7. Calmer Waters.


The German Navy's first Zeplin

“They will have it valiantly when they are ranked together, and relate their adventures with wonderful terror. Necessary instruments are they, and agents of main importance . . for the walls of state could not subsist without them.”
Richard Braithwaite, 1631, writing of the British Seaman


After the ramming of U29 by Dreadnought Admiral Jellicoe advised the Admiralty that they should cease to issue triumphant communiqués to the press describing where and when German submarines were destroyed for these were giving valuable information to the enemy. London accepted the commonsense suggestion of the C. in C. of the Grand Fleet and detailed and flamboyant accounts of successes against U-Boats disappeared from the daily papers.

In Berlin the Naval Staff reacted edgily to this new development. Now they had no idea where their valuable boats, so few in number but the last hope for a quick German victory after the failure of the Army or the High Seas Fleet to deliver a crippling blow, were being attacked and destroyed. Could it be that the defences of the Straits of Dover, so long derided by most U-Boat skippers, had been strengthened to the extent that they now posed a real threat to the passage of German submarines ? In recent weeks U35 had been trapped in the indicator nets for hours, U33 had reported a proliferation of mines in the area, while U32 had opted to return to Heligoland around Scotland rather than face the Dover defences for a second time. When the brand new U37 failed to return to base after her maiden trip the High Command was convinced that she had been lost in the Straits (1) and on 10 April, close to panic, ordered the large U-Boats to abandon the Dover route; it was to be 2 years before they re-appeared.

Almost coincidentally with the withdrawal of German submarines from the Channel a new net barrage was set off Ostend and minefields were laid off Beachy Head and Dartmouth where it was suspected that U-Boats lay in wait. Although Admiral Hood at Dover reported on April 7 on the performance of his indicator nets “that almost every day some of them were carried away by submarines without the buoys indicating” (2), the Admiralty, mistakenly, attributed the disappearance of the enemy submarines to the efficiency of the new defences, a point of view which produced a certain complacency which was not shaken until small pre-fabricated boats of the UB and UC classes were sent by rail to Antwerp and began to operate from Zeebrugge and Ostend At first the boats of the “Flanders Flotilla“, which was formally established on 29 March, worked in the Hoofden, the German name for the area south west of a line joining Terschelling to Flamborough Head, but as efficiency and design improved and more boats were supplied by the Germaniawerft shipyard at Kiel, attention turned to the Channel where by July they were appearing in increasing numbers and with mounting effect. In April, though, when attacks on merchant ships off Beachy Head and elsewhere ceased, it seemed to the ship’s company of TB1 and to those of her sisters in Newhaven that their underwater enemies had vanished as if by magic although their withdrawal did little to ease the daily pressure put upon these small craft. Extreme vigilance still had to be maintained when at sea for those questing periscopes, heralding a lethal attack, might still pop up again above the waves at any time and the assignment of small, pre-fabricated, fast surface craft to the Flanders Flotilla, hitherto composed only of submarines, might well presage lightning strikes being made down Channel (3).

April, 1915, saw the conveyance of the West Riding, Northumbrian and Highland Territorial divisions across the Channel from Folkestone and from Southampton and, although “with the lengthening days the transports could not make the whole passage in the dark hours” (4), the operation was carried out without loss. Unfortunately, TB1’s logs for April and May cannot be found at the National Archive (5) but a study of those for TB5, also a Newhaven ship, gives an insight, in its terse ad inward looking naval way, of how the torpedo boats from the port were deployed during these months. These craft were now under the direct orders of Admiral Meux, C.in C., Portsmouth, who was responsible for running the Southampton - Le Havre supply line and, between assignments, they were sometimes berthed in the naval base instead of returning to Newhaven. In the first days of the month the advance parties of the 3 divisions were crossing to France and from the 13th. onwards, the main force of men, in crowded fast transports in which they were often fully exposed to the elements, made the voyage as did the horses and the military stores loaded into slower ships. The Newhaven craft were fully employed. For the first time the term “convoy” appears in TB5’s log and it is probable that in adopting this form of organisation more ships were able to make the channel passage during the protective but shrinking hours of darkness. On one occasion TB5 secured alongside TB1 in Portsmouth and on another returned to Newhaven, after escort duty, in company with TB4, nominally a Portsmouth ship, so the inference must be that during this period the 8 torpedo boats under Admiral Meux’s command were employed as a single force , each ship responding to overall operational requirements without reference to the port which was her official home. If TB5’s experience may be taken as representative of the way the torpedo boats were employed during April then, between 3 day periods in harbour( fuelling, storing, boiler cleaning) much of their time was spent on the Southampton- Le Havre run or escorting a single ship - the mysterious military packet ? - from Folkestone to Boulogne overnight. With the Southampton ships the practice was to meet the convoy, or perhaps to oversee its formation, at 6 p.m. off St.Helens, on the north eastern coast of the Isle of Wight, before departing for the continent.

On 30 April U20, commanded by Walther Schwieger, left Borkum Roads to relieve U24 and U32 in the Western Approaches. U20 arrived off the south west coast of Ireland on the morning of 5 May and sank a small sailing ship during the evening. On the following day 2 steamers of the Harrison line, Candidate (5858 tons) and Centurion (5945 tons), were despatched but then fog and mist descended and 2 frustrating days were spent listening to the sirens of invisible merchant ships some of them passing close at hand, certainly within torpedo range, but hidden in the murk. The fog lifted early on 7 May and a bright sun found U20 on the surface off the Head of Kinsale steaming fast for home but, at about 2 p.m., masts and funnels were sighted on the horizon and Schweiger, thinking that 2 destroyers were approaching, submerged and prepared to attack. It was soon evident that the target was not 2 warships but a single large 4 funnelled passenger vessel and U20‘s captain, after manoeuvring his boat into position succeeded in firing one of the submarines last remaining torpedoes at close range into the liner’s bow just aft of the bridge. Pleased with his success, Schweiger handed over to his navigating officer who, after taking position at the periscope, exclaimed “My God, it’s the Lusitania !“(6)

By the time the great Cunarder had sunk stern first into the sea and the last of 764 survivors had been plucked from the ocean by a rescue boat from Queenstown, it was discovered that 1,198 passengers and crew members had perished, 94 of whom were children and 128 Americans. Walther Schweiger’s feat was acclaimed by the German press but news of the disaster was met with horror in Britain and America - President Wilson wept when told of it. Many Americans, including Walter Hines Page, the US ambassador in Britain, thought that their country should declare war on Germany immediately but, overall, America was not yet ready to take such a step. Nevertheless:

“ When Schweiger torpedoed the Lusitania on 7 May, 1915, he virtually changed the course of history and the attack formed a vital watershed in German-American relations. - - - From that moment onwards the United States moved slowly, if reluctantly, into the arms of the Allies and her final entry into the war in 1917sealed the fate of the German Empire.” (7)

The sinking of the Lusitania not only increased the volume of transatlantic diplomatic bickering, it caused a division of opinion in the German government between a group, led by the Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, which believed that the American demand for an end to the destruction of passenger ships should be met and that of the Chief of the Naval Cabinet, Von Muller, supported by the Kaiser, which maintained that unrestricted submarine warfare should continue unhindered until the enemy was defeated. With the protests which followed the sinking of the British liner Arabic off Ireland in August, which was attended by the loss of 40 lives, 3 of them American, the Chancellor won the argument and, in the following month U-Boats were ordered not to attack passenger ships without warning and soon afterwards were withdrawn altogether from the Western Approaches where the transatlantic sea lanes were dominated by American ships or liners carrying American passengers. This withdrawal allowed the First Lord of the Admiralty to declare that “ the failure of the German submarine campaign was patent to the whole world ” (8) but, of course, this was nonsense; the main thrust of the U-Boat offensive had just been transferred, temporarily, to the Mediterranean where passenger liners or American vessels were few and far between.

If the Lusitania incident had a world shaking effect eventually, the bombshell it created had a long fuse and the most important elements in the submarine war to British eyes in May, 1915, were the continuing deadly attacks in the Western Approaches and increased enemy activity in the North Sea, signified by attacks on the fishing fleets and the laying of mines by UC boats in several areas between the Humber and Terschelling. The Gallipoli campaign made increasing demands on the Royal Navy, as the vision of a quick victory faded away, for ships were not only required for the war zone but also to protect the sea lanes used by vessels conveying troops and supplies, first from the UK or Australia to Egypt and from thence onwards to the main base on the island of Mudros. The calls made on the services of the small ships of the Royal Navy at home or abroad were unceasing but their response was bolstered to a significant extent by the rapid expansion of the Auxiliary Patrol whose trawlers drifters and motor yachts made invaluable contributions to the winning of the naval war which are not always recognised or commented upon today . Julian Corbett, author of 3 of the 5 volumes of the official “Naval Operations”, does pay a rather clumsily worded tribute to the little vessels of the RN and the Auxiliary Patrol but, in context, it has the feel of an afterthought:

“Naturally we fix our minds on the great operations of war, but what they meant can never be understood unless we keep in mind the unceasing undercurrent of exhausting labour in small craft that made them possible.” (9).

In the opinion of the Admiralty the likelihood of a full scale invasion or a military raid on our coast was diminishing at this time as it was felt that the North Sea was so widely sewn with mines, both British and German, that only certain circumscribed lines of approach to our shores could be used which would make the interception of an assault force almost inevitable, a circumstance of which our enemy would be fully aware. The War Office, however, was reluctant to accept this argument and pressed for anti-invasion precautions to be fully maintained. The Patrol Flotillas along the east coast remained on station, therefore, but as the influence of the Rear Admiral Ballard dwindled (as described in Chapter Six) and operational requirements changed, the number of ships under his command steadily declined. The destroyers and scout cruisers of the Patrol Flotillas stationed in the Forth and at Harwich, had long been placed under the command of the C. in C. of the Grand Fleet and the Commodore of the Harwich Force respectively, although their functions remained unchanged, and in April, 1915, the destroyers of the 7th.Flotilla based at Gorleston and patrolling from there to Cromer also became the responsibility of Commodore Tyrwhitt. Earlier, as we have seen, 4 of the 12 Immingham based torpedo boats were despatched to Newhaven in response to the developing U-Boat menace in the Channel, and they were quickly followed south by their 8 sisters, 4 of which (Nos.4,16,21 and 22) were ordered to Portsmouth and 4 (Nos.13,14,15 and 24) to Dover. The last defection from the 7th Flotilla, and one which led to its demise, was that of the scout cruiser Skirmisher which in May joined a newly created force which was formed to fight a new enemy, not one appearing on the sea or under it, but from the skies above.

The Royal Navy kept a watchful eye upon the early 20th.Century development of aircraft, whether heavier or lighter than air, for they were seen as a possible extension to the power of he battle fleet in an era in which the concept of the “big gun ship” ruling the waves governed naval strategic thinking. If an aeroplane or an airship could be produced which had sufficient engine power to give it a good range and drive it to a respectable height, even in bad weather, then the Fleet would be provided with an instrument which could spot the fall of shot very efficiently, identify minefields which were a threat to a capital ship, give advance warning of the movements of an enemy force, and allow a blockading squadron to gaze into enemy harbours. The design of the plane and the airship improved rapidly as the century progressed and governments had to make decisions about which type of craft they would build or buy. Germany built both heavier and lighter than air machines but placed a great emphasis upon the development of the rigid airship - the brainchild of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. In Britain, however, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, promoted the cause of the heavier than air machine and in 1913, made a famous speech in which he claimed that aeroplanes, which he compared to ”a swarm of hornets”, would prevail over the Zeppelin; of course he was right in the long term but many months of war were to be endured before his prophecy became fact.(10)

In 1914 the Royal Naval Air Service possessed 31 seaplanes and 40 landplanes and was the best equipped in the world but senior officers of the RN, including Fisher, Jellicoe and Beatty distrusted the Zeppelin because of the capability it gave the High Seas Fleet of avoiding confrontation with the Grand Fleet and the defeat which, it was believed, must surely follow. There was anxiety too that an early report of the advance of the Grand Fleet provided by a scouting Zeppelin might allow a German force to isolate and destroy a section of it thus reducing the advantage the British had it terms of the number of capital ships each Fleet possessed.

There are critics of German policy who claim that if the Zeppelins available had concentrated on developing and improving their reconnoitring and scouting abilities, instead of yielding to the temptation to bomb the English mainland, then the course of the naval war in the North Sea might have been very different. This view may or may not be correct but the fact is that that the Kaiser, who had opposed assaults on English towns and cities initially, gave in to the pressure exerted by the naval command and Under-Korvetten-Kapitan Peter Strasser, the leader of the Naval Airship Division, and on 9 January, 1915, a announced that England could be bombed but that the targets were to be restricted to “military shipyards, arsenals, docks and, in general, military establishments, and that London itself should not be attacked.” (11) Today, despite all the sophisticated instruments that are available to direct accurate fire on military objectives, we are well aware that any such assault must inevitably produce “collateral damage” and it is hard to believe that the “All Highest” was not naïve or cynical in his conviction that his orders alone would ensure that no civilians would be killed during Zeppelin raids.

10 days after the Kaiser’s announcement 3 Zeppelins left their bases and made for England. L6 had engine trouble and turned back but Ls 3 and 4 made a landfall on the Norfolk coast where L4 turned south to drop bombs indiscriminately in the Kings Lynn area killing 2 people and injuring a further 13. L3 turned north and flew to Great Yarmouth where people surged out into the streets:

“attracted outside by the engine noise and excited by seeing the outlines of these great machines in the sky. Two bombs were dropped alongside St.Peter’s Church killing an elderly lady, Mrs. Martha Smith, who had gone out to fetch her supper. Mr.Smith, a middle aged shoemaker who had gone out to watch the Zeppelin was also killed. Houses were wrecked and a steam drifter in the river was damaged. The borough engineer managed to extinguish the lights as the airship set off on its return journey. This was the first Zeppelin raid on English soil.” (12)

Ls. 3 and 4 returned to base safely following their pioneering sortie but were lost a few weeks later in a snow storm off Jutland when setting course again for the English coast. Zeppelins were difficult to navigate in poor weather and several attempted strikes during March failed to reach their planned targets. With clearing skies in April and May however, the assault was resumed and attacks were made sporadically on towns and cities as far north as Tyneside. Amongst the localities subjected to hit and run raids were Ipswich, Bury St.Edmunds, Lowestoft, Hull, Southend, Margate, Dover and Shoeburyness.

The damage caused by the airship raids was of little importance and the casualties few in number but the effect on civilian morale was significant: here were these monstrous machines appearing overhead and delivering death and destruction in new and novel ways which turned the worst imaginary scenarios of the pre-war scares into reality. In September, 1914, with most of the aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps in France, Winston Churchill, in his usual confident, bold and presumptuous way, declared that the Admiralty would be responsible for the air defence of Britain. Blame for the perceived failure of the Royal Naval Air Service to intercept the Zeppelins, therefore, was laid at the Admiralty’s door, and this only added to the general uneasiness about the conduct of the naval war which was spreading throughout the country. We had been at war for nearly 10 months in May, 1915, but the Royal Navy had yet to produce the Trafalgar-like smashing victory which history had led the general public to expect. Moreover, German ships had killed English men and women standing on English soil in Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool and had then fled unpunished. Now Zeppelins controlled the shies over England - or so it seemed. Politicians reacted to criticism in the way they always do and joined the public in demanding that “Something Must be Done Now” ignoring the fact that successful solutions to the problem - more efficient organisation, better anti-aircraft guns, searchlights, and planes - could not be delivered overnight. Nevertheless the government had to be seen to be taking immediate action, whether well planned or not, and Skirmisher and 4 other scout cruisers from the Patrol Flotillas, Sentinel, Adventure, Forward and Foresight, were brought together to form the 6th.Light Cruiser Squadron which was based at Immingham and charged with carrying out anti-Zeppelin patrols along the East Coast. There is no record that this short lived unit ever sighted and engaged an enemy airship, yet alone destroyed one.

Early in May the First Sea Lord received a letter written aboard HMS St.George in Immingham on the 9th.of the month. It read:

“Sir,

Be pleased to submit for their Lordship’s consideration that in view of the removal of the “Skirmisher” from the 7th.Flotilla to undertake other duties, it is desirable that the flotilla be altogether abolished for the present as a separate organisation.

2. At the beginning of the war the flotilla had its own flotilla cruiser, depot ship “Leander”, and flotilla staff, and contained 36 destroyers and torpedo boats. The “Leander and flotilla staff were withdrawn last November and the strength of the unit was further reduced by successive transfers until only “Skirmisher” and eight destroyers of B and C classes were left. Now that “Skirmisher” is also being appropriated for other duties these eight old destroyers are all that remains of the original organisation and, subject to their Lordship’s approval, I would propose transferring them to the ninth flotilla. This latter unit has only ten destroyers left, and is therefore a very small flotilla also. By adding what are left of the seventh flotilla it would be raised to a strength of 18 destroyers which with the “Patrol” as flotilla cruiser and “St.George“ as depot ship, would constitute a flotilla approximating to the normal size and composition.

3. A higher degree of efficiency would be probably obtained by combining what remains of the two flotillas under one Captain (D) and a saving of duplication of orders and administrative office work would result.

The Captain (D) of the seventh flotilla would be set free for some other appointment should their Lordship’s have need of his services elsewhere. I have the honour to be, Sir, Your obedient servant, G.Ballard.

Admiral of Patrols.” (13)

Their Lordships duly accepted Rear Admiral Ballard’s suggestions and the 7th.Flotilla was disbanded immediately. The former Captain (D), Clifton Brown, left Skirmisher in 1916 to take command of the cruiser Edgar, then operating in the Aegean, and in the following year was promoted and appointed Head of the Naval Mission to Greece. This was a difficult post to hold, in view of the relationship which existed between the 2 countries at the time, but one in which Clifton Brown must have worked to the government’s satisfaction for by 1919 he was a Companion of the Order of the Bath and a Knight Commander of the Order of St.Michael and St George.

Rear Admiral Ballard’s title of Admiral Of Patrols was altered to Admiral of the East Coast in November, 1915, a change probably reflecting the reduction of the number of Patrol Flotillas under his command and the growing number of units of the Auxiliary Patrol operating in his area. In September, 1916, George Ballard was appointed Senior Naval Officer, Malta, and Admiral Superintendent of the Dockyard, an important position but not the operational command he expected. At this time 16 U-Boats on average were operating in the Mediterranean on any one day and between June and September, 1916, 256 vessels were sunk by them, 96 of them British. Broadly speaking, the British Navy still adhered to a system whereby merchant ships, sailing individually, were directed along a prescribed and defined sea lane which was patrolled regularly by warships. There were naval officers of advanced views, of whom Ballard was one, who, citing historical precedent and modern experience on the England - Holland foodstuffs run, argued for the general adoption of the convoy system but their opinions were not those of the hierarchy at the Admiralty. In January, 1917, the official staff view dismissing the possibility that convoy would be a successful method of protecting trade, was put forward in a pamphlet of which it was written;

“It would be more difficult to find, even in the long history of Admiralty bureaucracy, a more stupid document and one which more pigheadedly ignored all the lessons of naval history. It was the more dangerous because it was not obviously the work of a lunatic.” (14)

George Ballard’s old enemy, Admiral Oliver, Chief of Staff, also set out on paper the Admiralty view of the difficulties of introducing convoy which:

“like the fabulous hydra of ancient mythology had many heads - and, like hydra’s heads, fresh objections grew as soon as one was removed” (15)

Rear Admiral Ballard ignored the reproving messages coming from the Admiralty and, it seems, on his own initiative, introduced the convoy system into the Mediterranean in May, 1917. This stand was hardly likely to improve his promotion prospects and he took early retirement in June, 1921, becoming a respected naval historian who contributed regularly to the “Mariner’s Mirror ” and wrote 2 well received books, “The Influence of the Sea on the Political History of Japan” and “Rulers of the Indian Ocean.”

There were 2 happenings in May, 1915, which conspire to bring this story to a conclusion . One is the dissolution of the 7th.Flotilla, which has been described, and the other occurred on the 13th.of the month when Mate Frank Hanna was promoted to Lieutenant and immediately appointed Number One of the monitor M30 then completing in the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. We do not know whether Frank agreed with the old naval axiom “your last ship is always your best ship” but we can be sure that the First Lieutenant of M30 carried with him, to the calm but war- torn waters of the Mediterranean, memories of a little craft fighting the swirling currents of the Humber, the furious North Sea gales and the short but steep waves of the English Channel.

Unlike 6 of the former coastal destroyers His Majesty’s Ship Torpedo Boat Number One survived the war and steamed steadily on until 7 October, 1920, when she was sold to the Fowey Coaling and Shipping company to be broken up.

“Now soon must come the twilight of her day, When in some musty dockyard she will lay, Her spars a silhouette against the morn, Desolate, abandoned and forlorn; Yet, not forgotten by that little crowd Who lived in her and served her and were proud.

No! she will know no haven in the deep, No quiet ocean bed for her last sleep; Silent soon the ringing of her bell, The dockyard hammer’s clang will be her knell. Yet those who served in her will know The part she played, and to her memory bow. (16)

* The End *

Notes

1. Post war research determined that U37 hit a mine in the North Sea.
2. Julian Corbett. “Naval Operations, Vol.2.”
3. A sally by these small craft on 1 May, 1915, was heavily defeated.
4. Julian Corbett. “Naval Operations, Vol.2.”
5. It is probable that these logs were destroyed during the WW2 Blitz when what is now known as the National Archive was called the Public Record Office and was situated in central London.
6. Nigel Hawkins. “The Starvation Blockades.”
7. Edwyn E.Gray. “The U-Boat War, 1914 - 1918.”
8. Winston S.Churchill. “The World Crisis.”
9. Julian Corbett. “Naval Operations.Vol.2.”
10. Flight. Lt. Rex Warneford destroyed the returning LZ37 over Ghent on 7 June, 1916 and was awarded the VC.
11. The first Zeppelin raid on London took place on 31 May, 1915.
12. Cliff Clover. “Zeppelins over the Eastern Counties.”
13. ADM335B.
14. John Winton. “Convoy.”
15. Ibid.
16. Petty Officer D.M.Radcliffe. “A Fleet Minesweeper’s Last Voyage.”

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