On the muddy shore of the Royal Navy base HMS Excellent on Whale Island in Portsmouth Harbour, lie the remains of two German warships from the First World War. They have been there since 1920 and, despite being scrapped in the 1920s and damaged when the Brittany Ferries terminal was built in the 1980s, their remains can still be seen at low tide. Very little of the German High Seas Fleet of the First World War remains today and still less can be seen above the waterline. These hulks represent the vestiges of a once proud fleet that was a worthy adversary to the Royal Navy in the Great War.
SMS V44 was part of the German Imperial Navy’s 1914 programme of torpedo boats, ordered on the 22nd April 1914. V82 was ordered only a few months later on the 6th August 1914 in response to the outbreak of war. Both came from the same shipyard in Kiel, Germany and were almost identical to tens of dozens of other torpedo boats produced between 1913 and 1918. They were armed with three 4.1” guns and six torpedo tubes and had a complement of 98 men. Although comparable to Royal Navy destroyers in terms of size, these vessels were technically designed and classed as torpedo boats by the German Imperial Navy.
After she was launched in February 1915, V44 became the lead ship of the 11th Half Flotilla (which, along with the 12th Half Flotilla formed the 6th Torpedo-Boat Flotilla). She remained in this flotilla until the Battle of Jutland in May 1916.
At Jutland, under the command of Lieutenant Karl von Holleuffer, V44 and the rest of the 6th Flotilla were attached to Admiral Raeder’s Scouting Force. Along with the rest of the Scouting Force, the 6th Flotilla came into action from the very start of the battle when they engaged Admiral Beatty’s fleet. During the early phase of the action known as the ‘Run to the South’ V44 and other ships of the flotilla fired torpedoes at the British 5th Battle Squadron and Admiral Beatty’s battlecruisers.
Later in the evening when the full fleets of both sides had joined in action, Admiral Scheer attempted to disengage from the Royal Navy. Having once turned away and then back towards the Royal Navy again, Scheer realised he would need to turn away to the west once more. The 6th Flotilla and the 9th Flotilla were ordered to launch a torpedo attack against the Grand Fleet as Admiral Scheer executed this second turn away from the British at 7.15pm. The 6th Flotilla led and advanced through the smokescreen (at this point V44 was most probably second in the line), to fire its torpedoes which were launched between 7.22 and 7.24pm. They were quickly followed by the 9th Flotilla. With the exception of one destroyer of the 9th, all of the destroyers then managed to disengage and retreat back into the smoke. Although no hits were scored on the Royal Navy’s ships, it was these torpedoes that caused Admiral Jellicoe to turn away from the German fleet and lose them in the following hours. This is arguably the most significant part of the battle and has caused the most controversy since; had Jellicoe not turned away, a Trafalgar type victory may have been inflicted on the Germans. V44 and the rest of the 6th Flotilla made their way back to port overnight, in company with the main fleet.
Later in the war, V44 and the 6th Flotilla were assigned to the German Flanders Flotilla based at Bruges and using the Belgian seaports of Ostend and Zeebrugge, and later took part in Operation Albion – the successful German amphibious operation to invade the West Estonian Archipelago in the Baltic in October 1917. By mid-November, V44was back in the North Sea and on the 17th she took part in the Second Battle of Heligoland Bight.
V82 was launched in July 1916 and as a result did not take part in the battle of Jutland. She was assigned to the Flanders Flotilla, based in Bruges, in 1917 and 1918 and was also briefly transferred to the Baltic for Operation Albion as the lead vessel of the 13th Half Flotilla, under the command of lieutenant Zander. She was damaged in an air raid in Bruges in June 1918 and was evacuated to a German port before British forces overran Bruges in October.
Following the signing of the armistice on 11th November 1918 arrangements were made for the German High Seas Fleet to surrender to the Royal Navy. The fleet, which eventually comprised sixteen capital ships, eight cruisers and fifty destroyers (including V44 and V82), was interned at Scapa Flow manned only by skeleton crews, until June the following year. On the morning of the 21st June 1919 German Admiral von Reuter signalled to all ships to begin the process of scuttling (deliberate sinking) to prevent the fleet being handed over as a result of the impending Treaty of Versailles. This action resulted in the sinking of the majority of the ships, with only one capital ship, three cruisers and eighteen destroyers left afloat, or beached. The destroyers were beached by officers of the local Admiralty Port and the crew of the depot ship HMS Sandhurst, who cut their moorings allowing them to drift or be steered ashore. V44 was beached on the south bank of Fara Island, whilst V82 was beached with several others on the west side of the island.
Many of the sunken ships were salvaged in the following years, leaving seven wrecks on the seabed at Scapa Flow that are now protected under heritage legislation. The majority of the vessels not sunk were subsequently salvaged and distributed amongst the allied navies of Britain, America, France, and Japan. The broken hull of one of these vessels, B98, still lies in situ in the Orkneys. Ten destroyers, including V44 and V82, were allocated to Britain and were moved to Portsmouth in 1919 or 1920, along with the German cruiser Nurnberg.
All three vessels were used for gunnery trials. V82 was used as a target for the monitor HMS Terror in October 1920 and V44 in December 1920; both were damaged and subsequently beached on Whale Island in Portsmouth Harbour. Nurnberg was later used as a target by the Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Repulse and sank in the English Channel in July 1922. Both torpedo boats were subsequently sold for scrap in 1921, although local newspaper reports indicate that Portsmouth locals attempted their own scrapping and there were arrests after it was discovered that parts had been stolen from them. The ships were sold again in 1927, this time to local scrap merchants H G Pounds, who salvaged what they could on site and left any remains that were not economically viable to recover where they lay. These remains are what can be found on the south side of Whale Island today.
The remains of V44 and V82 today.
The wrecks appear to have been almost totally forgotten and only came to light when a 2011 Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment of Portsmouth Harbour noted that two possible destroyers were present in Second World War era aerial photographs. After the Trust established that the remains were still present in 2015, work on identifying them began. This was achieved with a mix of German language and Admiralty sources, as well as the kind support of a number of academics and volunteers. The Maritime Archaeology Trust would like to thank WO1 Jim Rooney (HMS Excellent), Caroline Barrie-Smith, William Pounds, Professor Ian Buxton, Mike Greaves, Timo Inwich (webmaster of www.navy-history.com), Queen’s Harbour Master Portsmouth, the Defence Reserve Ships Organisation, all of whom assisted or volunteered to help with the fieldwork, post-fieldwork processing or research relating to V44 and V82.