Germany's High Seas Fleet in the First World War, Admiral Reinhard Scheer

Germany's High Seas Fleet in the First World War, Admiral Reinhard Scheer

Admiral Reinhard Scheer was the longest serving commander of the German High Seas Fleet during the First World War, and was its commander at the Battle of Jutland. He was also one of the first senior commanders of the war to produce his memoirs, which were first published in 1919 (just beating Jellicoe into print).

Scheer's aim was to justify the existence of his fleet and its wartime record. The creation of the High Seas Fleet had been one of the factors that drove Britain into the anti-German camp, and it had failed to live up to expectations during the war, spending most of its time in port. Most of the direct clashes with the Royal Navy had gone against it, and Jutland was (and has remained) a controversial battle.

The main value of this book is the insight it provides into Scheer's attitudes and motives. If you ever wondered about the effectiveness of Britain's naval strategy during the First World War, Scheer's anger with the Royal Navy's actions makes it clear just how effective it was. He was very annoyed that the Royal Navy didn't play along with German plans for a battle in the southern part of the North Sea, where German submarines and mines might have played a major part in the battle. Later on his anger with the British naval blockade becomes rather illogical, when he complains that Britain didn't let 'legitimate' neutral traders bring Germany the supplies she needed to maintain her military position! His general approach throughout is one of indignation that the British actually fought back!

There are some remarkable omissions. The account of the outbreak of war and the British entry into the conflict doesn't mention the invasion of Belgium once! At the end of the war the massive mutiny that broke out in the German fleet is mentioned, but only in a couple of pages, and external agitators take the blame - the start of the inglorious 'stab in the back' story. 

His account of Jutland is not terribly convincing, as he was attempting to portray it as a clear German victory. One of his bigger mistakes during the battle was his turn back after escaping from the guns of the Grand Fleet for the first time. This brought his fleet right into the middle of the Grand Fleet for a second time, and exposed it to destruction. Here Scheer claimed that this was a deliberate attack, carried out in order to force the British to recoil, but in reality it appears to have been a misjudgement, and Scheer's reaction to the encounter was to turn away as quickly as possible and attempt to escape. He also exaggerated German successes in the battle, claiming to have sunk one dreadnaught, three battle cruisers, four armoured cruisers, two light cruisers and thirteen destroyers, 169,200 tons of shipping (ironically German wartime propaganda was more accurate). The real figures were still impressive - three battlecruisers, three armoured cruisers, one flotilla leader and seven destroyers, for 113,300 tons.

He also protests too much when trying to justify the unrestricted U-boat campaign. You can see the point of his comparison between the British blockade of Germany and the U-boat campaign, which both had the same aim, but not his attempt to equate the methods being used. Ironically he does report the arguments used by other German leaders against the campaign, that it would bring in the United States, a country with far more staying power than Germany.

Scheer wrote very soon after the end of the conflict, and sometimes has to admit that he doesn't know much about the British side of a particular encounter, but normally he is well informed.

One of the most revealing sections comes towards the end, in his discussion of the U-boat war. On several occasions he claimed that Germany could never produce a battlefield capable of defeating the Royal Navy, due to the greater naval production capacity of Great Britain. This effectively undermines the entire rational of the High Seas Fleet, and suggests that Germany would have better off if the industrial resources had gone elsewhere.

Overall this is a very valuable memoir simply because it provides us with Scheer's views of the war, but the details always have to be double checked against less biased accounts.

Part I: The First Two Years of the War to the Battle of the Skagerrak
1 - The Outbreak of War
2 - Relative Strengths and the Strategic Situation
3 - Awaiting the Enemy's Offensive
4 - The English Break into the Heligoland Bight
5 - The Autumn and Winter Months of 1914
6 - Bombardment of Scarborough and Hartlepool, and the Battle of Dogger Bank
7 - The Year of the War 1915
8 - Preparations for Increased Fleet Activity
9 - Enterprises in the Hoofden, and Bombardment of Yarmouth and Lowestoft

Part II: From the Battle of the Skagerrak to Unrestricted U-Boat Warfare
10 - The Battle of the Skagerrak
11 - After the Battle
12 - Airship Attacks

Part III: The U-Boat Campaign
13 - The Military and Political Significance of the U-Boat Campaign
14 - Our U-Boats and their Method of Warfare
15 - Activity of the Fleet During the U-Boat Campaign
16 - The Conquest of the Baltic Islands and the Capture of Helsingfors
17 - Our Light Craft in Action, and Advance of our Fleet to the Norwegian Coast
18 - The Navy Command

Author: Admiral Reinhard Scheer
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 396
Publisher: Frontline
Year: 2014 edition of 1920 original

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