Germany's High Seas Fleet in the World War/Chapter 1

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Chapter 1 - The Outbreak of the War[edit]

THE visit of an English squadron for the Kiel Week in June, 1914, seemed to indicate a desire to give visible expression to the, fact that the political situation had eased. Although we could not suppress a certain feeling of doubt as to the sincerity of their intentions, everyone on our side displayed the greatest readiness to receive the foreign guests with hospitality and comradeship.

The opportunity of seeing great English fighting-ships and their ships' companies at close quarters had become so rare an event that on this account alone the visit was anticipated with the liveliest interest. All measures were taken to facilitate the entrance of the English into Kiel Harbour and make it easy for them to take up their station and communicate with the shore, and it goes without saying that they were allotted the best places in the line, close to the Imperial yacht. Accustomed as we were from early times to regard the English ships as models, the external appearance of which alone produced the impression of perfection, it was with a feeling of pardonable pride that we now had an opportunity of making comparisons which were not in our disfavour. The English ships comprised a division of four battleships under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir George Warrender, who was flying his flag in the battleship King George V., which was accompanied by Audacious, Ajax, and Centurion, and a squadron of light cruisers, Southampton, Birmingham, and Nottingham, under Commodore Goodenough..

While the time of the senior naval officers was fully taken up with official visits and ceremonies, the juniors largely made use of the facilities afforded them to visit Hamburg and Berlin by rail. Friendly relations were soon established between the men, after the way of seafaring folk, and these were further promoted by games and festivities to their taste.

The feeling of camaraderie which, as my experience went, had marked intercourse between German and English naval officers, as men of similar ways of thought and capacity, up to the year 1895, had now disappeared as a result of the attitude of hostility towards our progress which had been displayed by English statesmen, especially in recent years. Every attempt to sham a relationship to which our inmost feelings did not correspond would have compromised our dignity and lowered us in the eyes of the English. It is also easy to realise that there could be no question of making an impression by a full-dress muster of every possible ship. For this occasion only those of our ships were assembled at Kiel which were based thereon.

As our Fleet increased, it had become necessary to distribute the various squadrons between the two main bases, Kiel and Wilhelmshaven, both with a view to using simultaneously the available docking facilities and also to keeping the ships' companies in touch with their nucleus crews on land. The families, too, resided at the headquarters of these nucleus crews, to which the long service men, especially the warrant and petty officers, returned on receiving a special order and there awaited fresh employment. The ships spent the unfortunately all too short periods which the annual training permitted, at their bases.

The disturbing element in this gay and peaceful picture, in which the only note of rivalry was sounded by competitions in skill in the realms of sport, was the news of the murder of the Austrian heir, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The Kaiser left Kiel the very next day and travelled to Berlin. The English ships departed on June 29, their light cruisers using the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal. They thus had an opportunity of making a close acquaintance with the new waterway which had only been completed a few weeks before. Whether it could be also used by our heavy ships was one of their questions which must be laid to the account of untimely curiosity The deepening and widening of the Canal and the construction of the new locks at the entrances had been completed only just in time. They had become necessary to permit the passage of the big ships, the building of which had been imposed upon us by the introduction of the "Dreadnought" type. The unsuitability of this highway for battle-cruisers like the Blücher and the battleships of the "Nassau " class had been a matter of much concern to our naval High Command since 1909, on account of the injurious effect on the strategic situation. It also involved laying an unnecessary burden on our main base in the North Sea, which could not keep pace with the growing number of ships assigned to it.

About a week later the Kaiser returned to Kiel, and on July 5 started out for his usual cruise to Norway. As the situation could by no means be considered reassuring, exhaustive conferences were held between the Naval authorities in Berlin and the Fleet to discuss the various contingencies of war. As subsequent events showed, the most noteworthy of these was the hypothesis that England would remain neutral in the collision with Russia, and most probably her Ally, France, with which we were threatened. It was on this account that the Fleet was allowed to leave for the summer cruise to Norway at the time provided for in the annual scheme.

This decision, as indeed that of the Kaiser, can only be attributed to carelessness or an intention to show no nervousness. That intention, in turn, can only have been due to a firm conviction of England's neutrality.

In the annual scheme the summer cruise represented the high watermark of the development attained. As a reward for the effort shown in daily work, the individual training of the ships and the handling of separate squadrons as well as the whole Fleet, it ended with a visit to foreign ports instead of a sojourn in our own harbours.

This excursion abroad not only served the purpose of keeping up interest in the work but also helped us to maintain our political prestige by showing the flag, especially when an impression of power was thereby created.

When a single gunboat turned up on a distant shore to show the German flag there, the foreigner at once professed to regard it as obvious that this ship was the emissary of the Imperial Government which, for the matter of that, had at home an imposing Fleet and a great Army to secure our position in Europe. A corresponding display of power on the spot was far more convincing and at the same time revealed the capabilities of our shipbuilding industry and refuted the widespread legend that England alone had the best and largest ships.

In view of the uncertain political situation since the summer of 1909 we had discontinued the practice of sending the whole Fleet, or substantial parts of it, to great distances such as the Mediterranean, to Spanish or Portuguese harbours, Cape Verde and the Azores. Thus for our purpose the principal country for us to visit was Norway, in the numerous fjords of whose coast it was possible to distribute the ships to the satisfaction of all concerned and avoid overwhelming the inhabitants with a mass of sailors on leave. The distribution also made a greater variety of excursions available to the men, as each ship had its particular place of call.

There had only been one break - in the summer of 1912 - in our annual visit to the Norwegian coast since 1910. In this year, 1914, the general political situation required that the visit of the Kaiser and the Fleet should have its usual objective. A cruise to the coasts of the eastern Baltic, even a hasty call at our harbours in that region, does not appear to have been in keeping with the policy we were pursuing at this critical moment.

With the cruise to Norway we abandoned the chance of sending our Fleet east and thus bringing pressure to bear on Russia to induce her to stop her preparations for war. The use of the floating army, which requires no special mobilisation, is ideal for such a purpose. In that case Danzig Bay would have offered us a firstclass base, as the larger units could have deployed from there with extreme ease in contrast to the difficult exits from the estuaries of the North Sea rivers - the Elbe, Weser, Jade and Ems, while the light forces attached to the Fleet would have found a fortified base in the harbour of Neufahrwasser.

How Norway could have been chosen for the goal of our cruise in the situation at that moment seems incredible and gives one the impression that we deliberately intended to shut our eyes to the danger. The chance of appearing with a strong naval force, first as a demonstration and later in dead earnest, in our eastern waters was from the start not given the consideration its importance merited.

On July 14 Squadron II, of which I had assumed command at the beginning of February in the previous year, in succession to Vice-Admiral von Ingenahl, who had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet, left Kiel Bay to rendezvous off Skagen with the ships coming from Wilhelmshaven and then carry out extensive fleet exercises which were principally concerned with the solution of tactical problems. Through the addition of a third squadron to the High Sea Fleet these exercises were of particular importance for this cruise, as this newly-formed third squadron had as yet had no chance of taking part in combined exercises.

The practical application of theoretical tactics to the circumstances arising out of battle is inexhaustible and provides fresh material from year to year.

The new squadron required training in that respect. In war games, indeed, very useful preliminary work can be done in this department" but that tactical insight which knows how to exploit a favourable situation is itself first trained on the open sea and in the last resort it is the sum of the impressions received which first enables the commander to come to the right decision in the time available, which is often only a matter of seconds. For such decisions there are no rules, however valuable certain tactical principles may be, which have been sanctified by experience.

In the era of sailing ships it was a simple matter, owing to the slow deployment for battle and the small range of the guns. But to-day it is altogether different, in view of the great speed of the ships and the huge range of the guns. The first shells usually arrive the moment the enemy is seen, and we have known cases in which the impact of the enemy's projectiles is the first notification of his being in the vicinity, and he has not become visible until some time afterwards.

With regard to England, we were faced with a particularly difficult, indeed almost insoluble problem. We had to deal with our enemy in such a way as to give greater effect to our smaller calibre guns at short range and be able to use a torpedo wherever possible. From the English we had to expect that in view of the greater speed possessed by their ships of every type and their heavier artillery, they would select the range that suited them and fight a "holding-off" action. That, indeed, is exactly what happened in the war. The necessity of practical training in this department illustrates the importance of the addition of a third squadron.

Further, Squadron III, comprising our latest battleships, was not at full strength, but just formed a division consisting of the Prinz Regent Luitpold, (flagship), and the battleships Kaiser, Kaiserin, and König Albert. In the course of the winter, beginning at the end of December, the Kaiser and König Albert had been away on a longish cruise in foreign waters. The ships had paid a visit to our colonies - the Cameroons and German South-West Africa - visited the harbours of Brazil and the Argentine, and then passed through the Straits of Magellan to the west coast of South America and Chile. The ships had behaved very well on the distant cruise, which was particularly arduous on account of the long sojourn in the tropics. In particular, the engine-room personnel had had an opportunity of becoming thoroughly familiar with the internal arrangements On the other hand battle-practice could not be carried out to the extent that it was at home, where no diversions were involved.

At the same time as we were starting on our Scandinavian cruise the English Fleet had assembled for a great test-mobilisation at Spithead. It was thus ready and thereafter continued so.

On our way north two French destroyers which we passed on July 16 so close that we could make out their names Stilette and Trombeau—reminded us that the President of the French Republic, Poincaré, was on his way from Dunkirk to St. Petersburg in the battleship France, accompanied by the cruiser Jean Bart, and might pass us at any time. We did not like the prospect of having to show him the usual courtesies on the high-seas—a salute—prescribed by international usage, so we drew ahead in order to avoid any chance of a meeting.

Our battle-practice was continued until July 24, on which day the high cliffs of the Norwegian coast were for the most part visible, thanks to the clear, fine weather. On July 22 we had crossed the 60th degree of latitude, which forms the boundary of home waters, but not for long. We stayed quite a short time in Norwegian waters, in fact just long enough to allow coaling from colliers sent to meet us at certain anchorages. My flagship Preussen and the battleship Schlesierr, which together formed one division, were looked after by the Dutch steamer Willi. The First Division was in the Nordfjord by Olde, the Second, comprising Hessen and Lothringen, was also in the Nordfjord, by Sandene, while the other half of the squadron, the Fourth Division, had called at Molde. In the same way the battle-cruisers and light cruisers of the Fleet, as well as the battleships of Squadrons I and II, were distributed among other inlets, notably the Sogne and Hardanger Fjords. The, very day we left, Saturday, July 25 the news reached us of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia. In view of that we were not at all surprised to get an order to hold ourselves ready to put to sea immediately. In the afternoon of the next day, Sunday, we left for the rendezvous appointed for the whole Fleet, about 250 nautical miles from the entrance to the Nordfjord.

After the Fleet had assembled the Flag Officers of the squadrons had a conference on the Fleet-Flagship, at which Admiral von Ingenohl explained the political situation and the necessity for our being prepared for the immediate outbreak of war. He also told us that England would probably remain neutral. On this subject we had received a report that King George of England had expressed himself in that sense to Prince Henry of Prussia. Not. withstanding this, every possible warlike precaution was taken for the rest of our homeward journey. But the Fleet was divided in such a way that Squadron I, under the command of Vice-Admiral von Lans, and comprising the four ships of the " Ostfriesland " class and the four of the "Nassau " class, with the battle-cruisers, steamed to Wilhelmshaven through the North Sea, while Squadrons II and III with the Fleet-Flagship returned to Kiel through the Kattegat. This distribution of the Fleet is manifest proof of our confidence that no attack threatened us from the side of England. It was only in the East that danger was visible, and accordingly it seemed inadvisable to remove all our big ships from the Baltic.

On July 29 the ships lay in Kiel Harbour and were engaged in effecting the pre-arranged measures which as a rule precede a regular mobilisation, measures which were ordered on account of the increasing tension of the political situation.

All our preparations were inspired by the impression that what we had to face was a war with Russia and France. Fuelling and taking in supplies took up the whole of July 29. We had not yet recalled the men on leave, as all hope of the maintenance of peace had not by any means yet been abandoned. It was only on the following day that the news became more menacing and England's attitude more hostile. Squadron III accordingly made preparations to go through the Canal into the North Sea, while the final steps were now taken to make the ships ready for the change to battle conditions, which might at any time become necessary.

On July 31 the Commander-in-Chief in the Friedrich der Grosse passed into the Canal on his way to the North Sea. It was obvious from this step that for us the centre of gravity of the war at sea now lay in the west. Shortly before his departure I had an interview with Admiral von Ingenohl in which he told me that in case of war my task with Squadron II would be to deal with Russia.

It is easy to understand that this commission, which put me in a position to lead and execute the first naval enterprises independently, had a great attraction for me. The appointment of a new Commander-in-Chief for the Baltic in the person of Prince Henry of Prussia had no material effect on my freedom of action at sea, once we had set out for enemy waters; and, besides, Prince Henry's professional knowledge, his whole mode of thought and conception of responsibility offered a guarantee that his appointment could only serve a useful purpose. It may here be said at once that the royal Commander-in-Chief grasped and carried out in the most typical fashion the difficult and thankless task of our defensive operations in the Baltic, for which we disposed of very limited resources, both as regards numbers and efficiency, after England had appeared on the scene as the principal enemy. A Russian invasion like that of East Prussia, which might easily have been followed by another from the sea, and would have meant the total destruction of numerous important and beautiful places on the Baltic coast, was spared us.

But our hopes of an independent Baltic operation were destroyed the very same day by the order to Squadron II to follow the others immediately to the North Sea. The High Sea Fleet was accordingly concentrated in the Jade on August 1 and at 8 o'clock in the evening the mobilisation order arrived, which was greeted by the crews of the ships with loud cheers.

Meanwhile, opinion had veered round completely as to the probable attitude of England, and it was accepted as certain in the Fleet that she would join the two opponents with whom we had alone been concerned at the outset. This view corresponded to the temper prevailing in the Fleet. We were fully aware of the seriousness of the situation, and that we should now be faced with a contest in which an honourable defeat might well be our only prospect. But nowhere was there the slightest sign of despondency over the enemy's overwhelming superiority, but rather a burning enthusiasm and lust of battle, worked up by the feeling of indignation at the oppression which that superiority had meant, and the conviction that our duty was now to put in our last ounce of strength lest we leave the Fatherland in the lurch. The crews needed no special exhortation to give of their best, for the joy of battle shone in their eyes. The leaders, calmly weighing up the prospects of battle, could only feel that the men's confidence in victory encouraged them to dare to the uttermost. The whole service was carried away by the feeling that we were under a duty to fulfil the expectations to which expression had many a time been given in peace.

During its history of barely more than fifty years, the Prussian and German Fleet had not been permitted an opportunity of matching itself in a serious campaign with European opponents of equal standing, apart from individual affairs which justified the brightest hopes. Our ships had shown what they could do mainly in cooperating in the acquisition of our colonial possessions or maintaining respect for and upholding the prestige of the German flag against the encroachments of half-civilised or savage races. We had no personal experience of commanding and handling in battle the big ships which had recently come into existence. Nor, for the matter of that, had our most important opponent at sea, England.

The English Fleet had the advantage of looking back on a hundred years of proud tradition which must have given every man a sense of superiority based on the great deeds of the past. This could only be strengthened by the sight of their huge fleet, each unit of which in every class was supposed to represent the last word in the art of marine construction. The feeling was also supported by the British sailor's perfect familiarity with the sea and with conditions of life on board ship, a familiarity which took for granted all the hardships inseparable from his rough calling.

In our Fleet reigned a passionate determination not to fall behind our comrades of the Army, and a burning desire to lay the foundation-stone of a glorious tradition. Our advantage was that we had to establish our reputation with the nation, while the enemy had to defend his. We were urged on by the impulse to dare all, while he had to be careful that he did not prejudice his ancient fame.

There was only one opinion among us, from the Commander-in-Chief down to the latest recruit, about the attitude of the English Fleet. We were convinced that it would seek out and attack our Fleet the minute it showed itself and wherever it was. This could be accepted as certain from all the lessons of English naval history, and the view was reinforced by the statement, so often made on the English side, that the boundaries of the operations of their fleet lay on the enemy's coasts. It was also confirmed by an earlier remark of the Civil Lord, Lee: "If it ever comes to war with Germany the nation will wake up one morning and find that it has possessed a fleet." All this pointed to the intention of making a quick and thorough job of it.

Right up to the last moment in which there was the remotest possibility of keeping England out of the war everything was avoided which could have provided a superficial excuse for the existence of a crisis. The Heligoland Bight was left open to traffic so far as it was not commanded by the guns on the Island; elsewhere there were none which had a sufficient range to stop traffic. We had never regarded it as possible that the English Fleet would be held back from battle and, as a "fleet in being," be restricted solely to blockading us from a distance, thereby itself running no risks.

The test mobilisation to which I have already referred and the advanced stage of preparation thus involved also seemed to indicate that offensive operations were to be expected immediately. This mobilisation at the same time afforded a proof of the resolve of the English Government not to be afraid of increasing the existing tension, and to add the weight of their Fleet, fully prepared for war, to the concentration of the Russian armies.