First Battle of the Atlantic

The First battle of the Atlantic (19141918) was a naval campaign of World War I, largely fought in the seas around the British Isles and in the Atlantic Ocean. The United Kingdom relied heavily on imports to feed its population and supply its war industry; the German navy aimed to blockade and starve Britain using commerce raiders and unrestricted submarine warfare.


The U-boat at war

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Narrow miss by a German torpedo.
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U-boats at Wilhelmshaven.
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German submarine U 14.

At the beginning of 1914, the submarine remained something of a nautical curiosity of uncertain usefulness. By the end of 1918, the value of the submarine as a weapon had been proved beyond all reasonable doubt.

On August 6 1914, two days after Britain declared war on Germany over the German invasion of Belgium, ten German U-boats left their base in Heligoland to attack Royal Navy warships in the North Sea. They were effectively all the blue-water submarines the Germans had.

It was the first submarine war patrol in history. It was also a fiasco. One of the U-boats was sunk in a minefield. Another, U 15, fired torpedoes at several British warships and missed each time. U-15 was later rammed and sunk by the Royal Navy light cruiser Birmingham while the U-boat was trapped on the surface by mechanical troubles.

The U-boats went on following war patrols in small numbers, however, and they finally got lucky on 5 September 1914, when a U-boat commanded by Lieutenant Otto Hersing torpedoed the Royal Navy light cruiser Pathfinder. The cruiser's magazine exploded, and the ship sank in four minutes, taking 259 of her crew with her. It was the first combat victory of the modern submarine.

The German U-boats were to get even luckier on 22 September. Early in the morning of that day, a lookout on the bridge of U 9, commanded by Lieutenant Otto Weddigen, spotted a vessel on the horizon. Weddigen ordered the U-boat to submerge immediately, and the submarine went forward to investigate.

At closer range, Weddigen discovered three old Royal Navy armoured cruisers, Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue. These three vessels were not merely antiquated, but were staffed mostly by reservists, and were so clearly vulnerable that a decision to withdraw them was already filtering up through the bureaucracy of the Admiralty. The order didn't come soon enough. Weddigen sent one torpedo into Aboukir. The captains of Hogue and Cressy assumed Aboukir had struck a mine and came up to assist. U 9 put two torpedoes into Hogue, and then hit Cressy with two more torpedoes as the cruiser tried to flee. The three cruisers sank in less than an hour, killing 1,460 British sailors.

Three weeks later, on 15 October, Weddigen also sank the old cruiser Hawke. The crew of U 9 became national heroes. Each was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class, except for Weddigen, who received the Iron Cross First Class.

However, Weddigen had simply been lucky. U 9 was a small, obsolescent submarine powered by kerosene engines, not in the same league with the diesel-powered U 19 class vessels, and was of marginal combat utility. The captains of the cruisers had been careless, and it was unlikely U-9 would have caught them if they had been alert.

The sinkings were a wake-up call to the British Admiralty. The Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, just north of Scotland, seemed clearly vulnerable. The Admiralty was also increasingly nervous about mines, which had sunk the light cruiser HMS Amphion off the Thames Estuary the first week of the war, and much more significantly sending the battleship HMS Audacious to the bottom of the Irish Sea on 17 October. Most of the crew of the Audacious was saved, but it was still a major humiliation.

The fleet was sent to refuge in Ireland and on the western coast of Scotland until adequate defenses were installed at Scapa Flow. This, in a sense, was a more significant victory than sinking a few old cruisers. The submarine, which had been held in such suspicion, had forced the world's most powerful fleet from its home base.

So far, the U-boats had kept to the rules of warfare. The vessels sunk had been warships and legitimate targets, and however shocked the British might have been at such a great loss of life, it was still a case of "kill or be killed".

The U-boats did sink an unarmed merchantman for the first time in the following month, but it was done by the book. On 20 October, U 17 boarded the small British freighter Glitra off the Norwegian coast, allowed the crew to take to the lifeboats, and then scuttled the vessel.

Such civilized behavior did not last for long. On 26 October, U-17 sank the French ferry Admiral Ganteaume in the English Channel. There were 2,500 Belgian refugees on board, but the ferry managed to make port before going down, and only 40 lives were lost. To be sure, the Channel was swarming with warships and there was no reasonable way the steamer could have been boarded, but it was still an unpleasant sign for the future.

In January 1915, U 20 sank three vessels in the Channel without warning, and two days later sank the hospital ship Asturias, even though it was clearly marked with the red cross. U 20 was commanded by Lieutenant Walter Schwieger, who would make a much bigger name for himself before the year was out. The acts of maritime terror were beginning to look less like accidents of war and more like policy. In fact, within a month they would be policy.

Unrestricted submarine warfare

The British steamer Andex sinking after being torpedoed by a U-boat.
The British steamer Andex sinking after being torpedoed by a U-boat.

By early 1915, all the combatants had lost the illusion that the war could be won quickly, and began to consider harsher measures in order to gain an advantage.

The British, with their overwhelming sea power, of course had established a naval blockade of Germany early in the war. This blockade was unusually restrictive in that even foodstuffs were considered "contraband of war". The Germans regarded this as a blatant attempt to starve the German people into submission and wanted to retaliate in kind, and in fact the severity of the British blockade did not go over well in America, either.

There was no way Germany could possibly deal with British naval strength on an even basis, and the only possible way Germany could impose a blockade on Britain was through the U-boat. The German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, felt that such a submarine blockade, based on "shoot without warning", would antagonise the United States and other neutrals. However, he was unable to hold back the pressures for taking such a step.

On 4 February 1915, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany declared the seas around the British Isles a war zone. Effective 18 February, Allied ships in the area would be sunk without warning. British ships hiding behind neutral flags would not be spared, though some effort would be made to avoid sinking clearly neutral vessels.

The German U-boat force was now primarily based at Ostend in Belgium, giving the submarines better access to the sea lanes around England. The Germans made use of this advantage, sending out about 20 U-boats to begin the naval blockade. In January, before the declaration of "unrestricted submarine warfare" as the submarine blockade was called, 43,550 tonnes of shipping had been sunk by U-boats. The number of sinkings then steadily increased, with 168,200 tonnes going down in August.

Losses of British warships were small. Although the battleship Formidable had been sunk by U 24 on New Year's Day, the times of U-boats sneaking up to British warships on the open sea whose captains were idly daydreaming were over, and the fast destroyer screens made successful attacks on battleships and cruisers a thing of the past. On the other hand, there was little a Royal Navy warship could do to sink a U-boat if the submarine's captain was reasonably alert. The U-boat was generally safe from shelling once it had submerged. It could be rammed if it were at periscope depth, but ramming was hardly a reasonable tactic as a standard practice.

It did work on occasion. On 18 March 1915, Lieutenant Otto Weddigen, now in command of U 29, stumbled into the British Grand Fleet on maneuvers. The U-boat was spotted by the mother of modern battleships, HMS Dreadnought, and rammed. U 29 went to the bottom with all hands in the only ever sinking of a submarine by a battleship. Aboukir, Hogue, and Cressy had been avenged.

Destroyers were not able to hunt the U-boats as they were protecting the fleet, so the British pressed every vessel they could into service, including yachts and trawlers, as auxiliary patrol vessels. Unfortunately, the U-boats were able to easily evade the patrols and sink merchant vessels traveling unescorted.

Militarily, unrestricted submarine warfare was proving a great success, and the U-boats stood a good chance of starving Britain into surrender. However, in terms of the propaganda war, it was a great disaster for Germany. America wanted to stay out of the European war, but lurid stories of "the rape of Belgium" early in the conflict had turned American public opinion against Germany, and unrestricted submarine warfare seemed to confirm the German reputation for brutality and ruthlessness. The deaths of American citizens traveling on British vessels torpedoed by U-boats began to make headlines in the US.

In April 1915, the British cargo vessel Harpalyce was torpedoed without warning by a U-boat and sunk. The Harpalyce was steaming to America to pick up food relief for Belgium, had the words "Commission for Belgian relief" painted in big white letters on her sides, and was flying the white flag. International opinion was outraged. Worse was to come very shortly.

The Lusitania

The Cunard liner Lusitania was one of the most impressive luxury ships ever built. She displaced 27,000 tonnes and had a top speed of 48km/h. Lusitania had elegant passenger accommodations, plus a double bottom and watertight compartments for safety.

The big liner continued her transatlantic passenger cruises after the outbreak of war. The British Admiralty had considered pressing her into military service, but decided she would not be economical to operate. However, they did require that some of Lusitania's modest cargo capacity be reserved for transport of war materials from America.

On 17 April 1915, Lusitania left Liverpool on her 101st transatlantic cruise, arriving in New York on 24 April, where she docked for a week. A group of German-Americans, hoping to avoid controversy if the Lusitania were attacked by a U-boat, discussed their concerns with a representative of the German embassy, and on 1 May the group printed an advertisement in several New York newspapers warning that Lusitania was "liable to destruction" in the war zone. The ad was printed right next to an ad for Lusitania's return voyage.

The warning led to some agitation in the press and worried the ship's passengers and crew, except for the captain, a crusty 58-year-old salt named William "Bowler Bill" Turner. Turner downplayed the concerns, and told one passenger that Lusitania was "safer than the trolley cars in New York City."

Lusitania steamed out of New York harbor that day at a little after noon, a few hours ahead of schedule. There were 1,257 passengers on board, 197 of them Americans. The liner was carrying a variety of items as cargo, among them 4,200 cases of rifle cartridges, 1,248 cases of artillery shells, and 18 cases of fuzes. Some believe that there may have been substantially more munitions on the ship, though it seems odd why some munitions would be concealed while others were listed. There were rumors at the time that the liner was also carrying a fortune in gold bullion.

Lusitania's landfall on the return leg of her transatlantic circuit was Fastnet Rock, off the southern tip of Ireland. As the liner steamed across the ocean, the British Admiralty was tracking through wireless intercepts the movements of U 20, operating along the west coast of Ireland and moving south.

On the 5th and 6th of May, U 20 sank three vessels in the area of Fastnet Rock, and the Royal Navy sent a warning to all British ships: "Submarines active off the south coast of Ireland". Captain Turner of Lusitania was given the message twice on the evening of the 6th, and took what he felt were prudent precautions. He closed watertight doors, posted double lookouts, ordered a black-out, and had the lifeboats swung out on their davits so they could be quickly put into the water if need be.

At about 11:00, on Friday, 7 May, the Admiralty radioed another warning, and Turner adjusted his course to the northwest, apparently thinking that submarines would be more likely to keep to the open sea and so the Lusitania would be safer close to land.

U 20 was low on fuel and only had three torpedoes left, and her captain, Walter Schwieger, had decided to head for home. The U-boat was moving at top speed on the surface at 13:00 when Schwieger spotted a vessel on the horizon. He ordered the crew to take the vessel under and to take up battle stations.

Lusitania was making for the port of Queenstown, Ireland, 40 kilometers away when the liner crossed in front of U 20 at 14:10. It was sheer dumb luck that the liner became such a convenient target, since U 20 could hardly have caught the fast vessel otherwise. Schwieger gave the order to fire, sending a single torpedo towards Lusitania. It hit cleanly under the bridge, blowing a hole in the side of the ship, and was then followed by a big secondary explosion that badly damaged Lusitania's bow.

Nobody really knows what caused the second explosion. Many believe it was caused by a large store of munitions concealed on the manifest, since the relatively small quantities listed could not have resulted in such a large blast. Others believe it was a coal gas explosion. Schwieger's own log entries made it clear that he only fired one torpedo, and having documented firing one on the Lusitania gives no rational reason for him to conceal firing a second.

Lusitania's wireless operator sent out an immediate SOS and Captain Turner gave the order to abandon ship. However, the liner was in a difficult position. The hole caused by the torpedo was causing her to list severely, the damage to the bow was making the foredeck sink under the waves, and the ship was still moving at relatively high speed.

The lifeboats on the left side of the ship could not be dropped because of the list, while those on the right were difficult to board and tended to be overturned by the ship's motion when they hit the water. Lusitania had 48 lifeboats, more than enough for all the crew and passengers, but only six managed to get to the water and stay afloat.

Turner tried to make for land to beach the liner and to reduce her speed, but Lusitania was no longer responding to control. There was panic and disorder on the decks. Schwieger had been observing this nightmare through U 20s periscope, but by 14:25 he decided he'd seen enough. He dropped the periscope and headed out to sea.

Turner stayed with the bridge until the water came up to meet him, and he managed to save himself by grabbing onto a floating chair. Lusitania's stern pitched up in the air until the bow hit bottom, and then the stern settled. The funnels went under water, a boiler blew up, and then there was silence except for the people struggling in the water.

Lusitania sank in 18 minutes. 1,198 people died with her, including almost a hundred children. Schwieger was condemned in the press as a war criminal. What he was thinking when he gave the order to fire the torpedo is a mystery, as he was killed in 1917 when the submarine he commanded at that time, U 88, hit a mine. Had he survived the war, he likely would have been put on trial by the Allies and possibly hanged.

128 of the dead were Americans. There was massive outrage in Britain and America. The British felt the Americans had to declare war on Germany, but US President Woodrow Wilson still did not want the country to get involved in a European dispute. Instead of declaring war, he sent a formal protest to Germany. Wilson was bitterly criticized in Britain as a coward.

Wilson's restraint now seems remarkable under the circumstances, since there was a wave of American anger over the sinking of Lusitania. Although unrestricted submarine warfare continued at a varying pace into the summer, on 19 August U 24 sank the White Star liner Arabic, with the loss of 44 passengers and crew. Three of the dead were Americans, and President Wilson angrily protested through German diplomatic channels.

On 27 August, the Kaiser imposed severe restrictions on U-boats attacks against large passenger vessels. On 18 September 1915, he called off unrestricted submarine warfare completely.


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A hidden gun on a Q-ship

As losses of British shipping to U-boats mounted in late 1914 and early 1915, the Royal Navy became increasingly desperate to obtain workable countermeasures. They settled on the "decoy ship", a merchantman with concealed weapons that attempted to lure a U-boat in to close range so it could be shelled and sunk. The decoy ship had to be small and shabby, not worth a torpedo, making it an ideal target for a U-boat's deck gun.

There was no particular champion for the concept; the idea just bubbled up from a number of officers and set the Admiralty's machinery to moving. In November 1914, the Royal Navy outfitted the merchantman Vittoria with a few guns and set her to patrolling the sea lanes under a neutral flag. The Vittoria patrolled for three months without seeing a single submarine, and was withdrawn in January 1915.

A number of fishing trawlers were discreetly armed and sent to sea in the spring of 1915 to look for U-boats, but had no more luck than Vittoria. The decoy ships didn't draw blood until that summer.

U-boats had been infesting the sea off the northern coast of Scotland, and colliers ferrying coal to the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow were prime targets. One of the colliers, a little ship named Prince Charles, had been fitted with a pair of small naval guns. The ship's civilian crew still served on the Prince Charles, along with ten Royal Navy personnel.

On the evening of on 24 July 1915, the Prince Charles encountered the Danish steamer Louise which had been halted by U 36. U 36 spotted Prince Charles, and the submarine's captain decided to abandon the Danish vessel and pursue the Prince Charles.

U 36 closed on the collier and opened fire on her with the submarine's deck gun from long range. Royal Navy Lieutenant Mark Wardlaw, in command of Prince Charles, halted the collier and ordered the civilian crew to abandon ship in an apparent panic. U 36 closed to 550 meters (600 yards) to finish Prince Charles off.

Wardlaw decided he'd lured the submarine in as close as he could, and blew a whistle. Wardlaw's gun crews dropped the screens that hid the two guns and immediately opened fire on U 36. The Germans were startled, climbed back into the submarine in a hurry and tried to dive, but the fire from Prince Charles was accurate and destructive. The submarine crew abandoned ship, and U 36 went nose up and slid beneath the waves. Prince Charles rescued 15 of the 33 German crewmen.

The sinking of U 36 seemed to show that the decoy ship was a workable idea, and the Royal Navy began to convert other vessels to decoy ships. The whole effort was kept absolutely secret. They were originally referred to by the nondescript name of "special-service ships", but for reasons that remain lost they became known as "Q-ships".

Q-ships were created from everything from fishing boats to ocean liners, but the most popular candidates were small tramp steamers and colliers. The main operating areas of the U-boats were the southern approaches to England from the Bay of Biscay, and the northern approaches off the west coast of Ireland. Tramp steamers and colliers often traveled these waters, and no one would think one traveling through these waters as anything out of the ordinary.

The vessels selected were usually the least impressive available. A Q-ship was supposed to fight it out at close range with a U-boat and so stood a good chance of being sunk itself, and as noted, the less impressive the target, the more a U-boat captain was inclined to surface and use the deck gun at close range rather than a torpedo.

Armament fit of a Q-ship varied considerably, depending on factors such as what weapons were available at the time, how big the ship was, and how well the weapons could be concealed. A typical Q-ship might be fitted with torpedo tubes, two or three naval guns, machine guns, and other weapons. The weapons could be hidden behind panels in the hull, inside structures or "cargo" on the deck that collapsed, or even inside lifeboats that were cut in half and hinged open for firing. Later in the war, the holds of some Q-ships were also filled with floatable materials in hopes of keeping them above water even when badly damaged.

It wasn't enough to just fit a tramp steamer with a few guns and send her to sea in hopes of trapping a U-boat. Elaborate theatrics were involved as well. Since U-boats were likely to observe a ship for some time before attacking it, the Q-ship's crew had to look like dirty and sloppy merchant seamen above deck. Black men were signed on as cooks, and it is said that on some Q-ships a few crewmen even dressed as women. As if to ensure that the seamen didn't get any idea that this was a proper way for Royal Navy sailors to behave, discipline below decks was unusually severe.

The masquerade was maintained even when the Q-ship was in port, since enemy agents might be watching. Q-ship seamen were occasionally treated as cowards avoiding the service by zealous womenfolk, though considering how much danger ordinary merchant seamen faced from U-boats, this seems irrational even on its own terms. Q-ship captains sometimes had to submit to snubs and condescension from mainstream Royal Navy officers who were in fact their juniors in rank.

In reality, Q-ship crews were generally an elite, volunteers who signed up for the adventure of the thing. Some were even retired admirals who wanted to return to action. It is entertaining to consider what happened when Q-ship captains returned to regular service and were placed in command of junior officers who had been unkind to them, but if such things happened, there is little record.

The Q-ship itself was something of a chameleon. Since a ship prowling back and forth across the same area of ocean would be very suspicious, Q-ships were repainted during the night, while fake funnels, deck structures, masts, and deck cargoes were added and removed. The flags were changed and when morning came, few could recognize the Q-ship as the vessel it had been as the day before. Some Q-ships also had special pipe systems installed to allow them to simulate battle damage with clouds of steam.

The theatrics became particularly intense when the Q-ship was attacked by a U-boat. A portion of the vessel's crew, equal in size to the crew of a normal tramp steamer, went into a panic, ran around to grab prize possessions such as a (fake) pet parrot or the like, and then abandoned ship in an frenzy that led to confusion, blunders, and delay, all the more to keep the U-boat's captain distracted as the submarine moved in closer.

The "captain" was the last to abandon ship, carrying with him a bundle of the ship's papers. The U-boat captain wanted those papers, since they provided intelligence on the ship's cargo. Once in the boats, the "panic party" dithered, annoying the enemy captain and luring him in further. This was a dangerous game, since some U-boat captains had little hesitation in using machine guns to command obedience.

The secret of the Q-ships began to come to light on 19 August 1915, when the Leyland liner Nicosian was attacked on the surface by U-27, under command of Lieutenant Bernhardt Wegener. Nicosian was carrying 800 mules, destined for the British Army. The mules had been loaded in New Orleans and were under the care of 80 American muleteers, and the ship was approaching port through the English Channel.

U-27 was shelling Nicosian when another ship, the tramp steamer Baralong, flying the American flag, incautiously intervened to assist the helpless Nicosian. Wegener decided to shell Baralong, but the intruder passed behind Nicosian and his gun crews had to hold their fire.

When Baralong emerged, it was no longer flying the American flag. It had raised the white battle flag of the British Royal Navy, and had also produced a pair of 12-pounder (5.4kg) deck guns. The submarine only managed get off one inaccurate shot before Baralong, which was a Q-ship under Lieutenant Commander Godfrey Herbert, punched holes in it and sank it.

Some of the German survivors tried to climb on board Nicosian. The memory of Lusitania was still raw, in fact enhanced by the fact that U-24 had sunk the liner Arabic in the area earlier that day. Herbert ordered his men to kill the Germans. British sailors shot them as they tried to climb on board Nicosian, and then hunted down the few that made to the deck and shot them as well.

Nicosian managed to make it to port and the British tried to persuade the ship's crew and passengers to keep quiet about what they had seen. However, the American muleteers talked freely to the press when they returned to the United States. The killing of the crew of U-27 became a cause of outrage in Germany, and the captured captain of a merchant ship who had tried to ram a U-boat was shot by the Germans in July 1916 as a "maritime guerrilla".

More to the point, German submarine crews now knew that some vessels that looked like prey were actually predators. Kills by Q-ships went into decline after that, but the Royal Navy still refused to admit the Q-ships existed until the war was nearly over.

U-boats in the Mediterranean

With the suspension of unrestricted submarine warfare, U-boat activities around the British Isles declined to routine minelaying at the mouths of harbors and in sea lanes. With nothing much to do in the Atlantic, U-boats went to the Mediterranean to see how the hunting was there.

It proved good. The Germans wanted to support their allies, the Turks, who were fighting the British landings at Gallipoli, and also intercept British shipping moving through the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal. They had little opposition and plenty of targets.

Lieutenant Otto Hersing, who had drawn first blood in the submarine war by sinking HMS Pathfinder the year before, had led the way in the Mediterranean even while the unrestricted submarine warfare campaign was in full swing against Britain.

After sneaking through the Straits of Gibraltar with U-21 and taking the U-boat across the Mediterranean, he engaged the British fleet bombarding the Turks at Gallipoli. On 25 May 1915, Hersing spotted the old battleship HMS Triumph through the periscope of his submarine and sank it with a single torpedo. On 27 May, Hersing similarly crept up a second old battleship, HMS Majestic, and after patiently waiting for a chance to attack, sent her to the bottom with a single torpedo as well. The British were forced to withdraw their capital ships from the bombardment squadron.

Other U-boats followed Hersing. Although the Germans had managed to ship a few small coastal-patrol submarines by rail in sections through Austria for operations in the Adriatic and the Black Sea, the Germans also sent large blue-water submarines through Gilbraltar, and by the fall of 1915 there were five such submarines operating in the Mediterranean.

A number of U-boat captains scored significant numbers of kills in the Mediterranean. The most notorious was Max Valentiner of U-38, who was enthusiastic about attack without warning, sinking troopships and liners. He went to the head of the British list of war criminals for sinking the liner Persia on 30 December 1915, with a loss of 334 passengers. Protests over such sinkings led to the now-familiar waverings of the German high command on submarine warfare policy.

Valentiner only placed third in total tonnage sunk among the captains of the Mediterranean flotilla, following Walther Forstmann of U-39, with both trailing the top scoring U-boat "ace" of all time, a descendant of a French soldier of fortune who had signed up with Frederick the Great with the grand name of Lothar von Arnauld de la Periere.

Von Arnauld, in command of U-35, achieved a score of sinkings that was never equaled, and did it strictly by the book. He stopped a merchantman, had it boarded, and its papers examined. If it was a legitimate target, he told the crew to take to the lifeboats, directed them towards land, and sank the ship. Between 26 July and on 20 August 1916, Arnauld sank 54 vessels, totalling 82,850 tonnes. When he finally left command of U-35, he had sunk 195 ships, including two warships, an armed merchantman, five troopships, and large number of steamers and sailing ships.

Allied antisubmarine measures in the Mediterranean proved as muddled as they were in the Atlantic. Although patrols were established, they were easily evaded by the U-boats. The Allies also spent a great deal of effort trying to find the "secret bases" in the Mediterranean that U-boats were operating from, never realizing that German submarines had much better endurance than their own, and neither had nor needed such bases.

Losses in the Mediterranean were so troublesome that the Allies began to divert shipping around the Cape of Good Hope rather than through the Suez Canal, even though the Germans never had more than a handful of submarines in the Mediterranean at any one time. The Allies were so desperate that they even asked Japan, which had come into the war on the side of the Allies, to send help, and the Japanese sent two flotillas of destroyers to the Mediterranean in 1917.

Mercantile submarines

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German commerce submarine Deutschland

The Germans also investigated use of the submarine as a blockade runner, in the form of the U-boat Deutschland, which was developed with private funds and operated by a German shipping company.

The Deutschland was unarmed and had a wide beam to provide space for cargo. She managed to slip through the British blockade with a cargo of dyes, chemicals, and precious stones, arriving in Baltimore harbor in July 1916 after four weeks at sea. The voyage was a remarkable propaganda coup, and profitable as well, with the U-boat returning to Germany with a valuable cargo of nickel, tin, and crude rubber.

Another mercantile submarine, Bremen, departed for America, but disappeared en route, apparently sunk by a mine north of the Orkneys. The Bremen had been escorted by the conventional submarine U-53. Some of U-53's ballast tanks had been converted to carry extra fuel to allow it to make the trip. However, the commander of U-53, Lieutenant Hans Rose, decided to demonstrate just how fearsome Germany's U-boats were by sinking three British, one Norwegian, and one Dutch merchantmen just outside US territorial waters. He apparently meant to intimidate the Americans, but instead largely succeeded in antagonising them.

The Deutschland made another merchant trip in the fall of 1916, making landfall in New London, Connecticut, but after that the merchant voyages were halted. Deutschland was given two torpedo tubes and a deck gun, and the remaining six in the class under construction were finished as warships. The seven were designated U-151 through U-157, with Deutschland being renamed U-155.

Unrestricted submarine warfare resumed

After the cessation of unrestricted submarine warfare in September 1915, the German government waffled on what to do with their U-boats. The military wanted to resume the submarine blockade, while Bethmann-Hollweg was with good reason fearful that doing so would bring the United States into the war against Germany.

A compromise was reached. German diplomats would attempt to negotiate a peace, and if they were unsuccessful, the U-boats would be set loose again. Under these circumstances, the Germans could claim they were forced into such measures by the stubbornness of the Allies.

The negotiations went nowhere, and in early 1916, a blockade was established, with attacks limited to armed merchantmen. After loud protests by neutrals, particularly the United States, the campaign was given up after two months. However, the military pressure on Germany continued to build, and in the fall of 1916 the U-boat blockade was established again, once again limited to armed vessels.

The Germans had 134 submarines by this time. The blue-ocean U-boats, descendants of U-19, had been refined and now generally had four forward and two rear torpedo tubes, and had one or two 86 millimeter guns, or a single 105 millimeter gun. A large blue-ocean minelaying submarine, the type "UE", was built as well, evolving through two classes of increasing size; as were coastal patrol submarines, the type "UB", with three classes; and small minelayers derived from the UB, the type "UC", also with three classes.

Even with restrictions, the effect of this fleet was overwhelming. In the last months of 1916, the U-boats sank 154 merchant vessels with a total displacement of 443,000 tonnes. The British were desperate. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, in command of the Grand Fleet, said that if things continued to get worse Britain would have to sue for peace by the summer of 1917.

Early in 1917, the Kaiser declared full unrestricted submarine warfare once more. Some German diplomats believed that the Americans would avoid war at all costs, and if not, hopefully Germany could bring Britain to its knees before the weight of American power made itself felt in Europe. In February, 86 vessels were sunk, followed by 103 in March, and then 155 in April.

The Royal Navy expanded the Q-ship fleet to 78 vessels and managed to get in some blows. The three-masted schooner Prize beat up U-93 on 30 April 1917, capturing three men found floundering in the water, including the submarine's captain, Baron Spiegel von und zu Peckelsheim. U-93 was presumed sunk, and the baron properly wrote letters to the families of his crew to express his condolences. He found out to his combined relief and embarrassment that the submarine had made it home after all, even though its conning tower had been badly damaged and several holes had been punched in the hull. The U-boat had gone under just deep enough to wash him and the gun crew off the deck.

On on 7 June 1917, the Q-ship Pargust managed to sink U-29, though Pargust itself sank as a result of the battle. That was the third U-boat kill for the ship's captain, Gordon Campbell, who as the commander of the Q-ship Farnborough had sunk U-68 in March 1916, and then sank U-83 in February 1917, for which he received the Victoria Cross.

Campbell was a perfect example of British coolness under pressure, and once radioed from Farnborough after a particularly rough engagement: "Q-5 slowly sinking respectfully wishes you goodbye". In fact, Farnborough survived and was sold off in 1919.

Campbell's coolness was demonstrated in one of the most dramatic sea battles of the war, on 8 August 1917. He was then in command of the Q-ship Dunraven when he was attacked by the UC-71 at 11:17 that morning. Dunraven was camouflaged as an armed merchantman and had a small deck gun that was visible to the U-boat, and the gun crew traded shots with the U-boat for some time. The Germans were not able to hit the Q-ship, and the British gunners were not trying very hard to hit the Germans.

After a half-hour of this, the German captain, Lieutenant Reinhold Saltzwedel, grew impatient and closed on the Dunraven. The U-boat's gun crew began scoring hits, and the panic party "abandoned ship" at 12:10. One hit set fire to the poop shack at the stern of the vessel, which had a powder magazine inside and a gun crew on top.

Campbell knew the powder magazine would eventually blow up and take the gun crew with it, but he had to balance that against the prospect of sinking a submarine and saving more British ships and lives. The crew stayed at their posts, in hopes of preserving the illusion that there was nobody on board the Dunraven and luring the submarine in closer.

It almost worked, but as UC-71 closed in for the kill, at 12:58 the powder magazine blew up, blasting off much of Dunraven's stern and tossing the gun crew through the air. Astonishingly, only one of the men was killed, though the others were injured. The lieutenant of the gun crew, burned and bleeding and apparently in a daze, reported to Captain Campbell: "I am sorry, sir, for leaving my gun without orders. I think I must have been blown up."

Alarms went off on Dunraven immediately and the Q-ship's gun crews blasted away at UC-71, but Lieutenant Saltzwedel was thoroughly alerted and submerged immediately. At 13:20, the Dunraven was hit with a torpedo, blowing a large hole in the ship's side.

Campbell ordered another "panic party" to abandon ship, but still stayed on board with a small crew on board to man the weapons in hopes of tricking the U-boat's captain into thinking the ship had really been abandoned this time. Saltzwedel wasn't being fooled again, however, and inspected the battered Dunraven through the submarine's periscope until 2:30, when the U-boat surfaced dead astern of the Q-ship, and began shelling the dying vessel with its deck gun.

Dunraven had no power and there was no way to shoot back at UC-71 from that position. The U-boat pounded the Q-ship for 20 minutes. Campbell later described his situation as "extremely unpleasant".

The submarine submerged and went around the Dunraven once more. Campbell ordered the launch of the Q-ship's two torpedoes. One missed, the other grazed the U-boat but failed to detonate. Campbell prepared a third panic party, but he still ordered one gun crew to remain on board.

Fortunately, UC-71 then departed, having used up all its torpedoes. Lieutenant Saltzwedel had enough of pounding Dunraven, the Q-ship was clearly not going anywhere, and the British seemed so determined to fight back that they might just get lucky if he stayed around any longer.

The British wounded were picked up by an American yacht, and a British destroyer took Dunraven in tow. However, the Q-ship was too badly damaged to stay afloat, and sank the next night. The lieutenant and petty officer in charge of the rear gun crew were both awarded the Victoria Cross, and the rest of the crew received other awards, including a grant of 300 pounds to the collective.

Campbell and the crew were transferred back to the regular Navy. The fight of Dunraven was one of the last acts of glory for the Q-ship.

The Q-ships were not very effective weapons. 180 Q-ships were operated by the Royal Navy through the war, with ten of them sinking a total of 14 U-boats. Seven of the ten sank one, two sank two, and one sank three. Q-ships would be used again for a short time in the Second World War, but with no success. In fact, some naval scholars have claimed with a good deal of justification that all they did was provoke German U-boat captains to be more ruthless in attacking merchant vessels without warning.

On the other hand, early in World War I, they were the only offensive weapon the Royal Navy had to use against the U-boat, and they did damage 60 other U-boats, in some cases severely. Q-ships made U-boat captains more willing to use a torpedo on a merchantman instead of surfacing and sinking it with its deck gun. The torpedoes were much more expensive and a U-boat could only carry a relatively small number of them, limiting the effectiveness of their combat patrols. Either way, the Q-ships wrote an exciting chapter in naval history.

Britain needed other weapons and tactics to really defeat the U-boats. By now, the Americans were active belligerents in the conflict. The U-boat attacks had pushed US public sentiment to the breaking point, and the strain was badly aggravated when a high German Foreign Office official, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a telegram to the Mexican government with a lunatic proposal for Germany to aid Mexico in an invasion of the United States.

The British intercepted and deciphered the telegram, and passed it on to the United States. Between the Zimmermann Telegram and unrestricted submarine warfare, the US finally declared war on Germany in April 1917, and both America and Britain directed their resources to deal with the U-boat problem.

America in the war

The Germans had managed to provoke the Americans into a collective rage, and the US was eager to get into the fight. The only problem was that America was not particularly ready to go to war, and Britain might well be defeated by the time the US was fully mobilized.

Admiral William Sims, in command of US Navy forces in Europe, felt that the British were facing imminent disaster at the hands of the U-boats and begged for antisubmarine resources. The US ambassador to Britain, Walter Hines Page, reported the same fears back to Washington. Sinkings rose again in May, and the Admiralty predicted the country would not be able to hold out past November 1917.

The US Navy sent six destroyers to Queenstown, Ireland, in early May, with many more to follow. America's production capabilities were much greater than Britain's, and American shipyards could turn out a destroyer in six weeks that British yards took a year and a half to build. Losses could now be made good.

The convoy system

The simple statistics encouraged the British Admiralty to begin merchant convoys. The Royal Navy had conducted convoys in the Napoleonic Wars and they had been used effectively to protect troopships in the current war, but the idea of using them to protect merchant shipping had been debated for several years. Nobody was sure convoys were Britain's salvation or ruin.

Consolidating merchant ships into convoys might just provide German U-boats with a target-rich environment, and packing ships together might lead to collisions and other accidents. It was potentially a logistical nightmare as well, and Royal Navy officers judged it too much so. They also felt it was a much too passive approach to war. The Admiralty stubbornly resisted forming merchant convoys.

With the ability to replace losses, the dilemma of using convoys was not as painful. The British prime minster, David Lloyd George, finally insisted that convoys be implemented, and after experiments through the early months of 1917 that proved successful, the first formal convoys were organized in late May.

Although the Admiralty dragged their feet, by the fall the convoy system had become very well organized, and losses for ships in convoy fell drastically, with 2% losses for ships in convoy compared to 10% losses for ships traveling on their own. The convoy loss rate dropped to 1% in October. However, convoy was not mandatory, and monthly loss rates did not fall below their 1916 levels until August 1918.

In the meantime, the Allies were laying down new minefields to prevent U-boats from reaching the open sea. Such minefields had been laid since early in the war, but at the time the British mines hadn't been very effective. However, by 1917 the British had the "Mark H2" mine, copied from a German mine, and was much more deadly than earlier British mines.

Missing image
Floating mine dump at Inverness, destined for the Northern Barrage.

Some of the minefields were huge. One, the Northern Barrage, included 70,000 mines and ran across the North Sea from the Orkney Islands to Norway, in principle blocking access to the North Atlantic, though in practice the mines were too widely scattered to be very effective. Another had 25,000 mines and sealed off German naval bases on the North Sea. A third blocked off the English Channel at the Dover Straits. Eventually, mines claimed several dozen U-boats.

The British had also perfected the first weapon that could be used to attack a U-boat underwater, the depth charge. The concept was first proposed by Admiral Sir Charles Madden, an Admiralty staff officer, who heard a report of a U-boat escaping a British warship by diving, and suggested to Admiral Sir John Jellicoe: "Wouldn't it have been fine if they had had a mine that when dropped overboard exploded when it reached the depth at which the submarine was lying?"

Missing image
HMS Tempest dropping a depth charge.

Jellicoe liked the idea and set the Admiralty technical bureaucracy to work on it. Building such a weapon turned out to be simple, and the result was the "D Pattern Mark III" depth charge, a big can filled with 130 kg of TNT and a pressure-sensitive detonator. The detonator could be set to cause the charge to explode at six depths from 30 m to 180 m. The detonator mechanism itself was inside a hollow chamber in the middle of the depth charge that filled with water. The inlet to the chamber could be switched with a tool to six holes of different size, with the smaller holes causing detonation at greater depths.

Depth charges were first used in action in July 1916 when the patrol craft HMS Salmon attacked UC-7, though UC-7 escaped. On December 6, 1917, depth charges scored their first U-boat kill when the destroyer HMS Llewellyn sank the UC-19 in the Dover Straits. The next week, HMS Landrail sank UB-29 in the English Channel. The Americans quickly adopted the "ash can", as they called it, and the weapon accounted for several dozen U-boats by the end of the war. Even when the blows from the depth charges did no real damage to the submarine, the barrage was terrifying and demoralizing to the U-boat crews.

At first, depth charges were simply rolled off the stern of a destroyer or Q-ship, but by 1918 destroyers were carrying "projectors", a type of mortar designed by the British Thornycroft shipyards, that could blast them 70 meters (75 yards) from the ship. With four projectors and twin stern chutes, a destroyer could drop a pattern of charges to bracket the presumed position of the U-boat.

In parallel with the development of the depth charge, the British also introduced the first means of locating a submerged submarine, the hydrophone. This was a primitive device, essentially a directional underwater microphone that could be steered by an operator to locate the source of an undersea sound.

Hydrophones had actually been developed as far back as 1894, and were originally based on telephone technology. They were first developed as much as a navigational aid to pick up underwater bells set up near lighthouses, wrecks, and other hazards, or as the receiver for a short-range water-based telegraphy system as to detect underwater objects.

Some directional capability was obtained by using them in pairs, with the operator balancing the intensity of the sound in his two headphones. This had the drawback that it was difficult to determine if the sound was in a particular direction, or 180 degrees away. Hydrophones were tricky to use, easily confounded by other sources of noise such as a sub-hunter's own propeller, but they were vastly better than nothing. Radio direction finding stations were set up as well, in hopes of locating U-boats from their wireless transmissions, and had limited success.

The Allies also began to make increasingly effective use of air power. Air bases were set up around Britain to support maritime air patrols. Flying boats attacked U-boats cruising on the surface, ultimately sinking seven and damaging forty. Four hundred blimps, which could cruise slowly and stay in the air for long periods of time, accompanied convoys through the dangerous approaches to Britain, and also patrolled the sea lanes for raiders.

The Germans had gambled they could choke Britain before America could exert its influence on the war, or at least prevent American supplies and reinforcements from crossing the Atlantic. They failed. Two million American soldiers were sent to Europe, and the U-boats only managed to sink one troop transport.

Missing image
Oil spill showing where a U-boat was sunk.

The result of stronger Allied antisubmarine activity was a rising number of U-boat kills and increasingly desperate and demoralized German submariners. In May 1918, 55 U-boats were sent to sea, a record number, but sixteen were destroyed, also a record. By the summer of 1918, the life expectancy of a U-boat was six combat patrols.

Terror increased the ruthlessness of U-boat commanders, some of whom had been ruthless enough to begin with. Even before the U-boat kills began to rise, in April 1917, Lieutenant Wilhelm Werner of U-53 had coldly murdered survivors of two sunken steamers by lining them up on the deck of the submarine, taking away their life preservers, and then submerging. Lieutenant Paul Wagenfuehr pulled the same vicious trick on the crew of a steamer in July 1917.

By 1918, U-boat commanders were also attacking clearly marked hospital ships. On January 4, 1918, Lieutenant Werner and U-55 sank the hospital ship Rewa, though most of the crew and all of the patients were rescued. The hospital ship Glenart Castle was sunk on February 26, 1918, with the loss of 153 lives, and on 10 March, the hospital ship Guildford Castle barely escaped sinking by outmaneuvering a torpedo that grazed the ship's side and went on.

On the night of on 27 June 1918, the hospital ship Llandovery Castle was torpedoed off southern Ireland by U-86. There were fortunately no patients on board, but when the crew took to the lifeboats, U-86 surfaced, ran down all the lifeboats except one, and shot at the people in the water. The 24 people in the surviving lifeboat were rescued. All 234 others disappeared into the sea.

After the war, the captain of U-86, Lieutenant Helmut Patzig, and two of his lieutenants were arraigned for trial, but Patzig disappeared, and though the two lieutenants were convicted and sentenced to four years in prison, they both escaped.

It is characteristic of human nature that many U-boat captains were conscientious as well, or at least as conscientious as their role allowed them to be. Lieutenant Hans Rose often towed the lifeboats containing crews of ships he had sunk to within sight of land. After sinking the US Navy destroyer Jacob Jones on 6 December 1917, he was so concerned for the survival of the American crew in the wintry ocean that at great risk to his crew and himself, Rose actually radioed the British to inform them of the sinking and provide the location of the lifeboats.

The last gasp of the U-boats

Late in the war, the German high command decided to take the war to US shores. This required submarines with very long range, but Germany had the seven U-boats derived from the merchant submarine Deutschland class. Two purpose-built long-range "cruiser" submarines were built as well, and featured six torpedo tubes and at least two 150 millimeter deck guns.

A few of the converted merchantmen made long voyages south to the Azores and the African coast, where they operated generally unmolested against shipping operating in the area, though one, U 154, was torpedoed by the British submarine E 35 off the coast of Portugal in May 1918.

One of the most important voyages by this class of U-boat began on 14 April 1918, when the U-151 left Kiel. U-151 was under the command of Lieutenant Commander Heinrich von Nostitz und Jaeckendorff. His mission was to attack shipping along the American Atlantic coast and lay mines off major coastal outlets.

U-151 laid a batch of mines off Baltimore harbor on 21 May. The Americans were not expecting trouble off their own shores and had taken no precautions. U-151 conducted its business without interference or any sign of alarm. U 151 discreetly seized three schooners that night, apparently to obtain provisions. The Germans took the crews on board and sank the vessels. U 151 laid its remaining mines across Delaware Bay and proceeded to New York, arriving on 28 May. The submarine spent the next three days "trawling" the sea bottom with a cable-cutter, and severed two telegraph lines.

Nostitz then steamed south to attack shipping, racking up score after score. His conduct was considerate as possible, with crews allowed to abandon ship and given assistance afterward. In fact, one of his kills carried a mother with a little girl, who were taken on board and taken care of until they could be put on lifeboats in sight of land. The German crew spoiled the little girl.

However, after the sinking the liner Carolina, on her way from Puerto Rico to New York, on 2 June, although the passengers and crew were allowed to safely abandon ship, a storm came up during the night and overturned one of the liner's lifeboats. 13 people drowned.

By this time, there was a panic in progress along the US eastern seaboard, but U 151 was on the move and many steps ahead of any pursuers. U 151 returned to Kiel on 20 July 1918, after having steamed 17,570 kilometers and sent 27 ships to the bottom, including four that were sunk by the mines the submarine had laid.

Encouraged by this success, U 140, U 156, and U 117 were sent over as well, but the Americans were better prepared and the hunting was not as good. U 156 was lost with all hands on the return voyage when she struck a mine off Bergen, Norway, on 25 September 1918. Another trio of long-range submarines, U 155, U 152, and U 139 were already on their way across the Atlantic when the war ended.

Lieutenant Lothar von Arnauld de la Periere sank the last ship to be destroyed by a U-boat in the war on 1 October 1918, when he was in command of U 139, one of the big "U-cruiser" boats. He managed to torpedo one vessel in a heavily protected British convoy crossing the Bay of Biscay, and in a hideous irony worthy of urban legends, the sinking vessel sank on top of U 139. Von Arnauld and his crew managed to escape by blowing all ballast tanks and were able to patch up the submarine on the surface.

By early October, Germany was seeking terms for surrender, and on 22 October, a wireless message was sent to U-boats at sea for them to cease attacks on merchant shipping, though warships were still legitimate targets. By end of the month, German sailors began to mutiny in scattered Bolshevik uprisings, and by early November Germany was in a state of complete collapse. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated and went into exile in Holland on 9 November, and the Germans signed the Armistice on 11 November.

The terms of the Armistice required that Germany turn over all U-boats to the British. Beginning on 20 November, the U-boats were taken into custody at the port of Harwich. Counting those handed over in other ports, 176 were taken. Most were looted by souvenir-hunters, and later scrapped.

Despite Germany's defeat, the U-boat force had distinguished itself in combat. The Germans had 20 submarines at the beginning of the war and eventually built 345 more. The U-boats had sunk almost 5,000 Allied ships, at a cost of 178 submarines and the lives of over 5,000 men out of the 13,000 who had served.

They had also killed 15,000 civilians, and British headlines screamed: "Hang the Kaiser, hang the U-boat commanders!" There were in fact no such mass reprisals, but U-boat officers in Allied prisons had an anxious time of it. One of them was a young lieutenant named Karl Dönitz, whose submarine, UB 68, had been sunk in the Mediterranean on 2 October. Dönitz spent his months in prison camp considering what the U-boats had done right, what they had done wrong, and would apply those lessons in the Second Battle of the Atlantic twenty years later.

This text was originally written by Greg Goebel and released to the public domain [1] (


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