Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Royal Navy 29th July 1914: “eighteen miles of warships running- at high speed and in absolute blackness through the narrow straits”

July 14th 1914: The Royal Navy assembled at Spithead for the King's Review
prior to exercises and later concentration off Portland

One hundred years ago today, on Wednesday 29th July 1914, though war had not yet been declared, the German Fleet began its mobilisation. This was to trigger the dramatic recommendation to the Prime Minister by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, to order the Royal Navy’s First Fleet – soon to be renamed the “Grand Fleet” – to leave its anchorage at Portland, on England’s south coast, where it had been involved in manoeuvres, and to head for a safer location. This latter was Scapa Flow, the anchorage in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland from where, as events were to prove, the North Sea could be dominated. The Royal Navy was thus well-placed, even before Britain went to war with Germany – as it would not do on August 4th - to counter any hostile action the Germans might take. The story of these dramatic events is best told in Churchill’s own words, taken from his “World Crisis”. He quotes the signal sent and, as always he paints a vivid and unforgettable picture.


The most important step remains to be recounted. As early as Tuesday, July 28, I felt that the Fleet should go to its War Station. It must go there at once, and secretly; it must be steaming to the north while every German authority, naval or military, had the greatest possible interest in avoiding a collision with us. If it went this early it need not go by the Irish Channel and north-about. It could go through the Straits of Dover and through the North Sea, and therefore the island would not be uncovered even for a single day. Moreover, it would arrive sooner and with less expenditure of fuel.
At about 10 o'clock, therefore, on the Tuesday morning I proposed this step to the First Sea Lord and the Chief of the Staff and found them whole-heartedly in favour of it. We decided that the fleet should leave Portland at such an hour on the morning of the 29th as to pass the Straits o[ Dover during the hours of darkness, that it should traverse these waters at high speed and without lights, and with the utmost precaution proceed to Scapa Flow. I feared to bring this matter before the Cabinet, lest it should mistakenly be considered a provocative action likely to damage the chances of peace. It would be unusual to bring movements of the British Fleet in Home Waters from one British port to another before the Cabinet. I only therefore informed the Prime Minister, who at once gave his approval. Orders were accordingly sent to Sir George Callaghan, who was told incidentally to send the Fleet up under his second-in-command and to travel himself by land through London in order that we might have an opportunity of consultation with him.

Admiralty to Commander-in-Chief Home Fleets. 
July 28, Sent 5 p.m.

To-morrow, Wednesday, the First Fleet is to leave Portland for Scapa Flow. Destination is to be kept secret except to flag and commanding officers. As you are required at the Admiralty', Vice-Admiral end Battle Squadron is to take command. Course from Portland is to be shaped to southward, then a middle Channel course to the Straits of Dover. The Squadrons are to pass through the Straits without lights during the night and to pass outside the shoals on their way north. Agamemnon is to remain at Portland, where the Second Fleet will assemble.
We may now picture this great Fleet, its flotillas and cruisers, steaming slowly out of Portland Harbour, squadron by squadron, scores of gigantic castles of steel wending their way across the misty, shining sea, like giants bowed in anxious thought. We may picture them again as darkness fell, eighteen miles of warships running- at high speed and in absolute blackness through the narrow Straits, bearing with them into the broad waters of the North the safeguard of considerable affairs.

Although there seemed to be no conceivable motive, chance or mischance, which could lead a rational German Admiralty to lay a trap of submarines or mines or to have given them the  time to do so, we looked at each other with much satisfaction when on Thursday morning (the 30th) at our daily Staff Meeting the Flagship reported that the whole Fleet was well out in the centre of the North Sea. The strategic concentration of the fleet had been achieved with its transfer to Scottish waters.

Scores of gigantic castles of steel wending their way across the misty, shining sea...

More than four years were to pass before victory was complete and before the German Fleet steamed in surrender between two columns of that same Home Fleet, augmented by an American battle-squadron. The seeds for that final victory were planted by Winston Churchill on July 29th 1914 in the last days of peace.
The Grand Fleet at sea


  1. Marvellous stuff, unmistakably Churchill - I could hear his voice in my head as I was reading it.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it Simon - as I read it myself I cold almost hear the theme music of "The Valiant Years"