Chapter 3
The German Navy and the Evolution of Submarine Warfare

     Although German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had chosen to concentrate on the German Army (and had deliberately avoided building a navy for fear of antagonizing Great Britain), this policy changed after his forced departure in 1890.  Under the personal rule of Kaiser Wilhelm II Germany embarked on an ambitious naval building program.  In the mid 1890s the Kaiser appointed Alfred Tirpitz as minister of marine with instructions to build a navy second to none.  Although Tirpitz spoke of a wanting only a fleet large enough to protect German commercial interests, both he and the Kaiser saw the navy as a means to conduct a dynamic world foreign policy (weltpolitik).  As the army built around the old Prussian Junker aristocracy had dominated in the 19th century Tirpitz expected the German navy to play the key role of Germany's expanding world role in the 20th century.  His intention was to create a fleet large enough to challenge the British for control of the seas and world mastery.  Tirpitz stated in 1897 that the Navy had become "a question of survival" for Germany.  He believed that the navy, supported by the middle-class industrial German state, was the future, to which eventually the army would have to give place.
     Tirpitz believed that Germany had to prepare for a showdown with the Anglo-Saxon powers.  This would probably be decided in one great naval battle in the North Sea or Atlantic between Germany on the one side and either Britain or Britain and the United States on the other.  Ironically, this was precisely the scenario anticipated by English naval leaders and it almost came to pass at Jutland in World War I.
     Whereas the Kaiser had thought in terms of cruisers, Tirpitz placed emphasis on the construction of battleships.  His program that passed the Reichstag in April 1898 called for the construction, by April 1904, of 19 battleships, 8 armored cruisers, 12 large, and 30 small cruisers.
     Tirpitz was able to take advantage of the international situation to add to the constructions program.  A second construction bill, which passed the Reichstag in June 1900 doubled the size of the projected navy to a total of 38 battleships, 20 armored cruisers, and 38 light cruisers--all to be built within twenty years.  This was in effect a direct challenge to the Royal Navy Home Fleet, then about 32 battleships.
     A naval building race between Britain and Germany ensued. The British answered with the new super-battleship, H.M.S. Dreadnought.  Later they introduced the battle cruiser class.  Tirpitz followed suit.  Although the pace of the race subsequently slowed somewhat, Tirpitz added to his construction program and also improved support facilities.
     German historian Gerhard Ritter has called the Tirpitz plan a "gruesome error" and German naval policy in general, a "monstrous error in judgement."  It is hard to disagree with his conclusion.  Far From driving Britain to panic, the construction of German vessels goaded the British into action.  Britain, an island, was dependent for its survival on imports of food and raw materials.  British political leaders and the public believed with some justification that for Germany the fleet was a "luxury," designed largely to satisfy the ego of the Kaiser, whereas for Britain the Royal Navy was a "necessity.  " The government had adopted the policy of maintaining a two-power naval standard, that is a fleet as large as the next two naval powers combined.  Although the British faced serious fiscal problems because of domestic social programs, the British were able to outspend the Germans in the naval sphere in large part because their professional army of just over 100,000 men was so small.
     As Bismarck predicted, the construction of a powerful German fleet drove Britain away from Germany and into alliance with France.  Far from making her an attractive ally, the precipitous naval construction had the effect of further isolating Germany in Europe.  It is interesting to note that the British volumes treating the origins of the First World War begin with the year 1898.  The Entente Cordiale of 1904 that erased tensions between France and Britain was a direct result of German naval construction, as was the 1912 agreement whereby the French agreed to take primary responsibility for the Mediterranean and to concentrate their naval units there.  The british agreed to do the same for the north Atlantic.
     German naval power was also nullified by the other developments, such as the 1902 Anglo-Japanese treaty, which permitted British naval reductions in Asia, and the elimination of the Russian Navy in the Russo-Japanese War.  As a result, the British Home Fleet was able to overshadow the High Seas Fleet.  Although by 1914 the German Navy was second in size in the world only to that of Britain, the Royal Navy had in fact widened its advantage over Germany in most classes of ships (the capital ship ratio was something like 32 to 18).
     There were also limits as to what Germany could do financially, particularly as she was at the same time maintaining the world's largest standing army.  By 1907-1908 the Army was again getting priority in armaments expenditure.  In retrospect, had the bulk of assets spent on the navy gone to her army instead, Germany would have been in a much better position to achieve a land victory over France in 1914.
     With his attention fixed on battleships, Tirpitz was a late convert to submarines.  The submarine was a delivery system ideally suited for the torpedo, although it was originally thought useful largely for observation duties.  The first practical submarine was developed by an American, J. P. Holland,  in the 1890s, and the employment of submarines as naval weapons was pushed by the British and French rather than the German navy.  By 1899 the French had one with torpedo tubes in service.  The first German Unterseeboot, U-1, was not completed until the end of 1906 and it was several years before its potential was realized.  The 1912 budget projected a total of 72 boats, but Germany entered the First World War with only 28, compared with 77 for France, 55 for Britain, and 38 for the United States.  Ironically, the Germans had no plan to employ their submarines against commerce.  After the outbreak of the war Tirpitz recognized the importance of the U-boat at sea, but he opposed the employment of submarines too early on, judging 1916 the right time.  His advice was for the most part ignored, and the German Army came to call the shots of German strategy, especially after 1916 when Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy General Erich Ludendorff established for all intents and purposes a military dictatorship.  The army High Command neither understood war at sea nor fully appreciated the dangerous risks for Germany's survival that naval policies might entail.  Overall Allied superiority on the seas made it appear that the only recourse open to the Germans was to pursue submarine warfare, and Hindenburg and Ludendorff were eager to play that card.
     In all navies, no less the German, only a minority of naval officers saw the potential of the submarine at sea.  As with most new weapons its support came from a small faction of devotees.  The negative attitudes toward submarines were largely a result of conferences on the laws and usages of war held during the first decade of the century.  Conferees agreed that submarines could only be used to attack enemy warships and naval personnel.  If used against commercial shipping submarines would have to follow all of the same rules as surface ships.  This meant submarine captains would be forced to stop merchantmen, search them for contraband of war, give crew and passengers time to abandon ship, and take measures for their safety before firing torpedoes.  While surfaced and dead in the water, submarines were extremely vulnerable.  for that reason, commerce warfare was believed virtually out of the question.
     Germany had only eighteen submarines operational at the beginning of the war, all active in the North Sea.  These were small, slow vessels that carried only four torpedoes and several mines each.  While naval planners recognized that torpedoes and mines were effective weapons at sea, they had given considerably more attention to torpedo boats and torpedo-boat destroyers as delivery systems than to submarines.1
     Submarines were also not compatible with traditional prize court practices.  Relatively small craft, they lacked sufficient crew size for proper visits and searches.  Furthermore they were too small to take aboard the crews of the ships they would stop.  The most dreadful fact to their commanders was their vulnerability during the long period of time it took submarines to surface and submerge.  The hassle and danger of surfacing would lead submarine captains to fire torpedoes at targets without surfacing to identify them, and this often ended in mistaken results.
      The submarine phase of the war did not begin well for Germany.  Commodore Hermann Bauer, who later had command of German High Seas Fleet submarines, commanded ten U-boats in August 1914, including U-5, 7, 8, 9, and U-13-18.  All ten submarines left their base at Heligoland on August 6 and moved northward in a widely-spaced formation.  On August 9 U-18 sighted two British ships, a cruiser and a destroyer.  Bauer's command had actually spotted the outer screen of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet and they paid dearly for moving too close to it.  The captain of the light cruiser Birmingham spotted a periscope and turned his ship so quickly that it rammed U-15, sinking the submarine with all hands.  This action was treated as a great achievement in the Grand Fleet, although it gave many U-boat commanders "periscope-itis" or "Jellicoe Jitters," meaning they would rather fire their torpedoes and deal with the consequences than surface and risk another fate like that of the U-15.2
     On September 5, however, U-21 sank a British destroyer, the Pathfinder, patrolling off the Firth of Forth, the first warship sunk by a submarine in the war.  She went down with 259 men.  A far more graphic illustration of the submarine's potential came on September 22 when elderly U-9 sank three old British cruisers, the Cressy, Hogue, and Aboukir, off the Dutch coast.  The Aboukir was first to be torpedoed.  The captains of her sister ships thought she had been the victim of a mine and stopped their ships dead in the water to take aboard survivors, making them easy prey.  The loss of 1,459 seamen (837 were rescued) and three cruisers did not upset the naval balance but it clearly signalled a new age in naval warfare.
     The first demonstration of the lethal capabilities of the submarine as a commerce raider occurred on October 20, 1914 with the sinking by U-17 of the British merchantman Glitra.  She was carrying a cargo of coal, coke, iron plates, and oil to Stavanger when torpedoed off the Norwegian coast.  The captain of U-17 gave the crew of the Glitra ten minutes to board their lifeboats and abandon ship before he fired his torpedoes.  The submarine then towed the lifeboats for fifteen minutes, releasing them after the Germans had given directions toward shore.  This was important because the captain of U-17 had followed the established rules of cruiser warfare by giving the crew time to abandon ship.  But, had the weather been poor or the Glitra been farther at sea, the men in the lifeboats would have been in grave danger.
     The first indication of the diplomatic repercussions of submarine attacks occurred after the October 26, 1914 sinking of the Chargeurs Reunis liner Amiral Ganteaume.  Here U-24 torpedoed what her commander thought was a British troop transport.  In reality the Ganteaume was carrying 2,500 Belgian refugees, nearly forty of which were killed in the attack.  The ship made it to the port of Boulogne, but news of the dead was a propaganda windfall for the Entente side and a disaster for the Germans, especially with neutral governments.  The British and French first assumed the Ganteaume had hit a mine, but they later uncovered evidence of a German torpedo.  The Allies referred to this as "the first atrocity of the German submarine war."3
     The Glitra and Ganteaume helped draw the attention of German naval officers to the submarine's worth as a weapons system.  Indeed U-boats were the most active and most destructive of all classes of warships in World War I and they remained active until the end of the war.
     In 1914 the German submarines were tasked with patrolling the North Sea to gather information on British patrols and locating enemy surface units.  U-boats proved their worth as patrol vessels when they returned to Germany with evidence of the absence of a close blockade.
     Attacks specifically on British merchantmen stopped for a month after the Glitra incident.  They began again on November 23 with the sinking of the Malachite and continued on the 26th with the loss of the Primo.  These two attacks were isolated incidents and not part of a larger German submarine campaign against commerce.  The German navy had not yet decided to undertake such a course.4
     Commodore Bauer was the main proponent of a German declaration of submarine warfare against commercial shipping.  On October 8 he submitted such a recommendation to Commander of the German High Seas Fleet Admiral Hugo von Pohl.  Bauer called for an offensive campaign and greater numbers of submarines.  He felt the British mining of the approaches to the English Channel warranted such action.  But his proposal was rejected; Pohl and others did not feel British mines alone justified a campaign in violation of international law.
     Bauer was not dissuaded; he knew others agreed with him.  For instance, in November Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz intimated to an American correspondent the possibility of a submarine campaign as a test to ascertain U.S. attitudes.  When this interview hit the newspapers it created a sensation in Germany and led to the formation of a "U-boat party," which demanded unrestricted submarine warfare.5
     Pohl was converted to Bauer's way of thinking after the November 2 British proclamation of the entire North Sea as a British military area.  At the end of December Bauer again recommended a submarines campaign, noting that Germany possessed sufficient submarines to commence commerce raiding at the end of January.  Admiral Reinhard Scheer backed Bauer by submitting memoranda recommending a submarine blockade, viewing it as the best way to bring the Royal Navy into battle.
     Senior German Navy officers supported these proposals.  They too considered the British declaration justification for unrestricted submarine warfare.  This attitude, coupled with a considerable agitation in the German press, brought about the German decision to proclaim a blockade.  On February 4 Berlin declared the north and west coasts of France a war zone in which all Allied merchant vessels would be liable to being destroyed.  This was a landmark action.  The German Government did not foresee the anger and fear that this proclamation would ignite in the American public.  However naive it seems now, Americans then did not believe their lives should be threatened at a time when their country was still neutral.  It was this belief in the absolute sanctity of neutrals that made unrestricted submarine warfare the main cause of the United States military intervention in World War I.


1.    Stokesbury, James L.  A Short History of World War I (New York:  William Morrow and Company, 1981), pp.87-88.
2.    Halpern, Paul G.  A Naval History of World War I (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1994)., p.292.
3.    Hough, Richard. The Great War at Sea, 1914-1918. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983)., p.171.
4.    Halpern. A Naval History of World War I., p.292.
5.    Ibid., p.292-93.
6.    Ibid., p.293.

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