Sunday, May 17, 2015

Imperial German Navy -1918

SMS Baden, with her main battery trained to port.

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg had resigned as Chancellor in July 1917 after the disgrace of America's declaration of war. He was succeeded by a procession of nonentities until October 1, 1918, when Prince Max, the Kaiser's cousin, assumed the office-but did so on the condition that he would actively seek an armistice with the Allies. President Woodrow Wilson had issued an outline for peace in January, called the Fourteen Points, which Prince Max immediately accepted as the basis for negotiating a cease-fire, but by now events were creating their own momentum that was taking over. Max's determination to seek peace was fiercely opposed by Admiral Scheer, who was now the chief of staff of the Imperial German Navy, having taken over from Admiral von Holtzendorff, who had resigned in August when his health gave out. Scheer refused to accept the truth that the war was all but over, and continued to dream up offensive schemes for the submarine flotillas and the High Seas Fleet. It was this last, mad flurry of planning that created the catalyst that finally brought down the German Empire.

Col. General von Ludendorff was dismissed by the Kaiser on October 26, after presenting Wilhelm with a virtual ultimatum, asking the monarch to choose between von Ludendorff and Prince Max, essentially a choice between continuing a war already lost and finding a way to end the fighting. Wilhelm, seeing the future with startling clarity, understood that von Ludendorff- who by this time may have been slightly mad-was quite willing to plunge Germany into a gargantuan Gotterdammerung in order to preserve the German Army. As much as he loved the army, this was something Wilhelm was not prepared to do. With von Ludendorff gone-von Hindenburg remained as the chief of the Imperial General Staff in order to provide the army with a sense of stability as it began its withdrawal into Germany-Prince Max informed the Allies that Germany was prepared to accept an armistice under all the terms outlined in President Wilson's declaration. One by one her allies fell away, as Austria-Hungary concluded a separate peace on October 29, and Turkey followed suit two days after that.

It was now that Scheer and Franz von Hipper indulged in the greatest naval folly of the war. Von Hipper, now commander in chief of the High Seas Fleet, succeeding Scheer upon his promotion to chief of staff, minuted to Scheer that "an honorable battle by the fleet-even if it should be a fight to the death-will sow the seeds for a new German fleet in the future." Somehow both men convinced themselves that even if the whole of the High Seas Fleet were destroyed, if it did sufficient damage to the Grand Fleet in the process, that would create a certain amount of favorable influence for Germany in any peace negotiations. Secretly Scheer began to plan for one last all-out attack on the Royal Navy. Sending a messenger with oral instructions to von Hipper on October 22-"The High Seas Fleet is directed to attack the English fleet as soon as possible"-Scheer was committing a colossal act of insubordination, for he had neither the Kaiser's nor the Chancellor's approval for such an operation.

The plan was ambitious and under other circumstances might well have worked. The High Seas Fleet was now more powerful than ever, with 5 battlecruisers, 18 dreadnoughts, 12 light cruisers, and 72 destroyers. The basic concept was to lure the Grand Fleet into the waters roughly 100 miles north of Heligoland Bight, into freshly laid minefields and across six separate lines of lurking U-boats, which were expected to decimate the British battleships as they passed; the surviving British ships would then be engaged by the undamaged battleships and battlecruisers of the High Seas Fleet. The lure for the Grand Fleet was to be a series of hit-and-run raids by destroyers and light cruisers along the English coastline and into the Thames estuary. The tactical details were worked out by von Hipper, and Scheer gave his approval on October 27, the date for the operation being set for 30 October.

But rumors had begun to leak out, and in this case the story being spread among the crews of the High Seas Fleet was that the impending operation was a suicide mission-death and glory for the officers and a watery grave for the ordinary sailor. Two years earlier such a prospect might have been welcomed in the seamen's mess as in the wardroom, but by October 1918 the High Seas Fleet was no longer the finely trained and fiery battle fleet it had once been. Two years of idleness had sapped its strength and vigor and drained its morale, as the best and brightest of the sailors and young officers were transferred over to the submarine service, leaving the crews aboard the battleships and battlecruisers as little more than the dregs of the Imperial Navy, often the leavings of the Imperial Army, which meant that they were very poor-quality specimens indeed. The ships themselves were becoming dirty and shabby, falling into disrepair and desuetude, as the crews began neglecting the routines of maintenance that keep a ship alive.

The mutiny of the High Seas Fleet began quietly enough, when on October 27 forty-five stokers from the light cruiser Cuxhaven refused to return to their ship. That night a total of 300 men from the crews of the battlecruisers jumped ship and swam ashore, disappearing into the docks and warehouses of Wilhelmshaven's waterfront. When the battleships took up station in the Jade Roads the next day, the trouble began to spread more openly. Aboard Markgraf one seamen leaped atop a gun turret and called for three cheers for President Wilson, which the crew returned to the echo. The rot spread quickly after that, as Helgoland, Thüringen, Koenig, Kaiserin, and Kronprinz Wilhelm were all wracked by insubordination. Von Hipper, realizing that he was losing control of the fleet, cancelled the operation and dispersed the battle squadrons, a move that only spread the mutiny further. Within a week red flags were flying in Wilhelmshaven and Kiel, as sailors paraded in the streets and loudly chanted for an end to the war and the overthrow of the monarchy. On November 9 a red flag was hoisted to the masthead of SMS Baden, von Hipper's own flagship, and the admiral knew that the end had come. Groups of sailors left Kiel and Wilhelmshaven for Germany's other great ports, and soon the red flags of revolution were flying all along the Baltic and North Sea coasts and spreading inland, as revolution gripped Germany and the Kaiser's throne, already teetering, began to collapse.

The same day that the red flag was raised aboard Baden, Admiral Scheer informed Wilhelm that the navy could no longer be counted upon to obey his orders or those of anyone else. Within hours von Hindenburg informed Wilhelm that the same situation applied to the army. That evening the Kaiser abdicated and fled to the Netherlands, never to see Germany again for the remaining 22 years of his life. The German Empire had fallen, its collapse precipitated by the mutiny of what had once been one of its greatest instruments of power, the High Seas Fleet.

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