The Battle of the Heligoland Bight – 28th August 1914

The battle arose from a plan devised by Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt and Commodore Roger Keyes. Tyrwhitt commanded a destroyer force and Keyes commanded a squadron of long-range submarines, both based at Harwich. They had noticed that the German Navy had a routine whereby, each evening, cruisers would escort out destroyers who would then patrol the area through the night before being met by cruisers and escorted home the following morning. Tyrwhitt and Keyes planned to attack the destroyers before they could be escorted home. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, approved the plan but with the alteration that the attack on the Germans would take place at 08.00 on the Germans’ day time patrol.

British submarines set sail on 26th August. The E6, E7 and E8 were to draw the Germans out to sea, while the E4, E5 and E9 positioned themselves to cut off German ships attempting to retreat to their bases while D2 and D8 positioned themselves off the River Ems to intercept any German reinforcements from that direction. Keyes was aboard the destroyer HMS Lurcher. On 27th August Tyrwhitt set out aboard a new light cruiser, HMS Arethusa, leading the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla of sixteen modern L-class destroyers. He was followed by the 1st Destroyer Flotilla of sixteen older ships, which was led by Captain Wilfred Blunt on the light cruiser HMS Fearless. The Arethusa was so new that it had only just joined the force. Its crew was inexperienced and some of its guns were prone to jamming. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, in command of Britain’s Grand Fleet, decided to send further reinforcements. Commodore William Goodenough’s 1st Light Cruiser Squadron, comprising the Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, Falmouth and Lowestoft were sent south and, at some distance, the battlecruisers Lion, Queen Mary and Princess Royal.

Around 07.00 on 28th August Tyrwhitt, on the Arethusa followed by the 16 destroyers of the 3rd Flotilla, sighted the German destroyer G-194. The G-194 turned away towards Heligoland and radioed back that British units were in the area. Rear Admiral Franz Hipper ordered the light cruisers Stettin and Frauenlob to go out to support the destroyers. He also ordered the light cruisers Mainz, Strassburg, Cöln, Ariadne, Stralsund, Kolberg, Danzig and Munchen to get under way and get to the destroyers as soon as possible.

The British destroyers attacked the German destroyers and the latter took some hits. They requested support from coastal batteries, but visibility rendered this impossible. Tyrwhitt led the Arethusa and Fearless east towards the sound of the guns. The German destroyers reached Heligoland and Tyrwhitt broke off the pursuit. At this point, about 07.58, Stettin and Frauenlob arrived and the British destroyers retreated westwards towards their own light cruisers. Having achieved the objective of extricating the destroyers, Stettin withdrew, but Frauenlob engaged Arethusa. Arethusa had two 6-inch guns and four 4-inch guns, while the Frauenlob had ten 4-inch guns. This should have given the Arethusa an advantage, but technical problems with some of the guns slowed Arethusa’s rate of fire so that the British ship suffered damage. Suddenly, the situation was turned about when one of Arethusa’s 6-inch shells scored a direct hit on Frauenlob’s bridge killing 37 men including the German Captain. The Frauenlob was forced to drop out of the battle and managed to reach Wilhelmshaven.


Tyrwhitt returned to the original plan and began a sweep to the east. They sighted some German destroyers who made a run for it, but Goodenough’s light cruisers were beginning to arrive and threatened to cut off the retreat of the German destroyers, one of which, the V-187, turned west and tried to pass through the British destroyers. This was unsuccessful and the V-187 was surrounded by British destroyers and sunk. The British attempted to rescue survivors in the water but at this point the Stettin returned to the battle and opened fire. The British ships had to withdraw, leaving the German sailors and their British rescuers in the water. The British submarine E4 fired a torpedo at the Stettin but missed, and the Stettin tried to ram the British submarine, which successfully evaded this by diving. Eventually the sub resurfaced and all the large ships had gone. The British sailors were taken on board the sub but there was no room for the Germans who were given the boats and a compass to enable them to get back to Germany.

Goodenough’s light cruisers were now arriving at the combat area, but Tyrwhitt and Keyes had not been told they were on their way. Consequently, there was a period of utter confusion when Tyrwhitt and Keyes’s ships thought that Goodenough’s ships were hostile and vice versa. There was a great danger that they would fire on each other, and a British submarine fired two torpedoes at HMS Southampton while the light cruiser tried to ram the sub. Fortunately, both vessels escaped unharmed.

By now the German light cruisers were arriving in the combat area. They were converging from different directions but, as the German command had not yet understood the nature of the fight they were in, their ships were spread out in a search formation rather than being concentrated. Strassburg sighted the Arethusa and attacked with shells and torpedoes. Arethusa was damaged from its duel with Frauenlob, so this was a very dangerous moment, but accompanying British destroyers drove the Strassburg away by torpedo attacks of their own. Next, the Cöln came up from the south-east with Rear-Admiral Leberecht Maass aboard, but the British destroyers also successfully drove off this attack. Tyrwhitt sent out a message requesting assistance and Goodenough with his light cruisers, and Beatty with his battlecruisers, set course to join in the battle.

At 11.30 the SMS Mainz engaged with Tyrwhitt’s force, an exchange which lasted about 20 minutes, but then Goodenough arrived with the Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Falmouth. (The Nottingham and Lowestoft had lost communication with the rest of the squadron and took no further part in the battle). The Mainz sustained severe damage and at 12.20 her Captain ordered her to be scuttled and the crew to abandon ship.

Cöln now combined with Strassburg to launch a further attack on the British but at this point Vice-Admiral David Beatty arrived with the British battlecruisers – a far mightier force than any that had been engaged in the battle hitherto. The lighter British units carried on their withdrawal to the west while Beatty went straight for the Germans. Strassburg managed to escape, but Cöln was quickly disabled by the British big guns.

Instead of going in for the kill, Beatty sighted another German light cruiser, the Ariadne, and set off in pursuit of her. Ariadne was caught and sunk by only three salvoes at 15.00. A danger to the British was that, as the tide rose, larger German units would be able to leave harbour and head for the battle. Consequently, Beatty decided to call it a day and ordered a British withdrawal to the north. Coming across the Cöln once again Beatty once more opened

fire. This time the Cöln sank with great loss of life. The British thought they had sighted German submarines and so could not stay to pick up survivors. Rear-Admiral Maass was among those who died. In mid-afternoon several German battlecruisers arrived at the scene and searched for British ships, but they were far too late.

This battle was a clear British success. The Germans had lost the light cruisers Cöln, Ariadne, and Mainz, and the destroyer V-187 all sunk. The light cruiser Frauenlob had been severely damaged and the light cruisers Strassburg and Stettin had received significant damage. They had 712 men dead, including Rear-Admiral Maass, 336 taken prisoner, and 194 wounded. The British had lost no ships and had suffered 35 men killed and 40 wounded.

The biggest damage done to the German navy was that this emphatic demonstration of the “Nelson touch” left the Germans with a sense of their own inferiority. Their sailors were skilful and brave, their ships were technically superior, and their gunnery was better than that of the Royal Navy, but they were never able to free themselves from a sense that the Royal Navy was unbeatable. This was especially true of the Kaiser himself, who issued orders that deprived his Naval commanders of much of their freedom of movement.

The Orange contribution
Once again, given the strength of the Orange Order in the Royal Navy, Orangemen had fought on several of His Majesty’s warships during this battle. Beatty’s Battlecruisers, Lion, New Zealand, and Princess Royal, all had Orangemen in their crews. Commodore Keyes’s flagship, the Destroyer HMS Lurcher, had several Orangemen aboard. Brothers W Hathaway and A Cosway were both members of Ulster Scot LOL 287, which was based at Devonport, and Brothers J Magill, J Southerland, and F J Willmer were members of King William III LOL 688, which had been based in Plymouth.

The Loyal Orange Institution which existed before the union of 1876 had a LOL 287 in Glasgow. Following the union between the Association and the Institution there had been an LOL 287 in Bradford in the early 1880’s, but nothing further is known about it. From 1881 there was a LOL 287 in Devonport which met at a Temperance Hotel on Fore Street in that town. By the time the 1915 Lodge Directory was published, the Lodge was shown as “On War Service with the Fleet” and it was by this time known as “Ulster Scot”. The WM was Charles Alexander and the Secretary John C Matthews. By 1916 the Lodge seems to have been able to function to some degree as it is then shown as meeting in the Oddfellows’ Hall in Ker Street. This building is still in existence as the Ker Street Social Club at the top of Ker Street. After the War the Orange Order acquired a Hall in Devonport on James Street, and LOL 287 carried on meeting here as late as 1938. In the 1940 Lodge Directory the Lodge is showing as “no returns” and it has not since been revived.

Loyal Orange Lodge No 688 was founded in Plymouth sometime between 1893 and 1902. At first it met at the Holy Trinity Schoolrooms on Citadel Road, but by 1907 they had moved to the Emmanuel Baptist Schoolrooms on North Road. By the time of the First World War the Lodge was meeting at the Foresters’ Hall in Union Street. In the 1916 Lodge Directory the WM is shown as R McKinney, Sergeants’ Quarters, Royal Marine Barracks, Stonehouse. After the First World War ended the Lodge moved to the Orange Hall on James Street, as had LOL 287. There were five lodges meeting at that Hall in 1919.

It has so far been impossible to find out anything about the Orange brethren serving on HMS Lurcher, with the exception of Brother F J Willmer. He seems to have been born in Brighton, but there were two men of that name born in the town. Our brother seems to have been born in 1885 with the full name Frederick James Burchell Willmer. He moved to London at some stage and became a tobacconist’s assistant in Fulham. By 1912 he was a Telegraphist on board HMS Lurcher. He married early that same year in Pontypool, Monmouthshire, and went to live with his wife at Gwehelog.

Although I have found no record of Orangemen in its crew, HMS Firedrake had men aboard who had signed the British Covenant. In March 1914, at the time of the Curragh Incident, Engineer Lieutenant E Rankin had informed his Captain that “I had signed the British Covenant and that I should be no party to any aggressive move against Ulster if that were the intention in sending us to Kingstown”.

Brother Michael E Phelan,
Grand Orange Lodge of England

14th June 2014