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.

30/4/1917 Great successes for Germany’s U-boats

Germany has let loose its U-boats to attack Allied merchant ships without warning. The U-boat campaign has brought the USA into the war against Germany, but this is considered to be a price worth paying. Before the commencement of the campaign, Holtzendorff, the navy’s chief of staff, projected that the U-boats would be able to sink enough ships to force Britain out of the war by the autumn of 1917. That would mean the end of the war as the Allies could not continue the struggle without Britain.

Holtzendorff had predicted that the U-boats would need to sink 600,000 tons of shipping a month to cripple Britain. Until now they have not met this target, but in April they greatly exceed it, sinking some 840,000 tons of shipping. This success appears more to have been achieved by increasing the numbers of U-boats on patrol than by the new tactics. As well as the increased number of U-boats, the submariners are being pushed to spend more time at sea, meaning they have more opportunities to hit the enemy.

The British are responding to the U-boat threat in a number of ways. They are attempting to increase domestic food production and to stretch flour stocks by mixing barley in with wheat. They have also increased production of new ships to replace the ones lost, as have their American allies. The British have also pressured neutral countries into keeping their ships at sea, so that they can also be used for British trade. The British are also considering the introduction of convoys, so that merchant ships will sail under naval protection.

Although Allied shipping losses this month are very high, there is no sign as yet that the U-boat campaign is leading to real hardship in Britain. Bread remains un-rationed and food is still relatively abundant. Despite their successes, some senior figures in the German navy begin to wonder if the U-boats will not actually end the war by August.

images source (Canadian War Museum)

5/4/1917 Brazil’s “Paraná” sunk by U-boat

Germany hopes that its U-boat war will force Britain to make peace. However the U-boats attacks on Allied and neutral shipping are making new enemies for Germany. The USA is already on the brink of war with Germany, but it is not the only neutral whose ships are being sunk by the Germans. Today the UB-32 torpedoes the Paraná, a Brazilian merchant ship carrying a cargo of coffee. This could now mean that Germany will be acquiring a new South American enemy for itself.

31/3/1917 The U-boat war’s progress

The second full month of Germany’s unrestricted U-boat war draws to a close. Holtzendorff, the German navy’s chief of staff, had predicted that if 600,000 tons of British shipping were sunk by the U-boats per month then after five months their total merchant fleet would be reduced by 39%. Facing starvation and financial ruin the British would then be forced to make peace.

Allied shipping losses this month come to some 555,000 tons. This is short of Holtzendorff’s target but is still very impressive. Germany’s leaders hope that if maintained they will force Britain out of the war. With the recent revolution in Russia suggesting that its commitment to the war may now be wavering, it looks as though 1917 might well turn out to be the year of German victory.

image source:

U-Boot versenkt Truppentransporter (Wikipedia; painting by Willy Stower, 1917)

28/2/1917 The first month of the unrestricted U-boat campaign

At the start of the month Germany launched an escalated U-boat campaign, allowing the submarines to attack civilian ships without stopping to search them for contraband or give their occupants a chance to abandon ship. German leaders are aware that this risks war with the United States, but they have been persuaded by the memorandum of Admiral Holtzendorff, which projected that unrestricted submarine warfare will starve Britain into submission in a matter of months.

This month U-boats have sunk just under 500,000 tons of enemy shipping, an increase of 50% on the previous month. The gains are impressive, though they are still short of what the navy had projected as necessary to defeat the British. It is also not entirely clear how much of the increase is due to the new tactics. The U-boats had started sailing through the English Channel late in January, which meant they had more time to spend on patrol. However German leaders remain confident. The U-boat campaign in the early part of this month had been somewhat restrained, to allow neutral shipping to escape the war zone around the British Isles. There will be no such restraint next month. The submarines will be completely off the leash and Britain will soon be on her knees.

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The zone of unrestricted submarine warfare declared by Germany (Wikipedia)

25/2/1917 The sinking of the “Laconia”

The Laconia is a British ocean liner. Today she is approaching Fastnet, nearing the end of a journey across the Atlantic, when she is encountered by the U-50. The German U-boat fires a torpedo, which hits the ship but fails to sink her. So the Germans fire again and this time they have more luck, hitting the Laconia’s engine room and bringing her down.

The Laconia’s passengers and crew abandon ship. Most survive, but 6 of the 73 passengers and another 6 of the 216 crew members are killed. Among the dead passengers are two American citizens, Mrs Mary Hoy and her daughter Elizabeth. The USA has already broken off diplomatic relations with Germany as a result of the escalated U-boat war. This attack can only heighten tensions between the two nations.

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The ambassador of death: Germany’s ambassador Count Bernstorff in the New York Herald (Trenches on the Web)

3/2/1917 The United States severs diplomatic relations with Germany

Two days ago Germany’s Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg announced to the Reichstag that Germany has commenced a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. The U-boats are now free to attack Allied merchant ships without warning. Neutral ships suspected of carrying goods to the Allies are also liable to attack. Bethmann Hollweg had opposed this policy with all his vigour, fearing that it would bring the United States into the war, but the rest of the German leadership had been won over by the navy’s promise that the U-boats can starve Britain into submission in a matter of months.

The new U-boat policy does indeed cause grave disquiet in Washington. President Wilson successfully campaigned for re-election under the slogan “He kept us out of the war”, but his response to the Germans is swift. Today he addresses Congress, announcing that his government is severing diplomatic relations with Germany. Count Bernstorff, the German ambassador, is to be expelled with immediate effect, while James Gerard, the American ambassador to Germany is to be recalled. Wilson still hopes that there will not be war with Germany, but he warns that there will be dire consequences if the U-boats sink American ships without warning.

Germany has a U-boat fleet of some 152 vessels. Since the recent decision to send them directly through the Channel, they are able to spend much longer patrolling where they are likely to find enemy ships.

Today U-53 encounters the Housatonic, an American ship carrying wheat to Britain. Despite the new U-boat regime, the Germans do not sink the Housatonic without warning, instead boarding and searching her. The ship’s crew are ordered to abandon ship before it is scuttled by the Germans (who first seize some soap, in short supply in Germany).

The attack on the Housatonic is thus carried out according to some approximation of the traditional prize rules governing naval warfare. However in the atmosphere of heightened tension between the United States and Germany, the attack causes a sensation.

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Woodrow Wilson (firstworldwar.com)