At the end of 1916, the year in which it had confidently expected a successful end to the war, Germany found itself no nearer to victory. German leaders knew that each passing month reduced their manpower and their resources. The search for a means of achieving victory came to rest on the submarine.
In February, 1917, the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, announced his expectations of the submarine, which was still less than three years old as an effective weapon of war.
"The task falls upon my navy,"said the Kaiser, "of turning the English war method of starvation against him and his allies by combating their sea traffic with all the means in our power. In this work the submarine will stand in the first rank. I expect that this weapon will break our enemy's will."
It was recognized in Germany that the resumption of submarine attacks on merchant ships might bring the United States into the war as an enemy, and this was not desired. Nevertheless Germany decided that the chance must — and could safely — be taken, for even if the United States did enter the war, it was considered certain that Germany would win before the power of the largely unprepared young nation could be brought to bear. Accordingly, even as the Kaiser announced his expectations of the submarine, orders were given to resume attacks on commerce in the waters around the British Isles.
(In the official government announcement of the resumption, Germany warned that because it had "conclusive proof" that British hospital ships had been used to transport munitions and troops, they too would be attacked. The resulting war on hospital ships added to the outrage at submarine committed atrocities which flamed in Allied and many neutral countries.)
To carry out its new plan of submarine warfare Germany began building U-boats 300 feet long with a displacement of 3,000 tons — larger than the destroyers of the day. These new "cruiser submarines" were designed to remain at sea for three or four months, and their 6-inch deck gun outranged the armament of a destroyer. Within their hulls were two decks, and in their magazines were twenty torpedoes and a thousand rounds of gun ammunition. About twenty of these had been built by the end of the war.
Charges of atrocities by U-boats grew more frequent. The first atrocity "on a grand scale" had occurred on March 28, 1915, when the British liner Falaba, bound from Liverpool to South Africa, was hailed by a submarine in St. George's Channel. Very little time was allowed for the passengers and crew to take to boats before a torpedo exploded in the engine room. The Times of London said,
"The callousness of the attack was aggravated by the conduct of the Germans when their victims were struggling in the water. As they raised their arms, reaching out for lifebuoys or scraps of wreckage, the Germans looked on and laughed, and answered their cries for help with jeers."
The New York Times agreed at the time that the sinking of the Falabawas "perhaps the most shocking crime of the war."
Another outrage involved the SS Alnwick Castle. A semiofficial British publication charged that "when the Alnwick Castle was torpedoed 320 miles from the nearest land," the U-boat's crew came out on deck to see the survivors and "stood with folded arms, laughing at their plight."
On April 19, 1915, the fishing trawler Vanilla was torpedoed and sunk, which moved the British Admiralty to say that
"this killing of fisherfolk for no military purpose should not escape attention. It is the second murder of this character within a week."
(The Germans, however, had a different view of trawlers. Many were equipped to give warning of the sighting of a periscope, they said, and some were equipped with armament for attack. Perhaps more importantly, the Germans saw trawlers as producers of food for Britain; and since the purpose of the submarine blockade was to prevent the British from getting needed supplies, trawlers were legitimate targets in the opinion of the Germans.)
Charges were frequently made that U-boats fired upon survivors in lifeboats. Though this was denied by the Germans, The Times of London on August 20, 1917, listed twelve instances in which such action was supposed to have occurred, involving survivors of eight British ships, two Swedish, one Danish, and one Dutch.
The " deliberate and systematic " sinking of hospital ships did little to add luster to the Allied image of U-boats and the men who manned them. A Russian hospital ship was the first sunk, on March 17, 1916. Among the eighty-five lost were twenty-one nurses. Other hospital ships sunk included the Britannic, the Asturias (sunk at night with all navigating lights on and with the red crosses on its sides fully lighted), and the Gloucester Castle. It was not long before the Allies discontinued painting red crosses on hospital ships and illuminating them at night, preferring to let the ships take their chances darkened and camouflaged.
As the list of submarine atrocities grew, the British saw the men who manned them as
"clearly animated by the sheer lust of murder which is awakened in so many Germans by the sight of defenceless enemies," and charged them with a "positive delight in murder for its own sake."
Particularly in the case of the Lusitania and afterward, the United States came to share the British view that war against Germany — and in particular against the German U-boat-was war against a return to barbarism.
On the other side of the matter, though, there were many instances in which submariners on both sides acted with every humanitarian consideration for the survivors of the ships they sank. A story was told by a British submarine captain about Lt. Comdr. Otto Steinbrinck, skipper of the German UB-15 which sank four British submarines in its career. The incident happened in 1916 near the port of Yarmouth. Four British submarines were sailing into port on the surface. Steinbrinck, submerged in the UB-15, saw them through his periscope and fired a torpedo which sank one of them, leaving two survivors from its crew swimming in the water.
The other three British submarines submerged immediately, and a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse began, with each of the British captains spoiling to get a shot at Steinbrinck. As long as the German captain kept his U-boat down, there was little chance that he could be hit. But that is just what he did not do.
To the amazement of the British, Steinbrinck suddenly surfaced and took aboard the two swimming sailors, taking care to present only his narrow stern in the direction of the British submarines. He submerged again as soon as he had rescued the survivors, and escaped.
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