This book focuses on the battles fought by German cruisers and battlecruisers during the First World War, looking both at specific cruiser actions and their role in the larger battles of the war. As a result we get to look at a very wide range of naval activities, including the daring raids of the Emdenand Konigsberg, the stunning German victory at Coronel as well as the more familiar North Sea battles of Helgoland Bight, Dogger Bank and Jutland.
One might quibble about the author’s impartiality – in places this very much feels like the contemporary German point of view, rather than a study of the German role in these events – in particular during the section on Jutland. Here Jellicoe’s later decision not to bring out the Grand Fleet every time the High Sea’s Fleet sortied is cast backwards in time as if it was relevant for the events of 1916, when he was still determined to find and bring the German fleet to battle. The events of the night battle are thus mis-represented – here there was no fighting on 1 June because Jellicoe didn’t want to find the Germans, when in reality he very much desired to find the Germans, but failed, to a great extent because of the German’s own audacious and skilful maneovers during the night, combined with a series of signal and intelligence failures on the British side. Some of the use of German terminology also felt a little over-done – I can understand the desire to use German naval titles, as they have a distinctive feel, but the use of offizier instead of officer feels like an affectation. The problem with this approach is that when there are valid points to be made (on the vastly superior design and operation of German battlecruisers for example), they become less credible.
I don’t always agree with the author’s conclusions. At the end of one chapter looking at the exploits of the German battlecruiser Goeben in Turkish waters he suggests that the actions of the Russian pre-dreadnought battleships show that they hadn’t been made obsolete by dreadnoughts. However a single modern German battlecruiser was able to hold its own against four Russian battleships, which rather disproves the point ! He also describes the two fleets at Coronel of being of ‘comparable strength’. This simply isn’t the case. The two strongest ships on the British side had both been launched in 1901. The Good Hope was the most powerful of the two, but she only had two 9.2in guns and sixteen 6in guns, of which only half could be used unless the seas were very smooth, and only four against a single foe. The Monmouth was armed with 6in guns, four in turrets and ten in casemates, of which again six could only be used in smooth waters. In contrast Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were the last armoured cruisers built in Germany before the appearance of the battlecruiser, and were heading in that direction, carrying eight 8.2in guns of which six could fire on a single target on the broadside. The battles of Coronel and the Falklands both demonstrated that technical superiority was the key to victory in First World War naval battles (in contrast to the Napoleonic period, where smaller vessels often won surprising victories).
Despite these comments, I still found this an interesting read, and a useful book. The combat descriptions are accurate and well researched, using an impressive amount of German sources. Presenting the careers of the overseas from the German perspective gives us a useful counter to the more normal tendancy to see them from the point of view of the Allied ships hunting them down, and gives us a better idea of what their commanders were hoping to achieve. There are also some unfamiliar clashes covered – the fighting in the Black Sea between the Russians and the German cruisers officially in Turkish hands, the limited fighting in the Baltic and the second battle of Helgoland Bight of 1917 all deserve to be better known than they are.
1 - The Battle in the Helgoland Bight, 28 August 1914
2 - The Sea Battle at Coronel, 1 November 1914
3 - The Sea Battle off Cape Sarych, Balaclava, 18 November 1914
4 - The Battle of the Falklands, 8 December 1914
5 - The Battle on the Dogger Bank, 24 January 1915
6 - The Sea Battle Off Östergarn, 2 July 1915
7 - The Battles of Emdenand Königsberg
8 - The Skagerrak Battle, 31 May to 1 June 1916
9 - The Second Battle in the Helgoland Bight, 17 November 1917
10 - The Sea Battles off Imbros, 20 January 1918
Author: Gary Staff
Publisher: Pen & Sword Maritime
Year: 2018 edition of 2011 original