The Great War: Tactical Defenses Against U Boats (British Perspective)

Dear Father and Mother,

Here is the true account you asked for regarding my wartime experience; I am now able to write everything in truth without the facts being scratched out by those mail editors! Enclosed are some rare photographs of the cowardly but then feared U boat, the convoy system accompanied by aircraft scouts, a picture of the outstanding Admiral John Jellicoe (Captained Fleet in Jutland, the notoriously infamous battle in the North Sea), and finally a portrait of me (for you, Mother).

Unrestricted Submarine Warfare and The Convoy System

   After the Battle of Jutland, the High Seas Fleet never attempted to engage the entire Grand Fleet. The Germans instead focused on another form of naval warfare. Unrestricted submarine warfare was started in 1917 by the Germans to force the British to peace by cutting off Britain’s food, raw materials and other supplies (This was in response to the starvation of the German population). U boats sunk many merchant ships, regardless whether they were British or neutral traders. This warfare was a dirty form of fighting as U boats sunk ships without signaling/warning before sailors could abandon ship, a necessity of the stealth tactics/covert underwater operations. A single U boat torpedo could effectively sink an armoured warship in one shot, giving the High Seas Fleet an edge over the Grand Fleet. Only after the torpedoing of another liner, the Hesperia, did the Germans temporarily halt its submarine campaign for fear of provoking the US further.

   The convoy system was introduced by President Wilson in 1917. As merchant ships and passenger vessels were susceptible to enemy fire (clearly exemplified in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915), troop ships protected them flanked by destroyers. These ships were disguised completely as trading ships, and could detect submarine engines, thus explaining their position in the lead. The miniature fleets were followed by a cruiser, the largest ship, to defend the convoy. Along with zigzagging courses, these convoy escorts allowed the British to evade the Germans within large areas as well as maintain strength in numbers because the U boats had more difficulty predicting the convoy courses and torpedo targets.

   As you know, the United States also declared war in April 1917, the year in which 869,000 tons of Allied shipping was also sunk. Needless to say, the leading cause of the US’s participation was due to outrage against unrestricted submarine warfare, and the grudge from the civilian deaths of Americans on the Lusitania. The US Naval Air Service provided cover by spotting submerged U boats, virtually causing them to be blind and imobile. Shipping losses dropped significantly!

The Great Mine Barrage

   At the beginning of 1914, the British established a firm blockade in the North Sea and made it a war zone, acknowledged by Admiral Hugo von Pohl of the High Seas Fleet. However, when U boats sank more than 4 cruisers and warships, killing over 2000 sailors, British naval commanders were forced to be wary of the North Sea. Into August 1915, U boats had sunken 168,200 tonnes of shipping.

   Although a treaty signed at Hague in 1907 restricted sea mines to areas within 3 miles of the enemy’s coastline (as to provide safety for neutral ships), both Britain and Germany ignored these limitations. The North Sea Mine Barrage was the greatest of its kind, proposed by US Admiral Reginald Bacon. In 1918, a mass of over 70,000 mines were laid across routes exiting the North Sea. U boats were sunk by timed explosives set to detonate under the estimates of passing U boat locations. It is impossible now to recall the true effectiveness of the barrage, but the one beneficial thing I remember was that it largely declined the Germans’ moral and security.

   As you can see, while the Germans had stooped so low using submarines, our great nation always found a way to counter them. For all their advanced equipment and technology, we British laid steady traps and fought with heavy ammo and dreadnoughts. How silly of the snobbish Kaiser to think speed and agility could outdo the Grand Fleet in home territory! It is amazing how fast traditional surface warfare transformed with untested machinery and quick mastery and strategy.

I expect I shall see you within the next month, in the next wave of men. The war is ending, and I am coming home.

Your loving son,

Charles Derby


(Unrestricted Submarine Warfare and the Convoy System)

Bruton, Louise. "The War at Sea." The British Library. British Library, n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.

Showalter, Dennis E. "The War at Sea, 1914-15." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 11 Jan. 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.

"U Boat Campaign (World War One)." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.

"WORLD WAR I (1914–1919) War at Sea." SparkNotes. SparkNotes, 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.

(The Great Mine Barrage)

"WORLD WAR I (1914–1919) The War at Sea." SparkNotes. SparkNotes, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.

Bruton, Louise. "The War at Sea." The British Library. British Library, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.

"North Sea Mine Barrage." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.

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