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U-Boat (submarine) warfare at the Atlantic during World War 1
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U-Boat warfare at the Atlantic in WW1

German U-Boats at Wilhelmshaven port
German U-Boats at Wilhelmshaven port
The First battle of the Atlantic (1914–1918) 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.

U-Boats at war

At the beginning of 1914, the submarine remained something of a nautical curiosity of uncertain usefulness. Two days after Britain declared war on Germany over the German invasion of Belgium, ten German U-boats left their base in Helgoland to attack Royal Navy warships in the North Sea. They were effectively all the blue-water submarines the Germans had.
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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 conning tower of U 9, commanded by Lieutenant Otto Weddigen, Weddigen discovered three old Royal Navy armoured cruisers, Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue. These three vessels were were hit by torpedo and sank in less than an hour, killing 1,460 British sailors.

Effects of early sinkings

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.

German submarine U 14
German submarine U 14
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. The acts of maritime terror were beginning to look less like accidents of war and more like policy.

Unrestricted submarine warfare

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 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. 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.

British destroyer dropping a depth charge
British destroyer dropping a depth charge
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.

Lusitania

The ocean liner "Lusitania" was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U20 on May 7, 1915, on her 202nd crossing of the Atlantic. It sank in 18 minutes. 1,198 people died with her, including almost a hundred children. 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, instead of declaring war, sent a formal protest to Germany. Wilson was bitterly criticized in Britain as a coward.

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.

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.

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.

Second unrestricted submarine warfare

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 Q-ships - merchantman ships with concealed weapons that attempted to lure a U-boat in to close range so it could be shelled and sunk - 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.

America enters the war

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.

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.

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.

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Article courtesy of Wikipedia
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