Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The War at Sea 1915

HMS Dreadnought after launch in 1906
Through the Georgian and Victorian eras, Britain enjoyed a post Trafalgar century of sea dominance and its Grand Fleet was the finest the world had ever seen. However in the early 20th century the organisation was creaking. A combination of complacency; nepotism and class divisions; conservatism and bureaucracy gave the Royal Navy a vulnerability of which, for the most part, it was blithely unaware.
Captain Alfred Mahan, an American Naval Academic published in 1893 a seminal work "The Influence of Sea Power on History", and emphasised how the British Empire had been sustained by its sea power. The book made a global impact, but particularly on the younger ambitious navies of USA, Japan and, above all, Germany. Its message was even heard in complacent England and the appointment of

John Arbuthnot "Jacky"Fisher as First Sea Lord in 1904 lit the blue touch paper under the Admiralty. Fisher began a radical process of modernisation of the British Navy. He was not a war monger, but believed in the power of overwhelming deterrence and the Dreadnought class of super battleships was his cause celebre. Although he was also a great enthusiast for innovation and technology, in particular the development of mining and the submarine, he was somewhat one eyed regarding the supremacy of the battleship man of war. Dreadnoughts were hugely expensive to build, with their massive armamentarium, but relatively little thought was given to their protection, either on board or in the naval bases where they would be anchored. Fisher’s opposite number in Germany was Tirpitz, an avid follower of Mahan’s principles, and he argued for a German fleet to match the British. Tirpitz’s drive and ambition was supported and exceeded by Kaiser Wilhelm after his accession to the throne. As Queen Victoria’s grandson, Wilhelm had always been envious of the British Navy and jealous of its power. The economically damaging Dreadnought arms race that followed from 1906 to 1912 left the two nations anxious and protective of their great fleets' capital ships through 1914 and 1915. 

The energy brought by Fisher - regarded by many as Britain's finest sailor since Nelson - enabled development of Dreadnoughts and submarines, alongside swathes of organisational change and budget cuts required by a Liberal Government pursuing social reform. Churchill's appointment as First Lord in 1911 came shortly after Fisher’s actions had made him so many enemies that he was removed as First Sea Lord. Churchill was the first truly hands on politician to hold this office, and with his customary energy he continued Fisher’s reforms and preparedness for war. He proved to be great for peacetime to build on Fisher, but a mixed blessing in wartime - taking, as he did, dominant control over all decision making. Admirals on the spot were no longer masters of their own destiny. The return of Fisher in 1914 to join Churchill as his First Sea Lord added to the mix. This first manifest itself in the Mediterranean fiascos of August and September 1914, when Goeben and Breslau were allowed to escape (see previous post).

Much of the Home Fleet's activity in 1915 comprised defence actions to protect coast and key channels from German submarine and surface attack, and also the fairly thankless responsibility of countering the airship raids that became more frequent and audacious through the year. The Navy was not yet prepared for anti-aircraft combat. The most severe airship raid came on the East Coast and London on October 13, with 200 casualties.

The battle of the Dogger Bank in January (See post 1st April 2015) saw the first clash involving British Dreadnought class ships. It was something of a hollow victory. True, the old German Battle Cruiser Blucher was sunk, but the faster German cruisers escaped home due to a combination of British indecision and bad signalling; and Beattie's flagship HMS Lion was almost lost.

The experience and technology of submarine warfare was developing rapidly through 1915. With its global trade activities and responsibilities. Britain was more often the defender than the aggressor, and many in Germany saw unrestricted submarine aggression as their best chance to win a long war of attrition. So, despite having successes in  aggression, particularly in the Baltic and the Balkans, Britain focused more on developing new
The 15inch gun turret of the Monitor HMS Terror
defences against submarines and mines - such as microphones and early sonar devices; Monitors (heavily armed ships with flat hulls, deployed with some success off Gallipoli); Q boats and some aircraft. Elaborate net systems were laid in important channels and also frustrated U boats. At the same time, the Germans were improving their offensive capabilities, including new U boats able to lay mines at depth. The overall German strategy for submarine warfare remained ambivalent. Most politicians, the senior of them Bethmann-Hollweg the Chancellor, were wary of the adverse effects of unrestricted submarine attacks on the USA's neutrality; and the military chiefs wanted more resources for the armies. Tirpitz and his supporters continued to campaign for unrestricted submarine warfare

The Mediterranean sea was the most concentrated area of activity in 1915, dominated by the events of Gallipoli and the Dardanelles, but also the entry of the Italian navy as a combatant in May. Seven of nine battleships lost in 1915 met their end in the Mediterranean, and also the Turks lost one in the Sea of Marmora.

Perhaps the Germans' only strategic reverse in 1915 came from their Baltic exercise to blockade Russian forces and to land troops to link up with Hindenburg's left wing. They had some actions against the Russian fleet, but for once the boot was on the other foot, as their ships proved vulnerable to British submarines passing through the Kattegat to support the Russians. Two German battleships were badly damaged and four smaller vessels damaged or sunk by British torpedoes.

1915 Navy Recruiting Poster
The greatest impact of the British Navy was in its blockades - of free movement or trades - around the world. The main weapon was the continuing North Sea and English Channel blockade of Germany's supplies. Controversy remained at the time, both regarding its effectiveness and its legality, but in retrospect it had highly significant cumulative effects on the Central Powers resilience (and it was illegal). Other effective blockades were enacted off Africa and in various corners of the Mediterranean.

The main losses at sea in 1915 were merchant (nearly1000 lost, mostly to U boats) and civilian (most famously the Lusitania). Overall the loss of naval warships was light, in summary for all sides: 9 Battleships (6 British, but all pre-Dreadnought class);
13 Cruisers (6 German), and 46 Destroyers and smaller armed craft.

Main events of 1915

  • Panama-California Exposition opens to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal.
  • Action of the Dogger Bank. German cruiser Blücher sunk.

  • British Admiralty issue orders forbidding neutral fishing vessels to use British ports.Britain’s trade blockade is causing major tensions with USA.
  • Allied naval attack on the Dardanelles forts commences.

  • British blockade of German East Africa commences.
  • Allied Naval attack on the Dardanelles forts repulsed. The French battleship Bouvet and British battleships Irresistible and Ocean are sunk.

  • Indecisive action in Black Sea between the Goeben and part of the Russian Fleet. Turkish cruiser Medjidieh sunk by mine off Odessa.
  • British blockade of the Cameroons commences.

  • SS Lusitania sunk by German submarine U-20 off Queenstown.
  • Naval Convention signed between Great Britain, France, and Italy.
  • HMS's Goliath, Triumph, and Majestic sunk by submarines in the Dardanelles campaign.
  • Lord Fisher, First Sea Lord, Great Britain, tenders his resignation, triggering fall of government and resignation of Churchill as First Lord.
  • Italian fleet commences operations in the Adriatic and blockades Austro-Hungarian coast. British battle squadron concentrates at Malta prior to joining the Italian fleet.

  • Blockade of coast of Asia Minor announced by British Government.

  • Naval action in the Baltic between Russian and German squadrons off Gottland. 
  • German light cruiser Königsberg destroyed in Rufiji River, German East
  • Africa, by British monitors.
  • Italian cruiser Giuseppe Garibaldi sunk by Austrian submarine in the Adriatic.

  • Constantinople harbour raided by British submarine.Turkish battleship Barbarousse-Hairedine sunk by British submarine E-11 in the Dardanelles.
  • German naval attack on Riga begins (see 21st). German battle cruiser Moltke torpedoed by British submarine E-1 in Gulf of Riga.

  • German Government inform United States Government that United States demands for limitation of submarine activity are accepted.
  • Italian battleship Benedetto Brin destroyed by internal explosion in harbour at Brindisi.

  • Entente Governments proclaim blockade of Ægean coast of Bulgaria.

  • British hospital ship Anglia sunk by mine in home waters off Dover.

  • New style German merchant raider Moewe sails from Bremen on first cruise.

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