The German Admiral Scheer has been confined to port for most of the time since the Battle of Jutland, but neverhtless he has been developing plans for a sweep across the North Sea for a bombardment of Sunderland. To complete the mission, Scheer wants to ensure that his fleet will not be cut off and is making use of both submarines and Zeppelins to track the movements of British ships.
The main part of the German Fleet set sail last night around 6pm, followed by Admiral Scheer around 8pm. Prior to that, he had set up submarines in two lines near the English coast, and in two other lines to cover the approaches from the Flanders Bight. He also had eight Zeppelins, four of which he had watching an area which extended between Norway and Peterhead, one was to watch the Flanders Bight, whilst the remaining three cruised off the Firth of Forth, Sunderland, and the Humber-Wash area, respectively.
On the British side, the Battle Cruiser Fleet, under Admiral Jellico, also put to sea. Joining it was the Kite Balloon Ship HMS Endagine. As at Jutland the HMS Campania did not go out due to defects in her machinery. This was unfortunate as she was now in a position to launch two-seater reconnaissance seaplanes, as well as the small single-seaters, directly from her deck. However, the ships balloon balloon, had that morning been transferred, with a staff of officers and men, to the battleship Hercules, for endurance trials at sea, and went out, aloft, with the battleship. The British battle fleet rendezvoued at 0500 this morning, about 100 miles east-north-east of the Firth of Forth, with the battle cruisers about 30 miles to the south. At this point had no idea what the German fleet was planning so their intention was to sail south towards the southern part of the North Sea.
Meanwhile, the Harwich Force of light cruisers and destroyers under Commodore Tyrwhitt had left harbour at 1030 last night, and was patrolling the Southern part of the North Sea. At 0600 they were spotted by the L13 who reported to Scheer that two destroyer flotillas with a cruiser squadron behind were moving at full speed on a south-westerly course. The Zeppelin then lost sight of them but reported a group of ships on a north-easterly course soon after 0800.
This was in fact the Harwich Force which had turned to remain on its patrol station, but Scheer believed that there were two separate forces. Not long after this he received information from a submarine and Zeppelin that the main fleet had turned North. This was correct as Jellico had turned the fleet at 0700 and maintained this course until 0900. He then turned around again.
The various reports led Scheer to believe that there was no danger in bombarding Sunderland, and he therefore kept to his course. However, soon after midday he got a further report from L13 reporting that a force of about 30 ships was headed towards him. Ten minutes later the L13 reported that the ‘ thirty units ‘ included battleships.
Scheer now abandoned his plane to attack Sunderland for an opportunity to bring his overwhelming force to the defeat of a detachment of the British battlefleet.
Unfortunately for Scheer, the reported fleet was in fact the Harwich Force and had no battleships. and its greater speed would have enabled it to out-distance the High Sea Fleet at his will. Indeed they had turned south soon after Scheer, and were already sailing rapidly away from him.
At 2.35 p.m. Scheer decided that there was no further chance of catching up with the enemy in the south and too late to attack Sunderland, and set course for home.
The British fleet narrowly missed the opportunity to engage the Germans at an advantage. If Scheer had not turned to attack the Harwich Force he could easily have encountered the main British Fleet as the advanced cruisers of each fleet were only 30 miles apart.
Its unclear how Scheer had so little data on the main British fleet as the HMS Galatea had sighted a Zeppelin at 0824, and from that time onwards airships were frequently in view and were engaged with gunfire from both the battle cruiser fleet and the battle fleet. The Endagine attempted to send up a seaplane to attack a Zeppelin, but the aircraft was wrecked in the rough seas. The unfortunate pilot, Flight Lieutenant Frederick Joseph Rutland, was hoisted out safely.
At the same time the balloon on the Hercules was so far back that it failed to spot the German fleet. Had this happened, Admiral Beatty had the seaplanes in the Engadine at his disposal for more reconnaissance. In the end no observer was put up in the balloon anyway and it was eventually hoisted down to avoid giving the fleet’s position away.
In fact, Admiral Jellicoe had very little information on Scheer’s location. Only at about 1400, did he get information on where the German Fleet had been around 1230, but concluded that action was imminent.
Later, Jellicoe learned that the German fleet had turned to starboard at 1230, and at 1545 he knew that Scheer was on his way home and returned to port.
Vice-Admiral Beatty, reported that “the balloon should be flown from a ship in the advanced cruiser screen in order to increase the range of vision ahead of the Fleet. Had the kite balloon been well forward during the operations, I am of opinion that the enemy might possibly have been sighted.”