The following by Keith Allen (KEACLA1@aol.com) appeared on MARHST-L in April 2000 and appears here by permission. Note that Volume V of the Royal Navy's Official History Naval Operations by Henry Newbolt has a detailed account, in Chapter 4.
There is a fair amount on this action in volume IV of Arthur Marder's "From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow." The German high command decided to make a surprise attack on convoy traffic between the Shetlands and Norway, aiming to assist the U-boat campaign by forcing the British to divert forces to protect the Scandinavian traffic. They chose the fast minelaying cruisers BRUMMER and BREMSE. The Admiralty learned through wireless intercepts that these ships were out, but as they thought of these ships as minelayers they did not think they would venture far to the north to attack the convoy. Room 40, the Admiralty's cryptanalytic operation, did not have a chart of Allied movements and did not know of the convoy's presence; Admiral James later speculated that if they had known of it, they might have discerned from the course of the German ships that the Scandinavian convoys were their target. Cruiser squadrons were sent to sea on the strength of the radio intelligence, but Beatty was apparently not actually told that BREMSE and BRUMMER were at sea.
On the morning of 17 October 1917 the German ships intercepted a westbound convoy 65 miles east of Lerwick, consisting of twelve merchantmen (two British, one Belgian, nine neutral Scandinavians) escorted by destroyers MARY ROSE and STRONGBOW and two armed trawlers. STRONGBOW was just astern of the convoy, while MARY ROSE was six to eight miles ahead of it. STRONGBOW sighted the German cruisers in poor visibility at no more than 4,000 yards, and took them for British light cruisers, which they had evidently been rigged to resemble. She challenged several times before going to action stations. By this time BRUMMER had closed to within 3,000 yards and opened a devastating fire, immediately knocking out STRONGBOW's main steam pipe and wireless; just before this the destroyer had been attempting to transmit a warning, but the German cruisers jammed the signal, as they did all similar efforts by the Allied ships.
The cruisers then turned to the merchantmen and quickly sank nine of them. British historians severely criticized the Germans for sinking the merchantmen without giving the crews time to escape. The German official history notes the need to prevent the Allied ships from transmitting wireless warnings; while the mention is apparently not made in this context, this might account for the actions of the two cruisers. British historians also claim that the Germans later fired on the survivors of the destroyers in the water. The Germans deny this.
MARY ROSE heard the firing astern and closed and fought the Germans. She was rapidly sunk, and STRONGBOW was finished off. Later official enquiries praised the courage of the two destroyers but criticized them for rashness in closing the enemy, contending that they should have stood off and transmitted warning signals. The MARY ROSE inquiry, for example, stated that "the reasons for thus attacking are thus obscure, as it must have been evident that he would soon be put out of action, leaving his convoy unprotected, whereas if he had remained at long range, he might have drawn, some at any rate, of the enemy forces away from the convoy." Marder seems to concur with this judgement, although not explicitly. It is rather difficult, though, to see how the two destroyers could have protected the convoy without engaging the cruisers, nor is it self-evident that if they had stood off the Germans would have chased them rather than slaughtering the merchantmen at their leisure. These criticisms are in stark contrast to the praise that is conferred on British warships and armed merchant cruisers that fought against hopeless odds in similar circumstances in 1939-1945, notably RAWALPINDI (although she was not directly protecting a convoy) and especially JERVIS BAY. All in all, these verdicts seem rather churlish and wise after the event.
There were strong British forces at sea, but as no word of the action was received until 1550 on the 17th, they were not in a position to intercept BRUMMER and BREMSE, who got home safely.
Bernd Langensiepen (Langensiep@aol.com) notes:
Be carefully in using 1920/40 literature,"official" works. etc. Keith Allen copied an article printed in ca. 1925. In general the text is correct, but without using German material. He wrote British historians also claim that the Germans later fired on the survivors of the destroyers in the water. The Germans deny this.
That is an old story. British Govt. make a (war-time propaganda)
so-called War Crimes List in 1918 and handed the material to the Germans.
I have seen this (over 3000 pages) in the archives of the German
Ministry. of Foreign. Affairs and the Military Archives at Freiburg.
On the list are 35 officers from the German Navy. Only two
(KL Werner, KL Patzig) showed real war crimes. The others
were mostly total nonsense. For example: KL Gansser was on the list
because of war-crimes against the crew of an sailing ship Well,
nobody was killed or wounded. The ship was stopped, searched ,
crew left in a boat - later rescued by a British destroyer- ship was
sunk. What was the War Crime in that case? The crime was....
they sank the ship outside of the war-zone! In the MARY ROSE case, the British Government removed the case from the list in February 1919.
So if you are writing about WW1- naval affairs and you discuss war-crimes, it is important to have a wide-range of material.
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