Tag Archives: u-boats

The Dover Straits in the First World War

Origin of the Dover Patrol

At the outbreak of war the main British naval force in home waters was the Grand Fleet, based in Scotland. There were, however, four different forces based in the south east of England: the 1st and 3rd Destroyer Flotillas under Commodore (T) and the 1st Submarine Flotilla under Commodore (S) at Harwich; Cruiser Force C at the Nore; the 6th Destroyer and 2nd and 3rd Submarine Flotillas under the Admiral of Patrols at Dover; and the Channel Fleet of 20 pre-dreadnought battleships. These forces were not under a single command.[1]

The 6th Destroyer Flotilla of two light cruisers and 20 destroyers was responsible for the defence of the Dover Straits and was named the Dover Patrol.[2] The loss to U-boats of the cruiser HMS Pathfinder off Berwickshire on 5 September 1914 and of three armoured cruisers of Force C in the southern North Sea on 22 September showed the importance of the Patrol Flotillas in anti-submarine warfare. At the same time, the work of the Admiral of Patrols was becoming more complex, including minelaying, prevention of enemy minelaying and organising the transport of British troops to France and Belgium and the evacuation of Belgian refugees. On 7 October it was decided that the Dover Patrol should become a separate command. Rear-Admiral Horace Hood took it over six days later.[3]

Hood was replaced by Vice Admiral Reginald Bacon in April 1915. Bacon later wrote a two volume history of The Dover Patrol, which is now out of copyright and available to read at Naval-History.net or to download at The Internet Archive.

Bacon listed the achievements of the Dover Patrol: drifters, crewed by pre-war fishermen, maintained anti-submarine nets, which stretched for 45 miles in 1917; trawlers, also crewed by fishermen swept for mines across 250 miles per day; 120,000 merchant ships passed through the straits with light losses; 5,600,000 troops crossed the Channel without loss; the enemy held coast was bombarded from sea 28 times from ranges of up to 15 miles versus a maximum of 12 miles on ranges in peacetime; examination of merchant ships; and laying of minefields.[4]

The first anti-submarine drifters arrived at Dover in January 1915 and there were over 130 of them there by June. They dragged an average of 1,000 yards of nets with a mesh pattern of 10 foot squares to a depth of 120 feet. The straits were a maximum of 21 miles wide and 180 feet deep, with an average depth of 108 feet. This meant that 36 drifters could in theory block the passage, but in practice tides and current made the task of such small craft difficult even in good weather. They were at best armed with a 6 pounder gun and sometimes with just a machine gun, requiring them to be protected by destroyers and armed auxiliary steamers. German records show that U8, scuttled on 4 March 1915 after being caught in the nets, was the only U-boat lost to the Dover barrage in 1915 or 1916. It did, however, force the larger U-boats that were based in Germany to take the longer route round Scotland to the Atlantic, with the smaller UB coastal submarines and UC minelayers based in Flanders using the shorter route through the Dover Straits.[5]

Mine Warfare

The Allies used mines to combat U-boats but U-boats also laid mines. The 15 boats of the UC I class carried 12 mines but had no deck gun or torpedo tubes. The 64 UC II class boats carried 18 mines and had two bow and one stern torpedo tubes. They initially had no deck gun although some were fitted with a 105mm gun in 1918. The 16 UC III class boats that were commissioned had 14 mines, the same torpedo armament as the UC IIs and either an 88mm or a 105mm gun.

Most German mines laid in British waters were laid by U-boats. In the second half of 1916 an average of about six merchant ships were sunk per month in British waters. This increased to 10 in the first half of 1917 but fell back to four in the second half of that year. On average 178 mines were swept in each month of 1916, rising to 355 in 1917. Even the English Channel was too big an area to sweep completely and only about 10 per cent of the waters around Dover could be swept regularly.[6]

As an example of the size of the Dover Patrol, in October 1916 it comprised:

The Auxiliary Patrol of 2 yachts, 78 trawlers (56 fitted as minesweepers), 10 paddle minesweepers, 130 net drifters, 24 motor launches and 5 motor boats.

The 5th Submarine Flotilla of the light cruiser HMS Arrogant and 10 submarines.

The 6th Destroyer Flotilla of the light cruiser HMS Attentive, 33 destroyers of 400-1,000 tons, 12 monitors with 7.5 to 15 inch guns, 12 gun or patrol boats, 5 paddle minesweepers and a seaplane carrier.

In late October the light cruiser HMS Carysfort and the 8 L class destroyers were detached from Harwich.[7]

The Germans made several attacks by destroyers on the Dover Straits. Click on the links for more details of the larger attacks.

The first of these, on 26-27 October 1916, resulted in the sinking of the old destroyer HMS Flirt, called a 30 knotter after her designed speed, the transport Queen, six drifters, a trawler and serious damage to the destroyers HMS Nubian and Amazon. The Germans suffered no losses but missed opportunities to do more damage. The German success was helped by their previous inactivity, which made the British complacent. This action showed that the barrage had limited effect, as 14 British destroyers had crossed it without being damaged.

The Dover Patrol was reinforced by destroyers from the Humber and Harwich. Destroyers had then to be sent from the Grand Fleet to the Humber. This meant that the Grand Fleet might have had to leave part of the 4th Battle Squadron behind when it put to sea because of a lack of destroyers. The Germans were unable to base a large number of destroyers at Zeebrugge because of the risk of air attack, meaning that they face a lengthy canal journey from Bruges. This meant that the British normally detected their operations early, The Germans usually reinforced their Flanders Flotillas with extra destroyers from the High Seas Fleet before raids. [8]

The second, on 23 November 1916, was ineffectual. Six German destroyers approached the Downs and fired at the drifters, damaging one without causing any casualties, before turning away before the British destroyers in the area could engage them. They made no attempt to enter the Downs, where over 100 merchantmen were moored. The Germans claimed to have bombarded Ramsgate, but no shells landed on land.[9]

On 25-26 February 1917 the Germans sent destroyers to attack the traffic rout from England to the Hook of Holland, the Downs and the barrage. The only effects of this raid were that the destroyer HMS Laverock was struck by a torpedo that did not explode and that a bombardment the Thanet coast slightly damaged some houses.[10]

A German raid on 17-18 March resulted in the sinking of the destroyer HMS Paragon and the merchant ship SS Greypoint and the damaging of the destroyer HMS Llewellyn.

The next attack came on 20-21 April 1917. It was the first to end in a major German defeat. The destroyers SMS G42 and G85 were sunk by the British flotilla leaders HMS Broke and Swift.

This was a loss of almost 10 per cent of the destroyers based in Flanders and could not be replaced. The Germans therefore changed their strategy. Future attacks would be aimed at the Netherlands to UK convoys rather than the Channel patrols and barrage. Raids on shipping at the mouth of the Thames on 26 and 30 April encountered no shipping, although Margate was bombarded on 26 April. [11]

On 10 May a planned attack on Netherlands to UK convoys led to a battle between German destroyers and three British light cruisers and four destroyers., Neither side suffered any losses, but the British achieved their objective of protecting the convoy.[12]

A week later the Germans attacked a convoy in fog, sinking the merchantman SS Ciro. The British destroyer HMS Setter also sank after collided with HMS Sylph.[13]

A further raid on 23 May was unsuccessful. Three days later a raiding force encountered two monitors and two French torpedo boats, but a fifteen minute gun battle caused no losses to either side.[14]

The German surface forces in Flanders remained on the defensive for the remainder of 1917, fearing that the British might try an amphibious attack as part of their Passchendaele offensive. The British planned such an operation, but the land offensive did not go well enough for it to be carried out. The main tasks of the Flanders Flotillas in the rest of 1917 were minesweeping and coastal patrols. The British carried out a number of coastal bombardments, which were normally accompanied by major air battles, as both sides attempted to drive off the enemy’s observation aircraft. There were some naval encounters, but none resulted in losses to either side. By the end of 1917 too many vessels had been transferred away from Flanders, mainly to take part in Operation Albion, an amphibious assault in the Baltic Sea, for them to carry out offensive operations.[15]

Keyes takes Command

By late 1917 the Admiralty was concerned that up to 30 U-boats a month were evading the barrage. Rear Admiral Roger Keyes in December 1917, the Admiralty’s Director of Plans, proposed illuminating the mine and net barrage with searchlights at night in order to force U-boats to dive into the minefield. Bacon argued that this would reveal the barrage and make it vulnerable to attack. On 18 December he was ordered to institute an illuminated patrol. The next night UB56 was forced to dive and was destroyed by mines. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the First Sea Lord, was a supporter of Bacon, but he was dismissed and replaced by Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss in late December. Soon afterwards, Bacon was replaced by Keyes.

Keyes strengthened the minefields and employed a patrol of a monitor with a 12 or 15 inch gun, four 30 knot destroyers, patrol boats, 14 trawlers, 60 drifters, four motor launches and two paddle minesweepers. At night the minefield was illuminated by flares from the trawlers and the destroyers’ searchlights.[16]

The larger U-boats stopped using the Straits in February and the smaller boats based in Flanders became less active from April. They laid 404 minefields in 1917 but only 64 in 1918. A 1922 Admiralty document claims seven U-boats sunk in the Dover Straits area in the first four months of 1918 and six in the rest of the year, 12 of them being UB or UC type boats.[17]

Uboat.net lists five boats lost to mines and one to depth charges in the Dover area in the first four months of the year, with the seventh described as missing. It gives four lost to mines in the Dover area and one off Flanders in the rest of the year, with the final boat having been rammed by the steamer Queen Alexandra off Cherbourg.

The Germans bombarded Yarmouth on the evening of 14 January 1918. They did not encounter any British warships and the only German ships damaged was the torpedo boat SMS V67, which struck a mine and had to be towed back to port. No ships on either side were sunk in minor actions on 23 January and 5 February.[18]

The last and seventh German raid on the Dover Barrage came on 14-15 February 1918. It was the most successful, sinking seven drifters and a trawler and severely damaging five drifters, a trawler and a paddle minesweeper without loss. Six of the raids had been successful, but they were at least a month and as much as nine months apart, with the result that the losses from one attack had always been replaced by the time of the next one. The Dover Straits Barrage therefore continued to keep U-boats out of the busy shipping lane of the English Channel, and to force them to sail round the British Isles on their way to the Atlantic, reducing their time on station. It is unclear why the Germans stopped attacking the Dover Barrage, especially when their last effort was so successful.[19]

The Dover Patrol took part in the attacks on Ostend and Zeebrugge on 23 April 1918, for which eight VCs were awarded, and the follow-up raid on Ostend on 9 May 1918, for which another three VCs were awarded. These raids were intended to close the canals that connected the ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend to the German naval base at Bruges. The first raid closed the Zeebrugge canal to larger destroyers until 14 May, but smaller torpedo boats and U-boats were able to use it and both raids failed to block the Ostend canal.

In 1918 the British launched a series of aerial bombing raids on the German naval bases in Flanders. From 17 February to 1 April five destroyers and torpedo boats and a U-boats were damaged by bombing. The Germans were forced to reinforce their fighter defences, but the raids became heavier from 10 May. Between then and 2 June 12 destroyers and torpedo boats and two U-boats were damaged by bombing. On the night of 28 May the Zeebrugge canal lock gate was hit by a bomb, putting it out of action for a week. On 9 June it was damaged by a coastal bombardment, closing the canal for the rest of the month to all shipping.[20]

The English Channel, a vital communications link for British troops in France and Flanders, remained open to Allied shipping throughout the war. By April 1918 it was largely closed to U-boats.

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vi, The Dover Patrol i, pp. 5-7.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 16

[3] Naval Staff vol. vi, pp. 8-9.

[4] R. H. S. Bacon, The Dover Patrol, 1915-1917, 2 vols (London,: 1919). vol. i, pp. xii-xiv.

[5] L. Sondhaus, German Submarine Warfare in World War I: The Onset of Total War at Sea (Boulder MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). Kindle Edition, locations 1902-50.

[6] M. Faulkner, A. D. Lambert, The Great War at Sea: A Naval Atlas 1914-1919 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2015).

[7] Ibid., p. 105.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol iv, pp. 66-67; P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 346-47.

[9] Naval Staff vol. vi, p. 88.

[10] Ibid., pp. 88-91.

[11] M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front: The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2003), p. 126.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1939 vol. xix, Home Waters part ix, May to July 1917, pp. 10-12.

[14] Karau, Naval, p. 126.

[15] Ibid., pp. 161-65.

[16] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 309.

[17] Naval Staff vol. vi, p. 136.

[18] Karau, Naval, pp. 174-75.

[19] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v. p. 217; Karau, Naval, p. 179.

[20] Karau, Naval, pp. 207-10.

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The Ostend Raid 9-10 May 1918

The British raid on Zeebrugge and Ostend on 23 April 1918 was intended to block the entrances to the canals linking the German destroyer and U-boat base at Bruges to the sea. The failure at Ostend led Vice Admiral Roger Keyes, commander of the Dover Patrol, to plan another attack on Ostend. He planned to use the old cruiser HMS Vindictive, which had carried assault marines and sailors to Zeebrugge, as a blockship. She was captained by Commander Alfred E. Godal, who had captained the blockship HMS Brilliant during the previous attempt to block Ostend. She was ready to go on 27 April, but the weather was too bad to proceed.[1]

The night was dark enough in the first fortnight of May from 9:30 pm to 3:00 am. The attacking force would take two and a half hours to sail from Dunkirk to Ostend and would have to withdraw by 2:00 am in order to be clear of shore batteries by daybreak. It was decided, with advice from captains of Dover to Ostend steam packets, that the tides would be ideal on 10-13 May and almost so on 9 May. 14 May was a possible date but more doubtful. The delay allowed another old cruiser, HMS Sappho, to also be used as a blockship.[2]

The two blockships were accompanied by 18 motor launches and 10 coastal motor boats (CMBs, an early form of MTB/PT Boat). Fire support would come from seven monitors escorted by eight destroyers, five of them French, two motor launches and two French motor boats. The Allies did not know if the German destroyers of the Flanders Flotilla, which had returned to Germany in mid February, had returned to Zeebrugge, so another 12 British destroyers were deployed in three groups of 4 to cover against a German attack on the raiding force. Keyes commanded the northern group from HMS Warwick but Commodore Hubert Lynes commanded the expedition, known as Operation V.S., from HMS Faulknor.[3]

On the afternoon of 9 May Keyes and Lynes were lunch guests of the King of the Belgians at La Panne [De Panne in Flemish] in the unoccupied part of Belgium. Keyes noticed a change in the wind so left early, giving the king a hint why. He and Lynes hurried to Dunkirk to start Operation V.S.. Aerial reconnaissance revealed that the Germans had removed all the buoys in the approaches to Ostend. The British had allowed for this and HMS Faulknor carried an illuminated buoy to be positioned at the point where the attacking ships had to turn. To obtain surprise, the main bombardment from shore based guns, naval monitors and Handley-Page bombers would not start until the last moment.[4]

Vindictive and Sappho arrived at Dunkirk at 10:45 pm. The expedition sailed 45 minutes later but a boiler problem forced Sappho to drop out just before midnight. Lynes decided to go ahead with only Vindictive since she had been the only blockship available when V.S. was first planned.[5]

Faulknor dropped her buoy at 01:25 am on 10 May, with Vindictive passing it 12 minutes later. The British ships were covered by a smoke screen, and the only sign of enemy action until then was a single searchlight. At 01:43 am the British bombardment began. Five minutes later a mist descended, reducing visibility to a few yards and dividing the attacking force into a number of small, uncoordinated units. Vindictive was then about 12 minutes from her target. The destroyers outside the harbour and mist started firing star shells in order to illuminate the canal mouth.[6]

CMB 24 (Lieutenant A. Dayrell-Reed) and CMB 30 (Lieutenant A. L. Poland) fired torpedoes at the eastern pier head, damaging it. However, it is doubtful whether these brave attacks succeeded in reducing the German fire.[7]

Vindictive was finding it difficult to find the harbour mouth because of the mist. Godsal turned his ship in the hope of finding it. CMB 26 (Lieutenant C. F. B. Bowlby) did manage to identify the eastern pier head and fire a torpedo at it, but it hit the bottom and exploded so close to CMB 26 that she was badly damaged. Godsal was forced to order CMB 23 (Lieutenant the Hon. C. E. R. Spencer) to light a powerful flare in order to illuminate the harbour mouth. This showed Godsal the target but also showed his ship to the Germans. CMB 25 (Lieutenant R. H. MacBean) fired two torpedoes at the pier heads, which hit them but did not stop the fire that was raining down on Vindictive.[8]

Vindictive had to steer a course towards the western bank and then manoeuvre across the channel with the help of the east flowing tide in order to block the channel. As she began this manoeuvre, Godsal stepped out of the conning tower for a better view. A shell then hit it, killing him and knocking the navigator, Lieutenant Sir John Alleyne, unconscious. Vindictive remained on her existing course and had run aground by the time that Lieutenant Victor Crutchley was able to take command. He tried unsuccessfully to move Vindictive before ordering her crew to abandon ship and setting the sinking charges. She was lying at an oblique angle and did not block the channel.[9]

The survivors of Vindictive were picked up by motor launches 254 (Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Drummond), which took off two officers and 38 men and 276 (Lieutenant Rowland Bourke), which rescued Alleyne and two ratings from the water. Both launches were badly damaged, and Crutchley had to take command of 254 after Drummond was wounded and Lieutenant Gordon Ross killed.

Three men were found alive on board Vindictive by the Germans, despite Crutchley searching her before leaving.[10] Odsal, another officer and a petty officer were amongst the 16 British sailors killed in Operation V.S.: all are listed on Naval-History.net.

Shortly after Crutchley informed Keyes onboard HMS Warwick that the mission had failed she struck a mine. The enemy destroyers were absent and the mist was now protecting the British from German shore batteries. She was towed back to port.[11]

Keyes wanted to make a third attempt, which was in initially approved. By the end of May, however, the situation had changed with the result that the potential benefits would not justify the risks involved.[12]

The Dover Straits Barrage meant that U-boats could no longer travel through the English Channel to the Atlantic, reducing the effectiveness of boats based in Flanders. The Flanders torpedo boats and destroyers were by this stage of the war restricted to a defensive role.[13]

On 14-15 February 1918 German destroyers had sailed directly from the Helgoland Bight attack to successfully attack the Dover Barrage. This operation showed that destroyers did not need to be based in Flanders to threaten the Dover Barrage, but it was never repeated.

Crutchley, Drummond and Bourke were all awarded the Victoria Cross and a large number of other men were also decorated. See Naval-History.net for the VC citations and a list of the other men awarded medals.

[1] B. Pitt, Zeebrugge: Eleven VCs before Breakfast (London: Cassell Military, 2003), pp. 177-80.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, p. 266-67.

[3] Ibid. pp. 267-69, footnote 1 on pp. 268-69.

[4] Pitt, Zeebrugge, pp. 180-84.

[5] Ibid., pp. 184-85.

[6] Ibid., pp. 185-87.

[7] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, vol. v, p. 270.

[8] Ibid., p. 271.

[9] Ibid., pp. 271-72.

[10] Ibid. footnote 2, p. 272.

[11] Ibid., p. 273.

[12] Pitt, Zeebrugge, pp. 203-4.

[13] M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front: The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2003), pp. 207-8.

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The Zeebrugge Raid 23 April 1918

On 23 April 1918 the British raided Zeebrugge and Ostend with the intention of blocking the entrances to the canals linking the German destroyer and U-boat base at Bruges to the sea. These bases had been bombarded a number of times since August 1915.[1]

Approaches from Ostend and Zeebrugge to Bruges Docks. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeebrugge_Raid

Vice Admiral Roger Keyes succeeded Vice Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon in command at Dover on 1 January 1918. Keyes had in his previous job as the Admiralty’s Director of Plans prepared a plan to block Ostend and Zeebrugge. Bacon had made several changes to the plan. Keyes dropped Bacon’s intention of destroying the lock gates as well as blocking the locks, as he thought that this was impracticable. He retained his predecessor’s idea of landing on the mole at Zeebrugge in order to capture guns that threatened the approach of the blockships and to provide a diversion. This meant that a battalion of marines was needed as well as sailors.[2]

The old armoured cruiser HMS Vindictive (Captain Alfred Carpenter) would carry the first wave of the Zeebrugge assault force. Her armament, apart from two 6 inch guns on each side of the upper deck was removed and replaced with weapons more useful in an opposed landing: an 11 inch and two 7.5 inch howitzers; two flamethrowers; five pom-poms; 16 Lewis machine guns; and 16 Stokes mortars. The rest of the troops would be carried by two Mersey ferries, Iris (Commander V. Gibbs) and Daffodil (Lieutenant H. G. Campbell), which had double hulls and double bottoms, making them hard to sink, and had a shallow draft, enabling them to steam over minefields. However, it also meant that their decks were low, so they needed 30 foot scaling ladders to reach the parapet of the mole. The three assault ships were all fitted with grappling hooks to secure themselves to the mole.

Five old unarmoured cruisers were chosen to be the blockships: HMS Thetis (Commander R. S. Sneyd), Intrepid (Lieutenant S. S. Bonham-Carter) and Iphigenia for Zeebrugge; and HMS Sirius and Brilliant for Ostend. They carried minimal crews but kept some guns in order to fire as they approached and were fitted with extra steering positions to prevent a single hit disabling them. They were filled with cement to make it harder to move them and fitted with explosive charges to blow out their bottoms and sink them in the locks, with firing positions both fore and aft. Two C-class submarines, C1 (Lieutenant A. C. Newbold) and C3 (Lieutenant R. D. Sandford), were to destroy the viaduct that connected the Zeebrugge mole to the shore by exploding charges stowed in their bows.[3]

The attack would be covered by a smoke screen. Existing phosphorus based ones made dense but also created flames that were a beacon at night. Keyes therefore got Wing Commander Frank Brock, a former Royal Naval Air Service officer now serving with the newly formed Royal Air Force, to devise a substitute. Brock, a member of the family that founded and then still owned Brock’s, a large fireworks company, used chlor-sulphonic acid to produce dense smoke without flames. It was also used in saxin, a synthetic substitute for sugar, and 82 tons were needed. There was only one British manufacturer, so tea drinkers who used sugar substitutes had to drink unsweetened tea in order to provide enough chlor-sulphonic acid.[4]

The German coastal defences were formidable. There were also anti-aircraft batteries, including two guns on the mole. The numbers below are British estimates, which according to Mark Karau underestimate the actual numbers. However, the British estimate of 38 U-boats and 28 torpedo boats at Bruges and 30 destroyers at Zeebrugge was too high.[5]

 

Size Ostend Zeebrugge Zeebrugge Mole
Star shell howitzer 1
3.5 inch (88 mm) 4 2
4.1 inch (104 mm) 5 4 3
5.9 inch (150 mm) 15 7
6.7 inch (170 mm) 4
8.2 inch (208 mm) 4
11 inch (280 mm) 12 8
15 inch (380 mm) 4

Source: Corbett, J. S., Newbolt, H., Naval Operations. 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938), vo. v, pp.246-47.

A 580 yard long railway viaduct, just wide enough to carry the railway, connected the shore to the Zeebrugge mole. The mole curved to the north east. It was 1,850 yards long and 80 yards wide and made of masonry. There was a 16 foot tall parapet on the western (seaward) side. A narrow masonry extension 260 yards long ended with a lighthouse. The mole batteries were on the extension, with an unimpeded arc of fire on any vessels approaching. the anti-aircraft guns were in a wired position 150 yards from the end of the mole, with a trench running across the mole. The gun crews and the mole’s 1,000 man garrison were housed in reinforced concrete sheds. There was a seaplane base at the south west end of the mole, which had its own garrison and concrete sheds.[6]

The British took advice from Belgian engineers, including two men who had recently escaped and had worked on a Zeebrugge dredger during the occupation, about the best places to position the block ships. The attack was to be preceded by aerial bombing and then an hour long bombardment of Ostend by seven monitors and Zeebrugge by two monitors. Similar attacks were made in the weeks before the operation to make this seem like a routine operations.[7]

A total of 165 vessels, 82 officers and 1,698 marines and seamen took part in the operation. As well as the assault and block ships, the monitors and numerous smaller craft, 29 destroyers would participate, with seven light cruisers, two flotilla leaders and 14 destroyers of the Harwich Force covering in case German ships tried to intervene from the north east. It was not an entirely British operation, as the French contributed seven torpedo boats and four motor launches.[8]

Keyes insisted that the men on the block ships and submarines should all be volunteers and unmarried. He said that the other participants were taking no greater risks than the infantry on the Western Front, but in practice the number of men keen to take part was far more than the number needed.[9]

Keyes originally intended to command from HMS Vindictive, but then realised that he needed to be able to move around to ensure that the various parts of the operation were going well. He therefore transferred his flag to the destroyer HMS Warwick.[10]

The force sailed on 11 April. While it was en route the RAF bombed Zeebrugge. At 00:45 am the expedition stopped in order to remove from the block ships the men needed for the passage but not the assault. Before it could get underway again the wind stopped and then began to blow from the wrong direction for the smoke screens. Keyes decided that it was impossible to attack without a smoke screen and called off the mission. Coastal Motor Boat 33 was captured by the Germans, who found plans on board that revealed that a blocking expedition at Ostend was planned.[11]

Another attempt was made on 13 April, but it had to be called off because the wind was too strong. There would not be another period when there was sufficient darkness and high water for three weeks. The Admiralty was inclined to cancel the operation on the grounds that surprise had been lost and the men could not be kept cooped up for so long. Keyes, however, persuaded them to let him try again between 22 and 28 April, when the high water was suitable. However, there was a full moon on 26 April.[12]

The assault troops had been accommodated on the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Hindustan in port, but she was very crowded. Keyes arranged for HMS Dominion, another old battleship, to be sent in order to improve the living conditions ahead of the second attempt.[13]

The weather forecast on 22 April was favourable, with strength and direction of the wind being suitable and a good chance of clouds to obscure the moon. The expedition therefore set sail that day, with the attack to take place in the early hours of 23 April: St George’s Day.[14]

The aerial attack had to be cancelled because of rain, but the monitors started to bombard Ostend at 11:10 pm and Zeebrugge 20 minutes later. Coastal motor boats began to lay smoke screens at 11:30 pm and attacked the western end of the Zeebrugge mole in order to distract the Germans from the approaching Vindictive. Keyes had HMS Warwick positioned so that he could see both the attack on the mole and the approach of the block ships.[15]

 

Zeebrugge Raid 23 April 1918. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeebrugge_Raid

The Germans did not realise what was happening until the last minute, but then benefitted from a change in the wind. The smokescreen was blown across the approach routes, meaning that British vessels could not see each other, but the Germans could see them as they emerged from the smoke. Vindictive emerged just after midnight, coming under heavy fire. She suffered heavy casualties and many of her guns were put out of action. Captain H. C. Halahan, commander of the naval landing parties, Lieutenant-Colonel B. H. Elliot, commander of the Royal Marine landing parties and Major A. A. Cordner, his second in command, were all killed.[16]

Vindictive, Iris and Daffodil managed to get alongside the mole, a considerable feat of seamanship. Anchoring was very difficult. The surviving landing parties managed to get onto the mole under heavy fire. They could not destroy the mole’s guns, but the attack on the mole succeeded as a diversion. The Germans saw the block ships entering the harbour but probably assumed that the attack on the mole was the first stage in a landing.[17]

The towline of C1, one of the two submarines that were to be blown up against the rail viaduct connecting the mole to the shore, parted, meaning that only C3 reached the start line. Her crew were meant to abandon ship after setting her on a course for the viaduct, but her captain Sandford decided to ram the viaduct with the crew still on board and then light the fuses. They then took to a motor skiff that they had to row because of damage to its engine. They were just clear when the explosives blew up and destroyed 100 feet of the viaduct, including the telephone wires connecting the defenders of the mole to the German headquarters, They were then firing on HMS Thetis, the first of the block ships.[18]

Thetis was badly damaged and then was fouled by nets that had been laid across the harbour. She was unable to proceed to her target lock gates and ran aground before detonating her explosive charges. She had, however, cleared the way for Intrepid and Iphegenia to reach their target, where they grounded and blew themselves up. Motor launches took off the crews of the block ships. The British then withdrew, but the destroyer HMS North Star was sunk by the battery at the head of the mole. The destroyer HMS Phoebe took most of her crew off. Vindictive, Iris and Daffodil managed to withdraw, covered by Keyes’s flagship Warwick.[19]

The attempt to block Ostend failed, however. The shift in the wind had a more serious effect there. The Stroom Bank buoy had been moved a mile east of the position that the British expected it to be in. the block ship captains could not be sure of their positions because of the smoke blowing towards them. When they sighted the Stroom Bank buoy they did not realise that it had been moved, steered on a course based on it being in its previous position and sank their ships in the wrong place.

The British lost two motor launches and HMS North Star plus the block ships and submarines deliberately sacrificed. They reported 70 dead, 400 wounded and 45 missing. I counted 199 listed on naval-history.net as dying at Zeebrugge on 23 April and 16 of dying of wounds during the next week, but there are probably others who later died of wounds. Wikipedia, sourcing P. Kendall, The Zeebrugge Raid 1918: The Finest Feat of Arms (Brimscombe Port: Spellmount, 2009), says that British casualties were 227 dead and 356 wounded. The Germans claimed that 214 British were killed, 383 wounded and 19 captured, themselves losing Germans lost eight dead and 16 wounded. The German destroyers V69 and S53 were lightly damaged and S63 heavily damaged but remained seaworthy.[20]

One of the German dead was Matrose [Seaman] Hermann Künne, who had previously killed a British officer, probably Brock, in a cutlass fight.

The success at Zeebrugge and failure at Ostend led Keyes to propose another attack on Ostend. This was approved, but the British could not be ready to carry it out until the next period of favourable tides, which began on 9 May.[21]

The Zeebrugge canal was left unusable at low tide. Admiral Ludwig von Schröder, the local German commander, feared at first that it would also be blocked at high tide, but four relatively small German torpedo boats though it on the evening on 24 April, with a U-boat following the next day. The larger destroyers would have to use the Ostend canal. By 14 May salvage work allowed them to use the Zeebrugge canal at high tide and a wooden walkway allowing foot and bicycle traffic to and from the mole was completed on 8 June,[22]

The raid was executed very gallantly but its main effect was to boost Allied morale at a time when their armies on the Western Front were retreating as a result of the German March Offensive. Flanders based U-boats had to travel round Scotland to reach the Atlantic because of the Dover Barrage, which the German attack of 14-15 February showed could be attacked by destroyers based in the Helgoland Bight without them having to go via Bruges. The Germans, however, chose not to repeat that successful operation. . Both sides were happy enough with the outcome of the Zeebrugge Raid to give their commander a high award: the oak leaves to the Pour le Merite, popularly known as the Blue Max, for von Schröder; and a knighthood for Keyes.

Eight men were awarded the VC: the citations. originally published in the London Gazette, are on naval-history.net. Four of the awards were made under Clause 13 of the Victoria Cross Warrant. It allows that in a case where a large number of members of a unit deserve the VC it should be awarded by ballot of their peers. In this case the officers and the other ranks of the crews of the assault ships and the naval landing parties and the officers and the other ranks of the marine landing parties each selected one of their number.

Six awards were announced in July 1918, all to survivors and including the four Clause 13 medals. The naval officers chose Carpenter and the naval other ranks Able Seaman Albert McKenzie. The marine officers voted for Captain Edward Bamford and the marine other ranks for Serjeant Norman Finch. The other two went to Sandford of C3 and Lieutenant Percy Dean, commanding Motor Launch 282, which picked up survivors of the block ship,

The award of posthumous VCs to Lieutenant Commander George Bradford, RN and Lieutenant Commander Arthur Harrison, RN, were announced in March 1919. Both had commanded landing parties.

Barrie Pitt’s book Zeebrugge: Eleven VCs before Breakfast also covers the 10 May attack on Ostend, in which another three VCs were awarded. It will be the subject of a later post.

 

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vi, The Dover Patrol i, pp. 25-50.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, -pp. 242-44.

[3] Ibid., p. 245; M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front: The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2003), p. 190.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 245-46.

[5] Karau, Naval, pp. 187-88.

[6] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 247.

[7] Ibid., p. 249.

[8] Ibid., pp. 249-50.

[9] B. Pitt, Zeebrugge: Eleven Vcs before Breakfast (London: Cassell Military, 2003), p. 60.

[10] Ibid., p. 69.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v. pp. 251-52.

[12] Pitt, Zeebrugge, p. 82.-81

[13] Ibid.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v. pp. 252-53.

[15] Ibid., pp. 254-55.

[16] Ibid., p. 256.

[17] Ibid., pp. 256-60.

[18] Ibid., pp. 260-61.

[19] Ibid., pp. 261-64.

[20] Karau, Naval, p. 196.

[21] Ibid., p. 198.

[22] Ibid., pp. 200-3.

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German Attack on Dover Straits, 26-27 October 1916

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 72.

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

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U-boats and US Troopships in WWI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

[2] Ibid., p. 436.

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

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

[5] Halpern, Naval, p. 437.

[6] Ibid.

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SS Sussex Torpedoed by U-Boat 24 March 1916

In February 1916 Germany announced that from 1 March its U-boats would sink defensively armed British merchant ships without warning. Germany had, under pressure from the USA, abandoned unrestricted submarine warfare in September 1915. The Germans claimed that British defensively armed merchantmen had been ordered to attack U-boats before being attacked themselves, so could not be regarded as acting defensively. The Admiralty quickly disproved this accusation by publishing the actual orders.[1]

The German position on the issue of unrestricted submarine warfare is described by Paul Halpern as being ‘somewhat confusing’.[2] The naval and military commanders wanted to pursue unrestricted submarine warfare but Kaiser Wilhelm and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg were concerned about US opinion. The US government opposed the treatment of armed merchant ship as warships.

Following a conference on 4 March the Kaiser accepted that unrestricted warfare was necessary, with a likely start date of 1 April. Until then, Bethmann Hollweg should attempt to persuade the Americans to accept the German view. In the interim U-boats were authorised to sink enemy merchant ships in the war zone and armed ones outside it. Passenger liners, whether armed or not, could not be attacked anywhere by submerged U-boats. Halpern describes this as ‘sharpened’ rather than unrestricted submarine warfare.[3]

Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of the German battlefleet had not been invited to the 4 March meeting. He resigned as State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office, a job mainly concerned with administration and naval building, soon afterwards.

The Germans had 52 U-boats in March 1916, compared with 29 or 30 when they began unrestricted submarine warfare a year before. Of these 16 were in the North Sea, 20 small and short ranged ones with the Flanders Flotilla, 4 in the Baltic, 7 in the Adriatic and 5 at Istanbul. It was expected that another 38 would be completed by August.[4]

Several Dutch merchant ships were sunk in March, including the 13,911 liner Tubantia, the largest neutral ship sunk during the war. The Dutch were angered by these losses, but the attitude of the USA was far more important to the Germans.[5]

On the afternoon of 24 March the 1,353 ton French packet Sussex was torpedoed and badly damaged by UB29 (Oberleutnant Herbert Pustkuchen) whilst making her regular run from Folkestone to Dieppe with over 325 passengers. The Germans claimed at first that she had hit a mine, but fragments of a torpedo were found after she had been towed into Boulogne.[6]

The 50 dead included some of the 25 Americans on board. Pustkuchen claimed that he assumed from her crowded decks that she was a troopship.[7] British troopships then crossed at night between Folkestone and Boulogne.[8] The Germans may not have known that and Pustkuchen, with the very limited view offered by a periscope, may have genuinely thought that he was firing at a troopship. His action, however, created a major diplomatic incident with the USA.

On 19 April US President Woodrow Wilson told Congress that that unless the Germans abandoned ‘their present method of warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, the Government have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Government altogether.’[9]

On 20 April the Germans agreed to stop sinking merchant ships without warning. Four days later Admiral Reinhard Scheer, the recently appointed C.-in-C. of the High Seas Fleet, recalled all his U-boats from the North Sea on the grounds that there was no point in sending boats on dangerous missions when their actions were so restricted. This left only the short ranged boats of the Flanders Flotilla operating against Allied shipping in British waters.[10]

The following table shows Allied shipping losses to U-boats since the end of the period of unrestricted submarine warfare. Sinkings rose in April and May and then fell again, especially outside the Mediterranean, to which several U-boats were transferred in September 1915 so that they could raid Allied commerce in an area where the risk of killing Americans was reduced, although not eliminated. 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, killing over 200 people, including about 20 Americans.[11]

Merchant shipping Losses to U-boats
Total Mediterranean
Month Ships Gross tons Ships Gross tons
Oct-Dec 1915 140 361,326 80 293,423
January 1916 25 49,610
February 1916 44 95,090
March 1916 69 160,536
April 1916 83 187,307
May 1916 63 119,381 37 72,092
June 1916 63 93,193 43 67,125

Source: P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 308.

The Germans thought that unrestricted submarine warfare was their best chance of forcing Britain out of the war. However, it also risked bringing the USA into the war on the Allied side. In 1916 they had too few U-boats to achieve the former but pursuing this strategy could still cause the latter.

 

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xv, Home Waters part vi, October 1915 to May 1916. p. 94.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 305.

[3] Ibid., p. 306.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 307.

[6] Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 139.

[7] Halpern, Naval, p. 307.

[8] Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 139.

[9] Quoted in R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 88.

[10] Ibid., p. 89.

[11] Halpern, Naval, p. 385.

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U-boats in Late 1915

Germany’s decision, under pressure from the USA, to end unrestricted submarine warfare in September 1915 did not end Allied shipping losses to U-boats. In the final three months of the war they sank 140 ships of 361,326 tons.[1]

Most of the losses in waters around the British Isles were from mines. The small coastal minelaying U-boats UC1, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9 , operating from Zeebrugge, laid mines in 16 locations. Seventeen vessels struck mines around Dover and the Nore alone.[2] Mines were laid off Portsmouth in an attempt to disrupt transports to France, one of which sank the destroyer HMS Velox on 25 October.[3]

The minelayers did not escape unscathed. UC6 was damaged in early October: the Germans claimed that this was the result of her being rammed by a destroyer but no British destroyer reported such an incident that month.[4] UC9 left port on 20 October and never returned. Her fate is unknown.[5] UC8 ran aground in Dutch waters on 4 November and was interned.[6]

Mines were laid in 13 different places in November.[7] Their victims included the hospital ship Anglia, which was sunk on 17 November with the loss of about 80 staff and wounded soldiers.[8] Mines closed Boulogne to shipping on 10, 12-14 and 29 November. Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, was due to travel home from France on the last of those dates and had to go from Dunkirk instead of the more usual Boulogne to Folkestone route.[9]

One raid was carried out by a U-boat in the North Sea in December 1914, with the objective of keeping British escorts that might otherwise have been sent to the Mediterranean in home waters. U24 sank one Belgian and three British steamers during it.[10]

A number of U-boats were transferred to the Mediterranean. U21 arrived at the Austro-Hungarian port of Cattaro, now Kotor, on 5 May. As described here, she sank the British battleships HMS Majestic and Triumph off Gallipoli in late May. The coastal boats UB1, 3, 7, 8, 14 and 15 and the coastal minelayers UC12, 13, 14 and 15 were sent partially assembled by rail and completed at Pola.[11]

In early August U34 and 35 sailed to the Mediterranean, followed by U33 and 39 at the end of the month and later by U38: these boats were all of the U31 class. U21, UB7 and 8 and UC14 and 15 were based at Istanbul, with the others operating from Austro-Hungarian ports. During 1915 U-boats sank 54 British and 38 Allied and neutral ships in the Mediterranean. As well as merchant ships, they sank a number of troopship, starting with the British Royal Edward, torpedoed by UB14 (Oberleutnant Heino von Heimburg) on 13 August whilst bound from Alexandria to Mudros with the loss of 866 lives. UB14 also ambushed and sank the British submarine E20 in the Sea of Marmara as a result of information obtained when the French submarine Turquoise was captured by the Ottomans. Other warship losses to U-boats in the Mediterranean included the Italian submarine Medusa on 10 June and armoured cruiser Amalfi on 7 July, both sunk by UB15, then captained by von Heimburg.  The Italian armoured cruiser Guiseppe Garibaldi was sunk by the Austro-Hungarian U-IV on 18 July  and the submarine Nereide by the Austro-Hungarian U-V on 5 August.[12]

The Austro-Hungarian navy had begun the war with seven small submarines,  named by Roman numerals here to differentiate them from German boats. Their early actions were confined to attacks on French warships. U-IV fired at but missed the armoured cruiser Waldeck-Rousseau on 17 October 1914. On 21 December 1914 U-XII torpedoed and damaged the dreadnought Jean Bart, which was sailing at 9 knots with no destroyer screen despite it being three months since U9 had sunk three British armoured cruisers in a single action. As late as 26 April 1915 the armoured cruiser Leon Gambetta was making only 6.5 knots and had no destroyer screen when she was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 650 men by U-V, captained by Linenschiffleutnant Georg Ritter von Trapp, whose family were the subject of The Sound of Music. During the war the Austro-Hungarians added only the captured French Curie and a number of German UB boats to their fleet.

One reason to switch U-boats to the Mediterranean was to prevent them damaging German relations with the United States of America by killing Americans. On 7 November, however, the German U38 (Kapitänleutnant Max Valentiner), flying Austro-Hungarian colours because Germany and Italy were not yet at war, sank the Italian liner Ancona, killing over 200 people, including about 20 Americans. The US protested to Austria-Hungary, which promised to pay an indemnity and to punish the boat’s captain, who was not named.[13]

The Germans, who did not want further incidents with the USA, ordered their U-boat captains to observe prize laws in the Mediterranean, meaning that they had to allow the passengers and crew time to evacuate a merchant ship before sinking her. This was mostly complied with until 1917. Valentiner’s U38, however, sank five British and several Allied merchant steamers between 27 December  1915 and 4 January 1916 with the loss of over 500 lives, 334 of them on the liner Persia, sunk on 30 December 1915.[14]

 

 

[1] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945, pp. 152-53.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xv, Home Waters part vi, October 1915 to May 1916. p. 15.

[3] Ibid., p. 19.

[4] Ibid., p. 21. and note 2.

[5] Ibid., p. 22.

[6] Ibid., p. 24.

[7] Ibid., p. 23.

[8] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918., p. 61.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 24.

[10] Gibson, Prendergast, German, p. 61.

[11] Ibid., p. 71.

[12] Ibid., pp. 73-79.

[13] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, p. 385.

[14] Gibson, Prendergast, German, pp. 78-79.

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