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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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