T H E WA R AT S E A
T H E WA R AT S E A
‘He could lose the war in an afternoon.’
Admiral Jellicoe’s enormous responsibility
hen war was declaredAdmiral Jellicoe was put in command of the
Grand Fleet. So important was the Navy to Britain’s security
that,as First Lord of theAdmiralty,Winston Churchill wrote after
the Battle of Jutland, Jellicoe was ‘the only man on either side
who could lose the war in an afternoon’. In other words if the
Navy was defeated that was it! That thought haunted Jellicoe
– he felt not only Britain’s security but the whole weight of the
Empire on his shoulders.
What he was all too aware of was that Britannia was
still supreme but no longer unquestionably so. In particular
there was a new threat, one that came from under the waves:
the German U-boats.
Just one month into the War a U-boat blew HMS Pathfinder to bits
off St Abb’s Head on Scotland’s south east coast.This unsettled Jellicoe enormously as
he realised that his base at Scapa Flow was wide open to submarine attack.His solution
was to take the Grand Fleet on a tour of the Western Isles whilst the narrow channels
leading from Scapa Flow to the open sea were closed off with block-ships.The main
southern entrance to Scapa Flow, the mile and a half wide Hoxa Sound, needed to be
kept open and a coastal battery was put in place to cover the anti submarine booms –
big net curtains that were strung across the channels.
The booms and batteries were in place by early 1915.With the block-ships closing
access to smaller channels, Jellicoe was able to end his Hebridean cruise and safely
anchor his warships.
HMS Caroline,docked in Belfast,is the only ship from the Grand Fleet still afloat.Inside it is
still possible to get a sense of life on board
In the engine room there are two massive steam turbines with another two in the forward
chamber and a great steam condenser in the middle. It was a hellish place to work with the
noise,the vibration,the heat.Men must have been continually pouring with sweat.
In battle, the emergency steering compartment was used to manoeuvre the ship, when
everything else had been blown apart.Eight to ten men would be down in this chamber with
the hatch locked – following orders that came down from above.
Enormous power was needed to turn the gigantic wheels in this massive ship. Down there
in the heat of battle, rocking and rolling with blasts from shells trapped in a cage of steel it
must have been terrifying.
NOTE OF INTEREST
Once bitten twice shy
t the outset of war the Imperial German Navy was the pride and joy of Germany’s
supreme ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm, and was based in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven. It
symbolised German might and was the bright star upon which imperial aspirations rested.
The Germans hoped that the British would mount a close blockade of the coast,
and so gradually lose ships to German mines,shore batteries andsubmarines.If
fleets reached parity as a result,then they might risk fleet action.
On 28th August 1914, Commander Reginald Tyrwhitt led a raid on German patrols
along the German coast in an attempt to lure theHigh Seas Fleet out of port.The Germans
responded by dispatching 6 light cruisers and, finding himself outgunned, Commander
Tyrwhitt requested assistance from Vice Admiral Beatty. Beatty’s intervention led to a
British victory with only 35 British casualties compared to 1,200 German.More significant
for the Kaiser was the damage caused to his ships with 3 cruisers sunk and 3 damaged.
The Kaiser was deeply upset at the defeat and decided that no German ships were
to sail out into the North Sea to seek out the Royal Navy unless they had express
permission from him personally. So effectively the German fleet battened down the
hatches and stayed put in Wilhelmshaven and Kiel. Now its role was to be a deterrent
and a possible basis for negotiation at the war’s end.
This suited the British. In one very important way they didn’t want to fight. They
were used to over 100 years of ruling the waves with no opposition. They would be
happiest to simply keep that status quo. The British Isles lay athwart Germany’s route
to the open seas,and the North Sea was now a form of maritime no man’s land.
part 1 – above the waves
part 1 - above the waves