Academic journal article Naval War College Review

The Battle of Heligoland Bight/Distant Victory: The Battle of Jutland and the Allied Triumph in the First World War

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

The Battle of Heligoland Bight/Distant Victory: The Battle of Jutland and the Allied Triumph in the First World War

Article excerpt

Osborne, Eric W. The Battle of Heligoland Bight. Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 2006. 141pp. $27.95

Butler, Daniel Allen. The Battle of Jutland and the Allied Triumph in the First World War. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2006. 251pp. $44.95

After two decades of unrelenting publishing on the land war of 1914-18, it is nice to see attention being paid to the war at sea, for that effort ranged from distant blockades, mine warfare, unrestricted submarine warfare, and dashing destroyer melees, to the largest pitched surface fleet battle to that time. Both authors tell their stories with a passion for narrative, paying close attention not only to admirals but also to the "common sailor" at war. Both come well prepared: Osborne, of Virginia Military Institute, has published Britain's Economic Blockade of Germany, 1914-1919 (2004) and Cruisers and Battle Cruisers: An Illustrated History of Their Impact (2004), while Butler, a former U.S. Army officer and media commentator, is the author of The Age of Cunard (2004).

Osborne's Battle of Heligoland Bight is solid naval history. On 28 August 1914 British cruisers, destroyers, and submarines descended into the Heligoland Bight and surprised German scouting forces, which lost the light cruisers SMS Mainz, SMS Koln, SMS Ariadne, and the torpedo boat V-187, as well as 1,251 officers and men killed, wounded, or captured. The British, in contrast, suffered damage to one light cruiser and three destroyers, as well as thirty-five officers and men killed and forty wounded. Beyond these losses, the importance of the battle lies in the fact that it reinforced the already timid stance of the German High Sea Fleet command.

Osborne's two major contributions are at the command level and at the tactical level. Senior commanders, British and German, performed woefully. There was a lack of coordination with the forces at sea and among the forces engaged in battle. There were also problems with communication (delays in decoding messages and jammed transmissions) and an overall failure to provide commanders with intelligence on the composition and position of enemy forces.

Officers who today fear that in a "real" war the enemy may well deprive them of cybernetic capabilities must read this book. Heligoland showed what it was like to fight "blind" and under adverse conditions. Clausewitz's "fog of war" was omnipresent, especially on the British side: battle signals were misread; major units put out to sea without notifying other commands; cruisers attempted to ram their own submarines; submarines made attack runs on their own cruisers; and destroyers engaged a Norwegian neutral, mistaking it for a German minelayer. The German command did not perform much better. It failed to appreciate the size of the British force and refused to recognize that it was supported by battle cruisers. It also hesitated to send out its own battle cruisers in time to assist. The fact that German battleships had to wait hours for high tide so they could cross the Jade Bar at Wilhelmshaven did not help matters, nor did the true "fog of war," namely, a heavy fog that swirled around Heligoland all that day. …

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