1915: The Idle Year, Part Two

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
November 2021

One of the lessons new Highs Seas Fleet commander Friedrich von Pohl took from the defeat at Dogger Bank was the crucial absence of the battle cruiser von der Tann, undergoing maintenance when the First Scouting Group sortied without her. When the Germans took the initiative, the new commander asserted, they should do so with their full force. With the British already holding a substantial edge in fighting power, the High Seas Fleet could not afford to leave any of its best ships in port by their own choice. With Seydlitz taking up Wilhelmshaven’s floating dock and much of the Imperial Dockyard’s labor force, refits and repairs on all ships slowed in the weeks following Dogger Bank.

The formal orders that had hampered Ingenohl, requiring Imperial permission to take the fleet outside coastal waters, were actually now lifted. But Pohl knew the Kaiser’s wishes; there would be no operations by the First Scouting Group’s battle cruisers without the High Seas Fleet within supporting distance. And such operations would always take place closer to German than to British bases, so that in case of a fleet action, fewer damaged British ships would make it home than would German ones.

The fleet would also require adequate screening by torpedo boats to fend off submarine attacks, and work by minesweepers to detect and disarm any fields laid by the British outside German ports. The fleet also required adequate scouting by airships and submarines to assure that it would not blunder into superior British forces.

All of that would be difficult enough to bring together at once, but the Kaiser made things even more complicated on 12 February, when he authorized raids on London by the German Naval Airship Division and its Army counterpart. Now the airships on which the fleet depended for long-range reconnaissance had another task, one that division commander Peter Strasser held to be far more important than cruising over the North Sea. The High Seas Fleet did not have enough cruisers to make up for the zeppelin shortage, and now had to wait for pauses in the strategic air campaign for airships to be made available for scouting.

Submarines had also been part of the German recon effort, and these assets also had been re-assigned to strategic warfare. German fleet operations to date had been designed to draw British squadrons over u-boat picket lines, and now these craft were out hunting for freighters instead.

On the other side of the North Sea, Germany’s new submarine policy also had a major impact. Jellicoe lost a number of his destroyers to anti-submarine patrols, leaving the Grand Fleet with less than two dozen boats to screen its dreadnoughts. Jellicoe considered that insufficient, and decided that the fleet would not sortie, short of an emergency, until that shortage had been rectified. So while the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare greatly hampered High Seas Fleet operations, it paralyzed the Grand Fleet.

The ancient coast defense ship Siegfried in Wilhelmshaven’s floating dock. Pohl put an end to such wasting of limited resources.

The North Sea could not be abandoned to the Germans, even if they had no intention of entering it, and the Grand Fleet made do with sweeps and patrols by its cruiser squadrons. Heavy weather took its toll on the blockade as well, with one armed merchant cruiser and three destroyers wrecked by February storms.

Two additional destroyer flotillas transferred from Harwich to Scapa Flow later in the month, giving Jellicoe 48 boats, a number he considered sufficient to protect his heavy ships. The Grand Fleet received three additional battle cruisers: Australia, returned from chasing the German East Asia Squadron across the Pacific, Invincible, back from destroying said squadron off the Falklands, and Indefatigable, arriving from the Mediterranean. The Battle Cruiser Fleet, stationed at Rosyth, would have ten battle cruisers in three squadrons once Inflexible came back from the Mediterranean and Lion completed her extensive repairs.

Jellicoe took the complete Grand Fleet – both battle fleet and Battle Cruiser Fleet – to sea on 7 March for a sweep and firing exercises. Most ships then returned to their bases, but the Third Battle Squadron of pre-dreadnoughts (seven of the King Edward VII-class, known as the “Wobbly Eight”; the eighth, Britannia, had been damaged by grounding) and Third Armored Cruiser Squadron of four armored cruisers continued cruising the central North Sea until the 18th. But with their submarines and airships off on other tasks, the Germans did not detect this dangerous deployment and the opportunity it presented for a desperately-needed naval victory.

The Grand Fleet went to sea again on the 18th to meet the returning Third Battle Squadron and conduct more exercises. During the exercise, the German submarine U29, skippered by U-boat ace Otto Weddigen (who had sunk three British armored cruisers on a single September 1914 morning) attempted to torpedo the dreadnought Neptune, and was in turn rammed and sunk by the dreadnought Dreadnought.

Live Bait: The “Wobbly Eight” at sea.

Despite all of the restrictions under which he operated, Pohl took his fleet out on 29 March for an overnight probe into the southern North Sea. Operation 25 did not go far, but it did involve the entire fleet. Reacting to signals intelligence, Jellicoe brought the Grand Fleet out of Scapa Flow on the 29th as well, but did not venture into the southern North Sea and no contact occurred between the fleets (nor were they ever very close to one another). Just like the Germans, the British returned to port after a single night at sea.

April brought harsher weather, but Jellicoe sent out the Third Battle Squadron for another sweep in the central North Sea, essentially acting as live bait. Once again, the Third Cruiser Squadron accompanied them, this time with five destroyers. The Battle Cruiser Fleet, still without its flagship Lion, cruised in the northern part of the North Sea, after the pre-dreadnoughts had returned to port.

Before the next operation, the Third Battle Squadron received reinforcements in the form of two still older pre-dreadnoughts, Albemarle and Russell, from the Channel Fleet’s Sixth Battle Squadron. A scout cruiser and eight modern destroyers accompanied them, all of the ships arriving at Rosyth on 10 April. The entire Grand Fleet, including the pre-dreadnoughts and the battle cruisers, conducted a sweep of the North Sea between 11 and 14 April. The heavy ships conducted firing exercises, and returned to their bases to load up with fresh coal. Early on the morning of the 17th all three elements sortied again, because signals intelligence indicated that the Germans had gone to sea.

Two Splendid Cats, Lion (left) and Princess Royal, anchored at Rosyth.

Upon its return from Operation 25, the High Seas Fleet had begun preparations for Operation 26, in which two cruisers would lay minefields on the Swarte Bank in the south-western portion of the North Sea, off the coast of Norfolk. Covered closely by the four operational battle cruisers of First Scouting Group – Seydlitz had returned to the fleet on 13 April after trials in the Baltic – and more distantly by the High Seas Fleet itself, the cruisers Strassburg and Stralsund laid their mines on the night of 17 April under the darkness of the new moon, and then the Germans returned to Wilhelmshaven.

The selected target, Swarte Bank, was fairly close to the English coast, but farther south than the Dogger Bank. The Grand Fleet’s sweep turned back for home well before coming close to the Germans, probing about half-way from Scapa Flow to Wilhelmshaven. Unlike other such operations, Jellicoe kept all three elements fairly close together, indicating that he probably expected to meet the Germans at sea. But no Germans were sighted, only a submarine, and after gunnery exercises held east of the Shetland Islands the fleet broke up on the night of the 20th to return to its bases, with its two additional pre-dreadnoughts and their escorts heading back to the Channel Fleet.

The 30-mile-long minefield had been intended to catch British warships deploying from Harwich into the North Sea; it failed to impede British naval movements but did sink at least three fishing trawlers in the months that followed. British minesweepers had cleared most of the mines by June.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published more books, games and articles on historical subjects than anyone should. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his Iron Dog, Leopold.

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