The Battle of Heligoland Bight (1914)

churchill and tirpitz 2

Alfred von Tirpitz and Winston Churchill

Map

Battle of Heligoland Bight (28th Aug 1914)

Entente – 5 battlecruisers, 8 light cruisers, 33 destroyers, 8 submarines

Central Powers – 6 light cruisers, 19 torpedo boats, 12 minesweepers

Result – Entente victory

Losses

Entente – 1 light cruiser and 3 destroyers damaged. 35 dead, 45 wounded

Central Powers – 3 light cruisers, 1 destroyer, 2 torpedo boats sunk and 3 light cruisers, 3 destroyers damaged. 715 dead, 149 wounded, 338 POW.

This was the first full-scale naval battle of the Great War.

By the end of Aug 1914, the war on land for the Entente looked grim. On the western front, the Germans had overrun Belgium, and in the east, they had turned inflicted such a defeat at the battle of Tannenberg that the Russian commander, Gen Alexander Samsonov, shot himself.

The war at sea was a different story. As soon as war was declared all the telegraph cables between Germany and the outside world were cut. A minefield was laid across the Straits of Dover with lanes patrolled by submarines and airships. The North Sea was declared a war zone patrolled by destroyers, submarines and weaponised trawlers. A blockade was imposed on all goods, even food and medicine. Germany’s GDP was the 2nd highest in the world in 1914, but the blockade ended the multi-billion dollar trade with the Americas and crippled the economy.

To counter bad news from France, First Sea Lord Winston Churchill a ordered a flotilla from Harwich to ambush a regular patrol north of the main German base at Willhelshaven.

Attacking in patchy fog, they achieved complete surprise and despite poor visibility, sheer weight of numbers won out and the Germans took heavy losses. In the final action, two German cruisers, SMS Arethusa and the flagship Cöln, were caught by the flagship of Grand Fleet, the 26,000 ton HMS Lion and sunk, with the dead including the German Commander Rear Admiral Leberecht Maas. The British picked up over 300 German survivors before withdrawing, including Wolfgang von Tirpitz, son of Winston Churchill’s opposite number in the Kreigsmarine – Großadmiral Alfred von Tirpitz.

The Entente followed a containment policy in the North Sea from this point on and relied on the long term effect of the economic blockade to cause the most harm to the enemy. By the wars end, 400,000 German civilians would be dead from shortages of food and medicines; the biggest impact came from the end of imported fertilisers which caused agricultural yields to fall at a time when Germany needed to become self-sufficient in food.

The Germans for their part realised the futility of trying to match the British ship for ship. Instead they looked to attack commerce with surface raiders stationed in the oceans and the new naval weapon, and the one for which the Kriegsmarine would become famous – the U-Boat.

 

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