Helgoland Bight, Part Two

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
June 2019

The action began in Part One.

The action soon heated up again, as torpedo boat V187 became trapped between the British destroyer and despite desperate attempts to escape was sunk in a hail of gunfire. Stettin set out to save her; she arrived too late to rescue the torpedo boat but drove off her attackers. Those fleeing destroyers encountered Roger Keyes of the submarine flotilla, swanning about the battle area with his command’s two attached destroyers. Keyes radioed Sir Archibald Moore of Force K, noting that he was pursued by four enemy cruisers and was heading toward Moore’s two battle cruisers, unaware that Moore had joined Sir David Beatty’s First Battle Cruiser Squadron which now had a total of five such ships. As Beatty moved slowly into the battle area to assure that Keyes could find him, Tyrwhitt brought the Harwich Flotilla as well to save Keyes.

That proved unnecessary when Keyes’ pursuers turned out to be British. Following repairs to the stricken Arethusa the Harwich forces turned for home shortly after 1000, and once again it appeared that the battle had concluded. And once again, this was not the case.

Leberecht Maass had a peacetime reputation as a fine naval tactician, but showed none of those qualities as he approached with three light cruisers. Rather than concentrating his force, Maass sent the cruisers to attack as soon as they sighted the enemy, and a series of disjointed skirmishes broke out between Maass’ separate cruisers and the Harwich flotillas. Mistaking one of the German cruisers for the armored cruiser Roon, Tyrwhitt urgently radioed Beatty for assistance. The admiral hesitated, unsure whether more German heavy ships lurked in the mists – tidal tables for the bar blocking large ships from leaving the Jade at low water were readily available in commercial pilot guides, but none of Beatty’s staff seem to have thought to check.

“What do you think we should do?” Beatty asked his flag captain, Ernle Chatfield. “I ought to go and support Tyrwhitt, but if I lose one of these valuable ships the country will never forgive me.”

“Surely we must go,” Chatfield replied, admitting decades later in his memoir that, not being responsible for the decision, he simply sought excitement.

And so they went. Beatty brought his five battle cruisers into line ahead formation and rang up 27 knots, ordering the attached First Light Cruiser squadron’s six ships into action as well. Moore’s two older battle cruisers, New Zealand and Invincible, fell behind as Beatty charged ahead with his three “Splendid Cats” (Lion, Princess Royal and Queen Mary).

Light cruiser Mainz sinks as a British destroyer approaches to aid survivors.

The light cruisers arrived first, joining the Harwich destroyers to pursue the light cruiser Mainz. A boiler room hit brought the German cruiser to a halt, followed by a torpedo. The entire ship was soon ablaze, yet her crew continued to work their guns and the British poured shells into her. She ceased fire and the British began to take off survivors as Maass appeared with the light cruisers Cöln and Strassburg, followed shortly by Beatty’s three battle cruisers and then a third German light cruiser, Ariadne.

Strassburg escaped into the fog but a rain of heavy shells wrecked Ariadne. Two more German cruisers arrived, with Danzig pulling alongside Ariadne to take off survivors and Stralsund engaging the British light cruisers. Hipper’s two available battle cruisers had finally crossed the bar and entered the battle zone, and he ordered the light ships to fall back to join them. Cöln turned too early, emerging from a fog bank to find Lion only 4,000 yards away. Both ships opened fire, with the German ship getting off 200 rounds of 105mm shells, those that hit bouncing off Lion’s thick hide, before the battle cruiser’s 13.5-inch guns destroyed her.

The British now turned to escort their crippled ships back to port, while High Seas Fleet commander Friedrich von Ingenohl ordered the battle cruisers not to engage their British counterparts; Hipper sent a somewhat different order, telling Rear Admiral Rolf Tapken in Moltke to wait for him to arrive with Seydlitz before seeking battle with Beatty.

And so the battle finally ended, with the British have won a victory despite their own efforts to create a disaster. German casualties topped 1,200 killed, wounded and missing along with three light cruisers and a torpedo boat; the British lost 35 killed and 40 wounded, and all ships returned to base. Leberecht Maass numbered among the dead, and Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz’s son Wolfgang among those taken prisoner.

“All they saw was that the British did not hesitate to hazard their greatest vessels as well as their light craft in the most daring offensive action and had escaped apparently unscathed,” First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill wrote later. “The Germans knew nothing of our defective staff work or the risks we had run.”

The Grand Fleet’s leaders disagreed. The battle cruisers had been drawn into an area known to be frequented by German submarines, and suspected to have been heavily mined.

“If I had lost a Battle Cruiser I should have been hanged, drawn and quartered,” Beatty said later. “Yet it was necessary to run the risk to save two of our light cruisers and a large force of destroyers which otherwise would most certainly have been lost.”

Livid over the near-disaster, Commodore William Goodenough of First Light Cruiser Squadron took his complaints to Second Sea Lord Sir Frederick Hamilton, who oversaw personnel. Hamilton declined to confront Churchill and demand the firing of Keyes and Tyrwhitt. “The more one hears of that affair,” Rear Admiral Alexander Duff, Hamilton’s assistant as head of the Mobilisation Division, noted in his diary, “the more one realizes that it was a case of good luck and bad management.”

“I think an absurd fuss was made over that small affair,” Keyes wrote to Goodenough, implicitly tossing his superiors under the proverbial bus. “If you had only known what we were aiming at, had had an opportunity of discussing it with Tyrwhitt and me . . . we might have sunk at least six cruisers.”

Jellicoe took the opportunity to lay down stricter control of this own fleet, but the outcome made it impossible to clear out those responsible for the near-disaster: Churchill, Sturdee, Tyrwhitt and Keyes.

Taking survivors off Mainz. Sketch by William Wyatt.

On the German side, the failure to provide any heavy support for the cruiser-torpedo boat patrols fell on many shoulders, effectively protecting everyone responsible from the consequences of their poor planning. The Kaiser placed tighter controls on the High Seas Fleet’s deployments while Ingenohl ordered thick minefields sown and the cruiser patrols withdrawn. Submarines would also be stationed in the Bight, and the patrol duty turned over to expendable trawlers and minesweepers.

The Battle of Helgoland Bight exposed another problem: the lighter weapons of German torpedo boats and cruisers (88mm and 105mm guns, respectively) were badly out-classed by the 4-inch and 6-inch guns of their British counterparts. No matter how well the guns might be served – and the German crews shot very well – the gunners’ skill could not make up for the huge shortfall in range and shell weight.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold enjoys the occasional dog biscuit.