other. The head of the enemy line was about twelve thousand yards from Beatty, and twenty-two thousand yards from Jellicoe.
Admiral Beatty's eastward turn compelled the foe to turn, and created an opening for the main British fleet to move in and cut the Germans from their base. To reŽnforce Beatty in this critical operation, Hood steamed in fast with his three battle-cruisers, and swung magnificently into position at the head of Beatty's line. There he received, the next minute, a terrific fire from the enemy, eight thousand yards away. It was a torrent that no ship could stand up under long; and a short time later the Invincible, Hood's flag-ship, was struck by the combined salvoes of the German fleet, and sank. Three battle-cruisers were now gone; out of their combined crews of twenty-five hundred men a mere handful were saved.
A little earlier, Admiral Arbuthnot had bravely attacked with his four weak armored-cruisers, striking the full front of the enemy which was almost completely hidden by smoke. This intervention prevented a dangerous German torpedo attack on the British cruisers, but it was poor Arbuthnot's last service for his country and he and his outnumbered ships perished.
Soon the Warrior was disabled, and the Black Prince badly hit, the enemy seeming to have concentrated their fire upon first one and then the other. A little later the Warspite showed signs of distress, but continued to use her guns with such determination and accuracy that her opponents slackened their fire, and she was able to make her way to the Fifth Battle Squadron which had taken a position just astern of Admiral Jellicoe's fleet. About six-thirty this fleet had worked up near enough to engage in the fight for the first time. Had Jellicoe come a little sooner there is no doubt he would have saved many lives and several ships, for the struggle had been very unequal; but he had come as quickly as conditions would permit, apparently, the fog making it necessary for him to get within eleven thousand yards before he could properly distinguish the enemy from the ships of Beatty.
Even as it was the light was very bad. The Germans were shrouded in haze, and seemed anxious to blanket themselves as much as they could; their destroyers sent up thick clouds of black coal smoke, which obscured an atmosphere already choked with the fumes of bursting shells and ship conflagration, and growing naturally darker with the close approach of night. From the front of the British Grand Fleet never more than five German craft could be seen at one time, and from the rear never more than a dozen.
As they fired their guns, the British constantly tried to close, but were eluded by the enemy, who utilized destroyer attacks to cover his retreat, and made back toward his base with all possible speed, much to the disgust of the British who, now that they had the Germans out in the open at last, wanted to have the matter of sea supremacy definitely settled. Difficult as it was to shoot with accuracy in this disconcerting dusk and smoke, surprisingly good hits were made, and more than one of the foe ships was set on fire or sunk in that will-o'-the wisp retreat of the Kaiser's minions.
Particularly did the Marlborough, of the First Battle Squadron, distinguish herself. After sending two German destroyers to the bottom, she gave seven salvoes to an enemy battleship of the Kaiser class, also sinking her; but in the engagement was struck by a torpedo. From her engine room a great cloud of smoke arose, she listed violently, then recovered, and nine minutes later reopened fire, completing her work of sinking her third ship. A little later she turned upon a battleship of the KŲnig, class, and hopelessly crippled her.
The ships of the Fourth Battle Squadron were principally in action with the German battle-cruisers, while the Second Squadron looked after the German battleships. These British ships were greatly handicapped, like their sister vessels, with the obscurity of smoke and night, but made their power felt nevertheless.
About eight o'clock the battleship engagement closed, the enemy disappearing in the smoke and mist to the west of Admiral Jellicoe's fleet. Orders were issued to the torpedo craft to look up the Germans and attack if they could be found. Twenty minutes later Beatty pushed west in support of the destroyers, and presently sighted two enemy battleships and two battle-cruisers. These he attacked at a range of ten thousand yards—a long distance considering the difficult visuality. The leading German ship was hit repeatedly, and turned away with a heavy list, emitting flames. Another German vessel—possibly the Heligoland—was also struck until she was set afire. A third enemy craft, a three-funneled battleship, was so battered by the Indomitable and the New Zealand that she could barely get away in the shroud of gloom.
By eight-thirty darkness had closed in to an extent that prevented all further fighting, and the German ships, well-scattered, were last seen flying in a westerly direction. At eight-forty a violent explosion was felt by the British Grand Fleet. This was probably caused by the destruction of another German ship—one whose flames had at last reached her powder magazine.
All night the British fleet remained in those waters, hoping against hope that the enemy intended to return with the opening of another day to settle the question of superiority in a decisive manner. But when morning dawned only their own ships were to be seen. The German vessels had gone into Wilhelmshaven Harbor, soundly trounced, and quite ready to stay there till the end of the war if going out again meant another set-to with the English bulldogs of the sea.
During the course of the war, Germany, as with other losses, carefully concealed, the real damage she had suffered in this fight off the banks of Jutland. She claimed a loss of only eleven ships, whereas subsequent events have shown the number to be not less than eighteen. On the other hand, Great Britain frankly admitted her own loss of fifteen ships.
Thereafter the German fleet remained in seclusion. It was the first and last great naval battle of the World War.