Scheer Orders a Final Attack on the Royal Navy

today-in-wwi:

Admiral Reinhard Scheer (1863-1928), Chief of the German Naval Staff from August 1918; he had previously commanded the High Seas Fleet, including at Jutland.

October 22 1918, Wilhelmshaven–The German army may have been quickly running out of men and losing the war on land, but the navy was still very much intact.  After Prince Max ended unrestricted submarine warfare, which navy leaders had long held as the best hope of victory against the Allies (despite mounting evidence to the contrary), Scheer decided to make use of his “fleet in being” one last time, sortieing from Wilhelmshaven for a final confrontation with the Grand Fleet.  He had obliquely mentioned this possibility to the Kaiser during the cabinet meeting on the 17th, saying that the end of submarine warfare meant that the High Seas Fleet would again have “complete freedom of action.”  The Kaiser did not react to this, which Scheer interpreted as tacit approval, and he did not mention his plans to the Chancellor. 

Scheer would later state that “I did not regard it necessary to obtain a repetition of the Kaiser’s approval.  In addition, I feared that this could cause further delay and was thus prepared to act on my own responsibility.” 

On October 22, one of Scheer’s subordinates arrived in Wilhelmshaven in person and gave the following order to Admiral Hipper: “The High Seas Fleet is directed to attack the English fleet as soon as possible.”  There was no written order, all part of Scheer’s effort to hide the plan not just from the British, but from his own government as well.  Scheer hoped that “a tactical success might reverse the military position and avert surrender,” and even if it did not, “an honorable battle by the fleet–even if it should be a fight to the death–will sow the seed for a new German fleet of the future.”

Hipper came up with the details of the plan over the next two days.  It was similar to other German sorties in the past, hoping to draw the Grand Fleet over German U-boats and mines before the surface fleet attacked.  The lure was to be a bombardment of the recently-abandoned Belgian coast, along with raids deep into the Thames estuary.  If the submarines did not find their targets, Scheer and Hipper were determined to engage the British anyway, even if heavily outnumbered.  If the two fleets somehow missed each other (as they had before), every destroyer would be sent towards the Firth of Forth and, upon finding the Grand Fleet, would launch their torpedoes at least three at a time.  The plan had a reasonable chance of dealing considerable damage to the Royal Navy–though whether the High Seas Fleet’s sailors would be willing to carry out the plan remained to be seen.

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Sources include: Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel.

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