Captain O’Connel/ is a retired submarine officer. He is currently at work 011 a history of submarines and has offered several fruits of his research for articles in THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.
Early during World War I, the submarine began to emerge as a formidable weapon system. During 1914 submarines sank
a number of capital ships. The war began August 1914. On September 14, 1914, the U-21 torpedoed and sank HMS
PATHFINDER, a light cruiser operating in the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, Scotland. PATHFINDER’s forward magazine
exploded and she went up in a fiery blast, along with over 250 crewmen.
About a week later U-9, a paraffin-electric boat, an earlier model of U-boat equipped with very smoky kerosene engines, was on patrol in the North Sea near the neutral Dutch coast. The weather was stormy and she had been driven south by heavy seas. On 22 September she came across three armored enemy cruisers, HMS ABOUKJR, HMS CRESSY and HMS HOGUE. The heavy weather had forced their destroyer escorts back into port. U-9 had two torpedo tubes forward and two aft plus two reload torpedoes. The armored cruisers had no sensors capable of detecting a submarine except for their lookouts. Commencing an approach at periscope depth U-9 torpedoed ABOUKIR first, and then went
below periscope depth to reload. ABOUKIR’s commanding officer thought his ship had struck a mine and requested assistance from her sister ships. They moved in to rescue survivors. When U9 returned to periscope depth she found HMS CRESSY and HOGUE and their boats engaged in rescue operations, and ABOUKIR sinking. U-9 put two bow torpedoes into HMS HOGUE and ten minutes later she was gone also. U-9 finished off the trio of armored cruisers by hitting HMS CRESSY with her last two torpedoes, after missing with one torpedo. There were almost 1400 casualties, and the Royal Navy thought that an entire Gennan U-boat flotilla had been involved. Naval warfare would never be the same again.
During 1914 the Allies lost only thirteen ships totaling 64, 163 displacement tons. In addition to the ships already mentioned, they included HMS HERMES, HMS HAWKE, and HM SUBMARINE E-3. French battleship JEAN BART was also
torpedoed and badly damaged. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), consisting of a number of Royal Army infantry divisions were all safely transported to French ports without any losses to U-boats. There were two reasons: the German Anny had not seen fit to inform the German Navy of its war plans for a fast sweep through Belgium into
France to take Paris and repeat its 1870 triumph so no naval plans were made to interfere with BEF movement; and the BEF troop convoys were heavily escorted by destroyers.
Convoy of valuable ships was an old technique dating back at least to the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s. Large groups of valuable merchant ships gathered at a convenient port, and waited for a suitable number of escorts. When ready the convoy sailed for its destination, with frigate escorts harrying the plodding merchant sailing ships back into fonnation when they straggled. If an enemy sail was sighted a frigate or two would give chase while the convoy proceeded on its way. A fast sailing privateer vessel like a Baltimore clipper might be able to cut out a prize or two but the bulk of the convoy would reach its destination. The same plan applied to steam ships although they were less affected by winds. Sail-powered frigates gave way to steam-powered destroyers, but the theory was the same.
The Royal Navy instituted a distant blockade of all ship traffic to and from German ports upon the outbreak of war. Before long the effects of the blockade were felt. German government authorities looked for an answer. Their hopes for a short war, based upon taking Paris quickly, had vanished. The German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet were not an even match, with the Grand Fleet’s capital ships outnumbering their German opponents, so there was no hope of breaking the blockade.
In late 1914 Gennan naval authorities suggested that an unrestricted Uboat campaign against merchant trade around the British Isles would be a counter to the British naval blockade. Gennan U-boats had demonstrated their ability to operate all the way around the British Isles. Ship sinking’s mounted rapidly. However neutral nations began to complain about the U-boat tactics when they sank ships without warning. During 1915 and 1916 the rules governing U-boat operations varied as neutral nations’ protests waxed and waned.
In May 1915 a U-boat sank Royal Mail Steamer Lusitania off Southeastern Ireland with a large loss of civilian life, including over 135 American citizens. During 1915 the number of ships sunk or captured by U-boats increased to 660 ships, with a tonnage of 1,302,822 gross register tons. The U-boat campaign continued on into 1916. During 1916 the total of ships sunk reached 1390 for a gross register tonnage of 2,239.162 tons. All of these ships were individual sailers. Convoy was used by the Royal Navy but it was reserved for troop transports and for the essential bulk coal trade from England to France. None of the convoyed ships were sunk.
During 1915 and 1916 there was a classic example of the value of convoy in protecting ships. It took place in the Baltic Sea. This time British submarines were the raiders and ships carrying iron ore from northern Sweden to Gennany were the targets. British submarines were sent into the Baltic Sea at the request of the Russian government to assist in defending Russian Army flanks against German naval forces in the area of present day Lithuania. The Royal Navy also had its eye on the Swedish iron ore trade. When the opportunity presented itself in late I 915, RN submarines shut down the unescorted Swedish iron ore trade, sinking or capturing a number of ships. Then ice shut down operations for the winter.
In spring 1916 when operations were again possible RN submarines found that a very different set of circumstances had developed. The German Navy had instituted strict convoy procedures for Swedish or other ships carrying vital iron ore. A total of 70 torpedo boats and armed trawlers were available as escorts. In addition each convoy had an escort ship armed with 4-inch guns. The Swedish iron ore trade proceeded without a hitch or any losses. The lesson to be learned was a variation on the old saying about the fox and the hen house, “Some day’s chickens, some day’s feathers”. The chickens were unprotected iron ore ships, easy targets. The feathers resulted when convoy was in place.
In late 1916 it became apparent to all the leading Gennan fhierarchy, including the Kaiser, that there was no hope of winning the land war on the Western Front. Mass attacks were stalemated by the ever-present machine gun. Tremendous artillery barrages in advance of an attack tore up the ground making it difficult to advance. Meanwhile the Gennan Home Front was suffering dreadfully from the economic effects of the British blockade. However the off again-on again U-boat campaign had shown that even in its restricted fonn, it could sink a huge amount of Allied and neutral shipping. If a totally unrestricted U-boat campaign was instituted, the prediction was that so much shipping would be sunk that Great Britain would be forced to the negotiating table by late 1917. With Great Britain out of the war, Gennany could then deal with France. However, such a campaign would inevitably draw the United States into the war on the Allied side. Never mind, the U-boat campaign advocates noted the current size of the U.S. Anny – ranking after little Portugal, and predicted that it would take two full years for the United States to draft, organize and train a large army, and get it across the Atlantic Ocean and into combat. It would be too late.
The die was cast and in late January 1917 an unrestricted submarine campaign was announced to commence on February 1, 1917. No ship near the British Isles would be safe from attack. Ship losses quickly mounted. In February 520,412 tons were sunk; in March 564,497 tons; and in April 860,334 tons went down or were captured. By the end of April there was only six weeks wheat supply remaining in the United Kingdom. It appeared that the Uboat campaign was well on its way to achieving success. Back on 3 February the United States had ended diplomatic relations with Gennany in protest against the unrestricted submarine campaign. On 17 April 1917, after substantial debate the Congress declared war on Gennany.
RADM William Sims, USN, President of the Naval War College, was dispatched to England in early April in response to a request by the U.S. Ambassador in London for a high ranking naval officer to deal with the Admiralty in what looked more and more like U.S. participation in the Great War. Sims arrived on 9 April and proceeded to London where he met with Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, RN, First Sea Lord. Jellicoe and Sims had met years before on the China Station. After initial reluctance Jellicoe finally revealed the true state of affairs- Great Britain was close to being forced to the negotiating table with Gennany. Her food supplies were running out. Sims was appalled and shocked. British censorship had kept the facts from the British public and the world. When RADM Sims asked Lord Jellicoe about a possible solution to the U-boat campaign; Jellicoe told him that the Admiralty had no solution.
Actually the solution was convoy, and it was already at hand. It had worked to safely move the BEF to France at the start of the war, and to move troops around within the British Empire since then. It worked to safely convey vital coal from the British Isles to French ports to fuel French industry. It had also worked for the Gennan side in the Baltic Sea to allow the shipment of iron ore from Sweden to Germany. By gathering a number of ships into a protected convoy, the submarine was frustrated. It could no longer overtake and capture or sink a single unescorted ship. It had to face destroyer or trawler escorts, armed and ready to fight. It might get in a single submerged attack on a convoy but its pickings would be very slim indeed. The bulk of the convoyed ships would escape to make port and deliver their vital cargoes.
The reluctance of the Admiralty to adopt convoy on a wide scale is very difficult to understand today. Apparently its reluctance stemmed from two sources. The first was faulty operations analysis that assumed that a convoy would be much more easily sighted by a lurking submarine than a single unescorted cargo ship. Another faulty ops analysis assumption was that gathering multiple ships into convoy made for more targets and a greater kill opportunity for a submarine. This overlooked the fact that once a submarine attack was made, escorts could hold the submarine down while the convoy got clear. The other factor was the assumption by Merchant Marine and Royal Navy officers that merchant captains would be incapable of following zigzag steering and other convoy procedures adequately.
As I 917 continued shipping losses went up and up. However, in May 1917 several test convoys sailed from Gibraltar to the United Kingdom and from Norfolk, Virginia to Great Britain. All the convoyed ships reached port safely. In August 1917 the Admiralty officially adopted convoy as a standard procedure. By December 1917 shipping losses fell to only 399,000 tons. Most of these losses were to independently sailing ships. Prior to October 1917 some 1500 ships sailed in about 100 convoys. Their loss rate was only one out of 150 ships in convoy (611 0′” of 1%). Independently sailing ships had a Joss rate of 10%, a clear indication of the value of convoy to protect ships from the U-boat threat.
As 1918 began it was clear that the unrestricted U-boat campaign had failed to bring Great Britain to the negotiating table. However the end of the war was not yet in sight. Russia was about to drop out and dissolve itself into a bloody civil war, freeing German troops on the Eastern Front to move west to augment those already facing French, Belgian, British and American troops in the front lines. A major German ground offensive from March until June 1918 used up all German reserves, and left the German army unable to take further offensive action. Increasing numbers of American troops joined the Allies monthly. Finally on 11
November 1918 an Armistice was placed into effect ending the fighting.
It had been a close run race and convoy had saved the day.