Thursday, 16 February 2017

Unrestricted submarine warfare: 1

Stower's portrait of the chilling reality of U-boat warfare
Within days of their proclaimed ‘victory’ at the Battle of Jutland, (see Post 4th June 2016) the German Naval leadership was clamouring for resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare (UUW). They were frustrated and effectively silenced by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s persuasive arguments on American neutrality. Tirpitz had resigned in protest, and although the Kaiser could over-rule the Chancellor, he balked at doing so. However, by late autumn 1916 circumstances had changed again. Not only had the Germans manufactured many more and better U-boats, increasing their capacity and reach (the 170 U boats now available could rotate in packs of 50 covering the busy Western approaches to England, south of Ireland) but the military leadership had passed in August from Falkenhayn to the forceful duet of Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The duo acted as one, and were much more aggressive in pressuring the Kaiser to overrule Bethmann. Aside from Bethmann, the most persuasive voices against UUW were those of Jagow, the Foreign Minister, and of Bernstorff, the ambassador to the USA. Under severe pressure from Hindenburg, Jagow resigned on 22nd November 1916, and his Deputy Arthur Zimmermann, a chancer, was appointed to replace him. More of him later. Loss of this support and Bernstorff’s anxiety in Washington were the main drivers for Bethmann’s speech to the Reichstag on 9th December, which contained his disingenuous peace proposals (see Post 19th December 2016)). He was playing his last card, and the Kaiser persuaded 'Hinden-dorff' to await the outcome. When it was rejected by the Allies, and Holzendorff, the Chief of naval staff produced his memo almost guaranteeing victory within months, the approval was inevitable.

On 9th January 1917, a weary Bethmann boarded a train in Berlin to make his final pleas at the Kaiser’s Grand Headquarters in Southern Germany. When he arrived the next day, all his opponents had already arrived and he was presented with a fait accomplit . The Kaiser signed the Imperial Order for commencement of UUW on 1st February (they did not plan to inform the USA until 31st January). A shattered Bethmann held on to office, but resigned within months.

The British, particularly the Admiralty, were practically and temperamentally undercooked when it came to combating the U boat menace. The limited impact of the first brief episode of UUW in 1915 ( terminated by the outrage over the loss of the Lusitania- Post 17th November 2015) had, if anything, reinforced British disdain for this type of warfare.
Sir Henry Wilson. Appalled by
submarine warfare.
"Es ist nicht cricket"
This had been summarised by Sir Henry Wilson before the war as “Underhand, unfair, and damned un-English.” It wasn’t just submarines. The Germans, led by von Zeppelin and Tirpitz established a significant, if temporary, air superiority over the seas. At Jutland, Jellicoe was perfectly happy to leave at Scapa Flow the one prototype aircraft carrier that might have helped him locate Scheer’s fleet. The mindset of the navy was set at Nelsonian ‘elan’. “Attack, attack, defence is weakness’ – the reason why the prudent Jellicoe attracted so much (uninformed) criticism, and remarkably similar to the approach that brought catastrophe to Joffre’s army in the first weeks in 1914. It’s like one of those 11plus verbal reasoning questions I remember vaguely from years ago: 1914 French army is to Napoleon as 1914 Royal Navy is to? ……… Nelson.

The War Committee had considered some options during late 1916 to disable the U boat operations from bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge, but had no clear plans, and by the time U boat inflicted damage started to increase again in late 1916, the Admiralty realised it was ill prepared for what would be a much more formidable challenge. Its reputation had been ailing since the failure to produce that Nelsonian victory at Jutland, and it was decided the time was right for change at the top. Balfour was moved from First Lord to Foreign Secretary to replace Grey in the new Government. Sir Edward Carson, a man more popular with the Navy than the dour, distant Balfour, replaced him. He was described by Admiral Evan-Thomas (see Post 29th May 2016)  as a “bullet headed sort of cove who anyway looks you straight in the face which is more than those confounded politicians will, so perhaps he will suit us quite well”. Jellicoe was pulled (very reluctantly) from Scapa Flow to become First Sea Lord in place of Sir Henry Jackson, and this enabled the ambitious David Beatty to realise his dream as Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet.
Jellicoe, with his formidable organisational and administrative skills set about improving the co-ordination of defence against the U-boat threat. These were the deployment of barrages of mines, nets and other obstructions, and curious decoy craft known as Q-boats. These will be covered more in the subsequent post, but it would prove too little too late. Jellicoe’s major blind spot – which was shared by almost all conventional wisdom of the time – was a dismissive approach to convoy protection of merchant shipping.  Despite the use of convoys throughout the history of sea warfare (and an excellent record in protecting troopships and warships in WW1 to date) convoys were viewed as completely inappropriate for the protection of modern merchant ships by modern warships. Hubris? Nelsonian elan? Neither of these was likely in the case of humble, cautious Jellicoe, yet he was the most senior of many voices advising against convoys as protectors. A painful lesson had to be learned, and it would cost Jellicoe his position.
Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff
His detailed memo won over 

the Kaiser
Britain and her allies thus accepted the risks to merchant shipping, and felt they would prevail through increased production. They very nearly miscalculated fatally. The losses (in tonnage) per month began to climb again in late 1916, from a base of around 50,00 per month through to November when they exceeded 100,000. 
Holtzendorff’s prescription for victory in six months required 600,000 tons of lost shipping per month. In February 520,000 tons, in March 560,000, and in April 860,000 tons of losses made his predictions look realistic and terrifyingly close. Panic was abroad – in the Admiralty, in the Government and not far from the streets. Something had to be done.

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