In the Mediterranean, near Malta, in a dark night I met a British convoy with cruisers and destroyers and I attacked and I sank a ship…

Listen to the voices of those who were there or read the podcast transcript below.

Submarines played a significant military role for the first time during the First World War. Both the British and German navies made use of their submarines against enemy warships from the outset. Franz Becker commanded German submarines – known as U-boats – from 1915. He recalled an encounter with a British ship.

We were off Portugal, off Lisbon, and during the afternoon we met a very, very big tugboat of the British navy which had a barge and tug. Exchanged some fire shots and then it was finished. The people of the British tugboat left the ship and we had to sink these two ships. Now it came very rough weather and we were too long from the coast and I took on board the crew of these ships – in all 30 sailors – and we had our own crew, also 30 men, so we were equal on board and that was very nice. We gave them food. In the morning the weather was better and the captain and two commissioned officers I had to make prisoner. Then I took the two boats of the crew to the shore and then I left them. And in this moment these two boats made three cheers for the German submarine and that was, I can tell you, the nicest moment of my submarine war.

Initially, when U-boats met merchant ships, they surfaced before they attacked and allowed those on board time to escape. However, from February 1915, the Germans changed their tactics. U-boats began to fire on ships without warning – including neutral and passenger vessels. German naval officer Martin Niemöller described how U-boats stalked merchant ships.

We came to become aware of some vessels either by smoke or by the mast tops coming across and above the horizon. Then we had to see as best we could what was the course the steamer was continuing and we had to try with our reduced speed to get well enough in front of this ship so that we could approach it to the range of about, at most 600, at least 300 metres, in order to fire our torpedoes. That practically was all we had to know and certainly we ought to know how to deal with torpedoes and how to find the right angle, guessing the speed of the ship and the speed of the torpedoes and where they would really meet, so that the torpedoes would hit the target.

The U-boat threat was taken seriously by the British Admiralty. Thomas Elmhirst of the Royal Naval Air Service was selected in 1915 for an early initiative to counter it.

When we got to the Admiralty we saw the great Sea Lord, Lord Fisher, who’s opening remarks were, ‘You young gentlemen are going to fly, you’ll probably be dead in a year or you may get the VC. But you’ve been selected for this service and you’re going to start a new airship service which will be the counter to the U-boat menace, which looks to be the biggest menace we have in this war.’ And then he said, ‘If you don’t want to fly, or your parents don’t want you to fly, you can come and tell me in 48 hours’ time.’ Then he offered us some bait of ten shillings a day extra pay from that day – my pay then was only one and sixpence, of which I only saw sixpence – and six week’s training in London. So the bait really, with London training and some money, was a bait really that none of us shut our eyes to.

Kapitan-Leutnant Lothar von Arnauld de la Periere (second from the left) and his officers on the deck of the German submarine U35.
Officers on the deck of the German submarine U35. © IWM (Q 20241)

The new German tactic – known as ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ – caused great resentment in neutral countries, particularly America. For many, the sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania by U-boat U-20 in May 1915 was the most shocking act of the campaign so far. English nanny Alice Drury was travelling in the Lusitania when it was torpedoed. She described the panic on board as she tried to keep the children she was looking after safe from harm.

I was on the port side and I had to climb to get to the boat. The people that were falling in were on the opposite side. And a sailor came and grabbed Stewart, and I followed. He threw Stewart into the lifeboat and the lifeboat was just ready to go; it was full. Now I went to jump into the lifeboat and the sailor grabbed me back. He said, ‘It’s full; there’s plenty of room in the next one.’ I’m afraid I did get a bit hysterical. I yelled and, to be quite honest, I bit his hand and he let go. I jumped, thinking I was only going to jump naturally into the lifeboat, but I jumped as the lifeboat was going down and I went to the side of it. The lifeboat landed in the water almost as I did. A man who was in the lifeboat leaned forwards and grabbed me by my hair and I tippled over like that into the lifeboat. So I always say that my hair saved my life!

Alice’s lifeboat desperately tried to get away from the sinking ship, but at first it didn’t look as if it was going to make it.

The suction of the liner was pulling us back. Every time the oars went forward, we were going as if we were going to be drawn under. Eventually, we got away and I saw the funnels one by one disappearing. I saw all those lifeboats – the lifeboat I was in was the only one saved on that side. There was a submarine on the surface watching us. I saw those sailors watching all those bodies of people and wreckage. The sea was as calm as a pond. I don’t think anybody would be alive now if it hadn’t been a lovely calm day.

The outrage following the sinking – in which over 1,000 lives were lost – resulted in Germany abandoning unrestricted submarine warfare in September 1915. But a number of factors – including the British naval blockade of German ports and a desire to seize control of the seas from Britain – meant that the policy was resumed in earnest in February 1917. The troopship SS Transylvania was torpedoed in the Mediterranean three months later. Walter Williams of the Army Service Corps was one of those on board.

The whistle had just gone for parade, I remember, when before we could get up on deck the first torpedo hit the ship on the rear port side. There was much consternation because, of course, just at that moment no one knew which boat to go to, or which raft to go to. Officers were going around shooting revolvers up in the air and all kinds of things. Then a cry went out, ‘Save the women first,’ and we saw the boats being launched. There were 66 nurses on board and they got away safely.

Those who served in U-boats struggled with the ethical question of attacking non-military ships. But for Franz Becker, the issue became simpler when he learned of conditions back home in Germany.

The war with the submarines was a serious matter. At the beginning of the war, it was not easy for us to sink merchant ships, because we would have preferred to make the war against warships. Because every merchant ship we had some personal contact with them. I remember, especially, one day I met a very fine one of the last big sailing ships and to sink it, it was very, very heavy for me. But then we went home on leave to Germany and we could see how Germany was blockaded; our people in Germany had hunger. And then we had new forces to make the war with submarines against merchant ships. We needed to know this; why we did this war against merchant ships.

The U-boats were a deadly opponent for Royal Navy warships. While serving as leading stoker aboard HMS Chester in August 1916, Bert Stevens witnessed the sinking of HMS Falmouth by a U-boat.

I’d just come off the first dogwatch to go in the mess deck to have a basin of tea. I’d just picked this basin of tea up and I was just going to drink it when all of a sudden [makes explosion noise] What’s that?! Bosun comes along, he says, ‘Ship’s struck a mine!’ So he goes up top, the ship hadn’t hit anything. The Falmouth was stopped, flames coming out of her funnel and smoke. The U-boat had hit her with two torpedoes; one in the engine room and one in the stokehold. And she was stopped dead. And we see her firing at something so we went round her and we saw this periscope and we dropped these depth charges. We come right round her again and we saw that she was firing again at something, the Falmouth, so we went round her again and we dropped some more depth charges. We come round again and then our steering gear went out of order.

The threat posed by German U-boats necessitated a series of British countermeasures, the foremost of these being convoys. This system – whereby groups of merchant vessels were escorted by warships – was first introduced in April 1917. W Fry of HMS Drake sailed in one of the early convoys the following month.

We moved out and tried to assemble outside. There was some confusion and the merchant captains hadn’t got used to assembling. In due course the convoy was formed and I realised that we should be sailing in convoy. I hadn’t heard of convoys before, of merchant ships, but we travelled in line ahead, three columns about 200 cables apart. It took us until May the 20th – we arrived.

Brian De Courcy-Ireland of HMS Relentless also worked on convoy escort duty.

We were based on Lerwick in the Shetlands and we ran the convoys to Norway and back. We went from Lerwick to rather in the north, well, halfway up Norway. And we had these convoys to take over. Anything in numbers up to a dozen in the convoy and we took them over. They were awful old crocks. Every now and then – I think about once a month – we got what they call slow convoy. Well that was four knots in fine weather. We used to find that if you really wanted them to get a bit of a move on, we used to drop a depth charge which they thought was a submarine in the vicinity, you see, and up would go the smoke from their funnels and they’d belt on for a bit!

Escorting convoys in rough seas was hard-going, as George Wainford of HMS Onslaught found out.

We did convoy duties, that was a rotten job. We used to go halfway across to the States, pick the ships up, then the American destroyers used to turn round and go back and we used to come back with them. And what was rotten about it was I was always seasick – always – I never got used to it. I never ate anything, I just had drinks of water and ate a few dry biscuits. I never, never got used to being seasick. Mind you I wasn’t the only one, but some of the chaps never got sick and they was always pulling your leg about it, you know. They didn’t realise how bad it was to be sick.

The convoy system was effective but not fool-proof, and U-boats continued to attack British ships. Karl Doenitz – who later became Hitler’s naval chief and his named successor – was a U-boat captain in 1918. He described an attack on a British convoy in his malfunctioning submarine, UB 68.

In October 1918, I was the captain of a submarine. And in the Mediterranean, near Malta, in a dark night I met a British convoy with cruisers and destroyers and I attacked and I sank a ship. But after this I had to dive. And then, by a fault in the construction of my submarine, my boat was sinking in the depths of the water – the water was very deep, three or four thousand meters deep. But I made it possible to come to the surface again, but then I had to go out of the boat with the whole crew. A British destroyer stopped and we came on board of this destroyer.

Another innovation for combating U-boats was the introduction of secret ‘Q ships’. Henley Claxton explained what these were.

A Q boat was a merchant ship or a sea-going trawler that was disguised. Seeing it through binoculars it looked just an ordinary merchant ship or an ordinary sailing ship. But behind all the façade were guns hidden up out of sight. Well, when a U-boat spotted this, they were wary of what it was and that. And directly the U-boat made itself known, a panic party used to leave this ship, as though they were deserting the ship. But left onboard was the remainder of the crew hidden away there, out of sight, and there’s the ship – to all intents and purposes – deserted. And the U-boat would gradually come nearer and when she was within range, say 100 or 200 yards, and directly the skipper on board thought the time was right, down flaps. And before the U-boat could get away she’s had her chips.

U-boats were also occasionally challenged by their British counterparts. Reginald Ashley served in the submarine D4 in 1918.

Well we were both coming up to recharge our batteries, we were one side of the moon and UB 72 was the other side. There was only the skipper and myself and some other – three of us – on the bridge. And all of a sudden, I said to the skipper, I said, ‘What’s that over there?’ And he said, ‘Oh it’s a U-boat doing the same as we are, to recharge their batteries.’ He signalled down action stations. We fired a torpedo and missed and with that I immediately took off my sea boots. He said, ‘What are you doing that for?’ I said, ‘Well we missed, he’s not going to miss us.’ Actually, she did miss us; then we fired the next one and hit her. And that was in Lyme Bay. And she sank and it went down with all hands.

When Robert Fagg’s battleship, HMS Warspite, came across a U-boat near the Shetland Islands in 1918, tempers ran high.

We sighted a German submarine off Lerwick and, although she was flying a disabled white flag, we approached the whole thing very gingerly. We crept up towards this submarine flying the white flag and she’d been damaged, because there was rafts about with German sailors in. And one of our gunlayers, Gunlayer Blow, swung his after-gun round and fired in the middle of a crowd of these chaps. I being an LTO [Leading Torpedo Operator] was sitting on the tubes, you see, so I saw the whole thing, I saw what happened. And of course the captain was most furious over this and he ordered this gunlayer to come up on the bridge and explain his conduct. And apparently, you see, what he did this Blow, when he fired he said, ‘That’s for my brother, you bastards.’ You see, he’d lost his brother in France.

In the atmosphere of fear engendered by the U-boats, a range of anti-submarine patrols were introduced. Robert Picton was a British petty officer who served with the Royal Yacht Patrol searching for U-boats in 1917-1918.

There was a barrage from Dover to within about three-quarters of a mile of Dunkirk, I should say. We used to have to do this patrol between the edge of the barrage and the coast back and forth without any lights and go very quiet: we had special silencers on so that we couldn’t be heard. And we were there to see if any German submarines or destroyers tried to come through in the dark. Because, of course, all the shipping was going across and one of their big targets was the sea ferry from New Haven to Dieppe.

U-boats were also monitored from the air. RAF officer Gordon Hyams flew patrols and escorted troop convoys in 1918.

Our job was to escort troop convoys from Alexandria across to Salonika. Also, we had to go out before the convoy sailed and reconnoiter the swept channel – which took you out to sea – and then to come back and escort the convoy out as far as we could. That was probably, I think, we could do up to four hours – and then leave them and come back. But any rate we never saw anything.

Airships, too, were used for this work – but with little real success. Leslie Murton was a coxswain on Airship SST3.

We was spotting to see whether there was any German submarines up there and that was how we kept the channel clear, you see. We used to spot for submarines. And if you thought you saw one, you’d drop a mine on ‘em and, if you got oil, you knew you’d struck one. But we never struck any oil – we never struck any – though we were flying all that time!

Merchant ships were painted in dazzle camouflage to make them harder for U-boats to see. But this did not always guarantee protection, as Sid Bell – who served with the Norwegian Convoy Flotilla in 1918 – observed.

It was quiet sometimes and sometimes you were… once or twice we lost a couple of merchant ships. I can remember I was on watch one afternoon and we were coming up the east coast and I said to the signalman, ‘Hey, I said, look at that ship over yonder.’ And I says, it was the first ship we saw with the dazzle paint on. And lo and behold, not a couple minutes after, we heard a bang and a flash and we look across and it was this ship that was dazzled – sunk.

Leading Seaman Joseph Ingham Battye. Service number: Tyneside Z/11314. Unit: Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, SS Hercules. Death: 30 December 1917.
Leading Seaman Joseph Battye was killed, aged 18, on 30 December 1917 when his armed merchant ship was torpedoed by a German submarine. © IWM (HU 96624)

Throughout the submarine war, the members of the Merchant Navy earned admiration for continuing to work in such dangerous conditions.They suffered heavy casualties: by the end of the war around 15,000 merchant sailors had died. William Argent of the Royal Naval Air Service had great respect for their dedication.

I take my hat off to those merchant sailors, those merchantmen. What they’d been through and to be torpedoed two or three times and they’d still sign on to take another ship on. In the conversations afterwards with chaps I met at Portland there, they’d been on two or three ships, merchantmen and fisherman. I mean they’d been torpedoed more than once. I mean, I suppose it was their livelihood, really, but they didn’t have to do this, I mean, it was quite voluntary. They’d just sign on for another ship. I reckon I take my hat off to those chaps…

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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