Berlin, May 16, 1917During their return to Home Waters, the
Schlachtkreuzer Derrflinger and
Wittelsbach of our
Hochseeflotte on May 15th, encountered a large English convoy, escorted by two Battlecruisers and a screen of light forcesDuring the afternoon, to the south of Ireland and west of Wales, a heavy engagement developed, which was successful to us.In this engagement, so far as known up to the present [...]
-First Official German Statement on the Battle of Ireland, 16 May 1917
It is just before noon, on a cloudy, miserable 16th of May, 1917. We find ourselves on the Celtic Sea, nearly ninety miles south of Cork, where the dreaded British weather reigns supreme.
The two German Schlachtkreuzer Wittelsbach
are returning to home waters. They have been patroling the northern Atlantic; with the declaration of war they now seek to rejoin the main fleet.
In command of the task force is a young audacious commander, Konteradmiral
Franz von Hipper. His flag is on the Wittelsbach
and, despite Admiralität
orders to the contrary, he's looking for a fight. He has taken advantage of the cloudy weather, the fog and the constant drizzle to sneak into British-controlled waters; and his lookouts are looking for targets of opportunity.
And he finds them, when, from out of the fog and rain, his lookouts make out the masts of a small British convoy, less than five thousand yards to the north-east.
Hipper's task force comes to action stations and charges.
Hipper hooks around from the north, using his superior speed to cut the merchantmen off from the safety of the mainland. He has three Zerstörer
, which he immediately dispatches to hunt down the fat convoy ships; and he is also escorted by the old scout cruiser Frauenlob
, a veteran of three wars, whom he orders to stay behind and watch his back. The Wittelsbach
follow the Zerstörer
into the slaughter.
And it is
But then, less than an hour after first contact, and with the burning hulks of the convoy still drifting around them, castaways crying for help and being picked up by the Zerstörer
crews, the fog lifts and the rain stops.
signals High Alert
, for less than ten thousand yards away to the north, there is a British battlecruiser squadron closing in.
The veteran lookouts on the scout cruiser do not take much time to identify the newcomers. Leading the squadron is a New Zealand
-class battlecruiser, of the type that the British like to call 'pocket battlecruisers'. They are small, displacing only half what the Wittelsbachs
do, and with a paper-thin belt; but they are armed with eight 14-inchers and they can do 26 knots. Underestimating her could be fatal - and Hipper needs to safeguard his ships, for the dangerous return trip through the North Sea.
The second ship is a de-mothballed Indomitable
, the oldest class of battlecruisers operated by the British. This one is, essentially, a non-entity, although her 13-inchers can still hurt, if Hipper gives them the opportunity.
Hipper vaccilates; and then he frowns and orders the Schlachtkreuzer
to close with the enemy. He has more guns, he has veteran crews and he's willing to gamble that the weather will permit him to conceal his approach through the Northern Sea, even if his ships are damaged."Schlachtkreuzer, ran an den Feind, voll einsetzen!"
He engages pursuit, taking advantage of the quickly roughening seas to close the range. His larger ships are more stable gun platforms in the high winds, as the Indomitable
quickly finds out. Derfflinger
weaves through a spread of torpedoes fired by the battlecruisers' destroyer screen; and scores a hit on her from a range of around seven thousand yards. Wittelsbach
, having received no attention from the enemy destroyers yet, has the time for a more precise targeting solution. Three 12-inch shells slam into the Indomitable's
An angled 6-inch belt might have been barely
capable of resisting such fire ten, or even five, years ago. But these are not the 12-inch shells fired by the German battleships in Bornholm. These are German high-velocity, capped AP shells, designed to pierce layered inclined armor. The old British battlecruiser shudders under the impacts, and her armor peels off like the top of a sardine can.
And then her engines fall silent, followed by her guns. It's less than thirty minutes since the Frauenlob
spotted the enemy.
The Germans do not know what has happened on the ship. They do not know that this is the name ship of her class, HMS Indomitable
herself. They do not know that one of the Wittelsbach's
shells has punched clean through her conning tower, killing all command personnel therein. All they know is that the ship has not struck her colours; and that her secondaries are still firing sporadically at the closing Zerstörer
And so, Derfflinger
takes aim at the wreck and fires one finishing salvo at her.
One of her shells falls short, but close enough to strike the ship beneath the waterline. It penetrates its paper-thin underwater armor, buries itself deep into Turret A's cordite magazines; and explodes, taking the magazine with it.
The turret pops off like a cork, flying dozens of feet into the air. The ship's hull ballons out, rippling as the shockwave propagates; and then the entire bow of the ship turns into matchwood, a cloud of splinters dropping like rain onto the Schlachtkreuzer
. What's left of the Indomitable
rolls over, slowly, and sinks. Of her crew of 750, there are no survivors.
The thunderous explosion stuns all; but Hipper, now enjoying a considerable gunnery advantage over the British drives his ships ever onwards. The New Zealand
runs towards the north. Less than ten thousand yards behind her, the German Schlachtkreuzer
continue their pursuit.
British fire brackets the Wittelsbach
and a single 14-inch shell strikes her belt. Spalling splinters cut down eight crewmen, but the belt holds. In return, the Wittelsbach
punches two 12-inch shells into the Brit's aft, while the Derfflinger
rakes her superstructure with 5-inch high-explosive from her secondaries.
The above statement may have given you the impression that the German ships have not been harmed. That could not be farther away from the truth. Derfflinger
has only suffered superficial damage, true; but, during the entire exchange with the Indomitable
, the Wittelsbach
has been the sole focus of the New Zealand
. And British gunnery, while not particularly accurate, is rapid
(more rapid than it has any right to be, really,
muses Hipper) and effective. Wittelsbach has been hit 12 times by the New Zealand's
14-inch guns, and 3 more times by her secondaries. Nine of these hits have penetrated her armor and superstructure and have caused considerable damage. Her X turret is jammed on her bearings; her forward compartments are flooded; her forward funnel has toppled and her portside superstructure is a mass of glowing metal. There is a small leak, somewhere in the fore and port compartments, that is still admitting water into the engineering spaces - Wittelsbach
cannot make more than 20 knots - but the high seas limit her to 18 knots anyway.
But her superiority over her opponent, even now, cannot be denied. She has fired more than three hundred shells at her enemies; and scored just under thirty hits so far; her firing control stations are still operational and her crew are still eager and fighting; her magazines still have more than five hundred rounds available.
She bears down on the fleeing New Zealand
like a bat out of Hell; and her angled armor is, now, more than enough to defeat the Brit's fire. Over the course of fifteen minutes, she bounces two British shells on her main belt and deck armor; and, in return, the two Schlachtkreuzer
main battery hits into the Brit's 7-inch belt.
As the German ships turn to present their entire broadside, another accurate shot from the New Zealand
penetrates the Wittelsbach's
belt. She has lost half of her reserve buoyancy and is crawling along at a max speed of 19 knots...
But the Brit is, finally
dead, her guns silenced by a broadside from the Derfflinger
puts a torpedo in her for good measure.
And then, finally, with night falling, the battle is over. The damcon crews of Wittelsbach
manage to stop the flooding and her pumps begin the arduous task of restoring some of her buoyancy. She will need it, for the perilous trip past the alert British garrisons at Scapa Flow.
But she succeeds. On the morning of the 18th of May, the two Schlachtkreuzer
crawl into the harbour of Heligoland, having fended off two destroyer attacks and having snuck past a British Dreadnought squadron north of Scotland, in the twilight hours. Hipper is received as a hero.
The forthcoming statements by the British Admiralty help identify the New Zealand
-class. She was the HMS Tiger
, the second oldest of her class. The British also lost the destroyer HMS Larne
to flooding, during the light forces' retreat towards Ireland.
As always, many thanks to the Admiralitätsarchiv
for granting us permission to reproduce their archived maps and navigation charts. For reference, that's the coast of Ireland to the north; the land installation marked by a blue flag is Baltimore.
What a victory!
, of course, do not rest on their laurels. There are celebrations, of course; but the Piepers
, now ready for action, leave their berths and begin their patrols. Germany now has eyes all over the Baltic and well into the North Sea.
The news of the Battle of Ireland are complemented by good news from the R & D departments as well. Having established that Director firing is the way forward, R & D presents the Admiralität
with secondary director systems. Miniaturised enough to be fitted to light ships or take control of capital ships' secondaries, these gadgets will prove really
useful. Of course, there's no way
is pulling ships out of the line to be refitted at this point. Not with the Grand Fleet juggernaut rolling down on Germany.This
, on the other hand, is always welcome.
And then, at the end of the month, reports start coming in from the U-Bootflotte
. First U-137
, that sinks the HMS Robert Brown
with an opportunistic torpedo.
, that outright surfaces and engages the HMS Sabia
in a gun duel, sending the British minesweeper to the bottom with her heavy 100mm deck gun.
And then the actual merchantmen sinking reports come in and the Admiralität
cannot believe their eyes.Thirty-three ships
. More than Two hundred and fifty thousand tons
of shipping. That's 250,000. A quarter million. In one month
True, the British depended on merchant shipping more than any other nation in the world and their merchant marine was massive. True, the German submarines operated without restrictions in the 'War Zone' that the Germans had declared as valid hunting grounds around the British Isles. True, there was a lot
of international outrage about the 'cowardly' use of the U-Boat to this extent (although, it had to be noted, nobody had complained when the Germans had employed similar tacticcs against the 'barbaric' Japanese).
But still. A quarter million tons of merchantmen.
Essentially overnight, the German Admiralität
had demonstrated that the day of the surface raider was well and truly past. Cry about the unfairness of it as much as you like, Albion; you will find no sympathy here.British propaganda poster, June 1917
As expected, the Grand Fleet immediately proceeds to blockade Germany, plugging the passes to the northern Atlantic and stopping all commerce to German harbours.
Germany is unimpressed. One month into this war, it is not the Germans who are hungry.