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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Battle of Stolpe Bank



The Battle of Stolpe Bank 

(Słupsk Bank)

29th August 1914

by Lawrence Mack


Dame Rumor ruled the Danzig docks that morning.
All anyone knew for certain was that there had been a battle between the German and Russian Fleets. All else was conjecture.
There were one, two, three, four, five Russian ships sunk.
No, there were one, two, three, four, five German ships sunk.
The Russians fought well. The Russians fought badly.
The German fleet had been drawn into a minefield and suffered badly.
No, a Russian dreadnought had surrendered and was being towed in to Danzig.
The German fleet was attacked by British submarines. 
The hospitals had been emptied of non -serious patients.  A train was waiting at the railway siding all prepared to take hundreds of Russian prisoners.  All around conversations started, I heard a staff officer say “A friend of mine in Signals said’’ “The Shore Patrol told me” until the arrival of battle scarred ships, all of these stories could be true. 
Mid morning a line of ships slowly made their way into Danzig harbour, and all conversation ceased.  Four Torpedo Boats slowly sailed into their respective berths.  Their empty torpedo tubes showed they had been in action, but more obviously was the fact that the small craft were crowded with men.  Some were standing, others sitting but many were laying on the decks, some with bloodstained bandages.  The armoured cruiser Roon received most attention as she was the heaviest damaged.  Where the forward primary and secondary guns had been was a large hole in the deck, still with black oily smoke streaming from it. Even more important was the deck was less than a meter from the surface of the sea, and from the streams of water coming from the decks it could be seen the pumps were hard at work.
It seemed the hull had been struck by giant hammers.  "Hey Franz!’ called a docker to a friend on the Roon.”How many was there?" "I saw one” came the reply. Just one?” It was a big one!’ Where is the rest of the Fleet?’ persisted the docker. Gazelle bought it, and so did three torpedo boats’ replied Franz grimly. Another light cruiser was sunk, but I didn’t see it. The rest are still looking for Ivan. If they're lucky they won't find him!” Back to your work; do you think this is a ladies coffee morning?’ snarled a Deck Officer to Franz.
Even so, Deck Officer Gessler looked over his shoulder apprehensively out to sea. God help a poor sailor man from another night like last night, he thought. Franz was wrong; there were two Russians. The armoured cruisers Rurik and Pallada were making a deep raid on the iron ore trade from Sweden to Germany.
Admiral von Essen had decided to show the flag off the Danish island of Bornholm. This was not far from German patrols, but the aggressive von Essen thought his ships were strong enough to deal with the destroyers, torpedo boats and light cruisers usually making up the patrols. He did not know that the patrols had been strengthened with armoured cruisers and coastal defence ships. Though slow and old, the defence ships still packed a punch.
Using the mist to good advantage, the Russian ships made their way from Revel to the major sea route of Bornholm without being spotted on the morning of the 29th of August. Almost immediately, they struck gold, or rather iron. The Benjamin and the Bjorn, both of Rostock were spotted and heaved to. They were both filled with iron ore, and their crews were given twenty minutes to abandon ship. They were both sunk by gunfire. An hour later the brand new cargo/passenger ship Annifrid of Stettin was the next victim. Generously, von Essen allowed forty minutes to the frightened passengers to get to the life boats. A message was flashed off, which put the German patrols on alert. Having done enough damage, von Essen moved on, heading west. Two hours later, the tramp steamer Agnetha was spotted. Her cargo was timber, which a boarding party was happy to light. The crew threatened the Russians, as they rowed away to the south.
“You’ll catch hell before nightfall!” They called. “I will risk it!” von Essen called back.
The crew was rescued by a torpedo boat two hours later and was able to give information as to the direction of the raiders. The armoured cruisers Roon and Prinz Heinrich lead the light cruisers Undine, Thetis, Gazelle and Lubeck and six torpedo boats in hot pursuit of the Russians.
Von Essen’s ships easily outclassed the Germans individually, but as a fleet together was a different matter. They finally caught up with the Russians with only an hour till twilight near the Stolpe Bank. Only the armored cruisers had long enough range to hit the fleeing Russians.
Von Essen considered turning about to give battle, but decided to fight at long range. The German ships were silhouetted against the setting afternoon sun and hit after hit was scored on the Roon. The Prinz Heinrich was struck twice. The German shooting was not as good and it seemed the Russians were about to escape, when a shell from the Roon struck the Pallada, bringing it to stop, blowing off steam as the crew desperately tried repairs. 

SMS Roon
The Pallada

Just as twilight came over the scene the Germans received some reinforcements. The light cruisers Ausberg and Amazon appeared from the north with the gunboat Panther {a long way from Morocco} and four more torpedo boats.
As the sun was setting the Pallada was attacked by ten torpedo boats as she lay still desperately trying to get underway. The attack was supported by the six light cruisers, adding their torpedoes and heavier guns to the attack.
Von Essen was not to abandon Pallada, however, Rurik turned back, every single gun, primary, secondary and light firing. She was firing so fast that German observers thought she must be afire. The Pallada was shooting for her life as well. Three torpedo boats were blown to splinters, and the old light cruiser Gazelle was turned into a flaming wreck. The new Ausberg took two primary hits, and slowly sank. But there was too many torpedos being fired and the Pallada was struck five times and the Rurik twice. The crew of the Pallada abandoned ship, as she broke up beneath their feet. The remaining torpedo boats had a busy time rescuing survivors. 
SMS Beowulf
SMS Heimdal

The German commander shifted his Flag to Prinz Heinrich, to continue the search for the Rurik. Roon had been hit five times, so it was to return to port with the now crowded torpedo boats.
Rurik was not caught by these ships. Just before dawn she was to meet her doom under the guns of the armoured cruiser Victoria Louise and nine coastal defence ships Beowulf, Odin Agir, Frithjof, Siegfried, Hagen, Heimdal, Hildebrandt, Hansa and three torpedo boats. The night that hide the raider also made sure the encounter was at close range. 
SMS Frithjof
SMS Hagen

Once again the weary gunners of the Rurik gave all they had and the Heimdal, which was the lead ship, was overwhelmed by the fire before she had a chance to fire. Another torpedo boat was destroyed as they made a gallant attack to cover the sinking Heimdal. Eventually, the German ships were all firing at almost point blank range. The Hagen blew up and sunk with all hands in a spectacular explosion which showed that Russian Torpedoes were not to be despised. The Rurik was now burning but fighting while there was a gun left. She slowly started to go down, with her ensign still flying. Among her survivors rescued was Admiral von Essen .
There was much rejoicing in German Newspapers at the end of the ‘insolent Pirates’ The Kaiser said that von Essen was worth a division of dreadnoughts to the Russians. Wisely, he suggested that the fleet undergo more night training, an idea that was taken up with good results in two years time. Surprisingly, the fate of the raiders was a morale raiser for the Baltic Fleet. While the army was struggling, now they actually are achieving something in taking the war to the enemy. Inspired, Naval staff planned more aggressive actions. It had a paradoxical effect in Sweden as well. Influential voices were quietly discussing intervention on the side of the Central Powers against a 'weak' Russia. After such daring, Russia seemed more a powerful foe. The voices were stilled, at least for the time being. Admiral von Essen escaped from being a guest of the German admiralty in 1915, and died in action in the Civil War.
The Roon was too badly damaged to go sea again and became a cadet ship. Its’ final fate was interesting. In August, 1918 she was moved to Wilhelmshaven to be turned into an Aircraft carrier, one of the first. And Franz caught the 'Red Fever' in November 1918, threw Deck Officer Gessler overboard, and led his ships company to join the Peoples Naval Division. He had the good fortune to be shot dead, and thus entered the small Vallhalla of German communist Naval heroes.
From 1947 in the GDR Navy till 1989 there was always a destroyer called the Franz Schieser.

AUTHORS NOTE.
This is a replay of the 'Baltic Scenario 4 the Deep raid. I played the Russians and my wife the Germans. She said I was too daring. As far as I know, there was no Franz. The fate of the Roon is accurate, however. It was broken up in 1920. I hope you all enjoyed it, and would welcome any advice or criticism.

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