The U-Boat Dilemma


1916 cartoon by Oscar Cesare

Here’s the deal: I both hate German U-boats and I admire them.

It’s a real problem when I’m watching a submarine movie like Das Boot I keep switching sides.

It made reading Dead Wake by Erik Larson troubling. Sinking the RMS Lusitania was a terrible war crime.

But Captain Walther Schweiger, the commanding officer of that U-20 U-boat, was so clever, and the odds were so much against him, my loyalties were stretched.

As the wife of a retired submarine officer, I rooted for the U-20 throughout the book, all the while feeling guilty.

Then Captain Schweiger ordered the torpedo that sank the ocean liner, forcing all those people into the Atlantic Ocean and the ship to the sea bottom (in 18 minutes).

Many people died.


I didn’t like the submarine anymore.

U-boats and WWI

U-boat is short for “unterseeboat,” German for “undersea boat,” or submarine.


The sinking of the HMS Pathfinder by W. L. Wyllie, RA   via Imperial War Museum

The first ship ever sunk by a self-propelled torpedo, the HMS Pathfire, went down in Scotland’s Firth of Forth on September 5, 1914, a month after the start of World War I.

Two weeks later the U-9 sank three British ships in an hour.

At first, the German underwater boats only targeted clear military vessels. But by February, 1915, Kaiser Wilhelm declare the English Channel and all the waters around the British Isles a war zone.

The British had bottled up the German fleet and the German government took dramatic action.

According to Wikipedia:

This was cited as a retaliation for British minefields and shipping blockades. Under the instructions given to U-boat captains, they could sink merchant ships, even potentially neutral ones, without warning.

U-boats became a terror weapon.

War had never been fought like this before.

(Keep in mind, airplanes had never been used in war before either. Rapidly changing technology was responsible for many of those deaths during WWI).

The British and Allied fleets adapted quickly to the U-boat threat; ships almost always sailed with military escorts and in groups–the better to possibly spot the small periscope indicating a submarine was nearby.

Passengers all had life jackets, the ships frequently sailed in a zigzag pattern (making them harder to hit with a torpedo) and without lights showing at night.

Ship captains received reports and warnings and were careful about sending out unnecessary wireless transmissions lest they be picked up by U-boats.


Diagram of that torpedo shot.

One of the many controversies surrounding the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in May 1915 concerned its lack of a naval escort only 11 miles off the coast of Ireland.

Dead Wake‘s exploration of the U-boat side of the story revealed the astonishing news the British Admiralty had a fair idea U-20 was in the neighborhood when the ocean liner was expected. (Read the book for an excellent analysis of the German side of the tragedy)

The U-boats did not remain solely in the Atlantic.

In 1915, Austro-Hungarian and German U-boats menaced the British Dreadnought battleships off the coast of Gallipoli (western Turkey), contributing to the debacle the British Expeditionary Forces suffered in that lengthy campaign.

(Captain Georg von Trapp skippered one of those Austro-Hungarian U-boats)

The U-boats lurked on either side of the Straits of Gibraltar for their prey. Most Allied ships, therefore, sailed through the blacked-out straits at night to avoid detection. The only illumination came from spotlights scouring the waters for stealthy submarines.

Just a few days before Biddy Chambers and her daughter arrived in Port Said, Egypt, in December 1915, a U-boat sank a Japanese freighter and an oil tanker right off the coast.

They sailed past the wreckage.

War requires nerves and emotions of steel to be effective. The toll on civilians, as evidence above, can be heavy as well.

At the same time, it’s hard to understand how any commanding officer could justify sinking a hospital ship, and yet sixteen hospital ships went down during WWI.

The Bess Crawford novel, A Duty to the Dead, by Charles Todd provides a sobering description of one of those sinkings.

On the other hand, you don’t have to read many stories about U-boats crews to recognize the desperation those sailors must have felt living in cramped stinking quarters, terrified themselves that they would never breathe clean air again.

The submarine sailors were just as afraid of being spotted as the ships sailing the waters were of being spotted.

I suppose I’m sympathetic to both sides, still, and perhaps with a different perspective than many.

My family has spent far more time on submarines, you see, than on ocean liners.

Do you ever find yourself cheering for the “wrong” side in a book or movie?


Mixed emotions about WWI U-boats and ocean liners. Click to Tweet

WWI U-boats: admiration and disgust  Click to Tweet

The Lusitania, Dead Wake and a desperate submarine. Click to Tweet










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