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The German Reaction

The German response to the British force threatening Cuxhaven was woeful. Fourteen British ships were allowed to sit less than 30 miles outside a major anchorage of the German fleet, and no German ships sallied forth to attack the enemy. The reaction is even more incredible in view of the fact that the German naval high command was aware for some days that an operation was afoot and that the patrolling submarine U-6, at 0730 hours on December 25, 1914, reported the exact location and size of the British force.

The captains of the battle cruisers Moltke and Von der Tann had raised their torpedo nets and were preparing to get underway when they heard of the British plans. They were joined at 0800 by the captains of Derfflinger and Seyditz. All four ships were ready for action and would have had more than two hours to cover the 20 miles to the British Harwich Force. However, at 1000 the German admiralty ordered the four ships to stand down and rig their torpedo nets.

The whole strength of the German reaction would come from the air. Dirigible L-5, commanded by Capt. Lt. Horst Buttlar-Brandenfels, arrived over Harwich Force at about 0734 flying at 1,600 feet. Buttlar-Brandenfels spent the better part of an hour observing the enemy ships before making an attack. By the time he finally did, two German Friedrichshafen FF19 floatplanes from the Heligoland naval air base had already unsuccessfully attacked Empress, one of the seaplane tenders, with a total of eight bombs.

Buttlar-Brandenfels then tried his luck dropping five bombs–without hitting anything. The British ships put up a heavy anti-aircraft barrage and managed to damage the dirigible, which, with its bombs expended, returned to its airfield.

Two other Friedrichshafen FF19s arrived later in the morning and attacked the destroyers of Harwich Force. They did no damage and were driven away by the heavy anti-aircraft fire.

Another dirigible, commanded by Capt. Lt. Klaus Hirsch, was also sent to find and attack the British. He came upon the British submarine E-11 rescuing pilots who had run out of fuel on the way back to the seaplane tenders. As Hirsch moved into attack position, the British submarine–with the pilots safely on board–slid under the waves to safety. Other German floatplanes from naval air bases at Heligoland, Borkum and Sylt took to the air to search the rest of the coastline for any other enemy ships that might be lurking in the waters nearby.

The German navy’s response to the British raid was inexcusable. The kaiser’s admirals had accurate intelligence that a large enemy naval operation was afoot. This warning coupled with the discovery of Harwich Force at 0730 some 20 miles off the coast should have sent the German navy steaming out to do battle. Instead, the discovery of the enemy raiding force elicited only a small aerial attack by two patrolling dirigibles and four floatplanes. The only explanation is that the Germans were simply stunned into inactivity by the audacity of the British raid. Victory often goes to the bold.

— T.J.K.