Sunday, 5 July 2015

The Grey Wolf of the Sea

Boat of Doom

The Grey Wolf of the sea. Is there a more fitting description of the German U-boat of the First World War? When the Great War started in July 1914, none of the combatants expected a long war. It was meant to be a war of vast manoeuvres and sharp battles. Then as usual the great Powers would tinker with the map of Europe and everyone would go home. But not this time.

From the first day of the war, the British closed down German sea commerce. They erected a boom of mines on the east and west side of the English channel. Ships that ventured into German ports would have to navigate  the full stretch of the British Isles. And the British imposed the embargo with efficiency as becomes a nation transcendent in its home waters.    

At the outbreak of war, the Germans had 12 U-boats in service. None of the combatants expected the submarine to be a decisive weapon. The Dreadnought battleships with their 12-inch guns would settle all issues. In the great scheme, submarines were expected to perform a subsidiary role in the anticipated great fleet battle. On both sides, it was thought that there would be a 'Sea Armageddon' between the British and German battleships early in the war. Little was expected of the submarine. At the beginning of the battle, they might operate between the fleets, firing torpedoes. But once the enemy fleets engaged they were not to take any further part, except to release a salvo of torpedoes in the event of a tactical withdrawal (defeat).

Senior Naval Officers, on both sides, despised the U-boat/Submarine. It was  considered 'unsporting' and beneath a gentleman waging war. It dealt destruction by stealth and without warning. Innovative naval officers appreciated its potential; a tube with 27 men could influence war. Exclusively, they were a younger breed of officer.    

The great naval battle did not occur at the outbreak of war. There was no advantage for the British to confront the German High Seas Fleet in a single decisive battle. The British Fleet exerted maximum effect by simply, existing. Why risk all by engaging a powerful enemy? If the Germans beat the British, the pendulum of war would swing decisively in the German's favour. If the British beat the Germans, the Allied cause would remain as before.         

After the imposition of the British blockade, the German's decided to target British commerce. The British as an Island nation were particularly vulnerable to this form of warfare. Britain, dependant on imports, would starve if the Germans could destroy enough ships.

The Germans introduced unrestricted U-boat warfare in October 1914. It made good military sense especially as the British were clearly intent on starving the Germans. However, war does not exist in a vacuum and there is always a political dimension. The Americans were vocal about the conduct of the war if it affected its economic interests. They objected to the British blockade, although the British argued, with some justification, that the nation was engaged in a legitimate and lawful act of war. If you think that warfare and law should exist on the same page, I salute you. However, the sinking of the British ship the 'Lusitania' in May 1915 changed the game, irrevocably. The Germans claimed that the ship was carrying war munitions and therefore, fair game. The British stated that the ship only carried civilians. The Germans were right and the British lied. The problem for the Germans was that American citizens died. The Americans were indignant and threatened war. The Germans backed down, for now, and ceased unrestricted U-Boat warfare against merchant vessels. At the time, the Germans did not want to provoke a war with America. Although shrewdly, the Germans noted that the US was not ready to take part in a first-class European war- although this would change. The Germans were playing a fine game. Unrestricted warfare was very effective against Allied shipping, although the eventual political consequences were dire. The Germans were always best at the mechanics of war. The political consequences often eluded them, to their detriment.   

The Lusitania on its last voyage 

And so the war continued and the anticipated 'Great Fleet' confrontation occurred in May 1916. The result was inconclusive, but the Germans claimed victory, although the German Fleet stayed in port for the rest of the war. By 1917, the Germans were becoming desperate. It was argued that unrestricted U-boat warfare should be reintroduced although it was almost certainly to provoke the Americans to war. The Germans gambled that the Americans would take a year or so before their power would become apparent and turn the war against them.

The Germans introduced unrestricted U-Boat warfare in January 1917. It was hoped that their U-boats would sink enough Allied ships to bring Britain to its knees and to the negotiating table. Predictably, the Americans declared war at the beginning of April. The fuse had been set and the Germans were on borrowed time. However, it was going to be a close run thing. By April 1917, the tonnage of Allied ships sunk had reached critical levels. In that month alone over 1,000,000 tons of British and neutral ships were lost. Political and military leaders were beginning to panic. Then sanity prevailed. To date, commercial ships travelled alone and unprotected. It was decided that, in future, ships should sail in convoy guarded by warships or converted merchant vessels. On the ocean, a convoy of ships sailing together were no easier to find than a ship sailing alone. Immediately, the rate of ships lost decreased dramatically; the British did not starve.   

Few pundits, at the beginning of the war, would predict the fundamental role the underestimated, infernal and despised U-boat would have on the conduct of the war. In the end, it came close to beating the British and, therefore, by default, the Allies. The importance of the U-boat/Submarine as an instrument of war had been established and naval warfare would no longer be dominated by the big, surface, leviathans.

Casus Belli?


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