The most fearsome weapon at sea during the First World War was the submarine. Even when the danger came from another submarine.
By May of 1918, the German submarines were beginning to be neutralized by the varying forms of technology employed by the Allies. Wireless radio detection, sound listening devices, primitive us of airplanes and sheer seamanship were all helping to reverse the tide of submarine losses.
That doesn’t mean that all of the losses were curbed. This story talks about the sinking of the troopship SS Lincoln in May 1918. What makes the story fascinating is the detailed account of an American Naval officer who was captured after the sinking and recorded his experiences. This glimpse inside a U-boat operation reveals the way the crew lived and also documents the real life interaction between and American submarine and the U-boat.
The story is an awesome recording of all of the dynamics of the naval war and the courage and bravery of the men involved. It is also one of the pieces of the puzzle that will lead up to understanding the need for a fast attack submarine as the years pass. I call it the Dueling Denizens and the Daring Escape. The first hand telling of life aboard a German submarine and one of its attacks is a little recorded story that comes from a variety of pieced together stories and out of print books. But it starts with the sinking of the SS Lincoln
SS President Lincoln was a troop transport in the United States Navy during World War I.
Formerly the German steamer President Lincoln of the Hamburg-American Line, it was built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast in 1907. Seized in New York harbor in 1917, it was turned over to the Shipping Board and transferred to the Navy for operation as a troop transport.
Having been damaged severely by her German crew, the President Lincoln underwent extensive repairs and conversion at Robin’s Dry Dock and Repair Company in Brooklyn, New York before being re-commissioned as a Navy troop transport at Brooklyn on 25 July 1917. Commander Yates Stirling, Jr. was then placed in command.
The President Lincoln made five voyages from New York to France. Transporting approximately 23,000 American troops to Brest, France and St. Nazaire, four cycles were completed without incident: October-November 1917, December 1917- January 1918, February-March, and March-May. She sailed from New York on her fifth and final trip to Europe on 10 May 1918. Arriving at Brest on the 23rd, she disembarked troops, and — escorted by destroyers — got underway on the 29th with troopships Rijndam, Susquehanna and Antigone for the return voyage to the U.S.
At sundown on 30 May 1918, having passed through the so-called “danger zone” of submarine activity, the destroyers left the convoy to proceed alone. At about 09:00 on 31 May 1918, the President Lincoln was struck by three torpedoes from the German submarine U-90, and sank about 20 minutes later. Of the 715 people aboard, 26 men were lost with the ship, and a Lieutenant Edouard Izac was taken aboard U–90 as prisoner. Survivors were rescued from lifeboats late that night by destroyers Warrington and Smith. They were taken to France, arriving at Brest on 2 June.
The following excerpt comes from a period book written by John Langdon Leighton about submarine warfare in the First World War. It briefly discusses the type of warfare that was developing between submarines during the later stages of the war. The description comes from an incident involving an American Naval Officer that was taken prisoner and subsequently escaped his captors.
Edouard Victor Michel Izac (December 18, 1891 – January 18, 1990) was a lieutenant in the United States Navy during World War I, a Representative from California and a Medal of Honor recipient. (Note the spelling of the American officer in the book which was slightly altered. Historical records show that they were the same person.)
Simsadus: London; the American navy in Europe, by John Langdon Leighton.
New York, H. Holt and Company, 1920.
“A good idea of the life on the submarine is gained by the following extracts from the report of Lieutenant Isaacs, U. S. N., who was taken prisoner 0n the U-90 when the “President Lincoln” was sunk on May 30th, 1918.
“The U-90 was built in 1916; it is about 160 ft. long, and carries two six-inch guns, one forward and one aft of the conning tower. The captain of the U-90, Captain Remy, boasted that he could make sixteen knots speed on the surface and that he had demonstrated the superiority of the speed of German submarines, as compared with the speed of American submarines, sometime previously when he had a ‘run-in’ with the U. S. Submarine AL-4.
” He said that both submarines had maneuvered to ﬁre a torpedo at each other and that in so doing both had submerged two or three times and that ﬁnally he was able to ﬁre the torpedo at the American submarine after getting into position, which he was able to do because of his superior speed. Just as he ﬁred the AL-4 dove and his torpedo passed a few feet over her.
Special note: From an article of the Proceedings Magazine of January 1920 concerning qualifying as a submarine watch officer: “In the war zone, standing a watch on a submarine is a very responsible duty. This is especially true when there are hostile submarines likely to be submerged in your vicinity. As an example the following is related. The U. S. S. AL-4 was cruising on her patrol “billet” charging batteries, when on her starboard bow, at a distance of about 1000 yards, the officer of the watch sighted a periscope. He immediately made the “crash” dive signal and the submarine dived. Her hull had hardly settled below the water, when a torpedo from the hostile craft passed directly over her. Here the good eyesight, quick judgment, and proper execution of the correct procedure by the officer of the watch alone saved his vessel.”
Captain Remy never submerged to a depth greater than 200 ft., though he claimed to be able to submerge 300 ft. The last day out, on the way back to Kiel while passing through the Kattegat, he travelled submerged for over ten hours at a depth of 200 ft. I doubt if he could make more than eight knots when submerged. He carried a crew of forty-two men and ofﬁcers. One ofﬁcer, Kapitan-Leutnant Kahn was aboard for the purposes of instruction, having had his request granted by the German Admiralty to command a submarine of his own. While I was at Wilhelmshaven Kapitan-Leutnant Kahn came to see me in prison and told me that he had just received orders to take command of a new submarine.
“Of the crew of forty-two men, two were warrant ofﬁcers, one a navigator and the other the machinist. The captain’s three assistants were lieutenants, corresponding to our grade of ensign. One was a German Naval Academy man, who entered the Navy in 1913; he was a deck ofﬁcer. Another was a Reserve ensign from the Merchant Fleet, who spoke English very well, having been in America and England in peace time on various steamers. The other ofﬁcer was a regular, who had gone to a special school for engineers and he was responsible for the efﬁciency of the machinery; he did not stand a deck watch. The deck watch was stood by the navigator and the two ensigns.
Captain Remy took the wheel when ships were sighted and when passing through dangerous waters. He had entered the Navy in 1905 and had travelled considerably, having been in America in 1911 on a German cruiser which had put in at Charleston, S. C., and into New York, at both of which places he had been hospitably entertained.
He liked America but could not understand why America had entered the war. He believed, as all Germans are taught to believe by Governmental propaganda, that our entry into the war must have had as its motive the rendering safe of the millions we loaned to France and England early in the war.
“The U-90 carried eight torpedoes. On this cruise she had sunk only two ships of about 2000 tons apiece. Captain Remy said that they seldom ﬁred torpedoes at a range greater than 1000 yards and if possible he approached to within 500 yards of his prey.
“The submarine rolled a little in the Atlantic, though we had no very rough weather. In the North Sea the choppy seas seemed hardly to affect it and under the surface there was no sensation of being in motion. The air inside the submarine when we were submerged on the last day out for ten hours became very disagreeable. However, several tanks of oxy gen were carried which could have been used in case of necessity. The water-tight doors between the different compartments were kept closed at all times after entering the North Sea.
The ofﬁcers and crew smoked in the coming tower or on deck, but nowhere else. The wardroom was about six feet wide and seven feet long and here we ate at a table; the food was kept in lockers in the wardroom. Here also they put in hammock hooks and swung a hammock for me to sleep in, alongside two bunks used by Kahn and one of the other officers. Just forward of this room was a smaller compartment, known as the Captain’s cabin, in which he had his desk and bunk, with scarcely room for either. Forward of this cabin was a sleeping compartment for the men and forward of this was the forward torpedo room; I was never allowed to enter the torpedo rooms. Aft of the ward room on the starboard side was a small cabin, about four feet wide and six feet long, occupied by the other two ofﬁcers. Across a passage on the port side was the radio room and aft of this was the control room; here there were always two men on watch.
Aft of the control room was the other living compartment for the men, and here the food was cooked and meals served. Aft of this was the engine room and the after-torpedo room. The men slept in hammocks and on the decks; they were very dirty for there was no water with which to wash. In the wardroom we had enough to wash our hands and faces once every day, but that was all. A little wine was carried for the ofﬁcers. The food consisted chieﬂy of sausage, which was served at every meal, and canned bread and lard, which they called marmalade. Remy told me, however, that the crews on the submarines were the only people in Germany who had an unlimited amount of meat and other foods. We had practically four meals every day: breakfast at 8 A. M., dinner at noon, and at 4. P. M. what they called ‘kaffee’; at 8 P. M. we had supper but practically every meal was the same. Kaffee at 4 P. M. apparently corresponded to our tea, but the sausage, or as they called it ‘wurst’ was placed on the table at every meal. After supper we played cards, sometimes bridge and sometimes a new game which I was taught.
“Captain Remy tried in every possible way to make things pleasant for me and whenever I asked him an impossible question, that is a question which he thought he ought not to answer, he invariably said so, so that I have great conﬁdence that what he told me was the truth.
“The U-90 and most of the German Submarines were out usually not more than four or ﬁve weeks and then in port about six or seven weeks. The service was not severe, for Remy got leave as often as he cared to have it and indeed it was deemed the height of good fortune by the regular officers to be assigned to a submarine. After making three round trips they were entitled to the Iron Cross and to leave, which leave covered the duration of the stay of the submarine in port. They received extra money and they got the best food in Germany, besides which for every day which they submerged both officers and men received extra money. For all these reasons the submarine service was very popular.”
Lieutenant Isaacs had many interesting and harrowing experiences in German prison camps. Shortly after he had been taken off the submarine and placed in prison, he was summoned before the Commander of the base, who immediately asked him why America had declared war. This under ordinary conditions is a rather difﬁcult question to answer, not because there was a lack of reasons, but because in order to answer it well, a certain amount of thought is necessary. Lieutenant Isaacs apparently believed that any thought on the matter would be wasted and so informed the German Admiral that America had declared war because the American people thought the German people so many swine. From then on things did not go very well with Lieutenant Isaacs. He was transferred to a prison camp from which he escaped, and was arrested.
While en route to another prison camp he jumped out of the train window and landed on his head on the railroad bed. The train stopped and though he had regained consciousness from his fall, he was forced to surrender to the German soldiers when they began shooting at him. He was then kicked all the way to the next town, a distance of about nine miles. He planned another escape from the next camp and so was transferred again. Here, in making plans for a third attempt to escape, he found that Russian prisoners were acting as informants for the camp authorities. He conﬁded in a few English and Americans, and according to pre-arranged plans, one night, a good many of them escaped by short-circuiting the lighting system of the camp.
He then walked for three nights, hiding during the day, to the Swiss border, and swam the Rhine. In Switzerland he reported to the American Consul, who informed Admiral Sims and Isaacs was ordered to Paris and then to London. He arrived in London about ten days later, very much undaunted in spirit and apparently not much the worse for the treatment he had received in the German prison camps.”
Welcomed to the Department of the Navy as a hero, Izac was promoted to lieutenant commander within a few months and assigned to a prestigious post as the director of munitions at the Navy Yard in Washington D.C., moving there with his family. He was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt on November 11, 1920, with whom he became friends. In addition, he was awarded the Italian Croce di Guerra and the Cross of Montenegro. However, the injuries he sustained to his knees in his escape attempts ended his Navy career and Izac was forced to retire.
The U-90 Surrendered 20 November 1918 and was broken up between 1919–1920. In September of 1918, KL Remy was appointed as commander of the new U 137 still completing at Kiel. This boat would never be commissioned due to the war’s end. Remy died 15 Jan 1965 in Schliersee, Bayern.
The 1920’s would be a difficult time for the United States Navy and for submarines in general. But the tenacity of the men who sailed on them and had a vision for their future use would help them survive the cutting knives of the bureaucrats and politicians. America would have a viable submarine force for the next war and the birth of the idea of modern fast attack would continue to grow and become reality.