World War I (1914-1918) unrestricted submarine warfare
On the eve of World War I, the art of submarine warfare was barely a dozen years old, and no nation had submarine-qualified officers serving at the senior staff level. Ancient prejudice against submarines remained. They represented an unethical form of warfare, detractors felt, and they did not fit in the classic, balanced structure of a navy, where battleships were king. No nation had developed any method for detecting submarines or for attacking them if found.
Here`s the tally for 1914:
Great Britain: 74 in service, 31 under construction, 14 projected
France: 62 boats in service, nine under construction
Russia: 48 boats in service, including five Hollands and eight Lakes, the rest
from Britain, France, and Germany.
Germany: 28 in service, 17 under construction
United States: 30 in service, 10 under construction
Italy: 21 in service, seven under construction
Japan: 13 in service, three under construction
Austria: six in service, two under construction
By August 1914, Great Britain and Germany were at war.
On September 5, U-21 sank the British cruiser Pathfinder with one torpedo. From weapon launch to sink took three minutes. Out of a crew of 268, nine survived. A week later, the British had their turn when E-9 sank the German light cruiser Hela with two torpedoes.
Then, in less than two hours on September 22, a single, virtually prehistoric German submarine, U-9, sank three British cruisers. The face of naval warfare was, indeed, changed forever.
- 1915 The British had set up a naval blockade of Germany, which began to have a telling effect: Germany was not a self-sufficient nation and was heavily dependent upon imported food, fodder, and fertilizer. Germany vowed to mount a counter-blockade, using submarines. However, the German Navy had to wrestle with a serious ethical and legal dilemma. Under international law, a warship could stop and search a merchantman; if found to be carrying contraband cargo for an enemy, a warship`s crew could capture and place a "prize crew" aboard her to sail her to an appropriate harbor. Under some circumstances, the warship could sink the merchantman, provided she had first allowed the ship`s crew to take to the lifeboats.
A submarine did not carry enough sailors to make up prize crews, so the only option was to sink the merchant ship. For this purpose, submarines were equipped with deck guns. However, if the submarine came to the surface to give fair warning, she herself became vulnerable to attack by ramming, concealed guns, or warships rushing to the rescue.
German policy went through several cycles. They played by the rules for a time, but in February, in retaliation for the indiscriminate damage of the blockade, Germany opted for `unrestricted submarine warfare`. The legal requirement for `fair notice` was met, at least in theory, by setting specifically designated war zones, within which all vessels were subject to attack without warning.
With only 35 active U-boats, Germany began sinking British merchant ships faster than they could be built, and the Germans got very serious about submarines. They launched several accelerated construction programs. One dubbed the UB class was for smaller, less capable boats that were nonetheless well-suited to operations close to home.
In May 1915, U-20 sank the civilian passenger liner Lusitania, killing 1198 men, women, and children, including some Americans. Germany did not want to provoke the United States, and under pressure from international public opinion, backed off from further unrestricted submarine attacks, for a while. In February 1916, the Germans resumed unrestricted operations but cancelled them in April after a controversial attack on a civilian ferry boat. Nonetheless, the U-boats were by then taking out about 300,000 tons of shipping a month.
- 1916 Germany created the ultimate World War I U-boat, a true long-range submarine cruiser. Manned by a crew of 56 with room for 20 more, boats of the UA class were 230 feet long, about 1,500 tons, with a speed of 15.3 knots on the surface and a range of 12,630 miles at eight knots. Armament: Twin 150-mm (5.9-inch) deck guns, 1,000 rounds of ammunition, and 19 torpedoes. Forty-seven UAboats were ordered but only nine made it into service before the armistice.
One of the first of the UA class was built as a blockade-breaking civilian cargo submarine operated by the North German Lloyd Line. Deutschland had a cargo capacity of 700 tons (small if compared with surface ships, but equal to that of seven 1990-era C-5A airplanes). She engaged in high-value trans-Atlantic commerce, submerging to avoid British patrols. On her first trip, she carried dyestuff and gemstones to America and nickel, tin, and rubber back to Germany.
- 1917 Radio intercepts were one vulnerability that the Allies constantly exploited and the Germans never fully appreciated. The Germans knew their transmissions could be overheard and U-boat locations pinpointed by direction finders, but they didn`t seem to care. They assumed the U-boats would be long gone before any attackers could arrive on the scene. They didn`t realize that by knowing where the U-boats were operating, the Allies often could re-route convoys out of harm`s way.
- 1918 The development of submarine-locating devices began early in the war with hydrophones (underwater directional microphones) to listen for the sound of propellers, and, too late to be of much use in this war, an echo-ranging system. The British dubbed the latter ASDIC, which apparently stands for nothing in particular, but it is now known universally as sonar, which stands for `SOund NAvigation and Ranging`. By sending out an audible `ping` and measuring the echo return, a sonar operator can determine the range and bearing of a submarine.
By summer, much of Germany was in rebellion, and the government began to move toward armistice. In October, the surface navy refused to go to sea for one last suicidal battle, but the U-boat navy remained loyal. U-135 even remained on alert to attack a renegade German battleship. Final kill: UB-50 sank the British battleship Britannia two days before the November 11 armistice.
Germany started the war with 26 operational boats and added 390. At war`s end, 171 new boats were in the water and another 148 were under construction. Wartime losses: 173. Mines took out at least 48; depth charges claimed 30; gunfire, 20; ramming, 19; accident, 19; unknown, 19; submarines, 17; aircraft, 1.
In the meantime, U-boats had sunk more than 4,000 ships comprising more than 11 million tons, fully one-fourth of the world`s total supply. In essence, unrestricted submarine warfare almost won the war for Germany, yet at the same time Germany lost the war because of unrestricted submarine warfare. A paradox? No, a matter of timing. If the US had not entered the war in 1917, Germany likely would have been able to force a peace agreement. But the U-boat operations directly and specifically brought America into the conflict.
Virulent wartime propaganda to the contrary, only one verified U-boat atrocity occurred during the war: U-86`s sinking of the hospital ship Llandovery Castle, and the skipper`s attempt to hide the evidence by machine-gunning all survivors in the water. (He missed a few.) Post-war, he fled the country to avoid a 1921 war-crimes trial; two of his officers were tried and convicted as accessories. They did not remain too long in jail, however, somehow managing to `escape` their German guards within a few months.
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