Deeds That Thrill The Empire. Page 678.
“Saucy Arethusa’s Baptism Of Fire”
There are few more remarkable stories in the history of naval
warfare than the record of the “Saucy Arethusa” in the first two days
of her existence as a commissioned ship.
This little vessel was one of an altogether new and very fast type
of light cruiser, burning oil fuel only and capable of steaming thirty
knots or more, and she carried an armament of two 6-inch and six 4-inch
guns for the purpose of attacking and overpowering hostile destroyers.
Thus, while she was officially called a “light armoured
cruiser,” she was really a “destroyer of destroyers”-the original
“destroyer” type having been designed to destroy torpedo boats.
The Arethusa was laid down at Chatham on October 28th
1912. When war broke out she
was not nearly completed, or even ready for trials; but she rushed along
with all possible speed, and on August 26th 1914, she was
passed out of dockyard hands, not finished off in the usual way, it is
true, but still ready for instant action if need be.
And it was well that she was, for within forty-eight hours manned,
be it remembered, by a crew strange to the ship and strange to each
other-she was in the middle of as fierce an action as any ship could wish
A combined sweeping movement into the Heligoland Bight had been
organised by the Admiralty, and to the Arethusa and the destroyers of the
First and Third Flotillas was given the perilous honour of leading the
way. Their real business was
to lure out the larger ship of the German fleet, so that our own heavier
vessels coming up astern might swoop down suddenly, cut off the enemy’s
ships from their base, and send them to the bottom.
The Arethusa and her destroyers were, therefore, little more than
On the evening of August 27th they steamed secretly out
of Harwich, and early in the calm, misty morning of the 28th
found themselves within reach of their objective.
Nor did they have to wait long for a sight of the enemy.
Shortly before seven o’clock a German destroyer was sighted, and
a division of our boats immediately gave chase.
More enemy destroyers appeared out of the mist, and a running fight
ensued as the Germans made hard FOR Heligoland and the British cruisers
and flotillas tried to cut them off and bring them to close action.
This indecisive fight had been going on for an hour, when suddenly
there appeared out of the fog-which prevented one from seeing more than
about three miles-two large German cruisers, evidently called out from
Heligoland by wireless or the noise of the firing.
Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt, of the Arethusa, at once ordered his
destroyers to get off of the cruisers way and leave him to deal with them.
For several minutes the two enemy ships concentrated their
fire on the Arethusa; but she had taken upon herself the task of saving
the destroyers from this onslaught, and right well she stuck to it. The enemy’s fire was as deadly as it as furious, and one by
one the guns of the British ship were disabled and put out of action,
while more than one shell burst in her underwater parts and cut the speed
down by several knots.
It was fortunate for the Arethusa that while she lay thus exposed
to almost certain destruction another of our light cruisers, the Fearless
came up to her assistance. The
Germans evidently thought that the Commodore’s ship was as good as
settled, for the larger of their cruisers transferred her attention to the
newcomer and left her smaller consort to apply the “finishing touches”
to the badly winged Arethusa. But
that little ship badly damaged as she was, was by no means done for.
Officers and men stuck gallantly to their posts under the
devastating fire and continued to serve the remaining guns as if they had
been as target practice. When
a gun was disabled, a party of armourers immediately came up to attend to
its injuries. One enemy shell
burst among the ammunition stored round one of the 4-inch weapons, and a
terrific blaze ensued, which set fire to the deck; but thanks to the
courage and promptitude of Chief Petty Officer Frederick Wrench (who
received the D.S.M.), it was extinguished before any real damage was done.
In the meantime the fight with the remaining German cruiser went on
unabated, the Arethusa, though valiantly standing her ground, continuing
to get the worst of it because of the damage her armament had already
suffered. The two ships drew
gradually closer together. The
rapid accurate fire from the enemy’s guns swept over the decks of the
British ship. The signal
officer, Lieutenant Eric Westmacott, was killed as he stood by the
Commodore’s side, and many of the men lost their lives in that unequal
fight; but the saving of the ship was in no small measure due to a young
sub-lieutenant, Clive Robinson, who, from start to finish, worked the
range finder with extraordinary coolness, and so made possible the shot by
which the ship was saved. Just
when things were looking blackest the clouds broke.
The Arethusa, out of the eight guns with which she began the fight,
was now able to use only one, the whole of the others having been put out
of action. That alone is
sufficient evidence of the gallant way in which she stood up to her
superior opponents. The
Germans, however, were of a different calibre, for just at this point,
when a little dash on the part of the enemy would have brought the
Arethusa’s career to a sudden, if glorious end, one of our 6-nch shells
struck the German cruiser’s bridge at the base of the foremast and
In sharp contrast to the British ship’s behaviour under far worse
damage, the German immediately swung round and made away at full speed
towards Heligoland, throwing up the sponge at the first hard knock! Had the Arethusa been able, she would have gone in chase; but
her machinery was in urgent need of attention, while a little breathing
space was to get the damaged guns into fighting order again. Therefore, she pulled out of the fight-and by ten o’clock
was steaming back into it. Two
of her 4-inch guns were permanently destroyed; along her sides were holes
and dents marking the impact of the enemy’s shells; and her engineers
down below had to nurse the boilers and turbines carefully to get even
half her nominal speed. She
proceeded to join up with the Fearless and the destroyers, when, at about
eleven o’clock, a large four funnelled German cruiser hove in sight and
opened a heavy fire. She was
driven off-but only to reappear again.
In the meantime, he lighter cruisers continued to tackle the
German, and this time they were ore fortunate, for Commodore Tyrwhitt
related in his official report that the fire to which the Arethusa was
subjected from her was “very severe almost accurate.”
However, it was not so very far astray, for although the British
ship was not struck once in this part of the fight, many of the enemy’s
salvoes fell only from ten to thirty yards short.
The men on the Arethusa and Fearless were, in spite of their
experiences, as fresh and cool as ever, and the German withdrew after a
few shells had got home on her.
The Arethusa’s breathing space was again short, however, for
still more German cruisers were coming up to take the place that had been
driven away. But the
newcomers were steaming straight into a trap.
The leading German vessel, the Mainz, came up and engaged the
Fearless and the Arethusa. Hardly
had the action begun than the first of our reinforcements appeared on the
scene in the shape of the First Light Cruiser Squadron, led by Commodore
W. E. Goodenough in the Southampton.
These ships, like the Germans, were fresh; and they got to work
with such a will that when Beatty came along his battle cruisers a short
time after, all he needed to report of the incident was: “The Light
Cruiser Squadron was observed to be engaging an enemy ship ahead.
They appeared to have her beat.”
With the arrival of her big sisters on the scene-before whom three
German cruisers were sent to the bottom, while the remainder made off as
quickly as they could-the Arethusa’s work was done.
Bearing the scars of war thick upon her, she set out from home
under her two steam, and for some time she managed all right, though only
at six knots instead of her nominal thirty.
By nine o’clock, however, it had become impossible for her to
precede any further without assistance, and, under exceedingly difficult
conditions, owing to the pitch darkness that prevailed, the armoured
cruiser Hougue skilfully got out a hawser and took her in tow.
So the lamed light cruiser was taken back to port, whence she had
come but a few hours before on her maiden voyage.
She had sunk no enemy ship; but she had done better than that.
In order to protect her brood of destroyers, she had stood her
ground against odds, which were heavy to begin with, and which increased
as one another of her guns was put out of action.
Thirty shells had struck her on or near the water line, and some
had actually left their fragments sticking in her thin armour plate.
Eleven of her officers and men had been killed, and more injured;
but the intrepidity with which she was handled by officers and men alike
added lustre to a name already famous in our naval annals.
The destroyers too had done no less well but that is another story.
Commodore Tyrwhitt, for his services, was made a C.B., while
Captain W. F. Blunt, of the Fearless, was appointed to the D.S.O.
Sub-Lieutenant Clive Robinson was specially promoted to lieutenant,
while Gunner James Godfrey, who had been in charge of the torpedo tubes
(which were all put out of action), was awarded the D.S.C. Later on in further recognition of his services, he was
awarded a commission as lieutenant.