New Zealand’s part in the Battle of Dogger Bank

It’s a hundred years this weekend since the battle of Dogger Bank – 24 January 1915 – the first clash of late industrial-age big-gun warships in history. As Winston Churchill pointed out, nobody quite knew what would happen.

HMS New Zealand, Indefatigable class battlecruiser given by New Zealand to the Royal Navy in 1909. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
HMS New Zealand, Indefatigable class battlecruiser given by New Zealand to the Royal Navy in 1909. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

New Zealand was intimately involved. Our ‘gift ship’ to Britain, HMS New Zealand, formed part of Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty’s Battlecruiser Force, which was heavily engaged. A fair number of Kiwis were serving on board at the time. The battle was an outcome of a risky German strategy to draw out part of the British fleet and whittle down their superiority. This initially involved sending battlecruisers to bombard towns along the British coast – Hartlepool and Lowestoft among them – with the German High Seas Fleet lying in wait nearby to spring the trap.

In late January 1915 the Germans sent their First Scouting Group – three battlecruisers, supported by the large armoured cruiser Blucher – to attack British fishing fleets on the Dogger Bank. This time the High Seas Fleet was not in support. However, the British were tipped off by ‘Room 40’ decryption of German signals and put forces to sea to intercept.

Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

It was a dramatic day. The British sortied their Harwich Force of light cruisers and destroyers, and their Battlecruiser Force, under Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty. The latter encountered the German battlecruisers, under Rear-Admiral Franz Hipper, just after 7.00 am on 24 January. The Germans turned for harbour. Beatty gave chase, and a helter-skelter pursuit followed.

We can imagine the scene – the British ships plunging forwards amid clouds of coal and cordite smoke, guns spitting fire while, deep inside their hulls, sweating stokers shovelled coal into the furnaces and the engineers forced the steam plants over design figures. At 8.52 Beatty opened fire at the unprecedented range of 18,000 metres.

SMS Seydlitz, flagship of Rear-Admiral Franz Hipper at the Battle of Dogger Bank, nearly lost when a British hit penetrated one of the turrets and set ammunition ablaze. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
SMS Seydlitz, flagship of Rear-Admiral Franz Hipper at the Battle of Dogger Bank, nearly lost when a British hit penetrated one of the turrets and set ammunition ablaze. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

In theory Beatty’s five heavy ships had it all over the Germans. In practise, the Germans got away, thanks to a signalling mix-up after Beatty’s flagship Lion was crippled. Beatty wanted the slower Indomitable to attack Blucher, leaving the rest of the British force to pursue the main German units. Command-and-control still relied, Nelson-style, on flags, and as Lion fell back, Beatty’s flag-lieutenant, Seymour, hoisted two signals at once. They were misread as one by Rear-Admiral Sir A. G. Moore, on board the New Zealand, who presumed they meant Beatty wanted the whole force to attack Blucher. The result was that the British swung around to pulverise the lagging armoured cruiser. By the time Beatty was able to transfer his flag to the Princess Royal, it was too late to catch the fleeing German battlecruisers.

Opinion afterwards was mixed. The Kaiser forbad further tip-and-run raids. To the British public, the battle underscored the popular image of battlecruisers as naval cavalry. Beatty, already a rock star with the British public, became all the more dashing on the back of it.

HMS Lion, Beatty's flagship, crippled at Dogger Bank by only a few hits. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
HMS Lion, Beatty’s flagship, crippled at Dogger Bank by only a few hits. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

There were other opinions in the Admiralty. The First Sea Lord, Sir John Fisher, was furious. Moore might have obeyed a mis-flown signal, but Henry Pelly of the Tiger – the physical leader of the British line after Lion dropped out – could have kept the chase. ‘Any fool can obey orders,’ Fisher stormed. Whether the British force – down to two 13.5-inch gunned battlecruisers backed by New Zealand and the slower Indomitable – could have tackled three modern German vessels was a moot point, the more so because British shooting was atrocious. Blucher succumbed to a rain of short-range fire, but the three big German vessels received only seven hits between them, out of 869 13.5-inch rounds lobbed their way. Part of the reason was that the engagement was mostly fought at far greater ranges than the fire-control systems were capable of handling. But it also highlighted lack of practise facilities at their base in the Firth of Forth.

SMS Derfflinger, second German battlecruiser in their line, firing a salvo. Public domain, Wikipedia.
SMS Derfflinger, second German battlecruiser in their line. Public domain, Wikipedia.

To this was added the technical performance of the warships. Lion was knocked out of battle with just 16 hits, including some that penetrated her main belt armour. She had to be towed back to Rosyth by the Indomitable. Analysis revealed problems with construction detailing as well as the risks of building warships that sacrificed armour for speed.

The Germans also learned from the experience. The Seydlitz had almost been lost when a hit aft fired ready ammunition in one of the two aft heavy gun mounts. The fire spread to the other mount. Neither magazine exploded, but the Germans tightened their munition-handling procedures to prevent a repeat of the incident.

This meant that when the battlecruisers came to blows a second time, fourteen months later, the British came off second best. But that is another story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


9 thoughts on “New Zealand’s part in the Battle of Dogger Bank

    1. Yes – an excellent post! Jittery Russians vs British fishing trawlers, and Britain nearly goes to war… embarrassing, to say the least! Ouch.

      I have to respectfully disagree about the importance of the naval side in WWI, though. While the pivot of that war was certainly the land campaign on the Western Front, British naval superiority was essential to their ability both to maintain the blockade that was slowly strangling the Central Powers (and contributed to their collapse in 1918, in part via food shortages), to allow them to support the war in France, and to keep Britain safe from potential invasion. Lose that and they’d have had to capitulate. Dogger Bank and similar battles were sidelines in some senses; but in others they tested the British ability to maintain that superiority – and if the German ‘whittle down’ strategy had worked (as it almost did in late 1914) that superiority would have been lost via a not-too-big North Sea clash. Hence the debates within the Admiralty over Gallipoli as a ‘naval power drain’, and the criticality of the Battle of Jutland in May 1916. And it’s been argued that even the casualty figures were comparable to any land battle – certainly at Jutland, where men died in similar numbers to – but more swiftly than – in some of the major land battles in Flanders.

      I studied this stuff at university, but it’s also been a family matter. My great uncle was in the middle of it, serving on board the dreadnought HMS Orion (both during the ‘near miss’ event in 1914 and at Jutland). Later he was on the battlecruiser Repulse. He was one of the fire-control personnel, and I still recall the account he gave me of how it all worked. (If anybody wants ‘steampunk’ inspiration, go no further than the Dreyer Fire Control Table and Dumaresq clockwork computers).

      1. I think you are right that the naval power of the Allies was an essential component of their victory, as it affected civilian life (blocking off imports needed in Germany and Austria-Hungary). But I don’t see the naval battles in and of themselves as being a major deciding factor in the outcome of the war. I have no desire at all to diminish the accomplishment of your uncle on a dreadnaught battleship. I only wanted to draw a comparison between a conflict that was centered on oceanic waters (around Port Arthur and Tsushina) versus a conflict that was mainly centered on land.

        1. Yes, absolutely – I agree that the WWI naval battles, as they stood, didn’t make much impact. You’re right; in the Mahanian sense, the key arbiter wasn’t sea force (navies) but sea power (merchant marine), and in that sense the German submarine campaign and British blockade, which didn’t involve any set-piece naval battles in the classic sense, was more crucial. That said, the stakes were high if any of the major surface-ship battles HAD gone awry. Jutland especially. That only clash of the fleets was a decisive strategic victory for the British and thus left their command of the sea unbroken. But things would have been very different had the Germans sunk or damaged enough of the Grand Fleet to reduce its superiority. British analysts of the day put the risk level on par with the Russo-Japanese war in that sense, where whoever won command of the sea was in a position to impose terms on the other. Admiral Jellicoe was openly referred to as the only man who could ‘lose the war in an afternoon’ on the back of it.

          My great uncle didn’t play a huge part; he was one of over 1200 men on Orion and 30,000-odd in the Grand Fleet, a cog in a wheel. Paradoxically, he didn’t even see the battles, as he was below deck in the forward fire-control room. Safer, but unquestionably more worrisome in other ways. If I’m in danger, I like to see what’s going on…

  1. What happened in ww1 was eventually echoed in ww2. Germany could easily have defeated Britain if Germany had been a true maritime power. In ww1 Germany did little more than glare at the RN from the safety of their port. In ww2, Germany’s warships spent most of their time running and hiding from the RN, and not always succeeding.

    Germany simply didn’t have the rich maritime tradition that Britain enjoyed. At one point, the sun never set on the British Empire, and that was primarily true because of her navy. In the end, Britain survived two world wars, and attests to the strength and scope of the RN. Though Germany’s sailing machines often demonstrated great technical prowess, there never were enough to make a difference.

    I once argued with someone that even if Germany launched Operation Sea Lion (Invasion of Britain-ww2), it still might not have succeeded. Getting past the vastly superior Royal Navy would’ve been no easy feat. I imagine the scattered and numerically invasion force that made it across would be too few, and in such disarray, they’d be cut down like wheat by the British defenders.

    In this battle, John Fisher treated the event as a failure because only one German vessel was ravaged. For Germany, it was a victory because they weren’t all sunk. The way the battle is measured speaks loudly of the strength of each fleet in comparison. It’s clear who controlled the seas at all times.

    1. There’s no question in my mind that Sealion would have failed because of the RN. The Germans appear to have thought so too; as I understand it High Command figured they might land forces OK but supplying them across a channel controlled by the RN was going to be virtually impossible. I suspect the Home Fleet would probably have dealt to the invasion fleet too. And they could have done so even under Luftwaffe air superiority; the Rodney class battleships in particular were armoured against the heaviest Luftwaffe bombs of 1940 and their underwater protection was designed to defeat the size of charge carried by German airborne torpedoes. A great ‘what if’ scenario of course!

  2. I just love these “story” posts, Matthew. It is as if I am right there in the battle. And I agree, one does not readily think of battles on the high seas when considering WWI but I am looking more at early 20th century sea battles (as noted in above comment).

    On a somewhat different topic, are you familiar with the Acorn TV series, “Anzac Girls?” It concerns stories about Australian and New Zealand nurses who served at Gallipoli and the Western Front. It has some interesting moments, I think.

    Thanks, Matthew.

    1. The Anzac nurses show was filmed here and screened on TV a few months back. I didn’t watch it – we avoid TV actively in our household as a rule and will wait for DVD release. Years ago I pitched a book on the subject to my publishers, but it got nowhere. I believe one is being written now as a centennial project. I’m not involved in any of that, alas.

Comments are closed.