The Battle of Dogger Bank, Part Four
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
At the tail end of the German line, the armored cruiser Blücher finally began to suffer from the effects of British heavy shellfire. About 50 minutes after the battle had begun in earnest, two heavy shells struck her port side almost exactly amidships. They both penetrated her light armor and exploded.
Poor design now doomed the armored cruiser. Blücher had six main armament turrets, but only four magazines. The two turrets in the forward “wing” positions did not have their own magazines (the ship lacked internal space for them because of her old-style triple-expansion engines. Conveyor belts carried shells from the aft wing turrets’ magazines to the forward wing turrets, and only thin armor protected the conveyor belts. At least one of the British shells exploded in the port-side ammunition conveyor, and the flash from that explosion erupted into both port-side wing turrets, instantly killing every man in both of the turrets and their shell-handling rooms.
The force of the explosions temporarily knocked all of Blücher’s engines out of service and jammed her steering gear. As she veered off to port, another shell knocked out her forward turret and started a large fire. She radioed Hipper that all engines were out of action, but her remaining gun crews continued to fight their weapons.
Aboard Lion, all but two signal halyards had been shot away and without electrical power Beatty could not flash messages to his squadron. Making things worse, the two staff officers charged with sending signals were inexperienced at the specialty and not particularly competent. Even so, he directed that a complex set of orders be sent out, directing his squadron to avoid a submarine Beatty believed that he personally had sighted - but the signal made no mention of a u-boat, only a course change. Beatty directed Indomitable, his slowest heavy ship and one with no hope of catching even the slow-moving German battle cruisers, to turn north toward Blücher and finish off the stricken armored cruiser. His three remaining battle cruisers were to pursue the German battle cruisers and engage them. None of his ships received the full messages, though Indomitable’s Capt. Francis Kennedy correctly guessed Beatty’s intent and turned his ship to attack Blücher.
Lion leads the British battle cruisers at Dogger Bank.
Both Royal Navy practice, which deferred to the “senior office present,” and Beatty’s own overbearing style of command assured that his captains and his second in command, Rear Admiral Sir Archibald Moore aboard New Zealand, would attempt to interpret Beatty’s intent rather than exert their own initiative. Not knowing about the false submarine sighting, they each either decided on their own or followed their neighbors to attack Blücher. Soon Beatty and his staff watched helplessly as all four of his intact ships pounded the hapless armored cruiser.
That interpretation had some logic behind it; the British battle cruiser squadrons’ standing orders directed them to concentrate their fire on damaged or slowed enemy ships, and Blücher definitely counted as both of those.
Aboard Seydlitz, Hipper and his staff had no better explanation for what the British were doing than did Beatty. To the horror of his chief of staff, Erich von Raeder, and his flag captain, Moritz von Egidy, Hipper announced that they would turn back to save Blücher, with all three remaining battle cruisers engaging the British heavy ships simultaneously with a torpedo attack by their accompanying light cruisers and torpedo boats. Egidy argued that Seydlitz was nearly out of ammunition while Derfflinger had already begun firing high-explosive shells as she’d used all of her armor-piercing rounds. For his part, Raeder suggested that his admiral was placing sentiment ahead of tactical sense.
Moltke has inflicted serious damage on the British flagship Lion.
Hipper came to his senses, and ordered all of his remaining ships to turn to the south-east, abandoning Blücher to the British. The destroyer Attack transferred Beatty from the stricken Lion to the undamaged Princess Royal, but by the time the admiral arrived on the bridge it was far too late to resume the pursuit of the Germans. He briefly turned the battle cruisers toward the south-east, but on a report that the High Seas Fleet had sortied he turned them back around the shepherd Lion back to Britain.
Blücher meanwhile absorbed up to 70 heavy shell hits and at least seven torpedoes before she rolled over and sank, taking at least 700 men with her, possibly more - because of the additional stokes and crewmen from Von der Tann, the Germans did not have an accurate count of how many sailors set forth on her last mission. Her crew worked the guns until her last moments, and even launched a torpedo at her tormenters.
British destroyers closed with the sinking ship to rescue survivors, taking on 234 men including her captain, Alexander Erdmann, who died of pneumonia a few days later. While the rescue went on a German seaplane flew over and tossed several bombs at the motionless British vessels. Commodore William Goodenough of the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron ordered them to leave the remaining sailors behind, but the light cruiser Arethusa and destroyer Lookout - both of the Harwich Force and not his command - ignored the order and continued fishing men out of the water until they could find no more.
The last moments of the armored cruiser Blücher.
Meanwhile, the British had to bring the badly wounded Lion home. Her speed steadily dropped as salt-water contamination shut down her boilers, and eventually Indomitable took up a tow while the rest of the British force surrounded them as an escort. Repair crews eventually managed to coax seven knots out of Lion’s power plant, and two days after the battle the wrecked battle cruiser was safely anchored in Rosyth.
The Germans missed their chance to finish off Lion; rather than scout for the British, the zeppelin L5 remained hovering over the German squadron. Hipper contemplated a night attack by his torpedo boats, but the zeppelin had reported four British battle cruisers steaming away, and as the Germans believed that Tiger had exploded this accounted for all of their ships. They did not know that Lion had been stricken, and their submarines made no contact beyond the British destroyers probing the Helgoland Bight.
Seydlitz would be under repair until 1 April, and after working up she re-joined the First Scouting Group on the 13th. The battle cruiser’s gunnery officer pointed out that all of the shell-handling arrangements that had almost caused her catastrophic loss had been according to regulations. “If we lose 190 men and almost the ship in accordance with regulations,” Egidy replied, “then they are somehow wrong.”
On Egidy’s recommendation, the High Seas Fleet made major changes to their shell-handling that would prove crucial at the Battle of Jutland sixteen months later. The British did not.
Like Seydlitz, Lion remained out of action until April, though her repairs were delayed by the Admiralty’s desire to keep her damage secret. Temporary concrete patches could only be removed with explosives, also contributing to the delay.
Beatty had won a victory, but it had been a hollow one as he felt that his squadron should have been able to run down the Germans and inflict still greater losses on them. The result had been a clear defeat for the Germans. They had lost one major ship and almost lost another. Hipper and Raeder somehow kept their jobs, but High Seas Fleet commander Friedrich von Ingenohl and his chief of staff Vice Admiral Richard Eckermann were fired on the orders of an infuriated Kaiser Wilhelm.
Ingenohl’s replacement, Hugo von Pohl, was an advocate of unrestricted submarine warfare and saw the High Seas Fleet’s role as supporting that effort. Most popular histories skip over his term, simply stating that the fleet made no sorties during his time in command. That’s not at all true, but that’s another story.
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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.