On 5 September 1914, HMS Pathfinder exploded, broke in half, and sank in minutes. Of 258 souls on board, only eighteen survived. While the harbor rang with the mayhem accompanying such a terrible event, U-21 of the Imperial German Navy quietly slipped below the water and made her way out to sea having just become the first submarine to sink a ship with a torpedo fired from what we now think of as “conventional” torpedo tubes. (As a proud son of Dixie, I must note the CSS H.L. Hunley sank a warship half a century prior, but she used a “spar torpedo” and managed to sink herself in the process.)
The focus of Great War historians and historical dabblers usually centers on the miseries of the trenches or, perhaps, the chivalric glory of the burgeoning air corps. Most World War I scholars end up ignoring naval engagements in general — save the necessary treatment of Jutland — and submarines in particular, but in reality, while not as widespread or as advanced as the “Wolf Packs” Admiral Donitz sent into the Atlantic twenty years later, the submarines of World War I played a vital role in the conflict. The lowly submarine emerged as the technology that, in true double edged sword fashion, almost secured victory for the Kaiser but in the end ensured his downfall.
One reason submariners get such short shrift from military historians is the general negative light most people hold them in. To many in naval circles, the submarine is the sniper of the seas, hidden beneath the waves unseen and silently waiting for a perfect moment to kill an enemy. Indeed, more than one stuffy old-fashioned admiral felt submarines should be strictly relegated to a reconnaissance role because their ability to attack while hidden seemed somehow “unsporting” and “not quite fair.” As soon as submarines developed to the point they were seen as a viable weapon of war, countries enacted treaties and “rules of engagements” stating submarines had to “surface and warn” ships they were about to torpedo. Somehow, this was supposed to “even out” the sub’s advantage. Personally, I see “rules of engagement” and “laws of war” in much the same light as “jumbo shrimp” — oxymorons.
Early on, German U-boat commanders actually sought to abide by such hamstringing rules and would surface, warn the merchant ship’s captain, and allow passengers to safely embark in lifeboats before either sinking the ship or seizing it as a prize of war. Of course, some enterprising merchant mariner came up with the idea of mounting GUNS on merchant ships which, by all earlier naval laws had been unarmed, and the submarines surfaced to warn a potential victim only to find the tables turned. At that point, some enterprising U-boat captains decided, “Zur Holle mit den Regeln,” and went back to sinking warships and merchant ships without warning.
This practice of “sink them all and let God sort them out” is what historians call a period of “unrestricted” submarine warfare. The idea was basically “y’all know we are at war with Britain so if y’all try to bring anything TO Britain, we’re going to sink you. Consider THIS your warning!” A little known fact surrounding the sinking of RMS Lusitania and the deaths of so many Americans in the Spring of 1915 is the German Embassy took out a full page ad in the New York Times right next to the ad for the ship’s voyage. This ad read:
Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
Imperial German Embassy
Washington, D.C. 22 April 1915
Hard to claim it was a complete “sneak attack” when you warn everyone in the largest paper in the nation.
Unrestricted submarine warfare had a tremendous effect on Great Britain. As an island nation, she counted on being supplied by sea and at the height of the U-boat activity, Great Britain began running short on important war materiel and food supplies. The situation was not quite as dire as the blockade days of 1940 when the island was supposedly down to less than a week’s worth of food, but matters were still bleak.
Part of the reason the U-boats didn’t strangle Great Britain completely was the fallout from the Lusitania. President Woodrow Wilson gave several impassioned speeches warning Germany of the dangers of plucking the feathers from the American Eagle’s tail and Germany reluctantly ceased unrestricted submarine warfare around the British Isles.
Unfortunately for Germany, the stagnation along the Western Front and Great Britain’s own surface based standoff blockade of German ports combined to place the Kaiser in a position from which he couldn’t win. With matters increasingly dire and desperate, in January 1917, the German High Command again gave the order to return to unrestricted submarine warfare and sink any and all ships coming in the Zone of Exclusion around Great Britain and Europe. It was this action which led directly to Germany’s defeat in the Great War.
Once President Wilson heard of Germany’s resolve in resuming the indiscriminate sinking of any ships it came across, he ordered all German diplomats out of the country. It wouldn’t be much longer and he would ask the US Congress for a declaration of war against Germany and once Congress granted that declaration, the entire industrial and manpower might of the United States came to bear on an already weary Central Power alliance. Germany’s days were numbers when the “Yanks started coming over there!”
Still, the role of the submarine in Germany’s prosecution of the war shouldn’t be overlooked. At the War’s beginning, the Kaisermarine only had twenty operational U-boats and the entire sub fleet would never grow particularly large. For such a small force. the damage they inflicted was vastly disproportional to their numbers. In four years, a relative handful of U-boats sank almost 5,000 ships totaling nearly 13 million tons while losing less than 200 of their own number. I think most commanders in history would like to have a 25:1 kill ratio.
Well, that’s it for this week. Love y’all and keep your feet clean!