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When German submarines sank merchant ships

Status: 01/30/2017 5:45 p.m. | archive
Because of the British naval blockade, there was a shortage of food in Germany from 1914 onwards, and the queues in front of the shops were long.

Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, the British impose a sea blockade on German ports on the North Sea. In this way, they not only prevent important raw material imports, but also urgently needed food imports into Germany. The result: in the so-called turnip winter of 1916/17, even potatoes and bread are rationed. Hundreds of thousands starve to death until the blockade is lifted in July 1919.

In order to also cut off Great Britain from the supply from overseas and to force it into peace, the German army and naval command wants to use submarines against merchant ships without restriction. But Wilhelm II and his Chancellor Theobald von Bethman Hollweg hesitate because they want to avoid a break with the USA. When the British harshly rejected a German peace offer at the end of December 1916, the Supreme Army Command under Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff was finally able to prevail.

Civilian ships are sunk without warning

A German submarine sank the British merchant ship "Maplewood" in the Mediterranean on April 7, 1917.

On February 1, 1917, on the orders of the Kaiser, the German Reich began unrestricted submarine warfare with 136 boats: From then on, they were sinking merchant and passenger ships without any warning, even from neutral countries. During their attacks, they operate from Borkum, Helgoland and Emden in designated restricted areas around the British Isles. German submarines are also in action off the Russian northern sea ports and in the Mediterranean.

Submarines break the rules of naval warfare

The neutrals, above all the USA, react indignantly. Because the order means a breach of the international naval rules, which provide for the treatment of opposing ships according to the price order (from French "prize" for "removal"). Up until now, the submarine crews were only allowed to confiscate commercial ships belonging to the enemy or neutral states that were transporting cargo for the enemy ("contraband"). Now the submarines are no longer considering human life.

Fast initial success

At the beginning of the First World War, submarines - here in Kiel - become more and more important for the Germans.

At the shipyards in Bremen, Hamburg and Gdansk, ever more and ever faster submarines are being built. In the first few months they sink around 2,000 merchant ships with a total of 3.5 million gross registered tons of cargo space, including Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch and American ones. Thousands of sailors are killed by their torpedoes, but they reach their destination. They prevent the supply of oil for the British fleet and raw materials for the production of weapons and ammunition, which will soon be missing on the Western Front. Grain is also becoming scarce. The food supplies on the British Isles are melting, in spring they will only last for a few weeks.

The military underestimate the United States

The Germans accept the USA's entry into the war on April 6th. They speculate that the British will have to surrender within five months - long before the Americans are operational. For years there has been a view in naval circles that the "Yankee fleet" is irrelevant. The chief of the admiralty's staff, Henning von Holtzendorff, even vouches with his "naval officers' word of honor" that no American will set foot on the European mainland. And the Secretary of State for the Navy, Eduard von Capelle, declared before the Reichstag: "From a military point of view, I consider the strengthening of our opponents by the entry of the United States in the war to be zero."

At first it seems to work out. In April 1917, the head of the Royal Navy stated in view of the sunk merchant ships: "The Germans will win if we do not put an end to these losses." And in June he is certain: "We can no longer go on." The success of the submarines triggers euphoria in the Emperor's main headquarters. The British surrender is expected at any time.

The British are fighting back

But contrary to expectations, the British are not giving up. Prime Minister Lloyd George urges them to persevere. They then grow vegetables and potatoes in gardens, parks and schoolyards. Although there are substitutes in the bread, the British are not hungry like in Germany. On the contrary: State price guarantees and wage increases for armaments workers even improve living conditions for the lower classes at times.

The blockade is also not as comprehensive as planned. With regard to the neutral states, the emperor grants more and more exceptions to the sinking order, for example for Norwegian seal and cod fishermen in the northern Arctic Ocean, Danish grain transports and Spanish passenger steamers. The list gets longer and longer as the summer progresses.

Submarines are hunted by themselves

After initial success, the German submarines are increasingly being targeted by the upgraded British and American fleets.

In July, Secretary of State for the Navy von Capelle reiterated his conviction that there was no danger that the US would send troops to Europe. But Hindenburg and Holtzendorff no longer want to hear about their promises of a quick victory. They even blame Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg for the failure of the submarine war and blackmailed his resignation. There is now deep dejection in government circles.

Because now the submarines are sinking fewer cargo ships. The British have armed more and more steamers, laid around 100,000 sea mines, and developed more powerful depth charges and listening devices. Hundreds of British ships, planes and airships are now hunting down German submarines. Above all, however, the supply steamers are now crossing the Atlantic in convoy of an average of 30 ships, which are guarded by a dozen warships. That makes the attack particularly dangerous for the submarines.

The USA intervenes in the First World War

The "Yankee fleet", mocked by the Germans, has grown to become the second strongest in the world after the British. It supports the Western powers with ships, weapons and ammunition, and from October 1917 also with soldiers. The submarines cannot stop the troop transporters, mostly confiscated German passenger steamers such as the "Vaterland". At the beginning of 1918, more than 200,000 US soldiers had reinforced the front in France. In the end it will be 1.8 million. So the unrestricted submarine war actually affects the course of the war, but differently than promised by the military. The overwhelming power of the USA forced the Germans to surrender in November 1918.

The 320 German submarines used in World War I sink a total of 6,394 merchant ships, most of them from February 1917. According to British calculations, around 30,000 people are killed in the process. On the German side, 5,100 marines, more than half of the crews, die.

From blind mole to deadly weapon

On August 4, 1906, the first submarine of the Imperial Navy was launched in Kiel. Initially little appreciated by the military, submarines sank 6,000 ships in the First World War. more

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NDR television | Schleswig-Holstein Magazine | 09/11/2016 | 19:30 o'clock