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Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War
Chapter 14a - Our U-Boats and their Method of Warfare

IN the year 1916, up to the time of the Battle of the Skagerrak, the following additions had been made to the U-boat fleet: 38 large U-boats, 7 large submarine minelayers, 34 U-B-boats. Two large submarine minelayers, 3 U-B-boats and 3 U-C-boats had still to undergo steam trials; 53 large U-boats, 10 large submarine minelayers, 27 U-B-boats and 66 U-C-boats were under construction. Since the outbreak of war we had lost 21 large U-boats, 1 large submarine minelayer, 6 U-B-boats, 7 U-C-boats, and 2 U-B-boats had been handed over to the Bulgarian Government. The distribution of all the U-boats was so arranged that half were under the orders of the Admirals of the Fleet, and of the rest one half were stationed in the Mediterranean, while the other half, the last quarter, were assigned to the Naval Corps in Flanders. For the sake of quick construction the new types of so-called "U-B "-boats and " U-C "-boats had been introduced, in addition to the main type of large U-boats similar to "U 19," the first one fitted with Diesel engines.

The chief characteristics of the different types were as follows:

"U 19," surface displacement, 650 tons; highest speed on the surface, 12 knots; under water, 9 knots; number of torpedoes, 9, of 50 cm. calibre. Improvements were made in the type. From " U 40 " onwards the displacement was raised first to 700 tons, and from "U 80 " onwards to 800 tons, the speed was raised to 17 knots on the surface, the number of torpedoes increased to 12, and from "U 90 " onwards to 16. The torpedo of 50 cm. calibre had an explosive charge of 200 kilos. The first large submarine minelayers were not armed with torpedoes. They had a displacement of 760 tons, a surface speed of 9.5 knots, and under water 7.5 knots; they carried 34 to 36 mines.

Of the U-B-boats, at first a small number with a displacement of 125 tons was built for use in Flanders, with four torpedoes, speed of 8.5 knots on the surface and 5.5 knots under water. The U-B-boat was then enlarged to 500 tons, with a speed on the surface of 12.5 knots and of 7 under water.

The U-C-boats were of a type designed both for minelaying and firing torpedoes. At first only a small number of these was built, with a displacement of 150 tons; ultimately the boats had a displacement of 400 tons, speed of 11 knots on the surface and 6.5 under water. They carried 18 mines and could take four torpedoes.

At the beginning the U-boats were armed with one 5 cm. gun as a defence against enemy submarines. But as their use was developed in the war, such various demands were made upon them that their armament had to be increased. One or two guns of 8.8 cm. were placed on the U-boats, U-B-boats, and the U-C-boats; the submarine cruisers were in part armed with a gun of 15 cm. calibre.

The majority of the large U-boats was assigned to the Fleet for use in the blockaded area west of England. The length of their trips was 21 to 28 days, but this was also dependent on the amount of ammunition used when the boats had found a favourable opportunity to fire their torpedoes soon after leaving port. The big minelayers were also under the command of the Fleet, and could be sent on distant expeditions—to the White Sea or to the Mediterranean.

The U-B-boats, being rather smaller, had proved to be very handy and quickly submersible, although they could not remain so long at sea. They were, therefore, mainly assigned to the base in Flanders, as were the U-C-boats, of which a small number, however, was at the disposal of the Fleet and used for laying mines on the east coast of England. The distribution of the boats among the various bases was carried out according to the facilities the latter had for repairing the boats on their return from expeditions. The large amount of technical apparatus in a U-boat required very careful overhauling and repair on her return from an expedition; also the damage due to the voyage or to enemy attacks had to be repaired. Generally speaking, after four weeks at sea a boat would need to lie in the dockyard for the same length of time for repairs. The Imperial dockyard at Wilhelmshaven had been enlarged and was the chief place to which the U-boats of the Fleet were sent for repair. The docks at Kiel and Danzig were needed for other purposes; the bases at Zeebrugge and Pola were used at first mainly for overhauling the boats. Until these dockyards had been altered so as to be able to undertake more extensive work the boats which belonged there had to return home for important repairs.

When the U-boat campaign was opened on February 1, 1917, there were 57 boats already in the North Sea. The officer commanding the Baltic district had eight assigned to him, the Naval Corps in Flanders had at its disposal 38, and the stations in the Mediterranean 31 U-boats of different types. The favourable experiences of the commercial U-boat U-Deutschland had led to the construction of U-cruisers, of which the first series had a displacement of 1,200 tons, which was later on raised to 2,000 and more. When they could no longer be used for trade purposes the commercial U-boats were taken over by the Navy and altered for use as warships. They were fitted with two guns of 15 cm. calibre and two torpedo tubes, and could carry about 30 torpedoes in accordance with the extended period during which they could be used on cruises, cruises which reached as far as the Azores and lasted up to three months. With this fleet of U-boats the Navy was well equipped to do justice to the task assigned to it, although England had used the whole of 1916 to develop her defence. The sinkings of the year 1917 prove this. They were:

February, 1917 781,500 tons
March, 885,000 "
April, 1,091,000 "
May, 869,000 "
June, 1,016,000 "
July, 811,000 "
August, 808,000 "
September, 672,000 "
October, 674,000 "
November, 607,000 "
December, 702,000 "
January, 1918 632,000 "
February, 680,000 "
March, 689,000 "
April, 652,000 "
May, 614,000 "
June, 521,000 "
July, 550,000 "
August, 420,000 "
September, 440,000 "

The enemy's defence consisted, firstly, in directly combating the U-boats, and, secondly, in special measures which England adopted to counterbalance the loss of tonnage. The first impediment our U-boats had to overcome—I am speaking of the activities of the U-boats assigned to the Fleet (the same applies to the Flanders boats), whereas those in the Mediterranean mostly worked under less difficult conditions—lay in the minefields blocking the North Sea. To deal successfully with these the Fleet had had to create a special organisation. In addition to the actual mine-sweepers, whose work it was to keep certain paths through the belt of mines clear, special convoying flotillas had been formed, fitted with minesweeping apparatus, which accompanied the U-boats along the routes that had been cleared, till they reached the open sea, and met them at the same spot on their return from their fields of operation to take them safely home again. When attacking steamers the boats had to reckon with their armament, for in spite of the large number of guns required and the crews to man them, nearly the whole of the English Merchant Fleet—at any rate all the more valuable steamers—was armed.

As a further defence, besides the destroyers which were excellently suited to this purpose and were armed with depth charges, a large number of new kinds of boats with shallow draft had been built especially to combat the U-boats. Nets and all sorts of wire entanglements hindered the U-boats in their work near the English coast. The so-called "Q "-boats, intended to serve as traps for submarines, were specially fitted out; they presented the appearance of neutral ships, and on the approach of the U-boat let fall their disguise and attempted to destroy it with guns and explosives. The practice of gathering considerable numbers of British merchantmen together and convoying them added greatly to the difficulties the U-boat encountered in achieving success; these ships were protected according to their size and value either by light craft or by bigger warships.

During the first months of the U-boat campaign I never missed an opportunity of hearing the story of his experiences and adventures direct from the lips of the commander of a returning U-boat; and thus I had opportunity to form an idea of the perseverance, courage and resolution of these young officers who won my highest admiration for the seamanship and the calm intrepidity, which they succeeded in communicating to the crew as well. It is a splendid testimonial to the spirit of the Navy that all who could possibly be considered suitable for the U-boat service, both officers and men, rushed to offer themselves. Even older Staff officers, in spite of their many years of service, begged to be taken as commanders of U-boats, even if they had to serve under a flotilla commander younger than themselves.

The three half-flotillas into which the U-boats of the Fleet lied been formed at the beginning of the war developed in time into four flotillas. Their commanders were: First U-Flotilla, Commander Pasgnay; Second U-Flotilla, Commander von Rosenberg; Third U-Flotilla, Lieutenant-Commander Forstmann (Walter); Fourth U-Flotilla, Commander Pranse. I should like to mention in connection with these Lieutenant-Commander Bartenbach, who was at the head of the U-flotilla in Flanders, who so often supported the enterprises of the Fleet with his boats. In an exemplary manner, despite all obstacles, he directed the difficult operations of the Flanders boats, against which the British defence was particularly heavy. All who served with him were animated by a spirit of comradeship and readiness for action, which had the most refreshing and grateful effect upon anyone who spent any time with them.

The Chief Director of the U-boats under the command of the Fleet was Captain Bauer; he himself took part in the fighting expeditions of the U-boats in the blockaded area round England, in order to be able to form his own opinion of the circumstances in which the boats under his command had to operate. It is his great merit that he recognised the capacity of the U-boat and brought it to that degree of efficiency to which its later successes are due. When, later on, owing to the increasing activity in construction, the number of U-boats grew to such an extent that their organisation far surpassed that required for a squadron and demanded a corresponding increase in authority, Commodore Michelsen, who had hitherto commanded the torpedo-boats, was placed at the head. His great knowledge and experience of the department of torpedoes designated him as particularly suitable for this post, and he completely fulfilled all expectations in this respect.

The U-boat service was the one which suffered the heaviest losses of the Navy; the number of boats lost on fighting expeditions amounted to 50 per cent. Altogether 360 U-boats and U-boat cruisers were employed in the U-boat campaign, of which 184 were lost in the course of their enterprises. This high percentage of losses was for the most part due to the defence of the enemy, which grew more and more vigorous, as he tried to get the better of the U-boat danger by the use of all sorts of dodges and methods; yet a large proportion is ascribable to the fact that our U-boat commanders could not resist the temptation, when sinking a steamer, to save the lives of those on board as far as possible, even though they so often met with disappointment.

I should like to illustrate the difficulties encountered by our U-boats by a few instances, quoting the official reports concerning them. But it would be impossible to do all the commanders equal justice, for they vied with each other in meeting the dangers which their difficult business involved, and with which the public are already familiar through various popular writings.

The journey to America of the "U 53 " is a splendid testimonial to the perseverance of the crew and the high quality of the material. On September 11 this U-boat received orders to lie off the American coast about the time when the U-merchant boat Bremen was expected to arrive at New London (North America), in order to search for and attack enemy ships which, in all probability, would be waiting there for the submarine merchantman. After completing this task, the boat was to call at Newport, Rhode Island, but was to leave again after a few hours at most, so as to give the American authorities no excuse or occasion to detain her. There was to be no replenishment of supplies, with the possible exception of fresh victuals. If no enemy warships were met with, she was to carry on commercial war according to Prize Law off the American coast.

On September 17 the boat started on her outward voyage from Heligoland. In the North Sea she had very heavy weather. There was a S.S.W. gale and such high seas that the men on watch on the conning tower of the boat were up to their necks in water all the time.

The supplies of the boat had had to be increased so as to make the voyage possible. Four ballast tanks were altered for use as fuel tanks, so that the oil supply was increased from 90 cb. m. to 150 cb. m.; the supply of lubricating oil of, 14½ cb. m. was considered sufficient for the voyage. Added to this, there was the increase in fresh water and food supplies, so that the boat's draught was increased by 40 c.m. So far as her sea-going qualities were concerned, her commander reported that the boat rode very steadily on the whole, but that every sea went over her upper deck, even when the force of the wind was only 4; from almost every direction spray flew over the bridge. Consequently for those on duty on the bridge, the voyage, especially at first, was a tremendous strain. The commander did not think that the officers and petty officers would be able to stand it (the rubber suits that had to be worn almost daily for the first fortnight were not watertight), and he would have turned back if the weather had not improved soon after September 24.

The route for the voyage out had been chosen to run from the most northerly point of the Shetland Islands, which they passed on September 20, straight to the Newfoundland Bank, so as to remain on the northern side of the usual belt of low barometric pressure. Weather conditions were uncertain and changeable. There was often a very high and very steep swell, in which the boat pitched heavily. They, however, experienced following winds nearly all the time, which were favourable for journey. After reaching the Newfoundland Bank, the boat, was carried vigorously to the west by the Labrador current. On the whole the health of the crew was good, until they were nearing Newfoundland Bank. Then a number were attacked with headache and sickness, which is said to be a common occurrence in these parts.

On October 7 the boat lay before Long Island Sound. No war ships were encountered. At 3 P.M. the commander entered the harbour of Newport, Rhode Island, accompanied by an American submarine, which had joined him on the way, and there he paid official visits to Admiral Knight and the commander of torpedoboats, Admiral Gleaves. He wrote in his diary:

"The former received me very coolly, and said that the Bremen, as far as he knew, had been sighted about 10 days before between Newfoundland and New York. [That was not correct, as the Bremen never reached America.] Admiral Knight obviously thought it most desirable that the ' U 53 ' should leave again the same evening. If I had not announced that such was my intention, I think I should have been given a pretty broad hint on the subject.

"Admiral Gleaves was very friendly and much interested; he inquired about all particulars of the voyage. The adjutants of both admirals returned my visit. At 4.30 P.M. Admiral Gleaves himself came to inspect the boat. I took him over her, as, earlier in the day, I had done several young officers. More than anything else the Diesel engines roused envious admiration. Many officers came on board with their ladies, as did civilians, reporters, and one photographer. The crew received all sorts of little presents. At 5.30 P.M. we weighed anchor. Proceeded to sea at 6.30 P.M. Trial dive. Course, Nantucket Lightship; 270 revolutions equivalent to 9 knots."

Nantucket Lightship was reached on October 8 at 5.30 A.M, Very clear, calm weather prevailed. The commander decided to examine the merchant traffic outside territorial waters and to wage cruiser warfare.

At this meeting-point of so many trade routes, the boat was able to stop seven steamers in the course of the day, and after the crews had in every case left the ship, she sank the British steamer Strathdene from Glasgow (4,321 tons), the Norwegian steamer Chr. Knutsen (3,378 tons) with gasolene destined for London, the British steamer Westpoint (3,847 tons), the Dutch steamer Blommersdyk (4,850 tons), whose whole cargo consisted of absolute and conditional contraband. According to an American certificate, the Blommersdyk, before reaching her destination, was to call at Kirkwall (in the Orkney Islands, a British examining station for merchant steamer traffic). In his log the commander reports as follows:

"Meanwhile, in this narrow space besides the two steamers— there was an English passenger boat as well, the Stefano, from Liverpool, 3,449 tons, which had already been stopped and was disembarking her crew—and the ' U 53 ' sixteen American destroyers had assembled, so that we had to manœuvre with the greatest care. While I was towing back the boat of the Blommersdyk, which had brought the officer with her papers, ' U 53 ' got so near an American destroyer that we had to reverse with both engines to avoid a collision. We cleared one another by about 50 m. When reversing, I cast my tow loose, and her crew did not return to the Blommersdyk at all, but went straight on board a destroyer. I had told the officer that the crew would be given twenty-five minutes in which to disembark —till 6.30 P.M. To make sure that no one should be hurt, he was to haul down his flag to show that no one was left on board. Then I approached the passenger steamer to examine her papers, or, in case she had not yet lowered a boat, to dismiss her forthwith out of consideration for the passengers. I had already given orders for the signal, ' You can proceed,' when I realised that the steamer had been abandoned and all on board accommodated on an American destroyer. I then returned to the Blommersdyk. By means of a siren and calling through a megaphone I made sure that no one was left on board. A destroyer which lay very near the steamer was asked by Morse signal to move away a little, so that the ship might be sunk. This the destroyer did at once. Hit with torpedo, a depth of 4 m. in hold 4. The steamer was then sunk by a second torpedo."

The passenger steamer Stefano was then also sunk. At 10.30 P.M. the boat began her return voyage. Though it would have been very desirable to extend our activities off the American coast as long as possible, yet any further delay would have endangered the whole enterprise because of the fuel supply; for during the short stay at Newport, the boat, in accordance with the general instructions issued to her, had taken in no supplies of any kind. For the return voyage we counted on a consumption of fuel of 60 cb. m., and a certain reserve was allowed in the event of head winds and storms. That this precaution was necessary is proved by the fact that although the weather as far as the Shetlands was very favourable, the boat arrived at Heligoland with only 14.5 cb.m. of fuel. For the return voyage the longer route via Fastnet Rock was chosen. In so doing, the unsettled weather conditions that had been encountered in the higher latitudes on the voyage out were avoided; also on this southern side of the belt of low barometric pressure there was less fear of head winds than in the north. After waiting twenty hours at the S.E. corner of the Newfoundland Bank to weather a storm, the boat proceeded with little delay as far as the Hebrides, passing through an area of high pressure (770 mm.) accompanied by a steady west wind. The route then followed was round the Shetland Islands. On October 28, at 3 P.M., the boat entered the harbour at Heligoland. It had covered a distance of 7,550 sea miles and had only stopped once for two and a half hours in Newport. When the boat arrived at Wilhelmshaven next day, I was able to assure myself by personal observation that all her crew were in excellent condition. They might well be proud of their eminent, seaman-like, and technical achievement.


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