Monday, January 6, 2020

The Battle of Heligoland Bight

In the recent Open Post, a commenter suggested doing an analysis of older (pre-WWII) naval battles.  That suggestion led me to wonder whether there were useful lessons to be learned or whether the subsequent advances in technology have rendered any lessons invalid and irrelevant.  Well, let’s take a look at the first naval battle of WWI, the Battle of Heligoland Bight, 28-Aug-1914 and see if it has lessons to offer us today.

To set the stage, at the outbreak of WWI, the British and German navies emphasized strong main battle fleets of dreadnoughts and older battleships supported by battlecruisers, cruisers, and destroyers.  The British implemented a blockade strategy of Germany’s northern coast but were forced to execute a distant blockade instead of a close port blockade due to the threat of submarines and mines.  Germany had several naval bases along the North Sea coast in a large ‘inlet’ of the sea.  The inlet area approach was called the Heligoland Bight and was protected by a series of islands, the most important of which was Heligoland which was heavily fortified.

The German naval forces remained in their protected bases while the British maintained their distant blockade.

As the two naval forces settled into their routines, the German’s developed the habit of sending regular nighttime and daytime destroyer patrols out into the North Sea.  These patrols were escorted out and then met and escorted back by cruisers.

The British developed a plan to ambush the returning destroyers with a locally overwhelming force.  Eight British submarines were positioned around Heligoland Island to act as bait to draw the destroyers out to sea where two destroyer flotillas of 15 and 16 destroyers would engage the Germans.  Two British battlecruisers were tasked with providing additional support for the destroyer flotillas.  In addition, several other British battlecruisers and cruisers were inserted into the action on a haphazard and largely uncommunicated basis.

As the British forces took their positions, the Germans were alerted by increased radio traffic and implemented their own plan which was, essentially, the reverse of the British plan.  The Germans planned to use their destroyers as bait to lure the British ships closer to shore and then have light cruisers engage the British ships.

Weather played a factor with fog and mist causing severe identification problems for both sides.

The battle became a confused, chaotic affair with ships entering the area and engaging and disengaging almost randomly.  Detailed descriptions of the sequence of events can be found in the reference links below. (1,2)  The individual events of the battle are difficult to follow and decipher.  Careful reading and reference to the accompanying maps are required to make sense of the battle.  The sheer confusion for those involved must have been nearly overwhelming.

At one point, in a friendly fire incident, a British submarine fired two torpedoes at the British light cruiser Southampton but missed.  The Southampton then attempted to ram the friendly submarine but failed.

The British lost no ships but suffered heavy damage to one light cruiser and three destroyers.  The Germans lost three light cruisers and a destroyer with several other ships damaged.

So, are there lessons to be learned from this battle?  I think so!  In no particular order,

  • Fortune favors the bold – when the bold are backed by local numerical and firepower superiority.  Although the plan largely fell apart, the localized concentrations of British ships enable them to inflict more damage than they received.  Firepower/mass overcame confusion.  This is an important lesson for us, today.  We’ve begun to forego firepower in favor of data and networks.  When confusion comes calling (no plan survives contact with the enemy!), what firepower will we be able to call on to overcome the chaos?

  • German destroyers were acting as distributed lethality assets.  Small patrols were sent out to search for targets of opportunity.  Unfortunately, this simply led to the German destroyers being isolated and defeated in detail, with little support.  Despite this lesson, the Navy, today, wants to implement exactly this isolated, distributed lethality operation.

  • Submarines caused blue-on-blue engagements and served to increase confusion – this is the classic submarine communication issue.  Nothing has changed today.

  • British radio communications were not secure and gave away the impending action, if not the actual details.  It was not, apparently, that the Germans intercepted and listened to the British communications but, instead, they detected a significant increase in radio broadcasts and deduced from this that an action was imminent.  This suggests to us, today, that our communications and data transmissions may not be as secure as we believe and that it is not necessary for an enemy to intercept and decode the transmissions.  They merely need to detect increased transmissions or, indeed, the mere presence of transmissions to glean valuable, actionable information.  We need to regain the ability to operate without communications as we did during the Cold War (EMCON – Emissions Control).  Of course, this directly conflicts with the Navy’s current concept of vast regional networks and fleets of unmanned vehicles all of which require continuous, high bandwidth transmissions.

  • General chaos of battle versus our neat concept of perfect data is perfectly illustrated by the neat, tidy, logical British battle plan which disintegrated the moment contact was made with the enemy.  As has often been said, “No plan survives contact with the enemy”.  Despite this oft-repeated lesson, the Navy, today, is counting on perfect situational awareness to execute operational plans that depend on the perfect arrangement of every element.  This is lunacy!  We need to simplify our operational concepts and doctrine and learn to act within the context of confusion.

  • On a larger level, the German navy’s refusal to leave their ports violates the adage that, “the seat of purpose is on the land”.  A navy that stays in port has no impact on events on land and is useless.  The modern US Navy runs this risk due to the risk-averse mindset of being unwilling to lose overly expensive ships.

Well, there you have it – a wealth of lessons, most of them seemingly timeless, for us to benefit from today.  It would seem, therefore, that there are lessons that transcend technology. 

This has been a fascinating exercise and I think I’ll try to apply a similar analysis to even older naval actions.  An action from the age of sail ought to make for an interesting study.


(1) website, “Battle of Heligoland Bight”

(2)Wikipedia, “Battle of Heligoland Bight (1914)”,


  1. love the analysis, hate the conclusion (even tho' you are correct in my opinion.) Would love to read one on "age of sail".

    1. Any particular sailing battle you think would be a good candidate for analysis? -don't say Trafalgar, it's been done to death!

      I'd love to go all the way back to the age of triremes but detailed information is, understandably, lacking.

    2. The Battle of Quiberon Bay is often forgotten...

    3. Lepanto is a great oar driven battle that shows value of superior firepower, risks inherent in more but lighter ships and importance of localized command, discretion and initiative.

    4. How about The Glorious First of June / the Fourth Battle of Ushant.

    5. Very good article. Learn from history, or we are doomed to repeat it.
      How about this as a suggestion:
      Naval bombardment has been mentioned here a few times - here is an example of it using what was at the time, new technology. Flawed technology to be sure, and it turned out to be "transistionary" in nature - it evolved quickly onwards, which perhaps is analogous to the current trends in unmanned equipment. But an interesting application of new tech to a timeless task - naval artillery.

    6. To All,

      You've offered several good possibilities for future battle analyses and I'll look into all of them. From a cursory glance, the challenge appears to be a general lack of information about the specifics of the pre-battle and battle. Without an understanding of each commander's battle plan, the circumstances of the battle, the battle specifics, etc. it's very hard/impossible to draw valid conclusions. The lack of information is quite understandable, the older the battles are in history.

      I'll examine them, and some others that have been suggested, and see if I can find any that are suitable. Regardless, your suggestions are excellent and much appreciated.

    7. (Don McCollor) a suggested reference, the book by Arthur Herman (2004) "To Rule The Waves" which is a summarized history of the British Navy and gives an account of the development of naval warfare on a global scale.

    8. (Don McCollor) ...many historical accounts should be viewed as analogies. Nelson's Battle of the Nile resembles Pearl Harbor in that the French fleet could not believe the British could not operate in shoal water inside their anchored battle line. The British sailing ships solved the problem of underway replenishment during the blockage of French ports. There were numerous amphibious operations. And the American development of the Constitution class superfrigate, bigger, faster, and more heavily armed than any foreign frigate was a technological sailing breakthrough (I believe the article was in American Inventor "Six Ships That Shook The World"). Able to catch and outgun anything smaller and able to outrun anything bigger, British frigates were under orders to engage one only in squadron strength.

    9. Ive read a few books on Greek wars(some many years ago,time flies): the Greco Persian wars (peter Green), the Origins of War (Arthur Ferrill) and A War like No Other by Victor Davis Hanson and a few others, all really good reads and maybe they do talk about the naval side of Greek warfare (I cant recall), my question is any recent books that discuss Ancient/Greek naval combat?

    10. ""To Rule The Waves" which is a summarized history of the British Navy and gives an account of the development of naval warfare on a global scale."

      That sounds like an excellent macro scale geopolitical lesson-in-waiting. While that is well within the purview of this blog, the amount of research to pull out valid lessons would be extensive and long in developing. I'll try to obtain a copy and look into it but it won't be a rapid result!

      Is there a particular aspect you'd like to direct my attention to?

    11. "many historical accounts should be viewed as analogies. "

      Another way of saying that is to recognize that history has a remarkable tendency to repeat itself. That, in itself, is a lesson for us, today. Sadly, the US Navy has totally abandoned its own history and lessons contained therein in favor of an arrogant and unwise belief that we know better than history.

    12. @NICO

      For the Peloponnesian era war there probably is no better take than Kagan's 4 volume set that starts with The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War.

      Kagan strives very hard to produce a detached and very detailed view of the events political and military (with all the notes to other views he is discussion in detail)

      The more recent works VDK or J.F Lazenby (The Peloponnesian War) or Jennifer T Roberts (A Plague of War) all single books don't spend (for obvious reasons) as much time breaking down every battle. They also aim a bit differently (and couple other one volume ones out). Depending on their author's views they are more a narrative of the big things about the war or the why of it - not so much on the battles.

      Kagan is the only one doing a you were there kind of thing in the detail that usually you have to get JSTOR (free) pass for to read something like a 'reconsideration of the battle of Amorgos'.

      Realistically if you read any current one volume work on the the time thay all kinda assume you have access to Kagan.


      "Six Ships That Shook The World"

      My understanding was the original Federalist navy was supposed have 5 or 6 or ships of the line and 12 or more of the big frigates. The big frights were supposed to be able to engage a SoL in the right weather where they could not use their lowest gun deck. The ideal was deterrence on the cheap the US would have a line that neither France no the UK could easily match in anything but an all out war with no European distractions.

    13. (Don McCollor)…the "To Rule The Waves" chapters also give accounts of specific naval actions that may be worthy of analysis by themselves. With "analogies", (a land example) army supply used to be fueled by hay. Modern armies run on petroleum. But the problem of providing enough fuel for logistical support imposes exactly the same restrictions on army operations.

    14. (Don McCollor)...the article "Six Ships" emphasized the breakthrough was developing a wooden ship that was both big AND fast sailing (the big British ships of the line were massive and relatively slow, although formidable). It was known a longer hull length with the same beam produced a faster ship, but the problem was that the wooden hull sagged "hogged". The key was intricate bracing that overcome this. Interestingly, I seem to remember from the article that the Constitution class was designed by Quakers who were not naval architects, and no one who reviewed the design were, or they would never have been approved.

    15. The Battle of the Nile is a fascinating study.
      There's a lot of detail available on it also.
      The Battle of the Tsushima Strait is also fascinating and there's loads of available info.

    16. "seem to remember from the article that the Constitution class was designed by Quakers"

      The ship was designed by Joshua Humphreys. I've read books on the Constitution and I don't recall any mention of Quakers. You might want to double check your sources. Of course, if you find that Quakers were involved, let me know as I'd find that immensely interesting! Thanks.

      The key structural element seemed to be extensive use of diagonal riders to prevent hogging.

    17. (Don McCollor)...not my sources - I need to double check my memory of them...

  2. Wow, awesome lessons! I never expected we get so much information out of one old naval encounter. Tech might change but some lessons might always apply.

    Fog and bad weather shouldn't be a major problem today BUT they have been replaced by ECM and hacking which might just bring us back to where we started: lots of confusion, line of sight, quick dashs in and out of action....also, shouldn't we go back to training hard at setting up what captains should expect from the other ships in the fleet in action? When we lose coms and SA, captains should still have a idea of what to expect about the maneuvers and intent of the fleet action...Compared to WW1 and even WW2, does USN even train with ships maneuvering around and making all kinds of course changes, formations,etc? I'm guessing we have somewhat gone away from that. I'm afraid we might have some ships just "standing" around waiting for orders or confused what is expected of them once coms go down.

    1. "shouldn't we go back to training hard at setting up what captains should expect from the other ships in the fleet in action?"

      A standardized set of actions is called doctrine and, YES, we should be practicing that!

      "Fog and bad weather shouldn't be a major problem today "

      Of course it will be! Radars are degraded. Optics, such as the only fire control for the LCS 57mm gun, will be degraded or eliminated. Pitching and rolling makes unstable gun platforms even with gyrostabilization. High seas makes sailing a challenge. Sufficiently bad weather shuts down helo (ASW) and fixed wing flight ops. And so on. We have not risen above the effects of nature.

    2. That is my questions about LCS how in the world are they going to attack Subs when the Helo is grounded (of course that's if they actually manage to leave port)

    3. "I never expected we get so much information out of one old naval encounter."

      Hmmm … Is your low expectation based on a lack of faith in ComNavOps' analytical abilities? :) I'll try harder!

    4. "Tech might change but some lessons might always apply."

      Regarding the eternal nature of some lessons, you ought to read/listen (there are some great oral presentations on YouTube - only takes about 3 minutes to hear the entire thing) to the brief writing, "The Gods of the Copybook Headings" by Kipling. History screams timeless lessons at us but we repeatedly refuse to listen. This writing is possibly the greatest writing ever on the subject of timeless lessons.

    5. "does USN even train with ships maneuvering around and making all kinds of course changes, formations,etc?"

      This raises an interesting aspect/question about modern naval battle. Pre-WWII, navies tried to fight in tight, bunched formations. This was partly to mass firepower and partly to simplify the problem of friend/foe identification. During WWII, there were still some fairly tight formation battles such as the early Guadalcanal battles and, again, it was as much for IFF as massed firepower. However, as the war progressed and carriers entered the battlefield, surface groups spread out more and more. The Falklands British fleet fought fairly spread out. Today, the question is an open one.

      On the one hand, you want to spread out so that the enemy can't find all your ships obligingly clustered together but on the other hand, you want to stay withing mutually supporting range. What does this mean for battle grouping? Tight or loose or something in between? We don't know.

      This is where realistic exercises come in. We need to find out how to conduct a naval battle. What is the optimum spacing under different circumstances? How many ships can we effectively use before they begin just getting in each other's way, electronically and physically? What little exercising we do is defensive in nature (AAW). We need to practice offensive battles.

  3. One of the lessons should be the best laid plans go out the window with the 1st fired shot

    1. Um, that WAS one of the cited lessons!

      "No plan survives contact with the enemy."

    2. OR: Mike Tyson: "Everybody has a plan [that will beat him], and then I punch them in the face."

  4. I spent a while working with a blokey from EW element of the Royal Signals, they would spend an entire exercise doing SIGINT traffic analysis of our own side during exercises in Germany.
    It is really scary what can be discerned by traffic analysis alone (all the more prevalent when crypto is so effective - in the context of the battlefield timescale).
    These people are somewhat sneaky-beaky, when our Colonel-in-Chief (Princess Anne) visited one of their sites she was not allowed in some buildings - the boss's daughter!

    1. "It is really scary what can be discerned by traffic analysis alone "

      So why does the Navy think they'll be able to operate a vast, regional, data network, unhindered and undetected? Do we really think China is less capable than we are? For some reason, we seem to think we'll be able to operate ships and aircraft undetected while continually transmitting data. It seems delusional in the extreme.

    2. There is a very common fallacy that spread-spectrum transmissions cannot be "DF'd", that is dangerous but professional people know this (or should).
      One thing to consider, if you are not being jammed - why not? They have either cracked the crypto or are doing traffic analysis to a useful degree .

    3. The other side of having people who are really good at traffic analysis is that can design a deception plan to wiggle like you're going to do something else.

  5. We're Liable to wind up bottled up in our own ports like the German Fleet;terrified of losing a warship to a contact-mine or a couple missiles hiding in a conex crate.

    1. We were successful in WWII naval actions because we were willing to risk and lose ships (if the gains were sufficient!). We have to make sure that we're willing to lose today's ships and the best way to ensure that is to build them small enough and cheap enough so that we'll be willing to risk them and not be crippled by their loss.

      Smaller, cheaper, single purpose. That should be our ship design mantra.

    2. I suspect that US continental ports are reasonably safe but in more congested areas (Gulf, Western Pacific or the Med) mines will be a big problem.
      Interesting question - when did a mine warfare expert reach the top rank (any navy will do)? I have no idea.

    3. "I suspect that US continental ports are reasonably safe but in more congested areas (Gulf, Western Pacific or the Med) mines will be a big problem."

      Why would you think US ports are safe? China has nuclear (meaning unlimited range) subs. Imagine just a few mines laid in a few US ports. To repeat what someone else suggested to me: the Navy would convulse as it frantically tried to relocate what few MCM assets it has back to US ports while every politician screamed for protection. The resulting loss of all of our very few MCM assets from the forward battle area would ensure that our naval operations would be very restricted our of fear of mines and no way to deal with them.

      US coastal shipping would be paralyzed and international shipping would dry up. This would accomplish what the German open ocean U-boat convoy attacks could not.

      If I were China, this would be one of my Day-1 war tasks.

    4. I wouldn't fool with nuclear subs to do that. Disguised cargo or fishing boats could easily plant mines. Return of the Q-boats.

    5. "Disguised cargo or fishing boats could easily plant mines."

      Chinese flagged cargo or fishing boats showing up at US ports on the eve of a war would certainly draw attention to themselves.

    6. "Why would you think US ports are safe?"

      Although of course the counter question is China itself. Its oligarchy survives a a fairly clear deal with its citizens. Order and better prosperity every year. For a lot people who remember only having a choice of poor peasant under Mao that a good deal. What happens what a the US disrupts all of China trade?

      "China has nuclear (meaning unlimited range) subs."

      Which now that they peek out into blue water occasionally are very noisy. I'm not sure they would make the trip in one piece.

    7. "What happens what a the US disrupts all of China trade?"

      I have no idea what point you're trying to make? Try again?

      " I'm not sure they would make the trip in one piece."

      If you have acoustic signature data on Chinese nuclear subs, please share it with the US military as I'm sure they would greatly appreciate it. Since I don't have such data, I have to assume that China's nuclear subs are at least reasonably quiet and the ocean is an immense place. Combined with the US Navy's reduced fleet size (only around 70 ASW capable surface ships) I would say that the odds of a Chinese sub making it to a US port undetected are not too bad. If I were the Chinese, I'd send subs just PRIOR to initiating a war so that they COULDN'T be stopped. It would be very difficult to stop a determined nuclear sub from seeding some mines in a US port.

      Perhaps we have subs trailing every Chinese sub, as we seem to have done in the Cold War, but I suspect not.


      Best I can do to answer the second question I'll answer the the first or try and refine what I meant a bit later.

      But back to first is china really going to risk its nuclear subs on a potentially one way mission to what end. Its hard to see any real war outside of some escalation over Taiwan given the risk of a nuclear war. So both sides would likely have time to move assets about.

  6. WW1 and it's Destroyer swarms and WW2 and it's Destroyer, Destroyer Escort, Frigate and Corvette swarms.

    50+ ships of a class with multiple classes per ship type with the largest barely reaching the size of a Freedom LCS only back then they where covered in weapons.

    Today everything is light cruiser or bigger which are fine as group/squadron/convoy leaders but not as the only force.

    Could a WW2 scale full war economy even happen today?

    I mean back then all car factories, civilian shipyards and workers where repurposed for war over a year before Pearl Harbour.

    But today you would have to build the factories and shipyards first before you could even think of mass producing weapons.

    I have a feeling China wouldn't have such problems since they still have a manufacturing base and with South Korea and Japan being the other two biggest builders of civilian ships I bet China would seek to at least neutralize them first.

    I can't help but think that having the UK to supply for 2 years before US involvement helped immensely the USA's position in both world wars.

    Against China I can't believe that will be the case if China strikes it will be weeks not months or years before the US has to get involved.

    1. Well, you've kind of summarized the state of affairs but you haven't offered any suggestions/solutions. What do you suggest we do?

    2. Realistically? I have no idea.

      Your call to build smaller single purpose ships is fine but without the infrastructure ready to mass produce them in large numbers in a relatively short period of time the US will still have too few ships if losses start to mount.

      Even with the infrastructure in place can rapid building of military equipment even happen today?

      Modern war fighting equipment just may be to complicated to mass produce anymore.

      If China is going to start something it's going to be within 15 years since after 2035 China's demographic changes will make military action unlikely you don't fight a war with old people.

    3. "Modern war fighting equipment just may be to complicated to mass produce anymore."

      That's a very real possibility and it also suggests a resource strategy: BUILD SMALLER, SIMPLER, SINGLE FUNCTION SHIPS like I've been harping on! When all the Burkes and Chinese-equivalent Burkes have been mutually sunk, a Fletcher class destroyer rules the waves! That ancient design for a gun-destroyer may make a whole lot of sense at some point in a war.

    4. You fight with what you have, not what you wish you had or might have in ten more years. Along that line, you fight with the resources (rare earths, metals, etc.) you have stockpiled not the rare earth refinery that you can have completed and running in ten years.

      Of course, China is subject to the same constraints or worse since we have many more trading partners who might help sustain us in a war than they do.

    5. "Of course, China is subject to the same constraints or worse since we have many more trading partners who might help sustain us in a war than they do."

      Really? I'm not sure I'd take bets on that one. China has one of the bigger trade networks in the world so I expect it might be pretty close to even.

      That 'Belt and Road' thing is really taking off. I just about had a heart attack when I started digging into how much investment China is plowing into the Philippines right now as an example.

      Here's a short article on a enormous new bridge that will make landfall about 15km from our house in the Phils. And they are building twelve of these major crossings, plus a new spinal highway from north to south, plus a bunch of new high-speed rail.

      And China is doing this all over the world as you are aware to increase their ability to trade.

      I think in general this is a pretty good thing. Much better to trade than shoot each other.


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