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September 27, 2006

World War One at Sea - the first major battle: The Battle of Heligoland Bight - Eric W. Osborne

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Battle of Heligoland Bight
by Eric W. Osborne
Pp. ix+141. Indiana University Press, 2006
Hardback, 17.99

A British raid against the German forces that patrolled around Heligoland Island led, on 28th August 1914, to the first major action between the British and German fleets during World War One. As Osborne - in this fine heavily-operational account - notes, this was not so much a coherent highly-structured battle, but rather a series of individual ship engagements conducted in poor visibility.

The Germans suffered heavier casualties and the British gained a powerful morale-boost. However, the battle indicated problems with the Royal Navy, especially the general lack of coordination in the Admiralty. The comments of Herbert Richmond, the Assistant Director of Operations, are more generally relevant for the frequently over-clear discussion of battles seen in much of the literature:

Anything worse worded than the order for the operation I have never seen all unknown to our submarines, the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron suddenly turned up in a wholly unexpected direction, thereby running the gravest dangers from our own submarines. The weather was fairly foggy, ships came up to one another unexpectedly.

Given these and other deficiencies, it is unsurprising that the British did not inflict heavier losses on the Germans. Osborne also argues that the British effort was hindered by the force composition for the raid, the limitations of gunnery and torpedo skills, which ensured that the heavy use of ammunition and torpedoes brought few successes, and the quality of British shells: many failed to explode.

The Germans also faced serious problems. All their warships involved were outgunned by their British counterparts, while the German torpedo boats were also outclassed. The Germans were also affected by serious tactical problems. Osborne shows that communications were a major issues. There was also a poor command response to the British raid, in particular a lack of coordination, and inaccurate assessment. The belief that the British would not send heavy units into the Bight proved misplaced. The Germans, in turn, were overly anxious about risking their better ships, which greatly affected their response to the raid.

Osborne argues that the key result of the battle was not that of German losses but, instead, the impact on German morale, and, in particular, the extent to which the cautious use of the fleet was confirmed. The Kaiser felt justified in his instructions that battle was to be sought only under the most favourable of circumstances. These restrictions were confirmed, with particular limitations with respect to the Bight. This helped ensure that the surface war at sea would be probably lost by Germany through limited contest.

After the battle, the Kaiser's tight rein on the fleet was frequently in evidence. The defence of Heligoland was essentially entrusted to minefields. This, however, was no way to challenge the British blockade. In the event, the British were to win the war on the Western Front in 1918, but had the conflict continued for longer the blockade would have proved even more important.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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