German Attack on the Dover Straits 14-15 February 1918

The last German attack on the British anti-submarine barrage across the Dover Straits came on the night of 14-15 February 1918. The previous one on 20-21 April 1917 had resulted in the loss of two German torpedo boats and a clear British victory. The Germans then changed strategy, launching a number of attacks on shipping between the Netherlands and the UK, the largest of which took place on 10 May.

The Germans then sat on the defensive because they feared that the British Passchendaele offensive might include an amphibious assault. The British planned such an operation, but the land offensive did not go well enough for it to be carried out. By the end of 1917 too many vessels had been transferred away from Flanders, mainly to take part in Operation Albion, an amphibious assault in the Baltic Sea, for them to carry out offensive operations.[1]

The attack in mid February was carried out by Korvettenkapitän Heinecke’s 2nd Flotilla of the High Seas Fleet, which sailed from Heligoland Bight without stopping in Flanders in order to achieved surprise. Its eight torpedo boats were meant to sail on 13 February but were delayed a day by bad weather and then reduced to seven when one of them suffered condenser problems.[2]

Heinecke’s plan was to divide his force into two groups. He would lead one, which would attack patrols south of Dungeness and then the patrol line from Folkestone to the Varne Bank. The other, led by Kapitänleutnant Kolbe, would attack the patrols on the south side of the Channel.[3]

Weather conditions on the night of 14-15 February were ideal for a raid. The weather was fine but overcast, the sea was unusually calm for the time of year and visibility was variable, with patches of haze. The minefield was illuminated by flares and searchlights in order to detect surfaced U-boats, but this blinded the vessels burning them, produced smoke and potentially obscured warning lights and gun flashes.[4]

The British had a light cruiser and three destroyers in the Downs, two destroyers on the West Barrage Patrol, four destroyers on the East Barrage Patrol and two paddle minesweepers, a monitor, a destroyer, a Patrol boat, two French torpedo boats and 10 trawlers supporting the 58 drifters patrolling the deep minefield. There should have been a monitor with 12 or 15 inch guns on duty but none was available so the 7.5 inch gunned HMS M26 was on duty.[5]

Between 11:30 and midnight on 14 February the drifter Shipmates (Lieutenant W. Denson RNR) spotted a submarine and fired the appropriate warning signal of red and white lights. The submarine soon disappeared. Around 00:30 am two German destroyers fired on the paddle minesweeper HMS Newbury. She was set alight and was unable to fire the green warning signal for surface raiders. British ships that heard the gunfire assumed that it was British ships attacking the U-boat.[6]

Denson of the Shipmates saw the gun flashes and realised that a German destroyer attack was underway. Before he could report it, his drifter was caught in German searchlights and his division was under fire. Presumably fearing that his vessel might be captured, he threw his confidential books overboard. The Shipmates managed to escape but did not fire a warning signal as Denson had seen two or three signal rockets. He could not send a coded radio message as he no longer had any codebooks and he had been ordered not to send uncoded messages.[7]

The British failed to realise what was happening, assuming that gunfire was aimed at the U-boat spotted by the Shipmates and that any destroyers that they spotted were friendly. Even the captain of a British motor launch fired at by German destroyers assumed that they were British and had mistaken his vessel for a U-boat. The Germans sank seven drifters and a trawler and severely damaged five drifters, a trawler and a paddle minesweeper; 89 British officers and men were dead or missing. Vice Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, C.-in-C. Dover Command, was not certain of what had happened until nearly 3:00 am, by when the Germans were on the way home.[8]

The British held a Court of Inquiry, which highlighted the faults in the processes for challenging, reporting and signalling in the Dover Straits. Lieutenant Adam Ferguson, captain of the destroyer HMS Amazon, challenged an unknown ship three times, which he said was the normal procedure. He was then supposed to open fire but the ship was by then out of sight. Ferguson was Court-Martialed and severely reprimanded. He and his immediate superior, Commander Bernard of the destroyer HMS Termagant, were both relieved of their commands.[9]

Keyes subsequently issued new orders stating that ‘Suspicious vessels are to be regarded as enemy, unnecessary challenges are to be avoided.’ Offensive action should be taken against ships that did not immediately reply to challenges.[10]

This was the seventh and last German attack on the Dover Barrage. Six of them had been successful with only the raid of 20-21 April being a British victory. However, the attacks came at least a month and as much as nine months apart, with the result that the losses from one raid had always been replaced by the time of the next one. The Dover Straits Barrage therefore continued to keep U-boats out of the busy shipping lane of the English Channel, and to force them to sail round the British Isles on their  way to the Atlantic, reducing their time on station. It is unclear why the Germans stopped attacking the Dover Barrage, especially when their last effort was so successful.[11]

 

[1] M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front: The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918, pp. 161-65.

[2] Ibid., p. 176.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vi, The Dover Patrol i. p. 104.

[5] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. v, pp. 210-11.

[6] Ibid., p. 212.

[7] Ibid., pp. 212-13.

[8] Ibid., p. 217.

[9] Ibid., p. 216; A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. vol. v, p. 44.

[10] Marder, From, p. 45.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 217; Karau, Naval, p. 179.

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German Destroyer Raid of 10 May 1917

In late 1916 and early 1917 the German carried out a number of raids on shipping in the Dover area and the anti-submarine net barrage across the Dover straits. The first that resulted in a German defeat was on 20-21 April 1917 when the destroyers SMS G42 and G85 were sunk by the British flotilla leaders HMS Broke and Swift.

The level of loss from this mission was unsustainable so the Germans changed their strategy. Future attacks would be aimed at the Netherlands to UK convoys rather than the Channel patrols and barrage. Raids on shipping at the mouth of the Thames on 26 and 30 April encountered no shipping, although Margate was bombarded on 26 April. [1]

In the early hours of 10 May the eight destroyers (822-960 tons, three 10.5cm (4.1in) guns, six 50cm (19.7in) torpedo tubes, 33.5-34 knots) of Korvettenkapitän Kahle’s 3rd Flotilla and the four destroyers of the Zeebrugge 1st Half Flotilla put to sea with orders to attack a large convoy that was due to leave the Netherlands for Great Britain that evening. Another 12 destroyers were on reconnaissance missions: four of the Zeebrugge 2nd Half Flotilla to the west and eight of the Flanders Torpedo-boat Flotilla to the south west.[2]

That night there were 12 merchant steamers heading from Great Britain to the Netherlands, with 10 travelling the other way. Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt, commanding the Harwich Force, was at sea in the C Class cruiser HMS Centaur (4,165 tons, five 6in (15.2cm), one 13 pounder (76.2mm) and two 3in AA (76mm) guns, two 21in torpedo tubes, 29 knots) accompanied by the similar but slightly older HMS Carysfort and Conquest (4,219 tons, two 6 in (15.2cm), eight 4in (10.2 cm),one 13 pounder (76.2m), two 3in AA (76mm) and four 3 pounder (47mm) guns, two 21in torpedo tubes, 28.5 knots) and four destroyers. Other British destroyers were escorting the convoys.[3]

Between 3:50 and 3:55 am the British spotted the Germans to the south west, 8 or 9 miles away. Tyrwhitt ordered his ships to head south at full speed in an attempt to cut them off from Zeebrugge. At 4:05 am the British opened fire at about 13,000 yards range. The Germans headed south, returning fire. The light was poor and visibility was made worse by a German smoke screen and the smoke from the British cruisers, but both sides managed to straddle enemy ships with their gunfire and the British believed that they scored hits.[4]

The British pursued, but their cruisers were slower than the destroyers. By 5:02 am the German destroyers were out of range of the cruisers. The British destroyers, who had taken some time to work up to full speed, continued the chase. At 5:15 am some of the Germans turned, apparently to engage HMS Stork (975 tons, three 4in (10.2cm) and one 2 pounder (40mm) guns, four 21in torpedo tubes, 29 knots), the leading British destroyer, but withdrew on spotting that more British destroyers had arrived. Tyrwhitt called off the chase at 5:33 am , by when Stork had come under fire from German shore batteries.[5]

Neither side suffered serious damage in this operation, but it was a British victory since they prevented the Germans from carrying out their mission.

[1] M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front : The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918, p. 126.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1939 vol. xix, Home Waters part ix, May to July 1917. p. 5; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, pp. 168-69; Karau, Naval, p. 126.

[3] Naval Staff vol. Xix. p. 4; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 56, 60.

[4] Naval Staff vol. Xix. p. 4.

[5] Ibid., p. 5; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 81.

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German Attack on the Dover Straits 20-21 April 1917

Following the German attack of 17-18 March 1917 on the anti-submarine net barrage in the Dover Straits, the Admiralty told Vice Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, C.-in-C. Dover, that his forces should be more concentrated on nights when enemy attack appeared to be likely. The night of 20 April appeared to be such a night, as it was there was a new moon the next day and high water was at 2230.[1]

The British had two flotilla leaders (large destroyers) on the western part of the barrage and four destroyers to the east. There was a light cruiser, a flotilla leader and three destroyers and a monitor protecting shipping in the Downs, off the east coast of Kent and six destroyers at Dover.[2]

The Germans had strengthened their destroyer force at Zeebrugge by transferring Korvettenkapitän Kahle’s 3rd Flotilla from the High Seas Fleet. The operation on 20-21 April was to be controlled by Kahle. He would not be at sea but instead would command from Bruges, where the Germans collected and deciphered intercepted British orders. According to the British Official History, two groups would again attack the net barrage, but this time there would be no raid on the Downs.[3]

The force on the Dover side of the straits consisted of six destroyers from the 3rd Flotilla (822-960 tons, three 10.5 cm (4.1 inch) guns, six 50 cm (19.7 inch) torpedo tubes, 33.5-34 knots). That on the Calais side comprised four from the Zeebrugge Flotilla and two from the 3rd (852-990 tons, three 105 cm guns, six 50 cm torpedo tubes, 32-34 knots).[4]

However, Mark Karau’s history of the German naval forces in Flanders during the First World War says, based on German archives, that the Calais force included only three destroyers, with the other three operating in the Downs.[5]

A bombardment of Calais started at 2310 and one of Dover at 2330. Little damage was done to either town but  the armed trawler Sabreur was damaged at Dover. British batteries returned fire but without hitting the enemy. However, the bombardment caused Bacon to keep his Dover destroyers in port until 2355, by when the Germans had gone.[6]

At 0038 on 21 April, the Dover raiders sighted the flotilla leaders HMS Broke (1,610 tons, six 4 inch and one 1.5 pounder (20mm) guns, two .303 inch MGs, four 21 inch torpedo tubes, 31 knots) and Swift (2,170 tons, one 6 inch and two 4 inch guns, two 18 inch torpedo tubes, 35 knots). Broke was named after Sir Philip Broke, a successful frigate captain from the War of 1812.[7]

Firing commenced at 0044. Swift, which was ahead of Broke, turned towards the German line with the intention of ramming one of the smaller German ships. She missed and was hit by several shells, but one of her torpedoes hit SMS G85. Swift then pursued the Germans as far as the barrage but then had to give up because a shell hole had caused flooding in one of her forward compartments.[8]

Broke also fired torpedoes and attempted to ram a German destroyer. She missed first time but struck SMS G42 with her second attempt. She took several minutes to extricate herself, during when she came under fire from two other German destroyers. She tried to pursue the Germans but was too badly damaged to keep up with them. She therefore returned to G42, which was sinking by the stern but fired on Broke, which replied until the German guns fell silent about 0120. Broke’s engines then broke down and she began to drift towards G42. Some other British destroyers then arrived and took Broke under tow.[9]

G42 and G85 both eventually sank. The British picked up about 100 survivors from crews of 87 and 85 respectively. British losses were 40 killed or wounded on Broke and one killed and four wounded on Swift. The British casualties are listed on Naval-History.net.[10]

The two British captains, Commander Ambrose Peck of Swift and Commander Edward Evans of Broke, were awarded the Distinguished Service Order and promoted to Captain. Evans became a national hero as ‘Evans of the Broke‘ and reached the rank of Admiral, serving in the 1940 Norwegian Campaign. He had previously been second in command of Captain Robert Scott’s ill fated 1911-13 Antarctic Expedition.

The losses from this operation caused a change in German strategy. Future attacks would be aimed at the Netherlands to UK convoys rather than the Channel patrols and barrage.[11]

 

 

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vi, The Dover Patrol i. p. 97.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. iv, , pp. 373-74..

[3] Ibid. vol. iv, p. 372,

[4] Ibid. vol. iv, p. 378; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, pp. 168-69.

[5] M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front : The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918, p. 124.

[6] Naval Staff vol. vi. p. 98; Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 375; Karau, Naval, p. 125.

[7] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 73, 77-78; Karau, Naval, p. 125.Karau gives German times that were an hour ahead of British time. All times quoted have been adjusted to British time.

[8] Naval Staff vol. vi. p. 99; Karau, Naval, p. 125.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, pp. 377-78.

[10] Ibid. vol. iv. p. 378; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 168-69.

[11] Karau, Naval, p. 126.

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German Attack on the Dover Straits 17-18 March 1917

The Germans attempted to repeat their successful attack of 26-27 October 1916 on the Dover Straits anti-submarine net barrage and shipping on 23 November 1916, but it and a raid of 25-26 February on shipping between England and the Hoof of Holland did little damage.

A new attack on the Dover Straits was planned for 17-18 March 1917. Seven destroyers (802-960 tons, three 10.5 cm (4.1 inch) guns, six 50 cm (19.7 inch) torpedo tubes, 33.5-34 knots) of the 6th Flotilla would operate in the western half of the Dover Straits, five (852-990 tons, three 105 cm guns, six 50 cm torpedo tubes, 32-33.5 knots) of the 1st Zeebrugge Half Flotilla in the eastern half and four (568 tons, two 88 mm (3.45inch) guns, four 50cm torpedo tubes, 29 knots) of the 2nd Zeebrugge Half Flotilla in the Downs off the east coast of Kent. Korvettenkapitän Tillesen of the 6th Flotilla would lead the attack. Tillesen planned the operation carefully in order to give each group of destroyers  separate lines of approach and areas of operation.[1]

The British had the K class HMS Paragon (1072 tons, three 4 inch guns, two 21 inch torpedo tubes with 4 torpedoes, 29 knots) and three L class (965-1010 tons, three 4 inch guns, one .303 inch MG, four 21 inch torpedo tubes, 29 knots) destroyers protecting the net barrage, a light cruiser, a flotilla leader, four destroyers and two monitors off Deal and a flotilla leader and five destroyers at Dover.[2]

At 2250 HMS Paragon encountered three or four destroyers. She exchanged gunfire with them and fired a torpedo that hit a German ship without exploding. Paragon then blew up and sank with the loss of all but 10 men.[3]

HMS Laforey, assuming that Paragon had struck a mine, stopped at about 2300 and switched on her searchlight in order to see and pick up survivors. About 2315 she was narrowly missed by a torpedo that damaged HMS Llewellyn. Laforey’s captain assumed that it had come from a U-boat so set off in search of a submarine. Other British ships therefore remained in port.[4]

The German destroyers attacking the Downs came across the SS Greypoint, which was anchored in an exposed position because her engines had broken down. They torpedoed and sank her, damaged a drifter and bombarded Broadstairs and Ramsgate without causing much damage, although some civilians had narrow escapes. They then withdrew, outpacing Torpedo Boat 4, the only British warship to spot them.[5]

The British casualties are listed on Naval-History.net.

 

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. iv. pp. 361-62; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, pp. 168-69; P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, p. 348.

[2] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv. pp. 361-62; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 75-76.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vi, The Dover Patrol i. p. 92.

[4] Ibid., pp. 92-93.

[5] Ibid., p. 94.

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German Attack on Dover Straits, 26-27 October 1916

The English Channel, especially the Dover Straits at its eastern end, was one of the main Allied shipping routes during the First World War. It saw a variety of different types of traffic: supplies and troop movements for the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders; shipping heading for London, Britain’s biggest port; coastal shipping sailing between British ports; and coal shipments from Britain to France to replace supplies from French coalfields now occupied by the Germans. About 80-100 merchant ships passed through the Dover Straits each day.

German U-boat minelayers of the UC type were very active in minelaying in this area. The British employed trawlers as minesweepers. In the second half of 1916 an average of just under six merchant ships  per month were sunk or damaged by mines in British waters. This rose to 10 in the first half of 1917 but then fell back to four in the second half of 1917. On average 178 mines a month were swept in 1916, rising to 355 in 1917.[1]

An anti-submarine net barrage was also laid across the Straits, which was maintained by drifters, but in practice tides and current made the task of such small craft difficult even in good weather. They were at best armed with a 6 pounder gun and sometimes with just a machine gun, requiring them to be protected by destroyers and armed auxiliary steamers.[2]

On 24 October 1916 Vice Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, commanding the Dover Patrol, was warned that the German naval forces in Flanders had been reinforced by a flotilla of destroyers. He thought it unlikely that the Germans would attack the Straits because no troops were transported at night but that an attack on shipping in the Downs, an area off the north east coast of Kent, was likely.

He had defending Dunkirk the flotilla leader HMS Swift (2,170 tons, four 4 inch guns, two 18 inch torpedo tubes, 35 knots), four modern L class destroyers (966-1010 tons, three 4 inch guns, one .303 inch MG, four 21 inch torpedo tubes, 29 knots) on loan from the Harwich Force and four old destroyers, called 30 knotters because of their design speed (310-70 tons, one 12 pounder (76mm) and five 12 pounder (57mm) guns, two 18 inch torpedo tubes, 30 knots).

Four more L class destroyers were at Deal, defending the Downs.

Six Tribal class destroyers (855-1090 tons, two 4 inch or five 12 pounder (76mm) guns, two 18 torpedo tubes, 33 knots), two 30 knotters, two old torpedo boats (specifications varied but would have been small than the 30 knotters) and a P boat (613 tons, one 4 inch and one 2 pounder (40mm) AA guns, one 14 inch torpedo tubes, 20 knots) were at Dover.

The Tribals were assigned to the Dover Patrol because of their poor endurance. The P or Patrol boats were a wartime design with a low freeboard, a sharp turning circle and a deliberate resemblance to submarines, which it was hoped would allow them to close on U-boats and sink them by gunfire or ramming.

The wide range of displacements was a consequence of a British policy of giving different shipyards some discretion over ship design, provided that various criteria for speed, range, protection, armament etc were met.[3]

That night 24 German destroyers put to sea, commanded by Kapitän Andreas Michelsen, commodore of the High Seas Fleet’s flotillas.  They were divided into two flotillas, each split into two half flotillas. The 3rd Flotilla consisted of the 5th (seven ships) and 6th Half Flotillas (six ships), all armed with three 105mm (4.1 inch) guns and. The 9th Flotilla was made up of the 17th (six ships) and the 18th Half Flotillas (5 ships), armed with either three 105mm guns or three 88mm (3.45 inch) guns. All had six 50 cm (19.7 inch) torpedo tubes. They displaced 800-960 tons and were capable of 33.5-34 knots. The Germans called them High Seas Torpedo Boats but they are referred to as destroyers here as they were comparable to British destroyers.[4]

The 9th Flotilla was to attack the transport line between Dover and Calais and the 3rd the drifters and the barrage. Each Half Flotilla would have its own area of operation. The 30 knotter HMS Flirt, supporting the drifters, saw but did not identify German destroyers at 2135. The Germans opened fire on the drifters just after 2200. They sank six out of 28 drifters, a trawler and HMS Flirt. The other drifters were able to escape into the darkness, though three were badly damaged.[5]

The six Tribals at Dover were ordered to put to sea at 2250. Five minutes later the four L class destroyers at Dunkirk received the same instruction. The L class ships in the Downs were supposed to remain where they were but instead headed for Dunkirk because of two signalling errors. Fortunately for the British the Germans did not attack the Downs. The Germans attacked the transport line between 2300 and 2330 but sank only one of the 57 ships crossing the Channel, the transport Queen, whose crew were first allowed to board her lifeboats.[6]

The Tribals failed to concentrate but came into contact with the 9th Flotilla as it withdrew from its attack on the transport line. HMS Nubian came under heavy fire at close range. She attempted to ram the last German torpedo boat but was instead torpedoed in the bow. She was put out of action and had to be towed back to port.

HMS Amazon, which had become detached from the other Tribals, encountered some destroyers that he captain assumed were L class ships. They were Germans., who opened fire, putting her after gun and two boilers out of action. They also damaged a trawler.

HMS Viking, Mohawk and Tartar engaged the Germans but a shell hit Mohawk and jammed her helm. Tartar followed her and Viking had to change course to avoid a collision, with the result that contact was lost. The Dunkirk destroyers saw gun flashes but were too far away to get into action. This action showed that the barrage had limited effect, as 14 British destroyers had crossed it without being damaged.[7]

Nubian was too badly damaged to be repaired. On 8 November her sister ship HMS Zulu had her stern blown off by a mine. The two ships were put together by Chatham Dockyard and the combined ship was commissioned as HMS Zubian on 7 June 1917. She was credited with sinking the U-boat UC50 on 7 January 1918.[8]

The Germans sunk six drifters, a trawler, an empty transport ship and a torpedo boat and damaged two destroyers and several auxiliaries, suffering only minor damage to SMS 91 in return. British human losses were 45 dead, four wounded and 10 captured. The dead included all the crew of Flirt, except for a boat party that had been lowered just before she was sunk to pick up survivors from the drifters. The German success was helped by their previous inactivity, which made the British complacent.[9]

 

[1] M. Faulkner, A. D. Lambert, The Great War at Sea: A Naval Atlas 1914-1919, p. 105.

[2] L. Sondhaus, German Submarine Warfare in World War I: The Onset of Total War at Sea. Kindle Edition, locations 1902-50.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vi, The Dover Patrol i. pp. 69-70; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, pp. 71-72, 76, 96.

[4] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. iv, p. 52 and footnote 2; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 168-69.

[5] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, pp. 55-57; Faulkner, Lambert, Great, p. 113; M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front : The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918, p. 77.

[6] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, pp. 58-62; Faulkner, Lambert, Great, p. 113.

[7] Naval Staff vol. vi. p. 82.

[8] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 72.

[9] Karau, Naval, pp. 77, 79.

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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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