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Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

Updated on May 7, 2018
Sudhir Devapalan profile image

I am a front-end developer by profession, but I enjoy writing articles about anything mysterious, interesting, and fascinating.

When we talk about unrestricted submarine warfare the first thing that comes to mind is Germany and her U-boats. There have been a lot of criticism on Germany for resorting to unrestricted submarine warfare in World War 1 as well as World War 2. If resorting to such a method would result in serious consequences then why did Germany go through with it?

What is Unrestricted Submarine Warfare?

Submarine warfare
Submarine warfare

Unrestricted Submarine Warfare is a type of naval warfare in which there is no restriction or code to the sinking of vessels by submarines. There is no warning provided for attacking a merchant ship. "Prize rules" or "cruiser rules" required the submarine crew to surface and investigate the merchant vessel for ammunition and ensure the safety of the merchant crew.

When a submarine attacks a merchant vessel, it is required to follow the above-mentioned rule to ensure the safety of the crew who are civilians. This, however, can be disregarded if the ship is armed or the crew does not cooperate with the submarine crew and does not stop. In WW1 and WW2 Germany chose to ignore these set of rules and started sinking ships on sight raising a lot of red flags.

Unrestricted Submarine Warfare in World War 1:

U-boat WW1
U-boat WW1

During the initial stages of World War 1, Germany did not resort to unrestricted submarine warfare. Their U-boats were sinking a lot of British ships and they were confident that they could make Britain surrender. Britain was desperate to find a solution for these U-boats and came up with the idea of Q-ships.

Q-Ships or Decoy Ships:

Q-ships
Q-ships

Also known as decoy ships or mystery ships they were heavily armed merchant vessels with their weapons concealed. According to the prize rules, the submarines were required to surface and search the decks of the merchant vessels to ensure the crew's safety. These Q-ships were used as decoys to lure the submarines to surface and then blast them with their guns. Since the most effective way to sink a submarine during WW1 was to shoot it while it surfaced or ram it, this was an effective solution.

Some crews even pretended to abandon ship to lure the submarines out. The submarines were very vulnerable at this point and some drastic measures were needed. As a result of this, during early 1915 declared the area around the British Isles as a war zone and that any neutral ships entering this area will be attacked by the German navy.This resulted in the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915. It was a British ship carrying munitions but it was just a passenger ship containing 1,201 people including 128 Americans.

This incident prompted U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to send a strong message to Germany to stop sinking unarmed merchant vessels. Thus more stringent rules were set for the U-boat crews which severely crippled their ability to perform. Unrestricted submarine warfare was resumed only by the fall of 1917 when it was decided that this was the only way to defeat Britain.

German U-Boat Conduct in Early World War 2:

U-boat
U-boat

Germany was banned from having submarines according to the Treaty of Versailles in WW1. However, it came around this problem by training her submarine crews abroad. So when WW2 broke out, the U-boats were back in action to try and strangle Britain of her much-needed resources. During the early stages of the war, the submarine crews were following the prize rules as required.

Laconia Incident:

Laconia Incident
Laconia Incident

Whenever a merchant ship was sunk by a submarine, the Germans surfaced and ensured that the survivors were safe. They even radioed surrounding naval vessels to assist in the rescue operation. This, however, all changed after the Laconia incident.

The RMS Laconia was a British troopship carrying a total of 2,732 passengers. This included crew members, soldiers, and Prisoners of war. On 12 September 1942, the ship was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-156. Following the old prize rules, the captain of the U-boat Korvettenkapitän Werner Hartenstein immediately surfaced and started rescuing the survivors. Admiral Dönitz, the head of submarine operations ordered 7 submarines to divert and help the survivors.

U-156 sent out signals of its location to all allied troops in the area informing them about their humanitarian intent to rescue the victims. Several other U-boats joined the rescue operation as well and they hung out Red cross banners across their decks to inform the allies that they meant no harm. The U-boat crew put some of the survivors on lifeboats and towed them whereas some women and children were brought inside the submarine for safety.

Things were going well until the U-boats were spotted by a USAAF's B-24 Liberator bomber. The pilots were informed about the U-boat's location, its intentions, and presence of survivors and yet they were ordered to attack them. The bomber killed dozens of survivors with bombs and strafing attacks and forced the submarine to ditch the remaining survivors and crash dive to save themselves.

The B-24 crew reported that they had sunk the submarine whereas they had just sunk two lifeboats with survivors of the Laconia. The pilots of these B-24 bombers were also awarded medals for their "bravery". This was repeated for other U-boats as well. The U-506 was also attacked by American planes and forced to dive without the survivors.

After this incident, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz issued the "Laconia Order". This forbade German U-boat commanders from performing any rescue attempts leading to unrestricted submarine warfare for the rest of the war. Even still there were some U-boat commanders who performed rescue operations but the number was very less after this incident.

Unrestricted Submarine Warfare by Other Countries:

Submarine
Submarine

It is clearly evident from the above facts that unrestricted submarine warfare was forced upon the Germans by the actions performed by the Allies. It was not a choice but a necessity given the situations created by the Allies during the war. It would thus be unfair to state that Germany resorted to this method out of a disregard for human life.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was performed by other countries as well. Primarily this was used to starve a country heavily reliant on merchant shipping by performing a naval blockade. Thus Britain and Japan were primary targets for this type of warfare. Although most countries resorted to this it was mostly used by Germany against Britain and the USA against Japan.

© 2018 Sudhir

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