With Admiral Scheer on the Kommand Bridge.
By Vizeadmiral Adolf von Trotha, at that time Chief of Staff of the High Sea Fleet.
We step into the middle of the sea battle of the Skagerrak, beside Admiral Scheer on the kommand bridge of the fleet flagship S.M.S. Friedrich der Große.
The preliminary cruiser battle between Hipper and Beatty has concluded in a victory for the German Fleet. Two of the biggest, strongest English battlecruisers have exploded and sunk under the superior gunfire of the German kreuzers, four or five English destroyers have sunk. Part of their crews have been made prisoner. From us, only two torpedobootes have been lost, however their crews have been saved.
A running battle developed with the fleeing Beatty, and several diverse battles developed against the enemy of twice our strength. In a wide curve from north to east the horizon is veiled by dense smoke, from which the English guns call us to battle. Somewhat to port ahead we sight the fatally wounded Wiesbaden, after her heroic battle against a greatly superior enemy, and we hold our breath as the torpedobootes press forward in an attempt to bring help to the side of their hard pressed comrades. The head of our fleet consists of Hippers battlekreuzers with small kreuzers and torpedobootes, and the III Squadron of our newest battleships under Admiral Behncke, who are already in heavy battle. Only here and there could the outline of a English ship be seen on the smoky horizon, and then our artillerie would fire and a thunder roll would send a German greeting over the water, salvo on salvo of the iron hail throw against the enemy. The engines worked with great effort to hold the 16km long German line close behind the leader.
To oversee the development of the battle Admiral Scheer had stood freely on the open upper bridge. Now, however, the enemies heavy shells began to land around Friedrich der Große and a saltwater torrent rained over the ship reminding us to seek the shelter of the conning tower. We arrived in the conning tower. It was a narrow intimate space measuring only a few metres in space, with the front protected by armour almost ½ metre thick. It was only possible to see or use the observation glasses through the vision slits, which went through the armour. One could feel the strain on the nerves that affect men serving in this intimate space, and a sense of power. Not one unnecessary word was spoken, only brief reports and orders. Here is the brain of the ship, and the brain of the entire fleet.
The entire fleet of over 100 ships and torpedobootes was in the hands of this narrow, armoured position. In addition to the Chief of Staff and the necessary Admiralstaboffiziers (Asto’s) two flag-leutnants have their place beside Admiral Scheer—for flag, searchlight and wireless signals. They sift through the various reports that arrive from speaking tubes, telephone and other connections and from flag signals and the wireless room. Near them work the Fleet Navigation Offizier and his Obersteuermann unconcerned, like in peacetime manoeuvres, and plot the course of the running battle and the position of the fleet, whilst in another position, after all reports, a sketch of the battle situation is drawn.
The Kommander stands at the front, near him the Manoeuvring Offizier, his Signals Offizier and the Battle Helmsman, who holds the heavy, thrusting forward ship tight in the wake of the next ahead, so that the artillerie can be concentrated against the enemy. The engine-telegraph is nearby. On one side the Torpedo Offizier follows the course of the battle, awaiting the moment when he can loose his arm against the enemy. The Artillerie Offizier in enclosed in a separate position, from where he directs the heavy artillerie. The observation positions high in the foremast and in the aft conning tower give reports and counter reports from all sides of the ship. Reports are passed from the speaking tube position. Salvo's from the 30.5cm turrets crash out ahead and aft of the conning tower and yellow powder smoke temporarily blocks the view, just as the columns of water from the enemy shells landing short in the water.
Admiral Scheer oversees the situation calmly, no differently to what we were accustomed to on training cruises. It was his custom in such difficult decisive moments to allow each individual to carry out his work and take responsibility. View, thoughts and decisiveness must remain free so a decision could be reached in seconds, and the situation and battle tasks could be overseen and mastered, whilst the powerful mass of large ships, kleine kreuzers and many torpedobootes operated in a storm of fire. The British battle line could not be seen because the smoke, haze and artificial smoke that should of covered Wiesbaden , hindered the view. From a report of Admiral Hipper it was supposed that the head of the enemy was in the east, and from the reports of several torpedobootes it was learned that seemingly we stood opposite the entire English Fleet, a very powerful force. Attack—in a strength similar to the enemy—was the solution.
With a brief turn on the enemy we could possibly bring relief to Wiesbaden, who could perhaps join the line. The work of the artillerie demanded that the ships remain steady; their work was already difficult enough in a battle of pursuit.
Ahead it could be discerned that Hipper’s panzer kreuzers and the head of the battleships under Admiral Behncke had slowly swung away to the south, firing at the enemy, but his forward ships must considerably overlap us and there was the possibility of a running battle developing. The development of the battle at the head was in good, experienced hands and intervention through the Fleet Chief did not come into the question.
The battle now intensified with each minute. Over 500 heavy guns faced one-another in a semi circle. The head of our line carried the main burden. House high flaming bursts of fire on both sides showed the force of the incoming shells, and in the unclear picture of the enemy line those on Friedrich der Große saw an enemy ship break apart, veiled in a powerful smoke and flame cloud. It was at this time that the English Armoured Cruisers Defense and Warrior sank under the destructive artillerie fire of our battle line and soon after the battlecruiser Invincible was defeated by S.M.S. Derfflinger, and blew up in a powerful detonation. Apart from Wiesbaden our ships still promised success.
In conducting their thrust against the enemy our head had bent around sharper away and it was necessary for the leader to gain a view to all sides, and this had become impossible in the narrow, crowded conning tower. During the heavy shooting numerous shots had fallen around the Flagship, but oddly Friedrich der Große remained unhit, and now despite this , Admiral Scheer stepped out onto the open kommand bridge. The thrust against the enemy could not continue in this manner as the head was becoming bunched and the kleinen kreuzers and torpedobootes were being squeezed together. The enemy shells not only fell ahead and to port, but also to starboard. A quick decision was required for a solution to this problem as now our superiority in artillerie alone did not appear sufficient.
,,Turn about of the entire Fleet!"—Both Flagleutnants conveyed the order of the Fleetchief below—
It was a tense moment as the bold manoeuvre had often been practiced but today would be trialed in the heavy fire of the enemy, where the means for signaling and the wireless antenna had been partly destroyed. Over 100 ships and vessels were involved in the sharp chase ahead and were in heavy action and were now to be called about. —
The wireless room aboard was like a narrow call box and whilst the life and death battle raged outside they conducted their hasty, responsible work on incoming signals and dispatched orders in rapid succession. Each word had to be keyed or ciphered and the important messages dealt with first and the unimportant pushed to the back. Therewith, suddenly an order for the entire fleet. In a few seconds the order had to be issued with certainty, and all ships and vessels must understand it and execute it.
A few seconds of high tension! All ships hoist their colourful flags, which waved in the breeze, and then, just as exercises the flags were hauled down, and without any disruption ship after ship put rudder on and turned about, a brilliant triumph for our peacetime training.
Almost immediately the enemy was lost to view; this manoeuvre by a powerful battle line had come as a surprise to him, which he was not equal to. The hellish noise of the heavy artillerie, which with us was interrupted by the turn about, also ceased with the enemy and it was still. A pause for breathe by the heavy artillerie and for the Fleetchief a quiet moment for new decisions.
The darkness was closing near, and the night would bring an end to the fight of the battle lines. The enemy must be prevented from cutting us off from our bases, especially off the German Bight at dawn in the morning. However, it was still too early to allow the enemy thoughts that they had cleared the field, and in addition Wiesbaden still remained behind.
Therefore Admiral Scheer found an opportunity to show his cheerful determination to attack:
Renew contact with the enemy with a powerful thrust into his distant, curved line! The enemy should feel our powerful touch.
After a quick turn about of the fleet we would renew contact with the enemy.
Our fleet would daringly throw a strong hand behind the Panzerkreuzers and Torpedoboote Flottilles against the hellish fire of the enemy. All our power united itself in a giant new battle.
Our hearts and senses were devoted to the fatherland and at the same time strong wills were prepared to give themselves for the German fatherland.
With an overall joyousness the signal was given: ,,Ran an den feind!" and Admiral Scheer pushed his fleet to the maximum.
He stood on the bridge, quiet and free, following the thrust of the fleet, when the pressure from a salvo from a 30.5cm gun turret on Friedrich der Große tore his coat from his body and threw the Admiral to the floor for a moment.
Ahead the torpedobootes stormed against the enemy with artificial smoke and deliberately generated thick oil smoke from their funnels serving as cover. On the massed bootes the technical and men’s strength was strained against the great superiority of the enemy.
The hour showed as 917 as the great thrust climaxed the battle.
Now it was time to free ourselves of the enemy, as darkness would deliver us from further surprises and chance.
,,Turn about of the entire fleet!" gain the manoeuvre was carried out with lightening fast speed as if it were all play, however, because of lack of room Friedrich der Große had to turn to the other side. Again silence immediately replaced the din of battle and there was a welcome release on tensely strained nerves. Orders for the night march were quickly imparted from the Fleet Flagship.
With the beginning of darkness we could still recognize that all the battleships had held their positions and none were shot and crippled. Of the battlekreuzers S.M.S. Lützow had carried the attack and now was lying deep in the water, behind the line, but it appeared that she could hold the speed of march. Admiral Hipper had exchanged his flagship between the first and second thrusts, from Lützow to Moltke.
We know today that the English fleet could not resist the second German thrust. The destructive result of our artillerie against his largest and strongest ships had caused him to lose confidence in his historic superiority and the attack spirit of our torpedobootes had taken him by surprise. The enemy turned away before the massed attack of our Flottilles. The units of the English fleet were torn away from one-another and their contact and order transmission means could not maintain contact so that the great English fleet could not be held together.
The late evening hour brought full darkness which enveloped us, whilst there was still a brief clash between Admiral Beatty’s battlecruisers and mainly our II Squadron, which turned away.
Ahead of the bridge of S.M.S. Friedrich der Große the next ahead was visible only as a black silhouette, accompanied by the weak shimmering light of his stern lantern playing on the foam of the propeller wash, and a point of light on the forecastle which gave the helmsman the correct line for our own ship, but otherwise there was overall darkness. Half of the crew already lay with the guns, and all important posts were occupied. The speaking tubes and telephones were manned, the searchlights were clear for immediate illumination and the torpedo arm was ready to fire. Also the engine department, who had to give the highest performance in their difficult work, were careful not to produce any sparks from the funnels which would betray our position.
Not a word sounded, only whispers, no light was shown. Silent darkness! Tense attentiveness! Each sector of the dark horizon was searched with night glasses under the direction of an offizier. Hundreds of eyes spied into the night, hundreds of senses tensed themselves in the highest expectation and readiness.
From time to time Admiral Scheer appeared on the bridge and received the reports: he also looked out into the dark wall of the night.—
Suddenly there was a loud report from the crow’s nest, and brief, sharp orders followed. Almost immediately a searchlight beam shot out over the water and it’s harsh light revealed the dark shadow of a nearby hunting enemy destroyer. A light from the ship ahead also settled on the enemy. The still of the night was shattered as the artillerie direction worked, the signal bell sounded, the muzzles flashed harshly and shells whistled over the enemy. Sheets of water sprinkled about the target and steam clouds shot from his tattered hull side, tongues of flame leap from the wounded boat, sapping it’s life as fuel oil poured on the fiery sea and ignited, providing a powerful torch as the destroyed enemy sunk into the waves. The searchlights blinked out and again the night was dark and silent.
Suddenly those immediately ahead of us, Thüringen and Ostfriesland , lit up. A powerful enemy armoured cruiser stood in the searchlight‘s glare. Friedrich der Große also joined the battle. Our shells struck the surprised ship that had no time to offer resistance. The illumination was as if in daytime and men could be seen running here and there, as the German shells already ripped into the ship’s side. Fire and explosions began their horrific work, and already a red glow began to chase through the ship, and soon the greedy flame climbed mast high. Salvo on salvo fell upon the ship and the hull and upper works were a blinding sea of flames: the English flag grimly illuminated. Then a heavy jerk passed through the powerful ship’s hull, and a flash shot out forward. A half grey explosion climbed from the proud armoured cruiser and then in a glowing burst it was reduced to atoms. The searchlights were switched off and the artillerie bell sounded ,,Batterie halt!" Again still silence dominated, and only the even hum of the ventilation motors and the rush of the sea sang their songs.
With the dawn the German Fleet lay close off the German Bight.
On the kommand bridge of the Fleet Flagship the orders for the of march for the coming day were laid out. All squadrons reported their condition and position and despite the many difficulties and disruptions of the night the fleet was in full battle readiness. It was astonishing that our ships had held so well and the English artillery had performed little. The flagship of Admiral Behncke, S.M.S. König, stood first in line with over 20 shell hits on her hull. The flagship of the kreuzers, S.M.S. Lützow, had carried the foremost position and towards morning could no longer be held. However, the gallant crew were rescued by torpedobootes. The kleine kreuzer Frauenlob had fought a superior enemy during the night and was sunken. The kleinen kreuzers Rostock and Elbing had to be abandoned during the night after their crews were brought to safety by torpedobootes. Pommern and Wiesbaden found their graves.
Of the enemy there was nothing to be seen. According to the reports from airships, that despite the uncertain weather had ascended upon the receipt of the first news of a clash with the enemy, the enemy main body was positioned to the north of Jutland in Jammer Bay, with another English unit in the southern part of the North Sea. The overwhelming enemy fleet was no longer uniformly in the hands of it’s leader. The prospect of a decisive battle for them was chanceless; the weather had become cloudy and only the ships of our own line were in sight. Admiral Scheer remained on course for Wilhelmshaven, so as to make the fleet battle ready as quickly as possible.
During this time torpedobootes continually came alongside with English prisoners from the different ships and destroyers on board. They were greeted with cheers and joyfully replied with reports about destroyed enemy ships, and proud successes, and gave a clear and great picture of an English defeat. As on the afternoon anchor was dropped off Wilhelmshaven and Admiral Scheer quit S.M.S. Friedrich der Große the sound of thunderous cheers came over the water, as the Fleetchief was greeted as victor with joyous shouts.
German efficiency and faithful duty, and the serious peacetime work which had provided the basis of trust between all the positions in the fleet, and the belief in German arms and German leadership had placed victory in our hands and soon a sound arose from the ships:
England come only as the barbarians,
Not too close,
Otherwise they will be given another trip to heaven,
Just as they were recently in May,
Neither the English nor French had beaten us at sea. Possibly the victorious sea battle of Admiral Scheer , paid for with the lives of many comrades who met a heroic death in the deep sea, will pave the way for the desire for victory at sea for Germany in the future, recognized by all the cultures of the world and blessed by our German fatherland.
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