Submarine Warfare in World War I
It took World War I to prove the worth of submarines. Prior to that time, submarines played only a small role in the plans of fleet commanders, serving primarily only as coastal defense units. For the most part, fleet commanders ridiculed the idea that the submarine had a place in naval strategy and tactics. They believed that the submarine was only a plaything, something for the younger officers to sharpen their teeth on, but otherwise diverting time and money from other more useful and dependable branches of the service.
This view was to suddenly change when, on 17 September 1914, the German submarine force proved the importance of undersea warfare. On that eventful day, the German submarine U-9 spotted a cloud of smoke and penetrating masts on the horizon. As they came closer, Otto Weddigen, commanding officer of the U-9, could make out three cruisers steaming abreast at a speed of about 10 knots. Each was seperated from the others by two miles. Weddigen gave the order to dive. At 6:20 a.m., he ordered the first torpedo fired. It hit the cruiser HMS ABOUKIR, which began to list heavily. Within 25 minutes, she had capsized and sunk. ABOUKIR had been cruising with her sisters HMS CRESSY and HMS HOUGE. When ABOUKIR was rent by an explosion and sank, the commanding officers of the CRESSY and HOUGE assumed that she had struck a mine. They closed in and began rescue operations. HMS HOUGE was next to go. Two torpedoes struck her hull --sinking her in less than 10 minutes. A glimpse of the U-9's periscope suddenly made CRESSY's captain aware of what had occured. CRESSY tried to make a run for it. It was too late. At 7:17 a.m., Widdigen fired two more torpedeos. CRESSY rolled over on to her beam ends. Fifteen minutes later, she joined her sisters at the bottom.
The news that the German submarine U-9 had attacked and sunk three British armored cruisers in the North Sea caused the entire world to sit up and take notice. Submarines were immediately given more thoughtful consideration. Germany entered World War I with but 28 submarines. By its end, she had employed 369. This meant that she built one submarine every fourth day. During the four years of that war, German submarines accounted for 13,000,000 tons of Allied naval and merchant shipping, including 349 British naval warships.
The United States Navy, with its 300 warships, was the world's third largest by 1914. These warships were used to protect merchant and troopships across the Atlantic. Some warships were also sent to the Mediterranean but most remained on the Atlantic seaboard of the United States.
The sinking of the LUISITANIA, on the morning of 7 May 1915, by the German submarine U-20 has been apocryphally given as to the reason why the United States declared war on Germany. The LUSITANIA sank with the appalling toll of 1,198 men, women and children. Many of them were United States citizens. The truth of the matter, however, was that these passengers were informed of the impending danger. Before the ship had sailed, Germany took out an extraordinary advertisement which was printed by the American Press.
Except for the experience gained, and the successful consummation of transversing the Atlantic with the smallest submarine ever to cross that ocean, American submarines accomplished very little in the area of sinking enemy shipping in World War I. However, the principal reason for this was the fact that there was no one to fight. Few enemy surface vessels were sent out beyond Skagerrak. The one attempt that was made resulted in the withdraw of the German Fleet at the Battle of Jutland. Still, German submarines were the only craft permitted to roam the Atlantic in any great numbers.
Nevertheless, U.S. submarines contributed to the war effort performing and carrying out a variety of special operations for which 58 submarine officers and 3 enlisted men would be awarded the Navy Cross for meritorious action beyond the call of duty involving great risk. Also awarded were 5 Distinguished Service Medals and 14 Letters of Commendation.
The R and S-class submarines under construction during World War I reflected the Navy Department's prevailing warfare thinking of the time. The submersible or submarine was no longer thought of as purely a weapon for coastal defense. The Navy now viewed the submarine as being a type of destroyer or torpedo boat that could operate with the battle fleet. On paper, these characteristics, adopted during World War I, brought the Navy one step closer to the "fleet submarine," developed during World War II. Consequently, the S-class submarine in 1916, could do 15-knots on the surface.
Unlike the K-class submarines, stationed in the Azores, L-boats took up station on Bantry Bay, on Berehaven Island in Ireland. During the war these submarines had the letter "A" added to L-class designation (AL) to differentiate them from the British submarines of the same class.
So American submarines were now in the war. A total of twenty American submarines would cross the Atlantic for duty in European waters. The other submarines not mentioned above were the O-3 (SS-64), O-4 (SS-65), O-5 (SS-66), O-6 (SS-67), O-7 (SS-68), O-8 (SS-69), O-9 (SS-70), and O-10 (SS-71). These eight submarines of the O-class, however, arrived to late to the war zone. This division of submarines, with the submarine tender SAVANNAH, had left Newport, Rhode Island, on 2 November 1918, and before reaching the Azores, the Armistice was signed.
Out at sea, German submariners sank British and Allied shipping without fear. In January 1916, 181 vessels totalling 298,000 tons were sunk. In February, 468,000 tons (259 ships) were destroyed --and so it went on, rising relentlessly month by month. By April, 849,000 tons of shipping were lost. One out of every four British merchant ships that left port never returned.
The war at sea was at the crisis stage. Allied merchantmen were being sunk faster than they could be replaced and Britain, with but a three-week supply of grain on hand, was in danger of being starved into submission. Few people know this closely guarded secret. The U-boat stranglehold on Britain had to be prised loose.
In February 1917, in an attempt to starve Britain into submission, Germany ordered the resumption of resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare against all neutral and belligerent merchant shipping found in the war zone. The German High Command fully realized that this would probably bring the United States into the conflict on the side of the Allies but gambled on defeating England before the Americans could mobilize their vast resources. Within a few weeks several American merchantmen were torpedoed with loss of life, and President Wilson, who had just been reelected with the campaign slogan, "He kept us out of war," asked Congress for a declaration of hostilities.
By 1914, the United States Navy, with its 300 warships, was considered the world's third largest navy. However, by the middle of the summer of 1916 the United States government came to the conclusion that the American defense effort had to be strengthened enormously. On 29 August, Congress passed the Naval Appropriations Act which authorized a grand shipbuilding program; and, submarines were not left out. More submarines were ordered, and early the next year the secretary of the navy turned the coaling station at New London, Connecticut, into the U.S. Navy's submarine school. For the first time, submarine operations were now accepted as a naval specialty.
America had much to offer the Allied cause, but, for the most part, submarines were not among them. But U.S. submarines prepared to get into the fight. Actually, by that time there was not much use for American submarines in the Atlantic as the British had begun to be effective with their antisubmarine tactics. Nevertheless the decision was made to send American submarines across the Atlantic. With the exception of the submarines of the R and S-class under construction, U.S. submarines were mostly short range coastal craft incapable of crossing the Atlantic under their own power. Nevertheless, that was where they had to be. Somehow, then, they had to be helped across, and the only way of doing this was to tow them. And, taking a submarine in tow is fraught with problems.
While the submarines of the E, K and L-class had been at war, others trained and watched, like the H-4 (SS-147), H-5 (SS-147), H-6 (SS-148), H-7 (SS-149), H-8 (SS-150) and H-9 (SS-151), were assigned as training ships at the San Pedro Submarine Base. Other American submarines were also assigned to patrol off the Atlantic coast; Pacific coast; Canal Zone, Panama; Key West, Florida; the Caribbean; and off the Gulf of Mexico conducting antisubmarine patrol duty until the end of the war.
The first submarines to attempt the crossing was a flotilla of four K-class submarines, which set off for the Mediterranean under escort of the submarine tender BUSHNELL. Of these, only one of these submarines set out under tow from her tender. Remarkably, the K-1 (SS-32), K-2 (SS-33), K-5 (SS-36) and K-6 (SS-37) all reached Point Delgada, Azores, under their own power. The E-1 (SS-24) joined theses K-class submarines in the Azores, holding the distinction of being the smallest submarine ever to traverse the Atlantic under her own power.
K-class submarine K-5 (SS-36)
Pictured here are five of the seven L-class submarines stationed in Ireland. Note the distictive "AL" markings on these submarines.
This "formal" notice was followed by messages sent to passengers intending to travel on the LUSITANIA. Still, America would not enter the war until 1917.
Finally the United States had lost its patience. On 6 April 1917, Wilson declared war on Germany. When the United States entered the war, the fighting had already been going on for two and a half years. The problem at sea was the submarine threat. And sea control --sea power as shipping, not as battleships --would win or lose the war. Even though the German submarine menace did not appear in U.S. waters until nearly fourteen months after the American declaration of war, the utilization of the submarine completely changed the strategic environment.
German U-boats pier side prior to World War I
This H-class submarine, H-7 (SS-150), was originally sold to Russia but purchased by U.S. Navy because of World War I
R-class submarine R-7 (SS-84)
By far, during World War I, the leading class of submarine was the L class; 167 feet long, displacing 548 tons, carrying two officers and 26 enlisted men. Seven L-class submarines, L-1 (SS-40), L-2 (SS-41), L-3 (SS-42), L-4 (SS-43), L-9 (SS-49), L-10 (SS-50), and L-11 (SS-51) tranversed the Atlantic.
(c) Copyright 1999
Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History
Naval History Research & Study Element