31/10/1917 Hard times for Germany’s U-boats #1917Live

Germany’s U-boat campaign was meant to force Britain out of the war. It has failed. The Germans underestimated the resilience of the British to shipping losses but they also failed to anticipate Allied countermeasures against the U-boats. Allied ships are now increasingly sailing in convoys, guarded from the U-boats by warships. The U-boats have great difficulties pressing attacks against ships in convoys, with the result that Allied shipping losses have declined. In October the U-boats managed to sink around 460,000 tonnes of Allied shipping, still an impressive figure but well below the over-optimistic target of 600,000 tonnes projected as being needed each month to force Britain to make peace.

The escalated U-boat campaign, and Allied countermeasures against it, is also taking its toll on the U-boat crews. Not merely are they being worked to exhaustion, they have also seen their own losses spiral upwards from those of the previous year. The submariners are giving their all, but for naught.

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U-boat and crew (Eurasia Times: WWI U-boat found off Belgium)

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)

30/7/1917 German U-boat crews meet their July targets #1917Live

Germany’s U-boat campaign is now controversial, as Reichstag politicians have become sceptical about its ability to defeat Britain by the autumn. They are beginning to suspect that it has brought the USA into the war for nothing.

The U-boat crews themselves meanwhile are continuing to do their utmost. In the last month they have sunk another 600,000 tonnes of Allied shipping. According to the projections by Holtzendorff, the navy’s chief of staff, this rate of success should be enough to force Britain out of the war. However, although the British are hurting, there does not seem to be any obvious sign that they are about to collapse. For Germany it looks like the U-boat crews are doing all that was asked of them but that Holtzendorff has greatly underestimated the resilience of the enemy.

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US propaganda poster (Wikipedia)

6/7/1917 The U-boat war denounced in the Reichstag #1917Live

Germany’s U-boat campaign was meant to bring the war to a swift end. Instead it has brought the USA into the war against Germany and shows no sign of starving Britain into submission. Now there is increasing disquiet and a sense that the U-boat campaign has been a terrible mistake. This disquiet has penetrated to the ranks of parliamentarians who had previously been supportive of the government. Speaking before the Reichstag’s Steering Committee, Matthias Erzberger of the Centre Party today argues that the navy and the government sold the country a pup with the U-boat campaign, underestimating Britain’s resilience in the face of submarine warfare and peddling the false notion that the U-boats could force Britain out of the war in six months.

Erzberger’s U-boat scepticism is significant. His party, which represents Catholic interests, had backed the U-boat war on the strength of the navy’s assurances. With the Centre Party swinging against the U-boats the government of Bethmann Hollweg is now in trouble. To make matters worse, the Centre Party is now lending its support to those parties calling for a compromise peace to end the war.

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Matthias Erzberger (Spartacus International)

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)

31/5/1917 Another good month for the U-boats

Germany’s U-boats have had another good month, sinking some 670,000 tons of merchant shipping (a total including both Allied ships and neutral ships trading with the Allies). This is a good bit less than was achieved in April but is still very impressive.

Holtzendorff, the German navy’s chief of staff, has calculated that monthly shipping losses of 600,000 tons will force Britain out of the war. If his calculations are correct and these losses can be maintained then autumn should see Britain starved out of the war. With Russia in chaos and Italy not up to much that would effectively leave France to face the might of Germany alone.

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A U-boat puts to sea, garlanded with flowers (WW2 Weapons: Diary February 1, 1917)

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.