Saturday, January 24, 2015

January 24th, 1915

- At dawn the battlecruisers under Admiral Hipper are at Dogger Bank, steaming northwestward at fifteen knots.  The accompanying light cruisers and destroyers are spread out in order to search for British fishing vessels.  Just after 7am, the light cruiser Koblenz sights the British light cruiser Aurora, part of Commodore Tyrwhitt's force coming north to meet Beatty's battlecruiser.  In an exchange of fire Aurora is hit three times before turning away, while Koblenz reports the encounter to Hipper.  The German admiral is initially pleased at the report - perhaps a small number of light warships are at sea that his battlecruisers can mop up - and he orders his battlecruisers to steer for Koblenz.  In the minutes that follow, however, there are additional reports of sightings - Koblenz later reports seeing additional smoke to the south, and the light cruiser Stralsund, a few miles in front of Hipper's main force, reports seeing thick clouds of smoke to the northwest.  Another message comes in from the armoured cruiser Blücher stating that it can see seven enemy light cruisers and twenty destroyers in the distance ahead.  The latter report in particular is concerning to Hipper - such a large force of light warships is almost certainly a screen for dreadnoughts or battlecruisers just behind them.  Hipper knows he has promised Ingenohl not to take risks, and that the High Seas Fleet is still at anchor, unable to assist him.  Unsure of whether he is sailing into a trap, at 735am Hipper orders his warships to turn for home.

The reality, of course, is that Hipper's concern are fully justified.  The first reports from Aurora, augmented by subsequent sightings, indicate to Beatty's great satisfaction that the intelligence of the German raid was accurate - the Germans are out, and he is ideally positioned to intercept them.  He orders his warships to pursue the now-fleeing Germans, and by 8am a straightforward stern chase is on.  Hipper's battlecruisers have 150 miles to go to reach safety off the German coast, and have a fourteen mile head start on the pursuing British.  The ships in both squadrons now strain for maximum speed, the stokers in the furnaces below shoveling coal as fast as humanly possible.  Here the decisive factor is Blücher - it is the most recent and powerful armoured cruiser ever built in Germany, which is another way of saying that it is completely outclassed by the battlecruisers on both sides.  Crucially its maximum speed is 23 knots, which limits the speed of Hipper's squadron as a whole despite the ability of his battlecruisers to go even faster.  On the British side, Beatty's five warships are all battlecruisers, and the oldest - Indomitable - is still capable of 25 knots.  The brutal reality of the math for the Germans is that minute-by-minute, the British are slowly but surely gaining on them.  It is now simply a matter of when the lead British warship will close within firing range of the last German warship - Beatty takes advantage of the wait to go below for breakfast.

The Battle of Dogger Bank, January 24th, 1915.

As the minutes tick by, the gunnery officer aboard Lion, the lead British battlecruiser and Beatty's flagship, counts out the range to Blücher, the rear German warship.  When the distance reaches 20 000 yards, approval is given to open fire.  The first ranging shot from Lion roars out at 852am, while the second British battlecruiser - Tiger - fires its own ranging shot at 9am.  At 905 Beatty signals to his warships to open fire, and Lion and Tiger launch full salvos at the enemy.  Lion scores its first hit on Blücher at 909, and when Princess Royal is close enough to commence firing, Beatty's flagship shifts fire to the third German warship in line.  As the British continued to gradually close the gap, the salvos of the lead warships shifted to the farthest in range, with the objective of each British battlecruiser bringing its German counterpart in line under fire.  Lion's shells are soon straddling Seydlitz, Hipper's flagship, and at 945, a shell pierces the aftermost turret of the German battlecruiser.  In an instant the powder charges are ignited, and a flash fire roars down from the turret to the magazine, whose crew, to escape incineration, attempt to open the doors to the adjacent turret.  All this accomplishes is to spread the flash fire to the adjacent turret.  Both turrets are destroyed, shooting giant columns of flames into the air.  Seydlitz is saved from annihilation only by the bravery of three crewmen, who fight through the flames to reach and turn the valves to flood the magazine, preventing a catastrophic explosion that would have destroyed the entire ship.  Instead, though the two aft turrets are ruined, it is able to remain in the fight, its three fore turrets firing as if nothing had happened.

At 1018am, two shells strike the side of Lion almost simultaneously, opening several breaches in the armour plates below the water line.  Though the flooding is contained, it reduces the speed of the battlecruiser, and subsequent hits over the next forty minutes slow it further.  At 1054, as the other British battlecruisers passed Lion, Beatty on his bridged believed that he spotted the periscope of a submarine, and ordered a turn to port to avoid a potential torpedo attack.  No one else saw anything, and the few minutes it took to turn to port cost precious minutes and yards.  Beatty, realizing this, orders the turn to be cut short with the signal 'Course North East' at 1102.  As this signal flies from the mast of Lion, Beatty orders another signal: 'Attack the rear of the enemy,' wanting his other battlecruisers to pursue the remaining German battlecruisers.  Beatty's flag lieutenant, however, botches the signals, flying them from adjacent halyards and lowering them simultaneously, which gives the impression not of two separate signals, but one: 'Attack the rear of the enemy course northeast.'  At this moment, less than 8000 yards to the northeast is Blücher, already heavily damaged and falling behind.  To the second in command of the British Battlecruiser Squadron, Rear Admiral Sir Archibald Moore aboard New Zealand, it appears that Beatty is signaling to abandon the chase of the German battlecruisers and instead concentrate all fire on Blücher.  Logically the order makes no sense - Blücher is already effectively out of the fight while the enemy battlecruisers are making their escape.  Moore, however, concludes that Beatty must know something he does not, such as a newly-discovered minefield ahead.  Moore decides that it is his duty to obey a signal from his superior officer, and so at 1109am Tiger, Princess Royal, and New Zealand turn away from the German battlecruisers and concentrate their fire on Blücher.

The British battlecruiser Lion.

Beatty for his part is apoplectic when he sees the rest of his command turn away from the Germans.  He orders that Nelson's signal, 'Engage the enemy more closely', be flown, only to be informed that it had been removed from the signal book.  Soon distance and smoke prevent Beatty from signalling the rest of his squadron.  Thus the four British battlecruisers believe themselves to be obeying Beatty's orders in circling Blücher in an obvious case of overkill, firing dozens of 12-inch and 13.5-inch shells into it.  The armoured cruiser is quickly reduced to a burning wreck, incapable of returning fire.  At 1207pm Blücher rolls over on its side, and a few minutes later plunges beneath the waves.  Of the 1200 German sailors in the water, only 234 are saved.

One of the most famous picture of the war at sea, the German armoured cruiser Blücher capsizes as dozens of German
sailors scramble down the side.

Beatty meanwhile is eager to return to the fight, and at 1150am boards the destroyer Attack which had sailed alongside Lion.  It steams off and catches up to Princess Royal, which Beatty boards at 1233pm.  Here he is informed of the consequences of the misinterpreted signal.  He is enraged and wants to immediately resume the chase, but quickly realizes that forty minutes and possibly 30 000 yards have been lost; it is now impossible to catch the remainder of Hipper's squadron before it reaches safety.  At 1245pm, with extreme reluctance, he orders his warships to turn for home.  The wounded Lion, both engines now shut down, is taken in tow by Indomitable while the others return to port.

On the German side the surviving warships rendezvous with the High Seas Fleet, belatedly sent to sea when Hipper signalled his predicament.  For the German admiral it had been a terrible decision to leave Blücher behind, but he well understood that if he turned his remaining three battlecruisers around he might have lost them all.  Here the loss of his weakest ship is the lesser of two evils, and this evening the battlecruisers anchor in the mouth of the Jade River

The Battle of Dogger Bank is a clear British victory - Blücher sunk, Seydlitz badly damaged, and more than 1200 German sailors dead, wounded, or taken prisoner.  For the British, though Lion had taken a battering, only Tiger had even been hit by heavy shells.  After the uncertain start to the war at sea, Dogger Bank is seen as a reaffirmation of the superiority of the Royal Navy.  Among the naval leadership, however, the view is decidedly different, where disappointment reigns.  What appeared to be a golden opportunity to destroy multiple German battlecruisers has been lost through misinterpretations and bad luck.  Predictably Fisher is outraged, arguing in reference to Moore that 'Any fool can obey orders!', while Beatty believes he never even sent the signal that Moore supposedly followed.  No official recrimination occurs, but Moore will shortly be reassigned to command a cruiser squadron off the Canary Islands, the implicit censure ringing loud and clear.

- In South Africa the Boer rebel commando under Maritz attacks Upington on the frontier with German South-West Africa.  The attack is spread out over a eight kilometre front, and with inadequate artillery support miscarries.

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