Home • Photos • News • Articles • Links • Educational • 1914 • Contacts •

The U-Boat campaign in the First World War

When World War One broke out the U-boat was not really well known. The German Imperial Navy had been involved in a naval arms race with the Royal Navy. The race was expensive. Dreadnoughts cost a phenomenal amount of money to build. The Germans had undoubtedly lost the race as they remained in harbour virtually all the war. The Germans did take the war to the British in the North Sea and Atlantic. But they had to use weapons largely untried in war. The U-Boat was the most widely used weapon.

In May 1915 the first Scarborough victim of the U-boat campaign was mentioned. He was Royal Fleming, a crew member of the Grimsby trawler 'Zarina'. The 'Zarina' was hit so badly that it was lifted clean out of the water. The crew of the 'Zarina' were all drowned(all nine). This was not a one off. A few days later a Scarborough fisherman, Thomas Cowling, was onboard the TW Stuart, from Lossiemouth. This was shelled by a German Submarine.

Soon, the attacks were on ships sailing out of Scarborough. The Concord - a steam trawler was sunk in June by a mine. The crew were all drowned. The skippers body - Robert Heritage - was washed up at Speeton. This allowed the fishing community the opportunity to mourn the loss. The funeral was well attended. Many of the mourners thought of their own relatives also lost whose bodies had not yet been recovered. Fishermen sang at the graveside and all mentioned the skippers ever genial character.

People were curious. They wanted to know about this new weapon of war. It was a largely unseen danger. A serpent ready to strike from the deep without warning. Baron Von Dewitz helped to describe what life was like on a German Submarine. He described in detail, a ficticious attack on a British dreadnought in his book "War's new weapons".

"Except for the intense drone of the electric motor there is no sound within the steel skin of the great mechanical fish. There is no splashing of water against the sides, no wave motion, only the tremendous pressure of the ocean depths, and the 'cruser gauge' shows it".

"Conversation is forbidden. Martial discipline governs every action. Speech is reduced to words spoken in the performance of duty. The electric lights are so arranged that the tools and appliances needed are distinctly visible. Everything is in its proper place, from the potash cartridge chamber that absorbs the foul air to the refuse ejector that blowws waste out into the water".

"The haze has cleared. On the fringe of the horizon is a spot, gettiung ever darker and bigger, with his biunoculars fixed in the periscope the officer gleans the blurred outlines of the three large funnels belching black smoke. There is a sharp command. The gas engine stops engine. The speaking tubes commence to rattle with words of command- sharp, precise,staccato - answered by the quick "Aye Aye Sir" of the crew. The commander takes an observation, the distance between the enemy is measured mathematically, the course is laid by compass, the rate of speed is timed to the distance, there is a rapid inspection of all the gears, and the final dive is ordered".

"Starboard torpedo - Ready - Fire! The second torpedo knocks a hole amidships, exploding her magazine with the roar of an erupting volcano. The huge leviathan of armour plate and giant gun... strong as a fort, representing £2,000,000 in the mint of the realm, and 900 lives in human flesh and bone, has been scrambled into a horrible, tottering wreck - steam whistles screaming for help. Boilers exploding like a field of mines, flames bursting from hatches, masts snapping in two... the crew jammed like squealing rats in a hundred traps".

"In short, a capitol ship, the pride of the proudest Navy, has been vanquished by a small marauding craft, looking very much like a mechanical fish, a little marine toy, a poor skate of a craft, engineered by a boats load of daredevils, the joke of the naval messrooms, and sometimes derisively referred to as the 'tin sardine' ".

This was of course a fictional account. As it turns out the U-Boat was not widely used against the Royal Navy. The submarines instead tried to pick on the harmless merchant shipping. The primary purpose was not for outright control of the seas. It was instead an attempt to strangle the trade which Britain relied upon to feed herself and the war machine in France.

The U-Boats were never popular amongst sailors and fishermen. They were largely tarnished by their cowardly attacks on unarmed merchant ships and trawlers. Crews were indignant at their treatment by U-Boats. One captured trawlerman stated how his crew were forced to swim in the cold waters for "ten minutes whilst the U-Boat officers prepared their cameras to photograph us". They were forced into the ammunition bay and offered no change of clothes after their ordeal.

By 1918 the German U-Boats were the hunted not the hunters. Trawlers were armed by the end of the war. Now the papers were full of stories of U-boats being sunk. Destroyers learned how to sail directly at the U-Boats making themselves a very small target. If the U-Boats missed they would most likely be soon hit by depth charges. They would sink like stones. The death cries of those inside were not even heard - the only sign was the oil and debris that rose to the surface. Yet the Submarine service was still popular in Germany.

The trawlers could easily claim that they were unarmed civilians. As soon as the U-Boat campaign started trawlers were disguised as unarmed vessels when in fact many had concealed weapons and were working in conjunction with the Royal Navy. The Taranaki sank U-Boat U40 with the help of the submarine C24 in the summer of 1914. Some of these Q-Ships(as they became known) even had crews who were trained to look as if they were genuine fishing vessels. Ritter Karl Siegfried Von Georg, commander of U-Boat U57, described trawlers as "an important adjunct to British sea power". He claimed that trawlers engaged in many "anti-submarine activities" such as laying nets, sweeping mines and acting as decoys.

One of the most famous victims of U-Boats was the Lusitania which nearly brought the USA into the war. Historians have always sided with the British who stated that this was an unarmed passenger liner. Yet evidence from dives has shown that the liner carried thousands of rounds of ammunition.

The British are quick to recognise the unfairness of the German blockade. Yet the Royal Navy blockaded German ports and had no qualms about causing starvation amongst Germans. The war was won by destroying enemy commerce. The Germans were simply unable to feed their war machine or their population. At the end of the war their army had not collapsed - it still was disciplined and spent long periods of 1918 advancing. When the Armistice was signed the German army still occupied portions of France and Belgium. They just couldn't maintain this war effort- it was the trade blockade of the British that helped bring this about. A lot is mentioned about the German U-Boat campaign but very little of the British trade blockade which undoubtably caused starvation! That was especially the case in 1918.

The U-Boats commanders generally did not like the work they did - they were simply carrying out orders. Ritter Karl Siegfried Von Georg described the business of sinking merchant shipping as "disagreeable". He apologised to the skipper of the Scarborough trawler the "Seal" saying "Sorry I have to sink you but it is war - this is the 21st today". Much is written of Ritter Siegfried Von Georg but much of it false. They paint him a man who took risks to save the lives of fishermen. But he was merely following orders. The orders were to allow fishermen to leave the boats before sinking as the Germans wanted to avoid bad publicity. He sank boats without any qualms. He would have followed his orders - most soldiers and sailors did.

Werner Furbringer, U-Boat commander of U-39 also spoke of a connection he felt to the seamen. He spoke to them "seamen to seamen". This did not stop him sinking 14 trawlers in one night. He was aware of the difficulties that he was causing them and that he could not stay with sunken lifeboats guiding them to safety. Furbringer, sank several local vessels including the Florence(Sh144), the Dalhousie (SH72), and The Mary Ann(WY 197). He was able to laugh and joke with the trawlermen. He recalls the following story :

"On one of these occasions after sinking a steam trawler I picked up her eight crew men. One stepped forward from the group on the foredeck, gave my men a searching look and then demanded to be taken to the commander. I motioned fort him to approach the conning tower and asked what he wanted, to which he adopted a semi military bearing and shouted up 'I would like to inform you,sir, that this is my third time on his submarine and I thank you for your good treatment... and I hope to see you many more times in the future', I responded with a beguiling gesture, at which the other fishermen all broke out in roars of laughter.

Towards the end of the war U-Boats were hunted down successfully - this induced ever more ruthless behaviour in the U-Boat campaign. In July 1918, a Hospital ship was sunk 117 miles from land. The Canadian vessel the "Llandovery Castle" was not stopped as the Germans had the right to. It was simply sunk without warning. Of the 258 onboard only 24 survivors were found in one single lifeboat.

The Germans maybe did have their faults. Yet in retrospect they should not be treated so harshly? Can their actions be defended? At the beginning of the war U-Boats were considered ineffective weapons of war because they simply had no space for prisoners of war. They simply could not contemplate sinking any vessel and just leave the survivors. Looking back this attitude now appears quaint.

As the war progressed the Germans became ever more ruthless. At first they gave warnings and picked up prisoners. By the end of the war they were sinking hospital ships without warning. U-Boats were cold,dark,places. Perhaps the claustrophobic pressures of submarine war made the U-Boats crews ever more ruthless. When an British ship was hit then the survivors had some chances. Any U-Boat which was hit almost certainly went down like a stone. The U-Boats therefor found their targets and made good their escape. The hunter had now become the hunted. The Germans therefor found a target and made good their escape.

The British were indignant at the breaches of the Hague Convention. Trawlers were crewed by unarmed civilians. But as the war went on the distinction between soldier and civilian became quite blurred. Many of those who died in the battle of the Somme would have been civilians if they had not been conscripted. This was war in a new sense. You could not keep out of it. By the end of the war many trawlers were armed and therefor legitimate targets. Indeed one trawler with a Scarborough connection - the Taranki - was used as a decoy to lure in a U-Boat. Then a British submarine sunk the German U-Boat. The Taranaki became a Scarborough trawler after the war and was itself sunk by a mine in 1920.

Sources- Scarborough Evening New 1918.
- Documents provided by Carl Racey. Translations of Werner Furbringer.
- George Westwood archives.