THE INEVITABLE EVIL OF SUBMARINE WARFARE

From the same year in which Queen Victoria died, 1901 {BUT,  please see this page first BRITAINS OLDEST SUBMARINE}, the introduction of trial submarines was looked upon by senior naval officers as being under-handed and a cowardly way to wage war.  No good would come of it and naval warfare  would slip from the hands of gentlemen professional officers fighting gentlemen professional officers on a level playing field, into the hands of upstarts who would steal their chance no matter what the circumstances.

In those early days of experimentation and subsequently of adoption as a fighting fleet unit, young officers, chiefly lieutenants, from whose ranks came the officers who manned the boats swinging on davits in large surface warships, were appointed to these vessels as the commanding officer.  According to naval folk law, the senior officers, who by and large had the same feeling about undersea warfare, continued to call these young officers 'boats officers' almost as a derogatory name, and thus what they commanded became known as a "boat."  To this very day, a submarine is known as a boat, although things are very different for today's commanding officer, who, far from being a junior officer, is in some types of boat, a middle-zone Commander, whose next promotion is Captain R.N. Also of passing interest, is a comparison in size between the 1906 [Dreadnought] battleship from whose bridge the commanding officer would sneer at the sight [or thought] of an upstart boat of the same time period, and today's front line submarines. The Dreadnought was just over 18,000 tons compared with a submarine weighing in at between 300 and 500 tons. Today's boat, the Vanguard class for example, has a displacement of a staggering 15000 tons. No comparison can be made between the Dreadnought and a Vanguard class submarine in terms of destruction power, save to say that the Dreadnought would be as useful today as a sticking plaster [band aid] in a major heart surgery operation.

What does my title mean?  Well it says two things, 'submarine warfare, and 'submarine warfare in total war', and I am going on to concentrate on the second bit. So much is known about submarine warfare during WW2 [so much so that it almost pre-occupies much of the war years] but it is not common knowledge that the German submarine threat was just as potent in WW1 when it's use was the undoing of the German nation. Whilst fully legitimate of course navies fighting navies, and the perfect weapon-carrier for cold war situations i.e., used as a deterrent, but I wonder how many of you know the rules of engagement when using a submarine against a non-naval sea target and why its use is so limited?

To explain the rules, I am going back to the First World War to a set of internationally recognised rules, which the Germans, in that war and again in the Second World War totally and criminally ignored to such an extent that the issue of non compliance brought the USA into the First World War.

But first, a quick picture of Germany's position at the beginning of the war in 1914-15. The British Navy was omnipotent on its own, but when teamed up with its allies, the French, the Russians and the Japanese, it far outnumbered anything the Germans, plus her ally Austria, could muster.  The navy was used to blockade all German ports ostensibly to starve the nation into submission. It was very effective and the Germans were paying [if they could buy it] four times more for their food than we were. German raiders [armed merchant ships] had been arrested and interned in many of the worlds ports putting them out of action for the duration. What few warships the Germans had on the open seas were destroyed by the RN and its allies at the skirmishes of Heligoland Bight, the Falklands, Dogger Bank, and others, particularly the destruction of the small armoured cruiser Emden [3600 tons with ten four inch guns, eight five pounders, four machine guns, two submerged torpedo tubes and a speed of 25 knots] by HMAS Sydney, herself taking a great deal of punishment whilst doing it. Emden had created havoc in southern oceans and her commanding officer had a reputation for being ruthless - but was he? On capture, the British Admiralty made him a hero and he was allowed to keep his sword and full dignity.  All neutral ships were eventually banned from conveying goods to Germany or Germany via 'so called' neutral Dutch Ports [the Dutch gave a haven to the Kaiser when Germany was defeated - and also had a Dutch SS Panzer Division in WW2] and all this was rigorously imposed by the Royal Navy who were watch-on-stop-on. With the German High Sea Fleet consigned to a couple of North Sea ports and Kiel in the Baltic, Germany's only weapon was her submarines and mines, which she laid liberally, again, against international law.  Germany used her UBoats not as a fighting weapon but as a tool of murder.  She sank as many ships as possible notwithstanding their flag or cargo and paid little heed to the rules on humanities when death of crew plus passengers was of no consequence to the UBoat commander. 

 

So what are the rules and when are they in operation?

The International Rules are PERMANENTLY in FORCE and every country in the world has assigned its name to the Charter.  Moreover, they were written and established LONG BEFORE submarines were invented and are not reliant or affected by the aggressor vessel used.

THE LAW

Is that a ship of war, operating against the maritime commerce and traffic of the enemy, is under an obligation to take the precaution of visit and search in order to ascertain whether a suspected merchantman is in fact of belligerent nationality or is in fact carrying contraband of war under a neutral flag: and then, if search confirms the suspicion, to carry the merchantman into a port of the country of the warship for condemnation by a prize court, and not to destroy the captured ship unless necessity compels.  Moreover, the lives of non-combatants, whether they be neutral citizens or citizens of one of the nations at war, must not be placed in jeopardy by reason or in course of such proceedings.

The law as thus stated had been [first world war 1915] consistently observed by all nations until now.  Germany, with only her submarine power to rely upon on the sea, is the first and only Power to disregard it.

The Germans issued the following statement after having been accused of piracy. "Military proceedings are not regulated solely by the stipulation of international law.  There are other factors - conscience, good sense.  A sense of duties which the principles of humanity impose will be the surest guide for the conduct of seamen, and will constitute the most effectual safeguards against abuse. The officers of the German Navy - I say it with emphasis - will always fulfil in the strictest manner duties which flow from the unwritten law of humanity and civilisation."

The President of the United States [President Wilson] saw it differently, and spoke for the rest of the world.

"The method of attack against the trade of their enemies lies in the practical impossibility of employing a submarine in the destruction of commerce without disregarding those rules of fairness, justice and humanity which all modern opinion regards as imperative. It is practically impossible for the officers of a submarine to visit a merchantman at sea and examine her papers and cargo. It is practically impossible for them to make a prize of her: and , if they cannot put a prize crew on board of her, they cannot sink her without leaving her crew and all aboard of her to the mercy of the sea in her small boats.....Manifestly submarines cannot be used against merchantmen, as the last few weeks have shown, without an inevitable violation of many sacred principles of justice and humanity."

The Germans had killed their first American by an act of piracy when, on the 28th of March 1915 they torpedoed the Elder Dempster Liner "Falaba" killing one American and ninetynine other crew and passenger, and American Diplomats were busy preparing their case.

The Germans were now operating along the US east coast ports and cities using submarines and airships. As though they wanted to goad the US into action, they bombarded the US Steamer "Cushing" bound  from Philadelphia with a cargo of petroleum and oil, with bombs dropped from an airship, but the damage was not great and the vessel made a safe port. That was on the 28th April 1915.

On May the 1st, the US oil tanker "Gulflight", bound from Port Arthur, Texas to Rouen France, was torpedoed by a German submarine resulting in severe damage to the ship and the deaths of the captain and two of the crew. The tanker was taken to a British port.

Then came the famous advert placed in a US newspaper by the German Ambassador in Washington warning all passengers of all ships that a state of war existed between Britain and her allies and Germany and her allies , and they sailed the Atlantic at their own risk. The advert had little or no effect on the would-be passengers.

What happened is enshrined in our contemporary history and I have copied the following account from a reference book on the early years of World War 1 written in 1916 -

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One would think that this event would "push" the Americans into entering the war, but it didn't, and they maintained their neutrality despite being aware of the atrocities and the war now many months old from the Start in September 1914. In fact it would be nearly two more years hence before the US would take action.

However, by the mid 1915 period it looked as though there was a chance for peace, and the Germans pushed themselves forward as being magnanimous, offering a peace plan which would favour them. They set about currying favour with the neutrals and in particular with America hoping that they would force Britain and her allies into a one-sided peace. What they proposed first off quite pleased President Wilson, and his reaction quite shocked Britain and France.  It also shocked many in America who were pro allies and anti central powers [Germany and Austria]. America was a camp of many schools, those pro central powers, those pro allies, those who were pacifists and those who saw in neutrality a way of making and keeping money and power whilst avoiding countless deaths of soldiers. None could make up their minds and whilst soldiers and sailors continued to be sacrificed on the field and at sea, the politicians and leaders jockeyed for position in the winning stakes. The allied response to the central powers was that if Germany restored the damage it had done and paid reparations, and thereafter gave a cast-iron guarantee that they would never fight again, then a truce was possible and who won or lost was not a crucial or critical issue. France added a demand that all Turks [allies of the Germans but not from the beginning of the war], being aliens to European culture by custom and religion should be "thrown" back into Asia.  Additionally, if the Germans agreed, the fighting could be stopped very soon. The American President agreed to act as the go between and suggested that both sides should consider the others offer of a truce . The President's spontaneous liking of the original German plan for a truce [which so alarmed the allies] was not what it seemed to be and as time went by, the British and French got to know that the President was just being kind to the Kaiser hoping to encourage a more balanced settlement from the Germans. 

The Germans refused point blank to the allies demands, claiming and stating all kinds of wrong doing by the British.  The allies wanted only a correction  for wrong doings and a guarantee of peace thereafter - not much to ask for. Everybody and organisation tried their best to settle the issue, with Britain, quietly represented by an able Prime Minister and his staff, whilst the Germans had an obnoxious King as did the Austrians, military bullies and politicians who believed that God was either a German [Prussian] or an Austrian, and of course, asking the world "would we Germans do anything wrong as defined by the hated British - it is they who are the aggressors."

The to'ing and fro'ing dragged on, and as time passed, the Germans dug their feet further in, adding more and more demands to their truce plan and all the time ignoring the allies simple plan. It was during this period that opinions in Washington were beginning to form. Whilst the President was offering his services as a go between [but growing impatient with the intransigence of the Germans] telling the world that all would be well with a little more effort, many members of Congress were fearing a US involvement in the war and the ex President, Roosevelt, was banging the desk asking why the US had not done [or said] anything about Germanys naked aggression.

Bit by bit the old fraternal brotherly bond of  kingship US/UK and sisterly bond of liberty of US/France, made itself known in powerful places. The world's neutral  powers dithered and those of them representing maritime countries were erring on the side of Germany, but to a country, they all looked to America for guidance, full well knowing that eventually America would settle it one way or another.

Germany's obsession with ruling the world and to rid Britain of its empire so that they could assume control was affecting even moderate judgment in Germany.  It was claimed that towards the end the Kaiser was none too happy with some of the submarine plans for sheer unadulterated high sea murder and many in Germany were disturbed when they started to carry out their plans.  This finally polarised the opinion of Congress and the Senate in the USA and great and profound debate took place. Something akin to a climax came on Feb 4th 1917 when President Wilson announced that he had broken off diplomatic relations with Germany, and he wasn't on his own despite his powers to act: the vast majority of this great nation agreed with him and thanked him for being brave. That act also solved the problem for the small neutral countries for now they knew how to vote.

By the 1916-1917 period, Germany had many hundreds of UBoats roaming the Atlantic, the Channel and the Mediterranean and her policy, declared unashamedly to the world at large, was that she would sink everything come what may, all without warning, irrespective of what flag they sailed under, UNLESS, they sailed in narrow shallow sea lanes, their ships painted in a special colour and under the supervision of the Germans.  Even then, if it should take them, the Germans left it open as to whether they would shoot on sight or allow free passage. No country was excused, no, not even America. Germany's one and only aim was to cripple France and bring her to her knees, and to totally annihilate Britain, a most despised and hated country by bringing about starvation and deprivation of raw materials - any country or any force which stopped her bringing this about would suffer the consequences of destruction.

In the new German edict concerning the travelling in narrow shallow sea lines or be sunk, America had been given just one route to the UK and that culminating in Falmouth in Cornwall.  This great power was now being told to abide by the rules or risk great loss.  Some in the States were prepared to accept this, albeit temporarily to stay neutral, but to others this was an insult which had to be redressed.

The President had warned Germany that there would be only one consequence were they to insist on unlimited submarine warfare, to which the Germans replied that they were willing to conduct submarine warfare in accordance with America's agreement. The President, sensing the German cunning couldn't accept this international confused state and told the Germans that his ultimatum stood - back off totally and for all time, or else. President Wilson sought and got full backing from Congress and the American people at large; in fact he got an unprecedented and emotional backing which left nobody in any doubt about his intentions. The German Ambassador was sent packing and the American diplomat was recalled home. President Wilson then asked the important A.B.C., countries of South America if they would back him and all three Argentine, Brazil and Chile gave him their full support.  By now the western hemisphere was backing the President.

Germany, being Germany [where else?] performed a counter-stroke by falling back on the treaty of 1799 concluded between Prussia and the US., regardless of the fact that already it had been held to be inappropriate to the circumstances of the particular situation. Germany tried to embarrass the US by sending wireless messages around the world suggesting that the US had reneged on their promise of protecting German ships from arrest and internment in US ports. On a practical matter Germany withdrew from New York Banks M250USD of German capital.  Then she sank the liner "California" with the loss of American citizens including infants and children, and later the cargo boats "Orleans" and "Roceste."

Provoking though these acts were, and emotions ran high on the sinking of the "California", America continued on its way, thinking and preparing for what MIGHT and would PROBABLY happen in times ahead.

America started up the massive machine that would see untold billions of dollars spent on munitions, and the young men of America started training for the fields of Europe. Henry Ford, the motor man, had throughout most of this period been a well known pacifist.  Now, he was offering the President his plant to make submarines. The whole of America was angry and when you [Germany] awake a giant of this size, you are bound to get a beating which will be final without mercy.

Knowing this was going on, the Germans continued with their murders on the high seas, when the Cunard Liner "Laconia" [18000 tons] was cold bloodedly sunk, again with the loss of American citizens.

Quite obviously, once the cards were down, America, where it could, was able and ready to supply munitions to Britain.  This, the Germans seized upon, claiming that a neutral was supplying  arms to a belligerent, and that sinking the neutral was fair game.

Nothing was certain, and those in the know in Washington wondered whether or not the US would go to war, and if it did, on the side of the allies, or by herself  independently.

On the 6th of April 1917 Congress resolved upon war against Germany.

The president told his people "We have said that this - the extremest step - was inevitable. And surely it must have been if nothing more than the submarine campaign of the central powers had been continued as the unbearable menace and hurt to the property, rights, and dignity of the greatest of the neutral States."

Later on after the declaration of war, the American people heard officially from Japan, that Germany had tried to force Japan away from the allies of Britain, France and until the revolution of October 1916, the Russians, in order to join forces with Mexico to attack the soft under belly of the USA from the south.

This brought to an end the German-Americanism  for the remainder of the war which was 18 months from this point in history. Many Germans left America voluntarily and those that didn't were asked to leave. Official history doesn't show what happened to those that stayed.

Thus, history shows that it was the German use of submarine warfare which brought the USA into the war. History also shows that with their might, the war was shortened and the German defeat was thorough. Had the Germans not used their submarines in such an unacceptable way, perhaps the USA might not have joined the war, and who knows, the German's might have won.  God Bless America.

Collectively, we destroyed that threat in WW1 and their second attempt in WW2. They won't get a third opportunity!

 

I have not mentioned 1916 and the Battle of Jutland on purpose. It is a story already well told.