30/6/1917 Germany’s dawning realisation that the U-boat war has failed

Germany is trying to win the war with its escalated U-boat campaign. The U-boats have been given carte blanche to attack Allied merchant ships without warning. They are also authorised to attack ships flying neutral flags but suspected of carrying supplies to Allied countries. The Germans hope that the submarine war will reduce Britain to poverty and starvation, forcing it to make peace with Germany

Since the beginning of the escalated campaign in February the Germans have sunk an astonishing 3,844,000 tons of Allied shipping. Holtzendorff, the German navy’s chief of staff, has calculated that sinking 600,000 tons a month would be enough to cripple British trade. The U-boats have achieved these targets, sinking 670,000 tons in June alone, so surely this means that the British will soon be forced to make peace?

Yet the British do not appear to be on the brink of collapse. Holtzendorff appears to have miscalculated. The British have been able to increase domestic food production and through effective rationing are spreading food supplies relatively fairly (far more successfully than is the case in Germany). The U-boat campaign has not scared neutral shipping from the seas. Instead it has reduced the amount imported into the likes of Holland and Denmark for resale to Germany.

Allied countermeasures against the submarines are becoming more effective, with merchant ships increasingly sailing under protection in convoys and US and British destroyers patrolling more aggressively against the U-boats. It is starting to look as though the U-boat campaign is not going to end the war in the next few months. Tacitly recognising that the war will continue, the German navy now orders the construction of more U-boats, which will not be available for use until 1919.

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A merchant ship torpedoed (Military History Now: Sea Wolves Unleashed – Germany’s First U-boat War)

A U-boat surfaces (Military History Now: Sea Wolves Unleashed – Germany’s First U-boat War)

14/5/1917 The Battle of Otranto

On land the Italians are making their tenth attempt to break through the Austro-Hungarian defences at the Isonzo. At sea though it is Austria-Hungary which is attacking. Their target is the Otranto Barrage, the Allied blockade of the mouth of the Adriatic at the Straits of Otranto. Drifters, mostly British, patrol here, trailing nets in which they hope to catch enemy U-boats; larger ships are ready to support the drifters in case of enemy action.

Led by Commander Horthy, an Austro-Hungarian flotilla sails out at night to attack the drifters, sinking 14 of them and damaging another four. An Allied squadron comprising British, French and Italian ships gives chase, trying to prevent Horthy’s ships from escaping back to port. However the Austro-Hungarians also bring up reinforcements. In the fighting that follows, the Austro-Hungarians see one of their cruisers suffer heavy damage (with Horthy himself severely injured) but the Allies have the worst of it, losing two destroyers.

The battle shows the Allies that they cannot be certain of complete control of the Adriatic. However there are no great consequences of the action. The Otranto Barrage remains in operation, but it also continues to be a a rather ineffectual barrier to German and Austro-Hungarian submarines.

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The Castle of Otranto (Echoes form the Vault)

SMS Novara, Horthy’s flagship (Wikipedia)

Horthy, seriously wounded (Wikipedia)

10/5/1917 Convoys against U-boats

The Germans are hoping that their U-boats will force Britain out of the war by the autumn. Last month the submarines sunk a record quantity of Allied shipping. As a trading nation, Britain needs its merchant fleet to survive. If the Germans can continue to destroy its ships faster than they can be rebuilt then Britain will be reduced to poverty and starvation.

The British are trying various measures to counter the U-boat threat. Food production at home is being increased and ship building is being accelerated. And now they try a novel tactic to protect the ships while they are at sea. Instead of having merchantmen sail individually, easy targets for the German submarines, today the first convoy of 17 ships, escorted by warships of the British navy, sets sail for Britain from Gibraltar. Some fear that having all these ships sail together presents the Germans with too tempting a target, but the hope is that they will be protected from the U-boats’ depredations by their escorts.

27/4/1917 Germany’s annoying Belgian naval bases

On land the Western Front is still stalemated. At sea Britain remains dominant, its mighty fleet forcing Germany’s main battle fleet to remain in port. Germany is under blockade and its economy is being slowly strangled. Yet the British do not have it all their own way. German U-boats are striking back against Allied merchant shipping, hoping to starve Britain into submission. Another threat to the British is the German naval bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge in Belgium. German warships operating from here are able to disrupt Allied shipping in the Channel.

Jellicoe, now the head of Britain’s navy, is increasingly preoccupied with the threat posed by these German naval bases. Today he presents a memorandum to the war cabinet warning that Britain is heading for disaster unless these ports are neutralised. Not merely is he concerned about the disruption of Allied shipping in the Channel, he also fears the prospect of these bases being used for an attack on England itself.

Robertson, the British army’s chief of staff, passes on Jellicoe’s concerns to Haig. Haig begins to think about staging an offensive in Flanders, a Third Battle of Ypres, with the capture of the Channel ports as the ultimate goal.

17/4/1917 Second Gaza: another British attempt to push into Palestine

The British and their Commonwealth Allies are having another crack at attacking Gaza. The last time the British attempted to storm the gateway to Palestine they suffered a bloody reverse. This time they are doing everything to improve their chances. Battleships are bombarding the Turkish defences. The British are also using new terror weapons not previously seen in this theatre of war. As well as firing gas shells at the Turks, the British are also deploying tanks for the first time in the Middle East. Hopes are high that the Turks will flee in terror at the first sight of these metal leviathans.

The battle is not quite the pushover the British were expecting. The gas attack proves curiously ineffective while the artillery fails to dislodge the Turks. The Allied assault is met with a murderous fire of machine guns and artillery. The tanks fail to strike terror into the hearts of the Turks, who maintain a continuous fire upon the lumbering contraptions.

The Allies nevertheless make some initial gains, but strong Turkish counterattacks prevent a breakthrough. Murray, the British commander, determines that the assaults must continue in the hope of breaking the Turks over the coming days.

image source: Turkish machine gunners (Wikipedia)

20/3/1917 The Seeadler disposes of its prisoners

Felix von Luckner commands the Seeadler, a German raiding ship disguised as Norwegian merchantman. The sailing ship is now operating in the South Atlantic and has had great success in its operations against Allied shipping. In fact she has had so much success that she is now burdened with several hundred prisoners.

Keeping these prisoners under control is becoming a bit troublesome, so Luckner decides to get rid of them. Fortunately for them, Luckner is fighting the war as a gentleman, so there is no question of the prisoners being murdered or left to die. Instead he strips some of the sails and any radio equipment from a captured French barque, the Cambronne. His 300 prisoners are put abroad this vessel and left to navigate their own way to safety. With their reduced sails, Luckner knows that the Seeadler will be well out of harm’s way by the time they make contact with the Allies.

But there are danger clouds on the horizon for Luckner. The British are irked at this ship that is challenging their dominance of the seas. Now they set a trap for him, sending armed merchant steamers to offer themselves for his attentions, hoping that their guns will be able to sink the Seeadler before Luckner realises his danger.

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The Seeadler (Linger and Look)

25/2/1917 Britain returns to Kut

Two days ago the British crossed the Tigris, upstream of Kut-al-Amara, forcing the Turks to abandon the city. Now the British return to Kut itself. British gunboats send a boarding party ashore to fly the Union Jack once more over the site of Townshend‘s humiliating surrender last year. It is unlikely that the townsfolk are too pleased to see the British back, remembering the horrors of the siege and the brutal reprisals that followed the British surrender.

With Kut now secure the gunboats prepare to sail upstream, to harry the retreating Turks. Their blood is up now: perhaps this defeat can be turned into a rout that will secure British victory in Mesopotamia.

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British troops march through Kut (The Heritage of the Great War)