50: The Battle of Dogger Bank


The biggest naval battle of 1915 happened in January when a fleet of battlecruisers from both sides met in the North Sea.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 50, we made it to 50. This week I would like to make a somewhat selfish request. Next spring, in the Late May/Early June timeframe, I will be headed Over There and visiting Europe. I will be hitting up London, Paris, and Brussels during my stay, with several of the surrounding smaller cities as well. So if anybody has any pub, restraurant, or cool thing to do, or things not to do, recommendations I would love to hear them via Twitter at twitter.com/historygreatwar, on the podcasts Facebook page at facebook.com/historyofthegreatwar, or just in a good old email at historyofthegreatwar@outlook.com. As for this episode, today, with Spee’s great adventure over we will now jump back forward in time to the year 1915. We will be discussing the battle of Dogger Bank today, the first battle between the “big ships” of both the British and German fleets and one with far reaching consequences. Before we get to that battle though we will discuss just a bit about technology, encryption, and decryption all of which were just as important in the first world war at sea as they would be in the second world war even though it would not be as well remembered in history.

Lets begin our talk at a new technology being used on ships during the war, wireless communication equipment. This wireless means of communication was still relatively new when the war started but all warships were being equipped with it as standard issue by 1914. The size of the wireless sets made it difficult for the armies on land to use but it was perfect in the larger ships where weight was less of a concern and the advantages were just massive. The sets were still limited in range, but were still a drastic improvement from the previous means of ship to ship communication. Traditionally ships had used flags and lights to communicate between each other, these type of communication methods dated back hundreds of years. They also had some fairly obvious drawbacks, having to be within visual range being the most important. Now, with wireless, ships could communicate far outside of their visual range, as we have discussed with Spee and his communication with the shore and with his other ships to arrange rendezvous points. But, also as we discussed last episode, wireless communication had one big drawback, a drawback that it still has to this day, it could be intercepted. It didn’t take long for both sides to start looking at ways to encrypt their wireless transmissions so that the enemy would not be able to read them as easily. The tradition of encrypting messages goes back millenia but as technology advanced the methods of encryption had to also advance. This meant that ships had to have code books on board and ready to be used to encrypt or decrypt messages sent to them. This was an age before computers, and while the codes being used could probably be cracked by computers in a matter of minutes they were very difficult, but not impossible, for humans to crack without some assistance. Because of the German encryption the British could not read German wireless messages when the war started, but they had setup the next best thing in the years before the war. Rear Admiral Henry Oliver was the Director of Naval Intelligence and he started an initiative that would eventually lead to the formation of the team that would monitor all German wireless through the war. The first thing that was done was the setup of radio stations along the east and southeast coasts of Britain. If you don’t know where the enemy is going, or what he plans to do there, the next best thing is to know where he is right now, and where he came from. So the British planned to use these radio stations to receive radio signals sent from the North sea. The stations were positioned so that by looking at the signals reaching multiple stations the location of the ship that was transmitting the signal could be triangulated. The location wouldn’t be exact, but it would be definitely accurate enough to be useful, and probably enough to move British ships onto an intercept course. This type of enemy ship location would prove to be extremely valuable even during those times when the British couldn’t decipher the messages being sent by the German ships. While these stations were being used to find where the ships were the messages that they were sending were all be cataloged and examined, the next, quite obvious step, was to figure out what they said.

As the effort began to decrypt the messages Oliver reached out to Sir Alfred Ewing who was, at the time the Director of Naval Education. Oliver asked Ewing to put a team together to begin looking at and trying to figure out what all of these messages said. The group would eventually be given the name Room 40 since it would be located in Room 40 of the Old Building of the Admiralty. From the moment that the group was formed they started chipping away at the German messages. First they started to identify names that came up often like signaling stations, ports, ship names, things that would be easily seen as a pattern based on who was sending and receiving the messages. This provided an important piece of information because now they could determine not just where the ship was, but also which ship it was. Was it a destroyer, a cruiser, or a dreadnought? A very important question to have the answer to. The next step was to begin categorizing the messages into categories like action orders, status reports, etc. based on the contents and frequency of the messages. This was all good and valuable work, but it wasn’t why the group existed, they wanted to know the total contents of the messages, but to make that happen they needed a bit of luck, and they just to happened to be given a few gifts, three of them to be precise, that would change everything. The first gift was a copy of the positioning grid used by the Germans to communicate locations to ships. This was recovered from the wreckage of a sunken destroyer. So now they could determine exactly where a ship was headed. The next two gifts were both code books. The first came via Russia who had captured it from a German ship. The second came from a German merchant ship captured near Melbourne Australia. It was always the custom of naval officers to destroy their code books in case of capture, but in both of these incidents it just didn’t end up happening for one reason or another. The best part about these gifts, was that they were all found fairly early in the war, just a few months after it had started. With all of these puzzle pieces together it was off to the races for the men of Room 40. After the team began working with these code books Ewing would say of how Room 40 might know if something was happening “It was the heavy wireless traffic in the Bight that warned us if the High Seas Fleet was sailing: orders to outposts, orders to open the gate at Wilhelmshaven, orders to minesweepers, etc. And one other very important factor: a single word was sent out on all waves when the HSF was about to operate in the North Sea. Their submarines had to be told.” With Room 40 fully operational it became a real asset for the British navy and as such they wanted to keep it quiet. In the British navy there were extremely few people outside of the men who worked in Room 40 that knew of its existence, and far less who knew its real purpose. When I say extremely few, I mean that you could probably could them on just your ten fingers, that is how secretive this operation was.

So if the group was so secretive, how did the information discovered by Room 40 get distributed? Well, there was a very strict process in place as to what happened after a message was decoded by Room 40. The information was first packaged in a red envelope and carried by messenger to the desk of Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, only he, or a designated replacement was allowed to open the envelope and read its contents. After he had read the message he decided the best course of action. Simple daily status report type orders may not have any actions to take right away and maybe just went to Naval Intelligence. However, if a critical message came in it was Wilson’s job to personally deliver the message contents to the First Lord of the Admiralty, the First Sea Lord, and the Admiralty War Group. For really important messages the time between when the signal was first recorded and when the decrypted copies of it were on the desks of Fisher, Beatty, and Jellicoe could be under an hour. The Germans were completely confident in their codes, believing them to be unbreakable. This meant that they often abused wireless transmission and used it far too much to communicate information that didn’t need to be communicated in such a manner. When evidence began to mount that maybe the British were deciphering the codes the Germans also waited far too long, out of disbelief that they were broken, to change them. By evidence I mean British ships just happening to intercept German ships that were going out on raids, always showing up with the right number of types of ships to counter the German squadrons. Unfortunately for the German Navy, even when they did eventually change their codes, it was often only a matter of weeks before the British had their hands on the newer codes or had determined the new encryption techniques. Over the course of the war Room 40 would intercept, catalog, and/or decipher 20,000 German wireless messages. The Battles of Dogger Bank that we will discuss today, and the battle of Jutland that we will discuss next year, probably never would have happened without the men manning the wireless stations. I think it is safe to say that those men played a larger role in the success of the Royal Navy than any gun on any ship floating upon the seas.

The Battle of Dogger Bank happened for several reasons, all battles in war do. But one of the reasons that Dogger Bank happened was simply because the German Navy was growing restless. They had built all of these ships and all of these men were just sitting in port on all of these ships. They were drilling, training, maintaining combat readiness but they were never going out and fighting, always bottled up in port or in the waters near the German coastline. There was a similar feeling for the British, but it was different for the Royal Navy. They were out in the North Sea actively patrolling and there was always the thought that at any moment the German ships could sail and the battle would be on. The Germans knew there was no such possibility of action unless they themselves caused it. The German ships had went on several raids up to this point in the war, several of them even involving the shelling of the British coastline, but it was always a small squadron making the raid, with the High Seas fleet maybe coming out of port to offer support. Never anything major. This feeling was wearing on some of the more aggressive commanders, non-moreso than Admiral Franz Hipper. Hipper was the commandeer of Germany’s fleet of battlecruisers, ships designed to hunt down armored cruisers but also designed with the speed and endurance necessary to go on raids against the enemy. The restlessness amongst the Germans was one of the reasons that they scheduled a raid out onto the area around the Dogger Bank for January 24th 1915. The goal would be to clear out some of the British fishing ships around the area. The region was heavily fished and it was thought that some of the British ships were actually spying on the Germans and then reporting their observations back to London, not an unreasonable assumption. In fact, and none of my sources were positive on this, but it is likely that some of these fishing ships were doing exactly what the Germans thought they were. So the plan was for Hipper to take 4 Battlecruisers and a force of light cruisers and destroyers out to capture, search, and if necessary sink any vessels suspected of spying. The four ships that he would be taking were the Seydlitz, Moltke, Defflinger, and Blucher. During the raids that I just mentioned, and as I mentioned while discussing Room 40 the British always seemed to have a knack for intercepting the German ships so Admiral Ingenohl would follow Hipper’s force with the rest of the German Fleet, just in case the British decided to show up.. The Germans didn’t think their codes were cracked, but it just seemed very odd that it kept happening. On this occasion as soon as Room 40 intercepted the German signals and decoded them the Royal Navy went into action. A message was rushed to Admiral Beatty, who was the commander of a British force of battlecruisers, light cruisers, and destroyers. He was pretty much the exactly mirror image of Hipper, known for his aggression, experienced from the previous German raids. He would however had a slight numerical advantage with 5 Battlecruisers in his squadron to match up with Hipper’s 4. At first the decision was made to not bring out the entire Grand Fleet to possibly assist Beatty, but this decision was changed just a few hours later. This would be one of the few times during the war that both the German and British full fleets sortied out of their base at the same time and would be one of even fewer cases where there was a real chance of a large fleet encounter.

Early on the morning of January 24th the light cruisers of both Beatty’s and Hipper’s squadrons arrived in their designated patrol areas, which just so happened to be the same. Before the Germans were able to find any of their intended prey, British fishing ships, the cruisers saw each other. It was a perfect day for sailing and as such the smoke from the coal fires in the ships was easily sightable from a fair distance. At 8:15AM Hipper’s ships were leisurely patrolling the area, but as soon as he saw the smoke Hipper knew that he had to make a decision on what to do, and make it quickly. He first sent a message to Ingenohl reporting the sighting and giving a summary of his situation, part of this message was that he might need support soon if more British ships appeared. Unfortunately for Hipper the High Seas Fleet was several hours away, even if they made maximum speed toward him as soon as they got the signal. With the knowledge that the Fleet was so far away Hipper knew that if he couldn’t outrun the British ships he would be fighting them on his own. He didn’t know the type of ship chasing him or the exact numbers before he made his decision at 8:30, the order to turn south and run at 20 knots was given to all of the ships. On the British side a member of Beatty’s staff would write after the battle “Climbing to the bridge I found that they were running for home, while we were working up to full speed as quickly as possible. On the horizon ahead could be seen indistinctly a number of smaller vessels and beside them 4 dark patches with mass of smoke overhead. These 4 patches each containing more than 1,000 men, were our long-destined prey, but alas they were on such a bearing that to cut off their retreat was quite impossible” Seeing the Germans running Beatty gave the order to give chase at maximum sustainable speed. Hipper had a problem, his maximum sustainable speed was not as high as the British, or I should say that he had one ship whose speed was not as fast as the British, and that ship was the Blucher. The Blucher was the oldest ship in either squadron and it could only make 23 knots, making it several knots slower than the other German ships and the enemy. Hipper would write “The pace at which the enemy was closing in was quite unexpected. The enemy battle cruisers must have been doing 26 knots. They were emitting extraordinary dense clouds of smoke.” 26 knots is pretty fast, but the other German battlecruisers could match it, or come close enough that it would take quite awhile for the British to catch them, but the Blucher simply couldn’t and would be left behind. The Germans only had a 15 mile headstart on the British and the gap was closing rapidly. Beatty gave his chief engineer the order “Get us within range of the enemy, tell your stokers all depends on them” This is an easy order to give from the bridge, with the sights of the sea in front of you but down in the engine room it was a bit more difficult. A seaman from Beatty’s flagship the Lion’s engine room would say “The furnaces devoured coal as fast a man could feed them. Black, begrimed and sweating men working in the ship’s side dug the coal out and loaded it into skids which were then dragged along the steel deck and emptied on the floor plats in front of each boiler. Now and then the telegraph from the engine room would clang and the finger on the dial move round to the section marked “More Steam.” The chief would press the reply gong with an oath, ‘What do the bastards think we’re doing? Come on boys, shake it up, get going” and the sweating men would redouble their efforts, throw open the furnace doors and shovel still more coal into the blazing inferno.” I can’t say that I have ever been a position where I was shoveling coal into a furnace, but I have done some shoveling in some pretty warm environments and it is hot and sweaty work. That was without the pressure of knowing that the lives of everybody on board a ship might depend on me and how fast I was shoveling. Oh, and these guys are standing right beside giant furnaces which didn’t help the temperature. With the British coalers giving it their all the distance between the two groups of ships continued to drop. A common strategy at this point would have been for the British to send in quick destroyers to launch a torpedo attack in the hopes of slowing the Germans down but in this case the Battlecruisers were so fast that the destroyers literally could not get far enough ahead of them to make the torpedo run.

By 8:45, just 15 minutes after the chase began, the distance had closed by 7,000 yards, down to just 20,600 which was just 600 yards from when the British would open fire. The maximum possible attack range for the British guns was 22,000 yards, but this was only under ideal conditions. Before the war most gunnery practice was done at far shorter ranges, and often while the ships were moving at slow speed. Now they were shooting at near maximum distance while traveling at 26 knots, something they were not prepared for. Most naval theorists before the war believed that this speed would only be used to close on the enemy and most fighting would happen at a more deliberate pace, which as we have seen in both the Spee chase and in this one, was not true. I like to describe what it must have felt like to the gunners as: Imagine you are trying to throw a ball at a target is just a few feet less than the maximum possible distance you could throw, oh, and also, you are running at a dead sprint as fast as you can. Pretty difficult. At 9AM the distance had closed enough and the first two British ships opened fire with a few ranging shots at the Blucher. Once the distance was registered, as good as it could be, the men of the Lion and Tiger got down to business. At 19,000 yards the first shell hit the Blucher, at the time this was the longest successful hit from a naval gun while in combat, this occurred at 9:09AM and would prove to be just the beginning. At 9:15 the British had closed far enough so that the Germans could start returning fire and as one ship after another came into range more and more shells began to be exchanged. At 9:30, when most of the ships were in range of the Germans Beatty sent out orders that were pretty standard at the time. Basically the British ships would engage the same ship number as they were in the British line. So the first British ship would engage the first German, second would engage the second so on and so forth. This was 100% by the book and was the way to engage according to naval tactics. But in this case the British didn’t execute it correctly. After all of the British ships started firing there was one ship that wasn’t receiving any fire, the Motlke, the second in line. This was because both the Lion and the Tiger, the first two ships in the British line were firing on the German flagship, the Seydlitz. I got a few differing reasons for this in the sources but the most credible seems to be a slight difference in how the captains were counting. There was one more British ship than German ship so the captain of the Tiger believed that the 5th British ship would engage the 4th German ship, 4th to 3rd, and so on up the line. This meant that he and the Lion would both focus on the lead German ship to try and quickly take it out of action. This wasn’t how the other captains were counting, it meant that the Moltke was free. The Moltke and the other 2 lead German ships all concentrated on the Lion, Beatty’s flagship. While the Moltke was being so lucky the Seydlitz was the one paying its dues. Its two aft turrets were put out of action by a single shell, which had reached the powder magazines. It was only the quick thinking of an engineer that left the ship intact at all when he flooding the powder magazine with sea water. While the Seydlitz was receiving a shelling, it was at least still making good speed. The Blucher was in much worst shape, it was very quickly heavily damaged and with its steering gears damaged it had difficulty maintaining a straight course . At 10:30 a shell hit its bow turret which put it out of action indefinitely, then another shell hit and it was on fire. The Blucher’s speed then dropped to just 17 knots. While the British had pulled back on the throttle and were going just 24 knots, 17 was still far too slow. It wasn’t all happiness and rainbows for the British though, remember how I said that there were 3 German ships firing at the Lion, some of those shells were hitting and the Lion was taking real damage. At 10Am a shell from the Seydlitz had hit with great effect and the ship began take on a slight list to port. It was still able to make the 24 knots of the other ships, but that was now top speed. 15 minutes later another shell struck, but the Lion kept on moving forward. Over the next 30 minutes the Lion would be hit 14 times and by that point it had no electrical power, no wireless, and was down an engine. It was slowed to 15 knots and found itself out of the battle.

As the Lion began to drop out of line the British training came into play and the captain of the Tiger knew that his ship would now take the lead. As the Tiger went past the Lion Beatty sent up some signals to the other British ships, with his wireless out this would be the last time for awhile that he would be able to give orders to the other ships, so he wanted to make sure that they carried on the battle as he wanted them to. With the wireless out and the electricity out this also meant that Beatty had to fall back to the flag hoist to send his signals. Flat hoist signalling was a tried and true method of communicating between British ships, it dated back centuries and the flag codes hadn’t changed much in that time. Nelson could have probably figured out what a captain was trying to say with his flag hoisted signal in 1914 just as well as he did in 1812, as long as he wasn’t mostly blind in 1914 of course. However there were some new problems in 1914 with sending flag signals, the most important of which was the fact that the ships were going 24 knots, much much faster than the fastest ships in the days of sail. This would make the simple act of hoisting the signal more difficult, as well as trying to read it. And just to up the difficulty level some more, several of the Lions flag hoists were shot away, so there was a limited length to the messages that Beatty could send. Needless to say the signalmen were put in a tight spot and they did the best they could, but in the end the signal that Beatty sent was misinterpreted by the captain of the Tiger. Beatty intended for the other ships to continue to pursue the German ships, to close in on them and finish the job as they were most likely very capable of doing. However, instead of getting this message, the Tiger began to focus fire on the Blucher and the other ships followed suit. The Blucher was heavily damaged, in reality all of the British ships probably could have just ignored it and came back for it later, but that isn’t what they did. Hipper now had some breathing room for his other ships and had another choice to make, he could leave the Blucher to her fate, or he could try to help in some way. He chose to help and began to plan a destroyer attack. The goal would be to get the German destroyers in close enough to launch their torpedoes. They probably wouldn’t sink the British ships, but maybe ,just maybe, it would cause the British to scatter and allow the Blucher to escape. Just before 11AM he turned his ships around to support the attack, at almost that exact same moment the British ships also turned. This was not a reaction to the German ships but instead a reaction to a reported sighting of a periscope. The Book said that in the case the spotting of submarine all of the ships should turn 90 degrees away from their current course and away from the submarine. This meant that the British turned direction away from the Germans at the very moment when the German destroyers prepared to attack. Hipper misinterpreted this move as a counter to his destroyers and as such cancelled the attack altogether. Hipper then considered taking all of his ships in pursuit of the British to help the Blucher, but the other captains were strongly against this course of action. A bit after noon, after being bombarded by the British ships for almost two hours the Blucher finally succumbed. The ship turned over and for a few brief moments floated bottom up before going down, of the 1,200 men aboard only 234 were saved. While the loss of the Blucher was bad for the Germans, it had allowed the other ships to escape. The other ships would be in safe waters by nightfall without further incident and by the next day they were already in port for repairs.

When all was said and done the Battle of Dogger Bank got the same treatment as the other naval battles during the war, lots and lots of discussion and analysis. In a war where there were such a long time between major confrontations each action was analyzed, over analyzed, and then considered and reconsidered. From a historical perspective this was also an important clash because it was the first direct and prolonged confrontation between the larger ships on both sides while moving at high speeds and using their big guns. Both sides used it as an opportunity to both criticize and praise the participants but also to learned and update their tactics. On the German side the reaction from the fleet and the public was one of embarrassment and disappointment. There was blame flung all over the place in Naval high command. Tirpitz blamed Ingenohl for being too far away from Hipper with the High Seas Fleet, Ingnohl and Hipper blamed Tirpitz for the supposedly poor coal provided to the German ships which reduced their top speed, the Kaiser pretty much just blamed everyone. Changes were made quickly. Ingenohl was relieved of his command and replaced by Admiral Hugo von Pohl. The Kaiser tightened his restrictions on the German Fleet. Hipper and his battle cruisers were forbidden to leave port, along with all of the ships larger than the battlecruisers. In fact, no German capital ships would leave port or the area around it for almost a year. The defeat also caused the German high command to move further in the direction of relying on u-boats. This would lead, in a few months time, to the sinking of the Lusitania. We have already discussed the sinking of the Lusitania and we will discuss the u-boat war in more detail in a few episodes. On the British side, while they were the victors in the engagement, they still weren’t happy. The partial victory provided a great morale boost for the British civilians, but the men of the navy knew that it could have been so much more. As Churchill would write while referencing a confrontation in late 1914 “For the second time, when already in the jaws of destruction, the German battle cruiser squadron escaped.” Beatty, the commander on the scene would also write “The disappointment of that day is more than I can bear to think of.” Beatty was criticized after the battle for his role, but, in general he followed British tactical doctrine of the time. On that topic, I find the next quote both very interesting and a bit humorous. It harkens back to the Nelsonian tradition of the British navy, a tradition of bold moves made against established tactical doctrine that led the Navy to success. The quote is from First Sea Lord Fisher “Like Nelson at Copenhagen and St. Vincent! In war the first principle is to disobey orders. Any fool can obey orders!” This sort of attitude clashed very strongly with the slow alteration of thought in the Royal Navy in the decades before the war. Tactics became less bold and the ships grew in importance as they also grew in expense. If you remember back to our Gallipoli episodes we discussed a similar phenomenon where the commanders on the scene valued their ships far more than did the Admiralty. I find it hard to believe that Fisher would have felt differently than the captains on the scene should he have been in command. It was how almost all of the British Captains and Admirals felt. They had been entrusted with this large, expensive, hard to replace, piece of equipment and while risks had to be taken, there was a war on after all, they put the safety of the ships as a priority as long as they could get their mission done. While it can be said that perhaps the commanders of the Lion and the other ships had been too hesitant to pursue the other ships can you imagine how ridiculed they would be by historians if they would have pursued more closely and lost? There would be some stupid podcaster in 2015 who lives about as far away from the ocean as you can possibly get in North America criticized those silly captains who risked their ships in a time when they should have just taken out the Blucher and called it a day. All that this episode would have been about was how those captains should have followed doctrine, they should have followed orders, and they would have won a reasonable, if not crushing victory. Such is often the case in war, when the commanders do not completely crush their enemies other men will criticize them and tell them how they should have done things differently. And on THAT note, next week we travel back to the Western Front to examine and criticize the Allies fall offensives. Thank you for listening, and have a great week.