Ironically the nation that would become synonymous with submarine warfare put comparatively little effort into building their submarine arm in the years before the First World War. The German fleet constructed by Alfred Peter Friedrich von Tirpitz was intended as a showpiece depicting German power and as a blue water battle fleet. The Germans did develop submarines in the years before the war but they only possessed twenty-eight of them when war broke out in In the actual course of events, the British did not implement a close blockade, opting instead for a distant blockade at the exits to the North Sea.
With their initial purpose foiled, the German submarines were sent on patrols into the North Sea to attack British warships. They enjoyed occasional successes, the most significant of which came in September when Lieutenant Otto Eduard Weddigen was able to ambush and sink three obsolete British cruisers. Additional successes came in the tight waters around the Dardanelles Straits in early , but for the most part the submarines proved too fragile on the surface and too slow when submerged to be of much use against modern warships.
Some submarine commanders preferred to hunt enemy merchant ships instead. The use of warships against commerce, or guerre de course , was governed by a series of rules designed to safeguard the lives of merchant seamen. Warships were allowed to stop, search and capture or sink enemy merchant ships, but only after ascertaining that the ship was carrying contraband a flexible term roughly meaning goods that could be used for military purposes and making proper provision for the survival of the crew of the merchantman.
The British, of course, took countermeasures to protect their merchant shipping. One such measure was to begin installing deck guns on their merchant ships which would allow the merchantman to open fire on a surfaced submarine. Early war German submarines had such light armament that they could be outgunned by even a lightly armed merchantman.
Another British countermeasure was the creation of vessels known as Q-ships.
The National Archives | Exhibitions & Learning online | First World War | Military Conflict
These vessels were merchantmen equipped with concealed guns that would attack any enemy submarine that approached them. Taken together these measures made following the rules of commerce warfare extremely hazardous for German submariners. The British further muddied the waters for German submarine commanders by flying the flags of neutral countries instead of their own flag, thus passing themselves off as neutrals.
In response to these measures, and using the British blockade as justification, the German government gave its submariners permission to attack enemy, and neutral shipping without adhering to prize rules. In particular, they were encouraged to attack their targets without warning. This came to be known as unrestricted submarine warfare, and a campaign was launched on 4 February The waters around Great Britain were proclaimed a war zone and the German government announced that any and all enemy shipping in the area would be subject to being sunk without warning.
It was also noted that it would not always be possible to distinguish between enemy and neutral shipping and that neutral ships would likely be sunk as well. The foreign reaction to the German campaign was resoundingly negative. The British, of course, quickly condemned the campaign as an illegal act of piracy.
More important were the reactions of the major neutrals, who also objected to the legality of the new campaign. The most significant neutral was the United States.
North Sea Battleground : The War and Sea 1914-1918
The sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania happened in April , just three months into the campaign. That sinking led to strong American protests against the submarine campaign. American pressure led at first to modifications to the campaign, in particular to attempts to exclude passenger liners and hospital ships from attack.
When the incidents continued, the submarines were first moved out of the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean, where there was very little American traffic. When Reinhard Scheer took over as commander of the High Seas Fleet in , he ordered the submarines back to the North Sea where they were once again to be used in support of the High Seas Fleet.
The submarines were no more effective attacking modern warships under Scheer than they had been earlier. By February , the Germans had over submarines available and Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff presented information demonstrating that if those submarines could sink , tons of British and Allied shipping every month for six months that Britain would have to surrender as they no longer would have enough shipping to import the necessary amount of food to feed its people. Unrestricted submarine warfare resumed on 1 February Now, with roughly thirty submarines at sea at a time, the Germans enjoyed enormous success.
In February, the Germans sank , tons of shipping; in March they sank , tons and in April they sank a phenomenal , tons. Eventually the convoy system would prove effective but it took time to organize and fully implement it and in the meantime the submarines continued their depredations. In May, they sank , tons; in June , tons and in July, as convoys became widespread, , tons. An angry President Woodrow Wilson sought and received a declaration of war on Germany in April Kinsale Harbour. John Thuillier. Seven Seas, Nine Lives. Richard Pike. Operation Epsom. Ian Daglish.
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Jutland: Why World War I's only sea battle was so crucial to Britain's victory
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Chi ama i libri sceglie Kobo e inMondadori. This trade blockade inflicted on the German population levels of privation unknown in Britain during the war - not least starvation, which killed just over 88, in , rising to more than , in This contributed greatly to Germany's eventual collapse in By the spring of , Germany's newly introduced policy of unrestricted submarine warfare was sinking one in every four ships coming to Britain.
Belatedly and reluctantly, the Royal Navy introduced a convoy system to protect Allied shipping from submarine attacks. The new strategy worked immediately. By , shipping losses at the hands of enemy torpedoes were declining rapidly. Submarine warfare led to high death tolls an estimated 15, among seamen of the merchant navy. The merchant fleet undertook a number of tasks vital to British success: carrying essential supplies to Britain from the empire and Dominions, transporting troops and supporting naval ships.
The seamen - particularly 'Lascars', Asians taken on as cheap labour in colonial ports - frequently had to endure harsh conditions. These men made up more than a fifth of the total killed. As the British commander-in-chief, Admiral Sir David Beatty , allegedly remarked: 'This is very nice, but I would give them three salvoes' start for a fight.
The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.
Battle of the Falklands: report on casualties k Transcript. Convoy system Watch film of merchant vessel being hit by torpedo. Submarine warfare To combat the devastating impact of the British blockade, German submarine warfare became increasingly indiscriminate as the war dragged on. Warships and merchant ships - Allied and neutral alike - were attacked.
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