Tag Archives: submarines

Gordon Campbell and the Crew that Won 5 VCs

The 11 medals, including the Victoria Cross, awarded to Vice Admiral Gordon Campbell were recently sold at auction for £840,000, a record for a set of British medals. Most VCs sold in recent years have been bought by Lord Ashcroft, part of whose collection is on display at the Imperial War Museum. Campbell’s medals, however, were bought by his great nephew Lorne Thyssen-Bornemisza. He intends to display them in a British museum. The seller, the Fellowship of St John (UK) Trust Association, intends to use the proceeds to support a number of charitable projects.

Campbell was born in Croydon, Surrey on 6 January 1886, although his family were originally from Airds, Argyll. He was educated at Dulwich College. At the outbreak of the First World War he was a Lieutenant-Commander captaining HMS Bittern, an elderly destroyer. In September 1915, bored with escort duties, he volunteered for ‘special service’ and found himself captain of an elderly collier called Loderer that was fitted as a Q-ship, one of a number of apparently innocuous merchant ship that were manned by the RN and given heavy but concealed armaments. She was renamed HMS Farnborough before going into action.

Farnborough was initially armed with a Maxim machine gun in a fake hen coop abaft the funnel, a 12 pounder gun in a fake engine housing aft and two 12 pounder amidships, one on each side, hidden behind gunwales. The gunwales and the walls of the fake hen coop and engine housing were hinged so that they could easily fall and the staff that would fly a neutral flag would fall with the fake engine housing to avoid any risk that Farnborough might open fire whilst flying neutral colours. Campbell managed to obtain two more 12 pounders, which were housed in fake extensions to cabins just forward of the funnel, and two 6 pounders, which were placed on the wings of the bridge, behind easily removable screens.

The early drafts of men for Q-ships had mostly comprised hard men with poor disciplinary records, either because such men were thought to be suited to this type of work or because they were the most expendable. In fact it required very disciplined men. Eventually highly disciplined and efficient men were recruited and trained.

Farnborough would have carried a crew of about six officers and 24 men but as a warship needed 11 officers and 56 men in order to work her armament. It would have been very suspicious if they had appeared on deck on their way to their action stations, so Campbell arranged a series of trap doors and hidden alley ways to allow them to get to their gun and lookout positions without being seen.[1]

Although most of a Q-ship’s crew would remain concealed when a U-boat was sighted, a small number would appear on deck and pretend to panic, making deliberately clumsy attempts to abandon ship. The last man off HMS Farnborough would carry a large cage containing a stuffed parrot.[2]

Farnborough was commissioned on 21 October 1915, but did not encounter any U-boats until 22 March 1916 She was off the coast of Kerry when U68 (Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Güntzel) fired a torpedo at her. Farnborough ignored the torpedo, so U68 surfaced and fired a shot across her bows. The British ship’s crew appeared to be abandoning ship, so U68 closed to 800 yards and attempted to sink her by gunfire.

Farnborough, however, raised the White Ensign, revealed her guns and opened fire. Her crew believed that they scored hits before U68 dived. Campbell took his ship over the spot at which the U-boat had dived and dropped a depth charge. U68 shot out of the water, her bow clearly damaged. Five more shots were fired into the base of her conning tower before she dived again. Farnborough dropped two more depth charges. A lot of oil and some wood fragments came to the surface. Nothing more was seen of U68 or her crew. Campbell was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, two other officers the Distinguished Service Cross and three men the Distinguished Service Medal.[3]

Farnborough’s next action came on 17 February 1917. At 9:45 am on she was flying a Norwegian flag when  U83 (Kapitänleutnant Bruno Hoppe) fired a torpedo at her. Her guns and most of her crew remained concealed whilst the panic party attempted to abandon ship.

U83 at first watched through her periscope, coming within 10 yard of Farnborough. She then surfaced about 300 yard from the Q-ship. Campbell held his fire until all his ship’s guns were bearing. Her first shot hit the conning tower and allegedly decapitated Hoppe. Farnborough fired 45 shells at U83 from point blank range.[4]

Only eight of the submariners managed to get into the oily water as their boat sank, and Farnborough’s boat could find only two of them, one of whom died after being rescued.[5]

Farnborough was badly damaged and sinking. Campbell signalled:

From Q5. To Vice-Admiral Queenstown, via Valencia. 12.00 hours, Feb 17th, Q5 slowly sinking respectfully wishes you goodbye 1110.[6]

However, the destroyer HMS Narwhal arrived before noon and took Farnborough’s crew off her. The sloops HMS Buttercup and Laburnum took her under tow. She listed badly at 3:30 am on 18 February, but managed to reach Mill Cove in County Cork, where she was beached at 9:20 pm.

Campbell, by now promoted Commander, was awarded the VC, two other officers the DSO, three the DSC, seven petty officers or ratings the DSM and another a bar to a DSM previously awarded. The other 25 members of the crew were Mentioned in Dispatches.[7]

Following the loss of HMS Farnborough, Campbell was given command of another Q-ship. She was a 3,000 ton 10 year old tramp steamer, originally called Vittoria and at first named HMS Snail. This was then changed to HMS Pargust. She was armed with a 4 inch gun aft under a dummy boat; four 12 pounders, two 14 inch torpedo tubes and an 11 inch bomb thrower. All were concealed but could be quickly brought into action, Most of Farnborough’s crew volunteered to follow Campbell to Pargust. Campbell was unable to discover what the name of his new ship meant or any previous ship of any country that had been called Pargust. Neither have I, even though unlike him I have Google.

On 8:00 am on 7 June 1917 Pargust was about 90 miles off the coast of southern Ireland when a torpedo struck her, killing Petty Officer Isaac Radford and badly injuring Engineer Sub-Lieutenant John Smith RNR. The explosion dislodged the pins that held in place the screen concealing one of the 12 pounders. Able Seaman William Williams, DSM, RNR [Royal Naval Reserve, then a reserve of professional seamen from the Merchant and fishing fleets], a 26 year old Welshman, took the weight of the screen on himself in order to keep the gun hidden, Campbell could not see any sign of the U-boat, but ordered the panic party to abandon ship. Eventually, he spotted a periscope 400 yards away.

The submarine, UC29 (Oberleutnant Ernest Rosenow), approached Pargust. U-boat captains had now learnt to be wary of apparently innocuous merchantmen, so Rosenow spent half an hour examining Pargust and her lifeboat before surfacing 50 yards away from Pargust. At first nobody came onto the U-boat’s bridge or deck, but an officer eventually appeared, shouting at the  men in the lifeboat to hand over the ship’s papers. Lieutenant F. R. Hereford, DSC, RNR, the man with the parrot and apparently the merchantman’s captain, pretended not to answer. A man with a rifle then appeared on the bridge.

Pargust now had a good angle of fire on UC29, whilst the lifeboat was out of Pargust’s arc of fire but at risk from the rifleman. At 8:36 am Campbell ordered gunners to open fire. A number of hits were scored, slowing UC29. She was listing to port and leaking oil and men appeared on her deck and conning tower with their arms raised. The U-boat, however, gained speed, washing the men on her casing overboard. Campbell ordered his guns to recommence firing. Only one 12 pounder could now bear, but UC29 exploded and sank about 300 yards away. Only two survivors were found. Pargust had fired 38 shells, plus a torpedo that missed, in four minutes. She was immobile but afloat. She was towed to Queenstown (now Cobh) by HMS Crocus, escorted by HMS Zinnia and the USS Cushing.

It was decided that one officer and one other rank from Pargust’s crew should receive the VC as recognition of the entire crew’s gallantry. The warrant establishing the VC allows for a secret ballot to be held amongst the survivors of a unit of ship’s crew to choose one or more of their number when it is impossible for the higher command to single out any individuals. The officers wanted Campbell to be the officer recipient, but he refused on the grounds that he already had a VC, which he regarded as having been awarded to the entire crew.

The ballot chose Lieutenant Ronald Stuart, RNR, a 30 year old from Liverpool, and William Williams as two men to be awarded the VC. Coincidentally, Seaman William Charles Williams had been awarded a posthumous VC at Gallipoli in 1915. He and Commander Edward Unwin used the weight of their own bodies to secure lighters that were intended to provide a bridge for troops to land from the steamer River Clyde. Campbell, now a Captain, did receive a bar to his DSO.[8]

Pargust was too badly damaged to be repaired, so Campbell was given command of another Q-ship, HMS Dunraven, a 3,117 ton collier. Her modifications incorporated various lessons learnt from previous Q-ships, including armouring the bridge and fitting a perforated pipe that would give off enough steam to make it appear that the ship had been hit in the boiler or engine room. Many British merchantmen heading for the Mediterranean carried railway trucks on their deck. Dunraven had four fake ones made of canvas, which could be collapsed in order to change her appearance.

Most of Pargust’s crew volunteered to transfer to Dunraven, but Stuart had been appointed to command the Q-ship HMS Tamarisk. He was replaced as First Lieutenant by Lieutenant Charles Bonner, RNR, Second Office of Pargust. Smith tried to join Dunraven, but Campbell insisted that he had not recovered fully from his wounds.

U-boats were now wary of solitary merchantmen that might turn out to be Q-ships. On 5 August HMS Chagford (Lieutenant Douglas Jeffrey, RNR) was torpedoed by a U-boat. Jeffrey launched the panic party and the U-boat surfaced 800 yards away. The first explosion, however, knocked down the screens hiding Chagford’s guns, so Jeffrey had to open fir at once. The U-boat dived and fired two  more torpedoes into Chagford. The Q-ship was badly damaged and sank the next day, although most of her crew were saved.

Three days after Chagford was attacked Dunraven was about 100 miles west of Ushant. Campbell had decided that his ship would act as if she was one of a number of British merchantman that by then were armed instead of as a helpless victim.

On 10:58 am Dunraven spotted UC71 (Oberleutnant Reinhold Satzwedel) but proceeded on her way as if she had not seen the submarine, which dived. Satzwedel was a leading U-boat captain who sank 111 Allied ships of a total tonange of 172,824 tons before being killed on 2 December 1917 when his new command, UB81, hit a mine. He was awarded Germany’s highest decoration, the Pour Le Mérite, nicknamed the Blue Max.

Half an hour later UC71 surfaced and opened fire. Dunraven opened fire with her single unconcealed gun, but its crew, including William Williams, deliberately fired short and acted clumsily in order to tempt UC71 closer.

Campbell and his crew gave the impression that they were panicking by making lots of smoke and sending uncoded distress signals. UC71 ceased fire, closed to 1,000 yards and reopened fire. Campbell used Dunraven’s perforated pipe to make it appear that she had been hit in the boiler or engine room and ordered the panic party to abandon ship.

A massive explosion made Campbell think that Dunraven’s magazines had been hit, so he sent a genuine distress call. A nearby battleship sent one of her escorting destroyers to help, but Campbell signalled her to stay away once he learnt that it was a depth charge that had exploded and that Dunraven’s secret was still safe.

Dunraven was, however, badly damaged. A fire on the poop deck was close to setting off the 4 inch gun’s magazine. The heat of the deck meant that the gun crew had to sit with boxes of shells and cordite on their knees, as they might otherwise explode. Campbell did not want to open fire until UC71 was in the arc of his three hidden 12 pounders. At 12:58, however, an explosion sent the gun into the air. Remarkably all the crew survived. One ended up in the water and the fall of the others was broken by the canvas fake railway trucks.

Dunraven was now revealed to be a warship and UC71 dived. At 1:20 pm she torpedoed Dunraven, which was now sinking and on fire. UC71 observed the Q-ship through her periscope for nearly an hour. Unknown to Campbell she had no torpedoes left. At 2:30 UC71 surfaced and opened fire. She was astern of Dunraven, which no longer had any guns able to bear on her. One shell hit the bridge and would have killed the four men on it had it not been armoured.

At 2:55 UC71 dived to periscope depth. Dunraven fired both her torpedoes, but one missed and the other failed to explode. The armed yacht USS Noma then appeared and fired at UC71’s periscope. The U-boat dived deeper at 4:00 and the action was over.

The destroyers HMS Attack and Christopher then arrived. The wounded were treated and Dunraven taken under tow. She sank at 3:17 am but all the crew had been taken off. However, on 19 September Seaman Alex Morrison died of wounds received in this action.

Again two VCs were awarded. The one for an officer went to Bonnar, whilst the lower deck one was awarded to Petty Officer Ernest Pitcher, DSM of the 4 inch gun crew by ballot. The other members of the 4 inch gun crew received the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. Campbell was awarded a second bar to his DSO and his crew received a DSO, three bars to DSCs, three DSCs, seven CGMs, 3 bars to DSMs, including one to William Williams, 21 DSMs and 14 Mentions in Dispatches. As well as the VC Pitcher received two French medals, the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille Militaire, to add to the DSM he was awarded after Pargust sank UC29.[9]

On 14 August the Q-ship HMS Prize was sunk with all hands by UB48: a previous post in this series told the story of how her captain William Sanders earned the VC. Q-ships did not destroy any more U-boats. A significant number of British merchantmen were now armed. U-boats would often surface to engage them but would take up a position that favoured the submarine. Dunraven’s action with UC71 showed that a Q-ship then had the choice of taking heavy damage before fighting back or revealing her guns early, in which case the U-boat would dive and escape.[10]

Campbell, who also received two French decorations, the Croix de Guerre and another French award, the Legion d’Honneur captained  the cruisers HMS Active and Patrol later in the war. His final seagoing appointment was as captain of the battlecruiser HMS Tiger in 1925-27. He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1928 but immediately retired. He was briefly an MP and returned to the RN in WWII. He died in 1953.

Pitcher retired from the RN in 1927 with the rank of Chief Petty Officer. He was then a woodwork teacher and a publican. He returned to the RN in WWII and died in 1946. Bonner became a marine salvage expert after the war and died in 1951. Williams was a founder member of his local branch of the British Legion and died in 1965. Stuart, who received the DSO, Croix de Guerre and US Navy Cross as well as the VC, returned to the Merchant Navy after the war. His final sea going command was the 42,000 ton transatlantic liner RMS Empress of Britain. In WWII she became the largest ship to be sunk by a U-boat, but he had by then moved to shore duties.

One of Stuart’s sons was awarded the DSC and the other a Mention in Dispatches in the WWII Battle of the Atlantic. Campbell’s nephew, Brigadier Lorne Campbell received the VC, DSO and Bar, OBE, four Mentions in Dispatched and the US Legion of Merit in WWII.

Because of the secrecy behind Q-ships the medals awarded to their crews were announced without any details of why they were awarded. The names of the men decorated can be found on Naval-History.net. They were announced in the London Gazette issue 29603 of 30 May 1916 for Farnborough’s first action, 30029 of 20 April 1917 for her second, 30194 of 20 July 1917 for Pargust and 30363 of 30 October 1917 for Dunraven. The VCs citations were finally published in full in issue 31021 of 19 November 1917.



[1] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), pp. 12-15.

[2] Ibid., pp. 18-19.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xv, Home Waters part vi, October 1915 to May 1916, pp. 101-2.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1933 vol. xviii, Home Waters part viii, December 1916 to April 1917, pp. 204-5.

[5] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 73-74.

[6] Quoted in Ibid., p. 74.

[7] Naval Staff vol. xviii, p. 205.

[8] This account of Pargust’s story is based on Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 90-96 and websites linked in the text; R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 181.

[9] This account of Dunraven’s story is based on Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 105-15;  J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938) vol. v, pp. 107-9 and websites linked in the text.

[10] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval vol. v, 109-111.


Leave a comment

Filed under War History

British Submarines in the Baltic

On 11 October 1914 the British E class submarines HMS E1 (Lieutenant Commander Noel Laurence), E9 (Lieutenant Commander Max Horton) and E11 (Lieutenant Commander Martin Nasmith) were ordered to enter the Baltic. Their mission was to attack the German High Seas Fleet when it exercised in the Baltic, before heading for the Russian port of Libau (now Liepāja in Latvia) and operate from there. The journey into the Baltic was to be made at night in order to avoid German patrol ships.

E1 made the passage safely on the night of 17 October. She fired two torpedoes at the cruiser SMS Victoria Louise the next morning, but both missed. She then tracked another cruiser for six hours, but was unsuccessful in trying to attack her. On 20 October she encountered three cruisers in Danzig Bay, but could not get at them, so headed for Libau. A Russian pilot guided her into the port, which had been dismantled and abandoned. E1 had passed through a German minefield without knowing it.

E9, which had had become the first British submarine to sink a ship when she sunk SMS Hela on 13 September, also made the passage on the night of 17 October, but had to spend all the next day on the bottom as she was unable to complete the journey before daybreak. She had several close encounters with destroyers, but passed the patrol line on 18 October. She also passed through the German minefield without realising it and arrived at Libau on 22 October.

E11’s journey was delayed until 18 October by technical faults. She failed to get through and retired. The next day she fired a torpedo at a submarine. It missed, which was fortunate as the boat was Danish. She was herself attacked unsuccessfully later that day. On 20 October a German seaplane found her re-charging her batteries on the surface. She was attacked all night by destroyers and returned to the United Kingdom on 22 October after another unsuccessful attempt to get through. She later operated very successfully in the Dardanelles.

E1 and E9 waited for E11 until ordered to head to Lapvik in the Gulf of Finland and put themselves under the orders of Admiral Nikolai von Essen, the C-in-C of the Russian Baltic Fleet. They arrived on 30 October. having tried unsuccessfully to attack a destroyer and a cruiser on the way.[1]

During the winter of 1914-15 the two boats were kept busy. They did no direct damage, but their presence persuaded the Germans to attack Libau, which they wrongly assumed was the British submarine base. The Germans successfully blocked the harbour entrance, but the armoured cruiser SMS Friedrich Carl struck two mines in the early hours of 26 November 1914. She was abandoned and left to sink.[2]

In late April 1915 Germans launched an offensive towards Libau. Attempts by the British submarines to attack German naval forces supporting this operation were initially unsuccessful. Libau was captured on 7 May, and three days later E9 was ordered to operate against ships supplying it from Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland) and Memel (now Klaipėda in Lithuania). She attacked a convoy of three transports and three cruiser escorted by destroyers, sinking one of the transports.

On 1 June E1 was forced to undergo repairs because of an engine problem. Von Essen,  described by the British Official History as an ‘energetic and devoted officer’, had died of illness on 20 May, but the submarine operations continued.[3] On 4 June E9 attacked two destroyers that were re-coaling from a collier, with two more destroyers and a light cruiser in attendance. E9 fired a torpedo at the cruiser, which missed, and two at the collier, which sank both her and one of the destroyers.

By 2 July the Germans were threatening Riga, ‘an important munitions centre [that] was vital to the security of the capital [St Petersburg].’[4] In the early hours of that day the Battle of Aland Islands saw a Russian squadron of the armoured cruisers Admiral Makarov and Bayan and the smaller cruisers Bogatyr and Oleg engaged the German armoured cruiser SMS Roon, the light cruisers SMS Augsburg and Lübeck and the minelayer SMS Albatross in fog. The Albatross was forced aground on Swedish territory and interned, whilst Augsburg was badly damaged. The Russians lost contact with the enemy in the fog and headed home. They were then attacked by the Roon, Lübeck and four destroyers. The Germans were forced to withdraw after the Russian armoured cruiser Rurik joined the action, damaging the Roon. German reinforcements appeared, but E9 torpedoed and damaged the armoured cruiser SMS Prinz Adalbert.

On 30 July E1, which had been repaired, sank the German auxiliary ship Aachen, The efforts of the submarines could not, however, prevent the Germans from winning the land campaign.[5]

The Russians, whose armies were under severe pressure and trading space for time, requested on 15 August that the British send more submarines. The Germans intended to turn the Russian right flank, which rested on the Gulf of Riga. This required a combined operation by their army and navy, including the entry of their battlecruisers into the Gulf. The Admiralty, acting on requests from British personnel on the spot, had the day before ordered E8 (Lieutenant-Commander Francis Goodhart) and E13 (Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Layton) to head to the Baltic. E8 arrived safely but E13 ran aground in Danish waters and was then attacked and sunk by German destroyers.[6] This was one of a number of alleged atrocities at sea that took place in mid 1915: see this previous entry for further details.

On 19 August E1 got into a position to attack four German battlecruisers that were sailing in line abreast. She fired a torpedo that hit the closest ship, SMS Moltke, but was then forced to dive by a destroyer. The fog and the destroyer escort prevented E1 from making any more attacks. Eight of Moltke’s crew were killed and she was forced to return to Hamburg for repairs that took about a month. The Germans abandoned their attempt to turn the Riga flank the next day. The British Official History suggests that:

‘it is not…impossible that the presence of our submarines in the Baltic was as disconcerting to the Germans as the arrival of theirs at the Dardanelles had been to us.’[7]

E8 captured and then sank the steamer Margritte off Königsberg on 8 October. She was on station outside Libau on 23 October when she observed SMS Prinz Adalbert leaving the port with a destroyer on each bow.. Goodhart positioned his boat to ambush the German ships. He let the destroyer on E8’s side pass and four minutes later fired a bow tube at the cruiser at a range of 1,300 yards. The torpedo hit her forward magazine, causing a large explosion. Goodhart dived his boat, returning to periscope depth eight minutes later.  The cruiser had sunk, the destroyers probably did not know if the damage had been caused by a mine or a submarine and E8 escaped.

Two more British submarine had by then arrived in the Baltic: E18 (Lieutenant Commander R. C. Halahan) and E19 (Lieutenant Commander Francis Cromie). On 11 October E19 stopped a series of ships carrying iron or magnetic ore from Sweden. Those heading for the UK or neutral ports were allowed to continue but those bound for Germany, the Walter Leonhardt, Gutrune, Direktor Rippenhagen and Nicomedia, were sunk. Their crews were put on Swedish ships, except for that of the Nicomedia, who were sent ashore on boats. The Germania ran aground whilst trying to escape E19, with her crew abandoning ship.

On 12 October E19 stopped the Nike, carrying iron ore from Stockholm to Stettin (now Szczecin in Poland. Her captain was Swedish, and Cromie sent her to the Russian port of Reval, now Tallinn in Estonia, with a prize crew. The normal British practice was that a Prize Court would condemn her as a lawful prize, and the British did not want to set a precedent by doing things differently this time. The Russians, however, wanted to return her to the Swedes in order to avoid offending them. Since she was in a Russian port, the British gave her to the Russians who handed her back to the Swedes. Nike’s captain said that there were then 15 ore ships awaiting escort from Lulea in Sweden to Germany.

German losses to British submarines in the Baltic continued, however. On 18 and 19 October E9 sank the Soderham, Pernambuco, Johannes-Russ and Dal Alfoen, all carrying iron ore to Germany.

The British also continued to have success against German warships. On the morning of 7 November E19 spotted a light cruiser and two destroyers, but was unable to get into a position to fire. Three hours later, at 1:20 pm, she encountered the light cruiser SMS Undine and one destroyer. At 1:45 pm Cromie fired a torpedo at Undine at a range of 1,100 yard, scoring a hit that stopped her. E19 avoided the destroyer and fired a second torpedo from 1,200 yards that hit Undine’s magazine, causing her to blow up. The destroyer fired on E19’s periscope, so she withdrew to a safe distance in order to observe the Germans picking up survivors.

The British submarine campaign in the Baltic ended for the winter when E18 returned to Reval on 17 November after an unsuccessful three week cruise. The weather made further submarine operations impossible until the spring.[8]

The British Official History argued that ‘after E9’s success the control of the Baltic seemed to have passed for a time out of German Hands.’[9]

Three of the Baltic submarine captains were awarded the Distinguished Service Order and various Russian decorations in 1916: Laurence on 24 February and Goodhart and Cromie on 30 May. Horton had already received the DSO. Lieutenant George Sharp was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on 30 May ‘In recognition of his services in a British submarine operating in the Baltic Sea’; the citation, from naval-history.net, does not say which boat he was serving in.

Three of them did not survive the war: Halahan was lost along with E18 in May 1916; Goodhart died when HMS K13 sank accidentally on 31 January 1917; and Cromie was killed by Bolsheviks on 31 August 1918 whilst acting as British naval attaché to Russia. The other four, Horton, Laurence, Layton and Nasmith, all reached the rank of Admiral.

[1] The above is based on J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol i, pp. 236-38.

[2] Ibid. vol. ii, pp. 285-86

[3] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 60.

[4] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 62.

[5] The last four paragraphs are based on Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 61-63.

[6] Ibid. vol. iii. pp. 135-36.

[7] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 137.

[8] The last seven paragraphs are based on Ibid. vol. iv, pp. 95-98.

[9] Ibid. vol. iv, p. 98.

Leave a comment

Filed under War History

Allied Submarines in the Dardanelles

Allied submarines operated in the Dardanelles even before the attack on its defences by surface ships in February 1915 and the amphibious landing on 25 April. HMS B11 sank the old Ottoman battleship Mesudiye in December 1914. The French boat Saphir was lost on 15 January 1915 after either running aground or hitting a mine.[1]

Once the armies were ashore the submarines had to enter the Sea of Marmara in order to prevent Ottoman supplies from reaching the Gallipoli. Getting through the Straits in order to attack enemy shipping in the Sea of Marmara was  very difficult. The boats had to pass through minefields and steel-wire anti-submarine nets without any metal blades to cut through the nets or the mine cables. They also had to avoid shore batteries and patrol boats and get through a 10 fathom deep stratum of fresh water that often made it very hard to control a submarine.[2]

Most of the British submarines operating in the Dardanelles were of  E class boats. In April the first British submarine to try to get into the Sea of Marmara, HMS E15, ran aground and had to be destryored by a British boat expedition in order to prevent her being captured. The Australian HMAS AE2 was more successful in getting through the Straits, but was sunk by an Ottoman torpedo boat: all her crew survived to be taken prisoner. The patrols of HMS E14 in April and May 1915 and E11 in May and June were, however, highly successful.

The Ottomans were able to send some supplies to their troops by land as well as the larger quantities carried by water. Submarines, however, managed to attack the land as well as the sea routes. On 17 July HMS E7 blocked the railway from Istanbul near Kava Burnu at the entrance to the Gulf of Izmid by bombarding a cutting and then shelled a troop train that had been forced to turn back from the obstruction. E7 subsequently attacked another train and a bridge without doing much damage, but she had done enough to show that the railway was vulnerable there.[3]

E7’s captain, Lieutenant-Commander Archibald Cochrane, was awarded the Distinguished service Order. The citation, from naval-history.net [the other citations below are from the same source], stated that it was awarded for:

For services in a submarine in the Sea of Marmora, where he did great damage to enemy shipping, and after blocking the railway line near Kava Burnu by bombarding it from the sea, shelled a troop train and blew up three ammunition cars attached to it.

E11 also attacked the railways during her second patrol, as well as sinking several merchant ships and the old battleship Barbaros Hayreddin. her captain, Commander Martin Nasmith VC, was not satisfied with the results of bombardments of the railways, so on the night on 20-21 August her First Lieutenant, Guy D’Oyly Hughes, went ashore to sabotage the track. The citation for his DSO stated that it was awarded:

For his services on the 21st August, 1915, when he voluntarily swam to the shore alone from a submarine and blew up a low brickwork support to the Ismid railway line, in spite of the presence of an armed guard within 150 yards of him. After a running fight of about a mile, he dived into the sea, and was finally pulled on board the submarine utterly exhausted, having had to swim nearly a mile in his clothes.

The Allied policy was to have two submarines in the Sea of Marmara at all times. According to the British Official History, they were able to make the enemy’s supply ‘so restricted and precarious that the maintenance of the Turkish army in Gallipoli was a matter of grave concern.’[4] However, E11’s second patrol ended on 8 September and E7, her replacement, was lost after being caught in submarine nets on 4 September. After battling 12 hours to free her Cochrane was forced to scuttle her after she was badly damaged by a depth charge. He and all his crew were captured, leaving only E2 in the Sea of Marmara. She put Lieutenant H. V. Lyon ashore on 8 September with the intention that he should repeat D’Oyly Hughes’s feat, but nothing more was heard from him.[5]

E2’s cruise ended in the middle of September. She was replaced by E12, which had a 4 inch deck gun rather than the 12 pounders fitted to her sisters. She was later joined by H1, the first of a new class of boats about half the size of the E class. The H class were built in the USA but fitted with their armament in Canada in an attempt to evade neutrality regulations.[6]

These two boats were joined on 22 September by the Turquoise, the first French submarine to reach the Sea of Marmara, and by E20 the next day. Three days later E12 headed back to base after a 40 day patrol, the longest yet carried out in the Dardanelles: she was damaged after being caught in the nets and then attacked by six enemy patrol ships as well as shore batteries, but made it back. H1 completed her 29 day patrol on 31 October.[7]

The captains of E12 and H1 were awarded the DSO. The citations read that:

Lieutenant-Commander Kenneth Mervyn Bruce, R.N. For his services in command of a Submarine in the Sea of Marmora, where he made a prolonged cruise, during the course of which he inflicted much damage on enemy shipping, and engaged and put to flight by gun fire a Turkish gunboat and a destroyer, and subsequently displayed much coolness, and resource in extricating his boat from a difficult position.

Lieutenant Wilfrid Bayley Pirie, R.N. For his services in command of a Submarine in the Sea of Marmora, where he inflicted much damage on enemy shipping, and co-operated with Lieutenant-Commander-Bruce in the chase of a Turkish gunboat.

The French submarines operating in the Dardanelles, which were older and smaller than the British E class boats, had found it hard to get through the Straits. The Joule struck a mine on 1 May, while the Mariotte was forced to surface near the Chanak batteries on 27 July after being trapped by the net defences. She came under artillery and was lost, with her crew being captured.[8]

Nothing was heard from the Turquoise from 26 October until a German telegram claiming that she had been sunk on 30 October by gunfire and her crew captured. In fact, she had been stranded and captured intact. Her confidential papers, including the details of a planned rendezvous with E20 were not destroyed.[9] When E20 arrived at the rendezvous on 5 November the submerged German U-boat UB14 was waiting for her. UB14 fired a torpedo from a range of 550 yards, sinking the British boat. Only nine of her crew survived.[10]

E11, which had returned to the Sea of Marmara on 6 November, was now the only Allied submarine there. Her third patrol lasted until 23 December, during which time she sank more steamers and the destroyer Yarhissar and bombarded the railways. Her three patrols totalled 97 days, and she was credited with sinking or rendering useless a battleship, a destroyer, five large and six small steamers and five large and 30 small sailing vessels. Nasmith was promoted to Captain after only a year as a Commander. E2 joined E11 on 10 December, but the Gallipoli Campaign was coming to an end.[11]

The British claimed that a battleship, an old coastal defence ship, a destroyer, five gunboats, 11 transports, 44 steamers and 148 smaller vessels were sunk by submarines in the Dardanelles for the loss of four British and four French submarines. The German official history says 25 steamers of 26,000 tons and 3,000 tons of small craft were destroyed plus 10 steamers of 27,000 tons damaged and put out of action for the duration of the campaign. Paul Halpern suggests that the difference may be partly explained by some ships being beached and later repaired and refloated.[12]



[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, p. 140; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 208.

[2] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, p. 312.

[3] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 77.

[4] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 119.

[5] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 118-19.

[6] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 161; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 88, 92.

[7] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, pp. 177-79.

[8] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 78; Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 209-10.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 179.

[10] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 205-6.

[11] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 206, 217-18, footnote 2 on p. 218

[12] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 119.


Filed under War History

Allegations of War Crimes at Sea in 1915

Germany announced on 4 February 1915 that it would conduct unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters round the United Kingdom from 18 February. It justified this on the grounds that the British blockade of Germany contravened international law. This led to heavy losses in Allied shipping, most infamously the sinking of the liner Lusitania on 7 May with the loss of 1,201 lives including 128 Americans.

A number of incidents involving submarines that occurred between 18 and 21 August led to both Germany and the UK accusing the other of being guilty of atrocities.

The first of these took place in the early hours of 18 August. The submarines HMS E8 and E13 were on their way to the Baltic to join their sister boats E1 and E9 when E13 suffered problems with her magnetic compass. She went off course and ran aground in Danish waters. At 5:00 am a Danish torpedo boat arrived, informing Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Layton, E13’s captain, that he had the normal 24 hours to get his boat underway, but that no help would be given.

At 9:00 am, by when another Danish torpedo boat had arrived, two German destroyers appeared. One of them, SMS G132, fired a torpedo at E13 from a range of 300 yards and opened fire with all her guns, although the submarine was in neutral waters. She was soon in flames and her crew abandoned ship. The Germans fired on them in the water until one of the Danish torpedo boats put herself between the German ships and the swimming survivors. Fifteen men were killed and the others picked up by the Danes.[1] They were interned, but Layton escaped after three months. He rose to the rank of Admiral, holding commands in the Mediterranean and Far East during the Second World War.

The next two incidents both took place on 19 August. The website uboat.net lists seven British and one Spanish merchant ships as having been sunk that day by U24, U27 and U38, which were operating between Ushant and St George’s Channel. A Norwegian ship was also sunk by U25 in the North Sea. Two days earlier U-boats had sunk 11 merchantmen, but they were on average smaller, with a total tonnage of 15,733 tons versus 38,434 tons for the nine sunk on 19 August. The largest ship sunk on 19 August, the 15,801 ton British liner SS Arabic was bigger than all the ships sunk on 17 August combined.

Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schneider’s U24 was in the process of sinking the 4,930 ton merchant ship Dunsley by gunfire when she observed the Arabic, which was on her way to the USA, approaching. Earlier that day, U24 had survived attempts to ram her by the armed yacht Valiant II and the unarmed trawler Majestic and had been fired on by the defensively armed liner City of Exeter. Schneider was therefore wary of the Arabic and mistook her zigzag course for an attempt to ram his boat. U-boats had been ordered not to sink passenger liners without warning unless the liner was attacking them. Schneider thought that the Arabic was attacking him, so fired a single torpedo which hit her. She sank about ten minutes later.[2]

There is some doubt about the number of people on board the Arabic and the number of dead, with the three British Official Histories giving different figures: Naval Operations says 40 dead out of 428 onboard; The Merchant Navy gives 39 killed out of 429; and Seaborne Trade states that 44 died.[3] The Naval Staff Monograph, an internal Admiralty document written in 1926, says that she was carrying 429 people, 181 passengers and 248 crew, of whom 40, 18 passengers and 22 crew, were killed.[4] A document later published by the British government in response to German accusations that the British Q-ship HMS Baralong had murdered members of U27’s crew claimed 47 dead, a number that was increased to 49 in a later note.[5] Paul Halpern says that 44 died, including two or three US citizens.[6]

Baralong was one of a number of merchantmen given concealed armament and RN volunteer crews in order to act as decoy ships that could trap and destroy U-boats. She was a 4,000 ton ship, capable of carrying 3,000 tons of coal in four holds, that had been requisitioned as a supply ship by the RN. She was given three 12 pounder guns, two of which were concealed by dummy life belt lockers and the other by a sheep pen. Two of her holds were used for coal and the other two were filled with empty barrels that would help to keep her afloat if torpedoed. She was captained by Lieutenant-Commander Godfrey Herbert RN, a submariner, with Sub-Lieutenant Gordon Steele RNR as first lieutenant. Her maximum speed was 12 knots ‘on a good day.’[7]

Baralong received the Arabic’s SOS, but arrived too late to help.[8] At 3:00 pm she spotted that a steamer 9 miles away had changed her course significantly. She then received a radio message from the steamer, which was the Nicosian, saying that she was being chased by a submarine. Herbert headed for Nicosian, hoisting the signal for ‘Save life’ when 3 miles away.[9]

The Nicosian was a 6,250 ton ship of the Leyland Line, carrying a cargo of cotton, timber, steel rods and tinned meat plus mules for the British Army from New Orleans to Liverpool. She was unarmed, but carried a dummy gun on her stern. She was British but most of the 48 muleteers who tended to the mules were Americans. Baralong then flying the US flag and also had boards along her sides indicating that she was a US ship.[10] Sailing under false colours was legitimate under the rules of war, provided that the ship lowered and replaced them by her true ones before opening fire.

The submarine, which was U27, was firing on the Nicosian, whose crew had taken to her boats, from 1,000 yards. Baralong passed behind the merchantman, meaning that she was out of sight of the U-boat, dropped her neutral colours, raised the White Ensign and opened fire at 600 yards range once U27 was in sight. Several of the German deck gun crew were hit before they could fire on Baralong. She scored 34 hits with her 12 pounder guns and U27 sank, with the surviving members of her crew jumping into the sea and swimming for the Nicosian. Herbert claimed in her after action report that he was worried that they might try to scuttle or set fire to the ship in order destroying her and her cargo. He consequently ordered his crew to fire on them. Six succeeded in getting on board, so Herbert sent a party of marines across, warning them to be careful in case the Germans found the rifles that were in the Nicosian’s charthouse. According to Herbert, the six Germans who made it on board the Nicosian all ‘succumbed to the injuries they had received from lyddite shell.[11]

The German government issued a memorandum to the British government via the US government that accused ‘Captain William McBride’, a pseudonym adopted by Herbert as part of the pretence that Baralong was a merchant ship, of murder. They produced affidavits sworn by six of the American muleteers made to US public notaries. The witnesses were either on or in the process of boarding Baralong when she fired on the Germans in the water. They agreed that U27’s captain, Kapitänleutnant Bernd Wegener, was shot in the water after raising his hands in surrender. [12]

One of them, James J. Curran, claimed that Baralong had opened fire before she lowered her US colours. He also stated that Herbert said to his crew ‘Boys, we’ll shoot those poor wounded devils in the water’ and then told the men that he sent aboard the Nicosian ‘Get them all, take no prisoners.’[13] Another American muleteer, Bud Emerson Palen, said that he heard Herbert tell one of the boarding party that ‘My orders are to take no prisoners.’[14]

The testimony of a seventh American can be disregarded. Larrimore Holland had joined the RN, claiming to be a Canadian. He said that he had been a member of Baralong’s crew, but in fact never went to sea during his four months in the RN. He admitted to being American on 11 August and was discharged from the RN on 24 August.[15]

The British responded to the German demand that ‘McBride’ be charged with murder by suggesting that an impartial court of investigation, perhaps comprising United States Navy officers, should be set up to investigate the alleged incidents in four sinkings that occurred close together: E13 on 18 August, the Arabic and U27 on 19 August and the SS Ruel on 21 August.

The 4,029 ton collier Ruel was attacked by a surfaced submarine whilst returning from Gibraltar to Barry Roads in ballast. After a chase lasting an hour and half Ruel’s crew abandoned ship once the U-boat was a mile away. It then fired on her lifeboats, killing one man and wounding eight. The Ruel sank just as the armed trawler Dewsland and the drifter Campania appeared, chasing off the U-boat.[16]

The Germans said in reply to this that they had already investigated the three incidents in which accusations had been made against their navy. They claimed that that E13 was sunk in the final stage of an engagement and noted that British ships had attacked German ships in neutral waters, that Schneider thought that the Arabic was attacking U24 and that the attack on Ruel was in line with the policies that they had introduced in retaliation to the British blockade. They reiterated their demand that the British take action against ‘McBride.’[17]

The British awarded Herbert the Distinguished Service Order but did not say why, a normal security measure when decorations were given to Q-ship crews.

E13 was certainly attacked whilst helpless in neutral waters. The light cruiser SMS Dresden was sunk by the British in Chilean waters, but she had stayed there longer than allowed by international law, which E13 had not.

It is unlikely that the Arabic was trying to ram U24, but Schneider may well have genuinely believed that she was trying to do so.

The Germans may have intended to scuttle the Nicosian. However, Herbert’s claim that all the Germans who managed to swim from U27 to the Nicosian and haul themselves onboard her by ropes were so badly wounded that they soon died is impossible to believe, suggesting that he had something to hide. There are two witnesses that he told his marines to take no prisoners. Curran was an Irish-American who may have been prejudiced against the British.[18] Palen, however, was born in Canada.[19]

There was no justification for the Germans continuing to fire on the crew of the Ruel after they had abandoned ship.

The allegations made by both UK and Germany against the other would therefore appear to be justified, but there was little hope of either side admitting to this in the midst of a war in which the level of violence and ruthlessness was increasing. The first successful use of poison gas was by the Germans at Ypres on 22 April: the French had earlier made limited use of tear gas and a German attempt to use gas on the Eastern Front in January had failed because it did not work in temperatures below zero.[20] The first raid on London by an airship took place on 31 May, killing five people and injuring 35.[21]

The blockades imposed by Germany and the UK both aimed to starve the enemy. Diplomatically, the big difference was that the Germans killed Americans as well as British.

The USA sent Germany a series of strong diplomatic notes after the sinkings of the Lusitania and the Arabic. On 27 August Kaiser Wilhelm II accepted the view of his Chancellor, Theodore von Bethman-Hollweg, that passenger ships, even enemy ones, should not be sunk without warning. Three days later the order was amended to included ‘small passenger steamers’, without defining what this meant.[22]

The naval high command objected, Grosse Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office, and Admiral Hugo von Pohl, Commander-in-Chief of the High Seas Fleet, both offered their resignations, which were rejected. Pohl argued that the 30 August order meant that U-boats would have to examine ships before attacking them in case they carried passengers, making it impossible to conduct submarine warfare against commerce.[23] Tirpitz was told that he would no longer be needed at ‘consultations on naval questions connected with foreign politics.’[24]

Vize Admiral Gustav von Bachmann was removed as Chief of the Naval staff. On 18 September his replacement, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorf, announced that U-boats would be withdrawn from the west coast of the UK and the English Channel. The minelaying UC-boats based in Flanders and some U-boats continued to operate in the North Sea, but the latter were required to follow prize rules . Others were sent to the Mediterranean, where they could attack Allied commerce and communications with much less risk of sinking American ships or killing Americans. The transfer of boats to the Mediterranean and the need to repair others meant that only four would have been available for use west of the UK.[25]

On the night of 4 September the passenger liner Hesperian, bound from Liverpool to Canada, suffered an explosion 125 miles south west of Queenstown. The Germans insisted that she had struck a mine, but fragments of a torpedo were found on Hesperian before she sank. Kapitänleutnant Walter Schweiger’s U20, which had sunk the Lusitania, was in the area.[26] It is unlikely that the Germans would have mined an area in which their submarines were operating..

The last U-boat patrol to the south west of the UK was carried out by U41, which sailed on 14 September. She sank three British ships on 23 September. The next day she stopped and sank the liner Urbino. Another ship then appeared, which U41 approached and ordered to stop. She was HMS Baralong, now captained by Lieutenant-Commander A. Wilmot-Smith. She opened fire and quickly sank U41, before picking up the crew of the Urbino and the two survivors from the U-boat.[27] One of them, Oberleutnant Iwan Crompton, was later repatriated to Germany because of the severity of his wounds. He claimed that Baralong had been flying the US flag when she opened fire, which the British denied.[28]

The switch of U-boats to the Mediterranean did not prevent them killing Americans. On 7 November U38, a German boat that was flying Austro-Hungarian colours because Germany and Italy were not yet at war, sank the Italian liner Ancona off Bizerte, killing over 200 people, including about 20 Americans.[29]

From the outbreak of war to the start of unrestricted submarine warfare on 28 February 1915 U-boats sank 13 merchant ships with a total tonnage of 23,490 tons. From March to September they sank 431 ships of 677,184 tons.[30] New construction and seizure of enemy shipping meant that the British merchant fleet actually increased in size in the first year of the war. Construction, however, began to fall as shipyards switched to naval construction and repair work and shipyard workers joined the armed forces. At the same time, overseas campaigns increased the demand for shipping.[31]

Five U-boats were lost in 1914, two in January 1915 and 15 from March to September 1915.[32] New construction, meant that Germany had 46 boats at the end of September, but 15 of them were UB coastal boats and 14 were UC coastal minelayers. Only 17 were ocean going, compared with all 26 available at the start of the year. These figures exclude U25, which had been damaged too badly to return to active service, the obsolete U1-4 and U66-70, built in Germany, originally for Austria-Hungary, and then undergoing trials.[33]

The U-boats had shown that they were a potentially deadly weapon. The numbers available in 1915 could not, however, do enough damage to Allied shipping to balance the harm that they did to German relations with the USA.

[1] The last two paragraphs are based on J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, pp. 135-36.

[2] Ibid., p. 131.

[3] Ibid; C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. ii, p. 103; A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, p. 25.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. pp. 81-82.

[5] PP, Further Correspondence with the German Government Respecting the Incidents Alleged to Have Attended the Sinking of a German Submarine and Its Crew by His Majesty’s Auxillary Cruiser “Baralong” on August 19, 1915, HMSO 1916 [Cd. 8176]. p. 4; Memorandum of the German Government in Regard to Incidents Alleged to Have Attended the Destruction of a German Submarine and Its Crew by His Majesty’s Auxiliary Cruiser “Baralong” on August 19th, 1915 and Reply of His Majesty’s Government Thereto’, January 1916, HMSO 1916 [Cd. 8144]. p. 16.

[6] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 301.

[7] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), pp. 21-22.

[8] Ibid., p. 23.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. ‘Appendix N, Report from M.F.A. Baralong’, p. 229,

[10] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 24-27.

[11] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. pp. 229-30.

[12] PP, Cd. 8144. pp. 1-4.

[13] Ibid., p. 11.

[14] Ibid., p. 8.

[15] Bridgland, Sea Killers, p. 37.

[16] Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, pp. 33-34.

[17] PP, Cd. 8176.

[18] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 26, 36.

[19] PP, Cd. 8144. p. 6.

[20] H. H. Herwig, The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918 (London: Arnold, 1997), pp. 135, 168-69.

[21] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. iii, pp. 97-98.

[22] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 173.

[23] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 141

[24] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 173.

[25] Halpern, Naval, p. 302.

[26] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 175.

[27] Ibid., pp. 176-77.

[28] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 51-54.

[29] Halpern, Naval, p. 385.

[30] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), pp. 152-53.

[31] Halpern, Naval, p. 303.

[32] Tarrant, U-Boat, p. 24.

[33] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), pp. 63-64.


Filed under War History

Lieutenant Commander Edward Boyle VC and HMS E14

Allied submarines had tried to pass through the Narrows of the Dardanelles long before the main campaign began. HMS B11 had sunk the old Ottoman battleship Mesudiye on 13 December 1914: her captain, Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, was awarded the Victoria Cross and every member of the crew decorated. The French submarine Saphir managed to get past the mines in January 1915, but then ran aground and was lost

From late April 1915 submarines tried to pass through the Narrows in order to attack enemy supply ships in the Sea of Marmara. The French boats had too short a range to get to the Marmara, but tried to operate above the Narrows. However, the Bernouilli was unable to progress against the strong current and the Joule was lost with all mines after striking a mine on 1 May.[1]

The more modern British E-class boats, which had a longer range than the French ones, had more success, but still faced a difficult task in attempting to reach the Sea of Marmara. One, E15, had already been lost. She ran aground on 15 April and was destroyed by a British boat expedition three days later in order to prevent her being captured.

They had to pass through minefields and steel-wire anti-submarine nets without any metal blades to cut through the nets or the mine cables. They also had to avoid shore batteries and patrol boats, and to get through a 10 fathom deep stratum of fresh water that often made it very hard to control a boat.[2]

The first submarine to reach the Sea of Marmara was the Australian HMAS AE2, captained by Lieutenant Henry Stoker, followed by the British HMS E14. Lieutenant-Commander Edward Boyle, E14’s captain, took her past the forts at Chanak at dawn on 27 April. At noon she encountered a number of patrol boats and fired a torpedo at a torpedo boat. It hit, but she was forced to dive, so could not see if the Ottoman vessel had sunk.

E14 was hampered by the efforts of enemy patrols to find her and one of her periscopes had been damaged. On the afternoon of 29 April she attacked two troopships that were escorted by three destroyers. The calm sea meant that her periscope was very obvious, so she had to dive immediately after firing. An explosion was heard and half an hour later one transport was seen to be heading for the shore, emitting a great deal of yellow smoke.

That evening E14 met AE2, which had had no luck and had only one torpedo left. Three days later the Australian boat was caught by the Ottoman torpedo boat Sultanhisar and sunk after a two hour fight. However, all her crew survived as prisoners.

On 1 May Boyle decided to attack the enemy vessels that were harassing E14. She sank a small gunboat and fired two torpedoes at a larger one, but they missed. This made the Ottoman patrols more cautious, but they and shore look outs continued to restrict E14’s actions. Her presence had some impact, but she was unable to completely stop reinforcements crossing the Sea of Marmara.[3]

Four days later E14 encountered a large transport that was escorted by a destroyer. A calm sea and a well handled escort made the attack difficult, but Boyle was able to fire a torpedo from 600 yards when the destroyer was on the other side of the transport. However, it failed to explode.

The next day E14 met another transport, but it spotted her in time to turn back towards Istanbul. She pursued several ships over the next few days, but allowed all that she caught to continue as they were all carrying refugees.

Early on 10 May E14 evaded a destroyer. In the evening she encountered two large transports, escorted by a destroyer. The torpedo did not run true, but the second hit the second transport, which was the Gul Djemal, formally the White Star liner Germania, carrying troops to Gallipoli. She disappeared into the darkness. A witness later claimed that she sank with all hands, but the German Official History states that she was damaged, but was towed back to the Golden Horn the next day.

E14 now had only one torpedo left, which turned out to be faulty. Boyle kept her in the Marmara for a while in the hope that her presence would impede enemy movements, but on 17 May he was ordered to return to base.[4]

Boyle was awarded the Victoria Cross, E14’s other two officers the Distinguished Service Cross and all her petty officers and ratings the Distinguished Service Medal. Boyle’s citation, quoted on naval-history.net, stated that:

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Lieutenant-Commander Edward Courtney Boyle, Royal Navy, for the conspicuous act of bravery specified below:

For most conspicuous bravery, in command of Submarine E.14, when he dived his vessel under the enemy minefields and entered the Sea of Marmora on the 27th April, 1915. In spite of great navigational difficulties from strong currents, of the continual neighbourhood of hostile patrols, and of the hourly danger of attack from the enemy, he continued to operate in the narrow waters of the Straits and succeeded in sinking two Turkish gunboats and one large military transport.


[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, p. 374.

[2] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, p. 312.

[3] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 374-75.

[4] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 26-27.


Filed under War History

Submarines in 1914

Previous entries in this blog have dealt with the several sinkings of British cruisers by German U-boats: HMS Pathfinder by U21 on 5 September 1914, HMS Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue by U9 on 22 September and HMS Hawke on 15 October 1914, also by U9.

British submarines also scored successes in the early stages of the war, with E9 sinking the German cruiser SMS Hela on 13 September and B11 the Ottoman pre-dreadnought battleship Mesudiye on 13 December 1914. The first loss of a submarine to a warship had come as early as 9 August, when HMS Birmingham rammed and sunk U15.

The main impact of submarines in the rest of the war and in the Second World War was against merchant shipping, although they continued to sink warships. In the early stages of the First World War, however, they were used mainly against warships.

The rules of cruiser warfare required raiders to stop and search enemy merchant ships. They could be sunk or captured only if their cargoes contained either war materials (absolute contraband) or items such as food or fuel that had peaceful uses but were intended for the enemy’s military (conditional contraband conditional contraband). The safety of the crews of merchant ships that were sunk had to be ensured, making it difficult for submarines to conduct war against merchant shipping within the rules. They had no space for prisoners and no spare men to act as prize crews for captured ships.

In 1914 Germany possessed only 24 operational boats. Four were used for training and 16 were under construction.[1] Before the war Kapitänleutnant Blum of the German Navy had estimated that 222 U-boats would be needed to successfully carry out a war against British commerce under international law. On 8 October 1914 the commander of Germany’s U-boats, Korvettenkapitän Hermann Bauer, urged that German U-boats should attack British commerce on the grounds that the British had already violated international law at sea, but his advice was not acted upon until 1915.[2]

The first sinking of a merchant ship by a submarine came on 20 October, when Oberleutnant Johannes Feldkirchner’s U17 stopped the steamship Glitra, which was carrying a cargo of coal, coke, oil and general goods from Grangemouth to Stavanger, 14 miles off the Norwegian coast. The crew were ordered to take to their boats and their ship was sunk. U17 towed the boats towards the coast, before a pilot boat then took over. A Norwegian torpedo boat appeared shortly afterwards.[3]

The Naval Staff Monograph, written by Royal Navy officer after the war for internal use, notes that there was a significant difference in the British and German Prize Regulations. Both gave officers significant leeway in deciding whether or not to sink enemy merchantmen. However, the British one warned that naval officers who sank merchant ships ‘without good cause’ might find themselves liable for the compensation due to the owners, while the German one allowed the destruction of a ship ‘if it seems inexpedient or unsafe to bring her in.’[4]

There were few sinkings of merchant ships in 1914. On 26 October, Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schneider’s U24 torpedoed the 4,590 ton French steamer Amiral Ganteaume, but she did not sink. She was carrying 2,500 Belgian refugees, 40 of whom were killed. This was described as ‘barbarous’[5], an ‘outrage’[6] and an ‘atrocity’[7] by British post war authors. However, Schneider may have thought that she was a troop ship. Whether he did or not, the incident showed the potential political and diplomatic implications of submarine warfare against merchant shipping. [8] The Naval Staff Monograph argues that he fired without ascertaining whether the people crowding her decks were civilians or soldiers.[9]

Only two more Allied merchant ships were sunk by U-boats before the end of the year. Oberleutnant Otto Hersing’s U21 stopped the steamers Malachite (718 tons) on 21 October and Primo (1366 tons) five days later. Both were sunk by gunfire after the crews had been given time to abandon ship.[10]

The most important actions of U-boats continued to be against warships. Both sides had submarines patrolling outside enemy bases and their own boats hunting the enemy ones. On 18 October Kapitänleutnant Bernd Wegener’s U27 spotted the British submarine E3 on the surface in the Helgoland Bight.

The submerged German boat approached to within 300 yards of the British one, using the rays of the sun to make it hard for the British to spot her periscope. The personnel on the conning tower were apparently all looking the other way. U27 then fired a torpedo into E3, which sank immediately. Four survivors were spotted in the water, but Wegener did not surface, fearing that there might be other British submarines nearby, and all 28 men on board E3 were lost. She was the first submarine ever to be sunk by another submarine.

U27 achieved another first 13 days later, when she sank the elderly cruiser HMS Hermes, which had been converted to a seaplane carrier before the war, and was being used as a aircraft transport. This was the first sinking of an aviation ship by a submarine. The quick arrival of other British ships meant that only 21 men were lost.

Apart from E3, the British Empire lost two submarines in 1914: the Australian AE2, probably to an accident, off Rabaul on 14 September; and D3 to a mine, probably British, during the Yarmouth Raid on 3 November.

The German lost four boats in addition to U15 in 1914: U18 was rammed by first the trawler Dorothy Gray and then the destroyer Garry inside Scapa Flow on 23 November and was so badly damaged that she had to be scuttled; U13 in August and U5 and U11 in December failed to return from patrols, presumably having struck mines.

The ships sunk by submarines in the North Sea were mostly old. The only dreadnought to be torpedoed by a submarine in 1914 was the French Jean Bart, which was damaged, but not sunk, by the Austro-Hungarian boat U12 in the Adriatic on 21 December.



[1] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), p. 7.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 291.

[3] Ibid., p. 292.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xi, Home Waters part ii, September and October 1914. p. 113. gives Glitra’s displacement as being 526 tons but most others sources follow the official history in saying 866 tons; C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. i, p. 285.

[5] A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. i, p. 268.

[6] Fayle, Seaborne. vol. i, p. 285.

[7] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 15.

[8] Halpern, Naval, p. 292.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xi. p. 144.

[10] Gibson, Prendergast, German, p. 17.


Filed under War History

The Silent War Part 2 BBC

On 12 December 2013 the BBC broadcast the second episode of a two-part series called The Silent War, which dealt with a secret underwater espionage war that the UK and USA fought against the USSR during the Cold War. Click here for my post on the first episode. The BBC website describes the second episode, titled The Russians are Coming! as follows:

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the front line of the Cold War was hidden beneath the ocean. Submariners from three navies – American, Soviet and British – played a deadly game of cat and mouse in a secret war of espionage and intimidation. The nuclear balance between East and West was constantly shifting. This was a constant struggle to gain technological advantage, and the Soviets developed submarines that were ever more sophisticated – bigger, faster and more luxurious – than any developed by the West.

For over 40 years the details of this tense stand-off have been a closely guarded secret. Now submariners from all three navies are able to talk more openly than ever before. They reveal how the underwater arms race took ballistic missiles beneath the Arctic ice, and they remember how it nearly ended in nuclear disaster at sea.

In 1973 the hunter killer submarine USS Flying Fish was sent to Barents Sea to detect and obtain intelligence on the new Soviet Delta class of ballistic missile submarines, which were thought to carry new long-range missiles capable of hitting the USA without leaving the USSR’s waters. The existing Yankee class, as NATO codenamed the Soviet Project 667A submarines, had to go to the mid Atlantic in order to be in range of the USA, making them vulnerable to American and British hunter killer submarines.

The Flying Fish was  detected and became the target of a major anti-submarine exercise. She went closer in instead of withdrawing and watched the whole exercise. This provided vital intelligence about Soviet anti-submarine tactics.

The advent of the Deltas meant that American and British hunter killer submarines now  had to enter the Barents Sea in order to detect and shadow Soviet missiles submarines. There are two methods by which a submarine can detect another whilst both are submerged. Active sonar is more accurate, but reveals the presence of the searcher by pinging the enemy. It is usually used to get an exact fix before firing. Passive sonar entails silent listening, which hides the searcher, but makes it harder to detect the enemy. American and British submarines were quieter than the Soviet ones, but the Soviets were working hard to close gap.

The Flying Fish was the first submarine to use a passive towed array sonar. This consisted of ultra sensitive hydrophones towed up to mile behind the submarine. They could hear more than the human ear and the distance from the towing submarine reduced interference from its noise.

By 1977  the Soviets had more ballistic missile submarines than the UK and  USA combined. The Soviets were also developing cruise missiles to attack US aircraft carriers. Spying on Soviet weapons testing became more important than ever so that NATO could develop counter measures.

In 1982 the USS Grayling reported that the Delta that it was tracking was heading north, and was ordered to follow, although she lacked the necessary charts. The Delta disappeared below the ice, which was  normal for the Soviets, who had surveyed the Arctic sea bed and possessed accurate charts of it. their submarines could hide under the ice, which is noisy, cancelling out the American and British advantage.advantage. The Delta had a hovering system that allowed it to go completely still then break through ice. A missile fired from the North Pole would reach the USA in 20 minutes, allowing little time for  retaliation. The Deltas each carried 16 missiles with multiple warheads each.

The Soviets then introduced the Typhoon class, the world’s biggest ever submarines, which were designed to break through ice. They could  stay submerged for six months: American and British submarines never patrolled for more than two months. A nuclear submarine’s endurance is limited only by its food supply and the morale of its crew. The Typhoons had better living conditions, including a  sauna, swimming pool and  gym. The crew slept in proper cabins, with even ordinary sailors having four berth ones. A Typhoon carried 20 missiles which each had 10 self guided warheads, allowing it to attack double the number of targets as a Delta.

In the early 1980s the Soviets introduced the Victor III hunter killer submarines, which were intended to destroy all American and British ballistic missile submarines in the event of war. They were approaching technical parity with the American and British hunter killers, and the West was alarmed and puzzled by the speed of Soviet technological advance.

After taking office in 1981 President Ronald Reagan reversed US military budget cuts and dismissed the policy of arms control as being a one way street. He approved the most aggressive naval exercises conducted since WWII in the North Cape region. John Lehman, his Navy Secretary, said that the  purpose was to scare the Soviets. The USN’s war plan was now to attack Soviet Navy in Barents Sea, forcing them to keep their hunter killers at home to defend their ballistic missile submarines.

The level of tension was now the greatest that it had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1985, however, Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the USSR. He restructured economy and reopened arms talks.

Also in 1985, the Americans uncovered a spy ring led by John Walker, an ex USN submariner & communications expert. He had recruited other spies, including his son, a US sailor serving on an aircraft carrier, and sold the Soviets secrets that enabled them to close the technological gap on the USN. He was betrayed by his estranged wife.

In 1987 the Soviets launched Operation Atrina. Five Victor IIIs were found by SOSUS, the US submarine detection system, as they moved into Atlantic. NATO wondered why the Soviets would send their best team out in strength? Four were quickly detected as they headed south. The fifth was quieter,: one of the ex-RN officers interviewed suggested that she was better maintained and managed.

Admiral Vladimir Chernavin, a submariner who was then Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy, explained that the second stage was to see if a submarine detected by enemy could become invisible and escape. He allowed he first use of a system of hydro-acoustic resistance. Special torpedo that emitted the same sounds as the  submarine were launched, with the submarine then going a different way to the torpedo

The Victors escaped, and the Americans first searched for them at the entrance to the Mediterranean, but they were headed for the Sargasso Sea. Soviet submarines were not built for such hot waters, making conditions on board very uncomfortable. Their objectives were to confirm their belief that US ballistic missile submarines hid there, and to see if could have carried out a strike on the USA from such a position. They were spotted after eight days but had accomplished their mission in five days.

By 1987 some Soviet submarines were  very sophisticated, but most were older, for example the K219. It suffered an explosion due to sea water leaking into its missile tubes and mixing with the missiles’ liquid fuel. Two sailors were killed in the explosion and another gas poisoning.

All compartments were quickly sealed, preventing the whole boat from flooding, but 25 men were trapped in the damaged section. The captain decided to risk opening the section in order to save them. There was then a 14 hour battle to save the submarine. The nuclear reactor had to be shut down, but the automatic system to do so failed. Sergei Preminin, a conscript seaman, volunteered to enter the reactor room and shut it down manually. He succeeded in doing so, but a change in the pressure meant that he could not open the hatch to escape the reactor room and was killed. The rest of the crew was rescued just before the submarine sank, along with 16 missiles and 48 nuclear warheads.

This was a human tragedy and a symbol of the unreliable condition of the Soviet Navy and economy.  The USSR was broken by its huge investment in armaments. The Soviet sailors interviewed argued that they suffered a political rather than a military defeat in the Cold War.

There are profiles of  some of the submariners interviewed on the BBC website. For UK viewers it is available on the I-Player until 19 December and is repeated on BBC2 at 23:20 on BBC2 on 18 December (23:45 in Scotland) and at 3:00 on 29 December: the latter showing may have signing for the deaf, as repeats of BBC programmes in the early hours of the morning often do.

Leave a comment

Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History