With only a couple of exceptions since the Battle of Jutland in the summer of 1916, the German High Seas Fleet had sat mostly at anchor at the Schillig roadstead off of the main German naval base in Wilhelmshaven. Days of inactivity had turned to weeks, which turned into months, which transformed the expensive, mighty battleships of the Kaiserliche Marine into rusting hulks crewed by aggravated, bored sailors. The attitude around Wilhelmshaven had only become worse in recent days as the U-boat fleet had been ordered to return to port as the new government of Max von Baden ended Germany’s unrestricted U-boat campaign as an American-requested prerequisite to armistice negotiations.
But there was an air of excitement at Wilhelmshaven on October 24th, 1918. Orders had come down from the Chief of the German Admiralty, Reinhard Scheer – the High Sea Fleet would prepare to launch it’s entire armada out into the North Sea. 18 Dreadnoughts, 5 battlecruisers, 14 light cruisers, 60 destroyers and torpedo boats and nearly 30 submarines would sail for the Thames Estuary to engage a numerically superior British Navy in the thick of their home waters. The likely endgame was clear to German officers. The Chief of Staff to the High Sea Fleet’s admiral wrote in his diary that the coming offensive was “a battle for the honour of the fleet in this war, even if it were a death battle,” yet was necessary as “it would be the foundation for a new German fleet.”
Acting clearly against the wishes of the civilian German government, and even the Kaiser, the Kaiserliche Marine had put into the motion the first pieces of what on paper would be the largest naval battle in human history – twice the size of the forces at Jutland if all ships became engaged. It would end with their nation in defeat and engulfed in revolution.
The condition of the German Navy had seemingly been both a source of concern and a blind eye for the Oberste Heeresleitung or German High Command.
The sailors of the High Seas Fleet returning from Jutland on June 1st, 1916 were exuberant, having won a tactical victory and believing the congratulations sent to them by their Kaiser that they had “started a new chapter in world history” by defeating the vaunted British Royal Navy. But the cost of Jutland – 11 ships – had precluded another significant campaign in the minds of the German command, and the High Seas Fleet had only left Wilhelmshaven three times since June of 1916, and only once since the fall of that same year. Scheer, the commander of the High Seas Fleet until August of 1918, had in part led that charge, arguing that unrestricted submarine attacks were the only hope Germany had for winning the war on the seas. As a result, outside of the U-boats, the Kaiserliche Marine had nothing to do but wait. Continue reading