Planning for war in the North Sea 1912-1914


On the morning of November 3rd 1914 German battle cruiser bombarded the popular resort town of Yarmouth on the Norfolk Coast. The Daily Mail reported how the German ships ‘appeared suddenly out of nowhere, revealed in the dim haze of dawn to steam drifters five miles of Lowestoft, fired on a British warship, and dropped shells almost on the sands of Yarmouth and Lowestoft, and then disappeared again.’ A similar attack on Scarborough and Whitby the following month left 137 dead, the majority of them civilians. Coming on the back of accusations of German atrocities in France and Belgium, such brazen attacks on a non-military targets provoked the ire of the British public. Imbued with patriotic indignation, The Spectator struck a typically defiant tone. ‘There is no agreement as to what the Germans were trying to do’, the naval correspondent wrote;

to prove that German ships can suddenly appear off an English watering-place, and to let the inhabitants of the East Coast listen to the sound of hostile guns – a sound not heard there, we suppose, since Paul Jones was engaged by British vessels – is to give a fillip to British recruiting.

Expressions of national unity such as this were commonplace, however they disguised an important strategic reality. As all the reports acknowledged, the Germans had appeared off the east coast unannounced and undetected on both occasions and had escaped without being brought to action. In his memoirs Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, recalled the uncertainty and tension experienced in Whitehall as news of the events off Yarmouth filtered through. ‘Was it a German raid into the Channel, or a serious attempt by the German Navy to intervene upon the Belgian coast while the land battle was still raging? Was it a descent on the British coast at Sunderland or Blyth? We had no means of judging’.

How had this unsatisfactory situation whereby, despite the might of the Grand Fleet, the Royal Navy was unable to locate and intercept German vessels in the North Sea, come to pass? The answer to his important question lies partly in the details of the Navy’s pre-war planning process.

Churchill had arrived as First Lord in late-1911 in the aftermath of the Navy’s failure to provide the government with a coherent plan for British action in the event of war with Germany during the Agadir Crisis of that summer. Whilst the Admiralty’s shortcomings were less severe than is often considered, Churchill was tasked with creating a Naval War Staff to produce more realistic and detailed plans and appreciations for consideration by politicians. This body quickly came to the conclusion that the basis of all previous Admiralty planning for war in the North Sea – the observation of German ports – was no longer practicable due to the growth of German naval power and the formidable logistical difficulties involved with maintaining British flotilla forces off the enemy coastline. Thus, in April 1912, the War Staff wrote to the C-in-C Home Fleet informing him that ‘the Blockade by the British Fleet of the whole German Coast on the North Sea is to be considered as cancelled.’ This created a major problem for the Navy. With attempts to monitor direct German access to the North Sea ended, it was unclear how and where enemy movements might be detected. As Churchill explained to his cabinet colleagues ‘a considerable element of chance and of risk that important hostile movements will not be reported and intercepted in the early stages is inseperable from all dispositions other than a close blockade.’

Such ‘hostile movements’ were highly like to include those of German torpedo craft. Confining German torpedo boats to coastal waters had been a key tenet of previous British planning, as doing so would enable the Fleet to traverse the North Sea without fear of a surprise torpedo attack. If this task was no longer deemed possible, the movement of the British fleet in the North Sea would become increasingly hazardous and would be dependent upon the integration of flotilla cover with the battle fleet. Furthermore, British bases on the east coast, such as Rosyth, would become vulnerable to German torpedo, mine and submarine attack, as destroyers would be able to make the passage across the North Sea under the cover of darkness and ambush the approaches to these anchorages. If the Admiralty withdrew the Fleet to the Shetlands or the coast of Ireland in order to protect it from torpedo attack, lighter vessels patrolling the North Sea would be left vulnerable to defeat in detail by superior German forces. The abandonment of attempts to observe German North Sea bases thus created a dilemma that became known in the corridors of the Admiralty as ‘the North Sea Problem.’

The War Staff sought to address the problem by conducting patrols of the mid-North Sea. This approach was widely appreciated to be an unsatisfactory interim measure until a better solution became practical. Plans were made to restrict German movements by means of mines and to use the Navy’s newest submarines on observational patrols, however both of these ideas remained inchoate and significant technical and practical barriers to their implementation remained. The authorities were therefore obliged to persist with patrols of the North Sea for the time being. The demands of these operations were reflected in the Navy’s construction programme, which included eight light cruisers in both 1911-12 and 1912-13. These vessels were to be combined into mixed squadrons with the Navy’s battle cruisers to provide powerful, self-supporting reconnaissance units for North Sea patrols.

By early-1914, however, the consensus of opinion amongst senior officers had moved away from constant patrols and towards occasional ‘sweeping’ movements of the North Sea with the entire Grand Fleet. ‘The movements should be sufficiently frequent and sufficiently advanced’, it was explained, ‘to impress upon the enemy that he cannot at any time venture far from his home ports without such serious risk of encountering an overwhelming force that no enterprise is likely to reach its destination.’ Such was the state of Admiralty thought on the eve of war.

One notable dissenter from this approach was the Second Sea Lord, Vice-Admiral John Jellicoe. Jellicoe stressed the dangers the Fleet would run from mines and enemy torpedoes during such ‘sweeps’. He therefore lobbied to restrict the frequency of such movements, with limited success. Jellicoe’s dissent would have been much less significant had he not been thrust into the position of C-in-C Grand Fleet upon the outbreak of War. Placed in the uncomfortable position of succeeding the popular Admiral Sir George Callaghan earlier than had been planned, Jellicoe also inherited war orders which embodied a strategy he had opposed during his time at the Admiralty. After several months of concerted lobbying, he convinced Churchill to allow him to abandon the idea entirely, reverting to patrols similar to those contemplated between 1912-13.

The German raid on Yarmouth came around a month later. The episode exposed the extent of the difficulties the Navy faced in the North Sea, a satisfactory solution to which remained elusive for the remainder of the War. The Admiralty’s attempts to resolve the ‘North Sea problem’ are detailed in this new article and are also explored in these free lectures by myself and Rear Admiral James Goldrick. They revealed a dynamic, innovative planning process which identified and began to prepare a series of appropriate solutions to the challenges of operating against Germany in the North Sea. The difficulties encountered in implementing the plans were largely due to the failure of technology to keep up with the Navy’s strategic ambition, rather than manifestations of Admiralty inadequacy.

Image: A British Fleet patrolling the North Sea, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 18118).

4 thoughts on “Planning for war in the North Sea 1912-1914

  1. Reblogged this on JDB Communications, LLC and commented:
    The Germans’ original plan was to nibble at the edges of the Grand Fleet until they reached some parity, but that failed to take into account that the British and her allies could outbuild Germany 2-1. The big sweeps might have worked, but only if the Germans were determined to have a big fleet battle close to the Bight. Wilhelm forbade that.


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