On August 28, 1914, World War I spreads from land to sea when the first major naval battle of the conflict breaks out between British and German ships in the North Sea, near the northern coast of Germany.
The battle occurred in a partially enclosed body of water known as Heligoland Bight, which was used to shelter several bases of the German High Seas Fleet and also offered a good starting-off point for attacks against the British Isles. The German fleet had rarely ventured far from port, however, when British commander Reginald Tyrwhitt was given the task of leading a small fleet of British ships, including two light cruisers,Fearless and Arethusa, and a number of destroyers, into the bight in order to lure German ships to chase them out to sea, where a larger British force, commanded by Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, would be waiting to confront them.
Around seven o’clock on the morning of August 28, 1914, Tyrwhitt’s squadron began the operation by sinking two German torpedo boats. As the British attack had not caught the German fleet entirely by surprise, its defense was ready, and Tyrwhitt soon found his men outgunned by a German force, including six light cruisers, who used the thick fog hanging over the bight to partially conceal themselves and fire unexpectedly on the British ships. At 11: 25 am, Tyrwhitt called on Beatty for immediate assistance; Beatty’s First Battle Cruiser Squadron rushed to his aid from some 40 kilometers away, reaching the bight at 12:40 pm. The powerful British squadron subsequently sank three German cruisers and damaged three more, causing a total of 1,200 German casualties. Britain, on the other hand, lost only 35 sailors, and all of their ships remained afloat.
“Everybody quite mad with delight at the success of our first naval venture,” Beatty wrote to his wife of the conclusion of the Battle of Heligoland Bight. On the other side, the early defeat of the German High Seas Fleet by the mighty Royal Navy did much to intimidate Germany at sea at the outset of the war; Kaiser Wilhelm, for one, concluded that the navy should be kept off the open seas, as its best use was as a defensive weapon. As the war continued, Germany’s greatest weapon at sea would not be its light cruisers but its lethal U-boat submarine. Used to deadly effect against enemy (and neutral) shipping interests, the success of the German U-boats would provoke at least one previously neutral great power—the United States—into entering World War I against Germany.