Sunday, March 12, 2017

The British Submarine Campaign of World War I

During the First World War it was the submarines of Imperial Germany that certainly got the most attention in the world press. Theirs was the first major submarine campaign undertaken by any nation, the German u-boats sank the most ships by far and it was the submarines belonging to the Kaiser which pushed American popular sentiment to the Allied side and, though few realize it, they came extremely close to winning the war for the Central Powers all on their own. Whenever one thinks of the British, even with the proud and famous history of the Royal Navy which dominated the seven seas for centuries, it is usually in the context of being on the receiving end of submarine warfare rather than instigating it. This is certainly understandable given that twice in the last century, the British were driven to the brink of defeat by German submarine campaigns and, because of that, the British became masters at anti-submarine warfare. However, the British have never been without success in naval warfare under the waves as well as upon them. From the First World War to today the Royal Navy has been a major submarine power and it was in the Great War that the British produced their first submarine war heroes whose names are still household words amongst the submariners of the world.

The Royal Navy entered World War I with a small collection of submarines designed to operate in coastal waters or not too far from a friendly port. These were the B, C, D, and E-class boats. It is a credit to the men that sailed them that boats of each of these classes were to achieve success in World War I, even the oldest of the B, C and D-classes. After the war had started, a new class of coastal submarine, the H-class, was built in Canada based on an American design and with American parts (U.S. neutrality at the time prevented them actually being built in America). The H-class was a little slow to catch on but ultimately proved to be a very successful design with some boats remaining in service in World War II and with other navies into the early years of the Cold War. The wartime G-class and L-class boats were more ambitious but did not see much action. As the Royal Navy grew more accustomed to submarines and ambitious in their thinking, these boats represented a step in the process toward the design of fleet submarines intended for major offensive operations. Continuing in that were the J-class, the very “creative” K-class which was steam-powered and the very fierce-looking M-class which resembled a sort of miniature, submersible battleship. The K-class proved problematic and only one M-class boat was clear for sea before the war ended and it was kept far from the action for fear that the Germans would copy the design for their own boats.

Probably the most successful British submarine design of World War I was the E-class. It is the type of boat most imagine when they think of British submarines from the First World War and it no doubt helps that all three of the most famous British submarine commanders of the Great War skippered E-class boats. They were small but sturdy and meant business with, unusually, bow, stern and beam torpedo tubes. A deck gun, originally lacking, was added in the course of the war. These, as with most British submarines tended to operate in the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Long-range offensive submarine operations were always going to be rather limited for the British since their boats tended to be limited to coastal range and in areas such as the North Atlantic they had few potential targets since the domination of the Royal Navy surface fleet tended to sink or keep in port most German merchant ships and, because of the German submarine campaign, there was always the danger of “friendly fire”. The terrible toll taken by German u-boats meant that when any British warship spotted a submarine, they tended to shoot first and ask questions later.

Centenary RN submarine flags
It was World War I which saw the birth of the British submarine tradition which continues even today. They had a spirit of reckless courage and tenacity born of adversity. The salty, old sea-dogs of the Admiralty were slow to accept the submarine as the formidable weapon of war that it is. Rightly proud of their massive battleships and with Britannia having ruled the waves for so long, such an innovation seemed unnecessary at best. Submarines were something generally associated with the enemies of the British Empire. The very first submarine attack (which failed) was made during the American War for Independence by the rebel colonists against HMS Eagle. Likewise, the original Holland-class boats had first been designed with the intention of their being used by the Fenian Brotherhood of Ireland to launch sneaky attacks on British shipping. A vessel that slipped, unseen, beneath the waves and which could attack an enemy unawares also seemed rather underhanded to the British sense of honor and chivalry. One British admiral even went so far as to denounce the submarine as “damned un-English!” while another suggested that, with the Germans in mind, all submariners should be considered pirates and hanged if captured. The British underwater sailors did not take kindly to this comparison and so decided to wind up the admirals by flying the Jolly Roger pirate flag after a successful cruise. That little show of defiance became a Royal Navy submarine tradition and when the HMS Conqueror returned home after sinking the Argentine battle cruiser General Belgrano in the Falklands War, she flew a Jolly Roger of her own design. (this, by the way, was the first and so far only nuclear submarine to sink an enemy vessel in combat)

However, the success of the German u-boats soon proved to even the most conservative British admirals that submarines were a weapon they had to take seriously and so King George V was to send his own out to do battle for King and Country. There were certain places were only submarines were able to operate effectively, areas which only they could reach and it was the British in the First World War who found out what naval experts today still know to be true; the best weapon to use against a submarine is another submarine. Three German u-boats were sunk by obsolete British C-class submarines, D-class subs sank two u-boats, the E-class sank five and British mine laying submarines accounted for a large number of destroyed German u-boats as mines took the heaviest toll of all on the Kaiser’s underwater fleet. The three primary area of operations for British submarines was the North Sea and waters adjacent to the British Isles, the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. The North Sea would see the least success for, not only was it dangerous due to the threat of the German fleet and the presence of German submarines but also, because of this, was an area in which British ships could be just as dangerous to British submarines.

Sir Max Horton in 1940
Nonetheless, it was in home waters that the British boats scored their first success when Lt. Comm. Max Horton, captain of HMS E-9, sank a German light cruiser on September 13, 1914. Within two weeks he also sank a German destroyer, a major accomplishment and earning himself the Distinguished Service Order. Sir Max Horton was well on his way to becoming the most famous British submarine commander of all time. However, these successes were the only ones for Royal Navy boats in 1914 and they lost three subs before the year was out. It was soon decided to send them into action somewhere the Royal Navy surface ships could not reach: the Baltic. Submarines would be able to slip past the Germans, get into the Baltic and, it was hoped, cut off the supplies of iron ore being shipped from Sweden to Germany and support the Russian Empire. The first three British boats dispatched to the Baltic were commanded by men who would prove to be the very best; Max Horton in E-9, Noel Laurence in E-1 and Martin Naismith in E-11. However, the E-11, the last to make the run, was spotted by German patrols and forced back. The Central Powers had not seen the last of him though.

In the Baltic, Horton and Laurence raised havoc on German shipping. Sometimes they operated together, other times independently and the Russian port of Lapvik served as their home base. Horton proved that a submarine could operate even in the frigid conditions of January as long as one did not dally too long on the surface. Laurence, in E-1, attacked and badly damaged the German battle cruiser Moltke in the Gulf of Riga, forcing the Germans to cancel their plans for a landing there. Czar Nicholas II hailed Laurence as the “Savior of Riga” and decorated him with the St George Cross. Horton, in E-9, also sank a number of German transports, minelayers, escorts and damaged the cruiser Prinz Adalbert. He too was awarded the St George Cross by the Russian Czar and took such a heavy toll on German shipping in the area that the Germans began referring to the Baltic as “Horton’s Sea”. Their success proved to the British high command that their submarines could accomplish great things and soon more were sent in, some directly and some by being broken up and sent by rail overland from Archangel. This was an area that British surface warships could not penetrate but British submarines could and soon crippled German shipping in the area and fouled up their land operations on the coast as well.

LtComm Francis Cromie
As well as practically paralyzing German merchant shipping, the British boats also took a heavy toll on the Kaiser’s navy. Lt. Comm. Francis Goodhart, commanding HMS E-8, sank the Prinz Adalbert, E-19 commanded by Lt. Comm. F. Cromie sank the light cruiser Undine and so on. Cromie, who would take command of the five boat submarine flotilla in the Baltic after Horton was withdrawn, was another major Royal Navy hero for the submariners, on one cruise destroying over 22,000 tons of enemy shipping in a single day. The Germans had the second largest navy in the world and the Baltic was practically their backyard and yet all shipping there had been totally paralyzed by a force of only five British submarines. If further proof were needed that the subs of the Royal Navy were good value for money, their operations in the Baltic certainly proved it. By 1917 successes dropped off simply because there was nothing left to shoot at and the collapse of Russia after the revolution forced the British to scuttle their boats rather than see them handed over to the Germans as stipulated in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

In the Mediterranean Sea, British submarines were dispatched to once again go where no surface warship could: the Dardanelles. Based on the island of Mudros, the original British force consisted of only six Allied submarines, three of which were the pre-war, British B-class boats which were largely obsolete. However, in the hands of a talented British captain, even these boats proved capable of success and, luckily for Britain, just such a captain was tasked with making the first foray into Turkish waters, Lt. Comm. Norman Holbrook of HMS B-11. On December 13, 1914 Holbrook and his men went in, but pushing against the strong currents made progress slow and maneuvering a struggle. Nonetheless, Holbrook was able to sight a target and with one well placed torpedo the outdated B-11 sent the Turkish cruiser Messudieh to the bottom. Holbrook managed to escape though it was a nerve-shattering experience and by the time he was able to get clear and surface his batteries were totally exhausted and the engines so totally deprived of oxygen that it took thirty minutes before they could be restarted. For this stunning victory, Holbrook became the first British submariner to earn the Victoria Cross.

HMS E-14
The next to go in was Lt. Comm. Courtney Boyle in HMS E-14. He had a hard time but managed to sink a minelayer and a Turkish troopship loaded with 6,000 soldiers and a battery of artillery. After all his torpedoes had been fired, Boyle handed out rifles to his sailors and stayed on patrol, chasing another Turkish transport onto some rocks before returning home. Boyle was also awarded the Victoria Cross. Then, of course, there was the legendary patrol of Lt. Comm. Martin Naismith, later Sir Martin Dunbar-Naismith of E-11 which penetrated the Turkish Sultan’s bathtub and brought shipping to a standstill. Forced to rely on the Berlin-Baghdad railway to supply their troops holding back the Allies at Gallipoli, Naismith sent his first officer ashore to blow up a section of the railroad, putting it out of action and forcing supplies to move by the sea again with E-11 sending more ships and boats to the bottom. Naismith would also receive the Victoria Cross for his fantastic accomplishments in the Sea of Marmara and for sinking the last Turkish battleship (formerly the German vessel Prince-Elector Friedrich Wilhelm). You can read more about these exploits here.

All told, the British submarine campaign in Turkish waters had been a resounding success thanks to the skill of the Royal Navy officers and sailors. By the time it was over, they had basically wiped out the Turkish navy by 1916 and sunk about half of the entire Turkish merchant marine as well. Efforts to use submarines in conjunction with the surface fleet proved unsuccessful, epitomized by the fate of the big K-class boats, and in the later stages of the war emphasis shifted to countering the u-boat menace. In this, again, the British submarines proved highly successful, sometimes hunting on their own and, at other times, in conjunction with a surface ship. Up until 1917 only five German u-boats were lost to British submarines but from then until 1918 the British boats managed to sink thirteen of the underwater raiders. All in all, British submarines accounted for 10% of all German submarine losses, more than were sunk by aircraft or the infamous Q-ships.

HMS E-11
Today, as mentioned at the outset, the British submarine campaign of World War I remains overshadowed by their German counterparts. This is understandable given that the German campaign was larger and accounted for many more sinkings, driving Britain to within a mere few weeks of defeat. However, the submarines of the Royal Navy did have a major impact on the war, particularly in the Baltic and in Turkish waters. They proved to a doubting admiralty just how effective submarines could be and they laid the foundation for the proud submarine tradition that is still maintained today. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded to British submariners during World War I and the greatest heroes of the British submarine campaign in World War I, Horton, Laurence and Naismith, are still household words to British submariners and others around the world. In their fight for King and Country, they had more than proven their worth.

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