Germany’s High Sea Fleet in the First World War by Reinhard Scheer

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  • ‘Thrice armed is he who gets his blow in first’ .. Scheer, commander of the Kaiser’s High Sea Fleet at Jutland (Skagerrak in any German text) published this, his personal account of Germany’s naval war (including U-boat campaign) in September 1919. It was translated and published in English in 1920, of which edition this is a reprint.

    The main virtue of this work is as a window into Scheer’s tactical and strategic thinking, particularly at Dogger Bank, and at Jutland (to the Germans, ‘Skagerrak’). It was used and cited in Arthur J Marder’s ‘From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow’ (5 vols, 1960s/70s, Seaforth paperback 2014), and in Paul G Halpern’s single volume ‘A Naval History of World War 1’ (USNI/UCL Press 1994), both of whom present more balanced accounts for the general reader.

    There is quite a bit of cut and paste of contemporary documents raised by Scheer to express his point of view to the high command, chiefly desperately pressing for Unrestricted U-boat Warfare, but also extracts from actual U-boat commander’s reports, and from his own High Sea Fleet logs. Scheer includes, as of the end of 1916, a detailed summary of British shipping and imports as understood by him at the time. There is something of an interesting litany of excuses - mines, weather, damage, collisions - explaining the HSF’s cancelled operations and general inactivity. The book is also a mine of interesting technical and operational points, particularly in relation to Zeppelins, which were under naval control, and relating to the numbers, characteristics, capabilities other details of the different types of U-boats.

    As a tour d’horizon of Germany’s naval war the narrative is somewhat incomplete as it glosses over or obfuscates various embarrassments like the German defeat off the Falkland Islands. It is a self-serving and selective account, rich in the sort of vainglorious rhetoric one would never find in a similar memoir by a British commander. When the fleets do meet there is often a gross over-statement of British damage (including a claim to have sunk HMS Warspite!), even though Scheer had Jellicoe’s accounts to hand as evidenced by footnotes. Overall there is a defensive tone which bespeaks a (well justified!) sense of inferiority. In the summer and autumn of 1918, when Scheer has been promoted to overall charge of the German Navy, he gives us highly valuable insights into the internal political process and discussions in the run up to the Armistice, and into the sclerotic organisation of his navy which he planned to fix.

    The main insight into Scheer’s character is as a man without an ethical bone in his body. Throughout he justifies violence to civilians, in breach of the then recent Hague Conventions, on grounds of military expediency; for him the end justifies the means. The statement that Scarborough, wantonly shelled by German battle cruisers, was ‘fortified’ (p.68) is a point blank lie, and the Baralong incident is gratuitously misdescribed. Scheer endorses by quotation Zeppelin commanders’ gleeful reports such as ‘One bomb in particular had a tremendous effect. Near the spot where it exploded houses kept falling on each side until at last a huge black hole stood out ..’ (p.116), ‘The effect was grand; blocks of houses and streets collapsed entirely .. ’ (p.121) and ‘Whole districts of houses seemed to be hurled into the air’ (p.209). Then Scheer has the brass neck to criticise a British fishing vessel for not rescuing the crew of a Zeppelin who ditched while returning from a raid, for which there may have been a multitude of causes. As to the Unrestricted U-boat War which he personally and continually pressed on the high command, he denies that merchantmen have any right of self defence (while asserting it for the U-boats) and dismisses the resulting plight of neutrals as, effectively, hard luck. In Scheer’s view Allied merchant seamen and indeed neutrals are the ones to blame for their own deaths. He praises the eventual Scapa scuttling, ignoring the fact that this was a deliberate and planned breach of the Armistice terms. The man operates in a total moral vacuum.

    There is a deal of specious misrepresentation, and argument by false analogy and false equivalence, for instance between the British blockade conducted scrupulously in accordance with the cruiser rules, and the deliberately murderous German U-boat campaign. Scheer often does not seem to grasp the wider political picture, which is a defect in such a senior commander (although he was not alone in that) and right up to the end he did not seem to grasp that Germany had been beaten in the field.

    Scheer tries to avoid recognising Jutland as a strategic defeat for Germany (and a lucky escape for several of his ships). However in his closing pages there is the ultimate admission that his fleet was brought to its knees, and his country to defeat, by mutiny largely caused by the effect of the Royal Navy’s hugely successful blockade, which at Jutland he had hoped to find the means to break. Scheer is rather cross about that.

    Ultimately Tirpitz’ battleship building represented an enormous diversion of gold, steel, coal and manpower for no useful strategic result. Scheer’s assertion that is was defensive is risible, as no battlefleet would ever have attacked Germany’s North Sea coast, given the constricted water and the German shore and other defences.

    Although illustrated only by a formal photograph of the author, the book contains a number of diagrams and maps of various actions, but the quality of reproduction was poor and I found many hard to follow and ultimately not particularly helpful. There is some overlap and repetition in the patchwork of incidents. The grammar of the translation is sometimes stilted, even turgid (one paragraph consists of a single unpunctuated 65-word sentence). Sometimes the (anonymous) translator has not fully understood the subject but the informed reader can probably bridge this.

    I found the book very interesting, but in spite of this edition featuring an introduction by Marcus Faulkner and Andrew Lambert, it is essentially a work for the specialist. Without such introduction, it is available as a Kindle download for 99p.

    Two anchors.

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