Potential Raids by German Battlecruisers

This fine essay first appeared on MARHST-L in May 1999, and is reproduced here by permission of the author Maxwell Mulholland (BlauerMax@AOL.COM), former US Navy Surface Warfare officer and former Professor of Strategy, German Naval College.

Further information supplied by Mark Tunnicliffe appears at the end.

This is a GREAT question, and I could write a monograph on the subject. However, for brevity's sake I will try to be brief. As to the inquiry of whether German battlecruisers could have been used for commerce raiding in 1914-15, I think we can arrive at a reasonable answer if we pose and answer three separate questions:

Let's examine each of these in turn:

1) Was it technically feasible?

As many of you already know, German capital ships of the pre-WW1 period were primarily built for combat operations in the North Sea and contiguous European waters. These vessels were built to fight relatively close to their support bases and dockyards, and missions were not normally expected to last more than a few days in duration. Crew amenities were therefore sparse, and shipboard life spartan. The weight and space that were saved were used for carrying more armor, and the design consideration to purposefully limit crew habitability led to better compartmental subdivision and thus vessel survivability from battle damage.

Clearly, battleships and battlecruisers were cramped and uncomfortable due to insufficient shipboard berthing and messing facilities (as a result of these poor living conditions German crews moved into accomodations in barracks while in port). In addition, German capital ships had large metacentric heights and were relatively "stiffer" than their Royal Navy counterparts. However, while this was an advantage in the enclosed waters of the North Sea or Baltic (and made these ships magnificent gun platforms), this characteristic would normally lead to great personnel discomfort in open ocean seas and therefore reduce their efficiency and endurance (although Groener does state that MOLTKE and GOEBEN were "good sea-boats, with gentle motion" and could handle open waters easily).

Now the above comments should NOT be taken to imply that Atlantic operations were out of the realm of the possible. While German battlecruisers were BEST suited for missions of shorter duration, they were also fully capable of "out-of-theater" operations. German battlecruisers may have spent their wartime careers from 1914-18 for the most part in the North Sea, Baltic, and Black Sea, but they were not strictly "short-range" ships. Data for VON DER TANN and MOLTKE/GOEBEN shows that these ships had a range of over 4,100 nautical miles at 14 knots, and over 5,300 NM at 10 knots. SEYDLITZ had a range of over 6,500 NM at 10 knots equal to the best of the Royal Navy's battlecruisers.

In an episode mostly forgotten today, MOLTKE left Kiel on May 11, 1912, and in an unbroken journey arrived off of Hampton Roads, Virginia, on May 30, 1912. Along with the accompanying light cruisers STETTIN and BREMEN she then spent two weeks touring the US East coast, which included making port calls in Norfolk (where she paid honors to President Taft aboard the presidential yacht MAYFLOWER), New York, and Baltimore. MOLTKE departed Baltimore on June 13 and arrived back in Kiel on June 24 -- the first and only German capital ship ever to visit the United States. [On page 58 of Gerhard Koop's book Die Grossen Kreuzer VON DER TANN bis HINDENBURG> ("The Battlecruisers VON DER TANN Through HINDENBURG") there is a fascinating photograph of MOLTKE and her escorts cruising in column formation with USS LOUSIANA (BB-19), NEW HAMPSHIRE (BB-23), KANSAS (BB-21) and SOUTH CAROLINA (BB-26) - an amazing picture!]

While MOLTKE had certainly coaled somewhere along the way, she had also without question demonstrated the ability of German battlecruisers to cruise long distances. Her sister ship GOEBEN, which became flagship of the German Mediterranean Squadron in November 1912, had shown for almost two years prior to the outbreak of war in August 1914 that German crews, while cramped into confined quarters aboard their ships, could indeed operate for extended time periods under such conditions. In fact, the German Naval High Command was so impressed with GOEBEN's performance in her "out-of-area" role that it had planned in the spring of 1914 to replace SCHARNHORST with MOLTKE as flagship of the East Asian Squadron . However, chronic troubles with GOEBEN's boilers and engines, which were long overdue for an intense shipyard overhaul (as has already been mentioned in another e-mail on this topic), led to the decision to swap out the two sister ships instead in the late summer of 1914 - but then war intervened to make the whole thing a moot point. Von Spee's SCHARNHORST made her epic yet futile trans-Pacific voyage to find eventual death in the South Atlantic, and Souchon's GOEBEN became the "ship that changed the world."

My answer to Question One -- yes, it WAS technically feasible.

2) Was it logistically feasible?

There doesn't need to be a lot said on this point. The German Navy's amazingly competent "Etappen-Dienst" (overseas logistics service) showed quite extraordinary ability throughout the war in coordinating the timely resupply of far-flung German warships with food, fuel, fresh water, and munitions in the teeth of overwhelming Allied numerical superiority . Hipper would never have had to "take coal by force" as stated in Halpern's book. Arranging suitable rendezvous with supply ships at remote anchorages or in quiet bays along the coastlines of west African and South America (or Greenland or even Newfoundland for that matter!) would not have been difficult for the Etappen-Dienst -- as was shown repeatedly in both world wars. In addition, if international law regarding the refueling of belligerent warships in neutral waters (as Spee's ships had done in Valparaiso) was the same in 1914 as that in 1939 then German battlecruiser(s) loose in the Atlantic could have re-provisioned and obtained coal in many places -- including, conceivably, ports on the United States eastern seaboard.

Germany's famous auxiliary cruisers (aka "raiders") such as MOEWE, WOLF, and METEOR made a mockery out of the Royal Navy's extended blockade of the Atlantic passages, and by their exploits showed that, with sufficient shiphandling skill and determination, one could easily evade the RN's widely spaced picket ships. This was long before the era of the long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMPA) and radar, and so it would not have been a difficult task for the Germans in 1914-15 to periodically send out a fresh supply ship loaded with coal, food, mail, and replacement munitions to slip past the blockade lines. The odds were good that some (if not most) would get through to keep a big ship at sea for an extended period. (After all, that the German Navy could even conceivably think of resupplying the cruiser KOENIGSBERG in east African waters while it was still under siege by the Royal Navy in its lair deep in the Rufiji River estuary seems next to impossible - but this feat was nonetheless achieved!)

My answer to Question Two -- yes, it WAS logistically feasible.

3) Did it make strategic sense?

Ah, yes, the most difficult question left for last. For discussion purposes, let us first ignore the fact that the risk-averse Kaiser Wilhelm would never have sanctioned such a venture!

If the true goal of the operation were solely commerce raiding with a goal of interrupting Britain's supply lines, then I would say that such a plan did NOT make sense. Sending out a squadron of battlecruisers to roam the open ocean in search of individually-sailing merchant ships would have been futile indeed - akin to cracking an eggshell using a sledgehammer. What were the rest of the squadron supposed to do while one of their number searched and sank the occasional tramp steamer they jointly came across?

Remember, 1914-15 was a long time before the introduction of convoys, and the only reasonable purpose to sortie that many capital ships as a group would be to overwhelm a heavily defended convoy guarded by heavy ships -- but this situation did not then exist this early in the war. A unified squadron made up of several battlecruisers would have been forced to spend the majority of their time between regularly scheduled meetings with supply ships simply rounding up enough enemy merchantmen for the purposes of obtaining enough coal to keep their bunkers full rather than aggressively running down every ship on the ocean to send to the bottom. When it comes to destroying merchant ships there was nothing that a group of heavy ships could do out on the wide Atlantic that a couple of light cruisers on the loose couldn't have done equally well.

Now, if the reason of sending German big ships out onto the broad Atlantic sea-lanes was to force dispersion of the Grand Fleet and Battlecruiser Force, then it made equal sense to send a single big ship. Realistically, the German Naval Command had to reckon with the eventual loss of the ships sent out on such mission. In other words, any ship or ships dispatched on this role had to be considered expendable. It made no sense whatsoever for Ingenohl (or Pohl or Scheer) to accept the potential loss of the entire Aufklaerungsstreitkraefte. Without its Scouting Group to conduct reconnaissance in force, the High Seas Fleet would have lost its battle force screening capability for the remainder of the war.

A single German battlecruiser located somewhere between Cape Cod and Liverpool would have been enough to paralyze shipping between North America and Europe and force the British to send out massive search forces. Let us hypothetically assume that the Germans in 1915 decided to use MOLTKE in such a capacity (SEYDLITZ was newer and more powerful, but was serving as Hipper's flagship). MOLTKE was the most advanced battlecruiser in the world at her commissioning in 1911. Her combination of astonishing speed (28.4 knots on trial), armament, and battleship-scale protection would have forced the Royal Navy to send no less than pairs of battlecruisers (or QUEEN ELIZABETH class fast battleships) to catch her and draw her into battle. To cover the most lucrative areas for German naval interdiction (St. Lawrence approaches, West Indies, Western Approaches, and mid-Atlantic narrows) would thus have required at least 8 capital ships -- approximately the same number of ships that the British would have deployed as a squadron to find and fight four German battlecruisers sailing in company. Mathematically and strategically it was wiser to send ONE ship than it was to send four!!!

My answer to Question Three is therefore -- yes and no. Or -- well, it depends. Battlecruiser squadron sortie? NO. Single battlecruiser sortie? YES.

(the following was contributed by Mark Tunnicliffe (m.tunnicliffe@SYMPATICO.CA)):

There's an interesting paper on the USN's problems with what RAdm Hill calls "reach" during the coal era which touches on the Moltke visit:

John H. Maurer; Fuel and the Battle Fleet: Coal, Oil and American Naval Strategy, 1898 - 1925, in the Naval War College Review; Vol 34, No 6 Seq 288, Nov/Dec 81 pp 60 -73.

Maurer noted that Moltke's visit caused some consternation in the USN since the visit seemed to indicate that the Germans could now "rapidly strike across the Atlantic and attack the defences of the soon to be completed Panama Canal before the slower American battle fleet could respond." Consequently, Moltke was the subject of some interest by the Office of Naval Intelligence who noted that she had made the 3000 mile trip at a relatively quick 15 knots. However the intelligence officers who visited her discovered that she had only managed the feat by "storing coal in various bins about the gun deck and apparently all the broadside gun compartments were filled with coal." This begs the question of how much ammunition she could have carried, whether she could have made the return journey without refueling and what would have happened to her coal consumption if she had been forced to operate at the sort of speeds which would have been necessary if she had been forced to combat (20 - 25 knots).

Interestingly, von Spee seems to have considered the question in determining the disposition of his East Asiatic squadron in 1914. He allowed Emden to separate and raid separately as her captain convinced him that the low fuel consumption of a light cruiser could be met by capturing colliers (which she did) but this was impractical for von Spee's armored cruisers. Consequently he attempted to take the rest of his squadron home. He did however figure that he might have a chance to raid the coal stocks in the Falkland Islands - which turned out to be rather better defended than he had any reason to expect.

A local note, some British Colombians panicked, thinking that von Spee would turn north and raid the coal mines of Nanaimo to extend his raiding career. Consequently some of them transferred all their cash from banks on Vancouver Island to the mainland. The premier, Sir Richard McBride purchased 2 submarines from US builders in Seattle on 5 August to provide some kind of coastal defence against this Phantom Menace (sorry, couldn't help it) - the only province since Confederation to have a navy (for a few days, anyway).

We take rather longer about buying submarines these days and BC premiers seem to think they are not very nice any more.

Last Updated: 12 July, 1999.

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