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Campaigns of World War One:
Naval Actions  1917-1919


1917


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In February the British launched naval raids into the English Channel that engaged with German warships. This was followed with raids against the German naval bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge in May, but these small attacks had little effect on U-boat operations.

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Believing they could destroy enough vital shipping to knock Great Britain out of the War before America could build enough new ships to make a difference, Germany took the risk of renewing its campaign of unlimited warfare at sea in February. This effort nearly succeeded since Allied warships hunting for U-boats caused little damage to their fleet. This momentum began to shift in May with the introduction of the convoy system, and was further strengthen by an extensive program of ship building. Even though more U-boats were sunk and more supplies reached their destination, submarine warfare continued to be a very significant menace until the end of the War.

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While Zeppelins are best known for their use in bombing raids, they were primarily deployed by the German navy where they served in reconnaissance missions over the North and Baltic Seas. They not only provided forewarning of enemy ships approaching German waters, they spotted the laying of minefields and aided minesweepers in their clearance. The use of airships was often severely curtailed by bad weather, which sometimes contributed to their demise. In April 1917 the British Navy began taking countermeasures against them by introducing aircraft into the North Sea. This began with long range flying boats followed by makeshift aircraft carriers and cruisers mounted with catapult airplane launchers. These aircraft proved quite successful in taking down a number of Zeppelins.

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Norman Wilkinson, a marine artist who was serving as a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy used his knowledge of the arts to come up with an idea of painting ships with geometric patterns, not to camouflage them but to confuse U-boat commanders trying to sight them. In August 1917 the HMS Alsatian and the merchant ship SS Industry became the first two ships painted with these strange patterns. Soon an entire experimental section sprang up to create better designs. Soon afterwards many Allied ships began being painted in this Razzle Dazzle fashion, which would continue for the duration of the War. The merits of this program are still debated.

(See Razzle Dazzle dated June 7, 2008, in the archive of the website’s Blog section for more information on this subject)

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To enhance their blockade of the Adriatic Sea, the Allies stretched a Barrage across the Strait of Otranto consisting of mines and anti-submarine nets suspended from many small armed boats. In May the Austro-Hungarian Navy launched a raid on the Strait hoping to break the Barrage and give their U-boats freer access to the Mediterranean. They managed to destroy many of the drifters in the Barrage but it developed into a full naval engagement with French and British warships when they tried to cut off their retreat. The Allied flotilla retreated when additional ships of the Austro-Hungarian navy approached. Both sides took casualties including damage to the Hungarian Cruiser SMS Novara.

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The Albanian coast was raided by an Austrian squadron in May, that engaged Allied warships off of Valona. In December the Italians attacked Austrian coastal defense ships near Trieste with Mas torpedo boats sinking the SMS Wien. These small fast craft armed with only one heavy machine gun and a couple of torpedoes could often achieve surprise over much larger ships. They proved a menace to the Austro-Hungarian navy on the Adriatic.

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In October a highly reinforced German fleet returned to the islands surrounding the Gulf of Riga to work in conjunction with a new army offensive aimed at seizing the port. After amphibious landings secured the islands, allowing minefields to be cleared, the German navy overwhelmed the smaller Russian Baltic Fleet. This was the largest battle in the Baltic where both sides deployed dreadnoughts. Riga would be captured toward the end of the month by a successful land offensive against the port’s defenses.

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In October two German cruisers operating off Scotland crossed paths with a convoy of Swedish merchant ships and their British naval escort near Lerwick. Both British cruisers and all the merchants were sunk.

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To enhance the strength of their blockade of Germany, the British had been planting bands of sea mines in the North Sea. The largest of these minefields was the North Sea Mine Barrage, laid between Scotland and Norway in late 1917. It marked a shift in emphasis as it was specifically designed to block the movements of German U-boats.

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At the Second Battle of Heligoland Bight in November, cruisers from the Royal Navy attempted to ambush German minesweepers operating in the North Sea. Maneuvering was hampered by smoke screens and minefields allowing all but one minesweeper to escape. The British ships turned back after being confronted by German battleships sent in for support.

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The Russian Battleship Aurora was a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War. She served on patrol duty and carried out raids as part of the Baltic Fleet during World War One. By the time she was ordered out to sea in mid-November, a soviet had taken control of the ship and they refused to leave Petrograd. Its crew would come to fire the opening salvo that signaled Trotskii’s armed Bolsheviks to storm the Winter Palace and overthrow the Kerensky government. Many postcards depicting the Aurora would later be published in the Soviet Union. These cards not only capture her early history up to the Revolution, but docked in Leningrad as a popular tourist attraction.



1918


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After an armistice was signed with Russia, the Yavuz and Midilli (formally the German warships Goeben and Breslau) both left the Black Sea in January to make a sortie into the Aegean against the Allies at Salonika. They successfully engaged a British fleet but their mission ended soon after when they ran into a minefield. The Midilli sunk off of Cape Kephalo, and the damaged Yavuz was forced aground at Chanak. The Turkish Fleet was involved in little naval action for the rest of the War. After the Armistice of Mudros was signed, an Allied fleet sailed up to Constantinople in early November and began to disarm Turkey’s navy. More ports would be occupied by the Allies in December.

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To put further pressure on Russia to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litowsk, German forces advanced on and took Tallinn in February of 1918. The British submarines stationed there were then invited to work out of Helsinki, which was controlled by the Finnish Socialist Workers Republic. In April of 1918 Germany landed a large army at Hanco to support the White forces in the Finnish Civil War. As they advanced on Helsinki the remaining British submarines were scuttled, which ended the Allied threat to German and Swedish shipping.

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In April the British launched a daring naval raid on the German U-boat base at Zeebrugge, in which they sank ships to close the harborŐs entrance in an effort to block it. While the attack caused extensive damage, it did not all go according to plan leaving the harbor only partially blocked. The Germans were soon able to recover and they quickly resumed U-boats operations from this port. A smaller coinciding raid on the German naval base at Ostend achieved nothing. The British raided Ostend again in May but they could not fully block the harbor.

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The raids on Ostende and Zeebrugge caught the public’s imagination in Britain, and many postcards were published depicting these events. Sometimes the name of Lord Admiral Nelson was even invoked to equate the daring of this raid with the innovative British tactics used at Trafalgar, and thus insinuate it was another heroic feat. While the complex nature of this plan left it open to failure, the excessive drama to be found in this fight left it open to media exploitation regardless of the end results. By the time the War ended this episode had grown into mythic proportions, and large amounts of postcards continued to be produced for tourists depicting sunken ships and damaged coastal guns.

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As the Allies strengthened their blockade of the Adriatic, it took a toll on Austro-Hungarian morale. By February a mutiny broke out amidst their squadron stationed off Montenegro. A final attempt to open the Strait of Otranto would be made in June when the fleet based in Pola sortied out against the Allied blockading squadron. This mission ended after a skirmish with the Italians who sunk the Szent Istvan with Mas torpedo boats designed to overcome protective barriers. It was the only dreadnought lost in the War due to direct naval action.

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The Royal Navy drastically altered their cruiser Furious so that aircraft could takeoff from part of its newly constructed deck. In July this makeshift aircraft carrier was used to launch an airstrike against the German Zeppelin base at Tonder in Schleswig (now part of Denmark). The surprise raid managed to destroy the hangers along with the two Zeppelins they housed. Afterwards the Germans abandoned the base. Aircraft had previously been launched from ships by catapult, but the use of a ship as a floating airfield was an innovation that took great leaps by War’s end.

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When Austria-Hungary realized it was losing the war it transferred control over most of its Adriatic Fleet to the newly formed neutral State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs so that it would not fall into Allied hands. Italy, unaware of this arrangement attacked the naval base at Pola in November, sinking the dreadnought Virbus Unitus with human torpedoes.

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When German defenses began collapsing on the Western Front, Admiral Scheer began creating Plan 19, which would involve the German Navy in one last epic battle. After two squadrons of destroyers assigned to attack the French and British coast drew out the Royal Navy, all of the remaining High Seas Fleet would sortie out and fight to the death. German troops were retiring because they had given up on the War and wanted to go home, and these sentiments were little different in the navy. When the sailors of the fleet at Kiel got wind of Plan 19 in October they mutinied. This rebellion not only put an end to all naval operations, it spread to other naval bases, and then onto the streets where it fueled Workers’ councils demanding political reforms. This helped launch the revolution that toppled the German Empire.

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The day after the general Armistice was signed on November 11th, the Allies began an exchange of telegrams with the German Navy to make arrangements for the surrender of the High Seas Fleet. On the night of November 15, representatives of Germany's Admiral Franz von Hipper met with British Admiral David Beatty aboard the battleship H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth. Once the terms of the surrender were accepted, the naval armistice went into effect the next morning. While the signing of the Armistice in the railcar at Compiegne was captured by many postcards, the naval surrender has been given little attention.

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The carefully orchestrated surrender of the German navy began on November 20th with the seizure of Germany’s entire inventory of U-boats. The remaining ships began to surrender the following day but there was no consensus as what to do with the rest of the German fleet. A temporary measure was finally agreed upon where the ships would sail to Scotland surrendering at the Firth of Forth before being interned at Scapa Flow. By the end of the month seventy-four ships had been interned. The German ships were escorted to their final destination between two columns of Royal Navy warships. This provided for many photo opportunities, and as a result many real photo postcards of the event were published afterwards.



1919


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When the SS George Washington was built for North German Lloyd in 1908, she was the third largest passenger liner in the world. She found herself in American waters when World War One began and was summarily interned. After the United States entered the conflict, the ship was seized and turned into a military transport. She began service as a troop transport in December 1917, but her claim to fame came as the ship President Wilson used in 1919 to attend the Paris Peace Conference. Many postcards of this ship were made, especially while under U.S. government control.

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After the German Navy surrendered, months of arguments followed over how each Allied empire would split the spoils. This left interned German sailors aboard the ships; and their commander, Admiral Ludwig von Reuter. When the Paris Peace talks began to break down, Reuter became worried that the War would reignite and the Allies would use his ships to attack Germany. Out of this fear a conspiracy grew, and in June he managed to scuttle most of his ships. This further soured relations between Britain and the French who thought they let this happen so they could maintain their supremacy on the seas. Many real photo postcards exist of these sinking ships.

The Kiel Canal that was so strategically important to the German Navy was turned into an international waterway by the Versailles treaty. The civilian population of Helgoland that had been evacuated began to return after the War. Destruction of its coastal guns and naval base began in 1920.




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