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World War 1 at Sea - Contemporary Royal Navy Accounts


HISTORY OF THE GREAT WAR - NAVAL OPERATIONS, Volume 5, April 1917 to November 1918 (Part 1 of 4) by Henry Newbolt


Published by Longmans Green, London 1931

HMS Vindictive, after the Zeebrugge Raid and before the attack on Ostend (Jon Richards, click to enlarge)

on to Naval Operations, Vol 5, Part 2 of 4


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A Modern Introduction


Up-to-date, well-researched naval histories have an important part to play in understanding past events, but I would like to suggest they are equalled by contemporary accounts written not long after the stories they describe, and often by those who took part.


Such near-contemporary accounts include the five volumes of NAVAL OPERATIONS, the first three by Sir Julian S Corbett and the last two by Henry Newbolt. They remain in print, but are still not widely known, and being out-of-copyright, can be found on the internet.


They are indispensable to any researcher or scholar of World War 1 who wants to start to understand the vastness of the war at sea and the role of the Royal Navy and its Allies.


The naval war, 1914-18 is almost considered peripheral to the war as a whole, especially compared with the Western Front, yet in my opinion, World War 1 was just as much a maritime struggle as that of World War 2. If it had been lost to either the German High Seas Fleet or the later U-boat campaign, Allied victory would have been very much in doubt. Hence the value of these volumes.


Later editions of these volumes were updated and corrected. These changes have not been taken into account: hence the need to move onto later histories. Also any transcription and proofing errors are mine, including the lack of accents on mainly French and German names, for which my apologies.


Gordon Smith, Naval-History.Net













Vol. V












(only edition)







I. The Submarine Campaign. April to August, 1917 ... 1

      {The Beginnings of the Convoy System ... 1

 1. {Objections to the Convoy System ... 11

      {Advantages of the Convoy System ... 14

 2. The Convoy System and American Naval Assistance ... 20

 3. The French Coal Trade ... 27

 4. The Dutch Patrol ... 29

 5. American Reinforcements ... 32

 6. The Flanders Bight, April‑May, 1917 ... 36

 7. The Submarine Campaign, May, 1917 ... 41

 8. The First Convoy, May, 1917 ... 43

 9. The Flanders Bight, May‑June, 1917 ... 45

 10. Convoy, June, 1917 ... 48

 11. The Submarine Campaign, June 1917 ... 54

 12. Operations in the Flanders Bight, July 1917 ... 58

 13. First German Doubts ... 61

 14. The Disorders in the German Fleet July and August 1917 ... 70


II. The Mediterranean. August 1917 to April 1918 ... 74


III. The Submarine Campaign in Home Waters and the Extension of the Convoy System ... 97

 1. August and September 1917 ... 97

 2. The Submarine Campaign ‑ The Disasters to the Q‑Ships, August 1917 ... 106

 3. The Organisation and Working of the Convoy System ... 112

 4. The Inter‑Allied Naval Conference, September 1917 ... 120

 5. The Convoy System, September ... 134

 6. The First Results of the Convoy System ... 136


IV. The Campaign in Home Waters, and the Extension of the Convoy System, October and November 1917 ... 143

      1. North Sea Operations, October 1917 ... 145

      2. The Scandinavian Convoy and the Convoy System, October 1917 ... 14 

      3. The Action in the Heligoland Bight, November 16-17, 1917 ... 164


(Part 2 of 4)


V. The End of the Year 1917 in Home Waters ... 178

      1. The Dover Barrage, November‑December 1917 ... 178

      2. The Second Attack on the Scandinavian Convoy, December 11‑12, 1917 ... 184

      3. The Submarine Campaign, December 1917 ... 194


VI. The Beginning of the Year 1918 in Home Waters ... 205

      1. The defence of the Straits of Dover, January and February 1918 ... 209

      2. The Raid on the Left Flank of the Allied Armies, March 20‑21 ... 223

      3. The Last German Fleet Sortie, April 22‑25, 1918 ... 280


VII. The Blocking of Zeebrugge, April 22-28, 1918 ... 241

      1. The Blocking of Ostend, May 10, 1918 ... 266

      2. The Submarine Campaign, May 1918 ... 277


VIII. The Mediterranean. April to September 1918 ... 285


IX. Russia ... 301


X. After Zeebrugge ‑ The Mining Operations in the North Sea and the U‑Boat Operations on the American Coast ... 334


XI. The End of Hostilities in the Mediterranean ... 351


XII. The Evacuation of Flanders and the Armistice ... 361

      The Enforcement of the Naval Armistice ... 377





(Part 3 of 4)


Appendix A ‑ Convoy System

Statistical Tables illustrating the allocation and collection of Escort Forces ... 383

Appendix B ‑ Convoy System

Statistical Tables illustrating the Volume of Trade Convoyed ... 395


(Part 4 of 4)


Appendix C ‑ Submarine Warfare in the Mediterranean ... 409

Appendix D ‑ Naval Armistice ... 413

    Germany ... 413

    Turkey ... 418

Appendix E ‑ Submarine Warfare in Home Waters ... 424 

Appendix F ‑ Expansion of the Fleet ... 430

Appendix G ‑ Losses of British and Allied Warships and Auxiliaries ... 431 

Appendix H ‑ Losses of Enemy Warships and Auxiliaries ... 432

Appendix I ‑ Numbers Borne in H.M. Fleet on Specified Dates ... 433

Appendix J ‑ Number of Officers and Men that Served During the War ... 433

Appendix K ‑ Statement of Casualties ... 434


Index (not included – you can use Search)








(not included)

Map No.

1. The Submarine Campaign in the Channel and Western Approaches, May-December, 1917

2, The Submarine Campaign in the Mediterranean and Approaches, May-December, 1917

3. Operations off the Coast of Palestine, October-November, 1917

4. The Raid of the Goeben and Breslau, January 20, 1918

5. The Submarine Campaign in the Mediterranean and Approaches, January-September, 1918

6. Operations Against German Submarines, October, 1917

7. Plan of the Action in the Heligoland Bight, November 17,1917

8. German Raid on Scandinavian Convoy, October 16-18, 1917

9. The Laying of the Dover Barrage

10. Movements of German Fourth Half Flotilla, December 11-12, 1917

11. The Attack on the Norwegian Convoy, December 12, 1917

12. The Bombardment of Zeebrugge, May 12, 1917
13. The Atlantic Convoys

14. The Submarine Campaign in the Channel and Western Approaches, January-September, 1918

15. Dispositions in the Dover Straits, February 14-15, 1918

16. Raid on the Allied Flank, March 20-21, 1918

17. The Laying of the Northern Barrage

18. Plan of the Sortie of the High Seas Fleet, April 22-25, 1918

19. Defences on the Belgian Coast

20. Plan of Operations for Blocking Ostend and Zeebrugge, April 22, 1918

21. The Blocking Expedition Against Zeebrugge and Ostend. Cruising Formation of the Squadron

22. Survey of the Zeebrugge Blockships. Completed by the German Staff, May 18, 1918

23. The Blocking of Ostend, Position of Ships 1.50 a.m.

24, The Blocking of Ostend, Position of Ships 2.25 a.m.

25. Submarine Concentration Against the Convoy System. May 1918

26. Submarine Concentration Against the Convoy System. May 1918

27. Submarine Concentration Against the Convoy System. May 1918

28. Submarine Operations in the Eastern Atlantic. June 1917 to March 1918

29. The Otranto Barrage

30. Operations in North Russia

31. Submarine Operations off the American Coast. May to October 1918.








The present volume concludes the account of Naval Operations in the Great War, undertaken by direction of the Committee of Imperial Defence. The first thought of the historian, on vacating his office, must be to offer his sincere and lasting gratitude to his staff and to the other members of the Historical Section who have during the past seven years given him their invaluable help. And to save these words from any appearance of vagueness or conventionality something more must be added; for no reader can appreciate them if he has not some idea of the nature of the task under review, and of the consummate collaboration necessary to make its accomplishment in any degree possible.


The History was directed to be "based on official documents," and a short account of these is indispensable. The actual events of the war at sea are recorded in the telegrams received daily at the Admiralty, and in those sent out to the various theatres of war: a careful reading of these is the necessary first step in any historical study. They are a formidable mass to attack. By the beginning of 1917 about a thousand telegrams dealing with events in Home Waters alone were being sent and received by the Admiralty in every period of three days. That is to say, that for the events of a single year in a single field of action the historian and his staff must consult 120,000 telegrams and make careful notes upon them. They are the bones from which the skeleton of the campaign is to be reconstructed, and it is important that not one of them should be overlooked, mislaid or misinterpreted. The second source of original information lies in the papers received by the Admiralty and those sent by the Admiralty to other departments of State. The papers sent to the Admiralty comprise reports and letters of proceedings from officers in command of fleets, squadrons or shore establishments; these reports are circulated in the Admiralty and are minuted by the officers to whom they are referred; they may thus become the basis, or starting-point, of memoranda upon policy by high officials of the Admiralty staff. Every one of these documents must be scrutinised and compared with telegrams of the same date; and while much of their contents will prove immaterial, a considerable proportion will be found to be of the first importance: papers, for example, which record the views and decisions of the High Naval Command.


Thirdly, there are the records of the Committee of Imperial Defence. These records include the minutes of proceedings of the War Cabinet and the War Committee, and all papers and memoranda presented to them by departments of State. It would be superfluous to draw attention to the importance of these documents; they record the Government's most important decisions upon the higher direction of war. Fourthly, there are the records kept when Allied ministers met in conference; the records of the Supreme War Council and the records of the inter-allied Naval Council. When we pass from papers recording information and design to those relating to execution we come to another class of documents. Every operation carried out at sea is recorded in three ways. First, the officer in command issues his orders to the ships concerned, describing the operation as he conceives it: the actual progress of the action is then recorded in the logs of the ships engaged - the Signal Logs in particular should enable the historian to trace all the orders issued and received during the operation. Thirdly, there will be the reports sent in afterwards by the captains and squadron commanders; and the despatches: these become Admiralty papers and have already been enumerated above.


In addition, there are records, such as the battle orders to the Fleet and its various squadrons, which form a complete register of the origin and development of the tactical principles followed by our fleet commanders during the war. Finally, there are the local records kept by the commanding officers of every base and shore station. These documents are almost as numerous and bulky as the records kept at Whitehall. For example, a collection known as the "Grand Fleet Pack" contains 105,000 pages of typed and printed matter.

Of these local records some are duplicates of those kept at the Admiralty, but it is only by examining them as a whole that the daily succession of operations undertaken from any particular base can be seen in a true perspective.


The problem is now beginning to define itself. It appears plainly that the mass of documentary evidence to be handled in this modern history is far larger than that at the disposal of any writer who has undertaken such a work in the past. This point may be illustrated by a comparison of the sources used for the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the documents on which a part of the Naval Operations was based. Gibbon and Sir Julian Corbett each took six years to produce their first two volumes. The authorities read by Gibbon were the work of fourteen classical writers and amounted to 10,500 pages of print. On the other hand, for the Dardanelles Campaign, which occupied only one-third of his two volumes, Sir Julian had to deal with twenty-three folio volumes of naval documents, containing 19,600 typed pages. This means that whereas the one had to study the considered and well-ordered work of his predecessors at a moderate and even leisurely rate, the other, the modern historian, had to analyse, compare, and digest a mass of raw material perhaps five times greater, while at the same time constructing the historical perspective - -the perspective of an inundation, and not, as in the older case, of a river flowing in the familiar well-mapped channel of Time.


It became clear, then, at an early stage of the war, that although the History must be the task of one writer, conceived and finally shaped by a single mind, it could not - if it were to be produced in the time allowed by the span of human life - be literally the work of one man. It must be the final outcome of many skilled contributions, and the method on which the contributors were to work must be one scientifically adapted to the nature of the material.


This method deserves explanation, for it could hardly be imagined. First comes the collecting and arranging of the original documents. The telegrams sent and received by the Admiralty were, it is true, already collected together in the departmental records, but this collection is not in a shape suitable for historical study. The telegrams have to be regrouped into geographical divisions, corresponding roughly to the several theatres, of the naval war. When this has been done, skilled assistants scrutinise the results, theatre by theatre, and make an abstract of those which are most important. This gives a provisional outline of facts, which must be elaborated. The elaboration is done mainly by means of the docketed papers, which have in the meantime been searched for in the Admiralty register, taken over to the Historical Section, and there rearranged into geographical divisions and special subjects, to correspond with the arrangement of the telegrams. The skilled assistants now compare the information obtained from these two sources: gaps and misfits are detected and a search is instituted for further papers. These may either have been retained by some branch of the Admiralty, or they may have had a special origin and never have been recorded in the Central Registry. The search for them needs special qualities and untiring energy.


When the outline has been tested and amended, and when the supplementary process of search is complete, the assistants are at last in a position to make out a provisional narrative of events, which is to follow the lines and divisions of the volume in hand, as determined by the historian. His work may best be described as architectural; but it has two difficulties which are not experienced by an architect. First, there is the necessity of designing, not once for all, but by a continual series of conceptions and adaptations: and secondly, there will be from time to time the necessity of investigating subjects which are not capable of simple chronological treatment. These special subjects generally relate to technical questions of policy, strategy or tactics,: they must be introduced in their natural place, but the main narrative must not be allowed to become disjointed or confusing. In the case of a war carried on in many simultaneous but widely separated campaigns, it may be imagined that the historian is here face to face with something like an impossibility.


From another quarter comes a difficulty almost equally formidable. It has for some time past been generally held, and especially among military authorities, that the writing of history should be, as nearly as possible, contemporary with the events which it records and judges. But the obvious advantage of living testimony is offset by serious disadvantages, Siborne's inquiry did not result in a final and coherent account of Waterloo. In the Trafalgar controversy, which broke out nearly forty years after the battle, and again in the year of the centenary, regrets were often expressed that no authoritative attempt had been made to settle the question at issue during the time when it was still possible to hear and examine the evidence of those who took part in the action. These regrets were needless - the documents were sufficient, and they proved more convincing, when properly examined, than the varying accounts of a number of eye-witnesses would in all probability have been. It was not realised that every officer present at any military operation has his own distinct point of view, both in the physical and the intellectual sense.


In the case of an action on a large scale there will always be some conflict of evidence, and in a long war period there will be time for changes in every mental record. The picture in the keeping of memory is liable not only to fade but to be secretly revised by the unconscious self: after five or ten years it may remain apparently uninjured, but it is no longer the contemporary picture, for it has been repainted year after year by touches imperceptible to the artist as well as to those before whom he places it. This retouching may be a real refreshing and deepening of memory by a process of systematic reflection and by comparison with authentic documents: it may therefore add greatly to the value of the evidence. But in other cases the result may be disconcerting to the historian. One thing is certain: history must not fail to take account of all the elements in the problem, among which is this fading and changing nature of memory.


Another is the increased difficulty of tracing policy and estimating responsibility, caused by the vast extent and complexity of modern warfare. It may be said without exaggeration that when the naval forces of a belligerent nation include more than three thousand ships, and the naval campaign is conducted simultaneously in five or more theatres of war, by methods still unfamiliar in practice, the duties of the supreme naval adviser to the Cabinet must in a long war become too exacting a task for the powers of a single individual. It was the good fortune of England and her Allies that these duties were in our time of danger entrusted to an officer of rare character and ability - the leader whom his subordinates were eager to follow, the commander who prepared for battle with infinite patience and foresight, the seaman who led the fleet at Jutland with decision, tenacity and skill. But even for the most devoted servant of his country there is a limit beyond which human nature cannot go. Not only is the physical strain, however gallantly borne, too severe and too continuous; the intellectual burden is so excessive as to clog and almost disable the finest human machinery.


The historian then must realise this new condition, that we reached in our last war the point where the individual is out of scale: no War Minister or First Lord of the past could ride in the whirlwinds or direct the storms of yesterday's campaign. The conflict was Titanic - it was not merely one between great military commanders, but literally one between whole nations and their national systems. This does not diminish the gratitude and admiration with which we recall the services of our supreme Commanders in the time of trial. They were able, devoted, and successful. But while the ability and devotion were their own, the success was partly theirs, partly the nation's - that is to say, it was achieved by means of our Constitution, the unique inherited system that enabled a Parliamentary Government to weather the military and diplomatic crisis, in which the autocratic system of our opponents broke down. The comparison forms one of the most interesting and far-reaching lessons of the war: it may be most readily studied by reading in immediate succession two chapters of the present history - first, chapter vii of Volume IV, recording the discussions and decisions which led our opponents to the adoption of unrestricted submarine war; and then the first chapter of Volume V, setting forth the cares and perplexities which delayed the general extension of the Convoy system by our own Admiralty. This comparison will show the groundlessness of our old misgiving, that Cabinet governments must be at a disadvantage when at war with a military autocracy.


It proves that when the civilian element in a Constitution is in war-time overborne by the military, and has no appeal except to a Sovereign who is himself the supreme military and naval authority, there will be less breadth of view in debate or discussion, and very much less certainty of wisdom in the policy decided upon: those whose profession is the application of sheer force will insist upon force as the infallible remedy, and will gain the support of the head of the State, who may be neither a great statesman nor a great commander. On the other hand, a Parliamentary Government will always be better equipped with thinking power, and more likely to prefer a policy consistent with the national welfare to one aiming at a merely military success. The advantage in our own hour of danger was greater still; for included among our reserves was the use of a power always latent but hitherto seldom or never brought effectively into action - the power of the civil Government, with which rests the ultimate control of all the national resources, to exercise influence not only in matters of policy and strategy, but even in the choice of technical measures at sea.


The historian's work, then, though made more difficult and at times delayed by the necessity for long conferences and correspondence, has been full of interest and not without hope of a useful result. If this has been attained in any degree, it is due to the collaboration which I have described: and I desire to offer my thanks not only to my immediate assistants - Lieut.-Commander A. C. Bell, Instructor-Captain O. T. Tuck and Miss Edith Keate - as well as to Lieut.-Colonel E. Y. Daniel and the entire Staff of the Naval Section, but also to Mr, C. Ernest Fayle and Captain A. C. Dewar, R.N., the head of the Historical Section of the Training and Staff Duties Division of the Admiralty. Lastly, I am much indebted to those distinguished officers who gave their time so unsparingly to the enlightenment of my views; and I have once more the pleasure to acknowledge with gratitude the full and courteous help of Admiral von Mantey and the German Admiralty.


Henry Newbolt.









The Beginnings of the Convoy System


The onset of the German submarine offensive advanced to its furthest point in April 1917, and continued to cause us serious loss until October, in which month it may be said to have reached the period of slack water; in the following March the replacement of shipping began to exceed the losses, and the danger was visibly past. This was all that the nation knew, and all that it needed to know, at the time; but we are now able to take some account of the difficulties which harassed our leaders, political and naval, and to trace for future guidance the course of their deliberations and the origins of those decisions which ended by turning back the tide of war. As we have seen, the position of the two antagonists was, at the moment of crisis, entirely different; for the Germans, it was only necessary to postulate the same weakness in our defence, the same efficiency in their U‑boat captains, and the same resulting total losses to ensure our exhaustion in the specified time. For us, the situation was less simple: our losses must, of course, be reduced or we could not survive; but the sure method of reduction had long been, and still remained, in doubt: no reliable system of hunting and destroying submarines had yet been developed; for saving tonnage, the Admiralty's choice seemed to lie between such expedients as controlled sailings and protected traffic lanes, on the one hand, and a comprehensive system of convoy on the other. This choice was one of great importance and involved the heaviest responsibility; for upon the issue hung, beyond doubt, as in a balance, the safety or the destruction of the Allied Powers.


Now that we can look back upon the whole course of the campaign, we can usefully study why it was that the choice should have been so long in doubt, and at the time there were certainly many, even among civilians, who were familiar with the idea of convoy, and inferred, from its success in former wars ....


Convoy, under the name of "wafting," was found necessary and effective as far back as the days of the Great Harry.


"And as for sending ships for the scouring of the narrow sea and wafting of the hoys that go to Calais, I pray God send you them in time; for it is too great a shame to lose the ships that be lost. And I trust ye win no more adventure neither the ordnance, artillery, victuals, nor men, till ye have wafters. Meseemeth that ye might man some of the Spaniards that be at Sandwich, and make them wafters till other may come to you." (Bishop Fox, Lord Privy Seal, to Wolsey, 1513.)


Shakespeare uses the word in the same sense.


.... that it was an obvious and infallible method whose value had been strangely overlooked. They could hardly be aware, as those in command were aware, of the many differences between a system used for the protection of merchant fleets which sailed perhaps twice a year, and could only be attacked on the surface, and a system for the protection, from under‑water attack, of a world‑wide and incessant flow of trade. But there was more than this difference to cause prolonged deliberation: the First Sea Lord and the Director of the Anti‑Submarine Division had each a reason of his own for deferring the moment of a decision which was all‑important.


One of the main difficulties with which the Admiralty had had to contend throughout the war was that the resources of the navy had been strained almost to breaking point in the endeavour to maintain overseas armies in so many theatres of war with an entirely inadequate number of small craft for the purpose. This applies particularly to destroyers, of which there had never been anything like a sufficient number. Admiral Jellicoe, therefore, was constantly held back by the reflection that the destroyer forces required for convoy work would have to be collected from commands both at home and abroad, from which applications for more destroyers, couched in most urgent terms, were constantly being received, and which in the First Sea Lord's own judgment were without doubt inadequately supplied. Admiral Duff's advice as Director of the Ailti‑Submarine Division supported Admiral Jellicoe's view, for he believed that unless the escorting ships bore a very large proportion to the number of ships in each convoy, the system would be an additional danger rather than a protection. He had also, as will appear presently, serious misgivings of a different kind, which were shared by other high officials. The War Cabinet on their part were also in an anxious position. It is true that in matters concerning active operations they were able to lean upon the advice of their highest naval and military commanders; but the ultimate responsibility for the conduct of the war as a whole


Nov. 1916



rested none the less upon themselves. Moreover, they would naturally feel their responsibility more as their own measure of experience increased; and they had by this time, in many conferences with their expert advisers, acquired some insight into the nature of the tactics by which their policy was being carried out. It was, therefore, only to be expected that they should, in a grave crisis, try their own powers in the surveying and re‑surveying of a problem for which no solution had yet been found and upon which the expert decision was more and more anxiously awaited. Having regard to the serious effect upon the maintenance of our war effort of the continued and increasing losses of merchant ships from submarine attack, it was unquestionably the War Cabinet's duty to satisfy themselves by any means within their power not only that the measures adopted for the protection of trade routes were being carried out with the utmost vigour and efficiency, but also that the system was the best possible and that no better method was being neglected. The situation thus became one not only of supreme moment but of permanent historical interest. It was to be dealt with under a system of long development, a vital part of the national defence; and since the success or failure of this system must affect the future of our constitution, a description of its working under the greatest strain ever put upon it should be a source of instruction and of consequence for our successors.


On October 30, 1916, Sir John Jellicoe, then Commander-in‑Chief of the Grand Fleet, had written a letter to the Prime Minister expressing anxiety with regard to the danger to the Allied cause from submarine attacks on merchant ships, which with notable prescience he anticipated would increase in the following spring. At Mr. Asquith's request Sir John Jellicoe had thereupon come to London, and attended a meeting of the War Committee on November 2. Admiral Sir Henry Jackson, the First Sea Lord, and Vice‑Admiral Sir H. F. Oliver, the Chief of the War Staff at the Admiralty, were also present. Among other subjects the question of a possible convoy system was discussed. Mr. Lloyd George opened by asking Sir John Jellicoe if he had any plan against the German submarines working outside. Sir John Jellicoe said that he had not. They had only armed merchant ships, and these could not act offensively because they did not see the submarines. He suggested having floating intelligence centres to direct the routes of shipping, if found needful. He did not approve of convoys, as they offered too big a target.


Mr. Bonar Law then asked if they could not use a system of ships protected by a convoy of warships. Sir Henry Oliver replied that they did it in the Mediterranean, so did the French and the Italians; but it did not do to send more than one ship at a time under escort. The French tried more, and lost two or three of their ships.


Mr. Lloyd George then suggested a dozen ships being convoyed by three ships of war. Sir John Jellicoe said in reply that they would never be able to keep merchant ships sufficiently together to enable a few destroyers to screen them. It was different with warships, which they could keep in a locked‑up formation. Mr. Runciman added that, looking at the principle of convoy from the point of view of tonnage, it was most wasteful. There was no advantage in speed, as a convoy must move at a pace regulated by the slowest ship.


If such opinions were intended to be decisive, it was obviously useless to discuss the question further. It was, however, probable that the view put forward by Sir John Jellicoe on this occasion was more the Admiralty's than his own. He was at this time commanding the Grand Fleet and had not studied the question of the protection of ocean trade, a subject with which the Admiralty representatives present must have been much more conversant than he. As Commander‑in‑Chief he was not immediately responsible for the defence of trade in the approach routes and the Channel: he would hardly be inclined to overrule the conclusions of those who for two years past had studied the daily reports on attacks, chases and submarine engagements in the zones where the campaign against our trade was fiercest and most continuous. It was indeed clear that he did not feel himself called upon at this moment to give a definite and firm decision upon so complicated a question as that of trade defence. In the memorandum which he presented to the Government and the Admiralty, a few days before the Conference assembled, he had been careful to state that he did not wish, or intend, to make concrete proposals. The plan that he had in mind was purely administrative: to create a division, or department, of the Admiralty which should subject suggestions and all existing methods to a searching and scientific investigation.


The creation of this division and its proper constitution were, indeed, the principal questions under discussion in the purely naval conference which assembled at the Admiralty on the following day. (The Commander‑in‑Chief, Grand Fleet, the First, Second, Third and Fourth Sea Lords, the Chief of Staff, the Director of Operations, the Admiral in charge of Minesweeping, the Chairman of the Submarine Committee, Sir Arthur Wilson, Lieutenant‑Commander Burney and Lieutenant‑Commander Churchill attended.) The officers present did, however,


Jan. 1917



make a brief survey of existing methods, and of any technical improvements in them which seemed possible at the moment. During this discussion, neither the possibility nor the advisability of introducing a convoy system was so much as touched upon, which shows that the Board of Admiralty did not, at that moment, consider it a feasible operation of war.


Again, when Sir John Jellicoe became First Sea Lord he was bound to give great weight and consideration to Admiralty opinion as he found it; and, since the November Conference, opinion had not changed at all. Indeed, it had hardened. The views of the Staff were set out in an official pamphlet issued in January 1917, in which it was stated, quite emphatically, that a convoy system was not a sound measure of trade defence: "Whenever possible, vessels should sail singly, escorted as considered necessary. The system of several ships sailing together in a convoy is not recommended in any area where submarine attack is a possibility. It is evident that the larger the number of ships forming the convoy, the greater is the chance of a submarine being enabled to attack successfully, the greater the difficulty of the escort in preventing such an attack. In the case of defensively armed merchant vessels, it is preferable that they should sail singly rather than that they should be formed into a convoy with several other vessels. A submarine could remain at a distance and fire her torpedo into the middle of a convoy with every chance of success. A defensively armed merchant vessel of good speed should rarely, if ever, be captured. If the submarine comes to the surface to overtake and attack with her gun, the merchant vessel's gun will nearly always make the submarine dive, in which case the preponderance of speed will allow of the merchant ship escaping."


The author or draughtsman of this pamphlet seems to have recorded the collective opinion of the Admiralty with some accuracy, for the minutes of those high officials who were more particularly concerned with the defence of trade are all expressive of the same, or nearly the same, view. The Director of the Trade Division had recently stated in a minute upon a paper circulated to him: "The question of convoy has frequently been gone into, but experience, so far, has not justified its existence outside the Mediterranean." The Director of the Operations Division suggested on the same papers that the question was one of expediency rather than of principle, and that if more destroyers were available they might usefully be employed on convoy duties in the Mediterranean. Admiral Duff, who was now the Director of the Anti‑Submarine Division which had been constituted at Sir John Jellicoe's suggestion, was, however, more impressed by the difficulties of enforcing such a system of trade defence than by its possible advantages. His view was that "differences of speed, loss of the safety afforded by zig‑zagging, and the inevitable tendency of merchant ships to straggle at night are some of the reasons against an organised system of convoy."


Although Admiral Jellicoe could not fail to be impressed by the misgivings of technical advisers with such high qualifications and experience as Admiral Webb and Admiral Duff, he was still clear and decided on one point: that if the existing system of trade defence needed reinforcing and supplementing, then this could only be done by instituting some kind of convoy system. One of his earliest minutes was a warning to the Staff that they might be obliged to place some of the Atlantic trade under convoy, in order to protect it against the Moewe. The Chief of the Staff in his answer showed what formidable obstacles would have to be overcome if a convoy system were to be instituted; but even after Admiral Jellicoe had read Admiral Oliver's catalogue of difficulties, he minuted the paper with the remark that the whole question must be borne in mind and brought up again later if needs be. That is, he still withheld judgment.


The practical difficulties were indeed formidable, and they must be enumerated in some detail if the subsequent course of events and the decisions eventually taken are to be rightly estimated. A convoy system was only practical and possible if sufficient escorts could be found for the groups of merchant ships which would be passing daily through the danger zone when such a system was instituted. Could those escorts be collected from the destroyer forces in Home waters? The position stood roughly thus. About eighty destroyers and leaders were stationed at Scapa for service with the Grand Fleet battle squadrons; about thirty more were based on Rosyth. At any given moment about twenty of these vessels were either detached for temporary duties with local commanders, or refitting and repairing. The total destroyer force upon which the Commander‑in‑Chief could depend in a sudden emergency was a force of between eighty‑five and ninety units. It was now useless to hope that the Harwich Force would be able to act as a reinforcement to the Grand Fleet. Its nominal strength was fifty destroyers, but those destroyers had ceased to be a concentrated force and had become a sort of pool for miscellaneous service in the Flanders Bight and the Dover Straits. Detachments to Dover and refits had reduced the effective striking force at Harwich to


Jan.‑Feb. 1917



about a dozen or fifteen destroyers and leaders. This small force was continuously employed on the Dutch trade. From this it was quite clear to Admiral Jellicoe that, if a convoy system was to be instituted, no escort forces could be taken from the Grand Fleet or from the Flanders Bight.


Even less could the Dover Patrol be tampered with; a long record of raids that had ended unsatisfactorily, and of losses to drifters and trawlers, showed the weakness of our defence. In any case the Admiral in charge at Dover was maintaining his defence of the Straits by means of heavy destroyer loans from Harwich. What destroyer forces remained? There was a local defence flotilla of ten destroyers at Scapa, just sufficient to patrol the submarine‑infested approaches to the fleet anchorage. Now that it was realised that any large German fleet movement would be preceded by heavy submarine concentration off the British bases, this local defence flotilla could hardly be detached. At the Humber there were about twenty destroyers, mainly of the "River" class; these also were, in Admiral Jellicoe's opinion, undetachable. At the Nore, Portsmouth and Devonport there were about sixty destroyers in all. More than half of these were too old and small for escort service in the outer approach routes. The only conclusion possible was, therefore, that if all available destroyers were collected for convoy duty, about twenty units could be used for service in the outer parts of the danger zone, and between twenty and thirty older destroyers of the "River" class might be used for escorting Channel convoys between the Lizard and the Isle of Wight.


It was obviously impossible to provide escorts for a universal convoy system with such a force. It might, however, have been used for escorting incoming ships on one ‑ possibly upon two ‑ of the North Atlantic routes. But if this were done, then every available destroyer would be absorbed in the duty; and the defence of ships on the remaining routes, and of all outgoing ships, would be left entirely to the drifters, trawlers and auxiliaries of the local patrols. Would losses be appreciably reduced by protecting one section of trade at the expense of another? In Admiral Jellicoe's opinion they would not; it would be useless, even dangerous, to introduce a convoy system until it could be made more comprehensive.


The provision of escorts was, however, only one of the difficulties. It must never be forgotten that the starting-point of a convoy system is a subjection of private enterprise to State control on a scale that the most enthusiastic and visionary socialist would hardly dare to advocate. That control is not exercised in the same manner as the State control of railways, which operates through committees of liaison, assembled in distant board‑rooms. It is an outward and visible control which affects the merchant seaman and his officers in their daily lives, which disturbs their most deep-seated and traditional habits. And above the masters and men, all the land staff of the great companies from clerk to manager come under the dominion of orders issued by the State and its officers. It was obvious that a measure of control so embracing and rigid could not be instituted by a mere decision in high places.


Long consultation between the naval and shipping authorities must precede it. But when, as a first preliminary, Admiral Jellicoe assembled a conference of experienced ship captains at the Admiralty, and after describing the dangers of the position to them, asked them to give him their views upon convoy, they presented him with a list of difficulties which no seaman could treat lightly. If convoys were instituted, the merchant captains and their officers would have to manoeuvre and keep station in regular formation. Those present stated unanimously that this would be quite impossible. Their best officers had long ago joined the naval forces; their ships were not fitted with the mechanical appliances necessary for making such nice adjustments in speed as were necessary for ships manoeuvring in formation. Connections between bridges and engine‑rooms were crude and primitive; even if they were improved, the engine‑room controls were not of a kind which would enable the engineer officers to change the ships' speed by a few revolutions. They would much prefer to sail alone, and were of opinion that, in any case, not more than two ships could usefully sail in company.


In addition to all this, ships sailing in convoys would be exposed to special risks against which provision would have to be made beforehand. First, and most important, the institution of a convoy system would involve loss of carrying power, in that vessels would complete fewer round voyages in the year. Some estimate of the delays, some preparation for reducing them had obviously to be made beforehand; and this estimate, these preparations, could only be made by long consultation with port authorities upon such highly technical matters as "turn round" loading and unloading. Again, whatever additional protection might be given by armed escorts, it was obvious that ships in convoy would be very much exposed to attack during and immediately after the act of dispersal. The danger might conceivably be overcome by heavy concentrations of patrol craft at the points of dispersal;


Jan.‑Feb. 1917



but this would involve considerable administrative preparation and consultation with the local senior officers. Finally, it could not be doubted that the enemy would open an intensive mining campaign against what might be called the strategic points of a convoy system. The ports at which convoys collected, the points at which they dispersed, the coastal routes along which they would move, all would henceforward be mined with energy and determination.


But the dominant difficulty was one against which no provision could be made, for it was contingent upon the politics of a great neutral country. According to the strict and literal law of nations, a belligerent Power may assemble a convoy in a neutral port. But statesmen, who are not bound to treat these matters as mere questions of law, may refuse to allow their ports to be used for such a purpose ‑ on the ground that it will attract foreign combatants to their national waters. Even though they do not forbid it outright, they can raise such administrative difficulties that the work of collecting and routeing a convoy from a neutral harbour becomes almost impossible. The attitude which the American Government would adopt seemed doubtful. Even when they had broken off diplomatic relations with Germany, they were still neutral. The President on February 3 announced that he hoped to remain so. Their active or passive opposition might make the whole system unworkable.


The position at the end of January was, therefore, that certain influential members of the Admiralty Staff strongly doubted whether a convoy system would materially reduce merchant shipping losses; and that Admiral Jellicoe was withholding a final decision until the known difficulties and obstacles had been further examined, and until the American attitude became clearer.


But the time available for examining difficulties was rapidly running out. On February 1, 1917, in accordance with the German Emperor's command, the unrestricted U-boat campaign began.


The losses ‑ already alarming ‑ rose sharply in the first week of the new campaign; and Mr. Lloyd George saw at once that the country and the alliance would shortly be in danger. His duty was not doubtful. As Prime Minister of Great Britain he was responsible for the conduct of the war; he must, therefore, at once examine all the plans of the naval authorities and convince himself and his colleagues that the best method of thwarting the danger had been adopted. Mr. Lloyd George was not persuaded that the problem at issue was intrinsically different from any question of major strategy. He believed that it could be stripped of its load of supplementary questions ‑ which nobody but an expert can examine ‑ and that, when reduced to its essentials, it would be found to be a plain question which a man of knowledge and good judgment can resolve. On February 13, therefore, he conferred informally with Sir Edward Carson, Admiral Jellicoe and Admiral Duff. The line of thought on which he wished to test naval opinion is set forth in a paper containing some suggestions for anti‑submarine warfare, which had been prepared for him by Sir Maurice Hankey two days before, and was now read to the members of the conference as a basis for discussion. The following paragraphs are here given at length, as the clearest and most authentic account of the reasoning which enabled the War Cabinet to sustain their constitutional part in the conduct of the war; not as technical experts, but as responsible leaders bringing in their powers at the decisive moment to carry forward and support their high executive officers.


"The situation created by the enemy's adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare threatens to become so serious that the Admiralty will surely not resent the suggestions of an outsider, who, though well placed as an onlooker, can lay no claim to be a practical expert in combating this form of attack. The ideas in this Memorandum, therefore, are put forward in no critical or aggressive spirit, but in the hope that some part of them at least may contribute towards the constructive anti‑submarine policy of the Admiralty.


"The general scheme submitted below entails ultimately an entire reorganisation of the Admiralty's present scheme of anti‑submarine warfare, although it might, in the first instance, be adopted experimentally on a smaller scale. It involves the substitution of a system of scientifically organised convoys, and the concentration on this service of the whole of the anti‑submarine craft allotted to the protection of our trade routes, excepting only those vessels devoted to the anti-submarine service of our main fleets. It further involves the concentration on to the convoy system of every means of anti‑submarine warfare ‑ the gun, the submarine, the net, the depth charge, the mortar, the hydrophone, and wireless telegraphy. It aims at the effective utilisation of the slower as well as of the faster anti‑submarine craft for the convoy system, and it contemplates ultimately the provision of special salvage and life‑saving craft and plant to accompany the convoys. The Memorandum also contains suggestions for investigations of a technical character for combating the submarine, which may or may not be entirely new.


Feb. 13, 1917



Objections to the Convoy System


"The objections to the convoy system have more than once been developed before the late War Committee and the present War Cabinet, and unquestionably the bulk of the best naval opinion has up to now been against it.


"It has been pointed out that the convoy provides an immense target for the enemy's attack. Unless one fast escort is provided for each ship the enemy merely selects a vessel that is unescorted and sinks it at sight. It would not be possible to provide fast craft to escort a mass of merchant ships. Moreover, the speeds of the ships vary, and the convoy must go rather slower than the speed of the slowest ship in order to leave a margin in hand for station‑keeping. Hence, the faster vessel loses the advantage she would otherwise obtain from her speed. Moreover, the merchant service is not trained to keep station, which is only achieved in the navy itself by dint of long practice and experience; hence, the ships in the convoy would constantly straggle, and there would be many collisions. An objection of a different order is that the sudden influx into our ports of a mass of shipping would lead to congestion. In the same order of ideas it is contended that the system involves so much loss of time and waste of effort that it cannot be contemplated.


"These are formidable objections. In the earlier part of the war the writer recognised them to be crucial. Circumstances, however, have changed, and the question arises for serious consideration whether some of the objections have not lost a good deal of force, while others are outweighed by the comparative failure of the present system, and whether means are not at hand for overcoming yet a third group of these objections.


"For example, the great curtailment in our trade which must be expected to follow the adoption of a drastic restriction of imports will render far less cogent the argument that our ports will become congested, and the organisation of the special battalions for alleviating congestion in our ports provides a mobile force to supplement the labour at any great port where a large convoy has arrived. The argument that time is wasted has also lost much of its force, as, under the existing system, the adoption of devious routes, and the frequent closing of our ports, have already involved very great delay. The adoption of the principle of nationalisation of shipping and shipping personnel will enable the Admiralty to enforce the necessary discipline on merchant skippers, and to 'dilute' the merchant service with officers to train them in keeping station. In this war far more complicated technical matters than station‑keeping have been taught on a gigantic scale to less responsive material than the merchant seamen, both in military and munitions matters. The objection based on speed can be surmounted partly by excluding the really fast vessels from the convoy system, and partly by a rough grouping of vessels of approximately equal speed. Moreover, this objection is compensated by the fact that the more valuable vessels and cargoes can be placed in the safer portion of the convoy surrounded and screened by less valuable ships. The difficulty of providing large enough escorts can probably only be surmounted by careful organisation; by reorganising the existing distribution of anti‑submarine craft; by grouping these vessels according to their speeds, sea‑going qualities, armament, etc.; and by devoting the greater part to escort duty, allotting them according to their suitability, to longdistance convoys, short sea‑voyage convoys, or coastal convoys.


The Objections to the Existing System


"Before describing in detail the new proposals for convoys, some remarks on the weaknesses of the existing system for the protection of mercantile traffic may be permissible. It is desired to emphasise that these are made in no critical or hostile spirit. They were probably the best possible measures under earlier conditions, and they are criticised from the standpoint of a new situation differing markedly from that which they were originally designed to meet.


"The writer has encountered some difficulty owing to the fact that he is not intimately acquainted with the existing system. As he understands it, the coastwise area surrounding these islands is divided into a number of sectors. To each sector there is allotted a certain number of destroyers, patrol vessels, 'Q' ships, and small craft for mine‑sweeping and anti‑submarine services, each sector being under the command of a special flag officer. As a rule, these small craft do not operate outside their own sector, though a redistribution of them is made from time to time by the Admiralty. The operations in these sectors are co‑ordinated by a special Department of the Admiralty, but there is no Inspector-General, and it would be difficult to appoint one without, to some extent, weakening the authority and responsibility and hampering the initiative of the Naval Commanders‑in‑Chief on the coast of Ireland, Devonport, Portsmouth, Dover, the Nore, and Rosyth, in whose commands the several sectors are situated. The writer is ignorant as to whether orders to the


Feb. 13, 1917



sectors are transmitted direct from the Admiralty or through the Naval Commander‑in‑Chief.


"Some corresponding arrangement is made by the French Admiralty along the French coast.


"Outside the coastal areas the protection of the trade routes is understood to be under the command of the Senior Naval Officers on the various stations. The special forces under their control for anti‑submarine work on the high seas are understood to be confined practically to the 'Q' sloops, which are, in fact, decoy vessels of an ingenious type, but they are few in number, and for their success depend mainly on meeting the submarine on the surface. In the narrow waters of the Mediterranean there are considerable numbers of destroyers (about to be reinforced by two Japanese flotillas) and other small craft.


"Even if the number of small anti‑submarine craft (understood to amount to 3000 or 4000 vessels) is so great that a certain degree of control can be exercised in coastal waters, it is clear that the deep‑sea routes accessible to the modern sea‑going submarine are so extensive that they can be only very thinly patrolled, and the protection afforded, except at a few obligatory points of passage, such as the St. George's Channel or the Straits of Gibraltar, is little more than nominal. Hence, the Admiralty has adopted the expedient of prescribing the routes to be followed by British and, in some instances, by neutral ships, and these routes, to which the patrols are confined, are frequently changed in order to puzzle the enemy.


"It is obvious that this system has many weaknesses. If the enemy has a properly organised system of reconnaissance he will soon rediscover the changed route, at the point where it emerges from the unavoidable points of convergence, or at the terminal of the trade route. Placing himself on the trade route he has merely to await his prey, possibly lying submerged and trusting to the hydrophone to give him warning of his victim's approach. If he confines himself to the use of the torpedo the risks he runs are infinitesimal. He attacks in most cases without having to fight at all. The only protection that the merchant vessel has is the gun (if she is so fortunate as to have one), her speed, and evasion by steering a zigzag course. In spite of these palliatives the attack of trade routes is a 'soft thing' for the submarine with a constant stream of isolated merchant ships, almost devoid of offensive power, to choose from.


"How under this system we are ever to avoid losses limited only by the number of the enemy's sea‑going submarines, and his output of torpedoes, it is difficult to see. The true strategical principal would, of course, be to intercept the enemy near his exits from his ports, and from the very first days of the war the writer has been an ardent and unceasing advocate of the development of an unrestricted policy of mines, which are 'the trench of the sea.' In the early part of the war, however, the Admiralty was utterly unsympathetic to submarine mining, with the result that, in the middle of the third year of the war, our provision for minelaying is absolutely inadequate to the needs of the situation.


The Advantages of the Convoy System


"Over the system described above the convoy system, if practicable, appears to offer certain very distinct advantages.


"The enemy can never know the day nor the hour when the convoy will come, nor the route which it will take. The most dangerous and contracted passages can be passed at night. Routes can be selected as far as possible in water so deep that submarine mines cannot be laid. The convoy can be preceded by minesweepers or by vessels fitted with paravanes. The most valuable ships can be placed in the safest part of the convoy. Neutrals, and other unarmed vessels, can be placed under the protection of armed vessels. The enemy submarines, instead of attacking a defenceless prey, will know that a fight is inevitable in which he may be worsted. All hope of successful surface attack would have to be dismissed at once.


"The adoption of the convoy system would appear to offer great opportunities for mutual support by the merchant vessels themselves, apart from the defence provided by their escorts. Instead of meeting one small gun on board one ship the enemy might be under fire from, say, ten guns, distributed among twenty ships. Each merchant ship might have depth charges, and explosive charges in addition might be towed between pairs of ships, to be exploded electrically. One or two ships with paravanes might save a line of a dozen ships from the mine danger. Special salvage ships (alluded to later) might accompany the convoy to salve those ships which were mined or torpedoed without sinking immediately, and in any event to save the crews.


"Perhaps the best commentary on the convoy system is that it is invariably adopted for our main fleet, and for our transports."


Such were the suggestions which Mr. Lloyd George, without committing himself to them, offered to the Admiralty


Feb.‑March 1917



representatives at this informal meeting. But this able paper, which laid the great issues of the problem so clearly before the Prime Minister, did not bring him and his naval advisers any closer together. To the Admirals the paper read merely like an abstract statement of strategical principle. They were quite prepared to admit that the principles enunciated in Sir Maurice's paper were sound; they were considering not the principle itself but its practical consequences in the disposition of our naval forces. In any case the Prime Minister did not press them to give a considered reply; for soon after the meeting he was entirely occupied with questions arising out of the great offensive which General Nivelle was about to conduct.


For the next month the subject of convoy was not again brought up in the War Cabinet, and the First Sea Lord's reports on the submarine campaign, which he made at almost every meeting, were little but reports upon actions between single ships and enemy submarines. His reply to questions addressed to him by the War Cabinet during March was that the matter was being considered. The situation was, however, changing; it was during this month of March that the Admiralty became cognisant of certain new facts and figures which helped to clear away some of the doubts as to the efficacy of a convoy system, though they could do nothing to remove the heavy mass of obstacles and difficulties which was still embarrassing Admiral Jellicoe.


During February vessels engaged in the coal trade to Northern France had been organised into rough and tentative convoys (See post, p. 27.), called "controlled sailings." By the end of March, therefore, the Admiralty had before them six weeks' evidence of the results of the system. It was not as yet possible to say that this experiment justified the introduction of a regular system of ocean convoy; but the reduction of losses in a trade which had hitherto been particularly afflicted was decidedly impressive, and it contributed in a marked degree to decisions made later on. In the meantime the rising list of losses in the approach routes gave clear warning to all concerned that the present position could not be much longer maintained.


On April 3 a Conference assembled at Longhope; its terms of reference were strictly defined. (See Vol. IV, p. 383.) The officers present were to consider how the heavy losses recently suffered by ships engaged in the Scandinavian trade could be reduced. They reported unanimously that the Scandinavian trade ought to be placed in convoy. The local senior officers, to whom the report was submitted, were not by any means so unanimous. Only one of them openly challenged the recommendations, but several of the most experienced officers read them with considerable misgivings. The opinion that the escort would have to be numerically equal, or nearly so, to the vessels escorted was still strongly held; for Admiral Pears, at Invergordon, recommended that not more than four or five merchant ships should be escorted at a time.


Admiral Hamilton, the Commander‑in‑Chief at Rosyth, supported the recommendations, but added that the arrangements could not be kept secret, and that sooner or later the enemy would raid the convoy in strength. Admiral Stuart Nicholson, at Grimsby, however, stated that he could not endorse the Conference's recommendations. "Personally," he wrote, "I am in favour of individual escort by single trawler of the more valuable ships, the rest proceeding independently, and destroyers being used to patrol the trade route." Admiral Stuart Nicholson repeated Admiral Hamilton's warning about raids in almost identical language. Admiral Beatty expressed no disagreement with the Conference's findings in his covering letter, and he drew attention to the importance of the question under discussion.


Whilst these officers were drafting their endorsements or reservations to the findings of the Longhope Conference, the American President had assembled Congress, and had declared war against Germany (April 6). In eloquent and impressive words he proclaimed that the United States would wage war by land and by sea with all the energy of which they were capable, and with all the means in their power.


The papers on the Conference at Longhope reached the Admiralty on April 11, and were at once examined by all the officers concerned. The subject‑matter of the papers was relevant only to the proposal under review: the advisability of placing trade under convoy between Great Britain and Scandinavia. Admiral Duff was prepared to accept the recommendations of the Longhope Conference for the time being on account of certain peculiarities in the Scandinavian trade; for he wrote, in one part of his minute: "It is realised that in at any rate two respects the convoy system is particularly applicable to the Scandinavian trade; one is the shortness of the night during the summer months, and the other, the vessels using this route being very much of the same speed." Admiral Jellicoe endorsed the findings of the Conference and gave orders that the "system was to be tried, and a report sent fortnightly on its working." In the meantime our losses continued: they were too heavy to be endured


April 1917



in silence. We have already noted (See Vol. IV, p. 379.) that on April 23, when the War Cabinet had before them Admiral Jellicoe's exhaustive survey of the measures in force for combating submarine attack, the convoy system was still under consideration at the Admiralty, and therefore was not submitted to the Cabinet as a possible remedy. The Prime Minister did, however, raise the question on that occasion and quoted the views of Admirals Beatty and Sims. Admiral Jellicoe replied that the matter was under consideration; one of the chief obstacles to adopting such a scheme was the shortage of torpedo boat destroyers. There was some prospect of American destroyers being sent to assist us, and six had already been ordered to leave for this country. A much larger number would, however, be necessary before any scheme of convoy could be introduced. The trial of the convoy system by the Commander‑in‑Chief, Grand Fleet, had not been altogether successful. (He was referring to the Scandinavian convoy. See Vol. 1V., pp. 382‑4.) Two vessels in separate convoys had already been torpedoed and sunk.


Some members of the War Cabinet seem to have felt, and Lord Curzon pointed out, that without a more general survey than had hitherto been presented to them they could not be in a position to grasp and review the situation. The War Cabinet therefore asked for further figures as to the Admiralty's estimate of future losses, the present and prospective food situation, and the absolute minimum of imports essential to the Allied armies; and they adjourned the discussion until later in the afternoon.


On resuming, attention was particularly directed to the following points: (i) the increasingly heavy losses of merchant ships, (ii) the necessity for the provision of patrol vessels, (iii) the failure of our mining policy, (iv) the necessity of building up a reserve of food, (v) a proposal from the First Sea Lord for the building of mammoth unsinkable ships to ensure our obtaining supplies during the latter part of 1918. (The original proposal had been made by the Director of Naval Construction. It was placed before the War Cabinet by the First Sea Lord.) From this it seems clear that ocean convoy was still not one of the remedial measures suggested: though it was, as the First Sea Lord has stated, still under consideration, and he has added later that on April 23 it was "very nearly" put forward, "as it was obviously close to a settlement."


For the final reconsideration of the problem the Admiralty were now provided with fresh light upon one of the most important of their data ‑ the difficulty of providing the destroyers required. It was clear that a system of ocean convoy must involve the employment of considerable forces in escort work; and in the danger zone at any rate real security could only be guaranteed by destroyers. Yet at no time during 1916 had the destroyer force available for all purposes been more than barely adequate to the demands upon it. How then was it possible to meet a demand largely increased by the necessities of a system of convoy?


This question had for some time past been exercising the ability and industry of the Anti‑Submarine Division, where certain officers had taken in hand the verification of some of the facts from which the discouraging conclusion had seemed to be inevitably deduced. After long investigation and consultation with the Ministry of Shipping they succeeded in revising the table of relevant facts with striking result. They proved, in effect, that the supposed impossibility of providing sufficient escort was deduced from a miscalculation of the number of voyages requiring protection in the ocean trades. The mistake had arisen in this way.


With a view to discouraging the enemy, the figures showing the number of arrivals and departures of ships in the weekly statement published by the Admiralty had been made to include the repeated calls of all coasters and short sea traders of 300 tons and upwards; and by this method the figures had been swollen to about 2500 voyages a week each way. But inasmuch as the average number of voyages made weekly by British ocean‑going ships (1600 tons gross and upwards) had in time of peace been under 200 each way (Salter, Allied Shipping Control, p. 123.), a careful investigator well acquainted with shipping was bound to find that the published return had no real significance as regards the essential trades. The Ministry of Shipping had produced figures showing the actual arrivals and departures in the ocean trades to be between 120 and 140 each week. This revision of the figures, carried out mainly by Commander R. G. Henderson, was now in Admiral Duff's hands, and no doubt assisted in some degree towards the approaching settlement.


The position with regard to destroyers was this. Seventy or more would be required as escorts if a really comprehensive convoy system were introduced. There were at the moment, some 279 destroyers in Home waters, and of these, between twenty and thirty could be immediately employed in convoy duties. If it were decided to institute a system, destroyer assets would therefore be about forty units short of destroyer liabilities. But it was agreed by everybody that the Atlantic


April 1917



trade could only be grouped into convoys and placed under escort by degrees, and that some months would go by before a complete and embracing convoy system could be instituted. How the deficit could be made good was still uncertain. There was, however, a promise of American assistance, and the British shipyards would probably deliver about fifteen new boats by the end of July. All that could be said, therefore, was that the immediate call could just be met, and that if every available unit were allocated ruthlessly to the convoy organisation, as it developed and expanded, then it was just conceivable that the necessary number would be collected. If, however, the provisional estimate of the destroyers required proved to be too low, the future was dark indeed.


The time was now come, in the opinion of the Prime Minister and his colleagues, when a closer examination of all possible methods was necessary, even if it involved a critical survey of the naval administration itself. On April 25 the War Cabinet once more discussed the situation and decided that the Prime Minister should visit the Admiralty, to investigate all the means at present used in anti‑submarine warfare, on the ground that recent inquiries had made it clear that there was not sufficient co‑ordination in the present efforts to deal with the campaign.


But before he arrived, the decision, which both he and his Cabinet colleagues so ardently desired, had been taken. On April 26 Admiral Duff sent a paper to Admiral Jellicoe with the following minute:


"It seems to me evident that the time has arrived when we must be ready to introduce a comprehensive scheme of convoy at any moment.


"The sudden and large increases of our daily losses in merchant ships, together with the experience we have gained of the unexpected immunity from successful submarine attack in the case of the French coal trade, afford sufficient reason for believing that we can accept the many disadvantages of large convoys with the certainty of a great reduction in our present losses.


"Further, the United States having come into the war eliminates some of the apparently insuperable difficulties to a comprehensive scheme of convoy.


"The number of vessels roughly estimated in the attached paper as the minimum necessary for escort work is large, but the necessity of further safeguarding our food supply is becoming vital.


"The attached paper is merely an outline proposal giving certain figures to enable a decision to be given as to whether the scheme is to be proceeded with and worked out in detail.


"The work will be heavy, and if approved, I suggest the appointment of a Captain for the special purpose, in the first place to work out the scheme and afterwards to superintend its practical application."


The paper attached to this minute contained a detailed examination of the volume of trade to be escorted and of the cruisers and destroyers necessary for the purpose. The First Sea Lord approved the minute on the following day.


Seen in retrospect, Admiral Jellicoe's decision stands out clearly, even dramatically, as one of the most important of the war. The choice involved perhaps the heaviest responsibility ever faced by a naval chief; for it was the choice not merely of an alternative method of defence, but of a decisive tactical manoeuvre in the greatest battle in history ‑ the four-year battle for the use of sea transport, in which our whole mercantile fleet and all that depended on it was at stake. When once the decision was taken, the work, as we shall see, was put in hand with the greatest energy and ability. The splendid organisation for convoy work, which resulted from the labours of Admiral Duff, Paymaster‑Captain Manisty, and others, has earned tribute from our late enemy, as well as admiration from our own people.




The Convoy System and American Naval Assistance


The decision of the Admiralty was very welcome to the War Cabinet. On April 30 the Prime Minister visited the Admiralty in pursuance of the decision of the War Cabinet a week before. He found that the Admiralty's reconsideration of the convoy proposal had had a decisive result, and he drew up the following minute of the discussion in which their new attitude was communicated to him.


"I was gratified to learn from Admiral Duff that he had completely altered his view in regard to the adoption of a system of convoy, and I gather that the First Sea Lord shares his views, at any rate to the extent of an experiment. Admiral Duff is not enamoured with the system, but a number of circumstances have combined to bring him to the view, which I believe most of my colleagues share, that, at any rate, an experiment in this direction should be made. One of these reasons is that now that the United States of America have entered the war, he thinks it should be possible to find escorts which were formerly impracticable. Another is that experience has shown that he cannot rely on merchant ships to find salvation from the submarine by zigzagging and


April 1917



dousing their lights, and he therefore estimates these factors as a means of protection to a single ship lower than he formerly did. Moreover, as the result of an investigation in concert with a representative of the shipping controller, he finds that the number of ships for which convoy will have to be supplied is more manageable than he had thought. Further, the losses which he last reported to me on the subject were not, in his opinion, sufficient to justify the adoption of this experiment, which, he warned me, might involve a great disaster. Now, however, he calculates that he could afford to lose three ships out of every convoy without being worse off than at present, and he therefore thinks the experiment justifiable.


"I much regret that some time must elapse before convoy can be in full working order, and I consider that the Admiralty ought to press on with the matter as rapidly as possible.


"As the views of the Admiralty are now in complete accord with the views of the War Cabinet on this question, and as convoys have just come into operation on some routes and are being organised on others, further comment is unnecessary ..."


Although Admiral Jellicoe had decided to adopt a policy which proved itself, when established and developed, to be the long‑sought answer to the submarine menace, he was far from being satisfied that the War Cabinet and the Admiralty were now in complete accord on this question. A comprehensive convoy system could not be established by the mere signing of an order: the result was still a matter of expectation rather than of certainty: the enemy's attack was already organised and effective; even if all went well there must be an interval of continuing loss. The danger of the position had been deeply engraved upon his mind, and he felt as strongly as ever the necessity of impressing it with corresponding force upon the Prime Minister, whose attitude seemed to brush aside his profound anxiety with a ready optimism.


With this intention he had already prepared a memorandum which expressed his feeling in words of rare bluntness and of the utmost gravity. It is a document of great historical importance, and must be given here in full, because it is the only statement we possess, written with complete knowledge and the highest responsibility, of the one mortal danger which has ever threatened this country in war.


First Sea Lord to First Lord


"I feel it my duty to place before you my considered opinion that the time has arrived when it is necessary to bring home more fully to the Government the very serious nature of the naval position with which we are now confronted.


"I fear that the War Cabinet is not as yet fully impressed with the gravity of the situation. This may be due, in part at any rate, to want of sufficient emphasis in what I have said and written to its members, and on this assumption I must now invoke your aid, and that of the Board itself if necessary, to add force to my arguments and representations.


"As you may be aware, the only result of my efforts so far has been the appointment of Committees to investigate various features of the problem, such as the rate at which we can build ships to replace losses, the extent to which our shipping can be reduced without starving the country, etc., and I must point out with all the force at my command that this kind of administrative action does nothing to grapple with the vital difficulties of the situation.


"To begin with, all such estimates depend upon a forecast of our probable losses in mercantile shipping, and such forecasts are utterly useless. It is out of my own or anyone else's power to furnish figures with any approach to accuracy.


"The losses which we shall suffer depend upon such factors as the number of enemy submarines which are working, the skill with which they are disposed on our various trade routes, the number of torpedoes which they can carry, and the facilities possessed by the enemy for replacing those expended, the skill of the personnel, the sagacity of the officers of our own merchant ships, our luck in hitting off routes clear of submarines, our ability to intercept vessels which are on dangerous routes and to divert them when the danger becomes apparent, weather conditions, the number of vessels which we are able to maintain on patrol, the rate at which we can arm our merchant ships with guns and howitzers, the rate at which we can fit them with mine protection, the rate at which we can replace our mine‑sweepers, the perfection of our minefields, and the rapidity with which the new pattern mine can be manufactured.


"Nearly the whole of these factors are problematical, and no sort of accurate estimate can be given; some depend largely on the industry of the workmen of this country and on how far we may enjoy freedom from strikes. All estimates of deliveries of any of the new devices under manufacture have been falsified owing to labour difficulties, and, generally speaking, it is quite impossible to foresee the date at which we may hope to increase the rate of destruction of the enemy submarines.


"All these inquiries and all this Committee work ‑ though


April 1917



valuable for certain purposes ‑ falls very far short of the courageous and drastic action that should be applied by H.M. Government.


"For instance, I have urged time after time the absolute necessity that exists for reducing the number of lines of communication which the Navy is called upon to safeguard and for increasing the protection of those lines of communication which remain. So far the only result of my efforts has been increased calls upon the Navy without any sort of reduction of liabilities and with no appreciable increase of our resources. During the last three months, for example, we have been asked to import large numbers of native labourers from all parts of the world and, by the recent actions of the enemy, we are also called upon to escort all our hospital ships except those in far‑distant waters.


"The real fact of the matter is this. We are carrying on the war at the present time as if we had the absolute command of the sea, whereas we have not such command or anything approaching it. It is quite true that we are masters of the situation so far as surface ships are concerned, but it must be realised ‑ and realised at once ‑ that this will be quite useless if the enemy's submarines paralyse, as they do now, our lines of communication.


"History has shown from time to time the fatal results of basing naval and military strategy on an insecure line of communications. Disaster is certain to follow, and our present policy is heading straight for disaster. It is useless and dangerous in the highest degree to ignore that fact.


"I must, therefore, advise that the Government should so shape its policy as to recognise that we have neither the undisputed command of the sea nor even a reasonable measure of that command. If we do not recognise this it is my firm conviction that we shall lose the war by the starvation of our people and the paralysing of our Allies by failing to supply them with coal and other essentials.


"The policy of the war must, of course, be decided by the Government. It is merely my duty to advise whether the Navy is in a position to give effect to that policy, and I have no desire to trespass beyond my proper functions. I feel, however, that, as I am addressing this serious memorandum to you in the hope that through you its contents may have some influence on the War Cabinet, I ought to indicate several very important matters which, in my judgment, demand immediate attention.


"I feel certain that the Navy will indubitably fail in the near future to satisfy the demands made upon it by the present policy of H.M. Government unless‑


"(a) We at once withdraw the whole of our force from Salonica, as this is the quarter which taxes our resources most heavily and, from the military point of view, gives no promise of a successful offensive. Apart from all questions of securing shipping and releasing H.M. ships from escort work in the Salonica area for use elsewhere, it is a fact on which I am bound to insist with great emphasis that the Navy will be unable to meet the demands recently put forward for the removal of sick and wounded from this area.


"(b) We realise that we cannot continue to bring reinforcements of troops into this country unless they are convoyed in ships carrying other essentials from the Colonies, such as food, etc., as we cannot afford to provide the necessary escorting ships.


"(c) The policy of importing labour is at once abandoned for the same reason.


"(d) The import of everything that is not essential to the life of the country is ruthlessly and immediately stopped.


"If the Government will deal at once with these proposals a certain quantity of tonnage will be released, and, as it becomes available, should be devoted entirely to the import of food‑stuffs until we have placed this country in a position to withstand the siege to which it is about to be subjected.


"The release of the transporting, escorting and convoying vessels now devoted to the purposes named above will also assist in providing protection for convoys of ships bringing into this country essentials in the way of food and munitions, but, even with all this, we shall be very hard put to it unless the United States help to the utmost of their ability.


"When with this help supplies have been received and the country is in a position to withstand a siege, then we can reconsider the whole position. Without some such relief as I have indicated ‑ and that given immediately ‑ the Navy will fail in its responsibilities to the country and the country itself will suffer starvation.


"(Signed) J. R. JELLICOE.

27th April, 1917."


It is clear that the writer of this ultimatum was far from believing that the great problem of the war had been solved, and that relief would inevitably and speedily follow. The word convoy was used, but only in the sense in which it had been used from the beginning of the war: there is no reference to the new and comprehensive system which had just been decided upon, or to the results which might eventually be


April‑May, 1917



expected from it. The whole intention of the writer is to call for a prolonged and desperate effort of endurance in the immediate future. What is urged is a palliative which may avert an imminent catastrophe. The situation is not one which can be dealt with by setting up committees: the first principles of strategy must be recalled and acted on. Insecure communications mean disaster: if our lines of communications are not reduced and strengthened at once, the country, which has hitherto known only an unsuccessful blockade, will have to face a siege ‑ that is, a successful blockade: starvation. The Navy has been called upon to do that for which its resources are inadequate: without some such relief it will fail in its task.


This document was signed by the First Sea Lord on April 27, and sent to the First Lord that he might lay it before the War Cabinet. It was only on May 1 that the First Lord transmitted it to the Prime Minister, and by that time it had already been indirectly answered. During the Prime Minister's visit to the Admiralty on April 30, Admiral Jellicoe had delivered himself verbally on the main point ‑ the necessity for withdrawing from the Balkans ‑ and the Prime Minister in his minute records his intention of asking his colleagues to sanction this step. On the following day he announced to the War Cabinet that he had arranged for the First Sea Lord to accompany him to an Anglo‑French conference in Paris; and there on May 4 Admiral Jellicoe once more urged the withdrawal of our forces from Salonica as the course most necessary for salvation. The Prime Minister had feared that the proposal would be unfavourably received; but the prestige and grave sincerity of the British Admiral were as effective with our Allies as they had been at home. Withdrawal was agreed upon: by a fortunate turn of events it proved afterwards to be unnecessary, but the proposal and the manner in which it was put forward are interesting as evidence of the relative values assigned by Admiral Jellicoe to the resources at his disposal in the supreme crisis.


The ships which he hoped to recover from the Salonica service for use in the importation of a national food reserve were about 150 in number, with an aggregate of some 400,000 tons. Of these he was disappointed, for the importance of the Salonica force increased steadily towards a decisive conclusion. But a compensating gain of exactly 400,000 tons of shipping came in from another quarter. Within a few days of the reception by the First Lord of Admiral Jellicoe's stark and sombre warning, a civilian Minister, Sir Leo Chiozza Money, laid a memorandum before the Prime Minister containing a suggestion which was eventually turned to good effect. In his paper, which was long and highly technical, he analysed the existing methods of distribution of American food‑stuffs and minerals, and came to the conclusion that the Entente Powers could draw all their necessary supplies of food, minerals and fuel from Canada and the United States alone, if the United States Government would agree to give demands from the Allies absolute priority over demands from all other countries. This policy, if adopted without delay and carried through vigorously, would release shipping ordinarily employed upon longer routes, and so increase the total annual carrying power of the British merchant service.


The estimate showed, in fact, that if twenty‑four million tons out of the thirty million tons of necessary imports could be brought over from the United States, then 1200 vessels would suffice to carry them. When the memorandum was written there were 1750 British merchant vessels employed in commercial traffic; so that even if no neutral vessels could be brought into the British service ‑ which was most improbable ‑ there would still be 550 merchant ships in reserve to fill up the gaps created by the German submarines. Apart from this, the concentration of vital shipping upon one known route would very much simplify the defence problem. "We are tempted to imagine that some heaven‑sent genius will show the Admiralty how to destroy the submarine. The fact is that it is from a scientific point of view an inherently difficult problem, unlikely to be solved in this war. The Admiralty must no longer be given an impossible task. It is merely foolish to scatter targets about the high seas and expect the Admiralty to protect them. The essence of my proposal is to deprive the enemy of a large part of his field of action and so to use our ships as to give the Admiralty a fair chance of saving them."


Although the policy which the Government was thus urged to adopt was one which promised to lessen the danger in which the country stood, its author seems to have misunderstood the probable effect of his plan upon the naval side of the question. Ships from America approach the British Islands in the Fastnet‑Land's End‑Ushant triangle where they were being destroyed in such numbers, or in the approach to Tory Island, where the destruction was also severe in proportion. To concentrate ships upon the North Atlantic route would increase the number of ships compelled to pass through what had proved to be the zone of greatest danger to them. If Sir Leo Chiozza Money's plan had stood alone, therefore, it might easily have made the western approaches to the British


April‑May 1917



Islands a more profitable area than ever to the German submarine commanders; but it so happened that the plan fell in with the recent Admiralty decision to place merchantmen under armed escort. The convoy system could only be put into operation gradually; but its authors had always intended that the North Atlantic trade should be the first to receive protection. Actually, therefore, Sir Leo's concentration project would draw shipping away from the unprotected to the protected routes, and would effectually restrict the target of the German submarines, though not in the manner that he supposed.


In point of fact, the Ministry of Shipping had, for months past, been concentrating as many ships as they could upon the North American route; but, as the Minister pointed out, the rigorous, exclusive concentration that Sir Leo was urging could only be carried out with American co‑operation, and this could only be obtained by the Government.


Sir Leo Chiozza Money's paper, and the Shipping Controller's comment upon it, must be regarded as the starting-point of a plan which deeply affected the strategical position during the remaining months of the year. In Great Britain effect was almost immediately given to the scheme, and as soon as it was communicated to them, the American Government gave it their most energetic co‑operation. Their rigorous system of embargoes upon all goods not intended for the Entente Powers automatically drew surplus American exports into British and Allied ships; as the scheme expanded, so the system of convoy expanded also; and the final consequence of these two measures was to ensure a supply of vital imports, and to give them adequate protection.



The French Coal Trade


We have seen that in his memorandum advising the adoption of a convoy system, Admiral Duff referred to the French coal trade as one of the instances which had influenced his decision. He was here referring to an experiment with a somewhat elementary form of convoy which had given very satisfactory results. The coal trade between Britain and France had been very severely attacked during the last part of the year 1916, and at the instance of the French authorities a system of controlled sailing had been put in force on February 7. The traffic was distributed over three routes. The first‑route "A" ‑ ran between Mount's Bay and Brest; the second and third, "B" and "C," between Weymouth and Cherbourg and Weymouth and le Havre. Crossings took place every twenty‑four hours; the vessels engaged in the trade were either sent across in groups steaming in rough formation and proceeding according to special route instructions, or were escorted by armed trawlers of the Auxiliary Patrol. The forces allotted to escort duty were not large; eleven armed trawlers protected the crossings between Mount's Bay and Brest; fifteen sufficed for the Havre and Cherbourg. routes. That the results were satisfactory can be seen from the following figures:‑



Route A.

Mount's Bay to Brest

Route B.

Weymouth to Cherbourg

Route C.

Weymouth to le Havre




No. of ships convoyed.

No. of ships lost.

No. of ships convoyed.

No. of ships lost.

No. of ships convoyed.

No. of ships lost.

No. of ships convoyed.

No. of ships lost.

March .









April .









May .










These figures were certainly striking; to Admiral Duff they were a clear suggestion that Atlantic trade would be better protected if it sailed in convoys. But the suggestion did not yet amount to a proof. There were great technical differences between the controlled sailings of the French coal trade and the system of trade defence that had just been ordered. It could be arranged that the freighters in the coal trade to France should do most of the cross‑Channel passage at night. It would be quite impossible for the ocean convoys to have any equivalent security, for they would be at least two days and nights in the danger area. Still, the exceptional immunity that the French coal trade had enjoyed since it had been placed under this modified system of convoy was certainly remarkable. During the quarter ending April 1917 rather fewer than thirty armed trawlers had given protection to over 4000 cross‑Channel voyages. On the Penzance-Brest route, which could not be traversed in a single night, three trawlers were generally allotted to convoys which might number twenty vessels. This entirely disposed of the objection that escorts to be effective would have to outnumber the convoy. Figures and statistics dealt quite as decisively with the argument that convoys would prove exceptionally vulnerable. During the months of March and April German submarines had delivered nearly two hundred attacks in the Channel area, only about twenty of which had been directed


June‑July 1916



against the controlled groups in the French coal trade. Nor was this difficulty merely the effect of darkness: a considerable number of the attacks upon isolated ships had been made at night. This successful experiment therefore suggested one of two conclusions, both highly favourable‑either that the German submarine commanders were chary of attacking merchantmen sailing in groups, and under escort, or that such groups were difficult to find. Moreover, it appeared that these conclusions were not conditioned by the strength of the escort or the looseness of the formation in which the convoy sailed.




The Dutch Patrol


Of all the traffic routes, that between the Thames and Holland had the distinction of being the easiest to attack. Not only could it be raided from the Bight in an operation of a few hours' duration, but also on the flank of the route lay Zeebrugge with its flotilla of submarines and new destroyers. Yet it was not till the end of June 1916 that on this specially vulnerable line any notable loss occurred. On the 23rd of that month Zeebrugge destroyers captured the British packet Brussels, which had made many passages unscathed, and which was then commanded by Captain Fryatt. Another packet of the same line was to leave the Hook of Holland three days later, and a special patrol of the 9th Flotilla from Harwich was sent out to safeguard her passage. The patrol was not an escort; it was to keep out of sight of the packet, lest she should mistake our destroyers for the enemy, but it was to steam parallel with her so as to be at hand in case of attack. No attack developed; the packet's voyage to England passed without incident. From this date onward the Harwich Force was called upon to provide whenever possible a strong patrol off the Dutch coast, with the idea of surprising any German destroyers which might come out of Zeebrugge to attack the traffic with Holland.


On July 5 (1916), a day on which no patrol happened to be out, another British steamer on the Dutch route was captured and its crew taken prisoners to Zeebrugge. Two vessels were due to leave Holland next day, one a railway packet and the other a steamer of the Dutch Batavier line. The provision of direct escort for the British ship presented no difficulties, and five Harwich destroyers sailed to meet her. But to give the Batavier a similar escort would confer on her the status of a protected convoy, and would deprive her of such precarious immunity from destruction without warning as neutrals were supposed to enjoy in the submarine campaign of that period. The difficulty was surmounted by the despatch of five Harwich destroyers to meet her at the Maas light vessel and unostentatiously to keep in sight of her during her passage. As it happened she sailed earlier than the appointed time and was not met till she had completed half her voyage; but the case is of special interest, since she was the first Dutch vessel to receive escort, discreet though it was, from British naval forces.


In pursuance of an agreement made with the Dutch agricultural interests, a large amount of food which had formerly been sent to Germany was allocated to England, and the number of passages of ships employed to transport this food was proportionately increased. To baffle submarines the vessels crossed at night. It was naturally anticipated that ships carrying away from Holland food which had been diverted from Germany would be a special target, probably for destroyer attack, and the Harwich Force was ordered to patrol whenever the ships made the passage. Late on July 19 the Admiralty learned that German destroyers were off the Hook of Holland. Commodore Tyrwhitt was at sea with the patrol on the Dutch coast; he was warned of the enemy's presence, but since no meeting took place it is probable that the German destroyers had gone home by the time he received the Admiralty's message. Three days later, when he was out again on this patrol, he met and engaged a few enemy destroyers, driving them off and securing the safe arrival of all the merchant vessels on passage.


This special protection of British ships on the Dutch passage steadily and rapidly grew into a definite routine known familiarly as the Beef Trip. Before the end of July 1916 the arrangements took the form of a convoy with escort. (The orders of July 31 describe the group of steamers as a "convoy.") On July 26, five British vessels left the Hook of Holland in company, with orders to follow a certain route, eight other ships proceeding from the Downs at the same time along the same route reversed; the eastbound convoy was escorted to Dutch waters and the westbound brought back from there, each convoy having a direct escort of one light cruiser and four destroyers, while a similar force patrolled at the Schouwen to tackle any destroyers which might come out from Zeebrugge. Thenceforward British steamers to and from Holland passed only in convoys. These were arranged at intervals of two or three days and consisted of four to nine ships, the westbound convoy leaving Holland at the same time as the


July‑Oct. 1916



eastbound passed the North Hinder light vessel; and the escort of these frequent convoys was one of the principal activities of the Harwich Force.


The convoys crossed at night, a measure intended to give the maximum amount of difficulty to any attacking force. These night crossings had their disadvantages, however ‑ the ships in the convoys were apt to straggle from their differences of speed. One particularly slow vessel, the Orient, was frequently the subject of adverse comment by the commanding officers of the escorts, who pointed out that she either had to be permitted to act as a drag on the other ships or else had to be furnished with an individual escort, thus robbing the whole convoy of part of its protection. In spite of the firm conviction of the escort officers that the Orient was bound to be torpedoed before long, it was not she that became the first loss after this convoy system had been inaugurated. The Colchester was another Great Eastern Railway steamer similar to the Brussels, whose capture had led to the routine convoying of the traffic with Holland. On September 21 she was one of an eastbound convoy of four ships which had orders to pass seven miles to the northward of the North Hinder at 10.0 p.m. There the escorting destroyers would wait to pick them up and escort them to Dutch territorial waters. The night was very dark but of unusual clearness. At the appointed time the waiting destroyers saw only two steamers eastbound. They refrained from making signals in order not to attract the enemy's attention; but since the well‑known Colchester had not arrived, two of the destroyers remained at the rendezvous to wait for her and the other ship. Neither appeared: in fact, the last had not sailed. But of the Colchester's fate nothing was known till the 23rd, when Wolff's Bureau reported that she had been taken into Zeebrugge during the night of September 21‑22.


The loss of the Colchester led to a radical change in the convoy routine. A new set of orders was issued by Commodore Tyrwhitt on October 5. The principle of direct escort was abandoned. The passage was made entirely in daylight. Eastbound traffic passed the North Hinder at 10.0 a.m. and westbound ships left the Hook of Holland at 7.0 a.m. The whole of their route was divided into eight sections, and during the passage of the merchant vessels each of the eight sections was occupied by a destroyer zigzagging at fifteen knots. Thus the method of "convoy" was superseded by the method of "patrolled routes." But this lasted only a month. In November (1916) the system of directly escorting a convoy was reinstated, with the slight modification that the four escorting destroyers were to spread themselves so that the leading destroyer should be on the beam of the leading merchant vessel and the last destroyer on the beam of the last ship.


The security resulting from this routine convoy system had the effect of increasing the size of the groups escorted twice a week. The convoys of November 27 consisted of eight eastbound and eleven westbound ships. To the relief of the escort officers the slow old Orient was no longer on this trade; there were other ships nearly as slow, but they made the passage time after time without being attacked. From the inauguration of convoys to Holland in July 1916 to the outbreak of "unrestricted " warfare in February 1917, the only loss recorded was that of the Colchester.



American Reinforcements


We have seen that the prospect of American naval assistance and harbour facilities had influenced the Admiralty in their recent decision. Admiral Jellicoe had referred to it in the memorandum which he laid before the War Cabinet on April 23 (1917), and Admiral Duff had mentioned it as one of the reasons for his proposal of a system of convoy on April 26. Arrangements had not at that date gone very far, but the few decisions taken gave hope that American co‑operation would be free and ungrudging. The Admiralty were therefore justified in reckoning upon it when making new plans for the conduct of the naval campaign.


As far back as March 28 the Admiralty had cabled to the British Naval Attachˇ in Washington, to tell him that he might henceforward communicate the Admiralty's views to the authorities in the Navy Department, whenever his advice was asked for. In particular, he was informed that the Admiralty were prepared to base a force of destroyers on the south‑west coast of Ireland, to operate against enemy submarines and protect trade.


At about the same time that the British Naval Attachˇ received these instructions, the American Government itself moved in the matter. In the latter part of March 1917, Admiral Sims, who was then serving as President of the Naval War College at Newport, was summoned to Washington, told that war with Germany was imminent, and ordered to proceed to London as rapidly and secretly as he could. His orders were to "study the naval situation and learn how we


April 1917



could best and most quickly co‑operate in the naval war." He reached England on April 9, and interviewed Admiral Jellicoe on the following day. America had declared war on April 6 and there was no longer any reason for reserve or secrecy.


Admiral Jellicoe seems to have described the position to Admiral Sims in the same way that he described it later on in his memorandum to the War Cabinet: the losses in our merchant fleet were so serious that they could not be borne, and the first and most urgent need was for destroyer reinforcements in the Queenstown command. In addition, the Admiralty desired the American navy to strengthen our hold on the outer routes by establishing a flying squadron in the Atlantic to hunt for raiders, by keeping squadrons off the south‑east coast of America, the Gulf of Mexico, and the west coast of America as far as Panama; and by maintaining another squadron in China to look after Allied interests in the Far East. In the matter of the blockade, the American Government was asked to institute special examination of neutral vessels loading in the United States.


The actual facts of the submarine campaign were a revelation to Admiral Sims; he had never imagined for an instant that the situation of the Allies was so critical, and he lost no time in cabling two very serious reports to the Navy Department. He accepted the Admiralty's view without demur; the submarine campaign was the deciding factor of the war, and the decisive theatre of the campaign was the "focus of all lines of communication in the Eastern Atlantic." He therefore urged that the Navy Department should immediately send as many destroyers and anti‑submarine craft as could possibly be spared. The destroyers were to be based on Queenstown and have an advanced base at Berehaven; the anti‑submarine craft were to set up an inshore patrol. In order to overcome any possible opposition or reluctance on the part of the Navy Department, Admiral Sims added a detailed criticism of the suggested alternatives which were then being discussed in London and (presumably) in Washington.


With regard to convoy he unreservedly accepted the Admiralty's view that it was impossible ‑ the High Naval Command had not at that date changed their opinion ‑ and that the project of sealing up the entrances to the German rivers was equally impracticable. Finally, remembering, probably, how much the popular clamour for protection of the American coasts had tied the hands of the naval authorities during the Spanish war, Admiral Sims refuted the notion that the German submarine campaign was likely to spread into the Western Atlantic. "The evidence is conclusive that, regardless of any enemy diversions such as raids on our coasts or elsewhere, the critical area, in which the war's decision will be made, is in the Eastern Atlantic. .... The known number of enemy submarines, and their rate of construction, allowing liberal factors for errors of information, render it inevitable that the main submarine effort must continue to be concentrated in the above critical area. .... From consideration of the above, and all other essential information available, it is apparent that the enemy could not disperse his main submarine campaign into other quarters of the globe without diminishing results in this and all areas. .... "


Meanwhile conferences had been taking place in the United States. On April 10, Admirals M. E. Browning and Grasset, the Allied Commanders‑in‑Chief of the North American and West Indies Station, met the American naval authorities at Hampton Roads. After a preliminary discussion they went on to Washington, and a conference was held in the Navy Department buildings, with Mr. J. Daniels, the Secretary to the Navy, acting as Chairman. In his opening remarks Mr. Daniels said that the American navy wished to co‑operate with the Allies "to the utmost of its power," and both he and the American Admirals made good their promise. On April 13, Admiral Browning cabled to London that the Americans had practically undertaken to carry out all the suggestions made to them. A squadron was to be kept in constant readiness to act against raiders. An East Coast of America Squadron would be equipped and sent out as soon as possible; the United States navy would look after the west coast of North America from the Canadian to the Columbian boundary, and would supervise and patrol the Gulf of Mexico; also, the United States China Squadron would remain in the Pacific.


On April 24 Mr. Balfour arrived in America with a Mission, composed of Lord Cunliffe, who was commissioned to deal in questions of finance, Mr. Layton, the representative of the Ministry of Munitions, Mr. Anderson, the Chairman of the Wheat Commission, General G. T. M. Bridges, and Admiral Sir D. R. S. de Chair. The members of the Mission were made the guests of the American nation, and received the same assurances of whole‑hearted, unstinted assistance that had been given to the naval Commander‑in‑Chief. All the United States Government asked for was a candid explanation of the problems involved in mobilising the national resources. They were ready to act drastically on all matters relating to the


April‑May 1917



blockade of Germany. Their representative undertook to set up an Exports Control Committee, with a Licensing Bureau subordinate to it, and they undertook to be guided by the British War Trade Intelligence Department in all matters relating to evidence against consignees and rations for neutral States, but not themselves to publish or issue a statutory black list.


The Americans acted very promptly on the immediate question of destroyer reinforcements. On May 4 the 8th Division, composed of six destroyers, arrived at Queenstown; they were followed, on the 17th, by the 9th Division; and on the 24th by the 6th:


8th Division: Wadsworth, Conyngham, Porter, Wainwright, MacDougall, Davis.

9th Division: Rowan, Cassin, Ericsson, Tucker, Winslow, Jacob Jones.

6th Division: Cushing, Sampson, Benham, Nicholson, Cummings, O'Brien.


The Queenstown command thus received an important reinforcement of eighteen destroyers, two months after America had declared war.


These reinforcements made it possible to redistribute the naval forces in the Irish area. The northern approach route, which closes the Irish coast near Tory Island, had been only weakly protected since the submarine campaign began; and the Admiralty were anxious to strengthen the defence.


On May 4, therefore, all "E" class submarines in the Queenstown command were ordered north to Lough Swilly, to operate along the parallel of 55 degrees N. between the meridians of 11 degrees and 13 degrees W.; and on what was known as the exit route between the 10th and 12th meridians. Later, this submarine patrol was reinforced by four destroyers from Queenstown. Also, the Admiralty appointed Rear‑Admiral F. S. Miller to take charge of the northern division of the Irish Command (May 18), which was created to relieve the growing pressure of work upon Queenstown.


These measures were supplemented by another which affected the anti‑submarine campaign in the Channel. The air patrols of the coastal routes were now recognised to be an exceedingly important item in our system of defence. On the French side there were air stations at Dunkirk (10 seaplanes, 5 pursuit planes), Boulogne (5 seaplanes), Havre (5 seaplanes), Cherbourg (4 seaplanes), Brest (13 seaplanes), each with a definite patrol zone allotted to it; and on the British side at Newhaven (12 machines), at Bembridge (12 machines), at Calshot (4 machines) and at Portland (12 machines).


The need for co‑ordinating the work of these two organisations was obvious; and, at the instance of Commander Laborde ‑ the head of the French Naval Aviation Service ‑ a conference assembled at the Admiralty on May 11. The limits of the British and French patrol zones were settled, and a common code of visual and wireless signals was drawn up, in order that submarines when located in one zone should not be lost sight of, but should be followed up by the aerial and surface forces of any zone into which they might subsequently enter.




The Flanders Bight, April‑May, 1917


We have already seen that naval officers clung tenaciously to the idea of checking the submarine campaign by a direct attack upon the Flanders coast. There could be no question at all that the idea was excellent, whether it was possible of execution was another matter. The defences of the Flanders coastline were exceptionally strong. A heavy battery (the Kaiser Wilhelm II) had been erected at Knocke to the eastward of the Bruges canal; one and a half miles to the west of Ostend was the Tirpitz battery; and two more were under construction. (The Kaiser Wilhelm II mounted four 12‑inch guns, range 41,000 yards; the Tirpitz mounted four 11‑inch guns, range 35,000 yards.)



Between these batteries the coast was defended by a large number of mobile and semi‑mobile guns, trenches and machine‑gun nests. Admiral Bacon did not think that these formidable obstacles made a landing impossible, and he had drawn up a detailed plan for putting three brigades ashore at Middelkirke, behind the German right flank. The plan had been approved by the military authorities, but it was not to be put into operation until the army had advanced to a certain predetermined line. This project, which was little more than a flanking movement from the sea against limited objectives, did not affect the bigger question of attacking the two bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge. To all appearances they were invulnerable: even if the shore defences could be temporarily mastered and a landing effected, the ultimate fate of in expedition which could not join hands with the armies in Flanders could hardly be in doubt. The Germans would mass enough forces to drive the landing forces from the strip of coast that they had seized and mow them down on the Flanders beaches from their gun positions in the dunes. There was, none the less, one weak point in this powerful system of defence, a weak spot which could not be strengthened or protected. Zeebrugge is, as its name implies, the harbour of Bruges ‑ in the Walloon nomenclature


May 1917



the matter is put more clearly, the place is called Bruges-port‑de‑rner; but it is a seaport by artifice, not by nature. Continuous traffic can only be maintained between Bruges and its harbour by means of the locks at Zeebrugge. "With these destroyed," wrote Admiral Bacon, " the canal would be made tidal and communication with Bruges practically stopped." As there could be little doubt that two 15‑inch shells from the monitors would wreck the lock gates, if they hit them, the consequences of a successful bombardment would be far‑reaching. The difficulties were, however, very great. Owing to the presence of the Kaiser Wilhelm battery, with its effective range of twenty sea miles, the bombardment would have to be carried out by indirect fire; the problem resolved itself into that of hitting an invisible target ninety feet long and thirty feet wide from a distance of about thirteen miles. Every difficulty inherent in bombarding the land from the sea would thus be magnified in this particular operation. The direction of the target could only be found by a rough experiment, subject to every kind of error; the results of the bombardment would have to be communicated by aeroplanes hovering above hostile territory and engaged with the enemy's air forces; the bombarding ships being well within the range of the Kaiser Wilhelm battery, might be overwhelmed by the enemy's fire before our gunfire could be corrected by the fine adjustments necessary for hitting so small a target.


Admiral Bacon had calculated the chances of a successful issue with scientific detachment. "Theoretically," he wrote in a general memorandum, "with a gun laid accurately for range and direction, one round in every sixty‑three should hit a gate. Hence, at least 126 rounds are required to make a hit probable on each of two gates. As, however, the laying will not be so exact as with a shore gun, at least twice this number, or 252 rounds, will be required." The three monitors capable of bombarding at long range: the Erebus, Terror and Marshall Soult, could each fire one round per minute. The bombardment would therefore have to last at least eighty‑four minutes for the 252 rounds to be fired. Admiral Bacon had also to consider whether he could legitimately incur the risk of loss involved in this protracted operation, carried out within range of the Kaiser Wilhelm battery. This was not reducible to an arithmetical calculation; but his analysis of the chances of success led him to believe that if the enemy could be taken by surprise, and the bombardment opened before they had time to range and lay their guns, and if the bombarding ships could be well hidden by smoke screens, then there was a good chance that the enemy would be unable to find the range during the eighty‑five minutes allotted to the operation. The question could not, however, be settled beforehand. "Undoubtedly to break up the lock gates would be worth the loss of a monitor," wrote Admiral Bacon, "but the loss of three monitors, with the gates left intact, would mean that totally unjustifiable risks had been run. No indication, therefore, of my probable decision on this point can be given in advance."


The greatest obstacle to a successful issue was, however, that the operation could only be carried out under conditions of wind and weather which did not occur except at rare and irregular intervals. If the bombardment was to come as a surprise the bombarding monitors would all have to be in their firing positions before daybreak; morning mists hanging over the target would wreck the operation; the tide would have to be running along the coast so that the anchored vessels would keep their broadsides towards the target. If the clouds were low, aeroplane spotting would be impossible, and the wind would have to be in the first or fourth quadrants in order to keep the smoke screen constantly between the ships and the shore. A shift of wind to the south‑east or south‑west would simply blow the screen across the bombarding vessels. The necessary conditions, if once obtained, could hardly be expected to hold for any length of time; so that there was little chance that an operation nearly successful on one day could be renewed on the next. Admiral Bacon allotted forty‑one ships and launches to the operation:



15‑inch monitors: Terror (flag); Marshall Soult and Erebus.


12‑inch monitor: Sir John Moore.


"M" monitors: Nos. 24 and 26.


destroyer leaders: Botha and Faulknor.


destroyers (6th Flotilla): Lochinvar, Landrail, Lydiard, Mentor, Moorsom, Morris, Mermaid, Racehorse.


paddle minesweepers.


motor launches.

Commodore Tyrwhitt detached 2 flotilla cruisers (Lightfoot and Nimrod) and 12 destroyers to assist and cover the operation.


Three times Admiral Bacon assembled his bombarding squadron in the Downs and started for Zeebrugge, and on each occasion a change in the weather compelled him to turn back. On the evening of May 11 he had again collected his squadron in the Downs anchorage and had issued orders for the operation to be carried out on the following morning, but the ships began to leave between eleven and twelve, when it was still pitch dark, and there was as little certainty as ever before that the bombardment would take place. The first


May 1917



part of the plan was a piece of preparatory work upon which the success of the whole operation depended. It was to lay a buoy in the bombarding position, and then to discover the true bearing of this buoy from the base of the mole. In time of peace there would have been no difficulty here: the problem would have been solved by astronomic and geodesic observations; but as neither astronomy nor geodesy can be practised off an enemy's coast, within range of an enemy's batteries, the true bearing had to be obtained by a very hazardous experiment. The duty was entrusted to Commander J. S. G. Fraser; at eleven o'clock he got under way in the Lochinvar, with the Lydiard accompanying him, and, after steaming for three and a half hours, laid the first buoy, from the Lydiard, about fifteen miles to the north‑westward of the head of the mole. This buoy was intended to guide the squadron to its bombarding position, and Commander Fraser stayed by it until he saw the fleet approaching. He then steamed on to the position of the bombarding mark, which he laid at about twenty minutes to four. After a further wait he turned towards Zeebrugge and started his difficult and risky experiment.


His method of obtaining the true bearing, upon which the whole bombardment depended for its success, was to steam right up to the mole on a steady course and at a regular speed, to note down carefully how the mole bore when it was sighted, and from the observations thus obtained to work out how the bombarding ships bore from their target. He started at four o'clock; it was by then full daylight, but the weather was so misty that he could only see a mile ahead; as a consequence he knew that he would have to steam almost to the muzzles of the German guns before he could get his bearing. As he steamed in, he heard the German anti-aircraft gunners open fire upon the aeroplanes which had been sent up from St. Pol to spot the fall of the shot. The mist was still thick, and a few minutes later he realised that the Lochinvar was in very shoal water; shortly afterwards he saw "the loom of the mole" quite close ahead, and turned the ship under her screws. The anti‑aircraft guns were then heavily engaged. The Lochinvar was back at the buoy at a quarter to five, and Commander Fraser at once signalled the bearing and distance which he had risked so much to obtain.


Meanwhile Admiral Bacon had reached his bombarding position. Near the buoy laid by Commander Fraser were the Erebus, the Terror and the Marshall Soult. To the north-north‑west of them was the Sir John Moore, which was to be used as a back‑aiming mark. Well to windward and towards the shore was the line of the motor boats anchored on a line of bearing, ready to loose the smoke screen. The destroyers and flotilla leaders and older monitors were stationed round the bombarding ships in a rough rectangle. The Lightfoot, with a group of Harwich destroyers, detached on the previous evening, was cruising near the Thornton Banks, ready to act as a covering force if the enemy's destroyers attempted to interfere with the operation: the Nimrod and four destroyers were zigzagging round the fleet as a submarine screen. The paddle minesweepers with their sweeps out were dragging between the firing monitors and the Sir John Moore.


Owing to the haze the squadron could not open fire at the scheduled time, and this threw out the air force arrangements. The Royal Naval Air Force headquarters at Dunkirk allocated two spotting machines for Zeebrugge, and covered them with an escort of nine Sopwith planes. In addition to this, six fighting machines from No. 10 Squadron were sent to fly over the fleet and protect it against interference by hostile bombers; and a force of seven machines, taken from No. 4 Squadron, was ordered to patrol the coast and fight all enemy machines which interfered with the spotters. The two spotting machines left the ground at two o'clock; but one of them was compelled to land in Holland owing to engine trouble: the second machine reached Zeebrugge before 3 a.m. and was obliged to wait for nearly two hours before firing began. The spotting of the fall of shot upon which so much depended was thus carried out by one machine with a failing supply of petrol.


The firing began shortly before five, a few minutes after Commander Fraser reported the bearing and distance of Zeebrugge mole. The first shells fell very short, and as a considerable number of shells did not burst, spotting corrections were not received for every shot; but the bombardment became very accurate after five o'clock; the Marshall Soult's twelfth round was reported as a hit, the Erebus was declared to have found the target with her twenty‑sixth round. The results of the Terror's shooting were rather more difficult to ascertain, as she was most hampered by the partial breakdown of the spotting arrangements, owing to the failure of the shells. Of the 250 shells sent down, only forty‑five were reported. More than that, the spotting machine was so short of petrol that she had to go back at half‑past five; and during the last half‑hour the shells had to be kept on the target by estimated corrections.


For the first hour the enemy only interfered with the


May 1917



operation by endeavouring to jam the wireless reports of the spotting machine and by keeping up a steady fire from the anti‑aircraft artillery; but towards six o'clock his opposition began to stiffen. The seven machines of No. 4 Squadron left the ground at about five o'clock, and reached Zeebrugge about three‑quarters of an hour later. They were at once engaged by a German squadron of more than twice their number, and a long engagement took place in the air over the scene of the bombardment. The aeroplanes of No. 4 Squadron were reinforced by some of the escort machines; but throughout the enemy overweighted and outnumbered them. The British formation was split up at the beginning of the action; but in spite of the disadvantages under which they fought, our airmen got the upper hand in the struggle. Five enemy machines were shot down, three of which fell into the sea, and it was largely due to this successful action in the air that the squadron completed its bombardment unmolested.


At six o'clock Admiral Bacon ordered the ships to weigh and the firing ceased. The Knocke battery was just opening fire, and he returned to harbour under the impression that the lock gates were damaged and that the operation had been successful. He was nearly, but not quite right. Photographs taken from the air, a week later, showed that at least fifteen shells had fallen on the western side of the lock within a few yards of the gates; on the eastern side the shot had been more scattered; but four shells had only missed the target by the same tantalisingly narrow margin. The pump house and its engine escaped by a sort of miracle. The basin to the north of the locks had been hit and the dockyard had been considerably damaged; but after as before the bombardment, Zeebrugge was a base from which the destroyers and submarines could operate with telling effect. The operation had not succeeded; but the details of its execution remain as a permanent record of how the difficulties of coastal bombardment may be faced and overcome. (See Map 12.)




The Submarine Campaign, May, 1917

(See Map 1.)


During the month of May the results of the war against shipping showed that the German submarines had not been able to sustain the tremendous effort of the previous month. It was estimated that in April, 50 U, UB‑ and UC‑boats had been at work, and that the total number of days spent on cruise had been 660; in May these figures had fallen to 40 and 585. The number of UB‑ and UC‑boats had been the same as in April (about 24); but the number of operating U‑boats had fallen from 25 to 16. As the large type of submarine was particularly allotted to the south‑western approaches and the Atlantic the losses on the outer routes had been slightly less severe ‑ they had fallen from 191 vessels to 156. In the Channel the sinkings had not varied (56 vessels sunk in April, 59 in May). The relaxation was thus only slight and the figures were almost as alarming as they had been in April.


During May, 352,569 tons of British shipping were sunk, and the total destruction amounted to 596,629 tons. The Germans had, moreover, contrived to operate successfully against the Spanish ore trade off the north coast of Spain. On the first of the month, a UB‑boat appeared off the Cantabrian coast near Santander, where she sank the Portuguese steamer Barreiro. She then steamed west, and sank five ships off Ribadeira on the 3rd and 4th. Two days later she was off Gijon, where she sank two more, and on the 7th she was off Bilbao. The attack was renewed by a UC‑boat, which sank four vessels between Bilbao and Coruna between the 25th and 28th. This attempt to interfere with the Spanish ore trade was an extremely serious matter. Spanish freighters had practically abandoned the trade when unrestricted submarine war began; and the Spanish Government had stipulated that all vessels arriving at a Spanish port to load ore must bring with them coal to the proportion of 33 per cent. of the ore they intended to carry. (See Fayle, Seaborne Trade, Vol. III., p. 51.) The German submarines were thus attacking a vital traffic which was already working under great difficulties; if the German naval staff had been able to keep submarines off the Spanish coast for longer periods, there can be but little doubt that the ore trade would practically have ceased.


The statistics of the losses in ocean traffic suggested that ocean convoy ‑ the measure to which we were striving to give effect ‑ was likely to affect the existing position considerably. As has already been shown, the defensive system then in force mainly applied to outgoing traffic; incoming vessels were only given general instructions, because there was no means of closely controlling the routes and movements of ships which had left their ports of departure a week or ten days before their arrival in the approaches to the British Isles. The list of sinkings showed that the Admiralty system of control had certainly kept the losses in outgoing vessels within limits, and that if it had been possible to take the same measure with regard to the import trade, the defence would


May 1917



have been much less ineffective than it still was. The figures were these:





Vessels attacked whilst approaching Great Britain, France or Scandinavia from foreign ports in the N. and S. Atlantic.

Vessels attacked whilst proceeding from Great Britain, France or Scandinavia to foreign ports in the N. and S. Atlantic.

Vessels attacked whilst plying in local British trade or trade between Great Britain and France.

Fishing vessels attacked.

Attacks on vessels with an unascertained destination.




















It will be seen at a glance that the import trade was now five times as vulnerable as the export trade, and that the ratio was rising. Obviously, therefore, armed escort was the only method of protecting that part of our ocean traffic which could not be brought within our existing system of defence.




The First Convoy, May, 1917


Meanwhile the first experimental test of the new Admiralty policy had been carried out successfully. On April 28 the Admiralty had telegraphed to the Senior Naval Officer, Gibraltar, informing him that it was proposed to start convoys for British and Allied vessels from that port, and that the first convoy should sail in about ten days' time. He was further informed that such convoys should not exceed twenty vessels, and should not include ships of more than eleven knots speed, as the sea speed of the convoy was not expected to exceed seven knots. He was to be prepared to fit each ship of the convoy with portable telephone from fore‑bridge to engine‑room, and fog buoy casks for station‑keeping. On May 4 a further telegram was sent, instructing him to begin assembling vessels for convoy on May 7.


Meanwhile, Captain H. C. Lockyer received orders to go out to Gibraltar and take charge of the first convoy. On May 2 he sailed from Devonport with the special service ships Mavis (Acting Commander A. St. V. Keyes) and Rule (Lieutenant R. Langton‑Jones), which were to act as ocean escorts. He arrived at Gibraltar on May 7, and by May 10 a convoy of sixteen steamers had been organised. On that day a conference was held with the masters and chief engineers of the merchant ships, at which the arrangements for stationkeeping, etc., were explained, and in the evening the convoy sailed. It was organised in three columns, the port column, in accordance with the instructions taken out by Captain Lockyer, comprising the steamers (five in number) bound for west coast ports. Three armed yachts from Gibraltar acted as additional escort through the danger zone as far as 11 degrees west. The route followed was selected by the S.N.O. Gibraltar from one of two set out in the Admiralty instructions. Each merchant ship was provided with a signal rating R.N.V.R., for the purpose of taking in and repeating signals. Captain Lockyer, as Commodore of the convoy, led the centre column in the s.s. Clan Gordon. No enemy submarine was encountered, and the station‑keeping and attention to signals proved on the whole satisfactory. The chief trouble was the inability of the lower‑powered ships to maintain their nominal speed at sea. Although the actual speed of the convoy averaged only 6 1/2 knots, one seven‑knot vessel had to be allowed, on two occasions, to proceed independently, and cut off a corner of the route, in order to arrive at the destroyer rendezvous in time.


The escort of six destroyers from Devonport should have been met at 8 a.m. on May 18; but owing to the convoy being twenty miles west of the rendezvous, they were not actually met until 4 p.m. on that day. When south of the Scillies the west coast column was detached, under escort of two destroyers, and dispersed off the Smalls on May 20. The east coast columns put into Plymouth on May 20, and sailed again the same evening. Off Portland the escort was relieved by twenty‑four drifters from Poole, and the convoy proceeded up Channel in three divisions, each escorted by eight drifters. They arrived in the Downs on May 22, and from thence sailed to their respective destinations.


The success of this initial experiment was extremely encouraging, and went far to allay misgivings as to station-keeping. Further, the opinion of the masters, as expressed to the Convoy Committee, was that sailing in convoy greatly relieved the strain in the danger zone, by freeing them from the risk of capture, if not of sinking, and from all anxiety as to courses and the procedure to be adopted in view of war warnings.


Meanwhile, news came in that the authorities in the United States viewed the new Admiralty policy with deep misgiving. In their opinion, transmitted by cable to the Admiralty, defensively armed vessels were safer than vessels under


June 1917



convoy; and early in May, when the Navy Department at Washington was asked to assemble a convoy of from sixteen to twenty Allied vessels, and to send them across to England under the escort of a group of American destroyers which were then about to leave, they answered that they considered the ships to be escorted were too numerous, and that they ought only to sail in groups of four. The proposal was, therefore, not pressed, the destroyers sailed by themselves, and the merchant ships crossed singly without escort.




The Flanders Bight, May‑June, 1917


Admiral Bacon had intended to follow up his bombardment of Zeebrugge by a bombardment of Ostend dockyard on May 26; but the weather prevented him. A second attempt on the following day (May 27) had to be abandoned, and it was not until June 4 that conditions were favourable. A bombarding squadron of two monitors, two flotilla leaders, six destroyers, two P‑boats and twelve motor launches left Dover at 10 p.m. on June 4, and made for the outer Ratel Bank.'


(Erebus, Terror (monitors), Botha, Faulknor (Flotilla leaders), Lochinvar, Lance, Manly, Mentor, Moorsom, Miranda (destroyers); P‑boats Nos. 11 and 50; motor launches Nos. 532, 279, 239, 252, 105, 282, 103, 282, 110, 280, 283, 276.)


At nine o'clock on the same evening Commodore Tyrwhitt, with four light cruisers, a flotilla leader and eight destroyers, left Harwich to cover the bombardment from the Thornton Bank;


(Centaur (broad pendant), Concord, Canterbury, Conquest (Light Cruisers), Lightfoot (Flotilla leader), Surprise, Truculent, Starfish, Recruit, Taurus, Sharpshooter, Satyr, Torrent (destroyers).)


he was followed half an hour later by the Undaunted, with three more light cruisers, and eight destroyers;


(Undaunted, Cleopatra, Aurora, Penelope (Light Cruisers), Thruster, Redoubt, Skilful, Phoebe, Sybille, Retriever, Radiant, Springbok (destroyers).)


this second detachment had orders to watch against enemy interference from the neighbourhood of the Schouwen Bank.


The preliminaries to the bombardment were similar to those for the operation against Zeebrugge. The firing buoy was to be laid by Commander Fraser, and its bearing and distance from the target was to be obtained by the same dangerous experiment. The ships not actually engaged in the bombardment were to be disposed round the firing monitors in a rough rectangle as before. The only difference was that the bombarding squadron was not quite so numerous as it was at Zeebrugge, and that the covering force sent out from Harwich was considerably stronger.


The force passed through a gap in the barrage near No. 11 A buoy, and steered for the northern end of the outer Ratel Bank. Just before one o'clock, Commander Fraser was sent forward in the Lochinvar, with the Lance in company. As he was approaching the Ratel Bank he sighted a group of German destroyers to the eastward, and at once reported their presence (1.42 a.m.). Admiral Bacon decided not to reinforce him: he could only do so by depriving the bombarding squadron of its destroyers, when just off a German submarine base, and a reinforcement would, moreover, announce the presence of larger forces. Commander Fraser endeavoured twice to pass the German destroyers and steam into Ostend; but they were too numerous and he was compelled to turn back. Admiral Bacon was thus compelled to take up his bombarding position by dead reckoning. He was still some way to the westward with the bombarding squadron; and at about a quarter past two he intercepted a signal from Commodore Tyrwhitt ordering his destroyers to steer south‑west. Some time after half‑past two, as his squadron was approaching the firing point, he heard gunfire to the northward and realised that Commodore Tyrwhitt was engaged.



Plan - The Bombardment of Ostend, June 5, 1917


After reaching his station near the Thornton Bank at a quarter‑past two, the Commodore started his patrol on a south‑westerly course. Just after half‑past two, when he was about half‑way between the Bligh and Thornton Banks, he sighted two destroyers ahead. They were steering to the westward, and he took them at first to be part of Admiral Bacon's forces; but almost upon being sighted they opened fire, and at once came under a crushing concentration from the British light cruisers and destroyers. For a few minutes the Germans continued on their westerly course; but as they began to feel the effects of our fire they turned and made for Zeebrugge: one of the boats, S.20, was by then badly damaged and lagging behind. Commodore Tyrwhitt now ordered Commander Hodgson to pursue them with his division (Taurus, Sharpshooter, Satyr, Torrent), and resumed his patrol with the light cruisers and the remaining division. The Undaunted with the light cruisers on the Schouwen Bank sighted the firing but kept their station. The pursuing division sank the crippled destroyer and followed hard upon the other, but at three o'clock Commodore Tyrwhitt recalled them, as he had sighted more German destroyers to the southward


June 1917



and feared that Commander Hodgson might press in too close to the shore batteries. A few minutes later Admiral Bacon opened his bombardment of Ostend.


On receiving a signal from Commodore Tyrwhitt at a quarter to three, Admiral Bacon sent away the Mentor and Miranda to cut off the enemy's retreat into Zeebrugge: he anchored the squadron at about three, and the motor launches started the smoke screen. As daylight came up the shore was just visible and Admiral Bacon was able to correct his assumed position by a bearing of Ostend Cathedral. The bombardment began at twenty minutes past three and continued until four o'clock.


The enemy's batteries seem to have been better managed than at Zeebrugge; they replied to the bombardment only a few minutes after it began and kept up a steady and accurate fire upon the Erebus and Terror until they weighed. Fortunately the enemy's shells did no damage. At 4.20 the squadron was reformed for its return to Dover; Commodore Tyrwhitt, who had by then closed to about five miles, covered it from the northward.


The bombardment of Ostend differed from that of Zeebrugge in two particulars. Though the chance of doing irreparable or serious damage was slighter, the target was bigger; also, as Ostend was just visible from the sea, there was more chance of making accurate shooting. One hundred and fifteen shells were sent down, and of these about twenty exploded in or near the dockyard: the reports from our intelligence officers asserted that the workshops had not been much damaged, but that a lighter and a UC‑boat had been sunk, and that three destroyers of the flotilla, which were lying alongside the quays, were damaged. Our intelligence reports also stated that the bombardment had caused very great anxiety, and had made the German Command doubt, very seriously, whether Ostend was suitable as a destroyer base at all. This was probably an exaggeration; but there can be little doubt that if Admiral Bacon had been able to repeat these operations at short intervals, the increasing material damage would very much have hampered and obstructed German operations from the Flanders bases. Unfortunately, the extraordinary difficulties of the operation made successive repetitions of it impossible. Admiral Bacon was anxious to follow up his first experiments and arranged for a series of further operations. They were constantly postponed because one or more of the conditions necessary to a successful bombardment was lacking; and when, months later, the bombardments were renewed, the Germans had had plenty of time to make good the damage they had suffered and to strengthen their defences.




Convoy, June, 1917


Shortly after the Admiralty had decided to make the first experiments in convoying ocean traffic, a committee was appointed to study the whole question, and on June 6 they presented their report. It contained detailed proposals for the organisation of the necessary staff at the Admiralty and at the convoy assembly ports at home and abroad; for the equipment of merchant vessels, not already so provided, with the necessary signal apparatus and with voice pipes between bridge and engine‑room, to facilitate manoeuvring; and for the instructions to be given to the escorts, the commodore of each convoy, and the masters of the merchant ships. The actual programme of convoys suggested by the committee comprised eight homeward and eight outward convoys in every eight days. (The committee consisted of Captain H. W. Longden, Fleet‑Paymaster Manisty, Commander J. S. Wilde, Lieutenant G. E. Burton and Mr. Norman Leslie. It was upon their recommendations that the whole administrative mechanism of the convoy system was eventually assembled.)


For the homeward convoys the ports of assembly were to be New York, Hampton Roads, Dakar and Gibraltar. At New York, vessels from that port, Boston and Portland were to be collected, and these were to be joined at a sea rendezvous by steamers in the Canadian trade, originally assembled at Sydney, Cape Breton, in summer, or at Halifax in winter. Hampton Roads was to serve as the assembly port for all vessels homeward bound from Panama, the Gulf and Caribbean, as well as from United States Atlantic ports south of New York. Dakar would serve the whole trade of the South Atlantic ‑ vessels from South America, South and West Africa, and ships homeward bound from Australia and the East. From Gibraltar the Mediterranean trade would come home in convoy.


From each of these ports two convoys were to come home every eight days. Those from New York, Hampton Roads and Gibraltar were to be composed alternatively of vessels bound for ports on the west coast of the United Kingdom and those bound to the east and south coasts or to the northern French ports. The Dakar convoy, owing to the very miscellaneous character of the trade it served, was


June 1917



to be a "mixed" convoy containing ships bound for either coast.


In all convoys Allied ships, and approved neutral vessels in Allied employment, were to be included, provided they fell within the speed limit of less than 12 and above 8 1/4 knots. Ships of twelve knots and upwards were left to take their chance in independent sailings, as the risk to such vessels was smaller, and the delays caused by including them would be very great. On the other hand, it was felt that lame ducks of less than about 8 1/4 knots speed could not be included in the ocean convoys without undue delay to other ships. An exception, however, was made in respect of the Gibraltar convoy, to which a minimum speed of only 7 knots was assigned, owing to the large number of old, slow vessels in the coal and ore traffic. The average size of each convoy was expected to be about twenty ships.


All North and South Atlantic convoys were to be escorted by a cruiser, or a heavily armed merchantman, from the port of assembly to a rendezvous outside the submarine danger zone. Here they were to be met by an escort of destroyers or other suitable vessels, who would bring them to a point of dispersal, whence the passage of the ships to their final port of destination would be protected by coastal escorts. For the Gibraltar convoy ocean escort would be provided by special service vessels, and "destroyer escort" would be necessary at both ends of the passage. (The term "destroyer escort" was applied, both in the Report and in the subsequent actual organisation, to all danger zone escorts composed of destroyers, sloops, P‑boats and similar craft.)


For the outward traffic four convoys were proposed, each sailing twice during the eight‑day cycle. One would take out the North Atlantic trade from Liverpool and the Clyde; another the trade of the Bristol Channel to North and South Atlantic ports. A third convoy, with a southern port of assembly, would comprise all east coast ships bound for the Atlantic. Finally, a convoy for Gibraltar and the Mediterranean would sail every four days either from a southern or a western port.


As regards escort arrangements, the Gibraltar convoy was to be escorted the whole way by special service vessels, and both taken out and met by a "destroyer escort." The other convoys were to be taken clear of the submarine danger zone by a "destroyer escort," and accompanied for some distance further by a cruiser or "armed escort ship," being subsequently dispersed to their respective ports.


This programme certainly involved a heavy strain upon the fleet. The committee proceeded upon the assumption that six vessels would be required for the "destroyer escort" of each outward and homeward convoy. To provide this, they considered that fourteen flotillas of six vessels each would be required, two based on Gibraltar, and three each on Lough Swilly, Queenstown, Portland and Plymouth, giving a total of 84 destroyers or similar craft, in addition to 52 cruisers or "armed escort ships" for ocean escort.


On the same day on which the Convoy Committee presented their report, the experimental convoy from Hampton Roads was duly met by the destroyer escort at the appointed rendezvous. This convoy, consisting of twelve merchant ships, under ocean escort of H.M.S. Roxburgh (Captain F. A. Whitehead, R.N.), had sailed on May 24 in three columns, Commander G. L. Massey, of the Roxburgh, acting as Commodore. (The technical term for the officer second in command of a convoy, who would take command in case the C.O. should be disabled or unavailable.) The speed was nine knots; but this proved to be too much for two of the slower steamers, and as they were unarmed, Captain Whitehead ordered them to proceed to Halifax for guns. With the remaining ten vessels in company, the Roxburgh sailed for the destroyer rendezvous, exercising the ships in zigzagging as opportunity offered.


On the afternoon of June 4, the front was increased to five ships, by bringing up the rear ships of the wing columns, and on crossing the 20th meridian on June 5, at 11.55 p.m., the convoy began to zigzag as a whole. On the evening of the following day the danger zone escort was met, comprising eight destroyers from Devonport, and at 6 p.m. the Roxburgh shaped course for Plymouth, escorted by two of the destroyers, leaving the other six to bring on the convoy: aircraft and trawlers were also used for protection in the danger zone. All went well, and the west coast portion of the convoy was successfully dispersed off the Smalls on the night of June 8, the east coast portion being brought on to St. Helens. Although both fog and heavy weather were encountered on the passage, Captain Whitehead was able to report that "The convoy were attentive to signals, kept good station, and zigzagged in a satisfactory manner."


The complete success of the two experimental convoys decided the Admiralty to proceed with the scheme proposed by the Convoy Committee so far as the forces available for escort would permit. On June 8 the First Sea Lord, reporting to the Cabinet the voyages and arrival of the experimental


June 1917



convoys, stated that the convoy organisation was now nearly complete , and that the Admiralty hoped to start weekly convoys of oilers and provision ships in the immediate future. On the 14th he formally approved the report of the committee, the proposals of which were to be put into execution as the necessary forces became available. (The committee had recommended that incoming and outgoing traffic should be convoyed: for the time being only incoming essels were escorted. (See ante, p. 48.)) It was also decided that, pending the introduction of a comprehensive scheme of ocean convoy, the protected sailings from Hampton Roads, so auspiciously begun, should continue for the purpose of giving protection to the oilers from North America.


Four such convoys actually sailed during June, with an average of about fifteen vessels in each; and their safe arrival combined with the success of the experimental convoys on the Gibraltar route, supplied a fairly conclusive answer to all who had doubted the success of the system on tactical grounds. The experience gained showed that a convoy had intrinsically great powers of evasion, in that it was almost impossible for a submarine commander to place himself right upon its track, at the right time of day, and in a good position for attacking it, when its course and time of arrival were completely unknown to him. (See Map 13.) The great successes of the submarine commanders had hitherto been due to the immensity of their target: they had only to post themselves outside the patrolled routes somewhere between the Fastnets and Scillies, and they were practically certain to sight merchantmen if they waited for them. Some areas were better than others, but as the whole zone was traversed by merchant traffic it was in the German sense productive. The passage of these convoys through the danger area showed that, if the system could be developed and extended, it would alter the whole aspect of submarine warfare. The German submarine commanders would no longer be able to go to a fruitful area and there lie in wait: henceforward they would be compelled to seek out and attack groups of ships of whose movements they knew nothing ‑ a very much more difficult task, and one which in many cases would be quite impossible.


The torpedoing of the Wabasha in one of the early convoys was an isolated incident; the facts as known went far to contradict the theory that a convoy if attacked would be exceptionally vulnerable. All the other ships in the same column had escaped, and the submarine had been quite unable to renew its attack.


Meanwhile the Admiralty had come to several very important decisions. On June 15 it was ruled that the Hampton Roads convoys should be run at regular four‑day intervals, for the east and west coasts alternately, as recommended by the committee, but that all requisitioned oilers, whatever their destination, should be sent on by the first convoy they could catch. A week later, on June 22, the Commander‑in‑Chief, North America, was informed that the convoy system was to be extended to Canadian ports. The Convoy Committee's suggestion for ships from the St Lawrence to meet a New York convoy at sea was considered too risky because of the prevalence of fog, and a separate Canadian convoy was arranged from Sydney, Cape Breton, to sail every eight days, for the east and the west coast alternately. Captain James Turnbull, R.N.R., was sent out as Port Convoy officer, and pending his arrival the preparatory organisation was established and the convoys despatched by Captain Pasco, the senior officer at the port, the first convoy (HS.1) sailing on July 10 under escort of H.M.S. Highflyer. In the meantime the first regular four-day convoy (HH.6) had left Hampton Roads on July 2. This was the last "mixed" convoy from that port, the regular alternations of east and west coast sailings beginning on July 6 with HH.7, which was composed of west coast vessels and was brought in north‑about by destroyers from Buncrana.


Ocean escort had now to be provided for eight Hampton Roads and four Sydney convoys every thirty‑two days. The ships available for this purpose were drawn mainly from the North American and 10th Cruiser Squadrons. The responsibilities of the former had, of course, been considerably lightened by the entry of the United States into the war and the seizure of the German steamers in American harbours. The work of the 10th Cruiser Squadron had also been greatly reduced by the diminution in contraband traffic consequent on the intervention of the United States and on the series of agreements negotiated with the northern neutrals, so that it was now possible to withdraw several vessels from the northern patrol. The North American and West Indies Squadron had been joined during June by the Highflyer from Cruiser Force "D," and the Cumberland, which had been paid off for refitting. During July it was reinforced by the Drake, previously on detached service; the Donegal (from the 9th Cruiser Squadron) and the Orama, from the South‑East Coast of America station. This brought up the total strength to thirteen cruising ships, of which, by the end of the month,


June‑July 1917



seven were actually employed in convoy service.


(North American and West Indies Squadron. Ships marked "C" on convoy service:


Battleship Caesar

Cruisers Leviathan, Carnarvon, Berwick (C), Roxburgh (C), Devonshire, Antrim (C), Drake (C), Donegal, Cumberland (C)

Light cruisers Isis (C), Highflyer (C)

A.M.C. Calgarian, Orama.)


They were supplemented by four armed merchant cruisers detached from the 10th Cruiser Squadron,


(Virginian, Almanzora, Kildonan Castle, Victorian. Victorian's first convoy sailed August 2.)


and by the employment of "Commissioned Escort Ships," of which four were actually in service on July 31 and a fifth preparing to sail.


(Carrigan Head, Cambrian III (later renamed Bostonian), Knight Templar, Sachem, Discoverer.)


These were merchant steamers with three or four 6‑inch guns, so arranged as to give a broadside of three, and had been collected and equipped by the Admiralty, at the suggestion of the Anti-Submarine Division, during the period between the first adoption of the convoy system in principle and the date of applying it in practice. They carried cargo in the ordinary way; but in each was accommodated a retired flag officer, and, when in company with the convoy, they wore his flag and flew the White Ensign.


Destroyer escort for the convoys brought in south‑about was provided by the destroyers of the 2nd and 4th Flotillas at Devonport. For the west coast convoys, coming in north-about, escort was provided from Buncrana. No regular flotilla was yet based on that port; but during June four destroyers were detached from the 14th Flotilla for this work, and in July four more were similarly detached from the 15th Flotilla. (Both the 14th and 15th were Grand Fleet Flotillas.) To supplement the destroyers, sloops were also used for the Buncrana escorts.


Meanwhile arrangements were being worked out for the proposed New York convoy. So early as July 4, Captain Keppel Wade, RN, was instructed to confer with Commodore Wells at Hampton Roads, with a view to starting a convoy from New York, and on July 14, the first of the series (HN.1) sailed from that port. By this time sufficient United States destroyers had arrived at Queenstown to enable them, supplemented when necessary by sloops, to undertake the duty of bringing in an HN convoy every eight days, and ocean escort was also provided by the American Navy, U.S.S. Albany being the first on this service. The earlier sailings of this convoy were "mixed," but from August 14 (HN.5) they were alternatively for the east and west coast, in order to synchronise with the outward convoys that had by then been established.


Thus, by the middle of July, four homeward convoys were sailing every eight days, two from Hampton Roads and one each from New York and Sydney. No convoy arrangements, however, had yet been made for the South Atlantic and Mediterranean trade, or for the outward traffic, and owing to the shortage of escort craft the Admiralty were not sanguine as to any wide extension of the system in the near future.




The Submarine Campaign, June, 1917

(See Map 1.)


On June 13 the Commander‑in‑Chief under instructions from the Admiralty issued an order for what was perhaps the widest and most elaborate operation that had as yet been undertaken against the German submarines. The tracks which the larger U‑boats followed were, by then, known with tolerable accuracy, and the object of the operation was to station British destroyers and submarines along the incoming route from the eastern approaches to the Pentland Firth, to the west of Stornoway. The forces employed were distributed over zones, into which the whole area of operations was divided. The operation was particularly designed to catch the incoming submarines. The first zone, to the west and north‑west of Stornoway, was to be occupied by eight destroyers from the 12th Flotilla; to the north‑east of this the second zone was watched by two or three submarines; the third zone by five or six destroyers of the 14th Flotilla. These three zones covered the home‑coming track as far as the Shetlands. In the North Sea and the Pentland Firth, the probable route was divided into nine zones. The northernmost was occupied by two submarines, the one immediately abutting on it by eight destroyers of the 15th Flotilla; and the next one, in a south‑easterly direction, by two submarines.



Plan - Dispositions for the Anti-Submarine Operations, June 15-24, 1917


Three more zones running in an east‑north‑easterly direction covered the southern side of the 15th Flotilla's zone, and were occupied by six submarines of the 11th Flotilla. The Fair Island channel was to be occupied by eight or nine destroyers, mostly taken from the 11th Flotilla, and by two submarines.


June 1917



A leader from each of the destroyer flotillas was detailed to direct the operations of his destroyers from Stornoway (12th Flotilla), Swarbacks Minn (14th), Lerwick (15th) and Scapa (11th), and to arrange that one of the two divisions on patrol should be relieved at regular intervals.


On June 15 all the forces detailed for the operation were on their stations, and for nine days the dispositions were maintained. The results achieved only gave additional proof of the extraordinary difficulty of intercepting submarines, even when their routes were known. The outcome was that submarines were sighted sixty‑one times by our forces on patrol, and attacked on twelve occasions. None of the attacks caused loss or damage, or affected submarine activities in the approach routes further south; for whilst the operation was in progress about six U‑boats left the Fastnet area, and four relieving boats were located in it. The Commander‑in‑Chief Grand Fleet thought that the operation had justified itself in that it had "harried" all German submarines moving through the zones watched by our submarines and flotillas, and had saved the Lerwick-Bergen convoy from serious loss during the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd, when submarines were frequently sighted in the zone to the east of Lerwick. The flotilla commodore considered that the operation, though disappointing, might be repeated with a fair hope that it would yield better results if the zones to be watched were made smaller and more forces were allotted to each. The Admiralty, whilst admitting that the operation was disappointing in its results, agreed that it ought to be repeated as soon as possible in order to give it a fair trial. Many weeks went by before the experiment could be renewed; and meanwhile the officers in the western approach areas were struggling against an attack which, though it varied in intensity, suffered no serious check.


On June 18, Admiral Bayly left Ireland for a week's leave, and the Admiralty agreed that, during his absence, Admiral Sims should take command of the British and American naval forces. At the time, Queenstown was by far the most important of the local commands. Admiral Sims had under his orders, twenty‑four American


(The 5th American Destroyer Division, Drayton, Jenkins, Patterson, Paulding, Trippe, Warrington, arrived in Queenstown on June 1.


and five British destroyers, the first sloop flotilla of seventeen units, a sweeping flotilla of eight sweepers and four torpedo boats, and ten Q‑ships. Considerable as these forces were, they were insufficient to check the sinkings anywhere except in the coastal area. On June 18 the actual position was roughly as follows: nine vessels were resting and refitting in harbour;


(At Queenstown: Adventure, Bluebell, Crocus, Heather and Laburnum.

At Newport, Monmouthshire: Parthian and Peyton.

At Plymouth: Laggan.

At Buncrana: Anchusa.)


the four torpedo boats were employed every day in sweeping the approaches to Queenstown; the sweepers were divided between Berehaven and the salient points of the coastal route. Eight or nine vessels of all classes were spread along the coastal route between the Skelligs and the entrance to Queenstown: they kept it under constant patrol and escorted all incoming ships along the coast. The outer routes were, however, very insufficiently guarded. Three Q‑ships were in harbour refitting, the remaining seven were cruising as best they could over the enormous area of water in which they had to operate. It was enclosed roughly by latitude 48 degrees 30' and 53 degrees N., and ran between the mouth of the Channel and longitude 17 degrees W. Its total surface was at least 110,000 square miles.


One of the first requests made of Admiral Sims, after he had assumed command, was that he should detach destroyers to meet three troop convoy groups on June 23 and 25. (These were the first detachments of American troops sent to Europe.) Admiral Sims knew that the authorities at Washington were very doubtful about the Admiralty's new policy; and he seized the opportunity of urging them to raise no further objections to the convoy system. He admitted, at once, that the call for destroyer escorts would reduce his forces so low that neither the inshore nor the approach patrol would be able to do its work, and he would shortly be unable to give any protection at all to the merchant traffic in his area. The only remedy was that the American Government should send across all possible destroyers and anti‑submarine craft without delay, and so put every class of traffic, ocean and coastal, under convoy. The success of the convoys so far brought in," he wrote, shows that the system will defeat the submarines if applied generally, and in time. The present campaign is not succeeding." This was a clear and unequivocal admission that the existing system of defence needed supplementing.


Although the American admiral was right in his main contention, he seems to have under‑rated the amount of protection he was able to give to the inshore traffic of his command. Sinkings in the immediate approaches to the Fastnet were considerably reduced during the month of June. During the first fortnight, five vessels were sunk


June 1917



within sixty miles of the coast, and only two during the second half. The coastal route along the south of Ireland also benefited by the arrival of the recent reinforcements. For the first half of June only three ships were lost between the Tuskar and Cape Clear. There was certainly a sharp renewal of activity in the second fortnight in the Dungarvan‑Smalls-Tuskar triangle, but the zone was considerably more secure than it had been two months before, and the rising figure of unsuccessful attacks along the coastal route showed that this area at least was somewhat better defended. But the improvement was only local; for the German submarine commanders made good their set‑back in this section of the approach area by a marked success in another.


One of the most important of the Atlantic routes for outgoing ships ran due west from Land's End as far as the 12th meridian; and it was crossed on longitude 10 degrees W. by two other outgoing routes, used by vessels bound for the South Atlantic ports. As these routes were not followed closely like lanes, but were used with some freedom, there was always a considerable amount of traffic between the Melville and Shamrock Knolls and the 10th meridian. The German U‑boat commanders may have discovered this by chance or by deliberate investigation; they certainly used their knowledge with good effect. On about the 8th of the month U.70 was located in the area; she was relieved after five days by U.82; and for the last part of the month, two and sometimes three submarines held the area. As their theatre of operations was well out in the Atlantic, 120 miles from Land's End or Ushant, they were never disturbed by our patrolling forces, and, during the month, twenty‑nine British and foreign ships were sunk in this zone alone. The only consoling point was that the sinkings in the Channel had fallen sharply. The number of UB‑ and UC‑boats operating in the Channel was approximately the same as it had been in the previous month, and the number of unsuccessful attacks was not increased (twenty‑six in May, twenty‑seven in June). None the less the tonnage sunk in the Channel fell from 100,833 tons (May) to 82,000 (June). This was undoubtedly a positive achievement; but our offensive measures against the German submarines showed no improvement. Four submarines were sunk during the month; one by a chance collision with a steamship, another "from unknown causes," the third by a trawler, and the fourth in an encounter with the Q‑ship Pargust.


During June the month's destruction of British tonnage had risen above the figures of the previous month, and the total June losses, British, Allied and neutral, amounted to nearly 700,000. The total British losses since the outbreak of unrestricted warfare now amounted to nearly 2,000,000 tons, and the ocean‑going tonnage under repair, mostly as the result of war casualties, had gone up from 130,000 tons on January 81 to 454,000 at the end of June. The convoy system had not yet had time to reduce the sinkings to a figure which was bearable; and the threat to our overseas supplies continued to overshadow every other problem of war.




Operations in the Flanders Bight, July, 1917


In April, when the German submarine commanders were sinking over 25,000 tons of shipping every day, the Admiralty received news that German mercantile shipping was showing signs of life after three years of complete inactivity. A small coasting trade had begun between the Bight and Rotterdam: the movement was no more than a little trickle from the huge stream which our naval forces had dammed up for so long; but it was disquieting to know that the dam was leaking. Control of the ocean highways, though generally described in terms of naval strength, operates through the rough guess‑work of the shipping world. If shipowners, agents, marine insurance companies and exporters decide that the risk of capture is too great to be taken, a nation's merchant fleet ceases to move, and its enemy's command of the sea is absolute. This rough calculation of risk is not made upon precise strategical data; it is the rapid estimate of ordinary business men. Their conclusions are, generally, as good a summary of the position at sea as can be obtained. At moments of extreme crisis they may over‑estimate the risks of capture. In August 1914 both British and German ship-owners did so; but as a rule their judgment is sound and accurate; and this movement of German shipping between the Bight and the Hook might mean to the whole shipping world of enemy and neutral Europe that the net of British sea power had been strained to breaking point. Week by week the German Admiralty had scattered news over the whole world of how British shipping was being destroyed. Neutrals had waited for denials, but none had ever come; the British Government had spoken of exaggerations, but they had never faced the facts with a detailed answer. Ministers had been driven, indeed, to publish shipping returns of entries and sailings which misrepresented the real position; and when the


June 1917



question had been raised, the decision had always been that the disguise must be kept up: the truth might cause a panic. The German authorities knew quite well that our shipping returns were being doctored, and they had made good use of their knowledge. Herr Helfferich and his colleagues were confident and were spreading their confidence to others; their shouts of approaching victory had raised a round of answering cheers from the shipping offices and the Chambers of Commerce at Hamburg, Bremerhaven and Emden; and after three years German shipping had begun to move in the North Sea.


It was a matter of importance to cut down this growing confidence. If the feeling spread to the merchantmen which had lain at anchor in neutral harbours since the war began, the Admiralty would be faced with a general movement of enemy shipping in every ocean of the world, at a time when our cruiser forces were being rapidly absorbed into the convoy organisation.


The new traffic movement was taking place in the Flanders Bight, and Commodore Tyrwhitt was directed to prepare plans for stopping it. Thinking that it would be unwise to keep a large intercepting force off the Dutch coast, he first attempted to stop the traffic by means of submarines. Four submarines of the "E" class were stationed along the coast of Holland between Egmond and Katwijk, and a force of destroyers was held in support well out of sight of land, about twenty miles due west of Ymuiden. The four submarine commanders were to stop all suspicious vessels and divert them to the position held by the destroyers, where they would be detained and captured. The first attempt was made on June 21 and was unsuccessful; one Dutch steamer, the Boetan, was stopped by E.47 and then released. Nothing else was sighted, either by the submarines or the destroyers; but shortly after our forces had returned to harbour, the Admiralty received news from Holland that four German steamers had left Rotterdam on June 23, under the escort of a torpedo boat, and that others would follow. Commodore Tyrwhitt again ordered out four submarines and two divisions of destroyers. They reached their stations at four o'clock in the morning of the 25th, too late to intercept the vessels, which had sailed from Rotterdam on the 23rd, but in time for the ships which were reported as about to follow on their heels. None, however, was sighted: our destroyers and submarines held their stations all day, and returned after night had fallen with blank entries in the boarding books.


After this second failure Commodore Tyrwhitt decided to alter his plans. It seemed to him almost certain that the enemy knew he was attempting to stop the traffic and that they would, in consequence, be exceptionally cautious. The enemy's most natural plan would be to arrange that their ships should sail from Rotterdam on the nights when the Dutch traffic to England was being escorted across the Flanders Bight by the Harwich destroyers. They would probably assume that on these occasions the bulk of the British forces would be employed elsewhere.


The Commodore laid his plans accordingly. His flotilla was now at full strength, and he arranged that a considerable force should be assembled and ready to act on those very nights when the enemy thought him most occupied. He had intended, at first, to divide his force into three divisions, and to allot a certain sector of the Dutch coast to each; but during the afternoon of July 15 he received news that German ships were leaving Rotterdam during the night; and being thus certain that he would be able to pick them up without dividing and dispersing his ships, he kept his force concentrated. He sailed at a quarter‑past eight in the evening of July 15 with eight light cruisers, two flotilla leaders and fifteen destroyers, and at dawn on the 16th was fifteen miles to the westward of the Texel. He held this position until a quarter‑past four, and then turned to the southward; as he did so he ordered the Undaunted and seven destroyers to take station three miles on his port beam to prevent the enemy merchantmen from passing between his force and the shore. A quarter of an hour later six merchantmen were sighted ahead: they were steaming together, in formation; two were ahead, the remaining four were grouped together astern. The Undaunted and her destroyers were at once ordered to chase and capture them, and as the German ships were unable to escape or resist, the business was over in a few minutes. Two steamers succeeded in running ashore but were completely disabled by gunfire, and by seven o'clock the remainder were on their way to Harwich under escort.


This rapid blow was just what was needed. The German merchants who lost their ships and cargoes could not know that in order to make his stroke as impressive as possible Commodore Tyrwhitt had deliberately collected a force which was many times more numerous and powerful than the military objects of the operation demanded. All they could tell was that a powerful light squadron had appeared off the Texel with apparently no duty but that of intercepting coasting vessels, when it had been suggested to them by their own people that every available British destroyer was being sucked into the maelstrom of submarine warfare. The effect was


April 1917



decisive: two German vessels left Rotterdam during the week following the operation; after that movements practically ceased and the trade disappeared.



First German Doubts


Although our counter‑measures against the submarine campaign were still quite indecisive, and although no one could say for certain whether our new plan of war would continue as well as it had begun, the struggle at sea between February and June had produced one positive result, of greater importance in its way than the sinking of U‑boats. It had shaken the confidence with which the German military leaders had started the campaign. Holtzendorff's figures had persuaded them that unrestricted submarine warfare would bring Great Britain to final ruin in six months; they had proclaimed their belief to the whole German nation, and invited them to share it. Four months had now gone by, the estimated sinkings had been exceeded and yet Great Britain's resistance showed no signs of weakening. The German leaders could doubtless master their own disappointment; but they had to face the disappointment of the nation and its parliamentary representatives.


The Austrian Government was apparently the first to suggest doubts as to the result of the campaign. During March and April the Government at Berlin had been pressed by the Austrian Ballplatz to open peace negotiations. On April 14 the new Emperor Karl sent a letter of solemn warning to the Emperor William at Berlin. "We are now fighting against a new and more dangerous enemy than the Entente: social revolution. It is an enemy which finds the strongest possible ally in hunger." To this letter Count Czernin attached a memorandum which was sombre to the last degree. The Dual Monarchy must have peace before the summer was out, it could never stand another winter campaign. Revolution was brewing, the monarchy was in danger, and he had no doubt that Germany was in an equally bad condition. Admiral von Holtzendorff had most solemnly assured the Austrian Government that Great Britain would be unable to withstand six months of unrestricted U‑boat warfare. The Austrian authorities had doubted, they had opposed a decision which they could not prevent, and now, after two and a half months of submarine warfare, they could see the unsoundness of Holtzendorff's calculations. "All the information we receive about England combines to prove that a collapse of our most powerful and dangerous adversary is simply out of the question. Submarine war would damage but not ruin her; would it not, then, be better to abandon the idea that the campaign would be an instrument of final, decisive victory, and to make a serious effort to begin peace negotiations?"


Bethmann‑Hollweg did not feel at liberty to admit Count Czernin's arguments, and answered that he "looked forward to a final decision from the U‑boat warfare with the greatest confidence "; but when he discussed the question, a few weeks later, with Marshall von Hindenburg, no reason of State obliged him to disguise his real thoughts, and he uttered them candidly. By then the military leaders had realised that the submarine campaign would not bring Great Britain to her knees in the next month, as they had solemnly promised, and they wished to be saved from the awkward situation in which they had placed themselves. The wish was natural, but the method of giving effect to it was a doubtful one. Instead of calling a general council, and there admitting that their forecast of Great Britain's collapse and surrender had proved inaccurate, instead of consulting with the political leaders upon the best method of allaying the disappointment which would be widely felt in the nation and the parliament, the military leaders turned fiercely upon the Chancellor.


On June 19 Hindenburg, who was probably here the tool of others, wrote a long letter to Bethmann‑Hollweg, which contains the first admission of doubt. "I notice from newspaper and magazine articles of every kind that the hope of ending the war in the autumn is widely spread amongst the population at home. I see a grave danger in hopes which are thus linked with a particular date. I therefore consider it necessary to control these hopes and inform the Press of the true position." The true position, as Hindenburg now saw it, was that submarine warfare would certainly make Great Britain sue for peace, because the loss of freight would make it impossible for her to carry on her overseas trade after the war was over. This was not a candid admission of error; but it was an admission none the less. Great Britain's danger in June 1917 is not stated in the same terms as in February. She was then said to be moving towards an overwhelming disaster, and to have six months in which to live: she has now to consider whether her post‑war position will not be unexpectedly disturbing if she goes on fighting.


At the end of June, then, both the civil and military leaders of the German Government had virtually admitted


June 1917



that the submarine campaign was not giving the results which had been hoped for: the time was, however, approaching when an explanation would be demanded of them.


Herr Erzberger, a leading member of the Centre party, had never been fully persuaded by the arguments of Holtzendorff and his colleagues; but throughout the spring months he was satisfied that the military leaders at any rate were genuinely confident that the submarine campaign would end the war in July or August. Among influential Germans who had no connection with the Government he was one of the first to grasp that Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Holtzendorff were beginning to doubt their own calculations of victory. In the middle of June a conversation with Colonel Bauer, a member of Ludendorff's staff, showed him that the High Command were preparing for another winter's campaign. A few days later his growing suspicions were strengthened by an industrial magnate, who seems to have told Erzberger that he had received army orders for a period covering the following winter. Thoroughly suspicious, and anxious that the Admiralty staff should not impose upon the nation and the Reichstag, Erzberger now determined that the real facts of the submarine campaign should be openly discussed.


His first move was to send a long critical paper to the Admiralty, and to ask them for a reply. His argument, which was supported by accurate and laboriously collected figures, may be summed up as follows. The consequences of the submarine campaign could not be assessed merely from the destruction of British and Allied shipping. The reduction in the total carrying power of all the maritime States of the world would in the end be the deciding factor. When the total world tonnage had fallen to such a figure that the proportion of the total usually employed in the trade of the Entente countries was below their minimum requirements, then, and not before, Germany's enemies would be completely defeated. Was this end in sight, as the Naval Staff had repeatedly asserted? Erzberger's own calculations were not reassuring. In 1914 there were 49,089,552 tons of shipping in the world; between 1914 and 1917, 8,561,285 tons would have been built and launched; and on a very sanguine estimate, 19,450,000 tons destroyed by submarines, mines and ordinary casualties of the sea. At the end of 1917 the world's carrying power would therefore be 38,200,837 tons; (i.e., 49,089,552 + 8,561,285 ‑ 19,450,000 tons. The figures represent gross tonnage, and include sailing ships.) practically 78 per cent. of the 1914 total. This loss of tonnage would certainly bring about a wide readjustment in the distribution of shipping throughout the world; but the Entente Powers would still have about 30 million tons in their service. The Admiralty sent Erzberger a brief, perfunctory reply, and he decided to bring the matter before the Reichstag, which was due to meet on July 8. After consultation with various party leaders, he determined to make his criticism of the submarine campaign part of a larger issue and raise the question of peace by agreement.


Some Germans have held that Emberger's attack upon the Admiralty and the Government of his day is a great political landmark in German history. Others have described it as a fatal stimulus to the forces of blind disruptive criticism and have attributed to it Germany's defeat in the field and the fall of the German monarchical system. Erzberger himself could never have been responsible for such a chain of calamities: they were the natural outcome of Germany's conduct of the submarine war; but the action he took at this critical time is, none the less, of great historical importance.


The Reichstag assembled on July 8; its first meetings were in committee, and were only reported in brief and carefully censored summaries. But laconic as those summaries were, they sufficed to warn the German people that serious discussions had begun. On several successive days Erzberger attacked the Government in a series of closely reasoned speeches. They had committed themselves, he said, to three statements: first, the political state of Europe was so troubled that a winter campaign was probable; secondly, the High Command was confident that the military front would not be broken; thirdly, victory was certain if unrestricted submarine war were continued. The first two statements were old, the third was of more recent date, and had just been revised in a most important particular. When first made, the nation had been told, in the clearest possible terms, that the unrestricted submarine campaign would end the war before harvest. From this statement the date had now been withdrawn, and the official declaration was simply that the submarines would end the war. When, and how?


Erzberger again went through the arguments and figures which the naval staff had practically refused to discuss with him; and he invited the Reichstag to believe that even the present rate of tonnage destruction would not end the war in any calculable time. The nation had now to decide outright whether they would any longer allow themselves to be influenced by prophecies and forecasts which had been utterly disproved, and by undertakings which had never been carried out; whether they would still continue to strive for victory on the strength of assurances which should never have been


July 1917



given them, or whether they would openly proclaim to the world that they were ready to discuss a peace without annexations or indemnities. The national representatives were now being asked to vote an enormous credit of 50 milliards for war expenses; the only inducement offered was, "hold out ‑ a better peace will be obtained in the spring." But unfortunately there was not the slightest evidence that this was so: the enemy's war industries were increasing their output ‑ a certain proof that the submarine campaign had failed: Germany was suffering progressively from lack of food, lack of fuel, lack of materials. No confidence could be placed in men who had so completely miscalculated the enemy's power of resistance. Even at the end of another year neutral and enemy tonnage would be sufficient to supply the Entente countries, where people were living with a degree of comfort that Germans had not enjoyed these eighteen months. The Reichstag must therefore adopt a peace policy of its own and force it upon the Government. Three times in 1870 Bismarck had attempted to open negotiations with the French: had he ever been accused of weakness, or of wavering, or of encouraging his enemies? Unless responsibility for continuing the war were to be laid for ever at Germany's door, her war aims must be placed before her enemies and before the whole world in a clear, acceptable form; and the Reichstag should itself take the lead in presenting them.


The effect produced by Erzberger's speech, and the further course of this momentous debate, are best described in the Chancellor's own words.


"The social democrats pressed forward the formula, 'No annexations or indemnities.' Their speakers painted the internal and external situation in the darkest colours. We were at the end: revolution was threatening. The submarines had not done what the Naval High Command had promised, and ought to be abandoned. Independent speakers went further, and said that revolution was at the door. The altered attitude of the middle‑class parties was extraordinary. Overcome by the prevailing depression they opposed these views weakly, and without conviction, and, mainly for reasons of parliamentary tactics, abandoned the defence of the Government. The Secretaries of State, Doctor Helfferich and Admiral von Capelle, could not break down the general suggestion [of failure] with their statistical material."


The Chancellor was right; Erzberger's speeches on the submarine campaign were a rallying summons to every party leader who had ever criticised the Chancellor and the High Command and to every party that was distrustful of the Government. Those who had always desired to advocate peace openly at last found their opportunity. If the submarine campaign was indecisive, why should the German Government delay further? After conferences between the Centre and Left, the party leaders placed a resolution upon the agenda of the committee, and Erzberger asked that a vote should be taken upon it. The resolution ran as follows:


"The Reichstag declares:


"On the eve of the fourth year of war the declaration made in the speech from the Throne ‑ We are making no war of conquest ‑ holds good for the German people just as it did on August 4, 1914. Germany took up arms for the defence of her freedom and independence, and for the integrity of her territories.


"The Reichstag is striving for a peace of understanding, for a durable pacification of peoples. Forced annexation of provinces, and political, economic and financial oppression are incompatible with a peace of the kind.


"The Reichstag repudiates all plans which aim at the economic division and the exasperation of nations after the war. The freedom of the seas must be assured. Economic peace alone can lay the basis for the peaceful intercourse of peoples.


"The Reichstag will actively press forward the creation of international organisations [for the enforcement] of law.


"Until the enemy Governments accept such a peace, Germany and her confederates will be threatened with annexations and acts of oppression, and the German people will stand together, as a man, will endure and fight on without wavering until they and their Allies have secured the right to life and development.


"The united German people is inconquerable. The Reichstag declares itself to be at one with the men who are defending the Fatherland in this heroic struggle. They are assured of the undying gratitude of the German people."


The Reichstag motion thoroughly roused the generals: Stein, the War Minister, had been present during Erzberger's first speeches and had watched their effect upon an audience which heard, for the first time, that the submarine campaign was not succeeding; he was quick to see that if the Government gave countenance to the resolution they would be admitting the arguments that had supported it. He accordingly wired at once to Headquarters, to ask that the Emperor should be told, by the High Command, that "it would be the greatest misfortune if the Chancellor gave any support to such a declaration." Hindenburg answered immediately


July 1917



in a telegram which contained the significant admission: "I have the heaviest misgivings with regard to such a declaration, as it can only increase the unrest which already exists in the army and be taken as a sign of internal weakness." Ludendorff's alarm drove him to disregard the most elementary principles of military duty: on July 12 he telegraphed to the Emperor that he would resign his post unless Bethmann‑Hollweg were removed from the Chancellorship. The generals then made a resolute attempt to influence the parliamentary leaders. On July 13, Hindenburg and Ludendorff invited them to a conference, and lectured them. The old Marshall said a few words of welcome, after which General Ludendorff described the military situation in the well-known fashion: things were far better than they had been during the previous year, and the submarines would make it impossible for the Americans to transport their armies to Europe. But a peace resolution would animate Germany's enemies, who were already looking for signs of weakness, and would depress her army and her Allies.


Arguments like these were thrown away upon such a man as Erzberger, who had armed himself with a formidable mass of statistics; and upon Scheidemann, the social democrat, who knew how terribly the German masses were suffering. The latter answered on behalf of the Centre and Left, that hunger was spreading, and that the country would have a revolution if peace were not made in the autumn. "The thought of another winter's campaign is terribly hard to bear. We must make it known that we are waging a defensive war, that we give our last drop of blood for our houses and our farmyards, but that pan‑German war aims are not ours. Strategical frontiers are of no use to us .... we must not protract the war by a desire for conquests and indemnities. If we speak openly in this fashion, we shall help towards the breakdown of our enemies." Erzberger then pressed Ludendorff with questions on the submarine war; he answered evasively, and in words which were quite inconsistent with his previous attitude. "Calculations about the submarine war cannot be based upon world tonnage. Even now everything is in favour of the war industries of our enemies. Submarine warfare cannot be measured by statistics, but by positive results ‑ Salonica; wheat which cannot be brought over from Australia; shortage of timber in England; lack of coal in France and Italy; less munitions, and of a lower quality." Hindenburg, it seems, said practically nothing during this tirade, but he begged the deputies to put "a little more pepper" into their peace resolution.


Meanwhile Ludendorff's ultimatum demanding the Chancellor's resignation had been discussed by the Emperor and Bethmann‑Hollweg at Bellevue. It angered the Kaiser that he should be spoken to in such a manner, and, for a moment, he was inclined to assert his authority. But Bethmann-Hollweg persuaded him to take a more diplomatic course: it was quite impossible to force or accept the resignation of two army leaders in whom the nation had unbounded confidence; but a change of Chancellors would do no harm. On July 14 Bethmann‑Hollweg formally resigned his office, from the same sense of public duty that had animated him throughout his career. A few days later it was announced that Herr Michaelis, an Under‑Secretary in the Ministry of Food, was appointed in his place. Not much is known of the new Chancellor; he only held office for a short time, and, after resigning, took no further part in public life.


Erzberger speaks of him as a man of strong character, more sympathetic to the aims of the military party than his predecessor; so that, possibly, he was Ludendorff's nominee. His principal achievement, and it was no light one, was to get the peace resolution passed in such a way that it did not cause an open rupture between the Reichstag and the Government. This he did, partly by a verbal quibble, and partly by lobbying the parliamentary leaders. The resolution against annexations and indemnities was duly passed on July 19; the Chancellor accepted it in principle, but added the phrase "as I understand them" to the words about conquests and damages. Exactly a fortnight had gone by since the resolution had first been placed on the order of the day, and during the interval it would seem as though its authors had lost heart. At all events, the obvious reservation from the Chancellor did not lead to any further conflict, and the crisis passed.


None the less, far‑sighted men realised that, sooner or later, the Reichstag would have to take its stand against the Government, possibly even against the Crown. On the day after the end of the crisis, the Emperor summoned the Reichstag leaders to a conference in which he went out of his way to renew their anxiety. They soon realised, from his way of talking, that he had been completely misinformed about the meaning and purpose of their resolution. He seemed hardly to have read the text of it. He congratulated them on advocating a "peace of adjustment" (which they had never done), and said that it fell in entirely with his own views. Adjustment, as he understood it, meant that Germany should receive gold, raw materials, wool, oil and coal from abroad and "move it from one of her pockets into another." After


July 1917



that the Emperor described the political situation. England and America had come to an agreement in order to deal with Japan when the war was over, which Japan had countered by an agreement with Russia: the present war would probably not end with England's overthrow; but, when it was over, an alliance between Germany and France would pave the way to a "second Punic War" of the European continent against Great Britain. This was an extraordinary way of talking to men who had just passed a peace resolution; but when he spoke of internal affairs the Emperor was even more unguarded.


As a special warning to the deputies of the Left, he told them that the soldiers of the Guard Division, led by his own son Fritz, had thrown the "republican dust round the Russians' ears": and added, " There is no democracy where the Guards appear." Finally, submarine war was so successful that his officers could no longer find ships to sink. When Erzberger tried to answer this wild talk with quotations from his statistics, the Emperor turned his back on him and continued. The Rumanians were to be punished by the diversion of the entire course of the Danube, from Trojan's gates to Czernawoda, so that the international commission would be sitting on the bed of a dried‑up stream. Erzberger speaks thus of the whole proceeding. "This conversation between the Emperor and the deputies was not only as unfortunate as it could be: it was the turning of the first sod for the grave of the old Regime. Grey‑headed deputies, who up to then had not wished for a parliamentary system, openly said, on that night, that the existing form of government must bring disaster on the country."


The generals and admirals had thus in their turn tided over the crisis. They had escaped the worst that threatened them in that they had not been compelled to answer a charge of deceiving the German people about the results of the submarine campaign, and they had got rid of a Chancellor whose critical faculties had always galled and exasperated them. But their victory had been gained at great cost. Their clamour for strong government and unity of purpose had increased existing divisions, mistrusts and rivalries; and, worse than that, their political or semi‑political manoeuvres had weakened the structure of imperial power which alone protected their extraordinary privileges, influence and immunity from criticism.




The Disorders in the German Fleet. July and August 1917


Although the new Chancellor had so far come through by adroit management and dubious backing, he could not stop the reverberations of Erzberger's resolution, which sounded all over Germany, and penetrated to the mess‑tables of the High Seas Fleet. There they gave a sudden stimulus to ugly feelings that had long been rising. For months past the German seamen had felt that they were unjustly treated in the matter of food, and that, even if there were a national shortage, it was not right that there should be such an immense difference between the daily quantities of food allowed to the officers on the one hand and the men on the other. The grievance seems to have been well founded. If the statements of prisoners captured later are even approximately true, there can be no doubt that the German sailor's daily ration was now utterly insufficient, and it is not surprising that men fed on such poor and monotonous diet fell into a tired, nervous state in which grievances are apt to grow into a bitter sense of injustice and a desire for vengeance.


In addition to their grievances on the question of rations, the German seamen appear to have felt that their officers were treating them with undeserved harshness. It is not easy to understand why this feeling became so general; for there are no grounds for supposing that the ordinary German officer treated his men more harshly and discourteously in the summer of 1917 than he had done for many years past. The professional code of the German services has always been understood to insist on rigour as the first element of discipline. Authority must be obeyed and exerted at all times without any regard to the feelings of those concerned; and, in particular, courtesy and consideration towards inferiors are not qualities that an officer can admit into his practice, without weakening the military virtues which it must be his first consideration to cultivate. Such a theoretical inhumanity is in time of peace a barbarism to be borne only by a people which has not yet experienced a humane social life: in war it may be tolerated while success lasts, but in a long fight, and still more in a losing fight, it is likely to prove fatal. The officers of the High Seas Fleet were now to realise in the supreme hour of their country's danger that they had with them neither the trust nor the affection of their men.


On July 19 the crew of the Prinzregent Luitpold became


July‑Aug. 1917



openly disobedient, and their conduct shows how little confidence they had in the justice or consideration of their commanders. Without attempting to petition for the redress of grievances, and without formulating any specific complaints, nearly half of the crew refused all duty and remained in their messes. They informed their officers that they had gone on hunger strike. Captain Hornhardt settled the disturbance, for the time being, by raising the bread ration to 100 grammes; but the trouble had only begun. On the following day, one hundred and forty men left the Pillau without leave; but this act of disobedience, gross and flagrant as it was, was carried out with great restraint. The men thought that leave had been wrongfully and harshly refused them, and so walked over the side. But when the period of leave which they considered was due to them had expired, they returned on board in a regular, orderly way, and continued to do their duty.


A few days later a sinister rumour put the whole fleet into wild excitement: Captain Thorbecke of the Koenig Albert died suddenly and mysteriously; everybody believed that he had been killed by his own men. One story said that he had been thrown overboard, another that he was coming back to his ship one night and that, as he stepped from his launch on to the gangway, he was stabbed in the back. The truth behind these ugly stories was that Captain Thorbecke fell overboard accidentally and was drowned. The actual circumstances in which the accident occurred were apparently difficult to ascertain.


Nothing is better calculated to inflame angry men than a story of vengeance against an oppressor. A few days later, when the legend of Captain Thorbecke's murder had spread to every mess‑table in the fleet, the discontent amongst the men again boiled over. On August 1 fresh disorders broke out in the Prinzregent Luitpold, and this time they were extremely serious. The ship was lying alongside the wharf at the time, and during the morning about fifty men marched over the side without leave. On their return eleven were arrested and the remaining forty allowed to go free; and this gave an additional stimulus to the discontent. Early on the following morning, four hundred men left the ship, and held a mass meeting in one of the suburbs, to protest against the punishment of their mates. The authorities were now seriously alarmed; the military were called in, a large number of men were placed under arrest, and a hundred of them were summarily and severely punished. But the disorders continued all next day, till in the evening the ship was taken out into Schillig Roads and completely isolated from the rest of the fleet.


Still the outbreak was not quelled. A certain number of ratings from other ships had been arrested with the main body on the previous day, and on August 4 the infection spread to the Kaiserin and the Friedrich der Grosse. At dinner‑time the men of the Kaiserin refused to send to the galley to get their food, and the watch below said flatly that they did not intend to relieve the watch on deck. The officers of the ship tried to open a parley, and went below to induce the men to state their complaints. The crew only complained specifically about the quality of the soup; but their criticism was so violent, their language so unsuitable to a conversation between officers and men, that the parley was broken off. Later in the afternoon the officers again went down to the mess‑deck and promised that the diet should be improved. No attempt was made to persuade or force the crew to resume work, and, that night, the officers posted detachments of the men who had remained loyal outside their cabins. In the Friedrich der Grosse there were serious disturbances all day; the men refused duty and held a "free speech" meeting under the eyes of their officers.


On the following morning the men were showing a rather better temper; and in the evening the Kaiserin, Koenig Albert and Kaiser were sent to Schillig Roads. From here they went on to Brunsbuttel, and, when they arrived, the officers made a genuine and sensible attempt to conciliate their men. Leave was given freely, games and concerts were organised, and better food was served out. The state of discipline in the Prinzregent Luitpold was apparently still so serious that it was not safe to allow her crew to mix with the crews of the other vessels.


This attempt at conciliation succeeded. The discontent did, it is true, break out again, some days later, in the Westfalen and the Rheinland; but the naval authorities managed to keep it under control, and by the end of the month the German fleet had again returned to its orderly disciplined habits.


Meanwhile, however, the high authorities had been making discoveries which seriously alarmed them. The officers of the battleships persuaded a certain number of men to gain the confidence of the mutineers, and, later, to inform against them. It was largely upon the intelligence supplied by these agents that the authorities identified the moving spirits among the disobedient seamen, and collected evidence for the courts‑martial which followed the outburst, From these


Aug. 1917



secret informers, and from the investigations carried out by the lawyers employed to prosecute the ringleaders, the high authorities discovered, to their dismay, that the recent disorders were the symptoms of a serious and deep‑seated malady. A handful of stokers, of whom the most intelligent and active were a man named Reichpietsch and another named Kurbis, had formed a regular political organisation for spreading peace propaganda on the lower decks of the battle fleet. They had kept nominal lists of all those men who agreed with them; they had been in touch with Herr Dittmann, one of the deputies of the Independent Socialist party, and had made elaborate arrangements for distributing the political literature of the party among their comrades. The rallying‑cry of the movement was "peace without annexations or indemnities" ‑ a simplified form of the Reichstag resolution which a few weeks before had provoked such strenuous opposition from the admirals and the generals. Holtzendorff's bitterest enemies had thus gained an entry into the battle line of the German navy.


It would, of course, be the merest exaggeration to treat the disorders in the Prinzregent Luitpold and the other battleships as though they were solely the outcome of the Reichstag resolution; trouble had been brewing in the fleet for many months before Erzberger spoke. Still less would it be fair to say ‑ as an ingenious German controversialist has done ‑ that the irresponsible speeches of the admirals were the animating cause of the seamen's disobedience. Nevertheless, it is quite impossible to dissociate this breakdown in the most rigorously disciplined fleet in the world from the promises which the admirals had so freely scattered before the German nation some months before. Beneath the shouting of the seamen who broke ashore, the jeering and whistling of the men who refused to receive their rations, the wild talk of the stokers who held free speech meetings in the Friedrich der Grosse, there is evident a deeper and more estranging resentment, the bitter anger of brave men, who had at last realised the true nature of the policy for which they and their people were now called upon to endure starvation.









WHEN Vice‑Admiral Sir S. A. Gough‑Calthorpe took up his appointment in the Mediterranean in August 1917, the outlook was dark and sombre. The German submarine commanders were not, it is true, sinking as much shipping as they had done in April; but the statistics of the campaign justified the most gloomy forebodings. No German submarine had been sunk since May, and the daily sinkings varied almost in direct proportion to the number of U‑boats on cruise. The complex of defensive measures, which had been devised by the staffs of three navies, never seemed to reduce the average daily destruction of each operating submarine. It is true that shipping was relatively safe in certain parts of the Mediterranean. German submarine commanders rarely visited the route along the eastern coast of Spain; and the Italians had organised a defensive system along their western coast‑line which gave all shipping inside it considerable immunity from attack. But these were strips or ribbons of water in a great inland sea, traversed both laterally and longitudinally by the commerce of many nations; and even though Spain's neutrality, and the Italian coast defence, deprived the enemy of opportunities for destroying shipping in two small zones, his opportunities for depredations elsewhere were so good that he hardly felt the restriction.


Admiral Calthorpe's plans for improving matters seemed, moreover, to be beset with difficulties. He, personally, believed that our losses could only be substantially reduced by concentrating an offensive force at whatever point German submarines were most likely to be found, and harrying them with every means at his disposal. No zone was more suitable than the Straits of Otranto, through which so large a proportion of the German submarines were compelled to pass, twice every cruise. But the hopes of prosecuting a concentrated offensive in this narrow channel were small. The operation could only be undertaken if the Italian and


Sept. 1917



French Admiralties were prepared to make unsparing use of their destroyers and small craft, and although the French authorities might be persuaded to make a generous allocation of destroyers to an offensive force in the Otranto Straits, it was practically certain that the Italian High Command would not agree to change their established policy. They had, on several occasions, refused to maintain a permanent destroyer patrol to guard the mobile barrage of drift nets and trawlers which we had stationed in the Straits. More than that, they had practically withdrawn the barrage forces. (From June to July 24 the barrage forces had only been at sea for one day; they had not been to sea at all between July 24 and August 19.)


Fortunately, however, opinions were not divided about the major strategy of the campaign which Admiral Calthorpe was to conduct, and this was perhaps the only alleviation to his difficulties. The Conference of Allied naval authorities held in London during the first week in September decided, unanimously, that commercial traffic in the Mediterranean should be placed in convoy, as far as possible. Before Admiral Calthorpe left London, his staff made a careful analysis of shipping and traffic statistics in the Mediterranean. They decided that escort must be provided along nine routes, and estimated that the total number of escorting units required would be about 300. (Traffic was to run in convoys between (i) Gibraltar and Genoa, (ii) Gibraltar and Bizerta, (iii) Bizerta and Port Said, (iv) Marseilles and Bizerta, (v) Marseilles and Algiers, (vi) Malta and Suda Bay, (vii) Naples and Bizerta, (viii) Malta and Taranto, (ix) Oran and Gibraltar. The convoy base at Suda Bay was to be transferred to Milo.)


When this decision was reached, convoys were running only between Malta and Egypt and between Gibraltar and Oran. To give effect to the findings of the Conference was therefore a task of the first magnitude. An important preliminary step had certainly been taken. The traffic of the nations which do the carrying trade in the Mediterranean could only be controlled by an inter‑Allied Committee, on which all the Allies were represented. This Committee had already been created; (It was styled officially the Commission de Malte.) Admiral Calthorpe was the Chairman; his colleagues were Admirals Fergusson, Ratyˇ, Salazar and Sato. The Committee was an inter‑Allied executive, the only body which by its constitution and authority could undertake a great reorganisation of the existing arrangements for controlling and routeing commercial traffic in the Mediterranean. In addition to this, the forces available for the defence of trade had to be redistributed from one end of the Mediterranean to the other; and the responsibility for particular convoys divided between the French, British and Italian commands.


Until Admiral Calthorpe had completed his preparations for introducing the Mediterranean convoy system, he was obviously unable to proceed with his plan of organising a continuous attack against submarines in the Straits of Otranto; and, indeed, for many weeks after he had taken up his new appointment, his time was almost entirely employed in devising a redistribution of the patrol and destroyer forces within the limits of his command. He gave some slight reinforcement to the patrol forces outside the Straits, in the hope of reducing sinkings in the western approaches to Gibraltar; but that, for the time being, was all that he was able to do.


Meanwhile the Admiralty had decided to run convoys, at intervals of ten days, between England and Port Said. These convoys were not to be part of the general system for which Admiral Calthorpe was making preparations; the Convoy Section at Whitehall was responsible for them. But it was stipulated that whilst these convoys were inside the danger zone off Gibraltar, all available local forces were to reinforce the escort. Rear‑Admiral J. A. Fergusson (Appointed British Admiral of Patrols, Mediterranean, September 3, 1917.), whom the British Commander‑in‑Chief had recently instructed to control the convoy organisation, urged that the arrivals of these "through" convoys ‑ that was the name given to them ‑ should be made to synchronise with the departures of the home‑bound Gibraltar convoys, in order that the local escorts should be employed as economically as possible. Even with this economy, however, it was largely owing to the American reinforcements at Gibraltar that the local command was able to meet the calls being made upon it. There were now at Gibraltar, the light cruisers Birmingham and Chester; the gunboats Sacramento, Nashville, Machias, Castine; the revenue cutters Ossipee, Seneca, Manning, Yamacraw and Marietta; the yachts Yankton and Nahma. The Admiralty agreed to Admiral Fergusson's proposal, and on October 3 the first of these convoys left England. (It suffered a loss of two ships, out of a total of eleven, sunk off Alexandria. This was discouraging but misleading. For the percentage of losses in the through Mediterranean convoys see post, p. 94.)


The provision of local escort for these through convoys, though highly necessary, could only have the effect of depleting still further the forces which Admiral Calthorpe desired to assemble for his projected offensive. It was, therefore,


Oct. 1917



a great relief to him when a much‑needed reinforcement enabled him to keep the mobile barrage, in the Straits of Otranto, at sea. Early in October, six Australian destroyers arrived in the Mediterranean; they were at once allocated to Brindisi, and on the eleventh of the month the drifters and auxiliaries returned to their old duties in the Straits.


But the restoration of the mobile barrage was, for the moment, no more than an act of vigilance, or a preparation for more comprehensive measures. Sinkings continued without intermission, the number of ships destroyed rose when the number of operating submarines rose, and fell when, for some reason or another, fewer U‑boats could put to sea. Nor were the enemy's numbers reduced by our offensive: the German submarine commanders continued to enjoy an immunity from danger which was distressing evidence that the attack had still the better of the defence. (See Appendix C ‑ Submarine Warfare in the Mediterranean, Sept. 1917 to Sept. 1918, and Map 2.)


And now, during the last days of the month, the course of events on land threatened to increase the difficulties of the campaign at sea, by creating a new and pressing demand for reinforcements in the northern Adriatic. On October 24, the Austrian armies attacked the Italian positions in the Julian Alps; one of the Italian armies opposed to them was completely defeated and fell back in great disorder. The Italians were in full retreat towards the Piave when the month came to an end; and their High Command was extremely anxious lest the Austrians should attempt to turn their right flank from the sea, by armies landing under the support of the Pola Fleet. It was absolutely beyond our power to supply the destroyer reinforcements which the Italians demanded, although we agreed, without demur, that the Queen's 12‑inch guns should be dismounted and used as heavy artillery on the land front.


In another theatre the naval forces were better able to meet the calls which the military authorities made upon them. At this juncture General Allenby was completing his preparations for an attack upon the Turkish armies opposed to him. The Turkish forces occupied a line which ran for about thirty miles south‑eastward of Gaza; the British lay between Deir el Belah and Ramli. General Allenby's plan was to storm Beersheba, on the eastern flank of the Turkish position, and to follow up with successive attacks upon the Turkish centre, and upon Gaza. He particularly desired that the naval forces available should make feint landings to the north of Gaza when he launched his first assault upon Beersheba; for he hoped that they might thus hold troops which could otherwise be sent eastward, to the right flank of the Turkish armies. The British naval forces had co‑operated in the unsuccessful assaults upon the Gaza position, in the spring of the year; and Rear‑Admiral Thomas Jackson, the Senior Naval Officer, Egypt, whom General Allenby consulted, was ready to begin the operation on October 30, the day before the assault on Beersheba began.


Just behind Gaza there is a ridge of low hills which restricts the view from the sea, and leaves little visible but a narrow strip of the maritime plain. But about eight miles north of the town, the River Hesi has cut a small cleft through the hills, and from a ship off the river mouth the railway station of Deir Sineid, and the road bridge over the river can be seen. The land meets the sky along the jagged outline of the Judean mountains. (See Map 3.)


At 10.30 a.m., October 30, two small monitors, M.31 and M.32, opened fire on trenches and wire north‑west of Gaza, (M.31, Commander Cecil J. Crocker; M.32, Lieutenant‑Commander R. Hunt. Both monitors carried two 6‑inch guns; their displacement was 355 tons, and their maximum speed 10 knots.) and on a beach position called Sheikh Hassan. A quarter of an hour later the Grafton, carrying Admiral Jackson's flag, began searching with her guns for an observation tower known to be due north of Gaza concealed among trees.


Still further north, off the mouth of the Hesi, the large monitor Raglan (Raglan, Commander Viscount Broome, 6150 tons; 6 to 7 knots speed; main armament two 14‑inch, one 6‑inch guns.) took up position for bombarding Deir Sineid railway station. She was joined there by the seaplane carrier City of Oxford, guarded by the destroyers Comet and Staunch. The Raglan had a seaplane on board, stowed above the 14‑inch gun; this was hoisted out to spot the fall of her shot, and before noon the observer reported a series of explosions at the railway station, presumably the destruction of an ammunition dump. The target was then shifted to the railway bridge, and there also some hits were seen. The enemy's resistance was limited to a few rounds fired at a couple of trawlers which were sweeping a passage towards the shore for the Raglan, and some machine gunfire from an aeroplane which was driven off by our high‑angle guns. In the afternoon firing the Raglan used a seaplane from the City of Oxford. At nightfall the seaplane carrier retired to seaward; but the Raglan remained to fire a few shots up the valley to keep the Turks on the alert.


Oct.‑Nov. 1917



During the attack on Beersheba on October 31, which was successful, the diversion on the Gaza flank was continued. The Raglan was relieved in the afternoon by the French auxiliary vessel Maroc, which fired a few rounds up the Hesi valley while the monitor returned to Deir el Belah to attend to her guns and replenish her ammunition. In the twilight before sunrise the Grafton fired on the trenches north‑west of Gaza; but when the sun rose over the Judean hills the horizontal glare obscured the targets and firing had to cease until four hours later wire entanglements could again be clearly seen. The enemy now had the range of the Grafton and forced her to take up a new position, which she held till darkness fell and she retired to sea. Three small monitors bombarded from the southern position.


So far, the enemy had made no great efforts to deal with the bombardment from the sea; but during the day it was reported from the direction‑finding stations at Alexandria and Port Said that two submarines were on the Palestine coast. Nothing was seen of either submarine though the patrol vessels kept a specially sharp look‑out.


The simulated landing took place on November 1, when the attack on Gaza began on shore. The bombarding station off the Hesi was taken by the French coast defence vessel Requin. She anchored just within range of the Turkish guns and was twice hit; one shell exploded on the mess deck and caused considerable loss of life. At Deir el Belah a party of the Egyptian Labour Corps were marched down to the beach within full view of the Turks on the heights above Gaza, and there embarked in a fleet of small craft specially brought up from Port Said. As the light waned the party in the boats moved off northward as if to be landed north of Gaza; but as soon as it was dark they returned to Deir el Belah and quietly went ashore again, though, to keep up the illusion, a procession of small vessels showing lights occasionally steamed northward past Gaza. The Grafton and two little river gunboats cruised off the Hesi to prevent any Turkish reserves from crossing it.


That night Sheikh Hassan was captured. The naval bombardment was henceforward directed only against targets north of Deir Sineid, since it was impossible to distinguish British from Turkish troops from the firing ships. During November 2 the Grafton, Raglan, Maroc and Requin kept Hesi station continuously under fire. The old French battleship expended all her ammunition, and sailed at 11.0 p.m.; as she steamed off she was loudly cheered by the rest of the little squadron.


The weather, which had so far been calm, now began to change and the wind rose. The motor launches and river gunboats, which had been assisting the operations as auxiliaries, had to be sent to Port Said for shelter. They were absent only a day; when on November 4 the wind died down, they came back and the river gunboats opened fire on the observation tower, which was still standing. One of the gunboats, Aphis, was nearly hit by a shell when 12,000 yards from the shore, the longest range over the water obtained by the Turkish guns.


The firing from the sea was maintained for the next two days; the two French destroyers, Fauconneau and Hache, relieved the Comet and Staunch for a time, and the monitors M.15 and M.29 joined in. The Requin returned to her station, whereupon the Grafton went back to Port Said for coal and ammunition; and Admiral Jackson shifted his flag to the Enterprise. Before dawn on November 7 the army ashore signalled that the Turks were evacuating Gaza and asked for a bombardment of all railways and roads they might be using in their retreat. As soon, therefore, as there was enough light three monitors and the two river gunboats fired up the Resi valley at the retreating Turks, over the heads of the British infantry, who were tramping along the sandy shore. At noon our line was so well advanced that it was clear Deir Sineid would soon fall. Our naval force moved northward: M.15 to a spot from which Julis station could be shelled, the Requin and French destroyers to Askalon. So thorough was the success, and Gaza so unmistakably ours, that on the 9th the troops crossed the Hesi valley and passed for the moment beyond the reach of assistance from the sea. General Allenby hoped to attack Jaffa on the 13th, and as he would then require a naval demonstration, all the ships withdrew to Deir El Belah for a rest.


It is impossible to say how far these naval bombardments assisted General Allenby's brilliant operations, nor do we know whether the Turks were deceived by the simulated landing behind Gaza. But co‑operation with the land armies was certainly costly. Soon after the operations began, Lieutenant Hans Wendlandt, who was then cruising in the southern Aegean in UC.38, received orders from Nauen to go to the coast of Palestine, and operate against British transports between Askalon and Jaffa. He did not at once obey, but reached the coast off Gaza on November 10. After keeping periscope watch all that day and most of the next, he discovered that a mass of ships were anchored off Deir el Belah, and that their anchorage was protected by a net which ran parallel to the shore and was distant two miles from it. The gaps between the ends of the net and the shore were patrolled by


Nov. 1917



trawlers and drifters. At about sunset on November 11, Hans Wendlandt took his submarine through the gap, and torpedoed the Staunch and monitor M.15. In addition to the torpedoed ships, three French destroyers, the Comet and the Enterprise were lying at the anchorage, and a group of transports were off the mouth of the Hesi. Admiral Jackson, who was in the Enterprise at the time, sent the trawlers and French destroyers to protect the transports, and withdrew the remainder of the squadron to Port Said. After the disaster the naval forces continued to protect the lines of supply which ran from Egypt to anchorages on the army's left flank, but active naval participation in the campaign ceased.


By this time, Admiral Calthorpe had completed his preparations for introducing a general convoy system on the lines laid down by the Allied Conference in September, and towards the end of November he reported on the first results of the new system of defence.


(The American forces at Gibraltar had by now been increased by five small destroyers of 240 tons, the Chauncey, Bainbridge, Barry, Dale and Decatur; by the revenue cutter Tampa and the gunboat Paducah. These forces were mainly employed as convoy escorts.)


Convoys under British escort were running between Gibraltar and Oran, Bizerta and Alexandria, Alexandria and Port Said, Bizerta and Milo. The French authorities were solely responsible for the traffic between Marseilles and Algiers and Marseilles and Bizerta. The convoys between Milo and Salonica, and Milo and Alexandria were under a joint Franco‑British control. For the time being, no convoys were being run between Gibraltar and Genoa, as the Italians preferred that ships bound to their ports should follow the Spanish coastal route. Ships were also running free between Naples and Bizerta, because the Italians preferred that ships should hug the western coast of Italy and the northern coast of Sicily, and keep within the area protected by their coastal defences.


Admiral Calthorpe freely admitted that the Italian local defences and control of traffic had been prepared with the most meticulous care and worked with great precision. He none the less regretted that such a system had ever been instituted; it absorbed the services of 11,000 men and of a large number of auxiliaries which he would have liked to see allocated to the striking force that he was still collecting. But he had to admit that shipping within the Italian coastal zone was relatively immune from attack, and that he ordered ships which could not be escorted to use it freely. Admiral Calthorpe was, moreover, very sceptical about the efficiency of the convoy system as a measure of defence, and doubted whether it would reduce losses materially; "the system of the protection of merchant shipping by sailing them in convoys," he wrote, "is, at the best, a deterrent and not a reliable safeguard . .... this applies particularly to the Mediterranean . ....where the comparatively restricted areas through which shipping must pass to reach their destinations are all in favour of the enemy. Hence it appears that the measure of protection afforded by this system is bound to become less as the enemy gains in skill and experience, and that the true solution is to be found in an increased and unceasing offensive, which should, in time, enable us to dispense altogether with the need for these methods of defence."


These were the Commander‑in‑Chief's personal views: the statistics of convoy losses did not altogether support them. Sinkings in the through homeward convoys had certainly been severe during the month and had raised the total percentage of loss; but even with this addition the statistics were in favour of the system. Three hundred and eighty‑one vessels had been run in convoy during the month, and only nine of them had been lost. These figures proved that the system gave a real chance of escaping danger. The number of unescorted ships was, moreover, still very high; about forty per cent of the total traffic had been placed under escort during the month. The system was therefore still capable of great expansion, and, if made more embracing, would, presumably, raise the number of ships which escaped attack. This was the logical inference of the figures then available. The task before the naval authorities was not, however, confined to making the system more embracing. Admiral Calthorpe's staff estimated that the defence of shipping would not have mastered the attack until losses in convoy were reduced to below one per cent of the ships escorted. To increase the efficiency of the system itself, quite independently of its comprehensiveness, was the pressing and urgent problem.


Meanwhile the first experiments in constructing a permanent barrage across the Straits of Otranto had been carried out, and were very discouraging. Two and a half miles of a barrage laid early in the month were inspected on November 27; the obstruction was found to have broken into three parts; the nets beneath it were hopelessly entangled and knotted. Some of this destruction may have been done by U.47, which ran into the net whilst it was in position, and returned to Cattaro to report its existence. This, however, was not known at the time, and the conclusion that the authorities formed, that the net had been broken up by winds and tides, was substantially correct. The material


Nov. 1917



was removed, and the attempt to place a fixed obstacle across the Straits of Otranto was not renewed for many weeks.


The prospect during the last months of the year was still bleak and cheerless. The only relief to it was, perhaps, that the Italian armies brought the Austrians to a standstill on the Piave during November, and that the menace of a sortie by the Austrian fleet came to nothing. Indeed the Italians reasserted their naval domination of the northern Adriatic by an act of extraordinary daring. During the night of December 9, Lieutenant Rizzo penetrated into Trieste in a picket boat and torpedoed the old battleship Wien.


This seemed to restore the old position in the Adriatic. But, although the Allied naval authorities could not know it, they were really exchanging one danger for another. The new German Commander‑in‑Chief at Constantinople, Vice‑Admiral von Rebeur‑Paschwitz, had now decided to attack our naval forces and transports with the Goeben and Breslau. (See Admiral Hermann Lorey, Der Krieg zur See: Die Mittelmeer Division, p. 330.) Enver Pasha had approved the project and the German ships were only held back by lack of coal. This, however, was a threat of which we were still unconscious. The visible and obvious menace of the submarine campaign was under no disguise; indeed it was less a menace than a pressing danger. Sixty‑four merchantmen, representing a total tonnage of 176,767, were sunk or damaged during the last month of the year; and the counter‑attack upon the U‑boats was still quite ineffective. On December 14, UC.38, which had operated off the coast of Palestine a month before, was sunk by the destroyers escorting the French cruiser Ch‰teaurenault; but, as the French cruiser was torpedoed and sunk before UC.38 was destroyed, as this was the only submarine sunk since May 24, and as only two submarines were destroyed in the Mediterranean during the course of the year, the incident was not encouraging. It served only to indicate that if a German submarine commander took exceptional risks, his U‑boat might be destroyed at exceptional cost. (See Map 2.)


One of the few reassuring facts of the position was that the troop transports, which were, in a sense, the military communications of the Mediterranean, were being moved with considerably less risk. The Japanese destroyers generally acted as escorts to the troopships. No more fitting duty could have been assigned to them. It stirred their military pride to be made the guardians of the Allied troops at sea; and they considered it a point of honour to meet every call that was made upon them. (The British naval staff estimated that the Japanese destroyers spent 72 per cent. of their total time at sea, the British destroyers 60 per cent., and the French and Italian about 45 per cent.) It had always been realised, however, that if the enemy ever decided to attack the purely military communications of the Mediterranean, he would probably do so with surface craft rather than by a special concentration of U‑boats. And as it so happened he was nearly ready to do so. The Breslau had already filled her bunkers, the Goeben's coal supplies were being taken on board as fast as the crew could manage; the destroyers Muavenet, Basra, Numune and Samsun were ready for sea.


It had, of course, been realised for long that the Goeben and Breslau might make a sortie into the Aegean; but Admiral S. R. Fremantle had always been confident that the enemy would not be able to conceal his intention. (Admiral Fremantle was appointed Commander of the British Agean Squadron, August 13, 1917.) The minefields at the entrance were a formidable obstacle, and it seemed almost certain that the enemy would not attempt to leave the Dardanelles until they had located those which lay across their track. This could only be done by sweeping operations, which, to be effective, would have to be carried out for ten miles beyond Sedd el Bahr.


As it seemed inconceivable that the enemy could ever carry out such a big sweeping operation undetected, the orders which Admiral Fremantle had issued to his scattered forces were all based on the assumption that a fairly long warning would be given. None the less, whether the warning were long or short, it was taken for granted that the forces in any one particular zone would be more or less helpless if the Goeben raided the patrol area allotted to them. The monitors, light cruisers, and sloops which were spread over the Aegean would all be defenceless against the Goeben's guns; and all that Admiral Fremantle felt able to do was to warn them in his general orders that, if the Goeben ever did break out, they ought to lead her "in a direction in which support may be obtained " rather than "attack her regardless of consequences." This very sensible caution was, however, somewhat weakened by the wording of the general signal which was to be made if the Goeben were known to be out. The signal ran: "Take all necessary action to engage the enemy," and this was an order which British naval officers could only interpret in one way.


The orders were, however, drafted upon a further general assumption about the enemy's intentions. Admiral Fremantle


Jan. 1918



was persuaded that, if the Goeben left the Dardanelles, it would probably be to join the Austrians in the Adriatic. In all probability, therefore, she would attack and destroy only those forces which came within range of her guns as she steamed out of the Aegean at high speed. A prolonged attack upon our patrol forces did not seem likely. Indeed Admiral Fremantle spoke of a naval attack against the British bases as a "desperate venture, which could only end in the eventual destruction of the enemy, and is conceivable only as a last resort which might be decided upon in the event of Turkey deciding upon a separate peace."


It is therefore somewhat remarkable that the enemy should have preferred this project to all others. The operation orders issued to the squadron did not, it is true, make provision for prolonged attack against the British bases; for in them it was only stated that all patrol craft found off the Dardanelles were to be destroyed. None the less a submarine was stationed off Mudros, and if the first part of the enterprise went well, the German Admiral intended to press on to Lemnos and bombard Mudros harbour by indirect fire from the eastward. (Hermann Lorey, op. cit., p. 332.) The plan which he and his staff thought most feasible was therefore but little different from the plan which Admiral Fremantle regarded as almost too risky to be practicable. But the duty of combating the Germans on their desperate enterprise did not fall upon Admiral Fremantle. Early in the new year he left the Aegean for England, (Admiral Fremantle was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff by the new Board.) and was succeeded by Rear‑Admiral A. Hayes-Sadler. The new Rear‑Admiral hoisted his flag in the Lord Nelson on January 12, and four days later sailed in her to Salonica to discuss questions of interest with General Milne. By now the German plans were well advanced and almost ready for execution; there were, however, no signs of exceptional movement or preparation, so that our air forces on patrol had nothing to report during the days preceding the sortie.


The enemy had, indeed, concealed his intention with wonderful skill; but the concealment had hampered his preparations and made them insufficient. He had felt it impossible in the circumstances to make a proper reconnaissance of the minefields between Gallipoli and Imbros; and such knowledge as he possessed was very inadequate and misleading. All that the enemy knew for certain was that no mines would be found along a route which ran for about five miles due west of Sedd el Bahr, and that the minefield laid across the entrance in 1916 had probably been washed away. (Hermann Lorey, cp. cit., p. 332.) This had been ascertained by the minesweeping officers, and though true in itself, was a dangerous and misleading piece of knowledge. It was sufficiently accurate and circumstantial to make the enemy over‑confident, and insufficient to give him the least intimation of the dangers that lay ahead of him. Beyond the old 1916 minefield, a great complex of fields had been laid along a rough curve which began to the north‑west of Mavro, and covered the open sheet of water that separates Imbros from Gallipoli. These minefields lay right across the Goeben's track, and were practically unavoidable. The German staff did not know that they existed.


A few hours before the German ships sailed, however, a disquieting document was handed in to the German staff. It was a chart captured from a British patrol vessel which had gone ashore a month previously in the Gulf of Saros. The chart had been kept at General Liman von Sanders's headquarters, and when he heard that the Goeben and the Breslau were about to sail he ordered it to be sent on to Admiral von Rebeur‑Paschwitz. The naval staff examined it, and found that it was marked with pencil lines which seemed to indicate minefields. One of these lines was drawn from Cape Teke south‑eastward right across the outgoing track of the squadron; the other began at a point four miles north‑westward of Mavro, and curved north‑eastwards into the Gallipoli shore. There was a gap between the two. The captured chart therefore showed that the British minefields were far more numerous, and covered a larger area than the Germans imagined; and if this chart had been critically examined on the assumption that trawler skippers do not correct their charts like German navigators, it would have been taken for granted that the pencilled lines were no more than rough indications, or warnings of impending danger. Some officers on the German staff seem to have regarded the matter in this light and to have advised another examination of the mined area. This, however, was considered inadvisable, as it was thought that new sweeping operations would in all probability compromise the secrecy of the entire project. None the less, additional precautions were taken. The line on the captured chart which marked the inner minefield was disregarded, as the last sweeper's report proved that this field was no longer dangerous. The remaining indications were treated as though they were accurate and scientific data; the Goeben's courses were so


Jan. 1917



calculated that she would steam through the gap between the two lines, and so reach her bombarding position off Kusu Bay in safety.




Agean Squadron

Southern Aegean, 1st Detached Squadron

Dardanelles, 2nd Detached Squadron


Salonica, 3rd Detached Squadron

Smyrna Area, 4th Detached Squadron

Central Aegean, 5th Detached Squadron

Bulgarian Coast, 6th Detached Squadron


Suda Bay

Kusu Bay, Pyrgos


Kalloni, Vathi, Laki

Syra, Trebuki




Light cruisers:





M.18 (under repair)



Auxiliary Sweeper:

Gazelle (under repair)



Wear (under repair)

Kennet (in dock)

Ribble (raising steam for Malta)

Lyra (en route from home, relief for Attack)

Light Cruiser:



Endymion (refitting Malta).


Raglan (SO)




Lizard, both on patrol


Archer, both escorting oiler


Lord Nelson

Light cruiser:

Latona (SO)

Depot Ship

St George

Light Cruisers:

Sentinel (S.O.)

Forward, both Kalloni



M.23, both Khios Section


Samos Section


Peony (boiler cleaning), also Samos Section




Lynn (S.O.).










(at Thaso)





Refitting. Malta, Genoa, Gibraltar.






Endymion (Malta)


M.16 (Malta)


Clematis (Malta)

Jonquil (Genoa).


Acorn (Malta)

Acheron (Genoa)

Grampus (Malta)

Hope (Malta)

Larne (Malta)

Phoenix (Malta)

Rattlesnake (Gibraltar)

Redpole (Malta)

Rifleman (Gibraltar)

Ruby (Malta)

Paid off (for repairs):

Fury (Home Ports)

Pincher (Home Ports)

Savage (Home Ports)

Scorpion (Home Ports)

Usk (Home Ports)


Theseus (S.O.).

Monitor: (?)



Azalea (Port Said - Milo)

Honeysuckle (Port Said – Milo)


Comet (Mudros‑ Milo)

Ribble (Mudros‑ Milo)

Hydra (Malta- Milo)

Cameleon (Malta- Milo)







(under command S.N.O. Egypt).





(all Taranto‑ Alexandria)


Sheldrake (Toulon)

Alarm (Brindisi)

Nereide (Gibraltar)


The Goeben and the Breslau, with four destroyers in attendance, got under way at 4.0 p.m. on the 19th, and at half‑past three on the morning of the 20th they were at the Nagara net. (See Map 4.) At twenty minutes to six they were at the entrance to the Straits off Sedd el Bahr, and a quarter of an hour later, when they were on the outer edge of the channel reported clear by the German sweepers, they turned to the south‑westward. The new course was to carry the Germans between the two lines marked in pencil on the captured chart. Actually it took them on to the southern end of the complex of fields to the westward of the entrance; and at ten minutes past six the Goeben struck a mine.


The damage done to the Goeben was not serious, so the German Admiral did not allow the accident to deter him, and held on. It was a misty morning, and he seems to have been fairly certain that he had not yet been reported: this was indeed the case, for the look‑out on Mavro Island had seen nothing. Soon after the mine had exploded, the two German ships turned north; the Breslau was sent ahead to prevent any ships that might be in Kusu Bay from escaping. The destroyers had already turned back. In this order the German ships passed Kephalo lighthouse at a distance of about two miles. The mist was still thick, and though the officers in the German ships seem to have sighted the lighthouse, the look‑out men did not see them; and it was not until a few minutes later that the enemy were sighted by the ships off Kusu Bay. The two drifters on the nets, the officers in the Raglan, the look‑out station, and the commanding officer of the destroyer Lizard, which was patrolling north‑north‑eastward of the bay, all sighted the enemy more or less simultaneously; the code word "Goblo" was made by the Lizard and repeated by the Raglan. The word signified that the enemy were out. It was sent to commanding officers of ships and squadrons, who had always understood that the signal would be preceded by definite warnings.


Before any action could be taken, indeed, before Admiral Hayes‑Sadler could issue any orders, the Goeben opened fire upon the look‑out station at Kephalo and some sunken ships in the bay (7.40). Simultaneously or nearly so the Breslau brought the Lizard under a well‑directed fire, and drove her northwards. After that the German light cruiser opened upon the Raglan. The enemy's shooting was accurate and rapid; the Raglan's gunners answered with the six‑inch gun and from the turret, but before they could get the range, the German shells had found their target. The foretop and the


Jan. 1918



director‑top were hit in rapid succession, and all the control gear was at once put out of action; the engine‑room was struck by two more salvoes, all the lights went out and the telephone communications were cut and destroyed. Nor did the other monitor – M.28 ‑ fare any better. The commanding officer held his fire for a brief interval, and by the time he opened upon the enemy they had his range. By now both the Goeben and the Breslau were firing upon the monitors and, in a few minutes, they were helpless. The drifter skippers endeavoured to cover the doomed ships with a smoke screen, but the enemy's fire was far too heavy for them to get into position.


Meanwhile Lieutenant‑ Commander J. B. Newill in the destroyer Tigress, which was patrolling to the westward of the Lizard, intercepted his colleague's signal and steamed off rapidly to join him. When he rounded the point he saw that the Raglan had already sunk, and that the small monitor was blazing. The Lizard was again closing Kusu to render assistance. Soon after he had taken stock of the position, Lieutenant‑Commander Newill came under fire from the Breslau (8.20), which was to the south‑eastward of him, steering south. He was then steering southwards and hugging the land fairly closely. The Breslau'8 salvoes fell close, but none hit his ship, and he continued to dog the enemy until he was near Cape Kephalo. He then steered north for a short distance and was soon afterwards joined by the Lizard (8.40).


By now the alarm was general. Admiral Hayes‑Sadler at Salonica received the first news of the raid just before eight o'clock; Captain P. W. Dumas at Mudros took in the signal at about the same time, and ordered steam to be raised in the Agamemnon, the Lowestoft, the Skirmisher and the Foresight. Throughout the Aegean the commanding officers of the detached squadrons gave the necessary orders for bringing the convoys into port, and for sending out their available forces to the patrol stations allotted to them in Admiral Fremantle's orders.


When the German Admiral saw that the two monitors were destroyed and that the look‑out station at Kephalo was badly damaged, he determined to execute the second and more hazardous part of his programme: the bombardment of Mudros, and of the ships inside the harbour. It was with that object that he was directing his course when Lieutenant‑Commander Newill and his colleague in the Lizard had come together and begun to follow him. A sudden disaster turned the Germans from their plan. They had intended to keep strictly to the track which had carried them clear of the minefields since the early morning; but the detonation in the Goeben had put the compasses out of action. The navigator was now fixing the successive positions of the ship by simultaneous sextant angles of prominent objects. In ordinary circumstances this is a difficult and hazardous method of steering, and the German ships evidently got some way to the eastward of their intended track. Their new course took them well into the minefields between Sedd el Bahr and Cape Kephalo, and at half‑past eight the Breslau struck a mine. At the moment she was passing ahead of the Goeben; she did not at once come to a standstill, but continued to move forward along the minefield. The lookout men reported that they were in the middle of a large field; the mines were visible all round in the clear, blue water.


The Goeben was carefully manoeuvred to take the Breslau in tow, but before the towing hawser could be passed she also struck a mine (8.55). A few minutes later Lieutenant-Commander Newill in the Tigress and Lieutenant N. A. G. Ohlenschlager in the Lizard, who were now approaching, saw a succession of explosions round the Breslau. She detonated four more mines and began to settle down fast. Admiral von Rebeur‑Paschwitz realised that his flagship was in grave danger; the damage done by the last mine was serious, the Goeben was being attacked vigorously by aeroplanes, and was, moreover, a fine target for any British submarine that might be about, as she lay motionless in the minefield. He now gave up all thought of bombarding Mudros and decided that the Breslau must be abandoned. His navigator extricated the ship from the surrounding mines with great skill, and a few minutes after the Breslau sank the Goeben was being steered to the south‑westwards so that she might be taken round the minefields by the route followed on the way out.


As the Goeben made off for the entrance to the Straits, the destroyers that had been left behind early in the morning came out to rescue the survivors of the Breslau. Lieutenant-Commander Newill and his colleague pressed on to engage them, and at about 9.30 shots were exchanged. The enemy destroyers did not join action, but retired, and after a short unsatisfactory stern chase the Tigress and the Lizard came under fire from the shore batteries, and so close to the shallow minefields that further pursuit was impossible. (They picked up 14 officers and 148 men from the Breslau after they had retired out of range.) Meanwhile the Goeben had turned eastwards towards the Straits. Her new course took her into the fields for the third time during the day and she again struck a mine as she crossed them


Jan. 1917



(9.48 a.m.). She now listed over to port; but in spite of her injuries was still able to steam at a fair speed.


Whilst the Goeben was making her way back into the Straits our forces at Mudros were leaving harbour. They were too late to intervene; and, in any case, Admiral Hayes‑Sadler, who was making preparations against a protracted raid lasting for many days, ordered Captain Dumas to meet him off Cape Paliuri, at the south‑eastern entrance to the Gulf of Salonica.


By now our air forces were hovering over the crippled Goeben and reporting her movements. As she approached Nagara Point two planes were observing her closely; the officers in them saw her turn suddenly and unaccountably towards the land, and run fast aground. The German captain had made a mistake about the positions of the buoys marking the passage through the net, and had given a wrong order to the helmsman. It was now about 11.30 a.m.


The news that the Goeben was aground was received at the air headquarters in Imbros and Mudros soon after the aeroplanes had seen the accident; from then onwards the German battle cruiser was bombed without respite. These attacks, though executed with the utmost daring and pertinacity, did practically no damage; but they made the salvage work extremely difficult. (See Hermann Lorey, op. cit., pp. 344, 345.)


Admiral Hayes‑Sadler steamed into Mudros at 1.45 p.m. on the 21st. Some time before he reached his anchorage he knew that the Goeben had retired. The Admiralty had also received the news and wired to the Commander‑in‑Chief telling him that every effort should be made to destroy the Goeben, and instructing him to go in person to the Aegean. He reached Mudros in the Lowestoft on the 25th. (The Lowestoft was sent to Syra on the 24th, where she met the Cameleon, which had carried the C.-in‑C. from Malta.) The Goeben was still aground: the attacks from the air were being continued with the greatest vigour; but an attempt to bombard her by indirect fire from a monitor had not been successful. Submarine attack was the only possible means of damaging her beyond repair.


There was only one submarine off the Dardanelles at the time, and one of her propeller shafts was out of action; E.14 (Lieutenant‑Commander G. S. White) was therefore ordered into the Mgean from Corfu; and on the night of the 27th she sailed for the Straits. The obstructions off Chanak were far more formidable than they had been in the early days of the Dardanelles campaign, when British submarine commanders entered the sea of Marmora almost at will; but Lieutenant‑Commander White passed them, although with great difficulty. When he reached the position where the Goeben had been aground he found that she had gone. The German battle cruiser had been worked free and towed off two days before. (She was towed off the sand‑bank by the battleship Turgut Reis at a quarter to four in the afternoon watch, January 26th. See Hermann Lorey, op. cit., p. 347.) Lieutenant‑Commander White turned back. On his way to the net he sighted a Turkish auxiliary and fired a torpedo at her; this seems to have warned the Turks that a submarine was in the Straits and to have put them on their guard, for E.14 was attacked almost immediately by a depth charge which did considerable damage. From now onwards the British submarine was very difficult to handle; and when Lieutenant‑Commander White was at last compelled to bring his boat to the surface, the Turkish batteries at once opened upon her, and she sank in deep water. Lieutenant‑Commander White was killed by the bursting shells; his body, terribly mangled, rolled into the sea just before his submarine went down.


As soon as the raid was over, the Commander‑in‑Chief urged that the minefields at the entrance to the Straits should be reinforced; the Admiralty agreed, and the necessary orders were issued. But, although no one on our side could know it, there was no chance that the Goeben would break out again. Her damages were far too great to be repaired in the dockyard at Constantinople; all that the Germans could do was to build coffer‑dams and improvise bulkheads round the rents in the battle cruiser's hull, and keep her in harbour. Apart from this, the raid caused great excitement in Constantinople. When Admiral von Rebeur-Paschwitz first laid his plans before the Turkish authorities, Enver Pasha had warned him to be careful, and to remember that the Goeben and Breslau were as valuable to Turkey as the Grand Fleet to Great Britain. (See Hermann Lorey, op. cit., pp. 331, 341.) As soon as it was known that the Breslau was lost, and the Goeben in grave danger, the Turks were bitterly indignant. It seemed to them that the German naval staff had been reckless with the national property entrusted to them, for the Goeben and Breslau had sailed under the Turkish flag, and had, for long, been regarded as part of the Ottoman navy. Enver and his colleagues were quite determined that the Goeben should never again be risked in what they regarded as a foolhardy enterprise.


The German U‑boats were, in fact, a far more serious menace, actual and potential, than the damaged Goeben.





During January the loss of merchant shipping was still at a dangerous figure, and the counter‑attack upon the U‑boats was as ineffective as ever. (See Map 5.)


Admiral Calthorpe was, by now, able to put the traffic between Gibraltar and Genoa under convoy. The first experiment was disastrous; out of a convoy of six only two ships reached Marseilles on February 1. But Admiral Calthorpe did not consider that the disaster proved the system to be at fault, and on February 4 gave the executive order for running the convoy at regular four‑day intervals. The merchantmen were to be escorted by British ships to the

Franco‑Spanish border, and thence by Italian forces. This decision was well justified by the immunity from loss that the convoy subsequently enjoyed. But although the British Commander‑in‑Chief did not in any sense under‑value the convoy system, he was still convinced that it must be supplemented by a vigorous offensive against the U‑boats; and on February 8 urged his views upon the Allied Naval Council which assembled in Rome. His proposals were to ease the duties imposed upon the escort craft and not to make the convoy system more embracing."


A barrage which would effectually prevent enemy submarines from entering or leaving the Adriatic would, in a short space of time, entirely secure the safety of shipping in the Mediterranean, and the provision of the large number of escorting vessels now employed would cease to be a necessity." The barrage which the British Commander‑in‑Chief desired to establish would consist of successive lines of submarines, destroyers, hydrophone drifters and trawlers, distributed across the Straits of Otranto between the 39th and 42nd parallels. The total force required was very large and could only be assembled in the Adriatic by withdrawing the Dardanelles patrol and reducing the forces allocated to convoy by seven destroyers, eight sloops and twelve trawlers. The proposal to reduce the Dardanelles patrol was in Admiral Calthorpe's opinion a perfectly safe one. He was now persuaded that the Goeben was so damaged that the Germans could not hope to bring her out for another sortie. The British Commander‑in‑Chief's proposals were considered conjointly with an Italian proposal for placing a fixed barrage across the Otranto Straits; for the Italians were not discouraged by the failure of their first experiments. The council endorsed both the British and the Italian projects; but plans which so materially affected the existing policy had necessarily to be referred tor final approval to the Allied Naval Council which was to assemble in London in the following month.


When the Council assembled, on March 12, two plans for operations in the Adriatic had to be considered. The American naval staff proposed that a large combined operation should be undertaken against the Sabioncello peninsula, and that a deep minefield should be laid across the middle Adriatic between the Gargano peninsula and the islands opposite. No immediate decision could be taken on a plan of this kind: Admiral Calthorpe's project, which was purely naval, could be sanctioned if it were generally approved. But it was none the less a plan which raised a fine question of strategical policy. If it was true that the Goeben would never break out again, and that the Dardanelles patrol could be withdrawn, and other duties allotted to it, then the force thus released might be used either to make the existing convoy system more embracing or to form the nucleus of the Otranto force which Admiral Calthorpe was so anxious to assemble. Which was the better employment? It is regrettable that the statistics prepared by the Mediterranean staff were not presented to the Council. Presumably several members had seen those statistics at some time or another; but nobody seems to have realised that they were now essential basic data, if the question before the Council was to be scientifically examined. The figures collected by the Mediterranean staff were certainly striking: they proved that 98 per cent. of ships in convoy might be expected to reach port in safety. Percentage of losses to ships convoyed:



For month.

Mean percentage of loss from the institution of the system to the end of the month.














Admiral Calthorpe's original forecast that the convoy system would only reduce losses for so long as it was a novelty was, moreover, quite contradicted by the facts, for they showed that its efficacy was actually rising. The volume of convoyed traffic had certainly been increased since November, for 68 per cent. of the total sailings were now being escorted. But there were still about 650 unescorted sailings in the Mediterranean during the month. There was, therefore, still room for a certain amount of expansion, although, as Admiral Thaon di Reval pointed out, a further extension of the convoy


March‑April 1918



system was beset with difficulties. A proportion of unconvoyed vessels were ships engaged in the local coastal traffic of the Tyrrhenian sea; and no satisfactory convoy system for this kind of traffic had yet been devised, far less attempted.


But although it might have been difficult to make the Mediterranean convoy system more embracing, at least the desirability of doing so was proved by facts and figures which nobody could question. The same could not be said of Admiral Calthorpe's plan, which was no more than an attractive and feasible project. Its results and consequences could not be tested by scientific data, they could only be guessed at by analogy. The only available analogy was that afforded by the mobile barrage and deep minefields of the Straits of Dover; but the analogy was not a close one. The essence of both systems was that a narrow passage should be watched by a large number of patrolling craft; but in the Dover Straits this patrol was supplemented by a deep minefield, which was the chief destructive agency.


The submarines sunk in the Straits of Dover since the beginning of the year had mostly been destroyed in the minefield, and there was nothing to suggest that the Dover Patrol, operating by themselves, would have been as effective. To mine the Straits of Otranto as the Dover Straits had been mined was not in contemplation, so that, unless it could be anticipated that Admiral Calthorpe's patrol would be operating with advantages peculiar to that area it was most doubtful whether there were good grounds, or, indeed, any grounds at all, for supposing that the new barrage would stop incoming and outgoing submarines, as Admiral Calthorpe hoped. The geographical configuration of the two zones showed advantages fairly equal in each case. The Straits of Otranto are longer than the Straits of Dover ‑ and this would be an assistance to our attacking forces; but they were very much deeper ‑ and depth would be helpful to the submarines.


It is true that the tides in the Straits of Dover are stronger, which is a point in favour of the surface forces, who can check their positions by landmarks; but they are more irregular in the Straits of Otranto; yet again this possibly did not count for much, since an irregular tidal stream is only dangerous to a submarine which is navigating circumspectly to clear a minefield.


These points were in any case only indications and guides, and not precise facts from which deductions could be drawn. It does not appear that any known fact justified the presumption that Admiral Calthorpe's barrage would prove an impassable barrier instead of an occasionally fatal obstacle.


When, therefore, the Allied Naval Council decided that Admiral Calthorpe should carry out his plan and that the Italians should lay their fixed net barrage across the Straits, their decision was not the outcome of a scientific investigation of two alternative measures of war: reducing losses by defending shipping, or by attacking U‑boats. In any case, to put this plan into operation was the work of some months. In the meantime sinkings continued to be high, the average daily yield of each operating U‑boat was hardly changed, certainly it was not lowered; the rate of U‑boat destruction was so low that it could not possibly affect the campaign. (See Appendix C, Submarine Warfare in the Mediterranean, Sept. 1917 to Sept. 1918.)












August and September 1917


We have seen that as the summer of 1917 was drawing to its end, the German people and their representatives first began openly to express their anxiety about the results of the campaign at sea. But if doubts of final victory had filtered into the confidence of the German people, similar misgivings were present in the minds of the Allied leaders. The general position was still critical on every side: the revolutionary spirit had utterly demoralised the Russian armies; the French armies were still suffering from their defeat in the spring of the year, and the national morale showed signs of weakening. The more stalwart spirits in the French capital denounced the doubters as dˇfaitistes or worse; but to serious‑minded men it was obvious that the French nation could not be expected to endure suffering and disappointment indefinitely.


The French had suffered invasion, and had borne the losses of three immense and futile offensives without a murmur; if the catastrophe of Craonne had shaken their tenacity and stoicism, no reproach could be reasonably levied against them. But no survey, however sympathetic, could ignore the stark fact which emerged from these disappointments and anxieties: the hope of breaking the resistance of the Central Powers by a general Allied offensive on all fronts had practically disappeared. All that British Ministers could do was to take upon Great Britain the utmost that she could bear of the Allied burden: to encourage to the utmost the resistance of our Allies and to hope that the arrival of the American reinforcements in the coming spring would, in the end, turn back the onset of our misfortunes.


But the burden that Great Britain could bear was strictly proportionate to her resources at sea; and on this point the outlook was still alarming. The totals of monthly losses continued to be far in excess of our powers of replacement; and the pressing need of the moment was to reduce those losses. It was natural that a solution of this urgent problem should be sought in the extension of the convoy system. The advantage of extending it was now apparent both to the naval and the shipping authorities, but in both these quarters there were still doubts as to the practicability of any such extension. On July 12, 13 and 20 a series of conferences was held between the War Cabinet, the Admiralty, the Ministry of Shipping, and leading representatives of the shipping industry, at which the whole question of trade defence was discussed in great detail. As the result of these conferences it appeared that the number of voyages requiring protection was more manageable than had been supposed, and with a view to covering as large a proportion as possible of the homeward trade, the Admiralty agreed to consider the use of somewhat smaller destroyer escorts, and to try the experiment of trawler escort for the slow vessels, mostly ore ships, homeward bound from the Mediterranean.


On August 2, as the result of a suggestion made at these meetings, a further conference was held at the Admiralty with representatives of the Chamber of Shipping, mercantile masters, and marine superintendents, for the purpose of establishing a closer liaison between the Navy and the Mercantile Marine, and at this conference the ship‑owners' representatives pressed hard both for an extension of the convoy system to vessels of over twelve knots and for a grouping of ships in convoy according to speed, so as to reduce the grave delays suffered by the faster vessels.


The inclusion in one convoy of ships with speeds varying from eight to twelve knots was obviously uneconomical from the commercial point of view. It was also objectionable from the point of view of escort commanders, as it increased the difficulty of good station keeping and group manoeuvring. Apart from this, it had now become evident that, in face of the increased efficiency of the newer U‑boats, speed had ceased to be an adequate protection unless it approached twenty knots, and that vessels of over twelve knots must, if possible, be included in the Atlantic convoys. It was accordingly decided to rearrange the North Atlantic sailings in such a way as would at once provide escort for the faster ships and reduce the disparity in speed between the fastest and the slowest vessel in each convoy. This, however, was a matter that required careful organisation. The main difficulty lay in reconciling the new principle of grouping by speed with the old principle of grouping by destination.


July‑Aug. 1917



The advantage of grouping in company ships of which some were bound for West coast and some for East coast ports was too great, both from the naval and commercial point of view, to be lightly given up; but it was not possible, with the forces available, to duplicate each of the existing sailings by adding a special convoy for the faster ships. It was therefore necessary to provide for a rearrangement of the services which would enable the faster vessels to be concentrated on the service of the West coast ports, and negotiations for this purpose were accordingly opened up, through the Ministry of Shipping, with the lines represented in the North Atlantic Conference.


Meanwhile the first regular homeward convoy from Gibraltar had sailed on July 26. For these convoys the ocean escort consisted of "special service vessels" (Q‑ships), and owing to the shortage of destroyers it was only possible to bring them through the home danger zone with a trawler escort, stiffened by one or two destroyers. The Gibraltar convoys, however, stood apart from all others in that there was a danger area at each end of their voyage, and they were accordingly taken out from Gibraltar by sloops, torpedo boats and armed yachts, who saw them clear of Cape Spartel.


But this was not enough: it was most important to put the whole of the South Atlantic traffic under convoy. The German attack had recently been extended to the Azores-Canaries zone, which is one of the areas on which ships bound to and from the South Atlantic are more or less compelled to concentrate. Early in June Lieutenant‑Commander Meusel, commanding U.155, a submarine cruiser with two 5.9‑inch guns, had sunk the Scottish Hero at a point about 450 miles north‑westward of Cape Finisterre. For the rest of the month he had cruised with a certain degree of success near the 43rd parallel, and to the north and north‑east of the Azores. Early in July he changed his ground and, after bombarding San Miguel, cruised in the passage between Madeira and the Azores; he remained there until August 11 and then made for home. His daily rate of destruction was far lower than that of the U‑boats operating further north in the immediate approaches to the British Islands; for his cruise lasted rather over a hundred days and he sank but nineteen vessels in all. Nevertheless, this new phase of submarine warfare was profoundly disturbing. The Germans had succeeded in extending their attack to one of the most important nodal points on the outer trade routes; and had, moreover, made it the object of a continuous attack which had lasted without let or hindrance for about two months. (Lieutenant‑Commander Meusel left Germany on or about May 24; and arrived in the Madeira‑Azores area on June 13. He sailed for home on August 11 and reached Germany about September 4. His effective cruise thus lasted for about two months ‑ June 13‑August 11.)


The reply to this new attack was, however, prompt and effective. Early in August, convoy was introduced in the South Atlantic, and here a beginning was made with the system of grouping according to speed. The Convoy Committee had suggested Dakar as the port of assembly for the whole South Atlantic trade. It was now decided to separate the faster ships and sail them from Sierra Leone. Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo were accordingly instructed, on August 1, that all ships capable of a daily run of 270 miles in ordinary weather were to be given routes to Sierra Leone, and all slower vessels to Dakar. At the same time Rear‑Admiral Sheppard was informed that it was proposed to include all merchant ships of sufficient speed in the troopship convoys from Sierra Leone, and to sail these convoys every eight days more or less, with a slow convoy from Dakar every twelve days. In practice, however, the Dakar convoys sailed from the first at an average interval of eight days, in order to synchronise with outward convoys.


In reply to this message Admiral Sheppard reported that the sailing from Sierra Leone could be started at once. Commander H. B. Worsley, in charge at that port, was appointed Port Convoy Officer, and the first convoy (HL.1), consisting of seven vessels, sailed on August 11. (For meaning of convoy abbreviations, see Appendix B.) Having made the necessary arrangements at Sierra Leone, Admiral Sheppard then went to Dakar, to take the initial steps for setting up a convoy organisation at that port. Rear‑Admiral H. J. L. Clarke was sent out from home as Port Convoy Officer, and pending his arrival, Admiral Sheppard himself organised and despatched the first Dakar convoy (HD.1), of eighteen vessels on August 22.


The original proposal of the Convoy Committee had been that the ocean escort for the South Atlantic convoys should be provided by heavily armed Elder Dempster liners. (It was proposed that they should be commissioned as "Armed Escort Vessels.") It was eventually decided, however, to give them cruiser or armed merchant cruiser escort, drawing for this purpose on the 9th Cruiser Squadron, which had already been employed on troop convoy, and supplementing, when necessary, by


Aug. 1917



ships detached from the 10th Cruiser Squadron. The first Sierra Leone convoy was, accordingly, brought home by the armed merchant cruiser Morea of the 9th Cruiser Squadron, and the Moldavia (10th Cruiser Squadron) was sent out to take charge of the Dakar convoy.


While this extension of the system to the South Atlantic was being organised, the arrangements for regrouping the ships in the North Atlantic were proceeding satisfactorily. On August 10, the necessary system of services was approved by Sir Alfred Booth, on behalf of the North Atlantic Conference; but time was needed to work out both the naval and the commercial arrangements, and before the regrouping was effected the whole system of ocean convoys had entered on a further new phase, through the application of convoy to the outward traffic.


It will be remembered that outward convoys were included in the original scheme drawn up by the Convoy Committee, and their institution had been postponed solely because of the shortage of craft for escort. By the middle of August, however, the provision of more efficient protection for outward bound vessels had become imperative. The first effect of the homeward convoys appears to have been to turn the attention of the U‑boat commanders from the homeward to the outward traffic, either because of the difficulty which they found in locating the convoys, or from their reluctance to attack ships under escort. In April, the ratio of sinkings to sailings had been 18 per cent. in the homeward and only 7 per cent. in the outward traffic. By August, while the homeward sinkings were rapidly decreasing, the losses among outward bound ships were becoming more numerous. It was clear, therefore, that outward convoy must be provided; but to duplicate, for this purpose, the allocation of cruisers and destroyers for escort work was out of the question, in view of the other calls upon the forces available.


The introduction of outward convoys was, however, effected with less difficulty than might have been anticipated. The convoys, which consisted of ships for many different ports, were kept together as a formed body only through the submarine danger zone. As soon as this had been traversed, the convoy was dispersed, and the ships proceeded independently to their respective destinations by routes previously laid down. Occasionally an armed merchant cruiser or a commissioned escort ship, returning to a convoy assembly port abroad, was included in an outward convoy; but this was rather for her own safety than for the purpose of serving as ocean escort on the outward voyage.


The problem of the destroyer escorts remained, and for its solution the Admiralty fell back on a proposal made by the Convoy Committee that the outgoing escort flotilla might be used to meet and bring in a homeward convoy, thus rendering two services without actually working double time. The committee had decided that this might be done "in some cases, during the summer months"; but so urgent was the need for economising escort strength, that it was now resolved to adopt the principle as the pivot of the whole convoy system.


This scheme, however, not only involved the most careful organisation, but it put a much heavier strain on the officers and men of the flotillas. The destroyers were now required to escort an outward convoy to its point of dispersal on the outer edge of the danger zone, and then to steam, during the night, to the "destroyer rendezvous" of a homeward bound convoy, meet it at daybreak and bring it in. Formerly they had proceeded straight to the rendezvous; now they had nearly two days' zigzagging with the outward convoy. Their time in port was thus seriously cut down, and both out and home they were responsible for the safety of the merchant ships in their charge. The whole organisation of the scheme became more complex and more difficult, for the time occupied in zigzagging with the outward convoy and steaming to the rendezvous allowed no margin whatever, and compelled the most rigid adherence to programme, in order that the synchronisation of the inward and outward sailings might be preserved.


The ports selected for the assembly of outward convoys were Devonport, Falmouth, Milford, Queenstown and Buncrana. (Only two convoys were assembled in Buncrana; the port of assembly was then changed to Lamlash. Buncrana remained the escort port.) The Devonport convoys (OD) took out all ships from East coast and Channel ports with a speed of ten knots and upwards, wherever bound. The sailings were a little irregular, since they had to be adjusted to the movement of outward troop convoys as well as homeward convoys; but they gave a minimum of two in each eight‑day cycle. The escort of one of these convoys met and brought in a Hampton Roads-East coast convoy; the other met the convoy from Sierra Leone. As this convoy consisted of ships bound for either coast, the destroyer escort was reinforced when nearing home, so that one half of its strength might take the east‑bound ships up channel, while the other half saw the west‑bound vessels clear of the Smalls.


From Queenstown a ten‑knot convoy (OQ) for ships from


Aug. 1917



the Bristol Channel, whether bound for the North or South Atlantic, sailed every four days. One escort met alternately a Sydney or New York‑East coast convoy; the other met the homeward bound ships from Dakar. In both instances a flotilla from Devonport relieved Queenstown in 5 degrees W., taking on the vessels for Channel or East coast ports, while the Queenstown destroyers took charge of the west‑bound portion of the Dakar convoy, or saw ships bound from North America to French Atlantic ports as far as the neighbourhood of Brest. Queenstown thus provided two, and Devonport four escorts in each eight‑day cycle.


The Buncrana escorts took out two convoys in each eight days, and met, the one a New York West coast convoy; the other a convoy from Sydney or Hampton Roads. The outward traffic was composed of ships from the Clyde and Mersey, mostly bound for North American ports.


The slower south‑bound traffic remained to be provided for, and, like the homeward Gibraltar convoys, it had to depend mainly on trawler escort. From Falmouth a 7 1/2‑knot convoy (OF) of South and East coast ships bound for the Mediterranean or ports south of Gibraltar sailed at eight‑day intervals. The escort was composed of ten trawlers from the Falmouth flotilla, stiffened by two destroyers from Devonport, and after dispersing the outward bound trade, it met an East coast convoy from Gibraltar.


Hitherto, the Gibraltar convoys had been mixed; but from August 10 onwards they were composed alternately of ships bound for the East and West coasts. The object of this was to facilitate the double work of the escorts, the west convoy being met by trawlers which had taken out an outward convoy from Milford. From Milford, however, two convoys (OM) sailed every eight days, the escort of the alternate convoy returning direct to the base without meeting a homeward bound group. Both outward convoys consisted of ships with a minimum speed of 7 1/2 knots bound from West coast ports for the Mediterranean or South Atlantic. Here as with the Falmouth escorts, the trawlers were stiffened by a couple of destroyers, provided in this instance by Queenstown.


It was on August 11 (1917) that the decision to provide outward convoys was finally taken, and by August 15 a provisional programme had been worked out. During the next few days the first outward convoy sailed from each port, as shown in the following table, which will help to make clear the precise and delicate nature of the synchronisation between outward and homeward sailings.


Outward-bound convoys from UK.

Date of sailing of outward convoy.

Homeward convoys from Gibraltar, North America, Sierra Leone met by escort.

Original sailing date of homeward convoy.

Date of rendezvous with homeward convoy

OM.1 (Milford)

Aug. 13

HG.5 (Gibraltar)

Aug. 10

Aug. 17

OD.1 (Devonport)


HH.14 (Hampton, Va)



OB.1 (Buncrana)


HS.5 (Sydney, NS)



OF.1 (Falmouth)


HG.6 (Gibraltar)



OM.2 (Milford)





OD.2 (Devonport)


HL.1 (Sierra Leone)

Aug. 12

Aug. 23

OQ.1 (Queenstown)


HN.4 (New York)



OB.2 (Buncrana)+


HH.15 (Hampton, Va)



OM.13 (Milford)


HG.7 (Gibraltar)



OQ.2 (Queenstown)


HS.6 (Sydney, NS)



OB.3 (Buncrana)


HN.5 (New York)



OD.3 (Devonport)


HH.16 (Hampton, Va)



OM.4 (Milford)





OF.2 (Falmouth)


HG.8 (Gibraltar)

Aug. 22

Aug. 29


+ Relieved by Devonport escort Aug. 24.

* Relieved by Devonport escort Aug. 21.

# Did not actually sail as arranged; see below.


While the arrangements for the outward convoys were being put in hand, the preparations for a reorganisation of the homeward traffic were also making steady progress. The problem, it will be remembered, was twofold ‑ to provide for the inclusion of ships with a speed above twelve knots, and to minimise the discrepancy in speed between vessels included in the same convoy. The first part of the problem was solved by starting a new convoy from Halifax (HX), to include all oilers and all merchant vessels bound for West coast ports, with an actual sea speed of 12 1/2 knots and upwards, except a few very fast ships which continued to run independently. From Halifax the vessels sailed at eight‑day intervals, in company with the Canadian troopships, which had previously run in troop convoy, at irregular intervals, from that port. The object of restricting the sailings to West coast vessels was to economise destroyer escorts, and it was this restriction that involved so important a rearrangement of services. All vessels, possessing the minimum speed required for the Halifax convoy, which had previously traded to London, or to other East and South coast ports, were now transferred to Liverpool or other ports on the West coast, and were replaced in the East coast trade by slower vessels which had previously been sailing to the West coast. By energetic and skilful co‑operation between the Admiralty, the Ministry of Shipping and the ship-owners,


Aug.‑Sept. 1917



all arrangements were completed in time for the first regular cnvoy, consisting of five troopships and seven merchantmen, to sail from Halifax on September 5, under escort of the armed merchant cruiser Almanzora. (This convoy was numbered HX.2, as a previous convoy had sailed from Halifax on August 21. The series of regular sailings starts with HX.2.)


The regrouping of the eight‑knot to twelve‑knot steamers came into operation a few days later. It was based on the principle of reserving the Hampton Roads and Sydney convoys exclusively for slow vessels, and transforming the New York sailings into a convoy for "medium" ships. It now comprised all steamers with a minimum speed of 240 miles a day but not fast enough for the Halifax convoys, and sailed at four‑day (instead of eight‑day) intervals, for the East and West coast alternately. For the Hampton Roads convoy, on the other hand, which continued to sail alternately for the East and West coast, the time‑table was altered from an interval of four to one of eight days, and the list was confined to steamers with a daily speed of 200 to 239 miles. Faster vessels from the Gulf and Caribbean arriving at Newport News to bunker were, however, occasionally included if they happened to strike a sailing date, as the delay caused by sending them on to New York would outweigh the gain in speed. In the same way, the New York "medium" convoy occasionally included ships with a speed of more than twelve knots that were compelled to come to East coast ports.


It was on September 14 that the first of these new "slow" convoys sailed from Hampton Roads, and on the following day the first "medium" convoy left New York. The sailings of the Sydney convoys were unaffected, except that New York absorbed a few of the faster ships. The result of the change may be summarised as follows: Previously, four convoys (two from Hampton Roads, and one each from New York and Sydney) had left North American ports every eight days; half the sailings being for the East and half for the West coast, and all convoys being restricted to a speed of about eight knots.


Old scheme per eight days

New scheme per eight days

HH (Hampton)

1 E, 1 W.

HH (Hampton)

1 E/W alternately, 8 knots.

HS (Sydney)

1 E/W alternately.

HS (Sydney)

1 E/W alternately, 8 knots

HN (New York)

1 E/W alternately.

HN (New York)

1 E, 1 W, 10 knots



HK? (or HX (fast), Halifax,

1 W, 12 ½ knots


There now sailed during each eight-day cycle one fast, 12 1/2 knots, West coast convoy from Halifax; two medium, ten‑knot convoys from New York, one for the East and one for the West coast, and two slow, eight‑knot convoys, from Hampton Roads and Sydney respectively, bound alternately for either coast.


This regrouping and the introduction of South Atlantic convoys involved, of course, a corresponding change in the arrangements for destroyer escorts. The new Halifax convoys were met from Buncrana, but were not synchronised with any outward sailings. The West coast sailings from New York and Hampton Roads continued to be synchronised with the outward convoys from Lamlash; but the East coast sailings from New York were now met from Devonport; those from Hampton Roads were met from Queenstown. Devonport also met the Sierra Leone, and Queenstown the Dakar convoys.


The net effect was that Buncrana now provided three escorts every eight days, to meet respectively an HX (fast), HN (medium), and an HH or HS (slow) West coast convoy - all brought in north‑about. The escort meeting the fast convoy steamed straight to the rendezvous. The other two escorts meeting the medium and slow convoys each took out with them an outwards (OB) convoy.


Queenstown provided two escorts every eight days, each of which took out an OQ convoy, and then met, either a homeward bound convoy from Dakar, or an East coast one sailing from either Sydney or Hampton Roads. Devonport provided four escorts. Two of these took out an OD convoy, and met respectively a Sierra Leone convoy or an East coast convoy sailing from New York. The other two, which had no outward convoy in charge, relieved Queenstown, in 5 degrees W., of the Hampton Roads convoy, or brought in the east‑bound portion of HD, leaving Queenstown to take on the west‑bound ships.




The Submarine Campaign ‑ The Disasters to the Q‑ships August 1917


Meanwhile the submarine campaign continued to be very disquieting. The total losses during August amounted to over half a million tons of British and neutral shipping, and the month was also marked by a striking series of successes gained by the German submarine commanders over their old enemies the Q‑boat captains. (See Map 1) The circumstances in which four Q‑boats were destroyed are well worth noticing, for they show how the fortunes of the submarine campaign


Aug. 1917



were rising and falling. The calamities began early in the month. At four o'clock in the morning of August 5, the Chagford (Lieutenant Douglas G. Jeffrey, R.N.R.) was about 120 miles to the N.N.W. of Tory Island, on the look‑out for two submarines which had been reported on the previous day, when she was torpedoed in the after part. Every Q‑ship captain cheerfully accepted a torpedoing as the preliminary to an action: Lieutenant Jeffrey at once ordered away the usual panic party and waited for the submarine to show herself. She did so a few minutes later, at a distance of 800 yards, and as the screens round the disguised guns had been knocked down by the first explosion, and there was no chance that he would tempt the submarine commander to come in closer, Lieutenant Jeffrey opened fire as soon as the U‑boat was visible. She submerged again at once, and in the next hour two more torpedoes struck the Chagford, and to these she was not again given any opportunity of replying. Thanks to his fine seamanship, to the magnificent spirit of his men, and to the assistance given by the trawler Saxon, Lieutenant Jeffrey managed to save most of his crew and to keep his ship afloat until the following day. It was none the less an ominous fact that from the beginning to the end of the engagement the U‑boat had been master of the situation. Not for a moment had the Q‑ship tactics been of the slightest effect.


Three days later there was another disaster of the same kind, and this time it occurred to Commander Gordon Campbell ‑ the Q‑ship commander who had repeatedly gained brilliant distinction in this form of warfare. On the morning of August 8, he and his companions ‑ for they were by now rather his companions, or clansmen, than his crew ‑ were about one hundred miles west of Ushant in the Dunraven. The vessel was zigzagging on either side of a north‑easterly course, as though approaching the north of the Channel from the South Atlantic. Commander Campbell had decided that this time, if he met a submarine, he would imitate the tactics of an armed merchantman; and at eleven o'clock a submarine was sighted well down on the horizon, and to starboard. (UC.71, Lieutenant‑Commander Saltzwedel.) Commander Campbell kept on his course in order to entice the enemy to come in closer. In this he was quite successful, for at a quarter to twelve the submarine broke surface about two and a half miles away, on the starboard quarter, and opened fire. Commander Campbell at once turned away from her, and reduced to seven knots. His crew manned the concealed guns, and a detachment kept up an intermittent and deliberately inaccurate fire with the small after gun. There was a considerable sea running, which swept the submarine, and for a long time the German shooting was poor; but about an hour after the action began two shells went in rapid succession through the Dunraven's poop and did serious havoc.


A depth charge exploded which blew Lieutenant Bonner out of his control station; and, worse than that, a serious fire was started all round the magazines. The concealed guns' crews were mostly stationed above the burning portions of the poop, and it seemed only a matter of time before they would be suffocated by the fumes and smoke or blown into the air by the explosion which must soon shatter the after part of the vessel. But Lieutenant Bonner and the guns' crews had no thought except to conceal themselves until their captain gave the signal, and to bear their sufferings as calmly as they could. One of the men tore up his shirt and gave it to his companions to wrap round their mouths in order that the fumes should not choke them, the others kept moving the cordite from place to place on the deck, which was getting red‑hot beneath them. Meanwhile Commander Gordon Campbell ordered the engine‑room to send up clouds of steam to simulate boiler trouble, and stopped his ship. For a short time it seemed as though the unbreakable endurance of the Dunraven's crew would deceive their enemy; for the submarine came steadily nearer, and passed at a short distance under the Q‑boat's stern. In a few moments she would have come within the line of fire of three concealed guns at a range at which there could have been no missing; but before she did so the fire which was raging inside the poop blew up two depth charges, and the explosion hurled one of the four‑inch guns into the air: simultaneously the gun's crew round the concealed gun on the after bridge opened fire. The disguise was exposed, and the submarine immediately submerged.


Commander Campbell and his men were still far from admitting themselves defeated. The gun duel was over, but the second round of the engagement, to be fought out with torpedoes and depth charges, was about to begin. Signals were at once made to the ships near at hand telling them to keep away, the wounded men were carried below, and a desperate effort was made to quench the fire under the poop. Commander Campbell waited for the enemy's torpedoes, and at twenty minutes past one his ship was hit abaft the engineroom. He now gave orders to abandon the vessel without further attempting to keep up her disguise in the hope that the submarine would again approach and fall a victim to the


Aug. 1917



small nucleus that would remain behind in the last ring of concealed positions. Nothing further could be done to master the fire under the poop, and from now onwards the cordite and shells exploded every few minutes; the splinters flew all over the ship and penetrated the cabins where Lieutenant Bonner and his men lay wounded; but all the time Commander Campbell remained concealed in the hope that the U‑boat captain would break surface unwarily. Lieutenant‑Commander Saltzwedel was not to be caught; he came to the surface again right astern of the Dunraven, and shelled her steadily for another twenty minutes. At some moments Commander Campbell could have replied; but he waited, always hoping that the submarine would expose herself to a decisive fire. She never did so; her wary commander submerged again, and Commander Campbell fired a torpedo at the periscope as it moved along the Dunraven's port side. The torpedo missed by a grievously small margin, and the U‑boat's crew do not seem to have noticed it. A few minutes later Commander Campbell fired another torpedo; it too missed, but this time the U‑boat commander saw it, and at once submerged completely. There was no longer the slightest hope that he would be caught, and Commander Campbell very reluctantly made an urgent signal for assistance. The U.S.S. Noma and the destroyers Christopher and Attack arrived soon after. (Christopher (4th Flotilla, Devonport) was going to one of the western approach routes to patrol. Attack (2nd Flotilla, Devonport) was returning from escorting transports to St. Helens.) Every effort was made to bring the Dunraven back to harbour, but at one‑thirty a.m. on August 10 she had to be abandoned, as the seas were then breaking right over her and she was sinking fast.


In the first days of the month, therefore, the German submarine commanders had fought two successful actions against two of our first Q‑ship commanders. Five days later the list was increased by another calamity. This time it was the Bergamot, which was torpedoed when patrolling in the Tory Island approach. Her commander, Lieutenant Perkins, R.N.R., tried to deceive the U‑boat captain by the usual panic party; but the Bergamot sank too rapidly for the deception to have any success.


Even after this, the disasters to the decoy ships were not ended; and in the early hours of the 14th, LieutenantCommander W. E. Sanders, V.C., R.N.R., lost his life. He was in command of the Q‑boat Prize, a topsail schooner with concealed guns, and was cruising in the Tory Island approach in company with submarine D.6 (Lieutenant‑Commander Richardson). In the afternoon of August 13 the two vessels were acting together when a submarine was sighted about 150 miles north‑west of Rathlin Island. Lieutenant‑Commander Sanders hoisted the Swedish ensign at the dip, and D.6 at once submerged and manoeuvred to get in a torpedo at the U‑boat; so that if everything went well and the attacking submarine approached the schooner, she would be subjected to a double attack. The German submarine (U.48) had sunk the British steamer Roanoke on the day before, and had her master, Mr. Williams, aboard as a prisoner. The U‑boat commander was quite deceived by the Swedish colours, and approached the schooner to within a short distance. Lieutenant‑Commander Sanders then hoisted the British ensign and opened rapid fire upon her. The U‑boat was struck twice; but the shells did no serious damage and she submerged. A heavy sea was running at the time, and D.6, which was about three‑quarters of a mile away, could not get in a shot.


This ended the first part of the action, and at nightfall the Prize and D.6 headed north‑westwards with the U‑boat stalking them; for the German submarine commander knew by now that he was not in contact with an ordinary topsail schooner and that he might by a successful shot clear the area of a dangerous enemy. He never allowed the Prize out of his sight, and after tracking her for several hours, he had ascertained her speed to a knot or less and could adjust his torpedoes to a nicety. There is little more to tell. At half‑past one in the morning of the 14th, the second officer of D.6 saw the Prize blow up and sink. The night was dark and squally, and all he saw was the flash of an explosion and the silhouette of the little topsail schooner heeling over into the scud. Not a soul was saved; when day broke the German sailors in the U‑boat, and their British captives, saw one man's body and a teak box, for holding gun‑sights, floating close together.


These actions, during the month of August, marked one of the most important fluctuations in the ebb and flow of the campaign. The artifices of Q‑ship warfare had been tried in three prolonged duels with German submarines, and on each occasion they had failed. After a protracted struggle lasting for over two years the German submarine commanders had obtained an ascendancy, which they never again lost, over this device of their opponents. The explanation is not difficult: Q‑ship tactics had been extremely successful against submarines which could be enticed to break surface. But as the struggle between the Q‑ship captains and their enemies


Aug. 1917



developed, the German submarine commanders became less and less inclined to close damaged steamers, and preferred in all doubtful cases to torpedo and sink them without coming to the surface. If the vessel was an ordinary merchantman, it was highly improbable that she would finish her voyage after suffering such damage: if she were a Q‑ship, she would at least be off service and under repair for many weeks: Q‑ships of the older type would probably sink.


In short, thus early in the campaign the U‑boat commanders had discovered that they could keep up their record of destruction without giving the Q‑ship captains the opportunities for which they were seeking with such skill and audacity. Again, the growing number of armed merchantmen affected submarine tactics in a way which put the Q‑ship captains at a further disadvantage. Whenever a submarine commander fell in with a steamer that might possibly be armed he had at once to decide whether he would attack her by gunfire or with a torpedo: and unless his attacking position were exceptionally favourable he would generally choose gunfire. Most of the Q‑ships belonged to the class of vessel which the German submarine commanders would ordinarily attack by gunfire, and we have seen, from the details of the Dunraven's last fight, that a Q‑ship was at an almost hopeless disadvantage in a preliminary gun duel with a German submarine. If she defended herself with all her armament the submarine would immediately submerge and disappear; if she submitted to prolonged gunfire without replying effectively, she suffered damage which seriously affected her ability to fight in the decisive stage of the action.


These changes in the method of attack did not, it is true, affect the tactics of Q‑ships which, like the prize, worked in conjunction with submarines. This particular form of U‑boat snaring stood by itself. It was necessarily very risky; for the decoy ship which accompanied the submarine was generally a small vessel with little power of resistance; and as the submarine which accompanied her was compelled to submerge whenever a U‑boat was sighted, the commanding officer had always to depend solely upon his periscope for manoeuvring and aiming during the critical part of the action. It is hardly surprising therefore, that from August 1917 to the end of the war, no German submarine was destroyed by a decoy ship, or by a decoy ship and a submarine working together. Q‑ship warfare was, in fact, obsolescent: it was inevitable that it should be displaced by forms of warfare more scientific in their conception and execution. But it had been waged with a skill and endurance which had provoked the admiration of the entire naval service; and its story will always form one of the most brilliant chapters in our naval annals.




The Organisation and Working of the Convoy System


With the inauguration of the South Atlantic convoys and of outward convoys from British ports, the complete system of ocean convoy, as contemplated by the Convoy Committee, had come into being. Before attempting to record the results of the system, it is necessary to examine, in a little further detail, the organisation by which it was carried on.


The pivot of the whole system was to be found at the Admiralty, where the programme of sailings was arranged, routes and rendezvous selected, and orders given for the necessary escorts. In the execution of the programme, the chief part was played by the Port Convoy Officers at home and abroad, the Commanders‑in‑Chief at the destroyer bases, and the Commanders‑in‑Chief or Senior Naval Officers on those foreign stations in which the ports of assembly lay.


At the Admiralty, the general supervision of the Atlantic convoy system was entrusted to the Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (Rear‑Admiral A. L. Duff). (He was appointed to this position on May 31, 1917: Captain W. W. Fisher succeeded him as head of the Anti‑Submarine Division.) Under his direction the working of the system was centred in the newly‑created Convoy Section under Fleet Paymaster H. W. E. Manisty (Later Acting Paymaster‑Captain. He had been Secretary to Rear-Admiral Wemyss in the 12th Cruiser Squadron during 1914 and 1915. This was the squadron which escorted the first Atlantic convoy of the war: the Canadian troop convoy of 32 ships. Later he was employed in the Trade Division of the Admiralty War Staff (1915-17) - awarded CBE, CMG, took passage in HMS Hawkins 1921), who received his appointment as Organising Manager of Convoys on July 25, and the Officer in Charge of the Chart Room, Commander J. W. Carrington. The Organising Manager of Convoys was at first responsible directly to the Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff; but at the end of September 1917, when the Mercantile Movements Division was formed, he passed, with his section, under the Director of Mercantile Movements.


To the Organising Manager of Convoys were entrusted the control of sailings, the preparation of programmes for assembly, sailing and dispersal, the appointment of commodores,


July‑Aug. 1917



the issuing of orders for escorts, and the general direction of the system so far as organisation was concerned. In the Convoy Section all reports of proceedings and attacks were analysed with a view to profiting by the experience gained, officers in command of convoys were interviewed, general printed instructions to Commodores, Port Convoy Officers, Escort Officers and Masters were prepared and edited. Close touch was kept with the Chart Room, and a special telephone line to the Convoy Section of the Ministry of Shippng (The head of the Section was Mr. Norman Leslie (of the firm of Law and Leslie, Ship-owners), who had been liaison officer between the Minitry of Shipping and the Admiralty, and representative of the Ministry of Shipping on the Convoy Committee – awarded KBE.) enabled the naval and mercantile organisation of convoys to be co‑ordinated and adjusted.


The Officer in Charge of the Chart Room was responsible for the routeing of convoys, the charting of their position, and their diversion, when necessary, to avoid areas where special submarine activity had been reported. Routes were given by him for all homeward bound convoys through the danger zone, and from September 26 onwards the ocean routes of all South Atlantic convoys were also issued from the Admiralty direct, with a view to avoiding the possibility of collision between inward and outward sailings. The ocean routes of homeward North Atlantic convoys were fixed by the Port Convoy Officers, under the general directions of the Commander‑in‑Chief on the North American Station; those of outward convoys by the Senior Naval Officer of the port providing the destroyer escort. For the Gibraltar convoys the Senior Naval Officer at Gibraltar was responsible for routeing through the local danger zone.


The Port Convoy Officers, appointed to every port of assembly at home and abroad, were responsible for the berthing of ships; the issue of charts, instructions and sailing orders; the supervision of equipment; and generally, for all matters requiring attention between the arrival and sailing of the ships. Those at the home ports worked under the orders of the Senior Naval Officer; at the ports abroad, the Senior Naval Officer in several instances acted also as Port Convoy Officer. Each of these officers was provided with the necessary clerical staff, and at most assembly ports R.N.R. officers were appointed as assistants. The duty of sending on ships from the "outports" to the port of assembly was performed, at home, by shipping intelligence and shipping control officers or by naval transport officers; abroad, by naval vice‑consuls or British consuls.


A few days after receiving the route telegram, but, if possible, not less than four days before the sailing of the convoy, the Port Convoy Officer telegraphed a list of ships that would probably be ready to sail on the programme date, together with their destinations, and any special information as to cargo and other matters. If the destinations of any ships were unknown, Convoy Section would then obtain them from the Ministry of Shipping, Wheat Commission, or other responsible authority, and telegraph the information to the assembly port. Any subsequent alterations were communicated by the destroyer escort; but after the first few convoys, every effort was made to communicate destinations in advance, so as to form the convoy in such a manner that it could be dispersed rapidly.


Two days before the sailing date, the Port Convoy Officer made out a final list of ships, and arranged the details of formation. He had already interviewed the master of each ship on arrival, satisfied himself as regards the provision of necessary equipment, such as special signalling gear, fog buoys and communication between bridge and engine‑room, and explained the general procedure to be adopted; but on the day before sailing he held a conference of all the masters, at which the commander of the ocean escort was also present. At this conference he explained the general convoy instructions, and the escort officer explained the zigzag to be adopted and any special orders for the voyage. These conferences proved invaluable as a means of securing intelligent co‑operation between the Navy and the Mercantile Marine, and of gradually standardising convoy formations and arrangements.


Before sailing, a suitable ship in the convoy was selected to carry the commodore of the convoy. A mercantile master was also appointed as vice‑commodore, to take charge in the commodore's absence, or after separation of a "mixed" convoy.


The position of these convoy commodores was an onerous and responsible one. Subject to the orders of the senior officer of the escort, they were answerable for all internal arrangements, such as station keeping and darkening ship. Should the commodore happen, as was generally the case in the Gibraltar convoys, to be senior to the escort officer, he naturally took over the command of the convoy as a whole. So far as possible, particular commodores were kept to one route only, so that full advantage might be taken of their experience, and their staff of three convoy signalmen and one wireless operator was transferred with them from ship to Ship. For each other ship in the convoy one convoy


July‑Aug. 1917



signalman was provided. These at first were lent by the ocean escort, but a special corps of convoy signalmen, largely R.N.V.R. ratings, was gradually built up, and others were lent by the United States navy.


The practical rules for convoyed voyages were of great irnportance and must be recorded in some detail. The cruising formation of all convoys was in columns of varying depth six to eight cables apart, with three cables between the ships in the columns; but on entering the danger zone and meeting the destroyer escort, the convoy was re‑formed, if necessary, so as to give a maximum of four ships in each column. (Later it was found possible to shorten these distances. The ships in column were two cables apart, the columns four cables apart.) As experience was gained, the tendency was to aim at the broadest possible front in the danger zone, by increasing the number of columns and diminishing the number of ships in each. Even in cruising formation the columns seldom comprised more than four vessels, or five at the most, and in the danger zone the depth was still further reduced. The distance between columns in the danger zone was diminished, after a little experience, to four or five cables only.


In "mixed" convoys, whether in cruising or in danger zone formation, the northern columns were composed of vessels for West coast ports, the southern of ships bound for the Channel, East coast, or French ports. In East coast convoys, vessels for Channel ports up to and including Portsmouth, or for French ports, were placed in the northern columns. The commodore's ship usually led one of the centre columns as a guide.


Immediately the convoy had sailed, the Port Convoy Officer despatched to the Admiralty a "sailing telegram" giving the time and date of sailing, the ocean escort, commodore and vice‑commodore, the names of all ships and their places in the columns, the speed of the convoy, the probable date and time of arrival at the destroyer rendezvous, and the secret approach routes given to each vessel for use in the event of falling out and losing touch. It gave also the ocean route by which the convoy would approach the initial rendezvous, so that protection might be provided in the event of a cruiser raid.


On receipt of this telegram, the Convoy Section passed on the information to the Ministry of Shipping, Shipping Intelligence Officers, and other authorities concerned, and also to the Commander‑in‑Chief, Grand Fleet, and the Senior Officer at the port providing the destroyer escort. Detailed instructions regarding the successive courses of the convoy were obtained from the Chart Room, and at least seven or eight days before the arrival of the convoy at the rendezvous, "Destroyer Orders" were sent to the Commander‑in-Chief at the destroyer base, specifying the strength of escort required, and the route to be followed from the destroyer rendezvous to the point of dispersal. Copies of these orders were sent for information to all ports in the area through which the convoy would pass. Thus the orders relating to the East coast HN convoy would be sent "for action" to Queenstown, Devonport and Portsmouth ‑ the ports providing the destroyer escort and relief escorts‑and "for information" to Dover, Falmouth, Milford and Portland, so that outward bound and French Coal Trade convoys might be routed clear.


On receipt of these orders the admiral in charge at the destroyer base detailed the necessary destroyers. The normal strength of the escort became fixed at six destroyers for a convoy of less than 16 ships; seven for convoys of 16 to 22 ships inclusive, and eight for larger convoys. The trawler escorts provided by Milford and Falmouth consisted normally of two destroyers and eight to ten trawlers. Later, P‑boats were substituted for destroyers in the Milford escorts. In all except the Devonport flotillas the word "destroyers" must be read as including sloops. For convoy purposes the destroyers were organised, so far as possible, in flotillas of eleven vessels, of which eight were always to be ready for service, and each flotilla, again so far as possible, always met a convoy of the same series.


When the escort was required to take out an outward bound convoy, this was dispersed, as a general rule, at night on the second day out. The escort then steamed straight to rendezvous with the homeward convoy, which it met at daybreak on the following morning.


Outward convoys, dispersing on the edge of the danger zone, were not normally provided with ocean escort, nor was it always considered necessary to appoint a convoy commodore, though an experienced master was usually chosen to act as "guide." When quitting the protected anchorage they were screened by trawlers, drifters and other local forces, and their course was swept in advance for enemy mines.


The destroyer formation, recommended in instructions issued during July, for an escort of six destroyers, and a convoy (inward and outward) in three or more columns, was


July‑Aug. 1917



as follows: one destroyer about 1000 yards ahead of the port and starboard columns, and two on each flank about 1000 yards from the columns. During daylight the destroyers zigzagged at a speed of about fifteen knots, varying their distance from the columns from about 1000 to 2000 yards. The convoy itself also zigzagged in the danger zone, if speed permitted. In the event of an attack the instructions were for the destroyers which counter‑attacked to drop a "minefield of depth charges" in the last position where the submarine was seen. The convoy itself was to make large alterations of course in order to prevent the enemy from tracking its movements, and after the counter‑attack, one or two destroyers were to remain on the spot, to keep the submarine submerged until the convoy was below the horizon.


After the destroyer escort had joined the homeward convoy, the command fell either to the ocean escort or the senior officer of the destroyer escort, according to seniority. The ocean escort herself was originally ordered to take up a position astern of the centre column or columns, and from this position to carry out a broad zigzag. In August, however, new instructions were given that, in order to permit the flanks of the convoy to be more effectively screened, she should become leader of one of the centre columns.


On the voyage from the destroyer rendezvous the convoys were met by rescue tugs, whose duty was to save life and, if possible, ships, in the event of a casualty.


The point of dispersal, to which ships were brought by the destroyer escorts, varied according to the submarine situation. North‑about West coast convoys were dispersed on the line Oversay‑Inishtrahull, or within the Larne net defences; South‑about convoys usually off the Smalls. For Fast coast convoys the position varied from St. Catherines to the Downs; the latter part of the passage being covered by an escort from Portsmouth, where a flotilla of P‑boats was gradually assembled for this purpose. From the point of dispersal the ships, unless otherwise directed, followed the coastal approach routes to their ports of destination. Special protection was often given to groups of ships by one or two destroyers detached from the escort, or by the local forces at Milford, Portsmouth and elsewhere. The ocean escort usually quitted the convoy a little before arriving at the point of dispersal, and proceeded at high speed, with or without destroyer escort, to the port on which she was based, where orders for her next voyage were usually awaiting her.


On the arrival of a homeward convoy full reports were sent in by the commanders of the ocean and destroyer escorts and by the commodores of convoy. The commodores and ocean escort officers were also interviewed by the Convoy Section at the Admiralty. Reports on outward convoys were also sent in by the senior officer of the destroyer escort and by the commodore, if appointed.


A considerable number of the convoys passing through the danger zone had by now been attacked and had suffered loss. The reports were accumulating, and it was possible to make deductions from them. They proved that convoys were by no means easy to attack when a submarine located them. Even an exceptionally successful attack such as was delivered against the second outward convoy from Buncrana only destroyed two vessels out of a total of twenty‑one; but this was not the kind of attack which was ordinarily recorded. The reports showed that when a submarine had revealed her presence near a convoy by a successful or an unsuccessful attempt, she was at once in danger from the destroyer or trawler escort; and that her commander was thenceforward so much concerned for his own safety that it was almost impossible for him to menace the convoy further. Although the general statistics of the convoy system supplied better data for estimating its value as a strategical plan than for calculating the vulnerability of a convoy that had been located and attacked, still these statistics were so striking, that they reinforced the conclusions which could legitimately be drawn from the reports of attacks and losses. Since the system had been started 0.5 per cent. of the vessels in the outward‑bound convoys had been lost.


These results were what might be called the first successes of the convoy system. Success of some kind in the campaign against the German U‑boats was very much needed, especially in the North Sea; for there, in the inner theatre of the submarine campaign, everything we had attempted had latterly ended in failure. The North Sea, which to the German submarine commanders was a sort of exit and entrance channel to Germany, was to us the arena clearly marked out for any strategical counter‑offensive that we could devise. If the German submarines were to be blocked into their ports, or destroyed on their voyages from and to their ports then it was in the North Sea that it must be done.


Attempts had already been made on both these lines, but with very little success. Admiral Bacon's plan of destroying Ostend and Zeebrugge dockyards by prolonged and methodical bombardments had proved impossible. But he still held firmly to the hope of making the two Flanders


Jan.‑Aug. 1917



bases untenable for submarines, and substituted a new plan for the old one. He allotted a large monitor to the forces which kept the coastal barrage under patrol, and made arrangements that the commanding officer of the monitor should bombard Zeebrugge or Ostend whenever conditions of wind and weather made bombardment possible. On several occasions the officers in charge of the monitor put their orders in execution, and once at least the bombardment was accurate enough to oblige the Germans to cover the dockyard with a smoke screen. But the total results of these bombardments were quite insufficient to check or even to influence the course of the submarine campaign. After overcoming technical difficulties so great and numerous as to appear on a first inspection quite insuperable, after many months of continuous vigilance and effort, Admiral Bacon's monitor had landed about thirty shells in or near Zeebrugge dockyard and as many more in Ostend.


The endeavour to close the Bight with a quadrant of mines proved equally fruitless. During the spring of the year the Bight was practically encircled by mines, but the German naval command successfully combated the danger. Instead of searching for British mines whenever and wherever they were to be found, they marked and buoyed a certain number of entrance channels and swept them continually. By thus restricting the zones which had to be kept clear they completely thwarted our original plan. Very few U‑boats were lost upon the minefields, and although the German submarine commanders were compelled to exercise great caution when they were navigating the entrance channels, the dangers and delays to which they were exposed never brought down the number of U‑boats in the operating areas. This, after all, was the test by which the success or failure of the whole scheme had to be judged.


The difficulties of egress were, however, increased to such an extent that in the autumn of the year 1917 nearly every submarine leaving the Bight was destroyers and auxiliaries. The German sweepers were kept working further and further from their bases, and had occasionally been reported as far north as Harvig beacon. The mining of the Heligoland Bight, originally intended to block the German forces into their bases, was thus actually drawing them into the North Sea, towards a zone where they could be brought to action. An outpost engagement did actually take place on the morning of September 1, in which a force of our light cruisers and destroyers drove trawlers on to the Danish coast and destroyed them. The raid was smartly and rapidly executed; but it was obvious that operations of the kind had no strategical significance. The quadrant of mines round the Bight would only be a real barrier if, by some means or another, the British forces contrived to make all German sweeping operations impossible. Spasmodic raiding against the outer edge of the field ‑ which was all we could undertake ‑ would inflict occasional losses, comparable to the losses that we occasionally suffered from the German destroyer raids in the Straits of Dover. It could have no possible effect upon the course of the campaign.




The Inter‑Allied Naval Conference, September 1917


It was decided during August that naval representatives of the Allies should assemble in Whitehall for a conference in the first week of the coming month. If we would adjust the deliberations and conclusions of this conference to their appropriate background it will be necessary to make a preliminary survey of the position at sea. As at the previous conference (See ante, p. 75.), the submarine campaign was bound to be the principal topic of discussion; but, whereas in January the campaign had been discussed as a menace with terrible possibilities, it could, in September, be reviewed and analysed in the light of a six‑months' experience.


It has been shown that the anti‑submarine campaign consisted in a general development of all possible methods of combating the menace, and not in concentrating upon any particular line of policy or special remedy; and that the most important of the special measures taken were the submarine patrols on the exit routes of the U‑boats, and the minelaying in the Heligoland Bight.


By the end of August 1917 the effects of these two measures of war were fairly evident. During the past eight months the submarine patrols in the North Sea and the Western approaches had established contact with enemy submarines on 216 occasions; but only one of these encounters had resulted in the destruction of a German submarine. The indecisive, unsatisfactory character of this kind of warfare was brought out strongly by the obstinate struggle which had been waged for months round the North Hinder light-vessel. Minelaying U‑boats in the Flanders Bight used the lightship as a navigational mark during their incomings and outgoings; and the British submarine commanders at


April‑Aug. 1917



Harwich knew it. There were fourteen meetings of submarine and submarine off the light‑vessel in the first part of the year alone; and although both German and British submarine commanders knew the area as a certain meeting-ground, and only approached it after making every possible preparation for an encounter, not one of these fourteen meetings ended in the destruction of a U‑boat. As for the minelaying in the Heligoland Bight, we have already seen that although it had affected the strategical position in the North Sea, and had brought about a state of things which might be turned to our advantage, it had not influenced or hampered U‑boat operations in the vital areas. In this respect the position in August was the same as the position in April.


The quantities of new anti‑submarine material and of new devices delivered since February came to an imposing total, and were illustrative of the immense effort that was being made to meet the danger; but it was very disquieting that, although flotillas fitted with the new material were operating against submarines more rapidly and with better means of detecting them, they were not, so far, scoring any marked success. Yet the appearance of these new weapons was so important a point in the history of the campaign that they cannot be dismissed with a mere summary of results obtained. In a previous volume we examined a typical case of an anti‑submarine operation, conducted with the ships and weapons which were ordinarily employed when unrestricted submarine warfare was about to begin. ( See Vol. IV., p. 338.) If we would understand how existing methods of war had been altered by six months of intense national effort, it is necessary that we should again analyse some examples which may be regarded as typical.



(a) Kite balloon operations


The first experiment in the use of captive balloons during a regular operation was made on August 19, 1916, when the Hercules put up a kite balloon for some hours during the southerly advance of the Grand Fleet. On this occasion no observers were sent up, for the experiment was merely intended to test the towing apparatus; but since then the use of kite balloons had spread with the growth and development of submarine warfare.


In July 1917 at all events, the Commander‑in‑Chief thought the provision of kite balloons so far advanced that he could employ the destroyers to which they had been fitted in a regular series of operations against submarines. The general idea of these operations was that a detachment of destroyers fitted with kite balloons should be spread over a section of the route used by German submarines, when they re‑entered the North Sea after a cruise in the Atlantic; and that the destroyers should use their increased circle of vision in an experiment in co‑operative stalking. The first of these operations was entrusted to Commander Money of the destroyer leader Anzac (14th Destroyer Flotilla); the destroyers Norman, Patriot, Maenad, Morning Star and Moon (11th, 12th and 14th Destroyer Flotillas) were detailed to act with him. At a quarter‑past six on the evening of July 6, the force reached the point where the route of the submarines bound for Emden was believed to separate from the route of the submarines bound for the Horn Reefs channel. Here the destroyers were spread, and the operation began (see diagram).


Nothing was sighted during the evening; but at a quarter to six on the following morning, the Morning Star sighted a submarine to the westward of her; a second observation, obtained at 6.20, showed that the submarine was moving southwards. Commander Money now ordered the entire patrol to move eleven miles to the east‑south‑east, in order to bring its centre over the position in which the submarine was first reported. The destroyers were in their new stations by about half‑past seven; but it was not until a quarter‑past three in the afternoon that the submarine was again sighted. This time she was seen from the Moon, near the southern edge of the patrol zone; and Commander Money was now convinced that they had located a submarine returning home along the Emden route. He therefore moved the whole patrol fifteen miles to the south‑southwest; some time afterwards he ordered the destroyers to move ten miles in the same direction at nine o'clock. This second move to the southwards would, he hoped, ensure that the submarine should be inside the patrolled zone at daylight on the following day.




Plan - Anti-Submarine Operations, July 5-8, 1917


At half‑past eight the Maenad reported a submarine on the western side of the patrolled zone, and, an hour later, the Patriot, whilst moving to her new station reported a submarine in a position about ten miles to the north of where the Maenad had reported one. Commander Money decided that the Maenad and Patriot had probably sighted another submarine moving north, and decided to continue on the track of the submarine that his destroyers had been chasing all day. He did not therefore cancel the general movement to the southward, but directed the Patriot to maintain a special patrol near the position where the submarine had last been sighted. But at daybreak on the


July 1917



following morning nothing was in sight, and throughout the 7th and 8th the observers in the kite balloons saw nothing: towards evening on the 8th, supplies of hydrogen and oil were beginning to run low, and the destroyers returned to Scapa.


The operation had thus ended in the persistent dogging of a single submarine; for the U‑boat sighted in the early morning of the 6th by the Morning Star had not cleared the zone covered by the patrol until nightfall, and whenever she had come to the surface she had been sighted and followed. This was an immense advance upon the system of sending destroyers to institute searches for submarines on the basis of reports which were already twelve, eighteen or twentyfour hours old when the searching destroyers received them. (See Vol. IV., p. 338.) But if such an operation is placed in the general perspective of the submarine campaign, it is not difficult to see that its total effects and consequences were extremely small; and that, even though ten such operations had been proceeding simultaneously, their combined effect would not have been great.


A force of six destroyers had in this case compelled a single German submarine to navigate with great caution, and to remain submerged for many hours during one single day; but as during July the average cruise of each U‑boat lasted about twenty‑five days, it follows that her operations could only be very slightly affected by the activity of a kite balloon patrol dogging her for some twelve hours during the first or last part of her voyage. Such specially devised operations, carried out by specially constituted detachments of ships, were bound, in the nature of things, to be spasmodic and interrupted: whereas submarine warfare against merchantmen was absolutely continuous. Though the point and the intensity of the attack might not always be the same, the attack itself never ceased; on every day of the year merchantmen were being attacked and sunk at some point near the British Isles, or in the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. It became obvious that a measure of war which has become almost departmental in its regularity is not likely to be thwarted or even set back by measures which are in their nature intermittent.



(b) Hydrophone operations.


It was shown in a previous chapter that a German submarine, operating in a given area, must always possess an immense advantage over the forces detailed to attack or chase her, unless these pursuing forces could be provided with exceptionally accurate and up‑todate information of the submarine's position and movements.


It was shown, also, that the ordinary system of intelligence, which consisted in sending out orders and instructions to hunting flotillas based upon information that was often two days old when it reached the operating forces, gave them no data for constructing any tactical or strategical plan for countering or even checking a U‑boat's devastations. ( See Vol. IV., pp. 338 et seq.)


The hydrophone, a delicate and subtle device for detecting the sound made by a submarine, and the direction from which it came, was, in a sense, a mechanical solution to a problem which had baffled our anti‑submarine forces since the war began. By the early autumn of 1917 great progress had been made, both with the device itself and its supply to the patrolling craft.


In the middle of June the Admiralty gave orders that hydrophone hunting flotillas, each of which was to be composed of six motor launches provided with hydrophones, were to be constituted at Newhaven, Portsmouth, Portland and Dartmouth. Two launches in every group of six were also fitted with wireless telegraphy, so that the flotilla might keep touch with the local air patrols. Shortly afterwards the Admiralty gave orders that four trawlers should be fitted with hydrophones in twelve of the coastal patrol areas, and that they should operate together as a hunting flotilla . (The Auxiliary Patrol areas in which these hydrophone patrols were organised were: Nos. II (Orkneys and Shetlands); V (Peterhead); VI (Granton); VIII (Tyne); IX (Humber); X (Yarmouth and Lowestoft); XII (Portsmouth); XIII (Portland); X1111A (Devonport), XV (Milford); XVIII (Lough Swilly); XXI (Queenstown).


Meanwhile successful experiments had been carried out with an improved pattern of hydrophone, which could be towed astern of the patrolling vessel, and the Admiralty were so impressed by the promise of this new device that they ordered two hundred vessels to be fitted with it. Such hopes were entertained of it that the Admiralty were seriously considering an elaborate plan for instituting a hydrophone patrol of sixty trawlers reinforced by destroyers, P‑boats, sloops and submarines, between Norway and Peterhead.


This project, important in itself, is made doubly so by the professional comments which it provoked. It often happens that a chance remark, from a high authority, which may be either thrown out at random, or noted down almost by accident, throws a shaft of light upon current questions of strategy and policy. If by good fortune the documentary records of a campaign contain several indications of the kind separated by a good space of time, one can learn how


July‑Aug. 1917



professional opinion has moved, during an interval, by juxtaposing two or more of them.


The Admiralty appreciation of submarine war, issued at the beginning of the year, (See Vol. IV, p. 325.) and the general summary of the position at sea which was attached to the project for setting up a hydrophone patrol across the North Sea, may be regarded as belonging to this kind of record. Anybody who compares the two documents is bound to realise that the high naval authorities had cleared their minds of doubts and uncertainty during the seven months which had gone by since the first appreciation was prepared. In January the Admiralty could do little more than declare that they had committed themselves to an immense process of experiment, to be carried out without relaxation wherever British ships and German submarines were operating. The language of the memorandum circulated with the proposals for a Norwegian‑Peterhead patrol shows that high authorities were forming the opinion that the "remedy" for submarine warfare ‑ which Mr. Balfour, a few months before, had spoken of as almost undiscoverable ‑ was at least to be looked for along one or two well‑defined lines of search, instead of in every direction.


"The facts are," ran the memorandum, "that from July 1st to August 1st there were, on an average, roughly two German submarines a day on the Lyngvig‑Shetlands line. This being so, it really appears essential that the question of instituting some special service to deal with submarines on that part of their journey that lies between Jutland and the Shetlands should be considered. The situation is so critical, the need so clear, and the area in which the enemy can generally be found so well known that a special effort seems opportune ‑ special in the sense that special vessels should be collected, based specially, commanded specially, and with one special object in view, the hunting of enemy submarines. It will at once be said: 'How can enemy submarines be hunted? Nothing has yet been produced to enable a submarine to be hunted.' This is no longer true. Reports come in daily of hunts by hydrophone in the Channel and elsewhere, extending over hours. Further, the kite balloon is a new and powerful factor in the submarine hunt, and they are becoming available in some quantity now." Words like these are beacon‑marks in an intricate channel traversed by baffling cross currents: they show that professional opinion was turning towards the idea of a concerted anti‑submarine drive, carried out as a major operation in the narrow part of the North Sea and pushed ruthlessly towards the German bases. Six months before, naval policy had not been expressed with anything like such decisiveness and precision.


But if the actual achievements of the hydrophone flotillas ‑ which were the foundation and starting‑point of the hopes expressed in this vigorous memorandum ‑ are carefully examined, it must at once be admitted that the Admiralty's appreciation pointed rather to a desirable experiment than to an immediately realisable project. When the memorandum was written, six operations of the Channel hydrophone flotillas had been considered of sufficient importance to be reproduced in the monthly summary of submarine warfare published by the anti‑submarine division. In the first, carried out on July 20, four motor launches of the Newhaven flotilla had tracked a submarine by the indications given in their hydrophones for a distance of about six miles. They had never actually located her and had been obliged to abandon the chase because the sea got up slightly and the hydrophones ceased to give any indication.


The second of these operations was bigger and more concerted. A German submarine had been located near Lyme Bay on July 20, and again on the 22nd. On the following day there were indications that the submarine was still in the same area, and by the afternoon the Commander-in‑Chief had put a considerable force of local vessels on to her track. The destroyer Sunfish of the local defence flotilla, the Devonport drifters and the hydrophone motor launches from Dartmouth occupied a position to the east of Berry Head; the trawler patrol was spread along a line which ran from the centre of Lyme Bay to the south of Start Point. At about the time when the patrols and the motor launches reached their station, lines of mined nets were laid out near Dartmouth and the Eddystone. To complete the dispositions, a seaplane was ordered to patrol the western end of Lyme Bay. The trawlers and the motor launches were ordered to drift with their engines stopped throughout the night; and it was hoped that the north‑easterly set of the flood tide would carry them towards the centre of Lyme Bay, where the submarine was believed to be lying on the bottom.


The patrol craft occupied their positions at dusk without a hitch, and the weather was admirable for the work in hand; it was a fine almost windless summer night. Early in the morning the man listening through the hydrophones in motor launch No. 211 heard sounds which were unmistakable: somewhere in the darkness to the eastward a submarine was starting her engine. The commanding officer went off at once in the direction of the sound, and a few


July 1917



minutes later the submarine loomed out through the darkness. He at once opened fire and the submarine submerged, but the U‑boat was now so well located, and the forces available for attacking and pursuing her were so numerous, that the chance of destroying her seemed exceptionally good. What followed showed how carefully the tactics of a hydrophone flotilla had to be thought out; and how a slight departure from the correct tactical procedure might ruin a promising situation in a few moments. On hearing the sound of gunfire the officers in the other motor launches hurried towards No. 211: the noise of their engines at once swamped all other sounds in the hydrophones, and the submarine escaped undetected.


The other examples of hydrophone operations reported in the Admiralty's monthly summary told the same story. At two o'clock in the afternoon of July 29 a hydrophone flotilla detected a submarine near the Arklow Bank lightvessel: they tracked her for over two hours on slight and doubtful indications in the receivers, when the noise of the submarine's engines was lost in the noise of the passing traffic. A week later ‑ August 6 ‑ the Portland Hydrophone Flotilla picked up indications that a submarine was to the north‑eastward of them. For the rest of the afternoon, and intermittently during the following night, the commanding officers continued to get signs that the U‑boat was still in the neighbourhood. The indications were very vague and uncertain until just before midnight, when it seemed practically certain that the submarine was to the north; but when this was definitely ascertained a thick fog came down and the flotilla had to be closed in. They continued to grope after the submarine through the mist; but the first condition of a successful hydrophone hunt ‑ that the launches should be well spread ‑ was no longer being fulfilled. The indications became fainter and more unreliable, and in the early morning of the 7th all trace of the submarine was lost.


In short, all operations carried out during the summer of the year by flotillas fitted with hydrophonic mechanism seemed to bear out the general inference that was to be drawn from the examples selected. If properly employed the new device might give the vessels using it a decisive tactical advantage in an area where a submarine was known to be operating; but if it were extensively employed in any large strategical plan of submarine detection - such as the project for establishing a hydrophone patrol between Peterhead and Norway ‑ the difficulties of employing it successfully would be multiplied a hundred times.



(c) The general position in September 1917


These then were roughly the results of the special measures which had been a sort of backbone to the general plan adopted when the submarine campaign began. With regard to the general fluctuations of the campaign the position was hardly more satisfactory. It is true that the curve of losses had never again reached the enormous total of April; and though it still rose and fell its tendency was to go down. But the monthly total of shipping lost was still far in excess of what the Allies could replace and, on that account, the prospect was still extremely gloomy. We had contrived by the use of expedients to live through what will perhaps rank as one of the greatest crises in British history; but the efficacy of these expedients must end at dates which were almost calculable. We had saved tonnage by concentrating ships upon the shorter North American route, by withdrawing British tonnage from purely foreign trade, and by a system of drastic import restriction. These measures had, in Sir Norman Hill's (Secretary of the Liverpool and London War Risks Insurance Association) words, given us a breathing space; but it was quite obvious that such expedients could only operate for a certain time; the excess of losses over replacements must, in the end, swallow up the tonnage saved by these special measures, and then the breathing space would end in national asphyxiation.


The campaign against the U‑boats was therefore still unsatisfactory. Quite recently the German submarine commanders in the western area had turned the tables upon our Q‑boat captains and had defeated them decisively. (See ante, p. 110.) During July and August we had destroyed eight German submarines, and the enemy had lost two more by accident; in the same period the German yards had delivered twenty‑three new boats. That is to say, that the campaign was still going strongly against us in that our monthly destruction of "submarines was less than half the monthly deliveries of new boats, while the monthly destruction of British shipping was far in excess of the monthly building. Our offensive measures were not sufficient to check, or even retard, the operations of the German U‑boats; and our defensive operations were still not sufficiently embracing to bring down the monthly list of losses to a bearable figure. (see Map 1.)


It was extraordinarily difficult to make any forecast of the future of the campaign: the chances of an improvement or a change for the worse seemed well balanced. It was not a very good omen that the Germans were maintaining the attack upon the outer routes without check or hindrance.


Sept. 1917



Lieut.‑Commander Meusel (U.155) was finishing his cruise in the Azores‑Canary zone, and Lieutenant‑Commander Kophamel was moving out to relieve him in U.151. Meusel had never once, during his entire cruise, been engaged by anything but armed merchantmen: our protecting forces had never reached, far less located, him, and there was every reason to suppose that unless some special measures were taken to defend the area, Meusel's successor would operate with equal freedom. The sinkings by these oceanic submarines were not, it is true, particularly serious ‑ compared with the losses in the western approaches they were insignificant; but it was extremely serious that the German U‑boats had established themselves in a nodal point of the trade routes, not as furtive visitors like the Moewe, but as permanent occupants. If their total submarine tonnage continued to rise, we could be sure that this attack on the outer routes would increase proportionately.


The entries on the debit side of the British balance sheet were thus extremely heavy. The excess of British shipping losses over deliveries, the excess of German submarine deliveries over losses, the failure up to date of our minelaying policy in the Bight; the inability of our submarine patrols to inflict serious damage; the defeat of the Q‑boats in the western area, and the success of the German attack upon a great joining point of the Atlantic trade routes, made up a heavy total on the adverse side. The entries on the other side of the account were more in the form of promising investments than assets immediately realisable. Yet no thoughtful man could doubt that they were of great value.


First, and most important, the convoy system, so far as it had been applied, was an unqualified success. The loss of shipping on routes which had come within the scope of the system had been extraordinarily small (See post, p. 139.); and ‑ what was equally important ‑ Sir Leo Chiozza Money's plan of concentrating traffic upon the North Atlantic routes was bringing more and more vessels on to the protected routes. Those who had been responsible for elaborating a workable system of convoy had now succeeded to the extent of overcoming their own doubts, and were confident that the convoy system, when expanded, would thwart and defeat the submarine campaign. But their confidence was the confidence of pioneers and specialists: it was not entirely shared by the high authorities whose survey was still bound to include all possible supplementary methods.


It may here be noted that although the total results of the offensive campaign against the U‑boats were up to now unsatisfactory, there was at least one good reason for hoping that the fortunes of the campaign might improve in our favour. It was a remarkable and most hopeful fact that one‑third of the German submarine losses during the past two months had been caused by attack from the air. The German submarine losses were:


1. By British action.



Kite balloon destroyers: depth charges.



Seaplane and bombs.



P‑boat and depth charges. So damaged that she put in at Corunna and was interned.



Rammed by gunboat Halcyon and destroyed with depth charges.



Seaplane and bombs.



Rammed by destroyer Oracle.



Seaplane and bombs.



Trawlers and depth charges

2. By misadventure.



Stranded and surrendered.



Blown up whilst laying her own mines.


This was the newest, the least developed item in the general campaign against the German U‑boats; and it was a method of attack which was capable of very great development.



(d) The discussion at the Inter‑Allied Conference


The chief Admiralty representative was no longer Sir Edward Carson, who had filled the office as First Lord since the beginning of the year. His place had just been taken by Sir Eric Geddes, the Controller under the old Board. Also, Vice‑Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss had just been made Deputy First Sea Lord. These were the only changes; Vice‑Admiral Sir Henry Oliver, Rear‑Admiral Duff, and all the Naval Lords who had served during the last seven months of anxiety and strain were still at their posts in Whitehall.


The situation had not cleared up since they first took office: the submarine campaign was still undefeated; the German submarine commanders were destroying more tonnage than could be replaced; and though it was possible it was still not certain that the measures then in force would turn the campaign in our favour. In these circumstances it was natural that the delegates should concentrate their entire attention upon seeking for some plan of war which was likely to prove a final remedy.


Admiral Jellicoe had two alternative plans to lay before the Conference. The first was that the Allies should conjointly undertake a stupendous blocking operation against all the German harbours in the North Sea and the Baltic.


Sept. 1917



The Admiralty, after examining this project in detail, had come to the conclusion that the entrances to all German harbours might be blocked, if a force of forty old battleships and forty‑three old cruisers were assembled for the purpose. It was admittedly within the power of the Allies to collect this force from their second line fleets; and the delegates had no doubt that, if the operation were ever decided upon, each party in the alliance would make its contribution. It was upon the question of feasibility that opinion was sharply divided. Admiral Funakoshi, the Japanese delegate, who had a close and intimate knowledge of the Japanese attempts to block Port Arthur, was particularly doubtful whether the operation could ever be successful, and the majority of the delegates seem to have shared his doubts. There were indeed serious technical objections to the scheme. A sunken battleship or cruiser can only block a navigable channel at one particular point; and when the position and extent of a submerged obstruction are known, engineers can practically always find a means of clearing a way round it by dredging or blasting, or both. A more serious objection was made to the use of old cruisers for such a purpose. Great Britain and the United States were, at the time, making every effort to extend and develop the convoy system; and when reporting to the Conference, Admiral Jellicoe was careful to say that the shortage of cruisers was a great obstacle to making the system more embracing. The Allied delegates were not prepared to agree to a blocking operation, speculative and doubtful in its results, which would permanently deprive them of the means of giving protection to ocean traffic. The proposal was the more readily allowed to drop as another similar suggestion appeared more easy of realisation.


This second alternative was that the northern entrance to the North Sea, between the Shetlands and Bergen, should be blocked by an immense minefield. In presenting this project to the Conference, Admiral Jellicoe admitted that the minelaying in the Bight had hitherto been unsuccessful, as the Germans had located our mines and swept up those which obstructed the free movement of their U‑boats. The minefield which he now proposed would be out of reach of the German sweepers, and would be maintained as a permanent obstacle. The Conference raised no objection to the plan, and indeed endorsed it; but long technical preparations were necessary before it could be put into execution. First of all, as Admiral de Bon, the French delegate, insisted, the Allies must be absolutely satisfied that the mine used was of a sound and suitable design; for Admiral Jellicoe, in his opening statement, had admitted that the failure of British minelaying in the Heligoland Bight might partly be attributed to faults in the pattern of mine we had been using. The question of supply was equally important. Admiral Jellicoe estimated that one hundred thousand mines would be needed to complete the minefield. British industries, which were working at full pressure and with depleted staffs to meet the immense calls of the three services, could not supply so large a number of mines rapidly. The factories of the United States would therefore have to assist us liberally if the minefield were to be laid rapidly and effectively, instead of slowly and by instalments.


The Conference then reviewed the existing methods of operating against submarines without expressing any serious criticism of what was then being done, and without making any novel suggestion. Vice‑Admiral Cusani‑Visconti strongly advocated repeated aerial attacks upon submarine bases, and strong coastal patrols of aircraft; and he was able to show that the Italian navy had frequently used these methods of attack with success. But the Italian anti‑submarine campaign was mainly carried on in the enclosed waters of the Adriatic: the problem which confronted the British and French navies was that of operating successfully against submarines which had reached the open waters of the Bay of Biscay, the Eastern Atlantic and the Western Channel. However effective air patrols might be in enclosed waters, they could be of little use in operations for ensuring the security of many thousand square miles of water.


The contrast between the two problems was particularly marked when the conference considered the dangerous spread of the submarine attack in the North Atlantic. Admiral Jellicoe opened the subject with a long and careful statement of the Admiralty's plans for checking the operations of the large submarine cruisers of the Deutschland type; and when he had finished, Admiral Cusani‑Visconti said at once that he had been taking part in the discussion as the representative of a Mediterranean people, and could only speak with diffidence upon the oceanic problems of submarine warfare. As one of the delegates had so freely and generously acknowledged that national habits of thought may penetrate even into the discussion of a severely technical problem, it was fitting that Admiral Sims, the representative of a great Atlantic Power, should have spoken decisively on the defence of the Atlantic trade routes. At an earlier stage of the Conference, Admiral Sims had referred to the convoy system as a genuinely offensive measure, in that it compelled the


Sept. 1917



enemy submarine to fight at a disadvantage. He now elaborated the statement which he had previously made. Admiral Jellicoe had suggested that ocean‑going submarines could best be dealt with by establishing a wireless station and intelligence centre at the Azores, and by setting up an ocean patrol of decoy ships and submarines: Admiral Sims reviewed the position from a different standpoint. Was not the future of every form of anti‑submarine warfare bound up with the extension and development of the convoy system; in fact, was not this system the one and only method of placing the U‑boats on the chess‑board of submarine warfare in a position of strategical and tactical checkmate? Admiral Jellicoe's suggestions, if adopted, would possibly give merchantmen in the Azores area a better chance of escaping from a submarine armed with a six‑inch gun; but was it wise to treat the problem from this purely technical aspect? To Admiral Sims the question which called for immediate consideration was what reply the enemy would make to the convoy system, when he realised that it was likely to bring the whole submarine campaign to ruin. It was not likely that the enemy would entrust his counter‑attack solely to submarine cruisers armed with six‑inch guns; he might, on the contrary, be expected to make a determined attempt to break up the whole convoy system by attacking it with heavy, powerful ships. "To counteract that," concluded Admiral Sims, "you have got to do one of two things: either you have got to convoy with Dreadnought battleships, or else you have got to make the best terms of peace you can."


These remarks made a great impression upon the Conference; and it is not difficult to understand why they did so. To us who now view submarine warfare from a point of vantage from which the great features of the campaign are seen in sharp outlines; who can perceive the data of a vast problem of maritime strategy in a mass of daily incidents, which, at the time, seemed no more than a disorderly succession of disasters, the convoy system appears naturally, and inevitably, as a decisive counter‑attack against the German warfare upon merchant traffic. But in September 1917 the leading naval authorities were by no means inclined to give the convoy system this pre‑eminent position amongst the many other measures of anti‑submarine warfare which they were trying. To them, the convoy system was an item on a list, a measure amongst many others; and Admiral Sims must be given the credit of being the first naval expert in high position who had the insight to realise that the remedy for which the Allies were still seeking had actually been found.


The Conference served to show the Entente Powers how much they would have to depend upon American assistance for improving the position at sea; and on September 22, Admiral Jellicoe handed the American naval representative in London a request for further help. The reply, received a month later, was conceived in the generous spirit which had been so characteristic of the American attitude towards the Allies' calls for assistance. The Washington Navy Department answered that they could not agree at once that the actual mine barrage proposed by Admiral Jellicoe was the best that could be devised; but as they approved absolutely of the general policy of laying great minefields across the North Sea, they had at once ordered 100,000 mines from their contractors, and would requisition as many vessels as would be required for completing whatever operation was finally decided upon. With regard to the convoy system, the Navy Department had at once allocated four additional cruisers to convoy duty, and would provide several more when the reorganisation of their cruiser forces was completed. In addition to these reinforcements, they would at once send a patrolling force of submarines and a monitor to the Azores, to check the depredations of the German submarine cruisers on the outer trade routes; and would "cooperate to the fullest extent " in setting up a wireless station and intelligence centre in the islands.




The Convoy System, September


No further change in convoy organisation was made within the period covered by this chapter, except that, as from September 21, the outward convoys from Lamlash were arranged alternately to take out ships with a minimum speed of ten and eight knots respectively. To fit in with the homeward HN and HH or HS convoys, these outward convoys were now sailed with a two‑day interval between the fast and slow convoys, and eight days between any two convoys of each series.


In all, it was now necessary to provide ocean escorts for seven Atlantic convoys. The duty of providing the destroyer escorts fell upon the Buncrana, Queenstown and Plymouth commands, whose forces had been successively readjusted to the new situation during the summer. At the end of September, when the convoy system was in full working order, the following escort and patrol forces were allocated to each of these commands.


Sept. 1917






27 destroyers (2nd Flotilla)

1 light cruiser

36 destroyers (4th Flotilla)

3 destroyers (G.F.)

36 destroyers (U.S.A.)

4 destroyers (local defence)

13 sloops

12 sloops

8 torpedo boats (local defence)

13 submarines

(Vulcan and Platypus flotillas)

4 torpedo boats


Seaplane carrier.

9 minesweepers



The readjustments which had ended in this distribution of forces were carried out by the following successive steps.


Sixty‑six destroyers had been detached to the three western commands in order to meet the new situation. Of these Great Britain had provided thirty; fifteen were detached from Portsmouth and Dover; nine were released from the Grand Fleet by the delivery of destroyers of a later type; and six were moved up from Gibraltar. The United States provided the remaining thirty-six by their prompt and energetic answer to our appeals for help; and it is this reinforcement which must be looked upon as the final contribution which made the new allocation of forces possible. From the same source we also received valuable co‑operation in the provision of ocean escorts. The United States Navy took care of the majority of the New York convoys, and by the end of August, six American light cruisers were engaged in this service, to which a seventh was added during the following month.


(Albany, Cleveland, Chattanooga, Des Moines, Denver, Tacoma ‑ August. New Orleans ‑ September.)


The main burden of providing ocean escorts continued, however, to fall on Great Britain. It was met by making further detachments from the 10th Cruiser Squadron,


(Arlanza, Armadale Castle, Gloucestershire, Moldavia, Motagua, Kildonan Castle, and Patuca were detached during August and September.)


and by breaking up the 2nd Cruiser Squadron. The three ships of this squadron


(Achilles, Cochrane, Duke Of Edinburgh. Achilles did not join till September.)


were transferred, during August, to the North American Station, and the force at Admiral Grant's disposal was further strengthened by the Cornwall on her completion of refit. Two additional commissioned escort ships were also brought into service.


(Mechanician, Wyncote)


By September 30 the total number of ships definitely allocated to ocean escort duty in the North and South Atlantic was forty‑three; twelve cruisers, nine light cruisers (of which seven were American), fifteen armed merchant cruisers, and seven commissioned escort ships. Fourteen out of seventeen cruising ships now comprised in the North American and West Indies Squadron were absorbed by escort duties, including the three taken over from the 2nd Cruiser Squadron; four ships in the 9th Cruiser Squadron were similarly employed, and of twenty‑two ships nominally comprised in the 10th Cruiser Squadron, eleven had been detached for convoy duties. (See also Appendix A II, (a) and (b).)


For ocean escort to the Gibraltar convoys eight vessels were employed;


(Rule, Acton, Laggan, Marshfort, Puma, Underwing, Tamarisk, and Duke Of Clarence. Dundee had been sunk.)


but towards the end of September, in view of intensified submarine activity to the west of the Straits, it was decided to send out six of these vessels to Gibraltar, for use in the danger zone, their place as ocean escorts being taken by United States vessels of the lighter type.


(The gunboat Sacramento and revenue cutters Seneca, Ossipee, Manning and Yamacraw were originally designated for this service. In addition to these vessels, the light cruisers Birmingham and Chester, the armed yacht Nahma, and the revenue cutters Algonquin and Tampa were eventually used,


This arrangement did not, however, come into force until later.




The First Results of the Convoy System


If the Inter‑Allied Naval Conference had assembled at the end of September instead of at the beginning, the decisions of the delegates would, probably, have been the same, and possibly their discussions would have proceeded on the same lines. They would, however, have met with a rather different outlook upon the future of the war at sea; for the ninth of September was, in some respects, the month in which the flood‑tide of German success seemed for the first time to be slowing down towards a period of slack water, possibly even towards an ebb. The change which came over the war at sea during the three weeks after the Conference was a subtle one, perceptible only to those capable of seeing the general drift of events through the succession of daily occurrences; but a change did take place, and probably none were more conscious of it than the captains of the large U‑boats which operated in the western area. This statement must be justified by a brief retrospect.


Between February and August the Admiralty had reorganised the coastal route in the Channel and strengthened the patrolling forces allotted to it; they had set up submarine


Sept. 1917



patrols in the North Sea and on the west of Ireland; they had laid immense minefields in the Heligoland Bight; they had fitted a large number of destroyers, P‑boats and aeroplanes with acoustic and visual devices and had assembled them as hunting or attacking patrols near the routes which the German submarines were known to be using. These measures taken collectively had lowered the monthly total of sunken merchant ships, but they cannot be said so far to have caused the German submarine commanders to alter their tactics or procedure in any important particular. Anyone who searches the records of their cruises during the months when all these counter‑measures were being tried, or operated, will find, week after week, month after month, nearly the same number of U‑, UB‑ and UC‑boats working in nearly the same areas. The almost monotonous regularity of their proceedings during these critical months is perhaps the strongest existing proof that our counter‑measures were as yet practically ineffective. For a scheme of operations which, though designed in a purely offensive spirit, does not compel the enemy against whom it is directed to take any special precautions, and leaves him free to carry out his original plan without substantial alteration, can only be regarded as a scheme which has not yet succeeded.


In September this state of things comes to an end; for it was in September that the U‑boat commanders changed their tactics for the first time since the campaign began. The change was not a startling one: it was only that they abandoned areas which they had found fruitful for months, and shifted their principal operations eastwards into the Channel and southwards into the Bay of Biscay. But this change of plan is the first visible, salient result of our countermeasures. For the first time since submarine warfare began the U‑boat commanders were confronted with a form of opposition which threw their plan of attack completely out of gear. During September our arrangements for running convoys in the North Atlantic were completed; and the route of the convoys passed straight through the approaches route to Scilly and to Land's End, which had been the principal zone of U‑boat operations for months past. When these convoys began to run regularly it must have appeared to the German submarine captains as though an area which up to then had been crowded with defenceless shipping had been suddenly evacuated. Thinking, probably, that their attack had been momentarily evaded by a great diversion of shipping, they moved to other areas in order to try to discover the new points of traffic concentration. They did not know that, far from being emptied, the zones to the west and south‑west of the Scillies and to the south‑west of the Fastnet were more crowded with traffic than they had been in the days when their devastations were most easily executed, when their daily records were filled up with entries of ships sunk, seamen drowned and boats destroyed. What was to tell them that through the very zone which they were abandoning as no longer fruitful, the indispensable British merchant fleet with all its vital cargoes was passing unobserved and in increasing numbers?


Our total losses for the month were, indeed, lower than they had been since the campaign started. The German Government claimed to have sunk and destroyed 672,000 tons of shipping, whereas they had, in truth, only sunk some 350,000; but the exaggerated figure was in itself an admission that the rate of destruction of the March and April period had not been maintained. The official commentators upon the campaign had, moreover, become quite silent about the approaching end of the war; the assurance that England would be utterly prostrate in a few months was completely dropped; and the Government were now seriously attempting to float a new issue of argument, secured, it is true, on the same assets: the credulous patience of the German public.


Captain von Kuhlwetter was perhaps the most persuasive of the German Government's agents. In a long article in the Kolnische Zeitung he insisted, first, that Great Britain's defence measures had been far less effective than had been expected, and that, in consequence, the destruction of British and neutral tonnage would continue at its present rate. This must, sooner or later, create a crisis; but the crisis could not reasonably be expected before December, as the English harvest would enable the British Government to get over the intervening autumn months. But when the December crisis arrived, what would be its nature? A catastrophe to the Entente? The collapse and ruin of Great Britain? Far from it: these prophecies belonged to the apostolic period of submarine warfare; the later disciples preached a very different creed for the hope and encouragement of the German faithful. In December, Great Britain would be compelled to withdraw some 2 1/2 million tons of shipping from military uses; and as she would be compelled to withdraw another half million by April, it was inconceivable that Great Britain should continue the war after the spring. The immense difference between the prospect now held out to the German people, and the promises made


Sept. 1917



to them when the submarine campaign began, was apparently expected to pass without comment.


The Germans were not, perhaps, in a position to conclude what method, or methods, of war had broken down the hopes which Holtzendorff and his staff had so recklessly raised at the beginning of the year; but the British authorities at all events were well able to take stock of those measures which had most assisted their own nation in the perilous months of the spring and summer. Of these, convoy was by far the most important. It had only just been put, more or less completely, into operation; but by the end of September it was possible to summarise results and make reliable deductions as to the future effect of the system.


Taking together the North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Gibraltar systems, eighty‑three ocean convoys had been brought in by September 30, 1917; and of the 1306 merchant ships which had made up these convoys, 1288 had been brought safely into harbour; eight ships had been sunk whilst out of convoy, and ten while actually under escort.


During the same period fifty‑five outward convoys had been dispersed, comprising 789 ships, of which only two had been sunk. In all, excluding vessels sent back to port, 2095 merchant vessels belonging to 138 convoys had passed through the danger zone, with a loss of twenty. (See Appendix B I (a).)


The effect of the system and of the Scandinavian and French Coal Trade convoys was seen in a reduction of the war losses of British shipping from an average of 438,000 tons a month for April (441,000, including fishing vessels.), May and June, to 330,000 tons in August and 196,000 tons in September. In June, the last month before the introduction of regular ocean convoys, 173 British and foreign steamers of 500 tons gross and upwards were sunk by submarines. In September, the first whole month during which the complete system was in operation, the casualties were reduced to eighty‑seven, or just half the former number.


It may possibly be questioned whether this marked decline should be attributed solely to the introduction of convoy; but there can be little doubt that the convoy system had been mainly responsible for it. The successes gained in our attack upon the German submarines were not in proportion to the decline in the sinkings. In July six submarines had been sunk, in August four, and in September ten. The average monthly destructions for the quarter had thus risen to rather over one and a half submarines a week.


But these losses, though severe, were not beyond the German power of replacement, and could not, even if maintained, appreciably affect the course of the campaign. In July, forty‑seven submarines had operated in the Channel and the Atlantic, in August about forty, and in September fifty-three. The enemy had thus been able to increase their number of operating submarines by something like 8 per cent. during the very month in which their losses were most severe. The rising severity of the counter‑attack against them may have lowered the average rate of sinkings of individual U‑boats, by making them think more seriously of their defence; but it was obviously responsible for only a very small proportion of the sudden drop in the total number of sinkings which took place in September.


The diminution could not, of course, be counted on as permanent, and the fluctuating curve of destruction did, in fact, rise as well as fall during the next few months; but the success of the ocean convoy system cannot be measured by a comparison of bare totals. Areas such as the Mediterranean, in which the submarine attack was particularly deadly and persistent, were, at this period, excluded from its scope. To appreciate the full significance of the system it is necessary to concentrate on those areas where its influence was fully felt.


We must remember that it was, above all, the appalling havoc wrought in the Tory Island, Fastnet and Scilly approaches which had led to the application of convoy to the ocean trades, and through one or other of those areas every ocean convoy had to pass. It is in those areas, therefore, that the effects of convoy can most clearly be disentangled from those of other anti‑submarine measures; it is by its success in reducing the losses in those areas that the efficiency of the system must, primarily, be judged. The figures are profoundly significant.




Outer Atlantic

Fastnet Approach

Scilly Approach

Ushant Approach

St. George's Channel Approach

The Channel

Bay of Biscay





























































































Sept. 1917



To sum up. The chief objections urged against the system before it was tried had one and all proved to be unfounded. Although station keeping had varied, there was now no doubt as to the general ability of mercantile masters to keep station and to zigzag in formation. The fear of "putting too many eggs into one basket " had proved wholly illusory. Although nearly twenty convoys had been attacked, in no instance, even when the attack was successful had such wholesale havoc been wrought as the opponents of convoy had anticipated; generally only one ship was sunk; in no instance had a formed convoy lost more than two vessels. On several occasions the escort, on sighting a submarine, had been able to take the offensive, and to hunt it so continuously that no attack was made. But if the facts were welcome, still more important were the principles which could be plainly deduced from them. Experience had made good the claim that the formation and maneouvring of a large group of ships zigzagging at uniform speed would itself prove a decided deterrent to attack. The only approach to anything that could be called a real disaster was the attack on OB.2, when incompletely formed, and any possible repetition of this had been avoided by the substitution of Lamlash for Buncrana as the port of assembly.


Here then lay the first secret of convoy ‑ its first scientific justification as a system. The second was equally important and perhaps more surprising. Not only had the "basket" shown itself to be a much stronger defence than had been anticipated; it had also proved more difficult for an enemy to find. The advocates of convoy, during the long deliberations that preceded the adoption of the system, had dwelt chiefly on the protection afforded by the escort, and by group manoeuvring; the advantages of the system in evading attack had been less emphasised. Yet convoy had in fact, probably saved more ships by evasion than by any other means. The visibility circle of a dozen or twenty ships in convoy formation was very much smaller than the collective circles of the same number of ships sailing independently, and the actual chance of any given submarine sighting the group was much less than the chance of her sighting one or more of the ships, if they were brought in along various routes and at various times.


Moreover, the convoy was unlikely, at any given moment, to be visible from more than one submarine, or two at the most; whereas a dozen or twenty ships pursuing independent routes might well cover the sphere of operations of several of the U‑boats. To this actual reduction in the number of targets must be added the advantage of being able to divert the course of the whole group, by wireless, from any area known to be at the moment specially dangerous. It was, probably, the difficulty of finding convoys, and the consequent poverty of the outer approaches in which they had previously reaped so rich a harvest, that led the submarines, in August, to turn increased attention to the inshore tracks and the outward‑bound trade; but our reply to this change of tactics was the introduction of outward convoys, and of fifty‑two outward convoys that sailed down to September 30, 1917, only 10 per cent. of the ships had been attacked. (One or two others were attacked after dispersal before the ships had completely separated.)


On the other hand, the offensive value of convoy had yet to be proved. In so far as the system achieved its success by evading contact with the enemy, it withdrew the destroyers and sloops employed as escorts from opportunities of offensive action. Their counter‑offensive, when a convoy was attacked, had again and again been successful in avoiding or minimising loss to the vessels under their charge; but although escorting destroyers claimed on several occasions to have sunk or damaged the enemy, the destruction of no German submarine could yet be definitely traced to the activities of ships engaged in convoy. It may fairly be claimed, however, that by forcing the submarines to operate closer inshore, if they hoped to find their prey, the convoys facilitated the offensive activities of the hunting forces.


The system was not yet as complete as it could be made. The traffic in the Mediterranean and on many cross‑tracks, such as that from North America to the Straits, was still outside its scope; there were still, even in the North Atlantic, a number of fast ships running independently; ships were still open to attack on their way to ports of assembly or after dispersal from a convoy; but the mounting curve of destruction had been definitely checked. The total of losses was still well in advance of the total of replacements; but the acute crisis of the spring and early summer of 1917 was a thing of the past. Never again were the U‑boats to come near achieving a success decisive of the war.









THE autumn of 1917 was a time of transition in the naval war, and at no period do the British operations at sea appear so convulsive and disconnected. Viewed in perspective they seem little but a depressing sequence of minor reverses, of enemy raids that were neither repelled nor intercepted, and of offensive operations that gave no results commensurate with the efforts involved. Examined in detail they appear nothing but a series of incidents in a tedious and disorderly guerilla warfare between patrol craft and submarines. But such impressions give no true account of the character of the war at this period, which was in reality a period not only of endurance but of adaptation and construction. For this to appear plainly, the naval war must be viewed against a wider background and in the light of what is to come; for it is only when operations at sea are related to the general course of the military campaign that they reveal their real coherence.


The hope of a successful general offensive against the Central Empires had receded into the distance when the French, armies were defeated at Craonne in the spring of the year. Nevertheless, the Allied command still held to their determination to exert serious pressure on all enemy fronts, and on the last day of July the British armies began their great assault on the German positions near Ypres; three weeks later the French seconded the British offensive by attacking on the Verdun front. Whilst the French and British armies were hurling themselves against the German positions, a continuous stream of bad news poured in from every other front. The Russian armies, seized with the demoralisation that was affecting the whole country, abandoned a half‑hearted offensive on the South‑Western Front, and retreated in hopeless disorder; the eleventh Italian assault on the Isonzo lines was brought to a standstill. The British offensive was continued, but only as a relief to our hard‑pressed Allies; and in the early autumn a new succession of disasters gave an ugly emphasis to the dangers of the Allied situation.


Late in October the Austro-German armies attacked the Italian armies in the Julian Alps, and hurled them back upon the Piave. Whilst they were in full retreat, the Russian Provisional Government collapsed; and just as the Italians reached their new positions, the new Russian Government signed an armistice with the Central Powers. In the face of such disasters, Admiralty policy could only take one form: to reduce shipping losses to a bearable figure by extending and completing the convoy system; and to prepare for American assistance in the coming year. This policy was pursued with tenacious consistency; the minor reverses and disappointments never caused any set‑back to the growth and development of that complex of measures which were slowly altering the position at sea; and it is only by a curious inversion of the true aspect, that whereas the enormous achievements of this period of the war almost evade description, the minor and unimportant reverses stand out in sharp outlines.


The achievement of the High Naval Command consisted in extending a special system of trade defence to every important mercantile route in the Atlantic, and in correcting the faults of the system whenever and wherever faults appeared. The achievement of the naval forces consisted in bringing hundreds of convoys to their ports, almost without loss, and in making U‑boat operations more difficult than they had ever been. The successive steps in these achievements are administrative decisions, and acts of good seamanship which cannot figure very impressively in history, where only their intended or realised effects can be noted. But the minor reverses of this period, consisting, as they do, of operations that were recorded in the minutest detail, naturally provide ample material for a narrative; and for this reason it is particularly difficult to bring the story of operations at sea in the autumn of 1917 into its true historical focus. An administrative decision which saved thousands of tons of shipping and made a serious contribution to the final victory at sea can take no more than a few lines to set forth: a minor engagement in which a couple of destroyers were lost may demand many pages of description, and attract the more attention by the gallant or pathetic incidents recorded.


This work of adjustment must for the most part be done by the reader: the historian can only give a general reminder of the difference in importance between a minor action at sea


Oct. 1917



and an administrative decision or series of decisions which affected the course of the campaign. If the student of this period of the war will remember this difference as he reads, he will be able to estimate for himself the value of the directing intelligence in war, and realise the importance of operations which though apparently spasmodic and sometimes unsuccessful had none the less their place in the mosaic of a great war plan.




North Sea Operations, October 1917


The month of October opened with a success against the German submarines. Towards the end of September the Admiralty calculated that a considerable number of U‑boats would be returning to Germany during the first ten days in October, and they issued orders for a large intercepting operation. The plan was based upon the experience gained in July, when large detachments of submarines and destroyers had been spread along the German submarine route between the Shetlands and the Hebrides; but this time a more restricted portion of the German submarine route was selected, and the operation, instead of being entrusted entirely to submarines and destroyers, was carried out by a much larger combination of patrol craft. It was known that, after entering the North Sea, German submarines were accustomed to steer south between the meridians of 0 degrees 30' and 3 degrees E. and pass between the two large minefields on the eastern side of the Dogger ank and the Outer Silver Pit. The routes that they ordinarlily followed thus ran down a zone 315 miles long and shaped like a truncated funnel, some eighty‑five miles wide at its northern end, and forty‑five at its southern extremity. The Admiralty plan was to watch and patrol the entire zone for ten days, and to set a submarine trap of mine nets in the narrowest part of the funnel. (See Map 6.)


The forces required for this large operation were necessarily very numerous. At the northern end of the zone which was to be kept under observation, four submarines, drawn from the 10th and 11th Flotillas, were to be continuously patrolling; the next section, which lay between the latitudes of the Moray Firth and the Firth of Forth, was allotted to two leaders and fourteen destroyers of the 13th Flotilla and the yacht Shemara. The mine nets were to be laid at the northern end of the next section, which lay between the latitudes of the Firth of Forth and Flamborough Head. The line of nets, or the trap into which the U‑boats were to be driven, was to be watched and patrolled by four destroyers of the 13th Flotilla and by sixteen trawlers. Captain P. H. Warleigh, who was ordered to take charge of the mine nets and the patrols round them, was given the yacht goissa. The southern end of the funnel where the submarine tracks rounded the Dogger Bank minefield was allotted to Commodore Tyrwhitt. In their orders the Commander‑in‑Chief and the Admiral Commanding the Battle Cruiser Force allotted to the operation twenty‑four trawlers, forty‑two net drifters, twenty‑one destroyers, one flotilla leader and four submarines (Including the three Harwich destroyers allotted to the southern area.), but to keep the operating destroyers at their assigned strength the Commander‑in‑Chief was compelled to detach a total force which fluctuated between fifteen destroyers and leaders (September 27) and twenty‑nine (October 7), whilst eighteen Harwich destroyers were at one time or another engaged.


In order to give all German submarines passing along the funnel the impression that they were being watched and followed, and so compel them to submerge when they approached the nets, the patrolling forces on the two northern sections of the zone reached their stations before the nets were actually laid. On September 27 submarines G.3, G.4, G.7 and G.11 took up their stations at the northern end of the zone, and the Seymour and ten destroyers started the patrol in the section which lay opposite the Firth of Moray and the Firth of Forth. It was not until October 1, however, that the operation really began.


At six o'clock on that morning Captain Warleigh in the Goissa, with the trawlers from Granton, was in the position where the nets were to be laid. He was met by eight Scapa destroyers which had been patrolling the net zone since the previous evening in order to drive away any submarines that might be about; and by the Valentine and five destroyers, which had been sent south to the Humber to convoy the drifter fleet. The weather was thick, hazy and unsettled, and it was not easy to check the position of the nets. None the less, during the morning they were laid in an irregular line some twenty‑two miles long: the western end of the line was near the position assigned to it in the original operation orders, but the eastern extremity was too far north ‑ the whole line ran roughly in an east‑north‑easterly direction instead of due east and west. As soon as he knew that the nets had been laid, Captain Warleigh directed his forces to take up their patrol stations.


Oct. 1917



The narrative of the operation for the next ten days is little but a recital of the administrative orders issued from Scapa and Rosyth in order to ensure that the destroyers and trawlers on patrol were relieved at regular intervals. Throughout the weather was persistently adverse: three times the destroyers in the central section were driven into harbour, and twice they stopped patrolling and turned their bows into the mountainous seas. On the net section the drifters held their stations, and the trawler skippers, lashed and buffeted by sea, rain and wind, listened through their hydrophones for any sounds that might come up from the motionless depths below the turmoil of waves and spray.


The submarines in the northern section, and the destroyers to the north and south of the nets, did not see any signs of an enemy from first to last; nor indeed did the trawlers on the nets, but from time to time they heard mysterious sounds which they duly reported. The first of these sounds occurred almost as soon as the operation began. Whilst the nets were being laid, the trawlers reported nine submerged explosions; they were taken to be the sounds from premature detonations of mines that had fouled the nets: during the evening, however, the drifters heard several more explosions, and the look‑out men in the destroyer Valentine sighted two green rockets near the western end of the drifter line. None of the vessels on patrol had made signals of the kind or had put up any flares. Two more explosions were heard on the following day; but it was on October 3 that the indications in the hydrophones were most distinct and significant.


At half-past ten in the morning the watch‑keepers on the hydrophone in the trawler William Tennant, which was stationed at the western end of the net line, heard sounds of a submarine moving through the water beneath her. The sounds were followed by a loud explosion, which again was followed by complete silence; the trawlers Oyama and Chieftain were near, and their hydrophone listeners heard the same succession of sounds and noticed the same following silence. Later in the afternoon the trawler Swallow, which was also near the western end of the nets, heard the sound of a submarine's electric motors so distinctly that the listeners thought the U‑boat was directly underneath them. The captain dropped a depth charge; it exploded and again there was complete silence. The weather was at the time wild and boisterous, and the trawlers were being swept with spray and rain squalls; so that the sounds picked up by the Swallow's hydrophone were significant. In such weather the noise of the churning waters round the ship generally drowned all other sounds: when the submarine's motors were so distinctly heard she must therefore have been very near, which meant that she was also very near the nets. Probably, however, this submarine got away, for during the evening our directional wireless stations located a submarine on the northern side of the nets and steering a northerly course.


For the next six days the British destroyers and patrols kept their stations and detected nothing. The bad weather continued almost without interruption. On October 4 the Ithuriel and her destroyers were driven away from the central section of the patrolled zone and took refuge for a few hours in Aberdeen and Peterhead: at 2.0 a.m. on the 5th they had returned to the patrol stations, but by ten o'clock that night the gale was again blowing with such fury that the senior officer was compelled to order the destroyers to stop patrolling, to keep their heads towards the seas and to punch into the teeth of the gale towards the Orkneys. On the nets, the captains of the trawlers and destroyers kept their ships' head to wind all that day. No detail of the original orders for chasing submarines and making them submerge could any longer be put into execution. On the 6th the destroyers on the net line were relieved; but the weather, though it had slightly abated, was still so wild that Captain Warleigh's letters had to be floated over to him in a sealed cylinder. Nothing could be done with the hydrophones, which were not even put over the side.


On the day following (October 7) the destroyers in the central section were relieved, and the Champion arrived in the zone of nets with orders that Captain Warleigh should return to Rosyth, and leave the senior officer of the destroyers to take charge. On the next day the weather improved; but it was not until the 9th that the watch‑keepers on the hydrophones could again set to work.


The first indications came from the central section of the zone. At a quarter‑past eight, the Tancred was attacked by a submarine whilst patrolling in a position some ninety miles to the north of the net‑line. The news was passed on to the senior officer on the nets; but before the submarine was due on the line, another was sighted and attacked by the trawler Sir John French, and a few minutes later by the Swallow, at the south‑western end of the net line. Just before 9.0 p.m. the listeners in the trawler Swallow heard a submarine's engines most distinctly, and dropped a depth charge on her. This practically ended the operation. The nets and mines were now so damaged by the continuous bad weather that the original trap was no longer a danger to the U‑boats, and


Oct. 1917



on October 10 the Admiralty gave orders that the forces which had been assembled should disperse to their bases: on the 13th they received a report from Commander Cayley, the senior officer of the trawlers and drifters, that the old net line was little but a mass of wreckage, and that it would be highly dangerous to weigh it. None the less the nets and the trawlers had done good service. Nearly a month afterwards the Director of Naval Intelligence reported that three submarines had been destroyed "in the vicinity" of the mine trap. The German lists of losses published later confirmed the British estimate; so far as we can tell, U.50 commanded by Lieut.‑Commander Gerhardt Berger, U.66 commanded by Gerhardt Muhle, and U.106 commanded by Hans Hufnagel perished during three of the long silences which followed when the sounds of rumbling engines had ceased to be heard in the trawlers' hydrophones.


( U.50 c31/8/17, mined off Terschelling; U.66 c 3/9/17, possibly mined, Dogger Bank area; U.106 7/10/17, mined north of Terschelling.


Other U-boat losses 1-10 October 1917: 3rd – UC.14 British minefield off entrance to Zeebrugge; c4th - UC.16 presumed mined off Zeebrugge; 7th – UB.41 mined N of Scarborough)




The Scandinavian Convoy, and the Convoy System, October 1917

(See Map 8.)


The effect of these operations was at once evident in the altered movements of the German submarines. A few days after the operation was over, the Admiralty became aware that the large U‑boats had changed their routes, and were using the Kattegat for their outgoing and returning voyages. This change was perhaps not solely due to the destruction of three submarines in the North Sea. According to the most reliable reports transmitted to Whitehall, the mine barrage across the Heligoland Bight was at least causing the enemy inconvenience and anxiety. These spoke of sweeping operations carried on in the Bight without pause or intermission, and of battleships sent out in support of the sweeping forces.


Whilst the recent operations in the North Sea were taking place, Admiral Jellicoe had been considering a plan for carrying our mining operations right up to the German coasts and the German rivers, during the absence of their principal Dreadnought Squadrons in the Baltic, and had recently sent it to the Commander‑in‑Chief for comment. Admiral Beatty suggested some alterations on points of detail; but approved of the plan in principle, and, in the meantime, detailed a force of four light cruisers, twelve destroyers and a leader to attack the German minesweepers in the Bight, as a preliminary to the more serious operation which the First Sea Lord had in mind. Almost as soon as Admiral Beatty had completed his preparations, he received orders to hold everything over, and to raise steam in all his light cruisers and in twelve destroyers, as news had just come in which entirely altered the existing position. His new instructions were to intercept a force which was believed to be on the move. As the enemy's intentions were quite unknown Admiral Beatty was virtually ordered to place the whole North Sea under observation.


The forces he set in motion were very numerous, and his dispositions embracing. The 6th Light Cruiser Squadron (Rosyth) with six destroyers was ordered to make Bovbierg Light by 6.0 a.m. on the 16th, and to patrol a line which ran south‑westward from the Danish coast, across the outer end of the Horns Reef entrance channel. The 4th Light Cruiser Squadron (Scapa) with five destroyers was ordered to be off Jaederens point at 4.0 a.m. on the 16th, and to watch a line between there and Hanstholm; the 3rd (Scapa), 1st (Rosyth) and 2nd (Rosyth) Light Cruiser Squadrons, each with five or six destroyers, were ordered to be on patrol lines in the central part of the North Sea by noon on the 16th. After receiving a further telegram from the Admiralty, telling him that Zeppelins would probably be out on reconnaissance during the 16th, Admiral Beatty ordered the Furious ‑ a specially designed cruiser with a complement of aeroplanes to sweep along the 56th parallel as far as longitude 4 degrees E., and to return after dark.



Plan - Intercepting Dispositions Ordered by Commander-in-Chief, October 15, 1917


The squadrons from Scapa occupied their stations at the times appointed by the Commander‑in‑Chief; but the concentration of the Rosyth forces did not go so smoothly. The Commander‑in‑Chief's orders cancelled others which he had issued earlier in the afternoon; and the Rosyth squadrons were preparing for sea ‑ some vessels were actually under way ‑when the Commander‑in‑Chief's final dispositions were received. Not all the forces concerned were informed of the change; and in consequence the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron took up their patrol line on the 16th without any destroyer escort. The 6th Light Cruiser Squadron reached Bovbierg Light on the evening of the 16th short of the Caradoc, which had lost touch during the night, and with only the Telemachus and Umpire in company.


(By the original orders the Valentine and twelve destroyers were ordered to accompany the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron to sea. A subsequent order detaching the Valentine and four destroyers to the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron was received in such a mutilated condition that it could not be acted upon. The actual movements of the destroyers which put to sea with the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron were: Valentine, kept touch with Caradoc during the night and returned to base on the 17th, with the Paladin in company. Vimiera, Nerissa, Pylades and Osiris, out of touch with the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron during the 16th, got touch with Cardiff on the 17th and returned to base on the night of the 17th. Telemachus and Umpire kept company with the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron throughout the operation. The 1st Light Cruiser Squadron had no escort until 6.0 a.m. on the 17th, when it was joined by the Gabriel, Petard, Norseman and Urchin.)


Oct. 1917



The Furious, accompanied by the destroyers Onslow, Oriana, Penn and Tower, sailed at 5.0 a.m. on the 16th and carried out her orders without mishap. The 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron reached its station with the destroyers in company.


By good fortune these miscarriages had no ill consequences, for, during the 16th, no further enemy movement through the directional wireless was detected, and our squadrons kept their patrol lines under observation without further incident. It was probably because the enemy gave no sign, and because every hour that went by uneventfully, weakened the assumption upon which our dispositions had been based, that the Commander‑in‑Chief decided to reinforce our squadrons during the day. First he ordered the cruisers Courageous and Glorious, and four destroyers of the 13th Flotilla to reinforce the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron (5.0 p.m. October 16); at the same time he ordered the Furious to remain at sea and to concentrate on the same squadron. Late in the evening of the same day the Admiralty decided to station more forces on the line of approach to the Tyne and Humber, and ordered Commodore Tyrwhitt to distribute his available forces ‑ seven light cruisers, three leaders and twelve destroyers ‑ along three patrol lines which cut the parallel of 56 degrees 15' in a north‑easterly and south‑westerly direction. When these new orders were carried out, three cruisers, twenty-seven light cruisers and fifty‑four destroyers were at sea engaged in searching for a force which so far as we could tell consisted of only one minelayer and a handful of destroyers - so great is the power of distraction which an enemy possesses if he can conceal his intentions and disguise his movements.


1st L.C.S. (Rosyth).

2nd L.C.S. (Rosyth).

3rd L.C.S. (Scapa).

4th L.C.S. (Scapa).














15th Flotilla:





12th Flotilla:

14th Flotilla:

13th Flotilla:










14th Flotilla:



















6th L.C.S. (Rosyth).

1st C.S. (Rosyth).

1st C.S. (Rosyth).











13th Flotilla:

13th Flotilla










13th Flotilla:


























































10th Flotilla:

10th Flotilla


10th Flotilla:













11th Flotilla:








14th Flotilla:









The Admiralty had, in fact, guessed rightly that something serious was impending, but they were deceived as to its real nature. It seemed to them improbable that the enemy would carry out his operation very far to the north, and so the Scandinavian convoy was not held in harbour. Eight Grand Fleet destroyers were at the time doing escort duty between the Shetlands and Norway:


(Marmion, Sarpedon, Mary Rose, Obedient, Strongbow, Tirade, Marvel, Morning Star ‑ Brilliant Depot Ship ‑ Leander (Senior Officer's ship).)


They were based on Lerwick, and on the 16th the Mary Rose and Strongbow were on duty. In company with two armed trawlers, the Elise and the P. Fannon, they had left Lerwick with the eastbound convoy on the 15th. Just before noon on the following day the two destroyers parted company, the Mary Rose went ahead to collect the west‑bound convoy in the Bergen leads near Marsten, and her commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commander C. L. Fox, ordered the Strongbow to take in the east‑bound ships, disperse them, and rejoin him at sea.


Lieutenant‑Commander Fox left Marsten during the afternoon of October 16. He had twelve ships in company, which were grouped in no very regular formation under the charge


Oct. 1917



of an officer called the convoy pilot. During the afternoon the Mary Rose seems to have got ahead of the convoy, and when the Strongbow joined after dark, neither commanding officer could get into touch with the other. Lieutenant-Commander Edward Brooke of the Strongbow called up his colleague several times during the night but got no answer; he therefore took station somewhere on the port quarter of the convoy, which was spread to the north and north‑west of him. The night passed without incident, and, at six o'clock on the morning of the 17th, about half an hour after dawn, the Mary Rose was some six or eight miles ahead of the convoy; and the Strongbow was still in company. The wind was blowing fresh from the south‑west, and there was a heavy swell, the moon was only a day old, and did not rise until after daybreak; but the air was clear and the lookout men could see a fair distance. Neither of the commanding officers knew that our cruiser and light cruiser forces were out, and that the general alarm had been sounded over the North Sea two days before. The convoy was, at the time (6.0 a.m. October 17), about seventy miles east of Lerwick.


A few minutes after six, the look‑outs in the Strongbow reported two strange vessels to port, on a converging course. They were challenged three times and made no satisfactory answer. The officer of the watch at once realised that he was in the presence of an enemy force, and sent below to call the captain, Lieutenant‑Commander Brooke. The minelaying expedition about which we had been endeavouring to get information for two days had thus proved a highly deceptive quarry. The uncertain indications of movement which the Admiralty had detected on the 15th had their origin in the impending departure of two minelaying cruisers, Brummer and Bremse, which had left the rivers late in the afternoon, and had steamed rapidly north, giving no signs of their presence. They had been chosen for an attack against the Scandinavian convoy on account of their speed and capacity to keep the sea; and these were the new‑comers that the Strongbow sighted. (The German cruisers were of 3800 tons displacement; speed 34 knots; armament four 5.9", two 22‑pounder anti‑aircraft.)


When the third challenge was answered by a signal which bore no resemblance to the proper reply, Lieutenant‑Commander Brooke sounded the alarm gongs and went to action; but before the men could reach their stations and clear away the guns and torpedo tubes, the Strongbow was helpless and her decks covered with dead.


The first salvoes from the enemy had severed the main steam‑pipe and left her without power of manoeuvre; many of the hands below were scalded to death, those on deck were struck down by a murderous and well‑directed fire. Lieutenant‑Commander Brooke was hit in the leg by a shell splinter; but he bore the terrible pain of his wound with wonderful fortitude. He would not allow anybody to attempt to leave the ship until he was absolutely certain that every confidential book and paper had been destroyed, and that the enemy would get possession of nothing useful from his doomed vessel. When satisfied that his orders had been carried out in every particular he commanded that the ship should be sunk and that those who were still alive should save themselves. He never imagined that he would be amongst them, but those of the crew who were still living determined to save their captain, or at least to take him away so that if he died he might die amongst them. They carried him from the bridge to a Carley raft, and placed him on it, where he lay for a long time in great agony from his wounds, with the icy water breaking over him. The Strongbow was abandoned at about half‑past seven, after the Germans had made three separate attacks upon her.


Meanwhile Lieutenant‑Commander Fox in the Mary Rose had seen and heard firing astern, and turned back. He had time to put his men to action stations; but his destroyer was in no state to begin a fight against desperate odds. Under the existing organisation it was almost impossible to fight the guns and the torpedo tubes simultaneously; and in addition, the gunners of the Mary Rose were about to engage under a hopeless handicap, as the range and deflection transmitters were not working. When he turned back, LieutenantCommander Fox had no idea that the convoy was being attacked by anything but a submarine. A few moments later he sighted the German cruisers and grasped the real position. Without a moment's hesitation he approached the enemy at high speed, and at about twenty minutes past six the gunners opened fire at a distance which was estimated at between 6000 and 7000 yards. The survivors stated that when the fight began the Mary Rose was confronted by three light cruisers, but that one or more of them was engaged in destroying the convoy. For a few moments it seemed as though Lieutenant‑Commander Fox would draw the Germans away from the convoy: he rapidly closed the nearest German cruiser, whose shooting was extremely wild; and it was some time before the Mary Rose was hit. When at a distance of about 2000 yards from the enemy Lieutenant‑Commander Fox


Oct. 1917



put the helm hard over, and the German gunners got the range as the Mary Rose was on the turn. After that the end came quickly. At about seven o'clock, after the Mary Rose had endured terrible punishment, Lieutenant‑Commander Fox gave the order to abandon ship, and told every man to look after himself. Sub‑Lieutenant Freeman and a handful of men managed to get away on a Carley raft, from which they were subsequently picked up by a lifeboat full of survivors from the convoy. Lieutenant‑Commander Fox was last seen swimming in the icy water just before the Mary Rose went down. Most of the convoy shared the fate of the escort. The captain of the armed trawler Elise contrived to keep his ship out of the fire from the German cruisers, and returned to the scene of the disaster as soon as he could, where he picked up a number of survivors, amongst them Lieutenant‑Commander Brooke and the party from the Strongbow.


Sub‑Lieutenant Freeman and the men from the Mary Rose reached the Norwegian coast near Bergen, where the lighthouse keepers took them in and fed them and attended to their injuries. The other trawler ‑ the P. Fannon ‑ and three British steamers also got away, but the remainder of the convoy, nine ships in all, perished. Throughout the attack the Germans displayed a severity which is hard to distinguish from downright cruelty. They gave the neutral masters and crews no chance to lower their boats and get away, but poured their broadsides into them without warning, as though they had been armed enemies. By the strict and literal law of nations it might be said that a neutral who has placed himself under the armed protection of a belligerent has already resisted search and capture, and is thus entitled to nothing but gunfire; by the unwritten law of the sea he should at least be given the best chance of life that can be offered him. In the case of the destroyers the enemy's conduct was even worse; for to their everlasting discredit fire was opened and maintained upon the Strongbow's survivors. (The Court of Inquiry into the loss of the Strongbow went into this question most carefully, and decided, after full investigation, that there could be no doubt the Germans had deliberately fired on the Strongbow's Carley raft and motor boat.)


Neither of the commanding officers in the destroyers had been able to send off any signal about the attack on the convoy, and during the forenoon of the 17th the Admiralty could get no further indications of the movement which they had detected two days before. Such reports as they had been able to obtain from our patrols off the swept channels made them almost doubt whether the minelayer and her escort had left harbour at all; and at last they began to suspect that a regular cruiser attack against the northern convoy might be intended. They therefore ordered the "Lerwick" convoy to be held in harbour; the Commanderin‑Chief at once asked that he might be given a reason for the order, and inquired also if it applied to all convoys whether east or west‑bound. Whilst he was waiting for an answer the real facts of the case were brought to his notice. Just before half‑past three in the afternoon the destroyers Marmion and Obedient, which had left Lerwick with an east‑bound convoy, fell in with the armed trawler Elise ‑ coming away from the scene of the morning's disaster with a few survivors.


In a few moments Lieutenant H. J. N. Lyon, the commanding officer of the Marmion, was informed that the convoy had been attacked in the early morning. He at once sent on the news to the commodore of the flotillas, by whom the message was passed to the Commander‑in‑Chief; it reached him some time between four and five o'clock in the afternoon. The German cruisers had thus got a good eight hours' start, but there was still some hope that they might be brought to action. Assuming that they had started back at about eight o'clock in the morning, and that they steamed for home at twenty knots, they would be off the mouth of the Horn Reefs channel at 2.0 a.m. on the 18th. If they made the return journey at a slower speed ‑ and it was possible they would ‑ our cruisers might be able to pick them up with the first hours of daylight.


The first and most pressing need was to alter the existing dispositions. It will be seen at a glance that the patrol lines, which the Commander‑in‑Chief had ordered the light cruisers to occupy on the 15th, left an open, unwatched space between the area watched by the 4th and 6th Light Cruiser Squadrons and the areas patrolled by the 3rd, 1st and 2nd. It was through this gap that the enemy had passed on his outward journey, and the Commander‑in‑Chief's first thought was to close it as soon as he could: he therefore ordered the 4th Light Cruiser Squadron to patrol a line which ran south for twenty miles from Ryvingen Light; and directed the 3rd, 1st and 2nd Light Cruiser Squadrons, and the heavy cruisers Courageous and Glorious to occupy a line which ran to the south‑westward from near Hanstholm right across the track of the returning Germans. For the time being he gave no orders to the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron, which, by its original orders, was well placed for cutting off the returning German cruisers. These new orders were issued at a quarterpast six in the evening of the 17th, and the forces to whom


Oct. 1917



they were sent were directed to be on their new stations by 5.30 a.m. on the following morning. Later in the evening he sent orders to the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron to prolong the new patrol line at its north‑eastern end if they were to the north of latitude 56 degrees 30' when they received the message, or, if they were not, to extend the line from its opposite or south‑western end.


These orders reached our light cruiser and cruiser forces at various hours during the night; but before they could be carried out the Germans had run past the cordon. At five o'clock in the morning of the 18th they were located at Lyngvig, and our squadrons were almost immediately ordered to return to their bases.


When the Admiralty received the original proposals for putting the Scandinavian trade under escort, they had asked the officers in command of the patrol areas on the east coast to give their opinions upon the plan. All had favoured the plan itself, but several officers remarked that the enemy would soon learn about the convoy from their consuls and from neutral captains, and would make every effort to attack and disturb it. One of the officers to whom the proposals had been sent had added that sooner or later provision would have to be made for resisting strong attacks on the convoy by surface vessels.


The system had worked so successfully and had been so little interfered with that everybody concerned had been lulled into a false security. The instructions issued to the destroyers contained no word of the action to be taken in the event of an attack by surface ships, and the destroyer captains had never discussed the question amongst themselves. Little can be done if two destroyers and a number of unarmed merchantmen are attacked by two powerful cruisers; and still less is likely to be done if the contingency has never been considered or discussed.


The incident proved, moreover, that, if the Germans decided to raid the Scandinavian route with surface ships, it would be very difficult to stop them. Theoretically the German cruisers could hardly have been in a worse position than they were on the morning of October 17 when they started on their run of 500 miles through a sea patrolled by over eighty British vessels of all classes. If, under such apparent disadvantages, the German cruisers were able to strike their blow unhindered and return undamaged, it was not likely that any measures of general precaution on our side would either stop a raid or render it innocuous.


In spite of its brilliantly successful execution, the raid must have been somewhat disappointing to the German Staff. The operation was obviously intended to act as a general deterrent to Scandinavian masters; yet in spite of the rapidity and ferocity with which it was carried out, it failed to deter them. In fact, it hardly caused a disturbance in the timetable of Scandinavian trade.


On October 19, after the news of the disaster had been received in neutral countries, the usual west‑bound convoy sailed from Norway, and the east‑bound convoy started from Lerwick only a day late. After that the convoys ran daily in each direction with the regularity of cross‑channel steamers in times of peace.


On the day after the raid the Admiralty warned the Commander‑in‑Chief that the attack would probably be repeated, and asked him to consider how the Scandinavian convoy could be more closely protected. The Commander-in‑Chief answered that it was quite beyond his power to keep a light cruiser squadron constantly at sea to the south of the convoy route, and that this would be the only means of absolutely securing the Scandinavian trade against a repetition of these dangerous attacks. The most that he would be able to do, with the means at his disposal, would be to station two submarines permanently off Bovbierg, where they would watch the channel from which raiders would most probably enter the North Sea; and to send out a light cruiser squadron to patrol to the south of the Lerwick‑Bergen route as often as he could.


These dispositions would give no extra protection to the coastal route between Immingham and Lerwick, by which the convoys reached their port of assembly; nor did the Commander‑in‑Chief consider that it could be more closely guarded unless a cruiser squadron were kept on patrol between the Humber and the Farne Islands: north of the Farne Islands he considered that the coastal route would be secure, since the enemy would hardly raid the approaches to Rosyth with a detached force of light cruisers. As he would have the utmost difficulty in providing light cruisers for the occasional patrol of the northern route, it would be almost impossible to maintain light cruiser forces off the coastal route between the Humber and the Farne Islands. The Admiralty agreed with the Commander‑in‑Chief's proposals; but suggested that the Scandinavian convoy would be less vulnerable if it sailed less frequently. The Admiral Commanding the Orkneys and Shetlands, who was responsible for the organisation of the convoy, reported that he could make arrangements for sending out the convoy every three


Oct. 1917



days if the principal escort force could start from the Tyne instead of from Immingham; and if an additional force of eight trawlers were supplied for escort duties between the Tyne and the Humber. As the convoys would necessarily be larger under the new system, he would also require a force of nine "M" class destroyers to escort the merchantmen between Lerwick and Norway. To this the Admiralty also agreed.


The Commander‑in‑Chief did not think that the precautions taken should be purely strategical, and he issued a revised set of orders to the destroyer escorts of the Scandinavian convoy. These orders were evidently designed to prevent a repetition of the loss of life which had occurred when the commanding officers of the Mary Rose and Strongbow had flung their ships against an enemy of overwhelming strength. The captains of the escorting destroyers were reminded that the tactics to be employed if the convoy were attacked by submarines were not suitable for meeting an attack by surface ships. In this second case the destroyers could only report that the enemy were present, disperse the convoy, and harass and distract the attacking force whilst the convoy was scattering. "The destroyers themselves," ran the order, "while using their utmost endeavours to damage the enemy, are not to engage superior forces. They are to use their speed to maintain a safe distance from the enemy; they cannot protect the convoy after it has scattered and are not to be risked uselessly."


As the enemy had at their disposal a number of light cruisers which could penetrate well into the Atlantic, the Admiralty had also to consider the question of protecting ocean convoys against attacks by surface craft. They decided that the necessary reinforcements should be drawn from the four or five escort cruisers which were generally waiting for convoys in Liverpool, Glasgow and Plymouth.


All these vessels were henceforward kept at twenty‑four hours' notice; and in addition steps were taken to inform the Commander‑in‑Chief, daily, of the position and destination of every convoy to the east of longitude 25 degrees W.; this meridian was assumed to limit the area within which a raiding cruiser could strike at our convoys.


These precautions for protecting the convoy system against disturbance by raiding cruisers were the more necessary because the system itself was now in working order. Every sixteen days, eighteen convoys bound for Great Britain were met by the destroyer escorts of an equal number of outward‑bound convoys. Between four and five hundred ships a month were being escorted inwards and outwards.


Homeward Convoys.

Escort arrangement


Outward Convoys








1 HH

Hampton Roads

East Coast

8 knots

met by escort of

1 OQ (1)


10 knots

1 HH





1 OB

Lamlash (2)


1 HS





1 OQ (1)



1 HS





1 OB

Lamlash (2)


2 HN

New York


9 1/2


2 OD



2 HN



9 1/2


2 OB

Lamlash (2)


2 HX



12 1/2

met by escort from




2 HD


East & West


met by escort of

2 OQ (1)



2 HL

Sierra Leone

East & West



2 OD



2 HG





2 OF



2 HG





2 OM (3)




(1) Escort of U.S. destroyers relieved by Devonport in 5 degrees W.

(2) Escort furnished by Buncrana.

(3) Escort returned to base without meeting a homeward convoy.


Thus far the system protected only the Atlantic trade; but it had for long been intended to place some sections of the Mediterranean traffic under armed escort. The project had been under consideration for many months; and when he left England for the Mediterranean in August, Admiral Calthorpe took with him the nucleus of a shipping intelligence section to make that analysis of traffic movements which is the necessary preliminary to the institution of any system of convoy. The growing shortage in Italian coal supplies and the universal demand for economy in shipping now made the question urgent and pressing. Ships from the Far East had been diverted to the Cape Route since 1916, and the Italians were demanding coal deliveries at the rate of 800,000 tons a month.


The Ministry of Shipping calculated that, if the ships engaged in the Far Eastern trade could again use the shorter Mediterranean route, some forty vessels would be released for the North Atlantic. More than that, the Egyptian coal supplies could be carried in ships outward bound to India and the East, and the slower colliers, hitherto used in the Egyptian coal trade, released for service in the Italian. But the economies which the plan would effect were all contingent upon the question of protection. If, by returning to the Mediterranean route, Far Eastern traffic merely exposed itself to a double danger, the economies would soon be expended in losses. The statistics of the convoy system proved that about ninety‑eight per cent. of the vessels grouped in convoy and given armed escort would reach their destination. To convoy the Far Eastern traffic through the Mediterranean was, therefore, the only practicable method of making the Ministry of Shipping's economies a permanent gain in carrying power. But the senior naval officers in the Mediterranean


Oct. 1917



to whom inquiries were sent, all answered that the necessary escort craft could not be provided, and it was only when American reinforcements had begun to assemble at Gibraltar that a workable plan could be devised.


Light Cruiser


arrived at Gibraltar during August.













Revenue Cutter



Light Cruiser



Revenue Cutter


arrived at Gibraltar during September.









arrived at Gibraltar 3rd October.


These through‑Mediterranean convoys were collected in home ports, and sent through the danger area in the ordinary way; off CaPe Spartel they were met by the escort of one of the outward Gibraltar convoys. These ships took their convoy through the Mediterranean as far as the Malta channel, when they were relieved by other escort forces which took it on to Port Said. The ocean escort vessel ‑ generally a Q‑ship ‑ remained with the merchantmen throughout the voyage, and these through‑Mediterranean convoys were regarded as part of the convoy organisation controlled and directed from Whitehall. They were kept quite distinct from the local Mediterranean convoys which the Commander-in‑Chief and his staff were endeavouring to institute. The first through convoy started from England on October 8.


Almost simultaneously the Gibraltar convoys were reorganised. The homeward bound convoys had always remained together throughout the voyage; but those outward bound from Falmouth and Milford had hitherto been dispersed after passing through the danger zone in home waters. This left ships without escort in the approaches to Gibraltar, and several vessels that had been taken successfully through the danger zone in the western approaches to the Channel had been sunk after dispersal.


Ships sunk after dispersal:




Sept. 6

Clan Ferguson









Polar Prince

ex-OM 8

Oct. 1










It was accordingly decided that these outward convoys should be kept together until their arrival at Gibraltar, and that ships bound to Atlantic ports were to be detached as necessary. The convoys were to be met, by a Gibraltar escort, on the outer edge of the southern danger zone, and their ocean escort was to remain with them.


The losses in the first batch of through‑Mediterranean convoys were exceptionally severe, sufficient indeed to raise the question whether the system should be persevered with. These losses were, moreover, accompanied by others of a very unexpected and serious nature. On October 2 the cruiser Drake, which was now one of the ships of the ocean escort force, was torpedoed by an unseen submarine after dispersing her convoy (HH.24) off the North coast of Ireland. Captain Radcliffe, finding that his ship could still steam, decided to make for Rathlin Island, and called up the destroyer escort from which he had just parted. Another division of the 2nd Flotilla also took in his signal, and in little more than an hour eight destroyers, with four sloops following them, had closed the Drake, formed an anti‑submarine screen and were entering Rathlin Sound. While thus employed the Brisk struck a mine and had to be towed into Lough Foyle by two trawlers. The Drake was anchored in Church Bay by noon, but as she began to heel over rapidly it was decided to abandon her, and her crew were taken off by the Martin and Delphinium. The Martial and Lizard had been detached to divert traffic, and the destroyers Medina and Moresby were despatched from Glasgow to relieve the Portia's division. Later the Marne arrived from Buncrana and took over the escort. But during the afternoon the Drake capsized at anchor, and the Glasgow contingent was recalled.


A court‑martial decided that Captain Radeliffe was justified in proceeding alone, in view of his orders; but the Court apparently considered that an escort for the Drake should have been provided. In the event which happened there would no doubt have been good economy; but the strain on the destroyers escorting the Atlantic convoys was at this moment extremely severe. When the Drake was sunk the whole of the Buncrana force ‑ twenty destroyers and ten sloops ‑ were thus employed, protecting three outward and four homeward convoys, while seven destroyers and three sloops were under repair. But an organisation so efficient that it could bring twelve ships to the rescue of a torpedoed ship within an hour and a half was evidently not yet at breaking point; and the Admiralty immediately ordered two destroyers from Buncrana and two from Queenstown to escort the cruisers Cornwall and Antrim when those ships dispersed their homeward convoys on the following day.


Oct. 1917



In the next HH (25) convoy the ocean escort Bostonian was sunk. Her commander, Rear‑Admiral Nelson‑Ward, had during the afternoon of October 10 been reforming his convoy to take in five new vessels. At 5.22 p.m. the Bostonian, which had been steaming across the front of the convoy to take up her position in the new formation, was struck by two torpedoes, apparently fired at close range from a position inside the destroyer screen. Her boats were lowered and manned in perfect order, but the ship sank so rapidly by the stern that she swamped the foremost starboard boat, in which was Admiral Nelson‑Ward himself. As he came to the surface he saw the Bostonian's bows standing up vertically out of the water, and at 5.28 p.m., six minutes only from the first hit, she disappeared. Four of her crew, working in the stokehold, went down with her: the other 105 were picked up by the destroyer Cockatrice ‑ a very skilful operation screened by Commander Reinold in the Hind, while he sent his remaining destroyers to collect and reform the convoy.


The loss of the Orama, armed merchant cruiser (Commander W. R. C. Moorsom), on October 19, was the third casualty among the ocean escorts during that month. She was escorting HD.17, a convoy of seventeen vessels formed in six columns and very strongly screened by eight United States destroyers and a sloop, with an extended escort of a sloop and two destroyers at distances ahead ranging from 2500 yards to 30 miles. At 5.50 p.m., in clear and fine weather, she was torpedoed on the port side. The submarine was sighted by the U.S.S. Conyngham, which made a smart turn to ram her, but without success. The Orama sank four hours later.


These three losses in a single month revived, if they did not justify, the misgivings of those who had objected to the system on the ground that the provision of escort involved too great a diversion of combatant force. In fact, however, the three lost ships were none of them truly to be described as combatant forces. The Drake was an old cruiser without serious fighting value, the other two were not cruisers in the ordinary sense at all ‑ the Bostonian was a commissioned escort vessel, the Orama an armed merchant cruiser. There was, however, a more legitimate reflection to be made upon the events above described. They suggest that the ocean escorts were a negligible force for any purpose beyond their shepherding duties in keeping a convoy together. When their convoys entered the danger zone, their work was practically over. They could not "defend trade" against submarines at all, being just as open to attack as the ships they escorted.


The weeks which followed these disasters were marked by better fortune. There was, however, one incident in mid-Atlantic which served as a reminder that the escorts were often more exposed to danger than the escorted vessels. German submarine cruisers were still operating between the Canaries and the Azores; Meusel had been succeeded by Kophamel in U.151, who was about 140 miles to the west of Madeira when, on November 14, he fell in with the Marmora, escorting a Dakar convoy of twenty‑five steamers. The Marmora's look‑out men sighted the submarine whilst she was still six miles distant; so that Captain Woodward had time to order his convoy to move away. None the less, whilst he was rejoining the merchantmen, the submarine's periscope was sighted about thirty yards from the ship, and the escape both of the Marmora and her convoy was little short of a miracle. The three losses in the escort forces during the previous month were nearly added to substantially by a loss in a zone where the convoys had hitherto been remarkably safe. Both Meusel and Kophamel had cruised in the midAtlantic at their will and pleasure. We had no means whatever of disturbing them. But beyond compelling our authorities at Dakar and Sierra Leone to give an occasional order for delaying a convoy's sailing or changing its route, Meusel and Kophamel had hitherto caused no disturbance in the working of the system.




The Action in the Heligoland Bight, November 16‑17, 1917

(See Map 7.)


It was not, however, upon this outer limit of the submarine theatre that attention was, for the moment, focused. The centrifugal operations of the German sweeping forces in the Heligoland bight and the southern Baltic were causing the Admiralty and the Commander‑in‑Chief increasing concern. (The Commander‑in‑Chief sent a very considerable force of light cruisers and destroyers into the Kattegat on October 31, expecting that they would bring some German outpost forces to action. They discovered an armed steamer and nine trawlers, which they sank.) It was now known that considerable forces of auxiliaries were employed, almost daily, upon the outer edge of the mine barrier, over a hundred miles from Heligoland. They were generally accompanied by light cruisers and destroyers; occasionally a force of battleships was kept at


Nov. 1917



sea, near Heligoland, in support. Various projects for attacking these forces had been put forward from time to time; and towards the middle of November the intelligence in the Admiralty's hands was so detailed and circumstantial that a regular plan of operations was drawn up. Reports from our agents and submarine commanders then showed that the enemy was carrying out a large sweeping operation, and that if the Rosyth forces could be sent out rapidly and in strength, they would have a chance of striking the enemy a serious blow. The Admiralty therefore decided that the operation they had in mind should begin on November 17, and early in the morning of the 16th the Commander‑in-Chief issued the necessary orders. The 1st Cruiser Squadron, the 1st and 6th Light Cruiser Squadrons and the 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron, reinforced by the New Zealand, were to sweep across the North Sea to a point about half‑way across the outer edge of the quadrant of mines in the Heligoland Bight. They were to approach this point from the western and southern sides of the large German minefield in the central part of the North Sea, and having reached it, were to sweep to the N.N.W. The 1st Battle Squadron was to take up a supporting position in the middle of the open water between the eastern edge of the German minefield and the north‑western corner of the British mine barrier. The cruiser forces were to arrive at the general rendezvous on the mine barrier at 8.0 a.m.; the battle squadron was to be in its supporting position at the same time.


The implications of these orders are highly important, and must be explained at considerable length if the actual details of the action which subsequently took place are to be understood.


As the squadron commanders were instructed to strike at a force of enemy ships on or near the outer edge of the mine barrier, it followed that if they found them, the British squadrons might be obliged to press on into the mined area in pursuit. If they were so compelled their movements would obviously be restricted by those minefields which they believed to lie within the zone of their operations. It is therefore most important to get an accurate picture both of the minefields themselves and of what the Admirals in charge of the operation knew about them.


The British and German minefields in the Heligoland Bight were printed on a special chart which the Hydrographer of the Navy issued every month. This chart was, however, not circulated to the fleet. The Commander‑in‑Chief had a copy; the Vice‑Admiral Commanding the Battle Cruiser Force had seen one; but it does not appear to have been communicated to the Admirals in charge of cruiser squadrons. Subordinate admirals, and captains of ships to whom this chart was not shown, kept their own charts up to date by plotting on them the summaries of mining information which the Commander‑in‑Chief issued from time to time. These summaries, which were called mine memoranda, did not give the positions and direction of every line of mines laid - these data were only to be obtained from the mine chart possessed by the Commander‑in‑Chief ‑ but stated merely that certain areas were dangerous. The mining memoranda were little but lists of the co‑ordinates required for plotting rough quadrilaterals, rectangles and rhomboids round the danger areas. Brief notes of areas and zones considered to be especially dangerous were, however, added from time to time.



Plan - Illustrating the Orders Issued on November 16, 1917, to the Forces Detailed for the Operations in the Heligoland Bight.


Admiral Pakenham either possessed, or had been shown, a copy of the mining chart prepared and issued by the Admiralty. This chart showed, quite clearly, that there was a zone of clear water to the south‑eastward of the general rendezvous given in the operation orders. The mines laid in April 1917 in the fields called W. 5 and W. 6, and those in the large field laid in September 1915, had no sinking plugs, and might, therefore, be dangerous; but the fields laid on January 24 and 25 had long since ceased to constitute a danger, as the mines had all been fitted with thirty‑eight‑day sinking plugs. There were two lines of mines which might still be dangerous to the south‑east of the rendezvous; the centre of one lay in 54 degrees 30' N., the middle point of the other was in 54 degrees 20'N.; but though the mines in each had not been fitted with plugs, they had been laid early in January, and were therefore more than ten months old when the operation was ordered.


Admiral Pakenham had thus sufficient information in his possession to know that his ships could penetrate into the mined area for about thirty miles, so long as they avoided the large minefields which lay on the north‑eastern side of a line drawn south‑east from the general rendezvous. (Laid in April 1917.) Admiral Napier, who commanded the 1st Cruiser Squadron and the light cruiser squadrons allotted to the operation, was by no means so well informed. He knew the positions of the mined areas adjacent to the general rendezvous, but had no means of judging whether they were absolutely or relatively dangerous. In addition to this, the Commanderin‑Chief, in the first pages of his mine memoranda, had absolutely prohibited all ships from passing a line which ran through a point just south of the rendezvous, unless they


Nov. 1917



had been supplied with information of the minefields and danger zones on the farther side of it.


(He had marked this as "line A" (see chart).)


Admiral Napier considered that the information he possessed would justify him in passing about twelve miles beyond this line to another, which he had drawn round the outer edges of the areas described as dangerous in the Commander‑in‑Chief's mine memoranda.


(He had marked this as "line B" (see chart).)


Admiral Napier's chart of the minefield differed from the charts prepared by Admiral Alexander‑Sinclair (In charge of the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron.) and Commodore Cowan (In charge of the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron.) in a very important particular. In September 1915 the minelayers Angora, Orvieto, and Princess Margaret had laid a very big minefield in the centre of the Heligoland Bight; and on September 13 the Commander‑in-Chief issued a notice to the fleet (The exact distribution of this notice was: Flag Officers, Commodores, and officers in command of H.M. ships of the 1st, 2nd and 4th Battle Squadrons, the 1st, 2nd and 7th Cruiser Squadron, the 4th Light Cruiser Squadron, Iron Duke, Oak, E.16, and the 2nd and 4th Destroyer Flotillas.) in which the limits of the danger area were defined. During July 1916 the minefield was strengthened by a new line of mines, and in October 1916 the Commander‑in‑Chief reissued his first notification; but distributed it only to a selection of the officers who had originally received it. (The exact distribution was: the Admiral Second‑in‑Command, the Flag Officers and Commodores of the Grand Fleet, the Captain "S" Tees and Blyth, the Commanding Officer H.M.S. Fearless.) At the same time he cancelled and annulled his original notice of September 1915. In November 1917, Admiral Napier's chart showed this large danger area, and he considered it an absolute barrier to any advance into the mined area: the admirals in charge of the 1st and 6th Light Cruiser Squadrons knew nothing of it, and had not marked it on their charts at all.


There was also in existence a chart which showed not only the British and German mines in the German Bight, but also the approximate positions of the channels that the Germans had swept through them. The Commander-in‑Chief possessed a copy of this chart, but he had not shown it to any of the admirals in charge of the operating squadrons; nor had he included any of the special information contained on this chart in his operation orders. The paragraph in the orders devoted to "enemy intelligence" stated merely that enemy submarines on passage were keeping to a fixed route between Muckle Flugga and the North Dogger Bank light‑vessel: it gave no indication of the probable movements and the general line of retirement of any German forces that might be met with on the outer edge of the barrier.


It so happened that the Admiralty and the Commander-in‑Chief had very accurately chosen both the time and the focusing point of the operation. The German staff had ordered a large sweeping operation in the very zone that our sweeping forces were about to examine. Admiral von Reuter of the 2nd Scouting Group was to assemble a force of sweepers on the central point of the barrier and was to sweep to the north‑westwards. The object of the operation, which was called a "Stichfahrt" or "thrust voyage," was to fix the position of any minefield that had been laid across the track of the sweepers, and to discover and mark a track round it into clear water. These "Stichfahrten" were carried out whenever the weather allowed by an organised procession of sweepers and supporting craft. At the head of the sweeping line were the minesweepers and their sweeps, after them came the destroyers with indicator nets, and behind these the "barrier breakers" with the light cruisers and an airship escort. (Barrier breakers were trawlers which were specially constructed to resist mine‑explosions; their holds were filled with wood, cork and cement.) At some time on the 16th Admiral von Reuter ordered the 6th Minesweeping Half Flotilla, the 2nd and 6th Minesweeping Support Half Flotillas, the 12th and 14th Half Flotillas of destroyers, the 4th Barrier Breaker Group and his own squadron of light cruisers to assemble in the central part of the mine barrier in the early morning of the 17th. The battleships Kaiser and Kaiserin were kept near Heligoland in support.




Extract from Mine Chart Issued to Vice-Admiral Commanding Light Cruiser Squadrons on November 17, 1917




Extract from Mine Chart Issued to Vice-Admiral Commanding Battle Cruiser Squadron


The 1st Battle Squadron reached Rosyth during the afternoon of the 16th, and all the forces allotted to the operation left harbour at half‑past four; by seven o'clock on the morning of the 17th the cruiser groups were approaching the barrier. The 1st Cruiser Squadron was ahead; slightly before their port beam was the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron; three miles astern was the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron, and ten and a half miles on the port quarter of the Courageous, in which Admiral Napier flew his flag, were the Lion and the battle cruisers. The forces actually at sea were:



screening destroyers:

1st Cruiser Squadron:

Courageous (flag)








6th Light Cruiser Squadron:

Cardiff (flag)








1st Light Cruiser Squadron:

Caledon (broad pendant)








1st Battle Cruiser Squadron:

Lion (flag)

Champion (light cruiser)

Princess Royal




New Zealand


Repulse (rear flag)










1st Battle Squadron:



Royal Oak




Emperor Of India















During the morning watch the Lion's


Nov. 1917



signal staff had got indications of German wireless; but beyond this nothing suggested that there were German forces about. The look‑out men in the Courageous were the first to sight the enemy (7.30); (See Map 7.)

and a few minutes later, just as the Cardiff took in a signal from the 1st Cruiser Squadron that the enemy were in sight to the eastward, she also made out the German forces. They were in three groups: the northernmost appeared to be made up of minesweepers and destroyers, the central one of a group of submarines; whilst to the south, slightly to starboard of our line of advance, were three or four light cruisers. The 1st Cruiser Squadron, being the most advanced, began the action: at 7.37 the Courageous opened fire with her 15" guns on a light cruiser on the starboard bow; the Glorious opened fire almost simultaneously on a second light cruiser, also to starboard; the Cardiff (6th Light Cruiser Squadron) and the destroyers screening the squadron upon the minesweepers and submarines of the northern and central groups. The light was stronger in the east than in the west; and the heavy shells from the 1st Cruiser Squadron falling amongst the minesweepers and destroyers, were the first indications that the Germans got of our presence.


Admiral von Reuter and his captains met the danger without flinching. The light cruisers and destroyers made a rapid movement towards our forces, and covered the minesweepers with a tremendous smoke screen: the auxiliaries slipped their sweeps and their gear and made off to the eastward: only one ship was left behind. The armed trawler Kehdingen, a mark boat for the sweeping forces, had anchored in the position assigned to her at seven o'clock, and had hoisted the recognition signals of a mark boat. Before the crew had time to weigh or to slip the cable, a shell struck her, and she lay helpless across our line of advance: after that her destruction was only a question of time.


The action opened in great confusion and uncertainty. Shortly after the Courageous opened fire, Admiral Napier signalled to the 1st Battle Squadron that an unknown number of enemy's light cruisers were in sight, bearing E. The signal was intercepted in the Lion, and, two minutes later, the sound of gunfire warned Admiral Pakenham that the forces ahead of him were coming into action. He was, however, still quite uncertain of the enemy's strength and composition, and before the Courageous and the ships in the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron could elaborate their first reports, the Germans disappeared into the smoke screen which their destroyers had laid across our track. The British cruisers could, therefore, only check their fire and steam towards the curtain of smoke ahead of them, uncertain of what they would find on the other side.


For the time being they got only occasional and baffling glimpses of the enemy. At 7.45 the Caledon, of the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron, sighted the enemy, and Commodore Cowan signalled that they bore east‑south‑east. He added, however, that he could not tell how many enemy ships were present, so that this new report by no means cleared up Admiral Pakenhain's uncertainty. Ten minutes later, several ships in the squadron sighted three enemy cruisers on a southerly bearing, steering west; but they almost instantaneously disappeared. The destroyer Ursa, accompanying the 1st Cruiser Squadron, got in a shot with a torpedo; but it was not until well after eight o'clock that the position began to clear.


At eight o'clock Admiral Napier, in the Courageous, reached the smoke screen and turned sharply to the south; and when he cleared the smoke he could make out three of the enemy's light cruisers to the south‑east on an east-north‑easterly course (8.07); four minutes later he noticed that the enemy had turned to the south‑east. Admiral Napier reported both these observations to the 1st Battle


Nov. 1917



Squadron, and his messages were intercepted in the Lion. On receiving the first one, Admiral Pakenham ordered the Repulse (Admiral Phillimore) to support the Caledon (1st Light Cruiser Squadron). Having given the order, he led the battle cruisers round to port across the wake of our light cruiser squadrons.


When the enemy made the south‑easterly turn which Admiral Napier reported to the 1st Battle Squadron, Admiral von Reuter had successfully completed his perilous concentration: his auxiliaries were to the north‑east, retiring from the action, and no British forces had been detached to attack them. He had, thus, drawn all our forces after his four light cruisers, and could do nothing but steam through the minefields towards the battleships that were being held in support.


(His light cruisers were Nurnberg (flag), Pillau, Koenigsberg and Frankfurt. Scheer, pp. 430, 431.)


His squadron was none the less in very great danger. He was being followed by a force of overwhelming strength; and although he had gained a forward position against which the British broadsides could not be brought to bear, the forces against him were so numerous and powerful that a single mischance might bring disaster upon his squadron. One 15" shell from the Courageous or Glorious, falling in the after part of one of his ships, might at any instant reduce her speed by a few knots: if it did he would have to abandon her as Hipper had abandoned the Blucher nearly three years before.


It was only after Admiral Napier reported the enemy's turn to the south‑east that our squadrons were able to keep them under regular fire. The Glorious and Courageous opened on the cruisers ahead of them at ten minutes past eight, two minutes later the Cardiff also opened upon them; but the Ceres and Calypso could not get the range until ten minutes later, when the Inconstant and other ships of the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron began to fire. The enemy was thus under a very heavy fire at twenty minutes past eight; and the gunnery officers in the fighting tops of our cruisers reported that we were beginning to hit. The destroyers Vanquisher and Valentine, which were accompanying the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron, moved out to deliver a torpedo attack (8.20), but were compelled to abandon it and rejoined the Cardiff under a heavy fire.


The enemy still had a long way to go to safety and our cruisers were steadily overhauling them: this, combined with the growing accuracy of our gunfire, evidently caused them great anxiety: at about 8.20 they made a fresh smoke screen, which obliged the Calypso (6th Light Cruiser Squadron) to check her fire; fifteen minutes later, Admiral von Reuter put up a dense smoke screen and his whole squadron completely disappeared behind it. The enemy's second attempt to disguise their movement put Admiral Napier into great perplexity. He was now approaching the line which represented the utmost limit of his advance into the minefields. So long as he kept the enemy well ahead he could follow them without danger; for it was safe to assume that they would only steam through waters which they had cleared; but at the very moment when Admiral Napier reached what he considered to be a danger point (line B), the enemy had put up a huge smoke screen which might be intended to disguise a large alteration of course. Admiral Napier therefore turned his squadron eight points to port, as he did not feel justified in pressing on in the prevailing uncertainty. When Admiral Napier turned, the Courageous was about two and a quarter miles to the northward of the 1st and 6th Light Cruiser Squadrons. The 1st Light Cruiser Squadron was crossing astern of the 6th at a very short distance. Admiral Phillimore, in the Repulse, was six miles on the Courageous's port quarter, and had not come into action.


All ships checked their fire as the Germans disappeared behind the smoke screen; Admiral Napier held on to his north‑easterly course for five minutes, and then sent a message to the 1st Battle Squadron that he had lost sight of the enemy cruisers steering south‑east, and that the 1st and 6th Light Cruiser Squadrons were still in pursuit. Both Admiral Alexander‑Sinclair and Commodore Cowan conformed to Admiral Napier's movement and made considerable alterations to port soon after 8.40. Between 8.40 and nine o'clock, therefore, all our squadrons lost ground.


The 6th Light Cruiser Squadron made the smallest turn, and consequently took the lead, and it was upon the Cardiff that the German gunners scored their first hits. At 8.50 a high‑explosive shell struck the Cardiff's fo'c'sle and started two troublesome fires; soon after she was struck again in the superstructure above the after control position, and again in a compartment where the torpedoes were adjusted and got ready for the tubes.


Just as the Germans were getting the range, and their fire was beginning to tell, their last smoke screen began to clear, and we could see that their cruisers were still on the same course. Admiral Napier now decided to resume the chase, and to follow the enemy into the minefields for another twelve miles. This second advance would carry him to the edge of an area which, as we have seen, had first been notified


Nov. 1917



as dangerous during 1915, and he considered that it must be regarded as an absolute barrier to all further advance. At 8.52, therefore, as the target became clearer, he ordered an alteration to starboard; the 6th and 1st Light Cruiser Squadrons altered to starboard at about the same time, and the firing began afresh. Meanwhile, however, Admiral Pakenham, in the Lion, decided to recall the cruisers.


After detaching the Repulse, Admiral Pakenham had steered to the eastward until about 8.30; then, after detaching some destroyers to rescue the Kehdingen's survivors, he had turned his squadron to the westward; his intention was to occupy a supporting position to the north of the general rendezvous given in the original operation orders. At 8.52 the Lion's wireless staff took in Admiral Napier's signal that the enemy were out of sight and that the 1st and 6th Light Cruiser Squadrons were pursuing them. Although he possessed better and more detailed information with regard to the minefields than any of the other Admirals in the operating squadrons, Admiral Pakenham was very doubtful whether any good purpose would be served by pursuing the enemy through the intricate and twisting passages between the fields.


He had already warned Admiral Phillimore not to take the Repulse into the minefields (8.27); and now, on receiving Admiral Napier's signal, he decided that our pursuit of the enemy ought to cease. The signal read as though contact with the enemy had been completely lost, and gave him no inkling that the enemy had temporarily disappeared behind a smoke screen; he therefore ordered all operating squadrons to rejoin him at the general rendezvous (8.58). This general recall was received in the Courageous just after nine o'clock: all our ships were then firing again: and the Repulse had now come into action. Admiral Napier was therefore reluctant to act at once on the order he had received. He had just decided to make a further advance into the minefields; and he thought - quite wrongly it is true ‑ that the enemy had been reinforced since they had disappeared behind the smoke screen, and that, in consequence, our light cruisers needed the support of his heavy guns. He therefore sent back two messages in quick succession to Admiral Pakenham: in the first he stated that he had just sighted the smoke of six ships, and that they were "in addition to those reported at 7.30" (9.05); in the second he stated that he was still engaging the enemy (9.10). Admiral Pakenhain's recall was, therefore, not acted upon, and our squadrons continued the pursuit.


The action was continued under very unsatisfactory conditions. The Courageous and Glorious had lost so much ground by the turn to port that their shots fell far short and they were compelled to check their fire (9.07‑9.15). The cruisers of the Galatea" class (The Galatea, Royalist and Inconstant had been designed primarily to hunt down destroyers; they were armed with two six‑inch, and six four‑inch guns. Their broadside fire waa two six‑inch and three four‑inch guns.) in the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron, found their four‑inch guns were of no use in the long‑range fighting. As a result only the six‑inch guns of the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron and of the Caledon were now effectively in action.


It was at about this time that Admiral von Reuter decided to check our pursuit by a torpedo attack. His line of ships was again covered in heavy smoke at a quarter‑past nine, and, as it cleared, a torpedo was reported from the Royalist; it passed ahead by a narrow margin; but the torpedo danger zone evidently covered our whole line of advance. A moment later, some six miles on the Royalist's port quarter a torpedo passed only thirty yards ahead of the Cardiff. For the next ten minutes torpedo tracks were repeatedly reported in all three squadrons.


Although our firing had throughout been intermittent, the control officers were convinced that it had severely damaged at least one ship in the enemy's line, which was reported to be on fire and to be lagging astern. Something, at all events, seems to have been causing Admiral von Reuter considerable anxiety; for, at about half‑past nine, all our ships reported that the German line was again enveloped in heavy smoke. A few minutes later, the torpedo attack began afresh, and appears to have been supplemented by attacks from a submarine on the Repulse's starboard beam. Commander Fremantle of the destroyer Valentine, who had been accompanying the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron with the Vimiera, the Vanquisher and the Vehement, first sighted the submarine (9.30). The Repulse, which was then astern and approaching from the north‑westward, seemed severely threatened, for the submarine was well ahead of her and on her starboard bow; Commander Fremantle at once gave Admiral Phillimore the warning, and closed the Repulse with his destroyers.


Meanwhile, Admiral Napier had reached what he considered to be the utmost limit of his advance, and altered sharply to starboard (9.32). His new course ran along the edge of what he had marked on his chart as a danger area, and from this moment the Courageous and Glorious were out of the action. The officers commanding the light cruiser


Nov. 1917



squadrons, who had not marked the danger zone upon their charts, and did not know that it existed, continued the chase.


Admiral Napier turned to starboard about half an hour after Admiral Pakenham sent out his general recall, and though he had withdrawn his cruisers he was still reluctant to break off the action altogether by complying with Admiral Pakenham's order, and calling off the 1st and 6th Light Cruiser Squadrons. He therefore asked the commanding officers of the light cruiser squadrons whether they had any hope of bringing the action to a successful conclusion, and told them to use their discretion about pressing on into the minefields; he also gave a general order that the Repulse and the heavy cruisers were not to advance further.


When Admiral Napier was drafting this message, the long interrupted gun duel seemed at last to be approaching its decisive moments. The control officer in the Caledon had just reported that the rear ship in the German line was certainly in distress and that the other cruisers were closing in on her as though to give her support; the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron had, in consequence, been turned to starboard to bring all guns to bear. The Germans, on their part, were firing vigorously, and one of their cruisers scored a destructive hit on the Calypso (9.40). It penetrated the roof of the upper conning tower, and burst as it passed through. Everybody in the confined, enclosed space of the conning tower was killed, and Captain Edwards, on the bridge, was mortally wounded; the navigator, Lieutenant‑Commander M. F. F. Wilson, was also struck down and rendered unconscious, all the officers and men on the lower bridge were killed, and it fell to Lieutenant H. C. C. Clarke, the gunnery officer, to take command. The vital electrical communications of the ship were nearly all severed and damaged, and the firing was of necessity slowed down; but in the other ships the hope of bringing the action to a decisive end was rising, and great efforts were being made to increase the rate of fire.


The hope of fighting the action to a finish did not last long. Just before 9.50 a salvo of heavy shell fell all round the light cruisers, and the look‑out men reported battleships and battle cruisers to the south‑east. They were actually the battleships Kaiser and Kaiserin, which had moved up from Heligoland on receiving the first reports of the action from Admiral von Reuter. One of the shells from their opening salvoes struck the Caledon on the water‑line, but fortunately did no damage. Admiral Alexander‑Sinclair at once ordered all ships present to turn sixteen points, and led the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron round to port: there was some little delay in getting a searchlight signal through to Admiral Phillimore; but a few minutes after ten all our ships were retiring north‑west, with the Repulse covering their retreat. The last shots of the fight were fired from Admiral Phillimore's flagship; one of them struck the Koenigsberg. It went through her three funnels, through the upper deck and into a coal bunker, where it burst and started a serious fire.


Meanwhile Admiral Napier had been steaming to and fro along the limiting line of his advance, waiting for the light cruiser admirals to answer his question about fighting the action to a decision. At ten o'clock he received a disquieting reply: it was from the Galatea, and reported, "enemy battleships, battle cruisers and light cruisers bearing south‑east, steering east." This message was, however, followed by several others which showed that our light cruisers were not seriously engaged with the battleships that had suddenly appeared. There was indeed no cause for anxiety, as our forces were not pursued or molested during their retirement. Even though the Germans had wished to follow up the Repulse, they would hardly have been able to do so; for at 10.40 a dense fog came down and completely covered our retirement. Just after one o'clock the light cruiser squadrons were in touch with Admiral Napier, and our forces withdrew without further incident across the North Sea.


The Commander‑in‑Chief was dissatisfied with the results of the action. The large forces allotted to the operation had not succeeded in cutting off the minesweepers and auxiliaries which they had been sent out to destroy, and had allowed themselves to be enticed into a long and unsatisfactory stern chase. Even this had not been properly or energetically conducted, as the 1st Cruiser Squadron had never pursued the enemy at more than twenty‑five knots, and had practically broken off the chase at 8.40. The Admiralty agreed that the results of the action were most disappointing, but their criticism was mainly directed against Admiral Napier's turns to port between 7.30 and eight o'clock, and his failure to increase speed in the early part of the action. Admiral Napier maintained that he was fully justified. Soon after he sighted the enemy, they completely screened their movements; and his own intermittent observations between 7.30 and eight o'clock suggested they were then either moving across his bows to the north‑westward, or steering an opposite course to his own. His first turn to the north at 7.45 had only lasted two minutes, and he had been obliged to make it in order to clear the 6th Light Cruiser


Nov. 1917



Squadron. As for his general swerve to northward between 7.30 and eight, he had made it to prevent the enemy from escaping to the northward across his bows; and he had not thought it necessary to steam at full speed on an easterly course, when he might at any moment have discovered that the enemy were attempting to escape to the west. It was only at eight o'clock that he realised that the enemy were escaping to the south‑east; and then pursuit was made extraordinarily difficult by the minefields. If he had possessed the information with regard to the minefields, and the German channels through them, which was supplied to him later, he might have foreseen the German line of retirement, and would certainly have been able to pursue them more vigorously.


The Admiralty were in the main satisfied with Admiral Napier's reasons; but their investigation stopped short of one final question which might have cleared up a matter of some obscurity. Admiral Napier was no doubt embarrassed by the lack of information which should have been supplied to him. But even if he had been better served in this respect, how would he have been thereby enabled to pursue more vigorously? The enemy were visible, flying before him: where they could go he could follow, with the certainty of being able to withdraw if a powerful supporting squadron should be sighted. For the present he was in superior force, and his gunners had already found their target: why then did he decide to follow the enemy at twenty‑five knots instead of closing them at thirty? Was this an error of judgment, a failure to realise his opportunity, or was he influenced by some adverse consideration which has not been disclosed? The question was not put, and will probably never now be answered; yet it is one which will continue to be of interest, and the authentic answer to it might have recorded an instructive experience.


What the Admiralty did elucidate by their inquiry was that the existing method of keeping the fleet informed of the state of the minefields in the Bight of Heligoland was dangerously haphazard, in that information in the possession of one of the operating Admirals had been issued to another in a totally different form, while the two remaining Admirals had never received it at all. These considerations led to a question as to the efficiency of staff work in the Battle Cruiser Force, but the Admiralty considered it was unnecessary to pursue the matter further, arrangements having been made whereby information regarding the minefields should in future be supplied by the Admiralty direct.


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