The Great War – Middle East Front

Middle East Theatre v1

The First U-Boat Sinkings of the Great War.


The Battle of the Broad Fourteens (22 Sept 1914)

Entente : 3 cruisers
Central Powers : 1 U-Boat
Result : Central Powers victory

Losses :
Entente : 3 cruisers sunk, 1,459 dead
Central Powers : None

Known also as The Action of 22nd Sept 1914, it was fought about 25m northwest of Hoek van Holland over a submerged Doggerland plateau 14 fathoms below the surface. It appears on naval charts as a line of 14’s – hence The Broad Fourteens.

After the disastrous first patrol in the opening days of the war (2 boats lost, no Entente ships damaged), the U-Boats needed a success to prove their worth. It wasn’t long coming.

In early Sept 1914, U-21 commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Hersing was sent on patrol to the North Sea between Scotland and Norway. His orders were to harass Entente shipping and gather intelligence on ships enforcing the blockade. U-21 was part of the latest class of diesel-powered submarines commissioned by the Kriegsmarine, more reliable and with a longer range; she had a crew of 29. On 5th Sep, U-21 encountered armoured cruiser HMS Pathfinder near the Isle of May in the mouth of the Forth Estuary, Scotland. The U-Boat attacked and the torpedo struck Pathfinder causing the magazine to detonate and the ship to explode; she capsized and sank within 5 minutes. Total British casualties – 261 dead. This was the first successful submarine attack of the conflict.

Two weeks later on the 22nd Sept, U-9 commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddingen was making across the North Sea to attack troopships carrying British re-enforcements to the beleaguered Entente garrison in Ostend, Belgium when he encountered three obsolete pre-dreadnaught era cruisers, HMS Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy. Weddingen attacked and hit Aboukir from a range of 500 metres. Not seeing any submarines, the British thought they had struck a mine and the other ships stopped to help. Thirty minutes later as Aboukir was sinking, U-9 torpedoed HMS Hogue, which also began to sink. However, the inexperienced U-Boat crew had fired from too shallow a depth and as the torpedoes left, the sub briefly lifted out of the water where she was spotted by Cressy, who opened fire. U-9 submerged again and, 20 mins later torpedoed HMS Cressy as well. Total British dead 1,429.

During the battle Wenman Wykeham-Musgrave, a midshipman on HMS Aboukir, became the only man in history known to have been torpedoed three times on the same day. He swam away from Aboukir as it was sinking, was picked up by HMS Hogue and torpedoed a second time then swam to HMS Cressy and was torpedoed again. He was found later that day by a Dutch trawler, barely alive, clinging to a piece of driftwood. Dutch steamers and trawlers picked up about 400 survivors.

Weddingen returned to a heroes welcome in Germany, where he was awarded the Iron Cross. He was killed in Mar 1915 when in command of U-29, which was rammed by HMS Dreadnaught in the Pentland Firth between John O’Groats and Orkney killing all 29 men on board.

Copyright ©2017 Savereo John


The First Air-Raid on Britain in WW2


HMS Southampton, Edinburgh and Mohawk by the Forth Bridge


Battle of the River Forth (16th Oct 1939)
Allied : 6 – 12 Supermarine Spitfires, 2 cruisers and 1 destroyer at anchor
Axis : 12 Junkers 88

Allied : Three ships damaged, 16 dead, 44 wounded
Axis : 2 Junkers shot down, 1 damaged. 8 dead, 4 POW
Result : Axis victory

British air attacks on German coastal targets began on the same day as war was declared, 3rd Sep 1939, and targeted military and merchant shipping in the North Sea and Heligoland Bight. Very little damage was done and no ships sunk for losses in bombers of over 30%; to be frank, the raids’ main value was as an unwitting live fire exercise for the Germans to tighten up their defences.

Hitler was at first reluctant to countenance heavy air attacks against Britain; in these early days of the war he still hoped that the British would come to their senses and reach an accommodation with him rather than risk another conflagration like 1914-18. Added to this both sides had an eye to neutral opinion elsewhere in the world, particularly the USA, and trod carefully in their selection of targets. Just as with the Baedecker raids and the V-weapons program later in the war, Germany launched this raid as a retaliation for the earlier British attacks. Even so, 6 weeks had elapsed before the first German attempt to attack the British coast with aircraft took place.

At 09.40 on the 16th, the radar station at Coldingham detected aircraft approaching the Forth Estuary in Scotland. Ground observation confirmed a Heinkel 111 at high altitude over Dunfermline heading towards Rosyth naval base, a major installation with many ships at anchor; protected by anti-aircraft batteries and a fighter squadron nearby at RAF Leuchers. Three spitfires led by FL George Pinkerton were scrambled to intercept and spotted the aircraft as it was turning away, having photographed the ships in the estuary. Pinkerton opened fire, but the Heinkel dove into a cloud bank and contact was lost – it returned safely to its base on the German island of Sylt, near the Danish border, at that time the closest Luftwafe base to Britain. Those were the first shots of the air war over Britain.

Heikel and JU88

Junkers 88 and Heinkel 111

The plane radioed that it had spotted several warships in the estuary including a battleship, which they thought was HMS Hood – actually it was the Repulse. About two hours later, 12 JU88’s, each carrying 2 500kg bombs, and led by Hauptmann Helmuth Poule took off from Sylt to attack the ships. The JU88 was designed as a multi role aircraft, used for reconnaissance, anti-submarine, bombing and as a night fighter. Its slow speed and lack of a tail gun however made it vulnerable to fighters – over 300 were shot down in the battle of Britain, more than any other aircraft.

As the Luftwafe formation approached the coast, it split up into 3 waves of 4 aircraft each, which separated and attacked the target from different direction. Radar picked them up at 14.00 and Spitfires were scrambled from Leuchars; the RAF managed to get 20+ machines into the air, but most were spread out across east-central Scotland trying to find the bombers and took no part in the battle. Consequently, the first wave was able to attack before being intercepted. Repulse was docked in Rosyth by now, as was aircraft carrier HMS Furious, but Poule’s orders forbade attacks near built up areas. Instead he attacked 2 light cruisers, HMS Southampton and Edinburgh anchored by the Forth Bridge and a destroyer HMS Mohawk, heading for the base. A civilian travelling on a train crossing the bridge witnessed the raid

“ …. there was a giant waterspout as high as the bridge alongside one of the capital ships and a barge tied up alongside; it seemed to fly up in the air! In later life I discovered it was HMS Southampton. There were two or three other explosions further off and one of the ships was actually struck.”

In fact, all three ships were hit; Mohawk took the most damage with 13 dead. Southampton also took a direct hit, but the bomb passed through the ship and out the other side, finally detonating when it hit the water. As the second wave arrived, the Spitfires intercepted them and a running air battle developed over the estuary and the Pentland Hills, south of Edinburgh, with 2 Junkers shot down and 1 damaged; that aircraft made it back to Sylt, but crashed on landing killing all 4 of the crew.

The British press presented the incident as a victory, but in reality it was anything but that. The RAF squadrons contained a high proportion of auxiliaries, basically reservists only just called up; none had ever been in combat before. Also, the squadrons had only recently been upgraded to Spitfires; 6 months earlier they were still flying Gloucester Gladiator biplanes. The Luftwafe men however were all veterans of the Polish campaign; their superior tactics and skill in the attack were very apparent.

Despite powerful fighters and radar, raid had reached Rosyth naval base. HMS Repulse and Furious were recently docked and had their full complements on board – 2,000+ men and were sitting ducks. Where it not for Hitler’s early scruples about bombing built up areas in Britain, there might have been a mini Pearl Harbour that day. A year later, during the Blitz, 12 lumbering JU88s in daylight with no fighter cover would have been easy meat for the RAF – they would have got every one.

Copyright ©2017 Savereo John

The first U-Boat attack of the Great War


HMS Birmingham and U-15

On the 1st Aug 1914, 4 days before Britain’s declaration of war, the Central Powers deployed a force of ten U-Boats – one third of their strength – into the North Sea for reconnaissance. Submarines at that time had yet to prove themselves as effective weapons platforms, being thought useless novelties by many commanders on both sides. In truth, nobody then had any real notion as to how effective the submarine could be. It was realised that, although a submarine was almost immobile and practically blind while submerged, until the development of depth charges by Britain in 1915, there was nothing a surface ship could do until the sub re-surfaced. Once on the surface though, they were easy targets for even a small ship. Nonetheless, the world’s largest submarine force in 1914 was the British with 65 boats and the second largest was the French with 55, however some of the Entente hardware was ageing. Germany by comparison had only 28 submarines, but they were of more modern types.

On the 8th Aug, near Fair Isle, halfway between Orkney and Shetland, the British 2nd Battle Squadron from Scapa Flow, consisting of seven large battleships, were engaged in gunnery practice when they were spotted by German submarine U-15. The U-Boat fired a torpedo at the nearest ship, HMS Monarch, a 26,000 ton Orion-class super-dreadnought with a crew of 1,000. U-15, in comparison, was a 500 ton experimental paraffin-fueled boat and had a crew of 23. Unfortunately for the attackers, the experimental torpedo ran too deep and passed harmlessly under the battleship; the British ships were alerted, but U-15 was able to escape.

The following day, light cruiser HMS Birmingham, commanded by Captain Arthur Duff, part of the screen of ships protecting the battleships, was sailing through thick fog near Fair Isle when it suddenly encountered U-15 on the surface. Most likely the U-Boat had suffered engine failure, the paraffin engines in those early subs were notoriously unreliable; the inexperienced crew had failed to post any lookouts. Birmingham opened fire and the German crew belatedly attempted a crash dive, but it was too late, with full steam up Birmingham rammed U-15, which broke in two and went down with all hands; the first U-Boat to be lost in the conflict. The remaining submarines returned to base shortly after, but lost another boat, most likely to a mine.

This inauspicious debut for the submarine only encouraged those, especially on the British side, who believed that they were practically useless against powerful surface ships. The real lesson, not lost on the Germans, was that most of the time a big battleship is at sea, it’s an easy target for a submarine; and more big ships just meant more targets. Total German casualties – 23 dead.


Copyright ©2017 Savereo John

Heligoland Bight (1914 and 1939)

Heligoland Bight