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   Chapter 5 BACK TO THE NORTH SEA

The History of Caliph Vathek By William Beckford Characters: 24997

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03


"Our trawlers mined the fairway.

Our cruisers spread the bait,

We shelled the Briton's seaside towns

To lure him to his fate,

We set the trap twice over.

We left him with his dead-"

"But now we'll play another game,"

The British sailor said.

With the destruction of von Spee's squadron nothing of Germany's navy was left at large in the outer seas save one or two cruisers and armed merchantmen, whose days of freedom were already numbered. Of these the survivor of the Falkland Islands' Battle, the Dresden, was destroyed in the following March at Juan Fernandez; the K?nigsberg, bottled up in the Rufiji River in Africa, was finally disposed of a few months later; while the Kronprinz Wilhelm, the Prinz Eitel Friedrick, and the Karlsrühe met with various fates during the same summer. That in spite of the enormous calls upon the navy in the way of convoying transports they were joined by no others from their home waters is the best tribute to the efficiency of our floating cordon in the North Sea. And yet its very success in this respect was largely responsible, perhaps, for a somewhat distorted picture of the actual position-that of a sulky and immobilized German Fleet confronted with an impenetrable British barrier.

That would have been hardly true even of each side's surface ships; but it was as far as possible from the complete reality. For what had in fact begun with the outbreak of war-what had never ceased day or night-was a desperate and unceasing battle, none the less crucial because it was so often silent. Some hint of its real nature might have been gathered from the laconic Admiralty announcement, a day or two after war had been declared, that the German passenger steamer, K?nigin Luise, had been sunk, while mine-laying, by one of our destroyer patrols; and this vessel had been at work, fortunately with very little result, upon a subtle and long-prepared scheme of action. It is true that after she had been sunk, the cruiser Amphion-the leader of the Harwich Patrol that sank her-herself went down on one of the K?nigin Luise's mines; but the larger end aimed at remained unachieved.

This was no less than the mining in of Harwich, and was part of a deliberate and extensive plan, not only to cripple the northward progress of our larger squadrons to their war-stations, but to block the entrances of as many as possible of our chief naval bases. That some such policy would be attempted had, of course, long been foreseen. Germany's recalcitrant attitude at the Hague Conference toward the question of mine-laying had pointedly suggested this; and it was known that, prior to the outbreak of war, she had accumulated a store of at least ten thousand mines. To counter such measures steps had already been taken in the formation, a few years previously, of a trawler section of the Royal Naval Reserve, whose business it would be to keep the channels clear; while a group of old gun-boats had been assembled for the same purpose to act in conjunction with the Grand Fleet.

It had become instantly clear, however, that the original provision of eighty-two trawlers would be insufficient; and, by the end of August, this had been increased to 250-to be yet further and immensely added to as the busy months went by. Nothing in our naval record, indeed, was more dramatic or so signal an evidence of the national sense of admiralty than the gathering together of that vast auxiliary service of fishermen, pilots, and amateur yachtsmen, and the enormous responsibilities thrust into their hands to be so efficiently and light-heartedly carried. Time after time, by the resource of our fishermen, of sea-loving undergraduates, of amateurs of all sorts, what might have been disasters of the first magnitude were averted or overcome. Between the navy proper, with its thousands of other problems, and these new and insidious dangers-the laying of minefields by apparently innocent neutrals, the ever-present activities of enemy submarines-the courage, the cunning, the native sea-instinct of these otherwise untrained forces was the buffer. The fishermen of Galilee became fishers of men. The fishermen of Britain became fishers of mines. And the debt of human freedom to the latter is not immeasurably less, perhaps, than to their predecessors.

This was the true picture then of the North Sea-an area nearly three times the size of Great Britain-a Grand Fleet holding the exits and entrances against every possible sortie in force, but itself so threatened by submarines and minefields that at one time its war-stations were actually changed, and so nearly paralyzed that there were not a few hours when considerable units of it were practically embayed. Thus, definite minefields were laid by the enemy at Southwold, the mouth of the Tyne, and near Flamborough Head, and not only there but off the north of Ireland, where it was hoped to destroy or disorganize the Canadian transports. Nor were our most vital waters, such as those of the Firth of Forth, free from the repeated visits of those early submarines; and it is primarily as trapping expeditions, leading us into prepared minefields, and only secondarily as baby-killing bombardments, that such raids as those on Lowestoft, Gorleston, and Yarmouth must in reality be considered.

The first of these took place on November 3, 1914, the day following the Admiralty proclamation in which it had been announced that from November 5th the North Sea was to be considered a closed area. This had become necessary, as was then publicly indicated, owing to the persistent and indiscriminate sowing of mines; because peaceful merchant-ships had already been destroyed by these on the main trade-route between Liverpool and America; because these mines had been laid by vessels flying neutral flags; and because exceptional measures had in consequence now become imperative. For these reasons it was announced, therefore, that all vessels passing, from the fifth of November onward, a line drawn from the northernmost point of the Hebrides through the Faroe Islands to Iceland would do so at their own peril. Traders to and from Norway, the Baltic, Denmark, and Holland, were advised to use the English Channel and the Straits of Dover, and were then assured that they would receive full sailing directions, and, as far as Great Britain could secure it, a safe passage.

Meanwhile, in every dockyard, work was being pushed forward upon all sorts of naval construction, and each new problem, as it arose, was being considered and vigorously dealt with. To guarantee, however, in all circumstances and at any given moment, the integrity of our whole coast-line was plainly impossible, though every month saw its increase of patrols and personnel; and, on December 16th, the enemy again bombarded three of our seaside towns.

These were Hartlepool, Whitby, and Scarborough, casualties being inflicted in every case. It was a foggy winter morning when three hostile cruisers were sighted off Hartlepool about 8 o'clock; and, a quarter of an hour later, the bombardment began, lasting till ten minutes to nine. The enemy agents in this case seem to have been two battle-cruisers and one armoured cruiser; and, though Hartlepool itself was an open town, land batteries in the neighbourhood endeavoured to reply. Their fire was ineffective, however; several soldiers attached to the Durham Light Infantry and Royal Engineers were killed and wounded; the gasworks were set on fire; and the civilian casualties amounted to nearly a hundred. Almost at the same time, a battle-cruiser and armoured cruiser approached and shelled Scarborough, firing about sixty shots, while two battle-cruisers attacked Whitby, civilians in both towns being killed and wounded.

Owing to the objectives chosen, the conditions of the weather, the brevity of their visit, and their power and speed, the enemy squadrons made port intact again, though a patrol of destroyers very pluckily attacked them. In all nearly one hundred civilians were killed in these three towns, about five hundred being wounded; the military casualties amounted to thirty-four, and those on the three destroyers to twenty-eight. The German battle-cruisers, employed in this expedition were identified as the Derfflinger, Seydlitz, Moltke, von der Tann, and Blücher, the three latter, it was believed, having been also engaged in the previous raid upon the Norfolk coast.

Though, as we have said, it was quite impossible to give an absolute guarantee against such incidents as these, they were certainly not soothing to the feelings of the Grand Fleet and least of all to those of its cruiser squadrons. In spite of the elaborate justifications voiced in the German Press by such writers as Count Reventlow, they had outraged every canon not only of international law but of decent seaman-like feeling, and were an early indication of the horrible license that German sea-policy was prepared to allow itself. That had not yet staggered the world, as the sinking of the Lusitania was to stagger it, or such incredible atrocities as that to be associated with the Belgian Prince; but it had opened up a vista to every clean-hearted sailor sufficiently dark as to have changed the character of the war. It was now plain, for example, that such naval leaders as Admiral von Spee and the captain of the Emden were no longer to be regarded as typical of the directing minds of Germany's navy. How completely they were in the end to be disregarded was not yet manifest; but it was already clear that the old and peculiar amenities, the traditional chivalry of sea-warfare, were but poorly respected, even if they were understood, by this latest aspirant to sea-power. It was with a special satisfaction, therefore, that early on January 24, 1915, a strong patrolling fleet, under Sir David Beatty, received news of a powerful enemy squadron not far away to the south-south-east.

This consisted, as soon became clear, of the Derfflinger, Seydlitz, Moltke, and Blücher, with six light cruisers and a strong force of destroyers; and there was little doubt that they were once more en route for a bombardment of some part of our coast. With Admiral Beatty, who was flying his flag on the Lion, were the Princess Royal, the Tiger, the New Zealand, and Indomitable, all powerful vessels, the three former each carrying eight 13.5-inch guns, while the New Zealand and Indomitable carried the same number of 12-inch guns. In company with these, disposed on their port beam, were the light cruisers Southampton, Nottingham, Birmingham, and Lowestoft, and, scouting ahead-the two squadrons having met at sea-were Commodore Tyrwhitt in the Arethusa, commanding three flotillas of destroyers, and the two light cruisers Aurora and Undaunted.

It was Sunday morning; the day had broken clear at about a quarter to seven, and it was a few minutes after this hour that the Aurora, then travelling at twenty knots, sighted a two-masted, four-funnelled cruiser accompanied by some destroyers. Half concealed by her smoke, in the uncertain light, and at about four miles distance, the Aurora, for a few moments, had been unable to determine her nationality; and it was for these reasons that the enemy cruiser-afterward known to be the Kolberg-was the first to open fire. No appreciable damage was caused to the Aurora, however, who replied immediately and with such good effect that, five minutes later, the Kolberg changed course and retired upon the stronger enemy forces that had now become visible. The presence of these had at once been signalled to Admiral Beatty and his cruisers, and the whole squadron at once worked up to its full speed of 28-? knots. When first sighted, the enemy vessels had been steering northwest, but they immediately changed their course to the southeast, the distance separating the two squadrons being then about fourteen miles, and their position, at half-past seven, being about thirty miles from the English coast.

From the outset it had been evident that the enemy did not mean to engage, and that, if he were to be brought to action, it would only be after a chase; and, although as a squadron we had the advantage in speed, our superiority was not very great. Nor was Admiral Beatty's problem in any other respect so simple as had been Sir Doveton Sturdee's. Not only had Admiral Beatty always to bear in mind that he might be being led into some recently laid minefield, but he knew that with ever

y hour he would be nearly forty miles nearer to the heavily guarded waters on the other side. Moreover, he had at all times to be prepared for a torpedo-attack from the accompanying fleet of enemy destroyers, while it was practically certain that, before the action ended, he would find himself in the presence of hostile submarines. He was further at a disadvantage in that, though he was stronger in gun power, he was forced to rely upon bow fire only, and this while travelling at full speed. That meant that, for the greater part of the action, his leading battle-cruisers, the Lion, Tiger, and Princess Royal could only bring to bear four of their 13.5-inch guns, while the Seydlitz and Moltke, firing astern, could each use eight of their 11-inch guns, the Derfflinger four of her 12-inch guns, and the Blücher six of her 8.2's. It became a matter of margins, therefore-and not very extensive ones-both in speed and range, and of the British capacity to use these in the limited time before the German cruisers could reach their own waters.

Some idea of what this meant can best be gathered, perhaps, from the fact that, though travelling at thirty knots, it was almost an hour and a half-during which time more than fifty miles of sea had been covered-before the fourteen miles that separated the two squadrons had been reduced to ten. This was just before nine o'clock, the enemy being still on Admiral Beatty's port bow, his light cruisers ahead, followed by the Derfflinger, Moltke, Seydlitz, and Blücher in single line, with a large number of destroyers on their starboard beam. Leading in the Lion, Sir David Beatty was followed by the Tiger, the Princess Royal, and the New Zealand, the latter and the Indomitable-both slower vessels-having broken all records, thanks to their engine-room staffs.

Already a shot or two had been fired from the Lion's forward guns, taking the Blücher as her target, and, a few minutes after nine, she made her first hit on this cruiser, carrying away her bridge, according to the prisoners afterward taken. At this range, with her 13.5's tilted at an angle of some sixteen degrees and her big shells dropping steeply, the fire of the Lion seems, under the circumstances, to have been remarkably accurate. About ten minutes later, the Tiger came into range and took up the attack on the Blücher, the Lion transferring her attentions to the Seydlitz, the next ahead. Meanwhile the enemy had begun to respond but without inflicting any damage, and, a quarter of an hour later, the Princess Royal was able to join in the chorus, also taking the Blücher for her first target.

The Blücher, slower than her consorts, and already heavily damaged, was now dropping astern and came under the guns of the New Zealand, the Princess Royal transferring her fire to the Seydlitz with immediate and visible results. The enemy's destroyers were now throwing up dense columns of smoke to screen his wounded battle-cruisers; but, by a quarter to ten, not only the Blücher, but the Derfflinger and Seydlitz were on fire. Our own light cruisers and destroyer flotillas had fallen back to port a little so as not to obscure the range; and the position just before ten exhibited the Lion confining her attentions to the Derfflinger, the Tiger attacking the Derfflinger, and, when this was hidden from her by smoke, the doomed and swiftly-flagging Blücher, the Princess Royal shelling the Seydlitz, and the New Zealand engaging the Blücher-the Indomitable, in spite of her efforts, not having yet drawn within effective range.

The condition of the Blücher, as was afterward learned from prisoners, though it was to become worse, was already terrible enough. Early in the action her electric plant had been destroyed, and her men down below crept in darkness. Still too far to be raked, her decks were being excavated by half-ton shells dropping from the sky. In the narrow spaces below, apart from the shattering shell fragments, the enormous air-displacement wrought destruction and death. Iron plates were moulded by it as if they had been wax, and men tossed like apples and crushed to pulp against them. Later, as the range narrowed, the Blücher became more helpless, and, as she came under the full force of the British broadside fire, she staggered at each salvo, scarcely recovering before another hurled her again on her side.

But the main battle had now swept on; and the fact that the Blücher was left to her fate is the best indication, perhaps, of the injuries already sustained by her speedier and stronger consorts. It was not until a quarter to eleven, however, that the Blücher, then far astern, definitely turned north out of the line; and, before this had happened, the German light cruisers and destroyers had closed in from the starboard and were threatening a torpedo attack. The British light forces were accordingly ordered up to prevent this, the Lion and Tiger also opening upon the enemy destroyers. The attack never materialized, however; was possibly only a feint; and would in any case have been checkmated by the admirable handling of the M division of destroyers under Captain the Hon H. Meade, and particularly, perhaps, of the destroyer Meteor under Lieutenant Frederick Peters.

This destroyer, with the Lion and Tiger, was the only British vessel to suffer material damage; and her position at one time, in the full field of bombardment, was one that her crew are never likely to forget. This was soon after eleven, when the Lion, who had drawn more than her namesake's share of the German fire, had been struck by a chance shot that reduced her speed to ten knots an hour. The rest of the destroyers and light cruisers had by this time dropped astern again, the majority on the starboard or disengaged side, while others, on the port side, had turned northward after the Blücher. After the Lion had been hit, however, the Meteor was ordered up to cover her, thereby steaming under the salvos from both sides; and it is possible to glean an idea or two of what this meant from the account of it afterward written by one of her officers.

"We were absolutely in the line of fire," he said, "shells whistling over and all around us, and now and again an enemy's broadside aimed directly at us. Try and imagine a frail destroyer steaming thirty knots, with four battle-cruisers on either side belching forth flame and smoke continually, the screech of the projectiles flying overhead seeming to tear the very air into ribbons, 12-inch shells dropping perilously near, and raising columns of water a hundred feet into the air, a few yards away, the spray washing our decks and drenching all hands. Picture the awful crashing noise, the explosions and flashes, as shots took effect, the massive tongues of fire shooting up, and the dense clouds of yellow and black smoke which obliterated the whole ship from view as the shells burst on striking. And this, if you can imagine it, will give you some idea of the Meteor's position in a glorious action. Its terrible imposing grandeur made one forget personal danger. Of course, something had to happen. It was simply inevitable. About eleven o'clock, the Lion drew out of the line temporarily, the Princess Royal taking the lead, and it was not till then that the Indomitable opened fire and took her part in the engagement. We had already been hit a couple of times, but without doing any material damage, and half of us missed death by inches; but it seemed as if we possessed a charmed life; it is truly miraculous, nothing less, that we continued so long without being disabled; but Providence must have been with us that day. Just about this time, the Blücher was in a terrible state; one funnel gone, the other two like scrap-iron and tottering, both fore and main topmasts shot away, fore turret carried clean over the side, and only part of her mainmast and fore tripod mast left standing, and even these in a very shaky condition. So she fell out of the line-a raging furnace amidships, helpless, unable to steam; and her sister ships left her to her fate. The battering she had undergone was something incredible, and she was in her death agony now, so we began to close her, and found she was settling down, though still on an even keel. Now was our chance. We approached her, circling around, but even then she was not dead, for, at precisely 12.5 p.m., with the very last round she ever fired, she sent an 8.2-inch shell into us, which killed four men and wounded another. But what a sweet revenge was to come! Two minutes later, we discharged our torpedo. It hit her nearly amidships. There was a tremendously violent shock. She heeled completely over and sank in eight and a half minutes, hundreds of men clambering over her sides and standing there, just as if it were the upper deck, waiting for the final plunge."

Not to be outdone, and consistent with her reputation, the Arethusa was also in at the death, and had in her turn loosed a couple of torpedoes at the Blücher with terrific effect-one striking her aft and one forward, reaching her magazine and causing a violent explosion. It was the Arethusa, too, who subsequently embarked and brought home to port the majority of the Blücher's survivors, the rescuers and rescued being alike bombed from the air by a German aeroplane that had appeared on the scene.

Meanwhile the Lion, having pulled out of the line, not vitally injured, but unfit for further action, the Tiger, Princess Royal, and New Zealand had continued the chase of the flying enemy, the Indomitable having been detailed to attend to the Blücher. Round the wounded Lion, to protect her from submarine attack-submarines had already been sighted a few minutes before-had closed one of our light cruisers and six destroyers, and, at half-past eleven, Admiral Beatty called the destroyer Attack alongside, boarded her, and raced at full speed after his other three battle-cruisers.

So fast was the pace at which the action was being fought that not only were these out of sight, but the Blücher, now in her death throes, was also below the horizon. With her guns tilted, as she listed there to port, and the "Engage the enemy more closely" signal still flying from her mast, the Lion had been suddenly wiped off the slate, as it were, with what chagrin to those on board can be readily imagined. But for that unlucky shot, the Battle of the Dogger Bank might have been as complete a victory of its kind as that of the Falkland Islands, and it was only by a hair's breadth that the other three German battle-cruisers, lame and heavily damaged, contrived to reach harbour.

Headlong as he was travelling, it was not till noon that Sir David Beatty met his returning cruisers, and, twenty minutes later, having shifted his flag from the Attack to the Princess Royal, he heard from Captain Osmond de B. Brock of what had subsequently happened; that the Blücher had been sunk near Borkum Reef, a Zeppelin and aeroplane bombing the vessels rescuing survivors; and that the other cruisers had made their escape in an eastward direction. It was owing to the increasing danger from mines thrown out of the fleeing vessels, and the growing proximity of the German minefields, that the action had in the end been broken off; and whether it should, under those circumstances, have been pressed further must remain an open question. That quite apart, however, from its material advantages in the sinking of the Blücher and the disabling of her consorts, the victory of the Dogger Bank had important moral results there is not a shadow of doubt. It had once more re-affirmed the value of the battle-cruiser for which the navy was chiefly indebted to Lord Fisher, and it proved to be the grave of the big-scale raids upon our open east coast towns. More than all that, however, it was a triumphant example of an instantly seized opportunity; it demonstrated to the enemy that, in spite of his mines and submarines, we maintained our full tactical liberty; and it was further evidence that in Admiral Beatty we had found a naval leader of the highest class.

Those were the recognitions behind the "Well done, David" of the Princess Royal's coal-blackened stokers as the Admiral climbed in mid-sea from the little Attack into the famous cruiser; and they spoke again, on the following Tuesday morning, when the Lion limped up the Firth to her anchorage. Three miles away, in the Fifeshire valleys, ploughman and farmboy heard those welcoming syrens.

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