Tag Archives: scapa flow

North Sea Battleground: The War at Sea 1914-18 by Bryan Perrett

Something that has always struck me about warfare, is that sometimes one of the belligerents can win, without actually ‘winning’. Rather, by not losing. And I guess that could be said about the naval war between 1914 and 1918. The onus was clearly on the German High Seas Fleet to knock the British Grand Fleet off of its perch. Given its numerical inferiority this would have taken something qute special. Hence the Royal Navy could afford to go to battle and not win, as long it was not outright defeated. For the Germans, on the other hand, nothing less than decisive victory would do.

The Great War was in part sparked by the Kaiser’s desire to build a blue-water fleet, modelled on the Royal Navy. In this he was eagerly encouraged by Admiral Von Tirpitz. The problem was, the Germans were starting from such a handicapped position – the Royal Navy was by far the largest on the waves, and had known nothing but victory for hundreds of years. Added to this, the Germans desired to develop an overseas empire – which could only be done with the help of a significant ocean going navy.

The Great War was possibly the last European conflict in which it was thought possible that both sides massed fleets could collide in set-piece battle, a la Trafalgar. In fact, this was eagerly awaited by the British public, supremely confident of a knockout blow in Nelsonian style. In fact, the stalemate at Jutland was a great disappointment to a public used to victory at sea. But what was lost on many people, was that unless the Germans could send the majority of the Grand Fleet to the bottom of the ocean, the Dreadnoughts would still keep the German fleet bottled up in harbour.In the end, the Grand Fleet possessed enough strength – muscle and numerical – to maintain superiority in the North Sea.

For the first time in hundreds of years, a foreign fleet actually bombarded the British Isles. Early on in the war German Battleships shelled North Eastern towns, including Hartlepool and Scarborough. Although little damage was done, there was a significant dent in civilian morale. British citizens expected the Royal Navy to keep foes well away. However, the Grand Fleet was stationed at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, in order to guard the exit from the North Sea between Scotland and Iceland. Although this kept the Germans bottled up and the fleet far enough away to strike back flexibly, it meant that, if they got their timings right, the Germans could mount hit and run raids on the North Sea Coast.

In amongst the last throes of Nelsonian battles, the seeds of future conflicts could be seen. Sea mines began to make their appearance on the waves (more of them in the coming days), air power became a factor, in the shape of the new zeppelins and embryonic aircraft, and not least, submarine warfare became a significant factor in the war. The Germans, in particular, identified weapons such as the mine and the submarine as assets that could be used from a position of weakness to attack the allies at sea, in particular Britain. At times later in the war, British Government figures became seriously concerned that German submarines might sink enough merchant shipping to cut Britain’s lifeline and force her out of the war – something that would be a very real risk just over 20 years later.

In fact, the are many echoes of the Second World War, that were first rung in the first. When HMS Hood was destroyed in 1941, it was due to inadequate armoured protection, that had been sacrificed in order to give her more speed. The very same thing had happened to a number of Battlecruisers at Jutland in 1916, yet the lessons were not learnt. It could also be argued that there were enough warnings between 1914 and 1918 about the growing importance of airpower, submarines and mines, but knowledge of these aspects of naval warfare were sadly neglected between the wars, leading to costly mistakes and the re-learning of lessons after 1939.

As someone who, one – is writing a book about the First World War, and two – doesn’t actually know much about the First World War, books like this are a godsend. It helps me put the hundreds of Portsmouth men who died at Jutland into much more fitting context.

North Sea Battleground is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, Uncategorized, World War One

Obituaries – Claud Choules and Richard Holmes

Military has seen two sad passings in the past few days.

Claude Choules -  The last one of 70m

Image by Tram Painter via Flickr

Claude Choules (1901-2011)

The last known veteran of the First World War died last week. A former Tommy, Claude Choules later emigrated to Australia. Claude Choules was born in 1901, and joined the Royal Navy as a Boy Seaman in 1915. He served in the G

rand Fleet, and witnessed the scuttling of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919. In 1926 he emigrated to Australia, and then joined the Royal Australian Navy during the Second World War. In the event of a Japanese invasion Choules would have been responsible for destroying ports in Western Australia. Later in life Choules became a pacifist, shunning celebrations which he saw as glorifying war.

Professor Richard Holmes CBE TD JP (1946-2011)

Out of all of the modern TV Historians, I have found Richard Holmes to be the most impressive. A former TA Officer who commanded a Battalion and finished up a Brigadier, he was ideally placed to write and present the popular War Walks series. I particularly enjoyed the programmes on Waterloo, Hastings and the Boyne – which led to my family calling me ‘Seamus a caca’, or in english, ‘James the shithead’. Later Holmes went on to write acclaimed Biographies of Wellington and Marlborough, the two men widely regarded as Britain’s best ever Generals. Both books were eminently readable and enjoyable. On BBC TV‘s Great Briton’s programme he championed Oliver Cromwell, not an easy task, and acquited himself rather well. Military History is a lesser field for his passing.

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Last Dawn: The Royal Oak Tragedy at Scapa Flow by David Turner

For the Royal Navy – and, indeed, Britain – one of the saddest episodes of the war was the sinking of HMS Royal Oak, in the supposedly safe anchorage of Scapa Flow in 1939. In this book David Turner tells the story of the ships sinking, spurred on by finding out what happened to his uncle, who was killed in the disaster. The Royal Oak is often overshadowed by the Hood, so this is a welcome addition to the naval historians bookshelf.

As the Royal Oak was not at sea and was thought to be safe, she was not in the high state of readiness that a ship expecting imminent attack would have been. No doubt this added to the loss of life onboard. But this is not to detract from the incredible skill of Gunther Prien in slipping into Scapa Flow and then escaping unmolested. So unlikely was the sinking considered, that the Admiralty could scarcely believe the first reports that the Royal Oak had gone down.

As she was an obsolete ship and not in an active deployment at sea, and anchored up, she had a large number of Boy Seamen onboard. For many years boys could join the Royal Navy underage as Boy Seamen. There is something particularly tragic about so many young boys being killed without being being able to fight back, so early in the war. Four Boy Seamen killed in the Royal Oak were from Portsmouth – three were 17, and one was 16 – Boy 1st Class Gordon Ogden.

The loss of the Royal Oak was keenly felt in Portsmouth – she was a Portsmouth-manned ship, and 66 of the men and boys who went down hailed from the City. In the D-Day Museum’s section that tells the story of Portsmouth at war, there is an oral history recording of Doris Bealing telling the story of how her family heard of the sinking, and waited anxiously for news of whether her father had been killed: ‘touch wood my Daddy isnt dead’. But sadly, Petty Officer Frederick Bealing was killed. Multiply that for every family affected, and you have a whole community hit incredibly hard on the same day. Similar to how the wiping out of the Pals Battalions on the Western Front was a hammer blow to communities.

The loss of the Royal Oak was a serious blow to British morale. In material terms, it was not such a massive loss -the R Class Battleships were obsolescent and unlikely to be of much use during the war – but it was a serious dent in the Navy’s hard-won prestige. And particularly in a period of the war where not much else was happening – it was, very much, first blood to the Kriegsmarine. And Scapa Flow had to undergo massive changes to prevent any more attacks, including some pretty substantial causeways blocking the route that Prien had taken into the anchorage.

I found this a very useful source for finding out about the Portsmouth men who went down on the Royal Oak. As with all of my research, the key to understanding the impact of a sinking ship is not just the gap it leaves in the order of battle, but the even bigger gaps that the human costs leaves among families and communities.

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Portsmouth Heroes – Boy 1st Class Gordon Ogden

HMS Royal Oak

HMS Royal Oak

So far, the youngest person I have found who came from Portsmouth and died in the Second World War was Boy 1st Class Gordon Ogden, from Milton. He was aged 16 when the battleship HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed in Scapa Flow on 14 October 1939. The Royal Oak was a Revenge Class battleship, sunk at anchor by U-47, captained by Gunther Prien, who had avoided extensive anti-submarine defences in the area. 833 men died, out of a crew of 1,244. Many of these men came from Portsmouth, as the Royal Oak was manned from Portsmouth. Over 100 of the crew who died were Boy Seamen under the age of 18, the most ever killed in one incident.

The recruiting of Boys into the Royal Navy was nothing new – we have all heard of the Powder Monkeys. But up until the Second World War, when the Navy required a huge pool of manpower to crew the ships required to police the Empire, Boys were recruited to fill various tasks onboard ship. This also provided valuable training for young men who wanted to progress on to be Seamen.

Gordon Ogden would have enlisted with the rank of Boy 2nd Class, suggesting that he had served for some time before being promoted. As Naval service records are only available to next of kin at the time of writing, so we can only guess at how young Ogden would have been when he joined up – but it will almost certainly have been younger than 16. By the second world war the minimum age for joining the Royal Navy as a Boy rating was 15, and had to be approved for a Boys parents. The minimum terms of engagement for a Boy entering the Navy was at least 12 years. A boy had to have served at least 9 months as Boy 2nd Class, show proficiency in seamanship and gain at least one good conduct badge for promotion.

Once a Boy reached 18 he was automatically rated as an Ordinary Seaman and became subject to the Naval Discipline Act.

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