Although the victory of the Royal Navy in the battle of the Falklands (and the removal of German raiders from the high seas) had restored British confidence in the supremacy of the Fleet on the High Seas, there was still a lot of controversy and uncertainty about the activities of the Home Fleet. The early actions, largely indecisive, and the raids on the English coast in December, on Whitby, Hartlepool and Scarborough, worried the public, and raised the tension. There was tension too between Churchill and Jellicoe, the C-in-C of the Home Fleet. Churchill was unhappy with Jellicoe’s cautious approach and his constant demands to strengthen the existing battleships rather than have them ready, close to the likely action points.
Jellicoe wished to strengthen the defences of the Fleet’s new home in
Scapa Flow, rather than opt for the Firth of Forth, closer to likely action
points in the North Sea. As always, Churchill wished to waste no opportunities to take the initiative.
|John Jellicoe, later|
1st Earl Jellicoe
On the German side, after the early encounters the Kaiser had also been cautious, and ordered that his main Dreadnought strength should be confined to exercise in the Baltic for the time being. The German Admiral Ingenohl was frustrated, yet emboldened by his December raids, and planned further exploratory actions in the North Sea. Fearing further intrusion by the British towards the Heligoland Bight, he decided to send an exploratory battle cruiser and destroyer flotilla to the Dogger Bank area. The British intercepted the signals for this, and feared the Germans were about to launch another coastal raid on England.
Churchill and Fisher immediately responded, and sent out orders for the nearest forces – Tyrwhitt’s in Harwich, and Beatty’s in the Firth of Forth to intercept the enemy. The orders were for these two group to rendezvous behind (i.e. to the east) of the anticipated positions of Admiral Hipper’s battle cruiser squadron. Contact with the Germans was made at 7.30am on 24th January, and the first major naval action in home waters was started. Churchill describes the tension at the Admiralty:
“There can be few purely mental moments more charged with cold excitement than to follow, almost from minute to minute, the phases of a great naval action from the silent rooms of the Admiralty. Out on blue water in the fighting ships amid the stunning detonations of the cannonade, fractions of the event unfold themselves to the corporeal eye. There is the sense of action at its highest; there is the wrath of battle; there is the intense self-effacing physical or mental toil. But in Whitehall only the clock ticks and quiet men enter with quick steps laying slips of penciled paper before other men equally silent who draw lines and scribble calculations, and point with the finger or make brief subdued comments. Telegram succeeds telegram at a few minutes’ interval as they are picked up and decoded, often in the wrong sequence, frequently of dubious import; and out of these, a picture always flickering and changing rises in the mind, and imagination strikes out around it at every stage flashes of hope or fear.”
|The end of the Blucher - a wretched sight|
At 9am, after a chase, the HMS Lion opened fire at 14,000 yards, a much greater distance than previously possible. The German cruiser Blucher was hit multiple times, and the Seydlitz and Derfflinger were also badly damaged. The Lion, Beatty’s flagship, was then hit by the Moltke, and in the confusion that followed the German capital ships were able to escape. Only the Blucher was stranded and quickly sunk. Once again the German fleet had escaped more serious damage. Under heavy escort, the badly damaged Lion limped back to safety at Rosyth. The Grand Fleet consolidated at Scapa Flow rather than at the Forth, much to Churchill’s disappointment, but the effect of the partial victory over the Germans was to keep them cooped up for well over a year until Jutland.This sea battle marked the first occasion on which capital ships were attacked by torpedoes from much smaller destroyers.
Germany was unhappy with the outcome, and Ingenohl paid the price, being replaced as Admiral of the Fleet by von Pohl.