The Second Battle of Heligoland Bight—a centenary
25 Nov 2017|

The 17th of November marked the centenary of the Second Battle of the Heligoland Bight. An inconclusive action, unsatisfactory for both Germans and British, it came about because of vital changes in the naval war. The battle itself has an interesting Australian sidelight as the first occasion on which RAN College graduates saw action: present aboard HMS Glorious were five 18-year-old RAN midshipmen of the initial 1913 entry.

In 1917, the British had finally started an effective offensive minelaying campaign in the Heligoland Bight. That it had taken so long was due to the poor quality of British mines—after many delays, the Royal Navy’s first reliable mine was copied from a German model. Seeding mines in the Heligoland Bight created a problem of coastal defence for the Germans 150 nautical miles off their coast. It was ‘anti-access/area denial’ in reverse. The minefields cut Germany off from the North Sea, constraining not only the High Seas Fleet, but also the U-boats on which Germany was depending to starve Britain into submission by sinking Allied shipping. The German navy was soon absorbed by the minesweeping effort, placing increasing strain on ships and people.

With Admiralty intelligence of German operations, the opportunity could not be missed. The Germans had deployed 14 minesweepers and two mine breakers, escorted by eight torpedo boats and four light cruisers, commanded by Rear-Admiral von Reuter in the cruiser Königsberg. The battleships Kaiserin and Kaiser (‘the married couple’) were providing heavy cover, but from 60 miles southeast. The British approached the Bight early on the 17th. Covered from the west by the First Battle Cruiser Squadron, the First and Sixth Light Cruiser Squadrons and their destroyer flotillas were supported by the ‘large light cruisers’ Courageous and Glorious under the command of Vice-Admiral Napier.

British knowledge of mine danger areas was extraordinarily hit-and-miss. Only the Grand Fleet’s commander-in-chief and the battle cruisers’ commander, Vice-Admiral Pakenham, had a full picture. Napier had enough information to go east past ‘Line A’, and believed he could also move past ‘Line B’, which made provision for recent British minefields, but had been ordered not to proceed further east than ‘Line C’. The light cruisers’ charts, however, didn’t include Line C. Furthermore, there was little information about the mines. Line C related to ineffective British mines laid long before, but Napier didn’t know that.

When contact was made, the rising sun silhouetted the Germans, but at long range. Courageous and Glorious took on the enemy light cruisers with the First Light Cruiser Squadron’s support, while the Sixth Light Cruiser Squadron initially went for the sweepers. Napier didn’t take advantage of the large light cruisers’ speed of over 30 knots, never ordering more than 25. Failure to exploit the large cruisers’ speed was significant as the other British ships were no faster than their German opposite numbers.

Finding 15-inch shells falling around them, all German units rapidly made smoke. Within 15 minutes, ‘all enemy vessels were well hidden’. Von Reuter took risks, delaying his withdrawal to ensure no light craft were left behind and steaming through waters believed dangerous because of British mines. The British were baffled by the thick smoke, consumed by the fear that it concealed waiting torpedo craft or U-boats (none were present).  When an uncertain Napier arrived at Line B just before 0840, he turned northeast before deciding to resume the chase. The Germans continued their retreat, however, and their gain of four miles was crucial.

Meanwhile, the fast battle cruiser Repulse had been detached by Pakenham and took the lead. The light cruisers, unaware of the restrictions, also continued onwards. Rear-Admiral Phillimore, in Repulse, received a warning from Pakenham about Line B, but ignored it. At 0908, Pakenham, worried by the growing risks, issued a recall. Napier, however, decided to go on, although not for much longer. Cardiff, Caledon and Royalist had already been hit. Von Reuter hoped to cripple his opponents, so they could be finished off by his reinforcements. The battle cruisers Hindenburg and Moltke had sailed at 0840 and were followed by two battleships. The proximity of Germany was confirmed by the appearance of aircraft which bombed the British ships.

The British believed they were scoring hits, but to limited effect. Geometry didn’t allow them to use torpedoes and only one weapon was fired. The Germans, however, did no better. Galatea may have been struck by one that failed to explode, but there were no other hits. When wakes were seen, the British assumed they were U-boat torpedoes, while several ships thought they spotted submarines.

At 0930, Kaiserin and Kaiser finally came in sight of von Reuter. Captain Grasshof in the Kaiserin saw his task as covering a retreat, not taking the offensive, despite this being the action in the Heligoland Bight that the Germans had always wanted. Von Reuter attempted to order Grasshof to advance northwest, but his signals weren’t received and the battleships turned east. A frustrated von Reuter had to continue his retreat. Only the British light cruisers maintaining their advance allowed the battleships to engage them. Just before this, the Germans scored an important hit. A 150-millimetre round struck Calypso’s forward superstructure, killing her captain and many bridge personnel.

At 0932 Napier reached Line C and turned south, ordering Repulse to advance no further. Probably as unaware as the light cruisers of Line C, Phillimore continued the pursuit, providing important support to them. Had Repulse not been present, Grasshof might have been more enterprising, particularly as he was joined by four destroyers. Von Reuter would certainly have acted differently, but Repulse scored a single hit on Königsberg with important consequences. The shell started a serious fire. Königsberg’s speed reduced, von Reuter’s ideas of turning back were frustrated and his continuing southeast meant the action was effectively over, for the British cruisers responded to the battleships’ salvoes by turning away. The opposed forces opened rapidly and a sudden fog ended any chance of the action’s immediate resumption. Hindenburg and Moltke made their best speed to join but didn’t venture further after they found von Reuter. The Germans finally turned northwest only after the two extra battleships arrived in the afternoon, but the British had gone.

The Germans recriminated afterwards. With the Kaiserin’s and Kaiser’s misemployment, they had lost the chance of an important success. Grasshof was posted ashore. The British had their own problems. Napier was subjected to bitter criticism, although opinion wasn’t unanimous. Where he had clearly erred was failing to use the Courageous’ and Glorious’ speed. Pakenham was particularly critical of the risks Phillimore took in Repulse, although the commander-in-chief, Admiral Beatty, endorsed his actions. The British had to admit that neither their doctrine, planning nor exercises had prepared them for such conditions. The deficiencies that had been revealed could not be concealed, even if public criticism was directed at the Admiralty, rather than the Grand Fleet, where blame really lay. The failure would contribute to the dismissal of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Jellicoe, six weeks later.

As for the young RAN midshipmen, perhaps they learned something from their seniors’ failures. The quality of their performance in 1939–1945 suggests they did.