The opening weeks of World War I passed without significant submarine action. This was no surprise; few expected submarines to influence greatly the course of warfare at sea, dominated as it had always been by surface ships of the line. The massive battleships, the powerful cruisers, the swift destroyers — these were the ships on which the fate of navies and nations would hinge, not on the untried and graceless submarine which sad experience had shown to be almost as dangerous to itself as to other ships.
The few encounters between submarines and surface ships in the first days of the war did nothing to dispel this thinking. In its first sorties the German submarine force of twenty-eight boats left port on August 6, 1914, to search for British ships. One of the submarines, the U-15, was rammed and sunk by the HMS Birmingham. Another, the U-13, simply never returned to port. There is no evidence that it was sunk by enemy action. More likely it sank by accident, an occurrence all too common with submarines of the day.
A month later, on September 5, the U-21 torpedoed the first ship to be sunk by a submarine since the Housatonic went down in 1864. The 2,490-ton HMS Pathfinder, a small British cruiser, sank in the entrance to the Firth of Forth with more than half its crew of 268. The captain of the U-21 was a dark-haired young German officer named Otto Hersing. His formal naval portrait, photographed with Hersing in the stiff wing collar of a half a century ago, shows wide-set eyes, a long and prominent nose, and a wide mouth. He was to become one of the great German naval heroes of the war.
Only eight days after Hersing's first success, the British submarine E-9 slipped into the harbor of the German naval base at Heligoland Bight in the North Sea and sank the cruiser Hela with two torpedoes.
In spite of these successes, the submarine did not figure as prominently in the naval news of the first weeks of the war as its advocates had hoped, but this was abruptly changed by the astonishing success of the U-9. One hundred eighty-eight feet long and displacing only 450 tons, the U-9 was one of Germany's older U-boats. On the surface, with its thin and ungainly smokestack rising twelve feet from its main deck and belching greasy kerosene smoke, the U-9 could make 14 knots. Submerged and operating on electric power it could make only 8.
The captain of the U-9 was Lt. Otto Weddigen. Like Hersing, Weddigen had dark hair and eyes, and his hairline receded on both sides of a center forepeak of hair. His nose and chin were slightly pointed, but not so much as to detract from what was a favorable countenance. Far from the stereotype of a stiff German officer, Weddigen was a captain who could engage in occasional light banter with his officers and men, banter of a sort that made the crowded and dangerous voyages in the U-9 pass more quickly.
The third week in September, 1914, found the U-9 under way from Kiel for another sortie. It was not long out of sight of Germany when its gyroscopic compass failed, and Weddigen found himself off the coast of Holland, far from where he should be. Using the North Star as his guide as had countless generations of seamen before him, he headed the U-9 out into the North Sea.
Compounding his trouble, a storm came up. To escape its gale-force winds and high waves, the German captain ordered his submarine down to 50 feet, where it found a quiet haven from the tossing seas overhead, but where it could not recharge its batteries — an item of nightly routine that had to be performed on the surface.
The next morning was Tuesday, September 22, 1914. Looking through his periscope, Weddigen found the storm gone and in its place clear skies, bright sunlight, and a surprisingly calm sea. Surfacing, he breathed welcome lungfuls of fresh sea air before giving his place in the restricted conning tower to the officer of the deck, Lt. Johannes Spiess.
As the U-9 pushed its low snout through the water, Spiess scanned the horizon carefully through his binoculars. Suddenly he stopped. In the distance he saw a smudge that could be smoke from a ship just over the horizon.
Spiess sounded the alarm. "Captain to the conning tower, sir!" he called down the hatch. Weddigen, who was sitting down to breakfast, ran up the steel-runged ladder into the sunshine. For a moment he studied the smudge silently. "Rig for diving!" he ordered.
Lieutenant Spiess and the U-9's lookouts disappeared down the hatch into the hull of the submarine. Weddigen quickly followed, clanging the conning tower shut over his head and twirling the screw that locked it in its place. The hiss of the frothing sea could be heard throughout the submarine as it dived beneath the surface.
Taking his place at the periscope, Weddigen watched long and quietly. Spiess and the U-9's crewmen waited for word from him.
"Here they come," the captain said, his eye still at the periscope and his cap turned bill-backward on his head."It looks like three cruisers."
Spiess and the crewmen looked at each other with wild expectation. A single cruiser to attack would be an answer to a submariner's prayer, but three! It was more than they had dreamed of.
Still, for a tiny vessel like the U-9 to attack a large and maneuverable ship like a cruiser was a genuine risk. A cruiser's bow could rip through a submarine's hull as though it were a sardine can, plunging the submarine into sudden darkness and drowning all hands in a flood of cold saltwater.
The memory of the sinking of the U-15, rammed only short weeks before by the Birmingham, was fresh in everyone's mind.
"Make ready torpedoes!" Weddigen ordered. The ships were approaching now, looming ever larger in the periscope's eyepiece. Each had four stacks pouring forth black smoke. Choosing the middle one of the three as his target, Weddigen lined it up in the crosshairs of his periscope.
With his thumb on the torpedo firing button, Spiess waited tensely for his captain's order to fire. The hands on the face of the chronometer on the submarine's steel bulkhead stood at 7:20 A.M.
"As soon as we fire, dive to fifty feet," Weddigen ordered. "Make sure we do not surface."
The erratic U-boat had an alarming and dangerous tendency to rise to the surface when suddenly lightened by the discharge of a torpedo. With British cruisers close at hand, such a broaching would be fatal.
After checking his calculations for the last time, Weddigen again put his eye to the periscope. "Stand by," he ordered. The second hand on the chronometer crept slowly. The middle cruiser was now only 500 yards away, making 10 knots.
The U-9 lurched as the torpedo surged from its tube and sped at 30 knots through the dark North Sea water toward its target. Quick hands worked control levers to keep the submarine from popping up to calamity.
Now began the period of waiting. If Weddigen's calculations were correct and if the torpedo ran true, the second hand on the chronometer would course over half of the clock's face before a hit would be scored or the torpedo would pass harmlessly by its target. All hands on the U-boat tensely watched the clock.
At the thirty-third second there was the sound of a heavy 32 thud, followed quickly by a crash. In the U-9 the tension was broken with a loud cheer.
"Bring the submarine up to periscope depth," Weddigen ordered. Through the eyepiece he saw the British cruiser settling fast by the stern, its bow already heaving up out of the water. On the sinking ship's deck, clusters of men scrambled to lower lifeboats, while others leaped feet-first into the sea. The name on the stern of the sinking ship was HMS Aboukir .
Meanwhile the other two British cruisers, thinking the explosion had been caused by a mine, returned to pick up survivors. It was the last time the Royal Navy was to make this mistake in wartime, for the results were disastrous.
"I sent a second charge at the nearest of the oncoming vessels, which was the Hogue ," Weddigen wrote in his action report. "The attack went true."
A British naval officer on the third cruiser, HMS Cressy, wrote that when Weddigen's torpedo hit the Hogue it
"leapt up like a rowelled horse and quivered all over, just as a flat steel spring will quiver when firmly held at one end and struck at the other."
It sank in twenty minutes.
Even as the British officer was observing the death throes of the Hogue , Weddigen was maneuvering the U-9 to put the officer's own ship, the Cressy , in the crosshairs of his submarine's periscope.
"When I got within suitable range I sent away my third attack," Weddigen said in his report. "Both torpedoes went to their bull's-eye. The enemy was made use-less at once and began sinking by her head."
Only 60 officers and 777 men out of some 2,100 on the three British ships were saved. On his return to Kiel Weddigen learned that they were armored cruisers totaling 36,-000 tons. Each of the U-9's crewmen received the Iron Cross, and Weddigen was later awarded Germany's highest decoration of World War I, the coveted Pour le Merite("For Merit").
To prevent a repetition of the disaster, the shocked British Admiralty issued orders directing that ships at the scene of a sinking must see to their own safety when there was a chance that a submarine might be in the vicinity and — however reluctantly — leave the survivors of stricken ships to later rescue, or to their fate.
It was in October, 1914, after the U-9's success, that the Admiralty belatedly acknowledged the importance of the submarine. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who previously had been among those not much in favor of the submarine, directed the First Sea Lord to
"propose without delay the largest possible program of submarine boats to be delivered in from twelve to twenty-four months."
On October 15, 1914, less than four weeks after his victory over the Aboukir, Hogue, and Cressy, Weddigen scored again, this time torpedoing HMS Hawke, an aging cruiser of 7,350 tons, which went down in ten minutes with all but seventy of its crew. Two cruisers accompanying the Hawkemade prompt departures over the horizon in compliance with the Admiralty order, denying Weddigen a second opportunity for a triple victory.
Five months later, on March 11, 1915, after Germany had begun its campaign of submarine warfare against merchant ships, Weddigen, in command of a new and larger submarine, the U-29, sank the British steamer Aden-Wen after first giving its crew ten minutes to take to their boats. "We wish no lives to be lost," Weddigen called through cupped hands from the U-29's conning tower. He even provided a dry uniform for a seaman who had fallen into the water in taking to a lifeboat.
Four days later Weddigen's new command lay in two sections on the bottom of the North Sea, cut in half by the bow of the battleship HMS Dreadnought, and Weddigen himself was dead inside.
"The Dreadnought had been making nineteen knots," said a witnessing British officer,"and the U-boat must have been sliced squarely in two. She fell away to starboard and her bow popped out of the water, spun around, then seemed to stand vertical for a few seconds as the Dreadnought sped past. On it, in plain sight, were the numbers U-29. Then it shot beneath the waves. Our destroyers steamed about the spot looking for survivors. There were none."
The sinking was announced by the British Admiralty eleven days later, and The Times of London told of the event in terms of respect which are probably unique in the reporting of the increasingly bitter submarine action of the first World War.
"There seems to be no doubt," The Times said, "that Captain Weddigen's career has come to an end, with that of his new boat. Our satisfaction at the occurrence is mingled with some regret at the death of a man who, so far as is known, behaved bravely and skillfully and, where it was possible, displayed to his victims the humanity expected of seamen."
Only a month after Weddigen's death, his first boat, the U-9, was retired from combat service as obsolete and it served for the rest of the war without distinction as a training ship, but its success in sinking three British cruisers before breakfast on a Tuesday morning in the first September of the war had established the submarine beyond any doubt as a primary weapon of war at sea.
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