Reproduced here for the Battle’s 109th anniversary are two first-hand accounts, one from an officer aboard a British destroyer flotilla, and the other of the action aboard HMS New Zealand from the perspective of HSH Prince George of Battenberg, Lt RN, son of the former First Sea Lord Prince Louis of Battenberg. A 15 minute read.
The Heligoland Engagement
Reprinted from The Morning Post, 19 September 1914 (NR vol. III, 1915, no. 1, p. 159)
By an Officer in a Destroyer,
This is the first letter I have written since the war began, so I know you will be interested in all that has happened to me. Of course I cannot give any dates or details of our movements, so I will confine myself to two things. Firstly, you will remember the papers said some time ago that there was an apparent liveliness in the southern area of the North Sea. Well, this was true, as you will see.
One morning we were on patrol, and I was on watch. I sighted a lot of smoke on the horizon. I told the captain, but this sort of thing was quite common, and he did not take much notice. Soon I noticed two masts and then four funnels. Knowing that none of our cruisers were about, I was satisfied what the ship was, and I sent down to the captain again. This brought him up at once. Sure enough the stranger turned towards us. Now you understand what a destroyer is, and that she is not built to fight big ships in daytime, so you will not dub us as cowards when I tell you we ran. At the same time she fired at us, and then ensued my first experience under fire. We fired at her, of course, and I think we hit her, and soon were out of range. Now the reason why the papers said nothing about this… the cruiser was not attacked in force and consequently she Was allowed to get out of sight… However, “he who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day” was our consoling thought. Thank God we were able to vindicate ourselves, as you know, on the 28th. That was our baptism of fire, and it settled everyone down in a wonderful way.
Now I will leave out all our movements and take you straight over to Heligoland. On the morning of the 28th, shortly after daylight on a misty but otherwise calm morning, a German destroyer was sighted. Now before I go further you must understand that we, the destroyers, were to attack enemy destroyers. Cruisers, from their powerful armament, were to be left alone, and our cruisers were to do that part of the business. All right. We chased this destroyer, and soon found her to be closing on other German destroyers.
A fight at long range ensued. Whilst in the midst of this exhilarating sport through the mist appeared a German cruiser. Our destroyers had to change their tactics. Headed by our flotilla cruiser we all attacked the cruiser. From our position we were the rear division of boats. In the middle of this action we sighted another German destroyer trying to get into Heligoland. This was our prey, and so four of our boats, ours being one, chased her. She tried to run away, but a well-placed shot obviously brought her speed down, and we soon had her in splendid range. The Germans fought splendidly, but we hammered her in no time.
Just a digression here is of interest; our shooting was very good and she was hit numberless times. I say the Germans fought well, but not a single shot of hers took effect, and only one of our men in all four boats was wounded by a rifle bullet. This means German gunnery is bad or ours is good, but whichever it is, there remains the comparison.
To continue about the fight. I shall never forget this, the first ship I have ever seen sunk by gunfire. It was a terrible sight. Shell after shell was blowing her to pieces, she was enveloped in a dense cloud of smoke and red tongues of flame were licking out the hull, and yet one or two men could be seen standing on her deck. How any man came out of that ship alive absolutely defeats me, and everyone else for that matter. Soon she was merely a blackened hull, very nearly under water, and it was obvious she had sailed her last voyage. Immediately orders were given to cease firing. It was noticed that men were swimming towards us in the water. The lifeboat’s crew was called away and in I got to try and save what survivors were left. I pulled in four men, one of whom was the Commodore of their flotilla. One man was horribly wounded in the arm and head, and it was only on account of his lifebelt that he was afloat. Two others were also wounded. Then it was I captured my booty, namely, a Mauser pistol, but I am not sending it home just yet.
The Commodore whom I pulled in tried to drown himself, but I managed to get him into the boat all right. Whilst we were in the middle of picking up the survivors another German cruiser put in an appearance and started firing on us. There was an immediate scramble to get on board our ship again, which we did all right, but we had to leave the boat behind.
One of our ships had to leave a boat’s crew behind to their fate. Their fate reads like a bit out of Grimm’s ‘Fairy Tales’ inasmuch as they were picked up by one of our submarines which was watching the whole action unseen. Altogether we picked up eight prisoners, out of which one was badly wounded, and two others slightly wounded. Of the crew of 97 only 20 could be accounted for as prisoners.
To continue with our adventures, our four boats managed to escape from our aggressive cruiser, and then all boats had a kind of muster and reckoning up. This was most satisfactory, as all our boats were afloat, and only the Arethusa and Fearless were hit, the former badly. We then thought that since there were no more of the enemy to chase it would be wise to make tor home.
We had no sooner started than another German cruiser appeared. This was the Koln. The Arethusa and Fearless immediately gave chase with several divisions of destroyers. We were not allowed to go, as the leader of our division had been hit, and had got his speed reduced, and we were to convoy him home. No sooner were our ships out of sight than another German cruiser loomed out of the midst. We (without any assisting cruisers) immediately attacked him.
There were eight of us all told, but you must understand our gun power totalled less than the enemy and we had no armour. However, God was with us; we were not hit, and yet we managed to damage the enemy considerably, she being distinctly low in the water forward and on fire. However, she was firing still, and it looked as if we were in for a warm time, as the range was decreasing rapidly and shots were getting very close. At the critical moment three of our light Town cruisers came on the scene. For the second time I saw a ship sunk by gunfire. This was the Mainz. Our cruisers made most wonderful shooting, and I have never seen such a sight. It simply cannot be described in a letter; it is much too dramatic and horrible. The last I saw of her was a battered hulk, consumed by smoke. One can imagine the state on board when you realise that one of our destroyers which went alongside to take off prisoners stated that of 240 men left alive only 50 could walk.
After this our ship managed somehow to get out of sight of everyone else – it was very foggy – and we were suddenly confronted by another German cruiser. This was by far our most perilous action. We had very little ammunition left, and the cruiser was able to give us her undivided attention. One shot in our engine-room or boiler-rooms would finish us, we knew. However, we engaged her, and at the same time headed for our flotilla cruiser (Fearless) and some of our destroyers which had hove in sight. Till we managed to get into the line we had a very anxious ten minutes. However, we managed to get there all right, and proceeded to have a set to with our foe. Again when things were looking a bit anxious, out of the fog loomed two battlecruisers. We had a horrible feeling for the moment, were they friends or foes? We were soon at rest, for their heavy guns spoke, and, thank God, they were trained the right way. This action we did not see. We then proceeded to assist to take in tow one of our destroyers, the Laertes, which had been hit in the boiler-rooms.
By this time the flotilla was very scattered, and we found that with us were our flotilla cruiser and five other boats, including the one being towed. We then headed for home. Since 4 am that morning till 2 pm that afternoon we had practically been continuously in action, and none of us had had any food. Even then there was no rest, because we had the wounded prisoners to see to. Thank goodness none of our men were wounded. I made use of my first-aid as well as I knew, and we made our wounded prisoners as comfortable as possible. 1 cannot go on to write any more details. My hand is tired already and I could go on for ages, so, old dear, if ever I am spared to see you all again, I shall have many yarns to tell you. But we have a big task in front of us, and pray God we may thrash our enemy. We have a big job, but from Admiral down to cabin boy everyone is as keen and steady as possible. On the 28th I am told that all men behaved admirably, and I can vouch for this ship.
Gunnery Remarks on the Skirmish off Heligoland
By Lt the Earl of Medina RN (NR vol. V, 1917, no. 1, p. 145)
Shortly before noon, the Light Cruiser Squadron were observed to be firing; it was then about eight miles away, slightly on our port bow, and steaming at great speed from left to right. Although the flashes from their guns were clearly visible, the direction in which the ships were steaming was uncertain and no enemy was visible.
New Zealand increased to full speed, steering S. E. and leading the line of battlecruisers. On nearer approach, the flashes of the enemy’s guns were seen just to the left of the light cruisers and at the same time a large number of destroyers, accompanied by the Arethusa, passed down our port hand, retiring from an invisible enemy who was pitching projectiles amongst them.
As the light cruiser’s antagonist was obviously beaten – her upper deck a mass of wreckage and only one funnel and one mast standing – we passed on, leaving her on our starboard hand. Vice Admiral [Beatty] then ordered the Battle Cruiser Squadron to take station in sequence of fleet numbers, which reversed the positions, and the order then was: Lion, Queen Mary, Princess Royal, New Zealand, and Invincible a good way astern of the line.
Portrait of George Louis Mountbatten, 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven (1892-1938), painted in 1924 by Philip de László
At this time the visibility was 8,000-6,000, sea calm, wind 0-2 from N. E., mist and smoke from light cruisers in action. At 12.50 pm, Lion opened fire on something on her port bow. Nothing could be seen from New Zealand’s fore top through the mist and smoke, except the flashes of her guns, but a few projectiles fell near us and burst, making splashes about 20 feet high.
Queen Mary opened fire after Lion, presumably on the same object. A misty object was once seen from the fore top and 8,000 yards put on the sights, in case fire could be opened. The conning tower then reported the enemy bearing port 30, the fore turret (‘A’) opened fire, obtaining their direction from a locally fitted officer of quarters open sight, and laying for the horizon or flashes. It is doubtful if this was really worthwhile, as only a direct hit could possibly have been seen. Nevertheless, it afforded the satisfaction of a reply, and showed that fire could be opened without the gunlayers seeing the target.
It was thought that our shells were falling over and the range on the sights was reduced to about 6,000 yards. The enemy, however, disappeared into the mist; some think that he turned completely round to port. At any rate, a foremast with a German ensign flying at the mast head appeared above the smoke, bearing port 40, and moving fast enough to make the flag blow out well.
This was immediately followed by the whole ship, which resembled generally a three-funneled county cruiser. She opened a brisk fire on New Zealand and Princess Royal from five or six guns. Several shot fell ahead of us, a few short, and one passed between the fore top and fore bridge, being clearly seen coming by the control officer and range-finder operator. Meanwhile the order ‘Fire’ was passed several times, but ‘Q’ and ‘X’ turrets would not bear, and ‘A’ and ‘P’ turrets were rather slow in commencing.
Our first shots were practically in line with the stem and over. They could be followed the whole way and could be seen quite clearly. The third salvo resulted in a hit and the order ‘Independent’ was given. No ranges were taken until after hitting had been established, on account of the sudden appearance of the enemy and the mist, also the fact that the spray had obscured the right objective of ‘A’ turret range-finder and could not be removed from the inside. The enemy was now heading on a course parallel to our own. The rate had varied from 500 closing to 0, the fore part of the ship could be clearly seen, but the remainder was completely hidden in clouds of white smoke. Range 5,000-3,000 yards.
Several reports from ‘Q’ and ‘X’ turrets agree that flashes of guns from another ship were seen from a bearing about port 60, and the gunlayers were uncertain as to whether the foremost turrets were firing at her or not.
Then the real target came into view. A shot removed her foremast just above the top, and the flag came down. Another flag could be seen just below the top, but whether it had been there all the time or was hoisted later, could not be ascertained. Shortly after all turrets had opened fire, the deflection was thrown completely off to the right, presumably by a sudden reduction in the enemy’s speed. It is thought that this was caused by a torpedo fired from the New Zealand at 1 pm, which appeared to have been the cause of a great upheaval of water and a cloud of black smoke which was seen to arise amidships.
Battle Cruiser Squadron track chart for 28 August 1914
A correction to the deflection brought the shots back again, after about six had missed, = and shortly afterwards we ceased firing. When shots fell to the right of the foremast, spotting was easy and the projectiles could be followed the whole way. When they fell to the left, it was impossible to see ‘overs’ and difficult to see ‘shorts’ owing to the smoky background, the flash and black smoke of hits could be seen sometimes.
Spotting, range-taking and gunlaying, although sometimes difficult for us, must have been absolutely impossible for our opponent, whose tactical position was the worst possible. Had our positions been reversed, we should certainly have suffered
severely if we had been hit forward early in the engagement. The clouds of smoke drifting across the line of fire would have prevented all but the fore top, and possibly ‘A’ turret and conning tower, from seeing where the shells were coming from.
This point, most noticeable in the Empress of India firing, was again well exemplified. Although our position was absolutely ideal, the after-turrets suffered from being temporarily obscured by the smoke from the foremost ones, and generally last the enemy when it blew across them. Once hitting had been established, our enemy’s fire died away, except from a foremast gun, which continued firing until it apparently disappeared overboard. This is probably due to the fact that her after gunlayers could see absolutely nothing but smoke, through which our shell must have come as through a blanket.
- An attendant destroyer could have prevented the necessity for a sudden alteration of course caused by the appearance of a submarine, which threw all the guns off their bearing.
- It is very difficult to get 4-inch guns on to a submarine, unless the bearings can be accurately shown, and as the ship is usually making violent alterations of course, this becomes a matter of some difficulty.
- Ships cannot maintain a steady course in the presence of mines and submarines and should therefore have efficient bearing transmitters to the guns.
- It should be arranged to inform the turrets when the 4-inch guns are manned so that they can limit their arcs of firing.
- All secondary lighting on the main deck (oil lamps) was extinguished by the concussion of our own guns. Electric torches would have been most useful to officers whose duty took them along this deck.
- A shell removed the enemy’s foremast in the same manner that a rifle bullet would break a stick.
- A flag at the masthead or a high mast is very conspicuous and can be used as an object for training when nothing else is visible, and if the horizon is used far laying, firing can be continued.
- The experience gained by watching Empress of India and other similar firings was invaluable and officers and gunlayers should all have some experience of the difficulties caused by firing shell instead of shot.
- The enemy should never be given opportunity to fire back during a lull, such as would occur in salvo firing if a salvo missed.
- The vibration caused by steaming full speed made ‘X’ Turret’s telephones indistinct.
- Hardly any of the descriptions of the ship we fired at afterwards agreed. Some thought she had four funnels, several that we fired at two different ships.
- Sticks of cordite falling down the trunk prevented a main cage quite reaching the bottom; consequently the safety gear would not allow the trunk door to be opened.
- When we were able to see the enemy’s port side, it was apparent that a shell passing through the forecastle had blown this side out like a shot passing through tin. Not a single thing on the upper deck appeared to be in its right place, except the foremost funnel and the stump of the foremast.
- The ship, the Koln, sank quickly, her bows evidently touching the bottom, so that the stern remained above water for an appreciable time before finally subsiding.
- No hydraulic or electrical breakdowns occurred.