The War at Sea in 1915
Submarine warfare escalates. British blockade of Germany
author Paul Boșcu, July 2018
In 1915 the British blockade of Germany was fully implemented by the Grand Fleet. To counter the blockade the Germans launched a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare, meaning that any ships around Britain, enemy or neutral, would be sunk in the hope of stopping the flow of supplies upon which the British were dependent on for their war effort. The German U-boat campaign culminated with the sinking of the Lusitania in which a large number of Americans died, sparking an outrage in the United States. Because they were unwilling to further provoke the Unite States, at least for the moment, the Germans were forced to put a moratorium on attacks on any liners without prior warnings.
In 1915, although the Germans attacked at sea, their bold plan to fall upon part of the British Grand Fleet with their entire High Seas Fleet, and thus achieve a superiority that would enable them to inflict serious casualties, affecting the overall situation at sea, was not pursued.

The British were affected by the contrast between the long range at which shells could be fired and their limited number of hits, while heavy smoke affected the optical range finding crucial to gunnery. Yet, alongside these disadvantages, the British Grand Fleet was becoming both absolutely and relatively stronger, with five newly operational dreadnoughts added to it in the winter of 1914-15.

In 1915, Germany increased the threat and tempo of their assault on Entente shipping by declaring unrestricted submarine warfare. This policy entailed attacking all shipping without warning, Entente and neutral, within the designated zone.

The Atlantic trading system on which the British economy rested, and which was a core component of its maritime position and power, was the prime target for German naval warfare by 1915. Trade played the key role in accumulating and mobilizing the capital and securing the matériel on which Entente war-making depended.

The Lusitania, the largest liner on the transatlantic run as well as a British ship, was sunk off Ireland by U-20. Among the 1,192 passengers and crew lost were 128 Americans, and there was savage criticism in America. In response, Germany offered concessions over the unrestricted warfare. It was finally cancelled in order to avoid provoking American intervention.

Admiral Franz von Hipper took the German 1st and 2nd Scouting Groups into the North Sea to attack British trawlers and patrol boats on the Dogger Bank. Intercepts by Royal Navy signals intelligence revealed the plans, and Admiral David Beatty was sent out with the 1st and 2nd Battlecruiser Squadrons to surprise Hipper, joined by the light cruisers and destroyers of the Harwich Force. Once Hipper realized that heavy British ships were present, he turned for home. Beatty’s flagship Lion drew first blood. Four British battlecruisers poured shells into the crippled Blücher until she sank, while Hipper led his battlecruisers home to safety.

The intercepted signals did not make it clear what the Germans were about to do, so it was assumed that they were intent on another coastal raid. In fact Hipper was planning to entrap and destroy the British light forces operating in the Dogger Bank region but, as prior intelligence goes, it was still pure gold.

The Admiralty acted with an unwarranted degree of over-confidence. Beatty and Reginald Tyrwhitt’s Harwich Force was dispatched to intercept Hipper, but without the close support of Jellicoe’s fleet. Thus Beatty sailed with the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron (the Lion, Tiger, Princess Royal), the 2nd Battlecruiser Squadron (the older New Zealand and Indomitable), the dubious support of the pre-dreadnoughts of the 3rd Battle Squadron, the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron and the usual screening destroyers.

Beatty intended to rendezvous with the Harwich Force near Dogger Bank. Soon after, the light screens of both forces clashed and Hipper, astutely recognizing what was happening, bolted for home. Beatty and his battlecruisers began a grim stern chase, seeking to overtake and destroy their adversaries. Gradually the faster Lion, Tiger and Princess Royal began to get within range, until the Lion opened fire, at about 20,000 yards, concentrating initially on the rear ship, the hybrid battlecruiser Blücher, which was slightly lagging behind.

One shell from the Lion did crash down on her opposite number, the Seydlitz. It tore through the quarter deck and partially penetrated the barbette armour of the aft turret. The burst ignited the cordite charges in the working chamber and triggered a flash that spread in an instant into the magazine handling room and up into the turret above. As desperate men tried to escape they opened the door connecting with the adjoining superimposed turret, thereby inadvertently allowing the flames to rip through both to deadly effect. 159 men were killed in the conflagration.

In response, German fire was concentrated on the Lion at the head of the British line, hitting her fifteen times and causing serious damage. Listing to port, she began to fall out of line. Despite this, Hipper and his ships were still in dire straits: the Blücher was by this time on fire and slowing down. But then fate intervened as Beatty sighted what he thought was a periscope and feared he had led his precious battlecruisers into a deadly submarine trap. He ordered an immediate turn to port, which allowed Hipper the precious breathing space to try to escape away to the southeast, abandoning the Blücher to her fate.

The crew of the Blücher fought to the end, but for the British the dramatic photos of her turning turtle as she sank were small compensation for the escape without further interference of the rest of the German battlecruisers.

The British failed to learn much from the demonstrable fallibilities in their command and control systems, in particular the weakness revealed aboard Beatty’s flagship Lion in the process of generating and signalling orders without incorporating ambiguities which fatally confused his subordinates in the stress of battle. Furthermore, the overall standard of gunnery demonstrated by the British battlecruisers was simply dreadful; while they could hit the Blücher well enough when she was a crippled standing target, they scored only a handful of hits on the other German ships.

While excuses could be made – lack of experience under battle conditions, poor visibility caused by palls of smoke and spray from German shells – the fact remained that they were poor in the extreme, with the bulk of their shells sailing thousands of yards over their targets. Admiral John Jellicoe, the British fleet commander, was aware of the problem but it was difficult to secure increased opportunities for long-range practice for the battlecruisers in the relatively cramped and narrow confines of the Forth. There was no other battle in the North Sea in 1915 and even less surface naval warfare elsewhere.

The Germans were chastened by their experiences and shortly afterwards Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl was dismissed from his command of the German Fleet. It was considered he had been remiss in not sailing with his fleet in support of the Dogger Bank operations and had taken unnecessary risks without the chance of any significant gain. He was replaced by Admiral Hugo von Pohl, a man who was to prove equally uninspired and hamstrung by the overall caution urged on the High Seas Fleet.

The Germans were horrified by the near destruction of the Seydlitz, which had nearly exploded after the cordite fire. After a careful investigation, considerable precautionary measures were introduced to try and prevent such a flash travelling anywhere between the turret gunhouse, the handling chamber and the magazine. By contrast, the British appeared to have learnt little and there were no corresponding improvements in working practices in the chain from magazines to turret.

The opening stages of the naval war saw the Grand Fleet exercise a brooding distant presence while cruisers guarded the northern exits to the North Sea, enforcing the blockade which sought to prevent raw materials and supplies from reaching Germany. When it became apparent that the land war would not be over quickly, this became a key part of the Entente global strategy; this was after all why Britain was such a coveted ally. The blockade would endure throughout the whole war.

The 10th Cruiser Squadron assigned to the task consisted of eight protected cruisers of the Edgar class. These were old ships dating back to 1891. The North Sea was a hostile environment for such elderly matrons and the winter storms proved almost too much for them: ‘It was blowing a full gale and it looked doubtful if the ship would weather it. My cabin was on the upper deck, in the after superstructure, and I lay down on my bunk in my clothes and being very tired I dozed off. I was awakened by a terrific crash and my cabin door was burst open and water poured in. All I could see outside was a swirling mass of foam on the upper deck. I thought the ship must be sinking. I swung myself out of my bunk and, up to my knees in water, waded up the slope through the doorway. The ship seemed on her beam ends and it looked as if nothing could save her. As I watched she slowly – miraculously – righted herself. A minute later another great wave swept her from stem to stern. It was then that a Midshipman was carried overboard from the foremost gun and on over the nettings aft and laid almost at my feet. After that there was a lull and I could take in the scene. The gun crews were clinging to the guns or whatever they could hold on to, while live ammunition rolled across the deck.’ (Lieutenant Harold Bowen, HMS Edgar, 10th Cruiser Squadron) Several of the other ships were caught in this terrible storm and it was decided to replace them with twenty-four armed liners.

It was the role of the 10th Cruiser Squadron to intercept merchantmen that were suspected of carrying contraband goods to Germany. Originally there was a narrow definition of prohibited goods, but this gradually broadened to include almost anything of value bound for Germany, or indeed for a neutral port from which it could then be re-exported. By rationing the amount of supplies they let through to that which a neutral country needed internally, Britain sought to prevent any significant re-export trade.

Protests from neutral Scandinavian countries were inevitable, but Britain applied commercial pressures on them and also defined the North Sea as a military area, requiring all neutral traffic to be inspected before proceeding. This was an endless chore: ‘I sighted and closed a steamer and found her to be the Norwegian steamer Henrik from New York to Bergen or Christiania, boarded her with some difficulty and found she had a general cargo of very considerable value, mainly copper ingots and wire, aluminium, flour, petroleum, motor-car parts, castings, etc., in fact most things which Germany is believed to want. It was more or less of a chance that I sighted this ship as I happened to be a good bit north of my line, and I do not think that there is much doubt that this ship was trying to get through unseen, for when I first saw her and stood towards her she altered course and was apparently inclined to run, but finally decided not to. Her captain was somewhat indignant at being boarded at all, and he produced the inevitable British Consular Certificate which he seemed to think cleared him of any further trouble. The mere fact that this ship was bound for Bergen or Christiania with such a cargo seems to me to be in itself gravely suspicious, and from what I gathered from my boarding officer as to the demeanour of the captain and mate I do not think there is much doubt that they were quite aware that they were running a very doubtful cargo, and their indignation was doubtless mainly due to the prospective loss of their bonus for getting safely through. This ship’s cargo was some 5,000 tons or more. I had not time to make a careful examination of the manifest as the weather was threatening and I was anxious to get a prize crew on board before the sea got up.’ (Captain Gerald Vivian, HMS Patia, 10th Cruiser Squadron)

The British restrictions were not popular and indeed probably caused more disruption to neutral shipping lines than did their occasional losses to German submarines. There was the enduring risk of a clash with the United States and it would appear that American ships received special treatment with only the most perfunctory of inspections, to avoid triggering too much American angst.

When the war began, submarines were regarded as a tactical adjunct to conventional surface ships. Yet a true commerce destroying role was considered largely impractical due to the limited range of many of the early submarines and the difficulties of following the dictates of international law when sinking merchantmen. Yet endemic dissatisfaction with the progress of the naval war, coupled with an unwillingness to risk the fleet in action left the Germans casting round for alternative plans in their efforts to inconvenience their naval adversaries. The solution set upon was to make a bonfire of international law.

Submarines would clearly be useful in both the defensive and offensive naval operations conducted by both sides, as had been proven in the early exchanges in the North Sea. Civilian shipping – even from a hostile country – must not be sunk without proper warning, nor could crews be abandoned in lifeboats on the open seas. Neutral shipping was almost untouchable and could not be sunk, even if a search revealed the presence aboard of contraband goods intended for the British Isles. It is strange but this perception continued to exist on all sides for several months.

Crucially in Germany, alongside the dominance of strategy by the army, a dominance Wilhelm II did not challenge, there was a long-standing concentration of industrial resources on the army, a pattern that was to be repeated in the Second World War. As a result, although submarines swiftly affected the conduct of operations, the Germans did not have the numbers to match their aspirations. In early 1915, only twenty-nine German submarines were available, and by the end of the year, only fifty-nine.

Neither Britain nor France had an industrial system to match that of Germany, which by 1914 had forged ahead of Britain in iron and steel production. As a result, the Entente were dependent on America for machine tools, mass-production plants and much else, including the parts of shells. American industrial output was equivalent to that of the whole of Europe by 1914, and the British ability to keep Atlantic sea lanes open ensured that America made a vital contribution to the war effort before its formal entry into the war in 1917.

Submarines had not featured prominently in naval operations over the previous decade, and their potential had been greatly underestimated by most commentators. Britain, which had only launched its first submarine in 1901, had the largest number — eighty-nine — at the outbreak of the war, many intended for harbor defense, but had not found answers to the problems of the defense of warships and merchantmen against submarines.

Once war began, the Germans stepped up the production of submarines, but relatively few were ordered and most were delivered late. In part, this was because of problems with organizing and supplying construction. Germany, as in 1939, also started war at what turned out to be the wrong time for the navy. A lack of commitment from within the German navy to submarine warfare was very important. Instead, its preference was for surface warships, which required more maintenance in wartime.

Aside from using scarce resources, the submarine also faced serious deficiencies as a weapons system. In addition, submarines were slow, and this lessened their chance of maintaining contact and of hitting a warship moving under full steam. Submarines, however, benefited over time from an increase in their range, seaworthiness, speed, and comfort; from improvements in the accuracy, range, and speed of torpedoes; and from the limited effectiveness of anti-submarine weapons. In time, submarines came to play a significant role in naval planning.

To move while submerged, submarines were dependent on battery motors that had to be recharged on the surface where the submarines were highly vulnerable to attack.

The improvements in submarine technology reflected the war-making possibilities of a modern industrial society, with its ability to plan, design, manufacture, and introduce better specifications for instruments and processes.

Merchant shipping, not warships, proved the most important target for German submarines and ensured that they were given a role in strategic planning. Indeed, by attacking merchantmen, the Germans were demonstrating that the sea, far from being a source of protection for Britain, could in fact be a serious barrier to safe resupply.

The operation of commerce raiding while respecting the well-established prize rules was known as restricted submarine warfare. If it was carried out without regard to these rules, it was unrestricted. The prize rules in essence were: to stop suspected vessels, search them for contraband, and, if contraband was found, take them into port where the ship could be condemned by a court as a prize. If it was impossible to get the vessel into port, the prize rules stipulated that the ship was to be scuttled after provision had been made for the crew and passengers by allowing them into the lifeboats or by holding them on board the submarine.

The Germans declared a war zone of the seas surrounding Great Britain, meaning that any ship, enemy or neutral, caught inside its boundaries could be sunk at once. Instead of surfacing to stop, search and sink a ship, the U-boats would if necessary sink them by torpedo with no warning of any kind. Justification for this action was based on the assertion that the British had already broken international law by changing the definition of contraband goods for the Royal Navy blockade of Germany. But the real reason was to allow the U-boats to attack while still preserving their invisibility.

Freed from their shackles, the relatively small number of modern U-boats capable of reaching the western approaches to British ports were soon exacting a cruel toll on shipping. In the end the Germans were the victims of their own success when there was a series of high-profile scandals provoked by the sinking of civilian liners with a terrible loss of life – including American passengers.

The British seemed to have forgotten the value of convoys: the time-honored method of warding off predators by gathering merchantmen together under the protection of armed vessels when passing through dangerous waters. Instead, destroyers and armed merchantmen roamed the seas randomly looking here, there and everywhere for the elusive U-boats in the vast emptiness of the seas.

A large outcry followed the sinking of the Lusitania by the U-20. It was some ten miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, near Queenstown, Ireland, when it was struck by a torpedo fired by Lieutenant Walther Schwieger. In the end, of 1,959 passengers and crew, 1,195 were killed, of which 128 were American civilians. The uproar was enormous but the Germans were defiant, claiming that the liner was carrying contraband munitions and that their detonation had contributed to the ship’s speedy demise. But then 3 months later the U-24 sank the liner Arabic off Ireland. This time fatalities amounted to forty-four, of which only three were American citizens. Yet it sparked another furious round of US protests.

‘Torpedo hits starboard side right behind the bridge. An unusually heavy explosion takes place with a very strong explosion cloud (cloud reaches far beyond front funnel). The explosion of the torpedo must have been followed by a second one (boiler or coal or powder?). The superstructure right above the point of impact and the bridge are torn asunder, fire breaks out, and smoke envelops the high bridge. The ship stops immediately and heels over to starboard very quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow. It appears as if the ship were going to capsize very shortly. Great confusion ensues on board; the boats are made clear and some of them are lowered to the water with either stem or stern first and founder immediately.’ (Lieutenant Walther Schwieger, U-20)

The ship sank within twenty minutes amidst many scenes of terror: ‘The sea was calm; if the water had not been like that, there would have been many more lost. The most vivid scene of all was when it first started, when the explosion came. We were in the dining room. Everybody was frightened then – they panicked. Had we not been by a door we would never have got out, because a stream of people came down the dining room, there were others following at the back, and people were being stepped on, walked on. That was the most terrible thing – they just couldn’t help themselves, the crowd was too strong. And when we were going down the staircase towards the boats someone fell on top of me – I would never have survived if my husband hadn’t got hold of me and had the strength to pull me out.’ (Jane Lewis, passenger, RMS Lusitania)

Germany was not alone in bending to destruction the international rules of law at sea. Special Service Vessels, code-named Q-ships by the British Admiralty, were created in response to U-boat attacks on merchant shipping. The Royal Navy took old tramp steamers and other vessels and fitted them with concealed guns. A U-boat coming upon such a vessel would not waste a torpedo on it, but instead closed with it on the surface. Once the U-boat approached, the Q-ship would unveil its guns and open fire. Manned by volunteers, the Q-ships achieved their first success in July 1915. In the course of the war they sank 14 U-boats.

This was a deeply unsporting measure, reliant as it was on the U-boats obeying the rules of war and being lured into surfacing by seemingly unarmed merchantmen. In the immediate aftermath of the sinking of the Arabic, feelings ran very high. This boiled over into the infamous Baralong incident. The Baralong had arrived as the U-27, commanded by Lieutenant Bernard Wegener, was engaged in sinking the British steamer the Nicosian. On board the ship was a cargo of mules bound for the Western Front. Wegener let the crew and American muleteers board their lifeboats, but just as he was about to sink the ship by gunfire, the ‘Q’ Ship Baralong arrived on the scene.

Disguised and flying the US flag, the Baralong approached the submarine U-27 signalling that she intended to rescue the Nicosian’s crew. At the last minute the Baralong unmasked her concealed 12-pounder guns: ‘We could see the submarine lying above the surface on the water. Our captain commanded the chief gunman to fire, whereupon three shots were fired by our boat at the German submarine. The first shot took off the periscope. The second shot hit about 15 feet in the water before it reached the submarine. The third shot hit the gas tank, which exploded, and the submarine sank. In the meantime, the crew on the submarine, after the second shot, began to jump into the water. There were about fifteen of them and they began to swim to the Nicosian. While they were in the water our gunman shelled them by orders from our commanding officer, with 15-lb shells and also fired rifles at them. From the best I could see several of the crew on the German submarine were killed by our shell and rifle firing while in the water. Others were killed while attempting to climb up the ropes which had been thrown to them from the Nicosian. I should judge that three or four or five were killed while on these ropes. Some of our shots hit the side of the Nicosian. After our crew boarded the Nicosian we found the only one of the crew of the submarine who had escaped on the deck, and found him to be the commander of the submarine. Our captain and others of our crew asked him for information concerning other German submarines. He refused to give such information. He was also asked if his submarine had sunk the Arabic. I do not remember certainly his reply. He was commanded to stand back and hold up his hands. He asked, as he stepped back and held up his hands, “What for you shoot?” One of our marines, known as our engineer, fired one shot from his pistol into the body of the German Commander. He fell upon the deck on his face. Our crew, after ascertaining that he was dead, picked him up and threw him overboard.’ (Ordinary Seaman Larimore Holland, HMS Baralong) Holland was a US citizen who had enlisted into the Royal Navy under the guise of being Canadian. There is considerable confusion as to what really happened aboard the Nicosian – lurid stories even circulated of a German sailor being disposed of in the furnace. There is little doubt, however, that it was a brutal and unnecessary exercise in vengeance.

The effect of the Q ships was less in the actual number of submarines sunk than in the possible threat of sinking, which forced a change in the behavior of the submarines.

The intense storm of American protest over the Lusitania and the Arabic dwarfed the relatively small-scale uproar over the manifest criminality of the Baralong incident. Germany was forced to institute a moratorium on attacks on any liners without prior warnings. In addition, her U-boats were redeployed to operations centered in the North Sea and Mediterranean where there was far less chance of annoying the Americans. This had the effect of releasing the pressure on Britain.

During 1915 some 748,000 tons of merchant shipping had been sunk by U-boats. This was a serious loss, but not enough to bring the British to their knees. The overall pattern of the naval war was unbroken, and the stranglehold held by the Royal Navy over Germany would endure into 1916.

Italy’s decision to abandon Germany and Austria, with which it had agreed to a naval convention in 1913, and instead to join Britain and France in May 1915, ensured that the Mediterranean was controlled by this alliance.

A French squadron at Corfu off northwest Greece and most of the Italian fleet at Taranto, supported by British and Australian warships, confined Austrian surface ships to the Adriatic and sought to stop submarines from getting into the Mediterranean.

In the Baltic, the Russian fleet was weaker than the forces the Germans could deploy if they moved in some of their High Seas Fleet units from the North Sea via the Kiel Canal. This indicated what the Americans could do at a far greater scale with the Panama Canal. Although there were battles off Riga in 1915 and 1917, this German capability encouraged Russian caution, which was also in keeping with a stress on the Russian army, with long established Russian naval doctrine, and with the Russian emphasis in the Baltic on local naval operations.

The Russians laid extensive minefields to protect the Gulf of Finland and staged raids into the southern Baltic in order to mine German shipping routes, while the Germans, in turn, also laid mines.

Although the British, prior to the war, had considered sending a fleet into the Baltic in order to help Russia, threaten an attack on northern Germany, force battle on the Germans, and cut German trade with Scandinavia, no such expedition was mounted, although planning continued. The Germans had sufficient mines and submarines to make Admiral John Fisher’s Baltic plans so unrealistic that more prudent Admiralty and War Department planners ignored or blocked the schemes, encouraging the emphasis on the blockade.

An Anglo-French fleet was sent to force open the Dardanelles en route to threatening Constantinople, the Turkish capital, itself. However, this poorly planned attempt was stopped by minefields, shore batteries, and an unwillingness, in the face of the loss of ships, to accept the risk of further naval operations. There had been a misplaced belief that naval power alone could force a passage through the Dardanelles, due to a serious underestimation of the Turkish minefields and the mobile shore batteries protecting them, and the Turkish ability and willingness to resist attack.

The viability of any strategy of knocking Turkey out of the war by this means, and thus helping Russia and affecting Balkan developments, was dubious. As an instance of new vulnerabilities, a British officer recorded a German aircraft flying low and machine-gunning a sailor on a destroyer.

The scheme, which owed much to Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, showed the extent of British naval power, since the naval force which was sent, made up mostly of older capital ships, did not endanger the situation in the North Sea. In place of the unsuccessful naval attempt, the Entente switched to an attempt to take control of the western side of the Dardanelles. But the amphibious capability revealed was not matched by success on the part of the forces once landed. However, Entente naval power was such that it was possible to supply these forces and, eventually, to withdraw them successfully.

The passage through the Dardanelles was blocked by minefields covered by the batteries of a series of forts and mobile howitzers. Admiral Sackville Carden began the naval attack on these defenses in February. He had a substantial force of British and French battleships at his disposal, although most of these were ageing pre-dreadnoughts. Their heavy guns proved far less effective against shore batteries than had been anticipated. However, the greatest weakness of the Entente forces was a lack of efficient minesweepers. The Turks abandoned the forts at the entrance to the strait, but Carden made no further progress.

With Carden in poor health, it was Admiral John de Robeck who assumed command for the decisive bid to force the straits in March. Almost the entire force of heavy warships advanced in three lines, one of them consisting of four French pre-dreadnoughts under Rear Admiral Emile Guépratte. Ordered forward to engage the forts at close range, the French ships took heavy punishment, especially Gaulois, which ran aground to avoid sinking. Robeck ordered the French to withdraw so he could bring other ships forward to cover the mine clearing. As the French wheeled right, Bouvet struck a mine and quickly sank.

During Admiral de Robeck’s attempt to force the straits, one disaster followed another. The battlecruiser Inflexible was the next to hit a mine, withdrawing with a heavy list. Then it was the turn of Irresistible and Ocean; both were immobilized by mines and abandoned. With night approaching, de Robeck signalled for all the ships to retire. There was no further attempt to force a passage through the straits. Instead it was decided to land troops at Gallipoli—an operation that was to prove an even more costly failure.