Sea History 055 - Autumn 1990

Page 46

An audacious voyage to intimidate neutral America before she entered World War I:

With U-53 to America: Part I by Thomas

J. Hajewski

The campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany fact that it would not need to be refueled , was of paramount in World War I was by and large the most singular reason for importance in the Admiralstab's planning-something which America's decision to enter the conflict against the Central would greatly heighten the psychological effect of the mi ssion Powers. There were, to be sure, other more subtle and complex on the Americans. Additional tanks could be installed which reasons precipitating President Wilson's declaration of war wo uld more than double the boat 's normal fuel-oil carrying caagainst Germany in April 1917. Yet America's moralistic at- pacity. At the same time drinking water for the crew could be titude initially toward what was happening in Europe found its augmented by filling the torpedo tubes, normally flooded with most concrete expression in reactions by its citizens and states- seawater before firing , with fresh water. Such modifications men to the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania on May 7, would res ult in an additiona l 7,000 liters of fresh water for both 1915, by the German submarine U-20. And business leaders drinking and washing. The diesel engines wou ld be of the here knew that if Germany were to continue its "rape of the sea tried-and-tested Augsburg-N urnberg type, machines which lanes," as one New York paper called it, America's lucrative had already demonstrated their reliance and durability when trade with the Allies in war materiel and a host of other goods installed in earlier U-boat model s. For the mission a U-boat built by the Krupp-Germania would be abruptly halted. On at least two occasions, lives of American passengers Works in Kiel was selected, U-53 . The boat was brand new, had been lost when U-boats torpedoed the British liner Arabic having been launched in early February, 1916. Her empty in the summer of 1915, and again in early 1916 when the cross- weight was 715 tons, speed 17 .1 knots on the surface, 9.1 knots Channel steamship Sussex was hit. At thi s point relations submerged. Main armament consisted of two bow and two between the US and Germany were strained to the maximum, stern torpedo tubes, with a total complement of eight to ten and America threatened to sever diplomatic ties with the torpedoes ; on deck , two 8.8 centimeter cannon , with two German government unless the latter promi sed that vessels lighter gunsmounted on the conning tower. would no longer be sunk without warning and that provision The crew of 36 officers and men served under Kapiwould be made for the safety of passengers and crew. tanleutnant Hans Rose, a 3 1-year old veteran in the Kai ser's The question of unrestricted U-boat warfare had also be- Imperial Marine. Having already taken her on six wartime opcome the subject of some controversy within the highest erations, both captain and crew knew their vessel well. circles in Germany as well. The creator of the German The crew were led to believe that the modifications to their Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet), Admiral von Tirpitz, re- submarine were being made in preparation for an extended signed in a fit of anger over the submarine issue in March 1916, Mediterranean sortie. Only after they were at sea were they and both Hindenburg and Ludendorff became staunch advo- informed of their actual destination . On September 17, U-53 cates of the risky policy of sinking "any and all ships sighted , quietly slipped her moorings at the Heligoland submarine base regardless of nationality," when both began to realize the and proceeded on a northerly heading through the North Sea. negative consequences of the long-term Allied blockade of She was accompanied only by German Naval Zeppe lin L- I 7. German-controlled North Sea ports. After two hard years of By midday, however, the airship was forced to break off its brutal conflict the German General Staff had few illusions as escort due to stonny weather. The heavy waves along with the to what course the war might take. excess weight of the U-boat slowed its operational speed on Against this scenario an event occured in late August 1916, diesels considerab ly. the results of which sparked intense interest within the German Captain Rose 's orders for the mission read as fo llows: 1. After the arrival of the supply submarine Bremen , exAdmiralstab (Naval Staff) and found strong support from the Kaiser himself. A large supply submarine, the Deutsch/and, pected on September 15 at New London, Engl ish warships had just returned from the first cruise ever to still-neutral will most likely be guarding the eastern approaches to Long America by a German U-boat. Its captain reported that Engli sh Island Sound. Attack any of these units operating ouside cruisers lay just outside US territorial waters in an attempt to US territorial waters. intercept and destroy the unarmed German vessel, whose 2. After carrying out the above mi ssion , proceed to Newarrival in the US had been publicly announced in the Ameriport, Rhode Island , where you wi ll allow American naval can press. The Germans effectively eluded these pursuers and officers to board your vessel. You are then to leave Newport managed the recrossing of the Atlantic without further inciimmediately thereafter. Reprovi sioning of any kind is to be dent. Could a similar voyage be undertaken again, this time avoided if at all possible. using an armed conventional submarine (which was only a 3. If no enemy units are encountered, proceed to Newport third the size of the supply U-boat), with the purpose of as instructed in (2) above. 4. After ( I) and (2) have been carried out or in case either demonstrating to the Americans how vulnerable they would be to U-boat attack in the event of war with Germany? of these must be aborted, proceed with the interception and The mission would be especially effective if the round trip inspection of merchant shipping without undue risk to your from Europe to the US cou ld be carried out without taking on boat. fuel or provi sions from an American port. Also, the abundance of ship traffic carrying war materiel to Britain or her allies, Additional orders were issued to Rose orally , requesting contraband in German eyes, off the American East Coast that he not make hi s presence known to the Americans before would provide an amp le supply of targets for U-boat torpe- October 5. U-53 's appearance off New England was to coindoes. If the plan succeeded the United States might be intimi- cide with the advance of German troops into Rumania, planned dated into retaining its neutrality. for the beginning of October, to demonstrate that Germany The mission called for the equipping of one of the latest could interdict merchant shipping across the Atlan ti c whi le model U-boats with adequate fuel storage for the 8,000 nauti- striking deep into Eastern Europe. cal mile round-trip. The self-sufficiency of the vessel and the The Atlantic crossing was an extremely stormy one, as high 44