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World War I: Battle of Heligoland Bight


World War I: Battle of Heligoland Bight

Battlecruiser HMS Princess Royal

Photograph Courtesy of commones.wikimedia.org


The Battle of Heligoland Bight took place during the early days of World War I (1914-1918).


The fighting in the waters off Heligoland occurred on August 28, 1914.

Fleets & Commanders:

Royal Navy

  • Vice Admiral David Beatty
  • Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt
  • Commodore Roger Keyes
  • 5 battlecruisers, 8 light cruisers, 33 destroyers, & 8 submarines

Imperial German Navy

  • Rear Admiral Leberecht Maass (killed in action)
  • 6 light cruisers, 19 torpedo boats, 12 minesweepers

Battle Summary:

Occurring less than a month after the beginning of the conflict, the Battle of Heligoland Bight was the first naval battle of World War I and was the result of a British raid on the German coast. The principle forces for the raid were Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt's Harwich Force (two light cruisers and 31 destroyers) and Commodore Roger Keyes' group of 8 submarines. These were to be supported by Cruiser Force K (5 antiquated cruisers), as well as Commodore William Goodenough's First Light Cruiser Squadron (6 light cruisers) and Vice Admiral David Beatty's First Battlecruiser Squadron (5 battlecruisers).

Early on the morning of August 28, 1914, Tyrwhitt encountered the first German torpedo boats to the west of Heligoland. Anticipating a British attack, the Germans quickly sortied two light cruisers, SMS Frauenlob and SMS Stettin, and then deployed four additional light cruisers under Rear Admiral Leberecht Maass. Outgunned, Tyrwhitt's flagship, the light cruiser HMS Arethusa, was heavily damaged and called for help. Arriving on the scene, Goodenough's squadron pummeled Frauenlob, forcing it to retire, and sank the light cruiser SMS Mainz.

Fighting amid the smoke and morning fog, Tyrwhitt signaled Beatty for aid. Arriving around 12:40 PM, the First Battlecruiser Squadron sank Maass' flagship, the light cruiser SMS Cöln, and light cruiser SMS Ariadne. Realizing it was only a matter of time before German battlecruisers emerged from their base at Wilhelmshaven, the British forces withdrew west victorious.

Aftermath & Impact:

In the day's fighting, the Royal Navy had sunk three German light cruisers and one destroyer, while damaging three other light cruisers. The battle cost the Germans 712 killed, 149 wounded, and 336 captured. For the British, the cost was 35 killed and 55 wounded. While the battle did not involve either side's battleships, it did have a significant impact on the conflict. Struck by the loss of ships, Kaiser Wilhelm ordered the navy to "hold itself back and avoid actions which can lead to greater losses."

He also stipulated that his permission was required before the fleet could sortie, effectively confining it to port. These actions largely prevented the High Seas Fleet from conducting offensive operations during World War I and ensured that the British retained the initiative for the length of the conflict.

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