Wednesday, November 21, 2018

One Century Ago: What Victory Looks Like

Standing on the battleship HMS King George V on the morning of November 21, 1918, artist R.C. Kimmel made a watercolor the American ships of the British Grand Fleet’s Sixth Battle Squadron (known as Battleship Division Nine of the Atlantic Fleet before joining the Grand Fleet just shy of a year earlier). The lead ship is USS New York (BB 34), commanded by E.L. Beach. Following are the battleship Wyoming (BB 32), commanded by Captain H.H. Christy; USS Florida (BB 30), commanded by Captain M.M. Taylor; USS Arkansas (BB 33), commanded by Captain L.R. de Steiuger; and the battleship Texas (BB 35), commanded by Captain Victor Blue. The squadron remained under the overall command of U.S. Navy Admiral Hugh Rodman during its service with the Grand Fleet, which was enjoying one of the greatest days in its history.  The German High Seas Fleet had finally come out one last time to face the Royal Navy; not to fight, but to surrender.
Although the title of this watercolor is “The German Fleet Enters Scapa Flow, 21 November 1918,” the artist R.C. Kimmel probably recorded this scene as the Germans met the Grand Fleet off the Isle of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth, off the coast of Scotland.  After the German ships made anchor there and were inspected, they later made their way north to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.  Along the left-hand side of the image are the words “6th B.S. [Battle Squadron, made up of Battleship Division Nine of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet]” and “5th B.S.” Along the right-hand side are the first three German ships of the High Seas Fleet, all battle-scarred veterans of the Battle of Jutland, coming in to surrender; SMS Seydlitz, Moltke, and Derfflinger, being led by light cruiser HMS Cardiff.  Heading in the opposite direction from the main fleet columns is the British scout cruiser Blanche. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum collection)
The American battleships were located right in the middle of the British Grand Fleet Northern Line, which was comprised of a column of 19 battleships, five battlecruisers, two cruisers, and 13 light cruisers. Six miles to the south was the British Grand Fleet Southern Line, consisting of 14 battleships, four battlecruisers, one aircraft carrier, one cruiser, and 12 light cruisers. Between them was a column of 71 German warships under the command of Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter in his flagship Friederich der Grosse. The German column was led by the light cruiser HMS Cardiff, which a correspondent for The Times of London described as being like watching “a school of leviathans led by a minnow.” 

While American destroyers began operating with the British fleet in May 1917, the reluctance of American admirals to disperse their battleships among the British fleet resulted in a delay in their deployment until a more satisfactory arrangement could be made. Battleship Division Nine, commanded by Admiral Hugh Rodman, arrived on December 7, 1917, and quickly began operating as the Sixth Squadron of the British Grand Fleet. In this painting by the celebrated Bernard Gribble, who also created the most well-known painting of the American destroyer squadron's arrival in May, USS New York (BB 34) leads the arriving ships, along with Wyoming (BB 32), Florida (BB 30), and Delaware (BB 28). Cheering their arrival is the crew of HMS Queen Elizabeth, commanded by Admiral David Beatty.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
British accounts of what the Admiralty dubbed “Operation ZZ” neglected to mention the presence of American battleships looming large over the subdued yet awesome sight. The Royal Navy obviously regarded the victory that day as theirs, but it was the United States Navy that made it possible. After all, American destroyers had played a key role in stemming the U-boat menace that threatened Great Britain’s food supplies. American know-how and production capability had created superior sea mines in numbers great enough to close off the North Sea to German U-boats. The battleships of the Sixth Battle Squadron had acted as a screen for the minelaying vessels that summer and early autumn. And of course, nearly half of the over two million members of the American Expeditionary Force had been brought to Europe on vessels of the U.S. Navy’s Cruiser and Transport Force.
The image on the left is a painting by artist Adolph Berens of Wilhelm II, who loved to be seen in the uniform of a Grossadmiral (grand admiral).  Of him, historian Gregor Dallas wrote, “The Kaiser looked upon the Navy as a personal possession­–unlike the Army–and any tinkering with is by the Reichstag, by the government, or even by the generals would raise his imperial ire.  This had given the Navy a degree of independence in Germany that not even the Army enjoyed.”  The image on the right is a postcard in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum collection that was sent from New York to Oklahoma during the war depicting how many outside Germany saw the Kaiser.  Note that President Woodrow Wilson is depicted as being the thumb among the "fingers of fate" tightening around the German monarch.  (Murwik Naval School, Germany/ Wikimedia Commons)
In some ways, Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II had begun the war the way wars began when kings ruled over the continent centuries before. Yet Operation ZZ was a thoroughly modern way to end it; not with sacking, burning, despoliation and subjugation. It was relatively bloodless, the outcome of the formalized cessation of hostilities mandated by an agreement by the loser to deliver the means to continue the war into the victor’s hands; an agreement worked out between the diplomatic corps of the Allies and the Central Powers.

If German officers such as Grossdmiral Reinhard Scheer, chief of the German Admiralty staff, had their way, however, the naval war would not have ended with the fleets coming together in such a clear, carefully choreographed way. Because Germany’s government was effectively under military control, high-ranking Kaiserliche Marine officers had a freer hand than their entente enemies. If Scheer’s plans to end the war his way had come to pass, the High Seas Fleet would have attacked during the middle of armistice negotiations. There was only one thing the admiral had not taken into account: His sailors would have none of it. 

Reinhard Scheer (The European Library/ Wikimedia Commons)

One month before the German High Seas Fleet surrender, Chancellor Prince Max von Baden accepted terms from President Woodrow Wilson as a precondition for concluding an armistice which included ceasing U-boat attacks upon passenger ships, and they were recalled to home waters. Scheer, head of the Seekriegsleitung, merely saw this as an opportunity to utilize them to augment the High Seas Fleet in a decisive blow against the Grand Fleet. Without informing Kaiser Wilhelm or Chancellor von Baden, he transmitted a battle plan via his chief of staff to Adm. Franz Hipper, commander of the High Seas Fleet. As commander of the fleet over two years before, Scheer had led the charge against the British during the Battle of Jutland and dealt more blows to the British than he received in return. He and most of his ships had also escaped afterward to fight another day, yet the memory of that tactical victory had long faded since as the blockade of Germany continued under the guns of the numerically superior Grand Fleet.

Adm. Hipper had also drafted his own plans to sortie and attack upon British supply lines. His chief of staff, Rear Adm. Adolf Von Trotha, described its rationale: “As to a battle for the honor of the fleet in this war, even if it were a death battle, it would be the foundation for a new German fleet of the future if our people were not altogether defeated; such a fleet would be out of the question in the event of a dishonorable peace.” 

Although Jutland had been almost exclusively a warship-to-warship engagement without air or subsurface elements, Scheer planned to employ seven Zeppelins for reconnaissance and approximately 25 U-boats to help even the odds. The operation, dubbed Flottenvorstoss, was scheduled to begin on October 30. Although unwitting of the German plans and unprepared for an attack made during armistice negotiations, many of the British naval officers would also have preferred a climactic battle to settle the naval war decisively, once and for all. Who among them didn’t want to become his generation’s Nelson?

“Would [a German attack] have really mattered by this date?” asked historian Paul G. Halpern rhetorically. “The American army was now in France in great numbers. The convoys were moving vast quantities of supplies with relative safety to the British Isles and France. The German army was in full retreat. What if traffic in the southern North Sea and Dover Strait was temporarily disrupted, or a few British or American warships were lost? The tide would not have turned,” he concluded, “and the German sailors would have lost their lives in vain.”

This fact was not lost on the German sailors who would be tasked with carrying out Hipper’s orders, which many regarded as a “death cruise.” Instead of sortieing to mount a decisive Mahanian attack to regain its honor and relieve pressure on the beleaguered German army, the High Seas Fleet, hobbled as it was both by the fevers of influenza as well as revolutionary fervor, was dispersed to separate ports, where the physical maladies and political unreast spread. On November 9, Sheer broke the news to the Kaiser that the navy could no longer be relied upon, to which the man known as the Supreme War Lord reportedly replied, “I have no longer a Navy,” which were the last words the admiral ever heard from his emperor, who abdicated the same day. Two days after that, the armistice was signed. Ten days after that, the three great columns constituting the greatest gathering of capital ships in world history converged near the Island of Inchkeith off the coast of Scotland.  As the sun went down that day, the Imperial German ensigns of the defeated fleet were lowered for the last time, under Royal Navy orders not to be raised again.  The German warships later proceeded north to Scapa Flow, where they were to remain until a final peace treaty was worked out. 

This painting made by Charles Pears in 1919 depicts several German warships at anchor in the Firth of Forth at sunset, possibly on November 21, 1918, only about nine hours after the scene R.C. Kimmel depicted. (Imperial War Museum)
At a naval review held in honor of the men of Battleship Division Nine the following month, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels remarked, “Sea power once again has demonstrated its primacy in making land victories possible. While the American dreadnoughts, an important part of the world’s strongest armada, were not given the opportunity to win a great sea victory, they did more: The cooperated in receiving the surrendered German fleet, which capitulated to the superior force of the allied fleets, and they will be received at home with all the honors given to valiant victors.”

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