Battle of Gotland (July, 2, 1915)

Lake Tanganyika
Reichsmarine vs Russian Navy

Fire on the Baltic

The fact that the Baltic did not saw naval major battles like Heligoland or Jutland don’t have to mask the myriad of naval actions that occurred in this war between the Russian Navy -albeit reduced after the crippling losses of 1905 in this theater- and the powerful Reichsmarine, that kept the bulk of the Hochseeflotte facing the north sea, waiting for opportunities to engage the Royal Navy.

This battle of Gotland, also called Battle of Åland Islands occurred nearby one of the largest island (if not the largest) of the baltic sea, the fortress guarding Swedish east coast. These already seen (and will see) many other clashes between German and Russian ships, but also testified of age-old clashes between Russians and Swedes in the past. This was a serious gun battle between cruisers of many types from both sides, the Germans loosing eventually the Albatross, and the Russian retiring with two badly damaged armoured cruisers.


Blueprint of the SMS Albatross

The day before the battle of Gotland, Kommodore Johannes Von Karf had been ordered to anchor a vast minefield off the Aäland Islands, closing the Gulf of Bothnia. He departed with the minelayer cruiser Albatross (frigate captain Fritz West), escorted by the armoured cruiser Roon, and the SMS Augsburg, Lübeck, as well as 12 destroyers. Following Odensholm’s action on 26 August, the Russians seized the codebooks and signals from the Hochseeflotte, and thus intercepted messages, enabling them to know the squadron’s exact departure. On the 2nd, a force comprising the armoured cruisers Admiral Makaroff and Bayan, assisted by the cruisers Oleg and Bogatyr sailed from Saint-Petersburg under the orders of Rear Admiral Mikhail Bakhirev in the hope of intercepting it. This force was joined and assisted by a British submersible.


SMS roon (1907), this class preceded the Scharnhorst and was strongly related

On the morning of the 2d, the German fleet was mooring mines in front of the Aaland Islands, when the black plumes of the Russian squadron were spotted. Immediately the operations in progress were abandoned, and the ships turned and headed south. However, the time to carry out the maneuver, the Russian cruisers were at gun range, and the slowest cruiser, SMS Albatross was catch and fired upon. The ship only had a few 88 mm pieces to oppose 203 and 152 mm guns on the Russian cruisers. This resembled quickly therefore to a real execution. However, the Roon and two light cruisers replied, but the duel of artillery was not conclusive. The two fleets advanced in parallel, heading south, and arrived off Gotland when Von Karf was informed of the arrival of two other armoured cruisers, the Prinz Heinrich and the Prinz Adalbert, which just sailed to the rescue. The balance was about to swap in favor of the Germans.


The minelaying cruiser Albatross failed after her fight against the Oleg and the Bogatyr.

The Russians for their part, brought out the Rurik, one of the most powerful armoured cruisers in the world, assisted by the destroyer Novik, no less formidable. They just set sail at the time the news of the clash off the Aaland Islands, and force-steamed south-west in an attempt to cut off Von Karf’s retreat. The threat was very serious, and the battle began to swap again, and this time, taking on a disastrous scale for the Germans. The Albatross, caught by the Oleg and Bogatyr, was severely hit, her machines partially drowned, drifting, silenced, crippled, and eventually ran aground on a sand bank off Gotland. Meanwhile Von Karf from his flagship Admiral Roon, was attacked by the Bayan and Makaroff, being hit several times and severely damaged. Getting the news of the arrival of the Rurik Von karf decided to break off the fight and retreat south-east towards Königsberg.


Russian cruiser Bayan

The two German armoured cruisers which came to reinforce, just informed of Von Karf’s decision to retreat, decided to head south, but the Prinz Adalbert was intercepted by British submarine E9 waiting in ambush, and was torpedoed. She survived thanks to the promptness of her crew, clogging the leaks with Makaroff slippers, and thus avoiding the entire engine room being submerged. The cruiser dragged herself to the coast and ran aground on a sand bank off Danzig. She would be later towed and repaired, but shortly after her return in service, on 23 October, she will be torpedoed once again, this time by E8, and sent to the bottom for good.


Russian Cruiser Oleg

In the end, Russian losses were difficult to evaluate but it is clear that the Bayan and Makaroff received some hits. The exact balance of the Russian side remains mysterious. In any case, the verdict was severe for the Germans, who, without ever suspecting being spied on or capable to explain the sudden arrival of the Russians to this point, lost the Albatross, which they never attempted to tow. Her surviving crew reached the boats in good order, sailing to the coast of Gotland (Sweden), and from there rejoined Germany afterwards. The Albatross was towed to be broken up later in 1921. The Germans were also deprived of the Roon and Prinz Adalbert, in repairs for long months. Worst still, mines of the Aaland Islands were quickly raised dredged by the Russians. So in the end, we have to see this battle of Gotland as a Russian tactical and strategic victory (three ships eliminated and a minefield).

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