The German light cruiser SMS Mainz sinking at the battle of Heligoland blight on August 28 1914.

Battle of Heligoland Bight

In August 1914 a minor battle took place in the Heligoland Bight, which involved the British Battle Cruiser Force. It resulted in several German cruisers and destroyers being sunk and others damaged.

In August 1914 the Germans were daily sending destroyer patrols to attack British submarines and minelayers in the northern approaches to the English Channel. Admirals Tyrwhitt in command of the Harwich Force and Keyes in command of submarines developed a plan to strike at the Germans off the Island of Heligoland. Admiral Tyrwhitt had two light cruisers and two destroyer flotillas available and Admiral Keyes three submarines. The plan was approved on 24 August by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Battenberg and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill but when Admiral Jellicoe in command of the Grand Fleet became aware to the plan he thought it too risky. He was informed that the operation would proceed and if he wished he could send Admiral Beatty with the Battle Cruiser Force in support, which he did.

2007.1.3 HMS New Zealand during the Battle of Heligoland Blight
HMS New Zealand during the Battle of Heligoland Blight painted by Chief Petty Officer Eddie Fitzgerald

On 28 August the operation was mounted. Admiral Tyrwhitt in HMS Arethusa with HMS Fearless and the two destroyer flotillas proceeded eastwards and having sighted the German force, engaged in a running battle until close to Heligoland Island. However the Germans had become aware of the operation and countered the British with a strong force of cruisers and Admiral Tyrwhitt’s force was soon in trouble and he called for help. This arrived in the form of Admiral Beatty with the battle cruisers HM Ships Lion, Princess Royal, Queen Mary, New Zealand and Invincible and a flotilla of cruisers. When the battle cruisers appeared over the horizon Admiral Tyrwhitt was amazed as he had not been informed of their participation in the operation. The big ships overwhelmed the German cruisers and destroyers, several being sunk and others damaged.

HMS Arethusa with Fearless and the two destroyer flotillas proceeded eastwards and having sighted the German force, engaged in a running battle until close to Heligoland Island.

The battle was a success which partly overcame the tragic sinking of three elderly cruisers by a single submarine earlier in the month. It was however, unco-ordinated and confused. The battle cruisers were scattered and attacked the British submarines; Admiral Beatty’s cruisers were initially identified as being German; two British cruisers chased a British destroyer flotilla, each group believing that the other was enemy and the wireless traffic was overwhelming, resulting in important messages not being able to be sent. Nevertheless a victory had been achieved by old-fashioned individualism, blind courage and good luck.

HMS New Zealand steaming during the Battle of Heligoland Bight
HMS New Zealand steaming during the Battle of Heligoland Bight