The Battle of Heligoland Bight (1914)

churchill and tirpitz 2

Alfred von Tirpitz and Winston Churchill


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


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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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