Second Battle of Heligoland Bight

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The Second Battle of Heligoland Bight was a naval skirmish fought on 17 November 1917 near the island of Heligoland near the main German naval base at Wilhelmshaven.


At 0730, the British First Cruiser Squadron was steering 90 degrees at 22 knots with the Sixth Light Cruiser Squadron one mile to their port beam at 25 knots and the First Light Cruiser Squadron three miles astern. Ten destroyers screened the forces.[1]

During the First World War, the British laid large numbers of mines in the Helgoland Bight in an attempt to prevent U-boats travelling to the Atlantic via the North Sea. The Germans sent minesweepers up to 100 miles from Heligoland almost every day in an attempt to clear them. They were normally escorted by light cruisers and torpedo boats, with battleships sometimes covering them. By mid November 1917 the British Admiralty had enough intelligence on German operations to plan an attack on the minesweepers and their escorts.[2]

The British striking force that sailed from Rosyth on the Firth of Forth at 4:30 pm on 16 November comprised First Cruiser Squadron (Vice Admiral Trevelyan Napier), Sixth Light Cruiser Squadron (Rear Admiral (Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair), First Light Cruiser Squadron (Commodore Walter Cowan), and First Battle Cruiser Squadron (Vice Admiral William Christopher Pakenham). Pakenham was in overall command of the operation, but Napier commanded the two light cruiser squadrons as well as his own cruiser squadron. The First Battle Squadron of six battleships and eleven destroyers was in a supporting position several hours steaming away.[3]

The German minesweeping force consisted of the VI Minesweeping Group, the II and VI Support Groups and the IV Barrier Breaker Group, totalling sixteen auxiliaries and a similar number of trawlers, escorted by eight destroyers of the VII Torpedo Boat Flotilla and the four light cruisers of the II Scouting Group (Konteradmiral Ludwig von Reuter). Two German battleships were in support near Heligoland.[4]

The light battlecruisers H.M.S. Courageous and H.M.S. Glorious, were fast (32 knot), lightly armoured ships armed with four 15-in, eighteen 4-in and two 3-in guns plus two 21-in torpedo tubes. They had very shallow drafts and had been intended to take part in operations in the Baltic, which were cancelled when Admiral Lord Fisher ceased to be First Sea Lord. Fisher called them large light cruisers in order to evade a government order forbidding the construction of more capital ships.

The British spotted the German ships at 0730, opening fire seven minutes later. The Germans destroyers and light cruisers turned towards the British and covered the minesweepers with a smokescreen. All withdrew except the armed trawler Kehdingen', which had been hit and immobilised. The other German ships were in the smoke before the British could ascertain their strength.[5]

The German ships became visible briefly and were fired on but the situation remained unclear until 0807, when Napier's flagship Courageous cleared the smoke, allowing him to see three German light cruisers to the south east, steering east north east. Four minutes later they changed course to the south east.[6]

The German auxiliaries were now to the north east and were not being pursued. Reuter could therefore draw the British through the minefields towards the German battleships. The British could fire only their forward guns at his light cruisers but a single hit by a 15 inch shell on one of them could slow her by a few knots, meaning that he would have to abandon her, as Admiral Franz von Hipper had had to do with armoured cruiser S.M.S. Blücher at the Battle of Dogger Bank in 1915.[7]

Courageous and Glorious opened fire at 0810, but it was another 10 minutes until all the British ships were in range of the Germans. They then laid another smokescreen and fifteen minutes later disappeared into dense smoke. Napier was now at the edge of the British minefields and turned to port, considering that the situation was too uncertain to risk continuing. The light cruisers followed just after 0840. The Sixth Light Cruiser Squadron made the smallest turn and H.M.S. Cardiff was hit and damaged at 0850. The smokescreen was now clearing, revealing that the Germans had not changed course.[8]

Napier's squadron had lost five miles and was now at extreme range, although the Sixth Light Cruiser Squadron and H.M.S. Caledon of the First Light Cruiser Squadron were closer.[9]

The British opened fire again at 0852. Napier decided to follow the Germans for twelve more miles, which would take his force to the edge of an area that the Admiralty had in 1915 labelled as being dangerous because of mines. His force had now been reinforced by the battlecruiser H.M.S. Repulse, which had been ordered by Pakenham not to enter the minefields.[10]

At 0858 Pakenham ordered the British to withdraw. He had received a signal from Napier at 0852 that implied that contact with the Germans had been lost permanently but actually meant that they had temporarily disappeared behind a smokescreen. All British ships were in action by the time Pakenham's withdrawal order was received, and it was disregarded.[11]

As the battle was a stern chase for the Royal Navy, none of their cruisers fired torpedoes. Gallingly, three of four destroyer torpedo firings had bad impulse charges, though one of these three torpedoes got free in time, anyway. The two successful firers were Ursa and Vanquisher.[12]

The First Light Cruiser Squadron presented an unfortunately nice torpedo target which the German light cruisers leapt at with fervour from a position four points on the bow at 14-16,000 yards range. Six to eight enemy torpedoes came through the squadron or passed near it. It was felt that during this period Galatea was hit near her bridge by a torpedo which did not explode.[13]

Firing was intermittent, but the British believed that they had damaged at least one German cruiser. At 0932 Napier took Courageous and Glorious out of the action, This happened just after the German torpedo attack because they had reached the edge of the area labelled as being dangerous because of mines. The light cruisers, whose commanders did not have the chart on which Napier had based his decision, continued the pursuit.

At 0940 H.M.S. Calypso was damaged, but the British appeared to have the advantage until just before 0950, when the light cruisers came under from the German battleships S.M.S. Kaiser and S.M.S. Kaiserin. At this point, Admiral Alexander-Sinclair ordered the light cruisers to withdraw, covered by Repulse. The Germans did not pursue them and a thick fog descended at 1040. [14]

The British thought that some of the torpedoes fired at them came from a U-boat but none were present.[15]

The British thought that some of the torpedoes fired at them came from a U-boat but none were present.[16] The Germans repeatedly straddled the British ships but scored only seven hits, all on the light cruisers. The British managed only five hits, with S.M.S. Königsberg being the only German ship seriously damaged. A shell from Repulse penetrated her three funnels and exploded over one of the boiler rooms. Her repairs were completed on 15 December. [17]

The Role of Honour lists 22 British sailors killed at the Second Bight of Heligoland Bight, all of them on light cruisers.[18] None of the sources consulted provide figures for German casualties. One of the British dead, Ordinary Seaman John Carless of H.M.S. Caledon, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Carless, who had joined the Royal Navy in September 1915 after being rejected by the army four times because of a weak heart, remained at his post and continued to load his gun despite being severely wounded. The citation for his VC stated that:[19]

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. Although mortally wounded in the abdomen, he still went on serving the gun at which he was acting as rammer, lifting a projectile and helping to clear away the other casualties. He collapsed once, but got up, tried again, and cheered on the new gun's crew. He then fell and died. He not only set a very inspiring and memorable example, but he also, whilst mortally wounded, continued to do effective work against the King's enemies. — The London Gazette, No. 30687, 17 May 1918

The British failure to pursue more effectively was partly due to the light cruiser admirals not having all the information about minefields available to the Admiralty and to Napier. Additionally, Napier pursued at 25 knots when Courageous and Glorious were capable of at least thirty knots and were superior to the German light cruisers that they were chasing.[20]

The only vessel sunk in the battle was the German Kehdingen but losing only one trawler when so heavily outnumbered was a success for the Germans in an action where the British might have sunk a large number of minesweepers, destroyers and light cruisers.

Caledon was hit by a 5.9-in and an 11- or 12-in shell. Cardiff was hit by four 5.9-in shells, and Calypso by a single 5.9-in shell in the conning tower that forced in an Electro-Pneumatic firing push and thereby caused her to fire a ready torpedo. This quirk inspired issuance of a Torpedo Order to keep safety pins or push covers in place until the moment before firing.[21]


British Order of Battle

Taken from the British Official History.[22]

First Cruiser Squadron

Screened by:

Sixth Light Cruiser Squadron

Screened by:

First Light Cruiser Squadron

Screened by:

First Battle Cruiser Squadron

Screened by:

First Battle Squadron

Screened by:

See Also


  1. Grand Fleet Gunnery and Torpedo Orders. No. 311.
  2. Naval Operations. Vol. V. pp.165-66.
  3. Marder. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. IV. pp. 300-1.
  4. The Great War at Sea: A Naval Atlas 1914-1919. pp. 138-39.
  5. Naval Operations. Vol. V. pp.169-70.
  6. Naval Operations. Vol. V. pp.170-71.
  7. Naval Operations. Vol. V. p.171.
  8. Naval Operations. Vol. V. p.172.
  9. Marder. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. IV. p. 302.
  10. Naval Operations. Vol. V. pp.172-73.
  11. Naval Operations. Vol. V. pp.173.
  12. Grand Fleet Gunnery and Torpedo Orders. 1/5/1918, p. 40.
  13. Grand Fleet Gunnery and Torpedo Orders. 1/5/1918, p. 40.
  14. Naval Operations. Vol. V. pp.175-76.
  15. Marder. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. IV. pp. 305.
  16. Marder. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. IV. pp. 305.
  17. Marder. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. IV. pp. 304.
  18. [
  19. [
  20. Naval Operations. Vol. V. pp.177.
  21. Grand Fleet Gunnery and Torpedo Orders. 1/5/1918, p. 40.
  22. Naval Operations. Vol. V. pp. 168-169.


  • Newbolt, Henry (1931). Naval Operations. Vol. V. London: Longmans, Green and Co..
  • Faulkner,Marcus (2015). The Great War at Sea: A Naval Atlas 1914-1919. Barnsley. Seaforth.
  • Marder, Arthur J. (1970). From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919: 1917, Year of Crisis. Volume V. London: Oxford University Press.