Tuesday 5 April 2016

Guest Blog by Chris Sams

I am glad to welcome naval-historian Chris Sams as guest on my blog. I hope you'll enjoy this story of warfare in the North Sea in 1917 - Antoine Vanner

 A bloody encounter in the North Sea, 1917 by Chris Sams

Day broke on the 17 October 1917 and HMS Strongbow, an R-class destroyer escorting a convoy consisting of two British, one Belgian and nine neutral Scandinavian vessels from Lerwick to Bergen with the armed trawlers Elise and P. FannonStrongbow was at the rear of the convoy whilst her sister HMS Mary Rose under Lt. Commander Fox led the convoy from the front, when the crew spotted two cruisers at 06:05 approaching through the early morning haze at two points after beam. Visibility was only 4000 yards and the two vessels were closing at speed. The Duty officer Acting Lieutenant James, believed them to be British light cruisers of the Cleopatra class and he signalled them for identification using a Morse spot lamp.

There was no response.

The second signal met with no response.

The third was met with a poorly morsed letters that made no sense when translated. Something was not right and James immediately sent for the Captain Lt-Commander Brooke and Strongbow turned to meet the two unknown vessels and increased speed.
HMS Strongbow
SMS Bremse and Brummer had been dispatched by Admiral Scheer to seek convoys on the Lerwick to Bergen route and if none were to be found to proceed to the West coast of Britain and range into the Atlantic at their discretion and depending on their fuel supplies.

The Germans reasoned that whilst the rest of their fleet was known to be engaged in the Baltic and capturing Helsingfors the British would not expect an attack. A successful attack would also cause problems for the enemy and ultimately aid the U-boat campaign as the Royal Navy would need to bleed off vessels searching for U-boats to protect these neutral convoys from surface raiders. The mine-laying cruisers Bremse and Brummer were specifically chosen for their appearance which was similar to British cruisers and that they had a top speed of 34 knots and could burn either oil or coal. With their decks cleared of all their mine laying equipment, save for the lowering mechanism, and the berths for 450 mines the cruisers left Wilhelmshaven and proceeded into the North Sea after a day's delay whilst minesweepers cleared a path for them.

SMS Brummer
Scheer legitimised attacking neutral ships in his memoirs;

It was known that neutral merchant vessels assembled in convoys to travel under the protection of English warships, and therefore they might be regarded as enemy vessels, since they openly claimed English protection as to benefit the enemy and consequently to injure us.

Room 40, the Admiralty's code breakers, had intercepted Bremse and Brummer reporting their position as north of the Sylt at Lister Tief. This information was passed on to Operations to evaluate as Room 40 had no knowledge of British vessels’ dispositions.

The Admiralty Operations room did not believe that two mine-laying cruisers would be a threat to anything and that they were probably adding to the formidable minefields already in existence. There had been a belief that the Germans would attempt a raid of some sort and a force of three cruisers, twenty-seven light cruisers and fifty-four destroyers spread itself from the mid North Sea to the coast of Norway looking for a mine layer and force of destroyers.

The Brummer and Bremse had slipped by at night using their high top-speed and now were closing on Strongbow. They fired at 3000 yards with their first salvo falling short. Their second hit the main steam pipe, causing the destroyer to stop and wrecking her wireless-room, thereby removing her ability to call for help. The time was 06:15.

With Mary Rose some way ahead the defenceless merchant ships slowed to a stop and began abandoning ship in the hope that their crews could be afforded safety in the lifeboats. The two German cruisers closed and began sinking the merchant ships with expertly aimed shots at the waterline and would eventually claim all nine of the neutral Danes, Swedish and Norwegian vessels whilst the Belgian and British vessels fled the scene.
M-Class destroyer HMS Marmion - her sister Mary Rose would have looked similar
At 06:20 the Mary Rose reappeared, reacting to the gunfire and sighting four merchant vessels already sinking. She bravely charged the German warships whilst trying to send an SOS transmission. Although acknowledged by a British shore station and asked for confirmation SMS Brummer managed to block any further communication. Mary Rose opened fire at a range of 6-7000 yards and closed with the enemy at top speed. At 2000 yards Lt. Commander Fox ordered the helm hard over.  As she responded the two German cruisers hit her engine-room, disabling her. Thereafter she was pounded to destruction, taking   all but eight of her crew with her to their deaths.

With the escorting destroyers dealt with the German cruisers returned to the task of shelling the defenceless merchant vessels. 

The fight was not over as the plucky armed trawler Elise defied orders and returned to the scene, first trying to rescue survivors from Strongbow and then firing upon the two German vessels and trying to draw them away. When this failed the trawler could do no more than move to a safe distance and wait.

With their work completed Bremse and Brummer withdrew to the South-East without picking up a single survivor. Scheer would later legitimise this by stating that;

As two (actually three) of the steamers had been able to get away in time on noticing the attack, the care of the crews in the boats could be left to them, for our cruisers had to consider their own safety on the long return journey.

The Elise did return and picked up survivors from the disabled Strongbow whilst others were picked up by boats from the lost merchants. Strongbow finally disappeared beneath the waves at 09:30 having been scuttled by her crew following the destruction of all code books.

In all, 250 men died in few hours by gunfire or from exposure. A further 50 were wounded. The Germans suffered no casualties.

News of the disaster did not reach the British authorities until 15:50 when HMS Marmion, on the return Bergen - Lerwick track, found the Elise at 13:30 and steamed to send the message to Admiral Brock, officer commanding Shetland and Orkneys. Beatty was told within an hour and hurriedly deployed his cruisers on the off chance of catching the two Germans that night but to no avail.
Mersey Class Armed Trawler - the Elise would have been generally similar
The Admiralty were criticised for their failings by the Conservative press and questions were asked in Parliament. The only defence offered was that the sea is a large place and occasionally the enemy, using night and fog, may slip through the defences and hit a convoy. It was also pointed out that some 4500 vessels had got through safely in the last six months on the same route.

Beatty was livid that the German ships had been Bremse and Brummer as, knowing their capability, he would have changed his whole deployment. Changes to the convoy system were brought in immediately with larger convoys on a less frequent basis. Destroyer commanders were ordered to be at constant standby, to suspect all unknown vessels as enemy until absolutely certain to the contrary, to scatter the convoy when attacked, to avoid engaging "superior forces" and use W/T to call for help "IMMEDIATELY"

Criticism was brought against Fox of the Mary Rose and Brooke of the Strongbow for their "ill advised" actions that day. (Fox had been killed in the action and Brooke died of pneumonia a year later, possibly weakened by exposure in the water before rescue). Although their bravery in engaging the enemy was recognised, the opinion of the various enquiries and court-martials that followed was that the destroyer commanders’ first duty was to summon assistance from the cruiser forces. It was later acknowledged that the Strongbow simply did not have the opportunity to contact anyone as her W/T set was knocked out within minutes. It was revealed by the Germans after the war that Mary Rose had also attempted to do the same.

Indeed the German official account post war acknowledge the bravery of the British crews:

The heroic fight put up by the two British destroyers had been in the highest British tradition, but it achieved nothing.

It was a defeat for the Allies but it was learnt from quickly. Beatty took steps to rectify the situation with his fresh orders and the number of vessels in convoy were increased whilst their frequency decreased so that they would be better protected.

For the Germans it was a victory and was celebrated by the Kaiser with the opening of champagne. Two cruisers had caused embarrassment to the Royal Navy for no loss at a time when good news in Germany was distinctly lacking. Strategically however, it achieved nothing.

There were accusations of war crimes post war with the German crews accused of shelling survivors in the water. Sir Henry Newbolt wrote that;

Throughout the attack the Germans displayed a severity which is hard to distinguish from downright cruelty. They gave the neutral masters and crews no chance to lower their boats and get away, but poured their broadsides into them without warning as though they had been armed enemies... In the case of the destroyers the enemy's conduct was even worse; for to their everlasting discredit fire was opened and maintained upon the Strongbow's survivors.

This would later be refuted by the Germans in Krieg in der Nordsee;

Some of Strongbow's crew, who had taken to the lifeboat , and others who had leapt into the water, became additional victims of gunfire, possibly from shots falling short; it stands to reason that there was no intention whatsoever of firing on them. The statement of the British Official history, that defenceless survivors from the Strongbow were deliberately fired on, cannot be refuted strongly enough.


Chris Sams has been a student of history from a very young age and specialised in the Axis powers at war in his undergraduate studies as well as late Medieval English kingship. Chris published his first book on German cruiser warfare (Kreuzerkrieg) and the German Asiatic Squadron (Ostasiengeschwader) in 2015 and is beavering away on the next whilst trying to write blogs at boredhistorian.blogspot.com and spending time with his wife and three children.

Click here to find out more about his book.

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