Note: This article is a result of some research I have been doing in the past few days about an amazing submarine story related to the technological development of American submarines. The story was researched and developed using two reference books: United States Submarines, Naval Submarine League, published in 2002 and United States Submarines by Robert Hatfield Barnes in 1944. Its a little longer than what I normally post, but if you love submarine history and adventure, it might be a nice read for a very cold winters day.
In the aftermath of World War 1, reparations were demanded by the victorious members of the Allied Powers. 176 submarines were surrendered to the Allies in accordance with the treaties and terms of the peace. Before the war, submarines had been scoffed at by most of the world’s Admiralties. British Admirals dismissed the little craft as being too slow to affect the outcome of any traditional naval battle. American thinking too was clouded by too many unreliable submarines leading up to the early days of the war coupled with contempt from the leaders who had cut their teeth on battleships and surface ships bristling with guns.
Even the mighty German fleet was crippled in the onset of hostilities by two major impacts.
In 1916, The Grand Fleet was unable to succeed in the surface engagements it had with the allies to an extent that the war at sea would swing their way. Plus, the vaunted German U boat fleet was exposed as a shadow of the fleet that had been promised. Grand Admiral Tirpitz and his Navy press bureau systematically had falsified the numbers of available submarines to the public. From German historical records:
“[…] people think we have 60-200 submarines; in fact we have 15 ocean-going […] for the Atlantic […]” The German Government knew that he was systematically lying to the Army and the Government. In a hearing of the Upper Chamber of the Parliament (Bundesrat) in March 1916 Tirpitz saw himself pressed to present an exact number of submarines available: specifically 203.
“Tirpitz […] calculates boats which are momentarily under construction, even if it will take years to finish them. 203. But says nothing about the time of their completion.”
This virtual submarine fleet of 203 boats consisted in February 1916 of:
- 27 submarines ordered, but not yet laid
- 108 submarines on yard, to be finished within the next 12 months
- 26 submarines in the Submarine School:
- 15 outdated or unfit boats
- 11 new boats in commissioning for active fleet service
- 42 submarines in active fleet service:
- 22 coastal submarines (750 – 2.000 sm range) and
- 20 ocean-going submarines (7.000 – 11.000 sm range):
- 15 stationed in North Sea bases, and
- 5 stationed in Mediterranean Bases
There were 8 to 10 new U-boats expected to come from the yards each month from that time onwards, but even 12 months later, in February 1917, when finally the 3rd unrestricted submarine warfare had started, there were no more than 105 ocean-going submarines available, and a maximum of 124 ocean-going boats available was only reached in August of 1917.
The manipulation of the numbers was nothing new for the Grand Fleet that wanted to please the Kaiser at any cost. Submarine warfare was proving to be a major multiplier and in 1916 a rosy picture was needed to offset the stalemates occurring with the fleets on both sides. Sunken allied shipping was indeed a major weapon that was systematically shutting down the important sea lanes. But in the wors of one contemporary writer, this was one lie to many.
“This incident before the Bundesrat was taken as a pretext to force Grand Admiral Tirpitz, who had already fallen in eternal disgrace at the Kaiser, to resign a week later on 15 March 1916. Admiral von Capelle became his successor.” The last submarine of Tirpitz’s virtual submarine fleet from February 1916 to see service was U-92, which started its first patrol on 1 January 1918, 21 months after Tirpitz’s enforced resignation.
Despite the setback in 1916, the German shipbuilding industry rose to the occasion and provided many submarines to push the war effort.
One of the submarines that was built successfully was the U 111.
U-l l l was laid down early in 1917 at Vegesack, Germany, by Bremer Vulcan under subcontract to the Germaniawerit in Kiel, launched on 5 September 1917; completed by Germaniawerft in Kiel, and commissioned in the Imperial German Navy on 30 December 1917, Kapitanleutnant Beyersdorff in command.
From Naval Historical Records:
“After completing her shakedown cruise on 17 March 1918, she was posted to the IV U-Flottille, Hochseeflotte (Fourth Submarine Flotilla, High Seas Fleet). She departed Heligoland, a fortified island and naval base located well inside the German Bight, on 25 March. After the outward voyage, which took her around the Orkney Islands, west of the Hebrides Islands, and south along the western coast of Ireland, she arrived in her patrol area near St. George’s Channel during the first week in April. On the 7th, she sighted her first target, the 2,346-ton British steamer SS Boscastle. The submarine made a surface torpedo attack and sank the ship with a single torpedo. Boscastle, however, proved to be her only victim during this first cruise. She operated in the vicinity of St. George’s Channel for another five days without encountering further shipping and then began the voyage home to Germany. After backtracking along the route she had taken on the outward voyage, U-lll returned to Germany at Emden on 24 April.
A month and three days later, the U-boat exited the Ems estuary to begin her second cruise to raid Allied merchantmen. From the Ems, she headed through the North Sea. On 28 May, her second day out, she came upon a small Danish steamer, the 393-ton SS Dronning Margrethe. Declining to waste a valuable torpedo on such small game, U-111 brought her deck guns to bear and sank the Dane with gunfire. From the North Sea, she followed substantially the same route as on her initial voyage, reaching St. George’s Channel early in June. After an unsuccessful patrol off the entrances to St. George’s and the English Channels, the U-boat retired from the area and again retraced her outward route. On 22 June just outside the Skaggerak, during the last leg of her homeward voyage, the submarine encountered a Norwegian sailing vessel laden with timber for English mines. Once again, she scorned the use of a torpedo in favor of her 4.1-inch and 3.4-inch deck guns and riddled the 272-ton SS Rana with gunfire. Leaving that ship sinking, U-111 headed south through the North Sea for Wilhelmshaven, where she arrived on 26 June.
U-111’s third and final combat cruise proved to be the least successful of all. She departed Wilhelmshaven on 25 August, transited the Kiel Canal, and headed north through the Baltic Sea around Denmark to debouch into the North Sea by way of the Skaggerak. Thence, she rounded the Orkneys and the Hebrides and headed south along the west coast of Ireland. The U-boat then transited St. George’s Channel and entered the Irish Sea. Stormy weather and heavy seas plagued her throughout the cruise, and she appears to have encountered no Allied shipping. She followed the same route back to Germany and concluded her last patrol at Emden on 30 September.
Apparently, U-l l l remained in port at Emden through the cessation of hostilities on 11 November. Nine days after the armistice, she was surrendered to the Allies and interned at Harwich, England.
It was while she lay in British Hands that the theft took place
Captain Thomas C. Hart was the US Navy’s first Director of Submarines and he saw the value in obtaining a sampling of the 176 interned submarines for learning and future submarine development. Despite the issues under Tirpitz in relations to the number of actual submarines the Germans had in 1916, their engineers had built some very sturdy machines with many innovations. If some could be obtained and studied, it would advance the cause of American submarining in the future. There was some sensitivity on the parts of many nations including our allies. The Europeans had borne the brunt of the fighting and were not all that interested in seeing advances in wartime technologies. There is even some evidence that the British who still ruled the seas were beginning to fully understand the threat of a submarine in an open ocean and were not overly excited about that evil spreading to potential future opponents.
Hart came up with a plan to soften the transfer.
First, there would be a limited number of boats obtained. Second, they were to be used as post war fund raising ships that would help American to pay its war debts through bond selling trips up and down the coast during the Victory Loan Drive. Finally, he promised that the ships would be destroyed within a few years and not absorbed into the American fleet. Hart knew however that his submariners would be anxious to study why the German submarines were so successful and his ulterior motive was to spend the limited time reverse engineering the systems and equipment on board the enemy vessels that had sunk so much allied shipping.
Based on these agreements, the Allies authorized six boats-U 117, U-140, UB-148, UB-88 UC-97, and U-164—to the United States on condition that they be destroyed within a year of the transfer. In March 1919, 12 officers and 120 enlisted men arrived in England to ferry the six submarines back to the United States. The U-164 was one of the latest boats to be built so it was considered to be a treasure chest of technology and potential improvements for the Americans. The six officers assigned to bring the boats back were Lieutenant Commanders Aquilla G Dibrell, Harold T. Smith, Holbrook Gibson, Joseph L. Neilson, Charles A. Lockwood Jr, and Freeland A. Daubin.
Two of the submarines had participated in attacks along the eastern seaboard of the United States. After crossing the Atlantic, the U 117 and the U 140 had participated in the sinking of no less than 91 vessels totaling 167,000 gross tons, of which 45 were of American registry (about 65,000 gross tons). All of them represented the finest of German Technological developments in submarining that had been earned through the long years of wartime operations.
Twelve officers and 120 enlisted men arrived in England in March 1919 to bring the selected boats to America. All of the boats except for the 164 boat were prepared for the journey and left with the tender ship Bushnell. Lieutenant Commander Daubin arrived on the 164 to find that it had been gutted. Upon inspection, de discovered that his boat had been used for spare parts and souvenirs by the British, French, Italians and the Japanese naval personnel that had arrived before him. He was quoted as saying: “Had a depth charge been dropped down her hatch, it couldn’t have done greater damage.”
Estimates were that even if the parts could be found, it would take three to four more months to make the ship ready for the trans-Atlantic journey. That additional time would not allow her to arrive in time for the Victory Bond Drive that was scheduled to commence. Plus, the gains from studying the equipment on this boat had been nullified by the pilfering hands of the men before him. One can only wonder if the Japanese (who had entered the war very late in order to gain the spoils of it) gained insights that would benefit their very effective submarine force in years to come.
Daubin was undaunted by the task at hand however and asked permission to see another German submarine that was still in good shape and ready for operations. He felt that seeing an active boat would help him to understand the task ahead. This is how he came to the brow of the U 111 and his act of larceny came to be.
Grand Theft Submarine
The British Officer of the Deck also happened to be the Commanding Officer of the 111 boat. He had received this assignment probably at the end of the war but because of the way the Admiralty was operating, he was not receiving command pay. This unfortunate circumstance existed because the rules stated that you must be in command of a registered vessel in regular commission. The U-111 was certainly not in commission in the British Fleet so he was losing money every day he remained aboard.
Not knowing the Daubin had already been assigned another boat and being very anxious to be relived of this burden, his first words were: Are you going to take the 111?”
From the book “United States Submarines” (Robert Hatfield Barnes (1944)
With the British officer evidencing so much eagerness and offering this tip top submarine, the American’s heart began to beat faster. But if he inwardly yearned for this craft his outward demeanor was casualness itself. Taking a long gamble, he calmly said, “Yes, and I’ve come to inspect her.”
After realizing his luck, he also realized he had better make sure he was not arrested for piracy. He rushed to London and consulted with Admiral Sims who gave him his agreement and permission to consult with the Admiralty. Under the circumstances, it was only fair and right that the Americans should be able to have an operating submarines and fortunately all involved agreed with the swap of the two submarines.
From the Naval Historical Records:
Since she had been substituted for U-184 at the very last minute, U-lll did not put to sea on 3 April with the rest of the Ex-German Submarine Expeditionary Force. She remained in Harwich for an additional four days while her crew conducted a crash familiarization course and completed last-minute repairs Finally, on 7 April, she steamed out of Harwich and stood down the English Channel. Rather than follow the route taken by the other U-boats via the Azores and Bermuda, U-111’S commanding officer sought to make up the time he had lost by heading directly across the Atlantic via a great circle route. Fog, gales, and heavy seas harassed the U boat all the way across the ocean. On one occasion, she came near sinking when she began filling with water because of an open sea-cock. However, one of her crewmen crawled under her engines and into the slimy dark water to find and close the offending apparatus. In spite of adversity, U-11 l made her passage successfully and moored in New York on 19 April, in plenty of time to carry out her tasks in the Victory Bond campaign.
At New York, swarms of tourists, reporters, and photographers roamed throughout the submarine.
Navy technicians and civilian shipbuilders also came to try to learn everything they could about German submarine construction in the brief time before U-l l l departed New York for visits to various ports on the Victory bond circuit.
For the bond drive, the coasts of the United States and the country’s major waterways were divided into five different regions, one for each of the captured U-boats except U-140. U-111 visited ports along the New England coast and received visitors in conjunction with the sales campaign. The submarine completed her assigned itinerary late in the summer of 1919. Following that, she and UB-148 were subjected to an extensive series of performance tests before being laid up at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. During the summer of 1921, she returned to sea for another series of tests, this time as a target for gunnery and aerial bombardment tests. As a result of those experiments, her battered hulk went to the bottom of the ocean sometime in July 1921.
The lessons learned from those six submarines enabled the US Navy to continue to make advances in the art and science of submarining. Many innovations would show up in the Fleet Boats that enable the submarine force to have such a significant outcome in World War 2.Lietenant Commander Daubin, the skipper who “captured” the U11 from the British later went on to be the Commander for Submarines in the Atlantic in World War 2.