The Yarmouth Raid

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
June 2019

Since the beginning of the war, High Seas Fleet commander Friedrich von Ingenohl had contemplated using torpedo boats for a quick raid against southern England. The great risk he saw would be British forces from Harwich cutting them off from their bases in Germany. Once the German Army had captured the Belgian ports facing the English Channel and naval support units had made them ready for use, that problem faded – in case of interception, the torpedo boats could run for Ostend or Zeebrugge instead of Germany.

British pre-dreadnoughts, soon joined by monitors, had begun bombarding the newly-won German positions along the Belgian coast. Meanwhile, British minelayers attempted to seal off the Belgian ports with mines. Ingenohl hatched a scheme to use torpedo boats to drop mines off the English ports used by the bombarding squadron in hopes of catching the big, slow ships at their bases.

Led by Commander Georg Thiele, four torpedo boats set out, each carrying a dozen mines. They promptly ran into the British light cruiser Undaunted, patrolling with four destroyers to prevent just such an incursion. The British ships were faster than Thiele’s and eventually ran them down, sinking all four. They also seized the German hospital ship Ophelia, sent to search for survivors, ending the use of such ships by either side.

The disaster put enormous political pressure on Ingenohl within the Imperial Navy. Morale within the High Seas Fleet palpably dropped after the loss of the torpedo boats while the battleships had remained at anchor. State Secretary Alfred von Tirpitz, the head of the naval service, wrote to demand action “not so much as a matter of battle as for prestige after the war.” Fearing for his job, Ingenohl asked Imperial permission for Kriegsaufgabe 19, what he described as a minelaying operation supported by the battle cruisers. The Kaiser assented, with the caveat that careful reconnaissance by seaplane and zeppelin be carried out first.

Following the submarine-induced sinking of three armored cruisers in September, the British had withdrawn heavy ships from patrols in the southern North Sea. That created a gap through which Franz Hipper would take the First and Second Scouting Groups (the Scouting Forces’ battle cruisers and light cruisers), leaving their attached torpedo flotillas behind. One of the light cruisers would drop a minefield, thus fulfilling the stated purpose of the mission, but the real objective would be a bombardment of the English port of Yarmouth by the battle cruisers.

Georg Thiele's torpedo boats attempt to escape the British.

To support them, Ingenohl would take the High Seas Fleet’s dreadnoughts to sea, but only to the edge of the Helgoland Bight (just north of the Dutch-German border). The pre-dreadnoughts and coast defense ships would be left behind, but all available armored cruisers, light cruisers and torpedo boats would come along. In their place Ingenohl had added the new dreadnought Grosser Kurfürst, probably worth all of them put together.

Hipper could not depart immediately, as his flagship Seydlitz went into the Imperial Dockyard on 18 October for what turned out to be a series of bent turbine blades. The repair itself was not difficult, but the armored decks and the turbine casing had to be opened, keeping the big cruiser in drydock until the 27th. After her return to service she required several trials of her turbines, delaying the operation until the first days of November.

The operation came at a favorable moment for the balance of power in the North Sea. Following the loss of Hogue, Cressy and Aboukir to submarine attack, Sir John Jellicoe had moved the Grand Fleet’s battle squadrons to Lough Swilly in Northern Ireland as Scapa Flow was not considered secure from submarine penetration. Unknown to the Germans, the dreadnought Audacious had been lost to a mine on 27 October. Heavy use of the surviving ships had begun to tell: Orion, Conqueror and New Zealand were all in drydock, while Iron Duke and Ajax were under repair for condenser troubles. Jellicoe had received the new dreadnoughts Agincourt and Erin, but the crews of the formerly Turkish ships had had no gunnery practice and needed time to work together before they would become effective.

Hipper's flagship Seydlitz.

Hipper’s cruisers left Wilhelmshaven as darkness fell on 2 November, and slipped undetected through the patrolling British light cruisers and destroyers. As the sun rose they encountered a single minesweeper supported by several destroyers; they exchanged fire and somehow the minesweeper survived unscathed.

While the big ships engaged the tiny ship, the cruiser Stralsund laid a strong of mines off the port. They would sink a British submarine and three fishing trawlers over the course of the next 12 hours, and then be marked and swept.

Even as the Germans fired on the minesweeper, the bombardment of Yarmouth began. Hipper had designated the coastal artillery batteries as the target, but these had been removed from Yarmouth some weeks before and sent to the front. According to von der Tann’s gunnery officer, Erich Mahrholz, only a distant chimney could be sighted through the thick fog. Using that as their aiming point, the battle cruisers deducted 800 meters from the estimated range and opened fire. The shells fell on the beach, as intended, but caused no harm.

“The fire would be short in any case,” Mahrholz wrote after the war, “which appeared necessary to me with the poor visibility and inaccuracy of the range measurement.”

Planning for the operation had overlooked another crucial factor: the German battle cruisers set out on a bombardment mission without high-explosive ammunition, forcing them to lob armor-piercing rounds at the Yarmouth beach. This may have been intentional to keep the Admiralstab in the dark, since the mission wasn’t supposed to include a bombardment, only cover for a mine-laying expedition.

After only a few rounds had been fired, the left-hand barrel of Seydlitz’s C turret exploded. That was enough for Hipper, who turned for home after ten minutes’ worth of bombardment (half that long for his stricken flagship Seydlitz). The Admiralty could not fathom why the Germans had made the effort just to plow up a short stretch of English beach, and dithered for two hours before deciding to make them pay for the affront. The Grand Fleet, battle cruisers, Harwich flotillas and Channel Fleet were all ordered to pursue. Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt of the Harwich command had already ordered his cruisers and destroyers on patrol duty to chase Hipper.

The light cruiser Undaunted caught up with the Germans and tried to entice them into turning round to pursue her, without luck. Ingenohl had already turned back, assuming that Hipper would break contact successfully, and Hipper had no intention of meeting Beatty, the Grand Fleet or even the Channel Fleet without his boss’ squadrons at his back.

The German battle cruisers off Yarmouth.

The ease with which the British caught the Scouting Groups troubled Hipper, who forwarded reports to Ingenohl from captains Max Hahn of von der Tann and Moritz von Egidy of Seydlitz complaining of the quality of their ships’ coal. Egidy claimed that his ship could not top 21 knots without making smoke, and then only for short periods. Hahn reported that his ship had trouble keeping station with the other battle cruisers, also attributing this to “bad coal.”

Before the war, Germany had imported very hard English coal from Newcastle for use by the High Seas Fleet. Harder coal (of purer carbon) generates more energy per ton burned, and with fewer impurities it produces less smoke and fewer sparks. Even the best German coal – which it appears had not been delivered to the fleet – could not match that from across the North Sea. Eventually the Germans would add oil sprayers to their boilers to help boost their temperatures, but this was not a satisfactory solution.

Ingenohl held his ships in Schillig Roads outside the bar separating Jade Bay from the sea, but the armored cruiser Yorck’s captain asked permission to take his ship into harbor to deal with machinery trouble. She passed on the wrong side of the pilot vessel and struck two German mines, sinking quickly with the loss of 336 men. Yorck had a reputation as an unlucky ship, suffering fatal accidents in 1911, 1912 and 1913.

The first attack against English soil in over a century had barely managed to attack English soil. The Kaiser insisted that Hipper accept the Iron Cross for the operation; embarrassed to receive a decoration for achieving exactly nothing, the admiral kept it in its presentation box and refused to wear it. Morale within the High Seas Fleet did not improve, while the British had not been cowed, merely puzzled. A more aggressive action would be needed to impress both audiences.

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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.