August 28th in German History: The Battle of Heligoland Blight

A Remarkable Camera Record of the Sinking of the German Cruiser Mainz off Heligoland August 28th 1914.jpg
The German light cruiser SMS Mainz just before it sank.

The beginning of the 20th century had seen a great shift in German foreign policy. Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted to assert Germany’s position on the world stage. To this end, he pursued a program of naval construction with the intent of building a fleet that could contend with the Royal Navy. The resulting naval arms race was one of the causes of the First World War. However, the war itself saw relatively little action between the opposing navies. The first of the few battles, the Battle of Heligoland Blight, was fought on August 28th, 1914.

During the first month of WWI the British Army rapidly transferred hundreds of thousands of troops to France. The Germans failed to disrupt this action, as the British Home Fleet had set up patrols in the Heligoland Blight, off the coast of Germany. Destroyer and Cruiser squadrons were tasked with watching for German fleet movements. If anything was spotted, the main fleet would sail out to engage. The British learned that the Germans had a regular schedule for their patrols, and came up with a plan to attack one of them. The plan called for a large force of destroyers and light cruisers to ambush a German squadron as it returned to port in the night. The attack commenced on August 28th. The German ships were commanded by Rear Admiral Leberecht Maass while the two British flotillas were commanded by Reginald Tyrwhitt and Roger Keyes. Maass’s ships were severely outnumbered and spread out, which allowed the British ships to isolate and destroy them. From 7 am to 11:30 am groups of German light cruisers suffered heavy damage, although the few light cruisers involved did succeed in damaging a few British ships. By 11:30 am, the tide had risen to the point where larger German ships would be able to enter the engagement. Further, three German light cruisers had arrived and succeeded in damaging several British destroyers. However, the Germans were still outnumbered and the cruiser Mainz was surrounded by multiple destroyers and the cruiser Arethusa. Soon after, five British battle cruisers commanded by Admiral Beatty arrived and sunk two of the three reinforcing cruisers. One of those cruisers was Maass’s ship, and he was killed in its sinking. The arrival of a mist saved the other German ships and by 3:10 larger German ships arrived, but by then the British had retreated.

When the two sides broke contact, the Germans had lost three light cruisers and one torpedo boat. Three light cruisers and three more torpedo boats were damaged. The British had only suffered one damaged light cruiser and three damaged destroyers. German dead numbered 712 to Britain’s 35. The battle was the first in a string of minor defeats that the German Navy suffered in the first year of the war. The ship losses were not the most significant consequence, though. The High Seas Fleet could afford to lose a few light cruisers, especially since those ships were of limited used in large-scale fleet engagements. More importantly than the suffering of the fleet was the hit to Kaiser Wilhelm’s ego. He could not bear to lose his precious ships and essentially robbed the naval commanders of freedom of action. The dreadnoughts and battle cruisers of the German Navy would remain sequestered in port for most of the war because those in positions of influence refused to risk losing them. Thus, at the cost of a few hundred men across a handful of battles, the British Navy won the naval war. Without control of the seas Germany could not fully feed itself, and thus was set on a clock which, when it ran out, would force the nation to surrender or starve.

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