Sunday, 7 January 2018

The Royal Navy in 1918

Nelsonian hero Roger Keyes.
Served with distinction in the Boxer
Rebellion in 1899 and two World Wars
In the early days of 1918 the war position was, in several ways, very different from one year earlier, but in others depressingly familiar. On 2nd January  the new Air ministry was established in London, and on 4th January a hospital ship was torpedoed in the English Channel. A fog of revolution and instability covered the Eastern Front, and a winter calm on the Western Front concealed massive German preparations for a coming storm. The British Government was trying to keep the Arabs onside to help its Palestine and Syria campaign, following the shock of the Balfour Declaration in November*, and the British army continued to make steady progress in the middle east. But what was happening at sea?
The post on 3/9/2017 (UUW Part 2) described how by late 1917 Britain had overcome the existential threat posed by UUW, and that of 21/12/2017 (End of 1917 Position: Part 2) covered the change of personnel at the top of the Admiralty. It was tough on Jellicoe, but probably stemmed from the different perceptions of the British Navy and Army held by politicians and public alike. Since Trafalgar in 1805 Britain collectively had rested secure in the primacy and invincibility of the Royal Navy (RN). Even with the late 19th century build up of Japanese, American and (particularly) German fleets, there remained in 1914 a conviction that the RN could not be challenged. Instead, WW1 had brought initial embarrassments; the unspectacular (though highly effective) blockade of Germany; the indeterminate outcomes of Jutland, and the terrible 1917 merchant losses of UUW. The Army, on the other hand, had been traditionally small, and now its new legions were seen to be fighting heroically against a mighty military machine – albeit with terrible losses.
1918 would at last bring a Nelsonian style operation to warm British hearts ahead of final victory.

The first two actions of 1918 occurred 2000 miles apart. On 14th January German destroyers (for the third time) bombarded the east coast town of Yarmouth. But in the eastern Mediterranean on 20th January a symbolic success took place. Go back to the first days of the war in 1914 (see Post 17/2/2015) and the escape of the German battle cruiser Goeben and the cruiser Breslau across the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. This embarrassingly incompetent episode was the first to reveal how weakened the RN had become after 100+ years of complacency, bureaucracy and nepotism. Now more than three years later, after a war spent in the Black Sea under the Turkish flag (but German command), the two ships re-appeared in the Mediterranean Aegean sea. Early in the morning the British destroyer HMS Lizard spotted them heading for moored British ships in the island harbour of Imbros (today Gokcheada) west of Gallipoli. A brief action ensued, in which two moored British monitors were sunk before the German ships turned away. The Breslau promptly ran into a mine and was sunk. The damaged Goeben was listing, and ran for cover in the Dardanelles, where she ran aground in the narrows. In this case British revenge was certainly a dish enjoyed cold.

Zeebrugge 1918. The grounded Thetis lies beyond
Iphigenia and Intrepid in the canal mouth
The Nelsonian event that lifted the nation took place in April, but had been in planning since November. Its architect was the intrepid Sir Roger Keyes, who had taken command of the Dover Patrol in the 917 re-shuffle. Keyes had shown himself to be a dasher by his courageous actions to date and, in the words of Buchan “he interpreted generously the limits of what was possible for the British sailor”. The targets for action were the two occupied Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend. Both provided safe haven for U-boats and proximity to the western approaches of the Atlantic, extending U-boat killing time (provided they could evade the Channel barriers). They also acted as ports for a number of destroyers, such as those that raided Yarmouth on 14th January. Keyes’s audacious plan was to disable both ports by means of sinking ‘block ships’ in the harbour entrances. Success would push the U-boat havens 300 miles to the east, but was easier said than done. Both ports were heavily fortified and inaccessible to the attackers. Zeebrugge, the larger of the two, was protected by a crescent shaped breakwater, or ‘mole’, carrying a railway track and bristling with defences. The block ships would have to manoeuvre round the mole and position themselves across the canal outlet before scuttling. Immediately before their attempt to do so diversionary attacks would be launched. A bombardment of the mole by offshore destroyers would accompany a landing of marines to take out the buildings on the mole and destroy the railway viaduct linking the mole to land. Ostend was smaller and had no protecting breakwater. Here the task of two block ships was simply to charge in, ram and block the entrance before scuttling. 
After some predictable delays for inclement weather the attacking armada left Dover late evening on 22nd April. Keyes led the flotilla in the destroyer HMS Warwick and there were two other destroyers; the cruiser HMS Vindictive with two ferry boats for the landing parties and attack on the mole, and an assortment of monitors and smaller boats to make smoke and cause confusion. The stars of the show were the five block ships - old cruisers, full of explosive and weighed down with concrete – three were for Zeebrugge and two for Ostend.
At midnight the diversionary attacks on the mole began, along with aerial attacks and bombardment, and as much smoke as could be generated. All went well for the three block ships initially, as they rounded the lighthouse at the top of the mole. Then, unluckily, the wind changed, the smoke cleared and they were seen. Although most of the mole’s guns had already been put out of action, heavy fire from the shore batteries damaged the first block ship Thetis and grounded her. The two others – Iphigenia and Intrepid – ploughed on, belching smoke with all guns firing, and managed to position themselves near perfectly across the canal entrance before scuttling. The crews escaped in small boats to be picked up by destroyers, and the landing party scrambled to re-embark via the ferries and make their exit. By 2am all were safely in English waters – complete success with negligible casualties.
HMS Vindictive lying along-
side the pier at Ostend May 1918
The Ostend attack was a different story. With no diversionary attack to protect them, the two block shops, Brilliant and Sirius, were wholly reliant on surprise and effective smoke cover. Unfortunately, the wind direction worked against them – they were visible but their target was obscured. In the chaos they found themselves almost beached well to the east of the harbour piers, and were forced to scuttle and abandon the mission. Still, the larger port of Zeebrugge had been completely closed off, and the operation was hailed as a major victory at home. The Germans immediately strengthened their position at Ostend, and posted a guard of nine destroyers. It seemed to make a further attempt almost impossible, and yet this is precisely what Keyes attempted some two weeks later on 9th May. One of the two new block ships did not make it to the attack zone, but the other was the Vindictive - hero of the landing party actions at Zeebrugge -  now on her final voyage. Supported by destroyers, air cover and fog, she ran the gauntlet and did manage to ram one of the entrance piers. She sunk at an angle that caused major obstruction. Again, the skeleton crew escaped in motor launches and were picked up by destroyers.

These two victories (small strategically) helped restore the faith of the British public in the RN and raised morale amongst naval staff and civilians. Perhaps more significant was the effect on the German navy. U-boat strategy took another hit, and the morale of the German navy, already low, took another fall. Cooped up since Jutland, the German fleet was now subject to more restrictions, as destroyers from Dover and Harwich were free to cause more damage amongst the light craft and defences of the Heligoland Bight area. Mutiny was stirring in the German navy, and within months it would become reality.

* Balfour’s famous/infamous statement in November 1917 indicated British Government support for a post war establishment of a national home for Jewish people in Palestine – apparently contradicting assurances given to the Arab leader King Feisal in 1916. We all know what followed.

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