The High Seas Fleet, largely the product of Admiral von Tirpitz, was created with the intention to safeguard against Germany’s perceived main enemy – Britain. Tirpitz considered he could achieve local superiority in the North Sea due to Britain’s global commitments, which had the effect of dispersing her Navy. Britain would not then dare to challenge Germany.
The first measures to counter the growing menace of German sea power were taken by “Jacky” Fisher on becoming the First Sea Lord in 1902. British Naval policy was based around maintaining a navy as large as that of any other two nations combined. With the British Navy’s global commitments and reliance on mercantile trade, Fisher recognised that the only way to meet the growing German threat was to concentrate British Naval power in the Home waters. This was largely achieved by entering into a number of Alliances, reducing the Navy’s commitments elsewhere.
Another major step was to order the construction of the new Dreadnaught class of ships, mounting the newest heavy guns and powered by turbine engines. This generated controversy at the time as it instantly made all other previous types of battle ships, including British, obsolete. However by being the first nation to construct such ships, Fisher realised that Britain would be able to maintain her lead over Germany; if on the other hand some other nation took the lead, Britain would find her “Sure Shield” had become worthless scrap iron. Fisher was vindicated – as when H.M.S Dreadnought was revealed to the world in 1905, Germany was taken by surprise and halted all battleship construction until similar “dreadnaught” designs could be produced. By 1909 Britain had four “dreadnaughts” in commission and a further 11 building while Germany had only two in commission and eight building.
On the verge of the outbreak of War, the Navy had just completed its annual manoeuvres at Portsmouth, which took the form of a test mobilization. The entire three Fleets were present off Portsmouth (The First Fleet contained all the first-line vessels, the Second Fleet was kept in commission with a proportion of their crews abroad while the Third Fleet was kept in care and maintenance by a small parties). Orders were given that the ships of the First Fleet assembled at Portland (which became known as the Grand Fleet) should steam to their war station, Scapa Flow, on July 29th, allowing them to use the Straights of Dover instead of having to go around the Irish Sea if delayed until War broke out. The entire fleet steamed north past Dover in darkness and at high speed and without lights as an enemy attack by torpedo boats or submarines was still thought possible even though war had not yet been declared. The Second Fleet was to remain at Home Ports to facilitate the recall of released reservists. Admiral Jellico was appointed to the command of the Grand Fleet.
Britain immediately blockaded the exit from the North Sea on the declaration of War, making it impossible for Germany’s navy to protect its merchant vessels. Although the High Seas Fleet had been constructed with the idea of challenging Britain’s control of the North Sea, it was at the outbreak of the War weaker than the Grand Fleet. Germany had no intention of taking on the Grand Fleet. Indeed, as Germany was mainly a Continental power dominated by Prussian military tradition, the Army considered that any War would be over long before any British blockade could take effect. Secondly the Kaiser insisted that the High Seas Fleet was not to be risked in any engagement with the Grand Fleet. The German navy was not unhappy with these views. They expected the Grand Fleet to maintain a close blockade on the German North Sea coast, as the policy of maintaining such blockades against invasion harbours was a century’s old policy of the British navy. Germany expected to be able to take a steady toll on the Grand Fleet maintaining such a blockade with submarines, mines and torpedo boat attacks until the High Seas Fleet was equal to, or even superior to the Grand Fleet.
Ships of the Grand Fleet
The British Admiral of the Fleet, John Jellico, had no intention of mounting such a blockade as he was well aware of the threat of mines and submarines. Instead he was content to keep the Grand Fleet concentrated in the North and block the exits of the North Sea with regular sweeps. This did have a risk in that any raids made by Germany on the East coast of England could not be defended against by the Grand Fleet. A force of light cruisers and destroyers under the command of Commodore Tyrwhitt (the force became known as “Tyrwhitt’s Hot Stuff Mob”)was stationed at Harwich to mitigate against such a risk as well as to guard the Straits of Dover; with over confidence, it was assumed that Germany would not commit the High Seas Fleet to such raids.
German minelayers were in action straight away though. On Aug 5th, a patrol from Harwich under the command of Tyrwhitt in the cruiser Amethyst sunk the Konigin Luise passenger ship converted to a minelayer, which had been laying mines off the Suffolk coast. German U boats were also active immediately after War had been declared. On Sept 1st the U Boats claimed their first success in the North Sea, sinking the British light cruiser Pathfinder. Continuing U boat attacks resulted in the Admiralty declaring the whole North Sea a military area on Nov 2nd. Due to the risks of mines laid and night time Naval patrols searching day and night for suspicious vessels, the North Sea was no longer safe. Merchant ships wishing to trade with Norway, the Baltic, Denmark and Holland were advised to follow a route, where a safe channel would be provided as far as possible, through the English Channel and Straights of Dover, and then follow the east coast as far as the Lindesnes Lighthouse. Shipping not following these instructions did so at their own risk.
Right: The High Seas Fleet