Book: The World Crisis, Vol. 2: 1915

Previous: XIII. The Case for Perseverance and Decision
Next: XV. The Increasing Tension

CHAPTER XIV
THE FIRST DEFEAT OF THE U-BOATS

Chronology—Larger Submarines: Pre-war Strength—the Unknown Factors—Lord Fisher’s Memorandum of 1913—the Admiralty View—Peculiarities of the Submarine Weapon—Guns in Submarines—Efficiency of the British Submarine Service—German Declaration of February 4, 1915: Threat of U-boat War on Commerce—My Statement to the House of Commons—Admiralty Exertions—Decisions of February 11—Protection of the Channel Communications—Arming the Trawler Fleet—The Search for Guns—The Mosquito Fleet—The Indicator Nets—The Decoy Ships—February 18: The U-Boat Attack begins—Its Failure—Losses of the Germans—The Straits of Dover Barrier—April and May: Failure confirmed—The Blockade Controversy with the United States—Gravity of the Issue—Sir Edward Grey’s Patience and Conciliation.

Chronology is the key to narrative. Yet where a throng of events are marching abreast, it is inevitable that their progress should be modified by selection and classification. Some must stand on one side until the main press is over; others, taking advantage of any interlude, may hasten forward to periods beyond the general account.

During all the operations at the Dardanelles which a series of chapters has described, the general naval war was proceeding unceasingly. The Grand Fleet still watched its antagonists with tireless vigilance. The Cabinet still laboured to perfect and maintain the Blockade against the enemy on the sea and the lawyers across the ocean. A stream of reinforcements and supplies flowed incessantly to France. And lastly, the Admiralty had been called upon to protect the merchant fleets of Britain from a novel and unprecedented form of attack. The first U-boat campaign had begun, and to narrate this episode in an intelligible form it is necessary to look back into the past and to advance somewhat before our time into the future.

When I went to the Admiralty in 1911 we had 57 submarines (11 A’s already obsolete, 11 B’s, 33 C’s, and 2 D’s) compared to the German 15; but all our submarines, except the 2 D’s, were of a class only capable of operating a short distance from their own coasts. They could not accompany the Fleet, nor make long independent voyages at sea; whereas 11 out of the German 15 were at least as good as our 2 D’s. During the three years of preparation for which I was responsible, the submarine service was under Commodore Keyes. As early as 1912 we had begun to visualize in the over-sea submarine a new method of maintaining the close blockade of the German ports which was no longer possible by means of destroyers and surface craft. We therefore sought continually to build larger submarines of ‘over-sea’ or even ‘ocean-going’ capacity. We developed the E class and one or two other vessels of an even larger type. Great technical difficulties were encountered, and the delays of the contractors and of the Admiralty departments were vexatious in the extreme. The larger type was entirely experimental, and there were not wanting experts who doubted whether the technical difficulties of submerging vessels above a certain size could be surmounted. In addition, owing to the contracts which had been made, practically assigning the monopoly of submarine building to one particular firm, we were at first considerably hampered even in our experimental work. In 1912, on the recommendation of Commodore Keyes, we decided to break these fettering contracts and to place orders for submarines of different patterns on the Clyde and on the Tyne. We also purchased Italian and French submarines, in order to learn all that could be known of their design. Progress was, however, extremely slow, and beset by doubt at every stage.

At the outbreak of the war we had altogether 74 submarines built, 31 building, and 14 ordered or projected. The Germans had 33 built and 28 building. But of the British total of 74 built, only 18 (8 E’s and 10 D’s) were over-sea boats, whereas of the 33 German submarines built no fewer than 28 were ‘over-sea’ vessels. The situation therefore was that we had a large force of submarines for the defence of our shores against invasion and for the protection of our harbours; but we had not enough ‘over-sea’ boats to maintain a continuous complete Submarine Blockade of the Heligoland Bight; nor so many of this class as the Germans.

It would be affectation to pretend that we were contented with this state of affairs. On the other hand, it is probable that if we had launched out into an enormous scheme of submarine building before the war, we should have stimulated to an equal, or perhaps greater, extent a corresponding German programme. This would have exposed us to dangers which could never have been compensated by an increase in the number of British submarines. It may well be that all was for the best.

Neither the British nor the German Admiralty understood at the outbreak of hostilities all that submarines could do. It was not until these weapons began to be used under the stern conditions of war that their extraordinary sea-keeping capacity became apparent. It was immediately found on both sides that the larger class of submarines could remain at sea alone and unaided for eight or ten days at a time without breaking the endurance of their crews. These periods were rapidly doubled and trebled in both Navies. So far from having to return to port in bad weather, it appeared that submarines could ride out a gale better than any other class of vessel. Tried as they were forthwith to the extreme limit of human courage and fortitude, the skilled, highly trained, highly educated officers, sailors and engineers who manned them responded with incredible devotion.

Before the war what submarines could do was one mystery. What they would be ordered to do was another.

At the end of 1913, Lord Fisher, then unemployed, wrote his celebrated memorandum on the probable use by the Germans of submarines against commerce, and declared that they would certainly not hesitate to sink merchant vessels which they could not bring into port as required by the laws of war. The memorandum owed a great deal to the technical knowledge of Captain S. S. Hall, who was one of Lord Fisher’s intimate followers; but the vision of the old Admiral governed and dominated the argument. I caused this memorandum to be immediately considered by the Sea Lords and by the technical departments.

Neither the First Sea Lord nor I shared Lord Fisher’s belief that the Germans would use submarines for sinking unarmed merchantmen without challenge or any means of rescuing the crews. It was abhorrent to the immemorial law and practice of the sea. Prince Louis wrote to me that Lord Fisher’s brilliant paper ‘was marred by this suggestion.’ I must not hesitate to print documents which tell against my judgment, such as it was. On January 1, 1914, I wrote as follows to Lord Fisher:—

‘I have read and re-read with the closest attention the brilliant and most valuable paper on Submarines which you have drawn up for the Admiralty, and I have requested my naval colleagues to study it forthwith.

‘There are a few points on which I am not convinced. Of these the greatest is the question of the use of submarines to sink merchant vessels. I do not believe this would ever be done by a civilized Power.’ I proceeded to compare such outrages with the spreading of pestilence and the assassination of individuals. ‘These are frankly unthinkable propositions, and the excellence of your paper is, to some extent, marred by the prominence assigned to them.

‘Like you, I am disquieted about our submarine development, and it is clear that in the near future we must make an effort on a greatly increased scale to counter the enormous programmes in which Germany has been indulging for the last 6 years….’

But if we did not believe that a civilized nation would ever resort to such a practice, we were sure that if they did, they would unite the world against them. In particular it seemed certain that a Power offending in this way would be unable to distinguish between enemy and neutral ships, and that mistakes would be made which, quite apart from moral indignation, would force powerful neutrals to declare war upon a pirate nation. In his diagnosis of the German character Lord Fisher was right and the Admiralty was wrong. But even if we had adopted his view it is not easy to see what particular action could have been taken before the war to guard against such an attack.

The submarine is the only vessel of war which does not fight its like. This is not to say that combats have not taken place between submarines, but these are exceptional and usually inconclusive. It follows therefore that the submarine fleet on one side ought not to be measured against the submarine fleet on the other. Its strength should be regulated not according to the number of enemy submarines, but according to your own war plan and the special circumstances of your country. If Germany had had four times as many submarines at the beginning of the war than was in fact the case, she would have gained a great advantage and placed us immediately in serious danger. It would have been no answer to this danger to have multiplied our submarines by four, nor should we have exposed Germany to an equal danger had we done so.

In judging these questions, regard must be had to the immense changes and advances in naval science and invention which took place in the years of war. Everything must be weighed in relation to the knowledge and circumstances of the actual time. For instance, before the war I consistently discouraged the use of guns in submarines, whereas in the later phases of the war great injury was inflicted upon us by the guns of German submarines, our own submarines developed a regular gun armament, and we even built a submarine to carry a 12-inch gun. But this was explained by entirely new purposes and new conditions which subsequently came into view. If the German submarines had confined themselves to attacking vessels of war, they would not have found any use for their petty guns and would have relied solely upon the fateful torpedo. It was only when they began to war on defenceless, or almost defenceless, merchantmen that their consumption of torpedoes became prohibitive and they realized that gunfire would achieve their purpose in many cases equally well. It was only when the science of submarine building had advanced sufficiently and the unlimited funds of war were available that we were able to build a submarine large enough to carry a 12-inch gun in the hopes that it would pop up all of a sudden and fire a great shell into the hull of an unsuspecting light cruiser. A superficial and anachronistic critic may easily declare that the policy of arming submarines with guns was right, and that those who opposed it were wrong. I rest, however, on my opinion that guns should not be put into submarines for the purpose of attacking warships, including other submarines, unless the gun can be of such a size that it would produce results as decisive as those of the torpedo; and I find confirmation from the fact that no warship was ever sunk during the war by the gunfire of a submarine; and that of the hundreds of trawlers, many armed merely with a 3-pdr. gun, only two were sunk in their continuous conflict with submarines.

If I resist any impeachment of the Boards of Admiralty over whom I presided for their Submarine policy before the war, still less will I admit that the British Submarine Service was in any way inferior in skill or enterprise to that of Germany. On the contrary, I claim and will adduce proofs that their exploits proved them month by month incontestably superior. But they suffered from one overwhelming disadvantage which it was not in our power to remove, viz., a dearth of targets. Except for a few sudden dashes to sea by fast vessels, the occasional unexpected voyage of a single cruiser, or a carefully prepared, elaborately protected, swiftly executed parade of the High Sea Fleet, the German Navy remained locked in its torpedo-proof harbours; and outside of the Baltic all German commerce was at an end. On the other hand, every sea was crowded with British merchant craft—dozens of large vessels arriving and departing every day, while our fleets were repeatedly in the open sea and our patrolling cruisers and merchant cruisers maintained a constant and unbroken watch and distant blockade. If the positions had been reversed and had we permitted ourselves to attack defenceless merchantmen, far more formidable results would have been achieved. Nor is this a matter of assertion. It is capable of proof. As will be seen when the exploits of British submarines in the Sea of Marmora are recounted, one submarine alone—E11—three times passed and re-passed through the terrible dangers of the tenfold minefields, of the Nagara net, and of the long vigilantly guarded reaches of the Dardanelles, remained in the Marmora ninety-six days (forty-seven in one spell) and sunk single-handed 101 vessels, including a battleship, a modern destroyer and three gunboats. This prodigious feat of Commander Nasmith, V.C., though closely rivalled by that of Commander Boyle, V.C., in E14, remains unsurpassed in the history of submarine warfare.

On February 4, 1915, the German Admiralty issued the following declaration:—

‘All the waters surrounding Great Britain and Ireland, including the whole of the English Channel, are hereby declared to be a war zone. From February 18 onwards every enemy merchant vessel found within this war zone will be destroyed without its being always possible to avoid danger to the crews and passengers.

‘Neutral ships will also be exposed to danger in the war zone, and in view of the misuse of neutral flags ordered on January 31 by the British Government, and owing to unforeseen incidents to which naval warfare is liable, it is impossible to avoid attacks being made on neutral ships in mistake for those of the enemy.’

We were now confronted with the situation which Lord Fisher had foreseen in his Memorandum of 1913. The event did not, however, cause the Admiralty serious alarm. Our information showed that the Germans could not possess more than twenty to twenty-five submarines capable of blockading the British Isles. As these could only work in three reliefs, not more than seven or eight were likely to be at work simultaneously: and having regard to the enormous volume of traffic moving in and out of the very numerous ports of the United Kingdom, it seemed certain that no appreciable effect would in fact be produced upon our trade, provided always that our ships continued boldly to put to sea. On the other hand, we were sure that the German declaration and the inevitable accidents to neutrals arising out of it would offend and perhaps embroil the United States: and that in any case our position for enforcing the blockade would be greatly strengthened. We looked forward to a sensible abatement of the pressure which the American Government was putting upon us to relax our system of blockade, and we received a whole armoury of practical arguments with which to reinforce our side of the contention. We consulted long and carefully together at the Admiralty on successive days, and thereafter I announced that we would publish every week the sinkings of merchant vessels effected by the German submarines, together with the numbers of ships entering and leaving British ports. In my speech on the naval estimates on February 15, I used the following words:—

The tasks which lie before us are anxious and grave. We are, it now appears, to be the object of a kind of warfare which has never before been practised by a civilized State. The scuttling and sinking at sight, without search or parley, of merchant ships by submarine agency is a wholly novel and unprecedented departure. It is a state of things which no one had ever contemplated, and which would have been universally reprobated and repudiated before this War. But it must not be supposed because the attack is extraordinary that a good defence and a good reply cannot be made. The statutes of ancient Rome contained no provision for the punishment of parricide, but when the first offender appeared, it was found that satisfactory arrangements could be made to deal with him. Losses no doubt will be incurred—of that I give full warning—but we believe that no vital injury can be done. If our traders put to sea regularly and act in the spirit of the gallant captain of the merchant ship Laertes, whose well-merited honour has been made public this morning, and if they take the precautions which are proper and legitimate, we expect that the losses will be confined within manageable limits, even at the outset, when the enemy must be expected to make his greatest effort to produce an impression.

All losses can, of course, be covered by resort on the part of the shipowners to the Government insurance scheme, the rates of which are now one-fifth of what they were at the outbreak of War. On the other hand, the reply which we shall make will not perhaps be wholly ineffective. Germany cannot be allowed to adopt a system of open piracy and murder, or what has always hitherto been called open piracy and murder, on the high seas, while remaining herself protected by the bulwark of international instruments which she has utterly repudiated and defied, and which we, much to our detriment, have respected. There are good reasons for believing that the economic pressure which the Navy exerts is beginning to be felt in Germany. We have, to some extent, restricted their imports of useful commodities like copper, petrol, rubber, nickel, manganese, antimony, which are needed for the efficient production of war materials, and for carrying on modern war on a great scale. The tone of the German Chancellor’s remarks, and the evidences of hatred and anger against this country which are so apparent in the German Press, encourage us to believe that this restriction is proving inconvenient. We shall, of course, redouble our efforts to make it so. So far, however, we have not attempted to stop imports of food. We have not prevented neutral ships from trading direct with German ports. We have allowed German exports in neutral ships to pass unchallenged. The time has come when the enjoyment of these immunities by a State which has, as a matter of deliberate policy, placed herself outside all international obligations, must be reconsidered. A further declaration on the part of the Allied Governments will promptly be made which will have the effect for the first time of applying the full force of naval pressure to the enemy.

Meanwhile at the Admiralty we made the most strenuous exertion to increase our resources for meeting the attack and to devise every method of countering it. I presided myself over the Conferences which were held, and on the 11th issued the following Minute:—

February 11, 1915.

Secretary,
First Sea Lord,
Third Sea Lord,
Fourth Sea Lord,
and others concerned.

The following seem to me to be the conclusions which should be drawn from our discussion yesterday:—

1. The first step should be the closing of the Straits of Dover by lines of nets drifting to and fro with the tide, and each section watched by its respective trawler and with a proper proportion of armed trawlers and destroyers to attack any submarine entangled. In this moving barrier there should be a gate through which traffic can be passed, and it appears necessary that this gate should be in a span not of indicator nets, but of anti-submarine nets. Traffic must be invariably directed to this gate, which should be so arranged as to force a submarine to come to the surface to pass through it. Destroyers and other armed craft should continually watch the approaches and passages through this gate, and be ready to attack any submarine showing on the surface.

The Actæon net would be suitable for this purpose, but Sir Arthur Wilson wishes also to use it for netting in Zeebrugge. Both services are urgent and important, and it should be carefully considered which should have priority, and how the deficiency can be supplied. It appears to me essential that if we are to maintain a complete barrier across the Straits we should have a plainly marked mode of passage open to traffic, which passage is not navigable by submarines submerged.

2. After the provision of the trawlers and drifters for the Dover net barrier has been fully made, it would seem that the rest of the 120 small craft assigned to that area should be used as watchers on both sides of the barrier, being dotted about the sea so as to cover a belt 5 miles wide on the North Sea side of the barrier and 10 miles wide on the English Channel side of it. The duty of these unarmed craft is to report the presence of a submarine either approaching the barrier on the surface or entangled in the nets. The aim should be for the drifters to cover as much ground as possible in the English Channel so that submarines cannot find any quiet area. I do not know of any other duty which they can discharge. It would appear that they should be picketed out and anchored, and have a good and simple means of communicating the presence of a submarine, and a passing signal made by one of their number to the nearest watching destroyer or armed trawler in order that the vessel may be attacked.

Incidentally, this system of watching a belt will facilitate the safe passage of transports across the Straits both by day and night. It should be possible to get from them an hourly ‘all clear’ report. The dangers to transports are greatly reduced if submarines cannot lurk about and rise to the surface to take observations without being molested. I cannot think that more than 120 drifters and trawlers will be necessary for the Dover Service.

It appears to me to be possible to exaggerate the number of destroyers required. I should have thought that the present flotilla of the Admiral of the Dover Patrol, if left intact, would have been amply sufficient for the purpose, having regard to the other pressing demands upon this class of vessel.

3. After the Straits of Dover have been dealt with, the next demand on the indicator nets and net-laying drifters is to close in a similar manner the North Channel. No gate would appear to be required here, as traffic has long ago been stopped.

4. Next in order of importance is the Southampton-Havre convoy route. It is not possible to provide wire nets at present for use against submarines operating on this route. The method adopted should be to watch the approaches for 25 miles out on each side by trawler pickets anchored or working in particular squares and provided with the means of making known the presence of a lurking submarine, as many as possible being armed. Outside the limits of these terminals the protection given to the transports must be by destroyers, who should, as found most convenient, either accompany specific transports or divisions of transports, or patrol up and down the route. Of the two courses the former would appear to be preferable, as not limiting the transports to particular lines, and enabling them to zig-zag with greater freedom. Fishing nets should be laid in sections to embarrass submarines on the approaches on either side.

5. Next in order of importance is the watching of particular bays or sheltered places where enemy submarines may be supposed to rest, and the establishment of a watch near the Lizard. The number of trawlers and drifters assigned to this service by the Fourth Sea Lord might be reduced, the saving being taken for the North Channel.

6. It is not until all the above needs have been dealt with that an attempt should be made to net in the southern waters of the Irish Sea. This is a much larger business than any of the others, and will make an undue demand upon any resources of nets likely to be available in the near future. The establishment of an active patrol of yachts, trawlers, and drifters from Dublin is the best we can do in the present circumstances.

7. The following guns may be considered available for yachts, trawlers, and drifters:—

12-pdr.   12 cwt.25
12 pdr.   8 cwt.25
12-pdr.   4 cwt.3
6-pdr.    Nordenfelt11
6-pdr.    Hotchkiss56
3-pdr.    Hotchkiss24

Any saluting 3-pdr. guns in the cruisers should be removed with their ammunition, and the 3-pdrs. in the ‘Majestic’ class, other than those that are having their turrets removed, could also be spared, having regard to their 6-inch and 6-pdr. gun armament.

Adjutant General Royal Marines will provide from the Blue Marine Artillery Battalion one gunner for each 12-pdr. and 6-pdr. gun. These gunners are to teach the members of the yacht or trawler crew or members of the armed party placed on board as quickly as possible how to handle the gun, and as soon as they can satisfy an inspecting officer that their pupils are proficient they will be withdrawn to the Royal Marine Headquarters. For giving this instruction, the marine will receive a bounty of £2, and for qualifying as a gunner the recruit or member of the crew will also receive a bounty of £2. In six weeks or two months we ought to have the bulk of these men back at Headquarters.

It is proposed also to put an armed party on board every trawler or drifter, whether armed with a gun or not, not only for action against submarines who may come to the surface and take observations in their neighbourhood, but as a preventive against mine-laying.

Adjutant General Royal Marines will call for volunteers from the Crystal Palace for this purpose, and, if necessary, a small bounty can be paid to men volunteering. Three men and a corporal (who may be specially promoted) should be assigned to each drifter and trawler as they become available. Efforts are being made to secure sporting rifles in England and America, and these as they come to hand will be used, first, to arm the armed parties of the newly taken up trawlers and drifters, and after this is done to replace service rifles in the possession of the crews of yachts, trawlers, and drifters already in commission. Men who suffer seriously from sea-sickness may have the option for that cause of reverting to shore service.

I await Sir Arthur Wilson’s proposals for allocating fifty 18-cwt., 12-cwt., and 8-cwt. 12-pdrs, to selected decoy vessels, merchant and Admiralty vessels plying in the dangerous areas. For these also 1 marine gunner will be provided, and a small armed party placed on board, as in the case of the trawlers.

The requirements of these services are to be met in precedence over other requirements which have not yet matured, and for which these guns have been prepared—for instance, the 36 which are required for fleet sweepers, and the 24 required for monitors will not be needed for two or three months, and may do useful service meanwhile. By that time some other warships may be paid off, which may increase our available resources. The 12-cwt. 12-pdrs. from the Mars, Victorious, and Illustrious need not at present be appropriated for fleet sweepers. Plymouth anti-aircraft can be reduced from 6 to 2.

8. All suitable yachts in the United Kingdom or other small vessels not now appropriated will be immediately commandeered.

I wish to receive a weekly return of the whole ‘yacht, trawler, and drifter fleet,’ showing the additions made each week. Proposals should be put forward for the proper organization and control of the ‘trawler fleet.’ It may be thought convenient to call the different squadrons by the names of the commanding officer, and this may foster rivalry and esprit de corps.

9. I still think that the allocation of 8 destroyers to the Tyne, and 5 to the Tees, and 8 to Immingham lies under the criticism that it is too many to be spared and too few to discharge any effective service. I should prefer to see the 8 destroyers from the Tyne added to the defences of the Forth and be made available for escort duties from there, and the 13 destroyers of the Tees and Immingham should go to Portsmouth, to be available for general duty on the South and West Coasts. But I agree that any change of this kind may be gradual, and the allocation proposed by the Chief of the Staff should therefore be carried out at once.

W. S. C.

It will be seen that we regarded the cross-Channel communications as our first and vital care. New Divisions were now passing almost every week to France, and their conduct and escort required ceaseless and intricate precautions. Elaborate instructions for dealing with or avoiding submarine attacks were also given to the captains of British merchant ships, and many other measures were taken as recorded in the Official Naval History.

Apart from arming and commissioning the enormous Mosquito Fleet on which we chiefly relied, our two principal devices for destroying the German submarines were the Bircham Indicator Nets and the Decoy Ships, afterwards called the Q-boats. The Indicator Net was a light flexible curtain of thin steel wire woven into 6 or 10-foot meshes and supplied in lengths of 200 yards. These were laid clipped together, in long lines across particular channels, and their floats were watched continually by armed trawlers. We had tried them, not without some risk, on one of our own submarines with good results. The submergence of the glass buoys on which the net was hung or the automatic ignition of a calcium light betrayed immediately the presence of the submarine. The net trailing backward wrapped itself around the vessel with a good chance of entangling its propeller, while at the same time a tell-tale buoy attached to the net by a long line floated on the surface, and enabled the hunting vessels to follow their submarine enemy wherever he went. At least 1,000 miles of these nets were ordered during the first months of 1915; and by February 13 seventeen miles of the Straits of Dover were already obstructed by guarded nets. Such was the theory, but needless to say it encountered many difficulties and disappointments in practice.

The device of the Decoy Ships was also simple; the idea arose in the following manner. In the previous September a small steamer, plying between St. Malo and Southampton with fruit and vegetables, had been fired at by a German submarine. Admiral Sir Hedworth Meux, who commanded at Portsmouth, came to the Admiralty to see me on general business, and in conversation it was suggested that a gun might be concealed on this small ship under the fruit and vegetables. This was accordingly done. No opportunity of using it occurred, but the idea was revived under the renewed threat of extended submarine warfare. Early in February I gave directions for a number of vessels to be constructed or adapted for the purpose of trapping and ambushing German submarines. For the most part they were ordinary tramp steamers, but some were to be specially constructed of the build and type of Norwegian fishing vessels. These vessels carried concealed guns which by a pantomime trick of trap doors and shutters could suddenly come into action. Great ingenuity was shown by the Admiralty departments in developing this idea, and the use of these vessels afterwards afforded opportunity for some of the most brilliant and daring stratagems in the naval war.

In addition every form of scientific warfare against submarines was perseveringly studied. Already the microphone or hydrophone for detecting the beat of a submarine propeller in the distance had been discovered: but at this date it was only in an experimental condition. Bomb-lances, explosive sweeps, Actæon nets (or necklaces of explosives) were eagerly and simultaneously developed. A close and fruitful union between the scientist, the inventor, and the submarine officer was established, the best brains of the Navy were concentrated on the problem, and no idea, technical or tactical, was spurned by the Admiralty Staff.

The German U-boat campaign, or the so-called blockade of the British Isles, began as promised on February 18; and that same day a British merchant ship was torpedoed in the Channel. By the end of the first week eleven British ships had been attacked, of which seven had been sunk. In the same period no less than 1,381 merchant vessels had arrived in, or sailed from, British ports. The second week of the attack was completely ineffective: only three ships were assailed and all escaped. The arrivals and departures aggregated 1,474. By the end of February we were sure that the basis on which we were acting was sound: British trade was proceeding as usual, and the whole of our transportation across the Channel flowed on, division by division, uninterrupted. We continued to publish the weekly figures during the whole of March. In the four weeks of that month upwards of six thousand vessels reached or left British ports, out of which only twenty-one were sunk, and these together aggregated only 65,000 tons. April confirmed the conclusions of March: only twenty-three ships were sunk out of over six thousand arrivals and departures, and of these six were neutrals, and only eleven, aggregating 22,000 tons, were British. The failure of the German submarine campaign was therefore patent to the whole world.

Meanwhile the Germans were themselves already paying heavily for their policy. At least four U-boats out of their small numbers available had been destroyed. On March 1 one became entangled in the Indicator Nets off Start Bay near Dartmouth, and was blown up under water the next day by an explosive sweep. On the 4th the Dover nets and destroyers detected, chased and sunk U8, her entire crew being rescued and made prisoners. On the 6th a hostile submarine, which proved finally to be U12, was sighted off Aberdeen, and after a four days’ hunt of incredible perseverance and skill by our small craft, was destroyed and ten survivors taken prisoner. On the 16th a still more remarkable incident occurred: Commander Weddigen, who since his exploits in sinking the three cruisers off the Dutch coast in September, 1914, had become a German national hero, sank a merchant ship off the south coast of Ireland, after taking from it a small gun as a trophy. He was returning to Germany on the 18th when, near the Pentland Firth, he fell in with the Grand Fleet at exercise. The Fourth Battle Squadron was now commanded by Admiral Sturdee flying his flag in the Dreadnought. The luck which had brought about the Battle of the Falkland Islands had clearly not deserted Admiral Sturdee, for in ten minutes the Dreadnought, handled with great skill by its captain and navigating officer and aided by the Temeraire, rammed the submarine. Her bows reared out of the water revealing her number, U29, as she sank for ever to the bottom of the sea with every soul on board. So perished the destroyer of the Cressy, the Aboukir and the Hogue.

Most of the other U-boats returning to Germany had rough and grim experiences to report. One had been caught in the nets off Dover and only escaped after fearful adventures; another had been rammed by a well-handled merchant ship, the Thordis, and with difficulty managed to crawl home in a damaged condition; a third narrowly escaped at the end of a three hours’ chase by the destroyer Ghurka. There were many other incidents of a similar character.

It was in the Straits of Dover that we had concentrated our greatest efforts. It was here that we achieved our most complete success. Early in April, U32 was entangled in the Dover nets, and preferred to return all round the North of Scotland rather than renew her experiences. The account which she gave to the German naval staff of the defences and barriers in the Straits of Dover was such that all U-boats were absolutely forbidden to attempt to pass the Straits; all must make a détour ‘north about’ round Scotland on their way to our western approaches. This prohibition continued in force for more than a year. The eastern waters of the Channel thus became completely clear, and no sinkings within the Dover cordon occurred after the middle of April. We did not, however, know how well our measures and the exertions of Admiral Hood, who carried them out and constantly elaborated them, had succeeded. Injustice was done to this officer when, upon Lord Fisher’s advice, I transferred him, about the middle of that month, to another command and appointed in his stead Admiral Bacon, whose mechanical aptitudes and scientific attainments seemed specially to be required on this critical station. It was not until the middle of May that I became aware, from constant study of our gathering information, how excellent had been Admiral Hood’s work. Only a few more days were left me at the Admiralty. There was time, however, to repair the injustice, and almost my last official act was to appoint him to the command of the 3rd Battle-Cruiser Squadron. This great prize he accepted with the utmost delight. Alas, it led him to a glorious doom in the Battle of Jutland!

Surveying the situation in April, it was evident that not only had the Germans failed in the slightest degree to impede the movements of British trade, troops and supplies, but that they had themselves suffered heavy and disproportionate losses in the vital units on which their whole policy depended. By May their premature and feeble campaign had been completely broken, and for nearly eighteen months, in spite of tragic incidents, we suffered no appreciable inconvenience. All the measures which we had taken, and all the organizations which had been set on foot, to deal with this unprecedented form of attack, were, however, developed and perfected with the utmost energy. Our merchant skippers were made increasingly familiar with all the methods by which submarine attack should be encountered or avoided. The vigilance and ingenuity of our multiplying Mosquito Fleet was stimulated by a generous system of rewards. The Indicator Nets were improved, and produced in great quantities. Tireless scientific research pursued the secret of detecting the presence of a submerged submarine through the agency of the hydrophone. Lastly, the Decoy Ships were increased in numbers, and their ambuscades and stratagems raised to a fine art. To the providential warning of this impotent campaign and the exertions made in consequence of it, we were to owe our safety in the terrible days which were destined eventually to come upon us.

Results scarcely less to our advantage were experienced in our relations with the United States, on which the whole efficiency of our blockade of the Central Empires depended. On March 3 I had written to the Cabinet as follows:—

‘The international laws relating to blockade were framed without reference to the new conditions introduced into warfare by the presence of the submarine. However great the superiority of the stronger fleet, it is not practicable to draw blockading lines in close proximity to the enemy’s coasts and harbours, as was always previously possible, because the submarines of the weaker fleet would sink the blockading vessels although that fleet was unable or unwilling to put to sea. It therefore becomes necessary to draw the lines of blockade at a greater distance from the enemy’s coasts and ports than heretofore, and this involves in certain cases the inclusion within the scope of the blockading lines, not only of enemy but of neutral ports. This prevents the use of the term “blockade” according to its strict technical interpretation. But it does not in the least prevent an effective blockade in the natural and practical, as opposed to the legal and technical, sense. The British naval blockade of German North Sea ports is at present maintained by the cruiser cordon at the mouth of the English Channel and the flotillas at the Straits of Dover, and by the cruiser cordon and cruiser squadrons from the North of Scotland to Iceland. These blockading lines are in every sense effective: no instance is known to the British Admiralty of any vessel, the stopping of which had been authorized by the Foreign Office, passing them unchallenged. It is not a case of a paper blockade, but of a blockade as real and as efficient as any that has ever been established, having regard to the new and unforeseen conditions of naval war. The means of carrying on an effective blockade of the enemy’s ports ought not to be denied to the stronger naval power…. All the time we are ourselves subjected, so far as lies in the strength of the enemy, to indiscriminate attacks by mines lying in the open sea as well as to the deliberate sinking of merchantmen without challenge, by submarine agency. It is for neutral nations to recognize that it is not practically possible, nor in neutral interests, to claim the maintenance of a situation which would deprive naval strength of all its rights while permitting naval weakness to indulge in every abuse.’

This is not the place to discuss the grave and intricate questions of international law which had arisen since the beginning of the war between Great Britain and the United States and other neutral nations. The arguments on both sides were technical and interminable, and whole libraries can be filled with them. Underlying all the legal disputes and manœuvres, was that great fund of kinship and goodwill towards us, of sympathy for the cause of the Allies, of affection for France and of indignation against Germany, which always swayed, and in the end triumphantly dominated, American action. But in spite of this we might well at this time have been forced to give up the whole efficiency of our blockade to avoid a rupture with the United States.

There is nowadays a strong tendency to underestimate the real danger of an adverse decision in America at this period. The National tradition of the United States was not favourable to us. The Treaty with Prussia in 1793 in defence of ‘the freedom of the seas’ constituted the first international relationship of the American Republic. The war of 1812, not forgotten in America, had arisen out of these very questions of neutrality. The established rules of international law did not cover the conditions which prevailed in the great struggle. The whole conception of conditional contraband was affected by the fact that the distinction between armies and nations had largely passed away. The old laws of blockade were, as has been shown, inapplicable in the presence of the submarine. It was not always possible to harmonize our action with the strict letter of the law. From this arose a series of delicate and deeply perplexing discussions in which rigid legalists across the Atlantic occupied a very strong position. There were in addition serious political dangers: Irish and German influences were powerful and active; a strong party in the Senate was definitely anti-British; the State Department was jealously and vigilantly watched, lest it should show partiality to Great Britain. The slightest mistake in dealing with the American situation might at this juncture have created a crisis of the first magnitude. It was the memorable achievement of Sir Edward Grey, seconded by our Ambassador at Washington, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, that this peril was averted. British and American gratitude also illumines the memory of the United States Ambassador in London, Mr. Page, whose wisdom and generous nobility guarded the English-speaking world and its destiny from measureless injury.

It was in these issues that the first German U-boat campaign gave us our greatest assistance. The German announcement threatening neutral as well as British merchant ships had altered the whole position of our controversies with America. A great relief became immediately apparent. The torpedoing at the end of February of the Norwegian steamer Belridge, bound from America with oil for the Dutch Government, was another event which turned the current of American irritation from the British blockade to the German outrages. All the forces friendly to the Allies throughout the Union were animated and strengthened, and German influences proportionately cast down. The stringency of our measures against Germany could be increased without deranging the precarious equipoise of our relations with the great Republic. Sir Edward Grey, aided and guided by Mr. Page, was enabled by processes of patience, tact and conciliation to sustain our position without quarrelling through the whole of March and April: and in May an event occurred which was decisive.

Previous: XIII. The Case for Perseverance and Decision
Next: XV. The Increasing Tension