17/10/1917 The Action off Lerwick: a daring German strike on a British convoy #1917Live

Britain’s navy dominates the seas. Since Jutland, Germany’s main battle fleet has remained in port, fearing annihilation at the hands of the British. Germany’s main naval threat to the British now is its U-boats, with which it has been attempting to strangle British trade. Nevertheless, German warships still threaten the British, with destroyers based in Belgian ports disrupting British control of the Channel.

Away from the European coast the British believe they have little to fear from German warships. Convoys bringing in coal regularly traverse the North Sea from Norway. German U-boats have been unsuccessful in their attempts to attack these, so now the Germans try something new. Two light cruisers, the Brummer and the Bremse, slip out of their base, disguised as British warships. Today they encounter a coal convoy near Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. At first the British ships escorting the coal merchants think they are meeting other ships from the Royal Navy; when shells start to fall on them they realise their mistake.

The battle is an uneven one. The Brummer and the Bremse sink both of the destroyers escorting the convoy and then turn their attentions on the merchant ships, sinking nine of them (with only three escaping). Then the Germans head for home. They have taken no losses themselves but some 250 or so sailors from the convoy lose their lives.

image source:

Postcard (Metropostcard: Naval Actions  1917-1919)

31/8/1917 U-boats v. Dazzle Ships

HMS Alsatian, Dalmuir
Germany’s escalated U-boat campaign was meant to knock Britain out of the war by autumn this year. Although it has brought the USA into the war, Germany’s leaders believed this a price worth paying if Britain was eliminated. However the projections by Holtzendorff, the navy’s chief of staff, have proved hopelessly optimistic with regard to the level of shipping losses that would force Britain to sue for peace. It is clear that Britain will be fighting on for some time yet.

Holtzendorff appears also to have failed to reckon for more effective countermeasures by the Allies against the submarine menace. More ships trading with Britain are now sailing in convoys, protected against U-boats by Allied warships. British and American destroyers are also conducting more aggressive patrols against the submarines. These efforts, combined perhaps with the exhaustion of the U-boat crews, have led to a decline in tonnage lost to the U-boats. U-boat sinkings are now below the level Holtzendorff projected as being needed to force Britain to make peace. It has become apparent that the U-boat campaign has brought the USA into the war for nothing.

One novel method now being used to protect Allied merchant ships is camouflage. A ship is clearly too big to hide but ships are now being painted in strange patterns that are meant to make it difficult for an enemy to quickly work out its speed and direction, thus making them harder to target. This has become known as Dazzle camouflage. Whether Dazzle materially protects a ship from the attentions of a U-boat is unclear but these strange patterns inspire confidence in the men who sale in these Dazzle ships.

image sources:

HMS Dalmatian (Flickr: misterworthington)

Dazzle ships in convoy, by Norman Wilkinson (Wikipedia: Dazzle camouflage)

30/6/1917 Germany’s dawning realisation that the U-boat war has failed

Germany is trying to win the war with its escalated U-boat campaign. The U-boats have been given carte blanche to attack Allied merchant ships without warning. They are also authorised to attack ships flying neutral flags but suspected of carrying supplies to Allied countries. The Germans hope that the submarine war will reduce Britain to poverty and starvation, forcing it to make peace with Germany

Since the beginning of the escalated campaign in February the Germans have sunk an astonishing 3,844,000 tons of Allied shipping. Holtzendorff, the German navy’s chief of staff, has calculated that sinking 600,000 tons a month would be enough to cripple British trade. The U-boats have achieved these targets, sinking 670,000 tons in June alone, so surely this means that the British will soon be forced to make peace?

Yet the British do not appear to be on the brink of collapse. Holtzendorff appears to have miscalculated. The British have been able to increase domestic food production and through effective rationing are spreading food supplies relatively fairly (far more successfully than is the case in Germany). The U-boat campaign has not scared neutral shipping from the seas. Instead it has reduced the amount imported into the likes of Holland and Denmark for resale to Germany.

Allied countermeasures against the submarines are becoming more effective, with merchant ships increasingly sailing under protection in convoys and US and British destroyers patrolling more aggressively against the U-boats. It is starting to look as though the U-boat campaign is not going to end the war in the next few months. Tacitly recognising that the war will continue, the German navy now orders the construction of more U-boats, which will not be available for use until 1919.

images:

A merchant ship torpedoed (Military History Now: Sea Wolves Unleashed – Germany’s First U-boat War)

A U-boat surfaces (Military History Now: Sea Wolves Unleashed – Germany’s First U-boat War)

14/5/1917 The Battle of Otranto

On land the Italians are making their tenth attempt to break through the Austro-Hungarian defences at the Isonzo. At sea though it is Austria-Hungary which is attacking. Their target is the Otranto Barrage, the Allied blockade of the mouth of the Adriatic at the Straits of Otranto. Drifters, mostly British, patrol here, trailing nets in which they hope to catch enemy U-boats; larger ships are ready to support the drifters in case of enemy action.

Led by Commander Horthy, an Austro-Hungarian flotilla sails out at night to attack the drifters, sinking 14 of them and damaging another four. An Allied squadron comprising British, French and Italian ships gives chase, trying to prevent Horthy’s ships from escaping back to port. However the Austro-Hungarians also bring up reinforcements. In the fighting that follows, the Austro-Hungarians see one of their cruisers suffer heavy damage (with Horthy himself severely injured) but the Allies have the worst of it, losing two destroyers.

The battle shows the Allies that they cannot be certain of complete control of the Adriatic. However there are no great consequences of the action. The Otranto Barrage remains in operation, but it also continues to be a a rather ineffectual barrier to German and Austro-Hungarian submarines.

image sources:

The Castle of Otranto (Echoes form the Vault)

SMS Novara, Horthy’s flagship (Wikipedia)

Horthy, seriously wounded (Wikipedia)

10/5/1917 Convoys against U-boats

The Germans are hoping that their U-boats will force Britain out of the war by the autumn. Last month the submarines sunk a record quantity of Allied shipping. As a trading nation, Britain needs its merchant fleet to survive. If the Germans can continue to destroy its ships faster than they can be rebuilt then Britain will be reduced to poverty and starvation.

The British are trying various measures to counter the U-boat threat. Food production at home is being increased and ship building is being accelerated. And now they try a novel tactic to protect the ships while they are at sea. Instead of having merchantmen sail individually, easy targets for the German submarines, today the first convoy of 17 ships, escorted by warships of the British navy, sets sail for Britain from Gibraltar. Some fear that having all these ships sail together presents the Germans with too tempting a target, but the hope is that they will be protected from the U-boats’ depredations by their escorts.

27/4/1917 Germany’s annoying Belgian naval bases

On land the Western Front is still stalemated. At sea Britain remains dominant, its mighty fleet forcing Germany’s main battle fleet to remain in port. Germany is under blockade and its economy is being slowly strangled. Yet the British do not have it all their own way. German U-boats are striking back against Allied merchant shipping, hoping to starve Britain into submission. Another threat to the British is the German naval bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge in Belgium. German warships operating from here are able to disrupt Allied shipping in the Channel.

Jellicoe, now the head of Britain’s navy, is increasingly preoccupied with the threat posed by these German naval bases. Today he presents a memorandum to the war cabinet warning that Britain is heading for disaster unless these ports are neutralised. Not merely is he concerned about the disruption of Allied shipping in the Channel, he also fears the prospect of these bases being used for an attack on England itself.

Robertson, the British army’s chief of staff, passes on Jellicoe’s concerns to Haig. Haig begins to think about staging an offensive in Flanders, a Third Battle of Ypres, with the capture of the Channel ports as the ultimate goal.

17/4/1917 Second Gaza: another British attempt to push into Palestine

The British and their Commonwealth Allies are having another crack at attacking Gaza. The last time the British attempted to storm the gateway to Palestine they suffered a bloody reverse. This time they are doing everything to improve their chances. Battleships are bombarding the Turkish defences. The British are also using new terror weapons not previously seen in this theatre of war. As well as firing gas shells at the Turks, the British are also deploying tanks for the first time in the Middle East. Hopes are high that the Turks will flee in terror at the first sight of these metal leviathans.

The battle is not quite the pushover the British were expecting. The gas attack proves curiously ineffective while the artillery fails to dislodge the Turks. The Allied assault is met with a murderous fire of machine guns and artillery. The tanks fail to strike terror into the hearts of the Turks, who maintain a continuous fire upon the lumbering contraptions.

The Allies nevertheless make some initial gains, but strong Turkish counterattacks prevent a breakthrough. Murray, the British commander, determines that the assaults must continue in the hope of breaking the Turks over the coming days.

image source: Turkish machine gunners (Wikipedia)