Clash of the battlecruisers

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10 February 2022
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German torpedo boat destroyers close in on HMS Tiger in order to fire torpedos at point blank range German torpedo boat destroyers close in on HMS Tiger in order to fire torpedos at point blank range
Dogger Bank 1915 was the first time that capital ships of the Royal Navy and Imperial Germany met on equal terms, as Graham Caldwell explains.

On 16 December 1914, four German battlecruisers of the High Seas Scouting Force (HSSF) lead by Rear Admiral Franz von Hipper, lobbed a total of 1,150 shells into the east-coast towns of Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough causing 529 civilian casualties. Waiting over the horizon, east of Dogger Bank, was Admiral Gustav von Ingenohl, commander the High Seas Fleet (HSF) with a total of 22 dreadnoughts. He was hoping that the bombardment by, seemingly, only four ships would draw out a part of the British Grand Fleet which he could then ambush and destroy piecemeal. The opportunity on this first attempt failed only because Ingenohl was mindful of the Kaiser’s orders not to place the fleet in jeopardy. Incorrectly fearing he was about to encounter the advance guard of the whole of the Grand Fleet, Ingenohl subsequently lost his nerve and reversed course back to Germany. Had he continued, his overwhelming force would have engaged only four British battlecruisers that were about to arrive on the scene. 

The controversial all big gun battlecruiser was the invention of Admiral ‘Jackie’ Fisher, the first of which was launched in 1908 and by December 1914 the Royal Navy had ten fully operational. Battlecruisers were identical to battleships in armament (aka as Dreadnoughts) having 12in or 13.5in guns, plus displacement of around 20,000t displacement, but they sacrificed armour for speed in order to achieve between 26kt and 30kt dependent on class. The concept was that they could catch anything they could sink, but could speedily run away from the more heavily protected battleships. Consequently, battlecruisers were never meant to sail in the line of battle and slug it out with enemy battleships, but instead scout ahead, sink smaller enemy ships and make a fast departure. Germany soon followed suit and by December 1914 had built six, the first of which, launched in 1909, was SMS Blücher. However, British intelligence allowed information to leak out that their new Invincible class would have only 9.2in guns, thus Blücher was built at only 15,500t displacement with 8.2in guns, making it more akin to an outdated armoured cruiser.  

 

SMS Seydlitz, Hipper’s flagship and one of the Germany’s most modern battlecruisers, survived tremendous punishment at Dogger Bank putting her out of action for three months (colour by Irooptoko jnr)German High Seas Fleet strategy

The High Seas Fleet was never in a position to challenge the Grand Fleet in an all-out battle due to the relative size of each navy. The German naval command knew this, which is why its strategy was to lure individual squadrons of the Royal Navy out through commerce raids and shore bombardment using their High Seas Scouting Force of fast battlecruisers, shadowed by the High Seas Fleet. Then, at the appropriate moment, engage in superior numbers any inferior British squadron sent out to intercept. The flaw in the German strategy was that their naval wireless codes had been cracked by British Naval Intelligence, so when the HSF headed into the North Sea, expecting to find only Vice Admiral David Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Force (BCF) of five or six battlecruisers, plus accompanying light cruisers and destroyers, they actually found themselves unexpectedly face-to-face with the entire Grand Fleet and in the worst tactical position.

 

The modern battlecruiser SMS Derfflinger underway. She was launched only the year before with a main armament of eight-12in guns (colour by Irooptoko jnr)

 

Left: The modern battlecruiser SMS Derfflinger underway. She was launched only the year before with a main armament of eight-12in guns (colour by Irooptoko jnr)

 

 

 

 

 

Boyed by the near-success of the previous December’s bombardment plan, Hipper again put to sea for another reconnaissance in force on 23 January 1915 to seek and search British fishing vessels off the Dogger Bank area of the North Sea. They were suspected of sending sighting reports back to the Grand Fleet, plus destroying enemy light forces they might meet, having no clue that the real cause was that their naval codes had been compromised. The HSSF comprised the new 25,000t battlecruisers SMS Seydlitz, Moltke and Derfflinger, the former two armed with ten 11in guns and Derfflinger with eight 12in guns, plus SMS Blücher, four light cruisers and 18 torpedo boat destroyers. Ingenohl, with the High Seas Fleet, would cover Hipper’s withdrawal. The squadron’s fourth battlecruiser, SMS Von der Tann, was missing due to urgently needed repairs. Even before the ships had cleared German home waters, wireless intercepts had made the British aware of their movements. The Grand Fleet immediately sailed from Scapa Flow at 9pm on 23 January 1915, but would not be over the Dogger Bank until the afternoon of the following day. Beatty’s BCF departed Rosyth in the Firth of Forth at 7.05am on 24 January, (which was 270 miles nearer to Dogger Bank than Scapa Flow) to intercept Hipper’s fleet. This comprised the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron (BCS) of HMS Lion (flagship) HMS Tiger and HMS Princess Royal; the 2nd BCS of Rear Admiral Archibald Moore in HMS New Zealand, plus HMS Indomitable (HMS Australia was currently indisposed) the entire fleet supported by seven light cruisers and 35 destroyers.

 

The battlecruiser SMS Moltke survived the war, only to be scuttled by her own crew at Scapa Flow in 1919. She was later raised and scrapped between 1927 and 1929 (colour by Irooptoko jnr)

 

Right: The battlecruiser SMS Moltke survived the war, only to be scuttled by her own crew at Scapa Flow in 1919. She was later raised and scrapped between 1927 and 1929 (colour by Irooptoko jnr)

 

 

 

 

Enemy sighted

At 7.35am on 24 January 1915 Hipper’s screening cruisers sighted smoke of a large force approaching and 25 minutes later the German fleet was spotted from Lion. Hipper, not sure if it was just Beatty’s force or the whole Grand Fleet, prudently ordered a turnaround and headed back towards Helgoland Bright at maximum speed, but the three newer ships of the 1st BCS were making 27kt and commenced a stern-chase. Just before 9am Beatty’s lead ships opened fire at 20,000yd (11.3 miles) concentrating fire on Seydlitz in the lead and Blücher at the rear. Hipper’s flagship received a devastating hit between her after D and centre C turrets, best described by the German after-action report: ‘The first shell that hit Seydlitz had a terrible effect. It pierced right through the upper deck in the ship’s stern and through the barbette-armour of the rear turret, where it exploded. All parts of the stern that were near where the explosion took place were totally wrecked. In the reloading chamber, where the shell penetrated, propellants ready for loading (ie the silk cordite bags) was set on fire. The flames rose high up into the turret and down into the munitions chamber and thence through a connecting door, usually kept shut, by which the men from below tried to escape into the other near turret. The flames thus made their way through to the other turret’s munitions chamber and thence up to the second turret and from this cause the entire gun crews of both turrets perished instantly, the flames rising as high as a house above the turrets. Casualties were 159 men killed and 33 wounded.’

 

Stern chase. Situation at 10.30am: Seydlitz followed by Moltke, then Derfflinger and Blücher, struggling last, which is out of sight (Ian Palmer)

 

Left: Stern chase. Situation at 10.30am: Seydlitz followed by Moltke, then Derfflinger and Blücher, struggling last, which is out of sight (Ian Palmer) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meantime the struggling Blücher dropped out of line with her power lost (she ultimately took over 70 shell hits) when at 10.30am a shell penetrated her ammunition passage igniting the ammunition propellant, which caused a mortal explosion amidships. A German account stated: ‘We deplored the loss of Blücher. It was observed how the enemy battlecruisers and their light cruisers and destroyers, concentrated their fire on that one wrecked ship which was a welcome target. Blücher turned over and sank with hundreds of men holding onto her side for dear life. Only 234 survivors out of a complement of 1,026, were picked up by the English destroyers, among them Captain Erdmann who died on 16 February of pneumonia whilst a prisoner, due to immersion in the cold sea.’

 

Stern chase. Situation at 10.30am: Seydlitz followed by Moltke, then Derfflinger and Blücher, struggling last, which is out of sight (Ian Palmer)

 

Right: Stern chase. Situation at 10.30am: Seydlitz followed by Moltke, then Derfflinger and Blücher, struggling last, which is out of sight (Ian Palmer) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The two remaining serviceable German battlecruisers continuously fired at Lion, which fell out of line after Derfflinger had landed several accurate hits damaging Lion’s forward A turret and engine room, which caused an immediate reduction in speed. Lion’s wireless system was also put out of action. Flooding now caused Lion to list to port, eliminating her usefulness as the flagship. At this point Beatty lost total control of the battle.

Before disembarking from Lion, Beatty’s Flag Lieutenant, Ralph Seymour, hoisted his chief’s two last orders using signal flags, but erroneously together on one hoist at the same time, thus they were read as one command. ‘Course S.E.’ (ie continue pursuing Hipper’s ships) and ‘Engage the Enemy’s Rear’ (meaning fire on Derfflinger and Moltke) was interpreted by the BCF’s second-in-command, Rear Admiral Moore in New Zealand, that all the battlecruisers were to finish off Blücher, which was the Scouting Force’s last ship in line, but now stationary in the same northeast direction. Moore, having then broken off the pursuit, caused the defining moment when Hipper’s remaining ships were safe. Admiral Reinhardt Scheer, the German commander at Jutland in 1916, said in his memoirs: ‘The captain of torpedo boat destroyer V-5 reported that he had observed the withdrawal of a battlecruiser (this was HMS Lion). There seems no obvious reason why the English cruisers should so soon have stopped fighting after their leader fell out when the number of our cruisers had already dwindled to three.’

 

Colourised photograph of SMS Derfflinger and SMS Hindenburg firing broadsides (colour by Irooptoko jnr)

 

Left: Colourised photograph of SMS Derfflinger and SMS Hindenburg firing broadsides (colour by Irooptoko jnr)

 

 

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Lion, requiring major repairs that took 12 weeks to complete in secret, was taken in tow back to Rosyth by HMS Indomitable. The resultant enquiry blamed Moore who was replaced, yet Seymour, a favorite of Beatty, remained. On the German side the Kaiser sacked Ingenohl as a scapegoat, replacing him with Admiral Hugo von Pohl, but Hipper was praised for saving his most important ships and for sinking a British battlecruiser, as it was believed at the time.

 

German salvoes straggle HMS Lion and HMS Tiger during the height of the action, with Lion receiving devastating direct hits (W.L. Wyllie)

 

Right: German salvoes straggle HMS Lion and HMS Tiger during the height of the action, with Lion receiving devastating direct hits (W.L. Wyllie)

 

 

 

 

 

Comparatively few British gallantry awards were gazetted for Dogger Bank than for the subsequent naval battles of the war. The commanding officer of HMS Princess Royal, Captain Osmond de Boauvoir RN, who became Beatty’s temporary Flag Captain, was made a Companion of the Honourable Order of the Bath (CB) in its military division. The only DSO went to Lieutenant Frederic Thornton Peters RN of the destroyer HMS Meteor for saving the lives of two ratings when the ship’s engine room was hit by a shell from Blücher. Three naval Distinguished Service Crosses went to Surgeon James Alexander Stirling RNVR, Gunner Joseph Henry Burton RMLI and Chief Carpenter Frederic E. Dailey, plus 31 Distinguished Service Medals, awarded for members of the lower deck up to and including Chief Petty Officer.

 

The dramatic photograph of the final death roll of SMS Blücher, depicting hundreds of her crew scrambling on her side for safety. Only 234 men were rescued out of a complement of 1,026

 

Left: The dramatic photograph of the final death roll of SMS Blücher, depicting hundreds of her crew scrambling on her side for safety. Only 234 men were rescued out of a complement of 1,026  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons learned and not learned

The German Imperial Navy learned a lesson that would serve them well at Jutland, but which was ignored by the Royal Navy and would cost them dearly. The destruction of the two aft turrets of Seydlitz was not caused by a direct shell hit, but by the explosion of ready ammunition and ammunition in transit for a faster fire rate. Henceforth German ammunition would be protected by closed anti-flash doors until it was loaded into a gun. The British, claiming a victory having sunk the Blücher, didn’t realise the potential danger until two years later at Jutland. This cost 3,309 British lives of those serving on three of Beatty’s battlecruisers that dramatically blew up due to their magazine doors being left open for a quicker delivery of ammunition, combined with exposed stacks of silk cordite bags to speed up the rate of fire, which very quickly caught fire once in action.

 

The battlecruiser HMS Lion was less than three years old at Dogger Bank and served as Vice Admiral David Beatty’s flagship

 

Left: The battlecruiser HMS Lion was less than three years old at Dogger Bank and served as Vice Admiral David Beatty’s flagship

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COLLECTING

Collect the medals from the battlePurchasing original gallantry medals is more akin to an investment than simply collecting, because even unnamed examples hold their value extremely well. Examples of those awarded for Dogger Bank with the KGV effigy, published by Medal Yearbook, are: Honourable Companion Order of the Bath breast badge (military) in gilt £1,000-£1,200. Distinguished Service Order £1,000-£1,250. The naval Distinguished Service Cross £800-£1,000. The naval Distinguished Service Medal £850-£2,000. As an option, excellent quality replicas of the above can be collected for between £35 and £60 each.

 

 

 

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