History of the Cruiser (1914-1918)

History of the Cruiser (1914-1918)

Yes, in case you are wondering, this is actually Part 2! As the Great War (WW1) was an important time in world history and affected many of us on a personal level, I decided to give it is own post. Personally both my grandfathers fought in WWI and both were wounded. My paternal grandfather served in the Royal Artillery and lost a leg as a result of being wounded in a counter-barrage. My maternal grandfather was also wounded (and gassed) and shipped back to Blighty, being discharged with life-changing injuries. Both men were profoundly affected psychologically and physically by their experiences. Both died when I was young but I clearly remember them and although at the time I didn’t understand (being very young) I realise now that the war scarred them deeply.

In terms of the development of cruisers, especially in the Royal Navy, the First World War had an enormous impact. At the start of the war, the Royal Navy had more than 100 cruisers in service. The Germans had about 40 by comparison. However, many of these cruisers were now 10 or more years old, with 78 having been built prior to 1904. Clearly, there was a need for more modern cruisers to be quickly designed, laid down and to be ready for service.In terms of actual engagements between the British and the German cruiser fleets, it wasn’t long before battle commenced.

Battle of Heligoland Bight

On August 28, 1914, a British force led by Admiral Sir David Beatty entered German home waters and engaged a German force. The Battle of Heligoland Bight was the first naval battle between the two navies. The initial attack consisted of a flotilla of 31 destroyers and two cruisers under Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt, which was supported by submarines commanded by Commodore Roger Keyes. Further support at distance was provided by six light cruisers commanded by William Goodenough and five battlecruisers commanded by Vice Admiral David Beatty

The operation, from the British perspective, was a success. Caught by surprise the Germans lost three light cruisers and torpedo boats sunk with three light cruisers and torpedo boats suffering damage. The British had just one light cruiser and three destroyers suffering damage. As for the cost of the battle:

British Losses:

35 killed
55 wounded
1 light cruiser damaged
3 destroyers damaged

German Losses:

712 killed
149 wounded
336 captured
3 light cruisers sunk
1 torpedo boat sunk
3 light cruisers damaged
3 torpedo boats damaged

It has to be said that the advantage lay with the British from the start as they clearly had the superior forces:

British Forces:

5 battlecruisers
8 light cruisers
33 destroyers
8 submarines

German Forces:

6 light cruisers
19 torpedo boats
12 minesweepers

Battle of Coronel

Other similar engagements were to follow, though the British didn’t always have things their own way. On 1 November 1914, at the Battle of Coronel, off the coast of Chile, the Germans managed to sink two British armoured cruisers. They were sunk by the newer German ships, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. This was quite a major engagement (regarded by many as the first major one of the war) and pitted Vice Admiral Reichsgraf Maximilian von Spee against Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock.

German naval forces:

SMS Scharnhorst: Armoured (Heavy) Cruiser-completed in 1907-11,600 tons-main armament 8 X 8.2 inch and 6 X 6 inch guns-maximum speed 21 knots.

Admiral Graf von Spee’s flagship the protected cruiser SMS Scharnhorst  (https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinet/49824006056)

SMS Gneisenau: Armoured (Heavy) Cruiser-completed in 1907-11,600 tons-main armament 8 X 8.2 inch and 6 X 6 inch guns-maximum speed 24.8 knots.

SMS Leipzig: Light Cruiser-completed in 1906-3,250 tons-main armament 10 X 4.1 inch guns-maximum speed 24 knots.

SMS Dresden: Light Cruiser-completed in 1909-3,600 tons-main armament 10 X 4.1 inch guns-maximum speed 24 knots.

SMS Nürnberg: Light Cruiser-completed in 1908-3,600 tons-main armament 10 X 4.1 inch guns-maximum speed 22.5 knots.

British Naval Forces:

HMS Good Hope: Armoured (Heavy) Cruiser-completed in 1902-14,100 tons-main armament 2 X 9.2 inch and 16 X 6 inch guns-maximum speed 24 knots.

Flagship of Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock the armoured cruiser HMS Good Hope (Public domain image via https://www.iwm.org.uk/)

HMS Monmouth: Armoured (Heavy) Cruiser-completed in 1903-9,800 tons-main armament 14 X 6 inch guns-maximum speed 24 knots.

HMS Glasgow: Light Cruiser-completed in 1911-4,800 tons-main armament 2 X 6 inch and 10 X 4 inch guns-maximum speed 25 knots.

HMS Otranto: auxiliary cruiser (ex-civilian liner)-12,100 tons- main armament 6 X 4.6 inch guns: maximum speed 18 knots.

HMS Canopus: obsolete worn out Battleship-completed in 1897-12,950 tons-main armament 4 X 12 inch and 12 X 6 inch guns-maximum speed 16.5 knots. Canopus was 250 miles from the action and took no part, although a ship of Cradock’s squadron.

The problems for the British were many and in the end, led to disaster. The German ships were newer, better and outgunned the British vessels and this proved decisive. Firstly, it was said that ‘The Good Hope represented one of the worst and most expensive types of ship ever built for the Navy in modern times. She was an immense target and much under-gunned for her displacement. The Monmouth, also of nearly 10,000 tons, carried no gun larger than a 6 inch.’

Source: The Times History of the Great War

Both these ships mounted 6 inch guns in casemates on the sides of the ship. The lower guns could only be used in calm waters and probably were not brought into action at Coronel. In addition, the Canopus was an obsolete pre-Dreadnought and the Otranto was a armed merchant cruiser and too slow to keep up, taking no part in the actual battle! In all, the British were at a great disadvantage in terms of firepower and armour. Not only that, the German force was better trained whilst the British relied mainly on reservists to make up the complement of its force.

It is said that the whole engagement was one that happened by chance and both commanders had not expected to end up facing each other. However, once they met up, it was inevitable that one side would lose badly and that was indeed the British. The germans sank the Good Hope and the Monmouth with the loss not only of the two ships but the loss of 1,660 men including Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock. This was shocking defeat for the British, to say the least! However, the Germans lost no ships and suffered only three men wounded. Of more importance from the German’s perspective was that the battle meant the used up nearly half his ammunition which he couldn’t replace in time for the next, more fateful engagement with the British.

Although the battle had not been intentional, it was inevitable at some point the two forces would meet. The Germans had been harrassing trade between Britain and its colonies in the Pacific and Indian Oceans (India, Australia and New Zealand) with German cruisers such as the German light cruiser named SMS Emden wreaking havoc on Allied shipping. The story of the Emden is an interesting one. Having served for 4 years in China, at Tsingtao, the East Asian Station of the Imperial German Navy, she was commanded to join Admiral Graf von Spee‘s German East Asia Squadron and sail to the coast of South America to raid allied shipping there. However, her commander, Karl Friedrich Max von Müller, proposed that the Emden should operate alone in the Indian Ocean. This was a very risky proposal but one that Admiral Graf von Spee agreed to. In the end, from the German perspective, this proved to be a. productive decision (if one can ever refer to mayhem and death upon the high seas as ‘productive’ – such is the absurdity of war).

The Emden was swift and well-armed but easily recognised by her three funnels. No problem, the Germans just added a fake one and she now looked like the British cruiser the Yarmouth! With her disguise and the advantage of surprise, she began to wreak havoc on allied shipping sinking several vessels in quick succession. She also engaged in bombardment of the Indian mainland at Madras. Such was the terror she caused that her name even entered the lexicons of Tamil and Malayalam to signify ‘strict and authoritative’, ‘daring and capable’, ‘huge and powerful’, ‘manipulative and crafty’. In addition, songs were written about her to frighten young children! Quite an impact from what was the only time that the Indian mainland experienced the terrors of WWI.

SMS Emden run aground in the Cocos Islands after suffering serious damage November 1914 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinet/49779220283)

In the end though, it was the kind heartedness of its commander, Karl Friedrich Max von Müller, that would lead to the ship’s undoing. He was an officer and a gentleman and even though he was cunning and ruthless in his relentless pursuit of allied shipping, he always endeavoured to win without bloodshed, treating the crew and passengers of each ship he sunk with kindness. He also only attacked allied shipping and would let neutral ships go on their way unharmed. One such incident was when he intercepted the Italian ship the Loredano, he let her continue on her way. Unfortunately for the Emden, the Italian Captain broke the code of neutrality and informed the British of his encounter. The British quickly suspended all shipping in the Bay of Bengal and Vice-Admiral Martyn Jerram dispatched HampshireChikumaYarmouthMinotaur, and Ibuki to hunt the Emden down. 

It would be a while before the Emden was stopped and in the meantime she continued to sink allied ships on the Colombo-Penang-Singapore and the Aden-Colombo routes. The capture of the Buresk was fortunate as it carried 6,660 tonnes of high-grade Welsh coal; much-needed fuel for the Emden’s boilers. Müller, once again in act of kindness, released her crew and allowed them to depart for Colombo (Ceylon – now Sri Lanka) on the recently captured Gryfevale.

On October 9, there followed a somewhat bizarre incident. The Emden badly needed to put into port so she sailed to Diego Garcia, a British island in the central Indian Ocean, where the crew were welcomed as cousins and given fresh provisions. It seems news of the war had not yet reached the remote island! The Emden was soon on its way the next day and continued its war of attrition against British shipping. Once again however Müller continued to release crew and passengers from the ships he intercepted.

By now the Emden was the scourge of allied shipping in the Indian pacific oceans and the British committed ever more resources hunting her down. Eventually her luck would run out. Müller wasn’t quite finished though and he carried out a daring attack on Penang harbour that stunned the Allies sinking the Zhemchug (a Russian cruiser) and the Mousquet (a French destroyer). The Emden made her escape unharmed. Hubris got the better of Müller and he headed for the Cocos Islands, approximately midway between Australia and Sri Lanka. Despite cutting off radio transmissions from the local authorities, one message did get through, alerting the British to an ‘unknown vessel’. The Sydney, an Australian cruiser, which had been escorting a convoy of troops to Colombo changed course for the Cocos Islands.

Unfortunately for the Emden, Müller had made a fatal mistake in thinking that the Sydney was 250 nautical miles away. In fact she was just over 52 nautical miles away! This left no time to recover the landing party and the two ships engaged. The Emden scored the first hits but soon the higher calibre of the Australian cruiser’s guns proved decisive and the Emden was torn apart. Müller was brave as well as a gentleman and he tried to get within torpedo range, to no avail. In the end he scuttled his ship on the off North Keeling Island and the battle was over. He had lost lost 134 men and had 65 wounded in the battle. The landing party led by Mücke somehow managed to hijack a schooner and escape to Germany whilst Müller was finally repatriated to Germany in October 1918, where he died in March 1923, aged 49.

Remarkably, the Emden had but a short and ‘glorious’ run of just two months, during which she had intercepted 23 merchant and naval ships! Such was the chivalry shown by Müller in this period that even the British recognised his exemplary behaviour and the Admiralty on November 11, 1914 telegraphed ‘Captain, officers and crew of Emden appear to be entitled to all the honours of war… should be permitted to retain swords’.

The Daily Telegraph wrote that “It is almost in our heart to regret that the Emden has been captured and destroyed. We certainly hope that commander Karl von Müller… has not been killed… he destroyed over 74,000 tons of shipping without the loss of a single life. There is not a survivor who does not speak well of this young German;’great praise indeed.

Daily Telegraph 1914
Commander Karl von Müller of the SMS Emden
Born 16 June 1873, died 11 March 1923.

to be continued….

To help cover the costs of running this site I use Amazon affiliate links. If you would like to support me by this method please consider using the related links that I will include from time to time. Many thanks.