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Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War
Chapter 13d - The Military and Political Significance of the U-boat Campaign

All these impressions induced me, when I wrote my report of the Battle of the Skagerrak for the Emperor, to conclude by again pointing out most emphatically the necessity of taking up the unrestricted U-boat campaign at once, unless we wanted to give up all hope of defeating England. Now Admiral von Muller's letter seemed to imply that the Emperor disapproved of my urging this, whereas I was able to ascertain later that His Majesty, far from appending any disparaging remark to the conclusion of my report, had actually appended a note of approval to it, and had acquiesced in my report as a whole.

We should have begun the U-boat campaign in January, 1916, as the Chief of the Naval Staff proposed, or at latest immediately after the Battle of the Skagerrak, when, to my idea, the circumstances were particularly favourable. That we failed to do so fatally affected the outcome of the war. Thanks to the number constructed in 1915, we had a sufficiency of U-boats. We lost valuable time that year, when our nation's power of resistance was much greater than in 1917, when we were almost at our last gasp, and we were forced, after all, to seize the weapon which promised to prove our salvation. And in the course of this year England was able systematically to develop her defence.

The remainder of 1916 was taken up with similar discussions between the Naval Staff, Fleet and Government. The Chief of the Naval Staff endeavoured to persuade the Ministry to sanction the unrestricted U-boat campaign, and, on the other hand, urged the Fleet to agree to the boats resuming the war against commerce in a milder form. I was convinced that, if the leaders of the Fleet had given way in this matter, the worst would have happened— just what we most had to try and avoid, viz. that we should really have carried on a sort of presence campaign to act as a soporific to the feelings of the people, and we should have presented the blunt edge of our weapon to the enemy.

At the beginning of the year 1916 the Chief of the General Staff of the Army, von Falkenhayn, had also strongly advocated our embarking on an unrestricted U-boat campaign, because he had realised that our only hope of future salvation lay in overcoming English resistance. In the autumn of 1916 Field-Marshal von Hindenburg took over the Supreme Command of the Army, to save the serious situation which had arisen in the war on land. At that time there was under discussion a new demand on the part of the Chief of the Naval Staff to resume the U-boat campaign with full intensity. At the meeting of September 3 at General Headquarters in Pless, at which the matter was considered, the following were present: the Imperial Chancellor, the Field-Marshal, General Ludendorff, Admiral von Holtzendorff, Admiral von Capelle, as Secretary of State of the Imperial Ministry of Marine, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, von Jagow, the Secretary of State, Helfferich, and the War Minister, Wild von Hohenborn. The outcome of the proceedings was that, after consulting all who were concerned in the question of the U-boat campaign, they unanimously declared that the decision must for the time being be postponed, because the general situation, and especially the military situation, was by no means clear, and they resolved that the final decision should lie with General Field-Marshal Hindenburg. I took occasion after that to send the Chief of the Staff of the High Sea Fleet to General Headquarters, to consult with General Ludendorff, and they agreed upon the following:

1. There is no possibility of bringing the war to a satisfactory end without ruthless U-boat warfare.

2. On no account must a half-and-half campaign be started, which could not achieve anything of importance, but involved the same military dangers, and would probably result in a new limitation for the nation.

3. The U-boat campaign should be begun as soon as possible. The Navy is ready.

4. The separate treaties with the Northern States, who had received considerable concessions in the matter of exports to England, must be cancelled with all speed, so that we can act without interference.

5. In no circumstances must there be any yielding.

The Chief of the Staff returned from this conference under the impression that the question of the U-boat campaign could not be in better hands than in those of the Chief of the General Staff of the Army. I was able to confirm this view later, when on November 22 I had occasion myself to discuss the question at General Headquarters with the Field-Marshal and with General Ludendorff.

The military situation in the autumn had led to a postponement of U-boat activity, so as to avoid complications in the War Zone round England; the only injury to commerce at the moment was that inflicted on ships in the Mediterranean. That is why the U-boat campaign was extended to Northern waters—to sink supplies which were sent via Archangel to the Russian seat of war.

The refusal of our peace proposals in December brought about a new situation in the U-boat war. Our enemies had given us clearly to understand that they would accept no peace of understanding. This led to the decision to open the unrestricted U-boat campaign on February 1, 1917. The Chief of the Naval Staff, with the approval of the General Field-Marshal, succeeded in bringing about this decision, in which the Imperial Chancellor acquiesced. So on that date the most effective period of our war against England actually began. On December , 2, 1916, the Chief of the Naval Staff had again, in a detailed memorandum, given explicit reasons for adopting this form of campaign. He summed up his arguments as follows:

" 1. A decision must be reached in the war before the autumn of 1917, if it is not to end in the exhaustion of all parties, and consequently disastrously for us. Of our enemies, Italy and France are economically so hard hit that they are only upheld by England's energy and activity. If we can break England's back the war will at once be decided in our favour. Now England's mainstay is her shipping, which brings to the British Isles the necessary supplies of food and materials for war industries, and ensures their solvency abroad.

"2. The present state of the tonnage question, which has already been described in detail, may be summed up as follows: Freights in the case of a large number of important articles have risen tremendously, some of them to ten times and more what they were before. From many other indications we can conclude with certainty that everywhere there is a shortage of tonnage. We may with safety assume that English shipping still amounts at the moment to 20 million tons, gross tonnage. Of this at least 3.6 million tons are requisitioned for military purposes, and half a million tons are occupied in coast traffic; about 3.6 million tons are under repair or temporarily unfit for use; about 2 million tons are taken up in supplying the needs of England's Allies; so that for her own supplies at most 8 million tons are available. Computations based on statistics of traffic in English ports gives an even smaller result. According to that, from July to September, 1916, English shipping amounting to only 6¾ million tons, gross tonnage, was engaged in traffic to England. Other shipping going to England may be estimated at 900,000 tons of enemy—' non-English '—ships, and a good 3 million tons of neutrals. Taking it all round, the shipping which supplies England amounts to only 10¾ million tons, gross registered tonnage, in round figures.

" 3. The results achieved hitherto in the war on shipping justify us in assuming that further activities in this direction promise success. But in addition to this, the bad harvests in wheat and produce all over the world offer us a quite unique opportunity of which it would be sinful not to take advantage. North America and Canada will, in all probability, be able to send no more grain to England after February, so the latter will have to draw her grain supplies from the distant Argentine; and as the Argentine can spare very little, owing to a bad harvest, it will have to come all the way from India, and to an even greater extent from Australia. The fact that the grain has to come from such a much greater distance involves the use of 720,000 more tons of shipping for grain carrying purposes. It practically comes to this, that until August, 1917, of the 10¾ million tons at their disposal ¾ million are required for a purpose for which they were never needed before.

"4. Such favourable conditions promise certain success to an energetic blow, dealt with our full force against English shipping. I can only repeat and emphasise what I said on August 27: ' Clearly what we must do is to bring about a decision in our favour by continuing to destroy shipping,' and, further, ' It is absolutely unjustifiable from the military point of view not to make use of the weapon of the U-boat.' I do not hesitate to assert that, as matters now stand, we can force England to make peace in five months by means of the unrestricted U-boat campaign. But this holds good only for a really unrestricted U-boat campaign, not for the cruiser warfare formerly carried on by the U-boats, even if all armed steamers are allowed to be torpedoed.

"5. Basing our calculations on the former monthly results of 600,000 tons of shipping sunk by unrestricted U-boat warfare, and the expectation that at least two-fifths of neutral sea traffic will at once be terrorised into ceasing their journeys to England, we may reckon that in five months shipping to and from England will be reduced by about 39 per cent. England would not be able to stand that, neither in view of post-war conditions, nor with regard to the possibility of carrying on the war. She is already confronted with a shortage of food which forces her into attempting the same rationing measures that we, as a blockaded country, have had to adopt in the course of the war. The existing conditions with which such an organisation will have to reckon are very different and incomparably less favourable in England than here. The necessary authorities do not exist, and the people in England have not been educated to submit to such coercion.

"For another reason it would not now be possible to institute a uniform reduced bread ration for the large population of England. It was possible in Germany at a moment when the sudden reduction in the bread ration was counterbalanced for the time being by supplies of other food. They have missed that opportunity in England, and nothing can recall it. But with about three-fifths of her former shipping she cannot continue her food supply without a steady and vigorous reduction in the consumption of wheat, while at the same time she has to keep up her war industries. In the accompanying memorandum I have refuted in detail the objection that England might have enough grain and raw materials in the country to be able to carry on through this period of danger until the next harvest. Added to this, the unlimited U-boat campaign would mean an immediate shortage of fats, since she would be cut off from imports from Holland and Denmark; and one-third of her total imports of butter come from the latter country, while all the margarine comes from the former. Further, it will mean that the lack of wood and iron ore will be intensified, because the import of wood from Scandinavia will be threatened, while at the same time the imports of iron from Spain will be jeopardised. That will mean an immediate reduction in coal production, because the necessary wood will not be forthcoming; the same is true of iron and steel, and consequently of munitions, which are dependent on both. Finally, it will at length give us the desired opportunity of attacking the supply of munitions from neutral countries, and by so doing relieve our army.

"As opposed to this, cruiser warfare waged by U-boats, even if armed steamers were not exempt from sinking, would result in reducing shipping to England by one-fifth of 400,000 tons, or about 18 per cent of the present monthly traffic, that is less than half of what would result from the unrestricted U-boat campaign. Judging by our experience up to date, we cannot assume that if the armed steamers were not exempt there would be a perceptible increase in the sinking of tonnage, which in the last two months amounted to about 400,000 tons a month. So far as one can see, any such increase would only serve to counterbalance the losses which must be expected to grow in number as the arming of the ships proceeds.

" I am quite clear on the point that the loss of one-fifth of British shipping would have a very serious effect on their supplies. But I think it out of the question that, under the leadership of Lloyd George, who is prepared to go to all lengths, England could thereby be forced to make peace, especially as the above-mentioned effects of the shortage of fats, wood and iron ore, and the continued influence on the supply of munitions would not come into play at all. Further, the psychological effects of panic and fear would be lacking. These, which can only result from unrestricted U-boat warfare, I hold to be indispensable conditions of success. Our experiences at the beginning of the U-boat war in 1915, when the English still believed we were in earnest about continuing it, and even in the short U-boat campaign of March and April, 1916, proved how potent these effects were.

"A further condition is that the declaration and commencement of the unrestricted U-boat war should be simultaneous, so that there is no time for negotiations, especially between England and the neutrals. Only on these conditions will the enemy and the neutrals be inspired with ' holy ' terror.

"6. The declaration of unrestricted U-boat warfare will confront the Government of the United States with the question whether they are prepared to draw the logical conclusions from the attitude they have hitherto adopted towards the use of U-boats or not. I am most emphatically of opinion that war with the United States of America is such a serious matter that everything must be done to avoid it. But, in my opinion, fear of a break must not hinder us from using this weapon which promises success. In any case, it is desirable to envisage the consequences least favourable to us and to realise what the effect on the course of the war will be if America joins our enemies. So far as tonnage is concerned this effect can only be very small. It is not probable that more than a small fraction of the tonnage belonging to the Central Powers which is lying in America, and perhaps also in neutral ports, will be quickly available for voyages to England. By far the greater part of it can be damaged to such an extent that it would be useless during the first months, which will be the decisive period. Preparations for this have been made.

"Nor would crews be immediately available for them. Decisive effects need not be anticipated from the co-operation of American troops, who cannot be brought over in considerable numbers owing to the lack of shipping; similarly, American money cannot make up for the shortage of supplies and tonnage.

"The question is, what attitude America would adopt if England were forced to make peace. It is improbable that she would decide to carry on the war singlehanded, as she lacks the means to make a vigorous attack on us, and her shipping would meanwhile be damaged by our U-boats. On the contrary, it is probable that she would associate herself with the peace concluded by England so as to return to healthy economic conditions as soon as possible.

" I have therefore come to the conclusion that we must have recourse to unrestricted U-boat warfare, even at the risk of war with America, so long as the U-boat campaign is begun early enough to ensure peace before the next harvest, that is, before August 1; we have no alternative. In spite of the danger of a break with America, an unrestricted U-boat campaign, begun soon, is the right means to bring the war to a victorious end for us. Moreover, it is the only means to that end.

"7. The situation has improved materially for us, since in the autumn of 1916 I declared that the time had come to strike a decisive blow against England. The failure of the harvests all over the world, together with the effect of the war on England up to the present time, once more give us a chance of ending the war in our favour before the new harvests are reaped. If we do not make the best of this, the last opportunity as far as man can tell, I see no other possibility than exhaustion on both sides without our being able to end the war so that our future as a World Power is secured. In order to achieve the necessary effect in time the unrestricted U-boat campaign must begin on February 1 at the latest.

"I beg your Excellency to inform me whether the military situation on the Continent, particularly as regards the States which are neutral, will permit of this date being fixed. I require a period of three weeks to make the necessary arrangements.

"(Signed) v. HOLTZENDORFF."

There is no doubt that the Chief of the Naval Staff, although we in the Fleet had no special knowledge to that effect, must have made known to the Cabinet the same views which he described in so much detail in his memorandum to General Field-Marshal von Hindenburg, viz., that it was high time to start the unrestricted U-boat campaign. In this quarter, though, he seems to have met with greater difficulties, so that he once more appears to have been inclined to compromise. When the orders regarding the date of the opening of the campaign failed to reach the Fleet in the middle of December, the time for which the admiral had announced them, and when, in reply to my inquiries, I received evasive answers, I feared that a new obstruction had arisen. I therefore sent Captain von Levetzow to Berlin to make inquiries. He was given to understand in an interview with Admiral von Holtzendorff on January 4 that for the moment he could only obtain permission to sink armed liners. A Note on this subject was ready and about to be dispatched to America. Again there was the danger that we should pursue exactly the same course as a year ago, a course which had led to such miserable results. I had commissioned my representative to warn them emphatically against this. He had occasion on January 8 to be received by the Imperial Chancellor and to point out to him the inadequacy of such a middle course which was bound to give offence and would be wrecked if America offered objections. The difficulty of determining whether a steamer were armed or not would seriously compromise the success of the undertaking. The Chancellor went the very same evening to Pless, where the decisive session took place the following day when the Chief of the Naval Staff insisted on the necessity of the step, as explained in his memorandum to the Field-Marshal, and convinced His Majesty as well.

On January 9 the officer commanding the Fleet received two communications at short intervals. The first stated that from February 1 onward all merchant ships as soon as it had been positively ascertained that they were armed were to be attacked forthwith. Up to that date only armed cargo boats were to be sunk without warning. This meant that after February 1 passenger ships also would be subject to submarine attack. The second telegram contained an order sent by the All Highest to the Chief of the Naval Staff to the following effect:

"I command that the unrestricted U-boat campaign shall begin on February 1 in full force. You are to make all necessary preparations without delay, but in such a way that neither the enemy nor neutrals can obtain early information of this intention. The fundamental plans of operation are to be submitted to me."

It struck me as odd that an order to proceed against armed steamers should be issued on February I while the unrestricted U-boat campaign was to start on the same day. The only explanation I could think of was that the aforementioned Note concerning the treatment of armed steamers from February I onwards had already been sent to the American Government, and that it was too late to stop it being delivered. The American Government would certainly be surprised if, after receiving such an announcement in the first half of January, it were informed a few weeks later (February 1) of the intensification of U-boat warfare. But it would make a vast difference to America whether the fundamental right of neutrals to send ships to the blockaded area was conceded, or as unrestricted U-boat war demanded, all shipping in those parts was exposed to destruction. It seems, judging by later communications, there was some idea of asking the American Government to mediate; if this was so the adoption of two such different attitudes on the U-boat question, one following the other in such quick succession, must have an awkward effect. Nothing was made known to the Naval Staff, nor to the officers commanding the Fleet (who certainly were not directly concerned in such matters), of any negotiations which were in progress at that time and which might have been unfavourably affected by the declaration of the unrestricted U-boat campaign. When later on I took over the duties of Chief of the Naval Staff I found no record that any letter from the Imperial Chancellor had been received before the actual commencement of the unrestricted U-boat campaign on February 1 asking for a postponement so as to make a last attempt to avoid this extreme measure. I am convinced, too, that if Admiral von Holtzendorff had had any knowledge of the matter he would have told me of it when he handed over affairs to me on our change of office, if not before. Owing to his severe illness in the summer of 1918 he never had an opportunity of making any statement on this question.

With the unrestricted U-boat campaign we had probably embarked on the most tremendous undertaking that the world-war brought in its long train. Our aim was to break the power of mighty England vested in her sea trade in spite of the protection which her powerful Fleet could afford her. Two and a half years of the world-war had passed before we addressed ourselves to this task, and they had taxed the strength of the Central Powers to the uttermost. But if we did not succeed in overcoming England's will to destroy us then the war of exhaustion must end in Germany's certain defeat. There was no prospect of avoiding such a conclusion by the war on land; nor could we assume that America's definitely unneutral attitude towards us would change, or that by her mediation any peace could be obtained with satisfactory results for us, since Wilson's proposal to act as mediator in a peace in which there should be neither victors nor vanquished had been so brusquely refused by our enemies.

In such a situation it was not permissible to sit with folded hands and leave the fate of the German Empire to be decided by chance circumstances. All in a position of responsibility felt it incumbent upon them to suggest any means that offered a prospect of warding off the impending disaster. An opinion from the military point of view as to the chances of success in war upon enemy sea trade had been expressed; it was based on the statistics of tonnage sunk in previous years. In this respect expectations were far surpassed in the coming year. But the effects of this blow dealt to English commerce could not be foretold in the same way. It was immediately obvious that a reduction of the English mercantile fleet by a third, or even a half, must have a catastrophic effect on English economic conditions, and make England incline towards peace.

The Naval Staff had made a point of carefully examining the economic conditions with the help of experts and had recorded the results of their researches in a number of detailed memoranda, which they had submitted to the responsible Imperial officials. These researches had included the complicated problems of traffic for military purposes as well as for the needs of civilians by land and sea; supplies for the whole country as well as for the troops in the various theatres of war; the food supply of the nation; distribution of goods; home production; stores controlled by the State and rationing. Moreover, all these inquiries and the considerations they gave rise to had to be carried out in unfamiliar circumstances due to the war. Further, an estimate had to be made of the probable direct and indirect effects of all these conditions on the psychological state of the people. The conclusions based on these researches were drawn up in outline so as to give some idea of the probable effects, and they confirmed the general impressions gathered from the beginning of our war on trade that success was certain to crown our efforts if we pursued this course. We had no alternative but to attack our enemy by trying to destroy his economic strength, since all his efforts were directed towards crushing ours. Now, as never before, it depended on which of us could hold out the longer.

In every great effort, if you want to develop it to its fullest strength, you must have the conviction that you can defeat your opponent. That is why the U-boat campaign required the support of all classes that expected the victory of our Fatherland. Every doubt of its success must strengthen the enemy's view that we would soon tire.

But the political leaders had already done all in their power to undermine confidence; and their fear that this kind of warfare might assume forms which would burden us with new enemies had affected timid souls, and it was bound to have a depressing effect if doubts of the final outcome were allowed to appear; should expectations not be fulfilled exactly within the periods mentioned by the Naval Staff. The enemy took full advantage of the discouragement thus aroused, when these people despaired of attaining the desired end; his courage and resolution to hold out were strengthened by it. It is a great pity that the calculations of the Naval Staff were published throughout the country; they had assumed the success of the U-boat campaign within a fixed period of time, and were meant for a narrow circle only. Many who would have held out but for this disappointment lost courage, realising that we had no choice and must bear the privations until success, which could not fail to come ultimately, was achieved. If the calculations of the Naval Staff had fixed too early a date for the effects, and it had taken a much longer time until England could not stand any further destruction of her merchant ships, even then no other choice would have been left us but to make use of these means. The refusal of our peace proposal had so clearly demonstrated the enemy's desire to destroy us that no one would have been prepared, in view of the general situation at the end of the year 1916, to accept a humiliating peace.

The strategic offensive passed definitely to the Navy on February 1, 1917. U-boats and the Fleet supplemented one another to form one weapon, which was to be used in an energetic attack on England's might. Our Fleet became the hilt of the weapon whose sharp blade was the U-boat. The Fleet thus commenced its main activities during the war to maintain and defend the new form of warfare against the English Fleet.

The English defence consisted in combating the U-boats in home waters, and to this we could oppose nothing but the skill of the U-boats in evading the enemy. This skill never failed to the very end, although our losses grew heavy.

Our enemies had to go farther to defend themselves against the danger, and had to try to crush it at its source. Only our Fleet could make such efforts fruitless. It had to be in a constant state of readiness to meet the English Fleet in battle; there was no other way. It expected this battle, and had to maintain its strength as much as possible, so as to be fit to cope with the enemy. That is why our Fleet might not weaken itself in view of this last demand that would in all probability be made upon its strength. It found plenty of continued and exacting occupation in combating the means that England had devised to prevent the U-boats from getting out.

The conduct of the U-boat campaign was less a question of the number of boats than one of their peculiar qualities—their invisibility and their submersibility. The former enables them to attack unexpectedly, the latter to escape the pursuit of the enemy. It goes without saying that more can be achieved with 100 boats than with 20. But when the Naval Staff was considering the prospects of a U-boat campaign the first question was to determine the minimum number of boats that would suffice. Moreover, the U-boat campaign's effect was not confined to that of actual sinkings; it did much by disturbing and scaring away trade. Its results were soon perceptible, as it became necessary to regulate traffic according to the ports and districts threatened by U-boats for the time being. Very considerable disturbances in supply and delivery must have been caused, if it suddenly became necessary to alter all the arrangements for traffic, e.g. if railway transport had to be shifted, when ports on the south or west coast of England received no supplies from abroad, because all the ships had to be taken to ports in the north and east.

The number of boats we were able to use in the war against commerce at the beginning of 1915 was about 24; for the first months the new boats built just about covered the losses. It had also become necessary to provide several boats for the U-boat school, so that crews could be trained for the many new boats that were being built. With these 24 boats it was only possible to occupy permanently three or four stations on the main traffic route of English commerce. The tonnage sunk during the whole year of 1915 equalled the tonnage sunk in only six weeks when the unrestricted U-boat campaign was opened. In view of the attitude of conciliation adopted towards the complaints of neutrals, it was premature to begin the U-boat campaign in 1915. It would have been better to wait until the larger number of boats, resulting from the intensive building of 1915, guaranteed a favourable outcome—and then to have persisted in the face of all objections. Had there been no giving way in 1915, the right moment to start the campaign— the beginning of 1916 would not have been missed.


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