Steamship Sunday – The Battle of Heligoland Bight, 28 August 1914

Steamship Sunday


The German V-187 sinking during the Battle of Heligoland Bight

The Battle of Heligoland Bight,
28 Aug 1914

In the Battle of Heligoland Bight on 28 August, 1914, Great Britain’s strength as a seafaring nation was shown as she soundly defeated the Navy of Kaiser Wilhelm II in the North Sea. The Battle of Heligoland Bight was the first and earliest Naval engagement of the Great War. The defeat of the Germans had two immediate outcomes. First, the Kaiser was convinced to keep his surface capital ships close to home waters in the North Sea, using them for defensive rather than offensive purposes during the early part of the war. (This changed in 1916 when the German Navy, under Admiral Scheer convinced the Kaiser to take the battle to the British, resulting in the Battle of Jutland.) The second outcome of the Battle of Heligoland Bight, the defeat of his surface ships at the hands of the Royal Navy, encouraged Wilhelm to further develop his submarine fleet as an offensive weapon.

This sea battle offered up additional lessons, particularly to the British. Steam-powered warships were still relatively new and radio communications between ships was certainly in its infancy. The Battle of Heligoland Bight proved to the Royal Navy the need to improve gunnery at the speeds steam powered ships were capable of. The need to improve the reliability and understanding of radio communications was made clear in this battle.



The significance of the location of this battle is that the Island of Heligoland in the North Sea was the traditional guard post of the German Navy protecting the bases of the German Navy located on the German North Coast, Germany’s only access to the sea.

The battle took place less than a month after Britain’s declaration of war against Germany on 5 August 1914. Initially, the war on land went badly for the French and their allies, with German forces invading France. There was an urgent need to gather all possible troops to send to France to resist them. The British government was in a position of having nothing but bad news, and looked to the Royal Navy, the largest in the world and traditionally the mainstay of British military power, for some success to report. British naval tactics had typically involved a close blockade of enemy ports, taking the fight to the enemy. This had been the British plan for war against Germany up to 1913. Such an approach was still expected by the British population. However, it was realized that the advent of submarines armed with torpedoes and mines hidden in open sea meant that any operations involving stationing capital ships near enemy ports would place them at great risk of surprise attack and loss. Then, there was the issue of fuel for the ships: traditional sail-powered ships did not need refueling, but powered ships, obliged to keep moving to reduce their vulnerability as sitting targets, were continuously using fuel, and had to return to home ports every frequently to refuel.

The German fleet had expected that Britain would adopt its traditional approach, and had prepared by investing in submarines and coastal defences. The main body of the German navy, the High Seas Fleet, was smaller than the British Grand Fleet stationed around home waters and could not expect victory in a head to head fight. It therefore adopted a strategy of waiting in defended home ports for opportunities to attack the larger British force when the anticipated attack came. The British, appreciating this situation, chose to adopt a strategy of patrolling the North Sea rather than waters close to Germany. Any German ships seeking to leave their home ports on the German coast must either pass the 20 mile-wide Straits of Dover, defended by British submarines and mines, or the North Sea, where the British fleet was stationed around its main wartime base at Scapa Flow in Scotland, defending the 200 mile-wide narrowest point between Britain and Norway. This led to a standoff, with neither fleet doing more than hold the other endlessly waiting. The German ships were contained in an area where they could not attack merchant shipping arriving on the west of Britain, which was vital for British survival. To encourage the German fleet to stay at home, the British would make occasional forays with the Grand Fleet and patrol with smaller cruiser and battlecruiser squadrons.

The bulk of the British Expeditionary Force was transported to France between 12 and 21 August. This operation was protected from German attack by British destroyers and submarines patrolling Heligoland Bight, which German ships would have to cross when leaving their home ports. The Grand Fleet remained in the center of the North Sea ready to move south should any German attack commence, but none came. Although the German army had anticipated a rapid transfer of the British army to aid France, German naval planning had anticipated it would take longer for the British to organize. Thus they were caught by surprise when it commenced.

Commodore Roger Keyes (left) and Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt (right).

Two British officers believed they had determined an opening to carry the war to the German fleet. Commodore Roger Keyes commanded a squadron of long-range submarines that regularly patrolled Heligoland Bight, while Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt commanded a destroyer patrol, both operating from Harwich. They observed that German destroyers had adopted a regular pattern of patrols where each evening cruisers would escort out destroyers, which would patrol for British ships during the night before being met and escorted home each morning. Their idea was to send in a superior force during darkness to catch the German destroyers as they returned. Three British submarines would surface in a position to draw the destroyers back out to sea while a larger British force of 31 destroyers accompanied by nine submarines would cut them off from Germany. Other submarines would wait for any larger German ships leaving the Jade estuary to help. Keyes impressed First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill by the daring of his plan, which was adopted but not without changes. An attack at 08:00 on the German daytime patrol was preferred. Keyes and Tyrwhitt requested support for their operation, in particular bringing the Grand Fleet south and the support of the squadron of six light cruisers commanded by Commodore William Goodenough. This was refused by the Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee, who instead agreed to place only lighter forces; “Cruiser Force K” under Rear Admiral Gordon Moore consisting of two battlecruisers HMS New Zealand and Invincible 40 miles to the northwest, and “Cruiser Force C” a squadron of five Cressy-class armored cruisers – HMS Cressy, Aboukir, Bacchante, Hogue and Euryalus, 100 miles west.


H.M.S. Lurcher, Commodore Keyes flagship

It was decided that the attack would take place on 28 August. The submarines were to leave to take up their positions on 26 August, while Keyes would travel on the destroyer Lurcher. The surface ships would depart at dawn on 27 August. Tyrwhitt, aboard the brand new light cruiser HMS Arethusa would command the 3rd Flotilla of 16 modern L-class destroyers, while his subordinate, Captain Wilfred Blunt, aboard the light cruiser HMS Fearless, would command the 1st Flotilla of 16 older destroyers. Tyrwhitt had for some time been requesting replacement of his previous cruiser HMS Amethyst because she was too slow to keep up with his destroyers, but Arethusa did not arrive until 26 August. Her crew were inexperienced, and it was discovered that her new 4 inch Mk V guns jammed when fired.


H.M.S. Arethusa, her effectiveness in the battle was hampered by an inexperienced crew and guns that jammed when fired.

Although the plan had been agreed by the Admiralty, Admiral John Jellicoe commanding the Grand Fleet, was not informed until 26 August. Jellicoe immediately requested permission to send reinforcements to join the raid and to move the fleet closer to the action, but received permission only to send battle cruisers in support. He dispatched Vice Admiral David Beatty with the battlecruisers HMS Lion, Queen Mary and Princess Royal, and Goodenough with the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron, made up of the light cruisers HMS Southampton, Birmingham, Falmouth, Liverpool, Lowestoft and Nottingham. He then sailed south from Scapa Flow with the remainder of the fleet.


Above: Admiral David Beatty was married to the daughter of Chicago department store magnate, Marshall Field. Below: H.M.S. Lion was Admiral Beatty’s flagship at Heligoland.


Jellicoe despatched a message advising Tyrwhitt that he should expect reinforcements, but this was delayed at Harwich and never received. Tyrwhitt did not discover the additional forces until Goodenough’s ships appeared through the mist, leading to immediate concern whether they were friend or foe at a time when he was expecting to meet only enemy vessels.


British submarine E-4

A number of British submarines were deployed. E-class submarines HMS E4, E5 and E9 were ordered to attack reinforcing or retreating German vessels. HMS E6, E7 and E8 were positioned 4 miles further out to draw the German destroyers out to sea. HMS D2 and D8 were stationed off the river Ems to attack reinforcements should they come from that direction.


H.M.S. Fearless

At around 07:00, Arethusa, steaming south towards the anticipated position of the German ships, sighted a German destroyer, G-194. Accompanying her were the 16 destroyers of the 3rd Flotilla. 2 miles behind were Fearless with the 1st Flotilla of 16 destroyers, and 8 miles behind them Goodenough with his six cruisers. Visibility was no more than 3 miles. G-194 immediately turned towards Heligoland, radioing Rear Admiral Leberecht Maass, commander of the German destroyer squadron. Maass informed Rear Admiral Franz Hipper who commanded the German battlecruiser squadron, and who was responsible for local defense. Hipper was unaware of the scale of the attack, but ordered the light cruisers SMS Stettin and Frauenlob to defend the destroyers. Six other light cruisers were ordered to raise steam and join the defense as soon as they could: SMS Mainz moored on the river Ems; SMS Strassburg, Cöln, Ariadne, Stralsund and Kolberg from the river Jade; Danzig and München from Brunsbüttelkoog on the river Elbe.


Ships of the German Navy. Above: Cöln, below, Frauenloeb



Above: the German Navy’s Ariadne. Note on all three German ships pictured above the relics of the age of sail in that each of these ships could be rigged with sails.

Tyrwhitt ordered four destroyers to detach and attack G-149. The sound of firing alerted the remaining German destroyers, who had been moving north, but turned south towards home. Before they could complete the turn, they were sighted by British destroyers who commenced firing. The trailing destroyer V-1 was hit, followed by the destroyer-minesweepers D-8 and T-33. G-9 called for fire against the attacking ships from coastal artillery, but the mist meant the artillery were unable to determine which ships were which. At 07:26, Tyrwhitt turned east, attempting to follow the sound of gunfire and his four destroyers. He sighted 10 German destroyers which he chased through increasing mist for 30 minutes until the ships reached Heligoland and he was forced to turn away. At 07:58, Stettin and Frauenlob arrived, reversing the situation so that the British destroyers were obliged to retreat toward their own cruisers Arethusa and Fearless. Stettin withdrew, since the German destroyers had now escaped, but Frauenlob was engaged by Arethusa. While Arethusa was theoretically the better armed ship, two of her four 4 inch  guns were jammed, while another was damaged by fire. Frauenlob, armed with ten 4 inch guns, was able to cause considerable damage before a shell from one of Arethusa‘s two 6 inch guns destroyed her bridge, killing 37 men including the captain, and forcing her to withdraw. Although badly damaged, she returned to Wilhelmshaven.


British sailors attempting to take on board survivors of the sinking German V-187 while under fire from the German cruiser Stettin, below:


At 08:12, Tyrwhitt returned to the original plan, which was to sweep across the area from east to west. Six returning German destroyers were sighted but turned to flee, when one, V-187, turned back. The German ship had seen two cruisers, Nottingham and Lowestoft from Goodenough’s squadron ahead of her and turned back in the hope of passing through the British destroyers by surprise. This was partially successful, but V-187 was surrounded by eight destroyers and sunk. As British ships attempted to rescue survivors from the water, the German light cruiser Stettin approached and opened fire, forcing the British to abandon the rescue, leaving behind British sailors. The British submarine E4 had observed the action and launched a torpedo at Stettin, but missed. Stettin attempted to ram the submarine, which dived to escape. When she resurfaced all the larger ships had gone, and the submarine rescued the British crewmen, still afloat in small boats together with German sailors. The Germans were left behind with a compass and direction toward the mainland as the submarine was too small to take them.

At 08:15, Keyes, with Lurcher and another destroyer, sighted two four-funneled cruisers. Still unaware that any additional British ships had been sent to support the action, he signalled Invincible that he was chasing two German cruisers. Goodenough received the signal and abandoning his own search for enemy vessels to attack, steamed to assist Keyes against his own ships, Lowestoft and Nottingham. Keyes, seeing he was now being chased by four more enemy cruisers attempted to lead them towards Invincible and New Zealand, reporting them as enemy ships. Eventually, Keyes recognised Southampton, and the ships attempted to rejoin Tyrwhitt. However, the danger to Goodenough’s ships was not over, since the British submarines were still unaware the additional ships were present. At 09:30, one of the British submarines attacked Southampton with two torpedoes, missing and in turn escaping when Southampton tried to ram. Lowestoft and Nottingham remained out of communication range, and separated from the rest of their squadron took no further part in the action.

Tyrwhitt turned back to assist Keyes on receipt of the signal that he was being chased. He sighted Stettin, but lost her in the mist before coming upon Fearless and her destroyer squadron. Arethusa was badly damaged, so at 10:17 Fearless came alongside and both cruisers were stopped for 20 minutes while repairs were made to the boilers.

By now, Cöln, Strassburg and Ariadne had sailed from Wilhelmshaven to join the German defence, while Mainz was approaching from a different direction. Admiral Maass was still unaware of the nature of the attack, so spread his ships in search of the enemy. Strassburg was first to find Arethusa and attacked with shells and torpedoes, but was driven off by torpedo attacks from the destroyers. As Tyrwhitt turned away to the west, Cöln, with Admiral Maass, approached from the southeast, and was also chased away by torpedoes. Tyrwhitt signalled Beatty requesting reinforcements, and Goodenough with the four cruisers remaining with him came to assist. The force turned west.

Beatty had been following the events by radio 40 miles to the north west. By 11:35, the British ships had still not completed their mission and withdrawn, and with the rising tide larger German ships would be able to leave harbour and join the engagement. He decided to intervene and took his five battlecruisers southeast at maximum speed, an hour away from the engagement. While the advantages of using his more powerful ships to rescue the others was clear, this had to be weighed against the possibility of mischance by torpedo or of meeting German dreadnoughts once the tide permitted them to sail, and losing one or more of the important battlecruisers.

At 11:30, Tyrwhitt’s squadron came upon another German cruiser, Mainz. The ships engaged for 20 minutes, before the arrival of Goodenough caused Mainz to attempt escape. Goodenough gave chase, but in attempting to lose him Mainz came back across the path of Arethusa and her destroyers. Her steering was damaged, causing her to turn back into the path of Goodenough’s ships and she was hit by shells and torpedo. At 12:20, her captain ordered his ship to be scuttled and the crew to abandon ship. Keyes had now joined the main body of ships and brought Lurcher alongside Mainz to take off the crew. Three British destroyers had been seriously damaged in the engagement.


Above: The German light cruiser Mainz afire and sinking, viewed from the deck of a British light cruiser. Below: the Mainz going under. Badly damaged and on fire, she was scuttled by her crew.



Strassburg and Cöln now attacked together, but the battle was interrupted by the further arrival of Beatty and the battlecruisers. An officer on one of the destroyers described the moment: “There straight ahead of us in lovely procession, like elephants walking through a pack of … dogs came Lion, Queen Mary, Princess Royal, Invincible and New Zealand …How solid they looked, how utterly earthquaking. We pointed out our latest aggressor to them … and we went west while they went east … and just a little later we heard the thunder of their guns.”‘


Above: German Rear Admiral Maass, commanded the German cruisers at Heligoland from the Cöln which was sunk by British Admiral Beatty’s battlecruisers. Admiral Maass went down with the Cöln. Only one German sailor, Senior Stoker Olf Neumann (below) aboard Cöln survived.

Olf Neumann

Strassburg managed to disengage and escape when the battlecruisers approached, but Cöln was not so fortunate. Cut off from escape she was quickly disabled by the much larger guns of the battlecruisers. She was saved from immediate sinking by the sighting of another German light cruiser, SMS Ariadne, to which Beatty gave chase and again quickly overcame. Ariadne was left to sink, which she eventually did at 15:00, attended by the German ships Danzig and Stralsund who took off survivors. At 13:10, Beatty turned northwest and ordered all the British ships to withdraw since the tide had now risen sufficiently for larger German ships to pass out through the Jade estuary. Passing Cöln again, he opened fire, sinking her. Attempts to rescue the crew were interrupted by the arrival of a submarine; one survivor was rescued by a German ship two days later out of some 250 who had survived the sinking. Rear Admiral Maass perished with his ship.

Four German cruisers survived the engagement, which they would not have done except for the mist. Strassburg nearly approached the battlecruisers, but saw them in time and turned away. She had four funnels, like the Town-class British cruisers, which caused sufficient confusion to allow her time to disappear into the mist. The German battlecruisers Moltke and Von der Tann left the Jade at 14:10 and began a cautious search for other ships. Rear Admiral Hipper arrived with Seydlitz at 15:10, but by then the battle was over.

Both sides had lessons to learn from the battle. The Germans had assumed that their cruisers, leaving port one by one, would not meet larger ships or major forces. They failed to keep their ships together so they might have better odds in any engagement. Beatty, when faced with the choice of leaving one of his ships to finish off disabled enemies, had elected to keep his squadron together and only later return in force to finish off those ships. Goodenough, on the other hand, had managed to lose track of two cruisers, which therefore played no further part in the battle.

German light cruisers armed with larger numbers of faster firing 4 inch guns proved inferior to similar British cruisers with fewer but more powerful 6 inch guns. However, their ships proved difficult to sink despite severe damage and impressed the British with the quality of their firing. Both British and German sources reported the determination and bravery of the defeated German ships when overwhelmed.

No one reported the presence of British cruisers to Admiral Hipper until 14:35. Had he known, he could have brought his own battlecruisers to sea faster and consolidated his fleet, possibly preventing the German losses and instead inflicting some on the departing British ships. The British operation had dragged out longer than anticipated so that the large German ships would have had sufficient high water to join the battle.

The British side also suffered from poor communications, with ships failing to report engagement with the enemy to each other. The initial failure to include Jellicoe in planning the raid could have led to disaster had he not sent reinforcements, although the subsequent communications failures which meant British ships were unaware of the new arrivals could then have led to British ships attacking each other. There was no way to warn off British submarines which might have targeted their own ships. It had been the decision of Admiral Sturdee, Admiralty chief of staff, not to inform Jellicoe and also not to send additional larger ships which had originally been requested by Keyes. Jellicoe in effect countermanded this decision once he knew of the raid by sending ships which were part of his command. Keyes was disappointed that the opportunity for a greater success had been lost by not including the additional cruisers properly into the plan as he had originally intended. Jellicoe was disturbed by the Admiralty failure to discuss the raid with their commander in chief of the fleet at sea.

The Germans appreciated that constant patrols by destroyers was both wasteful of time and resources of those ships, and left them open to attack. Instead, they designed defensive minefields to prevent enemy ships approaching and freed up the destroyers for duties escorting larger ships. In the future, ships were never to be sent out one by one. The British realized it was foolish to have sent Arethusa into battle with inadequate training and jammed guns. British ships were criticised for having fired considerable ammunition and torpedoes with little effect: this criticism later proved counter-productive when at the Battle of Dogger Bank, ships became overly cautious of wasting ammunition and thus missed opportunities to damage enemy vessels.

British losses in the battle:

35 killed
55 wounded
1 light cruiser heavily damaged

German losses in the battle:

712 killed
149 wounded
336 captured
3 light cruisers sunk
2 torpedo boats sunk
1 destroyer sunk
3 destroyers heavily damaged
1 light cruiser heavily damaged
2 light cruisers moderately damaged

Text adapted from Castles of Steel by Robert Massie. Additionally, material from British Battles was used.


A British postcard depicting the Battle of Heligoland Bight


Add yours →

  1. Gordon F. Kertzel,lll 04/09/2016 — 12:32

    Another excellent Naval History lesson! Thank You Gordon


  2. Jack Darnell 04/09/2016 — 12:32

    I have never heard of this battle. Some amazing ships, and yes the UK did rule the seas up to the 1930’s I imagine. Company just came in. Thanks for the history lesson and information. Will come back to study the ships more in detail. I love these old photos.



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