14 NOVEMBER, 1915: Low Profile

I’ve talked about submarine warfare before. Submarines were important, or at least widely used, in the First World War, and their story has been largely lost to a public mind hooked on iconic Second World War images. It was a good story: a tale of extraordinary bravery and endurance by submariners in machines that were unwieldy, unreliable, uncomfortable and distinctly unsafe; and a strategic saga of fearsome potential never quite realised that would be mirrored by its Second World War sequel.

In both wars, a U-boat campaign against Allied shipping in the Atlantic formed the centrepiece of the submarine story, and the First World War version tends to hog what little modern limelight is available to its submariners. In 1915, on the other hand, the exploits of submarines anywhere were headline news, sensational stuff featuring one of the wonders of the age – and a hundred years ago today, a dismayed British public opened its newspapers to discover that the Royal Navy submarine E20 had been sent to the bottom of the Sea of Marmora.  So this seems a good moment to look beyond the U-boats and doff a hat to the wartime exploits of the British submarine service.

The E20, one of the newest British boats, had met its fate on the afternoon of 6 November, and had been a victim of bad luck. The French Navy submarine Turquoise had run aground in the Dardanelles on 30 October, right under the barrels of Turkish shore batteries, and been captured with its orders and codes intact, including details of a planned rendezvous with the E20. The British boat kept the appointment, but was met by the German U-boat UB14 and sunk by a direct hit from a single torpedo. Of the submarine’s crew of thirty, 21 were killed, the rest rescued and taken prisoner.

The British press was predictably scandalised by the sinking, one of seven British submarine losses during the Dardanelles/Gallipoli campaign, and quick to point the finger at the Admiralty for poor operating practices. Then again, like other British authorities at a time of mounting popular disillusion, the Admiralty couldn’t really win with the press. For much of the previous six months the same papers had been praising the submarines as a success story and panning the Navy for not sending more of them to the theatre.

Despite the losses ­– only six boats survived the campaign – British submarines were a success in the Dardanelles. Four boats were lost attempting to pass through the Straits, a difficult and dangerous feat given the technical limitations of contemporary submarines, but between them the other nine sank two battleships, a destroyer, 5 gunboats, 9 transports, 35, steamers, 7 supply ships and 188 smaller vessels, causing persistent disruption to Turkish supply lines at the front. After a succession of failures to impress the British public, these excellent results came at a very good time for the Royal Navy, and by late 1915 the submarine service had become something of a public relations star turn.

It was about time, given that the British began the War with the best submarine fleet in the world. It wasn’t the biggest fleet in the world, but the Royal Navy’s 40 old boats for coastal defensive work and 17 modern, longer-range D- and E-Type boats outnumbered the German Navy’s ten long-range and 18 coastal craft in 1914, and the much larger French fleet possessed few boats fit for any kind of active service. I’m resisting the temptation to get technical, so take my word for it that the E-Type boat, in service since 1913 and destined to be the mainstay of British wartime production, was the safest, most efficient submarine available to any navy, and comprehensively outperformed contemporary U-boat designs.

From a PR point of view, all these advantages had counted for little during the first months of the War. British submarines were held in a defensive posture, quiet on the margins of public perception as they clustered around home ports for fear of a German naval breakout. All that changed when a handful of E-Types sent to the Baltic began registering successes against German merchant ships in the spring of 1915, and the performance of the Dardanelles flotilla during the rest of the year cemented the position of British submariners, and particularly submarine commanders, as popular heroes in the same mould as flying aces.

Once the Gallipoli campaign had ended, so did the turkey shoot provided by Ottoman shipping around in the Dardanelles. British submariners never again had it so good, but the service expanded steadily and performed with relative success for the rest of the War. Coastal defence and commerce warfare remained their core duties, but British submarines were also occasionally adapted as minelayers and quite frequently deployed in anti-submarine operations.  The latter bring this tiny tour d’horizon full circle.

Wartime British submarines sank a total of seventeen U-boats, and most were trapped using the same subterfuge that did for the E20:  waiting in ambush at a prearranged enemy rendezvous point and dishing out a torpedo at close range. British boats could perform the trick so often because, beginning in December 1914, the Admiralty’s secret Room 40 had been deciphering German Navy radio traffic, a vital advantage that was yet another harbinger of the next war, and is another story I plan to mention one day.

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