Pirates of the Seven Seas – Those Dastardly Submariners


The new decade had begun. The echoes of the war were still reverberating in society with the recent return of so many of the men from overseas that had seen the ravages of that horrific conflict.

The emergence of the submarine as a frightful weapon spawned many stories in the press. People across the nation had been told many stories about the little undersea creatures and what they had been able to do. Some of the stories were true but most were wild concoctions designed to sell newspapers. The unintended side effect was that people genuinely did not understand the nature of the new weapon.

It was dastardly and evil. It killed men in a cruel way (as if killing men in any fashion was somehow not cruel). The newspapers of 1919 and 1920 were filled with fantastic stories that had been kept in the dark during the worst parts of the war. The strangulation of the sea lanes supplying Great Britain nearly brought the island to its knees. The same can be said of the loss of shipping to the combined German and Austrian countries. Starvation was a common thing in the continent towards the end of the war.

But now the world was at peace. The Hun had been licked. The future wars in the Pacific were not even being seriously considered yet. All that the planners knew was that the little submarines were going to be a part of the future. Just what part, no one could predict yet.

First, the public would have to be educated. The myths of the conflict would need to be dissembled. The victorious powers wanted to squash this new threat and get back to business. That business was Britannia ruling the waves. The fear that the new technology drove into the hearts of England was real and dangerous. A smaller nation with limited resources could replicate the submarine threat and challenge their global dominance.

The United States Navy was not so intimidated. They had shown that the submarine could be held in check. The huge industrial might of the USA had assembled large quantities of new submarines and many more were on the building blocks on both coasts. The imagination of naval designers was piqued with the arrival of the captured German submarines.

The fight of the century was about to switch from the sea lanes and battlefields to conference rooms and back rooms. The London Naval treaty was going to change the course of history and submarines were in the crosshairs.

Today’s article from the New York Herald is one of many written and distributed to help the public learn about the war just completed.

One of the unknown truths was that submarines, even with the limited amount of technology of the day, were one of the secret weapons in stopping other submarines.

Buried in this article is one of the few references that was allowed to leak into the public. Towards the end of the war, submarines learned how to hunt and kill other submarines.

This was a large step in identifying the future role of submarines in open ocean warfare.

The New York Herald. (New York [N.Y.]), 04 Jan. 1920. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Suggestion That Use of Under-water Craft Should be Forbidden by international Law Finds Little Support as the Truth Becomes Better Known
(By the Herald’s Naval Correspondent.)

London, December 5. – The facts and figures which have been officially disclosed recently tend to clear up much of the uncertainty which has enveloped the work of the submarines. It is now manifest that the prejudice’s aroused against them by the illegal uses to which the Germans put their U-boats has been dissipated the revelations concerning the rightfully employment of under-water craft In the war, and by the facts which show the submarine war upon commerce in its rightful proportions.

The suggestion that the use of submarines should be forbidden by International law finds very little support In any quarter, particularly as an impression prevails that there may come a time when all war ships except, perhaps, the very largest, should be given powers of submersion. Total abolition is altogether different from controlling the use of submarines by International regulations. It has even been proposed that the League of Nations should adopt the principle that the illegal use of submarines shall deprive officers and men serving in them of the status of lawful combatants thus rendering them liable to be treated as pirates. The lesson of the war on this point is clearly not only must commerce destruction be made illegal, but unsafe for a nation adopting it.

Among other false ideas which have gone overboard is that the submarine was winning the war. Information now available concerning the growing success of the anti-submarine measures toward the end of hostilities proves conclusively the inaccuracy of such a belief. Out of the total losses sustained by the U-boats in their campaigns, for example, nearly ten per cent were inflicted during the last three months of war. There were periods during 1918 when the Allies were destroying twice as many German submarines as in the previous year, although the enemy had fewer effective boats at work. This was in addition to the numbers which came to grief in the huge American and British mine barrages or by other passive agencies, the figures for which also showed progressive increases.

It also is now disclosed that, several of the appliances which had come into use late in the war were only just beginning to attain their full efficiency. Naturally, it took time for inventions to be made practicable, to be manufactured in the required numbers, and for personnel to be trained in their use. Incidentally, Admiral iral Sir Percy Scott thinks that too much time was spent in endeavoring to attain perfection before an appliance was adopted for use and he alleges that one of the most successful weapons against the submarines, the depth charge, could have been ready with Its ejecting howitzer at the end of 1914 instead of in 1916 had the Admiralty not been so keen to Improve on the original suggestion.

Another matter of importance is the relation of the losses to the number of boats in use on either side. The loss of British submarines in the war, which was fifty four from all causes, may seem high until it is remembered that well over two hundred boats were at one time in service. There were seventy-six already built before the war and 146 more were constructed during hostilities. Besides the fifty fours lost on service, there were several scrapped or otherwise disposed of and the number remaining on the effective list at the armistice was 137. The proportion of war losses to the total bots in service was, therefore, about twenty-five percent. Considered in relation to other war ship types, this was heavy – more so than in any other class.

But consider the much heavier ratio of loss among the German U-boats. There were twenty eight of these complete when war was declared, and during hostilities 360 were built, giving a total of 388. When the Germans were required to make a full surrender of all submarines at the armistice there were able too muster only 159, so that, allowing for a score or more having been scrapped during 1914-1918, their losses during hostilities would amount to well over two hundred. They have, in fact been officially computed at 202 boats reckoning only definite losses. The proportion of loss to the total boats employed is therefore somewhere between fifty and sixty percent, even on the increased submarine establishment developed and maintained by the Berlin authorities for the attack of commerce.

Statistics also show that the effect of the antisubmarine warfare was progressive in its character and value. The number of U-boats put down during 1915 was surpassed by fifty percent during 1916; in 1917 the record was double that of 1916, and for the ten months of 1918 there was an increase of thirty per cent again. The average rate of loss among the German submarines had increased from about one in five weeks during 1915 to one in five days during 1918.

The fact is clearly established that the intensive campaign launched by the Germans in the spring of 1917, and which led to America entering the war, could not be kept up in the face of the continuous improvement in the Allied material and methods. It was not due to the development of any one factor or appliance that the U-boat menace was overcome, but to the co-ordination of effort all around and the use made of experience in this novel form of sea fighting.

With regard to the relative effective uses of craft and appliances used, the conclusions which are now possible show that the destroyer was the most successful submarine hunter. Nearly one-third of the U-boats destroyed by the British navy in action were accounted for by destroyers. Toward the end of hostilities however, the destroyer was being run very closely by the submarine. The improvements in listening apparatus enabled them to detect accurately the enemy craft. Nearly a score of the latter were destroyed in the war by torpedoes from British submarines.

Naturally, as in all sea warfare, methods of disguise for the put pose of misleading and surprising the enemy played a large, part in anti-submarine operations, They were the mystery ships, or Q-boats, the first of which were merchant ships armed for attack but fitted to look like trading vessels, these being followed by other vessels specially built to resemble merchantmen, although they were actually warships.

The element of guile was also evident in the use of submarines towed by trawlers, with a telephonic connection between the two, the trawler noting as a decoy and the submarine delivering the sting at the proper moment in the shape of a torpedo. Unfortunately, this ruse, after two successes was revealed to the enemy by leakage of information through German prisoners captured from the sunken boats and did not succeed further. In the same way, the achievements of the Q boats dwindled after the German’s suspicions were aroused. The moral Is that methods of this kind must be constantly changed, and also that greater precautions to maintain secrecy must be exercised.

So far as other craft used in the anti-submarine warfare are concerned, although some of these played a prominent part in the system of convoy, none scored as many successes as the destroyers and submarines. Apart from the mines, the most affective of the appliances in use was the depth charge. The efficiency of the mine was shown not only in the restriction of the movements of submarines but by the large number the fate of which remain uncertain, and most probably met their doom this way. The depth charge would have scored more heavily had the boats in which it was first employed been able to carry more than two of each of these devices.

Since the conviction appears to be widely held that the fleets of the future will be mainly composed of vessels with powers of submersion, it is just as well that some of the glamor and mystery connected with the underwater craft should be dispelled and that the opprobrium connected with their achievements should be fastened upon the German U-boats which alone deserve it.”

During the next year, the birth of the nuclear powered fast attack submarine will be covered on the blog. But this DNA analysis is important to laying the groundwork. The men who would eventually lay the case for deep diving fast boats with unlimited propulsive power were the early pioneers. This will be their legacy.

Mister Mac

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