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Podcast 11: War At Sea

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One of our mess decks was flooded; the captain’s cabin was wrecked; the signalman’s arm was blown off in the foretop; holes were knocked in the coal bunkers and we were in a generally poor condition…

In 1914, the prosperity of Great Britain and its Empire depended on control of the world’s oceans. Since the start of the twentieth century, Britain and Germany had been locked in a bitter rivalry to build bigger and better warships. At the outbreak of the First World War, many people expected the main confrontation between the countries would be fought quickly at sea. Louis West, who joined the Royal Navy in 1909, was one of them.

Well I think the general opinion was it couldn’t last more than three or four months, everybody was of that opinion. We said, ‘Well, when they come out we’ll have one ding dong battle and that’ll settle the war – hurry up the Germans and come out,’ that was our attitude. We thought we’d wipe the Germans out of course we did. No navy like the British navy, you know. We fully expected there to be a good ding dong battle – some of us wouldn’t come back and the others would – but it’d be all over in a few hours.

Members of the German High Seas Fleet were just as ready for a fight. Lieutenant Commander Dehn described the German navy’s attitude.

The firm knowledge that the British fleet was vastly superior to the German fleet didn’t affect our morale at all. On the contrary, everybody from the admiral down to the youngest stoker was anxious to show what he’d learnt. Everybody was agreed that the fleet as a whole and every unit in it would give a very good account of themselves when the day would come and they would be called upon to do so.

Joseph Vine, who served in HMS Vanguard, remembered the change from peacetime to a state of war.

We didn’t do any ship work at all, no washing decks or anything, none of that old business, paintwork or anything. You were at your battle stations right up until Christmas, that’s all it was – it was war. And we used to be out for about ten days steaming, patrolling, then we’d come in at daybreak at Scapa Flow harbour. All the fleet come in no sooner you’d dropped anchor than the collier would slide up alongside with about 2,000 ton of coal aboard for you.

The first major naval action of the war took place on 28 August 1914, in the Heligoland Bight off the north German coast. A. Blackmore, who served as a range finder aboard HMS New Zealand, took part in the battle, which resulted in a British victory.

We steamed in towards Heligoland in a thick fog and mist. When we got in there, a bit of confusion started because we picked out each ship that was allotted to us and ours was the KolnWe immediately opened fire as soon as we got her in our sights and that was about six or seven thousand yards and continuous fire carried on. During this action I saw what I thought was something for me marked to my name – a shell coming over, a huge shell. I could see through my range finder that it was directed straight to us and watched it and as it come it just cleared the top where I was sitting. I just clutched my seat and shut my eyes and it passed underneath, just cleared the bridge and exploded in the water just the other side of us – a big, black, round cloud.

On 1 November, off Coronel on the coast of Chile in the southern Pacific, the Royal Navy suffered its worst defeat in over a century. S Pawley was an officer in HMS Glasgow – which, although damaged, managed to survive the battle.

We formed into battle line ahead with the Otranto on our port side at some distance and steamed north. It was not very long before smoke appeared on the horizon and we soon discovered this smoke came from two German heavy cruisers. And we were able to recognise Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. We were not long in closing on the enemy and soon the battle commenced. The Good Hope opened fire, a ranging shot, which fell short and then the battle became general. I was standing on the upper deck at the time; the sea was very rough under a leaden sky. At times the waves came clean overboard, came clean in over. We were hit in several places. One of our mess decks was flooded; the captain’s cabin was wrecked; the signalman’s arm was blown off in the foretop; holes were knocked in the coal bunkers and we were in a generally poor condition.

Two British armoured cruisers – the Good Hope and the Monmouth – were sunk by a superior German force, led by Admiral von Spee. A. Bushkin witnessed the loss of the Monmouth from aboard HMS Otranto.

The Good Hope, a shell must have hit the magazine – she blew up. The Monmouth soon afterwards also blew up. Just before that, their guns – although they were sinking – their guns were firing and those men were carrying out their action stations right until the very last. There’s a darkening sky; there’s a leaden sea; the weather is getting gradually worse.  And we were steaming south getting away out of it, our thoughts mixed, very mixed. Cursing because we couldn’t get to our pals to help them; glad to get away out of it. What could we do? Nothing, just nothing.

One of the 1,600 British sailors who died in the Battle of Coronel was the brother of newly-enlisted soldier, Joseph Murray. He remembered how this news affected him.

My brother Tom was a reservist and he was on special reserve which meant that he did a month’s training every year instead of a week. Now on the 1st of November they were sank off Coronel which is on the other side of America. Now up until then I was very patriotic, and after getting to know that I was out for blood! And I swore blind that I’d kill every so and so that I could – and I did! I was out for revenge. So patriotism turned to hate.

The British fleet was also out for revenge. Admiral Sturdee was sent to the south Atlantic with fresh ships to destroy the German squadron. Edward Pullen, of HMS Glasgow, described what happened when the two forces encountered one another off the Falkland Islands.

All at once Sturdee said, ‘I’m coming out now’ – come out in an ‘S’ shape, out of Port Stanley – ‘make a smoke screen’. Well, we did as much as we could but the smokescreen didn’t last long and all at once the Germans lined up ready for battle. And when they saw these tripods, our battle cruisers then had tripods, you know three masts, they started to go – you could see the smoke coming out of their funnels to get plenty of speed up. Battle started now with the Leipzig and it went on from 1 o’clock til 9 o’clock that night and during the battle a signalman came running along with the news, Sturdee’s sent news to say to my captain: ‘I have sunk the two big ships, where are you?’ My captain said, ‘I don’t know where I am!’ He was in the conning tower, excited. Well that battle went on until the Leipzig was all on fire at 9 o’clock.

Four German warships were lost during the battle. British engineer E Amis’s ship, HMS Kent, sank the Nuremberg.

She was on fire for’ard and aft and some of them were jumping into the water on bits of wreckage so as to try and get to us. But the seas were icy cold and the sea was not calm then, it was a choppy sea with a rising mist and spray and just choppy billows – they had a pretty rough time in the water. We tried to save some, we hauled some aboard but they were too numb – they eventually died and we simply put them back into the drink again because there was no time for any ceremony.

Bert Stevens, leading stoker in HMS Inflexible, also recalled how British attempts to rescue German sailors from their sinking ships were thwarted.

We never picked no survivors up off the Scharnhorst but we picked survivors up off the Gneisenau. And when she was sinking she was going down at the bows and she was over on the port side as well. And what happened was she had some wounded on her aft and she also had wounded down below, she’d stood a lot of bashing you see – and when we all got on the upper deck, Phillimore [commander of the Inflexible] said, ‘Try and save as many as you can off this boat.’ Well what happened was, we don’t know who it was, but there was someone on that ship ordered them to fire again and she fired another three rounds at us. Phillimore said, ‘Alright we’ll have to give them some more.’

Even if they were not taking part in these major battles, British sailors faced the constant threat of German submarines. James Cox remembered how much anxiety they caused.

Everybody was on the alert the first months of the war which began to get tedious after a time, every little bottle that showed, the alert went and the searchlights and that were switched on and you know we was all on tenterhooks. I was on searchlight cos that was my work and I was stationed by a searchlight at night, every night, and a gun or torpedo during the day. Well now, that’s how we kept our watches for weeks on end.

They were right to be vigilant. William Halter, who served aboard submarine D4, had a near miss at Heligoland.

I happened to be on the bridge all by myself – the captain had gone down for a cup of something – and I was watching and I was petrified. I saw a torpedo come up out of the water, jump out the water and naturally I rang the alarm bell and the captain came running up. I said, ‘We’ve just had a torpedo fired at us, sir.’ He said, ‘Right, down below.’ We went down below, crash dived, and he questioned me about it when we were down below and he said, ‘I ought not to have left you alone,’ he said, ‘you’ve got nerves.’ He said, ‘You never saw any torpedo.’ I said, ‘But I did, sir.’ ‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘I don’t believe you – it doesn’t sound right to me.’ Anyhow we finished the trip and we came back and I had to go up before the torpedo officer on the Maidstone. And he questioned me about that torpedo and he turned round to the captain and he said, ‘That’s right,’ he said, ‘that was a German torpedo.’ And it was correct and I was believed then.

On 24 January 1915, a British force led by Admiral Beatty intercepted a German squadron at the Dogger Bank in the North Sea. British officer John Ouvry of HMS Tiger described the action that followed.

My action station was a very good one – it was in the conning tower, actually I was messenger to the captain who was in the conning tower in charge of the whole ship, of course. We actually got into contact with the German battlecruisers just after 9. The captain was in the conning tower and I was outside looking out for submarines. At about 9.20 we sighted the Germans and they opened fire on us, and we on them. And I remember our first salvo – mind you I was outside the conning tower – blew my hat off! And then to my relief the captain sent a messenger to say come inside the conning tower now.

In a confused encounter, the British managed to lose none of their ships – although Beatty’s flagship, HMS Lion, was badly damaged. However, the German armoured cruiser SMS Blücher was destroyed – witnessed by Ouvry.

We had turned to port to cut off the Blücher, the Tiger leading the three ships. And we blasted away at poor Blücher which had stopped and we fired two torpedoes at her at point blank range and I saw one hit. I saw the foremost turret blow up and the mast come down, she’d stopped and was listing. We then turned away back home leaving Blücher sinking and she actually sank within view.

Naval warfare was brutal and terrifying. Teenager Alfred Fright joined the navy as a boy in 1913, and clearly recalled his fear of going into battle just a year later.

Whilst you was waiting for it you was absolutely dead scared, dead scared. But once it started it was fine and you seemed to lose it all. But up until that point, as I say, you was dead scared. And I know I’ve stood on the bridge sometimes and cried with being scared. And also I’ve stood on the bridge – cos we used to have to do lookouts, you see, that was our job mostly, boys. Course the ship sways that much you go three times that much up at the top mast head you see. And I’ve stood up there with these glasses to my eyes, froze to death and crying. That’s the sort of life it was in them days.

Find out more about the First World War at iwm.org.uk. We’d really like to know what you think of these podcasts. Please rate us or leave a comment on iTunes.

Listen out for Podcast 12: Zeppelins Over Britain