1921 – Peace was in the air. Sort of.
By 1921, the last war was being dissected and reinterpreted by every one of the powers that claimed victory. Of particular interest was the effect submarines had had on the ultimate outcome.
While many in the navy department in the United States were still urging a downplaying of the role of submarines in future conflicts, Great Britain particularly wished to limit the existence of undersea forces. In the war, they particularly paid the heaviest price in both military and non-military ships being lost to submarines. While France, Italy, Japan and others saw the submarine as a great equalizer, England stood nearly alone in its quest for elimination.
A heavy propaganda war was fought in the US Press and elsewhere and all manner of persuasion both public and private was in play.
From the Washington Evening Star newspaper (December 19, 1921):
The views of Great Britain are that the submarine in the first place is a cowardly, underhand weapon; that it cannot be used as a weapon of war except to prey upon merchant shipping and that when it is so used it is only with the violation of all humane rules and international laws relating to the conduct of warfare.
The view of American naval circles is that the submarine may very properly be used as a weapon of warfare and that it can be used and still have the laws of war obeyed. American naval officers insist that it is not necessary to use the submarine as it was used by the Germans, for instance, and yet make very efficient use of the undersea craft in naval warfare. This is the view taken by France, Italy and Japan. France and Italy regard the submarine as the weapon of the “weaker” nation. They can be constructed comparatively quickly and at a small relative cost.”
Secret Session of the Naval Arms Limitation Treaty
On December 28th, the Washington Times Newspaper reported:
“Finally, last week, the submarine debate began in the secret session of the conference. By that time the British were so encouraged by the success of their propaganda that they made a bold demand for the complete abolition of the submarine. Against the view of Mr. Balfour, Mr. Hughes presented the report of the advisory committee. He did so guardedly, however. He was careful to plead that he presented this report “not as the spirit of the American Government, but as a report of the advisory committee.” Somehow the Secretary seemed to fear that by the bold way in which this report took issue with the British views might not be construe as friendly. For the report was a strong presentation of the American navy’s view of the need for submarine defense. It declared the submarine necessary to protect our two long coast lines and to maintain the outlying possessions of the United States.
“If these colonies once fall,” It said, “the expenditure of men necessary to recapture them will be tremendous and may result in a drawn war which would really be a United States defeat. The United States needs a large submarine force to protect its interests.”
“Apparently this report was worth only the paper on which it was written. Secretary Hughes waved it aside in the next day’s discussion and presented a proposal to cut our submarine fleets to 60,000 tons, involving the scrapping of 35,000 tons of existing American submarines.
“On this proposal no advice, counsel, or suggestion was asked from the advisory committee or of its subcommittee on naval armament. Under those circumstances it would not be fair here to print the names of the distinguished individuals who make up this subcommittee.
“For those who are looking for a reason for Secretary Hughes deliberate ignoring of the committee’s report, we might commend a single paragraph from that document. It tells in terse and vigorous language the real reason for Great Britain’s opposition to submarine fleets. At the same time, it gives the unanswerable reason for America’s maintenance of a powerful submarine fleet.
This paragraph of the report follows:
“A nation possessing a great merchant marine protected by a strong surface navy naturally does not desire the added threat of submarine warfare brought against it. This is particularly the case if that nation gains its livelihood through overseas commerce. If the surface navy of such a nation were required to leave its home waters, it would be greatly to its advantage if the submarine threat were removed. This could be accomplished by limiting the size of the submarine so that it would be restricted to defensive operation in its own home waters.
“On the other hand, if a nation has not a large merchant marine, but is dependent upon seaborne commerce from territory close aboard, it would be necessary to carry war to her. It would be very natural for that nation to desire a large submarine fore to protect the approaches on the se and to attack troop transports, supply ships, etc., of the enemy. Control of the surface of the sea only by the attacking power would not eliminate it from constant exposure and loss by submarine attacks.’ This paragraph does not mention Great Britain by name, but no other country answers the description it contains.”
The Washington Times. (Washington [D.C.]), 28 Dec. 1921.
How effective were submarines? As previously posted, their value in tying up the large fleets of the allies was as important if not more important than the physical damage they cause to shipping.
In researching this series, I have found a number of interesting submarine stories for 1921. This is one of the most unique:
FAILURE OF U. S. NAVY TO SEIZE U-117 IN 1918, WHEN FOUND AT SEA OFF VIRGINIA, IS REVEALED
German Submarine That Sent U. S. Vessels to Bottom Escaped From Submarines.
By DAVID M. CHURCH
International News Service Staff Correspondent
WASHINGTON, July 7. Hidden away in the archives of the great grey Navy building here are hundreds of romances and adventures of the seas which may never come to light. In steel bound files are the records of successes and of failures during the world war which swell the hearts of seafaring men with pride and caused them to tear their hair in anguish.
Perhaps the most romantic records concern the activities of the United States navy against the German U-boats, records which have never been opened to the public.
With the recent sinking of the U-117 off Cape Charles by aerial bombers, there has come to light the story of a great disappointment in the American navy.
The U-117 left Kiel on June 12, 1918 under command of a German who is believed to have served as a gunner’s mate in the United States navy at one time. Apparently well versed on conditions in American waters, this U boat captain turned her toward the shores of the United States. From a date in June until early in September, the U-117 was a menace to American and foreign shipping off the coast of the North Atlantic. Mines were sewn by the U-117 from Maine to Hatteras and five steam vessels and eight schooners fell prey to the underseas destroyer.
At this time, the British navy was having some success with Q Boats, or mystery ships, innocent looking vessels which were quickly turned into armed fighting craft when attacked by the U-boats. American naval officers desired to outfit some of these mystery ships, but it is understood that President Wilson intervened, holding that such vessels were a violation of international law. This was the first bitter disappointment to those charged with making a defense against submarines.
The U-117 was continually reporting to the navy department as still active in American waters and sowing mines. The navy was nonplussed.
Quiet Search of the Seas
Quietly and without ostentation five commanders wore relieved of their naval duty. They came into possession of five sailing schooners and went to sea. The naval officers were out of the navy and apparent owners of sailing vessels, but they retained the commercial title of “skippers” of their schooners.
It was a strange coincidence that when these five small schooners put to sea an American submarine deemed it wise to follow in the wake of each schooner. In fact, the schooners and the submarines became quite chummy, so much so that a telephone line was strong from the schooner to each submarine, which remained below the surface all day long. It is very probable that if the U-boat had been sighted there might have been some telephoning to the submarine astern.
At night time the submarine commanders brought their craft to the surface, and the good friends on board the schooners loaded them down with gifts of food supplies and fuel.
One pair of these strange marine “pals” was dragging along in the calm Virginia Capes in midsummer 1918. The submarine had been on the surface until nearly daybreak, and the former naval officer in the schooner had been up all night tending to the wants and needs of his friends in the submarine. So at daybreak, he turned in for a short sleep, and the submarine opened her submerging valves and went below.
Find U-Boat on surface
Shortly after eight o’clock in the morning, the lookout on the schooner reported a bark apparently at anchor off the stern. Later it was reported that a small vessel was alongside the bark. The lookout continued to make reports on the activities of the two vessels. The American submarine stayed below, the naval commander on the schooner exulted in well-earned sleep, and the Scandinavian skipper of the schooner went about his usual duties.
Just before noon the submarine commander telephoned to the schooner asking if all was clear for him to bring his vessel to the surface to give the crew a bit of fresh air. The skipper of the schooner telephoned back for the submarine to come up.
The submarine was hardly on the surface before there was a distant boom; the bark was seen to turn her tail upward and sink, and towards the schooner there came scurrying through the ocean what was unmistakably a submarine. She had not sighted the American submarine.
The American submarine commander was back to his vessel in a twinkling. Hatches were suddenly closed, orders were given to prepare for action, and the boat made a quick dive below the surface, but not quick enough; for almost simultaneously the approaching U-boat sighted the submarine and made another quick dive. Constant search for many hours failed to turn up the missing U-boat.
Navy Department Wrath
Disappointment on that day was sufficient, but it was even greater when some time later it was learned that the U-boat had been alongside the bark for more than four hours with her hatches wide open, loading copper bars from the bark before sending her to the bottom with a bomb. While this perfect target was open the American submarine naval commander on the schooner had slept peacefully, and the skipper of the schooner had gone blissfully on with his deck duties.
There was a warm time in the navy department. The skipper of the schooner was sharply called to account for his failure to report the bark and the vessel alongside. He maintained that he believed it to be a small tug towing the bark.
After the armistice, when the navy department secured the U-117 and its log, it was learned that the U-boat commander recorded this as his most narrow escape in American waters.
It is small wonder that there was grim satisfaction on the faces of watching naval officers a few weeks ago when the U-117 turned her tail to the clouds and took her last dive, an ignominious end, sunk by aerial bombers while anchored as a helpless target.
And so another chapter of the disappointments of the sea was closed.
East Oregonian: E.O. (Pendleton, OR), 07 July 1921.
The U-117 limped back to its home port near the end of the war. It was surrendered to the British and turned over to the Americans as part of a group of submarines that would be used for “fund-raising” at the end of the war. The truth was that she was really going to be dissected and studied before being destroyed. The Americans wanted to know what made these boats tick and they made sure every secret that could be extracted was catalogued for future submarine development.