The First World War in 261 weeks

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031 Franz Hipper and his reputation as a baby killer

Franz Hipper

Franz Hipper

Battle at Dogger Bank leads to deadlock

It is Sunday 24 January 1915. It is the 31st week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

A German Zeppelin that bombed the Baltic port of Libau is shot down from the Russian fort.

The Dukla Pass in the eastern Carpathians is the goal of heavy fighting.

Sir John Fisher, First Sea Lord, gives up his opposition against an operation in the Dardanelles, thanks to Winston Churchill.

Edward M. House, senior advisor of American president Woodrow Wilson, embarks on the Lusitania to Europe to continue his peace initiatives.

The Germans do not succeed in crossing the river Aisne at Soissons.

Great Britain releases a five million pound loan to Romania.

French troops in Cameroon capture the town of Bertua.

A lieutenant named Erwin Rommel is awarded an Iron Cross for glorious actions against the French in the Argonne.

The German government decides to confiscate all supplies of cereal and flour.

A German submarine sinks four British merchant vessels off the coast of Lancashire.

And during the Battle of Dogger Bank the losses remain limited for the German squadron of commanding officer Franz Hipper.

‘If the war of 1914 was not a war which the armies of Europe were ready to fight, that was not so with Europe’s great navies.’

This was a perceptive observation of the military historian John Keegan, who died in 2012. The fiddling on the battlefields, the incapacity to capitalize heavy artillery strategically, the squandering of human reserves – this is what Keegan calls ‘pre-war failures’. The generals had no idea about modern warfare when they started on their campaigns. They did not know how to fit in the handbooks which they had learned by heart with the latest technologies.

For that the admirals of the years before 1914 could not be blamed, Keegan makes clear. The navies from both parties had eagerly embraced the latest novelties. The ships had become faster and faster, their military equipment heavier and heavier. The paradox following from this was that the land war went on and on because of the poor preliminary work, whereas the British and the Germans spared their excellent navies for four and a half years.

Indeed the German U-boats undermined the domination of the British at sea considerably. Indeed Maximilian Graf von Spee’s squadron wreaked havoc on the world seas during the first months of the war, but finally suffered defeat near the Falkland Islands. Indeed the Battle of Jutland, also called Battle of the Skagerrak, in the night of 31 May to 1 June 1916 was a tremendous clash. But the all-decisive battle between the Grand Fleet and the Hochseeflotte never took place. The course of the Battle of the Dogger Bank is symptomatic. In short, the Germans flee and the British fail to set off in pursuit.

It is Franz Hipper, born in Bavaria, who approaches the Dogger Bank on 24 January 1915 with his reconnaissance squadron. Between England and Denmark the bottom of the sea rises to about eighteen feet below the surface of the water over a length of nearly 300 kilometers. In 1781, during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, the Dogger Bank had already been the scene of a sea battle.

But that is not what Hipper is after on 24 January. He has come to look at the shallows as he suspects that in reality British fishing boats are patrolling for the Royal Navy. He will of course try to eliminate these boats. But actually Hipper is going to encounter a British squadron at war strength.

Thanks to the crypto-analysts of Room 40 the British know that Hipper is coming. He is in command of three battlecruisers, one armoured cruiser, four light cruisers and eighteen destroyers. The British suspect that he is preparing a new attack on their east coast. The bombings of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby are still hurting the British. Hipper also owes his nickname ‘baby killer’ to this operation.

Yet the importance of his raid of the three coastal towns has remained limited. The Germans mainly dealt a psychological blow, just as the threefold kill of U-boat commander Otto Weddigen in September 1914 had damaged the reputation of the British. But this sort of selective strike action has not brought the Germans any closer to their goal: undermining the maritime superiority of the British until the moment they cannot keep up their maritime blockade of Germany any longer and a real attack by the Germans is justified.

British admiral David Beatty is quite dominant at the Dogger Bank with five battle cruisers, seven light cruisers and thirty-five destroyers. At seven o’clock in the morning he attacks Hipper’s fleet, but fails to cut off the way back for his German adversary. The deficient communication between his ships plays tricks on Beatty. The British still rely on flag-signals instead of trusting their radios. Out of unjustified fear for submarines in Hipper’s proximity, Beatty decides not to go after the German prey.

This is why the German loss remains limited to the only armoured cruiser Blücher, which was at the tail of Hipper’s fleeing squadron. Not an accidental victim. When the ship was launched in 1909, Blücher was already made obsolete by maritime technology. Battle cruisers like Dreadnought, that combined firing power and speed, had already become the terror of the seas.

At half past eleven in the morning Blücher endures a heavy impact. The British cruisers then batter away together, while Hipper and his battle cruisers can sneak off. Left behind by friends and surrounded by enemies Blücher rolls on its side and goes down taking 792 of its crew with it.

Also Hipper’s flagship, battle cruiser Seydlitz, sustains damage. Its rearmost gun-turret has taken a direct hit from Lion, which will not emerge undamaged from the battle either. You can also call it a chance hit, for only six of the 1,152 shells that the British ships fired hit their target.

Sailor Wilhelm Heidkamp recognizes the danger on Seydlitz. When the fire reaches the ammunition depots, the ship will definitely blow up. Heidkamp opens the doors of the depots, allowing water to flow in. The burns which he incurs making his heroic effort, will eventually cost him his life years after the war.

After Dogger Bank the war at sea reaches deadlock which is not broken until the year after at Jutland. They are the only two sea battles in the war where the strongest ships of both navies, ships of the dreadnought calibre, engage in battle with each other.

The Dogger Bank produces a lot of homework for both parties. The Germans especially learn their lesson from the near-disaster with Seydlitz. Instead of going on a rampage again they reinforce the armour-plating of their heaviest ships in their home ports and introduce stricter regulations for explosive cargoes.

Hipper was mainly very lucky at Dogger Bank, but he is also congratulated for his escape. As a maritime tactician his reputation remains intact for the rest of the war. Hipper has not left any memoirs and he has received less biographic attention than other admirals like Reinhard Scheer. An English biography from 1982 typifies him in the title as an ‘inconvenient hero’.

According to the author Daniel Allen Butler there is no doubt that Hipper got through the war with gnashing teeth. The great care of the emperor himself and the half-hearted strategics of the respective commanding officers Von Ingenohl and Von Pohl went against his nature of boldness.

When the more aggressive Reinhard Scheer stood at the helm of the navy, Hipper’s career was very much at risk. He had to go on sick leave. Sciatica caused severe backaches which he fought in a sanatorium. Scheer, the new commander who was not free of envy, wanted to get rid of Hipper, but the navy staff did not support this. Consequently Hipper then was to serve Scheer in the great sea battle of Jutland in 1916. He inflicted heavy blows on admiral Beatty’s squadron, but especially excelled by carrying out a massive charge when Scheer’s navy was experiencing extreme adversity.

Franz Hipper, son of a middle-class shopkeeper from the southern German town of Weilheim, joins the Kaiserliche Marine when he is only eighteen. Henry of Prussia, the brother of kaiser Wilhelm II, is a role model to Hipper. In 1894 and 1895 Hipper is officer on the Wörth, which is a technologically advanced battleship under the command of Henry, who is reputedly a real sailor. At the same time the prince has an enormous popularity among his men. Just like Henry Hipper will also demonstrate his hatred of paperwork.

Immediately after the Battle of Jutland, Hipper is knighted by the Bavarian king Ludwig III. Unlike the German army, which with its decorum counted many aristocrats in its officer corps, there were quite a few citizens in the navy top, with all its technological challenges. This explains how a person like Franz Hipper could become Franz von Hipper after a steadily progressing career. His superior officer was also offered a knighthood for his services at Jutland, but Reinhard Scheer declined.

In August 1918 this very same Scheer is promoted to chief-of-staff of the Seekriegsleitung. Von Hipper is the one to succeed him as commanding officer of the Hochseeflotte. The war is nearing the end, but a man like Von Hipper cannot swallow that the imposing German navy has hardly taken part in the battle. Now that the trump card of the U-boats has been played and the great offensive of the German army on the western front has silted up, the great moment for the navy has come.

Von Hipper organizes the preparations for the heroic final chord of his navy. But then the sailors and stokers got their first wind of the Götterdämmerung which was Von Hipper’s key objective. The revolt spreads from the town of Kiel. A member of the crew of torpedo-boat B97 concluded a letter to his father as follows: ‘Do not worry, even though everything is in chaos. We will not allow ourselves to get shot in these last days.’

Red flags are hoisted on ships. Fights break out between rebellious and obedient divisions. Eventually over eight thousand men are arrested on the quaysides, but Von Hipper avoids a bloodbath among the mutineers, though they have refused him his grand finale in the war.

The Armistice is on 11 November 1918. Already a few weeks later Von Hipper is released from the navy as admiral. However he expresses his approval of the decision taken  by the German navy top in June 1919 to submerse the remainder of the navy off Scapa Flow. But he does not show up during the interbellum in political circles where a rebirth of the German navy is hatched out.

In 1932, at the age of 68, the admiral for whom war was business, not a matter of romanticism, dies. British admiral Sir David Beatty has never met his German opponent, not even in peacetime, but devoted warm words to Hipper when he heard of his demise: ‘I am very sorry. One would like to express one’s regrets for the passing of a gallant officer and a great sailor.’

He was also cold-blooded and ruthless. To the British a baby killer, this is the picture of him that remains: a commanding officer unemotionally giving his orders on the bridge in the heat of the battle, while chewing a cigar.

Next week: August von Mackensen

Translation: Peter Veltman


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One thought on “031 Franz Hipper and his reputation as a baby killer

  1. Pingback: Warship Wednesday May 13, 2015: The 18,000-ton Boogieman of the Barents Sea | laststandonzombieisland

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