Gateway to the Classics: Heroes and Heroic Deeds of the Great War by Donald A. Mackenzie
Heroes and Heroic Deeds of the Great War by  Donald A. Mackenzie

Our Humane and Fearless Seamen

The first naval battle in the North Sea between British and German vessels took place about three weeks after war had been declared. It was fought off the German coast, in the bay known as Heligoland Bight, and not far from the Island of Heligoland, which is strongly fortified, and has a harbour for destroyers and submarines, and also a small dockyard for carrying out repairs.

The morning of battle was dull and misty, there was scarcely a breath of wind, and the sea was like a sheet of glass. Soon after day-break flotillas of British submarines and destroyers, which had been hovering in the vicinity, crept into the bight. Large war-ships, including battle-cruisers and cruisers of the "Town" class, manoeuvred at a distance, keeping in touch with the small craft.

These vessels were performing what is known in the navy as a "scooping movement". It was desired to entice some of the enemy's warships to come out and fight. If this could be accomplished, others would be forced to follow them.

The submarines advanced boldly towards Heligoland harbour, and began to show themselves, rising and sinking like a "school" of dolphins sporting in a summer sea. Several German destroyers at once darted out to pursue them. This was exactly what the British wanted. As our submarines retreated westward the hostile destroyers followed; but little did their commanders dream that they were being drawn into a trap.

Meanwhile the British destroyers were creeping round the north side of the bight, concealed in the mist, so as to get in behind the German vessels and cut off their retreat to Heligoland. One flotilla was led by the Arethusa, a swift small cruiser of a type called "destroyers of destroyers"; it carries two 6-inch and six 4-inch guns, as well as a machine-gun, and is fitted with four torpedo-tubes. Another flotilla was led by the Fearless, which is of the scout class, and is armed with ten 4-inch guns, four smaller quick-firers, and two torpedo-tubes. The average speed of our destroyers is about 30 knots, and they carry three 4-inch guns, and have from two to four torpedo-tubes.

When the German small craft were well out to sea the Arethusa  darted from a bank of mist, steaming southward across the bight at full speed, and followed by powerful destroyers. The Germans at once turned to race back to Heligoland, but they were unable to reach the island without giving battle. The Arethusa opened fire at long range and held them up, and the British destroyers closed in and made a magnificent attack. It was a stirring sight to see the opposing forces fighting furiously while racing at high speed. The Arethusa's 6-inch guns hammered the German vessels with deadly effect. Hither and thither they darted, endeavouring to escape the heavy shells.

Then the "scooping movement" developed as the British desired. Other German vessels were compelled to come out to assist the trapped destroyers. A cruiser hastened through the haze from Heligoland to beat back the aggressive and daring Arethusa. But this did not prove as simple a task as it seemed at first sight. The "destroyer of destroyers" turned her heaviest guns on the larger vessel, and showed she was capable of destroying even a cruiser. Her attack was supported by several destroyers that endeavoured to get within torpedo-range. Owing to her superior speed, the Arethusa  was able to dodge the cruiser so as to escape her broadside fire. Then a second German cruiser was summoned with all haste. When she hove in sight she fired first on the Arethusa  and then on the Fearless, which closed in boldly. The small British vessels seemed like barking dogs attacking big angry bulls.

Taking advantage of this scrimmage, a German destroyer, which had suffered from the Arethusa's  fire, endeavoured to escape to Heligoland. Four of our destroyers hastened in pursuit, their guns banging smartly all the while. The chase was brief and exciting. A stunning shot ripped through the German vessel's engines, and reduced her speed so much that she was quickly caught up and surrounded. Every available gun was quickly turned on her, and our gunners fired with unerring aim. Ere long she was riddled and battered down to the water-line. Fire suddenly broke out on board; the flames leaped high in the air, while volumes of black smoke wrapped her round like a plaid. Then she began to sink, and the attackers ceased firing.

As the smoke cleared off somewhat, German sailors were seen leaping into the sea. Our gallant seamen at once lowered boats to rescue them, for it is one of the glorious traditions of the British Navy to be chivalrous to a stricken enemy. As the poet Campbell has sung of another battle:

"Out spoke the victor then,

As he hailed them o'er the wave:

Ye are brothers! ye are men!

And we conquer but to save;

So peace instead of death let us bring.'"

But while the British tars were rescuing the drowning men a German cruiser came up and opened fire. Our destroyers had consequently to scatter, and as they did so they picked up all their boats except one, which could not be waited for.

It looked at first as if this boat would be captured by the Germans. The British bluejackets did not like the prospect, and peered through the haze, hoping to sight one of their own vessels.

"Hallo!" exclaimed one, as he saw the German cruiser moving away; "we are going to be left alone."

The Germans know well," another remarked, "that they will get us by and by." Through the mist came the constant booming of guns; the firing was increasing in volume.

"I wish I could see what is going on," exclaimed a tar impatiently.

"Things are getting livelier," a friend chimed in.

"Periscope on port bow, sir," called a blue jacket excitedly. The officer in command of the boat stood up at the helm and gazed anxiously across the calm sea. A submarine was approaching. Was it a German? One of the rescued men thought it was, and remarked in broken English: "You vas pick us up; now we pick up you."

The submarine rose like a whale coming up to breathe and spout. When the conning-tower was opened, however, a British officer appeared, with a broad smile on his face. The bluejackets were delighted when ordered to step aboard.

"It's a case of 'come inside', as the whale said to Jonah," one of them remarked merrily.

As soon as the occupants of the boat were rescued the submarine dived again. It seemed like an incident in a fairy story.

Meanwhile the Arethusa  was fighting fiercely with the second German cruiser, whose fore-bridge she wrecked. But the "destroyer of destroyers" was so heavily shelled that all her port guns, except one, were silenced, while her speed was reduced to about 10 knots. She drew back to recover, and was not followed. The gun crews were soon replaced, and the wreckage cleared away. Then the Fearless  hastened to her support, and she went into action again.

By this time a third German cruiser had come along. She got a very brisk reception from the Arethusa and Fearless  and the destroyers. Torpedoes were fired, and kept her moving briskly to avoid them, while well-placed shells set her on fire. She retired in a sinking condition, and was chased by destroyers.

It was considered necessary by this time that the Arethusa  should withdraw, not only on account of the damage she had sustained, but also because it was perilous to approach Heligoland too closely and come under the fire of its guns. But a fourth cruiser appeared suddenly on the starboard quarter. This was the Mainz. She was immediately attacked by the Arethusa and Fearless  and several destroyers. The Arethusa  greeted her with three rapid broadsides, and the destroyers closed in under heavy fire to discharge their deadly torpedoes. The action continued for nearly half an hour. The Mainz  was severely battered.

Meanwhile other German cruisers began to approach, looking as unsubstantial as pencil-markings against the misty horizon.

"It's about time we were off," the bluejackets remarked one to another; "we cannot fight the whole German fleet with our small craft."

Then a puff of wind cut a long lane through the mist that obscured the open sea, and the British heroes saw with glad eyes several vessels of the Light Cruiser Squadron hastening to their assistance.

H.M.S. Southampton  opened fire at more than 10,000 yards distance. The Mainz  replied, and attempted at the same time to retire. But her doom was sealed. Shells burst upon her with bewildering rapidity; her engines stopped, and fire broke out; then her funnels were riddled. One of the last shots brought down her main-mast.

When the firing ceased the German cruiser was an awesome spectacle. So fiercely did the flames rage amidships that two of the funnels were red-hot. Her upper deck was strewn with wreckage and dead and wounded men. All the guns had been silenced, and most of them were shattered. Great shell-holes gaped on her port side.

Many of the German survivors leaped into the sea as their ship went down, and about 300 were rescued by our gallant seamen.

Battle-cruisers had followed the Light Cruiser Squadron. They were led by Admiral Beatty's flagship, the Lion, which has the speed of a destroyer, and carries ten of the great 13.5 guns that fire two rounds a minute. It was observed that the Light Cruiser Squadron was over-coming the Mainz, so the great vessels were turned north-eastward, in which direction the sound of heavy firing was heard. It was soon ascertained that a German cruiser of the "Kolberg" class was engaging the Arethusa  and some destroyers. The Lion  advanced in a semi-circle to cut her off from Heligoland, at the same time opening fire, with the result that the German retired. As the Lion  gave chase she sighted a two-funneled cruiser. Two heavy salvoes were discharged with deadly aim, and the enemy raced away through the mist, burning furiously and in a sinking condition. It was not considered advisable to pursue her, as destroyers had given warning of the presence of floating mines in the direction she was hastening.


The "Hawk" and the "Dove"
An aerial duel between a British biplane and a German Taube monoplane.

The Battle-cruiser Squadron  then turned northward. After steaming about half an hour the cruiser of the "Kolberg" class, which had previously fled, was once again sighted. She was trying to steal through the mist, to work her way up the channel towards the mouth of the Elbe. But her doom was quickly sealed. The Lion opened fire with her heaviest guns from two turrets. A couple of salvoes were all that was required to dispose of the German vessel, which sank like a stone ten minutes after she had made appearance.

Four British destroyers were at once dispatched to pick up survivors, but not one was found. The swift and terrible attack had evidently stunned every man on board. No doubt the great majority were killed by the bursting shells, which ripped and holed the cruiser in quick succession, and caused her ammunition and boilers to explode in a hurricane of flame and smoke.

Twice during the battle the "Dreadnought" cruiser Queen Mary  was attacked by hostile submarines, but on each occasion she avoided the torpedoes by rapidly changing her course.

The "scooping movement" proved to be highly successful. Most of the German vessels which were enticed or forced to come out were severely handled; five of them were sunk. The British thus won a brilliant little victory, which proved to the whole world that our fighting seamen are as brave and cool and resourceful as were their predecessors who served under Nelson.

All our vessels retreated safely, despite the efforts of submarines to attack them. The "saucy Arethusa", which had covered herself with glory, was taken in tow by the Hogue, and both vessels returned homeward in the darkness with all lights out.

Among the Germans who were saved was a son of Grand-Admiral von Tirpitz. When an official account of the battle was issued at Berlin, a grudging admission of defeat was made, but it was frankly stated that the British sent out life-boats to save drowning Germans "without stopping to consider their own danger". Our country is justly proud of its naval victories; it is no less proud of the humane deeds of its gallant seamen, who never hesitate to risk their lives to rescue their stricken enemies.

It may be recalled, in connection with this battle, that a former Arethusa  was, in the days when war-vessels went under sail, "a frigate tight and brave". An old song celebrates a fight she waged against four larger vessels "off the Frenchman's land". The first she attacked was the Belle Poule. On the approach of the frigate—

The Frenchmen laughed and thought it stuff,

But they knew not the handful of men, how tough,

On board of the Arethusa . . . .

Our captain hailed the Frenchman, "Ho!"

The Frenchman then cried out, "Hallo!"

"Bear down, d'ye see,

To our Admiral's lee!"

"No, no," says the Frenchman, "that can't be!"

"Then I must lug you along with me,"

Says the saucy Arethusa.

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