The Battle of Heligoland Bight - First Naval Battle of WWI
28 August 1914
The first naval battle of World War I, the Battle of Heligoland Bight, took place on this day in maritime history, 28 August 1914. The battle itself took place in the North Sea off Germany’s northwest coast. The British Royal Navy had originally planned to continue with its traditional strategy of close blockades on its enemy’s ports, but the advent of submarines and sea mines forced Britain to adopt a more cautious strategy going forward. Germany also expected Britain to pursue its traditional strategy and the German High Seas Fleet therefore remained mostly within German holdings, patrolling and waiting for the British attack.
Although neither side went on the offensive early in the war, Commodore Roger Keyes and Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt of the Royal Navy observed that German destroyers had adopted a regular pattern of patrols where each evening cruisers would escort out destroyers, which would patrol for British ships during the night before being met and escorted home each morning. The British planned to exploit this weakness by using submarines as a decoy to lure the German patrol out to sea and then cutting it off from escape. This plan became the British focal point in their preparation for the first attack and on the morning of 28 August 1914, that attack became the Battle of Heligoland Bight.
A British fleet of 31 destroyers, two cruisers, and eight submarines was dispatched to carry out the ambush on the German patrol, with long range support coming from an additional six light cruisers and five battlecruisers. In the end, the British plan was carried out much as it had been imagined, though last-minute reinforcements prevented what could have turned into defeat for the Royal Navy. Three German light cruisers and one destroyer were sunk. Three more light cruisers were damaged, 712 sailors killed, 530 injured and 336 taken prisoner.
The British victory in the first naval battle of WWI is seen as being of major import to the early course of the war. It was a morale booster for the Royal Navy while simultaneously turning the German High Seas Fleet into a more cautious, defensive fleet than it had previously been. Churchill remarked of the battle that “The results of this action were far-reaching. Henceforward, the weight of British Naval prestige lay heavy across all German sea enterprise … The German Navy was indeed “muzzled”. Except for furtive movements by individual submarines and minelayers, not a dog stirred from August till November.”
Both photos above show the German light cruiser SMS Mainz as it sinks during the battle.