The U-boat fleet all started in 1905, when the German government ordered for a new type of military submarine to be produced, and be called das Unterseebootein, which means undersea boat, and is abbreviated as U-boat. Within a short time, Krupp’s Germaniawerft plant designed the almost perfect submarine, except for one flaw, the use of petrol engines. Using gasoline was extremely dangerous, with the constant risk of explosions. So instead of petrol engines, they replaced them with diesel engines. The diesel engine ran off of oil instead of gasoline. Not only was this safer, but more economical too.
On August 1, 1914, World War One began when Germany declared war on Russia. Only two days later, Germany declared war on France, and not soon after, Great Britain declared war on Germany. World War One was underway and the U-boat could not have been ready at a better time. Germany had a fleet of 28 U–boats: 14 still with kerosene burners, and the other half with diesel engines. Either way, they were ready for war at any time.
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On September 5, 1914, history would be changed. Up until that time, no submarine had successfully sunk another ship and escaped. It all started when a U-boat, under the calling name of U-21, was prowling the waters off of St. Abb’s Head near the border of England and Scotland. At about noon, a crewmember spotted a British light cruiser. It was the HMS Pathfinder. The submarine immediately submerged and prepared to fire. However, the range was too far, so the submarine had to give up and resurface.
But the U-boat’s luck came back around 3:45 when the cruiser reappeared. Again, the submarine was ordered to dive and prepare to fire. The distance gradually closed and the captain gave the order to fire. After a few seconds, the torpedo was thought to have missed, but then it came. A huge explosion just under the ship’s bridge. Within four minutes, the HMS Pathfinder had sunk with 296 out of the 299 men aboard. The U-21 had become the first successful war submarine.
This historical mark began the great era of the U-boats. Submarines, instead of warships, controlled the sea. The sinking of the HMS Pathfinder began a chain of domination by U-boats. The next major U-boat attack happened on September 22, 1914. Submarine U-9, an old kerosene burner, was roaming in shallow waters off of Holland when it spotted three heavily armed cruisers, the Aboukir, Hogue, and Cressy. In less than one hour, the small U-boat sunk all three ships, killing more than 1,400 min. Not soon after, the U-9 showed more power by sinking the cruiser Hawke. The old submarine became known as the “lucky U-9.”
Even though most submarine attacks involved torpedoes, some ships were sunk by hand.
The Germans used this technique on some 50,000 boats including freighters, liners, tankers, trawlers, yachts, lightships, colliers, schooners, and tugboats. Most of them were British boats, Germany’s biggest enemy. After a while, Britain devised a way to trick the Germans with this technique. They would use trawlers as bait, so when a U-boat surfaced to sink the trawler, a British submarine would be right behind ready to sink the U-boat. This was very beneficial to Britain on numerous occasions.
However, Germany devised its own plan on how to trick the British. They would disguise a U-boat as a trawler by painting lines to simulate a bow and stern, mounting fake masts, and hanging fishing nets from the false rigging. From a distance, it looked like an ordinary trawler, but what lurked beneath was a U-boat ready to fire.
Another effective technique that the Germans use with U-boats was a blockade. When the British blockade of Germany started to take effect, Germany knew it had to take action and revolt. As a result, on February 4, 1915, the German government issued a warning declaration to Britain.
“All the waters surrounding Great Britain and Ireland, including the whole of the English Channel, are hereby declared to be a war zone. From February 18 onwards every enemy merchant vessel found within this war zone will be destroyed without its always being possible to avoid danger to the crews and passengers. Neutral ships will also be exposed to danger in the war zone, in view of the misuse of neutral flags ordered on January 31 by the British Government, and owing to unforeseen incidents to which naval warfare is liable, it is impossible to avoid attacks being made on neutral ships in mistake for those of the enemy. (Richard Garrett, p.56).
The Germans started unrestricted submarine warfare. Within just a few days, on February 18, the U-boat blockade began. However, Germany felt that progress was slow when after the first week, only 7 ships were sunk, and after the second week, 3 ships were fired at but all escaped. It was concluded that there weren’t enough U-boats blockading the area. Nevertheless, they still had a huge impact.
On May 7, a U-boat, the U-20, started one of the biggest controversies ever. While on the surface recharging her batteries, the U-20 spotted a ship about 14 miles out on the horizon. After observing the ship, the crew had no doubt it was the Lusitania, a huge British liner travelling from New York to Liverpool. For days Germany had been threatening to destroy the ship, but nobody took them seriously.
The U-20 chased the liner at full speed until they came within firing range. Once there, they fired one torpedo. It struck the ship just under the bridge. Within 10 minutes, the ship sank, taking with her 1,198 people, 124 of them being Americans. However, the conspiracy of the attack was that there were two explosions when only one torpedo was fired. While Britain denied any armament on board, Germany insisted there was. The question still lies unanswered.
Then, on April 7, 1917, the United States finally declared war on Germany. Many Americans, as well as the President, were angered by the unrestricted submarine warfare. Only two months later, American forces landed in France, bringing with them heavily armoured ships, along with depth charges and freighters full of thousands of mines. Americans quickly went to work by mining the “Northern Barrage”, a 35-mile wide channel from Scotland to Norway, with 70, 263 mines. A few nights later, 18 U-boats tried to plow their way through the channel, and only two survived.
Germany revolted by sending a pack of U-boats to America’s Atlantic coast. One of them, the U-151, was a new advanced type of U-boat in one of its first attacks. It was sent up to Delaware Bay, where it spread dozens of mines, and sank 23 ships with gunfire and torpedoes, within 94 days. The U-151 proved to be sturdy and worthy of battle.
Nevertheless, even with an attack on American waters, and a new type of U-boat, Germany could not hold up any longer. Instead of receiving convoys and supplies regularly, Americans received them irregularly, having more come in than usual. In the end, Americans had 16, 539 ships to Germany’s (about) 138 U-boats. Germany quickly collapsed. But, after destroying more than 5,000 ships, every U-boat crewmember still saw victory ahead.
In my opinion, even though Germany surrendered, and World War One ended, the U-boats were still the most victorious and powerful force in the war. They had the biggest effect on everyone and everything. They surprised everyone by showing them how advances in submarine technology can lead to dominating sea power. They also proved how powerful they were by destroying anything that came their way. While U-boats would go on to have more battles and attacks in World War Two, I feel their greatest achievements were accomplished in World War One.
Spaulding, Leslie. A Century of Submarines: The Role we played. Online. http://www.dt.navy.mil/pao/excerpts%20pages/2000/subs100yr9_00.html. Posted: 8, September 2000. Accessed: 15, May 2001
Weller, George. The Story of Submarines. New York: Random House, 1962.
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