The War at Sea 1914-1918

From the birth of the Dreadnought to the period immediately after the end of World War I.
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José M. Rico
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The War at Sea 1914-1918

Postby José M. Rico » Thu Sep 10, 2009 9:14 pm

Here is a short but comprehensive article about the war at sea during world war I. Enjoy!

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THE WAR AT SEA
By Dr. John Pimlott.

When the war began in 1914, each of the major powers possessed a navy, designed to carry out the twin tasks of protecting coastal waters and maintaining maritime trading routes. Neither Russia nor Austria-Hungary depended heavily on foreign trade - both states could, theoretically, feed their people and equip their armies from internal resources. France could survive so long as the relatively short sea route to North Africa was kept open, but the same could not be said for either Britain or Germany. They needed access to their colonies as sources of raw materials and food, and although Germany could sustain her economy longer from indigenous or neutral European sources, both countries faced the prospect of starvation if denied free passage of the world's oceans. Indeed, in the case of Britain, it was estimated that the country would run out of food in three months if outside supplies were cut off.

A navy's task in such circumstances was clear - to protect maritime trading routes while disrupting those of the enemy. Both Britain and Germany had prepared for such a strategy before the war began, building large fleets of "big-gun" battleships, protected by battle cruisers, destroyers and submarines. These would dominate ocean areas and prevent the movement of supplies by threatening to blow any enemy ships out of the water.

Of the two fleets, that of the Royal Navy was the stronger in 1914, containing a total of 29 battleships based on the revolutionary "Dreadnought" class of ironclads, first launched in 1906. But the British had to cover an immense area, ranging from the coastal waters of the Channel and North Sea across the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, all of which required a naval presence to keep trade routes open.

By comparison, the German High Seas Fleet, although smaller in size (18 battleships in 1914), could concentrate on preventing a blockade of domestic ports. It could use the protected harbors at Cuxhaven, Wilhelmshaven and Kiel as bases for raids into the North Sea to keep the British at bay and allow merchant ships to enter German waters in safety. At the same time, individual warships or independent squadrons could go out into the oceans of the world to attack British trade from the colonies. If Britain was to survive, these advantages had to be reversed.

The destruction of the German raiders.

The fact that this was achieved in the first few months of the war was a major victory for the Royal Navy, and it was carried out at remarkably little cost. As early as July 29, 1914, the Grand Fleet sailed north under the command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, to take up its war stations at the Scottish ports of Rosyth and Scapa Flow. Its appearance in this area effectively deterred the Germans from seeking a major fleet action. As the German High Seas Fleet remained firmly in harbor, other elements of the Royal Navy escorted the BEF to France without interference, made offensive sweeps into the North Sea and gradually cleared the oceans of enemy warships.

Some of the latter did cause damage. Between August and November 1914, the light cruiser Emden created panic in the Indian Ocean before being caught and sunk. On November 1, the armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau under the command of Vice-Admiral Maximilian von Spee, destroyed two British armored cruisers of the coast of Chile.

But in early December a large British force closed in on von Spee, catching him in waters to the southeast of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic and destroying his squadron. Elsewhere, individual German warships were overwhelmed (the last to go was the light cruiser Dresden, sunk off the coast of Chile in March 1915) and British naval supremacy was secure.


Meanwhile, the Royal Navy also dominated the North Sea, where the Germans had tried to assert their strength by sending warships to bombard the east coast of England. At first they enjoyed some success – on November 2, 1914 the Norfolk coast came under attack and a month later Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool were all shelled – but this did not last. When a third such raid was mounted on January 24, 1915, British battle cruisers under Admiral Sir David Beatty were waiting and, in an action off the Dogger Bank, the German force was destroyed. The German High Seas Fleet withdrew to the protection of its bases, and surface actions in waters so obviously controlled by the Royal Navy were temporarily suspended.

The U-boat Campaign.

The Germans could not afford to follow a purely defensive naval strategy and searched for ways to impose a more effective blockade on British ports. On February 4, 1915, in a dramatic change of policy, the Kaiser proclaimed the waters around the British Isles to be a "war zone," through which all ships, neutral as well as British, traveled at their peril, and sent Unterseebooten or U-boats (submarines) to implement his declaration. At the same time, enormous numbers of mines were laid along likely sea routes close to the British coast.

Taken together, these policies of indiscriminate action completely changed the nature of the naval war, extending it to affect the shipping (and livelihood) of neutral countries. Of the latter, the US was by far the most important, gradually shifting its sympathies towards the Allies as US citizens were killed. As early as March 28, an American life was lost when the British liner Falaba was torpedoed, but far more significant was the sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania on May 7. Out of the 1,198 casualties, 128 were Americans.

President Wilson could not stand by and allow such incidents to pass unchallenged. As they continued, he increased the diplomatic pressure on Germany, even threatening to declare war in April 1916 if the sinkings did not cease. When this was combined with lack of impact on British trade (in 1915 Britain was losing an average of 79,695 tons of merchant shipping a month - mainly to U-boats but also to mines), the Kaiser had no choice but to abandon the U-boat campaign.

The Battle of Jutland.

This failure probably helped to spur the Germans to seek a major fleet action, hoping to break the deadlock in the North Sea by destroying the strength of the Royal Navy. The commander of the High Seas Fleet, Vice-Admiral Scheer, initially tried to lure Beatty's battle cruisers out of Rosyth into a submarine ambush, but met with little success. Then, on May 31, 1916, he sent his own battle cruisers under Vice-Admiral von Hipper to make a show of raiding merchant shipping along the Norwegian coast, and this did the trick. As Jellicoe reinforced Beatty with four fast battleships and sent him to investigate, Scheer put to sea with his main force of 16 dreadnoughts and six older battleships.

The two battle cruiser forces clashed late on May 31 and, in a short engagement, Beatty came off worse, losing the battleships Queen Mary and lndefatigable. By now, however, Jellicoe had also put to sea and, as Scheer tried to trap the remnants of Beatty's force, the latter hastily disengaged and pulled back towards the Grand Fleet, sailing down from the north. This drew Scheer towards Jellicoe's battle line, and in a series of clashes known as the Battle of Jutland, the rival fleets faced each other for the only time during the entire war.

Their meeting was not decisive. Although the British lost more ships than the Germans (three battle cruisers, three cruisers and eight destroyers to one old battleship, one battle cruiser, four cruisers and five destroyers) they were able to recover far more quickly. However, the effects were far-reaching. The Germans spent the remainder of the war with their surface fleet effectively bottled up in the North Sea ports.

Renewed U-boat Offensive.

Once again, the U-boats seemed to be the only possible means of imposing a blockade. Despite their recent failure, a new campaign was initiated, taking advantage of the fact that the High Seas Fleet no longer needed submarine protection. At first, the undersea attacks were restricted to the Mediterranean, where few American ships operated, and some success was achieved (one U-boat managed to sink 72,600 tons of merchant shipping in a single five-week cruise). Moreover, British and French countermeasures, already familiar to the Germans, proved ineffective. They ranged from the simple expedient of hoisting false colors, to deploying aimed "Q-ships" disguised as merchantmen. As the campaign was gradually extended back into the North Sea and Atlantic, the Allies began to feel the effects.

In January 1917, the British lost a staggering 411,400 tons to the U-boats, and this tempted the Germans to go one stage further. On February 1, they began an "unrestricted" submarine campaign, in which all ships suspected of trading with the Allies would be attacked without warning anywhere in the world. President Wilson responded by severing diplomatic links with Germany - the declaration of war followed two months later - and the war at sea entered its crucial phase.

Containing the U-boats

The battle revolved around the ability of Britain to resist the steady strangulation of her trading routes, particularly those across the North Atlantic. In the early stages, she came perilously close to defeat. During the first three months of 1917, she lost a total of 470 merchant ships. In April, one ship in every four which left British ports failed to return. As food stocks dwindled and neutral ships were reluctant to carry British goods, urgent measures were needed.

The most effective of these was undoubtedly the organization of convoys of merchant ships, traveling together under naval escort. Despite initial opposition from the Admiralty, obvious success on the run from Gibraltar to Britain in May meant that the convoy system was adopted on the transatlantic routes. By then the US Navy was also available - indeed, its appearance in European waters under Admiral William Sims was arguably the most crucial effect of America's entry into the war - and shipping losses fell dramatically.

The campaign came to a head in May 1918, when 14 submarines (out of a total of 125) were destroyed, and thereafter the threat rapidly subsided. By the end of the war in November, the U-boats had been driven from the North Atlantic and prevented from returning by the laying of an enormous mine barrage across the 290-km (180-mile) passage between Norway and the Orkneys. While this was going on, submarine bases close to Britain had been raided, most spectacularly on April 22, 1918, when British forces destroyed the harbor at Zeebrugge, and the High Seas Fleet was kept firmly contained in its borne ports. The Allied navies enjoyed complete freedom of the seas.

One effect of this was to impose on Germany the very blockade that she had attempted against Britain and, as food became scarce, civilian morale dropped. When Britain had felt the pinch in 1917, she had responded by extending the system of rationing to cover most foodstuffs, but this was nothing compared to the situation in Gerrnany a year later. By then the government had been forced to restrict the flow of all commodities from potatoes to clothing.

As the great influenza epidemic swept through Europe in 1918, the German people fell victim in droves, increasing the pressure to make peace. For that, the Allies had their navies to thank.

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U-boat sinkings

When the First World War began, no one was aware of the potential of submarines for disrupting an enemy's maritime trade. Since the Germans were prevented from using their High Seas Fleet, they turned to their U-boats as a means of attacking Britain, and soon descovered the advantages. In 1915, U-boats were sinking 69,663 tons of British shipping a month. In 1917, the Germans adopted an "unrestricted" campaign, and losses rose dramatically. Some 3.7 million tons was lost in that year alone. In 1918 the total fell to a more manageable 1.9 million tons.

August-December 1914: 3,630 tons.
January-December 1915: 836,990 tons.
January-December 1916: 993,201 tons.
January-December 1917: 3,716,614 tons.
January-November 1918: 1,865,248 tons.

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Re: The War at Sea 1914-1918

Postby RF » Fri Sep 18, 2009 1:39 pm

I am puzzled about the comment in the introduction about Germany being dependant on its colonies and on seaborne trade.

In 1913 the German colonies accounted for half of one per cent of Germany's total overseas trade. Germany was a substantial food producer and bordered countries with agricultural surpluses - Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Denmark, Holland.
German food production was actually compromised by the conscription of the largely male labour force into the Army, as there was little logistical planning for a long war. Seaborne trade was not in itself essential to Germany provided the European supply of food and materials wasn't compromised.
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Re: The War at Sea 1914-1918

Postby RF » Fri Sep 18, 2009 1:43 pm

I notice the section on German raiders only deals with the regular warships, with the ''problem'' solved by March 1915.

No mention of the hilfskreuzer. The Moewe was the most successful raider of WW1, arguably in fact in either of the world wars.
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Re: The War at Sea 1914-1918

Postby RF » Fri Sep 18, 2009 1:46 pm

What happened to the war in the Meditteranean, the Adriatic? And the war against Turkey, the campaign in the Black Sea, Gallipoli, the Persian Gulf?
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Re: The War at Sea 1914-1918

Postby tommy303 » Fri Sep 18, 2009 6:31 pm

I think the author was talking about the need to import nitrates for fertilizer, as Germany was dependent on nitrate shipments from South America. However, the comment overlooks the Bosch and Haber work in the field of extracting nitrogen from air--Haber discovered the process in 1914 and Bosch built the industrial complex to utilize it. The intent had been for fertilizer, but it was of course utilized for munitions as well.

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Re: The War at Sea 1914-1918

Postby RF » Sat Sep 19, 2009 9:16 am

The nitrate of course was used for explosives, not just as fertiliser, imported from Chile. Germany could overide the Chilean trade being cut off, particulary as the Germans at that time had the most advanced chemicals industry in the world. The loss of Germany's overseas trade actually hit Britain harder than Germany in that respect, because British industry was deprived of processed chemicals and dyes that in 1914 had to be imported from Germany.
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Re: The War at Sea 1914-1918

Postby aurora » Tue Dec 02, 2014 12:51 pm

During the Great War-the British Admiralty had for more than three years- steadfastly resisted the creation of a convoy system, believing they could not afford to spare ships and other resources from its mighty fleet where they might be needed in battle.

The effect of the German U-boat submarines, however, and their attacks on merchant ships—both belligerent and neutral—proved devastating. With the entrance of the United States into the war in April 1917, there was an even greater need for protection of Allied interests at sea, as large numbers of soldiers and arms would need to be transported from the Atlantic coast to Europe. In early May 1917, it was announced that the previous month had seen the highest shipping losses of the war so far for Allied and neutral countries: 373 ships, or a total weight of 873,754 tons.

Consequently, on May 24, 1917, Britain introduced its convoy system. Under the new arrangements, a convoy of 10 to 50 merchant ships—along with, possibly, a troopship carrying arms and soldiers—might be escorted by a cruiser, six destroyers, 11 armed trawlers and a pair of torpedo boats with aerial reconnaissance equipment that could detect the movement of underwater submarines.

Convoy gathering points were established along the Atlantic coast of North and South America, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Hampton, Virginia, all the way down to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to handle the transport not only of men and arms but also of foodstuffs and horses, the basic supplies of the Allied war effort.The results were astonishing-now the Uboat's task was made more difficult by having a mass of say 50 escorted merchantmen to be located visually; but in most cases missed altogether.

The introduction of the convoy system finally marked the beginning of a sharp decline in the scale of German submarine damage and the death of German hopes to starve Britain into submission. Between May 1917 and November 1918, a total of 1,100,000 American troops were transported across the Atlantic in convoy, and only 637 of them were drowned as a result of German attacks
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