U-boats and the First World War

The first Royal Navy submarine was developed by John P. Holland and was launched in 1902. At this time France led the world in the design and construction of steam-powered underwater boats. However, after 1905, Germany began to develop a submarine with real fighting qualities. In 1913 Germany produced its first diesel-powered Unterseeboot (U-boat).

By the outbreak of the First World War Germany had 10 diesel-powered U-boats (17 more under construction). The German Navy also had 30 petrol-powered submarines. Britain had 55 submarines whereas the French had 77. Although submarines were slow, fragile and able to dive for only a couple of hours at a time, with torpedoes they posed a serious threat to other ships. By 1918 the German Navy had 134 operational U-boats and these managed to sink 192 boats, killing more than 5,400 people.

Hans Rudi Erdt, U-Boat Poster (1917)
Hans Rudi Erdt, U-Boat Poster (1917)

Primary Sources

(1) General Paul von Hindenburg, Out of My Life (1934)

On the other hand, in view of England's economic situation, the Imperial Admiralty promises us that by the ruthless employment of an increased number of U-boats we shall obtain a speedy victory, which will compel our principal enemy, England, to turn to thoughts of peace in a few months. For that reason, the German General Staff is bound to adopt unrestricted U-boat warfare as one of its war measures, because among other things it will relieve the situation on the Somme front by diminishing the imports of munitions and bring the futility of the Entente's efforts at this point plainly before their eyes. Finally, we could not remain idle spectators while England, realising all the difficulties with which she has to contend, makes the fullest possible use of neutral Powers in order to improve her military and economic situation to our disadvantage.

(2) Alfred von Tirpitz, My Memoirs (1919)

Two lines of thought were emerging at that time (late 1890s): the tactical necessity for a battlefleet, if we were striving for sea-power and wanted to build ships to some purpose; and the political necessity of establishing a protecting navy for Germany's maritime interests which were growing at such an irresistible pace. The navy never seemed to me to be an end in itself but always a function of these maritime interests. Without sea-power Germany's position in the world resembled a mollusc without a shell. The flag had to follow trade, as other older states had realized long before it began to dawn upon us.

The 'Open Door,' which could easily be closed, was to us what their broad plains and inexhaustible natural wealth were to the other Powers. This, combined with our hemmed-in and dangerous continental position, strengthened me in my conviction that no time was to be lost in beginning the attempt to constitute ourselves a sea-power. For only a fleet which represented alliance-value to other great Powers, in other words a competent battle fleet, could put into the hand of our diplomats the tool which, if used to good purpose, could supplement our power on land.

It was, and is, an illusion, however, to think that the English would have treated us any better, and have allowed our economic growth to have proceeded unchecked if we had had no fleet. They would have certainly told us to stop much sooner.

(3) Adolf von Spiegal, U-Boat 202 (1919)

The steamer appeared to be close to us and looked colossal. I saw the captain walking on his bridge, a small whistle in his mouth. I saw the crew cleaning the deck forward, and I saw, with surprise and a slight shudder, long rows of wooden partitions right along all the decks, from which gleamed the shining black and brown backs of horses.

"Oh, heavens, horses! What a pity, those lovely beasts!"

"But it cannot be helped," I went on thinking. "War is war, and every horse the fewer on the Western front is a reduction of England's fighting power." I must acknowledge, however, that the thought of what must come was a most unpleasant one, and I will describe what happened as briefly as possible.

There were only a few more degrees to go before the steamer would be on the correct bearing. She would be there almost immediately; she was passing us at the proper distance, only a few hundred metres away.

"Stand by for firing a torpedo!" I called down to the control room.

That was a cautionary order to all hands on board. Everyone held his breath.

Now the bows of the steamer cut across the zero line of my periscope - now the forecastle - the bridge - the foremast - funnel - A slight tremor went through the boat — the torpedo had gone.

"Beware, when it is released!"

The death-bringing shot was a true one, and the torpedo ran towards the doomed ship at high speed. I could follow its course exactly by the light streak of bubbles which was left in its wake.

"Twenty seconds," counted the helmsman, who, watch in hand, had to measure the exact interval of time between the departure of the torpedo and its arrival at its destination.

"Twenty-three seconds." Soon, soon this violent, terrifying thing would happen. I saw that the bubble-track of the torpedo had been discovered on the bridge of the steamer, as frightened arms pointed towards the water and the captain put his hands in front of his eyes and waited resignedly. Then a frightful explosion followed, and we were all thrown against one another by the concussion, and then, like Vulcan, huge and majestic, a column of water two hundred metres high and fifty metres broad, terrible in its beauty and power, shot up to the heavens.

"Hit abaft the second funnel," I shouted down to the control room.

Then they fairly let themselves go down below. There was a real wave of enthusiasm, arising from hearts freed from suspense, a wave which rushed through the whole boat and whose joyous echoes reached me in the conning tower. And over there? War is a hard task master. A terrible drama was being enacted on board the ship, which was hard hit and in a sinking condition. She had a heavy and rapidly increasing list towards us.

All her decks lay visible to me. From all the hatchways a storming, despairing mass of men were fighting their way on deck, grimy stokers, officers, soldiers, grooms, cooks. They all rushed, ran, screamed for boats, tore and thrust one another from the ladders leading down to them, fought for the lifebelts and jostled one another on the sloping deck. All amongst them, rearing, slipping horses are wedged. The starboard boats could not be lowered on account of the list; everyone therefore ran across to the port boats, which, in the hurry and panic, had been lowered with great stupidity either half full or overcrowded. The men left behind were wringing their hands in despair and running to and fro along the decks; finally they threw themselves into the water so as to swim to the boats.

Then - a second explosion, followed by the escape of white hissing steam from all hatchways and scuttles. The white steam drove the horses mad. I saw a beautiful long-tailed dapple-grey horse take a mighty leap over the berthing rails and land into a fully laden boat. At that point I could not bear the sight any longer, and I lowered the periscope and dived deep.

(4) Kaiser Wilhelm II issued orders to U-boat commanders on 1st February, 1917.

We will frighten the British flag off the face of the waters and starve the British people until they, who have refused peace, will kneel and plead for it.

(5) The British government began a poster campaign in 1917 in an effort to persuade people to save food.

I am the crust. When you throw me away or waste me you are adding twenty submarines to the German Navy. Save me and I will save you.