On January 24, 1915, a German naval force commanded by Admiral Franz von Hipper conducted a raid on British fishing fleets in the area of the Dogger Banks. The force was engaged by a British force, which had been alerted by a decoded radio intercept. The ensuing battle would prove to be the largest and longest surface engagement until the Battle of Jutland the following summer. While the Germans lost an armored cruiser with heavy loss of life and Hipper's flagship was almost sunk, confusion in executing orders allowed the Germans to escape. The British considered the battle a victory; but the Germans had learned important lessons and they would be better prepared for the next encounter with the British fleet at Jutand. Tobias Philbin's Battle of Dogger Bank provides a keen analytical description of the battle and its place in the naval history of World War I.
About the Author
Tobias R. Philbin is Adjunct Professor of Information Assurance at the University of Maryland and is author of Admiral von Hipper: The Inconvenient Hero and The Lure of Neptune: German-Soviet Naval Collaboration and Ambitions, 1919-1941.
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Battle of Dogger Bank
The First Dreadnought Engagement, January 1915
By Tobias R. Philbin
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2014 Tobias Philbin
All rights reserved.
Decisions beyond the Battlefield
Dogger bank was fought against the advice of the man who commanded the German force. Rear Admiral Franz Hipper believed "the expected success is not worth the effort." It was intended only to sort out British intelligence sources among the numerous fishing trawlers of the Dogger Bank and to roll up any unsuspecting British light forces which might be scouting the North Sea. It was fought in the twilight of the Pax Britannica at the end of nearly two hundred years of British supremacy at sea. The antagonists were Imperial Britain and Imperial Germany. The latter was a continental power with aspirations to sea power which threatened the vital interests of Britain, at the time the preeminent sea power on the planet. Imperial Germany risked national aspirations of a secure place as a great power as well as commercial and military success in a bid for sea power at the rise of the Second German Empire.
There are many explanations as to why this happened: it could have been an exercise in Social Darwinism or nationalism or imperialism. Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz was both the architect and the apologist for the fleet that Germany possessed in 1915; Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, chief of staff for the principal German flag officer conducting the battle, Admiral Franz von Hipper, was another apologist and staunch defender of the fleet Tirpitz built. Today there is another defender of their legacy afoot in the German naval establishment – Kapitan zur See Jorg Hillmann. Vice Admiral Wolfgang Wegener, however, was the most significant German naval strategist in the twentieth century and he saw the Battle of Dogger Bank in very different terms than the Grand Admiral's. What Tirpitz did originally was to take Clausewitz to sea, which in fact could not be done. Raeder did the same thing with the same result. He was more successful in achieving geographic position with Hitler's Wehrmacht behind him – Brest was German for four years, as was the Norwegian coast and virtually all of the Baltic. This was not so in World War I. As Wolfgang Wegener noted, the High Seas Fleet always had two tasks – to control the sea in the Baltic to assure Swedish supplies of the German war effort and defend the north German coasts. If the Imperial Navy were to succeed in defeating a large portion of the British Grand Fleet by depriving it of "brutal superiority," the British would still have had superior geographic position. In Wegener's view, the Grand Fleet would be able to cut off German trade and access to the Atlantic. Admiral Reinhard Scheer agreed:
If the enemy ever succeeded in securing the command of the Baltic, and landing Russian troops on the coast of Pomerania, our Eastern front must have collapsed altogether, and brought to naught our plan of campaign which consisted of a defensive attitude in the East and the rapid overthrow of the French Army. The command of the Baltic rested on the power of the German Fleet. If we had destroyed the Russian Fleet our danger from the Baltic would by no means have been eliminated, as a landing could have been carried out just as easily under the protection of English forces, if the German fleet no longer existed ... for such a purpose the English Fleet had no need to venture into the Baltic itself ... they could compel us to meet them in the North Sea, immediately they made an attack on our coast. In view of such an eventuality we must not weaken ourselves permanently as we could not help doing if we attempted to eliminate the danger which the Russian Fleet represented in the Baltic.
Dogger Bank could have been a disaster for the Germans and a significant victory for the British. If Britain had managed to bring von Friedrich von Ingenohl's two squadrons (about 70 percent of the German fleet including Hipper) and Hipper to battle, there would have been only one modern squadron (about a third of the German fleet) left. That would have to be split between the Baltic and North Sea. Should the Germans have destroyed the major portion of the Grand Fleet with mines and torpedoes and survived in repairable condition due to robust construction, Germany's strategic position would have been preserved. England's strategic position would have been at risk. But a decisive battle required almost impossible risks. Naval power required two things: geographic position and a fleet. In 1914, the Germans vis-a-vis the British had a weak geographic position and only about two-thirds of the fleet they needed. The Battle of Dogger Bank took place in the first months of the war when both the High Seas Fleet and the Grand Fleet were growing stronger as the pre-war programs of 1912 and 1913 were coming to fruition; the British had added a pair of dreadnoughts taken over from Turkey for what was to be a terrible price. The Russians were not able to deploy a fleet which threatened Germany because of their isolation and technological dependence for key elements of their new fleet on foreign sources. The Imperial Russian Navy suffered from greater constraints and bureaucratic lethargy than the Germans – the new dreadnought could not be moved without permission from the Czar himself and the rest of the navy was subordinate to a second echelon land forces commander. The overarching reasons for the battle and the war are to some extent only now being appreciated. Wegener long ago appreciated the German military position, which without any fleet, if successful, would gain the navy both Brest and the French coast. This would erase the British position of total geographic superiority and threaten British sea-lanes as well as reopen the Atlantic to German shipping.
In the battle, upwards of a thousand seamen died. One British battle cruiser, HMS Lion, was damaged as was the German flagship SMS Seydlitz. One German armored cruiser, SMS Blücher, was sunk. The battle occurred because the Germans believed a reconnaissance in force might reveal some critical information on the whereabouts and operations of the Grand Fleet; the British successfully intercepted and read German communications and laid a trap for the German forced.
STRATEGIC THINKING AND DOGGER BANK
If a general engagement had developed and had been decisive, what would the implications be? The real significance of the battle was its indecisiveness which guaranteed that, regardless of the outcome, the ground war would continue, unless the results spilled into the Baltic. Most would say that a naval engagement ill compares to the losses of any day in the trenches of the western front. Yet the context of the battle became the context of the war. The battle occurred in the context of the German General Staff's belief that war must be fought no later than by 1917, lest Germany be overwhelmed by a rearmed Russia and a revanchist France. The German navy itself was a lot less ready for war in 1914 than it would be in 1917. German naval victory early in the war might have had more of a political effect, as the re-deployments of British naval forces after the German bombardments of the coastal towns indicated. At a minimum, it would have given the politicians pause and perhaps time to avoid the great bloodletting which had begun on the western and eastern fronts. At most, the real cost of the war would have been brought home to publics and elites not inured to the cost of endless dreadnought construction.
That the calculus of the German General Staff was entirely based on ground forces is one of the statements of the obvious in the period. It did not involve the Imperial German Navy in any meaningful way. This was probably because at the time the Schlieffen Plan was created, and later even as it was amended, the German dreadnought battle squadrons and battle cruisers were still on drawing boards and Tirpitz was competing with the army to get the fleet through the Reichstag. The competition for resources among the German services and the concomitant lack of parity with the British in battle cruisers dictated the outcome of the battle as much as anything else. Tirpitz's fleet laws had headed toward 20 battle cruisers by 1920 allowing for replacements of older armored cruisers and the increase of the battle fleet to forty ships. In order to get there, the fleet had to successfully compete with the army to keep its guns. After Jutland, the Second Battle Squadron, composed of the surviving eight pre-dreadnoughts, was decommissioned and lost its guns to the army and coastal defense. Much earlier, in 1911, Seydlitz had lost her natural sister ship to Tirpitz's stillborn disarmament negotiations with the British. At the time of Dogger Bank, the Germans had Lützow and Hindenburg as well as Ersatz Freya (actually Prinz Eitel Friedrich) and Mackensen under construction. All were slowed by wartime shortages, especially of construction workers, called up to the front or active service in the navy. In peace, the Germans could have built three or even four dreadnoughts a year, although this was never actually Tirpitz's plan; and if half the production had been battle cruisers, Hipper would have had ten more by 1920. But that was not to be. Mackensen's very powerful 35 cm guns went to the army as did those for all the rest of the capital ships under construction after Bayern. In peace, Hipper would have had three more ships and by 1916 perhaps as many as five more. Ultimately, had peace held, the High Seas Fleet itself at the four ship annual construction rate, was headed for forty battleships by 1925, which at that point would have brought it abreast of almost any foreseen British naval order of battle. That order of battle never materialized. Now is the time to wonder what another Seydlitz would have meant in this battle, and to understand the consequences of failure in arms control negotiations.
The wartime battle cruiser program of the British included two Renown class which were high-speed, lightly armored versions of the R class slow dreadnought design, with only six 15-inch guns. They were followed by three more lightly armored "tin cans" of the Courageous class. This last gasp of the Admiral Sir John Fisher philosophy of speed over safety fortunately never faced Hipper's ships in action. These five ships were not ready until after Jutland so play little part in the narrative about Dogger Bank. Nevertheless all five were available by the end of the war, whereas the last reinforcement Hipper got was the Hindenburg, which according to Tirpitz actually had 35 cm guns, not the 30.5 cm usually attributed to her.
We now know that the British in 1914 were at a crossroads in naval strategy having settled on distant blockade and having become aware of the economy of force offered first by dreadnoughts and then by the submarine. This combination of technological evolution and economics would have posed a major challenge to Tirpitz and his creations. Tirpitz had all but ignored the U-boat until the last minute in favor of battleships. But a combination of Serbian ambitions and Austrian pride, as well as the interlocking secret treaties and alliances plunged the continent and the world into conflict ahead of Tirpitz's fleet laws and building schedule. Winston Churchill was distracted from the North Sea and his Baltic schemes by what would become the disaster of the Dardanelles. Thus, major strategic change was stillborn on one side and the distant blockade made the twenty battle cruisers of the last German Navy Law (Novelle) a pipedream. Cost might also have made them prohibitive, but this presumes a stagnant economy and frozen tax base through the first half of the 1920s. What mattered for the battle was that the issue was clearly about a shortage of money by 1913/14.
Even so, Dogger Bank was important. The relation of the land war to the perceived stalemate at sea was just being recognized, and the U-boat loomed large as the best way the Imperial German Navy could affect the outcome of the war, and U-boat construction accelerated after Dogger Bank. This was the principal conclusion of the German High Seas Fleet command's assessment of the state of the war after Dogger Bank. The Germans did not understand the consequences of doing nothing with the fleet. The British understood that the Germans must be convinced that decisive naval action was unlikely and suicidal. This understanding was also behind the engagement; even if the British did not recognize this aspect of the action's origins at the time, it can be taken as implied in their setup of the action.
To achieve an understanding of the motives and policy formulation which underlies the battle, it is relevant to look at the influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the doyen of naval history, who wrote his books because he was concerned that mainstream historians did not understand and did not effectively chronicle the role that sea power played. It was as Sir Herbert Richmond put it: "Mahan ... explained that the definite object he had in mind was an examination of the general history of Europe and America with particular reference to the effect of sea power on its course." Richmond's thoughts are helpful in understanding the origins, issues, and ultimate meaning of Dogger Bank. He distills Mahan as asserting that control of the sea "had exercised an influence, not merely in deciding some particular issue but in giving a definite direction to the whole course of events ... he aimed at making an estimate of the effect of sea power and the course of history and a chimera of naval social Darwinism." There is absolutely no question of Mahan's influence of the Kaiser, Tirpitz, and the higher echelons of the German navy. As Andrew Lambert said: "Historians must look below the surface of contemporary debates over naval policy. This does not mean adopting intuitive reasoning or a counterfactual approach to history. Rather it is necessary to examine a full spectrum of sources, rather than just so-called policy documents and to understand the range of options open to decision makers before ... attempting to analyze ... intentions. This approach to naval and strategic history will reveal a more complex yet more fascinating picture of strategic policy-making during this period."
DECISIONS AFFECTING DOGGER BANK
There were deliberate decisions on and off the battlefield that shaped the outcome of Dogger Bank.
Off the battlefield, these can be broken down into several decisions: the politico-military decisions to allocate resources to fleets; the decisions to support certain industries and technologies which equipped those fleets; and, the decisions regarding the training and equipping of navies of which the units at Dogger Bank were especial representatives. Lastly, there were decisions made at higher military and naval echelons other than the fleets which directly impacted the course and outcome of the battle, but it was never this organized, deliberate, or even rational. It only appears so with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight. Politico-military decisions made with regard to fleet resource allocation were basically three on both sides: the decision to have navies as instruments of national power; the decision to allocate resources for navies within those allocated to war as a pursuit of policy; and the decisions to build certain types of ships to challenge or counter those of the opposing powers. After Dogger Bank, Tirpitz believed that a fleet action that would fatally weaken the British navy was the route to success, but by then Tirpitz had lost power. Although even partial results were better than leaving the fleet at anchor, the Germans ultimately decided that submarine warfare was the way to obtain results the fleet could not.
As Halpern puts it: "It is against this background of dissatisfaction within the German Navy and the search for a viable naval strategy that the Germans seem almost to have stumbled into the submarine war against commerce." The German U-boat's principal mission was to function as a scout and operate in support of the battle fleet until the first U-boat campaign in 1915, which commenced shortly after Dogger Bank. In 1915, the Germans did not have sufficient numbers of long-range submarines to blockade the British Isles effectively. There were about twenty-five deployable U-boats, with another thirty or so useful in coastal roles, training, or in the yards. About twenty-four were under construction.
Before Dogger Bank, Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer twice opined positively on submarine warfare. On 20 November and 7 December 1914, Scheer submitted private memoranda favoring submarine warfare. He did so, however, with the idea of submarines forcing the British Grand Fleet to give battle on German terms – inflicting so much pain that the Royal Navy would have to resort to close blockade. This supported German tactics of using U-boats to sink British battleships.
With regard to decisions to support certain industries and technologies, there are also three areas of importance. The first was the decision to invest in large armor plate and steel manufacture. The second was the decision to invest in heavy gun manufacture. The third was the decision to develop communications and control devices which allowed these ships to function together. Other decisions also influenced the outcome of the battle. They included the training and equipping of both navies, the selection and training of officers, the organization of navies and fleets, and the training and logistical support of navies and fleets, including development of technical intelligence arms. There also were the decisions of those in higher echelons, ashore and afloat, which affected the combatants: the crafting of the missions of the combatants within national military strategies; the deployment of the units involved including the setting of the Dogger Bank interception and ambush by the British; and, the selection and grooming of the commanders and key participants.
The Germans responsible for U-boat construction in Tirpitz's Reischmarineamt (RMA) believed that World War I at sea would be a short war, like everybody else in authority, on all sides, and therefore they aimed construction to support peacetime plans and peacetime needs, which were to construct and support the battle fleet. Submarines would have lower priority unless in the context of competition with the Royal Navy.
Excerpted from Battle of Dogger Bank by Tobias R. Philbin. Copyright © 2014 Tobias Philbin. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Figures
1. Decisions beyond the Battlefield
2. Building the Battle Cruisers
3. Prologue to War
4. The Order of Battle
5. The Engagement: Chase and Intercept
6. The Engagement: Return
7. Echelons of Mistakes
What People are Saying About This
Tobias Philbin has written an outstanding account of Dogger Bank. Well-grounded in critically used English and German primary sources, Philbin's book not only contains a strong account of the battle, but also provides unusually deep context on both sides.