In August of 1914, events on land in Europe came to a head and the first global conflict began
As hellish as the existence of the war on terra firma, a new type of warfare was changing the way tacticians and leaders would see the war at sea for generations to come. The small boats used by the Germans were more likely to engage the enemy on the surface than underwater. While the boats were submersibles, they were designed to be at their best on the surface.
In the same month that the land war started, a fleet of ten U-Boats set sail to engage the Royal Navy.
This would mark the first submarine war patrol as the small vessels entered the North Sea in search of the enemy. It was an ignoble beginning for submarine warfare. The Grand Fleet was far superior to the German fleet and the intent was for the boats to try and level the playing field. While the German’s learned a lot of lessons, they were not successful in this engagement. Only one attack was launched (the torpedo missed the HMS Monarch) and the Germans lost two submarines.
The imbalance in fleets would come back to haunt the Germans throughout the course of the war and lead to a decision that would give President Wilson no choice but to enter on the side of the British and French. What complicated the matter for the Germans was that when the Kaiser and his Generals started the war, they only had a few months worth of raw war materials on hand. They were so confident of a swift victory, they felt that this would not be an issue. The task was simply to take the materials needed from the captive territories. It was a miscalculation that eventually starved their war machine and their people.
At the start of the war, the Imperial fleet had many restrictions on Submarine warfare
As the war proceeded, most of these rules fell by the wayside. Desperation on the part of both sides led to desperate tactics.
Truthfully, they were no worse and no more cruel than the land war where millions were cut down in their prime (both civilians and combatants). But the open range nature of unrestricted submarine warfare struck a spark in the American spirit and pushed the US closer and closer to war. By 1917, the sinking of so many non-combatant ships in this new warfare spelled doom for the Germans. An outraged and angry American public demanded justice and mobilization began in earnest.
Considering the technology of the time, the U-boats were remarkably successful. Their form of warfare was principle in creating massive shortages in the British and French empires. Lessons learned during the first world war were to be used by their colleagues in the second world war with much more effectiveness. But they changes the face of war forever.
A great treasure
If you have some time, it is worth the trip to the Imperial War Museum’s film library to see a remarkable film about German submarine warfare in World War 1. Der magische Gurtel (The Enchanted Circle) was a propaganda film made by the Germans and restored and digitalized. It is a fascinating look at submarines from the eyes of the Germans and despite its propaganda design, it is a classical piece of submarine film that should not be missed.
From the Imperial War Museum Web Site:
“31 March 1917. The opposing sides were starting to make serious efforts to secure media attention. U-35, a star performer in the German navy, leaves the submarine base at Cattaro (modern Kotor, in Montenegro) for a mission in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic. The presence of a camera on board ensures that the commander’s destructive exploits are immortalised.
In the next 36 days, U-35 sinks 23 enemy and neutral ships – 10 of the sinkings are captured on film. As in the stereotype picture of submarine attacks, torpedoes fired from underwater without warning are sometimes used, but more often the enemy ship is subdued in a gunnery duel fought on the surface, or halted by a warning shot across the bows. Its sailors are allowed to take to the boats (though the captain might be taken into captivity), before the ship is sunk by demolition charge, torpedo or further shell-fire.
Between actions, everyday life on the submarine carries on. It is actions of this kind that are recorded in the film. While providing authentic views of the First World War ‘Handelskrieg’ (war on trade) in the Mediterranean, this is nonetheless a rather idealised vision of submarine warfare, serving the needs of German propaganda.”
I used to wonder what it would be like if my generation had ever been ordered to conduct unrestricted warfare. Of course the consequences would have been much more dramatic and devastating. Like some I suppose, I used to think about what the world would be like if we were directed to let hell lose on the face of the earth. It left a mark on me then and even now, I have dreams every once in a while about trying to find a home port after the “last” war.
It can be frightening living under the threat of a country that has nuclear weapons and has expressed to anyone that will listen how much they hate you. The idea of someone who is capable of supporting terrorism on a smaller scale obtaining the ultimate weapon of terror brings back memories of those days. What if a rogue Soviet Commander had decided to make an impact on the world’s politics by launching a few birds? Once the missile has left the silo, it is hard to call it back. (or so I’ve heard)