Report from the Fronts #46: June 1918

Spring Offensive

Operation Blücher-Yorck (the Third Battle of the Aisne) came to an end on 6 June, having brought the Germans within 35 miles of Paris.  But no decisive breakthrough had resulted, and Ludendorff was determined to take one more shot before the front was overwhelmed with Americans.  On 9 June he launched Operation Gneisenau (the Battle of the Matz), essential a continuation of Blücher-Yorck, still hoping to draw more Allied troops south from Flanders, but though the Germans advanced nine miles in a few days, a surprise French counterattack (no preliminary bombardment) at Compiègn on 11 June halted the thrust and the operation was cancelled on the 13th.  Those four days cost the Germans 30,000 casualties and the Allies 35,000.

Operation Gneisenau

June also saw more American action on the Western Front. On 2 June American units, including a battalion of Marines, occupied a 12 mile stretch of the front before Belleau Wood, about half a dozen miles west of Château Thierry.  The following day they easily repelled a German assault, ignoring the French, who were retreating; said Marine Captain Lloyd Williams “Retreat?  Hell, we just got here.”  On 6 June the Allies launched a limited offensive in the area, assigning the now enlarged contingent of Marines several objectives, including Belleau Wood, where a regiment of Germans were well entrenched.  Unfortunately, the Marines were unaware of this.

Marines and poilus

Captain Williams

Belleau vicinity

Belleau Wood

Belleau Wood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many Marines were mowed down in the wheat fields surrounding the woods, but they achieved their phase one objectives nevertheless.  Late in the afternoon two Marine battalions moved on Belleau Wood, which meant once again crossing a field raked by machine gun fire, prompting Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly to yell to him men “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”  Sure enough, the first waves were slaughtered, but the Marines managed to reach the Wood and secure a position, engaging the Germans in hand-to-hand combat.  In terms of casualties this was the worst day for the Marine Corps up to this time.

Killing Germans

Chasing Germans

In Belleau “Wood”

In Belleau “Wood”

Sergeant Daly

The situation now settled into a stalemate of bloody attack and counterattack, until after six American assaults the Wood was finally cleared of Germans on 26 June.  The Americans suffered 9777 casualties, while apart from 1600 captured German losses are unknown.  Belleau Wood was of course a relatively trivial episode on the Western Front (which is why this report is late – I thought it was in July), but it confirmed for the Allies and the Germans that the Americans, who were now flooding into France, were for real.  And that an American Marine with a rifle was an awesome weapon.

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Down in sunny Italy the Allies scored another defensive victory.  On 15 June the Austrians launched an offensive along the middle and eastern portions of the front, the Second Battle of the Piave River.  The Austrians had been reinforced by German divisions freed up by the surrender of Russia and trained in the assault tactics of the Western Front, but disagreement between the two army group commanders, General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (west) and General Svetozar Borojević (east), resulted in a broad offensive rather than the narrow attack that had been so successful at Caporetto.

Borojević

Hötzendorf

Second Battle of the Piave River

 

 

Things were also different across the Piave.  General Luigi “Isonzo” Cadorna had been replaced with Armando Diaz, who had learned a few things from the Caporetto disaster: he developed a defense in depth without a continuous trench line, a decentralized command system that allowed tremendous flexibility and small unit autonomy and a central reserve of thirteen “motorized” (they had trucks) divisions.  He had also received eleven British/French divisions, but most were called back west when the German Spring Offensive kicked off.

Diaz

Buoyed by the victory at Caporreto and the prospect of knocking Italy out of the war, the Austrians attacked at 3:00 AM.  Unfortunately, the Italians had discovered the precise time of the assault and at 2:30 AM began raining shells on the troops packing the forward trenches, sending many reeling back to defensive positions.  In the west Conrad made some small gains on the Asiago Plateau, but he was driven back the following day and spent the rest of the offensive making pointless attacks with his dwindling forces.  Borojević, on the other hand, was able to establish a substantial bridgehead along fifteen miles of the lower Piave to the Adriatic, threatening Venice, but the growing difficulty of getting men and supplies across the swollen Piave, whose bridges were continually bombed by the Italians, proved too much to overcome.

Waiting for the Austrians

Waiting…

Waiting…

Waiting…in color

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 19 June the Italians counterattacked, and while Borojević avoided a disaster, he was ordered by the Emperor to withdraw, and the Italians recovered all the lost territory by the 23rd.  Diaz immediately came under heavy pressure from the Allied command to go on the offensive, but he understood well that his forces needed to be reorganized and that crossing the Piave would put him in precisely the same circumstances Borojević had suffered.  The offensive cost the Austrians 118,000 casualties, the Italians 87,000, nothing new on the Italian front, but though few could have guessed at the time, the Second Battle of the Piave River was the last real offensive of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a state whose political core stretched back to 800 and Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire.

On to victory, Italia!

Perhaps symbolic of the impending end of the Empire was an event that took place the very day the Piave offensive began. The commander of the Austrian navy (and future dictator of Hungary), Miklós Horthy, decided to challenge the Otranto Barrage, the Allied blockade of the Strait of Otranto, which had kept the Austrian surface fleet bottled up in the Adriatic.  Under cover of darkness Austria’s four most advanced battleships left their base at Pula on 8 and 9 June, but before the two squadrons could unite SMS Tegetthoff and SMS Szent István were discovered by two Italian motor torpedo boats early on 10 June.  One went after the Tegetthoff and missed, but the other – MAS 15 commanded by Luigi Rizzo – put two torpedoes into the Szent István at 3:20 AM.

Italian torpedo boats

SMS Szent István

 

Admiral Horthy

Austrian dreadnaughts at Pula

The Adriatic Sea today

The aft boiler room quickly flooded and the ship began listing to the starboard.  All efforts to counter the list failed, and soon the forward boiler room began flooding, ending power for the pumps.  The Szent István was doomed, but no order was given to abandon ship, and as the battleship settled further into the water, the event was filmed from the Tegetthoff (watch the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pSiCjfhUUw), while the ship’s band played the Austrian national anthem.  The ship capsized and slid beneath the surface at 6:05 AM, losing only 89 men out of a complement of 1094 – contrary to usual practice Austro-Hungarian sailors had to learn to swim.  And like the Szent István, the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire was slowly slipping beneath the waters of history, to disappear forever.  (Well, actually the Szent István was found in the 1970s.)

…and down

Luigi Rizzo

MAS 15

Going down…

 

SMS Szent István today

Meanwhile, the Allies were being sucked further into the Russian Civil War. British marines landed at Pechenga in Murmansk province on 4 June, and three days later another British force arrived at Kem in Karelia on the White Sea.  With German troops in Finland the Allies feared that war stocks in northern Russia would be captured, and they also wished to rescue the Czech Legion (which took the key Siberian city of Omsk just as Tommies were disembarking at Kem).  This of course meant inevitable confrontation with the Bolsheviks, who on 8 June ordered the western forces to leave.  They responded on 24 June by sending more troops to join the North Russia Expeditionary Force already at Murmansk and a week later seizing the northern part of the Murman Railway (now the Kirov Railway), which linked Murmansk to St. Petersburg.  American doughboys would soon be joining them.

At Murmansk

Murman Railway

At Murmansk

 

Murmansk

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Report from the Fronts #16: Jutland (31 May – 1 June 1916)

(OK, this is late; it was far more work than I anticipated.  I’ll do better at the bicentennial.  There is an entire episode on Jutland in the excellent series World War I, which is narrated by Robert Ryan.  I also discovered a fine animation of the entire battle: http://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/a21101/an-animated-guide-to-the-biggest-naval-battle-of-world-war-i/  My first link!  (I think.)  But why should I want you to read other peoples’ stuff?)

 

The Great War was first and foremost a land conflict.  But in one way the high seas were of prime importance: commerce.  This was especially critical for Great Britain, which utterly depended on overseas trade for food and some resources.  Blockading Germany, which the Allies did immediately, would ultimately squeeze the country, but an effective blockade of the British Isles could quickly bring the Brits to their knees.  (The blockade and the mining of international waters, which the Allies also did, was contrary to accepted international conventions.)

The High Seas Fleet at Wilhelmshaven

The High Seas Fleet at Wilhelmshaven

The Grand fleet at Scapa Flow

The Grand fleet at Scapa Flow

The High Seas Fleet

The High Seas Fleet

The Grand Fleet

The Grand Fleet

The problem for the Central Powers was that the German High Seas Fleet was far inferior to the Grand Fleet of the Royal Navy, at least in terms of numbers.  Stationed at Wilhelmshaven in the Helgoland Bight, where it was protected by extensive mine fields and had access to the Baltic Sea via the Kiel Canal, the German warships could venture into the North Sea only at great risk.  It is not clear that the destruction of the High Seas Fleet would decisively tip the scales in the war, but the loss of any serious number of capital ships would certainly be devastating to morale.  Besides, those dreadnaughts were so bloody expensive.

Still, the British would be hurt much more by being on the losing side of a major fleet action, though Churchill’s quip that Sir John Jellicoe, the British commander at Jutland, “was the only man on either side who could have lost the war in an afternoon” is certainly exaggerated.  Inasmuch as Britain had other naval assets around the globe, the Germans would need to virtually annihilate the Grand Fleet.  In the first year of the war the British navy essentially swept the oceans clean of German warships, despite maintaining most of its modern heavy ships in the Grand Fleet in Scotland to cover the North Sea.

The first serious engagement between elements of the two Fleets took place in January 1915, the Battle of Dogger Bank (in the middle of the North Sea).  Understanding they could not directly confront the Grand Fleet, the German plan was to conduct fast raids on the English coast, but the British always seemed to know where they were.  In fact the British had broken the German naval wireless code, but the Germans believed English and Dutch fishing vessels were observing their ship movements and conveying the information to London.

Vice Admiral David Beatty

Vice Admiral David Beatty

Vice Admiral Franz Hipper

Vice Admiral Franz Hipper

Dogger Bank and the Helgoland Bight

Dogger Bank and the Helgoland Bight

Believing the problem was spies, Rear Admiral Franz von Hipper’s scout squadron of three battlecruisers (and attendant smaller vessels) sailed out to clear the area and of course ran into a larger British force of five battlecruisers under Vice Admiral David Beatty. Hipper immediately headed for home and escaped with the loss of the armored cruiser SMS Blücher.  The Germans still did not realize their codes had been compromised, but they did learn the lesson the battle had to teach about plunging fire, inadequately armored decks and consequent magazine explosions; the British did not.

SMS Blücher going down

SMS Blücher going down

German battlecruisers heading for Dogger Bank

German battlecruisers heading for Dogger Bank

SMS Blücher

SMS Blücher

A year later the Germans were ready to venture out again. On 18 January 1916 Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer became commander of the High Seas Fleet and outlined a more aggressive strategy aimed at luring squadrons of the Grand Fleet into more balanced engagements.  On 24 April the Kaiser ended unrestricted submarine warfare, and Scheer, who felt that playing by the accepted rules of engagement would produce little, recalled the U-boats to be used against the Grand Fleet.

His first idea was to raid the English coast to draw out British ships, which would could be spotted by Zeppelins and then attacked by lurking U-boats and the High Seas Fleet. Fourteen submarines were sent out and on station off British ports and routes into the North Sea by 22 May, but bad weather and problems with some of the capital ships continued to delay the operation, pushing the U-boats to the absolute limit of their endurance at sea.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer

Admiral Reinhard Scheer

Admiral of the Fleet John Jellicoe

Admiral of the Fleet John Jellicoe

An alternate plan was implemented: Hipper’s fast squadron of five battlecruisers would head north towards the Skagerrat (the passage between Denmark and Norway) to attack British shipping, followed at a distance by the rest of the fleet under Scheer. The hope was that Beatty’s battlecruisers would be drawn into the path of Scheer’s main force and be annihilated.  Hipper sailed on 31 May, followed at about fifty miles by Scheer.

The problem of course is that the British were reading some of the German communications and had a good idea that a major fleet action was afoot, though the details were unknown. Apart from the prospect of the desired lopsided battle against the German fleet, the Admiralty could not risk allowing the High Seas Fleet into the Atlantic. Consequently, on 30 May Admiral of the Fleet John Jellicoe sailed from Scapa Flow and the Moray Firth with the Grand Fleet, while Beatty left the Firth of Forth with his six battlecruisers.

Battle of Jutland

Battle of Jutland

Around 3:30 in the afternoon of the 31st Beatty and Hipper spotted each other and Hipper immediately turned south to draw the British into Scheer’s force.  Unaware that the entire German fleet was just to the south and thinking Hipper was fleeing to the safety of the minefields, Beatty followed, the two forces pounding one another with main batteries of 11, 12 and 13.5 inch guns once they were in range at about 15,000 yards.

Jutland battlecruiser engagement

 

 

Hipper’s force consisted of five battlecruisers, five light cruisers and thirty torpedo boats (the German equivalent of the destroyer, which itself was developed to counter the first torpedo boats); Beatty had six battlecruisers, four fast battleships (in a separate squadron under Rear Admiral Hugh Evans-Thomas), fourteen light cruisers, twenty-seven destroyers and a seaplane tender (the first “aircraft carrier” to participate in a naval battle).  In the initial encounter Evans-Thomas’ battleships took no part for the first thirty minutes, unable to keep up with Beatty as he steamed south.

Vice Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas

Vice Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas

Despite being outgunned in terms of number and range Hipper immediately began to score hits on the enemy vessels, sinking the battlecruisers HMS Indefatigable at 4:06 and HMS Queen Mary at 4:26.  Both blew up with few survivors when their magazines exploded, and minutes after Queen Mary went down a third battlecruiser, HMS Princess Royal, was struck by a salvo and mistakenly reported as also blown up (she was still afloat).  Hearing this news, Beatty turned to the commander of his flagship, Captain Ernle Chatfield, and said: “Chatfield, there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”  There in fact was: inadequate deck and turret armor and poor management of the cordite (the propellant for the shells).

HMS Indefatigable sinks after exploding

HMS Indefatigable sinks after exploding

HMS Queen Mary blows up

HMS Queen Mary blows up

HMS Queen Mary

HMS Queen Mary

At 4:42 Beatty caught sight of Scheer’s fleet and turned north and then west, searching for Jellico in order to spring the trap.  Due to a signals mix-up, Evans-Thomas turned five minutes later, and while providing a kind of rearguard for Beatty, his ships were now enduring a rain of shells from the now united High Seas Fleet.

HMS Lion - turret damage

HMS Lion – turret damage

HMS Lion - Beatty's falgship

HMS Lion – Beatty’s flagship

220px-Jutland_fleet_action

At 6:16 Jellicoe finally began forming his battle line, joined now by Evans-Thomas, who took up position on the western end of the line.  Steaming north in pursuit of Beatty, Scheer must have been surprised when he saw ahead the entire Grand Fleet in battle formation – or more accurately, saw the muzzle flashes of the battleships that were now sending explosive calling cards in his direction.  At 6:34 German shells sank the battlecruiser HMS Invincible, but a minute later Scheer turned west to escape.  There was no way his sixteen modern battleships and six pre-dreadnaught battleships could confront Jellicoe’s twenty-eight dreadnaughts.  (HMS Dreadnaught, entering service in 1906 with the first uniform battery of large guns and the first steam turbine on a capital ship, created a whole new class of warship.)  Jellicoe responded by turning south fifteen minutes later, seeking to prevent the High Seas Fleet from reaching port.

 

HMS Iron Duke - Jellicoe's flagship

HMS Iron Duke – Jellicoe’s flagship

HMS Dreadnaught

HMS Dreadnaught

SMS Friedrich der Grosse - Scheer's flagship

SMS Friedrich der Grosse – Scheer’s flagship

There were now some 250 warships engaged in battle; in terms of the tonnage of the ships actually engaged this was the largest naval battle in history.  One has to imagine that while the capital ships were maneuvering and shooting at each other over immense distances, there were also 37 light cruisers, 78 destroyers (all British) and 61 torpedo boats (all German) dodging about the behemoths.  Fast, nimble and difficult to hit, their job was to counter one another and more important, torpedo the big boys, which made them good cover for their larger colleagues.

British desroyers

British desroyers

German destroyers (torpedo boats)

German destroyers (torpedo boats)

Surprisingly, at 6:55 Scheer turned back east.  It has been suggested that he mistakenly thought Jellicoe had divided his force, but his memoirs make it clear that he felt there was too much daylight left to simply flee.  Without the cover of darkness his slower capital ships would suffer greatly in a stern chase, and he thought to confuse and disrupt the British with his surprise move.  This maneuver allowed Jellicoe to “cross the T” (passing in line an approaching column, allowing firing to be concentrated on the lead ships) of the High Seas Fleet again, this time with more concentrated fire.

After twenty-two minutes Scheer turned west again, covering his retreat with smoke and a screen of torpedo boats, normal procedure. But he also sent Hipper’s four remaining battlecruisers on a seeming suicide mission against the British battleships, surely a measure of desperate concern for his own dreadnaughts.  Though heavily pounded, the battlecruisers in fact survived, and together with the barrage of torpedo attacks delayed Jellicoe long enough to let Scheer get away.

The last engagement between the big ships occurred just after sunset, from about 8:20 to 8:30, when Beatty’s battlecruisers caught up with Hipper’s. No ships were sunk, and with darkness falling Jellicoe, aware that the Germans were better at night actions, headed south to confront them before they reached the haven of the mine fields.  Scheer closed up his fleet and headed southeast, blasting his way through the destroyer screen protecting Jellicoe’s rear, but Jellico steamed on, thinking the action to the north involved torpedo boats.

During the remainder of the night there were several close-range engagements as the lighter warships blundered into each other and the capital ships, but the battle was over. On the way south the pre-dreadnaught SMS Pommern was torpedoed and blew up, and the damaged battlecruiser SMS Lützow had to be sunk.  But the High Seas Fleet made it home.

Unidentified battlecruiser going down - SMS Lützow?

Unidentified battlecruiser going down – SMS Lützow?

SMS Pommern

SMS Pommern

SMS Lützow

SMS Lützow

Both sides trumpeted victory. Tactically, the Germans had won the battle, taking on a superior force and inflicting more damage.  The British lost three battlecruisers, three armored cruisers and eight destroyers, totaling 113,300 tons; the Germans lost one battlecruiser, one pre-dreadnaught, four light cruisers and five torpedo boats, for 62,300 tons.  The Grand Fleet suffered 6945 casualties (6094 killed), while the High Seas Fleet sustained 2758 (2551 killed).

One of the British casualties was Boy Seaman First Class John “Jack” Cornwell, serving on the light cruiser HMS Chester as a Gun Layer for a 5.5 inch gun.  Shellfire killed everyone else in the partially closed turret, and though severely wounded and surrounded by fire, Jack stood by his gun, awaiting orders until the action broke off.  He died a few days later and was ultimately awarded Britain’s highest decoration, the Victoria Cross.  Jack was sixteen, the third youngest recipient of the prestigious award, and almost literally became the boy in Felicia Hemons’ poem written ninety years earlier:

Jack's 5.5" gun

Jack’s 5.5″ gun

John Travers Cornwell         1900-1916

John Travers Cornwell
1900-1916

HMS Chester - Jack's gun

HMS Chester – Jack’s gun

The boy stood on the burning deck

Whence all but he had fled;

The flame that lit the battle’s wreck

Shone round him o’er the dead.

 

 

But the strategic victory was British. Jellicoe was widely criticized for excessive caution, but his job was to contain the German fleet not annihilate it, and contain it he did: for the rest of the war the capital ships of the High Seas Fleet did not leave Helgoland Bight.  But it was certainly a learning experience for the Royal Navy, which had been definitely outclassed in gunnery and had experienced serious problems with magazine security and ship to ship communications.  Fortunately for the Admiralty, Great Britain would not have to fight another significant surface engagement for more than twenty years.

In the end the High Seas Fleet sailed again, this time to Scapa Flow as prizes of the victorious Allies. In 1918 Scheer, now Grand Admiral, planned to send the Fleet out on 29 October to destroy as many British ships as possible to improve Germany’s bargaining position, but with the war clearly lost his sailors began to mutiny.  After the Armistice the Fleet was interned at Scapa Flow, sailing under Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter because Hipper refused to be involved.  On 21 June 1919, having learned the terms of the Versailles Treaty, Reuter ordered the ships to be scuttled, and most went to the bottom, to the delight of Scheer, who felt honor had been satisfied.

"Uh...why don't you take over now, Franz?"

“Uh…why don’t you take over now, Franz?”

The High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow

The High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow

End of the line

End of the line

 

Secretly the British were also delighted, preferring to see the warships destroyed rather than turned over the French and Italians.