10 February 1916 – Hollow Victory

When the Great War began, naval planners had assumed the conflict would be brought to a rapid conclusion in the North Sea with a decisive battle between surface fleets. But just as the Western Front has been locked in stalemate for sixteen months, the long-expected showdown has not taken place. This is largely because the Kaiser refuses to risk his expensive battle wagons in a slugging match, but it is also a result of Admiral Hugo von Pohl’s conservative interpretation of his orders. Now that he is dying of liver cancer, however, Admiral Reinhard Scheer has taken command, and he is more aggressive than his predecessor.

Before sunrise today, three German torpedo boat flotillas — the 2nd, 6th, and 9th — put to sea. The task force of 25 boats is assigned to sweep the area around Dogger Bank, the shallow region of the North Sea lying roughly one-third of the distance between England and Denmark, for any British activity. And as the early morning light illuminates the water, they do indeed find the 10th Minesweeping Flotilla, which consists of four sloops like the one seen above. Standing by a lighted dan buoy which marks the finishing line for their nighttime sweep, the HMS Arabis is more vulnerable than her sister ships, the Poppy, Buttercup, and Alyssum. Weighing 1,250 tons and 267 feet long, they are lightly-armed with just two 12-cm guns and two 3-pounder antiaircraft cannons, but are large enough to make the German task force believe they are cruisers, hesitating just long enough for the three British sloops already underway to turn away and run.

Belatedly attacking in force, three torpedo boats converge on the Arabis while the others give chase. Driven off for a moment by rapid-fire gunnery, they swing back around for another pass, firing a total of nineteen torpedoes. One of them strikes the target this time, sinking her in moments. Of the eighty crewmen on board, 28 make it into the icy water, including commanding officer Lieutenant Commander Robert Raymond Hallowell-Carew, who will eventually be awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The Germans quickly pluck them from the sea, but four British sailors die of hypothermia anyway. Ironically, one of them is the ship’s surgeon.


A G-class German torpedo boat like the ones involved in today’s action

Equipped with a captured codebook, the British Admiralty has been listening to German radio traffic, so they are already aware that movements are underway. As a result, the battlecruisers at Rosyth, the 5th Cruiser Division at Harwich, and a few ships of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow are already assembling for a sweep of their own. But they are not in time to catch the Germans, and by tomorrow morning they abandon the effort in frustration. The battle then takes another ironic turn when the light cruiser HMS Arethusa hits a floating mine laid tonight off Felixstowe by the submarine SMS UC-7, killing a dozen of her crew. Placed under tow in a bid to return to port, the veteran of the previous Battle of Dogger Bank and the Cuxhaven raid runs onto a shoal and breaks amidships, becoming unsalvageable.

A minor action made larger by its title, the Second Battle of Dogger Bank then takes another odd turn when the German Admiralty maintains that the engagement was even more successful than the British admit. The New York Times carries a short blurb:

The Admiralty reports, relative to the sinking of the British cruiser Arabis, that a second English ship was hit by a torpedo.

[…] A German official statement issued yesterday asserted that on the night of Fed. 10-11, during an advance of German torpedo boats, several English cruisers were met on the Dogger Bank, about 120 miles east of the English coast, and that one of them, the new cruiser Arabis, was sunk. The statement also declared that a torpedo struck a second cruiser.

But the Arabis was not a cruiser, of course, and the day’s action is insignificant to the larger picture of the war in the North Sea. Just as the deadlock of trench warfare has produced a constant stream of stories which trumpet a fighting position won here, or a minor tactical success there, every minor event in the naval conflict is now being reported as a matter of grand strategic importance. Hollow victories are being manufactured, sometimes out of thin air, as both sides fight a daily public relations battle with all the vigor of a major engagement.


A map of the North Sea showing the shallows at Dogger Bank, which were an island chain during the last great ice age