British Submarines and the Baltic Sea

British Submarines and the Baltic Sea

British submarines were used to great effect in the Baltic Sea during World War One. On September 17th, Admiral John Jellicoe gave the order to send submarines into the Baltic – the so-called “backyard” – to complete a blockade on Germany. By the end of 1915, the submarine blockade had proved to be extremely successful:

“During the whole course of the war, nothing has occurred more dramatic than the successes achieved by British submarines in the Baltic. Their actions cannot fail to have an influence on the course of the war.” (US Naval Proceedings 1915)

The route from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea was exceptionally dangerous. The Sound, to the east of Denmark, was a mixture of salt and fresh water and various parts of the Sound experienced different degrees of water density depending on the combination of the two. A stable depth proved difficult to keep, especially as the area around the Sound was no deeper than 35 feet. The narrow channel produced very swift currents and the lights from towns on either side of the Sound clashed with navigational lights and complicated the journey still further. To overcome these problems, each submarine commander was instructed “to follow a neutral ship through the Sound into the Baltic at night” and once there “ to attack the enemy’s fleet which is said to be carrying out gunnery practice in the Baltic.” (P G Halpern)

The completion of the Kiel Canal enabled the Germans to use the Baltic Sea for naval exercises and as a means of importing foodstuffs and vital minerals. This was almost completely stopped by the British submarines. By the end of 1915, merchant vessels refused to make the journey from Sweden unless they were convoyed and the German Baltic and High Seas Fleets were effectively trapped in their own harbours.

Merchant vessels, however, proved valuable but boring targets.

“Our men felt about sinking merchant vessels as a big-game hunter would feel if he were to turn his rifle on a domestic cow in a barnyard.” (W G Carr)

The most important result of the campaign against merchant shipping was the virtual ending of the transport of iron ore from Sweden to Germany. German soldiers were forced to requisition iron ore in much greater quantities from other European countries under their control such as Russia. As the expanding German war machine needed more and more iron, so the need to gain it became more and more difficult. As long as this difficulty occurred, the German army could never be at its most functional and efficient. If the German military hierarchy was putting some of its efforts into such a basic issue as the acquisition of iron ore as opposed to other more military-based problems, then the latter had to suffer accordingly.

Such was the impact of British submarines in the Baltic, that the German High Command believed that the submarines were operating in the Baltic but with their own supply vessel there. In fact, only a total of five E-class submarines operated in the Baltic though this represented 1/3rd of Britain’s long distance submarines at the start of 1915.

Monday, October 11th 1915, proved to be a very decisive day against merchant vessels in the Baltic. On this day, E-19, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Cromie, sank five merchant ships within eight hours. They carried a total of 20,000 tons of iron ore. The shock of this loss was such that it led to a complete standstill of all ships engaged in the transportation of iron ore and food within the Baltic. A British Naval officer, Lieutenant Mee, claimed that he was told by a Swedish captain that there were fifteen merchant ships laden with iron ore in Lulea “but not daring to sail until Germany provided some sort of convoy system.” (K Edwards)

A report in the US Naval proceedings of 1916 stated:

“The ports from which iron ore and timber are exported are crowded with vessels which dare not put to sea owing to the activity of underwater boats.”

The psychological impact of the five submarines that operated in the Baltic Sea was huge. They could not be everywhere at once, but the fear that they might be in an area where a merchant ship was sailing was enough for that ship to remain in port. After 1916, the Germans did introduce a convoy system and the number of targets was suitably reduced.

The German Baltic Fleet was also affected by the submarines. E9, commanded by Max Horton, raided Kiel harbour and threw the fleet into a general panic. Two squadrons of heavy capital ships were withdrawn to Swinemünde, and fifteen destroyers were used in an attempt to detect E9, using up vital fuel reserves.

Both E9 and E1 had a major impact in the Baltic. Prince Henry of Prussia, the German Commander-in-Chief of the Baltic Fleet, said:

“I consider the destruction of a Russian submarine a great success, but I regard the destruction of a British submarine as being at least as valuable as that of a Russian armoured cruiser.”

The potential clout of E1 and E9 was augmented when three more E-class submarines were sent to the Baltic. Training at sea for the German Baltic Fleet was affected as their commanders could not risk a capital ship being sunk – yet the effectiveness of the crews relied upon them being able to train and this could only be done at sea. The Baltic Fleet attempted to take on the submarines but suffered losses. E8 sank “Prinz Adalbert” while the “Augsburg” and “Friedrich Albert” were both seriously damaged in a submarine attack. All three ships were heavy cruisers and the Germans could ill-afford such losses. The problem was more acute for the Germans because they had so few natural harbours in the Baltic – therefore, the area British submarines had to patrol was relatively small compared to the actual size of the Baltic Sea. Blockading Kiel was relatively simple for submarines once they had got into the Baltic Sea itself.

Whereas German surface vessels presented a large target, British submarines were not. During the conflict, not one British submarine was lost due to a direct attack upon it. E18 was sunk by a mine.

During 1915, the Germans planned a major attack on Russia – principally targeting the city of Riga  - in an attempt to turn the Russians northern flank. A land attack by the Germans was to be supported by a formidable naval force led by admirals Schmidt and Hipper. The combined German naval force for this attack was fifteen battleships, thirteen cruisers and seventy-one destroyers, whose principal task was to guard the larger ships against British submarines. The naval force left Danzig on August 19th 1915. On the outward journey the heavy cruiser “Moltke” was torpedoed by E1 and severely damaged. Hipper immediately turned around his part of the fleet and retuned to Danzig. Schmidt did the same when it was confirmed that British submarines were in the vicinity.

“As he (Schmidt) now received confirmation of the presence of enemy submarines, he came to the conclusion that the advance of the ships would not be in accordance with the Imperial Decree (that losses were not to be risked). The whole operation was therefore suspended, and two days later an Imperial Order directed that the ships of the High Seas Fleet were to leave the Baltic. It has been said with truth that, but for the activities of E1 and E9 the Germans might have been in Petrograd by the end of the summer in 1915” (K Edwards).

 Without any naval support, the army’s attack on Riga failed and the whole action was cancelled. Lietenant Commander Laurence of E1 was told by Nicholas II, “You have saved our town of Riga.”

1915 was a high point for the British submarines in the Baltic. After this year, the Germans introduced a convoy system for merchant ships. British commanders refused to fire on merchants ships without warning – so the convoy system (with so many destroyers present) greatly reduced their targets. Prior to convoys, a merchant ship would be stopped by a surfaced E-class submarine, the crew were give time to get off and the ship was only then destroyed with no loss of life. The convoy system ended such a luxury. However, few would have derided the impact of British subs in the Baltic.

“I have learned form a reliable source that there have been for some past several months English submarines in the Baltic……In consequence, the German ships of war dare not sail out of Kiel, and even the trial dates of some newly launched ships have had to be postponed.” 

Diary entry by a director at Krupps dated November 9th, 1915.


“The (German) Baltic Fleet feared the activities of your submarines more than all of the Russian Fleet.”

Admiral Hoffman, commander of “Prinz Adalbert in 1915


“During those two years (1915-1916) the Germans lost command of those waters (the Baltic), perhaps the biggest dividend ever earned by so small a naval force in the whole of maritime history.” 

P Kemp

The British submarines that operated in the Baltic had an inglorious end. One of the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was that the Russians had to hand over any British submarines in a Russian port. These ports were used by the British for re-fueling and re-supplying a submarine. Rather than hand them over, seven British submarines were scuttled by their commanders.

The blockade of German ports had a huge impact on Germany itself. Food prices rose sharply and food shortages were common. The role of the submarines in this blockade was crucial.  What impact British submarines had on the German naval mutiny in 1918 is difficult to assess. We do know that men in the German Navy had an understandable fear of British submarines. In late 1918, the German Admiralty decided on one last confrontation with the British Navy. The sailors refused to obey what they considered to be a suicidal order and mutiny ensued. Just how important a fear of submarines was in sparking off this muting is all but impossible to quantify as there were other reasons for the mutiny. But it is possible that the endeavours of the E-class submarines in the Baltic Sea might well have played some small part in this.

MLA Citation/Reference

"British Submarines and the Baltic Sea". 2014. Web.

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