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Although overlooked today, the war at sea was a crucial part of World War I overall. The German use of the Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (in which non-military ships could be blown up by submarines without the latter surfacing, making it impossible for innocent men, women, and children to abandon ship) against commerce not only threatened the Allied war effort, but also drew the United States into the conflict. In addition, the British economic blockade of Germany afforded by the Royal Navy’s command of the sea inflicted great damage on the war effort of Germany. Finally, the naval war held great ramifications for the future since many practices employed in the First World War were those pursued in the Second World War.

  1. Introduction to the Naval War
    1. For centuries, Great Britain had enjoyed the largest and most powerful navy in the world (“Britannia Rules the Waves”).
    2. But in the early years of the 20th century, German Kaiser Wilhelm embarked on a naval buildup designed to challenge Britain’s supremacy. He thought Britain would be impressed and would draw closer to Germany, but the exact opposite happened.
    3. In 1906, Britain built a new type of battleship, the HMS Dreadnought. It was larger, much more powerful, and faster than previous battleships. Others like it were soon built, making pre-1906 battleships obsolete (Fun fact: The sole remaining dreadnought class battleship in the world is docked near Houston, TX).
    4. Also prior to the war, the British developed a new type of ship, the battlecruiser. Battlecruisers combined the power of battleships with the speed of cruisers. But they were not as heavily armored as battleships. Their designers said “Their speed will be their armor.”
    5. Britain’s war goal was to bottle up the German navy in port. Geography worked in their favor.
    6. The main British fleet, the “Grand Fleet”, was stationed at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands. This fleet would keep German ships from going north of the North Sea. Britain also had the English Channel heavily mined.
    7. The French fleet’s job was to monitor the Western Mediterranean.
  1. Early Naval Battles
    1. In the early years of the war, both British and German admirals used great caution (they didn’t want to risk losing their fleets!)
    2. The Battle of Heligoland Bight (August 28, 1914) was the first battle of the war in the North Sea. A British fleet commanded by Rear Admiral David Beatty defeated a German fleet, sinking 5 ships. After this, Kaiser Wilhelm ordered that no German ships could go out into the North Sea without his approval.
    3. The Battle of Coronel (November 1, 1914) occurred off the coast of Chile. The German Pacific fleet, led by Maximilian Spee, soundly defeated the British fleet. It was the first British naval defeat in a century.
    4. The Battle of the Falkland Islands (December 8, 1914): At this battle, the British got their revenge against the German Pacific fleet, annihilating it and killing its commander.
    5. Submarines, particularly for Germany, began to be used offensively. On September 22, 1914, one German submarine sank three British cruisers in one hour (1450 sailors lost their lives). Later that year, and throughout the war, German subs also wreaked havoc in the Baltic Sea.
    6. To protect against U-boats, the British blocked off the entrances to Scapa Flow with old ships, chains, and metal nets.
    7. Early in the war, British and Russian sailors found several copies of the German naval codebook, which gave the Allied navies the ability to decipher German naval messages. For nearly all of the war, they knew what the Germans were going to do before they did it.
    8. In December 1914, a fleet of German ships sailed into the North Sea and shelled the British towns of Scarborough, Whitney, and Hartlepool, killing 137. This was the first time in about 250 years that British citizens had been killed on British soil. Churchill called the Germans “baby killers.”
    9. In the Battle of Dogger Bank (January 24, 1915), the British fleet drove away the German ships that had been shelling the British coast. After this, the Kaiser was reluctant to let the German fleet go too far from Germany. The naval war had settled into a stalemate. The British fleet could have destroyed the German one, but a flag signaling error led the British fleet to pull back.
  1. The Naval Blockade
    1. Britain had often used naval blockades in the past against its enemies on the continent. Germany assumed Britain would employ a “close blockade” against them.
    2. Submarines and torpedoes made a close blockade impossible, so Britain adopted a distant blockade, far from the enemy coast. The blockade grew increasingly effective over the course of the war.
    3. The British government established a Ministry of Blockade and declared the North Sea a war zone.
    4. Britain’s navy prohibited anyone, even neutral nations, to trade with Germany.
    5. At first, the British only intercepted weaponry. Gradually, they increased the number of things they confiscated, including even food. German imports and exports plummeted. Germans had to gradually reduce their caloric intake due to a shortage of food.
    6. The Germans protested the blockade, calling it evil. Germans began to greet each other by saying “May God punish England.” The response would be “Yes, may God punish it.”
  1. Prelude to Jutland
    1. The German naval supreme commander, Admiral Tirpitz, wanted to lure the British fleet into a trap and destroy as much of it as possible. The commander of the German High Seas Fleet, Admiral Scheer, hoped to get the British fleet to sail to the Skagerrak (a strait between Denmark and Norway)
    2. The British Grand Fleet, which had 28 battleships, 9 battlecruisers, 34 light and armored cruisers, and 78 destroyers, was divided into two parts, with one part being under Sir John Jellicoe and the other commanded by Admiral Beatty. It passed the German fleet unobserved.
    3. Jellicoe knew of the German plans. He sent part of the fleet toward the Skagerrak to set a counter-ambush.
    4. Scheer sent the High Seas Fleet, which consisted of 16 battleships, 6 pre-dreadnoughts, 5 battlecruisers, 11 light cruisers, and 63 destroyers north to Skagerrak, hoping to damage or even destroy the British fleet that was approaching.
    5. A merchant ship sailed between the two fleets, and both went to investigate. There they spotted each other and combat began on 2:30 PM on May 31, 1916.
  1. The Battle (May 31 – June 1)
    1. German Admiral Hipper, whose force of battlecruisers was detached from the High Seas Fleet (which was unseen by the British), tried to draw the portion of the British fleet that was led by Admiral Beatty, toward the entire German fleet, which was much bigger than Beatty’s fleet.
    2. Beatty followed Hipper and the two fleets began exchanging fire. By 4:30, the Germans had sunk 3 of Beatty’s ships. Beatty remarked “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” 2000 British sailors were dead or dying.
    3. One of Beatty’s ships spotted the main German fleet ahead, and he ordered his entire group to reverse course, sailing north toward the Grand Fleet.
    4. Hipper turned to follow, as did Scheer.
    5. A portion of the Grand Fleet (the First Cruiser Squadron) arrived and fell on the German fleet. Two British ships were sunk.
    6. Twice, the British “Crossed the T”, which enabled them to direct maximum fire against the Germans. At 6:15 PM, Jellicoe’s fleet opened fire. They inflicted heavy damage on the Germans, who turned south and disengaged.
    7. Later, Scheer turned back toward the British fleet, but he was overpowered. Scheer fled and distanced the Germans from the British until nightfall.
    8. The next day the German ships, many of which were heavily damaged, made it to their base.
  1. Results of the Battle
    1. German losses: One battlecruiser, one pre-dreadnought, 4 light cruisers, 5 destroyers, and 2550 sailors.
    2. British losses: 3 battlecruisers, 3 armored cruisers, 8 destroyers, and over 6000 sailors.
    3. The German fleet never again came out to challenge the British. So although the British lost more ships and sailors, it was a strategic victory for them (if a tactical embarrassment).
    4. The battleship war was over.
    5. 5 months later, Beatty was promoted to full Admiral and was placed in command of the Grand Fleet. Jellicoe was “kicked upstairs” to the position of First Sea Lord.


  1. Submarine Warfare
    1. Submarines had been developed mainly by the British, and at the beginning of the war, Britain and France each had more than the Germans. But the Germans built many and used them most effectively.
    2. The use of submarines was Germany’s way of equalizing the naval war. They hoped to sink enough British merchant fleets to starve Britain into submission. Britain had to import 2/3 of its food supply and many other goods.
    3. On February 4, 1915, Germany declared that all seas around Britain were a war zone. All British ships would be sunk on sight without warning. This went against the internationally accepted “Cruiser Rules”, in which a ship was supposed to warn a ship prior to attacking. Germany’s policy became known as Unrestricted Submarine Warfare.
    4. On May 7, 1915, the British liner Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat, killing nearly 1200 people, including 128 Americans. In August of the same year, the liner Arabic was also sunk. Both of these sinkings, along with others, caused great outrage in both Britain and in America.
    5. Soon after this, the Royal Navy introduced depth charges (underwater bombs), but they were of limited effectiveness. They also began researching hydrophones, a precursor to sonar. In addition, they began disguising military ships as merchant vessels (Q ships).
    6. In September of 1915, Germany suspended its policy of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare. Admiral Tirpitz resigned in protest.
    7. On February 1, 1917, Germany resumed the policy of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare. Germany had over 100 long-range U-boats.
    8. Germany’s leaders believed USR would choke off trade with Britain and lead to Britain’s starvation within 6 months. This move was a calculated risk. German leaders felt they had no choice.
    9. The move nearly worked. U-boats sank several hundred thousand tons of shipping per month in the first six months of 1917. Britain came within three weeks of running out of food.
    10. But in April 1917, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and other leaders ordered the use of the convoy system. In this system, British merchant vessels would be protected by naval vessels. By the summer of 1917, only 1% of British merchant vessels were being sunk.
    11. In August of 1918, the US and Britain installed a minefield of over 70,000 mines across the northern part of the North Sea to stop U-boats. Only 6 U-boats were destroyed.
    12. At the war’s end, the German navy signed an agreement in which they had to surrender all their ships to the Allies. They sailed to Scapa Flow, where they were to surrender. In June 1919, the Germans scuttled the ships. They got on lifeboats and sailed toward British ships. The British opened fire, killing many German sailors.

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