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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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First Successful Use of Depth Charges on 22 March 1916

Q-ships, apparently innocuous merchant vessels with heavy but concealed armaments, were used by the British to combat U-boats. Submarines often surfaced to sink small merchant ship with their deck guns in order to conserve their torpedoes for more attractive. One of the Q-ships was HMS Farnborough, captained by Lieutenant-Commander Gordon Campbell, which was armed with five 12 pounders, two 6 pounders, a Maxim machine gun, rifles and depth charges.[1] She had originally been the collier Loderer. Her crew as a Q-ship was 11 officers and 56 men, compared with six officers and 25 men as a collier.[2]

On 22 March Farnborough was off the coast of Kerry when SM U68 (Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Güntzel) fired a torpedo that missed her. The U-boat surfaced and fired a shot across the bows of what appeared to be a collier. The crew apparently abandoned ship, but the gun crews had remained behind.

U68 closed to 800 yards and opened fire. The collier then raised the white ensign and opened fire. U68 was hit but managed to dive. Campbell then took Farnborough over her and dropped a depth charge. The U-boat came out of the water at a perpendicular angle, revealing damage to her bow. Farnborough fired five more shots into her and then dropped two more depth charges as she dived. Oil and wood then came to the surface and U68 was lost was all hands.[3]

The British first ordered depth charges in August 1915 and began to issue them to the fleet in January 1916. This was the first ever sinking of a submarine by depth charges.[4]

Campbell was promoted to Commander and awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Two of the other officers received the Distinguished Service Cross and three men the Distinguished Service Medal.[5]



[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xv, Home Waters part vi, October 1915 to May 1916. p. 101.

[2] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), p. 14.

[3] Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 101.

[4] 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. 350.

[5] (Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 101.

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The First Sinking of a U-Boat by a Q-Ship

The Royal Navy, faced with increasing losses of merchant ships to U-boats, came up with the idea of using decoy ships to trap German submarines. They were eventually known as Q-ships after Queenstown, now Cobh, in Ireland, where many of them were based.

Early war U-boats carried only around six torpedoes, so their captains preferred to surface and sink smaller merchant ships by gunfire. A Q-ship would give the impression of being an innocuous tramp steamer. Her armament would be hidden inside false deck houses or lifeboats or on swivel mountings that could appear when needed. Most of her crew, who were volunteers, would also be concealed, with hidden alleyways and special trap doors allowing them to get to their action stations without being seen. The majority of the crew of a warship are concerned with fighting rather than sailing her, so Q-Ships had far larger crews than they would have had as merchantmen. The collier Loderer had a crew of about six officers and 25 men in merchant service and 11 officers and 56 men after being converted to the Q ship HMS Farnborough.[1]

The first Q-ship to see action was HMS Prince Charles, a 373 ton collier that was given an armament of two 6 pounder guns, two 3 pounders and a number of rifles. Her civilian crew of Captain F. N. Maxwell and Chief Engineer Anderson and nine other men volunteered to remain on board. Lieutenant William Mark-Wardlaw RN was given command, with the crew being completed by Lieutenant J. G. Spencer RNR, two RN petty officers and nine RN ratings.[2]

Prince Charles was a civilian ship under charter to the RN and based at Scapa Flow. The terms of her charter allowed her to defend herself. Mark-Wardlaw’s orders of 20 July 1915 from Admiral Sir Stanley Colville included the following clauses (the earlier ones describing the area in which he was to operate have been omitted):

  1. ‘The object of the cruise is to use the Prince Charles as a decoy, so that an enemy submarine should attack her with gun fire. It is not considered probable, owing to her small size, that a torpedo would be wasted on her.

  2. In view of this, I wish to impress you to strictly observe the role of decoy. If an enemy’s submarine is sighted make every effort to escape, if she closes and fires, immediately stop your engines, and with the ship’s company (except the guns’ crews, who should most carefully be kept out of sight behind the bulwarks alongside their gun, and one engineer at the engines) commence to abandon ship. It is very important, if you can do so, to try and place your ship so th a t the enemy approaches you from the beam.

  3. Allow the submarine to come as close as possible, and then open fire by order on whistle, hoisting your colours (red ensign).

  4. It is quite possible that a submarine may be observing you through her periscope unseen by you, and therefore on no account should the guns crews on watch be standing about near their guns.

  5. If by luck you should succeed in sinking a submarine, on no account are you to allow the information to leak out of your ship, the strictest precautions are to be taken on arrival in a harbour, or meeting a ship at sea, that none of the officers or men give away the information.’[3]

Prince Charles left Scapa Flow at 8:00 pm on 21 July. In the early hours of 24 July she encountered a merchant ship stopped near a surfaced submarine 10 miles WNW of Rona. Mark-Wardlaw’s report stated that:

‘Shortly after this the submarine was observed to start her oil engine and proceed towards us at full speed. I then hoisted my ensign. At about 7.5 p.m., submarine being about 3 miles distant, 5 points on the port bow, she fired a shot which pitched about 1,000 yards over.

I then stopped engines, put ship’s head to swell from NNW, blew three blasts, and boat’s crews were ordered to get boats out.

All this time the submarine was coming very fast towards us (20 knots) and at 7.10 she fired a second shot which went between funnel and foremast and landed 50 yards over.

The submarine then turned so as to bring her broadside to us at about 600 yards, and as the submarine continued to fire and seeing that the range could not close any more, I opened fire with both port guns.

Directly I opened fire the gun’s crew of the submarine deserted their gun and entered conning tower and she apparently attempted to dive.’[4]

The submarine, which was U36, was struck by a shell as she dived. She came back up, turning. Prince Charles closed to 300 yards and continued to fire, scoring several hits. U36’s crew abandoned ship, with 15 out of 33 men, including her captain, Kapitänleutnant Ernst Graeff, being saved by the British.[5]

The steamer that had been near U36 when Prince Charles came upon them was Danish. Mark-Wardlaw suspected that she had been supplying the U-boat, so ordered her to follow him to port for inspection. The Danes turned out to be pro-British and delighted at the outcome of the action. They agreed to keep quiet about it and were released. [6]

­U36 had sunk a Norwegian sailing ship and steamer, a French steamer, a Russian steamer and nine British trawlers during her cruise. She had also fired on but missed the armed merchant cruiser HMS Columbella and captured the US sailing ship Pass of Belhama, which was sent to Cuxhaven with her cargo of cotton. She later became the German commerce raider Seeadler, like Prince Charles an apparently innocuous vessel with a concealed armament.[7]


[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. 14-15.

[2] Ibid., pp. 8-9.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. Appendix J, p. 220.

[4] Ibid., p. 37.

[5] Ibid., p. 38.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., pp. 38-40.


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Trawler and Submarine Trap Sinks U-boats.

It was hard to detect or attack submerged submarines in June 1915. The only way of finding them was visual, mainly by spotting a raised periscope and/or the wake that it produced. It was also possible to see a submerged submarine that was close to the surface in the clear waters of the Mediterranean or the Dardanelles, but not in the Atlantic or North Sea.

Hydrophones, which detected submarines by sound, were introduced later in the war. Some were based onshore. Those on ships had the problem that the ship had to stop in order to prevent the sound of her engines interfering with that from the submarine: not ideal when a submarine was around.

There was also a lack of anti-submarine weapons. One not very efficient one was for ships to towing explosive sweeps. Ships fired on periscopes with their guns or tried to ram the submarine. Most submarines sunk early in the war, struck mines, suffered accident or were caught on the surface. The limited number of torpedoes carried meant that submarines preferred to surface and use guns to sink smaller ships.

One method of attacking submarines was to trick them into surfacing in order to attack with gunfire an apparently innocuous merchant ship. It would then open fire with its concealed weapons. These ships were called Q Ships and will be the subject of several later posts in this series.

A variation on this tactic was suggested by Acting Paymaster F. T. Spickernell, Secretary to Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty. It was that a trawler should tow a submerged submarine in areas were German U-boats were expected to be operating. The trawler and the British submarine would be in contact with each other via a telephone cable. A U-boat would surface to attack a trawler by gunfire rather than wasting a torpedo on a small craft. The trawler would then inform the British submarine by telephone. It would slip the tow and manoeuvre to torpedo the U-boat whilst herself remaining submerged.[1]

After a period of trials in the Forth in May, C class submarines from the Forth Local Defence were transferred to Aberdeen and Peterhead to work with the trawler Taranaki. The first patrol took began on 24 May, but no U-boats were encountered until 8 June, when Taranaki, towing C27, spotted U19 a mile and a half away, 30 miles east by north off Peterhead. She informed C27, which confirmed the situation by periscope before slipping her tow. She approached the German boat, raising her periscope again when she should have been in firing range only to see that U19 was heading towards her at 15 knots. C27 had to dive, and U19 was out of sight when she returned to periscope depth..[2]

Nothing had happened to make the Germans suspicious, but Taranaki’s appearance was changed as a precaution. She sailed from Aberdeen early on 23 June, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Harrington D. Edwards, accompanied by Lieutenant Frederick H. Taylor’s C24. At 9:30 am the next day they were at sea to the south east of Aberdeen when U40 surfaced 2,500 yards away and fired a shot across Taranaki’s bows. A problem with the telephone meant that it was three more minutes before C24 was informed. She was unable to release the cable, so Taranaki had to release it from her end. C24 was not free until 9:45 am, during when Edwards had to keep his trawler under way. [3]

A trawler not stopping when approached by a U-boat might have made the Germans suspicious, but U40‘s captain, Kapitänleutnant Gerhardt Fürbringer, saw nothing to fear, although one of his junior officers was suspicious. [4] U40 was on her first war patrol. The British hoped that a U-boat would assume that the tow line was drawing the trawler’s net.[5]

U40 stopped 1,000 yards from Taranaki, whose crew pretended to panic and abandon ship. C24 was finding it difficult to maintain her trim because she was still attached to 100 fathoms of towing rope and telephone cable. Once this problem had been overcome, she raised her periscope, found U40 1,000 yards away, closed to 500 yards, positioned herself for a beam shot and fired a torpedo at U40 at 9:55 am. It struck the U-boat, which sank immediately. Fürbringer, another officer and a petty officer were picked up by the British. The other 29 crewmen went down with U40.[6]

The success of this method, which was kept secret, meant that the scheme was considerably expanded: C26 and C27 were to work with trawlers from Scapa Flow; C14 and C16 from the Tyne; C21 and C29 from the Humber and C3 and C34 from Harwich.[7]

On 18 July Lieutenant-Commander Claude C. Dobson’s C27 and the trawler Princess Marie José, temporarily renamed Princess Louise, set out on patrol from Scapa. The trawler was captained by Lieutenant L. Morton, but Lieutenant C. Cantlie and Lieutenant A. M. Tarver were also on board in order to train the crew. Cantile, who was the only regular officer of the three, the others being peacetime merchant marine officers who were members of  the Royal Navy Reserve, took command during the subsequent operation.[8]

At 7:55 am on 20 July Cantlie telephoned Dobson to tell him that a U-boat had been spotted 2,000 yards away. The phone then broke down; Dobson waited five minutes before slipping the cable; contact had not been restored, and he could hear gunfire.

The U-boat, which was U23, had fired one warning shot before firing at the trawler. She stopped, raised the Red Ensign and dipped it as a sign of surrender, whilst her crew prepared to abandon ship in an apparent panic. This was in accordance with the plan, which was to trick the Germans and hopefully persuade them to come closer. It worked so well that U40 stopped near the trawler.[9]

The trawler’s crew did not know where C27 was, but she was only 500 yards away on U40’s starboard beam when Dobson raised her periscope. He fired a torpedo, but U40 then started her engines, and it passed under her stern. He fired another that hit and sank U40. The British rescued 10 survivors, including her captain, Oberleutnant Hans Schulthess, and two other officers. The British Naval Staff Monograph, written after the war for internal Royal Navy use only, stated that the prisoners ‘gave a good deal of information, not only of a technical character…but also on the general work of German submarines’, which it suggests may have been a result of their good treatment.[10]

The reason why the captains and a high proportion of officers of both U-boats sunk in this manner survived was that they would have been on the bridge whilst their boats were on the surface.

In both instances the more senior of the commanders of the two British vessels involved, Edwards and Dobson, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and the other one, Taylor and Cantlie, the Distinguished Service Cross. The coxswains of Taranaki and C24 were also awarded the Distinguished Service Medal after the earlier action. Dobson was later awarded the Victoria Cross.[11]

U23 was the last U-boat to be caught in this way. Her survivors managed to inform some German civilian internees who were being repatriated from the United Kingdom to Germany about her fate. Consequently no more U-boats fell into the trawler/submarine trap.[12]

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1925 vol. xiii, Home Waters part iv, February 1915 to July 1915. p. 249.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 250.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid; R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 46.

[6] Naval Staff vol. Xiii. p. 250.

[7] Ibid., pp. 250-51.

[8] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. p. 34.

[9] Ibid., p. 35.

[10] Ibid.

[11] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 48, note 1; A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, pp. 55-56.

[12] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), pp. 22-23.


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U-21 Sinks HMS Pathfinder 5 September 1914

On 5 September 1914 U-21, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Hersing, torpedoed and sank the scout cruiser HMS Pathfinder, leader of the Eighth Destroyer Flotilla, off St Abbs Head on the south east coast of Scotland. This was the first time that a submarine had sunk a ship using a motor powered torpedo.

The Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley sank the sloop USS Housatonic during the American Civil War by attaching a spar torpedo to her hull. The word torpedo was then used to describe weapons that would now be called mines. A spar torpedo is more akin to a limpet mine than to a twentieth or twentieth century torpedo.

The sea was very rough, meaning that U-21 was plunging up and down, but Hersing succeeded in hitting his target with a single torpedo. It struck Pathfinder under her forward funnel. Her forward magazine blew up and she sank within four minutes, too quickly for her to launch her boats.

Most of her crew went down with Pathfinder, but sources differ on the exact number of men killed and saved. A BBC report on the laying of a wreath on the wreck on the 100th anniversary of the sinking by divers says that 18 survived and 250 died. Wikipedia names 18 survivors, but adds two civilian canteen assistants to the total on board, giving 252 dead. R. H. Gibson and Maurice Prendergast write in The German Submarine War that 259 were lost.[1] The website Naval History gives 278 on board, of whom 16 survived. Elsewhere it lists the casualties.

The survivors included Pathfinder’s captain, Francis Martin-Leake, who was wounded. He was adamant that his ship had been struck by a torpedo, although it had at first been thought that she had been struck by a mine. His report can be found on the website The Dreadnought Project.

The 7 September 1914 edition of The Scotsman newspaper reported an official press release that stated that Pathfinder had struck a mine.[2] The next day it printed an eye witness account that talked of ‘the diabolical policy pursued by Germany in strewing the sea with floating mines in tracts where peaceful fishermen are as likely as the crews of warships to be the victims.’[3]

By 15 September, however, The Scotsman was reporting that Pathfinder had been sunk by a torpedo fired by a U-boat that it claimed wrongly to have been sunk by the ‘brilliant British gunnery’ of a number of cruisers.[4]

‘Another eye witness to the sinking was the writer Aldous Huxley, who was staying at St Abbs at the time. He wrote to his father saying that:

I dare say Julian told you that we actually saw the Pathfinder explosion – a great white cloud with its foot in sea.

The St. Abbs’ lifeboat came in with the most appalling accounts of the scene. There was not a piece of wood, they said, big enough to float a man—and over acres the sea was covered with fragments—human and otherwise. They brought back a sailor’s cap with half a man’s head inside it. The explosion must have been frightful. It is thought to be a German submarine that did it, or, possibly, a torpedo fired from one of the refitted German trawlers, which cruise all round painted with British port letters and flying the British flag.’[5]

The sinking of Pathfinder by a U-boat made a big impression on Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, who decided to keep his Grand Fleet as far north as the Admiralty would allow. However, other British admirals ignored the threat from submarines to surface ships, leading to disaster later in the month.

Martin-Leake’s brother Arthur became the first man to be awarded a bar to the VC for his courage as an army doctor at Zonnebeke between 29 October and 8 November 1914. He had previously been awarded the VC in the Boer War.

[1] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 6.

[2]<<http://search.proquest.com.connect.nls.uk/hnpscotsman/docview/488299365/7D816E4C02324A85PQ/10?accountid=12801>&gt; Accessed 11 September 2014. Note that this and the next two references are to a password restricted subscription website. I have access to it via the National Library of Scotland.

[3] <<http://search.proquest.com.connect.nls.uk/hnpscotsman/docview/488297648/7D816E4C02324A85PQ/9?accountid=12801>&gt; Accessed 11 September 2014.

[4] <<http://search.proquest.com.connect.nls.uk/hnpscotsman/docview/486241221/7D816E4C02324A85PQ/6?accountid=12801>&gt; Accessed 11 September 2014.

[5] <<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Pathfinder_(1904)>&gt; Accessed 11 September 2014.


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