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)BritishBattles.com website, “Battle of Heligoland Bight”https://www.britishbattles.com/first-world-war/the-battle-of-heligoland-bight/
(2)Wikipedia, “Battle of Heligoland Bight (1914)”,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Heligoland_Bight_%281914%29