Saturday 21 September 2019

Submarine warfare: a disaster from the start

'Wonder weapon': A German U-boat from World War I
'Wonder weapon': A German U-boat from World War I

The sinking of the Leinster caused outrage in the US and Britain. British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour was widely applauded when he roared that the Germans were 'brutes'.

The New York Times commented that London had not been so indignant about an attack on shipping since the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, when 1,198 passengers (including 128 Americans) lost their lives just over 20km south of Cork. American reports also focused upon the loss of American lives. But they also described the ship as a romantic microcosm of Ireland where people of all backgrounds and classes shared the same place as they crossed the sea.

For Germany, the sinking could not have come at a worse time. On October 3, 1918, facing defeat on the Western Front, newly appointed Chancellor Prince Max von Baden had sent a diplomatic note to American President Woodrow Wilson asking for an armistice and an honourable peace. The Leinster sinking was now at the top of the American President's agenda. How could he even continue to exchange diplomatic notes with the German government while German submarines sunk civilian shipping? He demanded that there could be no further peace talk unless the German government brought an end to the campaign of submarine warfare and other atrocities. The German government duly complied.

Submarine warfare had been a disaster from the very beginning. Initially launched in February 1915, the first submarine campaign was called off to avoid provoking American entry to the war on the allied side in September 1915. But as the war dragged on, the hawks in the German military establishment grew more influential. They demanded a return to unrestricted (shoot on sight) submarine warfare. Despite the potential for bringing America into the war on their opponents' side, which it did, a new campaign of submarine warfare was launched in February 1917 (this was the 'Brexit' decision of World War I).

The hawks badly needed naval military success. In the decade before 1914, the German navy had been constructed at enormous expense. Many people even blamed it for causing the war. But in August 1914, when the war started, the expected showdown between the great ships of the Imperial German Navy and the British Royal Navy never came. Instead, both sides stood back, preferring not to risk a battle in which either could lose more than they wished. Instead, the British chose the strategy of blockade. They decided to strangle Germany by cutting off its access to all maritime shipping roots. Hundreds of thousands of Germans starved as a result.

Many Germans thought that by sinking allied shipping, they could do something similar. Initially their new campaign appeared successful: in April 1917, German submarines sunk allied shipping with combined tonnage of almost 850,000 (an increase of 50pc on the shipping sunk in March). But by 1918, German submarines were on the back foot. The hunters had become the hunted. In the summer of that year, German submarine commanders even realised that they could no longer enter the straits of Dover. German submarines were being sunk faster than new submarines could be built. Worse than having provoked American entry to the war, German submarines were completely unable to prevent American soldiers reaching Europe. Of the more than two million American men transported to Europe to fight the central powers, only 314 were lost at sea thanks to German submarines.

The allies' success was thanks to a combination of greater resources and new tactics. Allied warships escorted convoys across the Atlantic. Unlike the German submarines, they had powerful radios that allowed them to receive messages about where German submarines had most recently been spotted. The allies also got better at using depth charges against the submarines, and after they failed to build their own reliable mines, the British successfully copied a German design that sunk perhaps as many as 30 or 40 German submarines. In the North Sea, the US even spent $40m on defensive measures (including mines and nets) that were intended to stop German submarines from reaching the Atlantic.

The men who sunk the Leinster never made it home. They were among the 5,134 Germans, almost half of all men who served on a submarine, killed during the war. One ship captain later recalled that one of his worst wartime experiences was sailing out to meet submarines that were supposed to be returning from battle, only to discover that they would never arrive at the rendezvous point. The fate was worse for the families of submarine crews. Once a submarine had been missing for long enough, parents and wives were sent letters telling them that their loved ones' submarines had been lost but that this must remain secret so not as to undermine moral. World War I's wonder weapon had failed entirely.

Dr Mark Jones is an Irish Research Council Fellow at the School of History and Centre for War Studies at UCD. To learn more about World War I, obtain your Masters at UCD:

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