British submarines and the North Sea

British submarines and the North Sea

British submarines played a vital role in the North Sea during World War One. Whereas British submarines had spectacular successes in the Baltic and the Dardanelles, they were in these areas for only a short period of time. Submarines were in the North Sea for the duration of the war and though they had less "spectaculars", they made a huge impact on the outcome of the naval campaign in the North Sea. The most important role the submarines had was to assist the blockade of Germany's coastline.

"Warring states have from the earliest times endeavored to deprive their enemies of seabourne supplies by blockading their coastline."

S W Roskill "History of the Twentieth Century"

Two types of blockade existed at the start of World War One - naval and commercial. However, both usually overlapped. A naval blockade could be maintained by stationing a naval force off of your enemy's coastline. If any enemy ship attempted to make a run out of port, they would be engaged. By doing this a stranglehold could be put on the enemy which would quickly impact the civilian population, creating unrest and overturning the enemy government.

In 1908, the Admiralty's War Orders  stated that the primary function of the Royal Navy was "to bring the main German fleet to decisive action". However, it was recognised by the Admiralty that the German High Seas Fleet might not do what the Royal Navy required it to do. To neutralise the threat that the High Seas Fleet posed, the Admiralty recognised the importance of a blockade. It was here that submarines played a major part. A surface vessel was always at risk if it was part of a blockade. The development of planes made an air attack a possibility and left all surface ships vulnerable to an attack. However, this did not affect submarines. In July 1914, the Admiralty introduced the "distant blockade". This made the English Channel impassible for the High Seas Fleet which was all but trapped in the North Sea.

Just four hours after Britain declared war in August 1914, three E-class submarines were patrolling the North Sea off of the Heligoland Bight. Merchant ships rounding Scotland and heading for Germany were stopped by ships from the Royal Navy and had their cargo confiscated. Any boats that managed to escape this, had to face submarines the nearer they got to Germany.

Nine submarine flotillas were established in 1914 and based on the east coast of Britain. Four of these flotillas were patrol flotillas while the other five were used for coastal defence. Out of Britain's 86 submarines at the start of World War One, 76 were used for coastal defence (including a number built specifically for overseas ventures). That they stayed as coastal protection vessels was an indication of just how much the powers that be both in the Royal Navy and the government feared invasion.

The First Sea Lord, Jackie Fisher, did not believe that the Germans had the ability to launch an invasion fleet. If the improbable happened, Fisher believed that the Royal navy based at Portsmouth, Dover and the Thames estuary was more than capable of holding off the Germans until the huge Grand Fleet arrived. However, he was just one voice in the Admiralty - others were more fearful of German invasion. Fisher also believed that submarines would also play a major part in attacking any German invasion force.

The Submarine Service could have had a kill on the first day of the war but the torpedo went underneath a German ship. In fact, this happened on a number of occasions and it was only later that it was found out why this was happening. A torpedo warhead weighed forty pounds more than a practice one but the settings for firing it were the same despite the difference in weight.  

E-class boats patrolled the North Sea to huge effect. At the start of the war, they were the unseen enemy as no satisfactory way had been invented to detect an underwater submarine. For the time being, life on a submarine was good.

"In the meantime the submarine rules the sea to an extent I never thought possible - mainly by moral force - since they cannot be everywhere; only one does not know where they are not."

G Keynes, captain of the Submarine Service

A journalist for the "Liverpool Daily Post" wrote:

"The submarine fleet which we have been building up steadily will be available not only for direct home defence but to strike a blow in the enemy's water."

However, the Admiralty saw submarines as defensive rather than offensive well into 1915. They justified their view as submarines had done valuable work in the Heligoland Bight but had sunk few important targets.

Even in 1916, the Admiralty used the submarines in the North Sea for reporting information as opposed to attacking enemy ships. To force the German fleet into an open conflict, British submarines were used to report to the surface fleet when a German ship had left port giving its position, speed and direction. Such information was usually passed on by pigeon as no reliable wireless set had been developed. However, in order not to scare off the German fleet, British submarines were not allowed to attack a German ship in case this forced them to remain in harbour.

For a large part of the war, British submarines in the North Sea were used for observation purposes and then that information was passed on; they were also used to fill in mine fields swept by the German Navy. Ironically the mine became one of the submarines worst enemies with twenty British submarines lost to this weapon.

During the war, there were three naval battles in the North Sea though only one - Jutland - could be considered as being a major battle. In this battle, British submarines played no part. Surface ships could communicate with one another during a battle to co-ordinate their movements. Submarines did not have the ability to do this. Any new orders could be acted on by surface ships - submarines were not in a position to get any new orders let alone act on them.

The problems faced by submarines was best seen at the Battle of Heligoland Bight. This battle was fought on October 28th, 1914. Three British submarines (D-2, D-8 and E-5) enticed a number of German destroyers and cruisers out of Wilhelmshaven while another three submarines waited at a pre-designated point to attack the Germans lured to the spot by D-2, D-8 and E-5. A separate Admiralty order had sent out the Harwich fleet commanded by Commodore Tyrwhitt to engage the Germans in battle. However, in the heat of the battle, British surface ships attacked British submarines as no-one had informed Tyrwhitt of the fact that British submarines were in the area! The submarines also could not make out the difference in silhouette between the British and German ships as the swell was too great. As a result, British submarines attempted to attack British surface ships.

"I was very much concerned, as the submarines had no idea of their presence and I greatly feared that they, particularly the light cruisers, might be attacked by the submarines..........E-6 on two occasions got within very close range of one of our light cruisers and only refrained from firing when he actually distinguished the red St. George Cross."

P G Halpern

The lessons that should have been learned at Heligoland Bight were not. Communication between surface and underwater ships was impossible. To keep up with the surface ships, submarines had to sail many miles ahead and allow the surface ships to catch up. The surface fleets tried to make 27 knots to keep them ahead of German submarines. A submarine could barely make half this speed - hence the tactic of sailing ahead and anticipating the surface fleet catching you up. But such a tactic was fraught with problems, primarily the issue of communication.

At the Battle of Dogger Bank, British submarines had the opportunity to sink retreating German cruisers. But they had been told to expect British ships in the area they saw German ships in; so they let them pass back to Germany. Such a error was down to the constant failure in the communication between surface vessel and submarines. However, at Dogger Bank, serious damage could have been done to the German fleet - but it was not. The scapegoat was not the admiral in command of the Second Battle Cruiser Squadron, Rear-Admiral Archibald Moore, but the captain of the Submarine Service, G. Keyes, who was blamed for the failure by Fisher and on February 8th, 1915, relieved of his post and sent to join the Mediterranean Fleet.

At Jutland both the German and British submarine fleets could have made decisive impacts - but did not. The British submarines had been told that the battle would be fought in a certain manner and that they were to rise from the sea bed on June 2nd 1916, and engage the German High Seas Fleet that would be passing overhead on that day. In fact, the retreating German fleet did pass directly over the British submarines that had been expertly positioned by the Admiralty but they did so on June 1st. When the British submarines rose off of the sea bed, they were one day late! This again reflected problems with communications. Such was the standing of the Submarine Service in the eyes on many senior naval figures, that the final report on Jutland sent to the First Sea Lord made no reference whatsoever to the part played by submarines in the battle.

Just what impact a pack of submarines would have had at any of the three battles is open to speculation. If at Heligoland and Dogger Bank, British ships had been confused by British submarines, it is possible that this confusion would have been greatly magnified at an even bigger battle when the surface fleet was already in a state of disarray from the accuracy of the High Seas Fleet guns.

Also, a large number of ships that fought at Jutland were large fighting ships. In the whole of the war, no dreadnought was sunk by a submarine's torpedoes. HMS Marlborough was hit by a German torpedo but continued to fight in the battle and safely returned to harbour. By 1916, all capital ships had been fitted with coffer-dams that shut off any damaged area on a ship - hence the likelihood of a torpedo doing severe damage to a large warship was minimal. Smaller warships also had one major defence over submarines - speed. Smaller escort warships sailed in a zig-zag pattern that meant a submarine's captain did not have time to get his submarine into a proper line of attack before the ship changed direction again. In late 1914, the German destroyer S-116 was sunk by a British submarine. The then captain of the Submarine Service, G Keyes, likened it to "shooting a snipe in woodland."

What was learned at Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank and Jutland was that submarines could not operate with the fleet when a full battle was taking place - communication was simply too difficult. In major battles there was as much chance of a submarine being attacked by its own side as opposed to the enemy.

As a result of the Submarine Service being blamed for its 'failures', the Admiralty found other roles for it in the North Sea. Ironically, the most successful role they found for British submarines was in an anti-submarine capacity. In particular, the government wanted the fishing fleets of the North Sea protected. To do this the Submarine Service devised a simple but effective plan.

A trawler was converted so that it could tow a slightly submerged C-class submarine into a fishing zone. When a U-boat appeared, the trawler got the U-boat's position to the C-class submarine and the submarine slipped its tow and attacked. When this ploy was first used on June 23rd 1915, C-24 sunk U-40. It was successful on another occasion.

However, the plan became known in Germany when POW's from U-40 were interned with German civilians. These civilians were about to be repatriated and, informed by the crew of U-40 about this plan, told the German High Command. As a result the tactic had to end. Despite this, the fishing fleets of the North Sea enjoyed a respite from U-boat attacks.

"These two actions had a great moral effect on the crews of the enemy submarines. Our fishing boats were not interfered with again until well into 1916. There is little doubt that the mysterious loss of two boats sent out within a month of each other on what might be considered a safe mission, caused the enemy to abandon the campaign against the fishing boats."

W G Carr "Hell's Angels of the Deep"

British submarines were also involved in Admiral Beatty's plan "Operation BB". This involved placing a large number of destroyers on the northern coast of Scotland so that U-boats heading out to sea would dive when they saw the destroyers. The plan was that they would resurface when the 'danger' of the destroyers had passed. However, for Beatty the destroyers were a decoy. It was believed that the U-boats would then surface where British submarines were stationed at periscope level. The submarines positioned here were the K-class and out of 37 U-boat sightings, none were sunk. However, the campaign against the U-boats heading to the Atlantic continued and three new submarine bases were established at Lough Swilly (Ireland), Queenstown (Ireland) and Scapa Flow. The submarines based here had one target - U-boats operating in the Atlantic, whether they were returning to Germany or trying to the Atlantic. In the later stages of the war, a sunk U-boat was considered a much greater prize than a sunk capital ship that was invariably cooped up in harbour. In the area that led to the Atlantic, 18 U-boats were destroyed by British submarines which compared favourably to the 41 U-boats sunk by 300 destroyers and the 32 sunk by 4000 Naval auxiliary vessels.

Though the submarine was usually a lone fighter, the Admiralty still believed that it could be used with the Grand Fleet. But available submarines were simply too slow to keep up with surface vessels. For this reason, the Admiralty pushed for the development of the K-class submarine. This was steam powered and reached 22 knots on the surface. But it was a disaster and the history of the K-class has been described as "calamitous".

The Admiralty believed that a steam powered submarine would offer many advantages to the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet:

1) The Grand Fleet's fighting capacity would be increased as the submarines could operate with surface vessels.

2) When the German and British navies clashed, the K-class would have the speed to get around the back of the Germans and cut off any chance of retreat.

3) The K-class would receive the protection of the Grand Fleet when they sailed.

4) Ton for ton, they required a smaller crew than other submarines.

5) As it was a larger vessel, it could carry a larger wireless which was more powerful.

6). Fleet submarines would be in commanded by the grand Fleet's commander so there would be better effectiveness in command.

However, the K-class was to be less than successful and it showed how the Admiralty muddled up basic information. A submarine is at its most useful when it is under water. The Admiralty saw fit to believe that the K-class was different as points 1 and 3 above required the K-class submarines to sail on the surface if both points were to be fulfilled. The average diesel submarine took 30 seconds to dive - the K-class took over 5 minutes. When underwater the K-class was out of contact with the Grand Fleet as the radio that was installed onto the K-class was poor. To use the radio, the submarine had to be on the surface as the aerial had to be erected. This alone took time and made the submarine vulnerable to attack as the German High Seas Fleet usually sailed with zeppelin support.

The K-class was inherently not sea-worthy. K-13 was lost in trials due to a design fault and 35 of its crew were killed. Despite this the Admiralty ordered that thirteen were to be built with due speed. Seventeen were built in total. In trials, the water-proof hatch around two funnels leaked badly. Any problems caused by this was always blamed on human error - not design faults. The K-class took 15 to 20 minutes to generate enough power to get it into a position when it could attack a U-boat - by which time the U-boat was almost certainly going to see the thick black smoke billowing out of the K-class's funnels!

In June 1913, Admiral Fisher had written to Jellicoe "the most fatal error imaginable would be to put steam engines in a submarine". In its post-war report, the Admiralty called the K-class a "successful vessel" and they continued in service until 1924. Those who sailed in them had other views:

"I never met anybody who had the least affection for the K-class and they were looked on with fear and loathing. After all, they murdered many of their officers and crews." (D Everitt)

"The only good thing about a K boat was that they never engaged the enemy." (Rear Admiral Leir)


MLA Citation/Reference

"British submarines and the North Sea". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2014. Web.






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