Joe Blok Essay, Research Paper
The First World War and Submarine Warfare
by Joe Blok
The first “World War,” also known as the Great War, took place shortly after the turn of the century from 1914-1918, and was so named because it was the first conflict of global proportions. The war resulted in the loss of millions of lives and the virtual destruction of Europe. The stunning proportions of the war were due largely to the application of technology to warfare. The industrial revolution at the end of the nineteenth century had brought mechanization and mass production to society, and the Great War had applied this technology to warfare. The war saw the introduction of airplanes, submarines and tanks, as well as radio, machine guns and poison gas. One of mankind’s least enviable talents lies in its ability to constantly create new and more efficient ways of killing members of its own species.
During this massive global conflict, the war at sea was dominated by the expectation of titanic clashes between the heavily armed capital ships of the British and German navies. Naval warfare had been revolutionized in 1906 when Britain launched the world’s first all big-gun battleship–H.M.S. Dreadnought. Previously, battleships had been armed with an array of guns of varying caliber in main, secondary and tertiary batteries. The Dreadnought, however, was armed with ten 12-inch guns and no secondary armament, marking a new trend in naval thought: a warship with all big caliber guns, which were both more destructive and of greater range, could concentrate all her fire power on an enemy from long range and destroy her from a great distance. In such a long range engagement, the battle would be over long before the enemy came within range of a ship’s secondary armaments–in short, the ship with the largest battery of big guns would win. The Dreadnought’s revolutionary traits also included heavier armor plate to protect her against enemy shells and increased speed, delivered by steam turbines powered by oil-burning boilers–the Dreadnought was the first battleship to break the twenty-knot speed barrier. It was the combination of these three advances that made the Dreadnought revolutionary–so much so that the entire class of battleships to follow her became known as “dreadnoughts,” while older ships earned the classification “pre-dreadnoughts.”
With the launching of the Dreadnought the world’s navies had literally become obsolete overnight, and the major powers scrambled to construct a new class of warships to replace their older battleships. Germany and England soon became embattled in a naval arms race as each tried to keep pace with the other’s building program. When war finally came in 1914, both Germany and England had navies bristling with heavily armed capital ships, and the world waited for the inevitable clash between Germany’s High Seas Fleet and England’s Grand Fleet. But the great warships would have only fleeting encounters during the war, at Jutland and Dogger Bank, while an underestimated and largely overlooked naval weapon–the submarine–would make an equally revolutionary debut.
In the war’s second month Germany’s tiny U-boat fleet, then consisting of only 26 submarines and ranking fifth in size among the war’s combatants, decisively demonstrated the tremendous offensive potential of the unterseeboot. On September 5, 1914, Korvettenkapitan Otto Hersing commanding the U-21 found the British light cruiser Pathfinder steaming obligingly toward him. Submerging, Hersing merely had to wait for the enemy warship to come into range. He fired a single torpedo at his target; his aim was accurate and the barb of the revolutionary new weapon ran straight and true, hitting the British warship behind the bridge and igniting one of her magazines. The ship went down in only four minutes with a heavy loss of life.
The real eye-opener came seventeen days later, however. On September 22, Kapitanleutnant Otto Weddigen, commanding the obsolete kerosene-powered submarine U-9, sank three 10,000 ton British armored cruisers, Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy, in the course of only one hour using five torpedoes. Some 1,400 British sailors lost their lives in the attack, and the loss of three capital ships was an embarrassment to the British navy. Naval establishments throughout the world sat up and took notice–the submarine had come of age.
The sinking of the British cruisers had proven the military worth of the submarine as an offensive weapon, but it was its use against merchant shipping that would bring the weapon into its own. On February 4, 1915, frustrated by Britain’s blockade of the North Sea, Germany declared the area around the British Isles a war zone: Germany’s submarines would sink all merchant vessels found in these waters without warning. It was the first employment of unrestricted submarine warfare on merchant shipping that the world had ever seen. While controversial, this commerce war was incredibly effective and came close to providing the decisive force in the war. Merchant shipping to and from the British Isles was devastated as submarines sank ships and their cargoes unmercifully.
The United States, long a neutral spectator to the war, found herself slowly being drawn into the conflict. Before her entry in 1917, a veiled warning was sent by Germany that American waters would not be immune to the U-boat threat. Two voyages to America in 1916 by the mercantile submarine Deutschland, along with the sudden appearance of the military submarine U-53 outside Newport, Rhode Island in that same year, had proven the practicality of transatlantic submarine voyages. After the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917, the public waited expectantly for hostile U-boats to appear off the American coast. As month after month passed and the German raiders failed to materialize, the memory of those early visitations faded from public memory. It would be more than one year before the first U-boat appeared off the American coast, but when the submarines did come, they arrived with a bang.