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The Royal Navy in the Great War - Submarines

Submarine Warfare

Germany's increasingly ruthless and effective employment of the submarine was to cause the Allies, particularly the British - to say nothing of neutrals - harrowing anxiety before means were devised effectively to counteract it. Already, by the end of 1914, Germany, disappointed in the hope of a speedy victory, had come to realize the handicap of her inferior sea power in a long war. Not only had she lost most of her colonies; but the Allies, thanks to the power of the British fleet, were at once steadily cutting her off from essential supplies and utilizing the whole world for food, equipment and munitions.

It was particularly alarming to Germany that the British were determined to disregard the old distinction between contraband and conditional or even non-contraband without declaring a blockade in the formal way. The British defended their action on various grounds, namely, that, with the development of new methods of fighting, many products had become contraband which formerly had not been classed as such, that, with a whole nation in arms, it was difficult to distinguish between purely military and civilian needs, and that, with the appearance of the submarine, it was impossible to station a fleet in front of a port or along a stretch of coast, as had once been the procedure. Moreover, they could point to the fact that they had recognized the Northern blockade during the Civil War before it was fully effective, and, furthermore, had accepted the doctrine, formulated by the North, of continuous voyage - that goods of enemy destination were liable to seizure, even if they were snipped through a neutral country. Finally, they contended that while goods in ships violating a strictly maintained blockade were actually confiscated, they merely held up and returned or paid compensation for such goods.

Nevertheless, if Germany had confined her attacks to belligerents, she might have provoked the United States and the other neutral countries to go beyond the mere protests which they actually made, and have forced them to the length of declaring an embargo. By the wantonly inhuman submarine warfare which Germany felt it necessary to adopt, she ultimately brought the United States into the War, and many other countries as well. British violations of international law, in so far as they are proved to be such, involved only property and could be paid for, while the German methods cost lives which could not. Moreover, there is no doubt that for some time before the United States entered the war, regard for American protests appreciably hampered Great Britain in her efforts to stop enemy trading.

Ships and Shipping

Dependent as the British were on ocean traffic for supplying their own needs and those of the Allies, the shipping problem was, from the first, of supreme importance. A shortage in the world's tonnage was felt at once; for Germany and Austria had supplied 14 per cent, and Great Britain had supplied about half the rest. Immediately, the Army and Navy requisitioned 20 per cent, while 10 per cent was diverted to the use of the Allies. Before the close of 1915, all insulated or refrigerating spaces for meats were taken over, transatlantic liners were required to devote 50 to 75 per cent of their freight capacity to the carriage of foodstuffs, vessels of over 500 tons were compelled to have a license to trade, and the importation of all " bulky, non-essential articles was gradually prohibited."

At length, in one way or another, 90 per cent of all British shipping was more or less under Government control. What with shortage of labor and with the increased submarine sinkings and the increased naval and other Government needs, the amount of tonnage available for trade purposes steadily shrank. For two years the Board of Trade continued nominally in control of the shipping policy; but its work was hampered by various newly created and overlapping committees as well as by the conflicting demands of the Admiralty and the War Office. The creation of a new department, under a Ship Controller,, after the advent of the War Cabinet in December, 1916, did much to speed up construction and to straighten out complexities; though the previous regime deserve much credit for their handling of a vast and baffling problem. The bravery of the seamen in the British merchant marine was one of the most splendid features of the War. Undaunted by submarine or mine they continued steadily at their appointed tasks, supplying food, coal, and other material to their Allies. Of the imports to France and Italy alone, 45 per cent were carried in British ships, and 50 per cent of their coal was supplied by Britain in British ships, to say nothing of vast quantities of steel.

Since, at the beginning of the War, Great Britain imported about 40 per cent of hor meat and 70 to 80 per cent of her cereals, the question of food shortage offered the prospect of a grave menace. With a steadily decreasing tonnage, it was felt necessary to insure economy in the use of foodstuffs and to increase the production as well. The effort in the latter direction was of course greatly complicated by the demand for fighting men and for workers in the manufacture of war materials. In order, under these circumstances, to secure sufficient food for the army and the civilian population all sorts of devices were tried.

The Lusitania and the Sussex

A few incidents will serve to show how inevitably the crisis developed. In the beginning of 1915 the German Government took control of the wheat in their country and regulated its distribution. Thereupon, the British declared wheat contraband. This prompted the Germans to announce that: "On and after 18 February every enemy ship found in the war region will be destroyed without its being always possible to warn the crew or the passengers of the dangers threatening," whereupon, they proceeded to sow mines in British waters, and to sink merchant ships of belligerents on sight. Then they decided to extend their nefarious practice to Allied passenger ships.

Hoping to terrorize their enemies and neutrals as well, they sank the Lusitania, 7 May, 1915, an atrocious crime and blunder as well, which, though it was greeted with exultation in Germany, thrilled the world with horror and indignation. There were intervals, during the following months, when the Germans relaxed their submarine outrages, cessations which the British, prematurely as it proved, attributed to their methods of disposing of these pests, although these methods did force the enemy to slacken their efforts in the waters about the British Isles and to take to the Mediterranean and the high seas. Although President Wilson had warned the Germans that they would be held to " strict accountability," American lives and property were, on more than one occasion, sacrificed to the German necessity which knew no law; but the next acute crisis following the Lusitania outrage came with the attack, 24 March, 1916, on the Sussex, a British unarmed Channel steamer. Among the list of injured there were two Americans. After a vain attempt at denial, the Germans were obliged to admit - when conclusive evidence was pressed home - that one of their submarines had done the deed. Thereupon, 18 April, President Wilson issued an ultimatum threatening to sever diplomatic relations unless the German Imperial Government agreed to abandon its " present methods of submarine warfare against passenger and freight carrying vessels."

On 4 May, the Germans replied that, " both within and without the naval war zone," such ships will not be sunk without warning and without saving human lives, " unless these ships attempt to escape and offer resistance." They proposed, however, to couple this agreement with the condition that the United States " demand and insist that the British Government forthwith observe the rules of international law universally recognized before the War." The United States refused to make any but unconditional terms with Germany, who, nevertheless, since she made no further reply, presumably accepted the unqualified agreement and, on the whole, observed it for some months, though it was later made clear from a statement of the Imperial Chancellor, von Bethmann-Hollweg, 31 January, 1917, that, from the first, she intended to keep the pledge only so long as it suited her interest. " It was never," said he, " a question of Germany keeping faith, but what would bring success."

Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

On 1 February, 1917, a new policy was announced of sinking all ships, neutral as well as belligerent, with certain impossibly inadequate exceptions. The plea for this increased ruthlessness was mainly necessity, accentuated by the British extension of the blockade. ' The purpose was to put Great Britain out of the fighting. " Give us only two months of this kind of warfare," the German people were told, " and we shall end the War and make peace within three months." Unquestionably, this fatal step, which was the final occasion for bringing the United States into the War, 6 April, 1917, was long contemplated and sprung on the world with the completion of a number of swifter and larger undersea craft.

At first there was an alarming increase in sinkings which reached its peak in April, 1917, with a loss during the week 15-22 April of 55 vessels, 40 of more than 1600 tons, and from 22 to 29 April of 51, of which 38 were over 1600 tons. Then, with some fluctuations, the losses began steadily to decline. The United States speeded up her building program, while Great Britain, heavily handicapped as she was, cooperated valiantly, until, by the spring of 1918, building finally increased over destruction and submarines were disposed of more rapidly than they were produced.

In During the War it has been estimated that the British lost 7,756,659 tons of merchant shipping by enemy action, together with 1,143,000 by mercantile risk. Of this combined loss of 8,899,659 tons, they replaced by rebuilding, from 1915 to the autumn of 1918, nearly 2,900,000 tons. The loss, by Allies and neutrals, from sinkings was 12,743,674 from sinkings, exclusive of 2,284,044 from mercantile risk. Of this total of 15,027,618 nearly 11,000,000 was replaced by new construction, and 2,500,000 by captured enemy tonnage, leaving a net loss of something over 1,500,000 tons. The estimates are in gross tonnage.

In spite of the manifold activities of the British merchant marine and the British Navy, they were able to transport more than half the American troops sent across the seas and to furnish 15 per cent of the convoys. The activity of the British trawlers in mine sweeping was prodigious. It is estimated that they steamed 1,132,000 miles, enduring all sorts of dangers, hardships, and, thanks to their courage and skill, whereas 169 ships were sunk by mines in 1916, only 25 perished from that cause in the first nine months of the last year of the war.

Methods of Meeting the Menace

The submarine menace proved to be a very grave problem. No one sovereign remedy was evolved, but all sorts of devices were tried, with varying success, until, by the spring of 1918, they began to be destroyed more rapidly than they could be built.1 Ramming and swift zigzag sailing proved of some efficacy in attack and escape. Guns on merchant and passenger vessels afforded considerable protection. Dense smoke screens were also of great value to many a destined victim, while camouflage, or painting in dazzling colors, though it did not serve to conceal vessels, did cause much deception as to the course in which they were sailing.

Nets proved wonderfully destructive to submarines at the entrances to rivers and harbors, as well as in the waters about the coast, while mine barrages narrowed the area of submarine activities in many places. Airplanes and hydroplanes and electrical listening devices proved more and more effective in detecting enemy undersea craft, and, after they were located, depth bombs disposed of great numbers. Mysterious " Q " boats, or heavily armed craft disguised as harmless merchantmen, lured not a few of the enemy to destruction. One of the most adequate means of protection that was evolved proved to be the convoy system or sending numbers of merchantmen or transports in a group under the escort of fast cruisers well armed with guns and depth bombs. The last date in which a ship was sunk by a submarine was 2 November, 1918.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:08:23 ZULU