World War One: Surface Fleet

Follow the links to find out more about the key personnel, technological changes and major actions of the surface fleet of the Royal Navy during World War One.

The build up to World War One.

Kaiser Wilhelm II came to power in Germany in 1888. He was an ambitious man and envisioned Germany as a world power with colonies in Africa and South East Asia. He considered that a key part of achieving this goal lay in the controlling a powerful navy, specifically one that could threaten the British Royal Navy. In June 1897 Rear-Admiral Alfred Tirpitz was appointed as State Secretary for the Navy. He shared Wilhelm's vision for the Navy and was able to secure funding from the parliament for a massive construction programme for ships. Britain saw this programme as a threat and because of this began an arms race that led a expansion within the Royal Navy fleet.

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Key Personnel

Sir John Jellicoe
Jellicoe entered the Navy in 1872 where he showed promise as a young officer; he did well in sea appointments and came to the notice of John Fisher then Director of Naval Ordinance where he was involved in the expansion and modernisation of the Fleet.

Following this he was appointed Commander in the Victoria, flagship of Admiral Sir George Tryon. In 1893 Victoria was rammed and sunk by Camperdown in the course of manoeuvring. The turning circles of the ships were such that it was almost certain that a collision would happen however no one on either ship wished to say so to the Admiral. Jellicoe survived but 321 lives were lost including the Admiral.

In 1904 Jellicoe returned to the Admiralty as Director of Naval Ordinance where he was involved in the planning and construction of the Dreadnoughts. From this he returned to sea as a flag officer before becoming Second Sea Lord in 1912.

At the outbreak of war he was Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet. He was in charge of the British fleet at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, a role for which he has been criticised. He was made First Sea Lord in November 1916, but was dismissed from this post in 1917 over the use of convey shipping.

Sir David Beatty
He was born in 1871, he joined the navy in 1884 and first came to prominence in 1896 when as a lieutenant he acted a second in command of a small force of gunboats on the Nile. When Beatty later took over command after the wounding of his commander in action against the Sudanese, he took three gunboats and was able to occupy Dongola and pursue rebel troops. For these actions he received a DSO. This action and others when commanding a rocket battery at the battle of Atbara led to him receiving a special promotion to commander at the age of 27.

A printed sheet for a newsvendor stand with the headline 'Beatty Now Commands', dating from c.1916. (RNM)

Between 1902 and 1910 Beatty commanded four cruisers and the Queen, a battleship. In 1910, at the age of 38, he received promoted to rear admiral by special Order in Council.

Strangely in 1911 he turned down an offer appointment as second-in-command of the Atlantic Fleet thus missing out on experience of handling a fleet at sea. Despite this Churchill picked Beatty for the very important appointment to command the battlecruisers over the heads of more senior and perhaps more suitable admirals.

Sir Winston Churchill
Churchill's five years of war leadership (1940-45) secured him a place in modern British history, however Churchill's career was anything but predictable. From 1896 to 1897 Churchill served as a soldier and journalist in India. In 1898 Churchill fought at the battle of Omdurman in Sudan.

In 1900 Churchill was first elected to Parliament. He switched from the Conservatives to the Liberal Party in 1904. Between 1906 and 1911 Churchill served in various governmental posts, and was appointed Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. As Home Secretary (1910-11) he used troops against strikers in South Wales.

After the outbreak of First World War he supported the Dardanelles Campaign, an operation against the Turks. He had encouraged the development of such weapons as the tank. Gallipoli and the failed action at the Dardanelles did great harm to Churchill's reputation and career. Reduced in 1915 to minor office as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, he resigned. Churchill rejoined the Army, and rose to the rank of colonel. In 1917 he was appointed Lloyd George's minister of munitions, subsequently becoming the state secretary for war and air (1918-21), and colonial secretary (1921-22). During the post-war years he was active in support of the Whites (anti-Bolsheviks) in Russia.

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Battle of Heligoland Bight

This was the first naval battle of the First World War; it took place on 28th August 1914. Commander Tyrwhitt led the Harwich Force, including light cruisers, Fearless and Arethusa, in a raid on German shipping close to the German naval base at Heligoland.

Acting as cover was the First Battlecruiser Squadron under the command of Vice-Admiral Beatty. This included battleships New Zealand and Invincible as well as three battlecruisers.

A pen and ink sketch of the First Battle Squadron at the Second Battle of Heligoland Bight on 17th November 1917 by C Herring.

The Second Battle of Heligoland Bight occurred when German minesweepers clearing a path through a British minefield near the coast of Germany were intercepted by two British cruisers, HMS Calypso and HMS Caledon, performing counter-minesweeping duties. The German ships fled south toward the protection of the battleships SMS Kaiser and SMS Kaiserin. The two British cruisers engaged the German battleships, while their own screening force of the battlecruisers HMS Tiger, HMS Renown, HMS Repulse, HMS Courageous, and HMS Glorious of the First Battlecruiser Squadron were coming to assist.

The action started with Tyrwhitt sinking two German torpedo boats. However the Germans were not completely surprised by the British attack and deployed the Frauenlob and the Stettin followed by four other light cruisers. Out gunned by these ships and with Arethusa damaged Tyrwhitt called Beatty for urgent help. Beatty arrived in time to save Tyrwhitt, his squadron sank Mainz, Koln and Ariadne. The Germans retreated; they had lost 1,200 men, in comparison to 35 British fatalities.

The battle enhanced Beatty's reputation and influenced the Admiralty's decision to appoint Beatty as Commander of the Grand Fleet, replacing Sir John Jellicoe when he was dismissed in 1917.

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Dardanelles Campaign

The Dardanelles, through to the Sea of Marmara is a narrow, winding passage flanked on the north by the Gallipoli peninsula, to the south they are protected by the shore of Ottoman Asia. In addition, fortresses were well positioned on cliff-tops overlooking shipping lanes.

Churchill is widely credited as the man who committed British, French and - above all - untested Australian and New Zealand forces to the ill-fated campaign to seize control of the Dardanelles Straits and western Turkey. Control of the Straits would give ready access to the Turkish capital Constantinople as well as providing a lane to the Black Sea. In addition to this access to the Sea of Marmora would give Britain and France supply route access to their eastern ally, Russia.

There were initial suggestions early in the war that the Dardanelles should be attacked with land support however in 1915 Churchill put forward a plan to attempt a purely naval capture of the Straits. He received agreement from the War Cabinet. Lord Kitchener, the British war minister ordered the readiness of Britain's sole available infantry division and the Australian and New Zealand forces stationed in Egypt en route to France to assists if necessary.

The initial attack took place on 19th February 1915 by a combined British and French fleet including the new battleship Queen Elizabeth, led by Admiral Sir Sackville Carden. However this was unsuccessful, it was followed by further bombardment on 25th February 1915 that was equally unsuccessful. The outer forts were taken but it was not possible to reach the mobile batteries on the heights.

A G Class destroyer laden with troops for the initial Gallipoli landing, taken on 25th April 1915. (RNM)

There was an unsuccessful attempt to force through The Narrows on 18th March 1915 and this was followed by Carden being replaced by Sir John Robeck. It had become clear that ground support was needed. Prior to the attempt on The Narrows Lord Kitchener had ordered the 75,000 troops, predominately inexperienced Australian and New Zealand troops, be despatched to the area.

It was decided to make an invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula however during this time the area had been further fortified and more troops brought in to defend it. Two beachheads were established on 25th April 2005 at Helles on Gallipoli's southernmost tip and Gapa Tepe - later known as Anzec Cove in honour of the New Zealand and Australian troops who died there.

In attempt to strengthen the position there were three further unsuccessful attacks at Krithia between the 28th April and 4th June.

In Britain the First Sea Lord, Admiral Fisher resigned on 15th May 1915 over Churchill's handling of the campaign. This led to Churchills own resignation, Churchill had already admitted the failure of the purely naval bombardment to the War Cabinet and so denting his political credibility.

There followed a landing at Suvla Bay on the 6th August 1915 however this like Anzac Cove and Helles was overlooked by high ground commanded by Turkish Forces. Further re-enforcements were requested from both Britain and France but they were not forthcoming. After some mush debate about the possible evacuation of the troops Kitchener himself visited the area and recommended evacuation on the 15th November 1915.

The evacuation from Anzac Cove and Suvla bay between 10- 20th December and Helles from late December until 9th January. The evacuation was the most successful part of the whole campaign. British (including commonwealth) casualties amounted to 205,000, French 47,000 and Turkish 250,000.

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Battle of Jutland

A black and white reproduction of an original painting of HMS Inconstant passing through the engaged fleet at the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916.

A black and white engraving of the British fleet at the Battle of Jutland at 6.20pm on 31st May 1916 from a drawing by Commander H L Boyle. HMS Lion leading the battle cruisers HMS Princess Royal, HMS Tiger and HMS New Zealand. Various other vessels present at the battle are also depicted, including HM Ships Shark, Defence, Warrior, Black Prince, Yarmouth, Falmouth, Gloucester, Birkenhead, Invincible, Inflexible and Indomitable. (RNM)

A black and white reproduction showing the guns of HMS Agincourt firing towards the right at the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916. Text beneath the image states: The Battle of Jutland - All turretts of the Agincourt were in action at once. (RNM)

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Zeebrugge Raid

A printed sheet for a newsvendor stand for The Evening Press with the headline 'Zeebrugge Bombarded by British Ships', dating from World War One.

This was an attack on 23rd April 1918 against the Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend, both of which were being used by the German Navy as a base for submarines. It was originally proposed by Sir John Jellicoe shortly before his dismissal in 1917 and approved by the Admiralty in February 1918.

The main attack was to be against Zeebrugge with a smaller one against Ostend. The plan was for the elderly cruiser Vindictive to land 200 troops at the entrance to the Bruges Canal in order to destroy the shore batteries. However events did not go well, she moored in the wrong location putting her guns out of action and the prepared smokescreen to cover the Vindictive as she landed troops proved ineffective.

Blockships and part of the pier at Zeebrugge, burnt by the Germans before evacuation in 1918. It appears that some of the blockships had been raised by the Germans in order to clear the channel. (RNM)

The loss of the Vindictive's guns meant that the shore batteries could not be taken and fire from these damaged the three British cruisers Thetis, Iphigenia and Intrepid. These had been filled with concrete and it was originally intended to scuttle them in the inner harbour at the narrow entrance to the canal, this was not successful.

The Zeebrugge Raid took place on 23rd April 1918. The Royal Navy attempted to neutralize the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, which was used by the German Navy as a base for their U boats and light shipping.

The raid began with a diversionary attack against the mile long Zeebrugge mole. The attack was lead by the cruiser, HMS Vindictive, along with two Mersey ferries, Daffodil and Iris II. These were accompanied by two old submarines, which were filled with explosives to blow up the viaduct connecting the mole to the shore.

HMS Vindictive was to land a force of 200 Royal Marines at the entrance to the Bruges Canal, however, at the time of the landing the winds changed and the planned smoke-screen to cover the ship proved ineffective.

The Marines, whose objective was to destroy German gun positions, immediately came under heavy fire and suffered heavy casualties. Vindictive, spotted by German gun positions, was forced to land in the wrong location, resulting in the loss of the Marines' heavy gun support. Eventually, HMS C3 succeeded in destroying the viaduct after it exploded.

Events at Ostend were even less successful, where the two old cruisers intended to block the harbour entrance failed to reach the harbour entrance. There were two hundred fatalities during the operations and a further three hundred wounded. Eight Victoria Crosses were awarded.

The action was represented at the time as a great British victory. In contrast the Germans saw it as a demonstration of their success in holding both ports, the British mission did not effect German shipping for more than a couple of days.

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Technological Developments

Changes in weapons and ships design
Naval weapons, and the ships carrying them, had advanced considerably in the years leading up to the First World War. Bigger, faster and more seaworthy destroyers and torpedo boats had entered service, and the submarine was becoming a significant danger, as shown by the sinking of three Royal Navy cruisers by the German U9 in the space of 90 minutes on 22 September 1914.

Anti-shipping mines, although a type of weapon many years old, were still a potent threat - the battleship HMS Audacious, only a year old, sank after exploding a mine on 26 October 1914. As the war continued, these, and other technologies, continued to develop as both sides tried to gain the advantage.

A photograph of the battleship HMS Audacious sinking after hitting a German mine on 27th October 1914. (RNM)

Improvements in design of many types of warship took place, with speed, firepower and protection the key areas for consideration - all needing larger and more expensive ships to achieve a better capability.

A photograph of the monitor HMS Terror, which was launched in 1915 (RNM)

HMS Audacious, for example, carried 13.5 inch guns at 21 knots on a displacement of 23,400 tons - HMS Hood, under construction in 1918, carried 15 inch guns at 31 knots on a displacement of 45,000 tons. New types of ships were called for; shore bombardment in support of the Army needed ships with big guns able to move in shallow water close to the shore - the monitor was the result. By the end of the war monitors carrying 15 inch guns had been built.

As the capability of submarines to operate further from their bases grew, the need to defend the vital shipping links to and from the island nation of Great Britain became more and more important.

Initially cargo ships, passenger liners and supply ships sailed independently; not until the numbers of ships lost to attack by U-Boats, the German submarines, had reached such a level that the country was in danger of starvation did the Admiralty introduce a system of convoys, escorted by destroyers and other anti-submarine vessels.

Initially these had no means of detecting a submerged submarine, relying on a sharp-eyed lookout spotting a periscope as the enemy commander searched for a target, and limited types of weapons available to attack a submarine if found - the only options were gunfire or ramming the submarine on, or near, the surface. By the end of the war, Asdic (now know as Sonar) had been developed, and was able to detect a submarine underwater (at fairly short distances). The depth charge, an explosive canister able to be dropped and detonate at depths up to 300 feet, was available from 1916 onwards.

Dazzle camouflage
Camouflage, as a concept, had two aspects. The ability to hide a ship or other object, or at least to reduce the distance at which an observer could detect it, was the most obvious requirement, but was difficult to achieve at sea. A ship could be painted to try and hide in the North Sea on a misty day would stand out clearly in bright sunlight, and vice versa.

The aircraft carrier HMS Argus during World War One, painted with dazzle camouflage.

Another approach was to attempt to fool the observer into thinking that a ship was heading in a different direction to its real course, or that it was further or nearer than its real distance, or that it was going faster than its actual speed (for example by painting a false bow-wave on the ship).

The most extreme form of this deception was known as Dazzle Camouflage - a series of angular panels in widely contrasting colours painted on ships to give a false impression of heading, size, shape and size of ship. This approach was developed by the well-known artist Norman Wilkinson (1878 -1971). A further example of camouflage was the conversion of several merchant ships to look like battleships, in order to mislead the enemy into believing that the British Grand Fleet was larger than it actually was.