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WWI Series - A Hundred Years Ago - Submarine Threat 1915

Updated on October 27, 2015

WWI Submarine

A German UC44 class U-boat. Submarine design crammed as much as possible into a small space.
A German UC44 class U-boat. Submarine design crammed as much as possible into a small space. | Source

WWI Submarines

U-boat is the English version of the German word U-Boot, a shortening of Unterseeboot, literally "undersea boat". (Wikipedia) A U-boat is a submarine operated by Germany in WWI.

At the start of WWI, Germany has twenty-eight U-boats. In the first ten weeks, these submarines sink five British cruisers. This early success inspires the initial strategy of using the U-boat as a weapon against military targets and navy vessels to enforce a blockade on the British Isle. This strategy evolves into sinking ships of the merchant marine after a warning that allows the sailors to abandon the ship before sending tons of goods to the bottom of the sea. The primary targets of the U-boat campaigns are the merchant convoys bringing supplies from Canada, the British Empire, and the United States to the islands of the United Kingdom.

In 1915, the German High Command initiated a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. German U-boats now sink all ships without warning who venture into enemy waters. The most famous or infamous submarine, the U-20 commanded by Walther Schwieger, torpedoes and sinks the Lusitania on May 7, 1915. Though Germany is in a death struggle to sever Britain’s lifelines of commerce, the damage done in terms of American good-will will never be balanced by 300,000 tons a month of shipping at the bottom of the sea. More and more shipping continues to reach England.

The strategic use of the submarine by Germany in 1915 did not succeed in blockading Britain. However, few of the weapons used during WWI affected the conduct of the war more than the submarine.

Retractable Surface Weapon

Retractable gun to use in surface attack. Bundesarchiv_DVM
Retractable gun to use in surface attack. Bundesarchiv_DVM | Source

Additional Strategic Purposes of the U-boat

Mine-laying submarines are developed in the early part of the 20th century. Laying mines is extremely dangerous for the submarine and for the sailors onboard. Mines are laid in the English Channel and through prominent shipping lanes. All Allied vessels kept careful look-out for these invisible agents of destruction.

Submarines are also used for inserting and removing covert agents and military forces for intelligence gathering. Submarines rescue aircrew during air attacks on islands. The airmen are told of safe places to crash-land so the submarines can rescue them. Submarines could carry cargo through hostile waters or act as supply vessels for other submarines.

All nations with a navy possessed submarines. America first used submarines in the Civil War. However only one country based a strategic war campaign on the use of submarines – Germany. However, even the superior German engineering could not win the war of attrition with submarines. The industrialized Allies simply had too much in resources for German U-boats to cripple the economy of Britain and isolate the British nation.

The submarine strategy succeeds in fostering a lasting fear of surface fleet commanders to sail in enemy waters. However despite sinking 630000 tons per month of neutral shipping, the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare did not work as hoped. The Germans underestimated the resilience of the industrial nations to make more. The use of convoys began to limit targets. Plus the weapon of fear backfired in a way at a cross purpose. The use of submarine against neutral targets, especially the Lusitania, held a great deal of influence in America to enter the war against Germany. The German high command estimated that it would take America at least two years to impact the war after declaring war. They strategized that the U-boats could win the war within that time.

The submarine forced a complete revision of conventional naval strategy and the protection of seaborne commerce. The Axis strategy proved to be a miscalculation.

British WWI Submarine

HMS_R3a | Source

U-Boat Actions 1915

January 30, 1915. Two British warships are torpedoed without warning by the German u-20, marking an escalation in the naval war. Previously submarines stopped suspect vessels and allowed their crews to abandon ship before sending the ship to the bottom.

February 4, 1915. German authorities announce that submarines will blockade Britain from the 18th. All vessels, whether sailing under combatant flags or not, are deemed legitimate targets.

April 17, 1915. The British E17 becomes the first submarine to break through the Turkish defenses guarding the Dardanelles in 1915. Others will follow in the wake of the E17 and score many successes against German and Turkish shipping in the Black Sea. German submarines are not alone in destruction. However, German submarines are alone in the strategy of unrestricted warfare in regards to civilian shipping in the war zone which Germany declared around Britain.

May 7, 1915. The Lusitania is sunk without warning by the German submarine U20. Among the dead are 124 US citizens.

August 19, 1915. Submarine U-24 sinks the liner Arabic. Forty-four are killed and among them are three US citizens.

November 7, 1915. The Austrian submarine U-38 shells and then torpedoes the liner Ancona bound for New York from Italy. Among the 208 dead are 25 US citizens.

Though no one living in America can see into the future. No one can predict what 1916 will bring. There is no reason to believe that the submarines will stop targeting American shipping.

Laying Mines

The moored contact mine could condemn an entire crew to a swift, watery death.
The moored contact mine could condemn an entire crew to a swift, watery death. | Source

Cramped Living Conditions

The cramped interior of a typical torpedo room shows the submariner's living conditions.
The cramped interior of a typical torpedo room shows the submariner's living conditions. | Source


Life aboard submarines is hazardous and unpleasant. The cramped interior of a typical torpedo room is hot, fetid, and claustrophobic. At the slightest turn in events, the crew is condemned to a swift watery death without hope of escape. These sailors must eat, sleep, and breath in close quarters without hope of a private moment.

The crew is approximately 35 submariners in close quarters for up to six months depending on refueling options. The submarine has to surface daily to renew air and water systems. The submarine has to return to port for routine maintenance. For the men serving inside a submarine in 1915, existence required a unique and resilient personality capable of both isolation and close quarters and fear. Submariners are honored as heroes in their home country, and rightfully so.

German U-boat Crew Surfaced

The Impact

The submarine in 1915 was part of the industrialized war. However the Navy commanders were far better at adapting to the realities of industrialized war than the Army. Even so tactics of defense such as the use of convoys, the use of zigzag motion in sea routes, mine sweepers, and such are not in full practice when the Lusitania is torpedoed in May, 1915. The submarine is a valuable weapon of war and fear and German leaders hope to win the war with the use of this weapon. However the submarines could not sink enough. The German’s could not blockade the British Isle as well as the British surface ships blockaded Germany. The German U-boat campaign brings America into the war.

The use of submarine unrestricted warfare by Germany in 1915 is intended to sever the links between Britain and her empire and her allies. And frightening as the invisible enemy is, the submarine can’t win the war. However, submarine strategy changes the course of warfare.

Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger

The  German Hero responsible for the torpedo hitting the Lusitania.
The German Hero responsible for the torpedo hitting the Lusitania. | Source

Crew of German Submarine

Page Turning WWI Fiction

The Experience of World War I by J.M. Winter


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