9/5/1918 Britain raids Ostend again #1918Live

Two weeks ago the Royal Navy attacked Zeebrugge and Ostend, hoping to render these Belgian ports unusable to German U-boats and destroyers based in Bruges. Those attacks failed but now the British attack Ostend again. Once more the attack is made at night and the intention is to block the harbour by sinking an obsolete warship in its mouth. But once again the effort fails, with fog making it difficult for the British to locate their target. They do eventually manage to sink their ship but the harbour is only partially blocked: German U-boats and smaller ships will still be able to access the sea from Ostend. Nevertheless the raid is hailed as a great success in Britain, providing a much needed morale boost.

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HMS Vindictive after its sinking in Ostend harbour (Wikipedia)

30/4/1918 The UB-85’s mission of failure comes to an embarrassing end #1918Live

German U-boats are still attacking Allied shipping, their crews pushed to the limit of endurance in a desperate efforts to inflict unsustainable losses on the enemy. By now though there is clearly little likelihood of the submarines winning the war for Germany; the claims by Admiral Holtzendorff that the U-boats could end the war by the autumn of 1917 now seem laughably naive.

Declining morale and the sending forth of U-boats crewed by insufficiently trained crews is taking its toll on the submarine fleet. Today in a bizarre episode the UB-85 is lost after its crew forget to close a hatch when it submerges. Water enters the U-boat, disabling its electrical engine, and forcing it to surface but the submarine could still have used its diesel engine to escape approaching British ships. Instead its commander orders his men onto deck, where they shout “we surrender!” at the British before abandoning ship. The UB-85’s mission had already been one of complete failure, with every torpedo it fired missing its target.

NOTE: In later years reports will emerge that the UB-85’s troubles stemmed from an attack by a sea monster. This story has no basis in fact and appears to have been made up in 2005. See Recovered WWI German U-Boat Revives ‘Sea Monster’ Tales

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UB-148, a similar vessel to the UB-85 (Wikipedia)

23/4/1918 The Ostend and Zeebrugge Raids: a failed attempt to bottle up U-boats #1918Live

German naval bases in Belgium have long troubled the British. Ostend and Zeebrugge provide access to the sea from the port of Bruges, where the Germans have based both U-boats and surface raiders that are able to harass Allied shipping in the Channel and beyond.

Now in an effort to neutralise this threat the British carry out a naval attack on Ostend and Zeebrugge. The plan is to sink obsolete ships at the entrances to the ports to block their use by enemy shipping. British warships and marines will attack German shore batteries to allow the block ships to get into position.

The attack on Ostend is a complete failure. In the darkness the attacking ships are unable to find their exact target and end up sinking the block ships away from the harbour’s mouth to no good purpose. The attack on Zeebrugge is slightly more successful: the British manage to sink the block ships in the mouth of the harbour but the closure is only partial and the Germans will soon find ways to restore unimpeded access to the sea for their U-boats.

The British take nearly 600 losses in the attacks while German losses are minimal. Both sides present the engagement as a victory, though as the Germans have not been seriously disrupted in their use of the ports their claim may have more merit.

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Map of Zeebrugge, Ostend and Bruges, diagram of Zeebrugge after the raid (Wikipedia: Zeebrugge Raid)

19/12/1917 Britain attempts to close the Channel to U-boats #1917Live

Germany is continuing with is U-boat campaign, though at this stage it is clearly not about to force the British to throw in the towel. Allied countermeasures against the U-boats mean that it is becoming ever harder for them to prey on merchant shipping. Aside from dazzle camouflage, which may be just an ineffectual morale booster for Allied sailors, the increased use of convoys means that the U-boats can no longer attack civilian ships with impunity. The Allies are also more able to attack U-boats underwater than before, thanks to improved depth charges that can sink or force to the surface a submarine.

Another weapon being used against the submarines is the mine. Last year an attempt was made to block off the Channel to U-boats using a combinations of mines and nets. That failed when strong currents damaged the barrage but now the British try again. This time they place minefields deep underwater and post sentry ships with searchlights on the surface. Today the barrage claims its first U-boat victim; UB-56 is attempting to transit the Channel by night and submerges when it is caught in searchlights, only to then be sunk by a mine. Its crew of 37 perish in the waters.

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map (Naval-History.net: The Dover Patrol)

UB-148, a similar vessel to the UB-56 (Wikipedia)

17/10/1917 The Action off Lerwick: a daring German strike on a British convoy #1917Live

Britain’s navy dominates the seas. Since Jutland, Germany’s main battle fleet has remained in port, fearing annihilation at the hands of the British. Germany’s main naval threat to the British now is its U-boats, with which it has been attempting to strangle British trade. Nevertheless, German warships still threaten the British, with destroyers based in Belgian ports disrupting British control of the Channel.

Away from the European coast the British believe they have little to fear from German warships. Convoys bringing in coal regularly traverse the North Sea from Norway. German U-boats have been unsuccessful in their attempts to attack these, so now the Germans try something new. Two light cruisers, the Brummer and the Bremse, slip out of their base, disguised as British warships. Today they encounter a coal convoy near Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. At first the British ships escorting the coal merchants think they are meeting other ships from the Royal Navy; when shells start to fall on them they realise their mistake.

The battle is an uneven one. The Brummer and the Bremse sink both of the destroyers escorting the convoy and then turn their attentions on the merchant ships, sinking nine of them (with only three escaping). Then the Germans head for home. They have taken no losses themselves but some 250 or so sailors from the convoy lose their lives.

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Postcard (Metropostcard: Naval Actions  1917-1919)

31/8/1917 U-boats v. Dazzle Ships

HMS Alsatian, Dalmuir
Germany’s escalated U-boat campaign was meant to knock Britain out of the war by autumn this year. Although it has brought the USA into the war, Germany’s leaders believed this a price worth paying if Britain was eliminated. However the projections by Holtzendorff, the navy’s chief of staff, have proved hopelessly optimistic with regard to the level of shipping losses that would force Britain to sue for peace. It is clear that Britain will be fighting on for some time yet.

Holtzendorff appears also to have failed to reckon for more effective countermeasures by the Allies against the submarine menace. More ships trading with Britain are now sailing in convoys, protected against U-boats by Allied warships. British and American destroyers are also conducting more aggressive patrols against the submarines. These efforts, combined perhaps with the exhaustion of the U-boat crews, have led to a decline in tonnage lost to the U-boats. U-boat sinkings are now below the level Holtzendorff projected as being needed to force Britain to make peace. It has become apparent that the U-boat campaign has brought the USA into the war for nothing.

One novel method now being used to protect Allied merchant ships is camouflage. A ship is clearly too big to hide but ships are now being painted in strange patterns that are meant to make it difficult for an enemy to quickly work out its speed and direction, thus making them harder to target. This has become known as Dazzle camouflage. Whether Dazzle materially protects a ship from the attentions of a U-boat is unclear but these strange patterns inspire confidence in the men who sale in these Dazzle ships.

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HMS Dalmatian (Flickr: misterworthington)

Dazzle ships in convoy, by Norman Wilkinson (Wikipedia: Dazzle camouflage)

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)