Monthly Archives: February 2018

U-boats and US Troopships in WWI

When Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, the Chief of the Admiralty Staff of the Imperial German Navy, persuaded the German High Command to resume unrestricted submarine warfare from 1 February 1917 he admitted that this might bring the USA into the war. However, he argued that the U-boats would have sunk enough merchant ships to force the UK to surrender before the USA could mobilise a large army and transport it to Europe.

In fact the U-boats were unable to prevent US troops travelling to Europe. By the end of the war 2,079,880 US soldiers had reached Europe, 51 per cent in British ships, 46 per cent in US ones and most of the others in French ones, with a few travelling in Italian vessels. Most of the escorts, however, were from the USN: 83 per cent versus 14 per cent from the RN and 3 per cent from the French navy.[1]

A significant number of the US troops travelled in one of 18 German owned liners that had been interned in US ports and requisitioned. They had a total tonnage of 304,720 tons and capacity of 68,600 men. The largest of them, the Vaterland (54,282 tons), renamed Leviathan, could carry 10,680 troops. She and three large British liners, the Mauretania (31,938 tons, 5,162 troops), Aquitania (45,467 tons, 6,090 troops) and Olympic (45,324 tons, 6,148 troops) were considered to be so fast and seaworthy that escorts could not keep up with them. They consequently made most of the passage on their own, being met by destroyers near their destination ports. They carried 135,467 out of 1,037,166 Canadian and US troops transported to the UK in 1918. The other troopships travelled as part of escorted convoys.[2]

The largest loss of life of US soldiers to a U-boat came on 5 February 1918, when UB77 (Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Meyer) sank the SS Tuscania (14,348 tons) off Islay, the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides. The Tuscania, which was part of a British convoy, was carrying 2,000 US troops from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Europe. The loss of life was made worse because some lifeboats overturned as they were being lowered and because they then tried to make land rather than wait near the ship to be rescued.[3]

There is some dispute about the number killed when the Tuscania sank. Lawrence Sondhaus’s recent German Submarine Warfare in World War I and the website U-boat.net both state that 166 soldiers and crew were killed. Archibald Hurd’s The Merchant Navy, part of the British Official History of the war, says 44 crew and about 100 soldiers. R. H. Gibson and Maurice Prendergast’s older work The German Submarine War 1914-18 says 44 crew and 166 soldiers, which is repeated in Paul Halpern and Robert Massie’s histories of the war at sea.[4]

The only other US troopship sunk by a U-boat on her way to Europe was the armed merchant cruiser Moldavia, which was part of a US convoy when torpedoed in the English Channel on 23 May. Fifty-six US soldiers died. The largest loss of Europe bound US troops came on 6 October 1918 when the troopship Kashmir (8,985 tons), whose steering had jammed, accidentally rammed the troopship Otranto (12,124 tons), which ran aground off Islay with the loss of 369 soldiers and 69 crew.[5]

Three more US troopships were sunk by U-boats, but on the way home when they were less well escorted: the Antilles (6,800 tons, 67 dead) on 17 October 1917, the President Lincoln (18,162 tons, 25 dead) on 31 May 1918 and the Covington (16,339 tons, 6 dead) on 1 July 1918.[6]

 

 

[1] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 435-6.

[2] Ibid., p. 436.

[3] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 288.

[4] Ibid; Halpern, Naval, p. 436; A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. iii, p. 285; R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 762; L. Sondhaus, German Submarine Warfare in World War I: The Onset of Total War at Sea (Boulder MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). Kindle edition, loc. 3952 of 5745, Chapter 7.

[5] Halpern, Naval, p. 437.

[6] Ibid.

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The Battle of May Island 31 January 1918

On 31 January 1918, two British K class submarines were sunk and four others damaged off May Island in the Firth of Forth. These losses resulted not from enemy action but from collisions during an exercise with no enemy forces present.

The K class resulted from a faulty concept, which was for a submarine able to operate with the battle fleet with speeds of 24 knots on the surface and 9.5 knots submerged. Submarines were then powered by diesel engines on the surface and battery powered electric motors submerged. This combination allowed the highly successful E Class to make 15 knots on the surface and 9 knots submerged. Erroneous intelligence reports that some German U-boats were capable of 22 knots led to the J class, whose diesel engines were supposed to give a surface speed of 19.5 knots. Problems in heavy seas needed modifications that cut this to 17 knots.[1]

In order to achieve the require speed, the K class were powered on the surface by oil fired steam turbines. They were armed with ten 18 inch torpedo tubes, 18 torpedoes, two 4 inch guns and a 3 inch anti-aircraft gun. The use of steam meant that funnels and hatches had to be closed before they could dive. This could be done in 30 seconds, but there was a risk that one would be jammed open by a small obstruction. Eighteen were built, with another nine cancelled. K13 sank on trails in the Gareloch on 29 January 1917. She was raised and repaired but renumbered K22.[2]

The K boats were really submersible destroyers. The intention was that, like destroyers, they would operate in flotillas rather individually. Each flotilla would be led by a light cruiser until they were close enough to the enemy to fire their torpedoes, after which they would retire.[3]

Rear Admiral O. W. Phillips, at one time Chief Engineer of HMS K4, later wrote that 13 openings had to be closed before diving but that the K boats ‘were a wonderful effort and no more dangerous than any other submarine – if properly handled.’[4]

The editors of Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-21 argue that the K boats were not a poor design, but were actually a ‘remarkable technical achievement.’ Their problem was not their design but the ‘faulty conception which had led them to being built.’ They were expected to operate surfaced at high speeds in close company with surface ships, often at night without lights, but their bridge facilities were not adequate to do so safely.[5]

By January 1918 two flotillas of K boats, the 12th (K3, K4, K6 and K7 led by the light cruiser HMS Fearless) and 13th (K11, K12, K14, K17 and K22 led by the flotilla leader [a large destroyer] HMS Ithuriel) were based at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth. On the evening of 31 January they were part of a force of 40 ships, including three battleships and four battlecruisers that sailed to join the rest of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, Orkney, in an exercise codenamed EC1.The K boats were showing only a small blue stern light. All ships increased speed as they approached May Island because a U boat was reported to be in the area.

Two of the K boats changed course to avoid two minesweeping trawlers that suddenly appeared and moved across their course. Ithuriel’s helm jammed as she changed course. K14 and K22 then collided after the former’s helm jammed and the latter was later hit by the battlecruiser HMS Inflexible.

Ithuriel and the other three boats of the 13th Flotilla turned back to give assistance. They were narrowly missed by the battlecruiser HMAS Australia but the two submarine flotillas became mixed. Fearless rammed K17, which sank, K3 just avoided K4, K6 nearly hit K12 head on but then struck K4. The two submarines became locked together. K6 escaped by running full astern but K4 was almost cut in half and sank after being struck by K7.

Over 100 men died: they are listed on naval-history.net. Some of them got into the water but were run down by destroyers that did not know what had happened. There were no survivors from K4 and only eight from K17. Two submarines were lost, with four and a light cruiser damaged despite the complete absence of enemy forces.

The subsequent court of inquiry blamed the officers of the K boats involved rather than the concept behind their design or their flawed employment.[6]

Three more K boats were lost, all accidentally. K1 collided with K4 off Denmark on 18 November 1917 and was scuttled to avoid capture. K5 failed to surface after diving during exercises in the Bay of Biscay on 20 January 1921 and was lost with all hands. K15 sank at her moorings in Portsmouth on 25 June 1921, but all the crew survived thanks to prompt action by her captain. The closest that they came to sinking an enemy ship was when K7 hit a U-boat with a torpedo that failed to explode.

As well as the books footnoted and websites linked in the text, the following websites have been used as sources:

Steam Submarines: The Navy’s Dive to Disaster by John Watts on the website of the Submariners Association Barrow-in-Furness Branch. This source says that K7 passed over K4 as she sank without hitting her, but I have taken the version of events from the MoD linked below.

Battle of May Remembered, published by the Ministry of Defence on the 84th Anniversary of the disaster, when a memorial to the dead was unveiled at Anstruther, Fife.

Battle of May Island on Wikipedia.

 

[1] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 87-90.

[2] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 91.

[3] Liddle, The Sailors War, 1914-18, p. 187.

[4] Quoted in Liddle, The Sailors War, 1914-18, p. 188.

[5] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 91.

[6] Liddle, The Sailors War, 1914-18, p. 190.

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