The Birth of the First Civilian Submarine
While we were on our last trip, I stopped by a used book store and found a book that had been a part of my life growing up. In my Grandfather’s library was a collection of books called “Source Records of the Great War”. These books were collected documents about the events that were part of World War 1 from the viewpoint of the actual participants.
Unfortunately, out of all of the books, only the year 1916 was in the store. While I was reading it last night, I uncovered a piece of submarine history that I was not aware of despite years of reading and presenting submarine talks. An even happened in 1916 that had the potential to change the way submarines could be used in the future.
On July 9, 1916 the captain of the German submarine Deutschland, Paul Koenig, docked in the United States. This submarine was very unique since it had been built by a civilian company to transport goods across the ocean. She was truly a merchantman, and therefore carried no munitions or instruments of war. The most significant part of the voyage at that time was the discovery of the German’s newfound ability to send submarines across the Atlantic.
Needless to say, the belligerent nations viewed this event as a significant change in the global picture. Remember that the modern submarine force at that time was still limited in its ability to travel the globe.
The Deutschland was the world’s first merchant submarine.
It was the first time an undersea ship could travel on a long voyage with her own fuel, provisions and a cargo. She was much larger than the submarines of 1914 and more powerful in every way. The facts of her development were considered to be a significant scientific and technological triumph for her builders. Lessons learned form that first of six ships would later be used to construct the horribly awesome German fleets that could have tipped the balance in both World Wars.
She was constructed without armaments, with a wide beam to provide space for cargo. The cargo capacity was 700 tons (230 tons of rubber could be stored in the free-flooding spaces between the inner and outer hulls.), relatively small compared to surface ships. Of the seven merchant subs planned only two were completed according to the original design: the Deutschland and the Bremen, which was lost without a trace on her maiden voyage.
While the U.S. government allowed merchant vessels from all warring nations to dock at U.S. ports and to freely trade, in practice Britain’s dominance of the seas ensured that Germany was effectively excluded from the U.S. market. So the arrival of the Deutschland threatened to challenge Britain’s naval blockade, at least so far as trade with the U.S. was
Britain, in a joint statement with the other Allied governments, quickly sent a note of protest to the U.S. government arguing that submarines should not be regarded as merchant vessels. In support of this argument the Allies suggested that as a submarine could not be stopped and inspected for munitions in the same manner as other vessels, her real intentions could not be verified.
The U.S. government – under constant pressure from the German government because of suspected favoritism granted to the Allied nations – responded at the close of August 1916 with a rejection of the Allies’ arguments; unarmed submarines, from whatever nation, were to be regarded as merchant vessels and accordingly permitted to trade.
Reproduced below is Captain Koenig’s initial announcement upon arrival in the U.S. with the Deutschland on 9 July 1916.
“German Submarine Deutschland’s Atlantic Crossing by Captain Paul Koenig
The submarine Deutschland, which I have the honour to command, is the first of several submarines built to the order of the Deutsche Ozean Rhederei G.M.B.H., Bremen. She will be followed by the Bremen shortly.
The idea of the building of this submarine emanated from Alfred Lohmann, then President of the Bremen Chamber of Commerce. He brought his idea in the fall of last year confidentially before a small circle of friends, and the idea was taken up at once. A company was formed under the name of “Deutsche Ozean Rhederei G. M. B. H.,” and the Germaniawerft, Kiel, was entrusted with the building of the submarines.
The Board of Directors is composed of Alfred Lohmann, President of the Board; Philipp Heineken, General Manager of the Nord Lloyd, and Kommerzienrat P. M. Herrman, Manager of the Deutsche Bank. Carl Stapelfeldt, Manager of the Nord Lloyd, has taken over the management of the company.
We have brought a most valuable cargo of dyestuffs to our American friends, dyestuffs which have been so much needed for months in America and which the ruler of the seas has not allowed the great American Republic to import. While England will not allow anybody the same right on the ocean because she rules the waves, we have, by means of the submarine, commenced to break this rule.
Great Britain cannot hinder boats such as ours to go and come as we please. Our trip passing Dover across the ocean was an uneventful one. When danger approached we went below the surface, and here we are, safely in an American port, ready to return in due course.
I am not in a position to give you full details regarding our trip across the ocean, in view of our enemies. Our boat has a displacement of about 2,000 tons and a speed of more than fourteen knots. Needless to say that we are quite unarmed and only a peaceful merchantman.
Our boats will carry across the Atlantic the mails and save them from British interruption. We trust that the old friendly relationship with the United States, going back to the days of Washington, when it was Prussia who was the first to help America in its fight for freedom from British rule, will awake afresh in your beautiful and powerful country.
The house flag of the Deutsche Ozean Rhederei is the old Bremen flag-red and white stripes, with the coat of arms of the town, the key in the corner. This key is the sign that we have opened the gates which Great Britain tried to shut up on us and the trade of the world. The gates which we opened with this key will not be shut again. Open door to the trade of the world and freedom of the oceans and equal rights to all nations on the oceans will be guaranteed by Germany’s victory in this struggle for our existence.”
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
The experiment did not stand the test of time however. Within a short time, the United States would come to view submarines as the powerful weapon they truly are because of increases in the hostility between the two nations. All of the remaining subs built by the
new company would be taken over by the German Navy, armed and sent to be a part
of the fleet.
A third voyage as a merchant submarine, planned for January 1917, was aborted as German-US relations had worsened following the sinking of shipping bound for the United Kingdom, often just outside of US territorial waters. The Deutschland was taken over by the German Imperial Navy on 19 February 1917 and converted into the U-155, part of the U-Kreuzer Flotilla, being fitted with 6 bow torpedo tubes with 18 torpedoes, and two 150mm deck guns taken from the pre-dreadnought battleship SMS Zähringen. She made three successful war cruises, sinking 42 ships and damaging one.
At war’s end U-155 was surrendered, displayed in England, and eventually sold for scrap.
I remember as a boy seeing pictures in Popular Science of merchant nuclear powered submarines. I always thought that it could have never become a reality…