U-boats and the First World War

U-boats and the First World War

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The first Royal Navy submarine was developed by John P. Holland and was launched in 1902. At this time France led the world in the design and construction of steam-powered underwater boats. However, after 1905, Germany began to develop a submarine with real fighting qualities. In 1913 Germany produced its first diesel-powered Unterseeboot (U-boat).

By the outbreak of the First World War Germany had 10 diesel-powered U-boats (17 more under construction). The German Navy also had 30 petrol-powered submarines. Britain had 55 submarines whereas the French had 77. Although submarines were slow, fragile and able to dive for only a couple of hours at a time, with torpedoes they posed a serious threat to other ships. By 1918 the German Navy had 134 operational U-boats and these managed to sink 192 boats, killing more than 5,400 people.

On the other hand, in view of England's economic situation, the Imperial Admiralty promises us that by the ruthless employment of an increased number of U-boats we shall obtain a speedy victory, which will compel our principal enemy, England, to turn to thoughts of peace in a few months. For that reason, the German General Staff is bound to adopt unrestricted U-boat warfare as one of its war measures, because among other things it will relieve the situation on the Somme front by diminishing the imports of munitions and bring the futility of the Entente's efforts at this point plainly before their eyes. Finally, we could not remain idle spectators while England, realising all the difficulties with which she has to contend, makes the fullest possible use of neutral Powers in order to improve her military and economic situation to our disadvantage.

Two lines of thought were emerging at that time (late 1890s): the tactical necessity for a battlefleet, if we were striving for sea-power and wanted to build ships to some purpose; and the political necessity of establishing a protecting navy for Germany's maritime interests which were growing at such an irresistible pace. The navy never seemed to me to be an end in itself but always a function of these maritime interests. Without sea-power Germany's position in the world resembled a mollusc without a shell. The flag had to follow trade, as other older states had realized long before it began to dawn upon us.

The 'Open Door,' which could easily be closed, was to us what their broad plains and inexhaustible natural wealth were to the other Powers. This, combined with our hemmed-in and dangerous continental position, strengthened me in my conviction that no time was to be lost in beginning the attempt to constitute ourselves a sea-power. For only a fleet which represented alliance-value to other great Powers, in other words a competent battle fleet, could put into the hand of our diplomats the tool which, if used to good purpose, could supplement our power on land.

It was, and is, an illusion, however, to think that the English would have treated us any better, and have allowed our economic growth to have proceeded unchecked if we had had no fleet. They would have certainly told us to stop much sooner.

The steamer appeared to be close to us and looked colossal. I saw the captain walking on his bridge, a small whistle in his mouth. I saw the crew cleaning the deck forward, and I saw, with surprise and a slight shudder, long rows of wooden partitions right along all the decks, from which gleamed the shining black and brown backs of horses.

"Oh, heavens, horses! What a pity, those lovely beasts!"

"But it cannot be helped," I went on thinking. "War is war, and every horse the fewer on the Western front is a reduction of England's fighting power." I must acknowledge, however, that the thought of what must come was a most unpleasant one, and I will describe what happened as briefly as possible.

There were only a few more degrees to go before the steamer would be on the correct bearing. She would be there almost immediately; she was passing us at the proper distance, only a few hundred metres away.

"Stand by for firing a torpedo!" I called down to the control room.

That was a cautionary order to all hands on board. Everyone held his breath.

Now the bows of the steamer cut across the zero line of my periscope - now the forecastle - the bridge - the foremast - funnel - A slight tremor went through the boat — the torpedo had gone.

"Beware, when it is released!"

The death-bringing shot was a true one, and the torpedo ran towards the doomed ship at high speed. I could follow its course exactly by the light streak of bubbles which was left in its wake.

"Twenty seconds," counted the helmsman, who, watch in hand, had to measure the exact interval of time between the departure of the torpedo and its arrival at its destination.

"Twenty-three seconds." Soon, soon this violent, terrifying thing would happen. I saw that the bubble-track of the torpedo had been discovered on the bridge of the steamer, as frightened arms pointed towards the water and the captain put his hands in front of his eyes and waited resignedly. Then a frightful explosion followed, and we were all thrown against one another by the concussion, and then, like Vulcan, huge and majestic, a column of water two hundred metres high and fifty metres broad, terrible in its beauty and power, shot up to the heavens.

"Hit abaft the second funnel," I shouted down to the control room.

Then they fairly let themselves go down below. There was a real wave of enthusiasm, arising from hearts freed from suspense, a wave which rushed through the whole boat and whose joyous echoes reached me in the conning tower. And over there? War is a hard task master. A terrible drama was being enacted on board the ship, which was hard hit and in a sinking condition. She had a heavy and rapidly increasing list towards us.

All her decks lay visible to me. From all the hatchways a storming, despairing mass of men were fighting their way on deck, grimy stokers, officers, soldiers, grooms, cooks. They all rushed, ran, screamed for boats, tore and thrust one another from the ladders leading down to them, fought for the lifebelts and jostled one another on the sloping deck. All amongst them, rearing, slipping horses are wedged. The starboard boats could not be lowered on account of the list; everyone therefore ran across to the port boats, which, in the hurry and panic, had been lowered with great stupidity either half full or overcrowded. The men left behind were wringing their hands in despair and running to and fro along the decks; finally they threw themselves into the water so as to swim to the boats.

Then - a second explosion, followed by the escape of white hissing steam from all hatchways and scuttles. The white steam drove the horses mad. I saw a beautiful long-tailed dapple-grey horse take a mighty leap over the berthing rails and land into a fully laden boat. At that point I could not bear the sight any longer, and I lowered the periscope and dived deep.

We will frighten the British flag off the face of the waters and starve the British people until they, who have refused peace, will kneel and plead for it.

I am the crust. When you throw me away or waste me you are adding twenty submarines to the German Navy. Save me and I will save you.


U-boats were German submarines that caused havoc in World War Two during the Battle of the Atlantic. U-boats were so damaging that Winston Churchill commented that it was the only time in World War Two that he thought Britain would have to contemplate surrendering.

The Treaty of Versailles had forbidden Germany from having any submarines. To get round this, German submarine crews trained in Spain and Russia. Crews also trained in anti-submarine warfare (which Versailles did not forbid) in Germany and the very nature of this meant that they had to gain knowledge of submarines themselves. Either way, by 1939, Germany had nearly 50 operational U-boats for the war. Ten more had been built but were not fully operational in September 1939.

Germany had a well respected short history of submarine building. The success of the German submarines during World War One had been startling and at the end of the war, those U-boats that had survived were surrendered to the Allies. Britain, America, Japan etc all took their share of the U-boats and used them as templates for their own versions. In 1923, Britain launched her X1 submarine which was based on the uncompleted U173 class of German submarine.

From 1918 on, Germany was technically not allowed to have submarines or submarine crews. However, no mechanisms were in place to stop research into submarines in Germany and it became clear that during the 1930’s, Germany had been investing time and men into submarines. During the same time, Britain had built 50 submarines, America 28 submarines and France 83. Even Russia, during the wars, had built over 100 submarines despite the political dislocation that country had suffered. Many of these submarines were designed by Germans – both Germany and Stalin benefited from this as Russia got the submarines she so desperately needed and Germany got the design experience.

When Hitler announced that Germany would openly re-arm, the German Navy already had considerable experience in submarine design. Under Hitler, there was no reason to hide such knowledge and five types of submarines were considered

1) Sea-going submarines of 500 to 700 tons

2) Ocean-going submarines of 1,000 tons

4) Coastal submarines of 250 tons to 500 tons

5) Mine laying submarines of 250 to 500 tons

Designs that included U-boats that carried two E-boats or planes were dropped.

The first sea-going U-boat was U-27 launched in 1936. By 1939, a newer model had much better engine power and greater fuel carrying capacity – the Type VII B. By 1941, this had been overtaken by the Type VII C. These were so successful that over 600 were built. The Type VII was developed from the Finnish Vetehinen design.

The Type VII C was 220 feet long and displaced about 770 tons on the surface. This U-boat had saddle tanks, four bow tubes and two stern tubes. Her diesel engines gave a top speed of 17 knots on the surface and 7.5 knots underwater. Its only drawback – a major one – was its limited range of operation 6,500 miles at an average speed of 12 knots. However, her simple design meant that repairs at sea were relatively easy and the Type VII C had a very good reputation for reliability. The Type VII became the standard design for Germany’s submarine fleet during World War Two.

U-boats had a number of spectacular victories at the start of the war. The sinking of the liner ‘Athenia’ by U-30, though it went against Hitler’s express orders, showed how vulnerable unescorted ships were against a submarine. The British aircraft carrier ‘Ark Royal’ narrowly missed being hit by U-39 in September 1939 and in the same month the aircraft carrier ‘Courageous’ was sunk by U-29. In October 1939, U-47 carried out the most spectacular raid by penetrating Scapa Flow and sinking the battleship ‘Royal Oak’ with the loss of 833 lives. In reality, ‘Royal Oak’ was an old second line battleship. But the psychological impact of what U-47 had done was massive. One U-boat forced the Home Fleet to move from Scapa Flow to a series of temporary anchorages primarily around the coast of Scotland – but away from what was considered to be a secure harbour. The importance of this went further as U-47 had done a great deal to undermine the plans of the Admiralty which were to pin the German surface fleet in the North Sea and block any moves into the Atlantic.

The Germans did not rest on the laurels of the Type VII. The Type IXB was an ocean-going submarine and, therefore, had to have a greater range than the Type VII. This meant that it was on little value around the coast of Britain as Type VII’s could do this task. The Type IXB was used in mid-Atlantic and other zones away from their bases. They had one major drawback – they took too long to build. But with a surface weight of 1,051 tons and a surface speed of 18 knots and an underwater speed of 7 knots, Type IXB’s (carrying 22 torpedoes) were formidable weapons at sea.

If the design of the U-boats was good, their weapons were less reliable. In the first few months of the war, German torpedoes proved less than reliable. In 30 attacks by U-boats in the spring of 1940, in which captains claimed a direct hit by their torpedoes, only one ship was sunk by U-4. Therefore, the Kriegsmarine put a great deal of effort into developing a torpedo that was effective and reliable. A U-boat all but gave its position away to a ship when it attacked it but a torpedo did not explode – the wake from the torpedo was a clear indicator of the direction that the U-boat had to be in.

The collapse of France in June 1940 did a great deal to change submarine warfare. U-boats now had open access to the Atlantic from bases on the western coast of France. Prior to this, U-boats had to move either through the North Sea of the English Channel to get to the Atlantic. Both journeys were fraught with dangers. After June 1940, this problem disappeared. Twelve U-boat flotillas were based in Brest, La Rochelle, La Pallice, St Nazaire, Lorient and Bordeaux. Being so much nearer to the Atlantic also gave the Type VII more time at sea as its range at sea no longer had to include the journey from bases in Germany itself – saving many miles of travel.

Now with open access to the Atlantic, the U-boats presented a far greater threat than before. In August 1940, Hitler effectively lifted any restrictions to U-boat activity. However, the success of the ocean-going U-boats was not matched by a similar success around the coast of Britain. British coastal defences had become a lot better as the war had gone on and far more dangerous for the smaller coastal submarines used by the Kriegsmarine. But out in the Atlantic, U-boats took their toll. Between June and November 1940, 1.6 million tons of shipping was sunk – a loss rate that Britain could not sustain.

However, the German war machine could not produce enough U-boats fast enough. The Kriegsmarine had developed its requirement strategy around the war being over quickly. 60 U-boats were launched in 1940 – but this represented just over one per week. In the same year, 32 had been lost in action and 2 damaged in accidents. Submarines belonging to France and their bases had been deliberately damaged in the days leading to the surrender of France – so few of these French submarines were serviceable. At any one time during the so-called ‘Happy Times’ for U-boats, there were only ever a maximum of 30 at sea. For an area the size of the northern Atlantic, this was not many. Despite this, they managed to wreak havoc. Individual U-boat captains like Kretschmer were responsible for the sinking of 200,000 tons of shipping alone. If more U-boats had been at sea, the impact of the Battle of the Atlantic could have been far greater for Britain.

Grouped into wolf-packs, these U-boats sank vast numbers of merchant ships in the Atlantic. This peaked in 1942. U-boat captains quickly realised that a night attack made them all but invisible to an escort to the merchant ships. ASDIC was designed for underwater detection – U-boats on the surface were safe from this. At night the silhouette of a surfaced U-boat was barely visible. Kretschmer actually took his U-boat into a convoy at night as he believed that no escort commander would ever believe that a U-boat would ever deliberately go into a convoy to attack. Wolf-pack attacks were aided in their success by Focke-Wolf Condor reconnaissance planes which found where a convoy was and relayed all the relevant information back to U-boat headquarters.

For all the success of the U-boats, the Allies were developing a large array of anti-submarine weapons including more modern depth charges, ‘hedgehogs’, ‘squids’ and more sophisticated radar equipment, including radar designed to see U-boats on the surface at night. While the U-boats were successful, they were also becoming more and more vulnerable to an attack.

America’s entry into the war in late 1941, gave the U-boats new targets along the east coast of America and in the Caribbean. In the first six months of 1942, 21 U-boats sunk 500 ships. America’s navy used what it decided would be an aggressive force against the U-boats – and this excluded convoys to start with which they saw as being too passive. Destroyer patrols attempted to find U-boats and sink them. However, the U-boat captains were too skilled for this and by June 1942, America started to organise its merchant ships into convoys – such were the losses. But America’s entry into the war had major consequences for the U-boat campaign.

Britain, as an ally to America, could now move some of her shipbuilding work to the safety of America’s docks on the eastern seaboard. Britain’s ‘River’ class escort frigate was built in America and 25 ‘Flower’ class corvettes were transferred to the United States Navy. While merchant shipping losses had been very high (1,299 ships in 1941 and 1,662 in 1942), America had started to produce her legendary ‘Liberty’ and ‘Victory’ ships in vast numbers. These ships could be escorted by the new ‘River’ class frigates which could cross the whole Atlantic and remain with a convoy as a result. Faster than a surfaced U-boat, the ‘River’ frigate posed a real problem to the U-boats. Equipped with H/F-D/F radar (Huff/Duff), they could ‘see’ U-boats on the surface at night and attack.

U-boats also faced serious threats from the air. The VLR (Very Long Range) Liberator bomber and the Short Sunderland were potent weapons. The development of the MAC-ship (Merchant Aircraft Carrier) allowed for 4 planes to be carried and launched at sea.

However, U-boat development did not lag behind. Scientists in Germany had developed new torpedoes – the T4, which was replaced by the T5. The T5 (known by the British as the ‘gnat’) was a homing torpedo which traveled relatively slowly but was very accurate. The newly developed radar impulse director (RID) also gave the U-boats a greater degree of forewarning that enemy ships and planes were around.

During 1943, the ‘Happy Days’ were coming to an end for the U-boats. Scientific developments and new tactics spelt the end for the U-boats. The British organised ‘convoy support groups’ for the convoys. These were ships that went to look for U-boats away from a convoy but could return to that convoy quickly if required. While these ships were away, the convoy was still guarded by escorts. However, 1943 started off well for the U-boats. Cryptanalysts in Germany had cracked the British convoy cypher and a large wolf-pack of 39 U-boats was sent by Dönitz to attack convoys 5C-122 and HX-229 – two eastward bound convoys in March. A total of 21 merchant ships were lost (140,000 tons) with only three U-boats lost. This was the high watermark for the U-boats in 1943.

Many vital vessels had been used in ‘Operation Torch’ – the invasion of Sicily in 1943. With these vessels no longer being needed, they could be used on escort duty in the Atlantic. This greatly helped the convoys. Secondly, 61 VLR Liberators were made available to the RAF as a result of the intervention of Roosevelt. This gave the convoys a much greater aerial cover. But the biggest contribution was scientific. Aircraft were fitted with ASV (Air to Surface Vessel radar). This allowed a plane to spot a U-boat on the surface but the U-boat could not pick up ASV on its radar receiver. Therefore a plane could attack a surfaced U-boat in the knowledge that it did not know it was about to be attacked. In May 1943, a wolf-pack of 12 U-boats attacked another convoy but 8 U-boats were lost. For the first time in months, the Germans were faced with a major dilemma.

A U-boat attacked from the air

Dönitz now made two mistakes. He ordered that all U-boats should be fitted with more anti-aircraft guns. He believed that planes would think twice when faced with greater fire from a U-boat. However, he miscalculated. If a plane was fired at (and Liberators and Short Sunderlands were not the fastest of planes) they simply stayed out of range and relayed the position of the U-boat to the nearest escort ship. If the U-boat then tried to dive, putting its guns out of use) the plane would attack. U-boat crews gave themselves a window of between 30 and 40 seconds to submerge before a plane got within range to attack.

The second mistake concerned radar. U-boats were fitted with a Metox receiver that detected if a submarine was being searched for by radar. U-boat commanders reported that they were being attacked on the surface at night by planes but that Metox had given no sign that any plane was in the vicinity using radar on the U-boat. It was found that Metox gave off an emission that could be tracked and the Germans concluded that Metox was to blame for all their recent losses in 1943. It was replaced and the Germans were satisfied that the problem had been solved. They did not realise that it was because the ASV was so accurate in pin-pointing U-boats, hence no attempt was made to hinder the work of the ASV radar.

By mid-1943, convoys were having far greater success in getting to Britain. In May, two convoys reached Britain without losing a single ship – and 6 U-boats had been lost. Between April 1943 and July 1943, 109 U-boat were lost. Dönitz withdrew his U-boats from the battle as a temporary measure. German scientists worked on methods to boost the defences of the German submarines. New engines were developed such as the Walther propulsion system hulls were coated with rubber in the belief that they would absorb ASDIC (they did not!) and new submarines were designed. The most famous was the Type XXI. This had a streamlined hull, an enlarged battery for greater endurance and greater speed. The Type XXI was an awesome weapon but too few were ever produced. The Allies could now bomb factories and submarine pens with great frequency and accuracy. Fuel depots were also a target. The Germans may have had a fine submarine on paper but producing it in numbers was a different matter. Dönitz informed Hitler that the first Type XXI would be ready by November 1944. Hitler ordered an earlier date and gave Albert Speer the task of getting the Type XXI produced. But with the Allies and the Russians closing in on both sides of Europe, constant bombing of factories etc, it was an impossible demand. Also the demands of the army and Luftwaffe also hit the U-boats. Steel was vital to U-boat production – but it was also vital to the other parts of the military as well. The army also demanded men and the movement of men into the army meant that the navy did not get the men it needed. The U-boat service suffered accordingly.

The Type XXI was commissioned in early 1945 and the first one, U-2511, went to sea just one week before Germany surrendered. On May 7th, 1945, Dönitz ordered all U-boats to cease hostilities.

U-boats and the First World War - History

The steel coffins was the name given to the U-boats of the Kriegsmarine by their own crews. Their fatalistic view of the war was certainly justified it is estimated that seventy five per cent of the 39,000 men who sailed in the U-boat fleet paid the ultimate price as the tide of war turned inexorably against Hitler&rsquos Germany.

This incisive DVD tells the story of the U-boat war from the perspective of the men who sailed in the U-boat fleet. Drawing on extensive newsreel footage and rare war time photographs, this is the definitive story of the U-boat war from the inside.

Drawing heavily on the accounts of the last remaining survivors, &lsquoU-boats At War&rsquo traces the grim story of the rise and fall of the grey wolves. The memories of the brief days of the &ldquohappy times&rdquo of superiority and success were soon replaced by the stark terror of the enfolding nightmare as the realization dawned that the hunters had become the hunted.

Allied Warships

A quarter of a century before the feared wolfpacks of Admiral Dönitz roamed the waters of the Atlantic, their Imperial German ancestors left their mark in history. Although nowadays the U-boats of the Imperial German Navy seem to have been forgotten by historians and writers alike, it was them who very nearly won the First World War for Germany.

Here a brief overview of the first U-boat campaign in military history is provided. Although this is now some 80 years in the past, from the history of it one can still learn - especially as many aspects of submarine technology and tactics were developed in Germany by the Imperial Navy.

1. Overture

A rather unpromising start of the campaign.

3. Escalation

The harshness of the U-boat campaign increases when 1915 unrestricted warfare against merchant vessels is declared as a German reaction to the British blockade

2. First Blood

U-boats strike their first successes against warships in 1914

4. Deadly Mediterranean

From 1915-1917, U-boats have some stunning successes in the Mediterranean.

5. Crisis

Unrestricted U-boat warfare nearly defeats Britain but brings America in the war in 1917

7. Selected Technical Data

of Imperial German U-boats and their Torpedoes.

6. Finale

At the defeat of Germany in 1918 by the British blockade, the U-boat war is called off - time for a resumé.

New Year's Day 1915 was welcomed by SM U 24 (Kptlt. Rudolf Schneider) with a very special kind of fireworks, when it sank the old battleship HMS Formidable (15,000 tons) in the Western Channel.

In February 1915 then, Admiral von Pohl's plans were realized: The seas around the British isles were declared a war zone by the German government and any ship found there on or after 18th February faced sinking without warning: unrestricted U-boat warfare began for the first time in history. A neutral flag was considered to be no guarantee for safety, it was regarded as a common war deception: The British Cunard liner RMS Lusitania e.g. flew the Stars and Stripes in the Irish Sea on 31st January because U-boats (SM U 21) were reported to be in the vicinity. U-boat skippers were ordered to be absolutely sure a ship was neutral before sparing it.

The famous first "all-big-gun" battleship HMS Dreadnought, which never fired a shot in anger, was able to deliver a deadly and devastating blow to Germany's submarines on 18th March 1915, when it rammed and sank the newly commissioned SM U 29, which was commanded by the famous ace Kptlt. Otto Weddigen. Before sinking, the U-boat showed its sharp bow with the number "29" clearly visible for a last farewell. The death of Germany's most famous submariner and his crew was a boost of morale for the British and the cause of great sorrow on the German side.

The war against the merchants was thriving and by the end of April the U-boats had been able to sink 39 vessels at an own loss of three U-boats.

Probably the most spectacular incident of the First World War happened on 7th May 1915, when SM U 20 (Kptlt. Walther Schwieger) fired one torpedo aimed at RMS Lusitania (30,000 tons) south of Ireland. After the explosion of the torpedo, the proud liner was shattered by a devastating second explosion (which was caused by coal dust) and sank within 18 mins with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives, among them 128 Americans.

15 mins after he had fired his torpedo, Kptlt. Schwieger, baffled by the terrible effect of his attack, noted in his war diary:

"It looks as if the ship will stay afloat only for a very short time. [I gave order to] dive to 25 metres and leave the area seawards. I couldn't have fired another torpedo into this mass of humans desperately trying to save themselves".

Although the German U-boat had every right to torpedo the ship - she was registered as a vessel of the British Fleet Reserve, she travelled in a declared war zone and in her cargo holds she was carrying rifles and explosives and thus was a rightful target - the sinking caused sharp American protest, resulting in a German order to leave passenger liners unharmed.

Despite of that U-boat activity increased and in August 1915 the sinkings by German U-boats (185,800 tons) bypassed the monthly building rates in British shipyards. On 19th August 1915, the debate about the U-boats heated up again, when SM U 24 (Kptlt. Rudolf Schneider) sank RMS Arabic (15,800 tons) with one torpedo, mistaking it for a troop transport. The liner sank in 10 mins with 44 casualties, among them 3 Americans. Again sharp American protests followed.

The German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg feared the intervention of the Americans, if unrestricted U-boat warfare continued. Although the Chief of the German Naval Staff, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, promised the collapse of the British within six months, if he had free hand at sea, before US intervention would take effect - a fairly accurate assessment of the situation - Bethmann-Hollweg achieved a prohibition of attacking passenger ships except under prize rules by the end of August. But U-boat warfare according to prize rules was too risky in British waters. This and the possibility of confusing passenger ships with other ships led to the refraining of U-boat skippers from attacks. On 20th September 1915, the U-boats were withdrawn from British waters, the focus of the U-boat campaign shifted to the Mediterranean with plenty of targets and virtually no Americans present.

SM UB 64

At the end of 1915, about 855,000 tons of shipping had been lost, with 20 U-boats sunk. 94 ships were lost to mines laid by German mine laying "UC"-class U-boats operating under the command of the Flandern Flotilla (Commodore Andreas Michelsen) from the Belgian ports Brügge and Zeebrügge. Also stationed there were the "UB"-class coastal submarines. One of them, SM UB 13 under the command of Oblt.z.S. Athur Metz, sank on 15th March 1916 the Dutch steamer SS Tubantia which was supposed to have had German gold treasures on board. This affair was accompanied by fairly mysterious involvements of intelligence agencies and until today the mystery of the Tubantia, her cargo and the reason of her sinking, has not been properly solved. On 24th March 1916, another of Michelsen's boats, SM UB 29 (Oblt.z.S. Herbert Pustkuchen) inflicted another unwelcome diplomatic melée, when it torpedoed the French cross-Channel ferry Sussex (1,350 tons), mistaking it for a minelayer, with eighty casualties, among them 25 Americans. The damaged ferry was then towed to Boulogne. Following were sharp American protests, resulting in a total cancellation of the U-boat campaign around the British isles on 24th April 1916.

View of the control room of a German WW I U-boat.

Birth of the Q-ship

In 1915, Britain was in desperate need for a countermeasure against the U-boat. Sound detection gear and depth charges were still in their infancy, and the only means to sink a submarine was either by gunfire or by ramming. The problem was to lure the U-boat to stay on the surface rather than seeking safety in the deep of the sea. The solution to this problem was the creation of one of the closest guarded secrets of the war: the Q-Ship. This "U-Boot-Falle" (U-boat trap) was an old looking tramp steamer with hidden guns and torpedoes. Because of its load of wooden caskets, wood or cork, it very nearly was unsinkable. The idea was to lure the U-boat to attack the Q-Ship with its deck gun at close range as torpedoes would not sink the vessel. In a split of a second then the masquerade would be put to an end, the White Ensign would be hoisted and the U-boat would be in a deadly cross fire.

Barralong incident

The new weapon proved to be successful for the first time on 24th July 1915, when SM U 36 became the first U-boat to be sunk by a Q-Ship (HMS Prince Charles commanded by Lieutenant Mark Wardlaw RN). A particularly nasty incident took place on 19th August 1915: SM U 27 (Kptlt. Bernd Wegener) was sunk by the Q-Ship HMS Baralong (Lieutenant Godfrey Herbert RN). Herbert, enraged about Germans in general and U-boat warfare in particular, ordered that all German survivors, among them the commander of SM U 27, should be executed on the spot. Although the British Admiralty tried to keep this event as a secret, news spread out to Germany and the infamous "Baralong" incident - a war crime which was never prosecuted - had its share in promoting cruelty at sea. Once the Germans learned about the Q-Ships, U-boat skippers tended to be more careful and quite frequently the U-boat escaped or even sank its attacker.

One particularly dramatic engagement happened on 8th August 1917 120 miles west of Ouessant. SM UC 71 (Oblt.z.S. Reinhold Saltzwedel) was en clenched in a fight with the Q-Ship HMS Dunraven (Captain Gordon Campbell RN VC *). After an eight hour relentless fight with the repeated mutual exchange of gunfire and torpedoes, the unharmed SM UC 71 left the Q-Ship ablaze and in a sinking condition. This duel can be considered as a remarkable example of bravery on the British side (two members of the crew were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest British decoration for valour) and coolness and skill of the German commander. Captain Campbell later wrote:

"It had been a fair and honest fight, and I lost it. Referring to my crew, words cannot express what I am feeling. No one let me down. No one could have done better."

But despite of these spectacular actions and romanization, Q-Ships did not prove to be that successful: In 150 engagements they were able to kill 14 U-boats (about 10% of all U-boats lost) and damaged 60 at an own loss of 27 out of 200. The only truly working counter measure against merchant raiders and U-boats - the convoy system - was well known to the Royal Navy since the times of the Spanish Armada, but they were reluctant to introduce it again - which should demand a terrible toll.

* Captain Campbell was awarded the Victoria Cross in February 1917 for the sinking of SM U-83.

K-Ships vs. U-Boats

In January 1942, the war that had been raging in Europe arrived in the waters along the east coast of the United States. Although the United States had already experienced World War II in the Pacific with the attack on Pearl Harbor and other U.S. territories in December 1941, the start of the war in the Atlantic caught many military leaders by surprise. In mid-January, the German navy officially launched Operation Paukenschlag, a campaign of five submarines (often referred to as U-boats) to sink merchant ships carrying vital war supplies to Allied armies in Great Britain, Russia, and North Africa. In only a few short weeks, German U-boats sunk over 20 merchant vessels carrying thousands of tons of war material. The U-boats returned to their ports only after they expended all their torpedoes. To counter this new threat to maritime security, the U.S. Navy unleashed a new weapon to provide anti-submarine warfare: the K-Type blimp.

When the United States entered World War II, it only had six lighter-than-air vehicles available for use to hunt U-boats. The four completed K-Type blimps, or K-ships, in the Navy’s arsenal were in the air almost immediately after the U-boat attacks started in January 1942. The K-ship K-3 was sent to patrol the waters off Long Island, New York shortly after a U.S. tanker was sunk in that area on the night of January 14. K-3 patrolled the region, looking for oil slicks and other signs of a possible submarine. As the crew of the K-3 searched the seas, they learned from a nearby airplane that survivors had been found from the sunken tanker. Once at the location, K-3 lowered water and food to the survivors and flew in the area until surface ships could arrive. K-ships continued to serve as search-and-rescue craft during their long patrols for the length of the war. They often carried extra supplies, medical equipment, and inflatable lifeboats that could be lowered to crews from sunken ships or downed aircraft. It was difficult for K-ships to pick up these survivors, but they would ensure their rescue by directing other aircraft and surface ships to areas where survivors were located. Although the K-ship’s low-speed, long flight duration, and excellent visibility allowed their crews to be proficient in search-and-rescue operations, it also allowed them to be highly proficient in the art of anti-submarine warfare.

Protecting Convoys and Engaging U-Boats

K-ships were not only designed to find survivors of ships sunk by German U-boats. These blimps were also able to protect convoy shipping by locating submarines and attacking them when possible.

Due to their ability to hover and fly at low altitudes and speeds, K-ships could easily stay with convoys, and the numerous windows located throughout the control car provided excellent visibility, allowing crews to keep a lookout for everything from periscopes to oil slicks on the surface of the water. They could also operate in conditions that grounded other aircraft, such as fog or low cloud cover, allowing them to conduct anti-submarine warfare missions that otherwise would have been impossible. Noted for exceptional endurance, K-ships carried a crew of 10 and could operate for 26 hours at cruising speed, allowing them to constantly patrol the shipping lanes, waiting out U-boats that needed to surface. The combination of these unique characteristics and many more made K-ships a crucial element of anti-submarine warfare.

Combining K-ships with specialized equipment allowed them to find U-boats even if they were located out of sight below the ocean’s surface. Each crew consisted of two radiomen who were responsible for operating long range radio communications, allowing K-ships to alert convoys, surface ships, and attack aircraft to the presence of U-boats. They also operated radar that could detect surfaced submarines at night and in low visibility conditions. One of the most important pieces of equipment, however, was known as Magnetic Anomaly Detectors, or MAD equipment. MAD could detect distortions in Earth’s magnetic field caused by a large metal object, such as a submerged U-boat. It had a range of about 400 feet, making the low flying K-ships ideal operators. But this equipment was not flawless and it could not separate magnetic distortions caused by possible enemy craft from those caused by miscellaneous debris, including sunken wrecks. To fix this problem, K-ships would often use MAD equipment in combination with sonobuoys, which were dropped from the air to produce sonar contacts. Once a submarine was located, K-ships would call in surface ships and land-based aircraft to attack. The combination of these various pieces of equipment allowed K-ships to effectively hunt submarines and protect convoy ships.

K-ships were also able to launch attacks. They were often loaded with a variety of ordnance, and what they carried changed throughout the war as new weapons systems became available. K-ships could carry up to four weapons, varying from 350-pound Mk 47 depth bombs, Mk 17 depth charges, or Mk 24 mines/acoustic torpedoes. Two of these could be located within an internal bomb bay and two could be located externally on the control car. They were also armed with a 50-caliber machine gun located in a turret located in the front of the control car that had a wide range of movement. If a K-ship located evidence that a submarine was in the area, it could drop its ordnance to damage the submarine, or at least make it surface, until reinforcements arrived. The K-ship’s ability to make these attacks allowed them to defend convoy ships, and several managed to damage submarines or assist in sinking them. It was dangerous work and similar attacks led to the downing of one K-ship by enemy fire.

The Loss of K-74

Only one K-ship was destroyed due to enemy contact during World War II. On the night of July 18, 1943, the K-74 was protecting ships through the Florida Straits. The crew picked up a contact on K-74’s radar and began searching the area for a U-boat. They quickly found the U-134 silhouetted against the water by moonlight. Although still 20 miles from the convoy, command pilot Lt. Nelson G. Grills determined that the submarine did pose a threat. They maneuvered the K-74 into a position to make an attack run with the ship’s depth charges before the U-134 opened fire with machine guns and its deck gun. Although it suffered some damage, the K-74 flew over the U-134 only to have its depth charge fail to drop. It managed to fire 100 rounds of .50-caliber machine gun bullets at the submarine, but the machine gun fire the K-74 sustained from the submarine took a significant toll. The K-74’s starboard engine caught fire, though it was quickly extinguished, and holes in the blimp caused it to quickly lose altitude. It plunged into the sea shortly before midnight. The crew bailed out and floated near the wreck for eight hours. In the morning, a Grumman JRF amphibian located the crew and landed to rescue them. Unfortunately, one crewman, Isadore Stessel, was attacked by a shark shortly before the crew was rescued, marking one of the few deaths of a K-ship crewman in combat. The U-134 left the area, only reporting minor damage caused by gunfire from the K-74. It continued its patrol until it was eventually sunk off the coast of Spain in August 1943. Although the K-74 did not sink a U-boat during its last mission, K-ships assisted in some of the final attacks on U-boats of the war.

This US Navy report described details of the attack of K-74 on the German U-134.

The Destruction of U-853 and Capture of U-858

On May 5, 1945, the U.S. collier Black Point was sunk off the coast of Rhode Island. Several ships, including the destroyer Ericsson, Coast Guard frigate Moberly, and destroyer escorts Atherton and Amick, quickly arrived at the area in order to hunt down the U-boat responsible for the attack. The K-16 and K-58 were dispatched to the area on May 6 to help with the search for the submerged submarine. After arriving on the scene, the K-16 used its MAD equipment and located a target below the water. Following depth charge attacks by the surface ships, the K-16 deployed a sonobuoy, and detected sounds below the surface. It proceeded to drop its depth charges on the submarine’s suspected location. The K-58 then used MAD equipment to mark possible locations and dropped two depth charges of its own. After several more rounds of depth charge attacks from the surface ships, the K-ships noted numerous pieces of debris floating on the surface, marking the last destruction of an enemy U-boat in American waters.

Coast Guardsmen aboard USS Moberly (PF-63) gather around the scoreboard to chalk up the victory against the U-853. (NARA 26-G-4451)

The last World War II contribution of K-ships in the Atlantic occurred shortly after the war ended. On May 14, 1945, the captain of U-858 surrendered to the U.S. Navy. A K-ship helped escort the submarine into port, marking the end of anti-submarine warfare duties for K-ships in the battle of the Atlantic.

K-ships provided critical protection to convoys carrying the vital supplies needed to win World War II. In his work, Blimps and U-Boats, J. Gordon Vaeth explained:

The blimp stayed with the convoy, flying low and throttling back to keep a slow pace. To the men of the freighters and tankers, the protection provided by an airship was a personalized thing. Airship crews and merchant ship crews waved to each other, the airship looking all the while majestic and overwhelmingly powerful and reassuring as it threaded its way through a convoy or kept station abreast and ahead of it. The men in the blimps reciprocated this feeling of camaraderie. The same merchant ships plying the same coastal routes became familiar sights (pg. 69).

A US flag flies over the captured U-858 as it receives a K-ship escort to Lewes, Delaware. (NARA RG 80-G-K-14619)

The Navy’s lighter-than-air forces, including K-ships, flying over both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, completed almost 36,000 flights totaling 412,000 flight hours. The destruction to convoys feared early in the war caused by marauding U-boats diminished dramatically once K-ships started keeping a constant vigil overhead and while searching for the enemy below. By the end of the war, 72 members of the Navy’s lighter-than-air forces paid the ultimate price to safeguard the merchant fleet and protect the lifeline they provided to hundreds of thousands of men, women and children.

If you would like to read more about the role of lighter-than-aircraft in World War II, please read “Blimps and U-boats: U.S. Navy Airships in the Battle of the Atlantic” by J. Gordon Vaeth

Thomas Paone is a Museum Specialist in the Aeronautics Department, and curates the Lighter-than-Air collection.

U Boats – ‘Grey Coffins’ That Shaped Two World Wars And Forged The Era Of The Submarine

The Commander never stops calculating. The basic factors in his reckoning change with each report he must determine an escape route according to the strength of the sound of propellers and the approach angle of the destroyer. His senses no longer supply him with any immediate information he must guide the boat like a pilot flying blind, his decisions based on indications given him by the instruments.

Against closed eyelids I see the grey-black cans twisting heavily as they shoot downward from the launches, plunge into the water, spin lazily into the depths leaving bubble trails, and then explode in the darkness – blazing fireballs of magnesium, incandescent suns.

The above passage is taken from Das Boot, written in 1973 by Lothar-Günther Buchheim and later turned into an iconic film. Although Buchheim wrote Das Boot as a work of fiction, he based it on his own experience of being embedded on a German U-Boat during the Second World War.

His work paints a realistic picture of the discipline and high stakes associated with submarine service, a dark exploration of the frequently miserable and terrifying lives of the sailors that were tasked with stopping the supply convoys reaching Europe – at any cost. Winston Churchill would later say that:

“The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-Boat peril.”

Das Boot, by Lothar-Günther Buchheim, was published in 1973

But what was it exactly that made the submarines used by the Imperial German Navy and Kriegsmarine so feared?

Here, BFBS unpicks over 100 years of sub-sea surface warfare and attempts to retell some of the most infamous U-Boat moments of two world wars between Britain and her allies, and Germany.

We also look at some of the more technical features of the machines and the weapons they carried, and how those weapons and tactics were combined to create a frequently deadly consequence.

Although U-Boat history can be traced to the mid-nineteenth century, much of the early story is focused upon exploration of technologies that was hoped could lead to fit-for-purpose boats, capable of conducting offensive operations beneath the waves.

And so we start our journey with U-Boats at the outbreak of World War One. At that point, Germany boasted 48 submarines across 13 classes in operation or in the final stages of their shipbuilding.

The Lusitania Disaster

The U-Boat played just as sinister a role in the First World War as it did in the second. Chief among the significance of that was the sinking of the RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915.

The U-Boat commander who engaged the ship did so following a decree from the Kaiser that effectively ended Prize Rules – a code protecting trade shipping during conflict - that ultimately provided authorisation to sink any ship in the waters around Britain, which the Kaiser had labelled a warzone.

On the face of it, the Lusitania was carrying passengers to Liverpool from New York, but unbeknown to many was the fact the ship was also carrying munitions that would have ultimately found their way to the Western Front in France.

The sinking of the ship was a hugely controversial matter and the loss of life impacted British communities, particularly in Liverpool where many of her crew hailed.

At the time of Lusitania’s construction, the Admiralty had assisted Cunard on the understanding that in times of war the ship would be used as a light merchant cruiser … she even had gun mounts on her deck for such an eventuality although they were never used. It is perhaps partly why the Germans opted to target the luxury liner in ocean waters, 11 miles off the coast of Ireland.

In advance of the ship’s final voyage, the Germany embassy in Washington had placed no less than 50 adverts in American newspapers warning passengers not to travel on the doomed ship. Alas, many did and subsequently there was a large loss of civilian life – 1,198 souls.

Although there were American losses at the disaster of the Lusitania, it did not result in the US declaring war on Germany and sending forces to Europe, this was despite the widespread repulsion of a seemingly innocent ship being targeted in the manner it was.

However, in March 1916 another civilian vessel, the SS Sussex, was attacked off the south coast of England by a U-Boat which was carrying a large contingent of Americans, and it is this event that led to the tensions and political sanctions that can ultimately be traced to the US eventually declaring war on Germany in 1917.

Following the sinking of Lusitania, anti-German sentiment spread across Britain and the USA. Here, a cartoon by American journalist Oliver Herford (1863-1935) depicts some of the negative stereotypes associated with Germany during the First World War. Credit: Cabinet of American illustration (Library of Congress) 2010716595

Massacre Of U-27 And The Battle Of Jutland

In what was not Britain’s finest hour, on August 19, 1915, the U-Boat U-27 was sunk in the Western Approaches by Royal Navy ship HMS Baralong.

Baralong was a Q ship, a heavily armed civilian vessel secretly disguised as such to cause confusion, which was sailing under the flag of the neutral United States. Using its false flag and trickery, Baralong attacked the German vessel after receiving orders from Admiralty to take “no prisoners from U-Boats.”

While survivors clambered to be rescued in the water, the crew of HMS Baralong were ordered to fire on the unarmed survivors killing them all. This extended to the survivors who had climbed aboard a rescue ship, SS Nicosian, from which American witnesses would later testify of the atrocity.

This committing of a war crime by the crew of HMS Baralong caused an international incident and following the British Government’s refusal to court martial those responsible, the massacre became a chief reason behind the Kaiser’s perusal of such deadly hostilities against civilian shipping. It was retaliation.

The outcome of the attack on SS Sussex by German U-Boat SM UB-29 on March 24, 1916 was that of harsh political sanctions being levied at Germany. Interestingly though, In response Germany did row back on its aggressive strategy against civilian vessels providing assurances to the Americans through what was called the Sussex Pledge.

This effectively returned the U-Boat’s to the former Prize Rules, pre-dating the massacre of the German crew in August 1915.

Due to the Sussex Pledge the Kaiser found his U-Boats a lesser force to be reckoned with in the seas around Britain which forced his navy into a surface action culminating in the Battle of Jutland.

Although the Battle of Jutland is recorded as a German victory, it did not result in the all out control of the seas by the Kaiser which prompted him to drop the assurances of the Sussex Pledge and return to all out war on shipping, however this time his navy placed high emphasis on the attacking of commerce, in the hope it would bring the British to a surrender. Instead, America declared war on Germany in April 1917.

Over a million tonnes of cargo was lost in the preceding months of this declaration of war.

This photograph shows the crew of the German U-Boat U-58 leaving their vessel after their surrender on Nov. 17, 1917 to the U.S.S. Fanning during World War I. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-26138

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The WWI U-Boat

Throughout this feature we are focusing on the U-Boats of Germany across both the First and Second World Wars, however it should be noted that Britain, at the outbreak of the Great War, possessed more submarines than the Kaiser’s Germany. All in all, the Royal Navy counted 80 among its massive fleet.

But because Germany was willing to use its submarines in warfare against commerce, the U-Boats of the Kaiser effectively became infamous and perhaps this is why history focuses more on them.

But what was a typical U-Boat of the Imperial German Navy equipped with?

As discussed earlier, at the beginning of the Great War Germany possessed multiple classes of submarine and as the war progressed, it continued to produce U-Boats right until the end. Most of these crafts were powered by diesel, with the exception of a very few at the start.

A limitation for the submarines of the era, not just German, was that they could not remain submerged for that great a length of time. Two hours was about the safe extent of it and interestingly, this matter did not change too much between the period of the two world wars.

In fact, there is not a lot that did change among standard U-Boats from 1914 to 1939 in terms of the technology behind their existence, a lot of which depended upon and was thanks to the diesel combustion engine. The next great leap forward would not come until the introduction of nuclear-powered submarines in 1954, save for the use of the snorkel – a tube that allowed for air intake while submerged under the surface – in 1944.

The limitations caused by matters related to the short amount of time a U-Boat could be submerged meant in reality much of the U-Boats’ terrifying work was completed on the surface, and as such, they were armed with large deck guns, some as big as 105 mm.

U-Boat SM U-38 of the Imperial German Navy.

Writing for Military History Magazine in September 2010, the historian Stephen Wilkinson discussed the importance of a U-Boat’s deck guns. He said:

Hollywood once had us believe a U-boat’s deck guns were for fending off furious destroyer attacks after a crippled sub was forced to surface, but the truth is that powerful deck ordnance was a far more effective and less expensive way to dispose of merchant ships, which were the World War I U-boat’s primary target. No sub commander would waste a torpedo—of which he had only a limited number—on a trudging collier or rusty banana boat.

Among the Imperial German Naval fleet, there were some differences in the specifics of the armaments, crew numbers, speeds and ranges of its many U-Boats.

For example, the U-Boat mentioned earlier whose crew were massacred by the British in 1915 – SM U-27 – counted four torpedo tubes and one 88 mm L/30 deck gun. It had a crew of 35 and a top speed of 19 mph surfaced, and 11 mph submerged and had a somewhat impressive range (surfaced) of over nine and a half thousand miles – not bad for the early twentieth century.

The crew of SM U-27 were shot dead in the water by the British following the sinking of their U-Boat.

By comparison the Type UC III, built as a minelayer from 1917 had just three torpedo tubes and one 105 mm deck gun. It did however count six mine tubes for its main purposes of laying mines.

Like U-27, it had a crew of over 30 but was able to dive a little deeper than the 50 m associated with the older sub (75 m). Its range was further (11,340 miles surfaced) but this newer vessel was a fair bit slower at 13 mph surfaced, 7.5 mph submerged.

Surrender Of The Fleet

Upon the armistice of November 1918, U-Boats were required to immediately surrender. This took place for the most part at Harwich in Essex, England.

The event was captured in the North Sea diary of Stephen King-Hall, a Royal Navy officer who would go on to become a Member of Parliament and celebrated writer. His entry of November 20, 1918 reads:

The Harwich forces of light cruisers and destroyers left on the evening of the 18th to meet the Huns and escort them to the place of surrender, which was at the southern end of the Sledway, or about seven miles east-north-east of Felixstowe. The appointed hour was 10 a.m., and a thick fog hung over the water as the two destroyers cautiously felt their way down harbour but once through the boom defences it cleared somewhat, and we were at the rendezvous by 9.30 a.m. The whole time one had to pinch oneself to make sure that one was really out there to collect U.-boats and that the whole thing was not a dream. Suddenly a British Zepp droned out of the mist, circled round and vanished again to the northward.

King-Hall’s diary entry continues:

We were received by the German captain together with his torpedo officer and engineer. They saluted us, which salutes were returned.

" Do you speak English? " said K--. 'Yes, a little,' replied the Hun. 'Give me your papers.' The German then produced a list of his crew and the signed terms of surrender, which he translated into English. These terms were as follows:

(i) The boat was to be in an efficient condition, with periscopes, main motors, Diesel engines, and auxiliary engines in good working order.

(2) She was to be in surface trim, with all diving tanks blown.

(3) Her torpedoes were to be on board, without their war-heads, and the torpedoes Were to be clear of the tubes.

(4) Her wireless was to be complete.

(5) There were to be no explosives on board.

(6) There were to be no booby traps or infernal machines on board.

This captain was a well-fed-looking individual with quite a pleasant appearance, and he was wearing the Iron Cross of the first class. He had apparently sunk much tonnage in another boat, but had done only one trip in U.90. Curiously enough, his old boat was next ahead of us going up harbour K-- then informed him that he would give him instructions where to go, but that otherwise the German crew would work the boat under the supervision of our people. This surprised the Hun, who showed us his orders, which stated that he was to hand the boat over to us and then leave at once for the transport. His subordinates urged him to protest, but he was too sensible and at once agreed to do whatever we ordered. The German crew were clustered round the after-gun, taking a detached interest in the proceedings.

The entry on this date ends with a description of the respect and honour the enemies still held for each other, and the traditions of the seas. It says:

At 4 p.m. a motor-launch came alongside and the Germans were ordered to gather up their personal belongings and get into her. The captain, without a sign of that emotion which he must have felt, took a last look at his boat and saluted. We returned his salute, he bowed, and then joined his crew in the motor-launch, which took them to the destroyer in which they made passage to the transport outside.

During the First World War, the Imperial German Navy had succeeded in sinking over 5,000 vessels using their fleet of U-Boats.

Signed in the Treaty of Versailles, an outcome of losing World War One was a directive that limited the tonnage of the German fleet and a ban on the building of submarines. However, as the inter-war years progressed, Germany secretly began the rebuilding of her U-Boat fleet, and by the time World War Two commenced, she counted no less than 65 to her name.

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The Battle Of The Atlantic

The Weimer Republic was restrained under the Treaty of Versailles where ship building, and the holding of military forces were concerned. However, when Adolf Hitler came to power in the early 1930s, he ordered the building and amassing of strengthened capability, which included the production of the largest U-Boat fleet in the world heading into 1939.

It is thanks to this that the longest continuous battle of the Second World War occurred – the Battle of the Atlantic.

The peril faced by the crews of the North Atlantic convoys is undisputed. Their plight has been retold, not least in the movies. In 2020, this was the case in Greyhound, a film written for the screen by Tom Hanks who also starred in the leading role. A cornerstone to the plot of Greyhound is that in the centre of the ocean, the convoys had to pass through an area that was not reachable by aircraft and thus, most vulnerable to U-Boat attack.

In the opening months and years of the war, U-Boats were effective in locating and destroying ships carrying essential war cargo to England and Europe, largely thanks to this area of no air cover.

In response, the allies advanced technology to aid the convoys, and their protection vessels – like those depicted in Greyhound – in locating the silent, underwater U-Boat threat.

This in turn resulted in the U-Boats developing a strategy which saw them fighting in what was known as Wolfpacks. These Wolfpacks mercilessly hunted down thousands of ships throughout the six years of the Battle of the Atlantic.

The number of Allied losses on the ocean slowed after the entering of the war by the USA. However, it was still a deadly theatre to have to operate in, and by the time the war ended in 1945, 72,000 Allied lives had been lost.

The opening page of the 1973 Lothar-Günther Buchheim book Das Boot, like the film version’s opening scene, tells us that:

“Of the 40,000 German U-Boat men in World War II, 30,000 did not return.”

How Did The Torpedo Work?

The torpedoes Kriegsmarine U-Boats used throughout the Battle of the Atlantic were responsible for the sinking of 3,000 Allied ships.

The early versions worked in one of two ways. If the torpedo was fitted with a pistol trigger that relied on impact, the warhead would explode upon meeting the hull of a ship (or another solid object).

But, if they were fitted with a magnetic trigger, the warhead would be exploded whenever the magnetic field around the torpedo changed once released.

This proved the deadliest, as it meant torpedoes could be released to come into the closest magnetic contact with a target while under the keel of a ship. The resulting shock wave from the explosion would be enough to rupture a ship’s keel.

Another and more advanced torpedo entered service later in the war which allowed the Germans to phase out the frequently problematic magnetic-triggered version.

This new weapon, the G7 Torpedo, worked acoustically, running a distance before arming itself and then turning towards the closest and loudest thing around it. But this new technology was not a silver bullet and it is thought that at least two U-Boats were lost due to their own torpedoes turning on them and detonating.

The age of the submarine really cemented itself in military terms during the Battle of the Atlantic.

Both sides scrambled their scientists and weapons experts to advance, inch by inch, the methods that both aided detection and frustrated it.

During this period, both sides fine tuned and improved their Sonar abilities. The Allies introduced Radar and to counter it U-Boats were fitted with radar warning receivers.

For the U-Boats, the introduction of the snorkel allowed for batteries to be recharged and for air to be supplied to a still submerged crew – making them evermore stealthy. But the Allies responded by further improving their own detection methods yet again that even allowed for them to spot a snorkel mast beyond the range of visual detection.

Type VII at Labone where today it acts as a museum. Credit: Darkone @ Creative Commons

A Close Look At The Type VII Submarine – The Workhorse Of The German U-Boat Fleet

In total, 703 Type VII U-Boats were produced, and many remained in service with other navies after the Second World War ended. The last Type VII to retire was in 1970. It was the most widely used type of U-Boat throughout the Battle of the Atlantic.

Top speed: 20.4 mph surfaced, 8.7 mph submerged

Range: 9,800 miles surfaced, 92 miles submerged

Max depth: 230 metres (tested)

Armament: 5 x Torpedo tubes with a total of 14 Torpedoes or 39 mines and 1 x 88 mm C/35 naval gun with 220 rounds

Operation Deadlight

At the end of the Second World War, the Royal Navy took receipt of 156 U-Boats and moored them in two locations, off the coast of Northern Ireland and at Scarpa Flow, Scotland. Operation Deadlight was the name given to the scuttling operation undertaken to dispose of the captured vessels.

Of the 156 U-Boats surrendered, 116 were eventually scuttled.

The Royal Navy plan was to tow the vessels to sites in the Atlantic off the coast of Ireland and use them as practical targets for bombing runs by the Royal Air Force. Others would be destroyed with naval guns and some by placing explosive charges in their hulls. However, the operation turned farcical when seveal U-Boats sunk while being towed out to sea due to poor conditions they had fallen into while being moored up and exposed to the elements.

All captured U-Boats earmarked for scuttling were disposed of by February 11, 1946.

Forty-two surrendered U-boats moored at Lisahally, Northern Ireland, June 1945. Credit: Crown

The golden age of the submarine may have entered the autumn of its year due to increasingly improved detection methods and technologies that exist in the modern day.

This is something former chair of the UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee Crispin Blunt MP discussed in an interview with BFBS to mark the 75th anniversary of the first atomic bombing. In it, Mr Blunt described the situation around submarines and their inability to remain undetected: Mr Blunt said:

“The whole concept proceeds on the basis that the submarine is invisible, yet four years before I made that vote, there was a submarine research warfare scientist, a senior NATO position, gleefully proclaiming the end of the submarine because accusation technology was advancing geometrically and (had) the ability to pick up all the signals that a submarine gives off, whether it’s heat, movement or nuclear signal."

If it is the case that submarines may one day soon become obsolete in their stealthy nature and nations like the UK and USA are no longer prepared to use them as the means to house their respective nuclear deterrents, than perhaps history will look back at the two conflicts of the twentieth century - both impacted considerably and shaped by the U-Boat - as the submarine's true golden era.

Das Boot by Lothar-Günther Buchheim is available in paperback by Orion.

How the Allies 'Sunk' Germany's Deadly U-boats

Large-scale depth charge production began in 1916, and the first recorded sinking of a German U-boat occurred on March 22, off the coast of Ireland.

At the beginning of World War I, British naval strategists did not believe German submarines would play a significant role in the Atlantic or North Sea. They believed that the battle for the sea would be fought on the surface by the tangible muscle of the day: dreadnaughts. Submarine technology was seen as ineffective and unreliable, but the Allies would soon pay for their poor initial judgment. Not only would submarines change the way naval planner were forced to think about surface warfare, they also created a panic among Allied commanders regarding anti-submarine tactics. Ultimately, it was the invention of the depth charge by the British Navy that would professionalize anti-submarine warfare and forever change how strategists conceptualized naval combat.

In the first three months of the war, the loss of three British cruisers to German U-boats was a shock. Many British commanders refused to believe that submarines were able to sink the British ships, so out of denial, they chalked up the losses to mines. As the war progressed, U-boats continued to rule the seas unmatched. The realization that Allied navies may have to modify their tactics to combat an undetectable and invisible enemy was too much for some planner to come to grips with at first.

Hammering Periscopes & Weighted Bombs

The British finally did come to terms with the reality of the U-boat threat, but for awhile, their ill-equipped fleet floundered to defend against German submarines. As late as 1915, British vessels were implementing an anti-submarine strategy that called for patrol boats to sail alongside sighted submarine periscopes and attack them with flogging hammers. British sailor even began attempting to attach weighted bombs to the periscopes, which proved as difficult as hitting them with hammers. Up until 1917, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence advised ship commanders to either turn and run or ram German submarines upon periscope sightings. But these were all reactionary strategies requiring a U-boat to surface, doing little to console an Allied captain’s sense of fear from their inability to defend themselves.

While captains devised every means available to ward off German submarines, the Submarine Attack Committee (SAC) of the Royal Navy had begun undertaking submarine defense research and would eventually lead to the invention of the depth charge. The SAC ordered a “droppable mine” in 1913, but technology would not catch up to theory until 1914, when British naval engineer Herbert Taylor invented the hydrostatic valve, which uses pressure to extend a bellows. The firing pin could then be adjusted to different distances from the bellow to determine the depth of detonation.

Initial tests of the “hydrostatic pistol detonation mechanism” showed promise, and the only issue that remained was perfecting the ordinance and determining the optimal depth for the explosives. By 1917, the depth charge had been improved to allow different detonation depths, between 50 and 200 feet, and could damage anything within a 140-foot radius.

Mass Implementation Begins

Large-scale depth charge production began in 1916, and the first recorded sinking of a German U-boat occurred on March 22, off the coast of Ireland. Initially, British vessels were only allocated two depth charges per ship, but this increased to four by 1917, and 30-50 for larger ships by 1918. Many smaller ships were also outfitted with army howitzer bomb throwers and specially constructed k-pistols so that they could clear the blast radius in time.

German U-Boats

The U-boat Campaign from 1914 to 1918 was the World War I naval campaign fought by German U-boats against the trade routes of the Allies.

It took place largely in the seas around the British Isles and in the Mediterranean.

The German Empire relied on imports for food and domestic food production (especially fertilizer) and the United Kingdom relied heavily on imports to feed its population, and both required raw materials to supply their war industry the powers aimed, therefore, to blockade one another.

The British had the Royal Navy which was superior in numbers and could operate on most of the world’s oceans because of the British Empire, whereas the Imperial German Navy surface fleet was mainly restricted to the German Bight, and used commerce raiders and unrestricted submarine warfare to operate elsewhere.

In the course of events in the Atlantic alone, German U-boats sank almost 5,000 ships with nearly 13 million gross register tonnage, losing 178 boats and about 5,000 men in combat.

Other naval theatres saw U-boats operating in both the Far East and South East Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean and North Seas.

In August 1914, a flotilla of nine U-boats sailed from their base in Heligoland to attack Royal Navy warships in the North Sea in the first submarine war patrol in history.

Their aim was to sink capital ships of the British Grand Fleet, and so reduce the Grand Fleet’s numerical superiority over the German High Seas Fleet.

The first sortie was not a success.

Only one attack was carried out when U-15 fired a torpedo (which missed) at HMS Monarch. Two of the ten U-boats were lost.

Later in the month, the U-boats achieved success, when U-21 sank the cruiser HMS Pathfinder.

In September, SM U-9 sank three armoured cruisers (Aboukir, Hogue, and Cressy) in a single action.

Other successes followed. In October U-9 sank the cruiser Hawke, and on the last day of the year, SM U-24 sank the pre-dreadnought battleship Formidably.

By the end of the initial campaign, the U-boats had sunk nine warships while losing five of their own number.

Mediterranean: Initial stage Main article: Mediterranean U-boat Campaign (World War I) The initial phase of the U-boat campaign in the Mediterranean comprised the actions by the Austro-Hungarian Navy’s U-boat force against the French, who were blockading the Straits of Otranto.

At the start of hostilities, the Austro-Hungarian Navy had seven U-boats in commission five operational, two training all were of the coastal type, with limited range and endurance, suitable for operation in the Adriatic. Nevertheless, they had a number of successes.

On 21 December 1914 U-12 torpedoed the French battleship, Jean Bart, causing her to retire, and on 27 April 1915 U-5 sank the French cruiser Léon Gambetta, with a heavy loss of life. But the Austro-Hungarian boats were unable to offer any interference to allied traffic in the Mediterranean beyond the Straits of Otranto.

Submarine warfare In 1914 the U-boat’s chief advantage was to submerge surface ships had no means to detect a submarine underwater, and no means to attack even if they could, while in the torpedo the U-boat had a weapon that could sink an armoured warship with one shot.

Its disadvantages were less obvious but became apparent during the campaign.

While submerged the U-boat was virtually blind and immobile boats of this era had limited underwater speed and endurance, so needed to be in position before an attack took place, while even on the surface their speed (around 15 knots) was less than the cruising speed of most warships and two thirds that of the most modern dreadnoughts.

The U-boats scored a number of impressive successes and were able to drive the Grand Fleet from its base in search of a safe anchorage, but the German Navy was unable to erode the Grand Fleet’s advantage as hoped.

Also, in the two main surface actions of this period, the U-boat was unable to have any effect the High Seas Fleet was unable to draw the Grand Fleet into a U-boat trap.

Whilst warships were travelling at speed and on an erratic zigzag course they were relatively safe, and for the remainder of the war the U-boats were unable to mount a successful attack on a warship travelling in this manner

First attacks on merchant ships The first attacks on merchant ships had started in October 1914. At that time there was no plan for a concerted U-boat offensive against Allied trade.

It was recognised the U-boat had several drawbacks as a commerce raider, and such a campaign risked alienating neutral opinion.

In the six months to the opening of the commerce war in February 1915, U-boats had sunk 19 ships,

German Subs: Sunken WWI U-Boats a Bonanza for Historians

Now they are in a race against time to learn the secrets hidden.

July 21, 2013— -- British archaeologists recently discovered more than 40 German U-boats sunk during World War I off the coast of England. Now they are in a race against time to learn the secrets hidden in their watery graves.

On the old game show "What's My Line?" Briton Mark Dunkley might have been described with the following words: "He does what many adventurers around the world can only dream of doing."

Dunkley is an underwater archeologist who dives for lost treasures. His most recent discoveries were anything if not eerie.

On the seafloor along the southern and eastern coasts of the UK, Dunkley and three other divers have found one of the largest graveyards in the world's oceans, with 41 German and three English submarines from World War I. Most of the submarines sank with their crews still on board, causing many sailors to die in horrific ways, either by drowning or suffocating in the cramped and airtight submarines.

Several U-boats with the German Imperial Navy are still considered missing today. Lists provide precise details on which of the U-boats the German naval forces had lost by the time the war ended in November 1918.

But it was completely unclear what had happened, for example, to UB 17, under the command of naval Lieutenant Albert Branscheid, with its crew of 21 men, or where the 27-member crew of UC 21, used as a minelayer and commanded by naval Lieutenant Werner von Zerboni di Sposetti, had perished.

Securing British and German Heritage

But now things have changed.

Dunkley and his team of divers found UB 17 off England's east coast, near the county of Suffolk. UC 21 sank nearby. The fate of many other submarines, especially those that had suddenly disappeared in the last two years of the war, can now be considered known.

All of the sunken U-boats are relatively close to the coast, at depths of no more than 15 meters (about 50 feet). The diving archeologists will undoubtedly find the remains of sailors with the German Imperial Navy inside the wrecks. In the language of archeology, such finds are referred to as "disaster samples." In any case, the divers will be searching for signs of the crewmembers that died inside the U-boats.

"We owe it to these people to tell their story," says Dunkley. He works for English Heritage, a public body that is part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Its primary mission is to secure Britain's cultural heritage.

The British could see it as a peculiar irony of history that these measures are now benefiting the heritage of their former enemy. Since the Germans attacked civilian targets in World War I, British propaganda derisively referred to the submarines as "baby killers."

"Many have forgotten how successful the German U-boat fleet was for a time," says Dunkley -- an assessment that is by no means intended to glorify the German attacks. In fact, one of the goals of the most recent English Heritage project is to remind people that, although they might be more familiar with submarine warfare from World War II, the ships also caused considerable devastation in the previous world war.

A Slowly Embraced Weapon

Indeed, it had practically vanished from popular memory that the Germans caused great losses to their main enemy, Great Britain, in World War I through targeted torpedo strikes against the royal merchant navy. At the beginning of the war, there were only 28 U-boats under the supreme command of Kaiser Wilhelm II, a tiny number compared to the Allied fleet.

At first, many political decision-makers in Berlin were unclear about exactly how the military devices, which were still novel at the time, could be used. Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz had such a low opinion of the importance of the steel diving vessels that he even referred to them as a "secondary weapon."

An operations order signed by Kaiser Wilhelm on July 30, 1914 also assigned a secondary role to the U-boats at first. Under the order, they were to be used primarily to engage hostile ships in naval battles with the Imperial High Seas Fleet, which had been upgraded at considerable cost.

But after a German U-boat sank three English armored cruisers, an unbridled enthusiasm erupted in the German Empire for this still relatively untested form of naval warfare. A large number of volunteers signed up for submarine duty, even though serving in the cramped cabins was practically a suicide mission at the time, especially in comparison with the types of underwater vessels used in World War II and, even more so, today's submarines.

The conditions inside the boats were claustrophobic and extremely hot. There were cases in which entire crews were wiped out when a torpedo misfired. Likewise, since aiming torpedoes was still such an imprecise science, the submarines had to come dangerously close to enemy warships. And if spotted, they became easy prey: Early submarines moved through the water so slowly that enemy warships could easily take up pursuit and sink the attackers, either with depth charges or by ramming. In fact, some 187, or almost half, of the 380 U-boats used by the German navy in World War I were lost.

A Race Against Time

Dunkley and his colleagues examine the wrecks with ultrasound sonar devices they wear on their wrists like watches. The devices allow them to measure wall thickness and determine the extent to which corrosion has already eaten away at a ship's hull.

Measures to secure the vessels are urgently needed, says Dunkley. Since the U-boat graveyard at sea is gradually disintegrating, time is of the essence for the archeologists. Under the strict guidelines of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, the World War I wrecks sitting on the seafloor are currently not even considered archeological artifacts deserving special protection.

The disintegrating war machines are currently just shy of the 100 years required to attain this status. For this reason, Dunkley's team is trying to wrest as many secrets as possible from the wrecks in the coming months.

In cases where mines or torpedoes have torn large holes into the vessels, the archeologists can even peer inside. When this is not the case, robotic vehicles will cut open the hatches of the steel coffins and go inside.

"We divers only approach the boats with great caution. Venturing inside would definitely be extremely dangerous," Dunkley says.

It is hard to determine how almost a century of lying in place, as well as sedimentary deposits, have changed the structural integrity of the wrecks. If a U-boat turns over as a result of the divers' movements, its narrow corridors could become deathtraps.

The treatment of the crews' remains is also complicated. By law, the sites are considered inviolable gravesites. Nevertheless, the archeologists don't want to miss the opportunity to try to recover other signs of the erstwhile sailors in the underwater crypts. "Perhaps we'll find a cup or a sign with a name on it," Dunkley says.

Attacking and Sinking in Groups

The marine archeologists were struck by the fact that sometimes two or three German U-boats were found lying in close proximity to one another. For historians, this serves as evidence of a certain German combat strategy in an especially drastic phase of the U-boat war.

In February 1917, the Imperial Navy had altered its strategy and was now torpedoing and firing guns at British commercial ships on a large scale. The Royal Navy reacted by providing the freighters with warship escorts, as well as using airships and aircraft to spot enemy submarines from above.

German military strategists devised a plan to break up these massive convoys: attacking the naval convoys with several U-boats at the same time. But the strategy was difficult to implement because it was very difficult to coordinate such complex maneuvers at the time.

Historians are divided over whether the convoy system ultimately saved the United Kingdom from defeat or whether it was the United States' entry into the war on April 6, 1917.

Before then, the British had relied on creativity to fend off U-boats and other enemy ships. The hulls of their own ships were painted with confusing patterns designed by artists at the Royal Academy in London. But there is no historical evidence to prove that this measure saved even a single ship from the German torpedoes.

Watch the video: World War II U-Boat Wolf Pack Tactic (January 2023).

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