The German Navy in the War

By Captain I. Persius

[The New York Times/Current History, September 1915]

Although the main German and British fleets have not been matched in battle, the ending of the first year of the war finds that Germany has distinguished herself at sea, says Captain I. Persius in a review prepared for The Associated Press. Captain Persius, formerly an officer of the German Navy, is a recognized authority on German naval affairs, and is naval expert of the Berliner Tageblatt. He says Germany's policy has been to attempt to weaken her chief opponent at sea by using submarines and mines to a point where there will be some prospect of success of an attack on the main British fleet. His review, published Aug. 1, 1915, follows:

The German fleet may boast that the offensive spirit it has displayed has constituted the most prominent and decisive feature of all the naval war theatres. War was declared against Russia on Aug. 1, and on Aug. 2 the cruiser Augsburg bombarded the Russian war port of Libau. The declaration of war against France was issued Aug. 3, and on the following day the cruisers Goeben and Breslau shelled the troop embarkation points of Philippeville and Bona, on the North African Coast. Finally, England declared war on Aug. 4, and on the 8th the mine-layer Koenigin Luise planted mines at the mouth of the Thames, one of which destroyed the cruiser Amphion.

We thus see that from the very beginning German warships displayed a spirit of daring offensive. Not only in European waters but in distant seas we heard of victorious combats wherein our cruisers were engaged. In a majority of cases the foreign cruisers, like the home units, fought against much superior forces.

In Germany the gigantic task of our sea forces is in no wise underestimated. We know that the British fleet alone, so far as material strength is concerned, is considerably more than twice our superior, but we are certain that the same heroic spirit of determination to win exists in the fleet as in the army, and that we can depend upon the efficiency of our material which, even though inferior in quantity, can brave comparison with that of any other power for excellence in construction of artillery and machinery.

We do not forget that the British fleet, first in the world and of glorious history, is an opponent worthy of all respect. Nevertheless, at the close of the first year of the war, it may be said without exaggeration, that its achievements do not measure up to our expectations. It has lacked, it seems, the iron determination and ability to conquer.

The British Admiralty has held strictly to "the strategy of caution." The German submarine danger is, we realize, partly responsible, but it cannot be questioned that, as a consequence of undeniably evident lack of initiative, the prestige of the British sea power no longer stands so unshaken throughout the world as formerly. British forces have been victorious only in engagements where they were overwhelmingly superior, as at the Falkland Islands, and even this is not claimed by the British press to be an unconditional success, because the battle was too costly in time and sacrifice.

Our naval authorities followed generally the principle of keeping battleships in harbor while attempting to weaken the enemy through minor warfare, particularly with submarine and mines, to a point where the attack on the main fleet will offer some prospect of success. How correct this strategy was is proved by the past twelve months. Thanks to the effectiveness of our submarines, which excited the justified admiration of the whole world, it has been possible sorely to wound the British fleet. In addition, our submarine arm has busied itself since the beginning of the year in an entirely unexpected way, as a destroyer of commerce. Views may differ as to the final outcome in this field, but it is undeniable that a nation like Germany, whose commerce has been driven from the seas, but which can subsist without imports, has an extraordinary advantage over a country dependent almost entirely, like Britain, upon importations of food and raw materials across the water. The submarine danger unquestionably weighs like a nightmare upon the inhabitants of the sea-washed land. The future results of the wide extension, as we hope, of the fruitful activity of our submarines cannot be predicted, but the expectation is generally cherished in Germany that the submarine campaign will help to accelerate the demand for peace in England.

Every type of warship has fallen victim to German submarines the battleships Formidable, Triumph, and Majestic, the armored cruisers Hogue, Cressy, and Aboukir, the Russian armored cruiser Pallaba, the cruisers Hawke and Pathfinder, and the British destroyer Recruit, for example and neither the express steamer nor the slow fishing boat is safe from our deadly torpedoes.

In addition, the aerial arm of the service has won many laurels. Zeppelins crossed the North Sea safely, even to London and back, and German aeroplanes participated in the destruction of the enemies' war and merchant ships. The question whether airships and aeroplanes could be used offensively at sea must, in the light of the achievements of our aircraft, be answered affirmatively.

German aircraft have been fought successfully against the dreaded submarines. A Russian submarine was destroyed in the Baltic by bombs from an aeroplane, and at least one British submarine met the same fate in the North Sea. The general fear of submarines is responsible for the remarkable spectacle of the heavily armed and strongly armored battleships rarely venturing to leave sheltering harbors ships which before the war were counted as decisive factors in sea power, but finding themselves condemned to inactive rôles. Clashes of heavy battleships, like those in distant waters, have borne out the old rule that superiority in numbers, artillery, and speed make up the decisive factor for victory.

The British were defeated off Coronel, Chile, because the Monmouth and Good Hope depended for the most part on 6-inch guns, while the German cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst carried many 8.3-inch guns. The victory at the Falkland Islands was easy for the British battle cruisers Invincible and Inflexible and their consorts because they mounted 12-inch guns and also were much faster than the German ships.

In warship duels also weight and armament were decisive. The Sydney, armed with 6-inch guns, was thus able to destroy the Emden, with only 4.2-inch cannon.

The lessons which may be drawn from past events may be summed up briefly as follows:

Superiority of technical material plays, as in earlier naval battles, an important rôle, perhaps to a greater extent now than before. Given crews practically equal in skill, the side which is inferior in artillery and speed is at so heavy a disadvantage that victory is possible only under exceptionally favorable circumstances.

The submarine has proved itself a thoroughly dangerous weapon to which unsuspected possibilities must be conceded. All methods of defense hitherto employed have failed to fulfill their purpose in requisite manner.

Dirigibles and aeroplanes have not only demonstrated their value in scouting, but also have been engaged effectively upon the offensive.

The lessons learned even thus far will have a marked influence upon the construction of fleets, and I can understand why in the United States efforts are being made to take advantage of them.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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