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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

019 Maximilian von Spee and the Atlantic family grave

Maximilian von Spee

Maximilian von Spee

German cruisers are scouring the seas 

It is Sunday 1 November 1914. It is the 19th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Germans take the ridge of Mesen and Wijtschaete near Ypres.

The war between Turkey and the allied powers breaks out.

Horatio Kitchener promises the French army command to transfer a million British men to the continent within a year and a half.

The British have to hand over the coastal town of Tanga, in what is now Tanzania, to German troops, which are mainly composed of native Askaris.

Further east, near Mount Kilimanjaro, fighting breaks out.

Great Britain occupies Cyprus.

Near the river Drina Austrian general Oskar Potiorek develops an offensive against Serbian troops, which are greatly outnumbered.

Finally after 150 years a man is executed in the Tower of London: the German spy Carl Lody, also known as Charles A. Inglis.

The German governor hands over the Chinese town of Qingdao to the Japanese.

And two British cruisers are sunk in the Battle of Coronel, a glorious feat of the German vice-admiral Maximilian von Spee.

‘The small cruisers did not count any losses and were not damaged during the battle. On Gneisenau two men were slightly injured. The crew of the ship started the fight with enthusiasm. Everyone did his duty and played a part in the victory.’

With these words Count Maximilian von Spee concludes almost unemotionally his account of the Battle of Coronel, off the coast of Chile on 1 November 1914. The German sea hero has just added an ink-black page to the maritime history of the British: it is the first naval battle which they a hundred years’ time. But Von Spee is not the kind of man to crow victory. He also makes an indirect remark that his men had no chance to save the British from the rough seas. As it happens he thought it wiser to remain prepared for a new confrontation.

Apart from making one or two adventures, The Hochseeflotte of the imperial navy will safely stay at home for the duration of the war.  The heaviest cruisers, the emperor’s toys, should not be lost. U-boats are the main weapons of the German navy throughout the war. However, in the first few months of the war the Germans can positively play one or two trump cards on the surface of the world seas. These cards are in the hands of the able and experienced vice-admiral Maximilian von Spee, who has the right to bear the noble title of count. At the outbreak of the First World War, Von Spee has the command of a flotilla of ships, with Germany’s Chinese colony of Qingdao as its home base. In the summer of 1914 Von Spee even entertained British colleagues on his flagship, Scharnhorst. The officers dined there and the sailors practised sport together. Ganz gemütlich.

But even before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Von Spee decides to leave port. At the end of July, when war is approaching rapidly, he is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Von Spee’s ships concentrate successfully on eliminating commercial and troop transport ships. Generally speaking they observe the code of honour, saving the lives of crew members whenever possible.

We are talking of eight hijackers, whose names are preceded by the letters SMS, Seiner Majestät Schiff. The heaviest two are the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, names that refer to Prussian generals from the days of Napoleon. Six lighter cruisers have been named after German towns. Let’s have a look at each of them.

SMS Königsberg is forced into the African Rufiji delta. The British close off the way to the free sea and will start the attack on the ship many months later in June 1915. The German captain decides to blow up Königsberg, but takes a couple of guns with him for the German land forces in East Africa.

At the outbreak of the war SMS Leipzig is anchored off the west coast of Mexico, but the cruiser joins Von Spee’s squadron. The sister ship of Leipzig, Nürnberg, has the same objective and left Honolulu in August 1914. Also Dresden will side with Von Spee. The Caribbean has been its territory. When America and Mexico came to blows shortly before war broke out in Europe, Dresden made itself useful by evacuating both the Americans and the Mexican president.

Also Karlsruhe has been moving around in the Caribbean, but this cruiser will hide from Von Spee’s view. When Karlsruhe intends to sink a couple of merchant ships again near Barbados, there is a loud explosion. Something must have gone wrong with the ammunition in the ship’s fo’c’sle, though it may well have been the desastrous result of mixing lubricant with paraffin oil. Whatever the case may be, on 4 November 1914 it is curtains for Karlsruhe.

Then there is Emden, galant captain Karl von Müller’s cruiser. Emden succeeds in eliminating numerous allied merchant ships, even more so than Karlsruhe, be it in the Indian Ocean. Von Müller has been given a free hand by Von Spee. When Emden appears in the waters around the Dutch East Indies, Von Müller is urged by the Dutch to push off as quickly as possible. He slips away between Bali and Lombok.

Von Müller is a cunning old fox. He has placed a fake funnel next to the three real ones, so that from a distance the ship would be taken for a British cruiser. French, Japanese, British and Russian ships hunt down Von Müller in vain for a long time. In the beginning of November no fewer than sixty ships comb the Indian Ocean, looking for Emden. Meanwhile Von Müller resolves to eliminate a telegraph office on one of the Cocos Islands. Crew members of Emden go ashore to carry out this assignment, but an employee of the Eastern Telegraph Company has by then already transmitted a message of an unknown warship into the world. Australian cruiser Sydney arrives within three hours to clip the wings of Emden at long last.

Von Müller and the men aboard the ship are taken to the island of Malta as prisoners. The men who have gone ashore for their telegraph mission manage to escape on a schooner. They eventually arrive in Constantinople in June 1915 via the neutral Dutch East Indies and hostile Arabia. They are welcomed as heroes by the Turks. Life as a prisoner of war awaits Von Müller. When he catches malaria in England, he is allowed to regain his strength in the Netherlands as part of a humanitarian prisoner exchange.


Let us return to Von Spee, who has crossed the Pacific Ocean via Samoa, Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands and the Easter Islands. While the Japanese roll up a couple of German islands here and there, Von Spee aims at French possessions. However, when he transmits an uncoded signal from the Easter Islands to the captains of his cruisers and bunker ships, this is also picked up by Christopher Cradock in South America.

The British admiral decides to set sail for the Chilean port of Coronel using ships that were certainly not the fastest and most modern. Von Spee in his turn finds out about this. Offshore  he lies in wait for the British cruisers with the setting sun in his back. It turns out to be a massacre instead of a battle. It is 1 November, All Saints’ Day. Monmouth and Good Hope, silhouettes against the evening glow, go down carrying 1,600 men. Glasgow and Otranto escape and manage to warn approaching Canopus.

The debacle hits hard in England. Just before the humiliating defeat at Coronel Prince Louis of Battenberg has had to stand aside as First Sea Lord. Due to his German descent his position has become untenable. A bit late in the day he will change the name Battenberg into Mountbatten in 1917, after having considered Battenhill for a while.

It is 73-year-old Sir John Fisher who has to absorb the tragic news of Coronel in his first working week as Battenberg’s successor. After consulting Winston Churchill, who is part of the government as First Lord of the Admiralty, Fisher decides to direct two battlecruisers towards Von Spee. Churchill and Fisher fear that Inflexible and Invincible will be looking for a needle in a haystack, but luck will be on their side.

Von Spee has chosen the British Falkland Islands, to Argentina the Malvinas, as his next hunting ground. But his opponent, admiral Doveton Sturdee, has also decided to call at the Falklands. When Inflexible and Invincible are refuelling on 8 December 1914, to his astonishment Sturdee sees the German prey approaching.

Now the tables are turned. Von Spee is not quick enough to avoid the fight. His armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau are no match for the battlecruisers Inflexible and Invincible, which are fast, manoeuvrable and heavily armed. Also the two light cruisers Nürnberg and Leipzig are in for it. Dresden gets away. But in March 1915 it will be caught after all by a British squadron near Chile. After three cheers for emperor and vessel this cruiser also goes to the bottom of the sea. Salient detail: Glasgow, a surviving cruiser of the battle of Coronel, is part of the British squadron.

The curtain has fallen at the Falkland Islands for the German navy on the high seas. The oceans have always remained a side stage of the Great War anyhow. Sure, the eight German hijackers had been a pest like hornets. But the 273,000 tons of merchants ships they eliminated were only 2 per cent of the British merchant navy.

Von Spee went down together with 2,200 of his men, among whom his two sons Otto and Heinrich. Von Spee was 53 years old when he died. His name is cherished in German navy circles. Already in 1917 they started building a battlecruiser named Graf Spee. It was not ready for action in time, however, and it was not to be finished after the armistice either.

In 1934 the armoured cruiser Admiral Graf Spee is launched, but already in 1939 the British navy checkmate the ship near Uruguay. The captain decides to blow up the ship. Later he commits suicide after wrapping himself in a flag of the old Kaiserliche Marine, apparently as a protest against the nazi regime. In 2004 the salvage of Admiral Graf Spee was started. They were able to raise the bronze eagle of the ship, including a swastika.

The name Von Spee is not tainted, for in 1959 the Federal Republic of Germany names a training frigate after the sea count of the First World War, whose life led from a Copenhagen cradle to an Atlantic family grave.

After Coronel Von Spee could have chosen to hide in the ‘blue desert’ of the Pacific Ocean. But in the first flush of victory he chose the attack. Or was it rather a heroic form of defeatism? Two days after Coronel Von Spee confided to a friend: ‘I cannot reach Germany. We do not have another safe haven. I will have to split the seas of the world and do as much damage as possible, until I run out of ammunition or a mightier enemy succeeds in catching me.’

This mightier enemy would not fail to arrive soon.

Next week: Oskar Potiorek

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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