Oil, cabbages and very little oxygen… Life aboard a WWI Unterseeboot

May 7th is the anniversary of one of the most significant seagoing tragedies in the annals of submarine history.

The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.

(Note: The article is a good read for a day when you can have some quiet… at the end of the article is a link to a classic documentary film that is nothing short of chilling. Make sure you do not miss following that link)

On May 1st, the German consulate had published advertisements in the New York newspapers advising readers of the dangers of sailing on the Lusitania, a Cunard steamship that was at that time famous as the largest and fastest of all the liners that crossed the Atlantic.

Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
Imperial German Embassy
Washington, D.C. 22 April 1915

May was prime sailing time for all transcontinental vessels and the war in Europe was not even a year old. The ship was built with large hidden guns and more than likely carried a large quantity of American goods including war materials for the Allies.

But the ship sailed filled with many Americans none the less. They had little idea how much of a place they would occupy in history. Neither did the German submarine U-20.

The attitude in America towards the Germans before that May voyage was not as clearly defined. There were large groups of German American immigrant populations in nearly every city and across the large farming communities. The war that was begun the previous August was still strictly a European affair. Even the Presidential campaigns had been centered on avoiding America’s entry into the war. Europe had always had large wars costing uncounted lives and treasure. This was just another one.

Searching through American newspapers at the time, there were reports of the carnage but in 1915 those reports were not as hostile to Germany as they would be in the coming years. We had not yet taken a side and the German American population made up a distinctly important population for the press and politicians alike. Disregarding the pride of such a large group of people could prove perilous to business and fortunes. One of the largest examples was the attitude of the Mayor of Chicago. Even into the months following the declaration of the war, his German bias was problematic for many outside of his city. But he knew his constituency and ignoring the many large groups of former Germans was detrimental to his career.

One example of a press that was not stilted against Germany was seen in the article that makes up the bulk of this post. On April 18, 1915 the Omaha daily bee. (Omaha [Neb.]) published an article that lauded the efforts of the German submarine fleet.

When I first read the article, my mind raced to all of the sinking’s of American merchant ships by the persistent little raiders. But then I stepped back for a moment and remembered what date the article was published. The Lusitania was still a few weeks from sailing and up to this point the German submarines had poked the nose fo one of the greatest Navies afloat: The British Navy.

In the early parts of the war, the German Navy realized very quickly that the combined arms of the British, French and other Allied ships gave them a distinct disadvantage on the high seas. Despite an aggressive building campaign by all of the participants, they were outnumbered and outgunned. The one advantage they did possess was a technological one in the form of the diesel submarine and its accompanying torpedoes.

Less than a month after the war had started, a small German submarine commanded by Otto Weddingen, the “Daring German Submarine Commander” sank the British Cruisers Cresay, Hogue and Aboukir in one attack. During a short battle in which he reloaded his torpedoes while submerged and in the thick of the fight, he had managed to gain the advantage on three small Royal Navy cruisers sending them to a watery grave. Along with the ships went nearly 1,400 crewmen in a single day.

The significance of the wording should not be lost on the reader. The word “Daring” was as close to being an expression of admiration as you could expect on such a costly battle. The rest of the article which was written as an example of submarine life is similarly value neutral. Americans in general had not yet been groomed to hate or even fear the Germans. That would come later.

As a submariner, it has always been a source of interest to me to try and understand the struggles the men who went before me experienced. My experience is always framed from a point of view where sacrifice was measured in length of submerged operations in sometimes unfriendly waters. This story captures the true essence of men who sailed into the unknown on boats that were significantly more challenged.

And now the story:

Daring Commander Describes How It Feels to Grope Under Water Blind and Suffocated in an Atmosphere of Oil, Cabbages and Little Oxygen

THE German heroes of the present war have undoubtedly been the submarine crews. The little submarines, manned by twenty five men apiece, and costing but a small traction of the warship, have sunk nine British battleships and fighting ships and over one hundred of the merchant ships of the anti-German allies.

In order to achieve this remarkable result, however, an extraordinary-amount of suffering, self-sacrifice and skill on the part of the submarine crews was required.

Life on a submarine must’ be like that of the Infernal regions. When the boat is submerged the oxygen in the air soon becomes insufficient, and it is also so fouled by the oil and the smell of the machinery that it is nauseating in the extreme. When the boat is on the surface the slightest wave breaks over it and the vessel rolls about as you may have seen a log do on the surface of the sea.

In addition to these physical miseries there is the mental strain of not being able to see danger approaching and of not knowing whether you will ever see the light again.

The captain of the German submarine boat U-47, which has greatly distinguished itself in these naval exploits, has written a most interesting account of life on the boat and their methods of action. Although the article is written primarily to excite enthusiasm for the submarine war, it does not conceal the great hardships of the life.

The article has been published widely In the German newspapers, and here is a translation of it: By the Commander of U 47

“U 47 will take in provisions and clear for sea. Extreme economical radius,” is the brief order brought to us by the admiral’s staff officer.

A first lieutenant, with the acting rank of commander, takes the order in the gray dawn of a February day. The hulk of an old corvette with the Iron Gross of 1870 on her stubby foremast is his quarters in port, and on the corvette’s deck he is presently saluted by his first engineer and the officer of the watch. On the pier the crew of U-47 await him. At their feet the narrow gray submarine lies alongside, straining a little at her cables.

“Well, we’ve our orders at last,” begins the commander, addressing his crew of thirty, and the crew grin. For this is U-47’s first experience of active service. She has done nothing save trial trips hitherto, and has just been overhauled for her first fighting cruise. Her commander snaps out a number of orders. Provisions are to be taken in “up to the neck,” freshwater is to be put aboard, and engine-room supplies to be supplemented.

A mere plank is the gangway to the little vessel. As the commander, followed by his officers, comes aboard, a sailor hands to each a ball of cotton waste, the sign and symbol of a submarine officer, which never leaves his band. For the steel walls of his craft, the doors, and the companion-ladder all sweat oil, and at every touch the hands must be wiped dry. The doorways are narrow round holes. Through one of the holes aft the commander descends by a breakneck Iron ladder into the black hole lit-by electric glowlamps. The air is heavy with the smell of oil, and to the unaccustomed longshoreman it is almost choking, though the hatches are off.

Here In the engine-room aft men must live and strain every nerve even If for days at a time every crack whereby the fresh air could get in is hermetically sealed. On their tense watchfulness thirty lives depend.

Here, too, are slung some hammocks, and in them one watch tries, and, what is more, succeeds In sleeping though the men moving about bump them with head and elbow at every turn, and the low and narrow vault Is full of the hum and purr of machinery. In length the vault is about ten feet, but if a man of normal stature stands in the middle and raises his arms to about half shoulder height his hands will touch the cold, moist steel walls on either side. A network of wires runs overhead, and there is a juggler’s outfit of bandies, levers and Instruments.

The commander inspects everything minutely, then creeps through a hole into the central control station, where the chief engineer is at his post. With Just about enough assistance to run a fairly simple machine ashore the chief engineer of a submarine is expected to control, correct, and, it necessary, repair at sea an infinitely complex machinery which must not break down for an instant if thirty men are to return alive to the hulk.

The commander pays a visit of inspection to the torpedo-chamber and strokes the smooth steel of the deadly “silver fish.” His second-in-command, who is in charge of the armament, joins him here and receives final instructions regarding the torpedoes and the stowing of explosives. For the torpedo is not only an extremely complicated weapon, but also a fine work of art, and it demands a very thorough apprenticeship.

Forward is another narrow steel vault serving at once as engine-room and crew’s quarters. Next to it is a place like a cupboard, where the cook has Just room to stand in front of his doll’s house galley stove. It is electrically heated that the already oppressive air may not be further vitiated by smoke or fumes. A German submarine in any case smells perpetually of coffee and cabbage. Two little cabins of the size of a decent clothes-chest take the deck and engine-room officers, four of them. Another box-cabin is reserved for the commander when he has time to occupy it.

At daybreak the commander comes on deck in coat and trousers of black leather lined with wool, a protection against oil, cold and sea water. The crew at their stations await the command to cast off. “Machines clear,” calls a voice from the control-station, and “Clear ship,” snaps the order from the bridge. Then “Cast off!” The cables slap on the landing stage, the engines begin to purr, and U47 slides away into open water.

A few cable-lengths away another submarine appears homeward bound. She is the U-20 returning from a long cruise in which she succeeded in sinking a ship bound with a cargo of frozen mutton for England. “Good luck, old sheep-butcher, “sings the commander of U-47 as the sister ship passes within hail.

The seas are heavier now, and U-47 rolls unpleasantly as she makes the lightship and answers the last salute from a friendly hand. The two officers on the bridge turn once to look at the lightship already astern, then their eyes look seaward.

It is rough, stormy weather. It the eggshell goes ahead two or three days without a stop, the officers in charge will get no sleep for just that long. If 1t gets any rougher they will be tied to the bridge-rails to avoid being swept overboard.- If they are hungry, plates of soup will be brought to them on the bridge, and the North Sea will attend to its salting for them.

Just as the commander is trying to balance a plate with one hand and use a spoon with the other, the watch calls, “Smoke on the horizon off the port bow.”

The commander drops his plate, shouts a short, crisp command, and an electric alarm whirrs inside the egg-shell. The ship buzzes like a hive. Then water begins to gurgle into the ballast-tanks, and U-47 sinks until only her periscope shows.

“The steamship is a Dutchman, sir, “calls the watch officer. The commander inspects her with the aid of a periscope. She has no wireless and is bound for the Continent. So he can come up and is glad, because moving under the water consumes electricity, and the usefulness of a submarine is measured by her electric power.

After fifty-four hours of waking nerve tension, sleep becomes a necessity. So the ballast-tanks are filled and the nutshell sinks to the sandy bottom. This is the time for sleep aboard a submarine, because a sleeping man consumes less of the precious oxygen than one awake and busy.

So a submarine man has three principal lessons to learn to keep every faculty attention when he is awake, to keep stern silence when he is ashore (there is a warning against talkativeness in all the German railway-carriages now) and to sleep instantly when he gets legitimate opportunity. His sleep and the economy of oxygen may save the ship. However, the commander allows half an hour’s grace for music. There is a gramophone, of course, and the “ship’s band” performs on all manner of Instruments. At worst, a comb with a bit of tissue paper is pressed into service.

If a ship is sunk, three men only on the submarine will watch her go. The submarine man might hitherto serve all his time like a blind man as far as the outside world was concerned. Just before the war one of a submarine’s crew about to be sent ashore to join the reserve, was asked by his commander if there was anything he would specially like to celebrate his last trip.

“Yes, sir.” he said. “I should like just once to have a glimpse with the periscope.” The story went the round and now, during the war, the crew are occasionally summoned, one by one, to the periscope. When opportunity offers they are also given a chance to see a merchant ship sunk. It is considered encouraging!

On May the 7th, as it sailed close to Ireland, the SS Lusitania sailed directly into the course set by the commander of the U-20. The first shot found its mark and the giant ship began her death journey. An additional torpedo was alleged to have been fired hastening the massive explosions and massive casualties that would later fill the headlines of every paper in the world. The boat that just a month before had gained a nickname as Sheep Butcher would gain an infamously more notorious reputation form that day forward.

About the Captain: Walther Schwieger came from a respected Berlin family and commanded U 20 and the U 88. He would become known to the whole world as the man who sank the liner Lusitania on 7 May 1915 or by the nickname the British gave him, “The Baby Killer”.

Over 100 U.S. citizens were lost with on the Lusitania, which served as the basis for much Allied propaganda. The facts were not as innocent as the British claimed; the Lusitania was listed in “Jane’s Fighting Ships” as a potental auxiliary cruiser and was possibly carrying munitions and gun parts at the time of her loss. The U.S. strongly protested the loss of life of her citizens.

Schwieger’s name would appear on the Admiralty’s wanted list of possible war criminals. There was nothing special in this; U-boat commanders often landed on this list if they became too successful against the British.

Schwieger wouldn’t survive the war. On 5 September 1917, the U 88 is presumed to have struck a mine while outbound from Germany for the French coast. There were no survivors.

The negative tone of the American papers was gone from that day forward. Innocent American lives had been caught up in this terrible tragedy. Years later, reconstructionists would attribute the massive explosion to coal dust in empty bunkers catching fire and exploding. But at the time, the thought of a civilian liner being targeted by a submarine was beyond most people’s ability to accept. While apologies were delivered through diplomatic channels, the war had entered a new phase.

Kaiser Wilhelm II wrote in the margins of the American note, “Utterly impertinent”, “outrageous”, and “this is the most insolent thing in tone and bearing that I have had to read since the Japanese note last August.” Nevertheless, to keep America out of the war, in June the Kaiser was compelled to rescind unrestricted submarine warfare and require all passenger liners be left unmolested.

German diplomats urged Berlin to stop the madness and a halt was placed on sinking passenger liners on sight. But that restriction did not last. By the end of the war, many more ships would fall victim to the menace from beneath the waves. The U boats sank hundreds of thousands of tons of shipping but even at its height they only managed to stop about four percent of the goods being shipped by water. The real effect of the campaign was to arouse the anger of the Americans and help to facilitate their entry into the war on the side of the Allies.

The war was costly for the German submarine force as well. By wars end of the 373 German submarines that had been built, 178 were lost by enemy action. Of these 41 were sunk by mines, 30 by depth charges and 13 by Q-ships. 515 officers and 4894 enlisted men were killed.  

U-20 grounded on the Danish coast in 1916. Torpedoes had been exploded in the bow to destroy the boat

Their gains were noteworthy as well. They sank 10 battleships, 18 cruisers and several smaller naval vessels. They further destroyed 5,708 merchant and fishing vessels for a total of 11,108,865 tons and the loss of about 15,000 sailors. The lessons of the war would not be lost on the men who prepared for the next one. Only next time, they would not be as restricted in their campaigns.

Omaha daily bee. (Omaha [Neb.]), 18 April 1915. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn99021999/1915-04-18/ed-1/seq-25/





2 thoughts on “Oil, cabbages and very little oxygen… Life aboard a WWI Unterseeboot

    1. Thanks. I love finding obscure stories like this one. They always start fairly obscure until all of the connections reveal themselves. When I first started writing the piece, the main purpose was to draw parallels to older submarines and current ones. It was not until I was editing that I realized the U 20 aspect of the story and the timing for the sinking of the Lusitania.

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