I’ve been giving first world trade war plenty of post space lately, mostly because economic warfare was of enormous, long-term importance and the commemorative industry isn’t talking about it much. The same applies to the principal strategic weapons used to curtail enemy trade during the First World War: the long-established practice of naval blockade; and the offensive deployment of submarines.
With hindsight, we know that the British-led blockade of the Central Powers made a major, if slow-burning contribution to the final Allied victory, an outcome that would have not surprised contemporary observers well schooled in the theory and practice of economic warfare. We also know that submarines would never fulfil their potential to cripple the seagoing trade of an enemy – but in 1916 (or for that matter in 1941) nobody could be sure about the limitations of submarine warfare.
Submarines were still virtually untried weapons. A technological wonder of the age, they were already part (along with mines and torpedo boats) of a revolution in naval warfare that was bringing down the curtain on centuries of battleship supremacy, and they were in the process of rapid wartime development by 1916. They were obviously a menace to surface shipping, capable of seriously disrupting merchant traffic, but what they might become, and whether they were capable of winning wars on their own, were still matters of urgent professional and public debate.
As I’ve mentioned before (14 November, 1915: Low Profile), submarines prompted the same kind of apocalyptic speculation that surrounded the contemporary development of aircraft, and successful submariners were subject to the same kind of hero-worship that surrounded flying aces. Both weapons were exciting – in a devilish, deadly and dashing way – and fearful fascination is one reason why the first voyage of the German submarine Deutschland, which ended on 24 August 1916 with a triumphant return to the port of Bremerhaven, created headlines all over the world.
There were other reasons. For a start, the Deutschland was a new kind of submarine. It was huge by the standards of the day, not much longer than a conventional U-boat but far broader across the beam, displacing more than twice the weight and capable of a relatively fast 12.5 knots when travelling on the surface. As such it was a symbol of the advances in submarine technology since 1914, and it attracted global attention accordingly.
Secondly, the Deutschland was an unarmed merchant ship. The first of seven cargo submarines built in Bremen, privately funded and operated by the North German Lloyd Line, it represented an alternative, potentially blockade-proof future for seagoing trade. This was an intriguing possibility, enough to guarantee the interest of any state involved in trade (pretty much every sovereign state in 1916), and more than enough to seriously alarm the British.
The third sensational aspect of the Deutschland‘s maiden cruise was its destination. After leaving Bremen on 23 June, the submarine arrived in the US port of Baltimore on 10 July, a demonstration of blockade busting that chimed with mounting anti-British sentiment on the American East Coast and generated enormous levels of publicity.
Crowds flocked to witness the boat’s arrival, and the American press turned merchant captain Paul König, his three officers and 25 crewmen into celebrities, lapping up König’s insouciant claim that the voyage had been a breeze, untroubled by the British blockade. As the Black List crisis triggered a surge of anti-British sentiment in the US (28 July, 1916: Special Relationship?), the press seized every opportunity to rub the Royal Navy’s nose in it, highlighting the value of the Deutschland‘s cargo and its relatively rapid crossing, which involved less than 200km of submerged travel and took only a little longer than standard surface voyage.
Having sold on its load – 625 tons of medicinal products and 125 tons of immensely valuable, patented coal-dyes – the Deutschland left Baltimore on 2 August, carrying almost 800 tons of nickel, tin and rubber, a cargo the press on both sides of the Atlantic was quick to value at $17.5 million. The Royal Navy tried to intercept the return journey but failed –predictably enough given the chances of finding a single submarine in the North Atlantic in an age before radar or long-range flight – and all London could manage by way of retaliation was a note of protest to Washington.
Characteristically high-handed, the note demanded that the US (and other neutral countries) expel submarines from their harbours on the shaky grounds that all submarines, whatever their apparent purpose, were inherently warlike. The note also included a veiled threat to sink merchant submarines, and needless to say it went down like a lead balloon in Washington. The Wilson administration eventually replied with a note of its own on 31 August, asserting in no uncertain terms that international law applied to submarines in exactly the same way as it did to surface ships, and making clear that Britain would be held responsible for any ‘accidental’ sinkings.
In propaganda and diplomatic terms, the Deutschland cruise had been a ringing success, and the boat went on to undertake a second trip across the Atlantic , visiting New London, Connecticut, in November with a cargo of gems and medicinal products, before again returning safely. In strategic terms, on the other hand, giant cargo submarines turned out to be a pretty small flash in the pan, partly because replacing surface traffic with submarines was a slow and hugely expensive process, partly because submarines still carried much smaller loads than surface ships, partly because some bulky or volatile cargoes could only be carried by surface freighters – and partly because the War quickly outpaced development in the field.
A third Deutschland cruise planned for January 1917 was cancelled because the issue of military submarines had dragged relations between Germany and the USA to an all-time low. On 10 February, when Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare consigned transatlantic diplomacy to the dustbin, the experiment was abandoned. The Deutschland was converted for military use as a ‘submarine cruiser’, served out the rest of the War as the U-155 and had sunk 36 ships when it was surrendered to the Allies.
Apart from the Bremen, which disappeared at the start of her first cruise in September 1916, and was probably sunk by a mine off the Orkneys, the rest of the boats ordered as freighters entered service in militarised form (numbered between U-151 and U-157). Though the U-154 was sunk in the Atlantic by a British torpedo in May 1918, and the U-156 fell victim to a North Sea mine in September 1918, they performed adequately as long-range attack boats, offering greater range (and much more comfortable conditions for the 76-man crew) than a conventional U-boat. Then again, they proved desperately clumsy in the water, tending to roll out of control, wallow in mid-manoeuvre and get stuck on the surface when attempting to dive, so the class as a whole was never considered worth long-term development as a weapon.
The Deutschland‘s first homecoming in August 1916 signalled a small but significant false dawn, a moment when giant submarines might have been the future of modern warfare. For me, the real significance of the moment lies in the fact that it passed before the military world proceeded too far along the blind alley, that pragmatism overrode optimism as soon as operational results proved disappointing. Perhaps that was because the strategies and tactics around naval warfare were so well known and understood by professionals in the field, an argument that may shed light on why so many enthusiasts for the completely new field of aerial warfare persisted for decades with the other false dawn rising in 1916 – the altogether more dangerous idea that wars could be won by massed bombing of civilian targets.