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.
German U-Boats at Wilhelmshaven port
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.
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.
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.
German submarine U 14
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
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
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.
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.
British destroyer dropping a depth charge
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 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
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
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
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.
Please see some Banknotes from WW1