“Ironically, it was Kaiser Wilhelm II who had second thoughts about attacking neutral shipping. The 55-year-old German emperor considered the drowning of innocent civilians ‘a dreadful thought.’”
By Mike Peters
AT THE OUTBREAK of World War One, the modern submarine was still in its infancy. Although shrewd observers saw the potential of submersible fighting vessels, Europe’s military powers had yet to fully embrace the concept of undersea warfare. And to be sure, the technology at the time was far from perfect – crews risked their very lives simply by putting to sea in early subs.
Germany was the first naval power to take the plunge into submarine warfare. After the defeats suffered off the Falkland Islands in December of 1914, the Kaiser’s admirals began to look to their fledgling U-boat flotillas as the best hope of inflicting losses on the British at sea.
Hermann Bauer, the commander of the German submarine service, had suggested as early as October that Unterseebootes or “undersea boats” should be unleashed against the commerce shipping in Britain’s sea-lanes. Controversially, he even advocated attacks on neutral ships, believing that such a strategy would deter neutral nations from supplying the British.
By November of 1914, the situation for neutral sea captains became further complicated when Britain declared the North Sea a war zone. London announced that it intended to scatter anti-ship mines there and that all vessels hoping to enter those waters would need to put into a British port first and surrender any cargo bound for Germany. Only then would ships be escorted safely through the mines.
Amid this intensification of the blockade, Bauer’s previously unpopular idea of an aggressive submarine campaign gained greater support within Germany. Many in Berlin saw it as an appropriate response to Britain’s actions.
Ironically, it was Kaiser Wilhelm II who had second thoughts about attacking neutral shipping. The 55-year-old German emperor considered the drowning of innocent civilians “a dreadful thought”. German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg and the foreign ministry worried about provoking neutral countries. Even ordinary Germans considered the submarine to be an unethical weapon. Yet pressure from naval leaders and anger in the national press about the British blockade eventually convinced Berlin to unleash the U-boats.
On Feb. 4, 1915, the Kaiser announced Germany’s intention to sink any and all ships sailing under the flags of Britain, Russia or France found within British waters. He further warned neutral countries that neither their crews nor passengers were safe in this exclusion zone. From Feb. 18 onward, he declared, any ship entering waters around the United Kingdom would do so at their own risk.
Predictably, the international community condemned the threats. America sent a blunt note to Berlin warning that Germany would be held responsible for any U.S. ships that were sunk. Fearful of drawing Washington into the war on the side of Great Britain, Bethmann-Hollweg persuaded senior naval officers to exclude neutral ships from the order – especially American vessels. Despite the dangers, Germany launched the U-boat war on Feb. 22, 1915.
Things got off to a slow start — With fewer than two-dozen submarines at its disposal and often only four at sea at any given moment, there was no way to effectively patrol British waters. Not surprisingly, over the first month of the campaign, U-boats attacked just 21 ships out of the more than 5,000 that entered and left British ports. Such numbers were reassuring enough to neutral powers – so much so, many soon resumed normal trade with the United Kingdom.
By March 1915, the British war cabinet extended the remit of the blockade to encompass all food supplies bound for enemy power. From this point onwards the Royal Navy’s stranglehold on Germany grew ever tighter. Unwilling to risk its surface fleet in a direct showdown with the British Grand Fleet, it would fall to the Kaiser’s submarine flotilla to respond.
As 1915 wore on, the capability of U-boats increased, as did their numbers. Their lethal potential would soon be made all too clear.
On May 7, a lone German sub, U-20, spotted the British liner Lusitania steaming east 11 miles off the south coast of Ireland. It took just a single torpedo to sink the 787-foot-long passenger vessel. Among the dead were 128 American citizens. The disaster caused outrage in America, but not enough to force President Woodrow Wilson to declare war on Germany. Regardless, it was a public relations disaster for Berlin. Following the Lusitania debacle, U-boat captains were ordered to surface before attacking neutral ships and to would have to use their newly fitted deck guns to engage targets. Further, neutral ships not carrying contraband would be allowed to steam for their destinations. Any vessel caught with contraband in its hold was to be sunk – but only after the crew had been evacuated by lifeboat.
Such measures were sufficient to mollify Wilson and the U.S. Senate; U-boat commanders were less than thrilled. Surfacing was too becoming increasingly dangerous, especially since more and more merchant ships were armed with concealed guns. Many skippers skirted the directive.
Despite such noble gestures, events would again get away from the Kaiser. On Aug. 19, the White Star Liner SS Arabic, was sunk without warning about 50 miles off Kinsale, Ireland. Desperate to prevent further outrage, the Kaiser ordered that no passenger liner was to be attacked until all the crew and passengers had been given the chance to escape. Despite the German emperor’s efforts to rein in his wolf-packs, the damage had already been done.
In September of 1915, Admiral von Holtzendorff was appointed to the head of Germany’s submarine force. On Sept. 18, he ordered all U-boats to adopt the ‘cruiser’ system of warfare – coming to the surface before attacking a ship. The navy responded by ending all U-boat activity around the British Isles as commanders feared surface attacks were simply too dangerous. In this sense, the loss of the Arabic gave the British a respite from the submarine scourge.
Conclusion – Wolves Unleashed
By early 1917, things were growing increasingly desperate for Germany. The Kaiser’s army faced a stalemate on land. Worse, the Royal Navy’s blockade was as tight as ever. Hundreds of thousands of civilians risked starvation (700,000 would eventually die from the food shortages). Desperate to break the impasse, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in February in a bid to bring the war to a speedy conclusion. The Kaiser’s navy unleashed more than 100 U-boats into the North Sea and North Atlantic and within a month, more than half a million tons of shipping had been sunk. Another 6 million would be destroyed by the end of the year. The age of all out scale submarine warfare had arrived. Despite the lethality of the U-boats, it would still not be enough to tip the balance in Germany’s favour.
Mike Peters is the chairman of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides and is the author of the books Glider Pilots at Arnhem and Glider Pilots in Sicily. A version of this article originally appeared on his military history blog on the Galloway Tours website. He lives in Ipswich, Suffolk. Follow him on Twitter at Galloway Battlefields